Chesterton said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”


We are very grateful to Father Nicholas Schofield, M.A. (Oxon.), S.T.B., parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes and St Michael, Uxbridge, and Archivist of the Archdiocese of Westminster, for his most moving meditation for the Grand Priory Lenten Evening of Recollection, which he delivered during an Holy Hour following Mass in the Lady Chapel of Saint James's Spanish Place. 
The full meditiation is given below, click the 'READ MORE' link at the end of the visible passage for the complete text.
We hope this will be fruitful reading as we enter Holy Week.

T H E   G O O D   T H I E F

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingly power.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”.

It is a shame we know so little about the Good Thief, often known as St Dismas. And it surprising that his feast is not widely celebrated, even though his image is present in most churches (the same could be said, incidentally, of Simon of Cyrene, the great patron of those carrying crosses). The life of the Good Thief, as you might expect, has become the subject of legend. One tradition relates how many years earlier the Holy Family fell into the hands of robbers as they fled into Egypt. They owed their deliverance to the young St Dismas, the son of the robber chief, who saw the Divine Infant in His mother’s arms and believed at once that He was more than man. He exclaimed ‘O most Blessed of children, if ever a time should come when I should crave Thy mercy, remember me and forget not what has passed this day.’

But the Gospel passage we have just heard contains much food for meditation. One could say, after all, that it contains an account of the first canonization ceremony, as Our Lord Himself tells the dying thief ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. Pius XII even spoke of it being ‘almost the first plenary indulgence’ and one which continues to be granted by the Church to the faithful at the hour of death.

The Church Fathers thought highly of the Good Thief. St Athanasius, for example, wrote:
O Good Thief, much shrewder than the first Adam! Poorly advised, he reached out for the fruit of the forbidden tree and infused in himself and in all of us the venom of death. Better advised, by reaching out to the sacred Tree of the cross you recovered Heaven and earned Life! O blessed thief, who found the means of carrying off the most wonderful treasure! O blessed thief who imitated Judas’ betrayal, but the one betrayed was the devil!
St John Chrysostom saw him as a great sign of hope for ‘no one, henceforth, will be able to despair his salvation when he sees a man guilty of thousands of sins cross the gates of the Kingdom. With a simple word, a single act of faith, he bounds ahead of the apostles into paradise.’ Indeed,

if I call Christ “King”, it is because I see him crucified. This is the proper fate for a king: to die for his subjects. It is when he is nailed to the cross, stricken with insults, covered with spit, outraged, ridiculed, when he has become the object of universal derision that he has the power to draw to himself the perverted soul of the thief. Admire this power that bursts forth on every side: he unsettles nature, shatters rocky boulders, and the soul of the thief, that is more hardened than rocks, is made softer than wax.
In those final moments the Good Thief surrendered himself to the crucified God. His many sins were wiped away and Christ truly reigned in his heart. In those final moments, we could even say, the Good Thief makes the ultimate act of theft. Stealing involves taking possession of something that does not rightfully belong to us. And something which, in a sense, does not rightfully belong to us is God’s grace; the forgiveness of sins and the promise of Heaven. We cannot procure heaven through our own efforts and works. In a sense, we have to ‘steal’ it. How? According to one writer, ‘by simply acknowledging that there is no way for us to save and sanctify ourselves, to be divinized by our own means, nor “earn” or buy this treasure with the currency of our merits. “I will come before you with empty hands”, said St Therese of Lisieux.’

During Lent we imitate the spirit of the Good Thief. We become holy thieves, opening ourselves to God’s grace – though we do not have to catch the Lord unawares, for He freely gives it to us. All the saints down the ages have followed the example of St Dismas, who has been variously called ‘figure and precursor of all the elect’ and ‘doorkeeper of paradise’. The saints are those who knew their sins and emptied themselves so as to receive grace and mercy. Indeed, the holier a person is the more aware they are of their weakness. When you hold up a wine glass to the light, you see the smears and stains that otherwise can’t be detected in darkness. So it is with the souls of the saints.

Blessed John Henry Newman noted that
it is indeed most true that the holier a man is, and the higher in the kingdom of heaven, so much the greater need has he to look carefully to his footing, lest he stumble and be lost; and a deep conviction of this necessity has been the sole preservation of the Saints. Had they not feared, they never would have persevered. Hence, like St. Paul, they are always full of their sin and their peril. You would think them the most polluted of sinners, and the most unstable of penitents.
Newman once said that ‘the lingering imperfections of the saints surely make us love them more, without leading us to reverence them less, and act as a relief to the discouragement and despondency which may come over those, who, in the midst of much error and sin, are striving to imitate them’.

Newman himself is a good example of this in action, a reminder that saints are very human. An accusation often thrown at him is that he was a difficult character – cold to those he did not know well, hyper-sensitive and prone to long-standing disagreements with his fellow converts and co-workers in the vineyard, especially Fr Faber and Cardinal Manning. And yet Newman was fully aware of his failings and persevered in spite of them.

As a schoolboy at Ealing, before his conversion of 1816, he lived what he later calls ‘a life of sin, with a very dark conscience and a very profane spirit’; he was ‘more like a devil than a wicked boy’. Lying on his Sicilian sick bed in 1833, battling both fever and the devil, he saw clearly his sins, especially his willfullness. During this dark night he felt emptied – he spoke of an ‘utter hollowness’ and ‘great want of love and self-denial’ – but then was able to enjoy ‘a most consoling, overpowering thought of God’s electing love’. The ‘kindly light’ was to lead him on from this moment, step by step. When he arrived in Rome in 1856, at the height of the row with the London Oratory, he and St John removed their shoes and stockings and walked to St Peter’s in penance – the long cloaks hid their feet and since it was siesta time few were on the streets.

Throughout his long life Newman reproached himself for laziness, rudeness, unkindness and many other faults; he felt himself ‘unfitted…to be a Superior’, lacking ‘the staidness or dignity necessary for a leader’. He had a low opinion of his written works and refused to be acclaimed as a philosopher or theologian, for he had never formally studied these sciences. Many regarded him as a living saint though he once commented ‘saints are not literary men, they do not love the classics, they do not write Tales. I may be well enough in my way, but it is not the “high line”…It is enough for me to black the saints’ shoes – if St Philip [Neri] uses blacking in heaven’.

We can be inspired by the fact that Blessed John Henry battled with his weaknesses and continued his pursuit of holiness throughout a long life. I am always impressed by a letter to Manning in which he says: ‘I do not know whether I am on my head or my heels when I have active relations with you. In spite of my friendly feelings, this is the judgment of my intellect’. But then he concludes: ‘I propose to say seven masses for your intention amid the difficulties and anxieties of your ecclesiastical duties’. Now, that is a good example of how to deal with your enemies!

At a young age Newman came to know himself and was thereby led to know that other self-evident, luminous being, God. He once noted that ‘multitudes called Christians go through life with no effort to obtain a correct knowledge of themselves’. This, he thought, was strange because ‘self-knowledge is at the root of all real religious knowledge’ – ‘unless we have some just idea of our hearts and of sin, we can have no right idea of a Moral Governor, a Saviour or a Sanctifier’. How can we come to know our Saviour if we do not acknowledge our need for salvation? How can we come to His Heart without knowing our own?

For Blessed John Henry, Our Lord was not merely a historical figure, not merely a proposition or abstract truth, but was personally present in the Christian soul, through the power of the Holy Spirit: ‘it was the great promise of the Gospel, that the Lord of all, who had hitherto manifested himself externally to His servants, should take up His abode in their hearts’. Christ lives in us; but too often we drive Him out through our sinfulness, too often we abuse His condescension.

Newman confessed that ‘among the ordinary mass of men, no one has sinned so much, no one has been so mercifully treated, as I have; no one has such cause for humiliation, such cause for thanksgiving’. Above all he found that mercy in the sacraments. He once said that the Church is Catholic because ‘she brings a universal remedy for a universal disease. The disease is sin; all men have sinned; all men need a recovery in Christ; to all must the recovery be preached and dispensed’. And one of the problems that he found in the Church of his birth was that ‘there is no real cure of souls in our Church’, no remedy for sin. Indeed, as an Anglican pastor he ‘keenly felt the want of ecclesiastical authority over them, the need of obligatory confession to know their state…I had the responsibility without the means to fulfil it’.

The sacrament of confession is a great gift and something we focus on during these final weeks of preparation for the Sacred Triduum. ‘How many are the souls,’ wrote the cardinal, ‘in distress, anxiety or loneliness, whose one need is to find a being to whom they can pour out their feelings unheard by the world? Tell them out they must; but they cannot tell them out to those whom they see every hour…They wish to tell them to one who is strong enough to bear them, yet not too strong to despise them; they wish to tell them to one who can at once advise and can sympathise with them; they wish to relieve themselves of a load, to gain a solace’. For him, ‘if there is a heavenly idea in the Catholic Church, looking at it simply as an idea, surely, next after the Blessed Sacrament, Confession is such’.

One of the favourite prayers of the English Martyrs, muttered by St Ralph Sherwin and others in their dying moments, was the phrase: Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, esto mihi Jesus – Jesu, Jesu, Jesu, be to me a Jesus – be to me a Saviour. Every time we receive absolution we become like the Good Thief, hearing those healing words of the Lord, letting Him be unto us a Saviour, a Jesus.

As we reflect on our sinfulness and the patient mercy of God, let us pray with Blessed John Henry:

My God, I have had experience enough what a dreadful bondage sin is. If Thou art away, I find I cannot keep myself, however I wish it—and am in the hands of my own self-will, pride, sensuality, and selfishness. And they prevail with me more and more every day, till they are irresistible. In time the old Adam within me gets so strong, that I become a mere slave. I confess things to be wrong which nevertheless I do. I bitterly lament over my bondage, but I cannot undo it. O what a tyranny is sin! It is a heavy weight which cripples me—and what will be the end of it? By Thy all-precious merits, by Thy Almighty power, I entreat Thee, O my Lord, to give me life and sanctity and strength! Deus sanctus, give me holiness; Deus fortis, give me strength; Deus immortalis, give me perseverance. Sanctus Deus, Sanctus fortis, Sanctus immortalis, miserere nobis.

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