A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
Containing some reflections upon the life of Miranda, and showing how it may, and ought to be imitated by all her sex.
NOW this life of Miranda, which I heartily recommend to the imitation of her sex, however contrary it may seem to the way and fashion of the world, is yet suitable to the true spirit, and founded upon the plainest doctrines of Christianity.
To live as she does, is as truly suitable to the Gospel of Christ, as to be baptized, or to receive the Sacrament.
Her spirit is that which animated the saints of former ages; and it is because they lived as she does, that we now celebrate their memories, and praise God for their examples.
There is nothing that is whimsical, trifling, or unreasonable in her character, but everything there described is a right and proper instance of a solid and real piety.
It is as easy to show that it is whimsical to go to Church, or to say one's prayers, as that it is whimsical to observe any of these rules of life. For all Miranda's rules of living unto God, of spending her time and fortune, of eating, working, dressing, and conversing, are as substantial parts of a reasonable and holy life, as devotion and prayer.
For there is nothing to be said for the wisdom of sobriety, the wisdom of devotion, the wisdom of charity, or the wisdom of humility, but what is as good an argument for the wise and reasonable use of apparel.
Neither can anything be said against the folly of luxury, the folly of sensuality, the folly of extravagance, the folly of prodigality, the folly of ambition, of idleness, or indulgence, but what must be said against the folly of dress. For religion is as deeply concerned in the one as in the other.
If you may be vain in one thing, you may be vain in everything; for one kind of vanity only differs from another, as one kind of intemperance differs from another.
If you spend your fortune in the needless, vain finery of dress, you cannot condemn prodigality, or extravagance, or luxury, without condemning yourself.
If you fancy that it is your only folly, and that therefore there can be no great matter in it, you are like those that think they are only guilty of the folly of covetousness, or the folly of ambition. Now though some people may live so plausible a life, as to appear chargeable with no other fault than that of covetousness or ambition; yet the case is not as it appears, for covetousness or ambition cannot subsist in a heart, in other respects rightly devoted to God.
In like manner, though some people may spend most that they have in needless, expensive ornaments of dress, and yet seem to be in every other respect truly pious, yet it is certainly false; for it is as impossible for a mind that is in a true state of religion, to be vain in the use of clothes, as to be vain in the use of alms or devotions. Now to convince you of this from your own reflections, let us suppose that some eminent saint, as, for instance, that the holy Virgin Mary was sent into the world, to be again in a state of trial for a few years, and that you were going to her, to be edified by her great piety; would you expect to find her dressed out, and adorned in fine and expensive clothes? No. You would know, in your own mind, that it was as impossible, as to find her learning to dance. Do but add saint, or holy, to any person, either man or woman, and your own mind tells you immediately, that such a character cannot admit of the vanity of fine apparel. A saint genteelly dressed, is as great nonsense as an Apostle in an embroidered suit; every one's own natural sense convinces him of the inconsistency of these things.
Now what is the reason, that, when you think of a saint, or eminent servant of God, you cannot admit of the vanity of apparel? Is it not because it is inconsistent with such a right state of heart, such true and exalted piety? And is not this, therefore, a demonstration, that where such vanity is admitted, there a right state of heart, true and exalted piety, must needs be wanting? For as certainly as the holy Virgin Mary could not indulge herself, or conform to the vanity of the world in dress and figure, so certain is it, that none can indulge themselves in this vanity, but those who want her piety of heart; and consequently it must be owned, that all needless and expensive finery of dress is the effect of a disordered heart, that is not governed by the true spirit of religion.
Covetousness is not a crime because there is any harm in gold or silver, but because it supposes a foolish and unreasonable state of mind, that is fallen from its true good, and sunk into such a poor and wretched satisfaction.
In like manner, the expensive finery of dress is not a crime because there is anything good or evil in clothes, but because the expensive ornaments of clothing show a foolish and unreasonable state of heart, that is fallen from right notions of human nature, that abuses the end of clothing, and turns the necessities of life into so many instances of pride and folly.
All the world agrees in condemning remarkable fops. Now what is the reason of this? Is it because there is anything sinful in their particular dress, or affected manners? No: but it is because all people know that it shows the state of a man's mind, and that it is impossible for so ridiculous an outside to have anything wise, or reasonable, or good within. And, indeed, to suppose a fop of great piety, is as much nonsense, as to suppose a coward of great courage. So that all the world agrees in owning, that the use and manner of clothes is a mark of the state of a man's mind, and, consequently, that it is a thing highly essential to religion. But then it should be well considered,18 that as it is not only the sot that is guilty of intemperance, but every one that transgresses the right and religious measures of eating and drinking; so it should be considered, that it is not only the fop that is guilty of the vanity and abuse of dress, but every one that departs from the reasonable and religious ends of clothing.
As, therefore, every argument against sottishness is as good an argument against all kinds of intemperance; so every argument against the vanity of fops, is as good an argument against all vanity and abuse of dress. For they are all of the same kind, and only differ as one degree of intemperance may differ from another. She who only paints a little, may as justly accuse another because she paints a great deal, as she that uses but a common finery of dress, accuse another that is excessive in her finery.
For as, in the matter of temperance, there is no rule but the sobriety that is according to the doctrines and spirit of our religion; so, in the matter of apparel, there is no rule to be observed, but such a right use of clothes as is strictly according to the doctrines and spirit of our religion. To pretend to make the way of the world our measure in these things, is as weak and absurd as to make the way of the world the measure of our sobriety, abstinence, or humility. It is a pretence that is exceedingly absurd in the mouths of Christians, who are to be so far from conforming to the fashions of this life, that to have overcome the world, is made an essential mark of Christianity.
This therefore is the way that you are to judge of the crime of vain apparel: you are to consider it as an offence against the proper use of clothes, as covetousness is an offence against the proper use of money; you are to consider it as an indulgence of proud and unreasonable tempers, as an offence against the humility and sobriety of the Christian spirit; you are to consider it as an offence against all those doctrines that require you to do all to the glory of God, that require you to make a right use of your talents; you are to consider it as an offence against all those texts of Scripture that command you to love your neighbour as yourself, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, and do all works of charity that you are able: so that you must not deceive yourself with saying, Where can be the harm of clothes? for the covetous man might as well say, Where can be the harm of gold or silver? but you must consider, that it is a great deal of harm to want that wise, and reasonable, and humble state of heart, which is according to the spirit of religion, and which no one can have in the manner that he ought to have it, who indulges himself either in the vanity of dress, or the desire of riches.
There is therefore nothing right in the use of clothes, or in the use of anything else in the world, but the plainness and simplicity of the Gospel. Every other use of things (however polite and fashionable in the world) distracts and disorders the heart, and is inconsistent with that inward state of piety, that purity of heart, that wisdom of mind, and regularity of affection, which Christianity requireth.
If you would be a good Christian, there is but one way you must live wholly unto God: and if you would live wholly unto God, you must live according to the wisdom that comes from God; you must act according to right judgments of the nature and value of things; you must live in the exercise of holy and heavenly affections, and use all the gifts of God to His praise and glory.
Some persons, perhaps, who admire the purity and perfection of this life of Miranda, may say, How can it be proposed as a common example? How can we who are married, or we who are under the direction of our parents, imitate such a life?
It is answered, Just as you may imitate the life of our blessed Saviour and His Apostles. The circumstances of our Saviour's life, and the state and condition of His Apostles, were more different from yours, than those of Miranda's are; and yet their life, the purity and perfection of their behaviour, is the common example that is proposed to all Christians.
It is their spirit, therefore, their piety, their love of God, that you are to imitate, and not the particular form of their life.
Act under God as they did, direct your common actions to that end which they did, glorify your proper state with such love of God, such charity to your neighbour, such humility and self-denial, as they did; and then, though you are only teaching your own children, and St. Paul is converting whole nations, yet you are following his steps, and acting after his example.
Do not think, therefore, that you cannot, or need not, be like Miranda, because you are not in her state of life; for as the same spirit and temper would have made Miranda a saint, though she had been forced to labour for a maintenance, so if you will but aspire after her spirit and temper, every form and condition of life will furnish you with sufficient means of employing it.
Miranda is what she is, because she does everything in the Name of God, and with regard to her duty to Him; and when you do the same, you will be exactly like her, though you are never so different from her in the outward state of your life.
You are married, you say; therefore you have not your time and fortune in your power as she has.
It is very true; and therefore you cannot spend so much time, nor so much money, in the manner that she does.
But now Miranda's perfection does not consist in this, that she spends so much time, or so much money in such a manner, but that she is careful to make the best use of all that time, and all that fortune, which God has put into her hands. Do you, therefore, make the best use of all that time and money which are at your disposal, and then you are like Miranda.
If she has two hundred pounds a year, and you have only two mites, have you not the more reason to be exceeding exact in the wisest use of them? If she has a great deal of time, and you have but a little, ought you not to be the more watchful and circumspect, lest that little should be lost?
You say, if you were to imitate the cleanly plainness and cheapness of her dress, you would offend your husbands.
First, Be very sure that this is true, before you make it an excuse.
Secondly, If your husbands do really require you to patch your faces, to expose your breasts naked, and to be fine and expensive in all your apparel, then take these two resolutions:
First, To forbear from all this, as soon as your husbands will permit you.
Secondly, To use your utmost endeavours to recommend yourselves to their affections by such solid virtues, as may correct the vanity of their minds, and teach them to love you for such qualities as will make you amiable in the sight of God and His holy Angels.
As to this doctrine concerning the plainness and modesty of dress, it may perhaps be thought by some to be sufficiently confuted by asking, whether all persons are to be clothed in the same manner?
These questions are generally put by those who had rather perplex the plainest truths, than be obliged to follow them.
Let it be supposed, that I had recommended an universal plainness of diet. Is it not a thing sufficiently reasonable to be universally recommended? But would it thence follow, that the nobleman and the labourer were to live upon the same food?
Suppose I had pressed an universal temperance, does not religion enough justify such a doctrine? But would it therefore follow, that all people were to drink the same liquors, and in the same quantity?
In like manner, though plainness and sobriety of dress is recommended to all, yet it does by no means follow, that all are to be clothed in the same manner.
Now what is the particular rule with regard to temperance? How shall particular persons that use different liquors, and in different quantities, preserve their temperance?
Is not this the rule? Are they not to guard against indulgence, to make their use of liquors a matter of conscience, and allow of no refreshments, but such as are consistent with the strictest rules of Christian sobriety?
Now transfer this rule to the matter of apparel, and all questions about it are answered.
Let every one but guard against the vanity of dress, let them but make their use of clothes a matter of conscience, let them but desire to make the best use of their money; and then every one has a rule, that is sufficient to direct them in every state of life. This rule will no more let the great be vain in their dress, than intemperate in their liquors; and yet will leave it as lawful to have some difference in their apparel, as to have some difference in their drink.
But now will you say, that you may use the finest, richest wines, when, and as you please; that you may be as expensive in them as you have a mind, because different liquors are allowed? If not, how can it be said, that you may use clothes as you please, and wear the richest things you can get, because the bare difference of clothes is lawful?
For as the lawfulness of different liquors leaves no room, nor any excuse, for the smallest degree of intemperance in drinking, so the lawfulness of different apparel leaves no room, nor any excuse, for the smallest degrees of vanity in dress.
To ask what is vanity in dress, is no more a puzzling question, than to ask, what is intemperance in drinking. And though religion does not here state the particular measure for all individuals, yet it gives such general rules as are a sufficient direction in every state of life.
He that lets religion teach him that the end of drinking is only so far to refresh our spirits, as to keep us in good health, and make soul and body fitter for all the offices of a holy and pious life, and that he is to desire to glorify God by a right use of this liberty, will always know what intemperance is, in his particular state.
So he that lets religion teach him that the end of clothing is only to hide our shame and nakedness, and to secure our bodies from the injuries of weather, and that he is to desire to glorify God by a sober and wise use of this necessity, will always know what vanity of dress is, in his particular state.
And he that thinks it a needless nicety to talk of the religious use of apparel, has as much reason to think it a needless nicety to talk of the religious use of liquors. For luxury and indulgence in dress is as great an abuse, as luxury and indulgence in eating and drinking. And there is no avoiding either of them, but by making religion the strict measure of our allowance in both cases. And there is nothing in religion to excite a man to this pious exactness in one case, but what is as good a motive to the same exactness in the other.
Farther, as all things that are lawful are not therefore expedient, so there are some things lawful in the use of liquors and apparel, which, by abstaining from them for pious ends, may be made means of great perfection.
Thus, for instance, if a man should deny himself such use of liquors as is lawful; if he should refrain from such expense in his drink as might be allowed without sin; if he should do this, not only for the sake of a more pious self-denial, but that he might be able to relieve and refresh the helpless, poor, and sick: if another should abstain from the use of that which is lawful in dress, if he should be more frugal and mean in his habit than the necessities of religion absolutely require; if he should do this not only as a means of a better humility, but that he may be more able to clothe other people; these persons might be said to do that which was highly suitable to the true spirit, though not absolutely required by the letter, of the law of Christ.
For if those who give a cup of cold water to a disciple of Christ shall not lose their reward, [Matt. x. 42] how dear must they be to Christ, who often give themselves water, that they may be able to give wine to the sick and languishing members of Christ's body!
But to return. All that has been here said to married women, may serve for the same instruction to such as are still under the direction of their parents.
Now though the obedience which is due to parents does not oblige them to carry their virtues no higher than their parents require them; yet their obedience requires them to submit to their direction in all things not contrary to the laws of God.
If, therefore, your parents require you to live more in the fashion and conversation of the world, or to be more expensive in your dress and person, or to dispose of your time otherwise than suits with your desires after greater perfection, you must submit, and bear it as your cross, till you are at liberty to follow the higher counsels of Christ, and have it in your power to choose the best ways of raising your virtue to its greatest height.
Now although, whilst you are in this state, you may be obliged to forego some means of improving your virtue, yet there are some others to be found in it, that are not to be had in a life of more liberty.
For if in this state, where obedience is so great a virtue, you comply in all things lawful, out of a pious, tender sense of duty, then those things which you thus perform are, instead of being hindrances of your virtue, turned into means of improving it.
What you lose by being restrained from such things as you would choose to observe, you gain by that excellent virtue of obedience, in humbly complying against your temper.
Now what is here granted, is only in things lawful, and therefore the diversion of our English stage is here excepted; being elsewhere proved, as I think, to be absolutely unlawful.19
Thus much to show how persons under the direction of others may imitate the wise and pious life of Miranda.
But as for those who are altogether in their own hands, if the liberty of their state makes them covet the best gifts, if it carries them to choose the most excellent ways, if they, having all in their own power, should turn the whole form of their life into a regular exercise of the highest virtues, happy are they who have so learned Christ!
All persons cannot receive this saying. They that are able to receive it, let them receive it, and bless that Spirit of God, which has put such good motions into their hearts.
God may be served and glorified in every state of life. But as there are some states of life more desirable than others, that more purify our natures, that more improve our virtues, and dedicate us unto God in a higher manner, so those who are at liberty to choose for themselves seem to be called by God to be more eminently devoted to His service.
Ever since the beginning of Christianity there have been two orders, or ranks of people, amongst good Christians.
The one that feared and served God in the common offices and business of a secular worldly life.
The other, renouncing the common business, and common enjoyments of life, as riches, marriage, honours, and pleasures, devoted themselves to voluntary poverty, virginity, devotion, and retirement, that by this means they might live wholly unto God, in the daily exercise of a Divine and heavenly life.
This testimony I have from the famous ecclesiastical historian Eusebius, who lived at the time of the first General Council, when the faith of our Nicene Creed was established, when the Church was in its greatest glory and purity, when its Bishops were so many holy fathers and eminent saints.
"Therefore," said he, "there hath been instituted in the Church of Christ, two ways, or manners, of living. The one, raised above the ordinary state of nature, and common ways of living, rejects wedlock, possessions, and worldly goods, and, being wholly separate and removed from the ordinary conversation of common life, is appropriated and devoted solely to the worship and service of God, through an exceeding degree of heavenly love.
"They who are of this order of people seem dead to the life of this world, and, having their bodies only upon earth, are in their minds, and contemplations dwelling in heaven. From whence, like so many heavenly inhabitants, they look down upon human life, making intercessions and oblations to Almighty God for the whole race of mankind. And this not with the blood of beasts, or the fat, or smoke, and burning of bodies, but with the highest exercises of true piety, with cleansed and purified hearts, and with a whole form of life strictly devoted to virtue. These are their sacrifices, which they continually offer unto God, imploring His mercy and favour for themselves and their fellow-creatures.
"Christianity receives this as the perfect manner of life.
"The other is of a lower form, and, suiting itself more to the condition of human nature, admits of chaste wedlock, the care of children and family, of trade and business, and goes through all the employments of life under a sense of piety, and fear of God.
"Now they who have chosen this manner of life, have their set times for retirement and spiritual exercises, and particular days are set apart for their hearing and learning the word of God. And this order of people is considered as in the second state of piety." [Euseb. Dem. Evan. 1.i.c.8]
Thus this learned historian.20
If, therefore, persons of either sex, moved with the life of Miranda, and desirous of perfection, should unite themselves into little societies, professing voluntary poverty, virginity, retirement, and devotion, living upon bare necessaries, that some might be relieved by their charities, and all be blessed with their prayers, and benefited by their example; or if, for want of this, they should practise the same manner of life, in as high a degree as they could by themselves; such persons would be so far from being chargeable with any superstition, or blind devotion, that they might be justly said to restore that piety, which was the boast and glory of the Church, when its greatest saints were alive.
Now as this learned historian observes; that it was an exceeding great degree of heavenly love, that carried these persons so much above the common ways of life to such an eminent state of holiness; so it is not to be wondered at, that the religion of Jesus Christ should fill the hearts of many Christians with this high degree of love.
For a religion that opens such a scene of glory, that discovers things so infinitely above all the world, that so triumphs over death, that assures us of such mansions of bliss, where we shall so soon be as the Angels of God in Heaven; what wonder is it, if such a religion, such truths and expectations, should, in some holy souls, destroy all earthly desires, and make the ardent love of heavenly things, be the one continual passion of their hearts?
If the religion of Christians is founded upon the infinite humiliation, the cruel mockings and scourgings, the prodigious sufferings, the poor, persecuted life, and painful death, of a crucified Son of God; what wonder is it, if many humble adorers of this profound mystery, many affectionate lovers of a crucified Lord, should renounce their share of worldly pleasures, and give themselves up to a continual course of mortification and self-denial, that thus suffering with Christ here, they may reign with Him hereafter?
If truth itself has assured us that there is but one thing needful, what wonder is it that there should be some amongst Christians so full of faith, as to believe this in the highest sense of the words, and to desire such a separation from the world, that their care and attention to the one thing needful may not be interrupted?
If our blessed Lord hath said, "If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me"; [Matt. xix. 21] what wonder is it, that there should be amongst Christians some such zealous followers of Christ, so intent upon heavenly treasure, so desirous of perfection, that they should renounce the enjoyment of their estates, choose a voluntary poverty, and relieve all the poor that they are able?
If the chosen vessel, St. Paul, hath said, "He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord": and that "there is this difference also between a wife and a virgin; the unmarried woman careth for the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit"; [1 Cor. vii. 32-34] what wonder is it if the purity and perfection of the virgin state hath been the praise and glory of the Church in its first and purest ages? that there have always been some so desirous of pleasing God, so zealous after every degree of purity and perfection, so glad of every means of improving their virtue, that they have renounced the comforts and enjoyments of wedlock, to trim their lamps, to purify their souls, and wait upon God in a state of perpetual virginity?
And if in these our days we want examples of these several degrees of perfection, if neither clergy nor laity are enough of this spirit; if we are so far departed from it, that a man seems, like St. Paul at Athens, a setter forth of strange doctrines, [Acts xvii. 18] when he recommends self-denial, renunciation of the world, regular devotion, retirement, virginity, and voluntary poverty, it is because we are fallen into an age, where the love not only of many, but of most, is waxed cold.
I have made this little appeal to antiquity, and quoted these few passages of Scripture, to support some uncommon practices in the life of Miranda; and to show that her highest rules of holy living, her devotion, self-denial, renunciation of the world, her charity, virginity, voluntary poverty, are founded in the sublimest counsels of Christ and His Apostles, suitable to the high expectations of another life, proper instances of a heavenly love, and all followed by the greatest saints of the best and purest ages of the Church.
"He that hath ears to hear, let him hear." [Matt. xi. 15]
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