St. Robert Bellarmine (+1621AD)
CHAPTER XIII. ON THE SACRAMENT OF PENANCE.
THE sacrament of Penance comes next, which consists of three conditions relating to him that receives this sacrament contrition of heart, confession, and satisfaction. They who properly comply with these three things, without doubt obtain the pardon of their sins. But we must attentively consider what is meant by true contrition, sincere confession, and full satisfaction.
Let us begin with contrition. The prophet Joel exclaims: " Rend your heart, and not your garments;" when the Hebrews wished to express their sorrow for anything, they rent their garments, so does the holy prophet admonish us that, if we wish to express before God our true and inward sorrow for our sins, we must rend our hearts. And the prophet David adds, that we must not only rend them, but bruise them as it were, and reduce them to powder: " A contrite [contritum] and humble heart, O God, thou wilt not despise."
This comparison clearly shows that, in order to appease God by penance, it is not sufficient to say in words, "I am sorry for my sins ;" but we must feel a deep and inward sorrow of heart, which can scarcely be experienced without tears and sobs. It is wonderful how strongly the holy Fathers speak of true contrition. St. Cyprian in his Sermon on the Lapsed saith: "As greatly as we have offended, so much must we weep; for a deep wound a long and careful course of medicine is necessary. Our penance must not be less than our crime; we must be continually praying, passing the day in weeping, and the night in watching. We must spend all our time in tears and lamentations, lying on ashes alone, and clothed in sackcloth." St. Clement of Alexandria calls penance the “baptism of tears;” St. Gregory Nazianzen, in his Second Sermon on Baptism, says: " I shall receive penitents, if I see them watered with their tears." Theodoret, in his Epitome of the Divine Command, writes: "That the wounds which we receive after baptism may indeed be healed, but not, as formerly could so easily be done, by the waters of regeneration, but by many tears and painful labours."
These and such-like are the sentiments of all the holy Fathers concerning true contrition. But now many approach to confession, who seem to possess little or no contrition whatever. But they who wish to be truly reconciled to God, and to live well, that so they may die well, ought to enter the chamber of their heart, and closing the door to all worldly distractions, thus speak with themselves:
“Alas! what have I done, miserable man that I am, in committing such a crime! I have offended my most bountiful Father, the giver of all good things, who hath loved me so much, who hath surrounded me on all sides with benefits, and so many proofs of this love do I see, as I behold myself or others in possession of such benefits. But what shall I say of my Saviour, who loved me even when His enemy, and delivered Himself for me an oblation and a sacrifice to God for an odour of sweetness; and I am so ungrateful as still to offend Him! how great is my cruelty! My Lord was scourged, crowned with thorns, and nailed to a cross, that He might apply a remedy for my sins and offences, and still I cease not to add sin upon sin!”
“He, hanging naked on the cross, exclaimed that He thirsted for my salvation, and I still continue to offer Him vinegar and most bitter gall! Who will explain to me from what a height of glory I fell, when I committed such and such a sin ? I was heir to an eternal kingdom a life of eternal happiness; but from this great happiness the greatest that can possibly be possessed I unhappily fell, for a short passing pleasure, or for certain offensive words, or blasphemous language against God, which did me no good whatever. And to what a state have I come, having lost that happiness! To the captivity of the devil, my most cruel enemy; and as soon as the putrid carcase of my body shall be dissolved which may be any moment then, instantly, and without any remedy, shall I descend into hell.” “Ah! me miserable! Perhaps this day, this very night, I may begin to dwell in those eternal burnings!
And, in spite of all these considerations, the ingratitude of a most wicked servant increases against a most loving Father and Lord; for the more He hath loaded me with benefits, so much the more have I offended Him by my sins.”
Whoever thou art that readest this book, such are the sentiments thou shouldst excite within thy heart. Earnestly do I hope that thou mayest obtain of God the gift of contrition. The penitent David once entered into the chamber of his heart, after having committed adultery; and soon possessed of true contrition, did he water his couch with his tears. Peter also, being penitent, entered into his heart, after having denied his Master, and immediately " he wept bitterly. Magdalen, being penitent, entered also into her heart, and "she began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head." These, then, are the fruits of holy contrition, which cannot arise except in the solitude of the heart.
We will now speak briefly on confession. I know that many people approach to it, without any, or very little benefit; and this arises from no other cause than their not entering into their heart, before they prepare themselves for confession. Some so negligently perform this work, that only generally, and in a confused way, they accuse themselves of having violated all the Commandments, or of having committed every mortal sin. To such people only a general absolution can be given, or rather they are not in a state to receive absolution at all.
Others, again, relate their sins indeed in a certain order, but they make no mention of persons, place, time, number, and other circumstances; this is a great and dangerous negligence. It is one thing to strike a priest, and another to strike a layman, since to the former offence excommunication is annexed, but not to the latter; it is one offence to sin with a virgin, another with a person consecrated to God, another with a married person, another with a harlot one thing to have committed the offence once, another to have been guilty of it many times.
Again, there are others and this is more astonishing who imagine that internal sins, such as desires of fornication, adultery, homicide, and theft, are not sins unless actually committed! Nor even immodest looks, nor impure touches, nor lascivious words. And yet our Lord Himself expressly says: "Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery with her in his heart." He therefore who wishes to examine his conscience well, and to make a good confession, must first read some useful book on the method of making a proper confession, or at least consult some pious and learned confessor. Then let him enter into the chamber of his heart, and not hastily, but accurately and seriously examine his conscience, his thoughts, desires, words, and actions, as well as his omissions; afterwards he should lay open his conscience to his director, and humbly implore absolution from him, being ready to perform whatever "penance” may be imposed upon him.
There now remains satisfaction, of which our forefathers, most learned men, had much higher ideas than many of us now seem to possess. For as they seriously remembered, that satisfaction can more easily be made to God on earth than it can in purgatory, they imposed many long and severe penances. Thus, for instance, as regards the duration, some penances continued for seven, or fifteen, or thirty years: some even during a whole life. Then with regard to the nature of the penances, most frequent fasts and long prayers were enjoined: besides, the bath, riding, fine garments, games, and theatrical amusements, were forbidden: in fine, almost the whole life of the penitents was spent in sorrow and mourning. I will give one example. In the tenth council of Toledo we read, that a bishop named Fotamius, who had been guilty of some sin of impurity, had of his own accord, shut himself up in a prison, and there did penance for nine months: and afterwards, that he acknowledged his sin to the council of bishops in writing, and begged for penance. We are told, however, that the council decreed he should spend the rest of his life in penance, telling him at the same time, they treated him more mercifully than the ancient laws allowed.
But now, we are so weak and delicate, that a fast on bread and water for a few days, together with the penitential Psalms and litanies to be recited for a certain time, and a few alms to be given to the poor, seem severe enough even for enormous crimes and offences. But as much as we spare ourselves in this life, so much the more grievously will the justice of God make us suffer in purgatory; unless indeed the efficacy of our true contrition be such, coming from an ardent charity, that by the mercy of God, we obtain the pardon of our sins and of all the punishment due for them. A truly contrite and humble heart, wonderfully excites the compassion of God our Father; for so great is His sweetness and goodness, that He cannot but run to meet the prodigal but repenting son, to embrace him, to kiss him, to give him the pledge of peace, and wipe away all his tears, and fill him with tears of joy, sweeter than honey and the honey-comb.------
I shall be presenting this work at length, but in chapter-length installments each Sunday. If you simply can't wait for the next chapter, or want to read it all at once, you can find the full text here: http://goodcatholicbooks.org/pdf/bellarmine_art-of-dying-well.pdf