Third Sunday in Lent
The Liturgical Year
by Dom Guéranger, O.S.B.
The Liturgical Year
by Dom Guéranger, O.S.B.
The holy Church gave us as the subject of our meditation for the first Sunday of Lent, the temptations which our Lord Jesus Christ designed to suffer in the desert. Her object was to enlighten us with regard to our own temptations, and teach us how to conquer them. Today, she wishes to complete her instruction on the power and stratagems of our invisible enemies; and for this she reads to us a passage from the Gospel of St. Luke. During Lent the Christian ought to repair the past and provide for the future; but he can neither understand how it was he fell, nor defend himself against a relapse, unless he have correct ideas as to the nature of the dangers which have hitherto proved fatal, and which are again threatening him. Hence, the ancient liturgists would have us consider it as a proof of the maternal watchfulness of the Church, that she should have again proposed such a subject to us. As we shall find, it is the basis of all today’s instructions.
Assuredly we should be the blindest and most unhappy of men if, surrounded as we are by enemies who unceasingly seek to destroy us, and are so superior to us both in power and knowledge, we were seldom or never to think of the existence of these wicked spirits. And yet, such is really the case with innumerable Christians nowadays; for, truths are common, indeed, is this heedlessness and forgetfulness of truth, which the Holy Scriptures put before us in almost every page, that it is no rare thing to meet with persons who ridicule the idea of devils being permitted to be on this earth of ours! They call it a prejudice, a popular superstition of the middle ages! Of course they deny that it is a dogma of faith. When they read the history of the Church or the lives of the saints, they have their own way of explaining whatever is there related on this subject. To hear them talk, one would suppose that they look upon satan as a mere abstract idea to be taken as the personification of evil.
When they would account for the origin of their own or others’ sins, they explain all by the evil inclination of man’s heart, and by the bad use we make of our free will. They never think of what we are taught by Christian doctrine: namely, that we are also instigated to sin by a wicked being, whose power is as great as is the hatred he bears us. And yet they know, they believe with a firm faith, that satan conversed with our first parents, and persuaded them to commit sin, and showed himself to them under the form of a serpent. They believe that this same satan dared to tempt the Incarnate Son of God, and that he carried Him through the air, and set Him first upon a pinnacle of the temple, and then upon a very high mountain. Again, they read in the Gospel, and they believe, that one of the possessed delivered by our Saviour was tormented by a whole legion of devils, who, upon being driven out of the man, went, by Jesus’ permission, into a herd of swine, and the whole herd ran violently into the sea of Genesareth and perished in the waters. These and many other such like facts are believed, by the persons of whom we speak, with all earnestness of faith; yet, notwithstanding, they treat as a figure of speech, or a fiction, all they hear or read about the existence, the actions, or the craft of these wicked spirits. Are such people Christians, or have they lost their senses? One would scarcely have expected that this species of incredulity could have found its way into an age like this, when sacrilegious consultations of the devil have been, we might almost say, fashionable. Means which were used in the days of paganism have been resorted to for such consultations; and those who employed them seemed to forget, or ignore, that they were committing what God in the old Law punished with death, and what, for many centuries, was considered by all Christian nations as a capital crime.
But if there be one season of the year more than another in which the faithful ought to reflect upon what is taught us both by faith and experience as to the existence and workings of the wicked spirits, it is undoubtedly this of Lent, when it is our duty to consider what have been the causes of our past sins, what are the spiritual dangers we have to fear for the future, and what means we should have recourse to for preventing a relapse. Let us, then, hearken to the holy Gospel. Firstly, we are told that the devil had possessed a man, and that the effect produced by this possession was dumbness. Our Saviour cast out the devil, and immediately the dumb man spoke. So that, the being possessed by the devil is not only a fact which testifies to God’s impenetrable justice; it is one which may produce physical effects upon them that are thus tried or punished. The casting out of the devil restores the use of speech to him that had been possessed. We say nothing about the obstinate malice of Jesus’ enemies, who would have it that His power over the devils came from His being in league with the prince of devils: we would now merely show that the wicked spirits are sometimes permitted to have power over the body, and would refute, by this passage from the Gospel, the rationalism of certain Christians. Let these learn, then, that the power of our spiritual enemies is an awful reality; and let them take heed not to lay themselves open to their worst attacks, by persisting in the disdainful haughtiness of their reason.
Ever since the promulgation of the Gospel, the power of satan over the human body has been restricted by the virtue of the cross, at least in Christian countries; but his power resumes its sway as often as faith and the practice of Christian piety lose their influence. And here we have the origin of all those diabolical practices, which, under certain scientific names, are attempted first in secret, and then are countenanced by being assisted at by well-meaning Christians. Were it not that God and His Church intervene, such practices as these would subvert society. Christians! Remember your baptismal vow; you have renounced satan: take care, then, that by a culpable ignorance you are not dragged into apostasy. It is not a phantom that you renounced at the font; he is a real and formidable being, who, as our Lord tells us, was a murderer from the beginning.
But if we ought to dread the power he may be permitted to have over our bodies; if we ought to shun all intercourse with him, and take no share in practices over which he presides, and which are the worship he would have men give him: we ought, also, to fear the influence he is ever striving to exercise over our souls. See what God’s grace has had to do in order to drive him from our soul! During this holy season, the Church is putting within your reach those grand means of victory—fasting, prayer, and almsdeeds. The sweets of peach will soon be yours, and once more you will become God’s temple, for both soul and body will have regained their purity. But be not deceived; your enemy is not slain. He is irritated; penance has driven him from you; but he has sworn to return. Therefore, fear and relapse into mortal sin; and in order to nourish within you this wholesome fear, meditate upon the concluding part of our Gospel.
Our Saviour tells us that when the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through places without water. There he writhes under his humiliation; it has added to the tortures of the hell he carries everywhere with him, and to which he fain would give some alleviation by destroying souls that have been redeemed by Christ. We read in the old Testament that sometimes, when the devils have been conquered, they have been forced to flee into some far-off wilderness: for example, the holy Archangel Raphael took the devil, that had killed Sara’s husbands, and bound him the desert of upper Egypt. But the enemy of mankind never despairs of regaining his prey. His hatred is as active now as it was at the very beginning of the world, and he says: “I will return into my house, whence I come out.” Nor will he come alone. He is determined to conquer; and therefore, he will, if he think it needed, take with him seven other spirits, even more wicked than himself. What a terrible assault is being prepared for the poor soul, unless she be on the watch, and unless the peace, which God has granted her, be one that is well armed for war! Alas! With many souls the very contrary is the case; and our Saviour describes the situation in which the devil finds them on his return: they are swept and garnished, and that is all! No precautions, no defense, no arms. One would suppose that they were waiting to give the enemy admission. Then satan, to make his repossession sure, comes with a sevenfold force. The attack is made; but there is no resistance, and straightaways the wicked spirits entering in, dwell there; so that the last state becometh worse than the first; for before there was but one enemy, and now there are many.
In order that we may understand the full force of the warning conveyed to us by the Church in this Gospel, we must keep before us the great reality that this is the acceptable time. In every part of the world, there are conversions being wrought; millions are being reconciled with God; divine mercy is lavish of pardon to all that seek it. But will all persevere? They that are now being delivered from the power of satan, will they all be free from his yoke when next year’s Lent comes round? A sad experience tells the Church that she may not hope for so grand a result. Many will return to their sins, and that, too, before many weeks are over. And if the justice of God overtakes them in that state—what an awful thing it is to say it, but it is true—some, perhaps many, of these sinners will be eternally lost! Let us, then, be on our guard against a relapse; and in order that we may ensure our perseverance, without which it would have been to little purpose to have been for a few days in God’s grace, let us watch and pray; let us keep ourselves under arms; let us remember that our whole life is to be a warfare. Our soldier-like attitude will disconcert the enemy, and he will try to gain victory elsewhere.
The third Sunday of Lent is called Oculi, from the first word of the Introit. In the primitive Church, it was called Scrutiny Sunday, because it was on this day that they began to examine the catechumens, who were to be admitted to Baptism on Easter night. All the faithful were invited to assemble in the church, in order that they might bear testimony to the good life and morals of the candidates. At Rome, these examinations, which were called the scrutinies, were made on seven different occasions, on account of the great number of the aspirants to Baptism; but the principle scrutiny was that held on the Wednesday of the Fourth week.
The Station was, and still is, in the basilica of Saint Laurence outside the walls. The name of this, the most celebrated of the martyrs of Rome, would remind the catechumens that the faith they were about to profess would require them to be ready for many sacrifices.