THE SINNER'S GUIDE
Venerable Louis of Granada
The Ninth Privilege of Virtue:
The Manner in which God hears the Prayers of the Just
To comprehend what we are about to say upon this subject, you must remember that there have been two universal deluges, one material, the other moral. The former took place in the time of Noe and destroyed everything in the world but the ark and what it contained. The moral deluge, much greater and more fatal than the material, arose from the sin of our first parents. Unlike the flood in the days of Noe, it affected not only Adam and Eve, its guilty cause, but every human being. It affected the soul even more than the body. It robbed us of all the spiritual riches and supernatural treasures which were bestowed upon us in the person of our first parent.
From this first deluge came all the miseries and necessities under which we groan. So great and so numerous are these that a celebrated doctor, who was also an illustrious pontiff, has devoted to them an entire work. (Innocent III, De Vilitate Conditionis Humanae). Eminent philosophers; considering on the one hand man's superiority to all other creatures, and on the other the miseries and vices to which he is subject, have greatly wondered at such contradictions in so noble a creature. Unenlightened by revelation, they knew not the cause of this discord. They saw that of all animals man had most infirmities of body; that he alone was tormented by ambition, by avarice, by a desire to prolong his life, by a strange anxiety concerning his burial, and, as it appeared to them, by a still stranger anxiety concerning his condition after death. In fine, they saw that he was subject to innumerable accidents and miseries of body and soul, and condemned to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.
His wretchedness was briefly but forcibly described by Job when he said that "the life of man upon earth is a warfare; and his days are like the days of a hireling." (Job 7:1). Many of the ancient philosophers were so impressed with this truth that they doubted whether nature should not be called a stepmother rather than a mother, so great are the miseries to which she subjects us. Others argued that it would be better never to be born, or to die immediately after birth. And some have said that few would accept life could they have any experience of it before it was offered them.
Reduced to this miserable condition, and deprived of our possessions by the first deluge, what resource, what remedy, has been left us by the Master who has punished us so severely? There is but one remedy for us, and that is to have recourse to Him, crying out with the holy king Josaphat, "We know not what to do; we can only turn our eyes to thee." (2Par. 20:12). Ezechias, powerful monarch though he was, knew that this was his only refuge, and therefore declared that he would cry to God like a swallow and would moan before Him as a dove. (Cf. Is. 38:14).
And David, though a still greater monarch, placed all his confidence in this heavenly succor. Inspired with the same sentiment, he exclaimed, "I cried to the Lord with my voice; to God with my voice, and he gave ear to me. In the day of my trouble I sought God, with my hands lifted up to him in the night, and I was not deceived." (Ps. 76:2-3). Thus when all other avenues of hope were closed against him, when all other resources failed him, he had recourse to prayer, the sovereign remedy for every evil.
You will ask, perhaps, whether this is truly the sovereign remedy for every evil. As this depends solely upon the will of God, they alone can answer it who have been instructed in the secrets of His will – the Apostles and prophets. "There is no other nation so great, that hath gods so nigh them, as our God is present to all our petitions." (Deut. 4:7).
These are the words of God Himself, though expressed by His servant. They assure us with absolute certainty that our prayers are not addressed in vain, that God is invisibly present with us to receive every sigh of our soul, to compassionate our miseries, and to grant us what we ask, if it be for our welfare. What is there more consoling in prayer than this guarantee of God's assistance? But still more reassuring are the promises of God Himself in the New Testament where He tells us, "Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you." (Matt. 7:7). What stronger, what fuller pledge could we find to allay our doubts?
Is it not evident that this is one of the greatest privileges enjoyed by the just, to whom these consoling words are in a special manner addressed? "The eyes of the Lord are upon the just, and his ears unto their prayers." (Ps. 33:16). "Then shalt thou call, and the Lord shall hear; thou shalt cry, and he shall say: Here I am." (Is. 58:9). By the same prophet God promises more – to grant the prayers of the just even before they are addressed to Him. And yet none of these promises equal those of Our Saviour in the New Testament. "If you abide in me, " He says, "and my words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you." (Jn. 15:7).
"Amen, amen I say to you: if you ask the Father any thing in my name, he will give it you." (Jn. 16:23). Oh! Promise truly worthy of Him who utters it! What other power could offer such a pledge? Who but God could fulfill it? Does not this favor make man, in a measure, the lord of all things? Is he not thereby entrusted with the keys of Heaven? "Whatsoever you shall ask" – provided it lead to your salvation – shall be given to you." There is no limitation, no special blessing – all the treasures of grace are offered to us.
Ah! If men knew how to appreciate things at their true value, with what confidence would these words inspire them! If men glory in possessing the favor of an earthly monarch who places his royal power at their disposal, how much more reason have we to rejoice in the favor and protection of the King of kings!
If you would learn how such promises are fulfilled, study the lives of the saints and see what marvels they effected by prayer. What did not Moses accomplish by prayer in Egypt and throughout the journey of the Israelites in the desert? How wonderful were the works of Elias and his disciple Eliseus! Behold the miracles which the Apostles wrought! Prayer was the source of their power. It is, moreover, the weapon with which the saints have fought and overcome the world. By prayer they ruled the elements, and converted even the fierce flames into refreshing dew. By prayer they disarmed the wrath of God and opened the fountains of His mercy. By prayer, in fine, they obtained all their desires.
It is related that our holy Father, St. Dominic, once told a friend that he never failed to obtain a favor which he asked from God. Whereupon his friend desired him to pray that a celebrated doctor named Reginald might become a member of his order. The saint spent the night in prayer for this disciple, and early in the morning, as he was beginning the first hymn of the morning office, Reginald suddenly came into the choir, and, prostrating himself at the feet of the saint, begged for the habit of his order. Behold the recompense with which God rewards the obedience of the just. They are docile to the voice of His commandments, and He is equally attentive to the voice of their supplications. Hence Solomon tells us that "an obedient man shall speak of victory." (Prov. 21:28).
How differently are the prayers of the wicked answered! "When you stretch forth your hands," the Almighty tells them, "I will turn away my eyes from you; and when you multiply prayer I will not hear." (Is. 1:15). "In the time of their affliction," says the prophet, "they will say to the " Lord, Arise, and deliver us." But God will ask, Where are the gods whom thou hast made thee? Let them arise and deliver thee." (Jer. 2:27-28).
"What is the hope of the hypocrite, if through covetousness he takes by violence? Will God hear his cry when distress shall come upon him?" (Job 27:8).
"Dearly beloved," says St. John, "if our heart do not reprehend us, we have confidence towards God; and whatsoever we shall ask, we shall receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things which are pleasing in his sight." (1Jn. 3:21-22).
"If I have looked at iniquity in my heart," the royal prophet tells us; "the Lord will not hear me"; but I have not committed iniquity, and "therefore God hath heard me, and attended to the voice of my supplication." (Ps. 65:18-19).
It would be easy to find in Holy Scripture many similar passages, but these will suffice to manifest the difference between the prayers of the just and those of the wicked, and, by consequence, the incomparable privileges which the former enjoy. The just are heard and treated as the children of God; the wicked are rejected as His enemies. This should not astonish us, for a prayer unsupported by good works, devoid of fervor, charity, or humility, cannot be pleasing to God.
Nevertheless, the sinner who reads these lines must not give way to discouragement. It is only the obstinately wicked who are rejected. It is only those who wish to continue in their disorders who are thus cut off. Though your sins are as numerous as the sands on the shore, though your life has been wasted in crime, never forget that God is your Father, that He awaits you with open arms and open heart, that He is continually calling upon you to return and be reconciled to Him. Have the desire to change your life; be resolved to walk in the path of virtue, and turn to God in humble prayer, with unshaken confidence that you will be heard. "Ask, and you shall receive; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you."
The Tenth Privilege of Virtue:
The Consolation and Assistance
with which God sustains the Just in their Afflictions
As we have already remarked, there is no sea more treacherous or more inconstant than this life. No man's happiness is secure from the danger of innumerable accidents and misfortunes. It is, therefore, important to observe how differently the just and the wicked act under tribulation. The just, knowing that God is their Father and the Physician of their souls, submissively and generously accept as the cure for their infirmities the bitter chalice of suffering. They look on tribulation as a file in the hands of their Maker to remove the rust of. sin from their souls, and to restore them to their original purity and brightness. They have learned in the school of the Divine Master that affliction renders a man more humble, increases the fervor of his prayers, and purifies his conscience.
Now, no physician more carefully proportions his remedies to the strength of his patient than this Heavenly Physician tempers trials according to the necessities of souls. Should their burdens be increased, He redoubles the measure of their consolations. Seeing from this the riches they acquire by sufferings, the just no longer fly from them, but eagerly desire them, and meet them with patience and even with joy. They regard not the labor, but the crown; not the bitter medicine, but the health to be restored to them; not the pain of their wounds, but the goodness of Him who has said that He loves those whom He chastises. (Cf. Heb. 12:6).
Grace, which is never wanting to the just in the hour of tribulation, is the first source of the fortitude which they display. Though He seems to have withdrawn from them, God is never nearer to His children than at such a time. Search the Scriptures and you will see that there is no truth more frequently repeated than this. "Call upon me in the day of trouble," says the Lord; "I will deliver thee, and thou shalt glorify me." (Ps. 49:15). "When I called upon the Lord," David sings, "the God of my justice heard me; when I was in distress, thou hast enlarged me." (Ps. 4:2).
Hence the calmness and fortitude of the just under suffering. They are strong in the protection of a powerful Friend who constantly watches over them. Witness the three young men who were cast into the burning furnace. God sent His angel to accompany them, and "He drove the flame of the fire out of the furnace, and made the midst of the furnace like the blowing of a wind bringing dew, and the fire touched them not, nor troubled them, nor did them any harm … Then Nabuchodonosor was astonished, and rose up in haste, and said to his nobles: Did we not cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They answered the king and said: True, O king. He answered and said: Behold I see four men loose, and walking in the midst of the fire, and there is no hurt in them, and the form of the fourth is like the Son of God." (Dan. 3:49-50 and 91-92). Does this not teach us that God's protection never fails the just in the hour of trial?
A no less striking example is that of Joseph, with whom God's protection "descended into the pit, and left him not till he was brought to the scepter of the kingdom, and power against those that had oppressed him, and showed them to be liars that had accused him, and gave him everlasting glory." (Wis. 10:13-14). Such examples prove more powerfully than words the truth of God's promise, "I am with him in tribulation; I will deliver him and I will glorify him." (Ps. 90:15). Oh! Happy affliction which merits for us the companionship of God! Let our prayers, then, be with St. Bernard: "Give me, O Lord, tribulations through life, that I may never be separated from Thee!" (Serm. 17 in Ps. 90).
To the direct action of grace we must add that of the virtues, each of which, in its own way, strengthens the afflicted soul. When the heart is oppressed, the blood rushes to it to facilitate its movement, to strengthen its action. So, .when the soul is oppressed by suffering, the virtues hasten to assist and strengthen it.
First comes faith, with her absolute assurance of the eternal happiness of Heaven and the eternal misery of Hell. She tells us, in the words of the Apostle, that "the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us." (Rom. 8:18). Next comes hope, softening our troubles and lightening our burdens with her glorious promises of future rewards. Then charity, the most powerful help of the soul, so inflames our will that we even desire to suffer for love of Him who has endured so much for love of us.
Gratitude reminds us that as we have received good things from God, we should also be willing to receive evil. (Cf. Job 2:10). Resignation helps us recognize and cheerfully accept God's will or permission in all things. Humility bows the heart before the wind of adversity, like a young tree swept by the storm. Patience gives us strength above nature to enable us to bear the heaviest burden. Obedience tells us that there is no holocaust more pleasing to God than that which we make of our will by our perfect submission to Him. Penance urges that it is but just that one who has so often resisted God's will should have his own will denied in many things. Fidelity pleads that we should rejoice to be able to prove our devotion to Him who unceasingly showers His benefits upon us.
Finally, the memory of Christ's Passion and the lives of the saints show us how cowardly it would be to complain of our trials. Yet among all the virtues, hope consoles us most effectually. "Rejoice in hope," says the Apostle; "be patient in tribulation" (Rom. 12:12), thus teaching us that our patience is the result of our hope. Again, he calls hope an anchor (Heb. 6:19), because it holds firm and steady the frail barque of our life in the midst of the most tempestuous storms.
Strengthened by these considerations and by God's unfailing grace, the just endure tribulation not only with invincible fortitude, but even with cheerfulness and gratitude. They know that the duty of a good Christian does not consist solely in praying, fasting, or hearing Mass, but in proving their faith under tribulation, as did Abraham, the father of the faithful, and Job, the most patient of men. Consider also the example of Tobias, who, after suffering many trials, was permitted by God to lose his sight. The Holy Ghost bears witness to his invincible patience and virtue. "Having always feared God from his infancy, and kept his commandments, he repined not against God because the evil of blindness had befallen him, but continued immovable in the fear of God, giving thanks to God all the days of his life." (Tob, 2:13-14). We could cite numerous examples of men and women who – even in our time – have cheerfully and lovingly borne cruel infirmities and painful labors, finding honey in gall, calm in tempest, refreshment and peace in the midst of the flames of Babylon.
But we feel that we have said sufficient to prove that God consoles the just in their sufferings, and therefore we shall next consider the unfortunate condition of the wicked when laboring under affliction. Devoid of hope, of charity, of courage, of every sustaining virtue, tribulation attacks them unarmed and defenceless. Their dead faith sheds no ray of light upon the darkness of their afflictions. Hope holds out no future reward to sustain their failing courage. Strangers to charity, they know not the loving care of their Heavenly Father. How lamentable a sight to behold them swallowed in the gulf of tribulation! Utterly defenceless, how can they breast the angry waves? How can they escape being dashed to pieces against the rocks of pride, despair, rage, and blasphemy?
Have we not seen unhappy souls lose their health, their reason, their very life in the excess of their misery? While the just, like pure gold, come out of the crucible of suffering refined and purified, the wicked, like some viler metal, are melted and dissolved. While the wicked shed bitter tears, the. just sing songs of gladness. "The voice of rejoicing and of salvation is in the tabernacles of the just" (Ps. 117:15), while the habitations of sinners resound with cries of sorrow and despair.
Observe, moreover, the extravagant grief of the wicked when those they love are taken from them by death. They storm against Heaven; they deny God's justice; they blaspheme His mercy; they accuse His providence; they rage against men; and not unfrequently they end their miserable lives by their own hands. Their curses and blasphemies bring upon them terrible calamities, for the Divine Justice cannot but punish those who rebel against the providence of God.
Unhappy souls! The afflictions which are sent for the cure of their disorders only increase their misery. May we not say that the pains of Hell begin for them even in this life? Consider, too, the loss which they suffer by their murmurings and impatience. No man can escape the trials of life, but all can lighten their burden and merit eternal reward by bearing their sorrows in patience. Not only is this precious fruit lost by the wicked, but to the load of misery which they are compelled to carry they add the still more intolerable burden of their impatience and rebellion. They are like a traveler who, after a long and weary journey through the night, finds himself in the morning further than ever from the place he wished to reach.
What a subject is this for our contemplation! "The same fire," says St. Chrysostom, "which purifies gold, consumes wood; so in the fire of tribulation the just acquire new beauty and perfection, while the wicked, like dry wood, are reduced to ashes." (Hom.14 in Matt.1). St. Cyprian expresses the same thought by another illustration: "As the wind in harvest time scatters the chaff but cleanses the wheat, so the winds of adversity scatter the wicked but purify the just." (De Unitate Eccl.).
The passage of the children of Israel through the Red Sea is still another figure of the same truth. Like protecting walls the waters rose on each side of the people, and gave them a safe passage to the dry land; but as soon as the Egyptian army with its king and chariots had entered the watery breach, the same waves closed upon them and buried them in the sea. In like manner the waters of tribulation are a preservation to the just, while to the wicked they are a tempestuous gulf which sweeps them into the abyss of rage, of blasphemy, and of despair.
Behold the admirable advantage which virtue possesses over vice. It was for this reason that philosophers so highly extolled philosophy, persuaded that its study rendered man more constant and more resolute in adversity, But this was one of their numerous errors. True constancy, like true virtue, cannot be drawn from the teaching of worldly philosophy. It must be learned in the school of the Divine Master, who from His cross consoles us by His example, and from His throne in Heaven sends us His Spirit to strengthen and encourage us by the hope of an immortal crown.
The Eleventh Privilege of Virtue: God's Care for the Temporal Needs of the Just
The privileges of virtue which we considered in the preceding chapters are the spiritual blessings accorded to the just in this life, independently of the eternal reward of Heaven. As, however, there may be some who, like the Jews of old, cling to the things of the flesh rather than to those of the spirit, we shall devote this chapter to the temporal blessings which the virtuous enjoy.
The Wise Man says of wisdom, which is the perfection of virtue, that "length of days is in her right hand, and in her left hand riches and glory." (Prov. 3:16). Perfect virtue, then, possesses this double reward with which she wins men to her allegiance, holding out to them with one hand the temporal blessings of this life, and with the other the eternal blessings of the life to come. Oh, no; God does not leave His followers in want! He who so carefully provides for the ant, the worm, the smallest of His creatures, cannot disregard the necessities of His faithful servants.
I do not ask you to receive this upon my word, but I do ask you to read the Gospel according to St. Matthew, in which you will find many assurances and promises on this subject. "Behold the birds of the air," says Our Saviour, "for they neither sow, nor do they reap, nor gather into barns; and your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are not you of much more value than they? … Be not solicitous, therefore, saying: What shall we eat, or what shall we drink, or wherewith shall we be clothed? For after all these things do the heathen seek. For your Father knoweth that you have need of all these things. Seek ye, therefore, first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you." (Matt. 6:26, 31-33).
"Fear the Lord, all ye his saints," the psalmist sings, "for they that fear him know no want. The rich have wanted, and have suffered hunger; but they that seek the Lord shall not be deprived of any good." (Ps. 33:10-11). "I have been young, and now am old, and I have not seen the just forsaken nor his seed seeking bread." (Ps. 36:25).
If you would satisfy yourself still further concerning the temporal blessings conferred on the just, read the divine promises recorded in Deuteronomy: "If thou wilt hear the voice of the Lord thy God, to do and keep all his commandments which I command thee this day, the Lord thy God will make thee higher than all the nations that are on the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon thee and overtake thee, if thou hear his precepts. Blessed shalt thou be in the city, and blessed in the field. Blessed shall be the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy ground, and the fruit of thy cattle, the droves of thy herds, and the folds of thy sheep. Blessed shall be thy barns and blessed thy stores. Blessed shalt thou be coming in and going out. The Lord shall cause thy enemies that rise up against thee to fall down before thy face; one way shall they come out against thee, and seven ways shall they thee before thee. The Lord will send forth a blessing upon thy storehouses, and upon all the works of thy hands, and will bless thee in the land that thou shalt receive.
"The Lord will raise thee up to be a holy people to himself, as he swore to thee, if thou keep the commandments of the Lord thy God and walk in his ways. And all the people of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is invoked upon thee, and they shall fear thee. The Lord will make thee abound with all goods, with the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy cattle, with the fruit of thy land which the Lord swore to thy fathers that he would give thee. The Lord will open his excellent treasure, the heaven, that it may give rain in due season; and he will bless all the works of thy hands." (Deut. 28:1-12).
What riches can be compared to such blessings as these? And they have been promised not only to the Jews, but to all Christians who are faithful to God's law. Moreover, they are bestowed with two extraordinary advantages unknown to the wicked. The first of these is the wisdom with which God awards them. Like a skillful physician, He gives His servants temporal blessings according to their necessities, and not in such measure as to inflate them with pride or endanger their salvation. The wicked despise this moderation and madly heap up all the riches they can acquire, forgetting that excess in this respect is as dangerous to the soul as excess of nourishment is injurious to the body. Though a man's life lies in his blood, too copious a supply only tends to choke him.
The second of these advantages is that temporal blessings afford the just, with far less disturbance or display, that rest and contentment which all men seek in worldly goods. Even with a little, the just enjoy as much repose as if they possessed the universe. Hence St. Paul speaks of himself as having nothing, yet possessing all things. (Cf. 2Cor. 6:10). Thus the just journey through life, poor but knowing no want, possessing abundance in the midst of poverty. The wicked, on the contrary, hunger in the midst of abundance, and though, like Tantalus, they are surrounded by water, they can never satisfy their thirst. (Tantalus, according to the fable of the ancients, was a king of Corinth, condemned by the gods, for divulging their secrets, to be placed in Hell in the midst of water which reached his chin, but which he could not even taste; to have fruit suspended over his head which he could not eat; and to be always in fear of a large stone falling on his hand.).
For like reasons Moses earnestly exhorted the people to the observance of God's law. "Lay up these words in thy heart," he says; "teach them to thy children; meditate upon them sitting in thy house, walking on thy journey, sleeping and rising. Bind them as a sign upon thy hand; keep them before thy eyes; write them over the entrance to thy house, on the doors of thy house. Do that which is pleasing and good in the sight of the Lord, that it may be well with thee all the days of thy life in the land which God shall give thee." (Deut. 6:6-10).
Having been admitted to the counsels of the Most High, Moses knew the inestimable treasure contained in the observance of the law. His prophetic mind saw that all temporal and spiritual blessings, both present and future, were comprised in this. It is a compact which God makes with the just, and which, we may feel assured, will never be broken on His part. Nay, rather, if we prove ourselves faithful servants we will find that God will be even more generous than His promises.
"Godliness," says St. Paul, "is profitable to all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come." (1Tim. 4:8). Behold how clearly the Apostle promises to piety, which is the observance of God's commandments, not only the blessings of eternity but those of this life also.
If you desire to know the poverty, miseries, and afflictions which are reserved for the wicked, read the twenty eighth chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy. Therein Moses, in the name of God, utters most terrible threats and maledictions against the impious. "If thou wilt not hear the voice of the Lord thy God, to keep and to do all his commandments and ceremonies which I command thee this day, all these curses shall come upon thee and overtake thee. Cursed shalt thou be in the city, cursed in the field. Cursed shall be thy barn, and cursed thy stores. Cursed shall be the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy ground, the herds of thy oxen, and the flocks of thy sheep. Cursed shalt thou be coming in and going out. The Lord shall send upon thee famine and hunger, and a rebuke upon all the works which thou shalt do, until he consume and destroy thee quickly for thy most wicked inventions, by which thou hast forsaken me. May the Lord set the pestilence upon thee until he consume thee out of the land which thou shalt go in to possess.
"May the Lord afflict thee with miserable want, with the fever and with cold, with burning and with heat, and with corrupted air and with blasting, and pursue thee till thou perish. Be the heaven that is over thee of brass, and the ground thou treadest on of iron. The Lord give thee dust for rain upon thy land, and let ashes come down from heaven upon thee till thou be consumed. The Lord make thee fall down before thy enemies; one way mayst thou go out against them, and flee seven ways, and be scattered throughout all the kingdoms of the earth. And be thy carcass meat for all the fowls of the air and the beasts of the earth, and be there none to drive them away. The Lord strike thee with madness and blindness, and fury of mind. And mayst thou grope at midday as the blind is wont to grope in the dark, and not make straight thy ways. And mayst thou at all times suffer wrong, and be oppressed with violence, and mayest thou have no one to deliver thee. May thy sons and thy daughters be given to another people, thy eyes looking on, and languishing at the sight of them all the day, and may there be no strength in thy hand.
"May a people which thou knowest not eat the fruits of thy land, and all thy labors, and mayst thou always suffer oppression, and be crushed at all times. May the Lord strike thee with a very sore ulcer in the knees and in the legs, and be thou incurable from the sole of thy foot to the top of thy head. … And all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue and overtake thee, till thou perish; because thou heardst not the voice of the Lord thy God, and didst not keep his commandments. Because thou didst not serve the Lord thy God with joy and gladness of heart for the abundance of all things, thou shalt serve thy enemy whom the Lord will send upon thee, in hunger, in thirst, and nakedness, and in want of all things; and he shall put an iron yoke upon thy neck till he consume thee. The Lord will bring upon thee a nation from afar, and from the uttermost ends of the earth, a most insolent nation, that will show no regard to the ancient, nor have pity on the infant, and will devour the fruit of thy cattle, and the fruits of thy land, until thou be destroyed, and will leave thee no wheat, nor wine, nor oil, nor herds of oxen, nor flocks of sheep, till he consume thee in all thy cities, and thy strong and high walls be brought down, wherein thou trustedst in all thy land. Thou shalt be besieged within thy gates, and thou shalt eat the fruit of thy womb, and the flesh of thy sons and thy daughters, in the distress and extremity wherewith thy enemies shall oppress thee."
Let us not forget that these maledictions are recorded in Holy Scripture, with many others, equally terrible, which we have not cited. Learn from them the rigor with which Divine Justice pursues the wicked, and the hatred God must bear to sin, which He punishes with such severity in this life and with still greater torments in the next.
Think not these were idle menaces. No; they were words of prophecy, and were terribly verified in the Jewish nation. For we read that during the reign of Achab, King of Israel, his people were besieged by the army of the King of Syria, and reduced to such straits that they fed upon pigeons' dung, which sold at a high price, and that a mother devoured her own child. (Cf. 4Kg. 6). And these scenes the historian Josephus tells us, were repeated during the siege of Jerusalem. The captivity of this people and the complete destruction of their kingdom and power are well-known to all.
Think not that these calamities were reserved for the Jewish people only. All the nations that have known God's law and despised it have been the objects of His just and terrible anger. "Did not I bring up Israel out of the land of Egypt, and the Philistines out of Cappadocia, and the Syrians out of Cyrene? Behold the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth." (Amos 9:7-8). From this we can understand that wars and revolutions, the downfall of some kingdoms and the rise of others, are due to the sins of men.
Read the annals of the early ages of the Church, and you will find that God has dealt in like manner with the wicked, especially with those who were once enlightened by His law, and who afterwards rejected it. See how He has punished infidelity in Christian nations. Vast portions of Europe, Asia, and Africa, formerly filled with Christian churches are now in the hands of infidels and barbarians. Behold the ravages wrought in Christian nations by the Goths, the Huns, and the Vandals! In the time of St. Augustine they laid waste all the countries of Africa, sparing none of the inhabitants, not even women and children. At the same time Dalmatia and the neighboring towns were so devastated by the barbarians that St. Jerome, who was a native of that kingdom, said that a traveler passing through the country would find only earth and sky, so universal was the desolation.
Is it not evident, therefore, that virtue not only helps us attain the joys of eternity, but that it also secures for us the blessings of this life?
Let, then, the consideration of this privilege, with the others which we have mentioned, excite you to renewed ardor in the practice of virtue, which is able to save you from so many miseries and procure you so many blessings.
The Twelfth Privilege of Virtue: The Happy Death of the Just
The end, it is said, crowns the work, and, therefore, it is in death that the just man's life is most fittingly crowned, while the departure of the sinner is a no less fitting close to his wretched career. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Ps.115:15), says the Psalmist, but "the death of the wicked is very evil." (Ps. 33:22). Commenting upon the latter part of this text, St. Bernard says, "The death of the wicked is bad because it takes them from this world; it is still worse because it separates the soul from the body; and it is worst because it precipitates them into the fire of Hell, and delivers them a prey to the undying worm of remorse."
To these evils which haunt the sinner at the hour of death add the bitter regrets which gnaw his heart, the anguish which fills his soul, and the torments which rack his body. He is seized with terror at the thought of the past; of the account he must render; of the sentence which is to be pronounced against him; of the horrors of the tomb; of separation from wife, children, and friends; of bidding farewell to the things he has loved with an inordinate and a guilty love wealth, luxuries, and even the gifts of nature, the light of day and the pure air of heaven. The stronger his love for earthly things has been, the more bitter will be his anguish in separating from them. As St. Augustine says, we cannot part without grief from that which we have possessed with love. It was in the same spirit that a certain philosopher said that he who has fewest pleasures in life has least reason to fear death.
But the greatest suffering of the wicked at the hour of death comes from the stings of remorse, and the thought of the terrible future upon which they are about to enter. The approach of death seems to open man's eyes and make him see all things as he never saw them before. "As life ebbs away," says St. Eusebius, "man is free from all distracting care for the necessities of life. He ceases to desire honors, emoluments, or dignities, for he sees that they are beyond his grasp. Eternal interests and thoughts of God's justice demand all his attention. The past with its pleasures is gone; the present with its opportunities is rapidly gliding away; all that remains to him is the future, with the dismal prospect of his many sins waiting to accuse him before the judgment-seat of the just God."
"Consider," the saint again says, "the terror which will seize the negligent soul when she is entering eternity; the anguish with which she will be filled when, foremost among her accusers, her conscience will appear with its innumerable retinue of sins. Its testimony cannot be denied; its accusations will leave her mute and helpless; there will be no need to seek further witnesses, for the knowledge of this life-long companion will confound her."
Still more terrible is the picture of the death of the sinner given by St. Peter Damian. "Let us try to represent to ourselves," he says, "the terror which fills the soul of the sinner at the hour of death and the bitter reproaches with which conscience assails him. The commandments he has despised and the sins he has committed appear before him, to haunt him by their presence. He sighs for the time which he has squandered, and which was given to him to do penance; he beholds with despair the account he must render before the dread tribunal of God. He longs to arrest the moments, but they speed relentlessly on, bearing him nearer and nearer to his doom.
"If he looks back, his life seems but a moment, and before him is the limitless horizon of eternity. He weeps bitterly at the thought of the unspeakable happiness which he has sacrificed for the fleeting pleasures of the flesh: Confusion and shame overwhelm him when he sees he has forfeited a glorious place among the angelic choirs, through love for his body, which is about to become the food of worms. When he turns his eyes from the abode of these beings of light to the dark valley of this world, he sees how base and unworthy are the things for which he has rejected immortal glory and happiness. Oh! Could he but regain a small portion of the time he has lost, what austerities, what mortifications he would practice! What is there that could overcome his courage? What vows would he not offer, and how fervent would be his prayers! But while he is revolving these sad thoughts, the messengers of death appear in the rigid limbs, the dark and hollow eyes, the heaving breast, the foaming lips, the livid face. And as these exterior heralds approach, every thought, word, and action of his guilty life appears before him.
"Vainly does he strive to turn his eyes from them; they will not be banished. On one side – and this is true of every man's death – Satan and his legions are present, tempting the dying man, in the hope of seizing his soul even at the last minute. On the other side are the angels of Heaven, helping, consoling, and strengthening him. And yet it is his own life that will decide the contest between the spirits of darkness and the angels of light. In the case of the good, who have heaped up a treasure of meritorious works, the victory is with the angels of light. But the impious man, whose unexpiated crimes are crying for vengeance, rejects the help that is offered to him, yields to despair, and as his unhappy soul passes from his pampered body, the demons are ready to seize it and bear it away."
What stronger proof does man require of the wretched condition of the sinner, and what more does he need to make him avoid a career which ends so deplorably? If, at this critical hour, riches could help him as they do at many other periods of life, the evil would be less. But he will receive no succor from his riches, his honors, his dignities, his distinguished friends. The only patronage which will then avail him will be that of virtue and innocence. "Riches," says the Wise Man, "shall not profit in the day of revenge, but justice shall deliver from death." (Prov. 11:4).
As the wicked, therefore, receive at the hour of death the punishment of their crimes, so do the just then receive the reward of their virtues. "With him that feareth the Lord ", says the Holy Ghost, "it shall go well in the latter end; and in the day of his death he shall be blessed." (Ecclus. 1:13). St. John declares this truth still more forcibly when he tells us that he heard a voice from Heaven commanding him, "Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. From henceforth, saith the Spirit, they rest from their labors, for their works follow them." (Apoc. 14:13). With such a promise from God Himself, how can the just man fear? Can he dread that hour in which he is to receive the reward of his life's labors?
Since, as we read in Job, he has put away iniquity, brightness like that of the noonday shall arise to him at evening, and when he shall think himself consumed he shall rise as the day-star. (Cf. Job 11:14,17). Explaining these words, St. Gregory says that the light which illumines the close of the just man's life is the splendor of that immortal glory which is already so near. When others, therefore, are weighed down by sadness and despair, he is full of confidence and joy. For this reason Solomon has said that the wicked shall be rejected because of their wickedness, but the just man hath hope in the hour of his death. (Cf. Prov. 14:32).
What more striking example of this confident hope can we find than that of the glorious St. Martin? Seeing the devil beside his bed at the hour of death, he cried out, "What art thou doing here, cruel beast? Thou wilt find no mortal sin in my soul by which thou mayest bind me. I go, therefore, to enjoy eternal peace in Abraham's bosom." Equally touching and beautiful was the confidence of our holy Father, St. Dominic. Seeing the religious of his order weeping around his bed, he said to them, "Weep not, my children, for I can do you more good where I am going than I could ever hope to do on earth." How could the fear of death overcome one who so confidently hoped to obtain Heaven, not only for himself, but also for his disciples?
Far, then, from fearing death, the just hail it as the hour of their deliverance and the beginning of their reward. In his commentary on the Epistle of St. John, St. Augustine writes, "It cannot be said that he who desires to be dissolved and to be with Christ endures death with patience, but rather that he endures life with patience and embraces death with joy." It is not, therefore, with cries and lamentations that the just man sees his end approaching, but – like the swan, which is said to sing as death draws near – he departs this life with words of praise and thanksgiving on his lips.
He does not fear death, because he has always feared God, and he who fears God need fear nothing else. He does not fear death, because his life has been a preparation for death, and he who is always armed and ready need not fear the enemy. He does not fear death, because he has sought during life to secure in virtue and good works powerful advocates for that terrible hour. He does not fear death, because he has endeavored, by devoted service, to incline his Judge in his favor. Finally, he does not fear death, because to the just, death is only a sweet sleep, the end of toil, and the beginning of a blessed immortality.
Nor can the accompanying accidents and pains of death alarm him, for he knows that they are but the throes and pangs in which he must be brought forth to eternal life. He is not dismayed by the memory of his sins or the rigor of God's justice, since he has Christ for his Friend and Advocate. He does not tremble at the presence of Satan and his followers, for his Redeemer, who has conquered Hell and ! death, stands at his side. For him the tomb has no terrors, for he knows that he must sow a natural body in order that it may rise a spiritual body, that this corruptible must put on incorruption. (Cf. 1Cor. 15:42,44).
Since, as we have already remarked, the end crowns the work, and, as Seneca tells us, the last day condemns or justifies the whole life, how can we, beholding the peaceful and blessed death of the just and the miserable departure of the wicked, seek for any other motive to make us embrace a life of virtue?
Of what avail will be the riches and prosperity which you may enjoy during your short stay in this life, if your eternity will be spent in the endless torments of Hell? Or how can you shrink from the temporary sufferings that will win for you an eternity of happiness? Of what advantage are learning and skill, if the sinner uses them only to acquire those things which flatter his pride, feed his sensuality, confirm him in sin, make him unfit to practice virtue, and thus render death as bitter and unwelcome as his life was pleasant and luxurious? We consider him a wise and skillful physician who prudently seeks by every it means to restore the health of his patient, since this is the end of his science. So is he truly wise who regulates his life with a view to his last end, who constantly employs all the means in his power to fit himself for a happy death.
Behold, then, dear Christian, the twelve fruits of virtue in this life. They are like the twelve fruits of the tree of life seen by St. John in his prophetic vision. (Cf. Apoc. 22:2). This tree represents Jesus Christ, and is also a symbol of virtue with its abundant fruits of holiness and life. And what fruits can be compared to those which we have been considering? What is there more consoling than the fatherly care with which God surrounds the just? What blessings equal those of divine grace, of heavenly wisdom, of the consolations of the Holy Spirit, of the testimony of a good conscience, of invincible hope, of unfailing efficacy in prayer, and of that peaceful and happy death with which the just man's life is crowned? But one of these fruits, rightly known and appreciated, should suffice to make us embrace virtue.
Think not that you will ever regret any labor or any sacrifice made in pursuit of so great a good. The wicked do not strive to attain it, for they know not its value. To them the kingdom of Heaven is like a hidden treasure. (Cf. Matt. 13:44). And yet it is only through the divine light and the practice of virtue that they will learn its beauty and worth. Seek, therefore, this light, and you will find the pearl of great price.
Do not leave the source of eternal life to drink at the turbid streams of the world. Follow the counsel of the prophet, and taste and see that the Lord is sweet. Trusting in Our Saviour's words, resolutely enter the path of virtue, and your illusions will vanish. The serpent into which the rod of Moses was converted was frightful at a distance, but at the touch of his hand it became again a harmless rod. To the wicked, virtue wears a forbidding look; to sacrifice their worldly pleasures for her would be to buy her at too dear a rate. But when they draw near they see how lovely she is, and when they have once tasted the sweetness she possesses they cheerfully surrender all they have to win her friendship and love. How gladly did the man in the Gospel hasten to sell all he had to purchase the field which contained a treasure! (Cf. Matt. 13:44).
Why, then, do Christians make so little effort to obtain this inestimable good? If a companion assured you that a treasure lay hidden in your house, you would not fail to search for it, even though you doubted its existence. Yet though you know, on the infallible word of God, that you can find a priceless treasure within your own breast, you do nothing to discover it. Oh! That you would realize its value! Would that you knew how little it costs to obtain it, and how "nigh is the Lord unto all them that call upon him, that call upon him in truth" (Ps. 144:18)!
Be mindful of the prodigal, of so many others who have returned from sin and error, to find, instead of an angry Judge, a loving Father awaiting them. Do penance, therefore, for your sins, and God will no longer remember your iniquities (Cf. Ezech. 18:21-22). Return to your loving Father; rise with the dawn and knock at the gates of His mercy; humbly persevere in your entreaties, and He will not fail to reveal to you the treasure of His love. Having once experienced the sweetness which it contains, you will say with the spouse in the Canticle, "If a man should give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing." (Cant. 8:7).
The Folly of those who Defer their Conversion
The considerations offered in the preceding chapters should be more than sufficient to excite men to the love and practice of virtue. However, sinners never seem to be in want of excuses to defend their loose lives. "A sinful man," says the Scripture, "will flee reproof, and will find an excuse according to his will." (Ecclus. 32:21).
"He that hath a mind to depart from a friend seeketh occasions." (Prov. 18:1). Thus the wicked, who flee reproach, who wish to withdraw from God, are never without an excuse. Some defer this important affair of salvation to an indefinite future; others till the hour of death. Many allege that it is too difficult and arduous an undertaking. Many presume upon God's mercy, persuading themselves that they can be saved by faith and hope without charity. Others, in fine, who are enslaved by the pleasures of the world, are unwilling to sacrifice them for the happiness which God promises. These are the snares most frequently employed by Satan to allure men to sin, and to keep them in its bondage until death surprises them.
At present we intend to answer those who defer their conversion, alleging that they can turn to God more efficaciously at another time. With this excuse was St, Augustine kept back from a virtuous life. "Later, Lord," he cried – "later I will abandon the world and sin."
It will not be difficult to prove that this is a ruse of the father of lies, whose office since the beginning of the world has been to deceive man. We know with certainty that there is nothing which a Christian should desire more earnestly than salvation. It is equally certain that to obtain it the sinner must change his life, since there is no other possible means of salvation. Therefore, all that remains for us is to decide when this amendment should begin. You say, at a future day I answer, at this present moment. You urge that later it will be easier. I insist that it will be easier now. Let us see which of us is right.
Before we speak of the facility of conversion, tell me who has assured you that you will live to the time you have appointed for your amendment. Do you not know how many have been deceived by this hope? St. Gregory tells us that "God promises to receive the repentant sinner when he returns to Him, but nowhere does He promise to give him tomorrow." St. Caesarius thus expresses the same thought: "Some say, 'In my old age I will have recourse to penance'; but how can you promise yourself an old age, when your frail life cannot count with security upon one day?"
I cannot but think that the number of souls lost in this way is infinite. It was the cause of the ruin of the rich man in the Gospel, whose terrible history is related by St. Luke: "The land of a certain rich man brought forth plenty of fruits; and he thought within himself, saying: What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said: This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and will build greater, and into them will I gather all things that are grown to me, and my goods; and I will say to my soul: Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thy rest, eat, drink, make good cheer. But God said to him: Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee; and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?" (Lk. 12:16-21). What greater folly than thus to dispose of the future, as if time were our own!
God, says St. John (Cf. Apoc. 1:18), holds the keys of life and death. Yet a miserable worm of the earth dares usurp this power. Such insolence merits the punishment which the sinner usually receives. Rejecting the opportunity God gives him for amendment, he is denied the time he has presumptuously chosen for penance, and thus miserably perishes in his sins. Since the number who are thus chastised is very great, let us profit by their misfortunes and heed the counsel of the Wise Man: "Delay not to be converted to the Lord, and defer it not from day to day. For his wrath shall come on a sudden, and in the time of vengeance he will destroy thee." (Ecclus. 5:8-9).
But, even granting that you will live as long as you imagine, will it be easier to begin your conversion now or some years hence? To make this point clear we shall give a brief summary of the causes which render a sincere conversion difficult. The first of these causes is the tyranny of bad habits. So strong are these that many would die rather than relinquish them. Hence St. Jerome declares that a long habit of sin robs virtue of all its sweetness. For habit becomes second nature, and to overcome it we must conquer nature itself, which is the greatest victory a man can achieve.
"When a vice is confirmed by habit," says St. Bernard, "it cannot be extirpated except by a very special and even miraculous grace." Therefore, there is nothing which a Christian should dread more than a habit of vice, because, like other things in this world, vice claims prescription, and once that is established it is almost impossible to root it out. A second cause of this difficulty is the absolute power which the devil has over a soul in sin. He is then the strongly-armed man mentioned in the Gospel, who does not easily relinquish what he has acquired. Another cause of this difficulty is the separation which sin makes between God and the soul. Though represented in Scripture (Cf. Is. 60) as a sentinel guarding the walls of Jerusalem, God withdraws further and further from a sinful soul, in proportion as her vices increase. We can learn the deplorable condition into which this separation plunges the soul from God Himself, who exclaims by His prophet, "Woe to them, for they have departed from me. Woe to them when I shall depart from them." (Osee 7:13 and 9:12). This abandonment by God is the second woe of which St. John speaks in the Apocalypse.
The last cause of this difficulty is the corruption of sin, which weakens and impairs the faculties of the soul, not in themselves, but in their operations and effects. Sin darkens the understanding, excites the sensual appetites, and, though leaving it free, so weakens the will that it is unable to govern us. Being the instruments of the soul, what but trouble and disorder can be expected from these faculties in their weak and helpless state? How, then, can you think that your conversion will be easier in the future, since every day increases the obstacles you now dread, and weakens the forces with which you must combat them? If you cannot ford the present stream, how will you pass through it when it will have swollen to an angry torrent? Perhaps you are now a prey to a dozen vices, which you tremble to attack. With what courage, but especially with what success, will you attack them when they will have increased a hundredfold in numbers and power? If you are now baffled by a year or two of sinful habits, how can you resist their strength at the end of ten years? Do you not see that this is a snare of the archenemy, who deceived our first parents, and who is continually seeking to deceive us also?
Can you, then, doubt that you only increase the difficulties of your conversion by deferring it? Do you think that the more numerous your crimes, the easier it will be to obtain a pardon? Do you think that it will be easier to effect a cure when the disease will have become chronic? "A long sickness is troublesome to the physician, but a short one" – that is, one which is taken in the beginning – "is easily cut off." (Ecclus. 10:11-12).
Hear how an angel disabused a holy solitary of an illusion like yours: Taking him by the hand, he led him into a field and showed him a man gathering fagots. Finding the bundle he had collected too heavy, the woodcutter began to add to it; and perceiving that he was still less able to lift it, he continued to add to the quantity, imagining that he would thus carry it more easily. The holy man wondering at what he saw, the angel said to him: Such is the folly of men, who, unable to remove the present burden of their sins, continue to add to it sin after sin, foolishly supposing that they will more easily lift a heavier burden in the future.
But among all these obstacles, the greatest is the tyranny of evil habits. Would that I could make you understand the power with which they bind us! As each blow of the hammer drives a nail further and further into the wood, until it can hardly be withdrawn, so every sinful action is a fresh blow which sinks vices deeper and deeper into our souls until it is almost impossible to uproot them. Thus it is not rare to see the sinner in his old age a prey to vices which have dishonored his youth, in which he is no longer capable of finding pleasure, and which his years and the weakness of nature would repel, were he not bound to them by long-continued habit. Are we not told in Scripture that "the bones of the sinner shall be filled with the vices of his youth, and that they shall sleep with him in the dust"? (Job 20:11). Thus we see that even death does not terminate the habit of vice; its terrible effects pass into eternity. It becomes a second nature, and is so imprinted iri the sinner's flesh that it consumes him like a fatal poison for which there is scarcely any remedy.
This Our Saviour teaches us in the resurrection of Lazarus. He had raised other dead persons by a single word, but to restore Lazarus, who had been four days in the tomb, He had recourse to tears and prayers, to show us the miracle God effects when he raises to the life of grace a soul buried in a habit of sin. For, according to St. Augustine, the first of these four days represents the pleasure of sin; the second, the consent; the third, the act; and the fourth, the habit of sin. Therefore, the sinner who has reached this fourth day can only be restored to life by the tears and prayers of Our Saviour.
But let us suppose that you will not be disappointed, that you will live to do penance. Think of the inestimable treasures you are now losing and how bitterly you will regret them when too late. While your fellow Christians are enriching themselves for Heaven, you are idling away your time in the childish follies of the world.
Besides this, think of the evil you are accumulating. We i should not, says St. Augustine, commit one venial sin even to gain the whole world. How, then, can you so carelessly heap up mortal sins, when the salvation of a thousand worlds would not justify one? How dare you offend with impunity Him at whose feet you must kneel for mercy, in whose hands lies your eternal destiny? Can you afford to defy Him of whom you have such urgent need?
"Tell me," says St. Bernard, "you who live in sin, do you think God will pardon you or not? If you think He will reject you, is it not foolish to continue to sin when you have no hope of pardon? And if you rely upon His goodness to pardon you, notwithstanding your innumerable offences, what can be more base than the ingratitude with which you presume upon His mercy, which, instead of exciting you to love Him, only leads you to offend Him?" How can you answer this argument of the saint?
Consider also the tears with which you will expiate your present sins. If God visits you one day, if He causes you to hear His voice (and alas for you if He does not!), be assured that the remorse for your sins will be so bitter that you will wish you had suffered a thousand deaths rather than have offended so good a Master. David indulged but a short time in sinful pleasures, yet behold how bitter was his sorrow, how long he wept for his sins. "I have labored in my goanings," he cried; "every night I will wash my bed, I will water my couch with my tears." (Ps. 6:7). Why, then, will you sow what you can only reap in tears? Consider, moreover, the obstacles to virtue which continual sin establishes in us. Moses compelled the children of Israel, in punishment of their idolatry, to drink the ashes of the golden calf which they had adored. (Cf. Ex. 32:20). God often inflicts a like punishment upon sinners, permitting their very bones to become so impregnated with the effects of sin that the idol which they formerly worshipped becomes for them a punishment and a constant source of torment.
Let me call your attention to the foolish choice you make in selecting old age as a time for repentance, and permitting your youth to go fruitlessly by. What would you think of a man who, having several beasts of burden, put all the weight upon the weakest, letting the others go unloaded`! Greater is the folly of those Christians who assign all the burden of penance to old age, which can hardly support itself, and who spend in idleness the vigorous years of youth. Seneca has admirably said that he who waits until old age to practice virtue clearly shows that he desires to give to virtue only the time of which he can make no other use. (De Brev. Vitae, cap.15).
And do not lose sight of the satisfaction God requires for sin, which is so great that, in the opinion of St. John Climachus, man can with difficulty satisfy each day for the faults he commits each day. Why, then, will you continue to accumulate the debt of sin and defer its payment to old age, which can so poorly satisfy for its own transgressions? St. Gregory considers this the basest treason, and says that he who defers the duty of penance to old age falls far short of the allegiance he owes to God, and has much reason to fear that he will be a victim of God's justice rather than the object of that mercy upon which he has so rashly presumed.
But apart from all these considerations, if you have any sense of justice or honesty, will not the benefits you have received and the rewards you are promised induce you to be less sparing in the service of so liberal a Master? How wise is the counsel we read in Ecclesiasticus: "Let nothing hinder thee from praying always, and be not afraid to be justified even to death; for the reward of God continueth for ever." (Ecclus. 18:22). Since the reward is to continue as long as God remains in Heaven, why should not your service continue as long as you remain upon earth? If the duration of the recompense is limitless, why will you limit the time of your service?
You hope, no doubt, to be saved; therefore, you must believe yourself of the number of those whom God has predestined. Will you, then, wait until the end of your life to serve Him who has loved you and chosen you heir to His kingdom from all eternity? Will you be so ungenerous with Him whose generosity to you has been boundless? The span of human life is so limited, how can you dare rob this generous Benefactor of the greatest part, leaving Him only the smallest and most worthless portion? "Dregs alone," says Seneca, "remain at the bottom of a vessel." "Cursed is the deceitful man," says God, "that hath in his flock a male, and making a vow offereth in sacrifice that which is feeble to the Lord; for I am a great King, saith the Lord of hosts, and my name is dreadful among the Gentiles." (Mal.1:14).
In other words, none but great services are worthy of His greatness. Imperfect offerings are an affront to His majesty. Will you, then, give the best and most beautiful part of your life to the service of the devil, and reserve for God only that portion which the world refuses? He has said that there shall not be in thy house a greater measure and a less; that thou shalt have a just and true weight. (Cf. Deut. 25:14-15). Yet, in contradiction to this law, you have two unequal measures – a great one for the devil, whom you treat as your friend, and a small one for God, whom you treat as your enemy.
If all these benefits fail to touch you, do not be insensible to the favor your Heavenly Father has conferred upon you in giving His Divine Son to redeem you. Were you possessed of an infinite number of lives, you would owe them all in payment – and they would be but a small return – for that Life, more precious than that of angels and men, which was offered for you. How, then, can you refuse the service of your miserable life to Him who sacrificed Himself for you?
I shall conclude this chapter with a passage from Ecclesiastes in which man is exhorted to give himself to the service of his Creator in his youth, and not to defer it till old age, the infirmities of which are described under curious and admirable figures: "Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth, before the time of affliction comes, and the years draw nigh of which thou shalt say: They please me not. Before the sun, and the light, and the moon, and the stars be darkened … when the keepers of the house [that is, the hands] shall tremble, and the strong men [the legs, which support the frame] shall stagger, and the teeth shall be few and idle; when they that looked through the eyes [the faculties of the soul] shall be darkened; when they shall shut the doors in the street [that is, the senses by which we communicate with the outer world] … when man shall rise with the bird [for old age requires little sleep]; when all the daughters of music shall grow deaf [for the organs of the voice grow weak and narrow]; when man shall fear high things and be afraid in the way [for old age shuns a steep and rugged way, and trembles as it walks]; when the almond tree shall flourish [that is, when the head shall be crowned with white hair] … when man shall enter the house of his eternity [which is the tomb]; when his friends shall lament and mourn for him … and when dust shall return to the earth whence it came, and the spirit shall return to God who gave it." (Eccles. 12:1-7).
Therefore, defer not your repentance until old age, when virtue will seem a necessity rather than a choice, and when it may be said that your vices have left you, rather than that you have left them. Remember, however, that old age is generally what youth has been: For as the sacred writer observes, "how shalt thou find in thy old age the things thou hast not gathered in thy youth?" (Ecclus. 25:5). Let me urge you, then, in the words of the same inspired author, to "give thanks whilst thou art living and in health, to praise God and glory in His mercies." (Ecclus. 17:27).
Among those who waited at the pool of Bethsaida (Cf. Jn. 5:4), he only was cured who first plunged into the water after it had been moved by the angel. The salvation of our soul, in like manner, depends upon the promptness and submission with which we obey the inspiration with which God moves us. Delay not, therefore, dear Christian, but make all the haste you can; and if, as the prophet says, "you shall hear his voice today" (Ps. 94:8), defer not your answer till tomorrow, but set about a work the difficulty of which will be so much lessened by a timely beginning.
Of those who Defer their Conversion until the Hour of Death
The arguments we have just stated should certainly be sufficient to convince men of the folly of deathbed repentances; for if it be so dangerous to defer penance from day to day, what must be the consequence of deferring it until the hour of death? But as this is a very general error, causing the ruin of many souls, we shall devote a special chapter to it. The reflections which we are about to make may alarm and discourage weak souls, but the consequences of presumption are still more fatal, for a greater number is lost through false confidence than through excessive fear. Therefore, we, who are one of the sentinels mentioned by Ezechiel, must warn you of these dangers, that you may not rush blindly to your ruin, and that your blood may not be upon us. As the safest light for us is that of Holy Scripture, interpreted by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, we shall first study their opinions on this subject, and afterwards we shall learn what God Himself teaches us by His inspired writers.
Before entering upon the subject we must bear in mind an undeniable principle, concerning which St. Augustine and all the holy Doctors are agreed – namely, that as true repentance is the work of God, so He can inspire it when and where he wills. Hence if the heart of the sinner, even at the hour of death, be filled with true contrition for his sins, it will avail him for salvation. But, to show you how rare such examples of repentance are, I shall give you the testimony of the saints and Doctors of the Church. I do not ask you to believe me, but believe them, the chosen instruments of the Holy Ghost.
And first hear St. Augustine. In a work entitled, True and False Penance he says, "Let no one hope to do penance when he can no longer sin. God wishes us to perform this work cheerfully and not through compulsion. Therefore, he who, instead of leaving his sins, waits until they leave him, acts from necessity rather than from choice. For this reason they who would not return to God when they could, but are willing to seek Him when they are no longer able to sin, will not so easily obtain what they desire." Speaking of the character of true conversion, he says, "He is truly converted who turns to God with his whole heart, who not only fears punishment but earnestly desires to merit God's graces and favors. Should anyone turn to God in this way, even at the end of his life, we would have no reason to despair of his salvation. But as examples of this perfect conversion are very rare, we cannot but tremble for one who defers his repentance until the hour of death.
"Moreover, if he obtain the pardon of his sins, their temporal punishment is not remitted; he must expiate them in the fire of Purgatory, the pain of which is greater than any suffering known on earth. Never did the martyrs in their most terrible torments, never did malefactors, though subjected to all the cruelties which human malice could invent, endure sufferings equal to those of Purgatory. Let him, then, if he would avoid these dreadful punishments after death, begin from this time to amend his life."
St. Ambrose, in his book on penance, which some attribute to St. Augustine, treats of this subject at great length. Here is one of the many excellent things he tells us: "If a man ask for the sacrament of penance on his deathbed, we do not refuse him what he asks, but we are far from assuring you that if he dies after it he is on the way to Heaven. It is more than we dare affirm or promise, for we. would not deceive you. But if you would be relieved of this uncertainty, if you would dissipate this doubt, do penance for your sins while you are in health, and then I can positively assure you that you will be in a good way, for you will have repented for your crimes when you might have been increasing them. If, on the contrary, you defer your repentance until you are no longer able to sin, it will not be that you have abandoned your sins, but rather that they have abandoned you."
St. Isidore forcibly expresses the same truth: "If you would have a hope of being pardoned your sins at the hour of death, do penance for them while you are able. But if you spend your life in wickedness, and still hope for forgiveness at your death, you are running a most serious risk. Though you are not sure that you will be damned, your salvation is by no means more certain."
The authorities which we have just quoted are very alarming; yet the words of St. Jerome, uttered as he lay in sackcloth upon the ground awaiting his last hour, are still more terrifying. I dare not give his words in all their rigor, lest I should discourage weak souls; but I refer him who desires to read them to an epistle on the death of St. Jerome written by his disciple, Eusebius, to a bishop named Damasus. I will quote only this passage: "He who daily perseveres in sin will probably say: 'When I am going to die I shall do penance.' Oh! Melancholy consolation! Penance at the hour of death is a very doubtful remedy for him who has always done evil, and has thought of penance only as a dream, to be realized in the uncertain future. Wearied by suffering; distracted with grief at parting from family, friends, and worldly possessions which he can no longer enjoy; a prey to bitter anguish – how will he raise his heart to God or conceive a true sorrow for his sins? He has never done so in life, and he would not do it now had he any hope of recovery. What kind of penance must that be which a man performs when life itself is leaving him? I have known rich worldlings who have recovered from bodily sickness only to render the health of their souls still more deplorable. Here is what I think, what I know, for I have learned it by a long experience: If he who has been a slave to sin during life die a happy death, it is only by an extraordinary miracle of grace."
St. Gregory expresses himself not less strongly upon this subject. Writing upon these words of Job, "What is the hope of the hypocrite, if through covetousness he take by violence? Will God hear his cry when distress shall come upon him?" (Job 27:8-9) he says, "If a man be deaf to God's voice in prosperity, God will refuse to hear him in adversity, for it is written: 'He that turneth away his ears from hearing the law, his prayer shall be an abomination.'" (Prov. 28:9). And Hugh of St. Victor, comprehending in one sentence the teaching of the Fathers, says, "It is very difficult for that penance to be true which comes at the hour of death, for we have much reason to suspect it because it is forced."
You now know the sentiments of these great Doctors of the Church on deathbed repentance. See, then, what folly it would be in you to contemplate without fear a passage of which the most skillful pilots speak with terror. A lifetime is not too long to learn how to die well. At the hour of death our time is sufficiently occupied in dying. We have then no leisure to learn the lesson of dying well.
The teaching of the Fathers which we have just given is also the teaching of the doctors of the schools. Among the many authorities whom we could quote we shall select Scotus, one of the most eminent, who, after treating this subject at great length, concludes that conversion at the hour of death is so difficult that it is rarely true repentance. He supports his conclusion by these four reasons:
First, because the physical pains and weakness which precede death prevent a man from elevating his heart to God or fulfilling the duties of true repentance. To understand this you must know that uncontrolled passions lead man's free will where they please. Now, philosophers teach that the passions which excite sorrow are much stronger than those which cause joy. Hence it follows that no passions, no sentiments, exceed in intensity the passions and sentiments awakened by the approach of death,; for, as Aristotle tells us, death is the most terrible of all terrible things. To sufferings of body it unites anguish of soul awakened by parting from loved ones and from all that bind our affections to this world. When, therefore, the passions are so strong and turbulent, whither can man's will and thoughts turn but to those things to which these violent emotions draw them? We see how difficult it is even for a man exercised in virtue to turn his thoughts to God or spiritual things when his body is racked with pain. How much more difficult will it be for the sinner to turn his thoughts from his body, which he has always preferred to his soul!
I myself knew a man who enjoyed a reputation for virtue, but who, when told that his last hour was at hand, was so terrified that he could think of nothing but applying remedies to ward off the terrible moment. A priest who was present exhorted him to turn his thoughts to his soul's interests; but he impatiently repelled his counsels, and in these disedifying dispositions soon after expired. Judge by this example the trouble which the presence of death excites in those who have an inordinate love for this life, if one who loves it in moderation clings to it so tenaciously, regardless of the interests of the life to come.
The second reason given by Scotus is that repentance should be voluntary, not forced. Hence St. Augustine tells us that a man must not only fear, but also love his Judge. We cannot think that one who has refused to repent during life, and only has recourse to this remedy at the hour of death, seeks it freely and voluntarily.
Such was the repentance of Semei for his outrage against David when he fled from his son Absalom. When King David returned in triumph, Semei went forth to meet him with tears and supplications; but though David then spared his life, on his deathbed he enjoined his son Solomon to deal with the traitor according to his deserts. (Cf. 2Kg. 16 and 17 and 3Kg. 2). Similar is the repentance of Christians who, after outraging God with impunity during life, piteously claim His mercy at the hour of death. We may judge of the sincerity of such repentance by the conduct of many who have been restored to health, for they are no sooner released from the imminent fear of death than they relapse into the same disorders. The salutary sentiments excited by fear, and not by virtue, vanish when the danger is past.
The third reason is that a habit of sin confirmed by long indulgence accompanies man as inseparably as the shadow does the body, even to the tomb. It becomes, as we have said, a second nature which it is almost impossible to conquer. How often do we see old men on the verge of the grave as hardened to good, and as eager for honors and wealth, which they know they cannot take with them, as if they were at the beginning of their career!
This is a punishment, says St. Gregory, which God frequently inflicts upon sin, permitting it to accompany its author even to the tomb; for the sinner, who has forgotten God during life, too often forgets his own eternal interest at this terrible hour. We have frequent and striking proof of this, for how often do we hear of persons who refuse to be separated from the objects of their sinful love even at their last hour, and, by a just judgment of God, expire wholly forgetful of what is due to their Maker and their own souls!
The fourth reason given by Scotus is taken from the value of actions done at such a time; for it is manifest to all who have any knowledge of God that He is much less pleased with services offered at this hour than with the same services offered under different circumstances. "What merit is there," says the virgin and martyr St. Lucy, "in giving up what you are forced to leave," in pardoning an injury which it would be a dishonor to avenge, or in breaking sinful bonds which you can no longer maintain?
From these reasons this doctor concludes that repentance at the hour of death is a dangerous and difficult matter. He goes even further, and affirms that the act by which a Christian deliberately resolves to defer his conversion till the hour of death is in itself a mortal sin, because of the injury he thereby inflicts on his soul, and because of the peril to which he exposes his salvation.
As the final decision of this question depends on the word of God, I pray you to hear what He teaches us through Holy Scripture. The Eternal Wisdom, after inviting men to practice virtue, utters by the mouth of Solomon the following malediction against those who are deaf to His voice: "Because I called, and you refused: I stretched out my hand, and there was none that regarded. You have despised all my counsels, and have neglected my reprehensions. I also will laugh in your destruction, and will mock when that shall come to you which you feared. When sudden calamity shall fall on you, and destruction, as a tempest, shall be at hand; when tribulation and distress shall come upon you, then shall they call upon me, and I will not hear. They shall rise in the morning, and shall not find me, because they have hated instruction, and received not the fear of the Lord, nor consented to my counsel, but despised all my reproof." (Prov. 1:24-31).
We have the authority of St. Gregory for saying that these words of the Holy Ghost apply to our present subject. Are they not sufficient to open your eyes and determine you to save yourself from God's vengeance by a timely preparation for this terrible hour?
In the New Testament we find no less striking authority. Our Saviour, when speaking to His Apostles of the day of His coming, never fails to warn them to be always ready. "Blessed is that servant," He says, "whom when his lord shall come he shall find watching. Amen I say to you, he shall place him over all his goods. But if the evil servant shall say in his heart: My lord is long coming, and shall begin to strike his fellow servants, and shall eat and drink with drunkards, the lord of that servant shall come in a day that he hopeth not, and at an hour that he knoweth not, and shall separate him, and appoint his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matt. 24:46-51). In this parable Our Saviour, who reads the secret designs of the wicked, tells them what they are to expect and what will be the result of their vain confidence. You are this bad servant, since you cherish the same designs in your heart and seize the present time to eat and drink and gratify every passion. Why do you not fear the wrath of Him who is all-powerful to execute what He threatens? It is to you that His menaces are addressed. Awake, unhappy soul, and hasten to profit by the time that remains to you!
We are devoting much time to this subject, which ought to be clear to all, but we must do so, since there are so many unhappy Christians who endeavor to satisfy their consciences with this false excuse. Hear, then, another lesson of Our Saviour: "Then shall the Kingdom of heaven," He says, "be like to ten virgins who, taking their lamps, went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride." What time does Our Saviour indicate by "then"? The hour of general judgment and of each particular judgment, St. Augustine replies, for the sentence uttered in secret immediately after death will be ratified before all men on the last day. Five of these virgins were wise and five were foolish, Our Saviour continues. The foolish virgins took no oil with them for their lamps, and when at midnight – a time of profoundest slumber, when men give least thought to their interests – a cry was heard, "The bridegroom cometh," all the virgins arose, and they who had trimmed their lamps and furnished them with oil went in to the marriage, and the door was shut. When the foolish virgins, who had gone to seek oil for their lamps, came, saying: "Lord, Lord, open to us," He answered them saying, "Amen I say to you, I know you not." Our Saviour concludes the parable with these words: "Watch, therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour." Could we ask a plainer warning than this? Could we desire a clearer condemnation of the folly of those who rely on deathbed repentances?
You will perhaps urge in opposition to all this that the good thief was saved at the last hour. St. Augustine answers this objection by saying that the good thief received in one hour the grace of conversion and baptism, which being immediately followed by death, his soul went directly to Paradise. Moreover, the conversion of the good thief was one of the many miracles which marked Our Saviour's coming, one of the chief testimonies to His glory. The rocks were rent; the earth trembled; the sun refused to give its light; the graves were opened and the dead came forth to bear witness to the divinity of Him who was crucified. For a like purpose the grace of repentance was bestowed on the good thief, whose confession of Christ was no less wonderful than his conversion, for he acknowledged Christ when the Apostles fled from Him and denied Him; he glorified Christ when the world blasphemed and insulted Him. This miracle being one of the extraordinary marvels marking the coming of Christ, it is folly to expect that it will be repeated in our behalf. No; St. Paul tells us that the end of the wicked corresponds to their works. This is a truth which is constantly repeated in Holy Scripture. It is sung by the psalmist, foretold by the prophets, announced by the Evangelists, and preached by the Apostles.
Others argue that attrition joined to the sacraments suffices to obtain the pardon of sin, and claim that at the hour of death they will have at least attrition. But they should remember that the attrition which, joined to the sacraments, obtains the pardon of sin, is a special degree of sorrow, and God only can know whether they possess it.
The holy Doctors were not ignorant of the efficacy of attrition joined to the sacraments; yet see how little confidence they had in deathbed repentances. "We give the ; sacrament of Penance to such a sinner who asks for it," says St. Ambrose, "but we give him no assurance of salvation."
If you cite the example of the Ninivites, whose conversion was the effect of fear, I would remind you not only of the rigorous penance they performed, but of the amendment which was wrought in their lives. Let there be the same amendment in your life, and you will not fail to find equal mercy. But when I see that you no sooner recover your health than you relapse into your former disorders, what am I to think of your repentance?
What we have said in this and the preceding chapters is not intended to close the door of hope or salvation against anyone. Our only intention is to rout the sinner from the stronghold in which he entrenches himself that he may continue to sin. Tell me, dear Christian, for the love of God, how you dare expose yourself to such peril when the Fathers of the Church, the saints, Holy Scripture, and reason itself unite in warning you of the dangers attending a repentance deferred until the hour of death? In what do you place your confidence? In the prayers and Masses you will have offered for you? In the money you will leave for good works?
Alas! The foolish virgins filled their lamps at the last hour, but they called in vain upon the Bridegroom. Do you think your tears will avail you at that time? Tears, no doubt, are powerful, and blessed is he who weeps in sincerity; but your tears, like those of Esau, who sold his birthright to satisfy his gluttony, will flow, not for your sins, but for what you have lost; and like his, as the Apostle tells us, they will flow in vain. (Cf. Neb. 12:17). Will your promises and good resolutions help you? Good resolutions are excellent when sincere, but remember what edifying and valiant resolutions Antiochus formed when the hand of God had been laid upon him. Yet Holy Scripture tells us, "This wicked man prayed to the Lord, of whom he was not to obtain mercy." (2Mac. 9:13). And why? Because his good purposes and resolutions sprang not from love, but from servile fear, which, though commendable, is not sufficient of itself to justify the sinner. The fear of Hell can arise from the love man naturally bears himself, but love of self gives us no right to Heaven. As no one clothed in sackcloth could enter the palace of Assuerus (Cf. Esther 4:2), so no one can enter Heaven clothed in the dress of a slave – that is, with the garment of servile fear. We must be clothed with the wedding garment of love, if we would be admitted to the palace of the King of kings.
I conjure you, then, dear Christian, to think of this hour which must inevitably come to you. And it may not be far distant. But a few years, and you will experience the truth of my predictions. You will find yourself distracted with pain, filled with anguish and terror at the approach of death and at the thought of the eternal sentence which is about to be pronounced upon you. Vainly will you then essay to change it, to soften its rigor. But that which will be impossible then is not only possible but easily accomplished now, for it is in your own power to make your sentence what you will wish it at the hour of death. Lose no time, therefore; hasten to propitiate your Judge. Follow the counsel of the prophet, and "seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near." (Is. 55:6). He is now near to hear us, though we cannot see Him. On the day of judgment we shall see Him, but He will not hear us, unless we live so as to merit this blessing from Him.
Of those who Continue in Sin, trusting in the Mercy of God
Besides those who defer their conversion till the hour of death, there are others who persevere in sin, trusting in the mercy of God and the merits of His Passion. We must now disabuse them of this illusion.
You say that God's mercy is great, since He died on the cross for the salvation of sinners. It is indeed great, and a striking proof of its greatness is the fact that He bears with the blasphemy and malice of those who so presume upon the merits of His death as to make His cross, which was intended to destroy the kingdom of evil, a reason for multiplying sin. Had you a thousand lives you would owe them all to Him, yet you rob Him of that one life which you have and for which He died. This crime was more bitter to Our Saviour than death itself. For it He reproaches us by the mouth of His prophet, though He does not complain of His sufferings: "The wicked have wrought upon my back; they have extended their iniquity." (Ps. 128:3).
Who taught you to reason that because God was good you could sin with impunity? Such is not the teaching of the Holy Spirit. On the contrary, those who listen to His voice reason thus: God is good; therefore, I must serve Him, obey Him, and love Him above all things. God is good; therefore, I will turn to Him with all my heart; I will hope for pardon, notwithstanding the number and enormity of my sins. God is good; therefore, I must be good if I would imitate Him. God is good; therefore, it would be base ingratitude in me to offend Him by sin.
Thus, the greater you represent God's goodness the more heinous are your crimes against Him. Nor will these offenses remain unpunished, for God's justice, which protects His mercy, cannot permit your sinful abuse of it to remain unavenged.
This is not a new pretext; the world has long made use of it. In ancient times it distinguished the false from the true prophets. While the latter announced to the people, in God's name, the justice with which He would punish their Ì iniquities, the former, speaking in their own name, promised them mercy which was but a false peace and security.
You say God's mercy is great; but if you presume upon it you show that you have never studied the greatness of His justice. Had you done so you would cry out to the Lord with the psalmist: "Who knoweth the power of thy anger, and for thy fear who can number thy wrath?" (Ps. 89:11-12).
But to dissipate your illusion, let me ask you to contemplate this justice in the only way in which we may have any knowledge of it – that is, in its effects here below.
Besides the result we are seeking, we shall reap another excellent advantage by exciting in our hearts the fear of God, which, in the opinion of the saints, is the treasure and defence of the soul. Without the fear of God the soul is like a ship without ballast; the winds of human or divine favor may sweep it to destruction. Notwithstanding that she may be richly laden with virtue, she is in continual danger of being wrecked on the rocks of temptation, if she be not stayed by this ballast of the fear of God. Therefore, not only those who have just entered God's service, but those who have long been of His household, should continue in this salutary fear; the former by reason of their past transgressions, the latter on account of their weakness, which exposes them to danger at every moment.
This holy fear is the effect of grace, and is preserved in the soul by frequent meditation. To aid you in this reflection we shall here propose a few of the practical proofs of the greatness of God's justice.
The first work of God's justice was the reprobation of the angels. "All the ways of God are mercy and justice" (Cf. Ps. 24:10), says David; but until the fall of the angels, divine justice had not been manifested. It had been shut up in the bosom of God like a sword in the scabbard, like that sword of which Ezechiel speaks with alarm, foretelling the ruin it will cause. (Cf. Ezech. 21). This first sin drew the sword of justice from its scabbard, and terrible was the destruction it wrought. Contemplate its effects; raise your eyes and behold one of the most brilliant beings of God's house, a resplendent image of the divine beauty, flung with lightning-like rapidity from a glorious throne in Heaven to the uttermost depths of Hell, for one thought of pride. (Cf. Lk, 10:18). The prince of heavenly spirits becomes the chief of devils. His beauty and glory are changed into deformity and ignominy. God's favorite subject is changed into His bitterest enemy, and will continue such for all eternity. With what awe this must have filled the angels, who knew the greatness of his fall! With what astonishment they repeat the words of Isaias: "How art thou fallen from heaven, 0 Lucifer, who didst rise in the morning"? (Is. 14:12).
Consider also the fall of man, which would have been no less terrible than that of the angels, if it had not been repaired. Behold in it the cause of all the miseries we suffer on earth: original and actual sin, suffering of body and mind, death, and the ruin of numberless souls who have been lost forever. Terrible are the calamities it brought upon us; and even greater would be our misfortunes had not Christ, by His death, bound the power of sin and redeemed us from its slavery. How rigorous, therefore, was the justice of God in thus punishing man's rebellion; but how great was His goodness in restoring him to His friendship!
In addition to the penalties imposed on the human race for the sin of Adam, new and repeated punishments have at different times been inflicted upon mankind for the crimes they have committed. In the time of Noe, the whole world was destroyed by the deluge. (Cf. Gen. 7). Fire and brimstone from Heaven consumed the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrha. (Cf. Gen. 19). The earth opened and swallowed alive into Hell Core, Dathan, and Abiron for resisting the authority of Moses. (Cf. Num. 16). Nadab and Abiu, sons of Aaron, were destroyed by a sudden flame from the sanctuary because they offered strange fire in the sacrifice. (Cf. Lev. 10). Neither their priestly character, nor the sanctity of their father, nor the intimacy with God of their uncle, Moses, could obtain for them any remission for their fault.
Recall the example of Ananias and Sapphira, struck dead by God for telling a lie. (Cf. Acts 5). But the strongest proof of the rigor of God's justice was the satisfaction required for sin, which was nothing less than the death of His only-begotten Son. Think of this Price of man's Redemption, and you will begin to realize what sin is and how the justice of God regards it. Think, too, of the eternity of Hell, and judge of the rigor of that justice which inflicts such punishment. This justice terrifies you, but it is no less certain than the mercy in which you trust. Yes, through endless ages, God will look upon the indescribable torments of the damned, but they will excite in Him no compassion; they will not move Him to limit their sufferings or give them any hope of relief. Oh! Mysterious depths of divine justice! Who can reflect upon them and not tremble?
Another subject to which I would call your serious attention is the state of the world. Reflect on this, and you will begin to realize the rigors of God's justice.
As an increase in virtue is the effect and reward of virtue, so likewise an increase in sin is the effect and punishment of sin. Indeed, it is one of the greatest chastisements that can be inflicted on us, when we are permitted, through blindness and passion, to rush headlong down the broad road of vice, adding sin to sin every day and hour of our lives. This is but just; for when man once mortally sins he loses all right to any help from God. It is owing solely to the divine mercy when he is converted. Look, therefore, over the world, and behold the greatness of its iniquity. Think of the millions who are living in infidelity and heresy. Think how many calling themselves Christians are daily betraying their name by their scandalous lives.
Why is this sad condition permitted? Ah! It is owing to man's crimes. God is disobeyed, insulted, and mocked by the majority of men, and His long-suffering justice, being wearied by their wickedness, permits them to go on in their mad career. St. Augustine is an illustrious example of this. "I was plunged," he says, "in iniquity, and Thy anger was aroused against me, but I knew it not. I was deaf to the noise which the chains of my sins made. But this ignorance, this deafness, were the punishments of my pride."
Reflect on this. Men act freely when they sin, for no man is forced to do wrong. But when they have fallen they cannot rise without the divine assistance. Now, God owes this to no man. It is His gratuitous gift when He restores the sinner to His favor. Hence He but exercises His justice when He permits him to remain in his misery, and even to fall lower.
When, therefore, we behold so much iniquity, have we not reason to feel that God's justice permits men to become so blinded and hardened? I say permits, for man is the cause of his own miseries; God urges him only to what is good. If, then, you perceive in yourself any mark of such divine anger, be not without fear. Remember that you need no help but your own passions and the devil's temptations to carry you along the broad road to destruction. Stop while you have time. Implore the divine mercy to aid you in retracing your steps till you discover that narrow way which leads to everlasting life. Having found it, walk manfully in it, ever mindful of the justice of God, and of the terrible truth that while thousands throng the road to death, there are few who find the way of life.
Tremble for your salvation, and, while always maintaining an unshaken hope, have no less fear of Hell. You have no reason to expect that God should treat you differently from other men. Bear in mind the law of His justice, as it has been explained, and so live that you may never expose yourself to its terrible effects here and hereafter.
Be not the victim of a vain confidence which you may flatter yourself is hope, while it is naught but presumption. Rather, in the words of the Eternal Wisdom, "Be not without fear about sin forgiven, and add not sin upon sin. And say not: The mercy of the Lord is great; he will have mercy on the multitude of my sins. For mercy and wrath quickly come from him, and his wrath looketh upon sinners." (Ecclus. 5:5-7). If, then, we must tremble even for sin which has been remitted, how is it that you do not fear to add daily to your crimes? And mark well these words: "His wrath looketh upon sinners"; for as the eyes of His mercy are upon the good, so are the eyes of His anger upon the wicked. And this agrees with what David says in one of the psalms: "The eyes of the Lord are upon the just, and His ears unto their prayers. But the countenance of the Lord is against them that do evil, to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth." (Ps. 33:16-17).
"The hand of God," says the inspired author of the book of Esdras, "is upon all them that seek him in goodness; and his power and strength and wrath upon all them that forsake him." (1Esd. 8:22). Be reconciled, therefore, with God; amend your life; and then you can confidently hope for the mercy promised to His faithful servants. "Hope in the Lord and do that which is good," we are told by the psalmist; "offer the sacrifice of justice, and trust in the Lord." (Ps. 36:3 and 4:6). This is hope; any other confidence is presumption. The ark of the true Church will not save its unworthy members from the deluge of their iniquities, nor can you reap any benefit from the mercy of God if you seek His protection in order to sin with impunity.
"Men go to Hell," says St. Augustine, "through hope, as well as through despair: through a presumptuous hope during life, and through despair at the hour of death." (De Verbo Dei, Serm. 147). I entreat you, therefore, O sinner, to abandon your false hope, and let God's justice inspire you with a fear proportioned to the confidence which His mercy excites in you. For, as St. Bernard tells us, "God has two feet, one of justice and the other of mercy. We must embrace both, lest justice separated from mercy should cause us to despair, or mercy without justice should excite in us presumption." (In Cantica, Serm. 80).
Of those who allege that the Path of Virtue is too Difficult
As virtue is entirely conformable to reason, there is nothing in its own nature which renders it burdensome. The difficulty, therefore, which is here objected arises not from virtue, but from the evil inclinations and appetites implanted in us by sin. Thus the Apostle tells us, "The flesh opposes the spirit, and the spirit opposes the flesh; for these are contrary one to another. For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inward man; but I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin, that is in my members." (Gal. 5:17 and Rom. 7:22-23). By these words we are taught that the law of God is acceptable to the superior part of the soul, the seat of the will and understanding, but that we are opposed, in obeying it, by the corruption of our appetites and passions, which reside in the inferior part of the soul.
When man rebelled against God, the passions rebelled against reason – and from this arose all the difficulties which we encounter in the practice of virtue. Thus we see that many who appreciate virtue refuse to practice it, just as sick men earnestly desire health, but refuse the unpalatable remedies which alone would restore it. As this repugnance is the principal barrier to virtue, which, when known, is always valued and loved, if we succeed in proving that there is little foundation for such repugnance we shall have accomplished a good work.
The principal cause of this illusion is that we only regard the obstacles to virtue, and do not consider the grace which God gives us to overcome these obstacles. The servant of Eliseus was frightened at the numbers who were coming armed against his master, until God, at the prayer of the prophet, opened his eyes and caused him to see that Eliseus was surrounded by a still greater number of defenders. A like fear leads men to reject virtue, when they know not the succors which God reserves for it.
But if the way of virtue is so difficult, how could David express himself as he does? "I have been delighted in the way of thy testimonies, as in all riches. Thy commandments are more to be desired than gold and many precious stones, and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb." (Ps. 118:14 and 18:11). Not only does he award to virtue the excellence which all ascribe to it, but praises it for that pleasure and sweetness which the world denies it. Whoever, therefore, speaks of virtue as a heavy yoke shows that he has not yet penetrated this mystery.
Tell me, you who claim to be a Christian, why did Christ come into the world? Why did He shed His Blood? Why did He institute the sacraments? Why did He send down the Holy Ghost? What is the meaning of the Gospel, of grace, of the name of Jesus, whom you adore? If you know not, hear the angel who says, "Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." (Matt. 1:21).
Now, what is saving from sin, if not obtaining the pardon of past faults and the grace to avoid others in the future? What was the end of Our Saviour's coming, if not to help you in the work of your salvation? Did He not die on the cross to destroy sin? Did He not rise from the dead to enable you to rise to a life of grace? Why did He shed His Blood, if not to heal the wounds of your soul? Why did He institute the sacraments, if not to strengthen you against sin? Did not His coming render the way to Heaven smooth and straight, according to that of Isaias, who said, in prophesying of Him, "The crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways plain"? (Is. 40:4). Why did He send the Holy Spirit, if not to change you from flesh into spirit? Why did He send Him under the form of fire but to enlighten you, to inflame you, and to transform you into Himself, that thus your soul might be fitted for His own divine kingdom?
What, in fine, is the object of grace, with the infused virtues which flow from it, but to sweeten the yoke of Christ, to facilitate the practice of virtue, to make you joyful in tribulations, hopeful in danger, and victorious in temptation? This comprises the teaching of the Gospel. Adam, an earthly and sinful man, made us earthly and sinful. Jesus Christ, a heavenly and just Man, makes us spiritual and just. This is the sum of the doctrine proclaimed by the evangelists, preached by the Apostles, and promised by the prophets.
But, to study the subject more in detail, what is the cause of the difficulty you find in practicing virtue? You say it is the evil inclinations of your heart, as well as the perpetual conflict between the spirit and the flesh, which has been conceived in sin. But why should you be dismayed, when you have the infallible promise of God that He will take away these corrupt sources of sin, and, giving you a new heart, will establish you in strength and courage to conquer all your enemies? "I will give them," He says, "a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in their bowels; and I will take away the stony heart out of their flesh, and I will give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my commandments, and keep my judgments and do them, and that they may be my people, and I may be their God." (Ezech. 11:19-20). What, then, can arrest you in the path of virtue? Do you fear that the promise will not be fulfilled, or that with the assistance of God's grace you will not be able to keep His law? Your doubts are blasphemous; for, in the first instance, you question the truth of God's words, and, in the second, you respect Him as unable to fulfill what He promises, since you think Him capable of offering you succor insufficient for your needs.
No, doubt not, but be assured that in addition to all this He will give you the necessary strength to overcome the passions which torment you. This is one of the principal benefits purchased for us by the Blood of Our Saviour, one of the most precious fruits of the tree of life. "Our old man is crucified with Jesus Christ, that the body of sin may be destroyed, and that we may serve sin no longer." (Rom, 6:6). By the "old man" and the "the body of sin" the Apostle designates our sensual appetite with its evil inclinations. He tells us that it was crucified with Jesus Christ, because the sacrifice of the cross obtained for us grace and strength to overcome it. This is the victory which God promises us by Isaias who says, "Fear not, for I am with thee; turn not aside, for I am thy God; I have strengthened thee, and have helped thee, and the right hand of my just one – Jesus Christ – hath upheld thee. Behold all that fight against thee shall be confounded and ashamed; they shall be as nothing, and the men shall perish that strive against thee. Thou shalt seek them, and shalt not find the men that resist thee. They shall be as nothing, and the men that war against thee shall be as a thing consumed. For I am the Lord thy God, who take thee by the hand and say to thee: Fear not, for I have helped thee." (Is. 41:10-13). With such assistance who will yield to discouragement? Who will be daunted by fear of his evil inclinations, over which grace obtains such a glorious victory?
You will urge, perhaps, that the just are not without their secret failings, which, as Job says (Cf. Job 16:9), bear witness against them. To this I reply, in the words of Isaias, that "they shall be as if they never had been." (Is. 41:12). If they remain, it is only to exercise our virtue, not to overcome us; to stimulate us, not to master us; to serve as an occasion of merit, not of sin; for our triumph, not for our downfall; in a word, to try us, to humble us, to make us acknowledge our own weakness and render to God the glory and thanksgiving which are due Him. They are a source of real profit to us. For as wild animals, when domesticated, can be made most serviceable to man, so our passions, when moderated and controlled, aid us in the practice of virtue.
"If God be for us, who is against us?" (Rom. 8:31 ). "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? If armies in camp should stand together against me, my heart shall not fear. If a battle should rise up against me, in this will I be confident." (Ps. 26:1-4). Surely, my dear Christian, if such promises do not encourage you to serve God, your cowardice is very great. If you have no confidence in them your faith is very weak. God assures you that He will give you a new spirit, that He will change your heart of stone into a heart of flesh, that He will mortify your passions to such a degree that you will not know yourself. You will seek in vain for the evil inclinations which warred against you; they will be as a thing consumed, for He will weaken all their forces. What more can you desire? Have, then, a lively faith and firm hope, and cast yourself into the arms of God.
But, perhaps, you will still object that your sins are so numerous that God must refuse you His grace. Away with such a thought! It is one of the greatest insults you could offer to God. By it you virtually say either that God cannot or will not assist His creatures when they implore His aid. Do not yield to such a blasphemy. Rather let your prayer be, with St. Augustine, "Give me grace, Lord, to do what Thou commandest, and command what Thou pleasest." (Conf. L.10,31). This prayer will always be answered, for God is ever ready to cooperate with man in doing good. God is the principal cause, man is the secondary. God aids man, as a painter aids a pupil whose hand he guides, that he may produce a perfect work. Both concur in the labor, but equal honor is not due to both. Thus does God deal with man, without prejudice to his free will. When the work, therefore, is accomplished, he glorifies God, and not himself, saying with the prophet, "Thou, Lord, hast wrought all our works for us." (Is. 26:12).
Lean, then, on the power of God, and you will ever fulfill His will. Be mindful of the words He addresses to you through Moses: "This commandment that I command thee this day is not above thee nor far off from thee. Nor is it in heaven, that thou shouldst say: Which of us can go up to heaven to bring it to us, that we may hear and fulfill it in work? Nor is it beyond the sea, that thou mayest excuse thyself, saying: Which of us can cross the sea and bring it unto us, that we may hear and do that which is commanded? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it." (Deut. 30:11-14).
Let these words assure you that however difficult God's commandments may appear, His grace will render their observance very easy, and if faithful to them, you will soon experience that His yoke is sweet and His burden light.
Moreover, call to mind the assistance which charity affords us in the pursuit of virtue. Charity, or the love of God, renders the law sweet and delightful; for, as St. Augustine says, love knows no fatigue. How willingly men fond of hunting, riding, or fishing bear the labor of these sports! What makes a mother insensible to the fatigue she endures for her child? What keeps a devoted wife day and night at the bedside of her sick husband? What excites even in animals the solicitude, the self-denial, with which they care for their young, and the courage with which they defend them? I answer that it is the great power of love. Strong by this power was St. Paul when he exclaimed, "Who, then, shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or persecution, or the sword?" (Rom. 8:35).
It was love which caused St. Dominic and so many other saints to sigh for martyrdom. It was love which raised the martyrs above their sufferings and gave them refreshments in the midst of the most cruel torments. "True love of God", says St. Peter Chrysologus, "finds nothing hard, nothing bitter, nothing difficult. What weapon, what wounds, what pains, what death, can conquer true love? As an impenetrable armor it defies all attacks, and fears not even death, but triumphs over all things." (Serm. 147, "De Incarnat.").
But perfect love is not content with these victories. It longs to combat for the Beloved. Hence the thirst of the just for martyrdom; hence their desire to shed their blood for Him who shed His precious Blood for them. And when this desire is not satisfied, they become their own executioners and martyr their bodies with hunger, thirst, cold, and every kind of mortification. Thus they find their happiness in suffering for Christ.
Doubtless this language is not understood by worldlings. They cannot conceive that one should love what they abhor, or abhor what they love. Yet so it is. Holy Scripture tells us that the Egyptians worshipped certain animals as gods. The Israelites justly called these false gods abominations, and sacrificed them to the honor of the true God. In like manner the virtuous regard as abominations the idols which the world adores – pleasures, riches, and honors – and sacrifice them to the glory of God. Let him, therefore, who would offer a pleasing sacrifice to God observe what the world adores, and let him offer that as a victim to the Lord. It was thus that the Apostles acted when they came forth from the council, rejoicing that they had received the honor of suffering for Christ. Can you, then, believe that the power which rendered the prison, the scourge, the stake, welcome to God's servants, will not be able to lighten the yoke of His commandments for you? Will not that power which supported the just under fasts, vigils, austerities, and sufferings of every kind enable you to bear the burden of the commandments? Alas! How feebly you comprehend the force of charity and divine grace!
But let us suppose that the path of virtue is sown with difficulties and hardships. Will this prove that you ought not to walk in it? Oh, no! Are you not expected to do something for the salvation of your soul? Will you not do at least as much for this grand purpose, for eternity, as you do for your body and for time, which for you is rapidly passing away and will soon leave you at the tomb? What is a little suffering in this life, if you are spared everlasting torments? Think of the rich glutton, now burning in Hell. What would he not do to expiate his sins, could he return to this world? There is no reason why you should not now do as much, if you feel that you have ever offended God.
Consider, moreover, what God has done for you and what He has promised you. Reflect on the many sins you have committed. Think of the sufferings endured by the saints, particularly the Saint of saints. If such thoughts will not make you blush for your past life of ease, and incite you to suffer something for the love of God, I know not what will move you to abandon the things in which you formerly delighted and by which you formerly sinned. Thus St. Bernard tells us that the tribulations of this life bear no proportion to the glory we hope for, to the torments we fear, to the sins we have committed, or to the benefits we have received from our Creator. Any of these considerations ought to suffice to make us embrace a life of virtue, however hard and laborious.
Though we acknowledge that in every condition of life there are trials and difficulties, yet the path of the wicked is far more thickly strewn with hardships than is that of the just. One necessarily grows weary on a long journey, but a blind man who stumbles at every step will certainly tire sooner than the traveler who clearly sees and guards against the obstacles in his way. In the journey of life we must expect to feel fatigue and experience hardships until we reach our destination. The sinner, guided by passion, walks blindly, and therefore often falls. The just man, guided by reason, sees and avoids the rocks and precipices, and thus travels with less fatigue and more safety.
"The path of the just," says Solomon, "as a shining light, goeth forward and increaseth even to perfect day; but the way of the wicked is darksome, and they know not where they fall." (Prov. 4: 18,19). And not only is it dark, but also slippery, as holy David tells us. (Cf. Ps. 34:6). Judge, then, what a difference there is between these two paths. Behold how excessive are the difficulties which beset the wicked. Reflect, moreover, that the just find a thousand means of alleviating their trials which the sinner does not experience. They have God's fatherly providence to guide them; the grace of the Holy Spirit to enlighten and encourage them; the sacraments to sanctify them; the divine consolations to refresh them; the example of the pious to animate them; the writings of the saints to instruct them; the testimony of a good conscience to comfort them; the hope of future glory to sustain them, besides the numerous other favors which the virtuous enjoy. Hence they are ever ready to sing to the Lord with the prophet, "How sweet are thy words to my palate, more than honey to my mouth." (Ps. 118:103).
Reflect on these truths, and you will soon understand the Scriptures where they seem to speak in contradictory terms of the ease or difficulty of practicing virtue. At one time David says, "For the sake of the words of thy lips I have kept hard ways." (Ps. 16:4). At another: "I have been delighted in the way of thy testimonies, as in all riches." (Ps. 118:14). Both declarations are true, for the path of virtue is difficult to nature, easy to grace.
Our Saviour Himself tells us this when He says, "My yoke is sweet and my burden light." (Matt. 11:30). By the word yoke He expresses the difficulty which nature experiences. By calling it sweet, He shows us the power of grace to enable us to carry it. This He accomplishes by sharing our burden, according to the prophet: "I will be to them as one that taketh off the yoke from their jaws." (Osee 11:4). Is it, then, astonishing that the yoke is light which God Himself bears? The Apostle experienced this when he said, "In all things we suffer tribulation, but are not distressed; we are straitened, but are not destitute; we suffer persecution, but are not forsaken; we are cast down, but we perish not." (2Cor. 4:8-9). Behold on one side the weight of tribulation and on the other the sweetness which God communicates to it.
Isaias expressed this even more clearly: "They that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall take wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint." (Is. 40:31). Learn from this that the yoke is removed by grace, and the strength of the flesh is changed into that of the spirit, or rather the strength of God replaces that of man. Remember also that the prophet says the just will run, though taking no pains; they will walk, and not faint. Be not dismayed, therefore, by the roughness of a road on which you find so many aids to render your journey smooth and pleasant.
If, like the Apostle St. Thomas, you are still incredulous and ask for further proof, I will not deny it. Take, for example, a man who has led a wicked life, but who has finally turned to God by the power of grace. Such a man will be an excellent judge in this matter, for he has not only heard of these two lives, but he has experienced them. Ask him which he found the sweeter. He will tell you of the marvels effected in the depths of his soul by grace.
There is nothing in the world more astonishing, no more interesting spectacle, than that afforded by the action of grace upon the soul of a just man. How it transforms him, sustains him, strengthens him and comforts him! How it subdues and governs him exteriorly and interiorly! How it altars his affections, making him love what he formerly abhorred, and abhor what he formerly loved! How strong it makes him in combat! What peace it gives him! What light it pours into his soul to enable him to learn God's will, to realize the vanity of the world, and to set a true value on the spiritual blessings which he formerly despised! And still more wonderful is the short space of time in which these great changes are made. It is not necessary to spend long years in study, or to wait until old age helps us by experience. Men in the fire of youth are sometimes so changed in the space of a few days that they hardly seem the same beings. Hence St. Cyprian says that the sinner finds himself converted even before he has learned how to bring about such a change, for it is the work of grace, which needs neither study nor time, but which acts in an instant, like a spiritual charm.
St. Cyprian; already mentioned, who was for a time a prey to the illusions of the world, gives, while writing to his friend Donatus, some beautiful and forcible thoughts on this subject:
"When I walked in darkness, when I was tossed about by the tempests of this world, I knew not what my life was, because I was deprived of light and truth. I regarded as impossible all that God's grace promised to do for my conversion and salvation. I would not believe that man could be born again (Cf. Sn. 3:5), and by virtue of Baptism receive a new life and spirit, which, while leaving his exterior untouched, would entirely reform him within. I urged that it was impossible to uproot vices implanted in us by our corrupt nature and confirmed by the habits of years. Is temperance possible, I asked, to one long accustomed to a sumptuous table? Will he who has been clothed in purple willingly put on a plain and modest dress? Will he who found all his happiness in honors and dignities willingly forego them and be content to lead a quiet and obscure life? Will he who was accustomed to travel with a grand retinue now be content to travel unattended? Former habits will cling to him and struggle for mastery. Intemperance will solicit him, pride will inflate him, honors will allure him, anger will inflame him, and sensuality will blind and overpower him. These were the reflections in which I frequently indulged. I was bound by numerous, habits of vice from which I felt I never could be freed, and which I encouraged and strengthened by this very distrust.
"But my sins were no sooner washed away in the waters of Baptism than a new light shone upon my soul, now purified from all stains. By the reception of the Holy Spirit I was born to a new life. Suddenly, as if by a miracle, doubt gave place to certainty; my darkness was dissipated; what heretofore appeared difficult had now become easy; the insurmountable obstacles I feared had vanished completely. I clearly saw that the life of the flesh with all its failings was of man, and that the new life to which I had come was of God. You know, dear Donatus, from what the Holy Spirit has delivered me, and what He has bestowed upon me. He has delivered me from the slavery of vice and has restored me to the true liberty of virtue. You know all this, and that, so far from boasting, I am only publishing the glory of God, It is not pride but a sentiment of gratitude which prompts me to speak of this wonderful transformation, which is due only to God. For it is evident that the power to abandon sin is no less the effect of the divine grace than the will to commit it is the effect of human frailty." (L. 2, Ep. 2).
These words of St. Cyprian perfectly describe the illusion which paralyzes the efforts of many Christians. They measure the difficulties of virtue according to their own strength, and thus deem its acquisition impossible. They do not consider that if they firmly resolve to abandon sin, and cast themselves into the strong arms of God's mercy, His grace will smooth the roughness of their way and remove all the obstacles which formerly alarmed them. The example of St. Cyprian proves this, for the truth of what he relates is incontestable. If you imitate his sincere return to God, the grace which was given him will not be denied you.
Another no less remarkable example is that of St. Augustine, who, in his Confessions, tells us that when he began to think seriously of leaving the world a thousand difficulties presented themselves to his mind. On one side appeared the past pleasures of his life, saying, "Will you part from us forever? Shall we no longer be your companions?" On the other, he beheld virtue with a radiant countenance, accompanied by a multitude of persons of every state in life who had led pure lives, and a voice said to him, "Can you not do what so many others have done? Was their strength in themselves? Was it not God who enabled them to do what they did? While you continue to rely upon yourself you must necessarily fall. Cast yourself without fear upon God; He will not abandon you." In the midst of this struggle the saint tells us that he began to weep bitterly, and, throwing himself upon the ground, he cried from the depth of his heart, "How long, Lord, how long wilt Thou be angry? Remember not my past iniquities. How long shall I continue to repeat, 'tomorrow, tomorrow'? Why not now? Why should not this very hour witness the end of my disorders?" (Confess., L. 8, c. 11).
No sooner had Augustine taken this resolution than his heart was changed, so that he ceased to feel the stings of the flesh or any affection for the pleasures of the world. He was entirely freed from all the irregular desires which formerly tormented him, and broke forth into thanksgiving for the liberty which had been restored to him: "O Lord! I am Thy servant; I am Thy servant and the son of Thy handmaid, Thou hast broken my bonds. I will sacrifice to Thee a sacrifice of praise. (Cf. Ps. 115).
"Let my heart and my tongue praise Thee. Let all my bones say: Who is like unto Thee, O Lord? Where was my free will all these years, O Jesus, my Redeemer and Helper, that it did not return to Thee? From what an abyss hast Thou suddenly drawn it, causing me to bend my neck to' Thy sweet yoke and to take upon me the easy burden of Thy law? How delighted I am with the absence of those pleasures which I formerly sought with so much eagerness! How I rejoice no longer to possess those follies which I formerly trembled to lose! O Thou true and sovereign Good! Thou hast driven all false pleasures from my soul; Thou hast banished them and hast Thyself taken their place, O Joy exceeding all joy! O Beauty exceeding all beauty!" (Conf. L.9).
Behold the efficacy of grace! What, then, prevents you from imitating the example of these great saints? If you believe what I have related, and that the grace which wrought such a change in St. Augustine is at the disposal of all who earnestly seek it, what is there to prevent you from breaking your sinful bonds and embracing this Sovereign Good who so solicitously calls you? Why do you prefer, by a hell on earth, to gain another Hell hereafter, rather than by a paradise here to gain Heaven hereafter? Be not discouraged. Put your trust in God, and resolutely enter the path of virtue. Have an unshaken confidence that you will meet Him there with open arms, to receive you as the father received his prodigal son. (Cf. Lk. 15).
Were a charlatan to assert that he could teach the art of changing copper into gold, how many would be eager to test his suggestion! God offers to teach us that art of changing earth into Heaven for our welfare, of converting us from flesh into spirit, from men into angels, and how many there are who refuse to hear Him! Be not of their unhappy number.
Sooner or later you must acknowledge this truth, if not in this life, surely in the next. Think, therefore, of the confusion and anguish which on the day of judgment will overwhelm all those who will then have been condemned for abandoning the path of virtue. Too late they will recognize how excellent is this path, and how far it exceeds that of sin, not only for the happiness it affords in this life, but for the security with which it leads us to eternal joy.
Of those who refuse to practice Virtue because they love the World
If we examine the hearts of those who refuse to practice virtue, we shall frequently find a delusive love for the world to be one of the chief causes of their faint-heartedness, I call it a delusive love because it is founded on that imaginary good which men suppose they will find in the things of this world. Let them examine with closer attention these objects of their affection, and they will soon recognize that they have been pursuing shadows. If we study the happiness of the world, even under its most favorable aspects, we shall find that it is ever accompanied by six drawbacks, which tend very much to lessen its sweetness. No one will question the truth of this, for who can deny that the happiness of this life is brief, that it is exposed to changes, that it leads to danger or blindness, and that it frequently ends in sin and deceit?
As to the first of these, who will say that that is enduring which at best must end with the brief career of man on earth? Ah! We all know the shortness of human life, for how few attain even a hundred years? There have been popes who reigned but a month; bishops who have survived their consecration but little longer; and married persons whose funerals have followed their weddings in still less time. These are not remarkable occurrences of the past only; they are witnessed in every age. Let us suppose, however, that your life will be one of the longest. "What," asks St. Chrysostom, "are one hundred, two hundred, four hundred years spent in the pleasures of this world compared to eternity?" For "if a man live many years, and have rejoiced in them all, he must remember the darksome time, and the many days; which when they shall come, the things passed shall be accused of vanity." (Eccles. 11:8).
All happiness, however great, is but vanity when compared to eternity. Sinners themselves acknowledge this: "Being born, forthwith we ceased to be; we are consumed in our wickedness." (Wis. 5:13). How short, then, will this life seem to the wicked! It will appear as if they had been hurried immediately from the cradle to the grave. All the pleasures and satisfactions of this world will then seem to them but a dream. Isaias admirably expressed this when he said, "As he that is hungry dreameth and eateth, but when he is awake his soul is empty; and as he that is thirsty dreameth and drinketh, and after he is awake is yet faint with thirst, and his soul is empty, so shall be the multitude that fought against Mount Sion." (Is. 29:8). Their prosperity will be so brief that it will seem like a fleeting dream. What more, in fact, remains of the glory of monarchs and of princes? "Where," asks the prophet, "are the princes of the nations, and they that rule over the beasts that are upon the earth? They that take their diversion with the birds of the air; that hoard up silver and gold wherein men trust, and there is no end of their getting; that work in silver and are solicitous, and their works are unsearchable? They are cut off and are gone down to hell, and others are risen up in their place." (Baruch 3:16-20).
What has become of the wise men, the scholars, the searchers into the secrets of nature? Where is the famous Alexander? Where is the mighty Assuerus? Where are the Caesars and the other kings of the earth? What does it now avail them that they lived in pomp and glory, that they had legions of soldiers, and servants, and flatterers almost without number? All have vanished like a shadow or a dream. In one moment all that constitutes human happiness fades away as the mist before the morning sun. Behold, then, dear Christian, how brief it is.
Consider also the innumerable changes to which human happiness is exposed in this valley of tears, this land of exile, this tempestuous sea which we call the world. The days of man on earth scarcely suffice to number his sorrows, for almost every hour brings new cares, new anxieties, or new miseries. Who can fitly describe these? Who can count all the infirmities of the body, all the passions of the soul, all the disasters which come upon us not only from our enemies, but even from our friends and from ourselves`! One disputes your inheritance; another attempts your life, You are pursued by hatred, calumny, envy, revenge, and by a lying tongue, the most dangerous of all.
Add to these miseries the innumerable accidents which daily befall us. One man loses an eye; another an arm; a third one is thrown from a horse or falls from a window; while still another loses all he possesses through succoring a friend. If you would know more of these miseries, ask worldlings to tell you the sum of their sorrows and their joys. If balanced in the scales of truth, you will find that their disappointments far outweigh their pleasures.
Since, then, human life is so short, and so constantly beset with miseries, what possibility is there of knowing real happiness in this world? The vicissitudes of which we have been speaking are common to the good and the wicked, for both sail on the same sea and are exposed to the same storms. There are other miseries, however, which, as the fruits of iniquity, are the portion of the wicked. "We wearied ourselves in the way of iniquity and destruction," they tell us by the Wise Man, "and have walked through hard ways, but the way of the Lord we have not known," (Wis. 5:7). Thus, while the just pass from a paradise in this i life to Heaven in the next, from the peace of virtue to the rest of their eternal reward, the wicked pass from a hell in this life to an eternal Hell in the next, from the torments of an evil conscience to the unspeakable tortures of the undying worm.
Different causes multiply the miseries of the sinner. God, who is a just Judge, sends them suffering, that crime may not remain unavenged; for though the punishment of sin is generally reserved for the next world, it sometimes begins in this. The government of Divine Providence equally embraces nations and individuals. Thus we see that sin, when it has become general, brings upon the world universal scourges, such as famines, wars, floods, pestilences and heresies. God also frequently inflicts on individuals punishments proportioned to their crimes. For this reason He said to Cain, "If thou do well, shalt thou not receive? but if ill, shall not sin" – that is, thy punishment – "forthwith be present at the door?" (Gen. 4:7). Moses gave a like warning to the Jewish people: "Thou shalt know that the Lord thy God is a strong and faithful God, keeping his covenant and mercy to them that love him, and to them that keep his commandments, unto a thousand generations; and repaying forthwith them that hate him, so as to destroy them without further delay, immediately rendering to them what they deserve." (Deut. 7:9-10).
Observe how strongly the idea of punishment in this life is shown by the expressions forthwith, without delay, immediately. They clearly indicate that besides the future punishment of their crimes, the wicked will suffer for them even in this world. Hence the many calamities which they endure. Hence the incessant trials, anxieties, fatigues, and necessities, of which they are keenly sensible, and which, in their blindness, they regard as the inevitable conditions of nature rather than the punishment of their sins. For as they do not recognize natural advantages as benefits from God, and therefore do not thank Him for them, neither do they regard the calamities which overtake them as the marks of His displeasure, and consequently receive no benefit from them.
Other misfortunes, such as imprisonment, banishment, loss of fortune, come upon the wicked through God's representatives upon earth, the ministers of justice. Dearly bought, then, is the pleasure of sin, for which they pay a hundredfold even in this life.
Man's irregular appetites and passions are another and inexhaustible source of afflictions. What, in fact, can you expect from immoderate affections, inordinate sorrow, groundless fears, uncertain hopes, unreasonable solicitude, but violent shocks and continual anxieties which take from man all freedom and peace of heart? Living in the midst of tumult, he scarcely ever prays, he knows not the sweets of repose. From man himself, from his uncontrolled appetites, spring all these miseries. Judge, then, what happiness is possible under such conditions.
Were there only bodily sufferings to harass us, we would not have so much reason to fear. But the world is full of dangers that are far more terrible, because they menace the soul. Of these the prophet spoke when he said, "He shall rain snares upon sinners." (Ps. 10:7). How numerous must be these snares which the holy king compares to drops of rain! He expressly tells us that they shall rain upon sinners, for they are so indifferent in watching over their hearts and guarding their senses, so careless in avoiding the occasions of sin or providing themselves with spiritual remedies, that they rush into the very midst of the flames of the world, and therefore cannot but encounter a thousand dangers.
Snares exist for them everywhere – in youth, in old age; in riches, in poverty; in honor, in dishonor; in society, in solitude; in adversity, in prosperity; in the eyes, in the tongue, in all the senses. Were God to enlighten us as He did St. Anthony, we would see the world covered with snares like a network, and we would exclaim with the holy solitary: "Who, O Lord, can avoid all these?" Behold the cause of the destruction of the many souls who daily perish ! St. Bernard said with tears that there was hardly one ship out of ten lost on the sea, but on the ocean of life there is hardly one soul saved out of ten. Who, then, will not tremble in the midst of so many perils? Who will not seek to avoid the treacherous snares of this world? Who will venture to go unarmed into the midst of so many enemies? Who will not fly from this Egypt (Cf. Ex. 7), from this Babylon (Cf. Jer. 25), from the flames of this Sodom and Gomorrha? (Cf. Gen. 19). "Can a man," says Solomon, "hide fire in his bosom, and his garments not burn? Or can he walk upon hot coals, and his feet not be burnt?" (Prov. 6:27-28). "He that toucheth pitch shall be defiled with it, and he that hath fellowship with the proud shall put on pride."(Ecclus. 13:1).
The blindness and darkness which prevail in the world render these snares still more dangerous. This blindness of worldlings is represented by the Egyptian darkness, which was so thick that it could be felt, and which, during the three days it lasted, prevented everyone from leaving the place in which he was or beholding the face of his neighbor. (Cf. Ex. 10:21-23). The darkness which reigns in the world is even more palpable. For could there be greater blindness than to believe what we believe and yet live as we are living?
Is it not a blindness equal to madness to pay so much attention to men and to be so wholly regardless of God? To be so careful in the observance of human laws and so indifferent in the observance of God's laws? To labor so earnestly for the body, which is but dust, and to neglect the soul, which is the image of the Divine Majesty? To amass treasure upon treasure for this life, which may end tomorrow, and to lay up nothing for the life to come, which will endure for all eternity? To live as if we were never to die, wholly forgetful of the irrevocable sentence which immediately follows death? If his life were never to end, the sinner could scarcely act with more unbridled license. Is it not absolute blindness to sacrifice an eternal kingdom for the momentary gratification of a sinful appetite? To be so careful of one's estate and so careless of one's conscience? To desire that all we possess should be good except our own life?
The world is so full of such blindness that men seem bewitched. They have eyes, and see not; they have ears, and hear not. They have eyes as keen as those of the eagle in discerning the things of this world; but they are as blind as beetles to the things of eternity. Like St. Paul, who could see nothing, though his eyes were open, when he was thrown to the ground on his way to Damascus, their eyes are open to this life, but utterly blind to the life to come.
In the midst of such darkness and so many snares, what can worldlings expect but to stumble and fall? This is one of the greatest miseries of life, one that should inspire us with strong aversion for the world. St. Cyprian, desiring to excite in a friend contempt for the world, makes use of this argument only. (L. 2 Ep. 2 ad Donat). He goes with him in spirit to a high mountain, whence he points out to him lands, seas, courts of justice, palaces and public places, all defiled with the abominations of sin. At the same time he shows his friend, from this spectacle, how justly such a world merits his contempt, and how great should be his gratitude to God for having rescued him from all these evils.
Imitate this saint, and, rising in spirit above the world, gaze on the scene laid before you. You will be overwhelmed by the sight of so much falsehood, treachery, perjury, fraud, calumny, envy, hatred, vanity, and iniquities of every kind, but particularly by the total forgetfulness of God which prevails in the world. You will see the majority of men living like beasts, following the blind impulse of brutal passions, and living as regardless of justice or reason as if they were pagans, ignorant of the existence of God, and knowing no other object than to live and die. You will see the innocent oppressed, the guilty acquitted, the just despised, the wicked honored and exalted, and interest always more powerful than virtue. You will see justice bribed, truth disfigured, modesty unknown, arts ruined, power abused, public places corrupted.
You will see knaves, worthy of rigorous punishment, who, having become rich through fraud and rapine, are universally feared and honored. You will see creatures like these, having little more than the appearance of men, filling high places and holding honorable offices: You will see money worshipped instead of God, and its corrupting influence causing the violation of all laws, both human and divine. Finally, you will behold in the greater part of the world justice existing only in name. Then will you understand with how much reason the prophets said, "The Lord hath looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there be any that understand and seek God. They are all gone aside, they are become unprofitable together; there is none that doth good, no, not one." (Ps. 13:2,3). "There is no truth, and there is no mercy, and there is no knowledge of God in the land. Cursing, and lying, and killing, and theft, and adultery have overflowed, and blood hath touched blood." (Osee 4:1-2).
Moreover, if you would know the world still better, consider him who governs it. As Jesus Christ tells us that the devil is the prince of this world – that is, of wicked men – what must be a body with such a head, a commonwealth with such a ruler? What must it be but a den of thieves, an army of brigands, a prison of galley slaves, a nest of serpents and basilisks? Why, then, will you not long to leave a place so vile, so filled with treachery and snares; a place from which justice, religion, and loyalty seem banished; where all vices reign; where honesty counts for so little among friends; where the son desires the death of his father, the husband that of his wife, and the wife that of her husband; where the majority of men of every station rob one another under plausible pretexts, and where the fires of impurity, anger, cupidity, ambition, and every other passion continually rage?
Who would not fly from such a world? "Who will give me in the wilderness a lodging place … and I will leave my people," says the prophet, "because they are all adulterers, an assembly of transgressors." (Jer. 9:2). All that we have said on this subject applies to the wicked, for there are good men in all ranks of life, for whose sake God bears with the rest of mankind.
Judge, therefore, by the picture we have given you how much reason you have to hate a world so full of corruption, where evil spirits and crimes are more numerous than the atoms we behold in the rays of the sun. Nourish and increase the desire to fly, at least in spirit, from this world, saying with David, "Who will give me wings like a dove, and I will fly and be at rest?" (Ps. 54:7).
These miseries inseparable from worldly happiness should suffice to show you that it contains more gall than honey, more bitterness than sweetness. Nor have I described all the wretchedness that accompanies the pleasures of this life. In addition to its shortness it is impure, for it reduces men to the level of the brute, and raises the animal above the spiritual part of their nature. It is intoxicating, clouding the mind and distorting judgment. It is inconstant, and makes men the same. It is treacherous, for it abandons us when we need it most.
But there is one of its evil characteristics of which I must speak – that is, its delusive appearance. It pretends to be what it is not, and promises what it cannot give. In this way it allures men to their eternal ruin. As there are real and counterfeit jewels and true and false gold, so there are real and counterfeit virtues and true and false happiness. Aristotle says that as falsehood sometimes has more appearance of truth than truth itself, so many things which are evil appear more fair than others which are really good. Such is the happiness of the world, and therefore the ignorant are allured by it, as fish are drawn to their destruction by a glittering bait. It is the nature of worldly things to present themselves under a bright and smiling exterior which promises much joy. But experience soon dissipates our illusions; we feel the sting of the hook almost as soon as we take the bait.
Take, for example, the happiness of a newly married couple. In many cases how brief it is! How soon it is interrupted by troubles and anxieties; by the cares of children; by sickness; by absence; by jealousy; by misfortunes; by grief; and sometimes by death itself, which suddenly changes it for one or the other into a desolate widowhood! How smilingly the bride goes to the altar, seeing only the exterior of what is before her! Were it given to her see the weight of responsibility which she takes upon her that day, tears would replace her smiles. Eagerly as Rebecca desired children, when they were given her, and fought for mastery over each other, she exclaimed, "Why was my desire granted me?" How many have uttered the same cry when they found the realization of their hopes so far below what they promised!
And honors, dignities, preferments – how attractive they appear! But what anxieties, what jealousies, what passions, what hardships their false splendor conceals! What shall we say of unlawful love? How pleasing is the prospect which it presents to the senses! But once the sinner has entered this dark labyrinth he finds himself astray, the victim of á thousand harrowing torments. This forbidden tree is guarded by a furious dragon. With the sword of an injured parent or a jealous husband he frequently deprives the sinner, by one blow, of his reputation, his honor, his fortune, his life, and his soul. Study also the covetous man, or the worldling whose aim is glory to be attained through arms or the favor of the great. How often do their lives form a complete tragedy, beginning with prosperity and ending in ruin! Truly the cup of Babylon is golden without, but filled with abominations. (Cf. Apoc. 17:4).
What, then, is human glory but the song of the siren which lures men to destruction, a sweet but poisoned cup, a viper of brilliant colors breathing only venom? It attracts us only to deceive us; it elevates us only to crush us. Consider, moreover, what a return it exacts for all that it gives. Grief at the loss of a child far exceeds the joy of its birth. Loss gives us more pain than profit gives us joy. The affliction of sickness far exceeds the pleasure of health. An insult wounds us more than honor flatters us; for nature dispenses joys and sorrows so unequally that the latter affect us much more powerfully than the former. These reflections manifestly prove the delusiveness of worldly happiness.
You have here, dear Christian, a true picture of the world, however contrary it is to what the world appears to be. Judge, therefore, of its happiness, so brief, so uncertain, so dangerous, and so delusive. What is this world, then, but a land of toil, as a philosopher has wisely said, a school of vanity, an asylum of illusions, a labyrinth of errors, a prison of darkness, a highway of thieves, a stream of infected water, an ocean of perpetual storms? It is a barren soil, a stony field, a thorny wood, a meadow whose flowers conceal serpents, a garden full of blossoms but yielding no fruit, a river of tears, a fountain of cares, a deceptive poison, a perfect fiction, a pleasing frenzy. Its good is false, its evil real, its peace is restless, its security unfounded, its fears groundless, its labor profitless, its tears fruitless, its hope vain, its joy false, its grief real.
Behold what a striking representation of Hell the world affords. Hell is a place of sin and suffering, and in the world these evils also abound. "Day and night iniquity shall surround it upon its walls, and in the midst thereof are labor and injustice." (Ps. 54:11). These are the fruits the world produces, labor and injustice; these are the merchandise in which it traffics. On every side we behold sin and its punishment. Hence St. Bernard said that were it not for the hope of a better life, there would be little difference between this world and Hell. (Serm. 4 de Ascen.)
It now remains for us to prove that true happiness can only be found in God. Were men convinced of this, they would cease to pursue the pleasures of this world. My intention is to prove this important truth less by the authorities and testimonies of faith than by arguments drawn from reason.
It will readily be granted that no creature can enjoy perfect happiness until it has attained its last end – that is, the highest degree of perfection of which it is capable. Until it has reached this it cannot enjoy rest, and therefore it cannot be perfectly happy, for it feels the want of something necessary to its completeness. Now, what is man's last end, on the attainment of which depends his happiness? That it is God is undeniable; for since He is our first beginning, He must necessarily be our last end. As it is impossible for man to have two first beginnings, so it is impossible for him to have two last ends, for this would suppose the existence of two Gods.
God, then, is man's last end, and consequently his beatitude. For since it is impossible for him to have more than one last end, it follows that in God alone can his happiness be found. As the glove is only made for the hand, and the scabbard only for the sword, so is the human heart created only for God, and in God only will it find rest. In Him alone will it know happiness. Without Him it will be poor and miserable: The reason of this is because as long as the understanding and the will, the noblest faculties of the soul and the principal seats of happiness, are unsatisfied, man cannot be at peace.
Now, it is evident that these faculties can only be completely satisfied in God. For, according to St. Thomas, the understanding can never be so filled that it will not desire to grasp more while there remains more to be learned; and the will can never love and relish so much good that it will not desire to possess more, if more be possible. Consequently these two powers will never know rest until they have attained a universal object containing all good, which, once known and loved, leaves no other truth to be known, no other good to be desired. Hence no created thing, were it the whole universe, can satisfy man's heart. God alone, for whom he was created, can do this. Plutarch tells of a man who, having risen from the rank of a simple soldier to that of emperor, was accustomed to say that he had tried all conditions of life, and in none had he found happiness. How could it be otherwise, since in God alone, man's sole supreme end, can he find supreme rest?
Let us illustrate this by an example. Consider the needle of the compass. God has given it certain properties which cause it invariably to turn to the north. Change its direction and you will see how restless it becomes until it resumes its normal position. Man, in like manner, naturally turns to God as toward the pole of his existence, his first beginning and last end. Let his heart be directed to any other object, and he becomes a prey to trouble and disquiet. The possession and enjoyment of all the world's favors cannot give him rest. But when he returns to God, he immediately finds happiness and repose. Hence he alone will be happy who possesses God, and therefore he is nearest to happiness who is nearest to God. For this reason only the just, who ever draw near to God, and whose joy is unknown to the world, are truly happy.
To understand this more fully, remember that true happiness does not consist in sensible or corporal pleasures, as the disciples of Epicurus and Mahomet assume. In the same class we may place bad Christians whose lips deny the doctrines of these men, but whose lives are entirely in accordance with them. For do not the majority of the rich, who spend their lives in the mad pursuit of pleasure, tacitly acknowledge with Epicureans that pleasure is their last end, and with Mahometans that sensual delight is their paradise? O disciples worthy of such masters! Why do you not abhor the lives of those whose teachings you profess to condemn? If you will have the paradise of Mahomet, you must expect to lose that of Christ.
True happiness is not to be found in the body nor in corporal advantages, but in the spirit and in spiritual goods, as the greatest philosophers have asserted, and as Christianity confirms, though in a far more elevated sense. The possession of these blessings will afford you more peace and happiness than the kings of the earth know amidst their power and splendor. How many of them have testified to this truth by joyfully forsaking their crowns after tasting the sweetness of God's friendship! St. Gregory, who reluctantly left his monastery to ascend the papal throne, never ceased to sigh for his humble cell as ardently as a captive among infidels sighs for liberty and his native land.
As St. Augustine says, it is not merely the possession of goods, but the gratification of his just desires and the attainment of his real wants, that make man happy. These are to be found only in God. Whatever else man possesses, he knows not the blessing of peace. Aman, the favorite of Assuerus, and powerful by his wealth and influence, was yet so disturbed because Mardochai did not salute him that he declared he found no comfort in all he possessed. See how small a thing can poison all the happiness which prosperity gives.
Observe further how much more accessible man is to misery than to happiness in this life; for but one ungratified desire suffices to make him miserable, and so many things are required to make him happy. Is there, then, any prince or potentate sufficiently powerful to have everything according to his will and thus free himself from contradictions? Even could he bend men to his will, what would protect him from the infirmities of nature, bodily pains, and the anxieties and groundless fears to which the mind is often a prey? How can you expect to find immunity from suffering and contradiction, which the greatest monarchs, with all their power, have never attained? Only that which contains in itself all good can give you happiness. Why, then, will you seek it so far from God, who is the supreme Good?
If these reasons be insufficient to convince you, listen to Solomon, than whom no man had a greater share of worldly happiness. What are the words in which he tells us the result of his experience? "Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, and all is vanity." (Eccles. 1:2). Do not hesitate to accept his testimony, for he speaks from experience. Do not imagine that you can find what he could not discover. Consider how limited anyone's knowledge must be compared to his; for was there ever a wiser, a richer, a more prosperous, a more glorious monarch than this son of David? Who ever enjoyed a greater variety of amusements? All things contributed to his pleasure, yet he gives this result of his almost unlimited prosperity: "Vanity of vanities, and all is vanity."
Can you, then, expect to realize what Solomon found impossible to attain? You live in the same world, and your resources for happiness are certainly not better than his, His pursuit of pleasure was constant, but in it he found no happiness, but rather, as St. Jerome supposes, the occasion of his fall. As men more readily accept the lessons of experience than those of reason, God may have permitted Solomon to drink so deeply at the fountain of pleasures to teach us how worthless they are, and to save others from a similar misfortune.
How long, then, O sons of men, will you be dull of heart? Why will you love vanity and seek after lies? (Cf. Ps. 4:3). Wisely does the psalmist term them vanity and lies, for if there were nothing in worldly things but vanity, which signifies nothingness, their evil would be tolerable. But their most dangerous characteristic is the false assurance with which they persuade us to believe that they are what they claim to be. In this, the world manifests its excessive hypocrisy. Hypocrites endeavor to conceal the faults they have committed, and worldlings the miseries under which they groan. Some who are sinners would pass for saints. Others who are miserable would pass for the favorites of fortune. But draw near to them, study the pulsations of their restless hearts, and you will see what a difference there is between appearances and reality.
There are plants which at a distance appear very beautiful, but touch them and they give forth a disagreeable odor. So it is with the rich and powerful of this world. When you behold the dignity of their position, the splendor of their dwellings, and the luxury of their surroundings, you would suppose them the happiest of men; but draw near to them, search the secret recesses of their souls, the hidden corners of their homes, and you will find how false is much of the happiness they seem to enjoy.
O children of men, created to the image of God, redeemed by His Blood, destined to be the companions of angels, why do you love vanity and seek after a lie? Why do you seek in false blessings a peace which they cannot give? Why do you leave the table of angels to feed with beasts? Will not the calamities with which the world visits you determine you to break the chains of this cruel tyrant?
Reason and experience clearly prove that the happiness we seek is to be found only in God. Is it not madness to seek it elsewhere? "Go where you will," says St. Augustine, "visit all lands, but you will not find happiness until you go to God."
As we have now arrived at the conclusion of our arguments in favor of virtue and in praise of its rewards, let us briefly resume what we have said. As there is no good which is not included in virtue, we must regard it as a universal good, comparable only to God Himself. God contains in His Being all perfections and all good. In a certain manner the same may be said of virtue. All creatures have each some characteristic perfection. Some are beautiful, others honest, others honorable, and others agreeable. Those among them that possess the greatest number of these perfections have most claims to our love. What, then, is more worthy of our love than virtue, in which all these perfections are combined?
If we seek honesty, what is more honest than virtue, the root of all honesty? If we look for honor, what is more honorable than virtue? If beauty attracts us, what is more beautiful than virtue, of which Plato said that were its beauty only seen the whole world would follow it? If we desire profit, what will we find more profitable than virtue, whose hopes are so exalted and whose reward is the Sovereign Good?
"Length of days is in her right hand, and in her left hand riches and glory." (Prov. 3:16). If we seek pleasure, what is comparable to the pure pleasures of a good conscience, of peace, of charity, of the liberty of the children of God, of the consolations of the Holy Spirit which always accompany virtue? Do we desire renown? "The memory of the just is with praises; and the name of the wicked shall rot." (Prov. 10:7). If we aspire to wisdom, the greatest of all wisdom is to know God and to understand how to direct our life to its last end. If we would have the esteem and affection of men, nothing will secure it more effectually than virtue; for, to use a comparison of Cicero, as the corporal beauty we admire results from the regularity and symmetry in the members of the body, so from the order and regularity of a good life results a beauty which is pleasing not only to God and the angels, but even to the wicked and to our very enemies.
Virtue is an absolute good; it admits of no alloy of evil. For this reason God sends to the just this short but glorious message: "Say to the just man that it is well." (Is. 3:10). In all things, even in pain and toil, he shall find good, and therefore happiness, because "to them that love God all things work together unto good." (Rom. 8:28). Though the elements war upon him, and though the heavens fall, he can hold up his head without fear, for the day of his redemption is at hand. He shall be delivered from supreme evil, which is the company of Satan, for God, the Supreme Good, will be his portion. God the Father will adopt him as His son; God the Son will receive him as His brother; and God the Holy Ghost will dwell in him as His temple. Having sought first the kingdom of God and His justice, every blessing has been given to him. From all things he has drawn profit. Every creature has been an aid to him in serving God. Will you, then, be so cruel as to deprive yourself of a help so powerful and so profitable?
As philosophers tell us, good is the object of our will, which is the seat of love. Consequently the better a thing is, the more deserving it is of our love. What, then, has so corrupted your will that it rejects this incomparable good? Why will you not imitate David, who, though he had the care of a kingdom, tells us that he had the law of the Lord in the midst of his heart? (Cf. Ps. 39:9). He put all other considerations aside, and gave to virtue the noblest place, the center of his heart. How different is the conduct of worldlings, who give vanity the first place in their hearts, and God's law the lowest!
Do you desire any other motive to persuade you to follow this wise example and embrace so great a good? If you consider obligation, can there be any greater than the obligation which binds us to serve God because of what He is in Himself? We have already shown you that all other obligations compared to this are as if they did not exist. If you can be moved by benefits, what benefits are comparable to those you have received from God? Besides the grand benefits of creation and redemption, have you any good of soul or body that is not from Him? If interest be your aim, what greater could you have than to avoid eternal misery and gain eternal joy? If you aspire to happiness in this life, what happiness equals that of the just? The least of the privileges of virtue which we have described affords more true happiness than the possession of all the treasures of the world. If you reject these evidences in favor of virtue, you do so in willful blindness, for you close your eyes to the light of truth.
The First Remedy against Sin: A Firm Resolution not to commit it
It is not sufficient to persuade men to love virtue; we must also teach them how to acquire it. The first condition, a wise man has said, is the absence of vice. We shall therefore first treat of the most common vices and their remedies, and afterwards of the virtues and the means of acquiring them.
Before entering upon this subject, bear in mind that there ; are two principles in which you must be firmly established if you would change your life and give yourself to God. The first is a just appreciation of the importance of the labor you ; are about to undertake; you must be convinced that this is the sole interest, the sole pro it, the sole wisdom in the world. This is what the Holy Ghost Himself teaches us: "Learn where is wisdom, where is strength, where is understanding, that thou mayst know also where is length of days and life, where is the light of the eyes, and peace." (Bar. 3:14). "Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, and let not the strong man glory in his strength, and let not the rich man glory in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me." (Jer. 9:23-24).
The second principle with which you must be imbued is that as this is such a glorious and profitable engagement, you must undertake it with vigor and a firm determination to conquer. Be persuaded that all the dangers which you will encounter will be of little moment compared to the sublime end you have in view. It is a law of nature that nothing great is accomplished without labor and trouble, You will no sooner have resolved to give yourself to God than Hell will send out its forces against you. The flesh, corrupted from its birth by the poison of the serpent, will assail you with its insatiable desires and alluring pleasures. Evil habits as strong as nature itself will fiercely resist this change of life and exaggerate the difficulties which you will encounter.
To turn a river from its course is hardly more laborious than to change a life confirmed by inveterate habits. The world, as powerful as it is cruel, will wage a fierce war against you. Armed with its pleasures and bad examples, it will hasten to compass your downfall. At one time it will seek to captivate your heart with its pomps and vanities. At another time it will strive to entangle you in the net of its ways and maxims. Again it will boldly attack you with ridicule, raillery, and persecution. The devil himself, the arch-deceiver, will renew his warfare and turn all his forces against you. Enraged at your desertion from his party, he will leave nothing undone to ruin you.
Be prepared, therefore, to meet with difficulties. Remember the words of the Wise Man: "Son, when thou comest to the service of God, stand in justice and in fear, and prepare thy soul for temptation." (Ecclus. 2:1). Do not think you are called to enjoyment alone. You must struggle and combat; for, notwithstanding the abundant succor which is offered to us, we must expect hard labor and difficulties in the beginning of our conversion. That you may not be discouraged, bear in mind that the prize for which you are striving is worth more than all you can ever give to purchase it. Remember that you have powerful defenders ever near you. Against the assaults of corrupt nature you have God's grace. Against the snares of the devil you have the almighty power of God. Against the allurements of evil habits you have the force of good habits confirmed by grace. Against a multitude of evil spirits you have numberless angels of light. Against the bad example and persecutions of the world you have the good example and strengthening exhortations of the saints. Against the sinful pleasures and vain joys of the world you have the pure joys and ineffable consolations of the Holy Ghost.
Is it not evident that all that are for you are stronger than all that are against you? Is not God stronger than the devil? Is not grace superior to nature? Are not the good angels more powerful than the fallen legions of Satan? Are not the pure and ineffable joys of the soul far more delightful than the gross pleasures of sense and the vain amusements of the world?
Resting on these two principles, your first determination must be a deep and unshaken resolution never to commit mortal sin, for it can only rob us of the grace and friendship of God. Such a resolution is the basis of a virtuous life. As long as the soul perseveres in it she possesses divine charity, which makes her a child of God, a member of Christ, a temple of the Holy Ghost, and gives her a right to the blessings of the Church here and the kingdom of Heaven hereafter.
In all things we distinguish substance and accidents. The latter may be changed, while the former remains the same; but if the substance fails all is lost.
Thus a house is still called a house though its ornaments are removed, but if the building is destroyed the ornaments perish with it. Now, the very substance, the life of virtue is charity. This remains, and therefore our spiritual edifice stands as long as we maintain our resolution not to commit mortal sin. If this fails, the whole structure is reduced to ruin; we cease to be God's friends; we become His enemies.
Hence the constancy with which the martyrs endured such cruel torments. Rather than be deprived of God's grace by mortal sin they submitted to be burned, to have their flesh torn with heated irons, and to suffer every torture which the cruelty of men could invent. They knew that had they sinned they could, if time were given them, repent and obtain forgiveness, as Peter did immediately after denying his Master; yet the most terrible torments were more tolerable to them than the momentary deprivation of God's favor and grace.
Holy Scripture gives us a glorious example of this constancy in the mother of the seven sons, whom she exhorted to die manfully, and whose martyrdom she heroically witnessed before she gave up her own life for the law.(Cf. 2Mac. 7). Equally sublime was the fortitude of Felicitas and Symphorosa, who lived in the early age of the Church, and who had also seven sons each. These intrepid soldiers of Christ were present at the martyrdom of their children, and in accents of sublime courage besought them to endure their tortures with constancy. They had the heavenly consolation of seeing them die for Christ, and then, with a heroism born only of faith, they yielded their own lives to complete the sacrifice.
In his Life of St. Paul, the first hermit, St. Jerome tells of a young man whom, after the tyrants had vainly used many means to force him to sin, they finally bound him in so helpless a condition that he could not escape from the wretched creature whom they brought to him to tempt him. Yet his courage failed him not, but, biting off his tongue, which they could not bind, he spat it into the face of his tempter, who fled in dismay. In this he was doubtlessly inspired by the Holy Ghost, as were so many of the saints, who by every kind of bodily suffering subdued the violence of passions which would lead them to offend God. He who desires to walk resolutely in the same path must strive to imitate them by fixing this resolution deep in his soul. Appreciating things at their true value, he must prefer the friendship of God to all the treasures of earth; he must unhesitatingly sacrifice perishable joys for delights that will be eternal. To accomplish this must be the end of all his actions; the object of all his prayers; the fruit he seeks in frequenting the sacraments; the profit he derives from sermons and pious reading; the lesson he should learn from the beauty and harmony of the world, and from all creatures. This will be the happy result of Our Saviour's Passion and all the other works of love which He unceasingly performs. They will inspire him with a horror of offending the good Master who has done so much for him. Finally, this holy fear and firm resolution will be the mark of his progress in virtue.
Take a lesson from the carpenter, who, when he wishes to drive a large nail, is not satisfied with giving it a few strokes, but continues hammering until he is sure it is firmly fastened. You must imitate him, if you would firmly implant this resolution in your soul. Be not satisfied with renewing it from time to time, but daily take advantage of all the opportunities afforded you in meditation, in reading, in what you see or hear, to fix this horror of sin more deeply in your soul.
If all the calamities which have existed in the world since the creation, and all the sufferings of Hell, were put into one side of a scale, and but one mortal sin into the other, it would outweigh all these evils, for it is incomparably greater. This is a truth which must be strongly felt and constantly remembered. I know that the world judges differently, but the darkness which reigns in this second Egypt cannot change the real character of sin. Is it astonishing that the blind do not see an evil, however great, or that the dead do not feel the pain of a mortal wound?
We shall treat, therefore, not only of mortal but of venial sin; not that the latter destroys the life of the soul, but because it weakens us and disposes us to mortal sin, which is death. We shall first speak of the seven deadly sins, the source of all the others. These sins are not always mortal, but they can easily become so, particularly when they violate a commandment of God or of the Church, or destroy charity.
In the Memorial of a Christian Life we treated of this subject, and gave a number of remedies against sin in general, Our intention at present is to give special remedies applicable to particular sins, such as pride, covetousness, anger, or revenge. By this means we hope to supply each one with the medicine necessary for his infirmities, and with arms suitable for engaging in this warfare. Before entering upon this subject, it is important to observe that in this spiritual combat we have more need of eyes than of hands and feet. The eyes, which signify vigilance, are the principal weapons to be used in this war, which is waged, not against flesh and blood, but against the malice of the evil spirits.
The reason for this is because the first source of sin is error in the understanding, which is the natural guide and counselor of the will. Consequently, the chief endeavor of the devil is to darken the understanding, and thus draw the will into the same error. Thus he clothes evil with the appearance of good, and presents vice under the mask of virtue, that we may regard it as a counsel of reason rather than a temptation of the enemy. When we are tempted to pride, anger, ambition, or revenge, he strives to make us believe that our desire is just, and that not to follow it is to act against the dictates of reason. Man, therefore, must have eyes to perceive the perfidious hook which is concealed beneath the tempting bait, that he may not be misled by vain appearances.
This clearness of mental vision is also necessary to enable the Christian to appreciate the malice and hideousness of sin, and the dangers to which it will expose us. Seeing the evil, we must restrain our appetites and fear to taste the poison which will immediately cause death. We also gather this lesson from that passage in Holy Scripture (Cf. Ezech. 1:18) which speaks of those mysterious creatures, figures of the just, which had eyes all over their bodies, for in them we find a striking symbol of that watchful vigilance which the Christian must constantly exercise to avoid the snares of vice.
Index to The Sinner's Guide