Sirach 19:1, "Of Venial Sin"

John Lewis
Catholic Patuxent, Maryland 1769-6-1
GTM.000002, American Catholic Sermon Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Georgetown University

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Of Venial Sin

He who contemns little things, will fall by degrees (Sirach 19:1) .

Having in the foregoing discourses set forth the Enormity of mortal Sin; the order of my subject now calls upon me to propose some general means to prevent this Evil. The first of these and which appears the most natural, is to be solicitous to avoid, not only mortal Sin itself, but every thing that borders upon it, and the very remotest steps towards it. For as the greatest virtue is sometimes owing for its first Rise and progress to very small beginnings, so is it also with vice. Hence one false step in the beginning, has often drawn after it a long train of sinful disorders & the blackest Crimes may be ushered in by the smallest failings. Nay the natural course of things seems to require that it should be so. For vice has its degrees to pass thro' as well as virtue; the soul must be prepared before she can familiarize herself with it; and it's as unnatural for a man to fall from virtue to the depth of vice, as it is for boiling water to pass to the greatest degree of coldness, without being first lukewarm.

For this reason, as there is no degree of virtue so small but ought to be cultivated and cherished, because it may be gradually improved; so is there no sin so inconsiderable but what we ought to be jealous of & carefully put a stop to in the beginning; because if it be neglected it may prove to be of dangerous consequence, & become the seed of mortal Sin. For how small soever it may seem in itself, it prepares the way for greater ones, & opens a breach for the devil to enter at and make himself master of the soul as we are expressly forewarned by the Holy Ghost assuring us, that he who contemns little things, shall fall by degrees (Sirach 19:1) . and by Christ also, who tells us: that whoever is unfaithful in small things, is also unfaithful in great ones (Luke 16:10) . You plainly see I speak not of the danger of barely committing, but of contemning or Neglecting venial Sins.

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For there is a large difference between these two; because to be surprised into 'em, is an effect of human weakness, even in the most pious Christians; but to contemn 'em, is not only to commit 'em with full knowledge and deliberation, but to multiply 'em one after another, without any farther care or concern to atone for 'em, or give a check to their growth by a speedy repentance. Now this contempt or neglect of venial Sins, is so great a disposition to mortal, that whoever is guilty of the one, seldom stops long without falling into the other as I shall endeavor to shew in this Entertainment.

The first reason why a contempt of venial Sin disposes to mortal, is grounded upon the natural connection the one has with the other. This reason comprehends not all venial Sins, with relation to mortal Sins in general, but only Such venial and mortal Sins, as are within the same species. or proceed from the same Root, and only differ in their several respective degrees. Now the connection between these venial & mortal Sins is such, that he who makes little account of the one, will not long avoid being drawn or surprised into the other. For it is with the distempers of the soul, as with those of the Body: many have paid dear for having neglected a slight indisposition: which if care had been taken at first, would have gone off without farther consequence; but being neglected, brought 'em at last to their grave. The scratch of a pin is but a trivial wound, yet if you let it fester & turn to a gangrene, it may cost you your Life. In like manner, tho' a venial sin be but a slight indisposition or a small wound of the Soul, as I may call it; yet, if thro' want of timely care, you prevent not its growth, it may easily become mortal & deprive you of your Spiritual Life. Thus he that accustoms himself to pilfering thefts will not be long before he becomes guilty of great ones. Thus it also often comes to pass, that the first motions of Anger or Impatience if not checked immediately, break out soon after into a violent storm & many times into murmurs & blasphemies against God.

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Thus again, a customary or neglect or coldness in our devotions paves the way to Libertinism. Thus finally, a small misunderstanding, not immediately made, sours upon the heart and turns into implacable rancor; a light suspicion deliberately entertained, is by degrees improved into a consummate rash Judgment; an immoderate Liberty in discoursing of our neighbor's imperfections, draws on insensibly down right detracting; an indiscreet familiarity with the sex smooths the way to criminal immodesties; & so forth, in innumerable other cases, in which venial sins, have so great an affinity with mortal, that they are as it were but an easy step to it: nor would this foul guest be able to get admittance into the heart, were it not introduced by failings of a less dangerous aspect.

This leads me to a short digression relating to the immediate occasions of mortal Sin, which all are indispensably obliged to Shun. By immediate occasions, I mean, those which seldom or never fail of being followed by, or are but as it were, one single remove from the mortal Sin, to which they dispose either of their own nature, or by reason of the peculiar weakness of a temper easily wrought upon. All then, I say, are bound in conscience to shun occasions of this nature, to the utmost of their power. The reason whereof is manifest, because their connection with mortal Sin is so great, that whoever loves the one, cannot reasonably be supposed to hate the other; as he who would needs be handling pitch, when he can avoid it, may be presumed to be no friend to cleanliness. So that the danger here threatens not barely at a distance, as in the venial Sins I have here spoken of, but brings immediate death to the soul & verifies the saying of Solomon, that he who loves danger shall perish in it (Sirach 3:26) . Whence it plainly follows that whoever is concerned in any occasion of this nature & approaches the Sacred tribunal of Pennance without a firm purpose to separate himself from it, is guilty of Sacrilege; his confession being a mere mockery & serving only to render him more criminal; instead of reconciling him to God.

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Since his heart keeps a secret correspondence with his Enemy, tho' his tongue make never so many protestations to the contrary.

But to return to the Point in Question; the [quoted] reason why a contempt of venial sin disposes to mortal, is, because committing 'em frequently (I mean with deliberation) makes sinning grow familiar to us, it accustoms us to have a kind of disregard for god's holy Law & hardens us insensibly against the fear of transgressing; which being one of the greatest fences against Sin, when this fence is broke down, a free Passage is opened for all sorts of sins to enter in upon us. The force of this reason will appear the better, if we consider, that the first & chief care of those, who are charged with the Education of children, is to ground 'em well in the fear of god, and inspire 'em with a great horror of Sin. this being the most solid foundation of virtue & best security against vice. Now, when a Person is thus principled & the fear of god has taken deep root in the soul; the first proposal of a mortal Sin, is apt to startle him as much, as if you should show him a deep precipice & bid him throw himself headlong into it. The very thought of it affects him with horror, & serves only to alarm him into a watchfulness & concern answerable to the greatness of the danger that threatens him. Nor is the Devil Ignorant of this great secret; He is too great a master in the mystery of Iniquity, and art of training up souls to it, not to know, that to push 'em all at once to the brink of the precipice, or tempt 'em to mortal Sin at the very first suggestion, is so far from promoting, that it is the direct way to obstruct & frustrate his wicked designs; He knows, the Net must be spread at a distance and the danger kept out of sight; he knows, a tender conscience must be nicely managed & weaned by degrees from the shame & fear of Sin, in which it was nursed before it can be worked up to a pitch of boldness, to venture upon offending god mortally;

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and the only sure way he has to effect this is, to lead men on gently from step to step, from one degree of Sin to another, till he brings 'em at last so far, as to make little or no account of deliberate venial Sins. For when once this difficulty is well got over, when offending god with full deliberation, tho' but in small things, is once become familiar and easy, 'tis manifest, the devil has then got over a very considerable part of his work because by this means, the greatest obstacle to mortal Sin, I mean the fear of god, & a certain tenderness of conscience, are then, tho' not wholly taken away, at least removed in a very great measure; & what remains to be done, is little more than leading an Enemy against a town, already well disposed, & prepared to receive him. And therefore the devil chooses mostly this slow & graduall method of corrupting innocent souls, & bringing 'em under the yoke & slavery of Sin: a long experience having sufficiently evidenced the infallible truth of the divine Oracle viz. that he who contemns little things, shall fall by degrees (Sirach 19:1) .

To explain my self by some familiar Instance; when for example, he intends to draw a Person from his ordinary duties and devotions, in order to draw him insensibly into an irregular course of Life, the first step he makes, is to bring him to a negligent performance of 'em; his next endeavor is to prevail, at least so far upon him, as to make him put 'em off to some unusual or unseasonable hour: he proposes not as yet an absolute omission of 'em, because he finds him not yet disposed to swallow this bait: besides, he knows the absolute omitting of certain duties is but a natural & easy sequel to our putting 'em off from time to time and will soon follow of Course. Some hindrance for example wholly unforseen, intervenes at the time designed; the Party finds himself engaged in company, which he cannot well leave 'Tis true he has at first, some squeamishness of conscience to omit 'em, but it cannot be helpd: necessity has no Law. This happens several times. The scruple he had at first wears off by degrees;

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he begins to be habituated to it; at length, whether any hindrance happens or not, he wholly lays aside the devotions he formerly used to practice. The omitting of one draws on insensibly the omitting of another; because the ground of it which is, a tenderness of conscience, & a zeal for the service of god, is weakened by it; & thus he falls, not all at once, but by certain easy steps and degrees into a negligent & slothful course of Life, which as experience convinces, seldom fails to banish from the heart the fear of god, & engage Persons in irregular ways, the usual consequence where of, are habits of mortal Sins. So that you see, a small neglect, not corrected in time, proves often to be the first Link of a long chain of sins, wchih at last drag the soul to everlasting Perdition.

Nay we may confidently say of Persons, that have been virtuously educated in their Youth, & early grounded in the fear of god, that the divel with all his Power & malice would never be able to fasten considerably upon 'em, did he not get his first hold by sins, which in appearance are inconsiderable and of no consequence; whereas thousands of this sort, have been drawn into the most scandalous and wicked courses, by the very steps I have marked out. How many have turned mere sots, who at first detested the vice of drunkenness & even had a natural aversion to it? but engaging themselves unwarily in company, were drawn in by degrees from sipping to drinking, & from smaller excesses to greater, till having served this sort of apprenticeship, as I may call it, for some time, they became at last complete masters of the trade, & not only followed it 'em selves, but helped to train up others to it? How many again, have, only by beginning with mock oaths, run insensibly into the vice of cursing & swearing, tho' at their first coming into the world, they had the greatest hatred to it? Finally, how many innocent sl souls have been trepanned this way into all the extravagances of a disorderly debauched Life who, at first, would have thrown themselves into the Jaws of a Bear, or Lion than consented to the sins. they afterwards committed without blushing or remorse?

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Nay, do we not see daily examples of this nature? A young man enters into the world with inclinations to virtue and principles of Religion to support it; but being now master of a plentiful fortune, the devil puts it into his head, that devotion is not a gentleman like virtue; that regular hours are only fit for Colleges and Cloisters; & that to be advised by friends or Parents, is to be treated like a child, & kept under tutelage. Here is yet, no proposal of any vice: the devil is only Busy in disarming his virtue, & he certainly takes the fittest time to succeed in his malicious designs; because a young man never stands in more need of keeping up these fences, I mean, devotion, Re- gularity, and a docile temper, to preserve the good fruits of his Education than at the Critical time of his first entrance into the world; it being evident, from experience, that the measures a person takes at that time, determine usually his Fate for ever after, & have a considerable influence upon his happiness or unhappiness both in this world & the next. So that if he begins then to lay aside the practice of a regular and uniform devotion; — if he lives by chance & humor, instead of Rule & method; if he withdraws himself from the direction of his Parents and charitable advice of friends, for fear of incommoding his inclinations; we may readily pronounce upon him, that he is in a dangerous way; & tho' he be not guilty of criminal excesses; they will soon follow; the fences are already broke down, the Passage is clear, & the world & flesh may enter in at leisure. Hence it is, that as the Devil has by long experience, found this gradual method of corrupting innocent Souls to be the most successful, so he certainly inspires those ministers of Iniquity, who serve under him in this wicked trade, to employ the same artifice in pursuing their designs. What man has ever had the impudence to make a barefaced criminal Proposal to a virtuous woman at the first interview? He knows it will be rejected with horror & indignation unless she can first be prevailed upon to lay aside some part at least, of that modest behaviour, which is the best guard, as well as ornament of her sex, & keeps men in Respect.

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For as long as she keeps up to the nice Rules of modesty, & neither encourages nor suffers any of those Liberties or addresses, by which ill designing men commonly lay their Snares at a distance her virtue is as safe as a citadel, to which no army can make its approaches. But if those freedoms be tolerated, or allowed of, her virtue is in danger since Libertines, who have no other aim than to corrupt it, will be encouraged by it to redouble their endeavors to draw her insensibly into more criminal compliances. — Wherefore, to conclude, this discourse it highly concerns all those, who god has hitherto preserved from vice to take timely warning by the falls of so many other miserable souls, who stood once as fair for heaven as themselves and might have easily maintained their ground had they been careful not to give the Devil an advantage over 'em; by putting 'emselves within his Reach, when they ought to have kept him at a distance, which would certainly have secured 'em against his temptations. The condition of man's soul in this world is much the same with that of a town besieged by an Enemy: as long as the Enemy is bravely repulsed from the outworks, a town is in no danger of being taken, but when he has once lodged himself in the ditch or counterscarp, the town itself will soon be forced to surrender. Just so it is [Dear Christians] with our Soul: as long as we keep the devil at a distance, & by watchfulness & assiduity in Prayer, which are as it were the outworks that covers us against him we hinder him from gaining ground, or approaching near us; we are out of danger of being overcome by him. But if we once let him make himself master of these outworks, tho' we seemingly resolve to stop him there, we shall soon find ourselves deceived, & experience, to our sad cost, that it is much easier to keep our Enemy quite out, than dislodge him when he has once got footing: & that the true secret to avoid mortal Sin, is to be tender of committing any wilful venial one; & not to slight 'em because they are little: for he who contemns little things shall fall by degrees (Sirach 19:1) —

[Patuxent] July 1769 St. Inigos [day]