On the Deplorable State Of a Christian Who Is Cold Toward Heaven
by Rev. William Gahan, 1825
Domine bonum est nos hic esse.--Matt. c. xvii. v. 4.
O Lord, it is good for us to be here.-- Matt. c. xvii. v. 4.
The Church, in order to strengthen the faith, nourish the hope, inflame the charity, and animate the zeal of her children in this holy time of penance and mortification, proposes for the subject of this day's gospel the mystery of the glorious transfiguration of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, which happened on Mount Thabor in the presence of three of His disciples, Peter, James, and John his brother; for as these were afterwards to be the sad eye witnesses of His bloody agony in the garden of Gethsemani, and of His crucifixion on Mount Calvary, it was expedient that they should likewise be spectators of the glorious transfiguration of His sacred humanity, and behold a transient ray of the splendor and majesty of His divinity displayed on Mount Thabor.
Moses, the legislator of the Jews, and Elias, the most zealous of the Prophets of the old Law, appeared at the same time on the Mount, standing by Jesus Christ, overshaded by a bright cloud, and, as it were, bearing testimony that He was the Messias, promised both by the Law and the ancient Prophets, whom they represented. The three disciples were in transports and raptures of joy, when they beheld the face of their dear Lord and Master shining like the sun, and his garments becoming on a sudden as white as the driven snow. They imagined themselves already happy, and were satisfied to establish their mansion on the Mount; nay, Peter could not forbear crying out in the name of the rest, O Lord it is good for us to be here; let us not quit this charming place, but, if thou art pleased, let us make three tabernacles here, one for thee, ond for Moses, and another for Elias. One bright ray, that appeared for a short time on the countenance of Jesus, had such an effect on the disciples, that they despised all earthly pleasures, and looked upon the world with scorn and disdain; they were ready to part with every thing in it, and remain on the Mount with their Lord, whom they beheld thus transformed.
Yet, my brethren, His transfiguration was but an antepast, figure and glimpse of that endless glory and permanent happiness which awaits the servants of God in the kingdom of Heaven, after the toils and labours of this mortal life. It is there that the blessed may truly say, Lord, it is good for us to be here. It is there that they find themselves incessantly in exstasies of love, and raptures of joy, because they incessantly see God face to face, and contemplate his infinite beauty and perfection for a never-ending eternity. O what a blessed sight is this? How glorious, how charming, how worthy of the most ardent desires, and the most zealous pursuits of a Christian soul? Yet alas! to seek this happiness, and to labour for the fruition and possession of God, and of His heavenly kingdom, is, of all pursuits and occupations, that which seems least to engage the attention and care of the generality of Christians, who are so strongly attached to the imaginary happiness of this transitory life, that they are insensible to the real advantages of future happiness.
To dissuade you from, and guard you against this shameful indolence and culpable neglect of your sovereign happiness, and at the same time to excite you to seek the kingdom of God with fervour, is the design of the present discourse. In the first point, I will shew you, that the state of a Christian, who is cold and insensible in regard of Heaven, is truly deplorable. The means to overcome this coldness and insensibility shall be the subject of the second point. Let us previously invoke the assistance of the divine spirit, through the intercession of the blessed Virgin, whom the Angel saluted with the following words, Ave Maria.
To convince you that the state of a Christian, who is cold, and insensible in regard to Heaven, is truly deplorable, it may be sufficient to shew you that he lives without faith, without hope, and without charity, or the love of God; and what is a Christian without faith, hope, and the love of God, but one in a state of reprobation, and consequently exposed every moment to the evident danger of falling a sad victim to the rigours of divine justice. In the first place such a Christian may be said to live without faith; for how can he be supposed to believe that there is an Heaven, and still be so cold and insensible as not to labour for it? I do not consider Heaven at present, in as much as it is the palace of God, and the abode of the Angels and Saints; but what I consider is, what is proposed to us in this most charming mansion of bliss, as the principal recompence of Christian virtues and good works. And this is nothing less than God himself, in the sight, love and enjoyment of whom, consists the essential beatitude of the soul. It is this ravishing object that the blessed behold for ever face to face, and by the contemplation of His infinite beauty they are set on fire with a seraphic flame of love: This love transforms them into the beloved object, and by a wonderful union puts them in possession of God Himself, and consequently in possession of all His perfections.
O thrice happy souls! what can be wanting to complete their joy, when they have within and without them a vast ocean of felicity, with an absolute certainty that this felicity will be as lasting as an endless eternity? It is this lasting, this unspeakable happiness, that I propose to your consideration, when I speak to you now of Heaven. This is the object of your faith. This is what you are to believe. In reality do you believe it? Credis hoc? as Christ our Lord said to Martha, when He spoke to her of the eternal life that follows the resurrection. And why may I not say in like manner to so many cold and insensible Christians of our days, who scarce ever raise up their thoughts to Heaven. Do you in reality believe that there is an Heaven. Do you believe that all your happiness is centred in Heaven, and that nothing less than God Himself is to be your happiness, and the only delightful object that is to satiate all your desires?
But how can you be supposed to believe it, when you do nothing to acquire it? How can you be supposed to believe it, whilst you do every thing to lose it? From these two reflections, it may be judged what your faith is. First you do-nothing for Heaven; you do nothing for it, in comparison of what sinners do to gratify their criminal passions. At least you do nothing for Heaven in comparison of what you yourselves do to preserve your corporal health, to recover out of a dangerous malady, to protract life for a few years, to establish a fortune for yourselves and your children, or to gain the affection and esteem of those who can be serviceable to you in promoting your temporal interest.
In effect, does the business of your salvation take up much of your time? Would you not judge a man certainly ruined in his temporal affairs who would be as careless and as indolent about them as you are in the affair of eternity? And by applying so little to it, on what grounds can you promise to yourselves that the issue of it will be favourable to you? Have you the courage to take the same pains, to undergo the same fatigues for Heaven, that you take and undergo to please and shine in the world, to indulge your sensuality, to live at your ease, and enjoy your pleasures? Do you devote as much time, as much application to Heaven, as you do to dress, to visiting, to gambling and other amusements, which ye look on as necessary to your station of life? A shameful comparison indeed, which is sufficient to cover the cold and insensible Christian with confusion; and yet it is this, that Solomon endeavours to imprint in our mind, when he exhorts us to seek true wisdom with the same ardour that we seek gold and silver, and with the same labour, that it costs worldlings to acquire perishable treasures, and to extract metals out of the bowels of the earth, Prov. ii. 4.
It is to this same emulation we are invited, when the Son of God exhorts us in the Gospel to manage the affair of salvation like unto merchants, who are embarked in trade and traffic, Luke, c. xiv. v. 13. and when he places before our eyes the example of those workmen who labour in the vineyard at all hour3 of the day; and the example of the wise virgins, who are awake the whole night, expecting the arrival of their spouse, Matt. c. xxv. and when St. Paul exhorts to watch the enemies of our souls like soldiers, always on guard, that so we may be constantly prepared to fight the battles of salvation with the arms of faith, Tim. vi. 11. All this clearly teaches us, that the desire of Heaven should have at least the same effect on us that the desire of gain, of pleasure, of honour, of fortune, of life, of health, has; and that the thoughts of Heaven alone should lead us to combat for it with so much the more fervour and alacrity, as the supreme, the sovereign good, is infinitely above all the goods and perishable treasures of this world.
Notwithstanding what power have these thoughts over us, what effect do they produce in us? Alas! almost nothing to lead us to the practice of virtue, and next to nothing to sweeten the crosses and afflictions of this life. Speak of Heaven to a Christian in sorrow and affliction; tell him these are crowns of glory prepared for those who suffer here with patience and resignation; tell him that it is God, who distributes all the crosses and afflictions in this world, as so many powerful means of our sanctification and salvation. This is a dry insipid language, incapable to touch his heart. But has he incurred the displeasure of a powerful protector, assure him of a speedy reconciliation; has he met with temporal losses, announce to him a considerable fortune, unexpectedly fallen to him; does he weep for the death of a friend or relation, propose to him parties of pleasure and amusement, his grief and concern will soon abate, his usual calmness and serenity will speedily return. Thus he consoles himself in his misery and affliction by the prospect of those very things which may be to him the cause of new misery and misfortune, and he will not console himself with the hope of Heaven, and the prospect of a state exempt from every sort of misery, abounding with every kind of good, and which is nothing less than to see and enjoy his God for an endless eternity. Ye will say, perhaps, that ye do not think of this. May I not reply that it is because ye do not believe it? for how can ye have a true belief of Heaven, and this belief not move ye to do and to suffer what is necessary to acquire Heaven? How can ye have a true belief of Heaven, and this belief suffer ye to do every thing to lose Heaven, and by this loss to render yourselves irretrieveably miserable for ever and ever?
In effect how opposite is the life that most Christians lead to the faith which they pretend to profess? Had the Saviour of the world come down here on earth to announce a law favourable to the corrupt inclinations of flesh and blood; had he promised Heaven to cursers, swearers, drunkards and blasphemers, and to such as would surpass the very Pagans in criminal excesses, and in all the shameful vices of their fabulous deities; in order to conform to such injunctions, and obtain the benefit of such promises, would it be necessary, in such a supposition, to lead any other life than what we see the generality of those lead who bear the name of Christians? And yet it is on the contrary only to an absolute retrenchment of all these vices and criminal excesses, that our Blessed Saviour has attached a crown of immortal glory. How then can you be said to believe this, when you retrench nothing, when you abstain from nothing, but rather do every thing, and perpetuate every kind of sin, that can strip the unhappy offender of this crown of glory, and exclude him eternally from the kingdom of Heaven?
What answer can you give to St. Paul, who proposed to the Corinthians the example of those who formerly contended in the Isthmian games for the honour of victory? Did they not, says the Apostle, refrain themselves from all things? Instead of overcharging nature with superfluities, did they not refuse it almost the necessaries of life? Did they not sacrifice every sense of delight to the expectation of conquest? Did they not triumph over themselves, that they might triumph over their rivals? What then should we do, concludes the Apostle; we who are engaged in a more noble contest, we who run a race not for the vain recompence of a fading garland of flowers, or the empty praises of biassed mortals, but for an incorruptible crown of glory in Heaven? If Pagans were able to force nature to discipline and regularity, and to subdue its most impetuous sallies upon the feeble prospect of receiving a crown of vine branches amidst the huzzas and applauses of an insignificant multitude, with what force can Christians remain indolent and inactive, when they have the grace of God for their assistant, and nothing less than Heaven itself for the prize of their victory? Can they have a true faith, a true belief of the important truths which the reasoning of St. Paul conveys, and still be cold and insensible for Heaven? Nay, what is more, can a true Christian hope be compatible with such coldness and insensibility?
When we hope for, when we desire any considerable good, we shew how impatient we are to enjoy it, we speak of it frequently, we entertain ourselves with pleasure on so agreeable a topic, we anticipate with a thousand wishes the real possession of it; and for this reason our Saviour says in the Gospel, that where our treasure is, there is our heart, that is to say, there our affections and desires center. To be convinced of this truth you need but consult yourselves, and examine the emotions of your own hearts. Consider with what ardour, with what passion you seek the goods of this world. The privation of them, a delay which debars you of the possession of them, seems to you painful and afflicting. But we may say with St. Cyprian, that in regard to Heaven, cold and insensible Christians are prevaricators of their hope as well as of their faith. When you daily say in the Lord's Prayer, Thy kingdom come, you ask of God that you may be so happy as to arrive at His eternal kingdom, and still you doat on the earth, the place of your exile. You conjure the Lord by your prayers, to hasten the day of your liberty, and still there is nothing you fear more than to quit this life, where you are but miserable captives. You look upon Heaven as your native home, as the place of your future abode and eternal residence, and yet the generality of mankind would willingly remain here always on earth, was there not an inevitable necessity for departing from it. Is not this to be prevaricators of your hope, because surely we do not fear what we hope for, we do not shun what we desire, we do not endeavour to escape what we passionately wish for? In vain, then, do you say that Heaven is the object of your hopes, whilst you are cold and insensible in regard of it; in vain, do you pretend that Heaven is the object of your wishes, whilst there is nothing so afflicting to you as the apprehension of quitting this world, and whilst there is nothing you tremble at so much as at the thoughts of death, without which you cannot expect to be put in possession of eternal happiness. Your coldness and insensibility for Heaven plainly shews, that you are void of true hope as well as of true faith; nay, not only void of true faith and true hope, but also void of the true love of God.
This is what should alarm you, my brethren, since, whoever is void of the love of God is in a state of reprobation. Without the love of God all other Christian virtues, humility, probity, mortification, devotion, nay, martyrdom itself, would be unprofitable. This love does not consist in words, nor in a certain regular routine of vocal prayers, as some imagine; but it consists in an actual and absolute preference of God to every thing that is not God, and consequently, to your goods, to your pleasures, to the world, to life, and even to yourselves. This being supposed, do you think that negligence, coldness, and insensibility for Heaven, are compatible with the love of God? Can you believe that a Christian loves God, when he is not touched with concern in seeing himself separated from God, or when he does not desire to be re-united to God, or when he fears that moment which is to put him in possession of God? Can this be called love in the practice and language of the world? What, my brethren, to love God! shall this be to have no other emotions in the heart than those which ye feel for objects about which ye are quite indifferent?
Shall Christians flatter themselves that they love you, O my God, when they feel no desire to enjoy you, nor any regret for not enjoying you? By no means. In this situation, far from being able to say with truth, I love my God, they have not begun to love him, as St. Augustine remarks, in Ps. lxxxix. v. 11. because God has not in their hearts an absolute and entire preference above all the pleasures, goods and comforts of this life. This appears evidently from their conduct. They are slaves of this world, eager in the pursuit of the conveniences and advantages of this life, but entirely negligent of whatever concerns the life to come; they are passionately fond of things which are either hurtful or unprofitable to them, and they interest themselves but little for what is of infinite consequence to them, and for which they should be perpetually in action, perpetually in motion, perpetually in alarms; nay, to consider their coldness and insensibility for Heaven, one might infer that their God, of all things, has the least share in their esteem and affection, and that a happy eternity is to them, of all objects, the most indifferent. May I not then conclude, that such Christians live without faith, without hope, and without charity or the love of God? O deplorable coldness and insensibility, that hurries on thousands to everlasting misery! But what are the means to overcome this coldness and insensibility? This is the subject of the second point, which I will reduce briefly to a few words.
To overcome your coldness and insensibility for Heaven, you are to meditate on this blessed mansion of glory, and on the happiness of seeing and enjoying God there for all eternity. To this meditation you are to add the consideration of what all the saints have done and suffered, in order to purchase for themselves this unspeakable bliss. These considerations, sinking deeply in your mind, with the blessing of God will animate you to labour fervently and constantly for the same end. This is what employed the thoughts of the saints whilst here on earth, and inspired them with so much contempt and indifference for the painted toys, empty bubbles, alluring pleasures, delusive charms and perishable goods of this world; this is what made them labour so much, do so much, and suffer so much in this life, to insure for themselves the incomprehensible joys and permanent happiness of the kingdom of Heaven. They kept all the commandments; they observed the counsels and maxims of the Gospel; they fulfilled every duty towards God, towards themselves, and towards their neighbour. In the midst of riches they preserved a spirit of evangelical poverty; in the midst of grandeur they preserved a spirit of humility; in the midst of the world they preserved a spirit of retreat; and in the midst of all the advantages and conveniences of life, a spirit of penance and mortification. They carried their zeal still farther, or if you will, their zeal carried far greater lengths.
If we pass over to the deserts of Egypt, and consider the lives of the famous solitaries of Thebais, we shall behold them shut up in the inclosures of rocks, of grottoes and caverns always watching, always fasting, always praying, always meditating, and resembling Angels rather than mortal men; nay, after fifty or sixty years of solitude, spent thus in the service of God and in the constant practice of self-denial and mortification, they looked upon themselves as unprofitable servants to whom no reward was due. After all they had done they were humble in their own eyes, and so far from being elated with any presumption or self-complacency, that they judged themselves unworthy to be admitted into the mansions of eternal bliss, or to obtain even the lowest place amongst the elect, because they counted only on the great mercy of God, who, in crowning the merits of his servants, crowns the favours and gifts which He Himself liberally heaps on them, as St. Augustine speaks. What shall I say of the holy martyrs and glorious combatants of the militant Church, who gave their blood and suffered death in testimony of their faith and in the cause of virtue? What excruciating tortures did not the barbarity of tyrants invent to torment them? Yet the hope of reigning eternally with Jesus Christ in the glory of Heaven, sweetened the bitter chalice of all their sufferings, and made death, even in its most terrifying shape, appear acceptable to them. Expecting the blessed hope, and the coming of the great God, as the Scripture says, they contended to enter in at the narrow gate, and to carry the kingdom of Heaven by an holy violence to nature.
Their example should excite you to labour with assiduity, fervour and perseverance, for the acquisition of the same happiness which they now enjoy, and for which you have been created. It is your interest as well as your duty to exert yourselves with uncommon zeal in a business of such importance. You should have it more at heart than any thing in this world, and be ready to sacrifice whatever is dearest to you on earth, rather than sacrifice your souls, and lose Heaven, for a never-ending eternity. Many of you, my brethren, are now, perhaps, at the eve of your death, and shortly to be summoned before the Tribunal of the living God, there to give an account of twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years of your life, employed in every other affair but that of your salvation. What good works have you done? What provision have you made to insure Heaven for your souls? What penance have you done to expiate the sins whereby you have defiled the white robe of your baptismal innocence? What restitution have you made to your neighbour for his property, which you have unjustly acquired, and which you as unjustly possess? What reparation have you made of the characters which you have blackened and injured? What steps have you taken to remove the scandal which you have given by your bad example?
Be not deceived, my dear brethren, these duties must necessarily be complied with, and you are not only to avoid evil, but also to do good in order to be entitled to admission into the kingdom of Heaven, into which, according to the sacred Scripture, nothing that is defiled, can enter.
Prayer: Look upon us, O Lord, we beseech thee, with the eyes of pity, and excite in us a penitential abhorrence of our past errors and neglects; grant that we may henceforth seek, first, the kingdom of Heaven, and make it the principal object of our desires, the centre of our wishes, and the grand subject of our labours and pursuits. Give us grace to love thee sincerely, to serve thee faithfully, and to look upon it as our only happiness to be for ever united to thee, in the sacred mansions of the heavenly Jerusalem, which thou hast prepared for thy faithful servants, and which I heartily wish you all, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.