Lenten Sermon of Bernardino Ochino, Venice 1539

First of Nine Sermons by Berandino Ochino in Venice during Lent 1539

Delivered two Sundays before Easter

Source: Karl Benrath, Bernardino Ochino of Siena: A contribution towards the history of the reformation. London: James Nisbet & Co., 1876. Pp. 39-48.

Note: The English has been modernised by the webpage editor.

The Apostle Paul distinguishes between two kinds of men in his epistles, a carnal and a spiritual; an earthly and a heavenly; a natural and a godly. The one is exactly opposed to the other. The carnal man, says Paul, does not comprehend what is godly; the spiritual man does not value or rejoice in the things of this world, but only in those that are godly and heavenly. He abhors and hates the things of this world, in so far as they are not means to the honour and glory of God. And thus the two men are opposed to one another, inasmuch the one ever strives towards the things that are above him, and the other to the things that are below, and an angry strife is waged between flesh and spirit, as Paul has likewise said: ‘But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin.’[1] When the soul is inflamed with Divine love, and would be one with God, the material body revolts, and would remain on earth with its wishes and inclinations. The soul sees Christ naked, and therefore esteems riches of no account; it sees Him scourged, and therefore stands aloof from the pleasures of this world; it sees Him despised and mocked, and therefore it does not regard or care for mortal glory and honour; it sees Him abased, and therefore does not strive to be elevated itself; it only desires one thing, that in all things, and above all, honour be rendered to God. But the false Christians have made to themselves a God after their fashion, a worldly, rich, and pomp-loving God, and do not wish that He should hang on a cross. And therefore, it must be shown what we should flee and what we should learn, in order that we may love Christ, and ever warm and inflame ourselves in love towards Him. But now let us pause a little moment.

And now, I pray, give me some attention. We would convert this carnal man, and therefore you must first confess your sins. The beginning of penance is the acknowledgment of sin. If you have never acknowledged your sins, you can feel no grief concerning them, and therefore cannot regret them. For if you do not know that you have fallen out of favour with such or such a master, how then can you wish to be restored to favour, how should you seek ways and means to retrieve that which you have lost? But such self-knowledge is not sought by those who only go to confession and communion from habit, or to be held good Christians who do as others do, without the spirit of the God and the perception of His presence, without the love to God, that feels pain at having pained Him.

Then there is another sort, who in these latter days (before Easter) would wish to recall their sins more exactly, if only for appearance sake. They take a confession-book and read it through carefully several times, to remind themselves in this way of their sins. Another wishes to do better still, and learns the list of sins by heart, so that when he comes before his Father Confessor, he can show himself a good Christian by repeating his sins in succession, with certain humble expressions, that make him appear a man that truly fears God. Thus a certain nun, who desired to prove herself a true disciple of Christ, and began, ‘Oh, Father Confessor, I acknowledge that of all others in the convent I am the most haughty, the most careless, and most ungodly,’ and so forth, in expressions of exaggerated humility, so that the wise and experienced father saw through her, and answered, ‘My daughter, I knew that before; they have told me that you are the haughtiest, most careless, ungodly of all in the convent, and therefore surely you are not worthy to bear the dress of your order.’ Oh, how the nun flew at him. ‘Father, you are too credulous, it is not so bad.’ And yet she had just told him the same thing in her confession. That was wrong, for we should tell the truth, neither more nor less. Not that I would utterly condemn the confessional books, but I cannot approve them. For oftentimes they make you acquainted with matters that before were hidden to you. You have a book of your own. If you look through that and study it when you read it again and again, it will enlighten you and teach you, and tell you what is good and bad; I mean your own conscience. Act like the woman that lost a penny and sought through the whole house until she found it. If you ransack your conscience well, so will you find all therein that accuses you, if you acknowledge humbly, firmly convinced, and avowing that whatsoever is good in you is a gift from God, and does not spring from your own strength. That is not pleasing to God, who resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

All good comes from God, and therefore the proud deceive themselves, as God himself has shown us in Exodus. He bade Moses stretch forth his hand, white and smooth as it was; then He commanded him to put his hand into his bosom, and then draw it forth again, and behold, it was leprous. From this we learn that even good works, if they only proceed from ourselves, become defiled and leprous by reason of our sins.

Yet another man relies upon himself and thinks: I know that my actions are right, and that I could not will anything that is against God’s will. For this, also, Moses sets us an example. He held a dry rod in his hand, cast it to earth, and it became a serpent. Therefore consider, that under circumstances, your good actions may turn to serpents, because of your pride, and all your other sins. Thirdly, God led Moses to a river that was clear and clean and bade him take of its water and sprinkle it upon the land, and it became as blood. So it may seem to you that your riches are honestly earned, but if you examine carefully from where your property and all in your house proceeds, you may perchance discover that it comes from the blood of the poor, and belongs to others, to whom you must restore it.

And yet another recounts his sins of pomp, vanity, and lust in the confessional, with a glib tongue, and almost does as though he prided himself thereon. The other sins that weigh on his heart he says quite softly, so that the confessor can scarcely hear them. That must not be. If confession is to bear fruit, and be worthy a Christian, you must search your conscience carefully, and probe yourself in deep humility. But because we live in such darkness and uncertainty, we can scarcely recognise our misery, and because ‘opposita inter se posita magis elucescunt,’ the exact and deepest avowal of sin consists in this, that we regard Christ crucified for us in the mirror of pure faith and ardent love. If you behold your image in Him, you will recognise your darkness by His light, your pride by His humility, your iniquity by His innocence, your avarice by His generosity, your presumption by His meekness, your ingratitude by His countless benefits; in brief, all virtues and all goodness shine forth in Christ, so filled with love, all misery and sins are recognisable in yourself. Thus you will arrive at a true and exact knowledge of your faults, and seek in yourself the guilt, since they proceed from you. To repent yet more sincerely, take a scale and lay on the one side God’s constant benefits to you, on the other your ingratitude; on the one side His great mercy, that pardons you so much and of so many sins, on the other side your insensibility; on the one side His willingness to accord you His grace; on the other side your stubbornness to continue in sin. Those are the scales that will conduct you to heaven. But the false Christians do not reflect themselves in the crucified Christ; they desire a Christ after their manner, rich, proud, and magnificent. But now let us pause a little moment.

There are some who bewail their sins in confession, not for God’s sake, not because they have offended Christ, but because they think, ‘I have committed this or that sin, therefore God sends me this visitation,’ and that pains them, and they weep because of it. Alas, my beloved, that is not remorse, that is self-love. Or again, another has been guilty of some sin that has put him to public shame, and has lost his good name and position on account of it; that pains him, and he is ashamed, because he is no longer honoured as before, and therefore he regrets his sins. But that too is not true lamentation, and does not suffice; for he is only lamenting his loss of reputation. A woman loves her husband so boundlessly that she is deeply grieved for the shame she has brought on him, and would do anything to undo her sin. Alas, neither is that true repentance; that is not a true, but a mere sensual pain. Another grieves for fear of hell; another fears to lose paradise; yet another, lest he be punished in this world. All these are not the pangs of penitence, but those of self-love.

No, you must feel pain because you have offended Christ, who loved you so dearly that He shed His own blood for you, and who would return yet a million times to redeem you and wash you of your sins. But of this you do not think. What more could He do for you than He has done? for you who have so often offended Him, and offend Him still by pride, sacrilege, and unchastity, by drinking and gambling, by so many grievous sins that cry to heaven — so many sins, that truly I know not how it will be possible that this poor Italy should not perish utterly! Truly it is needful that you should feel this pain for Christ’s sake, because you have offended all the goodness and love He has shown to us, while we are so ungrateful for His benefits; it is needful that you should ever regard that living mirror, even Christ, of which we spoke anon. If you regard that with the living eye of the soul, you will put off your goods and chattels and your pride, and say with Paul, ‘I do count all things but dung, that I may win Christ.’[2] If your eye is thus clear you will echo with Solomon, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!’[3] Your works will not make you proud, for you will acknowledge that if God’s grace did not sustain us we should do that which is evil by our own strength. And therefore, you will say with the Prophet Daniel, ‘All have transgressed Your law.’[4] You will not vaunt your own virtues, but rather acknowledge with Isaiah, ‘All our righteousness’ are as filthy rags.’[5]

And take one who has all virtues, if they are not rooted in charity, they are worth nothing, as Paul says, ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels,’ &c[6]. If we had all virtues, yet without charity, they would be false, and, therefore, St. John says, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.’[7] Thus we are all full of sin and unrighteous.

It seems to me that in the darkness a small candle in my hand gives more light than a large lamp behind me; and I also think that a little penny which you yourself give for your soul, is more efficient than if you were to leave all you have for that purpose after your death. And for this reason, if you are in Paradise, you do not need it; if you are in hell, no alms will redeem you from there. You will say, but they can avail in purgatory. Be it so; but if you bestow them during your lifetime in love and with a living faith, they will even efface your deadly sins and restore to you the lost grace of God, and that is the greatest good and the greatest benefit which you can attain. Therefore, I recommend to you, as I have been entreated to do, to give plentiful alms to the poor of this city, who are ashamed to beg. That is a good deed, what you give will be justly distributed, and better than you yourselves could have done it.

But now I desire to preach to you about confession, but I deemed this preparation very needful. However, we will add a few words concerning confession — the remainder another time.

I will not first prove to you whether confession is a divine or human institution; I do not think that necessary, as I suppose all who are here in the church are ready and resolved to confess and obey the church. I say only one thing, St. Augustine testifies that many years before the Lateran Council confession already existed, as we find in the chapter ‘Omnis,’[8] where we are bidden to confess our sins at least once a-year. And I am of opinion that it is a divine institution, and one of the divinest, for without it how could the sinner judge himself.

I will also tell you Plato’s opinion. He holds that every man should have a true and confidential friend to whom he should reveal all his secrets, so that the friend when he sees a fault in him, may reprove him and lead him to amend. From this alone we may see that confession is absolutely necessary.

What means it that Christ veils and hides Himself?[9] I think He does it, and rightly so, that He may not see the abominations of false Christians. Today, when there are only fourteen days until the Passion of our Lord, there is, as yet, no amendment to be seen in you. It is your vanity, your pride, which forces Christ to hide Himself; it is your taverns where all sins find food and shelter. Oh, how must they have seemed in the Carnival? It was for this that Christ hid Himself, and left the Temple. Now, go to Rome, to the Chancery and the Penitentiary, and there you will also find that Christ hid Himself, and left the Temple. Go to the dwellings of loose women in that town, — perhaps ten or twelve thousand in number, — even so many hells, where souls are robbed, murdered, and deprived of God’s grace; there you will find that Christ hid Himself, and left the Temple. Go throughout poor Italy, and you will find how many have perished in thirty or forty years in battle, for no fault of their own; how many poor widows and orphans are left; how many cities have been destroyed; how many castles levelled to the ground; how many souls plunged into the pit of hell, which have never once thought of Christ; therefore has Christ hid Himself, and left the Temple.

But you, Venice, my city, I speak not of myself, but of so many other preachers in this city, who do not, as formerly, preach philosophy and fables, but rather the Word of God, the living and true Christ, salvation and amendment; yet you still remain as you were; and, for myself, I have striven to lead you to salvation with such sincerity, devotion, and love, with so many pains and vigils, perhaps without the slightest result. Yet I still hope to see good and sincere Christians, and firmly believe that you will revive to a better life of goodness and sincerity. But if you will not reform, I tell you this beforehand, and declare it, that on the day of the last judgment, I will be the one to testify to Christ against you. And all the souls on the left hand, who have not had the opportunity which you have had to reform, will do the same, and therefore I exhort you, and beg you, in the name of Christ, that you endeavour, during these last days, to lead a less luxurious life, and do penance in quickening love, and in the firm resolve to offend Christ no more, as far as in you lies, and though it might cost your life a thousand times. Reform your old life, and lead a new one, for I testify to you, if you will not be Nineveh, you will be Sodom; and therefore prepare yourselves and strive to amend. May God grant you His grace. Amen.

  1. Rm 7:23
  2. Phil 3:8
  3. Eccl 1:2
  4. Dan 9:11
  5. Is 64:6
  6. 1 Cor 13:1
  7. 1 Jn 1:8
  8. Conc. Lat. iv., can. 21: ” Omnis utriusque sexus fidelis postquam ad annos discretionis pervenerit, omnia sua peccata fideliter saltern semel in anno confiteatiur proprio sacerdoti.”
  9. John 8:46-59 is the Sunday gospel from which Ochino is preaching.