holiest works for the sanctification of the soul
On the Last Day
"And then shall they see the Son of Man coming in a cloud in great power and majesty"
Luke, xxi. 27.
THUS, my beloved friends, shall the revolutions and kingdoms of this world be brought to a conclusion for ever. Thus shall end all the earthly pursuits which either amused us by their novelty, or seduced us by their charms. Thus shall the Son of Man come. Thus shall be ushered in the great day of his manifestation, the beginning of his reign, the complete redemption of his mystical body. On this day the consciences of all mankind shall be exposed to view a day of calamity and despair to the sinner, but of peace, joy, and consolation to the just. On this day the eternal lot of the whole world shall be decided.
The constant recollection of these great truths animated the primitive Christian with patience in persecution, and inspired him with joy in the midst of sufferings and contempt. It was this that supported the courage of the martyrs, invigorated the constancy of virgins, and rendered sweet and agreeable to the recluse the dreary paths of solitude and retirement. You yourselves, perhaps, have sometimes felt sentiments of compunction and fear, on the recollection of what will come to pass on this day. But these sentiments were probably of short continuance: thoughts of a more cheerful nature soon effaced them from your mind, and restored you to your former tranquillity.
In the first ages it would have been deemed a kind of apostacy not to have sighed after the day of the Lord. The thought of this great event was a subject of consolation to these primitive disciples: the apostles were obliged to moderate the eager desires which they expressed for its arrival. But in these times the Church is obliged to call forth all the powers of her ministry to impress the thought of this awful day on the minds of the faithful; not indeed with the expectation of exciting within them the same holy and devout impatience for its speedy accomplishment that, I apprehend, is no longer possible, but with the hopes of awakening them to repentance by the fear and consternation, which all must feel who are sensible of the alternative that awaits them in the winding up of these general accounts, in the last trying scene of this awful and terrible catastrophe.
It is not my intention in this discourse to display the external terrors of this great day; I mean, the confusion of the elements, the irregular motions of the Heavenly bodies, the universal destruction of nature, and men withering away through fear. I shall confine myself to a subject more adapted to make a salutary impression on the minds of my audience. I shall confine myself solely to the consideration of what will naturally present itself to view on the opening of the book of conscience, when the secrets of all men's hearts shall be revealed.
Man, during his abode in this world, knows not his own heart. Self-love spreads a veil over his imperfections, and conceals the knowledge of his true state, both from himself and from others. But on this day he shall be seen in his true dress, both by himself and by all mankind. The just man is disregarded and despised in this world: he is subjected in a great measure to the will of the sinner; his life is esteemed folly, and his end without honour. He, likewise, shall be seen in his true light on this day, and shall be honoured before the whole world with that honour to which his merits are entitled. I purpose, therefore, to make a few reflections on the confusion which shall seize the wicked, when the secrets of their hearts shall be revealed; and on the glory and honour which the just shall receive, when their secret virtues and good works shall be fully manifested.
1. It would be presumption to pretend to describe in appropriate terms the qualities of the Great Judge, who shall preside on that awful day. He is a severe lawgiver, who is jealous of the sanctity of his laws, and who will judge you by them alone. All extenuations, all favourable interpretations, which custom or worldly wisdom have introduced, will then disappear; and the advantages, which the sinner appeared to derive from them, will end in nothing. He is a Judge, highly interested in the glory of his Father against the sinner: and on this day he will display his zeal for the honour of the Divinity, against those who have refused him the just tribute of adoration and glory. He is a Saviour, whose sacred wounds will severely rebuke you for your ingratitude, and whose blood will raise its voice, and loudly demand your condemnation. He is the searcher of hearts, to whose eyes every thing is open, even the most secret thoughts. In a word, he is a God of power and majesty, before whom the Heavens will pass away, the elements be dissolved, all nature be in confusion, and obliged to sustain the terrors of his presence, and the rigour of his examination.
The particulars of this dreadful examination will, in the first place, be the same for all. Difference of times, of ages, of countries, of birth, and disposition, will be totally disregarded; and as the gospel, by which you will be judged, is the same for all ages and states, and proposes the same rules of conduct to the strong and to the weak, to the king and to the subject, to the hermit and to the worldling, to the primitive Christian and to the Christian of the present times, there will be no distinction in the mode of examination. No attention will be paid to excuses of rank, of birth, of the dangers of particular states, of the customs of the world, of weakness of constitution: but the same rigorous account of chastity, of humility, of modesty, of constant vigilance, of forgiveness of injuries, of self-denial, of mortification, and of all other Christian virtues, will be exacted from the poor and from the rich, from the prince and from the people, from the learned and the unlearned, from the primitive and from the modern Christian.
In the second place, this examination will be universal; that is, it will include every circumstance of your lives. It will include the failings of your younger years, which probably have long since escaped your memory; the indiscretions of youth, almost every hour of which was perhaps stained with crimes; the desires and cares of more advanced years; the peevishness and insensibility of old age. With what surprise will the sinner perceive, when the different stages of his life are thus passed in review before his eyes, that through the whole course he was profane, dissolute, sensual, without piety, without repentance, without good works; that he busied himself in the different situations of life, to no other purpose than to heap up to himself a more abundant treasure of wrath; and that he lived as if all were to have ended with his mortal existence.
In this life we never behold the true state of our interior: our attention is engaged by the few serious sentiments with which we are occasionally animated; and the judgment which we form of ourselves is generally influenced by the last impressions which are made upon our minds. A few thoughts of salvation, with which God inspires us from time to time; a day, for instance, spent in the exercises of piety, causes us to forget many years spent in the pursuits of vice; and the declaration of our crimes at the tribunal of penance, blots them out from our remembrance, and restores us to as perfect a state of tranquillity, as if we bad never committed them. But before this terrible Judge all will appear at once: our whole lives will be exposed to view. Every motion of our hearts, from the first developement of reason, to the last moment of existence, will be manifested: the long catalogue of crimes, committed during the different stages of life, will be all collected together: not an action, not a desire, not a thought, not a word will be omitted; for if the hairs of our head are numbered, with greater reason are our works.
Then shall you see the true state of your souls: then shall their secret avenues, their hidden affections, their depraved appetites, be all laid open to your view: then shall their unlawful desires, their hatreds and animosities, their vitiated and impure intentions, their criminal projects, which were overlooked because they proved abortive, and all their other vices, be displayed before you. "Oh!" says St. Bernard, "crimes without number will burst suddenly upon the sight, as from a secret hiding place, of which we never thought that we were guilty". "Quasi ex improvise, et quasi ex insidiis" - St. Ber. We shall see what we never saw before we shall see our true selves: the dark abyss shall be enlightened, and the mystery of iniquity shall be revealed. After the scrutiny into our transgressions is concluded, the Judge will enter into a strict examination of the good works which we ought to have performed, but have neglected. Here again we shall find that our whole lives have been chequered with sins of omission, of which we never thought of repenting: so many opportunities, for instance, which, through complaisance, through fear of offending, through interest, or other motives, we suffered to escape in silence, when our character required that we should have vindicated the honour of God, and the cause of virtue and truth: so many occasions of promoting the spiritual welfare of our neighbour, by example, or by other means, which we have neglected: so many favourable moments suffered to pass by through indolence or indifference, when we might have prevented crimes in others by seasonable advice, and by prudent remonstrances: so many days, so many moments wasted away in idleness and sloth, which might have been devoted, without any inconvenience, to the great affair of salvation. Ah! my beloved, this was the time which we called the most innocent period of our lives: a time, which, if it was not distinguished by any good works, we considered, at least, as totally void of evil. With what regret will the sinner look back on that length of days, which he sacrificed to trifles, and to a world that is no more, when he reflects that, had he consecrated them to the service of God, he might have merited Heaven! With what confusion will he recollect the humiliations, the labours and crosses to which he submitted for the acquisition of wealth, of a fortune which he could possess only for an instant, when he is convinced that one half, or even a quarter of the same trials, endured for the sake of Christ, would have placed him for ever at rest in the secure enjoyment of God's eternal kingdom.
After this, we shall be called to account for all the graces which we have abused; for the many calls and inspirations which we have neglected; for the little profit which we reaped from the powerful exhortations of his ministers; for the improper use which we made of the sufferings and afflictions, with which he was pleased to visit us for our improvement in good; for the many gifts of nature, which ought to have been devoted to the works of piety, but which we made the instruments of vice. Ah! if the unprofitable servant was cast into outer darkness, because he merely buried his talent, what favour can they expect, who have received so many talents, and have employed them all against the Giver?
The account, which we shall here be called upon to give, will be terrible in the extreme. Christ will demand back again at our hands the price of his blood. We are sometimes inclined to complain, that God has not done enough for us; that we are naturally inclined to evil; that we cannot soften down the harshness of our temper and disposition; and that he has not given us sufficient grace to resist the occasions of sin to which we are exposed. But at the last day, we shall clearly perceive that our whole lives were one continued abuse of his favours and graces; we shall see that, preferably to so many nations, whom he has left in the darkness of infidelity, we were favoured with the light of faith, fed with his holy word and with his sacraments, and supported by his inspirations and graces. Yes: you will be astonished to see how much God has done for you, and how little you have done for him. Your complaints will be turned into confusion, which will terminate in despair.
Hitherto, beloved Christians, the examination has extended to those sins only which the sinner has committed in his own person. But when the Sovereign Judge shall proceed to investigate the sins which we have occasioned in others, what an immense multitude will be again presented to our view! We shall behold, assembled before our eyes, all the souls to whom we have been the occasion of sin; all the souls who have, either by our example, by our solicitations or impurities, been seduced from the paths of virtue, and condemned to Hell; all the souls, whose faith we have shaken, whose piety we have weakened, whose libertinism we have encouraged. Yes: our Lord Jesus, to whom they belonged, and who had bought them with his precious blood, will require them at our hands as his inheritance as a conquest which we have wrested from him as his children, whom we have murdered, Ah! if he marked Cain with the seal of reprobation on account of the blood of his brother, with what seal will he mark the sinner, when he shall demand an account of the souls whom he has murdered, and consigned to the second and eternal death?
In this manner will our whole souls be exposed to view. Happy, exclaims St. Augustin, should we be, if we could open our eyes, and behold the state of our interior as clearly now as we shall behold it then. Truly, my beloved, could we divest our selves of those prejudices which cloud our sight, could we resist the influence of those examples, which encourage us in our delusions, could we be convinced of the falsity of those maxims and customs, which tranquillize our consciences, could we measure by the standard of truth, the faculties and talents on which we pride ourselves, could we renounce that self-love, which is the root of all our evils, and could we, by these means, see ourselves in the same light in which we are seen of God, what a holy hatred should we conceive against ourselves! How strenuously should we endeavour to humble ourselves in his sight, during the days of our mortality, in hopes of avoiding the humiliations of that day, when the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open, and made manifest to the whole world.
2. Let us, however, turn to a more cheerful subject, and describe the examination of that happy few, of which we all hope to form a part.
Two things, which, according to appearances, are inconsistent with the idea of infinite justice, may be said to be unavoidable in the indiscriminate society of the good and the bad. First, concealed crimes escape the public censure which they deserve, and hidden virtue is deprived of the applause to which it is entitled. Secondly, the sinner is oftentimes raised to honours and dignities, whilst the just man is obliged to tread the lowly paths of subjection and submission to his orders. On this great day, these evils shall be fully rectified. The sinner shall be separated from the just, as soon as the book of conscience is displayed: and the honours and the dignities of the Heavenly Jerusalem shall be conferred on the deserving the true and faithful servants of the Lord.
What a consolation will it be to the just, to have the secrets of their hearts finally revealed! Their perfections were concealed from men in this world. They were known to God alone. They were unknown even to themselves; for humility had concealed from their view the beauty and innocence of their interior, and had displayed before their eyes only the few blemishes and imperfections to which human nature is unavoidably exposed. But now the veil shall be withdrawn, and their secret storehouse of merits shall be thrown open to the inspection of all. With what astonishment will the great assembly of the sons of men behold the triumphs of these humble servants of God! their hitherto concealed victories over the world, the flesh, and the Devil their heroic sacrifices their fervent desires their tender sighs their transports of love their faith their humility their magnanimity their greatness of soul their perfect contempt for all those false and fleeting vanities on which the hopes and desires of worldlings are so constantly fixed. Then shall it be seen and acknowledged, that nothing created has so just a title to praise and admiration, as the just man. Then shall it be seen and acknowledged, that the interior exploits of the true Christian are more sublime, and more noble, than all the great transactions of the world; that they alone are worthy to be recorded in the book of life; and that in the estimation of God himself, they exhibit a spectacle more worthy of the admiration of angels and men, than all the boasted victories and conquests which swell the pages of history; the memory of which has been immortalized by pompous monuments, but which shall now be considered as the effects of a puerile and barbarous ambition, and as the horrid fruits of pride and vain glory. Thus, the evil complained of in the first instance, will be entirely removed, and things will be restored to their proper order. The guilty will not triumph will not escape the general opprobrium, nor the punishment which is due to their crimes: and an ample recompense will be given to the just man, in the clear and distinct view of an astonished and admiring universe.
The second evil is the prosperity of the wicked, and the adversity of the good. The just man, as if of no more account than the dust from which he sprang, and as if resembling the basest metals passing in the progress to refinement through the fiery ordeal of tribulation, is, not unfrequently, the lowest and most contemptible of his species; whilst the sinner is exalted like the cedar of Lebanon, and surrounded by all that riches and honour can procure. This, in appearance, is contrary to order and justice. But, although by this means the just are purified, and the wicked hardened; although this confused mixture of good and evil enters into the designs of Providence, and the just and unjust are hastened to their destination by ways which are inscrutable to man: nevertheless, it is necessary that the Son of God should rectify all things; that he should publicly manifest the distinction which exists between good and evil, between the man who serves the Lord, and the man who denies him. This will be effected on the great day of the Lord: order will be perfectly established: the good will be separated from the wicked: these will be placed on the right hand, and the others on the left.
Then shall the Son of Man, from his exalted throne in the clouds of Heaven, cast his eyes over the immense multitude of peoples and nations assembled before him. Then shall he collect his chosen people from the four corners of the earth: then shall he unite together the true children of Israel: then shall he introduce to notice, and celebrate the exploits of heroes of religion, hitherto unknown to the world. The different epochs, or stated periods of time, he will distinguish, not by the victories of warriors, not by the rise or fall of empires, but by the particular triumphs of his grace, by the victories of the just man over his passions, by the establishment of his reign in the heart, by the invincible constancy of a persecuted disciple. He will entirely change the order of things: he will create a new Heaven and a new earth: he will reduce this infinite variety of peoples, of nations, of titles, dignities, and states, to two different orders or descriptions of men to the elect of God, and to the reprobate. The one shall be placed on his right hand, the other on the left.
What a terrible separation, my beloved brethren, will then take place! Father will be separated from son, brother from brother, friend from friend: one shall be taken, the other left. Death, which separates us for a time from the dearest objects of our affections, has thus much, at least, of consolation in it, that hereafter, perhaps, we may be united again. But here, the separation which divides us will be eternal: as far as the east is from the west, or Heaven from Hell, so far will the just be removed from the reprobate for ever.
All things being thus finally arranged; all mankind thus divided; each one immovable in the place allotted to him; confusion, dismay, terror, and despair, shall be visible on the countenance of the one, and joy, serenity, and confidence, shall enliven the other: the eyes of the just shall be fixed on the Son of Man, their great and good deliverer; the eyes of the wicked shall be cast on the earth, penetrating into that dreadful abyss, which in a short moment is to open, and swallow them up for eternity. Then will the King of Glory, says the gospel, place himself be tween the two assemblies, and turning to the just on the right, with looks of clemency and love looks, which alone would repay them for all their past afflictions, he will say to them: "Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world" Matt., xxv. 34. Whilst you lived on earth, you were treated by worldly men as fools, as the outcast of society, and as useless members of the state: but they shall this day be convinced that the world subsisted only for you; that the world was made only for you; and that, as soon as your number was complete, the final dissolution took place. Come, then, my beloved, quit this earth, where you were always strangers and pilgrims; follow me in the paths of glory and happiness, as you followed me in those of humiliations and sufferings. Your afflictions were momentary, but the reward which awaits you shall be eternal. "Come, ye blessed of my Father, possess the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world".
Then turning to the wicked on the left, with eyes flashing with indignation, and with a countenance replete with terrors, with a voice, says the prophet, that shall open the bowels of the abyss (Num. xvi.), he will say, not as on the cross, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" Luke, xxiii. 34; but, "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, which was prepared for the Devil and his angels" Matt., xxv. 41. You were once the chosen people of my Father, but you are now the accursed: the enjoyments which you preferred before me were false arid momentary, but your punishment shall be eternal. "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire". Then the just, triumphantly ascending into the clouds with the Son of Man, will sing to their deliverer: "Thou art just, Lord, and rich in mercy: thou hast crowned all thy blessings by the recompense which thou now bestowest on our merits". Then the wicked will curse the Author of their existence, and the day on which they were born; or rather, they will turn their rage against themselves, as the sole authors of their damnation. Then shall the abyss be opened, and the Heavens shall stoop down; the reprobate shall go into eternal torments, and the elect into life everlasting. Afterwards, there will be no further communication between them. The sentence which divides them is irrevocable: and they separate for ever.
After such a description, calculated to make an impression on the most hardened, I cannot better conclude than by addressing to you the words, which Moses addressed to the Israelites, after he had represented to them the dreadful threats and the consoling promises which were written in the book of the law: "Children of Israel", says he, "I this day propose to your choice a blessing or a curse; a blessing, if you fulfil the precept of the Lord your God: a curse, if you forsake his ways, which I have pointed out to you, in order to follow strange gods" Deut., xi. 26. The same do I address to you: it is in your power to choose which of the two you will embrace: you have heard the promises, and the threats: the blessing, and the curse. You must take part either with the Devil and his angels, or with Christ and his elect: there is no alternative here. I have shown you the way which leads to Heaven, and that which leads to Hell. In which of the two will you walk? What would be your eternal lot, if this instant you were summoned to appear before your Judge? Be on your guard: man dies as he lives. Dread, therefore, lest death should surprise you in the state of sin. Forsake the ways of the wicked, and live the life of the just, if you hope to be placed with them on the right, and to accompany them into the regions of a blissful immortality.