A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
How the wise and pious use of an estate naturally carrieth us to great perfection in all the virtues of the Christian life; represented in the character of Miranda.
ANY one pious regularity of any one part of our life, is of great advantage, not only on its own account, but as it uses us to live by rule, and think of the government of ourselves.
A man of business, that has brought one part of his affairs under certain rules, is in a fair way to take the same care of the rest.
So he that has brought any one part of his life under the rules of religion, may thence be taught to extend the same order and regularity into other parts of his life.
If any one is so wise as to think his time too precious to be disposed of by chance, and left to be devoured by anything that happens in his way; if he lays himself under a necessity of observing how every day goes through his hands, and obliges himself to a certain order of time in his business, his retirements, and devotions; it is hardly to be imagined how soon such a conduct would reform, improve, and perfect the whole course of his life.
He that once thus knows the value, and reaps the advantage of a well-ordered time, will not long be a stranger to the value of anything else that is of any real concern to him.
A rule that relates even to the smallest part of our life, is of great benefit to us, merely as it is a rule.
For, as the Proverb saith, "He that has begun well, has half done": so he that has begun to live by rule, has gone a great way towards the perfection of his life.
By rule, must here be constantly understood, a religious rule observed upon a principle of duty to God.
For if a man should oblige himself to be moderate in his meals, only in regard to his stomach; or abstain from drinking, only to avoid the headache; or be moderate in his sleep, through fear of a lethargy; he might be exact in these rules, without being at all the better man for them.
But when he is moderate and regular in any of these things, out of a sense of Christian sobriety and self-denial, that he may offer unto God a more reasonable and holy life, then it is, that the smallest rule of this kind is naturally the beginning of great piety.
For the smallest rule in these matters is of great benefit, as it teaches us some part of the government of ourselves, as it keeps up a tenderness of mind, as it presents God often to our thoughts, and brings a sense of religion into the ordinary actions of our common life.
If a man, whenever he was in company, where any one swore, talked lewdly, or spoke evil of his neighbour, should make it a rule to himself, either gently to reprove him, or, if that was not proper, then to leave the company as decently as he could, he would find that this little rule, like a little leaven hid in a great quantity of meal, would spread and extend itself through the whole form of his life.
If another should oblige himself to abstain on the Lord's day from any innocent and lawful things, as travelling, visiting, common conversation, and discoursing upon worldly matters, as trade, news, and the like; if he should devote the day, besides the public worship, to greater retirement, reading, devotion, instruction, and works of charity; though it may seem but a small thing or a needless nicety, to require a man to abstain from such things as may be done without sin, yet whoever would try the benefit of so little a rule, would perhaps thereby find such a change made in his spirit, and such a taste of piety raised in his mind, as he was an entire stranger to before.
It would be easy to show, in many other instances, how little and small matters are the first steps and natural beginnings of great perfection.
But the two things which, of all others, most want to be under a strict rule, and which are the greatest blessings both to ourselves and others, when they are rightly used, are our time and our money. These talents are continual means and opportunities of doing good.
He that is piously strict, and exact in the wise management of either of these, cannot be long ignorant of the right use of the other. And he that is happy in the religious care and disposal of them both, is already ascended several steps upon the ladder of Christian perfection.
Miranda (the sister of Flavia) is a sober, reasonable Christian: as soon as she was mistress of her time and fortune, it was her first thought how she might best fulfil everything that God required of her in the use of them, and how she might make the best and happiest use of this short life. She depends upon the truth of what our blessed Lord hath said, that there is but "One thing needful," [Luke xi. 42] and therefore makes her whole life but one continual labour after it. She has but one reason for doing or not doing, for liking or not liking anything, and that is, the will of God. She is not so weak as to pretend to add what is called the fine lady to the true Christian; Miranda thinks too well to be taken with the sound of such silly words; she has renounced the world to follow Christ in the exercise of humility, charity, devotion, abstinence, and heavenly affections; and that is Miranda's fine breeding.
While she was under her mother, she was forced to be genteel, to live in ceremony, to sit up late at nights, to be in the folly of every fashion, and always visiting on Sundays; to go patched, and loaded with a burden of finery, to the Holy Sacrament; to be in every polite conversation; to hear profaneness at the playhouse, and wanton songs and love intrigues at the opera; to dance at public places, that fops and rakes might admire the fineness of her shape, and the beauty of her motions. The remembrance of this way of life makes her exceeding careful to atone for it by a contrary behaviour.
Miranda does not divide her duty between God, her neighbour, and herself; but she considers all as due to God, and so does everything in His Name, and for His Sake. This makes her consider her fortune as the gift of God, that is to be used, as everything is that belongs to God, for the wise and reasonable ends of a Christian and holy life. Her fortune therefore is divided betwixt herself and several other poor people, and she has only her part of relief from it. She thinks it the same folly to indulge herself in needless, vain expenses, as to give to other people to spend in the same way. Therefore as she will not give a poor man money to go see a puppet-show, neither will she allow herself any to spend in the same manner; thinking it very proper to be as wise herself as she expects poor men should be. For it is a folly and a crime in a poor man, says Miranda, to waste what is given him in foolish trifles, whilst he wants meat, drink, and clothes. And is it less folly, or a less crime in me, to spend that money in silly diversions, which might be so much better spent in imitation of the Divine goodness, in works of kindness and charity towards my fellow-creatures and fellow-Christians? If a poor man's own necessities are a reason why he should not waste any of his money idly, surely the necessities of the poor, the excellency of charity, which is received as done to Christ Himself, is a much greater reason why no one should ever waste any of his money. For if he does so, he does not only do like the poor man, only waste that which he wants himself, but he wastes that which is wanted for the most noble use, and which Christ Himself is ready to receive at his hands. And if we are angry at a poor man, and look upon him as a wretch, when he throws away that which should buy his own bread; how must we appear in the sight of God, if we make a wanton idle use of that which should buy bread and clothes for the hungry and naked brethren, who are as near and dear to God as we are, and fellow-heirs of the same state of future glory? This is the spirit of Miranda, and thus she uses the gifts of God; she is only one of a certain number of poor people, that are relieved out of her fortune, and she only differs from them in the blessedness of giving.
Excepting her victuals, she never spent near ten pounds a year upon herself. If you were to see her, you would wonder what poor body it was, that was so surprisingly neat and clean. She has but one rule that she observes in her dress, to be always clean and in the cheapest things. Everything about her resembles the purity of her soul, and she is always clean without, because she is always pure within.
Every morning sees her early at her prayers; she rejoices in the beginning of every day, because it begins all her pious rules of holy living, and brings the fresh pleasure of repeating them. She seems to be as a guardian angel to those that dwell about her, with her watchings and prayers, blessing the place where she dwells, and making intercession with God for those that are asleep.
Her devotions have had some intervals, and God has heard several of her private prayers, before the light is suffered to enter into her sister's room. Miranda does not know what it is to have a dull half-day; the returns of her hours of prayer, and her religious exercises, come too often to let any considerable part of it lie heavy upon her hands.
When you see her at work, you see the same wisdom that governs all her other actions; she is either doing something that is necessary for herself, or necessary for others, who want to be assisted. There is scarce a poor family in the neighbourhood, but wears something or other that has had the labour of her hands. Her wise and pious mind neither wants the amusement, nor can bear with the folly, of idle and impertinent work. She can admit of no such folly as this in the day because she has to answer for all her actions at night. When there is no wisdom to be observed in the employment of her hands, when there is no useful or charitable work to be done, Miranda will work no more. At her table she lives strictly by this rule of holy Scripture, "Whether ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God." [1 Cor. x. 31] This makes her begin and end every meal, as she begins and ends every day, with acts of devotion: she eats and drinks only for the sake of living, and with so regular an abstinence, that every meal is an exercise of self-denial, and she humbles her body every time that she is forced to feed it. If Miranda was to run a race for her life, she would submit to a diet that was proper for it. But as the race which is set before her is a race of holiness, purity, and heavenly affection, which she is to finish in a corrupt, disordered body of earthly passions, so her everyday diet has only this one end, to make her body fitter for this spiritual race. She does not weigh her meat in a pair of scales, but she weighs it in a much better balance; so much as gives a proper strength to her body, and renders it able and willing to obey the soul, to join in psalms and prayers, and lift up eyes and hands towards heaven with greater readiness: so much is Miranda's meal. So that Miranda will never have her eyes swell with fatness, or pant under a heavy load of flesh, until she has changed her religion.
The holy Scriptures, especially of the New Testament, are her daily study; these she reads with a watchful attention, constantly casting an eye upon herself, and trying herself by every doctrine that is there. When she has the New Testament in her hand, she supposes herself at the feet of our Saviour and His Apostles, and makes everything that she learns of them so many laws of her life. She receives their sacred words with as much attention and reverence as if she saw their persons, and knew that they were just come from Heaven, on purpose to teach her the way that leads to it.
She thinks that the trying of herself every day by the doctrines of Scripture, is the only possible way to be ready for her trial at the last day. She is sometimes afraid that she lays out too much money in books, because she cannot forbear buying all practical books of any note, especially such as enter into the heart of religion, and describe the inward holiness of the Christian life. But of all human writings, the lives of pious persons and eminent saints are her greatest delight. In these she searches as for hidden treasure, hoping to find some secret of holy living, some uncommon degree of piety, which she may make her own. By this means Miranda has her head and her heart so stored with all the principles of wisdom and holiness, she is so full of the one main business of life, that she finds it difficult to converse upon any other subject; and if you are in her company, when she thinks it proper to talk, you must be made wiser and better, whether you will or no.
To relate her charity, would be to relate the history of every day for twenty years; for so long has all her fortune been spent that way. She has set up near twenty poor tradesmen that had failed in their business, and saved as many from failing. She has educated several poor children, that were picked up in the streets, and put them in a way of an honest employment. As soon as any labourer is confined at home with sickness, she sends him, till he recovers, twice the value of his wages, that he may have one part to give to his family as usual, and the other to provide things convenient for his sickness.
In a family seems too large to be supported by the labour of those that can work in it, she pays their rent, and gives them something yearly towards their clothing. By this means, there are several poor families that live in a comfortable manner, and are from year to year blessing her in their prayers.
If there is any poor man or woman that is more than ordinarily wicked and reprobate, Miranda has her eye upon them; she watches their time of need and adversity; and if she can discover that they are in any great straits, or affliction, she gives them speedy relief. She has this care for this sort of people, because she once saved a very profligate person from being carried to prison, who immediately became a true penitent.
There is nothing in the character of Miranda more to be admired than this temper. For this tenderness of affection towards the most abandoned sinners is the highest instance of a Divine and God-like soul.
Miranda once passed by a house, where the man and his wife were cursing and swearing at one another in a most dreadful manner, and three children crying about them: this sight so much affected her compassionate mind, that she went the next day, and bought the three children, that they might not be ruined by living with such wicked parents; they now live with Miranda, are blessed with her care and prayers, and all the good works which she can do for them. They hear her talk, they see her live, they join with her in psalms and prayers. The eldest of them has already converted his parents from their wicked life, and shows a turn of mind so remarkably pious, that Miranda intends him for holy orders; that, being thus saved himself, he may be zealous in the salvation of souls, and do to other miserable objects as she has done to him.
Miranda is a constant relief to poor people in their misfortunes and accidents: there are sometimes little misfortunes that happen to them, which of themselves they could never be able to overcome. The death of a cow or a horse, or some little robbery, would keep them in distress all their lives. She does not suffer them to grieve under such accidents as these. She immediately gives them the full value of their loss, and makes use of it as a means of raising their minds towards God.
She has a great tenderness for old people that are grown past their labour. The parish allowance to such people is very seldom a comfortable maintenance: for this reason they are the constant objects of her care: she adds so much to their allowance, as somewhat exceeds the wages they got when they were young. This she does to comfort the infirmities of their age, that, being free from trouble and distress, they may serve God in peace and tranquillity of mind. She has generally a large number of this kind, who, by her charities and exhortations to holiness, spend their last days in great piety and devotion.
Miranda never wants compassion, even to common beggars; especially towards those that are old or sick, or full of sores, that want eyes or limbs. She hears their complaints with tenderness, gives them some proof of her kindness, and never rejects them with hard or reproachful language, for fear of adding affliction to her fellow-creatures.
If a poor old traveller tells her that he has neither strength, nor food, nor money left, she never bids him go to the place from whence he came, or tells him that she cannot relieve him, because he may be a cheat, or she does not know him; but she relieves him for that reason, because he is a stranger and unknown to her. For it is the most noble part of charity to be kind and tender to those whom we never saw before, and perhaps never may see again in this life. "I was a stranger, and ye took me in," [Matt. xxv. 43] saith our blessed Saviour: but who can perform this duty, that will not relieve persons that are unknown to him?
Miranda considers that Lazarus was a common beggar, that he was the care of Angels, and carried into Abraham's bosom. She considers that our blessed Saviour and His Apostles were kind to beggars; that they spoke comfortably to them, healed their diseases, and restored eyes and limbs to the lame and blind; that Peter said to the beggar that wanted an alms from him, "Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk." [Acts iii. 6] Miranda, therefore, never treats beggars with disregard and aversion; but she imitates the kindness of our Saviour and His Apostles towards them; and though she cannot, like them, work miracles for their relief, yet she relieves them with that power that she hath; and may say, with the Apostle, "Such as I have give I thee, in the name of Jesus Christ."
It may be, says Miranda, that I may often give to those that do not deserve it, or that will make an ill use of my alms. But what then? Is not this the very method of Divine goodness? Does not God make "His sun to rise on the evil and on the good"? [Matt. v. 45] Is not this the very goodness that is recommended to us in Scripture, that, by imitating of it, we may be children of our Father which is in Heaven, who "sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust"? And shall I withhold a little money, or food, from my fellow-creature, for fear he should not be good enough to receive it of me? Do I beg of God to deal with me, not according to my merit, but according to His own great goodness; and shall I be so absurd as to withhold my charity from a poor brother, because he may perhaps not deserve it? Shall I use a measure towards him, which I pray God never to use towards me?
Besides, where has the Scripture made merit the rule or measure of charity? On the contrary, the Scripture saith, "If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink." [Rom. xii. 20]
Now this plainly teaches us, that the merit of persons is to be no rule of our charity; but that we are to do acts of kindness to those that least of all deserve it. For if I am to love and do good to my worst enemies: if I am to be charitable to them, notwithstanding all their spite and malice; surely merit is no measure of charity. If I am not to withhold my charity from such bad people, and who are at the same time my enemies, surely I am not to deny alms to poor beggars, whom I neither know to be bad people, nor any way my enemies.
You will perhaps say, that by this means I encourage people to be beggars.17 But the same thoughtless objection may be made against all kinds of charities, for they may encourage people to depend upon them. The same may be said against forgiving our enemies, for it may encourage people to do us hurt. The same may be said even against the goodness of God, that by pouring His blessings on the evil and on the good, on the just and on the unjust, evil and unjust men are encouraged in their wicked ways. The same may be said against clothing the naked, or giving medicines to the sick; for that may encourage people to neglect themselves, and be careless of their health. But when the love of God dwelleth in you, when it has enlarged your heart, and filled you with bowels of mercy and compassion, you will make no more such objections as these.
When you are at any time turning away the poor, the old, the sick, and helpless traveller, the lame, or the blind, ask yourself this question, Do I sincerely wish these poor creatures may be as happy as Lazarus, that was carried by Angels into Abraham's bosom? Do I sincerely desire that God would make them fellow-heirs with me in eternal glory? Now if you search into your soul, you will find that there is none of these motions there; that you are wishing nothing of this. For it is impossible for any one heartily to wish a poor creature so great a happiness, and yet not have a heart to give him a small alms. For this reason, says Miranda, as far as I can, I give to all, because I pray to God to forgive all; and I cannot refuse an alms to those whom I pray God to bless, whom I wish to be partakers of eternal glory, but am glad to show some degree of love to such as, I hope, will be the objects of the infinite love of God. And if, as our Saviour has assured us, it be more blessed to give than to receive, we ought to look upon those that ask our alms, as so many friends and benefactors, that come to do us a greater good than they can receive, that come to exalt our virtue, to be witnesses of our charity, to be monuments of our love, to be our advocates with God, to be to us in Christ's stead, to appear for us in the day of judgment, and to help us to a blessedness greater than our alms can bestow on them.
This is the spirit, and this is the life, of the devout Miranda; and if she lives ten years longer, she will have spent sixty hundred pounds in charity; for that which she allows herself, may fairly be reckoned amongst her alms.
When she dies, she must shine amongst Apostles, and saints, and martyrs; she must stand amongst the first servants of God, and be glorious amongst those that have fought the good fight, and finished their course with joy.
The Anglican Library, This HTML edition copyright 2000.