THE SINNER'S GUIDE
Venerable Louis of Granada
The First Motive which obliges us to practice Virtue and to serve God:
His Being in itself, and the excellence of His Perfections
Two things, Christian reader, particularly excite the will of man to good. A principle of justice is one, the other the profit we may derive therefrom. All wise men, therefore, agree that justice and profit are the two most powerful inducements to move our wills to any undertaking. Now, though men seek profit more frequently than justice, yet justice is in itself more powerful; for, as Aristotle teaches, no worldly advantage can equal the excellence of virtue, nor is any loss so great that a wise man should not suffer it rather than yield to vice. The design of this book being to win men to virtue, we shall begin by showing our obligation to practice virtue because of the duty we owe to God. God being essentially goodness and beauty, there is nothing more pleasing to Him than virtue, nothing He more earnestly requires. Let us first seriously consider upon what grounds God demands this tribute from us.
But as these are innumerable, we shall only treat of the six principal motives which claim for God all that man is or all that man can do. The first; the greatest, and the most inexplicable is the very essence of God, embracing His infinite majesty, goodness, mercy, justice, wisdom, omnipotence, excellence, beauty, fidelity, immutability, sweetness, truth, beatitude, and all the inexhaustible riches and perfections which are contained in the Divine Being.
All these are so great that if the whole world, according to St. Augustine, were full of books, if the sea were turned to ink, and every creature employed in writing, the books would be filled, the sea would be drained, and the writers would be exhausted before any one of His perfections could be adequately expressed. The same Doctor adds, "Were any man created with a heart as large and capacious as the hearts of all men together, and if he were enabled by an extraordinary light to apprehend one of the divine attributes, his joy and delight would be such that, unless supported by special assistance from God, he could not endure them.
This, then, is the first and chief reason which obliges us to love and serve God. It is a truth so universally acknowledged that even the Epicureans, who endeavored to destroy all philosophy by denying a Divine Providence and the immortality of the soul, nevertheless maintained religion, or the worship due to God.
One of these philosophers (Cicero, De Natura Deorum) proves the existence of God by strong and undeniable arguments. He proclaims the greatness and sovereignty of His admirable perfections, which oblige us to reverence and adore Him, and shows that for this reason alone, independently of any other title, God has a right to our love and service.
If we treat a king, even out of his own dominion, with respect and honor purely because of the dignity of his person, though we owe him nothing, with how much more justice should we render honor and service to this King and Lord, who, as St. John tells us, bears written "on his garment, and on his thigh: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS"! (Apoc. 19:16). This is He who hath "poised with three fingers the bulk of the earth." (Is. 40:12).
All beings are in His power; He disposes of them as He wills. It is He who propels the heavenly bodies, commands the winds, changes the seasons, guides the elements, distributes the waters, controls the stars, creates all things; it is He, in fine, who, as King and Lord of the universe, maintains and nourishes all creatures.
Nor is His kingdom acquired or inherited. By His very nature it is for Him an inherent right. Just as man is above, the ant, for example, so is the Divine. Substance in an eminent degree above all created things, and the whole universe is no more than one of these little insects compared to Him. If this truth were so manifest to the Epicureans, otherwise unworthy of the name of philosophers, how much clearer ought it not be to us, who have been illumined by the light of true Christian philosophy! For this latter teaches us, in fact, that among the innumerable reasons which oblige us to serve God, this is the greatest; and though men were endowed with a thousand hearts and a thousand bodies, this reason alone should be sufficient to cause them to devote them all to His love and service.
Though of all motives this is the most powerful, yet it has the least influence on the imperfect. The reason for this is that, on the one hand, they are more moved by self-interest, self-love having deep root in their hearts; and on the other, being still ignorant, and novices in the ways of God, they are unable to appreciate His grandeur and beauty. Had they a better knowledge of His perfections, His beauty would enrapture their souls and cause them to love Him above all things. Therefore we shall furnish some considerations from the mystical theology of St. Denis which will help them to apprehend the perfections of the Master they serve.
To lead us to a knowledge of God, St. Denis teaches us first to turn our eyes from the qualities or perfections of creatures, lest we be tempted to measure by them the perfections of the Creator. Then, turning from the things of earth, he raises our souls to the contemplation of a Being above all beings, a Substance above all substances, a Light above all lights – rather a Light before which all light is darkness – Beauty above all beauties and before which all other beauty is but deformity. This is what we are taught by the cloud into which Moses entered to converse with God, and which shut out from his senses all that was not God. (Ex. 24:16,18). And the action of Elias, covering his face with his cloak when he saw the glory of God passing before him, is a lively expression of the same sentiment. (3Kg. 19:13). Therefore, to contemplate the glory of God, man must close his eyes to earthly things, which bear no proportion to this supreme Being.
We shall better understand this truth if we consider with more attention the vast difference between this uncreated Being and all other beings, between the Creator and His creatures. The latter without exception have had a beginning and may have an end, while this eternal Being is without beginning and without end. They all acknowledge a superior and depend upon another, while He has no superior and is the supreme Arbiter of all things. Creatures are composed of various substances, while He is a pure and simple Being; were He composed of diverse substances it would presuppose a being above and before Him to ordain the composition of these substances, which is altogether impossible. Creatures are subject to change; God is immutable. They all admit of greater perfection; they can increase in possessions, in knowledge. God cannot increase in perfection, containing within Himself all perfection; nor in possessions, for He is the source of all riches; nor in knowledge, for everything is present to His eternal omniscience. Therefore Aristotle calls Him a pure act – that is, Supreme Perfection, which admits of no increase. The needs of creatures subject them to movement and change; God, having no necessities, is fixed and immovable, and present in all places. We find in all creatures diversities which distinguish them one from another, but the purity of God's Essence admits of no distinction; so that His Being is His Essence, His Essence is His Power, His Power is His Will, His Will is His Understanding, His Understanding is His Being, His Being is His Wisdom, His Wisdom is His Justice, His Justice is His Mercy. And though the last two attributes are differently manifested, the duty of mercy being to pardon, that of justice to punish, yet they are one and the same power.
The Divine Being thus comprises in its unity apparently opposite qualities and perfections which we can never sufficiently admire; for, as St. Augustine observes, "He is a profoundly hidden God, yet everywhere present; He is essentially strength and beauty; He is immutable and incomprehensible; He is beyond all space, yet fills all the universe; invisible, yet manifest to all creatures; producing all motion, yet is Himself immovable; always in action, yet ever at rest, He fills all things and is circumscribed by nothing; He provides for all things without the least solicitude; He is great without quantity, therefore He is immense; He is good without qualification, and therefore He is the Supreme Good." (Meditations, 19 and 20). Nay, "One is good, God." (Matt. 19:17).
Finally, all created things having a limited being, their power is likewise limited; the works they accomplish, the space they fill, their very names, are no less limited. Human words can define them; they can be assigned a certain character and reduced to a certain species. But the Divine Substance cannot be defined nor comprehended under any species, nor can It be confined to any place, nor can any name express It. Though nameless, therefore, as St. Denis says, It yet has all possible names, since It possesses in Itself all the perfections expressed by these names.
As limited beings, therefore, creatures can be comprehended; but the Divine Essence, being infinite, is beyond the reach of any created understanding. For that which is limitless, says Aristotle, can only be grasped by an infinite understanding. As a man on the shore beholds the sea, yet cannot measure its depth or vastness, so the blessed spirits and all the elect contemplate God, yet cannot fathom the abyss of His greatness nor measure the duration of His eternity. For this reason also God is represented "seated upon the cherubim" (Dan. 3:55 and Ps. 17:11), who, though filled with treasures of divine wisdom, continue beneath His majesty and power, which it is not given them to grasp or understand.
This is what David teaches when he tells us that God "made darkness His covert" (Ps. 17:12), or, as the Apostle more clearly expresses it, He "inhabiteth light inaccessible." (1Tim. 6:16). The prophet calls this light darkness because it dazzles and blinds our human vision. Nothing is more resplendent and more visible than the sun, as a philosopher admirably remarks, yet because of its very splendor and the weakness of our vision there is nothing upon which we can gaze less. So also there is no being more intelligible in itself than God, and yet none we understand less in this present life.
Know, therefore, you who aspire to a knowledge of God, that He is a Being superior to anything you can conceive. The more sensible you are of your inability to comprehend Him, the more you will have advanced in a knowledge of His Being. Thus St. Gregory, commenting on these words of Job: "Who doth great things and unsearchable, and wonderful things without number" (Job 5:9), says, "We never more eloquently praise the works of the Almighty than when our tongue is mute in rapt wonder; silence is the only adequate praise when words are powerless to express the perfections we would extol."
St. Denis also tells us to honor with mute veneration, and a silence full of love and fear, the wonders and glory of God, before whom the most sublime intelligences are prostrate. The holy Doctor seems to allude here to the words of the prophet as translated by St. Jerome, "Praise is mute before thee, God of Sion," giving us to understand, doubtless, that the most adequate praise is a modest and respectful silence springing from the conviction of our inability to comprehend God. We thus confess the incomprehensible grandeur and sovereign majesty of Him whose being is above all being, whose power is above all power, whose glory is above all glory, whose substance is immeasurably raised above all other substances, visible or invisible. Upon this point St. Augustine has said with much beauty and force, "When I seek my God I seek not corporal grace, nor transient beauty, nor splendor, nor melodious sound, nor sweet fragrance of flowers, nor odorous essence, nor honeyed manna, nor grace of form, nor anything pleasing to the flesh. None of these things do I seek when I seek my God. But I seek a light exceeding all light, which the eyes cannot see; a voice sweeter than all sound, which the ear cannot hear; a sweetness above all sweetness, which the tongue cannot taste; a fragrance above all fragrance, which the senses cannot perceive; a mysterious and divine embrace, which the body cannot feel. For this light shines without radiance, this voice is heard without striking the air, this fragrance is perceived though the wind does not bear it, this taste inebriates with no palate to relish it, and this embrace is felt in the center of the soul." (Conf., L.10, 6; Solil., c. 31).
If you would have further proof of the infinite power and greatness of God, contemplate the order and beauty of the world. Let us first bear in mind, as St. Denis tells us, that effects are proportioned to their cause, and then consider the admirable order, marvelous beauty, and incomprehensible grandeur of the universe. There are stars in heaven several hundred times larger than the earth and sea together. Consider also the infinite variety of creatures in all parts of the world, on the earth, in the air, and in the water, each with an organization so perfect that never has there been discovered in them anything superfluous or not suited to the end for which they are destined; and this truth is in no way weakened by the existence of monsters, which are but distortions of nature, due to the imperfection of created causes.
And this vast and majestic universe God created in a single instant, according to the opinion of St. Augustine and St. Clement of Alexandria; from nothing He drew being, without matter or element, instrument or model, unlimited by time or space. He created the whole world and all that is contained therein by a single act of His will. And He could as easily have created millions of worlds greater, more beautiful, and more populous than ours, and could as easily reduce them again to nothing.
Since, therefore, according to St. Denis, effects bear a proportion to their cause, what must be the power of a cause which has produced such effects? Yet all these great and perfect works are vastly inferior to their Divine Author. Who could not but be filled with admiration and astonishment in contemplating the greatness of such a Being? Though we cannot see it with our corporal eyes, yet the reflections we have just indicated must enable us in a measure to conceive the grandeur and incomprehensibility of His power.
St. Thomas, in his Summa Theologica, endeavors by the following argument to give us some idea of the immensity of God: We see, he tells us, that in material things that which excels in perfection also excels in quantity. Thus the water is greater than the earth, the air is greater than the water, and fire is greater than the air. The first heaven is more extensive than the element of fire, the second heaven is more extensive than the first, the third likewise exceeds the second, and so of the others till we come to the tenth sphere, or the empyreal heaven, to the grandeur and beauty of which nothing in the universe can be compared. Consequently the empyreal heavens, the finest and noblest of all the bodies which compose the universe, being incomparably greater than all the rest, we may infer, adds the Angelic Doctor, how far God, the first, the greatest, the most perfect of all beings, spiritual or corporal, and the Creator of all, exceeds them, not in material quantity – for He is a pure spirit – but in every possible perfection.
Thus we begin to understand, in some manner, what are the perfections of God, since they cannot but be in proportion to His being. For, as we read in Ecclesiasticus, "According to His greatness, so also is His mercy with Him." (Ecclus. 2:23). Nor are any of His other attributes less. Hence He is infinitely wise, infinitely merciful, infinitely just, infinitely good, and, therefore, infinitely worthy to be obeyed, feared, and reverenced by all creatures. Were the human heart capable of infinite homage, infinite love, it should offer them to this supreme Master. For if reverence and homage must be proportioned to the greatness and dignity of him to whom they are offered, then the homage we offer God should, if we were capable of it, be infinite also.
How great, then, is our obligation to love God, had He no other title to our love and service! What can he love who does not love such Goodness? What can he fear who does not fear this infinite Majesty? Whom will he serve who refuses to serve such a Master? And why was our will given to us, if not to embrace and love good? If, therefore, this great God be the Sovereign Good, why does not our will embrace it before all other goods? If it be a great evil not to love and reverence Him above all things, who can express the crime of those who love everything better than they love Him?
It is almost incredible that the malice and blindness of man can go so far; but yet, alas! How many there are who for a base pleasure, for an imaginary point of honor, for a vile and sordid interest, continually offend this Sovereign Goodness! There are others who go further and sin without any of these motives, through pure malice or habit. Oh! Incomprehensible blindness! Oh! More than brute stupidity! Oh! Rashness! Oh! Folly worthy of demons! What is the chastisement proportioned to the crime of those who thus despise their Maker? Surely none other than that which these senseless creatures will receive – the eternal fire of Hell.
Here, then, is the first motive which obliges us to love and serve God. This is an obligation so great that compared to it, all obligations to creatures, whatever their excellence or perfections, are only obligations in name. For as the perfections of creatures are mere imperfections compared with the perfections of God, so the obligations resulting therefrom cannot with justice be considered obligations when contrasted with those which we owe to God. Nor can our offences against the creature be regarded as offenses, except in name, when we remember the guilt we have incurred by our many sins against God.
For this reason David cried out, "Against thee only, O God, have I sinned" (Ps. 50:6), though he had sinned against Urias, whom he murdered; against the wife of Urias, whom he dishonored; and against his subjects, whom he scandalized. The penitent king knew that his offences against creatures, notwithstanding their different degrees of deformity, could not equal the enormity of his revolt against God. For God being infinite, our obligations towards Him and our offences against Him are, in a measure, infinite.
The Second Motive which obliges us to practice virtue and to serve God:
Gratitude for our Creation
We are obliged to practice virtue and keep God's commandments not only because of what God is in Himself, but because of what He is to us, because of His innumerable benefits to us.
The first of these benefits is our creation, which obliges man to give himself wholly to the service of his Creator, for in justice he stands indebted to Him for all he has received; and since he has received his body with all its senses, and his soul with all its faculties, he is obliged to employ them in the service of his Creator, or incur the guilt of theft and ingratitude towards his gracious Benefactor. For if a man builds a house, who should have the use and profit of it, if not he who built it? To whom does the fruit of a vine belong, if not to him who has planted it? Whom should children serve, if not the father who gave them being? Hence the law gives a father almost unlimited power over his children, so natural does it seem that he should be master of an existence of which he is the author.
What, then, should be the authority of God, the sovereign Author of all being in Heaven and on earth? And if, as Seneca remarks, those who receive benefits are obliged to imitate good soil and return with interest what they have received, what return can we make to God, when we have nothing to offer Him but what we have received from His infinite goodness? What, therefore, must we think of those who not only make no return to their Creator, but use His benefits to offend Him? Aristotle tells us that man can never make adequate return to his parents or to the gods for the favors received from them. How, then, can we make a suitable return to the great God, the Father of us all, for the innumerable blessings bestowed upon us? If disobedience to parents be so grievous a crime, how heinous must it not be to rebel against this gracious God!
He Himself complains of this ingratitude by the mouth of His prophet: "The son honoreth the father, and the servant his master: if, then, I be a father, where is my honor? And if I be a master, where is my fear?" (Mal. 1:6). Another servant of God, filled with indignation at like ingratitude, exclaims, "Is this the return thou makest to the Lord, O foolish and senseless people? Is not he thy father, that hath possessed thee, and made thee, and created thee?" (Deut. 32:6). This reproach is addressed to those who never raise their eyes to Heaven to consider what God is, who never look upon themselves in order to know themselves. Knowing nothing, therefore, of their origin or the end for which they are created, they live as though they themselves were the authors of their being.
This was the crime of the unfortunate king of Egypt to whom God said, "Behold, I come against thee, Pharao, king of Egypt, thou great dragon that liest in the midst of thy rivers and sayest: The river is mine, and I made myself." (Ezech. 29:3). This is, at least practically, the language of those who act as though they were the principle of their own being, and who refuse to recognize any obligation to serve their Maker.
How different were the sentiments of St. Augustine, who by studying his origin was brought to the knowledge of Him from whom he had received his being! "I returned to myself," he says, "and entered into myself, saying: What art thou? And I answered: A rational and mortal man. And I began to examine what this was, and I said: O my Lord and my God, who has created so noble a creature as this? Who, O Lord, but Thou? Thou, O my God, hast made me! I have not made myself. What art Thou, Thou by whom I live and from whom all things receive being? Can anyone create himself or receive his being but from Thee? Art Thou not the source of all being, the fountain whence all life flows? For whatsoever has life lives by Thee, because nothing can live without Thee. It is Thou, O Lord, that hast made me, and without Thee nothing is made! Thou art my Creator, and I am Thy creature. I thank Thee, O my Creator, because Thy hands have made and fashioned me! I thank Thee, O my Light, for having enlightened me and brought me to the knowledge of what Thou art and what I myself am!"
This, then, the first of God’s benefits, is the foundation of all the others, for all other benefits presuppose existence, which is given us at our creation. Let us now consider the acknowledgment God demands of us, for He is no less rigid in requiring our gratitude than He is magnificent in bestowing His benefits; and this is an additional proof of His love, for our gratitude results in no advantage to Him, but enables us to profit by the favors we have received, and thus merit other graces from His infinite goodness.
Thus we read in the Old Testament that whenever He bestowed a favor upon His people He immediately commanded them to keep it in remembrance. When He brought the Israelites out of Egypt He commanded them to commemorate by a solemn festival every year their happy deliverance from bondage. When He slew the firstborn of the Egyptians and spared the Israelites, He commanded that the latter, in return, should consecrate their firstborn to Him. When He sent them manna from Heaven to sustain them in the wilderness, He ordered that a portion of it should be put in a vessel and kept in the tabernacle as a memorial to generations of this extraordinary favor. After giving them victory over Amalec He told Moses to write it for a memorial in a book, and deliver it to Josue.
Since, therefore, God so rigidly requires a continual remembrance of the temporal favors He grants us, what return of gratitude will He not demand for this immortal benefit? Such we truly call the benefit of creation, because with it we receive from God the gift of an immortal soul. The patriarchs of old were deeply sensible of this obligation of gratitude, and therefore we read that whenever God bestowed upon them any special favor or blessing they evinced their gratitude by erecting altars to His name and by rearing other monuments to commemorate His mercies to them. Even the names they gave their children expressed the favors they had received, so desirous were they that their debt of gratitude to God should never be forgotten. St. Augustine, speaking on this subject in one of his soliloquies, says, "Man should think of God as often as he breathes; for as his being is continuous and immortal, he should continually return thanks to the Author of his being."
This obligation is so deeply graven in nature that even the philosophers and sages of this world earnestly inculcate gratitude to God. Hear the counsel of Epictetus: "Be not ungrateful, O man, to this sovereign Power, but return thanks for the faculties with which He has endowed thee, for thy life itself and for all the things which sustain it, for fruits, wine, oil, and whatever advantages of fortune thou hast received from Him; but praise Him particularly for thy reason, which teaches thee the proper use and the true worth of all these things." If a pagan philosopher teaches such gratitude for benefits common to all men, what should be the gratitude of a Christian, who has received the light of faith in addition to that of reason, as well as other gifts vastly superior to those we have just mentioned?
But perhaps you will urge that these benefits common to all seem the work of nature rather than graces emanating from God; and why, you ask, should I be grateful for the general order which reigns in the world, and because things follow their natural course? This objection is unworthy of a Christian, of a pagan, of any but an unreasonable animal. Hear how the same philosopher answers it: "You will say, perhaps, that you receive all these benefits from nature. Senseless man! In saying this you but change the name of God, your Benefactor. For what is nature but God Himself, the first and original nature? Therefore, it is no excuse, ungrateful man, to urge that you are indebted, not to God, but to nature; for without God there is no nature. Were you to receive a benefit from Lucius Seneca you would not dare to say that you were indebted to Lucius and not to Seneca. Such a subterfuge would change your benefactor's name, but would by no means cancel your obligation to him."
It is not only a motive of justice which obliges us to serve God, but our necessities force us to have recourse to Him if we would attain the perfection and happiness for which we were created.
In order to understand this more clearly, let us call to mind the general principle that creatures are not born with all their perfections. There remain many to be cultivated and developed, and only He who has begun the work can perfect it. Things instinctively go back to their first cause for their development and perfection. Plants unceasingly seek the sun, and sink their roots deep into the earth where they were formed. Fishes will not leave the element where they were engendered. Chickens seek vivifying warmth and shelter beneath their mother's wings. In like manner a lamb, until it has attained its strength, clings to the side of its ewe, distinguishing her among a thousand of the same color, arguing, doubtless, with blind instinct, that it must seek what it lacks at the source whence it has received all that it is.
This is apparent in all the works of nature, and if those of art could reason they would doubtless proceed in like manner. Were a painter to make a beautiful picture and omit the eyes, whither would the picture, were it sensible of its want, go to seek its completion? Not to the palaces of kings or princes, for all their power could not give it what it sought; no, it would seek its first cause, the master who designed it. And is not this thy position also, O rational creature? Thou art an unfinished work. Many things are lacking to the perfection of thy being. Thou hast naught of the beauty and luster which are yet to be thine. Hence thy restless, unsatisfied yearning; hence those unceasing aspirations for a higher, a better state, which arise from thy very necessities.
Yes, God let thee hunger, in order that, driven by necessity; thou mightest have recourse to Him. For this reason He did not give thee perfection at thy creation, but He withheld it only through love for thee. It was not to make thee poor, but to make thee humble; it was not to leave thee needy, but to compel thee to have recourse to Him.
If, then, thou art blind, poor, and in need, why dost thou not seek the Father who created thee, the Artist who designed thee, that He may satisfy thy wants and supply all that is lacking to thy perfection? Penetrated with this truth David cried out, "Thy hands have made me and formed me: give me understanding, and I will learn thy commandments." (Ps. 118:73).
Thy hands have made me, the prophet would say, but the work is incomplete. The eyes of my soul are still imperfect; they see not what they ought to know. To whom shall I go in my necessities, if not to Him from whom I have received all that I possess? Enlighten, then, my eyes, O Lord, that they may know Thee, and that the work Thou hast begun in me may be perfected. Therefore, only God can perfect the understanding, the will, and all the faculties of the soul.
It is He alone who satisfies His creature and never fails him. With Him the creature is content in poverty, rich in destitution, happy in solitude, and though despoiled of all possessions, yet master of all things. Hence the wise man so justly says, "One is as it were rich, when he hath nothing: and another is as it were poor, when he hath great riches." (Prov. 13:7). Rich indeed is the poor man who, like St. Francis of Assisi, has God for his inheritance, though owning naught else; but poor would he be who knew not God, though he possessed the entire universe. What do their wealth and power avail the rich and great of this world when they are a prey to anxieties which they cannot calm, a victim to appetites which they cannot satisfy? For what comfort can costly raiment, luxurious viands, and overflowing coffers bring to a troubled mind? The rich man tosses restlessly on his soft couch, and his treasure is powerless to stifle the remorse which banishes sleep. Independently, therefore, of God s benefits to us, we are, from the necessities of our nature, obliged to serve Him, if we would attain our happiness and perfection.
The Third Motive which obliges us to serve God:
Gratitude for our Preservation and for the Government of His Providence
Another motive which obliges man to serve God is the benefit of preservation. God gave you being, and still preserves it to you, for you are as powerless to subsist without Him as you were incapable of coming into existence without Him. The benefit of preservation is not less than that of creation. It is even greater, for your creation was but a single act, while your preservation is a continuous manifestation of God's abiding love. If, then, your creation demands from you so great a return of gratitude, who can reckon the debt you owe for the gift of preservation? There is not a movement of your eye, there is not a step you take, which is not by His power. Far if you do not believe that it is through Him that you live and act, you are no longer a Christian; and if, believing it, you continue deliberately to offend your Benefactor, how can I say what you are?
If a man on the top of a high tower held another suspended by a small cord over an abyss, do you think the latter would dare to address injurious words to him who held him thus suspended? How is it, then, that you, whose existence hangs by a thread which God can sever at any moment, dare excite the anger of this infinite Majesty by outraging Him with the very benefits He mercifully preserves to you?
The goodness of this sovereign Being is so great, says St. Denis, that while creatures are offending Him and madly rebelling against His will, He continues to give them the power and strength which they use to resist Him. How, then, can you be so rash, so ungrateful as to turn against God the blessings with which He has loaded you? Oh! Incredible blindness! Oh! Senseless rebellion-that the members would conspire against their Head, for which they ought to be ready to make any sacrifice!
But a time will come when God's outraged patience shall be avenged. You have conspired against God. It is just that He should arm the universe against you, that all creatures should rise up against you to avenge their Creator. They who closed their eyes to the sweet light of His mercy while it still shone upon them and allured them by so many benefits will justly behold it when, too late for amendment, they shall be groaning under the severity of His justice.
Consider in addition to this benefit the rich and delightful banquet of nature prepared for you by your Creator. Everything in this world is for man's use, directly or indirectly. Insects serve as food for birds, which in their turn serve as food for man. In like manner the grass of the fields supports the animals destined also for man's service. Cast your eye upon this vast world, and behold the abundance of your possessions, the magnificence of your inheritance. All that move upon the earth, or swim in the water, or fly in the air, or live under the sun are made for you.
Every creature is a benefit of God, the work of His Providence, a ray of His beauty, a token of His mercy, a spark of His love, a voice which proclaims His magnificence. These are the eloquent messengers of God continually reminding you of your obligations to Him. "Everything," says St. Augustine, "in Heaven and on earth calls upon me to love Thee, O Lord! And the universe unceasingly exhorts all men to love Thee, that none may exempt themselves from this sweet law."
Oh! That you had ears to hear the voice of creatures appealing to you to love God. Their expressive silence tells you that they were created to serve you, while yours is the sweet duty of praising your common Lord not only in your own name but in theirs also. I flood your days with light, the heavens declare, and your nights I illumine with the soft radiance of my stars. By my different influences all nature bears fruit in season for your necessities.
I sustain your breath, the air tells you; with gentle breezes I refresh you and temper your bodily heat. I maintain an almost infinite variety of birds to delight you with their beauty, to ravish you with their songs, and to feed you; with their flesh. I maintain for your nourishment innumerable fishes, the water exclaims. I water your lands, that they may give you their fruit in due season. I afford you an easy passage to distant countries; that you may add their riches to those of your own.
But what says the earth, this common mother of all things, this vast storehouse of the treasures of nature? Surely she may tell you: Like a good mother I bear you in my arms; I prepare food for all your necessities; I procure the concurrence of the heavens and all the elements for your welfare. Never do I abandon you, for after supporting you during life, I receive you in death and in my own bosom give you a final resting place.
Thus can the whole universe with one voice cry out: Behold how my Master and Creator has loved you. He has created me for your happiness, that I might serve you, and that you in your turn might love and serve Him; for I have been made for you, and you have been made for God.
This is the voice of all creatures. Will you be deaf to it? Will you be insensible to so many benefits? You have been loaded with favors. Do not forget the debt you thence contract. Beware of the crime of ingratitude. Every creature, says Richard of St. Victor, addresses these three words to man: Receive, give, beware. Receive the benefit; give thanks for it; and beware of the punishment of ingratitude.
Epictetus, a pagan philosopher, fully appreciated this truth. He teaches us to behold the Creator in all His creatures, and to refer to Him all the blessings we receive from them. "When you are warned," he says, "of a change in the atmosphere by the redoubled cries of the crow, it is not the crow, but God who warns you. And if the voice of men gives you wise counsel and useful knowledge, it is also God who speaks. For He has given them this wisdom and knowledge, and, therefore, you must recognize His power in the instruments He wills to employ. But when He wishes to acquaint you with matters of greater moment He chooses more noble and worthy messengers."
The same philosopher adds, "When you will have finished reading my counsels, say to yourself: It is not Epictetus the philosopher who tells me all these things; it is God. For whence in fact has he received the power to give these counsels but from God? Is it not God Himself, therefore, who speaks to me through him?" Such are the sentiments of Epictetus. Should not a Christian blush to be less enlightened than a pagan philosopher? Surely it is shameful that they who are illumined by faith should not see what was so clear to them who had no other guide than the light of simple reason.
Since, then, every creature is a benefit from God, how can we live surrounded by these proofs of His love, and yet never think of Him? If, wearied and hungry, you seated yourself at the foot of a tower, and a beneficent creature from above sent you food and refreshment, could you forbear raising your eyes to your kind benefactor? Yet God continually sends down upon you blessings of every kind.
Find me, I pray you, but one thing which does not come from God, which does not happen by His special Providence. Why is it, then, that you never raise your eyes to this indefatigable and generous Benefactor? Ah! We have divested ourselves of our own nature, so to speak, and have fallen into worse than brute insensibility. I blush, in truth, to say what we resemble in this particular, but it is good for man to hear it. We are like a herd of swine feeding under an oak. While their keeper is showering down acorns, they greedily devour them, grunting and quarrelling with one another, yet never raising their eyes to the master who is feeding them. Oh! Brutelike ingratitude of the children of Adam! We have received the light of reason, and an upright form. Our head is directed to Heaven, not to earth, which ought to teach us to raise the eyes of our soul to the abode of our Benefactor.
Would that irrational creatures did not excel us in this duty! But the law of gratitude, so dear to God, is so deeply impressed on all creatures that we find this noble sentiment even in the most savage beasts. What nature is more savage than that of a lion? Yet Appian, a Greek author, tells us that a certain man took refuge in a cave, where he extracted a thorn from the foot of a lion. Grateful for the kindness, the noble animal ever after shared his prey with his benefactor while he remained in the cave. Some years later this man, having been charged with a crime, was condemned to be exposed to wild beasts in the amphitheater. When the time of execution arrived, a lion which had been lately captured was let loose on the prisoner. Instead of tearing his victim to pieces he gazed at him intently, and, recognizing his former benefactor, he gave evident signs of joy, leaping and fawning upon him as a dog would upon his master. Moved by this spectacle, the judges, on hearing his story, released both man and lion. Forgetful of his former wildness, the lion, until his death, continued to follow his master through the streets of Rome without offering the slightest injury to anyone.
A like instance of gratitude is related of another lion that was strangling in the coils of a serpent when a gentleman riding by came to his rescue and killed the serpent. The grateful animal, to show his devotion, took up his abode with his deliverer and followed him wherever he went, like a faithful dog. One day the gentleman set sail, leaving the lion behind him on the shore. Impatient to be with his master, the faithful animal plunged into the sea, and, being unable to reach the vessel, was drowned.
What instances could we not relate of the fidelity and gratitude of the horse! Pliny, in his Natural History (8,40), tells us that horses have been seen to shed tears at the death of their masters, and even to starve themselves to death for the same reason. Nor are the gratitude and fidelity of dogs less surprising. Of these the same author relates most marvelous things. He gives, among other examples, an instance which occurred in his own time at Rome. A man condemned to death was allowed in prison the companionship of his dog. The faithful animal never left him, and even after death remained by the lifeless body to testify to his grief. If food were given to him he immediately brought it to his master and laid it on his lifeless lips. Finally, when the remains were thrown into the Tiber, he plunged into the river, and, having placed himself beneath the body, struggled till the last to keep it from sinking. Could there be gratitude greater than this?
Now, if beasts, with no other guide than natural instinct, thus show their love and gratitude for their masters, how can man, possessing the superior guidance of reason, live in such forgetfulness of his Benefactor? Will he suffer the brute creation to give him lessons in fidelity, gratitude, and kindness? Moreover, will he forget that the benefits he receives from God are incomparably superior to those which animals receive from men? Will he forget that his Benefactor is so infinite in His excellence, so disinterested in His love, overwhelming His creatures with blessings which can in no way benefit Himself? This must ever be a subject of wonder and astonishment, and evidently proves that there are evil spirits who darken our understanding, weaken our memory, and harden our heart, in order to make us forget so bountiful a Benefactor.
If it be so great a crime to forget this Lord, what must it be to insult Him, and to convert His benefits into the instruments of our offences against Him? "The first degree of ingratitude," says Seneca, "is to neglect to repay the benefits we have received; the second is to forget them; the third is to requite the benefactor with evil." But what shall we say of that excess of ingratitude which goes so far as to outrage the benefactor with his own benefits? I doubt whether one man ever treated another as we dare to treat God. What man, having received a large sum of money from his sovereign, would be so ungrateful as immediately to employ it in raising an army against him? Yet you, unhappy creatures, never cease to make war upon God with the very benefits you have received from Him.
How infamous would be the conduct of a married woman who, having received a rich present from her husband, would bestow it upon the object of her unlawful love in order to secure his affections! The world would regard it as base, unparalleled treason; yet the offence is only between equals. But what proportions the crime assumes when the affront is from a creature to God! Yet is not this the crime of men who consume their health, and who waste, in the pursuit of vice, the means that God has given them? They pervert their strength to the gratification of their pride; their beauty but feeds their heir flesh, to traffic in innocence, bargaining, even as the Jews did with Judas, for the Blood of Christ! What shall I say of their abuse of other benefits?
The sea serves but to satisfy their gluttony and their ambition; the beauty of creatures excites their gross sensuality; earthly possessions but feed their avarice; and talents, whether natural or acquired, only tend to increase their vanity and pride. Prosperity inflates them with folly, and adversity reduces them to despair. They choose the darkness of the night to hide their thefts, and the light of day to lay their snares, as we read in Job. In a word, they pervert all that God has created for His glory to the gratification of their inordinate passions.
What shall I say of their effeminate adornments, their costly fabrics, their extravagant perfumes, their sumptuous tables groaning under the weight of rare and luxurious viands? Nay, sensuality and luxury are so general that, to our shame, books are published to teach us how to sin in these respects. Men have perverted creatures from their lawful use, and instead of making God's benefits a help to virtue, they have turned them into instruments of vice. So great is the selfishness of the world that there is nothing which men do not sacrifice to the gratification of the flesh, wholly forgetful of the poor, whom God has so specially recommended to their care. Such persons never find that they are poor until they are asked for alms; at any other time there is no extravagant luxury their income cannot afford.
Beware lest this terrible accusation be made against you at the hour of death! The greater the benefits you have perverted, the more severe the account you will have to render. It is a great sign of reprobation for a man to continue to abuse the favors God has bestowed upon him. To have received much, and to have made but small return, is, in a manner, already to have judged oneself. If the Ninivites shall rise in judgment against the Jews for not having done penance at Our Saviour's teaching, let us see that the same Lord shall have no reason to condemn us upon the example of beasts that love their benefactors, while we manifest such gross ingratitude to the Supreme Benefactor of all.
The Fourth Motive which obliges us to practice Virtue:
Gratitude for the Inestimable Benefit of our Redemption
Let us now consider the supreme benefit of divine love, the redemption of man. But I feel myself so unworthy, so unfitted to speak of such a mystery that I know not where to begin or where to leave off, or whether it were not better for me to be silent altogether. Did not man, in his lethargy, need an incentive to virtue, better would it be to prostrate ourselves in mute adoration before the incomprehensible grandeur of this mystery than vainly essay to explain it in imperfect human language. It is said that a famous painter of antiquity, wishing to represent the death of a king's daughter, painted her friends and relatives about her with mournful countenances. In her mother's face grief was still more strongly depicted. But before the face of the king he painted a dark veil to signify that his grief was beyond the power of art to express.
Now, if all that we have said so inadequately expresses the single benefit of creation, how can we with any justice represent the supreme benefit of Redemption? By a single act of His will God created the whole universe, diminishing thereby neither the treasures of His riches nor the power of His almighty arm. But to redeem the world He labored for thirty-three years by the sweat of His brow; He shed the last drop of His Blood, and suffered pain and anguish in all His senses and all His members. What mortal tongue can explain this ineffable mystery? Yet it is equally impossible for me to speak or to be silent. Silence seems ingratitude, and to speak seems rashness. Wherefore, I prostrate myself at Thy feet, O my God, beseeching Thee to supply for my insufficiency, and if my feeble tongue detract from Thy glory, while wishing to praise and magnify it, grant that Thy elect in Heaven may render to Thy mercy the worship which Thy creatures here below are incapable of offering Thee.
After God had created man and placed him in the delights of the terrestrial paradise, by the very favors which should have bound him to the service of his Creator he was emboldened to rebel against Him. For this he was driven into exile and condemned to the eternal pains of Hell. He had imitated the rebellion of Satan; therefore, it was just that he should share his punishment.
When Giezi, the servant of Eliseus, received presents from Naaman the leper, the prophet said to him: Since thou hast received Naaman's money, "the leprosy of Naaman shall also cleave to thee and to thy seed forever. And he went out from him a leper as white as snow." (4Kg. 5:27). God pronounced a like sentence against man; Adam wished to share the riches of Lucifer, that is, his pride and his revolt, and, in consequence, the leprosy of Lucifer, that is, the punishment of his revolt, became his portion also. By sin, therefore, man becomes like Satan – he imitates him in his guilt, and shares in his punishment.
Having brought such misery upon himself, man became the object of the divine compassion, for God was more moved by the condition of His fallen creature than He was indignant at the outrage offered to His goodness. He resolved to restore man and reconcile him with Himself through the mediation of His only Son. But how was reconciliation effected? Again, what human tongue can express this mercy? Through our Mediator Christ such a friendship was established between God and man that the Creator not only pardoned His creature and restored him to His grace and love, but even became one with him. Man has become so one with God that in all creation there is no union that can be compared to this. It is not only a union of grace and love, but it is a union of person also. Who could have thought that such a breach would be so perfectly repaired? Who could have imagined that two beings so widely separated by nature and sin should one day be united, not only in the same house, at the same table, and in a union of grace, but in one and the same person [that is, in Christ]?
Can we think of two beings more widely separated than God and the sinner? Yet where will we find two beings more closely united? "There is nothing," says St. Bernard, "more elevated than God, and nothing more base than the clay of which man is formed. Yet God has with such great humility clothed Himself in this clay, and the clay has been so honorably raised to God, that we may ascribe to the clay all the actions of God, and to God all the sufferings of the clay." (Super Cant. Hom. 59 et 64).
When man stood naked and trembling before his Creator, who could have made him believe that one day his unhappy nature would be united to God in one and the same person? This union was so close that even the supreme moment of the cross could not sever it. Death dissolved the union between soul and body, but could not separate the divinity from the humanity, for what Christ had once taken upon Himself for love of us He never abandoned.
Thus was our peace established. Thus did God apply to us the remedy for our sovereign miseries. And we owe Him more gratitude, perhaps, for the manner of applying this remedy than for the remedy itself. Yes, Lord, I am infinitely indebted to Thee for redeeming me from Hell, for reestablishing me in Thy grace, and fox restoring my liberty; but I should be still more grateful, were it possible, for the manner in which Thou hast wrought these wonders. All Thy works are admirable, O Lord! And when lost in wonder at a power that seems to have reached its limit, we have only to raise our eyes to behold still another marvel which eclipses all the rest. Nor is this any disparagement of Thy power, O Lord, but rather a manifestation of Thy glory!
But what, O Lord, is the remedy Thou didst choose for my deep misery? Innumerable were the ways in which Thou couldst have redeemed me without toil or suffering; but in Thy magnificence, and to testify to Thy great love for me, Thou didst will to endure such pain and sufferings that the very thought of them bathed Thee in a sweat of blood, and at the sight of them the rocks were rent asunder. May the heavens praise Thee, O Lord, and may the angels proclaim Thy mercies! What did our virtues avail Thee, or how wast Thou harmed by our sins? "If thou sin," says Eliu to Job, "what shalt thou hurt him! And if thy iniquities be multiplied, what shalt thou do against him? And if thou do justly, what shalt thou give him, or what shall he receive of thy hand?" (Job 35:6-7).
This great God, so rich and powerful, so free from all evils, whose wisdom and possessions can neither be increased nor lessened, who would be equally glorious in Himself whether men and angels praised Him forever in Heaven, or blasphemed Him forever in Hell; this great God, impelled by no necessity, but yielding to His love, came down from Heaven to this place of exile, clothed Himself with our nature when we were His enemies, took upon Himself our infirmities, and even death, and to heal our wounds endured torments more terrible than any that had ever before been borne, or that ever again will be undergone.
It was for me, O Lord, that Thou wast born in a stable, laid in a manger, and circumcised on the eighth day after Thy birth! For me wast Thou driven from Thy country and exiled to Egypt. For my sake Thou didst fast and watch, shedding bitter tears, and sweating Blood from every pore. For me Thou wast seized as a malefactor, forsaken, sold, denied, betrayed, dragged from tribunal to tribunal, buffeted, spat upon, bruised with blows, and delivered to the gibes of an infamous rabble. For me Thou didst die upon a cross, in the sight of Thy most holy Mother, enduring poverty so great that even the consolation of a drop of water was denied to Thy burning lips. Thou wert abandoned by the world, and so great was Thy desolation that even Thy Father seemed to have forsaken Thee. At such a cost, O God, didst Thou restore to me my life!
Can we, without the deepest grief, behold this spectacle – God hanging as a malefactor upon an infamous gibbet? We could not withhold our compassion from a criminal who had brought such misfortune upon himself; and if our compassion be greater when the victim is innocent, and his excellence known to us, what must have been the astonishment and grief of the angels, with their knowledge of His perfection, when they saw Him overwhelmed with ignominy and condemned to die upon the cross?
The two cherubim, placed by God's command (Ex. 25:18) on each side of the ark, looking toward the mercy-seat in wonder and admiration, are an emblem of the awe with which the heavenly spirits were seized at the sight of God's supreme mercy in becoming the propitiation for the world on the sacred wood of His cross.
Who, then, can contain his astonishment or forbear to exclaim with Moses: "O Lord God, merciful and gracious, patient and of much compassion, and true!" (Ex. 34:6). Who would not, like Elias (3Kg. 19:13), cover his eyes did he see God passing, not in the splendor of His majesty, but in the depths of His humiliation; not in the might of His power, moving mountains and rending rocks, but as a malefactor, delivered to the cruelties of a brutal multitude? While, then, we confess our inability to understand this incomprehensible mystery, will we not open our hearts to the sweet influence of such boundless love, and make, as far as we are able, a corresponding return? Oh! Abyss of charity! Oh! Boundless mercy! Oh! Incomprehensible goodness! By Thy ignominy, O Lord, Thou hast purchased honor for me. By Thy Blood Thou hast washed away the stains of my sins. By Thy death Thou hast given me life. By Thy tears Thou has delivered me from eternal weeping. O best of Fathers! How tenderly Thou loved Thy children. O good Shepherd, who hast given Thyself as food to Thy flock! O faithful Guardian, who didst lay down Thy life for the creatures of Thy care! With what tears can I return Thy tears? With what life can I repay Thy life? What are the tears of a creature compared to the tears of his Creator, or what is the life of a man compared to that of his God?
Think not, O man, that thy debt is less because God suffered for all men as well as for thee. Each of His creatures was as present to His divine mind as if He died for him alone. His charity was so great, the holy Doctors tell us, that had but one man sinned He would have suffered to redeem him. Consider, therefore, what thou owest a Master who has done so much for thee and who would have done still more had thy welfare required it.
Tell me, O ye creatures, whether a greater benefit, a more generous favor, a more binding obligation can be conceived. Tell me, O ye celestial choirs, whether God has done for you what He has done for us? Who, then, will refuse to give himself without reserve to the service of such a Master? "I thrice owe Thee all that I am, O my God!" exclaims St. Anselm. "By my creation I owe Thee all that I am. Thou hast confirmed this debt by redeeming me; and by promising to be my eternal reward, Thou dost compel me to give myself wholly to Thee. Why, then, do I not give myself to One who has such a just claim to my service? Oh! Insupportable ingratitude! Oh! Invincible hardness of the human heart, which will not be softened by such benefits! Metals yield to fire; iron is made flexible in the forge; and diamonds are softened by the blood of certain animals. But oh! Heart more insensible than stone, harder than iron, more adamant than the diamond, wilt thou not be moved by the fire of Hell, or by the benefits of the tenderest of Fathers, or by the Blood of the spotless Lamb immolated for love of thee?"
Since Thy mercy and Thy love have been so powerfully manifested for us, O Lord, how is it that there are men who do not love Thee, who forget Thy benefits or use them to offend Thee? To whom will they give their love, if they refuse it to Thee? What can touch them, if they are insensible to Thy benefits? Ah! How can I refuse to serve a God who has so lovingly sought me and redeemed me? "And I," says Our Saviour, "if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself." (Jn. 12:32). With what strength, Lord, with what chains? With the strength of My love, with the chains of My benefits, "I will draw them," says the Lord by His prophet, "with the cords of Adam, with the bands of love." (Osee 11:4). Ah! Who will resist these chains, who will refuse to yield to these mercies? If, then, it be so great a crime not to love this sovereign Lord, what must it be to offend Him, to break His commandments? How can you use your hands to offend Him whose hands are so full of benefits for you, whose hands were nailed to the cross for you?
When the unhappy wife of the Egyptian minister sought to lead Joseph into sin, the virtuous youth replied, "Behold, my master hath delivered all things to me, and knoweth not what he hath in his own house: Neither is there anything which is not in my power, or that he hath not delivered to me, but thee, who art his wife: how then can I do this wicked thing, and sin against my God?" (Gen. 39:8-9). Mark the words of Joseph. He does not say: "I should not " or "It is not just that I offend Him," but "How can I do this wicked thing?" From this let us learn that great favors should not only deprive us of the will, but, in a measure, even of the power, to offend our benefactor.
If, therefore, the son of Jacob felt such gratitude for perishable benefits, what should be ours for the immortal blessings God has bestowed upon us? Joseph's master entrusted him with all his possessions. God has given us not only His possessions but Himself. What is there on earth that He has not made for us? Earth, sky, sun, moon, stars, tides, birds, beasts, fishes – in short, all things under Heaven are ours, and even the riches of Heaven itself, the glory and happiness of eternity. "All things are yours," says the Apostle, "whether it be Paul, or Apollo, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; for all are yours" (1Cor. 3:22), for all these contribute to your salvation.
And we not only possess the riches of Heaven, but the Lord of Heaven. He has given Himself to us in a thousand ways: as our Father, our Teacher, our Saviour, our Master, our Physician, our Example, our Food, our Reward. In brief, the Father has given us the Son, and the Son has made us worthy to receive the Holy Ghost, and the Holy Ghost has united us to the Father and the Son, the Source of every grace and blessing.
Again, since God has given you all the benefits you enjoy, how can you use these benefits to outrage so magnificent a Benefactor? If you are unmindful of the crime of your ingratitude, you are more ungrateful than the savage beasts, colder and more hardened than senseless objects. St. Ambrose, after Pliny, relates the story of a dog that had witnessed the murder of his master. All night the faithful animal remained by the body, howling most piteously, and on the following day, when a concourse of people visited the scene, the dog noticed the murderer among them, and falling upon him with rage, thus led to the discovery of his crime. If poor animals testify so much love and fidelity for a morsel of bread, will you return offences for divine benefits? If a dog will manifest such indignation against his master's murderer, how can you look with indifference on the murderers of your sovereign Lord?
And who are these murderers? None other than your sins. Yes, your sins apprehended Him and bound Him with ignominious fetters, loaded Him with infamy, overwhelmed Him with outrages, bruised Him with blows, and nailed Him to the cross. His executioners could never have accomplished this without the fatal aid of your sins. Will you, then, feel no hatred for the barbarous enemies who put your Saviour to death? Can you look upon this Victim immolated for you, without feeling an increase of love for Him? All that He did and suffered upon earth was intended to produce in our hearts a horror and detestation of sin. His hands and feet were nailed to the cross in order to bind sin.
Will you render all His sufferings and labors fruitless to you? Will you remain in the slavery of sin when He purchased your freedom at the price of His Blood? Will you not tremble at the name of sin, which God has wrought such wonders to efface? What more could God have done to turn men from sin than to place Himself nailed to the cross between them and this terrible evil? What man would dare to offend God, were Heaven and Hell open before him? Yet a God nailed to a cross is a still more terrible and appalling sight. I know not what can move one who is insensible to such a spectacle.
The Fifth Motive which obliges us to practice Virtue:
Gratitude for our Justification
What would the benefit of Redemption avail us, if it had not been followed by that of justification, through which the sovereign virtue of Redemption is applied to our souls? For as the most excellent remedies avail us nothing if not applied to our disorders, so the sovereign remedy of Redemption would be fruitless were it not applied to us through the benefit of justification. This is the work of the Holy Ghost, to whom the sanctification of man in a special manner belongs. It is He who attracts the sinner by His mercy, who calls him, who leads him in the ways of wisdom, who justifies him, who raises him to perfection, who imparts to him the gift of perseverance, to which, in the end, He will add the crown of everlasting glory. These are the different degrees of grace contained in the inestimable benefit of justification.
The first of these graces is our [baptismal] vocation. Man cannot throw off the yoke of sin; he cannot return from death to life, nor from a child of wrath can he become a child of God, without the assistance of divine grace. For Our Saviour has declared, "No man can come to me except the Father, who hath sent me, draw him." (Jn. 6:44).
St. Thomas thus explains these words: "As a stone, when other forces are removed, naturally falls to the ground, and cannot rise again without the application of some extraneous power, so man, corrupted by sin, ever tends downwards, attracted to earth by the love of perishable possessions, and cannot, without the intervention of divine grace, rise to heavenly things or a desire for supernatural perfection." This truth merits our consideration and our tears, for it shows us the depth of our misery, and the necessity, under which we labor, of incessantly imploring the divine assistance.
But to return to our subject: Who can express all the benefits brought to us by justification? It banishes from our souls sin, the source of all evils. It reconciles us to God and restores us to His friendship; for in truth the greatest evil which sin brings on us is that it makes us the objects of God's hatred. God, being infinite goodness, must sovereignly abhor all that is evil. "Thou hatest all the workers of iniquity," exclaims His prophet; "Thou wilt destroy all that speak a lie. The bloody and the deceitful man the Lord will abhor." (Ps. 5:7).
The enmity of God is evidently the greatest of evils for us, since it cuts us off from the friendship of God, the source of every blessing. From this misfortune justification delivers us, restoring us to God's grace, and uniting us to Him by the most intimate love, that of a father for a son. Hence the beloved disciple exclaims: "Behold what manner of charity the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called, and should be the sons of God." (1Jn. 3:1). The Apostle would have us understand that we wear not only the name, but are in truth the sons of God, in order that we may appreciate the liberality and magnificence of God's mercy to us.
If God's enmity be such a terrible misfortune, what an incomparable blessing His friendship must be! For it is an axiom in philosophy that according as a thing is evil, so is its opposite good; hence the opposite of that which is supremely evil must be supremely good. Now, man's supreme evil is the enmity of God; therefore, his supreme good must be the friendship of God. If men set such value upon the favor of their masters, their fathers, their princes, their kings, how highly should they esteem their sovereign Master, this most excellent Father, this King of kings, compared to whom all power and riches and principalities are as if they were not!
The benefit we are considering is largely enhanced by the liberality with which it is bestowed. For as man before his creation was unable to merit the gift of existence, so after his fall he could do nothing to merit his justification. No act of his could satisfy the Creator, in whose sight he was an object of hatred.
Another blessing flowing from justification is our deliverance from the eternal pains of Hell. Having driven God from him by sin, having despised His love, man in his turn is justly rejected by God. Inordinate love for creatures led him away from the Creator, and, therefore, it is but just that these same creatures should be the instruments of his punishment. Therefore, he was condemned to the eternal pains of Hell, compared to which the sufferings of this life are so light that they appear more imaginary than real. Add to these torments the undying worm which unceasingly gnaws the conscience of the sinner. What shall I say of his society, demons of perversity and reprobate men? Consider also the confusion and darkness of this terrible abode, where there is no rest, no joy, no peace, no hope, but eternal rage and blasphemies, perpetual weeping and ceaseless gnashing of teeth. Behold the torments from which God delivers those whom He justifies.
Another benefit of justification, more spiritual and therefore less apparent, is the regeneration of the interior man deformed by sin. For sin deprives the soul not only of God but of all her supernatural power, of the graces and gifts of the Holy Ghost, in which her beauty and strength consist. A soul thus stripped of the riches of grace is weakened and paralyzed in all her faculties. For man is essentially a rational creature, but sin is an act contrary to reason. Hence, as opposites destroy each other, it follows that the greater and the more numerous our sins are, the greater must be the ruin of the faculties of the soul, not in themselves, but in their power of doing good.
Thus sin renders the soul miserable, weak and torpid, inconstant in good, cowardly in resisting temptation, slothful in the observance of God's commandments. It deprives her of true liberty and of that sovereignty which she should never resign; it makes her a slave to the world, the flesh, and the devil; it subjects her to a harder and more wretched servitude than that of the unhappy Israelites in Egypt or Babylon. Sin so dulls and stupefies the spiritual senses of man that he is deaf to God's voice and inspirations; blind to the dreadful calamities which threaten him; insensible to the sweet odor of virtue and the example of the saints; incapable of tasting how sweet the Lord is, or feeling the touch of His benign hand in the benefits which should be a constant incitement to his greater love. Moreover, sin destroys the peace and joy of a good conscience, takes away the soul's fervor, and leaves her an object abominable in the eyes of God and His saints.
The grace of justification delivers us from all these miseries. For God, in His infinite mercy, is not content with effacing our sins and restoring us to His favor; He delivers us from the evils sin has brought upon us, and renews the interior man in his former strength and beauty. Thus He heals our wounds, breaks our bonds, moderates the violence of our passions, restores with true liberty the supernatural beauty of the soul, re-establishes us in the; peace and joy of a good conscience, reanimates our interior ; senses, inspires us with ardor for good and a salutary hatred of sin, makes us strong and constant in resisting evil, and thus enriches us with an abundance of good works. In fine, He so perfectly renews the inner man with all his faculties that the Apostle calls those who are thus justified new men and new creatures. (Cf. 2Cor. 4:16 and Gal. 6:15).
This renewal of the inner man is so powerful, so true, that in Baptism it is called regeneration, in Penance, resurrection; not only because it restores the soul from the death of sin to the life of grace, but because it is an anticipation of the last glorious resurrection. No tongue can express the beauty of a justified soul; only the Holy Spirit, who is pleased to dwell therein, can tell the sweetness, loveliness, and strength with which He has enriched her. The beauty, the power, the riches of earth fade into insignificance before the unspeakable beauty of a soul in a state of grace. As far as Heaven is above earth, as far as mind is above matter, so far does the life of grace exceed that of nature, so far does the invisible beauty of a soul exceed the visible beauty of this world. God Himself is enamored with this divine beauty. He adorns such a soul with infused virtues and the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, imparting, at the same time, renewed strength and splendor to all her powers.
Moreover, God, in His boundless liberality, sends us the Holy Ghost Himself, whilst the three Divine Persons take up their abode in a soul thus prepared, in order to teach her to make a noble use of the riches with which she is endowed. Like a good father, God not only leaves His inheritance to His children, but also sends them a prudent guardian to administer it. This guardian is no other than God Himself, for, as Christ has declared, "If any one love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and will make our abode with him." (John 14:23).
From these words the Doctors of the Church and between the Holy Spirit and His gifts, they declare that the soul not only enjoys these gifts, but also the real presence of their Divine Author. Entering such a soul, God transforms her into a magnificent temple. He Himself purifies, sanctifies, and adorns her, making her a fitting habitation for her Supreme Guest. Contrast this glorious state with the miserable condition of a soul in sin, the abode of evil spirits and of every abomination. (Cf. Matt. 12:45).
Still another more marvelous benefit of justification is that it transforms the soul into a living member of Christ. This, again, is the source of new graces and privileges, for the Son of God, loving and cherishing us as His own members, infuses into us that virtue which is His life, and, as our Head, continually guides and directs us. How tenderly, too, does the Heavenly Father look upon such souls, as members of His Divine Son, united to Him by the participation of the same Holy Spirit! Their works, therefore, are pleasing to Him, and meritorious in His sight, since it is Jesus Christ, His only Son, who lives and acts in them. Hence, with what confidence they address God in prayer, because it is not so much for themselves as for His Divine Son that they pray, since to Him all the honor of their lives redounds. For as the members of the body can receive no benefit of which the Head does not partake, so neither can Christ, the Head of all the just, be separated from their virtues or merits. If it be true, as the Apostle tells us (Cf. 1Cor. 6:15), that they who sin against the members of Jesus Christ sin against Jesus Christ Himself, and that He regards a persecution directed against His members as directed against Himself (Cf. Acts. 9:4), is it astonishing that He regards the honor paid to His members as paid to Himself?
Pray, then, with confidence, remembering that your petitions ascend to the Eternal Father in the name of His Son, who is your Head. For His sake they will be heard, and will redound to His honor; for, as is generally admitted, when we ask a favor for the sake of another, it is granted not so much to the one who receives it, as to the one for whose sake it was asked. For this reason we are said to serve God when we serve the poor for His sake.
The final benefit of justification is the right which it gives to eternal life. God is infinitely merciful as well as infinitely just, and while He condemns impenitent sinners to eternal misery, He rewards the truly repentant with eternal happiness. God could have pardoned men and restored them to His favor without raising them to a share in His glory, yet in the excess of His mercy He adopts those whom He pardons, justifies those whom He has adopted, and makes them partakers of the riches and inheritance of His only-begotten Son. It is the hope of this incomparable inheritance which sustains and comforts the just in all their tribulations; for they feel even in the midst of the most cruel adversity that "that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory." (2Cor. 4:17).
These are the graces comprehended in the inestimable benefit of justification, which St. Augustine justly ranks above that of creation. (Super. Joan 72,9). For God created the world by a single act of His will, but to redeem it He shed the last drop of His Blood and expired under the most grievous torments. St. Thomas gives a like opinion in his Summa Theologica.
Though it is true that no man can be certain of his justification, yet there are signs by which we can form a favorable judgment. The principal of these is a change of life; as, for example, when a man who hitherto committed innumerable mortal sins without scruple would not now be guilty of a single grave offence against God even to gain the whole world.
Let him, then, who has attained these happy dispositions reflect upon what he owes the Author of his justification, who has delivered him from the multitude of evils which are the consequences of sin, and overwhelmed him with the benefits which we have attempted to explain. And as for him who has the misfortune to be still in a state of sin, I know nothing more efficacious to rouse him from his miserable condition than the consideration of the evils which sin brings in its train, and of the blessings which flow from the incomparable benefit of justification.
The effects produced in the soul by the Holy Ghost do not end here. This Divine Spirit, not content with causing us to enter the path of justice, maintains us therein, strengthening us against all obstacles until we arrive at the haven of salvation. His love will not permit Him to remain idle in a soul which He honors by His presence. He sanctifies her with His virtue, and effects in her and by her all that is necessary to win eternal life. He dwells in the soul as the father in the midst of a family, preserving order and peace by his prudent authority; as a master in the midst of his disciples, teaching lessons of Divine wisdom; as a gardener in a garden confided to his intelligent care; as a king in his kingdom, ruling and directing all; as the sun in the midst of the universe, enlightening and vivifying her, and directing all her movements.
Possessing, in an eminent degree, all the good that is in creatures, He produces, but in a far more perfect manner, all the effects of which these creatures are capable. As fire He vivifies our understanding, enkindles our will, and detaches us from earth to raise us to heavenly things; as a dove He renders us sweet, gentle, and compassionate to one another; as a cloud He shelters us from the burning sensuality of the flesh, and tempers the heat of our passions; as a violent wind He impels our wills to good and sweeps all evil affections from our hearts. Hence it is that just souls abhor the vices which they formerly loved, and embrace the virtues from which they formerly shrank. Witness David, who cries out, "I have hated and abhorred iniquity." "I have rejoiced in the way of thy testimonies as much as in all riches." (Ps. 118:104,14).
It is to the Holy Ghost that we are indebted for all our progress in virtue. It is He who preserves us from evil and maintains us in good. It is He who is the principle of our perseverance, and who finally crowns us in Heaven. This it was which led St. Augustine to say that in rewarding our merits God but crowns His own gifts. (Conf. 1,20).
The holy patriarch Joseph, not content with giving to his brethren the corn which they came to purchase, ordered also that the money which they paid for it should be secretly returned to them. God treats His elect with still greater liberality. He not only gives them eternal life, but furnishes them the grace and virtue to attain it. "We adore Him," says Eusebius Emissenus, "that He may be merciful to us, but He has already been merciful to us in giving us grace to adore Him."
Let each one, then, glance over his life and consider, as the same holy Doctor suggests, all the good he has been permitted to do, and all the sins of impurity, injustice, and sacrilege from which he has been preserved, and he will comprehend in some measure what he owes to God. On this point St. Augustine well observes that God shows no less mercy in preserving man from sin than in pardoning him after he has fallen. (Conf. 2,7). Indeed, it is a greater proof of love. Therefore, the same saint, writing to a virgin, says: "Man should consider that God has pardoned him all the sins from which He has preserved him. Think not, therefore, that you may love this Master with a feeble love because He has pardoned you but a few sins. Your debt of love, on the contrary, is greater for His preventing grace which has saved you from committing many. For if a man must love a creditor who forgives him a debt, how much more reason has he to love a benefactor who gratuitously bestows upon him a like amount? For if a man live chastely all his life, it is God who preserves him; if he be converted from immorality to a pure life, it is God who reforms him; and if he continue in his disorders till the end, it is also God who justly forsakes him."
What, then, should our conclusion be but to unite our voices with the prophet, saying, "Let my mouth be filled with praise, that I may sing thy glory, thy greatness all the day long." (Ps. 70:8). St. Augustine, commenting upon these words of the prophet, asks, "What means all the day long"? And he answers, "Under all circumstances and without interruption. Yes, Lord, I will praise Thee in prosperity because Thou dost comfort me, and in adversity because Thou dost chastise me. For my whole being I will praise Thee, because Thou art its Author. In my repentance I will praise Thee, because Thou dost pardon me. In my perseverance I will praise Thee, because Thou wilt crown me. Thus, O Lord, my mouth will be filled with Thy praise, and I will sing Thy glory all the day long !"
It would be fitting to speak here of the Sacraments, the instruments of justification, particularly of Baptism, and the divine light and principle of faith which it imprints on our souls. But as this subject has been more fully treated in another work, we will confine ourselves, for the present, to the Eucharist, that Sacrament of sacraments, which gives to us – as our daily food and sovereign remedy – God Himself. He was offered once for us on the cross, but He is daily offered for us on the altar. "This is my body," Christ has declared; "do this for a commemoration of me." (Lk. 22:19).
Oh! Sacred Pledge of our salvation! Oh! Incomparable Sacrifice! Oh! Victim of love! Oh! Bread of life! Oh! Sweet and delicious Banquet! Oh! Food of kings! Oh! Manna containing all sweetness and delight! Who can fittingly praise Thee? Who can worthily receive Thee? Who can love and venerate Thee as Thou dost deserve? My soul faints at the thought of Thee; my lips are mute in Thy presence, for I cannot extol Thy marvels as I desire.
Had Our Lord reserved this favor for the pure and innocent, it would still be a mercy beyond our comprehension. But in His boundless love He does not refuse to descend into depraved hearts, nor to pass through the hands of unworthy ministers who are the slaves of Satan and the victims of their unruly passion. To reach the hearts of His friends and to bring them His divine consolations, He submits to innumerable outrages and profanations. He was sold once in His mortal life, but in this august Sacrament He is unceasingly betrayed. The scorn and ignominy of His Passion afflicted Him only once, but in this sacred Banquet His love and goodness are daily insulted and outraged. Once He was nailed to the cross between two thieves, but in this Sacrament of love His enemies crucify Him a thousand times.
What return, then, can we make to a Master who seeks our good in so many ways? If servants obey and serve their masters for a paltry support; if soldiers from a like motive brave fire and sword, what do we not owe God, who maintains us with this heavenly Food? If God in the Old Law exacted so much gratitude from the Israelites for the manna, which, with all its excellence, was only corruptible food, what gratitude will He not expect for this Divine Nourishment, incorruptible in Itself, and conferring the same blessing on all who worthily receive It? If we owe Him so much for the food which preserves our bodily life, what return must we not make Him for the Food which preserves in us the life of grace? And, finally, if our debt of gratitude be so great for being made children of Adam, what do we owe Him for making us children of God? For it cannot be denied, as Eusebius Emissenus observes, that "the day we are born to eternity is infinitely greater than the day which brings us forth to this world, with all its suffering and dangers."
Here, then, dear Christian, is another motive which should induce you to serve God, another link in that chain which bind you irrevocably to your Creator.
The Sixth Motive which obliges us to practice Virtue:
Gratitude for the Incomprehensible Benefit of Election
To all the benefits which we have just enumerated we must add that of election, or predestination, which belongs to those whom God has chosen from all eternity to be partakers of His glory. The Apostle, in his Epistle to the Ephesians (Eph. 1:3-5), thus gives thanks, in his own name and that of the elect, for this inestimable benefit: "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with spiritual blessings in heavenly places, in Christ; as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and unspotted in his sight, in charity; who hath predestinated us unto the adoption of children through Jesus Christ unto himself, according to the purpose of his will." The Royal Prophet thus extols this same benefit: "Blessed is he whom thou hast chosen and taken to thee: he shall dwell in thy courts." (Ps. 64:5).
Election, therefore, may be justly called the grace of graces, since God, in His boundless liberality, bestows it upon us before we have merited it; for, while giving to each one what is necessary for his salvation, He wills, as absolute Master of His gifts, to bestow them in greater abundance upon certain souls, without any injury, however, to others less favored. It is also the grace of graces not only because it is the greatest, but because it is the source of all the others. For in predestining man to glory, God determines to bestow upon him all the graces necessary to attain this happiness. This He has declared by the mouth of His prophet: "I have loved thee with an everlasting love, therefore have I drawn thee, taking pity on thee." (Jer. 31:3). This truth is still more clearly expressed by the Apostle: "For whom he foreknew, he also predestinated to be made conformable to the image of his Son; that he might be the firstborn amongst many brethren. And whom he predestinated, them he also justified. And whom he justified, them he also glorified." (Rom. 8:29-30). A father who destines his son for a special career in life prepares and educates him from his boyhood with a view to this career. In like manner, when God has predestined a soul to eternal happiness, He directs her in the path of justice, that she may attain the end for which He has chosen her.
All, therefore, who recognize in themselves any mark of election should bless God for this great and eternal benefit. Though it is a secret hidden from human eyes, yet there are certain signs of election, as there are of justification; and as the first mark of our justification is the conversion of our lives, so the surest mark of our predestination is our perseverance in the good thus begun. He who has lived for a number of years in the fear of God, carefully avoiding sin, may hope that God, in the words of the Apostle, "will confirm him unto the end without crime, in the day of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." (1Cor. 1:8).
No man, however, can be certain of his perseverance or election. Did not Solomon, the wisest of kings, after having lived virtuously for many years, fall into iniquity in his old age? Yet his example is one of the exceptions to the rule, which he himself teaches in these words: "It is a proverb: A young man according to his way, even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6); so that if his youth has been virtuous, his old age will likewise be honorable. From these and similar indications to be found in the lives of the saints a man may humbly hope that God has numbered him among the elect, that his name is written in the Book of Life.
How great, then, should be our gratitude for such a benefit! God Himself tells His Apostles, "Rejoice not in this, that spirits are subject unto you; but rejoice in this, that your names are written in heaven." (Lk. 10:20). What, in fact, can be a greater happiness than to have been from all eternity the object of God's love and choice; to have had a privileged place in His Heart throughout the eternal years; to have been chosen as the child of His adoption before the birth of His Son according to nature; and to have been always present to His Divine Mind, clothed in the splendor of the saints!
Weigh all the circumstances of this election, and you will find that each of them is an extraordinary favor, a new motive to love and serve God. Consider first the greatness of Him who has chosen you. It is God Himself, who, being infinitely rich and infinitely happy, had no need of you or any other creature. Next represent to yourself the profound unworthiness of the object of this election – a miserable creature exposed to all the infirmities of this life, and deserving by his sins the eternal torments of the future. Reflect, too, how glorious is this election, by which you are raised to the dignity of a child of God and heir to His kingdom. Consider, further, how generously and gratuitously this favor is bestowed. It preceded all merit on our part, and sprang solely from the good pleasure and mercy of God, and according to the Apostle, turns "unto the praise of the glory of his grace." (Eph. 1:6). Now, the more gratuitous a favor is, the greater the obligation it imposes.
The origin and the antiquity of this election also merit special consideration. It did not begin with this world; it preceded the existence of the universe; it was coeval with the very existence of God. From all eternity He loved His elect. They were ever present to Him, and His will to render them eternally happy was as fixed at His own Being.
Observe, finally, what a singular benefit this is. Among the many nations plunged in the darkness of paganism, among the many souls condemned to perdition, you have been selected to share the happy lot of the elect. Out of the mass of perdition He has raised you, and the leaven of corruption and death He has changed into the bread of angels and the wheat of the elect. The value of this benefit is still further increased when we reflect how small is the number of the elect and how great is the number of the lost. Solomon says that "the number of fools" – that is, the reprobate – is infinite." (Eccles. 1:15).
But if none of these considerations moves you, be touched at least by the sight of all that it has cost God to confer this immortal benefit on you. He purchased it for you with the Life and Blood of His only Son; for He resolved from all eternity to send Him into this world to execute His loving and merciful decree. Who, then, would be so base as to wait until the end of his life to love God, who has loved him from eternity? "Forsake not an old friend," we are told in Scripture (Ecclus. 9:14), "for the new will not be like to him."
Who, then, will forsake this Friend whose love for us had no beginning, and whose claim to our love is likewise from eternity? Who will not give up all the goods of this world; who will not bear all the evils of this world, to share in this blessed friendship? How great would be our respect for the poorest beggar were we assured by divine revelation that he was predestined to share God's glory! Would we not kiss the ground upon which he trod? "O happy soul!" we would cry. "O enviable lot! Is it possible that thou art surely to behold God in all the splendor of His majesty? Art thou to rejoice with the angels forever? Will thy ears be ravished with sweet music for all eternity? Art thou to gaze upon the radiant beauty of Christ and His Blessed Mother? Oh! Happy day when thou wast born! But happier still the day of thy death, which will introduce thee to eternal life. Happy the bread thou eatest and the ground upon which thou dost tread! Happier still the pains and insults thou endurest, for they open to thee the way to eternal rest! For what clouds, what tribulations, can overcome the power and joy of such a hope as thine?"
We would doubtless break out into such transports as these did we behold and recognize a predestined soul. For if people run out to see a prince, the heir to a great kingdom, as he passes through the street, marveling at his good fortune, as the world esteems it, how much more reason have we to marvel at the happy lot of one who, without any previous merit on his part, has been elected from his birth, not to a temporal kingdom, but to reign eternally in Heaven!
You may thus understand, dear Christian, the gratitude the elect owe to God. And yet there is no one, provided he do what is necessary for salvation, who may not consider himself of this happy number. "Labor, therefore, the more," as St. Peter tells you, "that by good works you may make sure your calling and election." (2Pet. 1:10). We should never lose sight, therefore, of our end, for God's grace is never wanting to us, and we can do all things in Him who strengthens us.
The Seventh Motive for practicing Virtue:
The Thought of Death, the First of the Four Last Things
Any one of the motives we have just enumerated should be sufficient to induce man to give himself wholly to the service of a Master to whom he is bound by so many ties of gratitude. But as the generality of men are more influenced by personal interest than by motives of justice, we will here make known the inestimable advantages of virtue in this life and the next.
We will first speak of the greatest among them: the glory which is the reward of virtue, and the terrible punishment from which it delivers us. These two are the principal oars which propel us in our voyage to eternity. For this reason St. Francis and our holy Father St. Dominic, both having been animated by the same spirit, commanded in their rules the preachers of their orders to make vice and virtue, reward and punishment, the only subjects of their sermons, in order to instruct men in the precepts of the Christian life and to inspire them with courage to put them into practice. Moreover, it is a common principle among philosophers that reward and punishment are the most powerful motives for good with the mass of mankind. Such, alas, is our misery, that we are not content with virtue alone; it must be accompanied with the fear of punishment or the hope of reward.
But as there is no reward or punishment so worthy of our consideration as those that never end, we will treat of eternal glory and eternal misery, together with death and judgment, which precede them. These are the most powerful incentives to love virtue and hate vice, for we are told in Scripture, "In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin." (Ecclus. 7:40).
The first of these is death. Let us, then, consider it, for it is a truth which of all others makes the most impression upon us, from the fact that it is so undisputed and so frequently brought before our minds. Especially do we realize this when we reflect on the particular judgment which each one must undergo as soon as his soul is separated from his body. The sentence then passed will be final; it will endure for all eternity. Since, then, death is such a powerful motive to turn us from sin, let us bring this terrible hour more vividly before us.
Bear in mind, therefore, that you are a man and a Christian. As man, you must die; as a Christian, you must, immediately after death, render an account of your life. The first truth is manifest in our daily experience, and the second our faith will not permit us to doubt. No one, whether king or pope, is exempt from this terrible law. A day will come of which you will not see the night, or a night which for you, will have no morning. A time will come, and you know not whether it be this present day or tomorrow, when you who are now reading my words, in perfect health and in full possession of all your faculties, will find yourself stretched upon a bed of death, a lighted taper in your hand, awaiting the sentence pronounced against mankind – a sentence which admits neither delay nor appeal.
Consider, also, how uncertain is the hour of death. It generally comes when man is most forgetful of eternal things, overturning his plans for an earthly future, and opening before him the appalling vision of eternity. Therefore, the Holy Scriptures tell us that it comes as a thief in the night; that is, when men are plunged in sleep and least apprehensive of danger. The forerunner of death is usually a grave illness with its attendant weariness, sufferings, and pains, which weaken the powers of the body and give entrance to the king of terrors. Just as an enemy who wishes to take a citadel destroys the outer fortifications, so death with its vanguard of sickness breaks down the strength of the body, and, as it is about to fall before the repeated assaults of its enemy, the soul, no longer able to resist, takes its flight from the ruins.
Who can express the anguish of the moment when the severity of the sickness, or the declaration of the physician, undeceives us and robs us of all hope of life? The parting from all we hold dear then begins to rise before us. Wife, children, friends, relations, honors, riches are fast passing, with life, from our feeble grasp. Then follow the terrible symptoms which precede the awful hour. The coldness of death seizes our members; the countenance becomes deathly pale; the tongue refuses to perform its duty; all the senses, in fine, are in confusion and disorder in the precipitation of this supreme departure.
Strange resemblance between the beginning and the end of our pilgrimage! The mystery of suffering seems to unite them both. The terrified soul then beholds the approach of that agony which is to terminate its temporal existence. Before the distracted mind rise the horror and darkness of the grave, where the pampered body will become the prey of worms. But keener still is the suffering which the soul endures from the suspense and uncertainty of what her fate will be when she leaves her earthly habitation. You will imagine that you are in the presence of your Sovereign Judge, and that your sins rise up against you to accuse you and complete your condemnation. The heinousness of the evil you committed with so much indifference will then be manifest to you. You will curse a thousand times the day you sinned, and the shameful pleasure which was the cause of your ruin. You will be an object of astonishment and wonder to yourself. "How could I," you will ask, "for love of the foolish things upon which I set my heart, brave the torments which I now behold?" The guilty pleasures will have long since passed away, but their terrible and irrevocable punishment will continue to stare you in the face. Side by side with this appalling eternity of misery you will see the unspeakable and everlasting happiness which you have sacrificed for vanities, transitory and sinful pleasures.
Everything you will behold will be calculated to fill you with terror and remorse. Life will have been spent; there will be no time for repentance. Nor will the friends you have loved or the idols you have adored be able to help you. On the contrary, that which you have loved during life will be the cause of your most poignant anguish at the hour of death. What, then, will be your thoughts at this supreme hour? To whom will you have recourse? Whither will you turn? To go forward will be anguish. To go back impossible. To continue as you are will not be permitted.
"It shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God , that the sun shall go down at midday, and I will make the earth dark in the daylight." (Amos. 8:9). Terrible words! Yes, the sun shall go down at midday; for the sinner at the sight of his sins, and at the approach of God's justice, already believes himself abandoned by the Divine Mercy; and though life still remains, with its opportunities for penance and reconciliation, yet fear too often drives hope from the heart, and in this miserable state he breathes his last sigh in the darkness of despair.
Most powerful is this passion of fear. It magnifies trifles and makes remote evils appear as if present. Now, since this is true of a slight apprehension, what will be the effect of the terror inspired by a danger so great and imminent? The sinner, though still in life and surrounded by his friends, imagines himself already a prey to the torments of the reprobate. His soul is rent at the sight of the possessions he must leave, while he increases his misery by envying the lot of those from whom he is about to be separated. Yes, the sun sets for him at midday, for, turn his eyes where he will, all is darkness. No ray of light or hope illumines his horizon. If he thinks of God's mercy, he feels that he has no claim upon it. If he thinks of God's justice, it is only to tremble for its execution. He feels that his day is past and that God's time has come. If he looks back upon his life, a thousand accusing voices sound in his ears. If he turns to the present, he finds himself stretched upon a bed of death. If he looks to the future, he there beholds his Supreme Judge prepared to condemn him. How can he free himself from so many miseries and terrors?
If, then, the circumstances which precede our departure are so terrible, what will be those which follow? If such be the vigil of this great day, what will be the day itself? Man's eyes are no sooner closed in death than he appears before the judgment seat of God to render an account of every thought, every word, every action of his life.
If you would learn the severity and rigor of this judgment, ask not men who live according to the spirit of this world, for, like the Egyptians of old, they are plunged in darkness and are the sport of the most fatal errors. Seek, rather, those who are enlightened by the true Sun of Justice. Ask the saints, and they will tell you, more by their actions than by their words, how terrible is the account we are to render to God. David was a just man, yet his prayer was; "Enter not, O Lord, into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight no man living shall be justified." (Ps. 142:2).
Arsenius was also a great saint, and yet at his death he was seized with such terror at the thought of God's judgment that his disciples, who knew the sanctity of his life, were much astonished, and said to him, `Father, why should you now fear?" To this he replied, "My children, this is no new fear which is upon me. It is one that I have known and felt during my whole life." It is said that St. Agatho at the hour of death experienced like terror, and having been asked why he, who had led such a perfect life, should fear, he simply answered, "The judgments of God are different from the judgments of men."
St. John Climachus gives a not less striking example of a holy monk, which is so remarkable that I shall give it as nearly as possible in the saint's own words: "A religious named Stephen, who lived in the same desert with us, had a great desire to embrace a more solitary life. He had already acquired a reputation for sanctity, having been favored with the gift of tears and fasting and other privileges attached to the most eminent virtues. Having obtained his superior's permission, he built a cell at the foot of Mount Horeb, where Elias was honored by his marvelous vision of God. Though his life here was one of great sanctity, yet, impelled by desire for still harder labors and greater perfection, he withdrew to a place called Siden, inhabited by holy anchorites who lived in the most complete solitude. Here he continued for some years in the practice of the severest penance, cut off from all human intercourse or comfort, for his hermitage was seventy miles from any human habitation. As his life approached its term he felt a desire to return to his first cell at the foot of Mount Horeb, where dwelt two disciples, natives of Palestine. Shortly after his arrival he was attacked by a fatal illness. The day before his death he fell into a state resembling ecstasy. He gazed first at one side of his bed, then at the other, and, as if engaged in conversation with invisible beings who were demanding an account of his life, was heard crying out in a loud voice. Sometimes he would say, 'It is true, I confess it; but I have fasted many years in expiation of that sin'; or, 'It is false; that offence cannot be laid to my charge'; or again, 'Yes, but I have labored for the good of my neighbor so many years in atonement thereof.' To other accusations he was heard to say, 'Alas! I cannot deny it; I can only cast myself upon God's mercy.'
"Surely this was a thrilling spectacle," continues the saint. "I cannot describe the terror with which we assisted at this invisible judgment. O my God! What will be my fate, if this faithful servant, whose life was one long penance, knew not how to answer some of the accusations brought against him? If after forty years of retirement and solitude, if after having received the gift of tears, and such command over nature that, as I am credibly informed, he fed with his own hand a wild leopard which visited him, the saintly monk so trembled for judgment, and, dying, left us in uncertainty as to his fate, what have we not to fear who lead careless and indifferent lives?"
If you ask me the cause of this terror with which the saints are filled, I will let St. Gregory answer for me: "Men aspiring to perfection," says the holy Doctor, "constantly reflect upon the justice of the Sovereign Judge who is to pronounce sentence upon them in the dread hour which terminates their earthly career. They unceasingly examine themselves upon the account they are to render before this supreme tribunal. And if happily they find themselves innocent of sinful actions, they still ask with fear whether they are equally free from the guilt of sinful thoughts. For if it be comparatively easy to resist sinful actions, it is more difficult to conquer in the war which we must wage against evil thoughts. And though the fear of God's judgment is always before them, yet it is redoubled at the hour of death, when they are about to appear before His inflexible tribunal. At this moment the mind is freed from the disturbances of the flesh; earthly desires and delusive dreams fade from the imagination; the things of this world vanish at the portals of another life; and the dying man sees but God and himself. If he recalls no good which he has omitted, yet he feels that he cannot trust himself to give a correct and impartial judgment. Hence his fear and terror of the rigorous account to be exacted of him." (Moral., 24:16, 17).
Do not these words of the great Doctor prove that this last hour and this supreme tribunal are more to be dreaded than worldly men imagine? If just men tremble at this hour, what must be the terror of those who make no preparation for it, whose lives are spent in the pursuit of vanities and in contempt of God's commandments? If the cedar of Lebanon be thus shaken, how can the reed of the wilderness stand? "And," as St. Peter tells us, "if the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?" (1Pet. 4:18).
Reflect, then, on the sentiments that will be yours when you will stand before the tribunal of God, with no defenders but your good works, with no companion but your own conscience. And if then you will not be able to satisfy your Judge, who will give expression to the bitterness of your anguish? For the question at issue is not a fleeting temporal life, but an eternity of happiness or an eternity of misery. Whither will you turn? What protection will you seek? Your tears will be powerless to soften your Judge; the time for repentance will be past. Little will honors, dignities, and wealth avail you, for "Riches," says the Wise Man, "shall not profit in the day of vengeance, but justice shall deliver a man from death." (Prov. 11:4).
The unhappy soul can only exclaim with the prophet, "The sorrows of death have encompassed me, and the perils of hell have found me." (Ps. 114:3). Unhappy wretch! How swiftly this hour has come upon me! What does it now avail me that I had friends, or honors, or dignities or wealth? All that I can now claim is a few feet of earth and a windings-sheet. My wealth which I hoarded I must leave to be squandered by others, while the sins of injustice which I here committed will pursue me into the next world and there condemn me to eternal torments. Of all my guilty pleasures the sting of remorse alone remains. Why have I made no preparation for this hour? Why was I deaf to the salutary warnings I received? "Why have I hated instruction, and my heart consented not to reproofs, and have not heard the voice of them that taught me, and have not inclined my ear to my masters?" (Prov. 5:12-13).
To preserve you, my dear Christian, from these vain regrets, I beg you to gather from what has been said three considerations, and to keep them continually before your mind. The first is the terrible remorse which your sins will awaken in you at the hour of death; the second is how ardently, though how vainly, you will wish that you had faithfully served God during life; and the third is how willingly you would accept the most rigorous penance, were you given time for repentance.
Acting on this advice, you will now begin to regulate your life according as you will then wish to have done.
The Eighth Motive for practicing Virtue:
The Thought of the Last Judgment, the Second of the Four Last Things
Immediately after death follows the particular judgment, of which we have been treating. But there is a day of general judgment, when, in the words of the Apostle, "We must all be manifested before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the proper things of the body, according as he hath done, whether it be good or evil." (2Cor. 5:10).
In considering this subject, what strikes us as most amazing, and what filled the holy soul of Job with awe, is that a frail creature like man, so prone to evil, should be subjected to such a rigorous judgment on the part of God, by whose command his every thought, word, and action are inscribed in the book of life. In his astonishment Job cries out, "Why hidest thou thy face, and thinkest me thy enemy? Against a leaf, that is carried away with the wind, thou showest thy power, and thou pursuest a dry straw. For thou writest bitter things against me, and wilt consume me for the sins of my youth. Thou hast put my feet in the stocks, and hast observed all my paths, and hast considered the steps of my feet: who I am to be consumed as rottenness, and as a garment that is moth-eaten." (Job 13:24-28).
And returning to the same subject, he continues, "Man born of a woman, living for a short time, is filled with many miseries; who cometh forth like a flower and is destroyed, and fleeth as a shadow, and never continueth in the same state. And dost thou think it meet to open thy eyes upon such a one, and to bring him into judgment with thee? Who can make him clean that is born of unclean seed? Is it not thou who only art?" (Job 14:1-4).
Thus does holy Job express his astonishment at the severity of the Divine Justice towards frail man, so inclined to evil, who drinks up iniquity like water. That He should have exercised such severity towards the angels, who are spiritual and perfect beings, is not a matter of so much surprise. But it is truly amazing that not an idle word, not a wasted moment in man's life shall escape the rigor of God's justice. "But I say unto you that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account of it in the day of judgment." (Matt. 12:36). If we must render an account of idle words which harm no one, how severe will be the account exacted of us for impure words, immodest actions, sinful glances, bloodstained hands, for all the time spent in sinful deeds? We could hardly credit the severity of this judgment, did not God Himself affirm it. Oh! Sublime religion, how great are the purity and perfection thou teachest!
What shame, then, and what confusion will overwhelm the sinner when all his impurities, all his excesses, all his iniquities, hidden in the secret recesses of his heart, will be exposed, in all their enormity, to the eyes of the world! Whose conscience is so clear that he does not blush, does not tremble, at this thought? If men find it so difficult to make known their sins in the secrecy of confession, if many prefer to groan under the weight of their iniquities rather than declare them to God's minister, how will they bear to see them revealed before the universe? In their shame and confusion "they shall say to the mountains: Cover us; and to the hills: Fall upon us." (Osee 10:8).
Consider also the terror of the sinner when this terrible sentence resounds in his ear: "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels." (Matt. 25:4). How will the reprobate hear these terrible words? "Seeing," says holy Job, "that we have heard scarce a little drop of his word, who shall be able to behold the thunder of his greatness?" (Job 26:14). When this dread sentence will have gone forth, the earth will open and swallow in its fiery depths all those whose lives have been spent in the pursuit of sinful pleasures.
St. John, in the Apocalypse, thus describes this awful moment: "I saw another angel come down from heaven, having great power: and the earth was enlightened with his glory. And he cried out with a strong voice, saying: Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen; and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every unclean spirit, and the hold of every unclean and hateful bird." (Apoc. 18:1-2). And the holy Evangelist adds, "And a mighty angel took up a stone, as it were a great millstone, and cast it into the sea, saying: With such violence as this shall Babylon, that great city, be thrown down, and shall be found no more at all." (Apoc. 18:21). In like manner shall the wicked, represented by Babylon, be cast into the sea of darkness and confusion.
What tongue can express the torments of this eternal prison? The body will burn with a raging fire which will never be extinguished; the soul will be tortured by the gnawing, undying worm of conscience. The darkness will resound with despairing cries, blasphemies, perpetual weeping and gnashing of teeth. The sinner, in his impotent rage, will tear his flesh and curse the inexorable justice which condemns him to these torments. He will curse the day of his birth, crying out in the words of Job, "Let the day perish wherein I was born, and the night in which it was said: A man child is conceived. Let that day be turned into darkness, let not God regard it from above, and let not the light shine upon it. Let darkness and the shadow of death cover it, let a mist overspread it, and let it be wrapped up in bitterness. Let a darksome whirlwind seize upon that night, let it not be counted in the days of the year, nor numbered in the months. Why did I not die in the womb, why did I not perish at once when I came out of the womb? Why was I placed upon the knees? Why was I suckled at the breasts?" (Job 3:3-6,11-12).
Unhappy tongues which will henceforth utter only blasphemies! Unhappy ears to be forever filled with sighs and lamentations! Unhappy eyes which will never gaze upon anything but misery! Unhappy flesh consumed in eternal flames! Who can tell the bitter remorse of the sinner who has spent his life in pursuit of new pleasures and new amusements? Oh! How fleeting were the joys that brought such a series of woes! O senseless, unhappy man! What do your riches now avail you? The seven years of abundance are past, and the years of famine are upon you. Your wealth has been consumed in the twinkling of an eye, and no trace of it remains. Your glory has vanished; your happiness is swallowed up in an abyss of woe! So extreme is your misery that a drop of water is denied you to allay the parching thirst with which you are consumed. Not only is your former prosperity of no avail, but rather it increases the torture of your cruel sufferings. Thus shall the imprecation of Job be verified: "May worms be his sweetness" (Job 24:20), which St. Gregory thus explains: "The remembrance of their past pleasures will make their present sufferings more keen; and the contrast of their short-lived happiness with this endless misery will fill them with rage and despair." (Moral., 15, 26;16, 31).
They will recognize too late the snares of the evil one, and will exclaim in the words of the Book of Wisdom: "We have erred from the way of truth, and the light of justice hath not shone unto us, and the sun of understanding hath not risen upon us. We have wearied ourselves in the way of iniquity and destruction, and have walked through hard ways, but the way of the Lord we have not known." (Wis. 5:6-7). The contemplation of this terrible truth cannot but rouse us from our indifference and excite us to practice virtue.
St. John Chrysostom frequently uses this truth as a means to exhort his hearers to virtue. "If you would labor effectually," he says, "to make your soul the temple and the abode of the Divinity, never lose sight of the solemn and awful day when you are to appear before the tribunal of Christ to render an account of all your works. Represent to yourself the glory and majesty with which Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. Consider the irrevocable sentence which will then be pronounced upon mankind, and the terrible separation which will follow it. The just will enter into the possession of ineffable joy and happiness; the wicked will be precipitated into exterior darkness, where there will be perpetual weeping and gnashing of teeth. They will be gathered like weeds, and cast into the fire, where they will remain for all eternity." Ah! Then, before it is too late, let us save ourselves from this terrible misfortune by a humble and sincere confession of our sins – a favor that we will not receive on that day, for, as the Psalmist asks, Who shall confess to thee in hell?" (Ps. 6:6).
Another thought which should here impress us is that God has given us two eyes, two ears, two hands, and two feet, so that if we lose one of these members we still have one left. But He has given us only one soul, and if we lose that we have no other with which to enjoy eternal happiness. Our first care, therefore, should be to save our soul, which is to share with the body either eternal happiness or eternal woe. It will avail no man at this supreme tribunal to urge, "I was dazzled by the glitter of wealth; I was deceived by the promises of the world." The inexorable Judge will answer, "I warned you against these. Did I not say, 'What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?'" (Matt. 16:26). Nor can you plead that the devil tempted you. He will remind you that Eve was not excused when she urged that the serpent had tempted her.
The vision of Jeremias teaches us what Our Lord's treatment of us will be. The prophet beheld first "a rod watching," and then "a caldron boiling." This is a figure of God's dealings with men. First He warns them, and if they do not heed, He punishes them; for he who will not submit to the correction of the rod will be cast into the caldron of fire. As you read of God's punishments in Scripture, have you ever observed that no one pleads for those whom God condemns? Father does not plead for son, nor brother for brother, nor friend for friend. Yes, even God's privileged servants, Noe, Daniel, Job, would seek in vain to alter the sentence of your Judge.
At the wedding feast no voice is raised to intercede for him who is driven from the banquet. No one pleads for the slothful servant who buried the talent entrusted to him by his Master. No one makes intercession with the Bridegroom for the five foolish virgins who, after despising the pleasures of the flesh and stifling in their hearts the fire of concupiscence, nay, after observing the great counsel of virginity, neglected the precept of humility and became inflated with pride on account of their virginity. You know the history of the avaricious man of the Gospel, and how vainly he pleaded with Abraham for a drop of water to quench his burning thirst.
Why, then, will we not help one another while we can? Why will we not render glory to God before the sun of His justice has set for us? Better let our tongues be parched with privation and fasting during the short space of this life, than by sinful indulgence expose ourselves to an eternal thirst. If we can hardly endure a few days of fever, how will we bear the parching thirst and burning torments of that fire which will never die? If we are so appalled at a sentence of death pronounced by an earthly judge, which, at most, deprives us of but forty or fifty years of life, with what feelings will we hear that sentence which deprives us of an immortal life and condemns us to an eternity of misery?
With what horror we read of the tortures inflicted by executioners upon malefactors; yet the most cruel are only shadows compared to the eternal torments of the life to come. The former end with this life; but in Hell the worm of conscience shall never die, the executioner shall never grow weary, the fire shall never be extinguished. What, then, will be the feelings of the wicked when suddenly transported from the midst of earthly happiness to this abyss of unspeakable miseries? In vain will they denounce their blindness and bewail the graces they refused. What can the pilot do when the ship is lost? Of what use is the physician when the patient is dead? Whither will we turn, on that terrible day, when the heavens and the earth, the sun, moon, and stars, when all creatures, will raise their voices against us to testify the evil we have committed? But even were these silent, our own consciences would still accuse us.
These reflections, dear Christian, we have gathered chiefly from the writings of St. John Chrysostom. Do they not prove the necessity of living with the fear of this supreme judgment constantly before us? This fear was never absent from the heart of St. Ambrose, notwithstanding the vigilant fervor of his life. "Woe is me," he exclaims in his commentary on St. Luke – "Woe is me if I weep not for my sins! Woe is me, O Lord, if I rise not in the night to confess and proclaim the glory of Thy name! Woe is me if I do not dissipate the errors of my brethren and cause the light of truth to burn before their eyes, for the axe is now laid to the root of the tree."
Let him, therefore, who is in a state of grace, bring forth fruits of justice and salvation. Let him who is in a state of sin bring forth fruits of penance, for the time approaches when the Lord will gather His fruit; and He will give eternal life to those who have labored courageously and profitably, and eternal death to those whose works are barren and useless.
The Ninth Motive for practicing Virtue:
The Thought of Heaven, the Third of the Four Last Things
A motive no less powerful than those we have enumerated is the thought of Heaven. This is the reward of virtue, and in it we must distinguish two things: the excellence and beauty of the abode promised us, which is no other than the empyreal heavens, and the perfection and beauty of the Sovereign King who reigns there with His elect.
But though no tongue can fully express the splendor and riches of the heavenly kingdom, we will endeavor to describe its beauty as well as our limited capacities will allow. Let us, therefore, first consider the grand end for which it was created, which will enable us to conceive some idea of its magnificence.
God created it to manifest His glory. Though "the Lord hath made all things for himself," (Prov. 16:4) yet this is particularly true of Heaven, for it is there that His glory and power are most resplendent. We are told in Scripture that Assuerus, whose kingdom included one hundred twenty-seven provinces, gave a great feast, which lasted one hundred eighty days, for the purpose of manifesting his splendor and power. So the Sovereign King of the universe is pleased to celebrate a magnificent feast, which continues, not for one hundred eighty days only, but for all eternity, to manifest the magnificence of His bounty, His power, His riches, His goodness.
It is of this feast that the prophet speaks when he tells us, "The Lord of hosts shall make unto all people in this mountain a feast of fat things, a feast of wine, of fat things full of marrow, of wine purified from the lees." (Is. 25:6). By this we are to understand that He will lavish upon His elect all the riches of the heavenly country and inebriate them with unutterable delights. Since this feast is prepared to manifest the greatness of God's glory, which is infinite, what must be the magnificence of this feast and the variety and splendor of the riches He displays to the eyes of His elect?
We will better appreciate the grandeur of Heaven if we consider the infinite power and boundless riches of God Himself. His power is so great that with a single word He created this vast universe, and with a single word He could again reduce it to its original nothingness. A single expression of His will would suffice to create millions of worlds as beautiful as ours, and to destroy them in one instant.
Moreover, His power is exercised without effort or exertion; it costs Him no more to create the most sublime seraphim than to create the smallest insect. With Him, to will is to accomplish. Therefore, if the power of the King who calls us to His kingdom be so great; if such be the glory of His holy Name; if His desire to manifest and communicate this glory be so great, what must be the splendor of the abode where He wills to display, in its fullness, His divine magnificence?
Nothing can be wanting to its perfection, for its Author is the Source of all riches, all power, and all wisdom. What must be the beauty of that creation in the formation of which are combined the almighty power of the Father, the infinite wisdom of the Son, the inexhaustible goodness of the Holy Spirit?
Another consideration no less striking is that God has prepared this magnificence not only for His glory, but for the glory of His elect. "Whosoever shall glorify me, him will I glorify." (1Kg. 2:30). "Thou hast subjected all things under his feet," cries out the psalmist (Ps. 8:8); and this we see verified in the most striking manner among the saints. Witness Josue, whose word arrests the sun in its course, thus showing us, as the Scripture says, "God obeying the voice of man." (Jos. 10:14). Consider the prophet Isaias bidding King Ezechias choose whether he will have the sun go forward or backward in its course, for it was in the power of God's servant to cause either. (4Kg. 20:9).
Behold Elias closing the heavens, so that there was no rain but at his will and prayer. And not only during life, but even after death, God continues to honor the mortal remains of His elect; for do we not read in Scripture that a dead body which was thrown by highwaymen into the tomb of Eliseus was brought to life by contact with the bones of the prophet? (4Kg. 13:21). Did not God also honor in a marvelous manner the body of St. Clement? On the day that this generous defender of the Faith suffered, the sea was opened for a distance of three miles to allow the people to pass to the place of martyrdom to venerate the sacred remains. Is it not from a like motive that the Church has instituted a feast in honor of St. Peter's chains, to show us how God wills to honor the bodies of His servants, since we are to reverence their very chains?
A still more marvelous proof of this was the power of healing the sick communicated to the shadow of the same Apostle. Oh! Admirable goodness! God confers upon His Apostle a power which He Himself did not exercise. Of St. Peter alone is this related. But if God be pleased thus to honor the saints on earth, though it is but a place of toil and labor, who can tell the glory which He has reserved for them in His kingdom, where He wills to honor them, and through them to glorify Himself?
The Holy Scriptures teach us also with what liberality God rewards the services we render Him. We are told that when Abraham was about to sacrifice his son in obedience to God's command, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and said, "By my own self have I sworn, saith the Lord: because thou hast done this thing, and hast not spared thy only begotten son for my sake, I will bless thee, and I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is by the sea shore; thy seed shall possess the gates of their enemies. And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because thou hast obeyed my voice." (Gen. 22:16-18). Was not this a reward befitting such a Master? God is sovereign in His rewards, as well as in His punishments.
We read also that David, reflecting one night that while he dwelt in a house of cedar, the Ark of the Covenant was kept in a poor tent, resolved to build it a more fitting habitation; and the next day the Lord sent the prophet Nathan to promise, in His name, the following magnificent reward: Because thou hast thought of building me a house, I swear to thee that I will build one for thee and thy posterity which shall have no end, nor will I ever remove my mercies from it. (Cf. 2Kg. 7). We see how faithfully His promise was fulfilled, for the kingdom of Israel was governed by the princes of the house of David until the coming of the Messias, who from that time has reigned, and shall reign for all eternity.
Heaven, then, is that superabundant reward which the faithful will receive for their good works. It is the manifestation of the Divine munificence, and of its greatness and glory we ought to have a lively appreciation. Another consideration which will help us to form some idea of the eternal beatitude promised us is the price which God, who is so liberal, required for it. After we had forfeited Heaven by sin, God, who is so rich and magnificent in His rewards, would restore it to us only at the price of the Blood of His Divine Son. The death of Christ, therefore, gave us life; His sorrows won for us eternal joy; and, that we might enter into the ranks of the celestial choirs, He bore the ignominy of crucifixion between two thieves.
Who, then, can sufficiently value that happiness to obtain which God shed the last drop of His Blood, was bound with ignominious fetters, overwhelmed with outrages, bruised with blows, and nailed to a cross? But besides all these, God asks on our part all that can be required of man. He tells us that we must take up our cross and follow Him; that if our right eye offend us we must pluck it out; that we must renounce father and mother, and every creature that is an obstacle to the Divine will. And after we have faithfully complied with His commands, the Sovereign Remunerator still tells us that the enjoyment of Heaven is a gratuitous gift. "I am Alpha and Omega; the beginning and the end," He says by the mouth of St. John (Apoc. 21:6); "to him that thirsteth, I will give of the fountain of the water of life freely."
Since God so liberally bestows His gifts upon the sinner as well as the just in this life, what must be the inexhaustible riches reserved for the just in the life to come? If He be so bountiful in His gratuitous gifts, how munificent will He be in His rewards?
It may further help us to conceive a faint image of this eternal glory to consider the nobility and grandeur of the empyreal Heaven, our future country. It is called in Scripture the land of the living, in contrast, doubtless, to our sad country, which may truly be called the land of the dying. But if, in this land of death inhabited by mortal beings, so much beauty and perfection are found, what must be the splendor and magnificence of that heavenly country whose inhabitants will live forever?
Cast your eyes over the world and behold the wonders and beauties with which it is filled. Observe the immensity of the blue vault of heaven; the dazzling splendor of the sun; the soft radiance of the moon and stars; the verdant beauty of the earth, with its treasures of precious metals and brilliant gems; the rich plumage of the birds; the grandeur of the mountains; the smiling beauty of the valleys; the limpid freshness of the streams; the majesty of the great rivers; the vastness of the sea, with all the wonders it contains; the beauty of the deep lakes, those eyes of the earth, reflecting on their placid bosoms the starry splendor of the heavens; the flower-enameled fields, which seem a counterpart of the starlit firmament above them. If in this land of exile we behold so much beauty to enrapture our soul, what must be the spectacle which awaits us in the haven of eternal rest?
Compare the inhabitants of the two countries, if you would have a still stronger proof of the superiority and finite grandeur of the heavenly country. This earth is the land of death; Heaven is the land of immortality. Ours is the habitation of sinners, Heaven the habitation of the just. Ours is a place of penance, an arena of combat; Heaven is the land of triumph, the throne of the victor, the "city of God." "Glorious things are said of thee, O city of God." (Ps. 86:3). Immeasurable is thy greatness, incomparable the beauty of thy structure. Infinite thy price; most noble thy inhabitants, sublime thy employments; most rich art thou in all good, and no evil can penetrate thy sacred walls. Great is thy Author, high the end for which thou wast created, and most noble the blessed citizens who dwell in thee.
All that we have hitherto said relates only to the accidental glory of the saints. They possess another glory incomparably superior, which theologians call the essential glory. This is the vision and possession of God Himself. For St. Augustine tells us that the reward of virtue will be God Himself, the Author of all virtue, whom we will untiringly contemplate, love, and praise for all eternity. (Cityof God, 22, 30). What reward could be greater than this? It is not Heaven, or earth, or any created perfection, but God, the Source of all beauty and all perfection. The blessed inhabitants of Heaven will enjoy in Him all good, each according to the degree of glory he has merited. For since God is the Author of every good that we behold in creatures, it follows that He possesses in Himself all perfection, all goodness, in an infinite degree. He possesses them, because otherwise He could not have bestowed them on creatures. He possesses them in an infinite degree, because as His Being is infinite, so also are His attributes and His perfections.
God, then, will be our sovereign beatitude and the fulfillment of all our desires. In Him we will find the perfections of all creatures exalted and transfigured. In Him we will enjoy the beauty of all the seasons – the balmy freshness of spring, the rich beauty of summer, the luxurious abundance of autumn, and the calm repose of winter. In a word, all that can delight the senses and enrapture the soul will be ours in Heaven. "In God," says St. Bernard, "our understandings will be filled with the plenitude of light; our wills with an abundance of peace; and our memories with the joys of eternity. In this abode of all perfection, the wisdom of Solomon will appear but ignorance; the beauty of Absolom deformity; the strength of Samson weakness; the longest life of man a brief mortality; the wealth of kings but indigence."
Why, then, O man, will you seek straws in Egypt? Why will you drink troubled waters from broken cisterns, when inexhaustible treasures, and the fountain of living water springing up into eternal life, await you in Heaven? Why will you seek vain and sensual satisfactions from creatures, when unalterable happiness may be yours? If your heart craves joy, raise it to the contemplation of that Good which contains in Itself all joys. If you are in love with this created life, consider the eternal life which awaits you above. If the beauty of creatures attracts you, live that you may one day possess the Source of all beauty, in whom are life; and strength, and glory, and immortality, and the fullness of all our desires. If you find happiness in friendship and the society of generous hearts, consider the noble beings with whom you will be united by the tenderest ties for all eternity. If your ambition seeks wealth and honors, make the treasures and the glory of Heaven the end of all your efforts. Finally, if you desire freedom from all evil and rest from all labor, in Heaven alone can your desires be gratified.
God, in the Old Law, ordained that children should be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, teaching us thereby that, on the day of the general resurrection which will follow the short space of this life, He will cut off the miseries and sufferings of those who, for love of Him, have circumcised their hearts by cutting off all the sinful affections and pleasures of this world. Now, who can conceive a happier existence than this, which is exempt from every sorrow and every infirmity?
"In Heaven," says St. Augustine, "we shall cease to feel the trials of want or sickness. Pride or envy will never enter there. The necessity of eating or drinking will there be unknown. The desire for honors will never disturb our calm repose. Death will no longer reach body or soul, united as they will be with the Source of all life, which they will enjoy throughout a blessed immortality." (Soliloq., 35). Consider, moreover, the glory and happiness of living in the company of the angels, contemplating the beauty of these sublime spirits; admiring the resplendent virtue of the saints, and the rewards with which the obedience of the patriarchs and the hope of the prophets have been crowned; the brilliant diadems of the martyrs, dyed with their own blood; and the dazzling whiteness of the robes with which the virgins are adorned.
But what tongue can describe the beauty and the majesty of the Sovereign Monarch who reigns in their midst? "If by daily enduring fresh torments," says St. Augustine (Manual., 15), "and even suffering for a time the pains of Hell, we were permitted for one day to contemplate this King in all His glory and enjoy the society of His elect, surely it would be a happiness cheaply purchased."
What, then, can we say of the happiness of possessing these joys for all eternity? Conceive, if you can, the ravishing harmony of the celestial voices chanting the words heard by St. John: "Benediction, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, honor, and power, and strength to our God for ever and ever. Amen." (Apoc. 7:12). If the harmony of these voices will cause us such happiness, how we will rejoice at the unity that we will behold between soul and body! And this concord will be still more marked between angels and men, whilst between God and men the union will be so close that we can form no adequate idea of it. What glory, then, will it be for the creature to find himself seated at the banquet of the King of kings, partaking of His table-that is, of His honor and His glory! Oh! Enduring peace of Heaven! Oh! Unalterable joy! Oh! Entrancing harmonies! Oh! Torrents of celestial delight, why are ye not ever present to the minds of those who labor and combat on earth?
If such be the happiness which faith tells us is the reward of the just, how great is your blindness if you are not moved thereby to practice virtue!
Index to The Sinner's Guide