It Is Bidden Us to Rejoice

On the Feast of St. Stephen, 1951, from St. Mary Magdalen College at Oxford, C. S. Lewis wrote a Latin letter to Don Giovanni Calabria in Verona (letters published with a translation by St. Augustine’s Press).
The day after Christmas, Lewis prays for Calabria “all spiritual and temporal blessings in the Lord.” Lewis adds: “It is astonishing that sometimes we believe that we believe what, really, in our heart, we do not believe.” At first, I thought that Lewis was telling us that he had some doubt about his faith.

Lewis’s point, however, was something else. We do not always grasp the depth of what it is we already believe. “For a long time,” Lewis writes, “I believed that I believed in the forgiveness of sins. But suddenly (on St. Mark’s day) this truth appeared in my mind in so clear a light that I perceived that never before (and that after many confessions and absolutions) had I believed it with my whole heart.” We distinguish between intellectual understanding and the overwhelming reality that our sins are actually forgiven. We can go on acting as if they were not — a spirit, in fact, contrary to the meaning of faith.
Lewis then gives some adviser to Calabria. “You write much about your own sins,” he tells him. “Beware (permit me, my dearest Father, to say beware) lest humility should pass over into anxiety or sadness.” I expected Lewis to say pass over into “pride,” not into “anxiety or sadness.”
Lewis had something else in mind. Some, on once being forgiven, think they will never sin again. But why are we not to be overly anxious or sad about even our forgiven sins? He cites Paul: “It is bidden us to ‘rejoice and always rejoice.’ Jesus has cancelled the handwriting which was against us. Lift up our hearts!” Never before had I seen that expression: “Jesus has cancelled the handwriting which was against us.” The imagery is graphic, the list of our sins on the Book of Life. Even if this cancellation is true, however, we still can be anxious that we might not really be forgiven.
We doubt what is forgiven us; this power of forgiveness is what is new in the world. The ancients knew about sin and even about forgiveness. They just did not know who could really forgive. They did not know the depth of sin. They did not know its forgiveness took God Himself.
Christ came into the world to forgive sins. This power scandalized the Pharisees of all ages; or, rather, it scandalized them because a man, Jesus, claimed it: a divine claim. This same claim often scandalizes us. We refuse to believe that our sins are so bad that they need a divine redeemer to deal with them properly. We think that we are insignificant. Thus, we can do what we want.
In 1947, Lewis wrote to Calabria: “Is it not a frightening truth that the free will of a bad man can resist the will of God? For He has, after a fashion, restricted His own Omnipotence by the very fact of creating free creatures; and we read that the Lord was not able to do miracles in some place because people’s faith was wanting.” To sin requires free will. To accept repentance as a fact likewise requires free will.
How is our world different from the pagan world? In a letter to Calabria on St. Patrick’s Day 1953, Lewis remarked that “they err who say ‘the world is turning pagan again.’ Would that it were!” It is becoming much worse: “‘Post-Christian man’ is not the same as ‘pre-Christian man.'”
On September 15 of the same year, Lewis wrote that a good part of Europe had lost the Faith. It was then in “a worse state than the one we were in before we received the Faith. For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity but into a worse state . . . . Faith perfects nature but faith lost corrupts nature. Therefore, many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light but also the natural light which pagans possess.”
If we want, at Christmastide, to understand Western culture, no one has said it better than Lewis in this passage.
Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death. On dying, he asked that his killers be forgiven. The Scribers and Pharisees responsible for Stephen’s death freely rejected the revelation offered them. Stephen asked that their act be not held against them.
“Many men of our time have lost not only the supernatural light but also the natural light which pagans possess.” Jesus cancelled the handwriting that is against us. Let us accept it. Let us not be worrisome. Let us rejoice and be glad!

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He is the author of The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His newest books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His most recent books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017) and The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018).

  • d. denton

    As someone who was first led into orthodox Christianity by C. S. Lewis (and, as a result, then into the Catholic Church), it is a sad wonder to me that C. S. Lewis, himself, who was so gifted at teaching and leading people, did not, himself, come the rest of the way into Catholicism. His literary executor, Walter Hooper, who did come the rest of the way through Anglicanism to Catholicism, said he was sure had Lewis lived a few more years, his conversion to Catholicism would have been inevitable. Reading this article, I can see Lewis is still teaching, and Fr. Schall is more than a worthy successor to C. S. Lewis by showing us these lessons; but now, Fr. Schall is leading me, and others, ever deeper into our Faith. Lewis once remarked that at Oxford, he, Lewis, “was a pagan convert surrounded by apostate Puritans.” Fr. Schall, in academia today, is a worthy and true Catholic priest surrounded by puritanical pagans.

  • Vikram

    Padre Pio’s formula for living, which sounds so simple, even banal, to the secular mind, but is filled with an infinite profundity. What is ‘hope’? To the pagan it is wishful thinking that may or may not eventuate, and is subject to the tides of fortune/fate. The apostate is in an even more parlous position when it comes to ‘hope’- for him hope is the last refuge of intellectual pygmies and ‘flat earthers’. If he could ban hope, he would.

    Thank you Fr Schall for your little, concise and hope-filled article. Our hope is too big for the pagan or apostate mind to comprehend. The one has restricted his view of the divine to what he can see in nature, the other has closed his mind to it. St Stephen had hope in full measure and so worry did not enter his heart, even under the harshest physical torments. His hope was more real than any hope based on worldly realities, more permanent than the bank vaults and treasuries of earthly princes and kings. His hope was Jesus Christ. May ours be too.

  • bill bannon

    St. John of the Cross notes in stanza 33 of the Spiritual Canticle that concerning God: “He never judges a thing twice.”
    Yet one must be hopeful without being pollyanna about the past. Hence Christ warned of the man who is left by the demon which demon finds other demons stronger than himself and they return to the man and his last state is worse than his first.
    This parallels Lewis’ Sept. 15 statement: “For no one returns from Christianity to the same state he was in before Christianity but into a worse state”. But Christ’s statement is not identical in that He does not give evidence of speaking only of apostates which Lewis is addressing. Christ seems to be speaking of his Jewish generation when they clean and sweep their soul but did not fill that soul with an active project or projects for Him since Christ notes that the demon finds the man cleaned and swept…but empty…clean but empty: Mt.12: 43
    “When an unclean spirit goes out of a person it roams through arid regions searching for rest but finds none.
    Then it says, ‘I will return to my home from which I came.’ But upon returning, it finds it empty, swept clean, and put in order. 45
    Then it goes and brings back with itself seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they move in and dwell there; and the last condition of that person is worse than the first. Thus it will be with this evil generation.”

    Now that generation did not accept Christ to begin with and yet fell to a worse state.

    Aquinas noted about us Christians that God may after foregiveness leave within the person “remnants of sin” whereby they remain tempted in the same direction and in other men, God does not leave these remnants. Hence both Jerome and Augustine were ex fornicators but a contemporary notes that Augustine never again allowed himself to be alone with women yet Jerome proceeded to have mainly females friends with whom he corresponded and in whose company he often was found.

    St. John of the Cross was also observant of the post foregiveness problem and cited in stanza 33 of the Spiritual Canticles his translation’s version of Sirach 5:5 which for him read: ” Do not be without fear for sins foregiven”. But he did give positive reasons for that passage: 1. to have a nmotive against presumption/ 2. to have cause to render thanks/
    3. to take hope in that if God gave grace while we were in sin then much more can we expect grace while outside of sin. He does though seem to have almost missed Aquinas’ more sober point about the “remnants of sin” which are in line with Christ’s comments on the returning demons.

    Oddly the modern NAB translation of Sirach seems to change that to a slightly different topic: ” 5
    Of forgiveness be not overconfident, adding sin upon sin.
    Say not: “Great is his mercy; my many sins he will forgive.”
    For mercy and anger alike are with him; upon the wicked alights his wrath.
    Delay not your conversion to the LORD, put it not off from day to day;
    For suddenly his wrath flames forth; at the time of vengeance, you will be destroyed.”

    Oddly most of our modern essays and sermons edit out the wrath of God aspect since modern warfare and with it the nightly news in general seem to make life frightening enough.
    But we are best off not editing the word of God.

  • Patrick

    …to further add to the mystery, we have the Divine Mercy message ( which I think holds the whole reality together into one, both the hope that Fr. Schall points to and the rightful warnings against presumption and over-confidence, though that’s a tricky phrase as we should be confident in the Lord’s Mercy boundlessly (understood rightly).

    I conceive of God as ‘dying’ (as having died!) to forgive us, longing for it, thirsting for it. He desires more than anything to pour His Mercy out:

    “…I desire trust from My creatures. Encourage souls to place great trust in My fathomless mercy. Let the weak, sinful soul have no fear to approach Me, for even if it had more sins than there are grains of sand in the world, all would be drowned in the unmeasurable depths of My mercy.” (Diary, 1059)

    In speaking of “trust”, I wonder if our Lord has not implicitly included the warning against presumption, which I do not take to be an element of trust.

  • bill bannon

    If you look close at “Dei Verbum” within Vatican II, it gives pride of place really only to the Bible as definitely the “word of God”. One can have a cautious appreciation of private revelations of saints but technically they are not binding on Catholics as really being the word of God…otherwise the Church would have to redo the canon eternally as to what is definitely the word of God and would have to include such revelations as being part of the Bible. And the Church does not do that and never did that even once.
    In the passage you quoted, I don’t like the part about sins numbering as the grains of sand throughout the world. There is a poetic metaphoric truth to it but taken literally, it could produce presumption.

    In such a literally large number of sins, God may or may not leave the person alive so as to reach Penance next time. He killed Herod in Acts 12 for accepting the crowd calling him “god” and the angel left Herod’s body to be eaten by worms and that is not OT but the New Testament as was the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 who also were not given a chance to commit an incredibly long list of sins but rather were taken by God to the particular judgement. Faustina seems to presume that each person will definitely get the chance again of going to Penance. We never know that. Some who do many sins might live to reach penance and some may not like the children who called Eliseus “baldhead” and 42 of them were then killed by two she bears:

    2 Kings 2:23
    “From there Elisha went up to Bethel. While he was on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him. “Go up, baldhead,” they shouted, “go up, baldhead!”
    The prophet turned and saw them, and he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the children to pieces.
    From there he went to Mount Carmel, and thence he returned to Samaria.”

    In short these boys did not get time during life to commit as many sins as the grains of sand in the world. Faustina is correct if we take her poetically as when Isaiah uses scarlet poetically about sins and says in chapter one:

    Wash yourselves clean! Put away your misdeeds from before my eyes; cease doing evil;
    learn to do good. Make justice your aim: redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.
    Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be crimson red, they may become white as wool.
    If you are willing, and obey, you shall eat the good things of the land;
    But if you refuse and resist, the sword shall consume you: for the mouth of the LORD has spoken!

  • Patrick

    From Part 1, Chapter 2, Article 2 (#’s 81-82) of the Catechism, there is the following (which quotes DV numerous times):

    “Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit.”

    “And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching.”

    As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, “does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.”


    Somewhat separately, I think we should be careful in attempting to correct saints and their revelations, assuming such revelations are approved by the Church. I realize that the writings and revelations of saints are not Gospel, but the Church has gone so far, in the case of St. Faustina, to have a feast day honoring the Divine Mercy Message the Sunday after Easter each year–a feast day with promises so astonishing (essentially, to participate correctly is to receive a ‘second baptism’ of sorts) that there is either tremendous presumption or something audaciously holy going on–something like the audactiy of God’s love to come to us in the very first place and to die for us.

    And, I don’t think St. Faustia is presuming anything: of course, the fruits of God’s mercy assumes the opportunity to receive those fruits, which is itself a gift from God. It seems to me rather ridiculous to think that someone like St. Faustina would not have understood that there is a potential for presumption and that the mercy message would somehow be to blame for that. Really, it is an extension of the love of God expressed in the Gospel and would coincide with all of the regular ‘conditions’, if you will, that accompany God’s mercy (i.e. God knows our sincerity vs. our presumption).

  • bill bannon

    Go to “Dei Verbum” of Vatican II and you will see that Tradition with a capital T implies ancient apostolic Tradition at least implicitly…see chapter 2 sections 7 and 8…”The Tradition that comes down from the apostles makes progress in the Church..” Tradition does not supply us with a second Bible infallibly quoting God in the 20th century outside the original Bible. Ask your pastor if I am bound to hold Faustina as infallibly quoting God word for word and he will say no.

    Yves Congar, one of the 20th century’s great theologians, wrote a book called “Traditions and tradition” which dealt with the fact that both infallible Traditions and non infallible traditions exist in the Church…the latter of which can be taken with a grain of salt in the sense of agreeing with the gist but not with the details in the case you cite. Ludwig Ott says as much in the Intro to the Fundamentals of the Catholic Faith (see just before section 9 in the Intro where he rules out from infallibility even some of the papal ordinary magisterium and all of the CDF issuances).

    Even your catechism cite implies what my title above says: “It transmits it to the successors of the apostles”….which infers ancient implications or explications.

    You are including every bit of the private verbal revelations of a near modern saint (died 193smilies/cool.gif apparently in the word “Tradition” as used by the catechism and which catechism in your quote is not specifying what is Tradition in detail but is referring to its having been handed down from the apostles. Your reference and their words are general but you are drawing detailed inferences from it: that God said in detail what and with those words that Faustina says He said…which would make her diaries a second Scripture itself.

    Catechisms even are not always infallible but are when they cite previous infallible sources and thus part of them is tradition with a small t. Trent’s catechism for example in the article on the Incarnation took the definite position that ensoulement of the human excepting Christ is delayed which John Paul II said in section 60 of Evanglium Vitae…may or may not be true (“over and above all scientific debates and those philosophical affirmations to which the Magisterium has not expressly committed itself”)…yet Trent stated unequivocally: ” for according to the order of nature the rational soul is united to the body only after a certain lapse of time.” (end of 9th paragraph in article three). Trent’s commentary on the 9th and 10th commandment forbade coveting one’s neighbor’s slave:

    “The words, ‘nor his servant’, come next, and include captives as well as other slaves whom it is no more lawful to covet than the other property of our neighbour.”

    But Section 80 of “Splendor of the Truth” by John Paul II stated that slavery is intrinsically evil which means historical context does not justify it…so either Trent or John Paul II is incorrect and both are tradition in this area and not Tradition coming down from the disciples of Christ as Dei Verbum talks about.
    Otherwise everything within the Church would come under infalliblity which is not the case.

    And look at what you omitted: that the phrase about sins equaling the grain sands of all the world’s beaches can be forgiven. Sure they can…if and only if God allows the person to live that long but God may not allow the person to live that long…. given that Christ in John’s gospel says that any branch not bearing fruit will be removed from the vine by the Father. And Romans warns Christians of the very same thing but uses the image of the olive plant from which the Jews were taken away by God and Christians could also be taken away from it if they offend overlong. To literally accept Faustina’s words about sins numbering as many as the grains of sand of the world means that one thinks one will not die til one does all those sins and then repents. One is not guaranteed that much time though one person may get that much time but the next person may not.

  • Patrick


    I realize the differences between Tradition (big T) vs. tradition (little t). In brining that up, I wasn’t putting St. Faustina in Tradition, but rather pointing out that what you wrote about the Bible alone being the Word of God (“If you look close at “Dei Verbum” within Vatican II, it gives pride of place really only to the Bible as definitely the “word of God”.”) is entirely false–as expressed in the exact document you quoted saying it was true.

    I didn’t say anyone was bound infallibly to hold St. Faustina’s words. If the Church approves private revelations, it signifies that there is nothing in them contrary to the faith or moral teaching of the Church, and that they may be read without danger or even with profit; but the faithful are not obliged to believe them. Private revelation is given not to improve or complete Christ

  • bill bannon

    My pride of place point for Scripture …stands…given the practice of the Church itself which places the Bible to be read at each and every Mass as the word of God strictly speaking. It does not place the encyclical on the Assumption at each Mass to be read as the word of God… though that truth is as sure as any within scripture. But pride of place goes to the entire book of Scripture both in the Mass and in your house I would bet. I’ve been in Catholic houses that present the Bible on the cocktail table. I’ve never been in a Catholic house which had the Council of Trent on a cocktail table in beautiful binding.
    Dei Verbum’s use of “word of God” for Tradition is an extension of the normal use of “word of God”. Thus the Church itself does not place various infallible documents of Tradition at the Mass and to be read because though they are equal in truth to Scripture, the Bible has pride of place as to the wording actually being inspired by God rather than guided by God (Yves Congar again).

    Briefly and my last post on this: the grains of sand detail which God Himself used in the Bible but otherwise in that He used it for the number of the true descendants of Abraham… was unfortunate in this other context in that in some human minds, it can likely have the effect of letting them think that they know roughly “the day” or the “hour” ( i.e. they at least have a lot of time prior to repenting) which in Matthew 25, Christ says we do not know…neither the day nor the hour.
    In a vision of a saint, there can be aspects that proceed from God and aspects which proceed from the psychological background of the saint and the latter is where this sand detail came from in my view….her psyche took it from Genesis where it is used otherwise by God to Abraham.
    And that is why God does not use it for this number of sins purpose in the Bible but to show Abraham that he will indeed have very many descendants but true descendants in spirit (Isaiah 10:22 contrasts with Gen. 22:17 to make that point).
    You’ll notice that in Isaiah 1, God says that even if your sins be as scarlet, they will be made white as snow….thereby God avoids the number of sins and the time problem and stresses rather the gravity of sins by the image of scarlet.

  • Patrick

    There is a difference between pride of place for Scripture and going by our understanding with Scripture alone. If the Church approves a revelation from a saint as not detracting from the Faith or the moral teaching, then I think we can extend the thought to say that the revelation too is not in contrast with Scripture in any way. These insights we get from saints, from doctors of the Church and so on are meant to bring us deeper into the truths presented in the Scriptures, to ‘unpack’ them further, if you will. I do not see how there can be any legitimate competition between the two if we understand the role of both correctly.

    Another example is the “Little Way” of St. Therese. This was an insight into the love of God and the reality that we are to love always and everywhere that is presented in the Scriptures time and again. The “Little Way” is a way to understand the Word of God better.