holiest works for the sanctification of the soul
"I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make strait the way of the Lord"
John, i. 23.
THE paternal solicitude of our Jesus, ever attentive to the interests of his beloved creatures, and desirous of insuring to himself the free and sole possession of our hearts, continues to invite us, by the mouth of the Baptist, during this time of Advent, to make strait his ways, and to remove the impediments which have hitherto obstructed the channel of his graces, and prevented our complete and permanent union with him. These impediments are the crimes which we commit, the passions by which our unthinking hearts are led astray, and the occasions of sin, which have so often proved fatal to our innocence. The means by which alone these impediments can be removed, are a change of heart, and a complete reform of life, accompanied with a true and sincere repentance.
To this gracious invitation he adds threats. He commands his ministers to display before you the miseries which await impenitence, and the dangers of delay, and to declare openly that, "unless you do penance, you shall inevitably perish".
This is not all: he speaks to you in the interior of your souls: "Is it not time", he says, "to arise from that abyss of wickedness, in which you have been so long immersed? Why will you not turn your thoughts to your eternal welfare, and consecrate the short remaining period of your lives to my service, after having devoted so many years to vanity and folly?"
To these importunities of your Creator, what reply do you make? Do you pour forth your soul in acts of thanksgiving for this his paternal, his gratuitous solicitude? Are you resolved to prostrate yourselves at his feet, and declare aloud, that you are ready to embrace the means which he has provided for your deliverance? Alas! this, I fear, is far from being the state of your mind. You are solicitous only to elude his importunities, and to refuse your consent: you say either that you have not sufficient grace to undertake so great a work; or that you are too much engaged in your pursuits to think of a reform of life at the present time. These, in general, are your pretexts. To these, there fore, I will call your attention; and I will prove, in the plainest terms, that they are groundless, that they are injurious to God, and that they are prejudicial in the highest degree to your eternal welfare.
1. It is not uncommon for those sinners, who are determined not to forsake their evil ways, to attempt to justify themselves by alleging the incompetency of man to effect the great work of an entire change of life, by his own powers alone. "A particular grace from God", they say, "is necessary, and indispensably necessary for the success of such an arduous undertaking: happy they who have been favoured with his grace! As for them, they have long waited with anxious expectations of receiving it: but, as yet, it has not pleased God to dispense to them so inestimable a blessing".
Plausible as this pretext may appear, a slight examination will prove that it is unjust on the part of the sinner, injurious to God, and unwarrantable in itself.
If in this assembly, there is any individual whose impenitence is owing to this cause, let me beg the favour of his attention for a few moments. Christian brother, I allow in the first instance that a true and sincere reformation of life cannot be effected without the grace of God, and if it be true that you have never been blessed with that grace, your impenitence has some excuse. But this is what you cannot assert with justice. If you take a review of your past life, you will be convinced that God favoured you in every stage of it with the most singular graces. He blessed you with a happy disposition and a good heart. He favoured you with the light of faith, provided you with the necessary instructors, and nourished you with his sacraments. When you turned your back upon him, and walked in the ways of iniquity, he followed after you with the solicitude of a parent, and importuned you, by his graces and inspirations, to return to his embraces: he did not suffer your conscience to be hardened in guilt: he convinced you of the emptiness and vanity of sinful pleasures, and tortured you with anxiety and remorse: he displayed before your eyes the charms of innocence, and by the voice of his ministers, urged you in the most pressing terms to give peace to your soul by throwing yourself into his arms: at the time even that I am speaking, he works within yon, and inspires me with these sentiments in order to reclaim you. Ah! my dear friend, your whole life has been one continued chain of graces; and you will discover hereafter, that it has been your greatest crime to have received so much, and to have profited so little.
If, indeed, by grace, you mean that miraculous grace, which in a moment converted Paul the persecutor into an apostle, you probably have never yet received it, and more probably never will: it would be presumption to expect it. No: you will never receive a grace that will exempt you from difficulties, that will break your chains, and subdue your passions without your concurrence. Your conversion will necessarily cost you dear: you will have many struggles with corrupt nature before your evil inclinations are repressed, before you can tear yourselves from the dear, but criminal objects of your affections, and make the sacrifice of everything that holds you in captivity. The grace which the saints received, and which made them saints, did not exempt them from these conflicts; and if you wait for a greater grace before you enter upon the work of self-reformation, you might as well give up your soul for lost, and consign yourself to the horrors of despair.
There is another subject likewise for your consideration: by alleging that you never have been favoured with the grace on which alone a change of life depends, you are guilty of ingratitude against God, and tacitly accuse him of being in some degree the author of your impenitence. You might as well say in plain terms: "God alone can change my heart, and, therefore, it is to no purpose that I attempt it without his special concurrence: I must wait his good time: I have only to spend my days agreeably in pleasure and sin; and when he thinks proper, he will divest me of the old man, and clothe me with the new, without any labour on my part, without my thinking of it, without any previous disposition, but a life of wickedness, and opposition to his graces: salvation that great, that only business for which I came into the world, is no longer entrusted to me: the Lord has reserved the means, and taken it entirely on himself. But, my friend, let me ask, in what new gospel is this promise contained, for it is not in the gospel of Jesus Christ? Ah! with reason does the prophet exclaim: the sinner can only speak foolish things in justification of himself, and he will endeavour to extenuate his crimes in opposition even to himself (Isa., xxxii. 6).
Lastly, this pretext is irrational in itself. For what consequence can you deduce, supposing it were true that God had never visited you with his grace? That you would not be accountable for the sins you commit, were you to die impenitent? You dare not say it. That you are allowed to extend the catalogue of your crimes, till God shall please to touch your heart, and impart to you the long expected grace? That the delay of your repentance will not be criminal in the sight of God, because it depends not on your will? If this excuse, my dear friend, were admissible, every sinner that defers his repentance, and dies in his sins, would be justified; the gates of Hell would be shut, and the broad road, in which the multitude are said to walk, would be annihilated. Man! exclaims the apostle, in opposition to the folly, and impiety of this pretext, O man! is it thus that you despise the riches of the bounty of your God? Are you not aware that his patience in enduring your crimes ought to be the most cogent motive to hasten your repentance, and not to be alleged as the motive for the continuance of your disorders?
If God had actually refused you the assistance of his grace, the following is the only rational consequence to be deduced; namely, that your eternal welfare is exposed to the most imminent danger, that it is your duty to pray incessantly for the in estimable blessing of which you are deprived, and to endeavour, by every means in your power, to appease the anger of God, and, as it were, to take Heaven by storm: that it is your duty, in the mean time, to avoid the occasions where your innocence has been so often endangered, and to renounce the worldly affections which have hitherto shut your heart against the inspirations of the Holy Ghost. This my dear friend, would be giving glory to God in a truly Christian manner: this would be sincerely confessing his supreme dominion over the heart, and acknowledging that he is the Giver of every good gift. But to be continually repeating, that God will visit you when in his mercy he shall think fit, and in the mean time, making no efforts to relinquish the error of your ways, is the height of impiety: you might as well say, I am not inclined at the present moment to enter upon the service of God: I can do without him yet a little longer: I live happy and content: when he forces me to attend to his calls, and when I can no longer avoid his solicitations, then will I yield, then I will say, Lord, here I am: but in the mean time I will enjoy my good for tune and indulge the liberty he has given me of deferring my conversion to a future period. What a preparation is this, my beloved, for receiving that inestimable grace which works a change of heart! Nevertheless, this it is that gives confidence to the sinner, and hardens him in his guilt.
But beware, beloved Christians: the longer you defer your change of life, the less grace you will receive: the more your crimes are multiplied, the farther will God remove himself from you. The moments of mercy flow rapidly on: the dreadful time of indignation approaches: and, if it be true that you have not sufficient grace to effect your change to-day, in a short time you will probably not have sufficient grace to be sensible that you stand in need of repentance.
2. There is another, and perhaps a more numerous class of sinners, who defer their conversion, not on account of any deficiency of grace, but because they are too much attached to the world; and are deluded by the supposition, that, if they reform their conduct at a later period of life, their salvation will be as secure as if they embraced the austerities of repentance at the present moment.
They say, that they cannot devote their younger years to the severe duties of religion; that their blood is too warm to submit to such multiplied restraints; but that the time will come, when their passions will be cooled, and the pleasures of the world less attractive; and that then they will apply to their eternal concerns in good earnest.
In reply to this pretext, it is natural to ask, whether you have an absolute assurance that you will reach that time of life; that death will not surprise you, during the course of those years, which you so deliberately devote to your passions; and that the Lord, whom you expect only at the third watch, will not come at the first or second watch, at a time when you least expect him? Ah! the thousands whom you see drop into the grave in the very prime of life, proclaim the uncertainty of the term of your existence: perhaps the sentence is even already pronounced against you: "Thou fool! this night, perhaps, thy soul will be required of thee": and, if so, what will thy projects of a future conversion avail thee?
Supposing, however, that you are permitted to reach that advanced stage of life: are you certain that you will be then more disposed to enter upon a new course of life than you are to-day? Did age change the heart of Solomon, of Saul, of Jezabel, of Herodias? It was then that their passions mounted to the highest pitch, and that their crimes were multiplied beyond number. The same, probably, will be your lot: your old age will either be contaminated with the follies of your youth, or, if satiety should create a disgust for the grosser passions, it will be attended with a hardness of heart, and a seared conscience, which will infallibly lead to final impenitence.
However, for the sake of argument, we will suppose that you have received an assurance that you will both attain to an old age, and be then sincerely reformed. Nevertheless, can you, my beloved brethren, can you seriously and deliberately resolve on treating your God in this unworthy, this contemptuous manner? He is the Lord of all ages and times; he requires that both the bud, the bloom, and the decay of life be consecrated to him: he is a jealous God: he will not give his glory to another, nor endure a partner in your affections. And can you resolve before hand to devote the most precious part of your life to the Devil and his works, and reserve only the shattered remains for your God? Can you have the hardened boldness to say: Lord, when I am no longer capable of enjoying the world, I will turn to thee. I shall be always sure of finding thee. But the world, after a certain time, will no longer be an object of amusement. I must enjoy it before it is gone. At a certain age it will reject me; and then for want of other pleasures, I will turn to thee: thou alone shalt possess my soul. Worthless creature! with reason may I address to you the words which the prophet Isaiah addressed to his idolatrous neighbours: "You take", says he, "a cedar of Lebanon, you choose the best parts for your pleasures and luxuries, and not knowing how to employ the remainder, you carve an image of your idol, and bow down before it, and worship it" Isa., xliv. 15. You, in the same manner, select the most precious parts of your life, and devote them to your passions: and not knowing how to employ the wretched remnant, which has become unfit for the world, you make an idol of it, you consecrate it to religion, and vainly flatter yourselves that your offering will be acceptable to God!
Ah! be not deceived, my beloved friends. You certainly will reap in an advanced age the fruits of that only which you sowed in your youth. "If you sow in corruption", says the apostle, "you shall reap in corruption" Gal., vi. 8. As you live so shall you die.
You perhaps may say, that happy is the man who has served the Lord from his youth; and that happy should you have been, if you had enjoyed the same blessing: but, unfortunately, you have followed the beaten track of the world, and are now engaged in pursuits, from which you cannot desist until a more favourable opportunity arrives.
But, my beloved, are you certain that this favourable opportunity will ever arrive? Are you certain that you will not be surprised by death? Would you be the first that was surprised in his sins? Ah! this is the common lot of all who walk in the broad ways of the world. Could you but attend the minister of the Lord when he is summoned to the bed of sickness: could you hear the useless regrets, the vain protestations of the measures they would have taken, had they foreseen their approaching dissolution, you would be convinced that, seldom is there a man that has completely renounced his passions, and prepared himself by repentance for his last end. If you defer your conversion, the same melancholy task shall we have one day to perform for you. You will summon us in your turn: and, instead of congratulating with you on your timely repentance, we shall be necessitated to listen to your useless regrets, and endeavour, perhaps in vain, to inspire you with sentiments of sincere sorrow, and engage you to look forward with hope to the result of that dreadful scrutiny, for which you intended to have been prepared, and are not.
Perhaps, however, you may say, that you are disposed at the present time to reform your lives; that you are fully convinced of the emptiness and folly of worldly pleasures, and would gladly renounce them in order to labour in earnest for your salvation; but that you are diffident; that you are afraid lest the difficulties necessarily attending such an important and arduous undertaking should discourage you; and that, if you make the attempt, and fail, you would be exposed to the ridicule and scorn of all your acquaintance.
But, my dear friends, whence originates this fear? You defer your repentance on the supposition that God will touch your heart at a future period: and, if you reform to-day, you say that you dare not rely on his assistance! You confide in his mercies at the time you offend him; and you cannot confide in them when you attempt to serve him! O man! where is that reason, that soundness of judgment on which you pride yourselves? Are you then only senseless and contradictory, when your salvation is at stake?
Would it not be more reasonable to say: I will begin at least; I will try what I can do with the help and assistance of God; the experiment is certainly worth making. The man who is surprised by the sudden torrent, and in danger of perishing, endeavours to reach the land, and does not give himself up for lost until his strength is exhausted. He does not say: Perhaps I shall not succeed; my strength may possibly fail me; and therefore I will not try to save myself. No: he exerts his whole strength; he stretches every nerve; he yields not, till he is fairly overpowered by the force of the torrent that opposes him. You, my friends, are in danger of perishing: the waters gain upon you; the torrent is carrying you away; and will you hesitate whether it be prudent to endeavour to save yourselves? Will you sacrifice to deliberation the few moments which alone remain for you to effect your escape, and avoid the death which has overtaken so many before your eyes?
Supposing, however, that you were unable to endure the severities of repentance, and that you were obliged to desist, still you would have the satisfaction to reflect, that you had spent some time in innocence; that you had made some efforts to appease an angry God; that you had avoided some sins; and that the treasure of divine wrath, which is laid up against you, is not quite so great as it otherwise would have been. You would have acquired a right to represent your weakness to your Lord: Lord, thou seest my weakness. You would have a right to say: Thou art witness to the desires of my heart: why am I not more resolute in thy service, more hardened against the allurements of the world, and more watchful over myself? Put a final conclusion, O Lord, to my inconstancy; deprive the world of the dominion which it still holds over my heart; take possession of thy ancient rights, and draw me not to thee by halves, lest I forsake thee again. I have so often sworn to thee eternal love I have so often prostrated myself at thy feet, and with my eyes bathed in tears, confessed my iniquities, and have again returned to my former ways, that I can no longer confide in my own strength. With a heart so fickle and inconstant, what can I expect? Be moved, O Lord, at the sight of my danger and distress: my weakness discourages and alarms me: I know that inconstancy in thy ways is a presage of perdition. But, my God! whilst I am yet susceptible of the impressions of thy grace, I will endeavour to return to thee; and, if I must lose my soul, I will rather perish in the attempt to be virtuous, than seek an imaginary, a terrible tranquillity in a fixed and declared revolt against thee, and thus renounce the hope of those eternal goods which thou hast prepared for thy faithful servants.