Convertimini ad Me: Lancelot Andrewes on Ash Wednesday, 1619

(This is Neil.) I wanted to quickly post something to help us reflect during the beginning of Lent and I thought of Lancelot Andrewes’ Ash Wednesday sermon of 1619. Of course, this sermon is presently well-known because of T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash-Wednesday, which is indebted to Andrewes for its main idea (“I do not hope to turn”) and perhaps its allusive nature. Hugh Kenner called Ash-Wednesday “a wholly transparent network of allusions, tacitly nourished, like a nervous system, from secret sources among which research will discover nothing irrelevant,” a description also appropriate for Andrewes’ own dense “network” of Scriptural, patristic, and classical references. Both sermon and poem also possess a circular structure, which, unfortunately, will not be evident from my excerpts below. (For more on these and other parallels, see Mark Jones’ “The Voice of Lancelot Andrewes in Eliot’s Ash Wednesday,” Renascence 58 [2005]).

In any case, Andrewes’ sermon is important in its own right. It is on Joel 2:12-13 (Convertimini ad Me in toto corde vestro …).

Here, then, are some excerpts:

[The Church] hath found, this same keeping of continual Sabbaths and Fasts, this keeping the memory of Christ’s birth and resurrection all the year long, hath done no good; hurt, rather. So “it hath seemed good to the Holy Ghost,” and to her, to order, there shall be a solemn set return, once in the year at least. And reason; for, once a year, all things turn. And, that once is now at this time; for, now at this time, is the turning of the year. 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. Every thing now turning, that we also would make it our time to turn to God in.

Then, because we are to turn cum jejunio, “with fasting;” and this day is known by the name of caput jejunii, the ‘first day of Lent;’ it fits well, as a welcome into this time: a time lent us, as it were, by God, set us by the Church, to make our turning in.

[Here, Andrewes refers us back to Joel 2, and its repetition of convertimini, “Turn” …]

Repentance itself is nothing else but redire ad principia, ‘a kind of circling;’ to turn to Him by repentance, from Whom, by sin, we have turned away. And much after a circle is this text; begins with the word “turn,” and returns about to the same word again. Which circle consists (to use the Prophet’s own word,) of two turnings; (for twice he repeats this word;) which two must needs be two different motions. 1. One is to be done with the “whole heart:” 2. The other, with it “broken and rent.” So as one and the same it cannot be.

First, a “turn,” wherein we look forward to God, and with our “whole heart” resolve to “turn” to Him. Then a turn again, wherein we look backward to our sins, wherein we have turned from God; and with beholding them, our very heart breaketh. These two are two distinct, both in nature and names; one, conversion from sin; the other, contrition for sin. One, resolving to amend that which is to come; the other, reflecting and sorrowing for that which is past. One, declining from evil to be done hereafter; the other, sentencing itself for evil done heretofore. These two, between them, make up a complete repentance; or, (to keep the word of the text,) a perfect revolution.

“Turn,” and “turn to Me;” and He that saith it is God. Why, whither should we turn from sin, but to God? Yes, we may be sure, it is not for nothing, God setteth down this. In Jeremy, it is more plain: “If ye return, return to Me, saith the Lord;” which had been needless, if we could turn to nothing else; were it not possible, to find divers turnings; leaving one by-way to take another; from this extreme, turn to that, and never to God at all. They that have been fleshly given, if they cease to be so, they turn; but, if they become as worldly now, as they were fleshly before, they turn not to God. They, that from the dotage of superstition run into the phrensy of profaneness; they, that from “abhorring idols, fall to commit sacrilege;” howsoever they turn, to God they turn not.

And this is even the motus diurnus, the common turning of the world, as Moses expresseth it, “to add drunkenness to thirst;” from too little to too much; from one extreme to run into another. Would God it were not needful for me to make this note! But the true turn is ad Me: so from sin, as to God. Else, in very deed, we turn from this sin to that sin; but now “from sin;” or, (to speak more properly,) we turn sin, we turn not from sin, if we give over one evil way to take another.

[Following Joel, Andrewes has earlier said that the “manner” of “turning” to God with the whole heart involves fasting, weeping, morning, and a “rent heart.” Fasting and weeping are the “soul’s task,” and mourning and rending the heart are the “body’s task.” Below, I will excerpt part of Andrewes’ discussion of each of these practices. First, Andrewes asserts their importance; for his reference to Jael, see Judges 4 .]

[T]he Prophet tells us farther, (or God Himself rather; for He it is that here speaketh,) that our repentance is to be incorporate into the body, no less than the sin was. Hers hath been the delight of sin, and she to bear a part of the penalty; that the heart within, and the body without, may both turn, since both have gone astray. It is a tax, a tribute, it hath pleased God to lay upon our sins, and we must bear it.

I speak it for this. It is a world, what strange conceits there are abroad, touching this point. To the animalis homo flesh and blood reveals a far more easy way, not encumbered with any of these. To “turn,” and yet not lose a meal all the year long; and not shed a tear; and not “rend” either “heart or garment;” and yet do full well. And with this conceit they pass their lives; and with this they pass out of their lives; as it seems, resolved to put their souls in a venture, and to come to Heaven after their own fashion, or not come there at all. Change Joel into Jael; take a draught of milk out of her bottle, and wrap them warm, and lay them down, and never rise more.

But, how fast? To relieve all we may: when we speak of fasting, humanum dicimus propter infirmitatem vestram; we intend not men’s knees should “grow weak with fasting.” Two kinds of fasting we find in Scripture. 1. David’s, who fasted, “Tasting neither bread” nor ought else, “till the sun was down:” no meat at all: that is too hard. 2. What say you to Daniel’s feast? “He did eat and drink,” but not cibos desiderii, “no meats of delight,” and namely ate no “flesh.” The Church, as an indulgent mother, mitigates all she may; enjoins not for fast that of David; (and yet, qui potest capere capiat, for all that;) she only requires of us that other of Daniel, to forbear cibos desiderii, (and “flesh” is there expressly named) meats and drinks provoking the appetite, full of nourishment, kindling the blood; content to sustain nature, and “not purvey for the flesh, to satisfy the lusts thereof.” And thus, by the grace of God, we may: if not David’s, yet Daniel’s. For, if David’s we cannot, and Daniel’s we list not, I know not what fast we will leave: for, a third I find not.

And yet, even this also doth the Church release to such as are in Timothy’s case; have crebras infirmitates. It is not the decay of nature, but the chastisement of sin she seeketh. But, at this door, all scape through; we are all weak and crazy, when we would repent; but, lusty and strong, when to commit sin.

But if not pour out, not gush forth, Nonne stillabit oculus noster, saith Jeremy, “shall not our eye afford a drop or twain?”

Stay a little, turn and look back upon our sins past; it may be, if we could get ourselves to do it in kind, if set them before us and look sadly, and not glance over them apace; think of them, not once,; but, as Ezekiah did, recogitare, “think them over and over;” consider the motives, the base motives; and weigh the circumstances, the grievous circumstances; and tell over our many flittings, our often relapsing, our wretched continuing in them: it would set our sorrow in passion, it would bring down some; some would come: our bowels would turn, our repentings roll together; and lament we would the death of our soul, as we do otherwhile the death of a friend; and for the unkindness we have shewed to God, as for the unkindness we do, that man sheweth us.

[Before his discussion of mourning, Andrewes shows his understanding that tears may not come: “For, who hath tears at command?”]

If weep we cannot, mourn we can; and mourn we must. Et vos non luxistis, saith the Apostle; he saith not, et vos non flevistis, ‘and you have not wept;’ but, “and you have not mourned;” as if he should say, That you should have done at the least. Mourning they call the sorrow which reason itself can yield. In schools, they term it Dolorem appretiativum, ‘valuing what should be;’ rating what the sins deserve, though we have it not to lay down; yet what they deserve, we should; and, that we can. These, and these sins I have committed, so many, so heinous, so oft iterate, so long lain in; these deserve to be bewailed even with tears of blood.

This we can; and this too, wish with the Prophet, (and so let us wish,) “O that my head were full of water, and my eyes fountains of tears,” to do it as it should be done! This we can.

… And lastly, this we can; even humbly beseech our merciful God and Father, in default of ours, to accept of the “strong crying and bitter tears, which, in the days of His flesh, His blessed Son in great agony shed for us;” for us, I say, that should but are not able to do the like for ourselves: that what is wanting in ours, may be supplied from thence. These, by the grace of God, we may do, in discharge of this point. These let us do, and it will be accepted.

And so now to the last, “Rend your hearts:” you see, first and last, to the heart we come. For indeed, a meal may be missed, a tear or two let fall, and the heart not affected, for all that. Esau wept; Ahab gave over his meat; their hearts both swelling and apostumate still. To shew, that though these be requisite, all; yet that the passion of the heart is caput poenitentiae; to the heart He cometh again always, to verify, that, in both and in all, quod cor non facit non fit, ‘if it be not done with the heart, if the heart do it not, nothing is done.’ As in conversion, the purpose of amendment must proceed from the heart; so in our contrition, the sorrow, the anger, for our turning away, must pierce to the heart; some cardiaque passion to be; the heart to suffer.

And what must it suffer? Contrition: it should even conteri, be ‘ground to powder.’ “A contrite heart,” it should be. If not that, not contritum, yet cor confractum, “a broken heart,” yet with this qualifying here, cor conscissum, with some rent, or cleft. Solutio continui, somewhat there is to be opened; not only that the apostumate matter may breath forth, but much more, (which is the proper of this part,) that feeling the smart there, we may say, and say it with feeling, quod malum et amarum, that an “evil thing it is, and a bitter, to have turned away and forsaken the Lord.” Some such thing is the heart to feel, or else nothing is done.

[Cardiaque means “heartfelt”]

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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