Last Things

Author: St. Louis de Montfort




I. Introduction. II. A Propaedeutic: 1. An object lesson; 2. The sermons: a. Hell, b. Judgment, c. Death, d. Purgatory, e. Heaven; 3. Missions and retreats; 4. Preparation for death. III. Rhetorical Aspects of the Discourse on the Last Things. IV. Ethical Dimension. V. Theocentric and Christological Dimension. VI. Conclusion.

I. Introduction

When we consider the role of the Last Things in Montfort spirituality, we travel down abandoned and unused paths. Hell, purgatory, and the Last Judgment have been de-consecrated by modernity; they no longer evoke fear. Indeed, they evoke laughter in some people. A typical expression is: "Hell has become something akin to those stories about ‘evil wolves’ that parents tell to their children to make them wise, until the children become adults and realize that they were merely stories." Fear of hell bolsters authority. Others are shocked by such fear. They cannot accept the image of a vengeful God, an all-powerful God delivering vast numbers of the damned into eternal punishment (cf. LS I, 24-27, 93; II, 259). Even paradise is no longer "an attraction" (cf. LS II, 121). Once an object of desire, paradise has been perverted to the point of becoming the solution, in the next world, of the problems that we do not wish to solve here below. There is no longer any desire for that paradise after death1 promised by those who, with outrageous injustice, build an earthly paradise for themselves.2

The image of a terrible God and a criminal humanity has given way to that of the merciful God Who cannot damn, and an innocent humanity that cannot be condemned. This radical reversal leads the practicing Catholic believer of our day to express a belief that in Montfort’s day was associated with libertines: "The Blessed God, he says, is so good, that when I die I will be pardoned" (H 29:78 and H 23:29; cf. H 106:22-25; H 150:16, 17; FC 10). This certainly represents a change in outlook!

The world has changed, and what was fact for a few has become the opinion of the majority: "Without fear of hell or judgment / Nor of God, the devil, or vengeance, / The accursed sin fearlessly / Laughing with insolence; . . . They say their spirit is too strong / To groan and shed tears / To fear hell or death . . . / Though the souls of the good tremble at such thoughts" (H 29:77-79; cf. H 29:27).

The Last Things lead us down unaccustomed paths because they lead us to examine some little-read texts of Saint Louis Marie de Montfort: LS and his hymns. In his hymns, Montfort gives us a definition of the Last Things in verse: "OF THE FOUR LAST THINGS, DEATH, AND JUDGMENT: "Experience teaches me that I will die, / That hour draws near, / But when? I do not know. / The soul is freed from the body and is presented to God, / And receives His decree: / To be punished forever / Or to receive a great reward. "OF PARADISE: Holy Paradise / is a place of delights, / that God, full of justice, / bestows on all His friends. / He invites all those to enter / Who died full of grace. / Forever they will live there, / They will praise God, and see Him / Face to face. "OF HELL: Hell is rigorous and absolute / A place of torment / Where the unhappy sinner / Is punished for his malice. / It receives those who died / Without penitence. / Forever will they live there, / Burning and suffering, / Bereft of all hope" (H 109:18-20).

In the pages of his hymns and sermons, comes alive Montfort the preacher, whose missions were seen and heard by thousands of people. It is a very different Saint Louis Marie from the "confidential Montfort" of SM.


1. An object lesson

Blain reminds us that Montfort was chosen by Father de la Barmondière to watch over the dead in the parish of Saint-Sulpice so that he could use the salary he received to pay for his room and board at the seminary.3 This vigil was not simply an additional opportunity for the young Grignion to practice mortification;4 it was also a true "object lesson." "It must not be forgotten that the saintly young man, who was so often the companion and guardian of the dead, did not neglect to look at them and to note how the vanity of the world and its pleasures appeared on their faces. He learned of the heavenly wisdom that scorns all that is crumbling and perishable and recoils in horror from the body, which rots and decays. He uncovered the faces of the dead, seeing their ugliness and appalling deformities, and contemplated the deceptive and fleeting charms of youth and beauty and the incredible folly of those who allow themselves to be seduced by them. Two of these corpses in particular . . . spoke to his heart and taught him a great lesson in the decay of mortal things."5 In these lines we see the "classical" themes of contemptuous mundi, of scorn for the world and its attendant vanities, scorn for the temporary things with which men surround themselves. These "corpses" present a spectacle that seems to come directly from the danses macabres, wherein Death mows down the Prince, the Abbot "of the first rank," the beautiful ladies of the court, etc. Death inverts those deceptive values of the world: "This beauty, which was idolized only a short time before, undergoes a horrible change and emits the foul stench of decay. . . . Montfort was forcibly struck by something else at such moments: he saw how the corpses of those who, only a few days before, had been worshipped were now mostly abandoned; often only a valet would remain in the house, while the rest of its inhabitants fled as from the plague."6 This almost academic method of describing death foreshadows his preaching on the Last Things. The rich material is training for his parish mission.

This macabre scene collides with our sensibilities today, as it did with those of Charles Besnard, who, in his biography of Montfort, deleted from his description of this episode in Montfort’s life everything that he found to be in "bad taste." He describes Montfort’s vigil over the dead as an opportunity for methodical meditation on divine Judgment: "His spirit accompanied these souls to God’s tribunal. There he saw them alone and incoherent, deprived of the imposing costume that adorned them on earth and that brought them the respect and homage and even adoration of other creatures. He saw them judged by the Just Judge, and by attempting to put himself in their place, he was pierced with the same feelings that they felt at that terrible moment."7 Surely Montfort had no illusions about their prospects for eternal salvation; these souls had departed from bodies on which he could see "the horror of crime and the vanity of pleasures that were so clearly visible there."8

His vigils at the mortuary gave Father Montfort all the practical elements, all the examples he needed, to become a "good missionary." Those cadavers taught him, "at that moment, all that he would have to say, in his subsequent preaching, on the brevity of life and the vanity of mortal beauty."9 Perhaps he drew on this experience when he spoke to the rowdy children of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and to those seminarians who were curious and listened in. "He spoke to those young people of death, judgment, and hell in moving and yet steady tones, so that they could not help crying, and they returned home imbued with those great truths that he had preached to them. . . . Monsieur Grignion had a rare talent for touching hearts, and these were merely his first attempts, preludes to the apostolic grace that our young missionary would subsequently display with such brilliance and success in the provinces."10 His missionary efforts will be explored after examining LS, testimony to his final preparation for preaching and ministry.

2. The sermons

The second part of LS reverberates not so much with Father Montfort’s preaching, as with his work in preparation for the ministry of the Word. Indeed, "the majority of the works in this part seem to have originated at Saint-Sulpice: Montfort wrote them during his seminary days."11 Outlines or summaries of sermons, taken from the "good books" of the day, lectures at Saint-Sulpice, and collections of scriptural and patristic texts that were indispensable for argument, form the basis of this collection. The bilingual citations, in French and Latin, contribute even more to the disorder of the collection. But Montfort arranged this jumbled material into a beautiful thematic order; the sermons proceed alphabetically from "love of God" ("amour de Dieu") to "zeal." This long list obviously includes the subjects that made up his preaching on the Last Things: hell (155-172), judgment of the sinner (240-251), universal Judgment (240-251), and heaven (314-330); we can also add purgatory (443-452) and death (288-306). This is a fair number of pages, but far from the 450 pages that make up the collection. We must not hastily accept the view that Montfort’s preachings can be summarized by hell and divine anger. Let us look more closely at the contents of these "sermon ideas" that Montfort so loved to write, always remembering that they must be studied in the context of his personal works, like LEW and TD.

a. Hell.

Several of these sermons are introduced with a verse from Scripture. At the outset, Montfort attaches to hell the Scriptural seal of truth, that none dare doubt. Using an array of biblical references, he describes six subjects for meditation: 1) after death, the pains of hell that await the impious; 2) the "truth" of these pains; 3) the eternal fire of hell and other pains; 4) the just, rejoicing in the agonies of the damned; 5) the lamentations of the damned; 6) the great numbers of the damned. His patristic citations are "classical": he cites the testimony of St. Augustine and, especially, St. Gregory the Great. We may simply note the use of St. Gregory’s Book of Dialogues, an actual treatise on the Last Things, which had a strong and lasting influence in the Middle Ages.12 With Gregory, Montfort believed in the eternity of hellfire, a true corporeal fire, affecting the body and all the senses, but also affecting the spirit (LS 248). He also wrote that hell is at the center of the earth (LS 25), as if in a particular place; the symbol of the complete infernal confinement that encompasses the seven universal dimensions of humanity: within, above-below, before-behind, left-right.

More psychological is his description of the "worm of conscience" that gnaws away at the insides of the damned (cf. LS 258). The question of eternal damnation is more theological, because it involves the loss of God. This is a difficult question because we must first know what it means to possess God. All that we know is that the soul contains an infinite capacity, which can only be filled by God. To be deprived of God is extreme and unimaginable sadness. The intensity of eternal damnation is proportional to the intimate relationship of the soul with God (LS 392). For those who still doubt these "great truths," Montfort writes that "we must burn Holy Scripture and treat all of the Fathers as impostors, if the existence of hell is not an undeniable truth of faith, and we do not need the experience of our senses to believe a truth of faith" (LS 252). We must acknowledge that today we are shocked at the expression that the saints in heaven "rejoice over the agonies of the damned," even if this only means to express the loving justice of God. A justice which cannot force His creatures. The image of a vengeful and angry God does not truly convert anyone (Montfort notes this, as will be seen below); it only increases the ranks of those who could not believe in such a God.

b. Judgment.

On this subject, too, several points begin with a verse from Scripture. While the citations from the Fathers of the Church are less numerous here than on the subject of hell, citations from Sacred Scripture are included under twenty-one titles (LS 408). The well-nigh scrupulously recorded minutiae of Montfort’s cataloging brings to mind the exhaustive research into sins and their classification. "Examination of thoughts, words, actions, and of the most hidden sins" (LS 390). "Our Lord will examine 1: concealed sins; 2: unrecognized sins" (LS 401). God will carry out a rigorous examination; "God will be terrible in His search for every sin. . . . God will perform a dissection" (LS 409). And forgotten sins? God will not forget them. We can sense here the full weight of culpability and fear that has crushed so many souls. One aspect of patristic and biblical argumentation depends on "stories," exempla; they describe events in the lives of others that serve as an example and a lesson to us.13 From the standpoint of "feelings," these stories establish the fear and shame of humanity: shame when sins will be revealed (LS 409) and fear of judgment, of the "vindictive justice" of God (LS 403). This fear is justified, because God is presented as a just judge whose "decree is irreversible" and to whom there is no appeal. "Because God knows all (the omniscience of God with respect to sin), and because God is all-powerful and never acts out of passion, the soul will honor the justice of God even from hell, in spite of itself, because it neglected to honor His mercy with love here below" (LS 392; cf. LS I, 26, 27). From the theological standpoint, we should note that divine justice and mercy, which since St. Anselm have uneasily coexisted, are here made separate: "Mercy reigns during our time on earth, but justice reigns on the day of judgment" (LS 418; cf. FC 22, 56; LS 284). This opposition between the justice and mercy of God brings us to a theological impasse, a blind alley down which Montfort was certainly not the first to travel. The division of divine attributes into "pure justice" and "pure mercy" has given deep existential torture to generations of Christian consciences. Montfort felt that his presentation of a God-Judge, watching out for the least sin and wreaking divine vengeance, would shake the spirit of his listeners and lead them to conversion (cf. H 8:18, 37; H 24:25-28; H 28:3). Today, we prefer to speak of the mercy of a God Who gives refuge to sinners. Father de Montfort believed in this as well. He wrote: "We can see God as a powerful sanctuary / where a sinner will be safe from danger / or as a just judge / who is ready to judge us" (H 24:18).

c. Death.

Through death, we can judge life (H 120:19). Thus there are two deaths, that of the just person and that of the sinner. These two ways of dying are opposed to each other, just as the "predestinate" and the "reprobate" are opposed to each other (cf. TD 200). The just die a happy death, with sweet repose in the peace provided by a "good conscience" because, through God’s mercy, this conscience is full of love and trust (LS 466, 471, 472, 477). The Blessed Virgin herself assists as the "Throne of Wisdom" in the death of the just (LS 477 and TD 33; cf. H 81:7 and SR 58), but the death of the sinner is horrible and unhappy. It is a death full of anguish and terror: terror, because "all of our stories contain apparitions of demons at the moment of death and the agony of men, and of the saints and guardian angels abandoning the sinner" (LS 468, 469; cf. H 120:15); anguish, because at that moment sinners see all of their sins (LS 465; H 120:3, 12, 16) and their future in Hell (LS 469). God abandons sinners to despair. The time for conversion is past, because they mocked him by living "as though they had nothing to do with God" (LS 470; H 120:6, 7; LEW 72). If sometimes sinners seem to die a tranquil death, as if they were not about to be damned, it is only because God is mocking them in turn (LS 470).

d. Purgatory.

Montfort does not give citations either from Scripture or from the Fathers for purgatory. Instead, he invokes a "scriptural proof" from 2 Macc 12:38-45 and also cites several councils (LS 727, 738). But he is quite reserved about the nature of Purgatory: "It is impossible to describe the extent of the agony that is suffered by the souls in purgatory" (LS 730). He defines purgatory by showing how it is different from heaven and hell: "Heaven is a place of love without unhappiness; hell is a place of unhappiness without love; purgatory is a place of love and unhappiness" (LS 730). It is where sins that have not yet been "satisfied" are expiated (LS 729; FC 23; LS 356) and where the soul is purified so that it may be brought before the "unsullied beauty and sovereign holiness" of God (LS 728; H 127:20). The saints themselves are not immune from purgatory; they, too, commit "peccadilloes" (LS 729). No one can remain indifferent to the suffering of the souls in purgatory; thus, we must comfort them. The "prayers for the dead" summarize Montfort’s preaching on purgatory. Prayers, alms, fasting, the Sacrifice of the Mass (LS 735; LS I, 17), etc., all help to ease the suffering of souls in purgatory (cf. H 29:81; H 119; H 127; H 139:65; MR 397, 424; Grandet, 319), and this is an unending concern (cf. SM 30, 31; TD 171, 172). We should remember that one of the reasons Montfort was dismissed from Father Leuduger’s missionary team was his desire to "say Masses" for the souls in Purgatory.14

e. Heaven.

Montfort wrote that the agonies of hell can only be understood in proportion to our knowledge of the joys of paradise, and his sermon notes on paradise; far from answering our questions, only restate them more insistently. In effect, he makes us acknowledge the weakness of our expressions and our temerity in attempting to speak of the joy of the saints. "If the apostle, Saint Paul, were to have seen these secrets, he would not have been able nor dared to speak of them" (LS 504)—an even greater reason for us to remain temperate. Only the exclamation "O!" is appropriate for referring to eternal Beatitude; it reflects both our summons and our amazement: "O mankind, said Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, you are vast, because you can only be filled with God" (LS 505). The question of paradise, which cannot be enclosed in a response, remains open. Into this opening there is a passageway: the desire that causes the heart to dilate when it perceives the dimensions of God. "Here below the hearts of humanity are so small, but later they will contain God, and they will be swallowed up in God" (LS 509). The vocabulary of desire is endlessly present in Montfort’s sermon notes: ravishing and infinite beauty, ever greater joys and pleasures, delights, feasts, enjoyments. All awaken in us a dizzying desire for God (cf. H 116; H 117). Here we can trace the way of contemplation. Prayer, the sign of a mystical life, is an anticipation of heaven (LS 494). Intimate unity with God, the focus and the unique blessing of the soul, is the ultimate goal of the spiritual journey (LS 510, 513, 514, 177). This path of perpetual unity with God is marked by spiritual rapture (LS 505), the unique work of the Spirit. "The Holy Spirit acts on the blessed and produces in them a love that is in some way infinite. The saints are in a constant state of ecstasy. That is to say, they have transcended their earthly existence" (LS 511). The desire for heaven puts us in the illuminative way, "because Beatitude consists of the most noble operation of the soul, which is that of understanding, in the possession of an eternal blessing which is produced by knowledge alone" (LS 508). "Knowledge of God does not always bring about His love here below, but in the other life it brings His love always and necessarily" (LS 511).

In order to arrive at that knowledge of God Who is All Love, however, we must follow the "way of love: we must empty ourselves of all other love" (LS 512). We must take this purgative way because "it is folly to pretend to taste the joys of the world as well as those of heaven. We must drink from the chalice of Our Lord before we can drink from the flood of His delights" (LS 506). The way of glory passes through the Cross.

"Paradise" drawing us into the mystical life is the focal point of these sermons. Montfort offers some quite bold formulations to the attentive reader: "Each saint possesses God, as God possesses Himself"; "The same charity that enabled God to become man enables each of the blessed to become God" (LS 514); "There is nothing that the heart of humanity desires more than God; there is nothing that God desires more than the heart of humanity" (LS 511; cf. LEW 63, 64).15

2. Missions and retreats

These sermon notes become completely meaningful only when considered from the standpoint of their intended purpose: Montfort’s missionary activity.

They occupy a singular place. The Last Things come at the beginning; at the beginning was the end: such is the paradox that gives meaning to the parish mission. Indeed, when we consider the order of preaching for a Lenten mission, (LS 530-531 or GA, 567-568) or for a four-week mission or retreat (LS 771 or GA, 568-569), we see that the sermons on the Last Things link the first two weeks.16 We should note how they allude to the individual duty of each human being, and not to humanity as a whole. This is clear in the dissociation of the sermons on judgment; the personal judgment is treated as an integral part of the Last Things, whereas the universal Judgment is not discussed until the end of the mission or retreat. As a result, the Last Things are no longer grounded in eschatology. The preacher is attempting not so much to broaden the eschatological horizon of his listeners as to center their attention on the conscience. Thus, the notes speak of the personal examination or the examination of sins, which are closely related to personal judgment. The salvation of the soul is at stake.

Saving souls is the missionary’s obsession (cf. H 21; H 22; H 91). In this he continues the mission of Christ (cf. LS 778; LEW 130; LS I, 90; II, 784). Otherwise, souls will be lost and fall into hell. They are damned because they live in sin, often without knowing it. Thus they must be told about it; they must be led down the path of salvation. The purpose of the Last Things is to dwell on this mysterious and sensitive point, which is decisive for repentance. In missionary work, repentance, confession, and the Last Things are mutually dependent. The Last Things are part of any path toward conversion. Here, the sermons are accompanied by the singing of hymns. This was a critical element of missionary practice, as we see in this preface to a book of mission hymns used by Montfort’s successors: "The singing of hymns in missions is a very useful and simple method for teaching the true principles of religion, preparing hearts to receive the truths that the preacher lays before them from the pulpit, and leading them to feelings of true repentance; because anyone who wishes to observe this practice will see how the sinner progresses, by degrees, from the first moment that grace touches his heart, to that sure state of perfection. The preacher will begin by leading the sinner to a horror of sin in order to lead the sinner away from sin and induce him to make a retreat of several days during the mission, so as to meditate at length on the inconstancy and vanity of human things and on the thought of death, the fear of judgment, and the torments of fear, so that he may be raised up with the hope of happiness in heaven."17 This itinerary of conversion reveals the true meaning of the Last Things. This method guides us along a coherent path. The hymns from such handbooks are grouped according to this itinerary, and the titles and subtitles clearly mark this path of conversion. "For opening the Mission. The mission is begun . . . The Lord Who calls you desires your conversion. Look for grace. This is the hour when you must change . . . Change your life. All sinners are invited to repentance. Come to confession. Horror of mortal sin. . . Dialogue between God and the converted sinner. Come back sinner, your God is calling you . . . God’s loving search for sinners. God solicits the conversion of the sinner. The sinner is filled with fright but also trust, on seeing Jesus Christ on the Cross. Contrition. His sins make him greatly unhappy, and he weeps bitterly. Our Lord reveals the joy of heaven to the sinner who converts. He enters into retreat to detach himself ever more from the world and to think seriously on his Last Things. He meditates on the insubstantiality of things here below. He becomes disgusted with the world, the deceptive world. He meditates on the Last Things, the necessity of salvation. Death in general; the death of the sinner; the death of the just. He descends in spirit to the abyss of hell to interrogate the damned, to discover the cause, severity, and duration of their torments. He is sensitive to the cries of the souls in purgatory. He prays for them. He is present in spirit in heaven, to contemplate the beauty of God, by which the saints are made happy. Paradise. He interrogates the saints, to ask them about the joy they feel in this fortunate place. Enchanted with the pleasures of heaven, he longs for nothing else. Life itself becomes tiresome to him; he wishes to be reunited with his God. On his retreat, he renews the vows of his Baptism. It is time to undertake the covenant. He congratulates himself on his happiness" (from Hymns, unpublished manuscript).

If we associate the Last Things only with the flames of hell, with "hyperbolas, exaggerations that frighten the world" (LS 773; cf. LS 199, 564, 565), we condemn ourselves to never understanding them. Certainly the preacher elicits a psychological shock from his audience, but the outcome he desires most of all is spiritual: conversion. The title given to the first part of the hymns is explicit: "Hymns on the motives that are most likely to affect the sinner who is thinking seriously of conversion during the Holy Mission." In spirituality, the Last Things mark the usual path of the "beginners."

4. Preparation for death

On April 27, 1716, sensing that his end was near, Father Montfort dictated his testament to Father Mulot. It was written on one of the pages of a small booklet that was distributed at the conclusion of the missions, Dispositions for a Happy Death.18 Retreat for Preparing Oneself for Death, The Art of a Happy Life and a Happy Death, Spiritual Testaments, Preparation for Death, etc.: such books were widely read during that time. Using these books, preachers and spiritual directors attempted to spread an asceticism, taken from the monastic orders, that would make life a practice for death because "the art of dying happily is the most important and the most difficult of all the arts. That is why death serves as their [wise men’s] everlasting apprenticeship during their lives and their unique and eloquent teacher" (LS III,67).19

Father de Montfort devoted his "follow-up missions" to this particular task. Father Besnard writes as follows: "We have seen how it was his custom, after performing a mission in a particular place, to return there a short time later to ensure that his mission continued to bear fruit, and to perpetuate this outcome by means of a retreat. All the exercises on this retreat involved preparation for death. There was a series of meditations, wherein he developed, over several days and in great detail, everything that could be said on this interesting subject. Such a task must have required his complete absorption in the subject. He had seen death very near to hand, and one could say that he had only escaped it so that he could teach others to avoid being surprised by it. Therefore this retreat proved to be an excellent lesson for learning how to do something that is only done once; if one does not understand death, one loses eternal salvation."20

As the portal to the Last Things, preparation for death has two functions: it prevents us from committing sin, and it converts us and leads us to a life of repentance (cf. the notes of Father Vatel in LS III, 68). Preparing for a happy death means, above all, beginning to live a happy life (LS III, 86). Death embraces all of life and gives it true meaning. It is the mirror of life. It uncovers falsehood and reveals truth (LS III, 66). By placing this exercise at the conclusion of his mission, Father Montfort directs the renewed life of the convert toward obedience to its end. Death, always present, at once gives eternity to life, not by our escaping to the hereafter, but by revealing to us that only the present time is in our hands (cf. LS III, 804).


The Last Things served the purpose of conversion. But how did they achieve this effect? Father Besnard, an experienced missionary, gives us some details on the "techniques" used by Montfort to "touch" hearts, to enlighten and instruct spirits. For example, during the retreat for preparation for death, he writes, Montfort "gave an emotional portrayal of the last act and denouement of life, wherein one could see the Christian seized by the fear of death, assailed by all the powers of hell, tormented by the remorse of his conscience, but given aid by the Church, assisted by the ministry of Jesus Christ, and no longer anticipating the irrevocable decree that would grant eternal recompense or punishment. This portrayal was lively and animated, as if the scene were a painting or a spectacle, and at its conclusion everyone was left with a resolution to live better so that they might die happily."21 Father Montfort became a master at the art of mounting these "religious entertainments"22 and at finding "pious tricks" that would lead to conversion. Canon Blain relates a significant story: "Young beggars, mendicants, the homeless—all played a distinctive part in his missionary exercises and his charity. He assembled them apart from the rest, catechized them, instructed them, and exhorted them in a way that was appropriate to their age and to their idle, errant, and vagabond lives. His ingenious zeal was constantly finding pious works for them and showing them the danger of their condition and the sins to which it exposed them, filling them with horror and preparing them for a true confession. To succeed in this, this old Capuchin told me, he set himself down in the middle of these poor young vagabonds and beggars, like a father among his children, and spoke to them with goodness and tenderness; and after catechizing them, he so identified with them that he could lead them to his objective, which was to relieve them of all embarrassment and confess their sins to him. With this in mind, he spoke of theft, leaving out nothing that might fill them with horror. When he sensed that they were moved, he urged them not to blush at their recognition of their own guilt: ‘You have nothing to fear, my children, by admitting these thefts; and as evidence of repentance, raise your hand, all those whose conscience reproaches them with these thefts.’ When the young criminals raised their hands, he led them, along with the rest of the group, outside the church, where he set fire to a bale of straw before their eyes, and, in the presence of those who were assembled there, he demanded to know the punishment that had been prepared for thieves. The fire of Hell, someone answered. Here is a small example of it, he then said forcefully; and continuing his discourse on the eternal torments that thieves suffer, he attempted to instill in them a great horror of theft and, at the same time, to oblige them to admit, in secret before a confessor and in all their simplicity, the errors by which they had publicly become known as criminals."23 This is an excellent example of how the "rhetoric" prompted by the Last Things was merely a means to an end, which was confession and conversion.

Hymn 127, "The abandoned soul delivered from purgatory by the prayers of children and the poor," gives us additional insight into these "plays." It is not simply a hymn but a "dialogue in hymn form" (cf. H 118; H 120; H 152), a true piece of theater: with twenty actors, a chorus, and a stage setting. Its subject is the agony and the duration of purgatory. Such atheme could be better illuminated by a theatrical work; even if the intelligentia find fault with his methods here, the end justified the means.24 Agony and purgatory are acted out, with the future at stake. Agony involves the subject of death, whereas purgatory addresses hell and heaven. Montfort understood quite well that these latter two could not be included as part of the play. But they could, if necessary, be "described or depicted." These pious stage productions that Montfort directed were dramas. Only "the drama can lay bare those things that the plastic arts [or sermons] cannot reveal: What will the Judgment be like, or the prayers of intercession? What will Mary obtain for me, with Jesus at her side? How deep are the mysteries of the "communion of saints?" A dramatic presentation of those subjects, said by some to be too much, may in fact be not enough. In any case, it speaks to us with a power that is decisive for eternity."25 When using such entertainment to describe the Last Things, Montfort emphasized their dramatic aspects, because he wished to evoke pathos. He hopes his audience will see and understand. But this scene was neither illustration nor recreation; He is not attempting to "amuse" his audience but to involve them in the action that is taking place. As they watch the participants portray the anguish of agony and the torments of purgatory, the spectators at Montfort’s missions can only say to themselves, "It is true, I was a part of it." What seemed remote to them all at once becomes quite close at hand: "That man in agony, that is me," "That soul in Purgatory, could that be my father?" Moreover, they will say to themselves, "They are acting this out for my sake," "These missionaries are doing this for me." Caught in this theatrical rhetoric, they take part in the dialogue that is happening on stage; they become by taking turns the "response" in Hymn 118, the dying man in Hymn 120, etc. The drama in dialogue urges them on to identification. The spectators see it all happen before their eyes. This exteriorization gives them the necessary perspective, and enables them to become conscious of their fears and desires. Those who see Montfort’s religious plays become actors in their own lives. These "pious productions," the itinerary of conversion described in the hymns and sermons, are narratives. If the events in these narratives were merely recounted, they would obscure the very paths they were meant to illuminate. In fact, the action, the activity on the stage, is produced by describing those very events, and the listeners and the spectators are made a part of the narrative. We should not be surprised at the tears that flowed freely at Father Montfort’s missions.26 He was aware of the force contained in "the orderly procession" of the "great truths of religion." He knew that those who meditated on those truths deeply and attentively could not remain indifferent to them.27 The preaching of the Last Things succeeded insofar as men and women became conscious that its subject has their own duty. Montfort enabled them to become part of a "narrative theology." The narrative succeeds where concepts and beautiful words fail.

Another rhetorical element that Montfort used in his discourse on the Last Things was interrogation, the doubt that results from a question the answer to which is uncertain. "It could happen that you will not" be saved, he wrote to his mother (L 20; cf. H 14:39). The uncertainty of salvation: that is the question that haunts the Last Things (LS 178, 236-247, 355). This fundamental interrogation leads us to the question of "why" there is damnation. This is the only question to which we can respond (H 118) as if hell were the sole sure outcome. But the discourse on the Last Things is made possible by this affirmation: "Hell is the only place we belong" (cf. FC 21, 48, 58; TD 79; H 8:2, 16, 19-20; H 13:17; H 14:29; H 20:58; H 46:14; H 67:9-11; H 68:10-18; H 71:9; H 73:1; H 109:17; H 140:8). Divine justice condemns humanity to perdition. Ever since the Fall, men and women are lost or they lose themselves (H 1:27; H 2:30; H 14:29, 34; H 29:33; H 31:1; H 98:7; H 140:1; H 153:11; H 23:3). "We become weak and fall to the depths by our own impotence. We fall into temptation, we fall into crime and then into damnation, and from one abyss to the next" (H 15:9; cf. H 24:8; H 26:16). The metaphor of the Fall that Montfort uses so often, with the verbs "to fall" (H 7:19; H 13:17, 76; H 15:41; H 42:8; H 114:4; H 139:57; H 148:17; cf. H 29:68) and "to plunge" (H 15:41, 42; H 28:26; H 31; H 29:62; H 36:85; H 100:4; H 142:15; cf. H 13:32; H 15:22, 28, 41, 42; H 16:9; H 20:25; H 29:46; H 30:15; etc.), emphasize the "naturalness" and ineluctability of this law of perdition—unless divine mercy intervenes (H 8:39; H 27:14, 15). We do not merit entrance to paradise. It is freely bestowed on us by mercy. We can only desire paradise (H 116; H 117). "Seeing his place in hell" can awaken the sinner from his slumber and set him on the road of conversion (cf. H 139:35). Repentance alone, sings Montfort, is the plank that can save sinners from their unmistakable loss of themselves (H 13:3).

Confronted with the uncertainty of their salvation and with the unforeseen moment of death that will decide their fate for eternity, human beings can act before the end arrives. Today wrestles with eternity. Death puts an end to this irretrievable time (H 114:7-9; H 139:15; cf. H 13:27; H 30:9). Tomorrow it will be too late (H 34:26, 32; H 36:64; LEW 72). Thus we must be converted "without delay" (H 13:24, 25) and catch death unawares, to fix the meaning of our entire lives. The Last Things underscore the urgency of conversion. For the everlasting question of our eternal duty as men and women, the Last Things do not simply inform and alert us about what lies ahead; rather, they reveal to us the true situation in which we find ourselves today. They are our ultimate summons to make a decision. The Last Things are brought before our eyes so that we do not postpone the moment of our conversion (H 13:6, 19; LS 169, 675-677, 696-698, 787). The mission is the privileged moment when we anticipate the Last Things. It is the place of judgment, where we are given the choice of justice or mercy. We must seize the grace that is available to us at that moment. God gives humanity a choice: to convert, or perish (cf. H 105; H 115; H 163). The pastoral treatment of the Last Things is completely directed toward closing the door to hell and opening the door to the confessional.

The rhetoric on the Last Things attempts to strike a perilous balance between justice and mercy, between fear and love. While Montfort, the popular parish missionary, frightened his audiences with his sermons on hell, he knew that the fear of punishment must not have the last word. In a long hymn on repentance, he sang: "When repentance is produced / By the love of God alone, / Not by fear of punishment, / It has true merit" (H 13:62). "Fear leads to conversion, but love leads to a true conversion of the heart" (LS II, 46; cf. LS II, 41). "Those who do not act out of love are not truly converted, because the heart has not changed" (LS II, 54, 55). For his part, Father Besnard makes the following comment, effective testimony to this double rhetoric: "While he spoke of God’s justice in the way that was best suited to inspire fear, he did not forget to instill a sense of the infinite range of God’s mercy, with the most moving words possible. After frightening the sinner, Montfort knew how to console him at the tribunal of reconciliation."28 Missionaries had to be "lions in the pulpit and doves in the confessional."


Any theology on the Last Things must start with God: His justice and His mercy. The issue for humanity becomes apparent by implication: grace and freedom. These two pairs have a logical connection. Justice can only be performed on subjects that are free and responsible for their acts. Mercy is seen by men and women as grace, gift, and pardon.

The moral law that is imposed on man places him under judgment. The man under judgment must choose. This choice, given to him by his freedom, is called decision. The Last Things teach us that human activity, the fruit of this choice and this decision, has an irreversible element: it has eternal value, such that we could no longer act as if it did not.29 Man’s free will, as a fundamental choice, has in fact something "supratemporal" about it; it is an "unlimited responsibility." Eternity guarantees morality and protects it from absurdity. The "freedom of man who is eternal" (LS II, 261) establishes him face to face with eternal God.

A human act, inscribed in time, is indelible for all eternity (cf. LS 260, 261). Through faith, the eternal is rooted in time, and the believer discovers the paradox of his faith: it is within time itself that we find the eternal. For this reason, Montfort posits a singular equation between time and eternity: whatever is finitely posed in time is transposed with infinite power into eternity. Thus, a "moment of vanity" corresponds to eternal unhappiness (cf. H 29:19, 41; LS 814, 816); "temporal pleasures" correspond to "eternal fires" (H 114:4). This arithmetic allows us to "change" the temporal into the eternal (H 17:24; cf. H 35:49). Thus we can "purchase heaven" through almsgiving and charity (cf. H 17:30, 32, 34, 38, 39; H 18:9-11) and through the Rosary (SR 54, 146), or "change eternal pain into temporal pain" through penance, (H 13:65; cf. FC 21-23, 39; H 11:25, 26; H 16:26; H 96:2; H 100:49; H 123:9; H 153:21) and vice versa (H 34,19; TD 189). This assumption of time into eternity paradoxically may bring with it an attitude of depreciation toward the temporal, because it is made up of all that is opposed to the eternal: the body and the soul, the corruptible and the immortal, the earth and the heavens, the creature and the Creator (H 29:72; cf. H 12:10; H 28:14, 30; H 29:25, 28, 74; H 33:27; H 46:33; H 103:25; H 142:9; H 143:11; H 156:8; H 162:14). Therefore, the Last Things invite Christians to hold this deceptive world in contempt (cf. H 29ff.; H 106; H 107; H 108:9; H 114:5; H 142; LS 434-439, 454-458), to shun this world and look only upon heaven, their sole homeland (H 157:34).


Hymn 109 defines for us the four Last Things and then concludes with "OF OUR LAST END": "God did not give me life, / Just for the fun of it, / But in order to know Him, / To love and serve Him. / That is my sole task, the rest is a trifle. / If I serve God now, / I will enjoy Him completely / In eternal glory" (H 109:21; cf. H 26:11). Losing God and losing oneself in God (H 28:43; LS 514): that is the stake posed by the Last Things. God is our only end because He is our origin: "Your origin is to come from God, your end will be to return to God, your beatitude will be eternal enjoyment with God. With the first, you belong to God; with the second, you do all for God; with the third, God is everything to you" (LS 791). The Last Things tell us of our relationship with God, but they are infinitely surpassed by the cry of the soul that desires to reach God, its unique center (cf. LS 280), with vehement prayer: "O my God, my supreme good and my last end, . . . throughout time and eternity, . . . my God and my all! May I be entirely, completely yours, as you are entirely mine. . . . my blessedness, . . . , I long for you. . . . Until then, dear Lord, I will take no rest, I will languish out of love. My heart will beat continually within me, for you have made it for yourself, and it will never find rest until it finally rests in you" (HD 47-48). God is the center because He is the beginning and the end. Between the soul and God there is a "concentration," because "God is the center of my heart" and "our heart is the center of God" (LS II, 2, 3; cf. LS II, 14). He is the God of the heart (LS I,67).

"Strictly speaking, our paradise will be God Himself" (LS 515). The soul cries to Jesus, "Keep me in your heart, . . . / That he alone will be my paradise" (H 131:10). By imitating and following Christ, we reconcile time and eternity, just as the Last Things had separated them (cf. H 20:17-21).

The Christocentrism of the Christian life is the primary fundamental truth of devotion to the Virgin Mary: "Jesus, our Savior, true God and true man [Christological dimension] must be the ultimate end of all our other devotions. . . . He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end of everything. . . . If we live in Jesus and Jesus lives in us [another example of "concentration"], we need not fear damnation . . . nor devils in hell" (TD 61). This famous text of Montfort spirituality shows the extent to which Father de Montfort transcends his own discourse on the Last Things. The complex relationship that connects the beginning and the end gives structure to the Christology of TD. Such a Christology is not in the same conceptual category as the Last Things, and thus we are not restricted to the same categories of logic. When we contemplate Christ, our unique Redeemer and Savior, we are definitively beyond the realm of retributive justice.

LEW appears to beat a retreat from this soteriological standpoint. In effect, Montfort, like St. Anselm in his Cur Deus Homo? (Why a God Man?), makes the Incarnation dependent on the satisfaction exacted by divine justice after Adam’s sin. Adam is desperate because he cannot make amends for his outrage against God. The offense against God is infinite, because God is infinite (cf. LS 261, 391). Thus the penalty, proportionate to the offense, is infinite, and humanity, whose nature is finite, can never erase such penalty. Adam "saw heaven closed and no one to open it; he saw hell open and no one to close it" (LEW 40). He was damned forever; "such was the well-deserved sentence God in his justice pronounced against him" (LEW 39). Only a God made man can expiate mankind’s infinite sin, can "satisfy divine justice and appease God’s anger." The Word of God, identical to His mercy, thus debates the issue with divine justice. In order to rescue humanity, the Word will become incarnate. In this way the Incarnation, in this particular text, appears to be reduced to the sacrifice that the Son offers "to his Father to comply with his justice, to calm the divine anger, to rescue us from the slavery of the devil and from the flames of hell, and to merit for us eternal happiness" (LEW 45; cf. LEW 167). But we must note that Montfort is rather discreet on the subject of "satisfaction" and the "sacrifice offered to the Father."30 He was wise enough not to pursue the metaphor of "redemption" too closely (cf. H 109:3). He was equally sensitive to the drama inherent in "a kind of contest" between Eternal Wisdom, mercy, and God’s justice (LEW 41-46), serving as a prelude to the decree of the Incarnation.31 But he did not view this simply as a "tactic"; he was undoubtedly convinced of the truth of this debate.

It would be clearly erroneous to reduce the whole of LEW to these few paragraphs taken out of context. In the end, hell does not have the last word, because the first word was addressed to paradise. From the very beginning of its existence, humanity has been called to eternal beatitude. Created in the image and resemblance of God, "man was so godlike, so absorbed and rapt in God" (LEW 38). Sin disfigured the divine image, but Wisdom sowed in humanity the hope of restoration. Wisdom could not endure the folly of perdition for his "masterpiece" (LEW 35, 41). Wisdom gave to mankind the desire to "possess him," "on earth as well as in heaven" (LEW 2). He is its center (LEW 12), the paradise that man-kind searches for, and mankind is the paradise that Wisdom pursues in his "loving search."


It is clear that we can no longer parrot Father de Montfort’s sermons/ notes on the Last Things. Nor can we revive his methods. But while we cannot repeat his words, we can certainly reread them. We owe it to ourselves to be attentive and receptive to the truths that his words contain.

Our world conceals death from us in a myriad of ways. Today we face the temptation to deny our finitude. But death has never been so much before us. We have never been so conscious of our responsibilities with respect to death. We obscure and exclude the meaning and gravity of life. In this context, to think about death is to consider the seriousness of life, to uncover the illusions and idols of this deceptive world: money, beauty, power, etc.

Montfort believed that hell was quite full. Today, many theologians are more guarded. But we must not go so far as to empty hell of its "truth" as a genuine possibility. Every passage in the NT on hell has the same goal: "to lead men and women to conduct their lives face to face with the genuine possibility of eternal perdition and to understand Revelation as an extremely serious call."32 But this affirmation of the existence of hell must be accompanied by an invitation to conversion and a serious engagement with man’s freedom, which renders him responsible for his acts. Man’s greatness lies in his response to that freedom. More than simply information on the outcome of God’s judgment, the discourse on the Last Things is a precaution against any lackadaisical attitude in the face of our ultimate destiny. The Last Things are a "wake-up call." Montfort was not one of those preachers who filled hell with others while tending to exclude themselves. He, too, could have said, "Hell awaits me personally, not hypothetically, but with just cause."33 Confronted with this real possibility, Montfort describes two forms of despair: desperation and presumption (cf. H 7:28). Desperation is here the unwarranted anticipation of non-fulfillment; presumption is the unwarranted anticipation of fulfillment (cf. TD 97-98; LEW 217; LS II, 756). "Desperation is the descent into hell,"34 the knowledge in advance that in the end there will only be despair (cf. H 120). Against hell, Montfort preached hope in divine love (cf. H 7:32-41); it is the devil who creates despair (H 101:39, 44). Montfort, who knew how to be practical, proposes several means for ensuring salvation, such as the Rosary (cf. SR 4, 29, 39, 50, 79, 104, 115, 132), because the Virgin Mary is all-powerful over hell (cf. H 7:31; H 15:33; H 76:6, 10; H 79:2, 7; H 82:6; H 88:12, 13; H 89:10, 12; H 90:36; H 104:12; H 159:7; H 190:40; TD 97). Other means may also be suggested. But it must not be forgotten that for Montfort this devotion presupposes a division of humanity into the "predestinate" (those who respond to God’s call and therefore have heaven in the future, and the "reprobate" (those who refuse God’s call and have hell as their goal). Reprobation is not a vocation but a "mystery of iniquity," a possibility of radical denial of God; God’s subject who says "no" without looking back.35

In general, the language of the Last Things is impersonal, even though they affect us all personally. We speak of judgment, space, time, eternity, of what is felt. The theocentric dimension of Montfort’s thought leads us to a true question: "What is our relation to God?" There is an interpersonal element to the Last Things. Beyond hell and paradise lies our "contract of alliance with God." We do not have to choose between the agonies of hell and the joys of heaven. By proposing that we renew our baptismal vows, Montfort invites us to make a more absolute choice: to renounce "the devil, the world, sin and myself" and to give ourselves "entirely to Jesus through the hands of Mary, to carry my cross after him all the days of my life" (CG 3). Far beyond death, judgment, purgatory, hell, and heaven, there is God Alone, for "Our Lord is worth more than Paradise" (LS II, 329). "Yes, my dear love, I love you / not out of fear of punishment./ nor to gain recompense / but for yourself and yourself alone" (H 5:46).

O. Maire

Notes: (1) According to Jean Delumeau, La peur en occident, XIV-XVIII siècles (Fear in the West, 14th-18th Centuries), Fayard, Paris 1978, Montfort is among those who exhorted his listeners to suffer their fate on earth so as to win recompense in the hereafter. Delumeau, Le péché et la peur (Sin and Fear), Paris 1985, 9, cites Hymn 108:15 as an example. We must qualify Delumeau’s assertions when he writes that "the Church’s insistence on [the horror of sin] and on [the obsession with damnation] led it to an astonishing devaluation, at every level of society, of material life and daily cares; Grignion de Montfort, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, sang to the faithful this significant hymn: ‘Leave your wood for a while, carpenter, and ironsmith, take leave of your fire. Put away your work, laborer, and seek grace’" (H 163:7). This author has not truly understood St. Louis de Montfort nor the meaning and the stakes of a parish mission. (2) From the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, fear of hell and purgatory subsided; cf. J. Delumeau, Rassurer et protéger (Reassurance and protection), Paris 1989, 5. The great sermons on the eternal truths fell on deaf ears in France after the turning point of Vatican II. This may coincide with the cessation of traditional parish missions. (3) Blain, 22, 25-28; Besnard I, 31. (4) Ibid., 33. (5) Blain, 26. (6) Ibid., 27. (7) Besnard I, 33. (8) Blain, 27. (9) Ibid., 27. (10) Grandet, 15-16. (11) Introduction of Bishop Henri Frehen, SMM, III. (12) Cf. Adalbert de Vogué, SC 251, Paris 1978, 149-152; St. Gregory, Dialogues, vol. 4, SC 265, Paris 1980. (13) In LS 389, we find book 4, no. 40, 1 of the Dialogues of Pope Saint Gregory: "We must understand that, on occasion, souls that are still incarnate observe some part of the agonies of the hereafter. For some, it is for their edification; for others, for the edification of their listeners" (SC 265, p. 39). (14) Besnard I, 141-142. The care given to testaments is indicative of the "atmosphere of the time." Study of these testaments has enabled historians to "measure" the influence of the Last Things on the general population; cf. J. Delumeau, Rassurer et protéger, 520-521; N. Vovelle, Piété baroque et déchristianisation (Baroque Piety and Dechristianization), Plon, Paris 1973, 122-126, 318- 337, 429-435; P. Chaunu et al., Mourir à Paris (Dying in Paris), Fayard, Paris 1978, especially 409-417. Montfort alludes in LS 734 to those who do not respect the clauses in testaments referring to prayers and Masses for the repose of the souls of the testators. (15) The importance of distinguishing between the Incarnation and the divinization of man cannot be overemphasized. It does not require much detective work to discover the patristic basis for these pages as recopied by Montfort, beyond the mere citation of the Fathers. (16) In St. Francis de Sales’s Introduction to the Devout Life, the meditations on the Last Things are similarly placed; in Saint Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, the meditation on hell comes at the end of the work. The order is completely changed in LS II, 532-534. (17) Edited by J. Felix Faulcon at Poitiers, 1756, 9, and 1776, 1779, 8. (18) This booklet was reissued in 1927, complete with notes, "contemporary engravings," and Montfort’s W, by the publications office of the review Règne de Jésus par Marie (Reign of Jesus through Mary). (19) Cf. Gregory of Nazianzus, Letters, 31, 4 and 76, 1, and Discourses 27, 7; also Plato, Phédon, 80c. (20) Besnard, II, 6; LS III, 63-65, 66-86; cf. Besnard, Marie-Louise, 73-78. (21) Besnard II, 6-7. (22) Besnard I, 14, 85, 273. (23) Blain, 153-154. (24) Besnard II, 7; Blain, 153, 159. (25) Hans Urs von Balthasar, La Dramatique divine (The divine drama), Prolégomènes, Paris 1984, 1:94. (26) Besnard I, 115, 158, 219; II, 137. (27) Cf. Besnard I, 130. (28) Ibid., 35; cf. H 21:18 and H 22:17. On the failure of this rhetoric, see H 39:132. (29) Cf. Jacques Durandeaux, De l’éternité, Temps réfuté ou Temps aimé? (On eternity: Disproven or Beloved?), Desclée de Brouwer, Paris 1990. (30) By his sacrifice, Christ pacifies the anger of his Father; cf. H 128-134 and LS II, 327. (31) The little fable of the king, the queen, the peasant, and the apple (TD 147-150; SM 37), illustrating the mediating role played by Mary, our "advocate" (TD 83-85; SM 36), belongs to the same conceptual realm as the debate between Justice and divine Mercy. (32) J. Ratzinger, cited by H. Urs von Balthasar, L’enfer, une question (Hell: A Question), Paris 1988, 46; cf. CCC, 1033-1037. (33) Ibid., 37. (34) Isidore of Seville, cited by H. Urs von Balthasar, Espérer pour tous (Hope for All), Paris 1987, 21. (35) Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, Seabury Press, New York, 1978, 435-444.

Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St.
Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).

Provided courtesy of the Montfort Fathers © All Rights Reserved.

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