"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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"It is not God's will that we should abound in spiritual delights, but that in all things we should submit to his holy will."

Blessed Henry Suso

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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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Venerable Louis of Granada, OP  (1504-1588)

 
 

THE SINNER'S GUIDE

   

By Venerable Louis of Granada, OP

 

Motives for Practising Virtue

 

Ch 7. The Seventh Motive for practicing Virtue: The Thought of Death, the First of the Four Last Things


Any one of the motives we have just enumerated should be sufficient to induce man to give himself wholly to the service of a Master to whom he is bound by so many ties of gratitude. But as the generality of men are more influenced by personal interest than by motives of justice, we will here make known the inestimable advantages of virtue in this life and the next.

We will first speak of the greatest among them: the glory which is the reward of virtue, and the terrible punishment from which it delivers us. These two are the principal oars which propel us in our voyage to eternity. For this reason St. Francis and our holy Father St. Dominic, both having been animated by the same spirit, commanded in their rules the preachers of their orders to make vice and virtue, reward and punishment, the only subjects of their sermons, in order to instruct men in the precepts of the Christian life and to inspire them with courage to put them into practice. Moreover, it is a common principle among philosophers that reward and punishment are the most powerful motives for good with the mass of mankind. Such, alas, is our misery, that we are not content with virtue alone; it must be accompanied with the fear of punishment or the hope of reward.
But as there is no reward or punishment so worthy of our consideration as those that never end, we will treat of eternal glory and eternal misery, together with death and judgment, which precede them. These are the most powerful incentives to love virtue and hate vice, for we are told in Scripture, "In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin." (Ecclus. 7:40).

The first of these is death. Let us, then, consider it, for it is a truth which of all others makes the most impression upon us, from the fact that it is so undisputed and so frequently brought before our minds. Especially do we realize this when we reflect on the particular judgment which each one must undergo as soon as his soul is separated from his body. The sentence then passed will be final; it will endure for all eternity. Since, then, death is such a powerful motive to turn us from sin, let us bring this terrible hour more vividly before us.
Bear in mind, therefore, that you are a man and a Christian. As man, you must die; as a Christian, you must, immediately after death, render an account of your life. The first truth is manifest in our daily experience, and the second our faith will not permit us to doubt. No one, whether king or pope, is exempt from this terrible law. A day will come of which you will not see the night, or a night which for you, will have no morning. A time will come, and you know not whether it be this present day or tomorrow, when you who are now reading my words, in perfect health and in full possession of all your faculties, will find yourself stretched upon a bed of death, a lighted taper in your hand, awaiting the sentence pronounced against mankind a sentence which admits neither delay nor appeal.

Consider, also, how uncertain is the hour of death. It generally comes when man is most forgetful of eternal things, overturning his plans for an earthly future, and opening before him the appalling vision of eternity. Therefore, the Holy Scriptures tell us that it comes as a thief in the night; that is, when men are plunged in sleep and least apprehensive of danger. The forerunner of death is usually a grave illness with its attendant weariness, sufferings, and pains, which weaken the powers of the body and give entrance to the king of terrors. Just as an enemy who wishes to take a citadel destroys the outer fortifications, so death with its vanguard of sickness breaks down the strength of the body, and, as it is about to fall before the repeated assaults of its enemy, the soul, no longer able to resist, takes its flight from the ruins.

Who can express the anguish of the moment when the severity of the sickness, or the declaration of the physician, undeceives us and robs us of all hope of life? The parting from all we hold dear then begins to rise before us. Wife, children, friends, relations, honors, riches are fast passing, with life, from our feeble grasp. Then follow the terrible symptoms which precede the awful hour. The coldness of death seizes our members; the countenance becomes deathly pale; the tongue refuses to perform its duty; all the senses, in fine, are in confusion and disorder in the precipitation of this supreme departure.

Strange resemblance between the beginning and the end of our pilgrimage! The mystery of suffering seems to unite them both. The terrified soul then beholds the approach of that agony which is to terminate its temporal existence. Before the distracted mind rise the horror and darkness of the grave, where the pampered body will become the prey of worms. But keener still is the suffering which the soul endures from the suspense and uncertainty of what her fate will be when she leaves her earthly habitation. You will imagine that you are in the presence of your Sovereign Judge, and that your sins rise up against you to accuse you and complete your condemnation. The heinousness of the evil you committed with so much indifference will then be manifest to you. You will curse a thousand times the day you sinned, and the shameful pleasure which was the cause of your ruin. You will be an object of astonishment and wonder to yourself. "How could I," you will ask, "for love of the foolish things upon which I set my heart, brave the torments which I now behold?" The guilty pleasures will have long since passed away, but their terrible and irrevocable punishment will continue to stare you in the face. Side by side with this appalling eternity of misery you will see the unspeakable and everlasting happiness which you have sacrificed for vanities, transitory and sinful pleasures.

Everything you will behold will be calculated to fill you with terror and remorse. Life will have been spent; there will be no time for repentance. Nor will the friends you have loved or the idols you have adored be able to help you. On the contrary, that which you have loved during life will be the cause of your most poignant anguish at the hour of death. What, then, will be your thoughts at this supreme hour? To whom will you have recourse? Whither will you turn? To go forward will be anguish. To go back impossible. To continue as you are will not be permitted. "It shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God , that the sun shall go down at midday, and I will make the earth dark in the daylight." (Amos. 8:9). Terrible words! Yes, the sun shall go down at midday; for the sinner at the sight of his sins, and at the approach of God's justice, already believes himself abandoned by the Divine Mercy; and though life still remains, with its opportunities for penance and reconciliation, yet fear too often drives hope from the heart, and in this miserable state he breathes his last sigh in the darkness of despair.

Most powerful is this passion of fear. It magnifies trifles and makes remote evils appear as if present. Now, since this is true of a slight apprehension, what will be the effect of the terror inspired by a danger so great and imminent? The sinner, though still in life and surrounded by his friends, imagines himself already a prey to the torments of the reprobate. His soul is rent at the sight of the possessions he must leave, while he increases his misery by envying the lot of those from whom he is about to be separated. Yes, the sun sets for him at midday, for, turn his eyes where he will, all is darkness. No ray of light or hope illumines his horizon. If he thinks of God's mercy, he feels that he has no claim upon it. If he thinks of God's justice, it is only to tremble for its execution. He feels that his day is past and that God's time has come. If he looks back upon his life, a thousand accusing voices sound in his ears. If he turns to the present, he finds himself stretched upon a bed of death. If he looks to the future, he there beholds his Supreme Judge prepared to condemn him. How can he free himself from so many miseries and terrors?

If, then, the circumstances which precede our departure are so terrible, what will be those which follow? If such be the vigil of this great day, what will be the day itself? Man's eyes are no sooner closed in death than he appears before the judgment seat of God to render an account of every thought, every word, every action of his life.
If you would learn the severity and rigor of this judgment, ask not men who live according to the spirit of this world, for, like the Egyptians of old, they are plunged in darkness and are the sport of the most fatal errors. Seek, rather, those who are enlightened by the true Sun of Justice. Ask the saints, and they will tell you, more by their actions than by their words, how terrible is the account we are to render to God. David was a just man, yet his prayer was; "Enter not, O Lord, into judgment with thy servant, for in thy sight no man living shall be justified." (Ps. 142:2).

Arsenius was also a great saint, and yet at his death he was seized with such terror at the thought of God's judgment that his disciples, who knew the sanctity of his life, were much astonished, and said to him, `Father, why should you now fear?" To this he replied, "My children, this is no new fear which is upon me. It is one that I have known and felt during my whole life." It is said that St. Agatho at the hour of death experienced like terror, and having been asked why he, who had led such a perfect life, should fear, he simply answered, "The judgments of God are different from the judgments of men."

St. John Climacus gives a not less striking example of a holy monk, which is so remarkable that I shall give it as nearly as possible in the saint's own words: "A religious named Stephen, who lived in the same desert with us, had a great desire to embrace a more solitary life. He had already acquired a reputation for sanctity, having been favored with the gift of tears and fasting and other privileges attached to the most eminent virtues. Having obtained his superior's permission, he built a cell at the foot of Mount Horeb, where Elias was honored by his marvelous vision of God. Though his life here was one of great sanctity, yet, impelled by desire for still harder labors and greater perfection, he withdrew to a place called Siden, inhabited by holy anchorites who lived in the most complete solitude. Here he continued for some years in the practice of the severest penance, cut off from all human intercourse or comfort, for his hermitage was seventy miles from any human habitation. As his life approached its term he felt a desire to return to his first cell at the foot of Mount Horeb, where dwelt two disciples, natives of Palestine. Shortly after his arrival he was attacked by a fatal illness. The day before his death he fell into a state resembling ecstasy. He gazed first at one side of his bed, then at the other, and, as if engaged in conversation with invisible beings who were demanding an account of his life, was heard crying out in a loud voice. Sometimes he would say, 'It is true, I confess it; but I have fasted many years in expiation of that sin'; or, 'It is false; that offence cannot be laid to my charge'; or again, 'Yes, but I have labored for the good of my neighbor so many years in atonement thereof.' To other accusations he was heard to say, 'Alas! I cannot deny it; I can only cast myself upon God's mercy.'

"Surely this was a thrilling spectacle," continues the saint. "I cannot describe the terror with which we assisted at this invisible judgment. O my God! What will be my fate, if this faithful servant, whose life was one long penance, knew not how to answer some of the accusations brought against him? If after forty years of retirement and solitude, if after having received the gift of tears, and such command over nature that, as I am credibly informed, he fed with his own hand a wild leopard which visited him, the saintly monk so trembled for judgment, and, dying, left us in uncertainty as to his fate, what have we not to fear who lead careless and indifferent lives?"

If you ask me the cause of this terror with which the saints are filled, I will let St. Gregory answer for me: "Men aspiring to perfection," says the holy Doctor, "constantly reflect upon the justice of the Sovereign Judge who is to pronounce sentence upon them in the dread hour which terminates their earthly career. They unceasingly examine themselves upon the account they are to render before this supreme tribunal. And if happily they find themselves innocent of sinful actions, they still ask with fear whether they are equally free from the guilt of sinful thoughts. For if it be comparatively easy to resist sinful actions, it is more difficult to conquer in the war which we must wage against evil thoughts. And though the fear of God's judgment is always before them, yet it is redoubled at the hour of death, when they are about to appear before His inflexible tribunal. At this moment the mind is freed from the disturbances of the flesh; earthly desires and delusive dreams fade from the imagination; the things of this world vanish at the portals of another life; and the dying man sees but God and himself. If he recalls no good which he has omitted, yet he feels that he cannot trust himself to give a correct and impartial judgment. Hence his fear and terror of the rigorous account to be exacted of him." (Moral., 24:16, 17).

Do not these words of the great Doctor prove that this last hour and this supreme tribunal are more to be dreaded than worldly men imagine? If just men tremble at this hour, what must be the terror of those who make no preparation for it, whose lives are spent in the pursuit of vanities and in contempt of God's commandments? If the cedar of Lebanon be thus shaken, how can the reed of the wilderness stand? "And," as St. Peter tells us, "if the just man shall scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?" (1Pet. 4:18).
Reflect, then, on the sentiments that will be yours when you will stand before the tribunal of God, with no defenders but your good works, with no companion but your own conscience. And if then you will not be able to satisfy your Judge, who will give expression to the bitterness of your anguish? For the question at issue is not a fleeting temporal life, but an eternity of happiness or an eternity of misery. Whither will you turn? What protection will you seek? Your tears will be powerless to soften your Judge; the time for repentance will be past. Little will honors, dignities, and wealth avail you, for "Riches," says the Wise Man, "shall not profit in the day of vengeance, but justice shall deliver a man from death." (Prov. 11:4).

The unhappy soul can only exclaim with the prophet, "The sorrows of death have encompassed me, and the perils of hell have found me." (Ps. 114:3). Unhappy wretch! How swiftly this hour has come upon me! What does it now avail me that I had friends, or honors, or dignities or wealth? All that I can now claim is a few feet of earth and a windings-sheet. My wealth which I hoarded I must leave to be squandered by others, while the sins of injustice which I here committed will pursue me into the next world and there condemn me to eternal torments. Of all my guilty pleasures the sting of remorse alone remains. Why have I made no preparation for this hour? Why was I deaf to the salutary warnings I received? "Why have I hated instruction, and my heart consented not to reproofs, and have not heard the voice of them that taught me, and have not inclined my ear to my masters?" (Prov. 5:12-13).

To preserve you, my dear Christian, from these vain regrets, I beg you to gather from what has been said three considerations, and to keep them continually before your mind. The first is the terrible remorse which your sins will awaken in you at the hour of death; the second is how ardently, though how vainly, you will wish that you had faithfully served God during life; and the third is how willingly you would accept the most rigorous penance, were you given time for repentance.

Acting on this advice, you will now begin to regulate your life according as you will then wish to have done.