In my dissolute youth, Holy Week was a time of particularly acute conviction. Now, it has become a time of joy. But thinking back to those misspent teen years, I’m reminded of the conversion story of Charles Simeon, the 19th-century fellow of Cambridge (King’s College) and rector of Holy Trinity Church. Simeon was also young, just 21, and his conversion came during a similarly acute Holy-Week season of conviction, triggered by a summons to his first communion service at Cambridge. I tell the story in my Patron Saints for Postmoderns:
Satan Was as Fit as I
As for Simeon himself, nothing in his upbringing had instilled any real
faith in him by that tender age of twenty-one. Nonetheless, when he
received the official summons to his first communion service on a cold
winter day, three days after arriving at Cambridge, he entered “a state
of spiritual panic.” Looking within himself, he concluded that “Satan
himself was as fit to attend [the sacrament] as I.” He bought a stern
book titled The Whole Duty of Man, because it was the only religious
book he had heard of, and under its prescriptions he proceeded to
read, fast and pray himself into physical illness. For all that effort, he
still went to his first communion unrelieved from his acute sense of
unworthiness and fear.
Nor did his struggle end there, for he knew he must receive the sacrament
again on Easter Sunday. The first book having failed him, he
bought a second that specifically addressed preparation for communion.
But this one, too, required more of him than he could bear. So he
went to a third book, a small volume by Bishop Thomas Wilson (1663–
1755) titled, A Short and Plain Instruction for the Better Understanding
of the Lord’s Supper. As he read Bishop Wilson, he continued to review
his former sins and weep over them, not only repenting but also making
restitution where possible, even in some cases that required great self-denial.
Though this process did not yet set him free spiritually, he never
regretted it, saying in his Memoirs that “it has been a comfort to me
even to this very hour, inasmuch as it gives me reason to hope that my
repentance was genuine.”
At the time, however, the three further months of self-examination
and study leading up to the Easter season again brought him no relief.
Then, during Holy Week itself, he found in Wilson a passage “to this
effect—‘That the Jews knew what they did, when they transferred
their sin to the head of their offering.’” Immediately the thought
flashed into his mind “What, may I transfer all my guilt to another?
Has God provided an Offering for me, that I may lay my sins on His
head?” Exhilarated, Simeon decided that he would not bear his sins
“on my own soul one moment longer.” He sought to lay them instead
on the head of Jesus.
At first he felt no change, but on the Wednesday of Holy Week he
“began to have a hope of mercy.” The hope strengthened on Thursday,
and again on Friday, and even more on Saturday, until “on the Sunday
morning, Easter-day, April 4, I awoke early with those words upon my
heart and lips, ‘Jesus Christ is risen today! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!’” Said
Simeon later, “From that hour peace flowed in rich abundance into my
soul; and at the Lord’s Table in our Chapel I had the sweetest access to
God through my blessed Saviour.”
Soon the young man was holding prayer meetings in his rooms and
writing passionate evangelistic letters to his brothers and father (rebuffed
at first). Returning home after for the long summer vacation, he
instituted family prayers for the servants, and was delighted when his
eldest brother, Richard, joined in.
Powerful and spiritually nourishing stuff.