There are few individuals so completely lost to all sense of their own salvation, as not to flatter themselves that, before the close of life, they shall make their peace with their long-offended God, and do something towards the recovery of their eternal happiness. These are the plans and expectations of the generality even of the greatest sinners; for not even would these give up all hope as lost, even for all the satisfactions that this world can offer.
Among the various illusions which impose upon our reason, there is not, perhaps, any one that is more dangerous or more fatal to us than the blindness and flattery of this false security.For what, under its deceitful guise, is really the case? Under it we live on in our sins, adding each day to their multitude, and heaping up to ourselves fresh material for the Divine displeasure. Intoxicated by the fumes of our passions, or lulled to indolence by our self-love, we sleep. We sleep, and then foolishly imagine that the justice of God is asleep also, like ourselves. We mistake His silence for patience, and His forbearance for mercy... unaware that the very silence and forbearance of God are frequently the severest of His judgments. He waits, indeed, because He is merciful; but He waits only because we are always in His hands. I will awaken upon the sinner for his destruction. In reality, can anything be more insulting to the goodness of God than the circumstance of thus proposing to return to Him, only when we can enjoy the satisfactions of sin no longer, or when we are tired and disgusted with the pleasures of a worldly life? This is treating God, not as a friend, but as an enemy. And hence the strong expression of His indignation quoted above. But, besides all this, when we consider the shortness and precarious tenure of our lives, and above all, the nature and uncertainty of grace, there is in such conduct a madness, which in the eyes, not only of religion, but of reason itself, ought to appear almost unaccountable. It resembles the folly of the man who allows himself willfully to suffer shipwreck because he hopes that by some accident or other, a plank may chance to fall in his way that will carry him in safety to the shore. Accordingly, everything both in religion and in reason bids us seize on the favorable occasion while we may, and not to put it off from day to day. In religion, all its oracles and commands, its threats and its terrors, its figures and its examples, all tend to prove this alarming truth: the delay of our repentance is very displeasing to God and dangerous to our salvation.
Indifference to the Promptings of Grace
The passages in the Scriptures which relate to this awful subject, besides being numerous, are, at the same time, particularly striking. Seek the Lord, says the prophet, whilst yet He may be found. Walk, says St. John, while you have light, lest soon the darkness come and overtake you... Watch and pray, because ye know not the day nor the hour... At the hour when you least expect it, the Son of Man shall come. These are some of the invitations suggested to us by the tenderness of the Eternal Wisdom. In like manner let us consider some of its threats. Ye shall seek Me, says God to the sinner, and you shall not find Me. You have, during your career in the world, neglected and abandoned Me; and therefore (for I shall have My day too), I will, at your death, deliver you up to your just fate -- And I will laugh in your destruction, and you shall die in your sins. So, too, we are repeatedly forewarned that the specter of death shall steal suddenly upon us like the thief in the night, when we least expect it, surprising us in the arms of sleep and in the lethargy of sin. In the parable of the foolish virgins, who fell asleep while they were waiting for the arrival of the spouse, we are taught to trace alike the imprudence and the danger of false security. In the dead of the night, the spouse arrived. They instantly presented themselves, their lamps untrimmed; and they were rejected with the reproach: I know you not.
Not only this, but on the few occasions which are cited to us in the Scriptures where we find even the strongest expressions of sorrow for sin and regret for the imprudence of delay, we find that such sorrow was fruitless, such regret of no avail. Thus, Esau, the figure of imprudent sinners had lost his birthright. He repented sincerely of his folly. But his repentance came too late. The blessing was forfeited and lost forever. Thus Antiochus wept, and sighed, and prayed; and humbly craved for pardon. But his tears, and sighs, and sorrows, like those of Esau, coming too late, availed him nothing.
From these examples, and still more from the foregoing precepts, we ought to draw this conclusion that, if during our career of health we continue deaf to the voice of God and indifferent to the inspirations of His grace, putting off our conversion from day to day, we ought in such case to infer either that the time of repentance may not be allowed us; or that if it should be allowed, our repentance will probably be false, and we shall die in our sins. Such, at least, are the inferences which, referring to the principles and instructions of the Holy Scriptures, we ought in prudence to deduce, if we love our own security.
In reply to these clear and often repeated maxims, and by way of apology for our delays, we frequently remark that the laborers in the vineyard who, as it is related in the Gospel, were called only at the close of the day, at the eleventh hour, received precisely the same recompense as those who had been hired in the morning, at the first hour. Now, the truth is, that even this, though so exceedingly specious, is after all, but a very feeble argument. For there is this difference between the delaying sinner and the laborers here alluded to, that these were, all of them, waiting and wishing to be employed. They were standing in the marketplace, only unoccupied because no one came to engage them. Once engaged, they instantly set to work. Whereas, what is the case with the delaying sinner? He continues indolently living on in the midst of his pleasures, or in the habitual indulgence of his passions, neither seeking a reconciliation with his God, nor attending to the voice of religion, which urgently calls upon him to undertake the important task.
In like manner, there are persons, although the number of these may be few, who go so far in defense of their own indifference as to cite the example of the good thief, who was mercifully forgiven even in the very act of expiring. But, alas, this is not an authority to be quoted as an encouragement to procrastination, but as an extraordinary prodigy. The sinner who, so often called upon and admonished, still refuses to return to God, cannot, most certainly, with anything like rational confidence, pretend to expect such a miracle of grace as that was. But not only this -- the conversion of the good thief, in the hour of death is the only example of such a blessing that occurs in all of Scripture. He was converted, it is true; but it was by the very side of Jesus just expiring, and sprinkled with the blood of the Adorable Victim. Meanwhile, let us only cast a look on His other hand. There we behold with consternation the other thief dying in despair under the self-same shelter of his suffering Savior. Such an example is, therefore, no encouragement for our delays.
But it may be the case, that we propose, ere long, and perhaps even very soon, to renounce the pursuits of sin, and steadfastly to resume the cultivation of virtue. Such, no doubt, are the designs of many sinners who, having formerly tasted the delights of piety, have, by the torrent of bad example, been hurried away into the streams of worldly pleasures. "But then," they say, "we cannot, just now, undertake the task. We have engagements upon our hands which, for the present, make it inconvenient; and our passions have not as yet subsided into that calmness which renders its accomplishment practicable. By-and-by, however, we will begin the important revolution." Now all this, though flattering to self-love, is but mere trifling with salvation. It is a positive resistance to God's injunctions, which command us, and to His mercies, which invite us, to be converted without any delay or hesitation whatsoever. It is, too, an insolent assumption of the supposed certainty both of the time and the grace which are required to effect the great work of a conversion. In relation to time there is nothing more precarious. God has retained the possession and disposal of time entirely to Himself insomuch that we are not sure of one single day. It is so again with grace, that main essential in the business of our reconciliation. Grace is at least as uncertain as time. God is infinitely jealous of the sacred gift. He bestows it willingly upon us whenever, sincerely repenting, we embrace it readily. But He tenaciously withholds it whenever He foresees, either that we shall abuse, or when it is offered, shall refuse to accept instantly the salutary gift. Wherefore the consequence in relation both to time and grace is that, if we wish to entertain any well-founded assurance of salvation, our plan must be, not to dally with the business of our reformation, but at onceearnestly to set about it, saying to ourselves, in the words of the Psalmist: Now I have said, now I have begun, I have sworn and am determined to keep the commandments of Thy law.
The Acceptable Time
We very generally entertain an exceedingly erroneous, and often fatal opinion concerning the nature of a true conversion. We suppose such a revolution easy, or, at all events, a task of no very perplexing difficulty. We imagine that as we have formed our chains ourselves, so we can easily unloosen them; or, as we have been the authors of our own propensities, so we can, of course, as readily alter and reform them. Unhappy mistake! for so far is this from being the case, that, of all serious difficulties, the work of a real conversion from a life of habitual sin to a life of virtue is one of the most arduous, so arduous indeed, that St. Jerome asserts (his assertion, let us hope, is but the echo of his too trembling timidity) that, out of thousands who attempt the important task, there is hardly one so fortunate as to accomplish it, that is, to be converted truly. The fact is, that to root out bad habits, to change our inclinations, to hate what we have hitherto loved, and to love what we have long disliked -- this is a work beset with obstacles which are not easy to overcome. Indeed, not only this, but bad habits and evil inclinations are fetters, bolts of iron, so strong and massive that not a giant's strength, but only the most powerful grace can break them asunder. At all events, it is vain to imagine that indolence, or any ungenerous effort, can effect so great a conquest. Hence, therefore, again, the danger of delay. What is difficult today will be more difficult tomorrow; and passions, which are strong at present, may soon, by indulgence, become invincible. It is the same with the disorders of the soul as it is with those of the body; they are most easily cured when early attended to, irremediable often when for a length of time neglected. Now, that is, the present day, is the acceptable time.
These circumstances seriously considered, we cannot but feel how very little reliance is to be placed on those supposed conversions, or alleged repentances, which we often witness in the cases of sickness and on the bed of death. For, in the first place, it cannot easily be imagined that a few hours' or a few days' illness can well suffice to eradicate habits, to change inclinations, to break asunder the chains of sin which have been, perhaps, fast riveted to the heart by long years of indulgence. The new man is not, in general, thus created in an instant; neither are our evil propensities to be uprooted by such transient efforts. Sickness has not any advantages beyond health to produce these wonderful effects. Under the pressure, indeed, of sickness, when the force of our passions is suspended, and when the apprehensions of eternity are present to our minds, we then appear to relent, and express even a deep regret for the errors of our misspent lives. Alas! all this, we too often discover is little else than the mockery of penance, the artificial movements of the heart, the struggles of nature, distressed with pain, much rather than the motions of grace excited by the hatred of sin or the love of God. For, what is the ordinary conduct of our sick penitents when they are so fortunate as to recover their health? Why, the very same, most commonly, that it was before their illness -- a proof that nearly all these fine and supposed conversions which we witness on the bed of death are, in reality, not in the heart of the sinner, but in the mouth; not in his conscience, but in his imagination.
The work of a true conversion is, in fact, too important a revolution to allow us to suppose that it can be well completed during the brief interval of a short and painful illness. For, let us only calculate a few of the difficulties which oppress the suffering patient. He is overwhelmed with sickness and languor; tormented perhaps with pain; his mind distressed, his thoughts confused; agitated by the desire of life; terrified by the apprehensions of death; while the tears and afflictions of his family, and the necessity, it may be, of still attending to his temporal concerns come in to increase his anguish, and to disturb the few moments of his repose. Under circumstances like these, it is hard to imagine that the business of all others the most momentous, can be so well-conducted as to fit the unhappy sufferer to prepare, as he should do, for the awful solemnity of his approaching trial.
The real truth is, that we die as we live. It is most probable, that, unless we instantly embrace the proffered mercies of our God, we shall each of us die as we live at present. It is a very mistaken notion to suppose that death and life are unlike each other. They are very similar, if at all distinguished, for death is only life concluding; just as the waters of a stream when they disappear are still the same as when they flow in our sight before us. But, above all, it is true that old age, which is considered as the period of sinlessness, is, beyond any other season of life, the leastfitted for the work of real conversion. Experience every day proves this. It proves that the aged sinner is always the hardest to reform. His years and accumulated vices render him callous and inflexible. His sins, like a mortal poison, penetrate to the very marrow of his bones; and he carries them with him to the grave. To expect, therefore, as too many do, the conquest of our passions from the mere effect of years is a piece of folly. Old age but reaps what youth had sown.
Therefore, let us consider well. Let us at once and in good earnest return to God. He has long and often sought after us. He has often spoken to our hearts; often reproached our ingratitude, and shown us His judgments. There is not a path in which He has not pursued us, not a truth which He has not pressed upon us. In short, He has employed every artifice and expedient to win our hearts, and to attract us to His service -- love, kindness, the joys of Heaven, the punishments of Hell, the instability of human life, etc. Let us then remember well those words of the Holy Ghost -- Put not off from day to day. Even tomorrow, for aught we know, may be too late.