Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost. – Straits and Anguish of Dying Christians Who Have Been Negligent During Life about the Duties of Religion
“Render, therefore, to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” MATT. xxii. 21.
One day, the Pharisees, with the malignant intention of ensnaring Him in his speech, that they might afterwards accuse Him before the ministers of Caesar, sent their disciples to ask Jesus Christ, if it were lawful to pay tribute to Caesar. In answer, the Redeemer, after looking at the coin of the tribute, asked: “Whose image and inscription is this?” Being told it was Cæsar’s, He said: “Render then to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” By these words Jesus Christ wishes to teach us, that it is our duty to give to men what is due to them; and to reserve for Him all the affections of our heart, since He created us to love Him, and afterwards imposed upon us a precept of loving Him. ”Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart.” Miserable the man who, at the hour of death, shall see that he has loved creatures, that he has loved his pleasures, and has not loved God. “When distress cometh upon them, they will seek peace, and there will be none.” (Ezech. yii. 25.) He will then seek peace, but shall not find it; for many causes of distress and trouble shall assail him. What shall these causes be? Behold, the unhappy man shall then say, first: God! I could have become a saint, but have not become one. Secondly, he shall say: Oh! that I now had time to repair the evil I have done! but time is at an end. Thirdly: Oh! that at least, in the short time which remains, I could remedy the past: but, alas! this time is not fit for repairing past evils.
First Point. God! I could have, but have not, become a saint.
1. Because, during their whole life, they thought only of pleasing God and sanctifying themselves, the saints go with great confidence to meet death, which delivers them from the miseries and dangers of the present life, and unites them perfectly with God. But the man who has thought only of his pleasures and of his own ease, and has neglected to recommend himself to God, or to reflect on the account which he must one day render, cannot meet death with confidence. Poor sinners! they banish the thought of death whenever it presents itself to them, and think only of living in pleasures and amusements, as if they never were to die. But for each of them the end must one day come. “The end is come; the end is come.” (Ezech. vii, 2.) And when this end is come every one must gather the fruit which he has sown during his life. “For what things a man shall sow, those also shall he reap.” (Gal. vi. 8.) If he has sown works of holiness, he shall receive rewards of eternal life; but if he has sown evil works, he shall reap chastisements and eternal death.
2. The scene of his past life is the first thing which shall rush on the mind of the dying man, when the news of death shall be announced to him. He shall then see things in a light far different from that in which he viewed them during life. The acts of revenge which appeared to him lawful the scandals which he disregarded the liberty of speaking obscenely and injurious to the character of his neighbour the pleasures which were regarded as innocent the acts of injustice which he held to be allowable shall then appear what they really were: grevious sins and offences against God, each of which merited hell. Alas! those blind sinners, who voluntarily blind themselves during life, by shutting their eyes to the light shall, at death, involuntarily see all the evil they have done. ”Then shall the eyes of the blind be opened.” (Is. xxxv. 5.) At the light of the candle which lights him to death, ”the wicked shall see and shall be angry,” (Ps. cxi. 10.) He shall see all the irregularities of his past life his frequent abuse of the sacraments, confessions made without sorrow or purpose of amendment, contracts completed with remorse of conscience, injury done to the property and reputation of others, immodest jests, rancours, and vindictive thoughts. He shall then see the bad examples which he gave to young persons who feared God, and whom he treated with contempt, and turned into derision by calling them hypocrites and other reproachful names. He shall see so many lights and calls received from God, so many admonitions of spiritual fathers, and so many resolutions and promises made but afterwards neglected.
3. He shall see particularly the bad maxims by which he regulated his conduct during life. ”It is necessary to seek the esteem of the world, and to preserve honour.” But is it necessary for a man to preserve his honour by trampling on the honour due to God? “We ought to indulge in amusements as often as we can.” But is it lawful to indulge in amusements by insulting God?” Of what use to the world is the man who lives in poverty and has no money?” But, will you, for the sake of money, lose your soul? In answer to these questions the sinner says: No matter. What can be done? “If we do not make a fortune in the world we cannot appear among our equals.” Such the maxims of the worldling during life; but at death he shall change his language. He shall then see the truth of that maxim of Jesus Christ: “What doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul.” (Matt. xvi. 26.) Unhappy me! the worldling shall exclaim on the bed of death, I have had so much time to tranquillize my conscience, and behold I am now at the point of death, and I find my soul burdened with so many sins? What would it have cost me to have broken oft such a friendship, to have gone to confession every week, to have avoided certain occasions of sin? Ah! very little, but though it should have cost me a great deal of pain and labour, I ought to have submitted to every inconvenience in order to save my soul. Salvation is of greater importance to me than the dominion of the entire world. But, alas! the sentiments of negligent Christians at death are as fruitless as the sorrows of the damned, who mourn in hell over their sins as the cause of their perdition, but mourn in vain.
4. At that time they derive no consolation from their past amusements or pomps, from their exalted dignities, or from the humiliation of their rivals. On the contrary, at the hour of death, these things, like so many swords shall pierce their hearts. “Evil shall catch the unjust man unto destruction.” (Ps. cxxxix, 12.) At present the lovers of the world seek after banquets, dances, games, and scenes of laughter and joy; but, at the time of death this laughter and joy, as St. James says, shall be turned into mourning and affliction. “Let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy into sorrow.” (St. James iv. 5.) Of this we see frequent examples. A young man who entertains his companions by sallies of wit and by immodest jests, is seized with a severe illness. His friends come to see him, and find him overwhelmed with grief and melancholy. He indulges no more in jests, or laughter, or conversation. If he speaks at all, his words are words of terror or despair. His friends ask why he speaks so despondingly why he is so melancholy. Have courage, they say: your illness is not dangerous. They endeavour to inspire hope and cheerfulness: but he is silent. And how can he be cheerful when he feels his conscience burdened with many sins, sees that he must soon appear before Jesus Christ to give an account of his entire life, and that he has much reason to fear that he shall receive the sentence of eternal death? He will then say: O fool that I have been! Oh! that I had loved God! Had I loved Him, I should not now find myself in these straits, in, this anguish. Oh! that I had time to tranquillize the troubles of my conscience? Let us pass to the second point.
Second Point. Oh! that I had time to repair the evil I have done! but now time is at an end. X
5. Oh! that I had time, he will say, to repair the past! But, when will he say this? When the oil in the lamp is consumed: when he is on the point of entering into eternity. One of the greatest causes of the distress and anguish of the careless Christian at the hour of death, is the remembrance of the bad use he has made of the time in which he ought to have acquired merits for heaven, and in which he has accumulated merits for hell. Oh! that I had time! Do you seek for time? You have lost so many nights in gaming, and so many years in indulging the senses, without ever thinking of your soul; and now you seek for time; but time is now no more. ”Time shall be no longer.” (Apoc. x. 6.) Were you not already admonished by preachers to be prepared for death? were you not told that it would come upon you when you least expected it? “Be you ready,” says Jesus Christ;”for at what hour you think not the Son of Man will come.” (Luke xii. 40.) You have despised my admonitions, and have voluntarily squandered the time which my goodness bestowed upon you in spite of your demerits; but now time is at an end. Listen to the words in which the priest that assists you shall tell you to depart from this world: Proficisere anima Christiana de hoc mundo. Go forth, Christian soul, from this world. And where shall you go? To eternity, to eternity. Death respects neither parents nor monarchs; when it comes, it does not wait even for a moment. ”Thou hast appointed his bounds, which cannot be passed.” (Job xiv. 5.)
6. Oh! what terror shall the dying man feel at hearing the assisting priest tell him to depart from this world! what dismay shall he experience in saying with himself: “This morning I am living, and this evening I shall be dead!” Today I am in this house; tomorrow I shall be in the grave: and where shall my soul be found? His terror shall be increased when he sees the death-candle lighted, and when he hears the confessor order the relatives to withdraw from his chamber, and to return to it no more. It shall be still more increased when the confessor gives him the crucifix, and tells him to embrace it, saying: “Embrace Jesus Christ, and think no more of this world.” He takes the crucifix and kisses it; but, in kissing it, he trembles at the remembrance of the many injuries which he has offered to Jesus Christ. He would now wish to repent sincerely of all his injuries to his Saviour, but he sees that his repentance is forced by the necessity of his approaching death. “He,” says St. Augustine, “who is abandoned by sin before he abandons it, condemns it not freely, but through necessity.”
7. The common delusion of worldlings is, that earthly things appear great, and that the things of Heaven, as being distant and uncertain, appear to be of little value. They regard tribulations as insupportable, and grievous sins as unimportant. The miserable beings are as if they were shut up in a room filled with smoke, which hinders them from seeing objects before their eyes. But at the hour of death this darkness shall vanish, and the soul shall begin to see things in their real colours. At that hour all temporal things appear to be what they really are vanity, lies, and deception; and the things of eternity assume their true value. Oh! how important shall judgment, hell, and eternity, which are so much disregarded during life, appear at the time of death. According as these shall begin to put on their true colours, the fears of the dying man shall increase. ”In morte,” says St. Gregory, ”tanto timor fit acrior, quanto retributio vicinior; et quanto vicinius judicium tangitur, tanto vehementius formidator.” (Mor. 25.) The nearer the sentence of the Judge approaches, the more sensible the fear of condemnation becomes. Hence the sick man will say: “Oh! in what anguish do I die! Unhappy me! Oh! that I knew that so unhappy a death awaited me!” You have not known; but you ought to have foreseen it; for you knew that a good death could not be expected after a wicked life. But, since I must soon die, oh! that I could at least, in the little time that remains, tranquillize my conscience! Let us pass to the third point.
Third Point. Oh! that I could, in the little time that remains, repair the past! But, alas! this time is not fit for repairing past evils.
8. The time allowed to careless Christians at the hour of death, is, for two reasons, unfit for tranquillizing the troubles of their conscience. First, because this time will be very short; for at the commencement, and for some days during the progress, of the disease, the sick man thinks only of physicians, of remedies, and of making his last will. During that time his relatives, friends, and even the physicians deceive him by holding out hopes of recovery. Hence, deluded by these hopes, he will not be able for some time to persuade himself that his death is at hand. When shall he begin to persuade himself that death is near? Only when he shall be at the very point of death. This is the second reason why that time is unfit for repairing the evils of the soul. At that time the dying man is sick in mind as well as in body. He shall be assailed by pains in the chest, spasms in the head, debility, and delirium. Those shall render him unable to make any effort to excite a true detestation of his past sins, or to apply to the disorders of his past life a remedy which will calm the terrors of his conscience. The news of his approaching death will astound him to such a degree, that he shall be scarcely half alive.
9. A person labouring under a severe headache, which deprives him of sleep for two or three nights, will not even attempt to dictate a letter of ceremony. And at death when he feels but little, understands but little, and sees only a confusion of things which fills him with terror, the careless Christian adjusts a conscience burdened with the sins of thirty or forty years. Then are verified the words of the gospel: “The night cometh when no man worketh.” (John ix. 4.) Then his conscience will say to him: “Now thou canst be steward no longer.” (Luke xvi. 2.) There is no more time for negotiation; what has been done, is done. ”When distress cometh upon them, they will seek for peace, and there shall be none. Trouble shall come upon trouble.” (Ezech. vii. 25, 26.)
10. It is often said of a person that he led a bad life, but afterwards died a good death; that by his sighs and tears he gave proofs of sincere repentance. “Morientes non delicti poenitentia,” says St. Augustine, “sed mortis urgentis admonitio compellit.” (Serm. xxxvi.) The wailing of such persons proceeds not from sorrow for their sins, but from the fear of imminent death. He was not afraid of sinning, says the holy doctor, but of burning. ”Non meteuit peccare, sed adere.” (Epis. cxiv.) Till this moment the dying man has loved sinful objects: will he now detest them? Perhaps he will then love them with more tenderness; for the objects of our affections become more dear to us when we are afraid of losing them. The celebrated master of St. Bruno died with signs of repentance; but when laid in the coffin, he said that he was damned. If, at the hour of death, even the saints complain that on account of the state of the head, they can think but little of God, or make but little effort to excite good acts, how can the negligent Christian make these acts at death, when he was not in the habit of making them during life? It may be said that he appeared to have a sincere sorrow for the wickedness of his past life. But, was his sorrow true sorrow? The devil persuades him that the wish to have sorrow is true sorrow; but he deceives him. The dying man will say: “I am sorry from the bottom of my heart,” etc.; but these words shall come from a heart of stone. ”From the midst of the rocks they shall give forth their voices.” (Ps. ciii. 12.) But he has frequently been at confession, and has received all the sacraments; he has died in perfect resignation. Ah! the criminal who goes to be executed, appears to be perfectly resigned: but why? Because he cannot escape from the officers of justice, who bring him in chains to the place of execution.
11. O moment on which eternity depends! This moment made the saints tremble at the hour of death, and made them exclaim: “God! where shall I be in a few hours ?”“Sometimes,” says St. Gregory, “the soul even of the just man is disturbed by the terror of vengeance. (Mor. xxiv.) “What, then, shall the careless Christian, who has disregarded God, feel when he sees the scaffold prepared on which he must die? “His eyes shall see his own destruction, and he shall drink of the wrath of the Almighty.” (Job xxi. 20.) He shall see with his own eyes death prepared for his soul, and shall from that moment begin to feel the anger of the Lord. The viaticum which he must receive, the extreme unction which will be administered to him, the crucifix which is placed in his hands, the recommendation of the soul which is read by the assisting priest, the lighting of the blessed candle all these shall form the scaffold of divine justice. The poor sick man perceives that he is already in a cold sweat, that he can no longer move or speak, that his respiration has begun to fail: in a word, he sees that the moment of death is at hand; he sees his soul defiled with sins; the Judge waiting for him; hell burning under his feet; and in this confusion of darkness and terror he shall enter into eternity.
12. ”O that they would be wise, and would understand, and would provide for their last end.” (Deut. xxxii. 29.) Behold, dearly beloved brethren, how the Holy Ghost exhorts us to provide now for the terrible straits and distress by which we shall be encompassed at death, and to adjust at present the accounts which we must render to God; for it will be then impossible to settle these accounts so as to save our souls. My crucified Jesus, I will not wait till death to embrace thee; I embrace thee at this moment. I love thee above all things; and because I love thee, I repent with my whole heart of all the offences and insults I have offered to thee, who art infinite goodness; and I purpose and hope, with thy grace, to love thee always, and never more to offend thee. Through the merits of thy passion I ask thee to assist me.