"Happy is the youth, because he has time before him to do good. "

St Philip Neri

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"Before a man chooses his confessor, he ought to think well about it, and pray about it also; but when he has once chosen, he ought not to change, except for most urgent reasons, but put the utmost confidence in his director."

St Philip Neri

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"God gives us some things, as the beginning of faith, even when we do not pray. Other things, such as perseverance, he has only provided for those who pray."

St Augustine

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Venerable Louis of Granada, OP  (1504-1588)

 
 

THE SINNER'S GUIDE

   

By Venerable Louis of Granada, OP

 

Motives for Practising Virtue

 

Ch 24. The Folly of those who Defer their Conversion


The considerations offered in the preceding chapters should be more than sufficient to excite men to the love and practice of virtue. However, sinners never seem to be in want of excuses to defend their loose lives. "A sinful man," says the Scripture, "will flee reproof, and will find an excuse according to his will." (Ecclus. 32:21).

"He that hath a mind to depart from a friend seeketh occasions." (Prov. 18:1). Thus the wicked, who flee reproach, who wish to withdraw from God, are never without an excuse. Some defer this important affair of salvation to an indefinite future; others till the hour of death. Many allege that it is too difficult and arduous an undertaking. Many presume upon God's mercy, persuading themselves that they can be saved by faith and hope without charity. Others, in fine, who are enslaved by the pleasures of the world, are unwilling to sacrifice them for the happiness which God promises. These are the snares most frequently employed by Satan to allure men to sin, and to keep them in its bondage until death surprises them.

At present we intend to answer those who defer their conversion, alleging that they can turn to God more efficaciously at another time. With this excuse was St, Augustine kept back from a virtuous life. "Later, Lord," he cried "later I will abandon the world and sin."
It will not be difficult to prove that this is a ruse of the father of lies, whose office since the beginning of the world has been to deceive man. We know with certainty that there is nothing which a Christian should desire more earnestly than salvation. It is equally certain that to obtain it the sinner must change his life, since there is no other possible means of salvation. Therefore, all that remains for us is to decide when this amendment should begin. You say, at a future day I answer, at this present moment. You urge that later it will be easier. I insist that it will be easier now. Let us see which of us is right.

Before we speak of the facility of conversion, tell me who has assured you that you will live to the time you have appointed for your amendment. Do you not know how many have been deceived by this hope? St. Gregory tells us that "God promises to receive the repentant sinner when he returns to Him, but nowhere does He promise to give him tomorrow." St. Caesarius thus expresses the same thought: "Some say, 'In my old age I will have recourse to penance'; but how can you promise yourself an old age, when your frail life cannot count with security upon one day?"

I cannot but think that the number of souls lost in this way is infinite. It was the cause of the ruin of the rich man in the Gospel, whose terrible history is related by St. Luke: "The land of a certain rich man brought forth plenty of fruits; and he thought within himself, saying: What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said: This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and will build greater, and into them will I gather all things that are grown to me, and my goods; and I will say to my soul: Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thy rest, eat, drink, make good cheer. But God said to him: Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee; and whose shall those things be which thou hast provided?" (Lk. 12:16-21). What greater folly than thus to dispose of the future, as if time were our own!

God, says St. John (Cf. Apoc. 1:18), holds the keys of life and death. Yet a miserable worm of the earth dares usurp this power. Such insolence merits the punishment which the sinner usually receives. Rejecting the opportunity God gives him for amendment, he is denied the time he has presumptuously chosen for penance, and thus miserably perishes in his sins. Since the number who are thus chastised is very great, let us profit by their misfortunes and heed the counsel of the Wise Man: "Delay not to be converted to the Lord, and defer it not from day to day. For his wrath shall come on a sudden, and in the time of vengeance he will destroy thee." (Ecclus. 5:8-9).
But, even granting that you will live as long as you imagine, will it be easier to begin your conversion now or some years hence? To make this point clear we shall give a brief summary of the causes which render a sincere conversion difficult. The first of these causes is the tyranny of bad habits. So strong are these that many would die rather than relinquish them. Hence St. Jerome declares that a long habit of sin robs virtue of all its sweetness. For habit becomes second nature, and to overcome it we must conquer nature itself, which is the greatest victory a man can achieve.

"When a vice is confirmed by habit," says St. Bernard, "it cannot be extirpated except by a very special and even miraculous grace." Therefore, there is nothing which a Christian should dread more than a habit of vice, because, like other things in this world, vice claims prescription, and once that is established it is almost impossible to root it out. A second cause of this difficulty is the absolute power which the devil has over a soul in sin. He is then the strongly-armed man mentioned in the Gospel, who does not easily relinquish what he has acquired. Another cause of this difficulty is the separation which sin makes between God and the soul. Though represented in Scripture (Cf. Is. 60) as a sentinel guarding the walls of Jerusalem, God withdraws further and further from a sinful soul, in proportion as her vices increase. We can learn the deplorable condition into which this separation plunges the soul from God Himself, who exclaims by His prophet, "Woe to them, for they have departed from me. Woe to them when I shall depart from them." (Osee 7:13 and 9:12). This abandonment by God is the second woe of which St. John speaks in the Apocalypse.

The last cause of this difficulty is the corruption of sin, which weakens and impairs the faculties of the soul, not in themselves, but in their operations and effects. Sin darkens the understanding, excites the sensual appetites, and, though leaving it free, so weakens the will that it is unable to govern us. Being the instruments of the soul, what but trouble and disorder can be expected from these faculties in their weak and helpless state? How, then, can you think that your conversion will be easier in the future, since every day increases the obstacles you now dread, and weakens the forces with which you must combat them? If you cannot ford the present stream, how will you pass through it when it will have swollen to an angry torrent? Perhaps you are now a prey to a dozen vices, which you tremble to attack. With what courage, but especially with what success, will you attack them when they will have increased a hundredfold in numbers and power? If you are now baffled by a year or two of sinful habits, how can you resist their strength at the end of ten years? Do you not see that this is a snare of the archenemy, who deceived our first parents, and who is continually seeking to deceive us also?

Can you, then, doubt that you only increase the difficulties of your conversion by deferring it? Do you think that the more numerous your crimes, the easier it will be to obtain a pardon? Do you think that it will be easier to effect a cure when the disease will have become chronic? "A long sickness is troublesome to the physician, but a short one" that is, one which is taken in the beginning "is easily cut off." (Ecclus. 10:11-12).

Hear how an angel disabused a holy solitary of an illusion like yours: Taking him by the hand, he led him into a field and showed him a man gathering fagots. Finding the bundle he had collected too heavy, the woodcutter began to add to it; and perceiving that he was still less able to lift it, he continued to add to the quantity, imagining that he would thus carry it more easily. The holy man wondering at what he saw, the angel said to him: Such is the folly of men, who, unable to remove the present burden of their sins, continue to add to it sin after sin, foolishly supposing that they will more easily lift a heavier burden in the future.

But among all these obstacles, the greatest is the tyranny of evil habits. Would that I could make you understand the power with which they bind us! As each blow of the hammer drives a nail further and further into the wood, until it can hardly be withdrawn, so every sinful action is a fresh blow which sinks vices deeper and deeper into our souls until it is almost impossible to uproot them. Thus it is not rare to see the sinner in his old age a prey to vices which have dishonored his youth, in which he is no longer capable of finding pleasure, and which his years and the weakness of nature would repel, were he not bound to them by long-continued habit. Are we not told in Scripture that "the bones of the sinner shall be filled with the vices of his youth, and that they shall sleep with him in the dust"? (Job 20:11). Thus we see that even death does not terminate the habit of vice; its terrible effects pass into eternity. It becomes a second nature, and is so imprinted iri the sinner's flesh that it consumes him like a fatal poison for which there is scarcely any remedy.

This Our Saviour teaches us in the resurrection of Lazarus. He had raised other dead persons by a single word, but to restore Lazarus, who had been four days in the tomb, He had recourse to tears and prayers, to show us the miracle God effects when he raises to the life of grace a soul buried in a habit of sin. For, according to St. Augustine, the first of these four days represents the pleasure of sin; the second, the consent; the third, the act; and the fourth, the habit of sin. Therefore, the sinner who has reached this fourth day can only be restored to life by the tears and prayers of Our Saviour.

But let us suppose that you will not be disappointed, that you will live to do penance. Think of the inestimable treasures you are now losing and how bitterly you will regret them when too late. While your fellow Christians are enriching themselves for Heaven, you are idling away your time in the childish follies of the world.

Besides this, think of the evil you are accumulating. We i should not, says St. Augustine, commit one venial sin even to gain the whole world. How, then, can you so carelessly heap up mortal sins, when the salvation of a thousand worlds would not justify one? How dare you offend with impunity Him at whose feet you must kneel for mercy, in whose hands lies your eternal destiny? Can you afford to defy Him of whom you have such urgent need?

"Tell me," says St. Bernard, "you who live in sin, do you think God will pardon you or not? If you think He will reject you, is it not foolish to continue to sin when you have no hope of pardon? And if you rely upon His goodness to pardon you, notwithstanding your innumerable offences, what can be more base than the ingratitude with which you presume upon His mercy, which, instead of exciting you to love Him, only leads you to offend Him?" How can you answer this argument of the saint?

Consider also the tears with which you will expiate your present sins. If God visits you one day, if He causes you to hear His voice (and alas for you if He does not!), be assured that the remorse for your sins will be so bitter that you will wish you had suffered a thousand deaths rather than have offended so good a Master. David indulged but a short time in sinful pleasures, yet behold how bitter was his sorrow, how long he wept for his sins. "I have labored in my goanings," he cried; "every night I will wash my bed, I will water my couch with my tears." (Ps. 6:7). Why, then, will you sow what you can only reap in tears? Consider, moreover, the obstacles to virtue which continual sin establishes in us. Moses compelled the children of Israel, in punishment of their idolatry, to drink the ashes of the golden calf which they had adored. (Cf. Ex. 32:20). God often inflicts a like punishment upon sinners, permitting their very bones to become so impregnated with the effects of sin that the idol which they formerly worshipped becomes for them a punishment and a constant source of torment.

Let me call your attention to the foolish choice you make in selecting old age as a time for repentance, and permitting your youth to go fruitlessly by. What would you think of a man who, having several beasts of burden, put all the weight upon the weakest, letting the others go unloaded`! Greater is the folly of those Christians who assign all the burden of penance to old age, which can hardly support itself, and who spend in idleness the vigorous years of youth. Seneca has admirably said that he who waits until old age to practice virtue clearly shows that he desires to give to virtue only the time of which he can make no other use. (De Brev. Vitae, cap.15).

And do not lose sight of the satisfaction God requires for sin, which is so great that, in the opinion of St. John Climachus, man can with difficulty satisfy each day for the faults he commits each day. Why, then, will you continue to accumulate the debt of sin and defer its payment to old age, which can so poorly satisfy for its own transgressions? St. Gregory considers this the basest treason, and says that he who defers the duty of penance to old age falls far short of the allegiance he owes to God, and has much reason to fear that he will be a victim of God's justice rather than the object of that mercy upon which he has so rashly presumed.

But apart from all these considerations, if you have any sense of justice or honesty, will not the benefits you have received and the rewards you are promised induce you to be less sparing in the service of so liberal a Master? How wise is the counsel we read in Ecclesiasticus: "Let nothing hinder thee from praying always, and be not afraid to be justified even to death; for the reward of God continueth for ever." (Ecclus. 18:22). Since the reward is to continue as long as God remains in Heaven, why should not your service continue as long as you remain upon earth? If the duration of the recompense is limitless, why will you limit the time of your service?

You hope, no doubt, to be saved; therefore, you must believe yourself of the number of those whom God has predestined. Will you, then, wait until the end of your life to serve Him who has loved you and chosen you heir to His kingdom from all eternity? Will you be so ungenerous with Him whose generosity to you has been boundless? The span of human life is so limited, how can you dare rob this generous Benefactor of the greatest part, leaving Him only the smallest and most worthless portion? "Dregs alone," says Seneca, "remain at the bottom of a vessel." "Cursed is the deceitful man," says God, "that hath in his flock a male, and making a vow offereth in sacrifice that which is feeble to the Lord; for I am a great King, saith the Lord of hosts, and my name is dreadful among the Gentiles." (Mal.1:14).

In other words, none but great services are worthy of His greatness. Imperfect offerings are an affront to His majesty. Will you, then, give the best and most beautiful part of your life to the service of the devil, and reserve for God only that portion which the world refuses? He has said that there shall not be in thy house a greater measure and a less; that thou shalt have a just and true weight. (Cf. Deut. 25:14-15). Yet, in contradiction to this law, you have two unequal measures a great one for the devil, whom you treat as your friend, and a small one for God, whom you treat as your enemy.

If all these benefits fail to touch you, do not be insensible to the favor your Heavenly Father has conferred upon you in giving His Divine Son to redeem you. Were you possessed of an infinite number of lives, you would owe them all in payment and they would be but a small return for that Life, more precious than that of angels and men, which was offered for you. How, then, can you refuse the service of your miserable life to Him who sacrificed Himself for you?

I shall conclude this chapter with a passage from Ecclesiastes in which man is exhorted to give himself to the service of his Creator in his youth, and not to defer it till old age, the infirmities of which are described under curious and admirable figures: "Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth, before the time of affliction comes, and the years draw nigh of which thou shalt say: They please me not. Before the sun, and the light, and the moon, and the stars be darkened when the keepers of the house [that is, the hands] shall tremble, and the strong men [the legs, which support the frame] shall stagger, and the teeth shall be few and idle; when they that looked through the eyes [the faculties of the soul] shall be darkened; when they shall shut the doors in the street [that is, the senses by which we communicate with the outer world] when man shall rise with the bird [for old age requires little sleep]; when all the daughters of music shall grow deaf [for the organs of the voice grow weak and narrow]; when man shall fear high things and be afraid in the way [for old age shuns a steep and rugged way, and trembles as it walks]; when the almond tree shall flourish [that is, when the head shall be crowned with white hair] when man shall enter the house of his eternity [which is the tomb]; when his friends shall lament and mourn for him and when dust shall return to the earth whence it came, and the spirit shall return to God who gave it." (Eccles. 12:1-7).

Therefore, defer not your repentance until old age, when virtue will seem a necessity rather than a choice, and when it may be said that your vices have left you, rather than that you have left them.

Remember, however, that old age is generally what youth has been: For as the sacred writer observes, "how shalt thou find in thy old age the things thou hast not gathered in thy youth?" (Ecclus. 25:5). Let me urge you, then, in the words of the same inspired author, to "give thanks whilst thou art living and in health, to praise God and glory in His mercies." (Ecclus. 17:27).

Among those who waited at the pool of Bethsaida (Cf. Jn. 5:4), he only was cured who first plunged into the water after it had been moved by the angel. The salvation of our soul, in like manner, depends upon the promptness and submission with which we obey the inspiration with which God moves us. Delay not, therefore, dear Christian, but make all the haste you can; and if, as the prophet says, "you shall hear his voice today" (Ps. 94:8), defer not your answer till tomorrow, but set about a work the difficulty of which will be so much lessened by a timely beginning.