A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
That not only a life of vanity, or sensuality, but even the most regular kind of life, that is not governed by great devotion, sufficiently shows its miseries, its wants and emptiness, to the eyes of all the world. This represented in various characters.
IT IS a very remarkable saying of our Lord and Saviour to His disciples, in these words: "Blessed are your eyes, for they see; and your ears, for they hear." [Matt. xiii. 16] They teach us two things; first, that the dulness and heaviness of men's minds, with regard to spiritual matters, is so great, that it may justly be compared to the want of eyes and ears.
Secondly, That God has so filled everything and every place, with motives and arguments for a godly life, that they who are but so blessed, so happy as to use their eyes and their ears, must needs be affected with them.
Now though this was, in a more especial manner, the case of those whose senses were witnesses of the life, and miracles, and doctrines, of our blessed Lord, yet it is as truly the case of all Christians at this time. For the reasons of religion, the calls to piety, are so written and engraved upon everything, and present themselves so strongly, and so constantly, to all our senses in everything that we meet, that they can be disregarded by eyes that see not, and ears that hear not.
What greater motive to a religious life, than the vanity, the poorness of all worldly enjoyments? And yet who can help seeing and feeling this every day of his life?
What greater call to look towards God, than the pains, the sickness, the crosses and vexations of this life? And yet whose eyes and ears are not daily witnesses of them?
What miracles could more strongly appeal to our senses, or what message from Heaven speak louder to us, than the daily dying and departure of our fellow-creatures? So that the one thing needful, or the great end of life, is not left to be discovered by fine reasoning and deep reflections; but is pressed upon us, in the plainest manner, by the experience of all our senses, by everything that we meet with in life.
Let us but intend to see and hear, and then the whole world becomes a book of wisdom and instruction to us; all that is regular in the order of nature, all that is accidental in the course of things, all the mistakes and disappointments that happen to ourselves, all the miseries and errors that we see in other people, become so many plain lessons of advice to us; teaching us, with as much assurance as an Angel from Heaven, that we can no ways raise ourselves to any true happiness, but by turning all our thoughts, our wishes, and endeavours, after the happiness of another life.
It is this right use of the world that I would lead you into, by directing you to turn your eyes upon every shape of human folly, that you may thence draw fresh arguments and motives of living to the best and greatest purposes of your creation.
And if you would but carry this intention about you, of profiting by the follies of the world, and of learning the greatness of religion, from the littleness and vanity of every other way of life; if, I say, you would but carry this intention in your mind, you would find every day, every place, and every person, a fresh proof of their wisdom, who choose to live wholly unto God. You would then often return home the wiser, the better, and the more strengthened in religion, by everything that has fallen in your way.
Octavius27 is a learned, ingenious man, well versed in most parts of literature, and no stranger to any kingdom in Europe. The other day, being just recovered from a lingering fever, he took upon him to talk thus to his friends:--
My glass, says he, is almost run out; and your eyes see how many marks of age and death I bear about me: but I plainly feel myself sinking away faster than any standers-by imagine. I fully believe that one year more will conclude my reckoning.
The attention of his friends was much raised by such a declaration, expecting to hear something truly excellent from so learned a man, who had but a year longer to live. When Octavius proceeded in this manner: For these reasons, says he, my friends, I have left off all taverns; the wine of those places is not good enough for me, in this decay of nature. I must now be nice in what I drink; I cannot pretend to do as I have done; and therefore am resolved to furnish my own cellar with a little of the very best, though it cost me ever so much.
I must also tell you, my friends, that age forces a man to be wise in many other respects, and makes us change many of our opinions and practices.
You know how much I have liked a large acquaintance; I now condemn it as an error. Three or four cheerful, diverting companions, are all that I now desire; because I find, that in my present infirmities, if I am left alone, or to grave company, I am not so easy to myself.
A few days after Octavius had made this declaration to his friends, he relapsed into his former illness, was committed to a nurse, who closed his eyes before his fresh parcel of wine came in.
Young Eugenius,28 who was present at this discourse, went home a new man, with full resolutions of devoting himself wholly unto God.
I never, says Eugenius, was so deeply affected with the wisdom and importance of religion, as when I saw how poorly and meanly the learned Octavius was to leave the world, through the want of it.
How often had I envied his great learning, his skill in languages, his knowledge of antiquity, his address, and fine manner of expressing himself upon all subjects! But when I saw how poorly it all ended, what was to be the last year of such a life, and how foolishly the master of all these accomplishments was then forced to talk, for want of being acquainted with the joys and expectations of piety, I was thoroughly convinced that there was nothing to be envied or desired, but a life of true piety; nor anything so poor and comfortless as a death without it.
Now as the young Eugenius was thus edified and instructed in the present case; so if you are so happy as to have anything of his thoughtful temper, you will meet with variety of instruction of this kind; you will find that arguments for the wisdom and happiness of a strict piety offer themselves in all places, and appeal to all your senses in the plainest manner.
You will find that all the world preaches to an attentive mind; and that if you have but ears to hear, almost everything you meet teaches you some lesson of wisdom.
But now, if to these admonitions and instructions, which we receive from our senses, from an experience of the state of human life; if to these we add the lights of religion, those great truths which the Son of God has taught us; it will be then as much past all doubt, that there is but one happiness for man, as that there is but one God.
For since religion teaches us that our souls are immortal, that piety and devotion will carry them to an eternal enjoyment of God, and that carnal, worldly tempers will sink them into an everlasting misery with damned spirits, what gross nonsense and stupidity is it, to give the name of joy or happiness to anything but that which carries us to this joy and happiness in God!
Was all to die with our bodies, there might be some pretence for those different sorts of happiness, that are now so much talked of; but since our all begins at the death of our bodies; since all men are to be immortal, either in misery or happiness, in a world entirely different from this; since they are all hastening hence at all uncertainties, as fast as death can cut them down; some in sickness, some in health, some sleeping, some waking, some at midnight, others at cock-crowing, and all at hours that they know not of; is it not certain that no man can exceed another in joy and happiness, but so far as he exceeds him in those virtues which fit him for a happy death?
Cognatus29 is a sober, regular clergyman, of good repute in the world, and well esteemed in his parish. All his parishioners say he is an honest man, and very notable at making a bargain. The farmers listen to him, with great attention, when he talks of the properest time of selling corn.
He has been, for twenty years, a diligent observer of markets, and has raised a considerable fortune by good management.
Cognatus is very orthodox, and full of esteem for our English Liturgy; and if he has not prayers on Wednesdays and Fridays, it is because his predecessor had not used the parish to any such custom.
As he cannot serve both his livings himself, so he makes it matter of conscience to keep a sober curate upon one of them, whom he hires to take care of all the souls in the parish, at as cheap a rate as a sober man can be procured.
Cognatus has been very prosperous all his time; but still he has had the uneasiness and vexations that they have, who are deep in worldly business. Taxes, losses, crosses, bad mortgages, bad tenants, and the hardness of the times, are frequent subjects of his conversation; and a good or bad season has a great effect upon his spirits.
Cognatus has no other end in growing rich, but that he may leave a considerable fortune to a niece, whom he has politely educated in expensive finery, by what he has saved out of the tithes of two livings.
The neighbours look upon Cognatus as a happy clergyman, because they see him (as they call it) in good circumstances; and some of them intend to dedicate their own sons to the Church, because they see how well it has succeeded with Cognatus, whose father was but an ordinary man.
But now if Cognatus, when he first entered into holy orders, had perceived how absurd a thing it is to grow rich by the Gospel; if he had proposed to himself the example of some primitive or other; if he had had the piety of the great St. Austin in his eye, who durst not enrich any of his relations out of the revenue of the Church; if, instead of twenty years' care to lay up treasures upon earth, he had distributed the income of every year, in the most Christian acts of charity and compassion; if, instead of tempting his niece to be proud, and providing her with such ornaments as the Apostle forbids, he had clothed, comforted, and assisted numbers of widows, orphans and distressed, who were all to appear for him at the last day; if, instead of the cares and anxieties of bad bonds, troublesome mortgages, and ill bargains, he had had the constant comfort of knowing that his treasure was securely laid up, where neither moth corrupteth, nor thieves break through and steal; [Matt. vi. 20] could it with any reason be said that he had mistaken the spirit and dignity of his order, or lessened any of that happiness which is to be found in his sacred employment?
If, instead of rejoicing in the happiness of a second living, he had thought it as unbecoming the office of a clergyman to traffic for gain in holy things, as to open a shop; if he had thought it better to recommend some honest labour to his niece, than to support her in idleness by the labours of a curate; better that she should want fine clothes and a rich husband, than that cures of souls should be farmed about, and brother clergymen not suffered to live by those altars at which they serve; -- if this had been the spirit of Cognatus, could it, with any reason, be said, that these rules of religion, this strictness of piety, had robbed Cognatus of any real happiness? Could it be said that a life thus governed by the spirit of the Gospel, must be dull and melancholy, if compared to that of raising a fortune for a niece?
Now as this cannot be said in the present case, so in every other kind of life, if you enter into the particulars of it, you will find, that however easy and prosperous it may seem, yet you cannot add piety to any part of it without adding so much of a better joy and happiness to it.
Look now at that condition of life, which draws the envy of all eyes.
Negotius30 is a temperate, honest man. He served his time under a master of great trade, but has, by his own management, made it a more considerable business than ever it was before. For thirty years last past he has written fifty or sixty letters in a week, and is busy in corresponding with all parts of Europe. The general good of trade seems to Negotius to be the general good of life; whomsoever he admires, whatever he commends or condemns, either in Church or State, is admired, commended, or condemned, with some regard to trade.
As money is continually pouring in upon him, so he often lets it go in various kinds of expense and generosity, and sometimes in ways of charity.
Negotius is always ready to join in any public contribution. If a purse is making at any place where he happens to be, whether it be to buy a plate for a horserace, or to redeem a prisoner out of gaol, you are always sure of having something from him.
He has given a fine ring of bells to a Church in the country: and there is much expectation that he will some time or other make a more beautiful front to the market-house than has yet been seen in any place. For it is the generous spirit of Negotius to do nothing in a mean way.
If you ask what it is that has secured Negotius from all scandalous vices, it is the same thing that has kept him from all strictness of devotion, -- it is his great business. He has always had too many important things in his head, his thoughts have been too much employed, to suffer him to fall either into any courses of rakery, or to feel the necessity of an inward, solid piety.
For this reason he hears of the pleasures of debauchery, and the pleasures of piety, with the same indifference; and has no more desire of living in the one, than in the other, because neither of them consists with that turn of mind, and multiplicity of business, which are his happiness.
If Negotius was asked what it is which he drives at in life, he would be as much at a loss for an answer, as if he was asked what any other person is thinking of. For though he always seems to himself to know what he is doing, and has many things in his head, which are the motives of his actions; yet he cannot tell you of any one general end in life, that he has chosen with deliberation, as being truly worthy of all his labour and pains.
He has several confused notions in his head which have been a long time there; such as these, viz., that it is something great to have more business than other people; to have more dealings upon his hands than a hundred of the same profession; to grow continually richer and richer, and to raise an immense fortune before he dies. The thing that seems to give Negotius the greatest life and spirit, and to be most in his thoughts, is an expectation that he has, that he shall die richer than any of his business ever did.
The generality of people, when they think of happiness, think of Negotius, in whose life every instance of happiness is supposed to meet; sober, prudent, rich, prosperous, generous, and charitable.
Let us now, therefore, look at this condition in another, but truer light.
Let it be supposed, that this same Negotius was a painful, laborious man, every day deep in variety of affairs; that he neither drank nor debauched; but was sober and regular in his business. Let it be supposed that he grew old in this course of trading; and that the end and design of all this labour, and care, and application to business, was only this, that he might die possessed of more than a hundred thousand pairs of boots and spurs, and as many greatcoats.
Let it be supposed that the sober part of the world say of him, when he is dead, that he was a great and happy man, a thorough master of business, and had acquired a hundred thousand pairs of boots and spurs when he died.
Now if this was really the case, I believe it would be readily granted, that a life of such business was as poor and ridiculous as any that can be invented. But it would puzzle any one to show that a man that has spent all his time and thoughts in business and hurry that he might die, as it is said, worth a hundred thousand pounds, is any whit wiser than he who has taken the same pains to have as many pairs of boots and spurs when he leaves the world.
For if the temper and state of our souls be our whole state; if the only end of life be to die as free from sin, and as exalted in virtue, as we can; if naked as we came, so naked are we to return, and to stand a trial before Christ and His holy Angels, for everlasting happiness or misery; what can it possibly signify what a man had, or had not, in this world? What can it signify what you call those things which a man has left behind him; whether you call them his or any one's else; whether you call them trees or fields, or birds and feathers; whether you call them a hundred thousand pounds, or a hundred thousand pairs of boots and spurs? I say, call them; for the things signify no more to him than the names.
Now it is easy to see the folly of a life thus spent, to furnish a man with such a number of boots and spurs. But yet there needs no better faculty of seeing, no finer understanding, to see the folly of a life spent in making a man a possessor of ten towns before he dies.
For if, when he has got all his towns, or all his boots, his soul is to go to its own place among separate spirits, and his body be laid by in a coffin, till the last trumpet calls him to judgment; where the inquiry will be, how humbly, how devoutly, how purely, how meekly, how piously, how charitably, how heavenly, we have spoken, thought, and acted, whilst we were in the body; how can we say, that he who has worn out his life in raising a hundred thousand pounds, has acted wiser for himself, than he who has had the same care to procure a hundred thousand of anything else?
But farther: let it now be supposed that Negotius, when he first entered into business, happening to read the Gospel with attention, and eyes open, found that he had a much greater business upon his hands than that to which he had served an apprenticeship; that there were things which belong to man, of much more importance than all that our eyes can see; so glorious, as to deserve all our thoughts; so dangerous, as to need all our care; and so certain, as never to deceive the faithful labourer. Let it be supposed, that, from reading this book, he had discovered that his soul was more to him than his body; that it was better to grow in the virtues of the soul, than to have a large body or a full purse; that it was better to be fit for heaven, than to have variety of fine houses upon the earth; that it was better to secure an everlasting happiness, than to have plenty of things which he cannot keep; better to live in habits of humility, piety, devotion, charity, and self-denial, than to die unprepared for judgment; better to be most like our Saviour, or some eminent saint, than to excel all the tradesmen in the world in business and bulk of fortune. Let it be supposed that Negotius, believing these things to be true, entirely devoted himself to God at his first setting out in the world, resolving to pursue his business no farther than was consistent with great devotion, humility, and self-denial; and for no other ends, but to provide himself with a sober subsistence, and to do all the good that he could to the souls and bodies of his fellow-creatures. Let it therefore be supposed, that instead of the continual hurry of business, he was frequent in his retirements, and a strict observer of all the hours of prayer; that, instead of restless desires after more riches, his soul has been full of the love of God and heavenly affection, constantly watching against worldly tempers, and always aspiring after Divine grace; that, instead of worldly cares and contrivances, he was busy in fortifying his soul against all approaches of sin; that, instead of costly show, and expensive generosity of a splendid life, he loved and exercised all instances of humility and lowliness; that, instead of great treats and full tables, his house only furnished a sober refreshment to those that wanted it. Let it be supposed that his contentment kept him free from all kinds of envy; that his piety made him thankful to God in all crosses and disappointments; that his charity kept him from being rich, by a continual distribution to all objects of compassion. Now, had this been the Christian spirit of Negotius, can any one say, that he had lost the true joy and happiness of life, by thus conforming to the spirit, and living up to the hopes of the Gospel? Can it be said, that a life made exemplary by such virtues as these, which keep Heaven always in our sight, which both delight and exalt the soul here, and prepare it for the presence of God hereafter, must be poor and dull, if compared to that of heaping up riches, which can neither stay with us, nor we with them?
It would be endless to multiply examples of this kind, to show you how little is lost, and how much is gained, by introducing a strict and exact piety into every condition of human life.
I shall now, therefore, leave it to your own meditation, to carry this way of thinking farther, hoping that you are enough directed by what is here said, to convince yourself, that a true and exalted piety is so far from rendering any life dull and tiresome, that it is the only joy and happiness of every condition in the world.
Imagine to yourself some person in a consumption, or any other lingering distemper that was incurable.
If you were to see such a man wholly intent upon doing everything in the spirit of religion, making the wisest use of all his time, fortune, and abilities; if he was for carrying every duty of piety to its greatest height, and striving to have all the advantage that could be had from the remainder of his life; if he avoided all business, but such as was necessary; if he was averse to all the follies and vanities of the world, had no taste for finery and show, but sought for all his comfort in the hopes and expectations of religion; you would certainly commend his prudence, you would say that he had taken the right method to make himself as joyful and happy as any one can be in a state of such infirmity.
On the other hand, if you should see the same person, with trembling hands, short breath, thin jaws, and hollow eyes, wholly intent upon business and bargains, as long as he could speak; if you should see him pleased with fine clothes, when he could scarce stand to be dressed, and laying out his money in horses and dogs, rather than purchase the prayers of the poor for his soul, which was so soon to be separated from his body you would certainly condemn him as a weak, silly man.
Now as it is easy to see the reasonableness, the wisdom, and happiness, of a religious spirit in a consumptive man, so if you pursue the same way of thinking, you will as easily perceive the same wisdom and happiness of a pious temper, in every other state of life.
For how soon will every man that is in health, be in the state of him that is in a consumption! How soon will he want all the same comforts and satisfactions of religion, which every dying man wants!
And if it be wise and happy to live piously, because we have not above a year to live, is it not being more wise, and making ourselves more happy, because we may have more years to come? If one year of piety before we die is so desirable, are not more years of piety much more desirable?
If a man had five fixed years to live, he could not possibly think at all, without intending to make the best use of them all. When he saw his stay so short in this world, he must needs think that this was not a world for him; and when he saw how near he was to another world that was eternal, he must surely think it very necessary to be very diligent in preparing himself for it.
Now as reasonable as piety appears in such a circumstance of life, it is yet more reasonable in every circumstance of life, to every thinking man.
For, who but a madman can reckon that he has five years certain to come?
And if it be reasonable and necessary to deny our worldly tempers, and live wholly unto God, because we are certain that we are to die at the end of five years; surely it must be much more reasonable and necessary for us to live in the same spirit, because we have no certainty that we shall live five weeks.
Again, if we were to add twenty years to the five, which is in all probability more than will be added to the lives of many people, who are at man's estate; what a poor thing is this! How small a difference is there between five and twenty-five years!
It is said, that a day is with God as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day; because, in regard to His eternity, this difference is as nothing.
Now as we are all created to be eternal, to live in an endless succession of ages upon ages, where thousands, and millions of thousands of years will have no proportion to our everlasting life in God: so with regard to this eternal state, which is our real state, twenty-five years is as poor a pittance as twenty-five days.
Now we can never make any true judgment of time as it relates to us, without considering the true state of our duration. If we are temporary beings, then a little time may justly be called a great deal in relation to us; but if we are eternal beings, then the difference of a few years is as nothing.
If we were to suppose three different sorts of rational beings, all of different, but fixed duration, one sort that lived certainly only a month, the other a year, and the third a hundred years. Now if these beings were to meet together, and talk about time, they must talk in a very different language: half an hour to those that were to live but a month, must be a very different thing to what it is to those who are to live a hundred years.
As, therefore, time is thus different a thing with regard to the state of those who enjoy it, so if we would know what time is with regard to ourselves, we must consider our state.
Now since our eternal state is as certainly ours, as our present state; since we are as certainly to live forever, as we now live at all; it is plain, that we cannot judge of the value of any particular time, as to us, but by comparing it to that eternal duration, for which we are created.
If you would know what five years signify to a being that was to live a hundred, you must compare five to a hundred, and see what proportion it bears to it; and then you will judge right.
So if you would know what twenty years signify to a son of Adam, you must compare it not to a million of ages, but to an eternal duration, to which no number of millions bears any proportion; and then you will judge right, by finding it nothing.
Consider therefore this; how would you condemn the folly of a man, that should lose his share of future glory, for the sake of being rich, or great, or praised, or delighted in any enjoyment, only one poor day before he was to die!
But if the time will come, when a number of years will seem less to every one, than a day does now, what a condemnation must it then be, if eternal happiness should appear to be lost for something less than the enjoyment of a day!
Why does a day seem a trifle to us now? It is because we have years to set against it. It is the duration of years that makes it appear as nothing.
What a trifle therefore must the years of a man's age appear, when they are forced to be set against eternity, when there shall be nothing but eternity to compare them with!
Now this will be the case of every man, as soon as he is out of the body; he will be forced to forget the distinctions of days and years, and to measure time, not by the course of the sun, but by setting it against eternity.
As the fixed stars, by reason of our being placed at such a distance from them, appear but as so many points; so when we, placed in eternity, shall look back upon all time, it will all appear but as a moment.
Then, a luxury, an indulgence, a prosperity, a greatness of fifty years, will seem to every one that looks back upon it, as the same poor short enjoyment as if he had been snatched away in his first sin.
These few reflections upon time are only to show how poorly they think, how miserably they judge, who are less careful of an eternal state, because they may be at some years' distance from it, than they would be if they knew they were within a few weeks of it.
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