Conversion, Step 3: Blanching the Memory Clean of Past Sins

"Once the will has been turned and the body subdued to service, as if the fountain were dry and the breach filled up, a third and very serious thing remains still to be done: the memory must be purified and the bilge water drawn off. But how am I going to cut my life out of my memory? The dark ink has drenched my cheap, flimsy parchment: by what technique can I blot it out? It has not only stained the surface, it has soaked into the whole thing. It is useless for me to attempt to rub it out: the skin will be torn before the wretched characters have been effaced. Forgetfulness might perhaps efface the memory if, for example, I were touched in the head and did not remember what I had done.

"But to leave my memory intact and yet wash away its blotches, what penknife can I use? Only that living and effective word sharper than a two-edged sword: 'Your sins are forgiven you.' Let the Pharisee mutter and say: 'Who can forgive sins but God alone?' To me it is God himself who speaks, and no other can be compared to him. He it was who devised the whole way of discipline and gave it to Jacob his servant and to Israel whom he loved, and afterwards appeared on earth and lived among men. His forbearance wipes away sin, not by cutting it out of the memory, but by leaving in the memory what was there causing discoloration, and blanching it thoroughly. We then remember many sins, which we know to have been committed either by ourselves or by others, but only our own sins stain us; those of others do us no harm.

"How is this? Surely it is because we blush only for our own sins, and it is only for these that we fear reproach. Take away damnation, take away fear, take away confusion; full remission takes all of these away, and our sins no longer harm us, but even work together for our good, enabling us to offer devout thanks to him who has remitted them."

--Bernard of Clairvaux, On Conversion, A Sermon to Clerics, chap. 15, trans. Marie-Bernard Saïd, OSB (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1981), pp. 63-64.


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