On the Habitual Sinner
The habit of sin blinds sinners, so that they no longer see the evil which they do, nor the ruin they bring upon themselves - St. Augustine
On the Habitual Sinner
A sermon of St. Alphonsus Mary Liguori given on Palm Sunday
"WISHING to enter Jerusalem, to be there acknowledged as the promised Messiah sent by God for the salvation of the world, the Saviour said to His disciples: Go to a certain village, and you will find an ass tied,
and a colt with her; loose them, and bring them to Me. “The ass which was tied," says St. Bonaventure, "denotes a sinner." This exposition is conformable to the doctrine of the Wise Man, who says, that the wicked are bound by the chains of
their own sins. His own iniquities catch the wicked, and he is fast bound with the rope of his own sins (Prov. v. 22). But, as Jesus Christ could not sit on the ass before she was loosed, so He cannot dwell in a soul bound with her own iniquities.
If, then, brethren, there be among you a soul bound by any bad habit, let her attend to the admonition which the Lord addresses to her this morning. Loose the bond from off thy neck, captive daughter of Sion (Isa. lii. 2). Loose
the bonds of your sins, which make you the slave of Satan. Loose the bonds before the habit of sin gains such power over you, as to render your conversion morally impossible, and thus to bring you to eternal perdition.
The habit of sin blinds the understanding
The habit of sin blinds sinners, so that they no longer see the evil which they do, nor the ruin which they "bring upon themselves; hence they live in blindness, as if there was neither God, nor heaven, nor hell, nor eternity," says St. Augustine. ”Sins," adds the Saint, ”however enormous, when habitual, appear to be small, or not to be sins at all." How then can the soul guard against them, when she is no longer sensible of their deformity, or the evil which they bring upon her?
St. Jerome says, that habitual sinners “are not even ashamed of their crimes." Bad actions naturally produce a certain shame; but this feeling is destroyed by the habit of sin. St. Peter compares habitual sinners to swine wallowing in mire. The sow that was washed is returned to her wallowing in the mire (2 Pet. ii. 22). The very mire of sin blinds them; and, therefore, instead of feeling sorrow and shame at their uncleanness, they revel and exult in it. A fool worketh mischief as it were for sport (Prov. x. 23). Who are glad when they have done evil (Prov. ii. 14). Hence the Saints continually seek light from God; for they know that, should he withdraw his light, they may become the greatest of sinners. How, then, do so many Christians, who know by faith that there is a hell, and a just God, who cannot but chastise the wicked, how, I say, do they continue to live in sin till death, and thus bring themselves to perdition? Their own malice blinded them (Wis. ii, 21). Sin blinds them, and thus they are lost.
Job says, that habitual sinners are full of iniquities. His bones shall be filled with the vices of his youth (xx. 11). Every sin produces darkness in the understanding. Hence, the more sins are multiplied by a bad habit, the greater the blindness they cause. The light of the sun cannot enter a vessel filled with clay; and a heart full of vices cannot admit the light of God, which would make visible to the soul the abyss into which she is running. Bereft of light, the habitual sinner goes on from sin to sin, without ever thinking of repentance. The wicked walk round about (Ps. xi. 9). Fallen into the dark pit of evil habits, he thinks only of sinning, he speaks only of sins, and no longer sees the evil of sin. In fine, he becomes like a brute devoid of reason, and seeks and desires only what pleases the senses. And man, when he was in honour, did not understand: he is compared to senseless beasts, and is become like to them (Ps. xlviii. 13). Hence the words of the Wise Man are fulfilled with regard to habitual sinners. The wicked man when he comes into the depth of sin, contemneth (Prov. xviii. 3). This passage St. Chrysostom applies to habitual sinners, who, shut up in a pit of darkness, despise sermons, calls of God, admonitions, censures, hell, and God, and become like the vulture that waits to be killed by the fowler, rather than abandon the corrupt carcass on which it feeds.
Brethren, let us tremble, as David did when he said: Let not the tempests of water drown me, nor the deep swallow me up; and let not the pit shut her mouth upon me (Ps. Ixviii. 16). Should a person fall into a pit, there is hope of deliverance as long as the mouth of the pit is not closed; but as soon as it is shut, he is lost. When a sinner falls into a bad habit, the mouth of the pit is gradually closed as his sins are multiplied; the moment the mouth of the pit is shut, he is abandoned by God. Dearly beloved sinners, if you have contracted a habit of any sin, endeavour instantly to go out of that pit of hell, before God shall deprive you entirely of his light, and abandon you; for, as soon as he abandons you by the total withdrawal of his light, all is over, and you are lost.
The habit of sin hardens the heart
The habit of sin not only blinds the understanding, but also hardens the heart of the sinner. His heart shall be as hard as a stone, and as firm as a smith‟s anvil (Job xli. 15). By the habit of sin the heart becomes like a stone; and, as the anvil is hardened by repeated strokes of the hammer, so, instead of being softened by divine inspirations or by instructions, the soul of the habitual sinner is rendered more obdurate by sermons on the judgment of God, on the torments of the damned, and on the passion of Jesus Christ: his heart shall be firm as a smith‟s anvil. "Their heart," says St. Augustine, "is hardened against the dew of grace, so as to produce no fruit." Divine calls, remorses of conscience, terrors of Divine justice, are showers of divine grace; but when, instead of drawing fruit from these divine blessings, the habitual sinner continues to commit sin, he hardens his heart, and thus, according to St. Thomas of Villanova, he gives a sign of his certain damnation; for, from the loss of God’s light, and the hardness of his heart, the sinner will, according to the terrible threat of the Holy Ghost, remain obstinate till death. A hard heart shall fear evil at the end (Ecclus. iii. 27).
Of what use are confessions, when, in a short time after them, the sinner returns to the same vices? "He who strikes his breast," says St. Augustine, ”and does not amend, confirms, but does not take away sins." When you strike your breast in the tribunal of penance, but do not amend and remove the occasions of sin, you then, according to the Saint, do not take away your sins, but you make them more firm and permanent; that is, you render yourself more obstinate in sin. The wicked walk round about (Ps. xi. 9). Such is the unhappy life of habitual sinners. They go round about from sin to sin; and if they abstain for a little, they immediately, at the first occasion of temptation, return to their former iniquities. St. Bernard regards as certain the damnation of such sinners: "Væ [that is, the Scriptural "Woe"] homini, qui sequitur hunc circuitum." (Serm. xii. sup. Psalmos).
But some young persons may say: I will hereafter amend, and sincerely give myself to God. But, if a habit of sin takes possession of you, when will you amend? The Holy Ghost declares, that a young man who contracts an evil habit will not relinquish it even in his old age. A young man, according to his way, even when he is old, he will not depart from it (Prov. xxii. 6). Habitual sinners have been known to yield, even at the hour of death, to the sins which they have been in the habit of committing.
He hath mercy on whom He will, and whom He will He hardeneth (Rom. ix. 18). God shows mercy for a certain time, and then he hardens the heart of the sinner. How does God harden the hearts of sinners? The Lord does not directly harden the hearts of habitual sinners; but, in punishment of their ingratitude for his benefits, he withdraws from them his graces, and thus their hearts are hardened, and become like a stone. ”God," says St. Augustine, "does not harden the heart by imparting malice, but by withholding mercy." God does not render sinners obdurate by infusing the malice of obstinacy, but by not giving them the efficacious graces by which they would be converted. By the withdrawal of the sun's heat from the earth, water is hardened into ice.
St. Bernard teaches, that hardness or obstinacy of heart does not take place suddenly; but, by degrees the soul becomes insensible to the divine threats, and more obstinate by divine chastisements. In habitual sinners are verified the words of David, At Thy rebuke, God of Jacob, they have slumbered... (Ps. lxxv. 7) Even earthquakes, thunders, and sudden deaths do not terrify an habitual sinner. Instead of awakening him to a sense of his miserable state, they rather bring on that deadly sleep in which he slumbers and is lost.
The habit of sin diminishes strength
He hath torn me with wound upon wound; he hath rushed in upon me like a giant (Job xvi. 15). On this text St. Gregory reasons thus: A person assailed by an enemy, is rendered unable to defend himself by the first wound which he receives; but, should he receive a second and third, his strength will be so much exhausted, that death will be the consequence. It is so with sin: after the first and second wound which it inflicts on the soul, she shall still have some strength, but only through the divine grace. But, if she continue to indulge in vice, sin, becoming habitual, rushes upon her like a giant and leaves her without any power to resist it. St. Bernard compares the habitual sinner to a person who has fallen under a large stone, which he is unable to remove. A person in such a case will rise only with difficulty. “The man on whom the weight of a bad habit presses, rises with difficulty" (Moral, lib. 26, c. xxiv.).
St. Thomas of Villanova teaches, that "a soul which is deprived of the grace of God, cannot long abstain from new sins" (Conc. 4 in Dom. 4 quadrages.). In expounding the words of David, O my God, make them like a wheel, and as a stubble before the wind, (Ps. lxxxii. 14.) St. Gregory says, that the man who struggled for a time before he fell into the habit of sin, as soon as he contracts the habit, yields and yields again to every temptation, with as much facility as a straw is moved by the slightest blast of wind. Habitual sinners, according to St. Chrysostom, become so weak in resisting the attacks of the devil, that, dragged to sin by their evil habit, they are sometimes driven to sin against their inclination. Yes; because, as St. Augustine says, "a bad habit in the course of time brings on a certain necessity of falling into sin."
St. Bernardino of Sienna says, that "evil habits are changed into one's nature." Hence, as it is necessary for men to breathe, so it appears that it becomes necessary for habitual sinners to commit sins. They are thus made the slave of sin. I say, the slaves. In society there are servants, who serve for wages, and there are slaves, who serve by force, and without remuneration. Having sold themselves as slaves to the devil, habitual sinners are reduced to such a degree of slavery, that they sometimes sin without pleasure, and sometimes even without being in the occasion of sin. St. Bernardino compares them to the wings of a windmill, which continue to turn the mill even when there is no corn to be ground; that is, they continue to commit sin, at least by indulging bad thoughts, even when there is no occasion of sin presented to them. "The unhappy beings," as St. Chrysostom says, "having lost the divine aid, no longer do what they wish themselves, but what the devil wishes."
Behold the end of habitual sinners! Brethren, if you have the misfortune of having contracted a habit of sin, make, as soon as possible, a general confession; for your past confessions can scarcely have been valid. Go forth instantly from the slavery of the devil. Attend to the advice of the Holy Ghost. Give not thy ears to the cruel (Prov. v. 9). Why will you serve the devil, your enemy, who is so cruel a master who makes you lead a life of misery here, to bring you to a life of still greater misery in hell for all eternity? Lazarus, come forth. Go out of the pit of sin; give yourself immediately to God, Who calls you, and Is ready to receive you if you turn to him. Tremble! this may be for you the last call, to which if you do not correspond, you shall be lost."