Ash Wednesday according to H. McCabe O.P.

Having attended a conference at Blackfriars, Oxford, on the thought of Herbert McCabe O.P. (1926-2001), and it being Ash Wednesday today,  and being convinced that you can find T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” poem online (like…here), I thought I’d post something not so easily found.

Below are some excerpts–or shall I say, 70% of the text– from the English Dominican’s “A Sermon for Ash Wednesday” published in his God Still Matters (London: Continuum, 2005) 223-225. The wit, style, and insight are typical McCabe.

Herbert McCabe (1926-2001)

“I think we are all accustomed to the teaching that the Catholic Church is not meant to be a community of great saints, a collection of the righteous and holy as distinct from the sinners. We know it is also meant for sinners, for people who haven’t yet made it to great sanctity and maybe don’t show much sign of doing so.

Today I would like to put in a word for the doctrine that the Church is also not meant to be a community just of great sinners either; it is for mediocre sinners as well. I think we should realize that mediocre sinners have a definite intelligible place in the Church, and if we don’t grasp this we shall never really take seriously the penitential season of Lent that we are just starting

The trouble I see is that we tend to use such inflated language about sin that we simply can’t take it seriously. It becomes unreal; it doesn’t say anything clear and concrete to the mediocre sinner.

Let us be clear, of course, that people who are really welcome to the Catholic Church are the murderers, rapists, torturers sadistic child molesters and even those who evict old people from their homes. It is for loving, welcoming, and forgiving such people that the Church exists. But I would guess that many of you, perhaps even a majority of you, do not come into any of these categories. A lot of you are mediocre sinners, and the season and liturgy of Lent, the season of penance, ought to say something directly to you.”


“Like all very wise men, Cardinal Newman said a number of foolish things in his time, and I think the most foolish of them was his remark that it would be better to see the whole universe consumed in flames than to commit one venial sin. We all know that cannot be true; we can’t say it seriously, and the result is that we can’t take venial sin seriously at all. Now I think we should see it for what it is in its own right, not just as a poor relation of mortal sin.

When I was a child we used to play cards for peculiar little white things called cowrie shells the way grown-ups played poker for money….Now to call venial sins ‘sins’ is a little like calling those cowrie shells money…Venial sins are not very small mortal sins, they are not sins at all in that sense; but they are structurally similar.”


“Now there is all the difference in the world between being lazy or a nuisance to your comrades and betraying the whole project; that is the difference between venial and moral sin. As St. Thomas says: one is about how you do the job; the other is about not doing it at all, but something else. The job, of course, is loving God.

There is a lovely passage, one of my favourites, in which St. Thomas also says that your love for God can never gradually cool, or be chipped away slowly or diminished. It can only be totally lost be mortal sin; venial sin is not a matter of cooling and loving God less. So what’s wrong with it then? It is a matter of loving the things in this world too much, perhaps dangerously too much, and failing to express your love of God and growing.

Venial sins all carry an ecclesial health warning: sinning can seriously damage your health (your spiritual health).”


“Forgivness is what matters most of all; to be forgiven, to be contrite for mortal sin is the most tremendous thing that could happen to you in your life. So of course it is very easy. You do not have to work at being forgiven; you only have to accept it, to believe in the forgiveness of God in Christ, in his eternal unconditional love for you.

But sin, any sin, even venial sin, has given you a kind of addiction to lesser things, the things of this world. So besides being forgiven we need to break out of this addiction. For the only way to God is in Christ, and Christ’s way to God was through crucifixion and death to the resurrection. There is no other way. The only way to God is through death. Christ did not die for us instead of us. He died to make it possible for us to die and rise again in him. And this is hard.

We have to go through the crucifixion, too…We have to go through the painful process of curing the addiction, kicking the habit, ‘drying out’ or ‘cold turkey’, or whatever.

And this is what Lent is for. It reminds us that we come through death to life, through denial of self to our true selves, and it helps us to start the process–so that we may be ready for the final Easter when we rise in glory and freedom to live for eternity in the love of God.”

A Blessed Ash Wednesday to you from the Louvain Newman Society.