THE ETERNAL TRUTHS
"Memorare novissima tua et in aeternum non peccabis."
"In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin." Ecclus. vii. 40.
These truths, my brethren, must be very powerful and wholesome; for the Holy Ghost assures us that we shall never sin if we think over them earnestly. And, in fact, my brethren, who could attach themselves to the goods of this world, if they considered that in a short time they would no longer be here; that from Adam until to-day, nobody has ever taken anything away with him, or ever will do so? Would not anybody who was constantly thoughtful that he might die at any moment be always prepared for it? But, you will say, how is it that these truths, which have converted so many sinners, make so little impression upon us? Ah! my brethren, that is because we do not take them to heart sufficiently. Nothing is more likely to draw us away from ourselves and from the goods of this world, nothing so powerful to spur us on to bear better the sufferings of this life in a spirit of penance, than an earnest consideration of these truths. Behold, my brethren, how much Jesus Christ wishes to save us; at one time he appears to us as a poor child in the crib, lying on a handful of straw, which He moistens with His tears, again treated like a criminal, bound, pinioned, crowned with thorns, scourged, falling under the weight of the cross, and dying in martyrdom out of love for us. If this is not capable of moving us, drawing us towards Him, then He announces to us that He will one day come, clothed in the radiance of His glory and the Majesty of His Father, to judge us without clemency and without mercy; where before the whole world He will reveal the good and the bad which we have committed in the course of our lives. Tell me, dear brethren, if we rightly considered all this, should we require anything further to make us live and die like Saints?
According to my idea there are four paints which determine the happiness of a Christian, namely: The shortness of life, the thought of death, the judgment, and eternity. What a joy for us, my brethren, when we think that in a short time we shall leave this world, where we are so tempted to offend God, who is such a loving Saviour, and has suffered so much for us. Ah, my brethren, can we with this thought in our minds cling to life, which abounds with so much misery? I say that the judgment, far from bringing despair to you, brings consolation. We find, not a severe judge, but a Father, a Redeemer. Yes, a Father who opens His sympathetic heart to us, to take us unto his fatherly bosom, who will, I say, take into account our tears, our penances and good works, as many as we have done during our life.
Dear brethren, how this thought ought to encourage us with all zeal to serve God, and with patience to bear all the weariness of life, of which we shall be forever free in heaven. Ah, my brethren, all the weariness of this world passes, it all lasts only for a time, whilst the reward endures for all eternity. Courage, cries St. Paul to us; we shall soon reach the end of our pilgrimage. But for a Christian, dear brethren, who has lost sight of his last aim, the matter has quite another aspect; the shortness of life is a trouble and a bitter thought which disturbs him in the midst of his pleasures; he does his utmost to keep this thought of death far from him. Everything that reminds him of it frightens him, doctors and remedies; everything is tried to keep away the thought that death is near. He is in pursuit of happiness on earth, but he deceives himself. Whilst this poor unfortunate man forsakes God, God forsakes him. He will be obliged at the end of his days to admit that he has spent his life seeking for a good which he never found. Outside of God, oh, so many sufferings, so much misery, and no consolation, no recompense! At his death he will cry out like that king we read of in the Old Testament, who, when he was about to leave all his possessions, complained: "Ah! must I then die, must I forsake my great possessions, my beautiful gardens, my flower beds, to go into a land where I do not know any one?" Ah, death, the consolation of the just, brings only despair to him; he must die, and he has never once given thought to it.
We are told in our catechism that at the moment of our death we shall be severely judged, and that all the good and all the evil which we have committed during our life will accompany us to the judgment seat. Were you not told, when you came here in your childhood, that after this life, which soon ends, another begins, which never ends, and which has in its train all measure of good or evil, according as we have acted well or badly? Answer! My brethren, if all these truths were engraved upon our hearts, could we be able to live without loving God, and doing everything in our power to avoid all these evils?
Ah! my brethren, how these truths caused the Saints to tremble, how they have converted sinners, and made the penitent perform works of penance and mortification! We read in history that St. Ambrose wrote to the emperor Theodosius, who had committed a sin, more from thoughtlessness than badness, "I have seen in a vision, with which God deigned to honor me, the following: `As I saw you coming to church, I was ordered to close the doors, for your sins had made you unworthy to enter it."' After reading these lines the emperor burst into tears; then he drove up to the door of the church, as was his custom, in the hope that the Bishop would yield on seeing his tears and his repentance. But the Bishop, far from yielding, commanded him, as he saw him approaching the church, that he should remain outside according to the 'order of God, for he was unworthy to enter into the House of Him whom he had not been afraid of offending, and that he should begin to expiate his sins. "Certainly," replied the emperor, "I am a sinner and unworthy to enter the House of the Lord, but God can see my repentance. David sinned too, and the Lord forgave him." "Very well!" replied St. Ambrose, "you have imitated David in sin, now therefore, imitate his repentance." Without making any answer, the emperor withdrew, tears streaming from his eyes, his heart breaking with sorrow, he laid aside his imperial robes, put on old and torn clothes, threw himself prone upon the ground, and gave himself up to the bitterness of his sorrow; his palace resounded with heart-breaking lamentations. He was not satisfied to confess his sins in the tribunal of penance, but announced them publicly, that through his humiliation he might draw down the mercy of God. But, you will ask me, what was the cause of so many tears, of such a great sorrow, of such exceptional works of penance? Ah, my brethren, it was the bare thought that God would one day call him to the judgment seat, where he would be judged without mercy.
Ah, my brethren! if these important truths were engrafted deeply in our hearts, could we live without working in such a way that the judgment of God which our sins have provoked might be mitigated? In fact, dear brethren, who could, at the thought that we are only in this world to save our souls, cheat his neighbor, or do him any injustice? Who would give himself up to the pleasures of this world, which are of such short duration, and so dangerous for our salvation, and thereby put on one side the important affair of his salvation? Who would dare to commit a grievous sin if he had before his mind the fact that a single mortal sin would send him to perdition? or who would, if he were so unfortunate as to have committed such a sin, remain in such a lamentable condition, where the hand of God might reach him at any moment, and not hasten to take refuge in the Sacrament of Penance, which is the one remedy that God in His mercy offers us?
Ah, my brethren, let us say rather who would not, if he pondered these powerful truths rightly, not live and die a Saint? "O my soul f" cried out a holy penitent, "think of thy sins, and these great truths. Never forget from whence you came, where you are going, from whom you have received your existence, to whom you must give your heart, which you brought into the world with you, and which you must take away with you on leaving this place of exile." Ah, my brethren, we have not thought about all this before; ah, we shall wait until our tears and repentance will be in vain. Let us turn away, my brethren, from what is transitory and perishable, and let us cling to that which is eternal and lasting. Let us say to all earthly things as the Saints did: No! No! I do not want you any more, as perhaps either you or I will not be here to-morrow; leave me the short space of time which is yet mine to employ in seeking the forgiveness of God: Ah, yes, I will live for God alone, because I despise all transitory things. Ah, how well the Saints understood the importance of these truths, and we can say that they occupied themselves with them entirely. We read in the history of the Church that a large number of Saints, penetrated with the nothingness of this world, and the greatness of the eternal truths, despised the world and forsook it, and shut themselves up in a convent, or in the wilderness, hiding themselves in the forest, so as to be better able to give themselves up to contemplation. And there, in dark and lonely caves, they occupied themselves, apart from the noise and tumult of the world, only with the practice of these irrevocable truths, penetrated by these great truths, with severity towards their bodies, which their love of God implanted in them. Prayer, fasting and scourging brought their bodies into a pitiable state. And so they passed their lives, which were only a long martyrdom. And when after twenty, thirty, forty or eighty years of penance, the end of their days came, they asked each other frightened and trembling: "Do you think, my friend, that God will have mercy upon our souls, and appease His wrath? That He will forgive us our sins? Do you think we shall find favor with this judge, who will be without mercy?" Alas, who will be our advocate, to make the judge more lenient? Ah, may we hope to partake of the happiness of the children of God! Yes, my brethren, we see that the holy penitents, who had the happiness of seeing what sin is, and how severely it will be punished by God in the next life, put no limit to their works of penance.
My dear brethren, St. John Climachus tells us that if the thought of eternity moved so many Saints to perform such extraordinary work of penance, what will our lot be, who are laden with sin, and not at all repentant? My God, how awful will be Thy justice to the poor sinners who have nothing to rely on! Ah, my friends, he continues, I have seen penitents in a place where no one could look at them or think of them without weeping. Everything there was so horrible that you could not see them without crying in sympathy. These exalted and holy penitents never saw fire or food; they lived on roots and hard bread, which they moistened with their tears.
Ah, my brethren, how do we find ourselves, compared to this? What would be our condition and our eternity if God expected as much from us? Ah, if we, not speaking of practicing these great works of penance, if we had at least the good fortune to abstain from sin, and to begin from to-day to love God, we might expect and hope for the same happiness. My God, how blind we are concerning our everlasting happiness? Ah, my brethren; tell me, had these great Saints whom we admire another Gospel to follow? Did they have another religion to practice?
Had they another God to serve; another eternity to fear or to hope? No; certainly not, my brethren; but they had a faith which we have not, which, through the multitude of our sins, we have almost extinguished; but they worked zealously for the salvation of their soul, whilst we leave our poor soul without attention. But they meditated without ceasing upon the mighty and dreadful truths, the loss of God, the evil of sin, a happy or unhappy eternity, the uncertainty in regard to death, the awful abyss of the judgments of God, and the result, either a happy or an unhappy eternity, according as we have lived well or badly; whilst we on the contrary never think of these things. Only busy with earthly concerns, we leave God and heaven without thought. In a word, they lived as penitents and Saints, while we live in sin, and bound upon the pleasures of the world, without penance. O how great is the blindness of men! Who can ever understand it? To be put in the world, to love God and to save our soul, and then to live only to offend Him, and to make our soul miserable! What, my brethren, has been our life in reality up to this? And what have we been thinking about since we came to reason? To whom have we given our hearts? What have we done for God, who is our first and last aim? What zeal, and what ardor have we shown for the glory of God, and the salvation of our poor soul, which has cost Jesus Christ such bitter sufferings?
What have we got to offer him? What answer can we give to all His questions, when on the one hand He will hold up to us all the graces which He had lent us during our whole lives, and, on the other hand, the little use, or, rather the misuse, which we have made of it? Is it then possible that we who are in the possession of so many precious gifts, are still so lukewarm, so lazy, and so indolent in the service of God. Ah, my brethren, if some idolaters and heathens had received as many graces as we have, they would be great saints. If, my brethren, so many great sinners had been heaped with grace as we have, would they not, like the Ninivites, do penance in ashes, and chastise themselves? Let us remind ourselves, my brethren, of all that God has done for us since we came into this world. How many have died in your midst without having received holy Baptism? How many others, after having committed a single mortal sin, have been cut off by death and cast into hell? And from how many bodily dangers has the mercy of God spared us, while he preferred us to so many others, who in extraordinary ways lost their lives? How often has God, when we had the misfortune to sin grievously, pursued us with remorse of conscience, and good intentions? How many instructions, how many good examples were afforded us, to arouse us from our indifference for the salvation of our soul?
Tell me, dear brethren, what answer shall we be able to give to God for showing us such mercy if He asks us the amount of good fruit we have produced from it? Oh, what a disturbing thought, dear brethren, for a sinner, who misused everything and who did not know how to make use of anything. Listen, you ingrates, Jesus Christ will say to us, Were the practices of virtue which I recommended to you too hard? Were they not as easy for you as for many others? In what state do you appear before me? Did you not know that a day would come when I should be paid for all I had done for you? Very well, then, you wretch, give an account of everything that My mercy has done for you! Ah, my brethren, what answer shall we make, or rather what a disgrace for us! Let us, dear brethren, anticipate this by co-operating with the graces from now on, which the goodness of God still gives us to-day; I say to-day, because, perhaps, to-morrow perhaps God may forsake us, or we may be no longer in this world!
Yes, my brethren, He awaits us with open arms. He opens to us the wound of His divine Heart, to hide us therein from the severity of His Father; He offers us all the merits of His death and Passion, in satisfaction for our sins. If our conversion is sincere, He takes it upon Himself to answer for us at the judgment seat of His Father, when we shall be called upon to give an account of our whole life.
Happy is he who follows the voice of His God who calls him! Happy is he, my brethren, who has never forgotten that his life is short, and that he may die at any moment, whom the thought never leaves that he is destined after this life for a happy or unhappy eternity, far heaven or for hell. O my God, if we would only think without intermission of our last end and aim, could we live in sin, could we forget the future, which once commenced will never end? Tell me, my brethren, do you believe in this eternity, you who have lived ten or perhaps twenty years in enmity with God? Do you believe in eternity, my brethren, you who enjoy other people's belongings? Ah, no; it is impossible; if you believed in it you could not live as you do. Tell me, O sinner, you who have concealed for so many years sins in confession and who have committed as many sacrileges, if you had the least spark of faith, would you not nearly succumb with horror at the thought of yourself, that you were not sure for one moment that you might be called upon to give an account of all your shameful deeds to a judge who knows no mercy? Yes, my brethren, if we were only fortunate enough to ponder well what is before us after this life, which is so short, we should feel obliged to pass our lives in fear and trembling, working so as to accomplish the salvation of our souls. Happy is he, my brethren, who holds himself always in readiness! That is what I wish you all. Amen.