External Devotions are Useless, if we do not Abandon our Sins
by St. Alphonsus Liguori
External Devotions are Useless if we do not Cleanse our Souls from Sin
"Et nunc nolite illudcre ut forte constringantur vincula tua."
"And now do not mock, lest your bonds be tied strait." Isa. xxvii. 22.
God commands Jonas to go and preach to Ninive. Jonas, instead of obeying God, flies by sea towards Tharsis. But, behold! a great tempest threatens to sink the ship; and Jonas knowing that the tempest was raised in punishment of his disobedience, said to the crew of the vessel: Take me up and cast me into the sea, and the sea shall be calm to you; for I know that for my sake this great tempest is upon you (Jonas i: 12). And they actually did cast him into the sea, and the tempest ceased there upon. And the sea ceased from raging (Ibid. 15). Then if Jonas had not been thrown into the sea the tempest should not have ceased. Consider well, my brethren, what we are to learn from this. It is, that if we do not cast sin out of our souls, the tempest, that is, the scourge of God, will not cease. The tempest is excited by our sins; the tempest which is hurrying us to destruction. Our iniquities, like the wind, hare taken us away (Is. lxiv. 6). Behold, we have penitential exercises, novenas, and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament; but to what purpose are those if we be not converted, if we do not rid our souls of sin? The subject of our discourse is: EXTERNAL DEVOTIONS ARE USELESS, IF WE DO NOT ABANDON OUR SINS; because otherwise we cannot please God.Act of Contrition
It is said that the pain is not removed before the thorn has been plucked out. St. Jerome writes that God is never angered, since anger is passion, and passion is incompatible with God. He is always tranquil; and even in the act of punishing, His tranquillity is not in the least disturbed. But Thou being master of power, judgest with tranquillity (Wisd. xii. 18). But the malice of mortal sin is so great, that if God were capable of wrath and affliction, it would enrage and afflict Him. It is this that sinners do as far as in them lies, according to that of Isaias: But they provoked to wrath, and afflicted the spirit of His Holy one (Is. lxiii.10). Moses writes, that when God was about to send the deluge, He declared Himself to be so much afflicted by the sins of men as to be obliged to exterminate them from the earth. And being touched inwardly with sorrow of heart, He said, I will destroy man whom I hare created, from the face of the earth (Gen. vi. 6).
St. John Chrysostom says that sin is the only cause of all our sufferings and chastisements. Commenting upon these words in Genesis which the Lord spoke after the deluge, I will place My bow in the clouds (Gen. ix. 13), " St. Ambrose" remarks that God does not say I will place my arrow, but my bow, in the clouds; giving us thereby to under stand that it is always the sinner who fixes the arrow in the bow of God by provoking him to chastisement.
If we wish to be pleasing to the Lord, we must remove the cause of His anger, which is sin. The man sick of the palsy besought Jesus Christ to restore the health of his body; but, before granting his request, our Lord first restored his soul' s health by giving him sorrow for his sins, and then saying to him: Be of good heart, son; thy sins are forgiven thee (Matt. ix. 2). St. Thomas says that the Redeemer first removed the cause of his infirmity, namely, his sins, and then freed him from the infirmity itself. " He asked for the health of the body, and the Lord gave him the health of the soul; because, like a good physician, he wished to take away the root of the evil (in Matth. 9). Sin is the root of every evil, as we find in St. Bernardine of Sienna. Hence the Lord after having healed him, warned him against sin in these words. Go thy way, and sin no more, lest something worse befall thee (John, v. 14). Ecclesiasticus said the same before our Lord: My son, in thy sickness . . . cleanse thy heart from sin . . . . and then give place to the physician (Ecclus. xxxviii. 9). You must first apply to the physician of the soul in order that he may free you from your sins, and then to the physician of the body that he may cure you of your disease.
In a word, the cause of all our chastisements is sin; and still more than sin, our obstinacy in it, as St. Basil says. We have offended God, and are, notwithstanding, unwilling to do penance. When God calls by the voice of His punishment, He desires that He should be heard; if He be not, he shall be compelled by ourselves to curse us: But if thou wilt not hear the voice of the Lord thy God . . . all these curses shall come upon thee ; . . . cursed shalt thou be in the city, cursed in the field (Deut. xxviii. 15). . . . When we offend God, we provoke all creatures to punish us. St. Anselm says that in the same manner as a servant, when he offends his master, draws down upon him the wrath, not only of his master, but of the whole family; so we, when we offend God, excite against us the anger of all creatures. And St. Gregory says that we have more especially irritated against us those creatures which we have made use of against our Creator. God's mercy holds in those creatures that they may not afflict us, but when He sees that we make no account of His threats, and continue to live on in our former way, He will then make use of those creatures to take vengeance on us for the injuries we have done Him: He will arm the creature for the revenge of His enemies. And the whole world shall fight with Him against the unwise (Wisd. v. 18). There is no creature," says St. John Chrysostom, "which will not feel anger when it sees its Lord in anger."
If then, my brethren, we do not appease God by our conversion, we never shall be free from chastisement. What folly, says St. Gregory, could be more extreme than to imagine that God should cease to chastise before we should have ceased to offend (Lib. 8, ep. 41). Many now come to the church, and hear the sermon, but go away without confession, or change of life. If we do not remove the cause of the scourge, how can we expect to be delivered from the scourge itself. Such is the reflection of St. Jerome. We continue to irritate God, and then wonder that God should continue to chastise us. "Impure as we are," says Salvian, "we wonder why we should be so miserable." Do we think that God is appeased by the mere circumstance of our appearing at church without repenting of our sins, without restoring the property or character of our neighbor, without avoiding those occasions of sin which keep us at a distance from God? Ah, let us not mock the Lord! And now do not mock, lest your bonds be tied strait (Is. xxviii. 22). Do not mock God, says the prophet, lest those bonds which are securing you for hell be tied strait. Cornelius a Lapide, in commenting on the above passage of Isaias, says that when the fox is caught in the snare, its efforts to disengage itself only serve to entangle it the more. "So also will it happen to sinners who, while mocking at God's threats and punishments, become more and more involved in them." My brethren, let us have done; let us no more irritate God, the chastisement is near at hand: For I have heard of the Lord the God of Hosts, continues the prophet, a consumption, and a cutting short upon all the earth. I am not the prophet Isaias, but I can say that I see the scourge which is hanging over us if we do not be converted.
Hear how the Lord says to you: Who requires these things at your hands (Is. i. 12)? Who required your perpetual exercises and your visits of devotion to the church? I will have nothing from you unless you abandon sin: Offer sacrifice no more in vain. Of what use are your devotions if you do not amend your lives. My soul hateth . . . your solemnities . Know, says the Lord, that your homage and external devotions are hateful to my soul whilst you think by these to avert your chastisement without removing your offences: With burnt offerings Thou wilt not be delighted; a sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit (Ps. 1). No devotions, or alms, or penitential works are accepted by God from a soul in the state of sin, and without repentance. God accepts the acts of him alone who is contrite for his sin, and resolved upon a change of life.
Oh, surely God is not to be mocked (Is. i. 12)! I never commanded you, He says, to perform those devotions and acts of penance: For I spoke not to your fathers . . . concerning the matter of burnt offering and sacrifices, but this thing I commanded them, saying: Hearken to My voice, and I will be your God (Jer. vii. 22). What I wish of you, says God, is, that you hear my voice and change your life, and make a good confession, with real sorrow, for you must know yourselves, that your other confessions, followed by so many relapses, have been worth nothing. I wish that you should do violence to yourselves in breaking with that connection, with that company. I wish that you should endeavor to restore that property, to make good to your neighbor such a loss. Hearken to My voice, obey My command, and I will be your God. I will then be to you the God of mercy, such as you would have me to be. Cardinal Hugo, in his comment upon these words of our Lord, in the Gospel according to St. Matthew: He that hath ears to hear, let him hear (Matth. xi. 15) says: "Some have ears, but ears which do not serve them for hearing." How many attend sermons and receive admonitions from the confessor, in which they are told all that they must do in order to please God; but they leave the church only to live worse than before. How can God be appeased by such? or how can such be delivered from the divine chastisement? Offer up the sacrifice of justice, and trust in the Lord? says David. Honor God not in appearance, but by works. It is that which is meant by "the sacrifice of justice;" honor Him by bewailing your sins, by the frequentation of the sacraments, by a change of life and then hope in the Lord; but to hope while you continue the state of sin, is not hope it is rashness, it is a deceit of the enemy, and renders you more odious in the sight of God, and more deserving of punishment.
My brethren, you see that the Lord is in wrath, that He already has His hand lifted to strike with the scourge which threatens us; how do you think to escape? Who hath showed you to flee from the wrath to come (Matth. iii. 7.)? Bring forth, therefore, fruit worthy of penance, says St. John the Baptist, preaching to the Jews of his day. You must do penance, but penance deserving of His pardon; that is, it must be true and resolute. Your anger must he changed into meekness, by the forgiveness of those who offend you; your intemperance must become abstinence, by observing the fasts commanded, at least, by the Church; and by abstaining from the immoderate use of intoxicating drinks, which change man into a beast: therefore you must avoid the public house; impurity must give way in you to chastity, by not returning to that filthy vomit, by resisting evil thoughts, by not using bad words, by fleeing from bad companions and dangerous conversation. You must bring forth fruit worthy of penance, and the bringing forth of such fruit implies also that we attend to the service of God, and endeavor to serve Him more than we offended Him; For, as you have yielded your members to serve uncleanness and iniquity , . . . so now yield your members to love justice (Rom. vi. 19). Thus have done a St. Mary Magdalen, a St. Augustine, a St. Mary of Egypt, a St. Margaret of Cortona, who by their works of penance and sanctification rendered themselves more dear to God than others who had been less sinful, but more tepid. St. Gregory says: "For the most part, a fervent life after sin is the more pleasing to God than a life which, though innocent, is tepid. And thus does the saint explain the following passage of the Gospel: There shall be joy in heaven upon one sinner that doth penance, more than upon ninety nine just who need not penance? This is understood of the sinner who, after having arisen from sin, sets about serving God with more fervor than others who have long been just.
This is to bring forth fruit worthy of penance, not content one's self with hearing sermons and visiting the church, without abandoning sin, or avoiding the occasion of it. To act thus, is rather a mockery of God, and calculated to excite Him to greater wrath. And, think not, pursues St. John the Baptist, think not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham for our father (Matth. iii. 9). It will not do to say, we have the Mother of God to assist us, we have our patron saint to procure us deliverance; because if we do not abandon our sins the saints cannot help us. The saints are the friends of God; hence they not only have no inclination, but they would even feel ashamed, to succor the obstinate. Let us tremble, because the Lord has already published the sentence: Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit, shall be cut down and cast into the fire (Matth. vii. 19)
Brother, how many years have you been in the world? Tell me what fruit of good works have you hitherto borne, what honor have you rendered to God by your life? Sin, outrage, contempt, such are the fruit you have borne, the honor you have rendered to God. God now in His mercy gives you time for penance, in order that you may bewail the injuries you have done Him, and love Him the remainder of your days. What do you intend to do? What have you resolved upon? Resolve at once to give yourself to God. What do you expect? unless that if you do not at once turn to God, you shall be cut down and cast into the fire of hell.
But let us now bring our instruction to a conclusion; the Lord has sent me to preach here today, and has inspired you to come and listen to me, because He wishes to spare you the punishment which threatens you, if you do really turn to Him: Leave not out one word, if so be they will hearken and be converted, every one from his evil way, that I may repent me of the evil which I think to do unto them (Jer. xxvi. 2). The Lord has desired me to tell you on His part that He is willing to relent, and withdraw the scourge which He meant to inflict upon you: That I may repent me of the evil which I think to do unto them; but on this condition, if so be they will hearken and be converted every one from his evil way, if they truly reform, otherwise He will put His threat in execution. Tremble then if you be not yet resolved to change your life.
But, on the other hand, be joyful if you mean to turn in good earnest to God. Let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord? because God is all tenderness and love to those that seek him. The Lord is good . . . to the soul that seeketh Him? Neither does the Lord know how to reject a heart humble and contrite for its offences. A contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise (Ps. l. 19). Let us be joyful, then, if we have the good intention of changing our lives, and if, on seeing ourselves guilty of so many sins before the Lord, we stand very much in fear of the divine judgments, let us have recourse to the Mother of mercies, the most holy Mary, who defends and secures from the divine vengeance all those who take refuge under her mantle.--"I am the citadel of all those who fly to me;" thus is she made to speak by St. John Damascene.
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell, but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, who art all-good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life.