will himself perfect you, and confirm you, and establish you. [I Peter 5:10]
This is the cheering prospect which the chief apostle holds out before the suffering disciples of Jesus. In the early days of Christianity, the followers of the gospel were exposed to the greatest trials — their lives and property were at the mercy of the most cruel and relentless tyrants — they were liable every hour to be seized and condemned to the torture, or sentenced to be torn in pieces by wild beasts, for the amusement of the populace — like lambs in the midst of wolves, they were objects of hatred and contempt to the whole world. In the midst of these perils and sufferings, the apostle comforts them with the assurance that the God of all grace will quickly put an end to their pains, and give them tranquillity and peace.
We, my beloved, are not exposed to the like trials, but we have sufferings of a different kind. Whether we follow virtue or not, sufferings are unavoidable. The man of the world must suffer from the tyranny of his passions and from other causes. The just man must suffer from the constant struggle which is required to keep his passions in subjection, and from the weariness and discontent which are sometimes experienced in a life of piety. But after "he has suffered a little, the God of all grace will himself perfect him, and confirm, and establish him." That you may not be discouraged from entering the paths of holiness by the fear of being exposed to extraordinary trials and difficulties, I will call your attention to this subject, and will prove, first, that uneasiness, satiety, and disgust, are common to every situation in life; secondly, that the trials of the virtuous are not so severe as they are generally supposed to be; and thirdly, that they are not so severe as those of the worldling, because they are attended with consolations and delights, which are never experienced in the ways of vanity.
1. Trials and sufferings are unavoidable in this life. The soul of man is formed for the enjoyment of God, and she cannot be happy until she is immersed in the ocean of the Divinity. She is, therefore, necessarily in a state of uneasiness and constraint during the time of her sojourning on Earth. She is always seeking for happiness, and cannot find it — she cannot find it in the enjoyment of created things, because she was formed for a more noble destiny; she cannot find it in the service of God, because, not being in the full enjoyment of him, she always experiences that there is something wanting to satisfy her desires. If happiness were attainable on Earth, it would be attainable in the service of God, because religion softens the asperity of the passions, moderates the restless desires of the breast, gives ease and tranquillity to the afflicted mind, and imparts a foretaste of that perfect happiness which is reserved for the faithful servant in the mansions of the blessed. Of all the states and conditions in life, that of holiness approaches the nearest to complete happiness; but as it is only the path which leads to perfect happiness, and not the happiness itself, man must necessarily remain in this life in a state of comparative anxiety and solicitude.
With what appearance of reason, then, can we complain that the paths of virtue are strewed with thorns? If the world imparted happiness to its followers, we might, perhaps, be allowed to accuse God of ill-treating his servants, and of being a less kind and indulgent master than the world. But examine every state — interrogate every sinner — consult one after another the partisans of the different pleasures which the world affords — arid of the different passions which it inspires. Consult the envious, the ambitious, the voluptuous, the trifler, the revengeful. Ah! they will all complain; they will all say that they are not happy; they will all declare that their moments of uneasiness and pain are far more numerous than their moments of pleasure. But why does God leave his faithful servants in a state that is painful to nature? My friends, he has important reasons for it. It is by the means of these sufferings that our affections are to be weaned from this world, and that our thoughts and desires are to be raised up to those eternal mansions where sorrow and mourning are no more. If virtue were always attended with sensible consolations, it would receive its reward on Earth. The Christian would enter into the service of God with the view, not so much of preparing himself for the good things of eternity, as of acquiring peace and happiness on Earth. The Lord would have only mercenary and selfish adorers, who would present themselves before him, not to carry his yoke, but to repose under the shadow of his cross workmen — who would offer themselves, not so much to bear the heat and fatigues of the day in his vineyard, as to regale themselves with its fruits.
The just man lives by faith. Now, faith looks forward to some invisible good, of which we are not as yet in complete possession. It gives us no immediate hold of the objects which it sets before us. Its views are all essentially prospective. His country, his pleasure, his inheritance, his kingdom, are all of this kind. This is not his day; he looks for nothing here. The present time is the time of tribulation and anguish — the Earth is the land of exile and sorrow. Why therefore should we seek after ease and comfort in a place where every thing reminds us of our unhappy lot — where we are exposed to innumerable dangers — where, unless we use the greatest circumspection, every hour will increase the treasure of wrath which we have already heaped up against the day of wrath.
If real happiness could be found at a distance from God, our infidelity would appear to have an excuse. But the world is attended with disgust and bitterness, as well as piety. Were we to change masters, we should only exchange one species of sufferings for another. The world, I allow, has a more pleasing exterior than piety, but this is all its pretended delights are nothing but vanity and affliction of spirit. Since, therefore, we must necessarily carry the yoke either of the world or of religion, is there any room for hesitation? Is it not better to suffer for a reward, than to suffer for nothing?
2. The sufferings, however, of the virtuous man are not so grievous as the worldling supposes. Although we acknowledge that the kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence — although we say that the present life is the time for bringing forth the new man ... the time of labor and travail, we do not mean to insinuate that piety is either burdensome or insupportable. The interests of truth require that we should speak a very different language; for were piety of no other service than merely to repress the tyranny of our passions, to free us from the galling yoke of the world, and to raise us above its hopes and fears, its agitations and vicissitudes — were this, I say, the only privilege belonging to piety, what state on Earth would be preferable to it? In point of real worth, would it not far outweigh any of the pleasures of Earth? Would it not be infinitely more agreeable to mourn with the children of God, than to participate in the insipid and immature joys of the children of iniquity?
But piety has many other advantages. It reconciles the mind to the miseries and afflictions which are inseparable from mortality. It subjects the heart to the will of God. It causes us to discover, in the hand that chastises us, the hand of a tender Father, who has no other object in view than our salvation. Now, what can be more desirable in this land of exile and misery, where every day is distinguished by new afflictions and disappointments — where every desirable object seems to fly from our embraces — where our friends, our relations, our protectors, are daily snatched away and hurried into the grave. Where nothing is certain, nothing is permanent. What can be more desirable than the state which administers the sweetest consolations on these trying occasions? What can be more desirable than the state in which the soul reposes in calm tranquillity, and the mind is undisturbed and unchanged in the midst of the incessant changes which every where take place around her?
Besides, the sufferings peculiar to the virtuous man consist of nothing more than the repugnance or dislike that is felt in fighting against the inclinations of corrupt nature ... in resisting the impetuosity of the passions — those fatal sources of all our guilt and all our evil. I am far from thinking that a conflict like this can be kept up, or that our disorders can be cured, without a struggle. I know that the struggle is great, and that the remedy is painful. At the same time, I am very sure that evils are avoided by this means, which are far more insupportable. The sword of the spirit — that only instrument by which our cure can be radically effected — is, I believe, sharp and penetrating, and goes to the quick. But it goes there only to let out the impureness which our corruption had engendered within us, and the remainder of our lives is left in ease and comfort. The labors and constraints of worldlings are endless and unprofitable; they add fuel to the flames which already consume them; they increase the turbulence of their passions, and they ultimately avail them nothing in the end. But the conflicts of the virtuous man advance the great work of sanctification — they add an increase of glory to his soul — they animate and strengthen his good desires — and they impart the sweetest consolation to his mind ... a consolation which abundantly repays him for all his labors.
I might add, that the repugnance and disgusts which attend the conflicts of the just, are not created by virtue itself, but by the passions. In virtue all is amiable — and, if our hearts had not been led astray by created things, the pleasures of innocence would have been our only delight. But we have been accustomed from our infancy to look to the world for pleasure and enjoyment — our parents did the same before us, and by their example they encouraged us to adopt their ideas. The sprightliness, likewise, of our disposition throws a gloom over the walks of recollection and retirement. The vehemence of our passions give a disrelish for the calm uniformity of religious duties. And the frivolous maxims which we hear, the chimerical adventures of romances which we read, and the pompous exhibitions of the theater, or of other public places of resort, which are our delight, turn away our minds from every thing that is serious and important. How, then, is it possible that we should find pleasure in the service of God, when the only sources of our pleasure have been hitherto the vanities and trifles of the world! We complain of the restraints of piety, when, in fact, the only obstacles that impede us, are those which we ourselves have industriously set up, by the irregularity of our disorderly pursuits.
3. But allowing, for the sake of argument, that the service of God is irksome and painful to nature, still I contend that it is far preferable to the service of the world. For, my beloved, what is the life of the worldling? Let the opinion which he entertains of it himself, be solemnly inquired into, and he will tell you that he is a stranger to true peace and joy — that he is a man of sorrows — that the variety of his pleasures creates only a variety of disquietudes and disgusts — that his life is frequently a burden to him — that his days are spent in an insipid round of visits, of company, of amusements, of trifles, which have lost their novelty, and afford him no other satisfaction, other than that of passing away in a useless and dull manner the time which would otherwise hang heavy on his hands. He will tell you, that in his soul there is a constant flux and reflux of hatreds, desires, disappointments, jealousies, and hopes which embitter all his pleasures, and which will not suffer him to be content with himself, although surrounded by everything which the world can afford.
Such is the state of the worldling. What comparison, then, can be formed between the tumultuous agitations of the passions, and the trifling but consoling pains of virtue — between the excruciating torments of remorse, and the pleasing sorrows of repentance, with the promise which they hold out to us of immortal happiness? My God! Is it possible that the man who has known the world should complain of thy service? Is it possible that thy yoke should appear heavy to him who has borne the yoke of his own passions? Ah! The thorns which thou hast scattered over the hallowed paths of virtue, are flowers, when compared with those with which the ways of the world and of vice are strewed on every side.
How frequently do the advocates and followers of vanity exclaim against this very world which they serve? How frequently do they lament their unhappy lot? How frequently do they cast the severest reproaches on its ingratitude and injustice? How frequently do they censure, condemn, and despise it, and even declare that it is insupportable? My beloved, when is the man of piety ever known to denounce virtue — to condemn and despise it, or lament that he has entered a path that is so beset with labors and sorrows? How frequently does the world itself envy the lot of the just man, and declare that he alone is truly happy? But where is the just man who envies the lot of the worldling — who applauds the choice that he has made — who declares that he alone is happy — and who considers himself as one of the most unfortunate and wretched of mankind? Frequently have sinners been driven by disgust of the world and by despair to the most fatal extremities; frequently have they lost their peace of mind, their health, their reason, and their life; frequently have they fallen into a state of the most gloomy melancholy, and have considered existence as their greatest torment. But what just man has ever been hurried by the sufferings of virtue into such terrible extremes? The best of men may sometimes be heard to exclaim, in the words of our Saviour — " How am I straitened until my salvation be accomplished" [Luke, xii. 50] — but the restraints of holiness they prefer before all the pleasures of vice. It is true, they sometimes seek for a greater share of comfort from above, and it is natural they should. But the consolations of this world are things which they utterly despise. They suffer, but the hand which inflicts the punishment also upholds them and guards them against temptations which are above their strength. They feel what you call the weight of the yoke of Jesus; but when they reflect on the heavy weight of the yoke of iniquity which they formerly endured, they bless God for the happiness they now enjoy, and are convinced that their present sufferings are comparatively light and easy.
In fact, the trials of the just man are — for the most part — crosses which he voluntarily places on his own shoulders, and on that account are infinitely more supportable than the crosses ot the world, which are never voluntary. The sufferings of the virtuous are painful only to the senses; they never affect the soul. They are insupportable only to the tepid and slothful. The distaste which is felt for the exercises of piety, is felt only in the beginning of a new life — it soon wears off, and is succeeded by the most pure tranquillity and delight. The more ardently a Christian devotes himself to the service of God, the lighter will the repugnance and the difficulty he will have to encounter. The sufferings of the worldling are constantly on the increase — the more ardently he devotes himself to the service of the world, the more he is tormented by satiety, irksomeness, and disgust.
In a life of piety, there is no pain without its consolation — there is no repugnance or disgust, but what is amply compensated for by interior delights. Look into the heart of the just man. Behold the serenity within him — a soul unruffled, and a conscience that is always clear. The worm of remorse is destroyed, and the weight of iniquity taken away. In the midst of suffering and distress, he knows that every pang, every sigh is recorded in the Book of Life, and an eternal reward assigned to them all. He is submissive without reserve to the will of his tender Father because he knows that in all his dispensations he consults the good, and not the inclinations of his faithful servant. He is enriched with Heavenly graces, which uphold and strengthen him in every trial and temptation. His piety is nourished, and his soul is enraptured by the solemnization of the mysteries of religion, and particularly by the great mystery of love — the Holy Eucharist. His confidence is enlivened by the scriptures, which declare that mourning and tribulation are the inheritance of the elect in this life. His patience is increased by the examples of the saints, who were all proved by he same spiritual dryness and by the same trials. But above all, his hopes are animated by the inexpressible delight with which he looks forward to the happy state which awaits him hereafter. The prospect of the great ocean of eternity makes all that passes with time appear little and contemptible!
Oh what a abundant resources are there in store for the faithful Christian! What a disproportion between the sufferings of virtue and those of vice! How sensibly is this difference felt and how sincerely is it acknowledged by those who, after having devoted their early days to the world and to the gratification of their passions, have been reclaimed to the paths of holiness! With what sentiments of gratitude do they bless the mercies of the Lord! And with what regret do they exclaim with Saint Augustine: "Too late have I known thee, O ancient truth! Too late have I loved thee, O ancient beauty!"
Happy the man who has been freed from this error without the help of experience, and who has discovered, without the loss of innocence, the vanity of the world, and the wretched slavery which attends the unrestrained indulgence of the passions. Alas! Since we must at length be undeceived, and be compelled to despise and abandon the world — since the day will come, when we shall discover that its pleasures are empty, disgusting, and insupportable — since the day will come, when, of all its senseless joys, nothing will remain but anguish and remorse, why should we not tear ourselves in time from the misery which all such reflections as these will in fallibly occasion? Why not perform today, what we hope and intend to perform hereafter, when the difficulty of the execution will be increased an hundred-fold? Why wait to apply the remedy, until the wounds which the world continues to inflict on our souls are almost incurable?
Ah! We complain of the trivial difficulties which religion subjects us. But my dear brethren, what did the primitive Christians endure? They sacrificed wealth, honor, property, and life. They ran to tortures and to the rack. They passed their days in chains, in dungeons, in sufferings, and ignominy. They were not dismayed at the sight of death in its most frightful shapes. They were prepared to die, either by the beasts, by the fire, or by the sword. And did they complain in the midst of these complicated dangers and sufferings? Far from it. They rejoiced that they were found worthy to suffer for the name of Jesus. They thought that they purchased at too cheap a rate the honor of being his disciples and the consolation of being entitled to his eternal promises. And we, surrounded by all that our hearts can desire, subjected only to the restraints of self-denial, and to "sufferings" which are insignificant, we complain! Oh! Let us blush, and be confounded at the sight of our fearfulness and cowardice.
Let our complaints be for ever hushed, and let us serve God in the manner that he wills us to serve Him. If he lighten the yoke, let us bless his mercies for this tender regard to our weak ness. If it be his will that we endure the whole weight, let us esteem ourselves happy that he consents even at that price to receive our homage, and admit us to his friendship. Let us reflect that, notwithstanding the social isolation and dryness which the virtuous sometimes endure, there is no true pleasure but in the service of God — no real consolation but in the delights of holiness. Yes, better would it be to eat the bread of wormwood with the fear of the Lord, than to revel in all the festive sports and merriments of the world at a distance from him. Let us then embrace a life of virtue: it will impart to us the greatest happiness that can be enjoyed on Earth, and lead us to the mansions of complete and never-ending happiness in the kingdom of Heaven.