who shall prepare thy way before thee.' [Matthew 11:10]
During the sacred time of Advent, the Church invites us, in the most pressing terms, to prepare our souls for the approaching solemnity of the birth of Christ. This is the time, she exclaims, to arise from sleep, because our salvation is nearer than when we first believed — this is the time to do penance, for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand. She assumes the office of one who goes before us. She goes before the face of the Lord, and by the voice of her ministers solicits us to open our hearts to receive him at this holy time, in order that his arms may be opened hereafter to receive us on the great day of final retribution.
But, beloved Christians, are we prepared to accept these gracious invitations? Are we eager to rush forward to the banks of the Jordan, confessing our sins? Ah! We all listen to the Heavenly Monitor, but we obey him not. We are more inclined to flatter ourselves with the supposition that we are as perfect as the law of God requires us to be — that we fulfil all the divine commandments with sufficient exactitude, that we comply with our duties, and that we perform every good work which our state of life obliges us to perform. We are more inclined, I say, to form this favorable opinion of ourselves, than to suppose that the words of the Baptist are addressed to us: "Ye vipers, who hath taught you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth worthy fruits of penance." [Matthew 3:7]
But, my beloved, in vain do we endeavor to deceive ourselves. Truth itself, and the testimony of our own conscience, declare that we are sinners, and consequently, that it is our obligation and indispensable duty to reform and to do penance. None have escaped this deviation from the truth; and therefore none are exempt from the general precept: "Do penance, for the kingdom of God is at hand." [Matthew 3:2]
In calling your attention to this subject, I do not mean to enter into any argument on the necessity of repentance — that is a settled point — that is undeniable. My object is to lay before you the conditions which must accompany your repentance, in order that it may find acceptance with God — and in conclusion, to add a few reflections on the interior delights which smooth the rugged paths of self-denial and reformation.
1. Sin is an alienation of the affections from God, and an attempt to extract happiness from the enjoyment of created things, in opposition to the will of the Creator. Therefore, the first duty of repentance is to renounce these vain objects of attachment, and to replace our affections on him, who alone is worthy of them. To this we are urged, not only by the voice of religion, but by the united voice of reason and experience. Reason informs us, that that object alone is worthy of our love, which can effectually contribute to our happiness ... which can satisfy the cravings of our souls ... which can administer to our wants, alleviate our afflictions, and procure us all good. Now, God alone being the author of these priceless blessings, reason dictates the necessity of fixing our affections solely on him. Experience has already convinced us of this truth. During the time that our affections were fixed on earthly things, we always felt a deficiency in our breasts — we perceived that creatures were unpredictable, false, and inconstant — we saw that our hearts were deluded, and that happiness was not to be found in them.
With the authority, therefore, of religion, reason, and experience on my side, I will boldly proclaim the necessity of fixing your affections, in the very commencement of your repentance, solely on the great Author of your existence, and on the Giver of every good gift. I will confidently assert that you will not persevere in your great work, unless you open your hearts to the same angelic flames of love which animated the saints, and endeavor to walk in their footsteps. They are your models, and after them must you form the plan of your new life.
But I think I hear you say, that if such perfect love be a necessary ingredient of repentance, it is in vain for you to attempt it, and to require that you walk in the footsteps of the saints, is to require impossibilities. But, my beloved friends, why are you alarmed? Who, and what were the saints? Do you suppose that they were beings of a superior order? Or that they possessed qualities which were never implanted in your nature? Far from it. They were men in the pursuit of the same happiness as yourselves. They differed in nothing from you, except in fixing on the proper object for their pursuit. And will you say that you are not susceptible to the same sublime impressions of holy love as they were? You can adhere to creatures with the most ardent warmth of passion, but are you incapable of adhering to the Great Author of all with the same degree of warmth and animation? If this be true, what are we to infer? That you were made for vanity and folly — that your hearts are so mean and grovelling, that they cannot rise to the love or fruition of any thing beyond the enjoyment of sensual pleasures? Ah! For God's sake, let not any thing like this be said of you. Oh do not! Do not subscribe to this assertion! For, if you are not formed for divine love, what is the object of your existence, and for whom were you made? Will you allow, that you were created for no other purpose, than to be the victims of melancholy and delusion? Will you allow, that the Great Author of your existence has drawn you out of nothing, merely to make you miserable? ... and that your souls are capacitated to enjoy no other happiness than that which eludes your search — than that which, in reality, has no existence?
O man, be no longer the dupe of your own fears. The fervor of the saints is not difficult of imitation. Open your eyes; look into your interior, and you will discover that the dispositions, which you consider as obstacles to divine love, are the very dispositions which will promote its reign in your souls. The more ardent you now are in the pursuit of worldly vanities, the more ardent will you be hereafter in the service of God, and in the pursuit of eternal pleasures. The more your heart is susceptible to the love of creatures, the easier access will it open to the inspirations of divine grace. The more haughty, proud, and ambitious you are by nature, the more independently will you serve the Lord, without fear, without human respect, without flattery. The more pliant, volatile, and inconstant your disposition, the easier it will be for you to withdraw your misplaced affections, and fix them on God. In a word, your passions themselves may be made, in a great measure, the ground-work of your repentance. You may make that, which has hitherto been the cause of your sins, the instrument of your salvation. And you will thus experience that the heart, which is susceptible of impressions from creatures, is more susceptible of the impressions of divine grace.
2. The first condition, therefore, of true repentance, which is the love of God, is necessary and within your power. The second, which is equally necessary, consists in works of self-denial and mortification, and may be easily practised by the influence which the former will necessarily have over every part of your future conduct.
During the time that you were engaged in sin, you lived in the constant abuse of the gifts of God. Reparation, consequently, must be made to divine justice by the mortification of the senses, and the voluntary renunciation of those enjoyments, of which you have made an improper use.
Strictly speaking, the sinner may be said to have lost his right to the blessings of God. He has forfeited his inheritance — he has incurred the curse of his Creator — he is damned in the midst of all the creatures which God had intended for his use. There are, therefore, ordinances for the unfaithful, which are not extended to mankind in general. They are excepted from the common right, and they are to judge of the extent of their liberties, not from general maxims, but from the personal exceptions which they have incurred.
On this principle, I will answer a question which is frequently brought forward by false penitents: "Is it unlawful," they ask, "to indulge the fancies of dress, on purpose to engage the attention of others? Is this or that public amusement, this or that innocent enjoyment, forbidden by the gospel?" I will reply by another question: Have you ever criminally abused these liberties? Have you ever made them the occasions of sin? Ah! By means of these very amusements, you have probably heaped up to yourselves treasures of wrath. And now that you are deliberating on the means of effecting a change of life, you stand up in defence of vanity and folly — now that you are entering on a course of atonement to the divine justice for the numberless offences of your past lives, when sackcloth and ashes ought to be your only ornament, you maintain the lawfulness of pomp and splendor, and dissipation, from which, whether they are allowable in others or not, you certainly ought, in every view of the case, on principles of conscience and right reason, carefully to restrict yourselves.
Beloved Christians, the sorrows of true repentance hurry away the soul with precipitation from every thing which has at any time been to her an occasion of sin. She considers not whether this, or that, be innocent in itself, but whether it has led, or is calculated to lead her into the deep abyss of sin. She entertains as great an abhorrence for the promoters of her crimes, as for the crimes themselves. She avoids the sparks which enkindled her passions with as much care as she resists the passions themselves. She trembles at the idea of her former irregularities. She abhors the sight of the places, persons, and things which gave occasion to them. She flies from them with haste, lest they should again make an impression on her heart. Instead, therefore, of maintaining the lawfulness of again corresponding with the objects and occasions of your former sins, you must hate ... you must fly from them as from a pestilence. You must shun the rocks on which you have already suffered shipwreck. Necessity compels you. For be assured ... if you continue to love the danger, you will infallibly perish in it.
Moreover, in the same manner as lust embraces every opportunity of indulging its unlawful propensities, so, likewise, the true penitent endeavors on every occasion to satisfy the divine justice by private mortifications. He sacrifices on the altar of penance every thing that flatters the senses, every thing that cherishes the passions, and every superfluity that tends only to strengthen the empire of self-love. Like a two-edged sword, he reaches unto the division of the soul and the spirit. He makes separations the most painful to flesh and blood. He cuts even to the quick, and retrenches every thing that favors the inclinations of corrupt nature. He is ingenious in his modes of penance. In every occurrence of life, he discovers means of contributing to the atoning of his former sins. Even the few amusements which he allows himself, he changes into acts of virtue, through the pious circumspection with which he indulges them.
This, beloved Christians, is the Heavenly secret of repentance. Now let me exhort you to compare your system of a penitent life, with the model which I have displayed. Do not deceive yourselves. It is in vain that you have put off the defiled garments of grosser sensualities, unless you renounce likewise the love of pomp and vanity, unless you have resolution to mortify your will, and unless you repress the insatiable desires of self-love. Ah! Seldom is there a true penitent! Imperfect and superficial conversions are frequent. But there is too much reason to fear that the greater number of those, who appear reformed in the eyes of the world, will carry with them to the great tribunal of God, hearts as much attached to vanity, and as corrupt in their affections, as they were in the midst of their irregularities.
In order to settle your reform of life on the most solid basis, you must apply diligently to the practice of the opposite virtues. If you have been addicted to gaming, vanity, or love of dress, your dissipated state of mind must be reformed by prayer, retirement, and works of mercy. If you have strengthened the empire of flesh and blood, by abandoning yourselves to the more disgraceful passions, the flames of impurity and intemperance must be extinguished by degrees by fasts, austerities, watchings, and the heavy yoke of self-denial and penance. This is not a matter of counsel — it is of precept. Your happiness depends upon it; your perseverance depends upon it — for your old attachments will incessantly shoot forth, and spring up again, if they be not entirely eradicated from your breasts. Your passions will become more violent, and will redouble their attacks, unless they are completely subdued. You will be in momentary danger of another ship wreck. You will enjoy neither peace nor consolation in your new life. Your weakness and cowardice will increase. The pleasures which you have renounced, will appear before your eyes in the most engaging colors, and the charms of piety and holiness will appear faded and uninviting. Thus will you be a constant temptation to yourselves — and, as it is not easy to maintain a contest against yourselves for any length of time, you will soon turn away with disgust from a life which costs you so dear. It is true, therefore, my dear friends, (and let me entreat you to reflect seriously on what I am about to say), it is true, that in proportion as you increase and multiply your sacrifices on the first commencement of a reform of life, you diminish the difficulties — and that, in proportion as you favor your former disorderly inclinations, instead of mitigating the rigors of repentance, you make them more disgusting and intolerable.
A change of life, therefore, consists not merely in a reformation of your past disorders, but in a reformation accompanied with suitable acts of atonement to the divine justice. This is indispensable; and, notwithstanding the contrary opinion which you have probably formed on this head, it is not attended with much difficulty. The graces and consolations of Heaven sweeten the bitter pains of mortification and penance, and encourage the soul to proceed with willingness and rapidity in the important task, until she shall have brought it to a happy termination. I will conclude with a few words on this subject.
3. Come to me, says our Saviour, all you who are wearied in the ways of iniquity — come, and taste the sweets of my yoke, and you shall find that peace and rest which you have sought in vain under the yoke of your passions : you shall find rest for your souls.
Yes, beloved Christians — instead of that inconstancy and ingratitude, which you have experienced from creatures — instead of that emptiness and immaturity which accompanied your worldly pleasures — instead of that anxiety, solicitude, and remorse, which were the attendants of dissipation, your souls will overflow with the most enrapturing delights of innocence and peace. With what interior joy will you exclaim: "Hitherto I have lived only for vanity. The days, the years, the afflictions that are past, are now as nothing.They are lost; they are obliterated even from the memory of that world, for which alone I have lived. My courteous behavior, my humilityt, my services, have been repaid only with ingratitude. But now, everything that I shall either do or suffer for Jesus, will be placed to account — every act of self-denial, every trivial sacrifice, every sigh, every tear will be registered in indelible characters in the book of life. They will be all recorded in the memory of the great Master whom I serve. They will be all, notwithstanding the deficiencies arising from the weakness of human nature, they will be all purified by the blood of my Redeemer. My merits indeed will be nothing, independent of his grace, but he will crown his own gifts with an infinite reward. I live now for eternity alone. I no longer labour in vain. My life is no more a dream." Could you, my beloved brethren, taste the inexpressible consolations which this soliloquy imparts to the penitent sinner, you would be enraptured — you would exclaim in concert with all the holy servants of God: "Piety is a treasure indeed! The man who is truly converted to the Lord receives an hundred-fold even in this life, for the sacrifices which he gives up on the altar of repentance."
I will not, however, pretend to assert that the true penitent is entirely free from uneasiness and anxiety — experience proves the contrary. And therefore I acknowledge that the recollection of his past disloyalties will sometimes throw a gloom over his mind. But, notwithstanding his insecurity whether he be worthy of love or hatred, the secret peace which reigns within gives testimony that Jesus is there ... and the inexpressible interior delights which he enjoys, convince him that God has received him again into favor. I acknowledge, likewise, that the lively ideas of the infinite justice of God, and of the multitude of his sins, will sometimes excite apprehension and alarm. But these are trials sent only for the exercise of his humility, and are consequently of short duration. He quickly hears the voice of Jesus in his soul: "Oh thou of little faith ... why dost thou doubt? Have I not given thee sufficient proofs of my protection and benevolence? Recal to mind all that I have done, in order to snatch thee from the abyss of perdition. I seek not with such earnestness the sheep that is not dear to me. I never should carry it on my shoulders with such patience, if I only intended that it should perish before my eyes. Mistrust not my goodness. Thy only motives for alarm are thy own lack of enthusiasm and inconstancy."
This, beloved Christians, is but a faint description of the pleasures which enliven the paths of virtue. Why then will you hesitate? Are you restrained by the fear of difficulties? Ungenerous souls! You have endured the anguish and remorse of sin without complaint for many years, yet is it possible that you should dread the holy sorrows of repentance? You have borne the yoke of the world — a yoke which allowed nothing of ease, nor of comfort, nor of real pleasure, yet will you dare to call the yoke of the Lord insupportable? Be no longer the dupes of imaginary fears. The anxieties and the pains to which you have been accustomed, have prepared you for the sufferings of penance. This apprenticeship will make everything easy, particularly as your future labors will be accompanied and sweetened by the graces and consolations of Heaven. Good God! Having walked so long in the rugged paths of sin, and under the hard tyranny of the world and my passions, is it possible that I should be unable to walk with thee, under the wings of thy mercy, and supported by thy powerful arm? Art thou then a hard master? No. The world knows thee not, and therefore it supposes that thou impartest no consolations to thy faithful servants. But we, O Lord, we know thee. We know that thou art the best of Masters, the most tender of Fathers, the most faithful of Friends, the most bountiful of Benefactors. We know that thou wilt pour thy choicest gifts on thy servants during their mortal pilgrimage, and give them a foretaste of that eternal happiness which thou hast prepared for them in Heaven.