The hundred years from Elizabeth's accession is acclaimed as the English Renaissance with the resurgence of music, art, architecture, poetry and prose. Those who have become known in England as the seventeenth century Divines contributed much to this period. This meditation though sombre in tone, as appropriate for Lent, draws on some of that material from the sermons, casuistic writings and poems of some of those divines: Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne, Mark Frank, Anthony Farindon, George Herbert, John Gore, Henry Hammond and Jeremy Taylor.
'Lent is a considering time a time set us by holy Church to consider what we have done all the year before, and what we shall do; It begins with a day of ashes, and it goes out with a week we hear of nothing in but the preparations to a grave and the resurrection, so as it were to mind us of our latter end, make us more serious about it at this time than ordinary, from the first day of it to the last.'
For the penitent Lent begins on Shrove Tuesday to be shriven. Wilt thou forgive that sinne where I begunne, Which was my sin, though it were done before? Wilt thou forgive that sinne, through which I runne, And do run still: though still I do deplore? When thou hast done, thou hast not done, Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I have wonne Others to sinne? And made my sinne their doore? Wilt thou forgive that sinne which I did shunne A yeare, or two: but wallowed in, a score? When thou hast done, thou hast not done, I have a sinne of feare, that when I have spunne My last thred, I shall perish on the shore; But sweare by thy selfe, that at my death thy sonne Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore; And, having done that, Thou hast done,
Lord, I confess my sin is great;
Great is my sin. Oh! Gently treat With thy quick flower, thy momentary bloom; Whose life still pressing A steady aiming at a tomb. (Herbert) 'O the dampness and the mist of our sin! So great that it darkeneth not only the light of religion which God teacheth, but even the light of nature which her instinct teacheth, even the reasonless creature itself.' 'Were it not for sin, heaven could have no quarrel against us, hell could have no power over us.' For the seventeenth century divines, sin and its consequences were not pushed into the background as is often the case to-day. They made no bones about it that sin severs our relationship with God, and so there was an urgency in their sermons, especially during Lent, that 'sin will destroy us all' unless we repent and seek forgiveness. However there was always a positive approach, almost a cajoling, for the individual to seek penitential grace and embrace God who longed for his salvation. Henry Hammond taught that sin is seated in the will: the will of man is the principal cause of all our evil,' and that sin [is] a privation of the life of grace, [a] spiritual death, wholly to be imputed to wilful will.
Mark Frank in a sermon for the third Sunday in Lent enunciated the consequences of living in sin.
A mere walking carcase a sinner is, a mere motion and engine without life and spirit, when God's spirit and grace is departed from him. The fall of the body into the dust of the grave, is nothing so bad as the fall of the soul into the dirt of sin. When our souls are but once deprived of grace and goodness God's presence so taken from us they do but wither, and dwindle, and die away; and we only walk like so many ghosts among the graves, in the shades of night and darkness. Did we but consider or understand how miserably the soul crawls along in this condition, when the Eternal Spirit is departed from it, we would say the natural death were nothing like it, the grave but a bed of rest and sleep, whilst sin were the very torments of death itself. Nay, the very pangs and horrors of death that make way to it, but little flea-bitings to the stings and terrors of conscience that often follow upon our sins, upon the loss of God's favour and presence.
Jeremy Taylor declared that sin puts us in 'a state of ungraciousness with God'. Like Andrewes Taylor made no distinction between varying degrees of sin. For him, 'even the smallest sins are destructive of our friendship with God', and 'every sin, even the smallest, is against charity, which is the end of the commandment.'
He compared 'little sins' to
the sand, and when they become a heap are heavy as lead; and a leaking ship, may as certainly perish with the little inlets of water as with a mighty wave; therefore let not little sins be despised, for even the smallest things which creep upon us by our natural weakness, yet when they are gathered together against us, stand on a heap, and like an army of flies can destroy us, as well as anyone deadly enemy.
Andrewes was so conscious of sin that he insisted that "We are all to pray to God to take from us the opportunity of sinning; so frail we are, it is no sooner offered but we are ready to embrace it - God help us."
Sin reigns in our bodies, "it fills the heart full of evill and madnesse [and] it makes men implacable." There are "no boundes, no limitts, no lawes will restrain or keep them in order", if sin rules you. Like Adam who sinned for a "trifle" so we do daily. There is "nothing so dangerous, so deadly unto us, as is the sin in our bosom; nothing from which we have so much need to be saved."
Andrewes explained that sin is really our act of rebellion against God for which we cannot blame on original sin. It is not our original sin that God mourns over, but our perpetual sinning. Hence it is not surprising that metanoia was a prominent Lenten theme for Andrewes and other divines. This Greek word means to turn, but these divines stressed its two-way structure: to turn from; that is, sin and turn to, that is God.
'For this time hath the Church made choice of the text Turn ye even to Me with all your heart.'
But 'whither should we turn from sin but to God? Else in very deed we turn from sin to that sin.'
For Lent to be spent as a time for 'turning', Andrewes believed was made easier with it coinciding with that time of the year when the universe and nature were all undergoing change.
It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to [the Church] to order there will be a solemn set return once in the year at least. . And that once is now at this time, for In heaven, the sun in his equinoctial line, the zodiac and all the constellations in it, do now turn about to the first point. The earth and all her plants, after a dead winter, return to the first and best season of the year. The creatures, the fowls of the air, the swallow and the turtle, and the crane and the stork, know their seasons, and make their just return at this time every year. Everything now turning that we also would make it our time to turn to God in.
After all it may be our last Spring, our last swallow time.
Mark Frank, also emphasised the necessity of beholding the 'now'' for our 'turning' in a sermon he preached for the first Sunday in Lent
Now is the very time we must begin our reconcilement, look to our salvation; that though the name of Lent should be distasteful yet, however, we may not slip our time. It is the only sure part of time we have, the present the only 'day of salvation;' for, peradventure, ere the next moment we are gone, and clearly cast without the confines of it. Not only then 'to-day, whilst it is called to-day,' but even 'now,' whilst it is called 'now,' is the sure 'now of salvation.'
Nor is it time to dally now. Time is a flitting post; day runs into night ere we are aware: this 'now' is gone as soon as spoken; and no certainty beyond it, and no salvation if not 'accepted' ere we go hence.
Frank then continued in the vein of Ecclesiastes.
There is 'a time to be born' in, and 'a time to die' in. Lent, a time to die unto the world, and to be born and live to Christ.
It is 'a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;' to plant virtue, and to pluck up vice.
It is 'a time to kill, and a time to heal;' to kill and mortify our earthly members, and to heal the sores and ulcers that sin hath made, by a diet of fasting and abstinence.
It is 'a time to break down, and a time to build;' to break down the walls of Babylon, the fortresses of sin and Satan, and to build up the walls of the New Jerusalem within us.
It is 'a time to weep, and a time to laugh;' to weep and bewail the years we have spent in vanities, and yet rejoice that we have yet time left to escape from them.
It is 'a time to mourn, and a time to dance;' to manifest our repentance by some outward expressions, and thereby dispose ourselves every day more and more for Easter joys.
It is 'a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;' to remove every stone of offence, and, as 'lively stones, to be built up,' as St. Peter speaks, 'into a spiritual house.'
It is 'a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from all wanton and loose embraces, and pour out ourselves wholly into the arms of our blessed Jesus.
It is 'a time to get, and a time to lose;' to get heaven by violence, and lose earth, our worldly goods upon alms and charities; to cast away earth to purchase heaven.
It is 'a time to keep, and a time to cast away;' to keep all good resolutions, and cast away the bad ones.
It is 'a time to rend, and a time to sew;' to rent and tear off all ill habits, and to begin good ones.
It is 'a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;' to keep silence from bad words, all idle and wanton and scurrilous language, and give ourselves to good discourses.
It is 'a time of love, and a time of hate;' to love God, and hate ourselves; or love our souls, and hate our sins.
It is, in a word, 'a time of war, and a time of peace;' to make war against all our ghostly enemies, the flesh, the devil, and the world, and reconcile ourselves to God, our neighbour, and the Church. To all these purposes serves the time of Lent; for them it was instituted at first, and for them it is continued.
Anthony Farindon in a sermon he delivered at St. Mary Magdalen, Milk Street, London declared that this 'turning' involves a deliberate act of the will.
The main 'turn' is of the will. It is not our natural concupiscence, not the dulness of our understandings, not the violence of our passion, not our weakness, that we die, it is our will destroyeth us. If the will turn, all these will turn with it, turn to their proper offices and functions; the understanding will be all light, and the affections will be all peace; If the will be turned, that is, captivated and subdued to that will of God which is the rule of all our actions, it becometh 'a shop and work-house of virtuous and religious actions;' and the understanding and affection are 'fellow workers with it,' ready to forward and complete the turn'. When the will is 'turned' the soul is saved: the old man is a new creature, and this new creature changeth no more, but holdeth up the 'turn' till he be turned to dust, and raise again and then made like unto the angels.'
So 'what music there is in a 'turn,' which beginneth on earth, but reacheth up, and filleth the highest heavens! 'A repentant sinner is a glass, or rather God's own renewed image, on which God delighteth to look; for there he beholdeth his wisdom, his justice, his mercy; and what wonders they all have wrought.
Turning to God and away from sin was more than a cerebral exercise however. It also involved the heart to feel shame and even anger for sinning against God. As Frank put it 'Sin must have repentance, and repentance will have shame Shame of our ingratitude to God, shame of our unhandsomeness to men, - shame of the disparagement we have done our nature, - shame of the dishonour we have done ourselves in committing things so foul, so brutish, so unreasonable .'
Shame for sin leads to repentance.
'To repent is to leave a sin.' and 'every single sin which we remember must be repented,' declared Taylor , whilst Farindon urged that 'repentance for our sins is the business of our whole life. When sin hath corrupted our faculties, we purge it out by repentance; and it is quite loss and forgotten in the ways of righteousness.' Thus 'repentance is as a physic to the soul there is no fear at all that we should take too much of it.'
Taylor insisted 'not to repent instantly [of our sins] is a great loss of our time, and it may for ought we know become the loss of all our hopes.' And in his Great Exemplar declared that
'of all things in the world' it is repentance which makes the greatest difference for it changes the whole man from sin to grace, from vicious habits to holy customs, from unchaste bodies to angelical souls, from swine to philosophers, from drunkeness to sober counsels: and God Himself lifts up the sinner from the grave to life, from his prison to a throne, from hell and the guilt of eternal torture, to heaven, and to a title never ceasing felicities (2:205-6).
For Andrewes repentance was described as "nothing else 'but a kind of circling' to return to Him by repentance from Whom by sin we have turned away." Hence he defined the Christian life as a circle, "which circle consists ... of two turnings. ... One, is to be done with the `whole heart;' ... the other with it `broken and rent.'" With the first turn "we look forward to God, and with our `whole heart' resolve to `turn' to Him." The second turn "we look backward to our sins wherein we have turned from God, and with beholding them our very heart breaks." The first involves "conversion from sin" and a resolve "to amend [what] is to come", and "the other contrition for sin" and a "reflecting and sorrowing for [what] is past". The first also involves a "declining from evil to be done hereafter"; and "the other sentencing itself for evil done heretofore." Together they "make up a complete repentance, or ... a perfect revolution"
Andrewes also insisted that 'Repentance is opposite, not to sin, but the continuance of it - that is the point.'
Yet repentance is no easy task all these divines testified. Taylor in The Great Examplar wrote:
' because it is a duty consisting of so many parts and so much employment, it also requires much time, and leaves a man in the same degree of hope of pardon, as is his restitution to the state of righteousness and holy living for which he covenanted in baptism. We repent or rise from death but once, but from sickness many times; and by the grace of God we shall be pardoned, if so we repent. But our hopes of pardon are just as is the repentance; which, if it be timely, hearty, industrious, and effective, God accepts.
True repentance is not simply a general sorrow for sins but articulating sins. The next step therefore is confession. All these divines recommended sacramental confession as being the truest way to unburden the soul of sin. Taylor believed that 'Confession of sins to a minister of religion is one of the most charitable works in the world to ourselves. By confessing our sins humbly and contritely before 'the holy man who God and the church have appointed solemnly to pray for us, will lay 'open our wounds for cure'. Yet 'He that confesseth his sins to the minister must be sure to express all the great lines of his folly and calamity; that is, all that by which he may make a competent judgment of the state of his soul.
Taylor also saw sacramental confession as a very pious preparation to the holy sacrament.
'Let no man think it a shame to confess his sin; or he does, yet let not that shame deter him from it. There is indeed a shame in confession, because nakedness is discovered; but there is also a glory in it, because there is cure too: there is repentance and amendment.'
Following confession there should be the resolve to amend our lives firstly shown in our contrition. For Donne this meant 'a full desestation of the sin, and a full resolution, not to relapse into that sin.' For Taylor contrition was not expressed 'with a superficial sigh or tear, but a pungent afflictive sorrow; such a sorrow as hates the sin so much that the man would choose to die rather than act it any more. This sorrow is called in scripture a `weeping sorely', a `weeping with bitterness of heart', a `weeping day and night'..." Accompanying tears is grief, deep grief for sin, which in turn is measured "by the cordial hatred of sin and a resolution and a real resisting its consequent temptations.'
Yet 'the proper and true effects of a godly sorrow are, fear of the divine judgments, apprehension of God's displeasure, watchings and strivings against sin, patiently enduring the cross of sorrow which God sends as their punishments; on accusation of ourselves, in perpetually begging pardon, in mean and base opinions of ourselves.'
All 'holy penitents are to arise to greater excellencies than if they had never sinned' and so the 'true penitent' is one 'who out of hatred to sin abstains from it, and out of love to God endeavours to keep His commandments.'
Andrewes advocated that if our repentance and confession were taken seriously they would lead to some form of mortification. One of these is fasting and appropriate for Lent. Andrewes indicated that ever since Lent has been observed it has been a time of penance and a a general abstinence in the Church of Christ (1.432) He also saw the combination of fasting and repentance as making the body "a less mellow soil for the sins of the flesh", and is "a chastisement for sin already past".
Frank also insisted that Lent is a time for mortification.
And this time as fit a time as any can be, to do it in, the holy time of Lent; a time set apart by the holy church to chasten and subdue the body in. I would we would all set ourselves above our bodies, value and prize our souls before our bodies; we would not then make ourselves such slaves and drudges to it as we do; face and brave damnation for a petty lust, for a little meat or drink, for the satisfaction of the belly.
we [must not] suffer our appetites to rule us, our anger to transport us, our desires to harrow us, our fears to distract us, [and] our hopes to abuse us. They must all be kept within rule and compass, or we are lost.
The whole purpose of advocating repentance, confession and mortification by these divines was not only to keep the body in subject to the soul and the soul in a state of grace but to bring us to the foot of the cross at the end of Lent.
O my chief good, How shall I measure out Thy blood? How shall I count what Thee befell,
asks George Herbert and his mentor assures him, stand at the cross and behold our Lord's suffering. Never was there such love manifested. "His wounds they are as windows, through which we may well see all that is in him." "He was pierced with love no less than with grief, and it was that wound of love ... we may read in the palms of His hands, ... And the print of the nails in them, are as capital letters to record His love towards us. For Christ pierced on the cross is liber charitatis, `the very book of love' laid open before us.
It is a "view" that we should contemplate "all our life long", and therefore it "ought to be frequent with us" as "blessed are the hours that are so spent!" Yet it is not enough to "behold" Him with the natural eye, but we must also "consider" with the "eye of our mind which is faith; ... and our looking to Him here, is our thinking on Him there; on Him and His Passion over and over again, `till He be as fast fixed in our hearts as ever He was to His cross,' and some impression made in us of Him, as there was in Him for us." Here we shall enter "even into the inward workmanship of it, even of His internal Cross, which He suffered, and of His entire affection wherewith He suffered it." Then our hearts will be truly pierced as His was for us .
To conclude this Lenten meditation I shall let Donne who prayed so often that God would batter his heart to make him faithful have the last word: Like Andrewes he urges us to enter into our Saviour's sufferings by seeing 'those hands stretched out, that stretched out to the heavens, and those feet racked.
He asks us to make his contemplation ours too:
When I contemplate my Saviour thus, I love the Lord, and there is a reverent adoration in that love, I love Christ, and there is a mysterious admiration in that love, but I love Jesus, and there is a tender compassion in that love, and I am content to suffer with Him, and to suffer for Him, rather than to see any diminution of His glory, by my prevarication.
However he who will 'die with Christ upon Good Friday, must hear his own bell tolled all Lent; [and] he who will be partaker of His passion at last, must conform himself to His discipline of prayer and fasting before.
However once you know that Christ is
fully in your heart, .. meet Him, and love Him, and embrace Him, as often as He offers Himself to your soul. Wish every day a Sunday, and every meal a Sacrament, and every discourse a Homily, and He shall shine upon you in all dark ways, and rectify you in all ragged ways, and direct you in all cross ways, and stop you in all doubtful ways, and return to you in every corner, and relieve you in every danger.