The Sin of Relapse
When the Ark of the Covenant, we are told, was carried to the brink of the Jordan, the water left off flowing downwards, and stood together in a heap. But no sooner had the ark passed over, than the waters returned into their channel and ran on as they were wont before (Josue iii.). So it is with many a Christian. When they have received the sacraments, they restrain their passions a little; but before long they again give them free rein, and sin even more deeply than ever. “Many,” says St, Jerome, “begin well, but few persevere.” “They put their hand to the plough and then look back” (Luke ix. 62). They are to be compared to the sow that was washed and returns to her wallowing in the mire (2 Pet. ii. 22), or to the dog that returneth to his vomit (Prov. xxvi. 11).
1. He who after his conversion relapses into mortal sin, is in danger of dying impenitent, because the devil acquires great power over him, and the influence of the Holy Spirit is lessened.
It is impossible for those who were once illuminated, and were made partakers of the Holy Ghost, and are fallen away, to be renewed again to penance (Heb. vi. 4). The backslider finds it difficult to regain the right road. Relapse into sin is like the relapse of a convalescent; the disease from which he suffered has more hold on him than before. Our Lord says of such a one that the unclean spirit returns to him and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself (Luke xi. 26). The devil deals with the backslider as a prudent warder does with a prisoner who has once escaped; he guards him more watchfully than before. The backslider grieves the Holy Spirit of God (Eph. iv. 30); nay he drives Him away, and violates the temple of God (1 Cor. iii. 17). Thus the sin of relapse renders a man unworthy of the assistance of divine grace. He does not deserve to be cured who opens his wounds afresh. A prince will not readily readmit a man to his favor, who despite all protestations of fidelity has proved himself a traitor. The sin of relapse is severely punished by God. Our Lord said to the man whom He had healed: “Sin no more, lest some worse thing happen to thee” (John v. 14).
2. If any one should relapse into mortal sin, let him forthwith repent and go to confession; for the longer penance is delayed, the more difficult, the more uncertain conversion will be.
The backslider ought to act as St. Peter did when he had denied. Christ; he went out and wept bitterly (Matt. xxvi. 75). If fire breaks out in a house, it can be extinguished at once if help is at hand; and if the Backslider does penance immediately, his sin may be pardoned; nay more, his fall may even obtain for him a greater measure of grace. In the case of some saints, their fall produced in them a greater accession of fervor, and the depth of their contrition obtained for them a higher degree of grace. But the longer penance is postponed, the worse it will fare with the sinner. It is the opinion of the Fathers that as almighty God has appointed beforehand the number of talents to be confided to every individual, so He has fixed the number of sins which shall be forgiven to each; when this number is complete, there is no more pardon to be found. St. Augustine says that the long-suffering of God bears with the sinner up to a certain point; after that he cannot obtain forgiveness. In his first illness the infidel Voltaire repented; but he presently fell into greater wickedness than before, and his end was a dreadful one.
3. If, through frailty, we fall into venial sin, we must not be disquieted on that account, but humble ourselves before God.
To be vexed and out of temper with one’s self shows pride; we can not tolerate the sight of our own imperfections. It is of no use to be angry because we are men, not angels; in that way we only perpetuate our faults. “If,” as St. Francis of Sales says, “we are angry with ourselves for being angry with another, we feed our anger instead of stifling it.” No one is able throughout his whole life to avoid all sins, except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in regard of the Blessed Virgin (Council of Trent, 6, 23). God permits us to fall into venial sins to keep us humble. He does like the mother who lets her child run alone in a soft meadow, where a fall will do him no harm; but on a rough road she carries him in her arms. So God upholds us in great dangers by His almighty hand, but in slight matters He leaves us more to ourselves. Hence we must act like children, when they fall; they cry a little and get up again; so we must at once bewail our fault, acknowledge our misery, renew our trust in God, and go on as before. Thus our sins may be made of profit to us; they ought to humble, not to discourage us (St. Francis of Sales). It is impossible to keep the linen we wear perfectly clean, but we can have it washed when it is soiled. It is equally impossible to keep our soul free from all stains, yet it is in our power to cleanse it when we have fallen into sin. The just man falls seven times, but he shall rise again seven limes (Prov. xxiv. 16).
4. Since we cannot possibly continue in a state of grace until death without the special assistance of the Holy Spirit, let us fervently implore of God the grace of final perseverance.
In addition to sanctifying grace the just man needs actual grace, in order to persevere in justice. As the most healthy eye cannot see without the light of the sun, so the best of men cannot live aright without the operation of grace. The justified are not able to per severe in justice received without the special help of God (Council of Trent, 6, 22). Without the assistance of grace we should quickly relapse into our former sins, and into yet worse ones, just as creation would fall back into nothing if not preserved in existence by God. The gift of final perseverance is the greatest gift we can receive from God, for all other graces are valueless without it. “He that shall persevere unto the end, he,” and he only, “shall be saved” (Matt. xxiv. 13). It is useless to lay the foundation of a house if the structure is not to be finished. “The Christian,” says St. Augustine, “will not be questioned about the commencement, but the end of his life.” St. Paul made a bad beginning, but a good end. Judas began well, and ended by betraying Our Lord, to his own damnation. The gift of final perseverance will not be denied to him who humbly implores it.
By good works also we may make sure our calling and election (2 Pet. i. 10). Unremitting prayer, and heartfelt devotion to the Mother of God are besides excellent means to enable us to persevere in justice.
The more good work we have done the less need we fear damnation. Hence the prophet said to Josaphat, the King of Israel: “Thou didst deserve indeed the wrath of God, but good works are found in Thee” (2 Par. xix. 3). Why were David and St. Peter treated by God with such favor and indulgence after their fall? Because of the good works they had previously performed. Unremitting prayer is also an excellent means of persevering in justice. As birds continually move their wings in the air, to keep from falling to the ground, so we should soar to God on the pinions of prayer, lest we fall into mortal sin. Our Lord enjoins on us “always to pray” (Luke xviii. 1). There is nothing more certain to preserve us through out our life in the grace of God than unceasing prayer. Hot water does not get cold if it be placed close to the fire, neither does the warmth of divine charity die out of our heart if we keep it near to God by frequent ejaculatory prayers. And since all graces come to us through the hands of the Mother of God, we cannot doubt that the gift of final perseverance, the greatest of all graces, will only be obtained through her intercession on our behalf. “If thou dost enjoy Mary’s favor,” St. Bernard declares, “thou art sure of salvation.”
This article, The Sin of Relapse is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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