Of the great wonders which God has wrought, and still works for us Christian men; wherefore it is just and reasonable that we should turn unto Him and follow Him, and whereby we may discern between true and false conversion.
Matt. viii.23. -- "Jesus went into a ship, and His disciples followed Him." And Hosea xiv.1, 2. -- "O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God; take with you words, and turn to the Lord."
WE read in the Gospel for this day that Jesus went into a ship, and His disciples followed Him. In like manner must all pious Christians turn from sin and follow Christ, as He commands us by the mouth of the Prophet Hosea, saying: "O Israel, return unto the Lord thy God."
Out of all the tribes of mankind the Lord chose one, to whom He showed great kindness, and promised to do yet greater things for them, if they would turn with their whole heart unto Him, and not follow after the ways of the other nations who lived according to their sinful lusts in the darkness and blindness of their hearts, and went astray with wicked lives and perverse minds after the vanities of the world and the deceits of the Devil. And to this end, God led His people out bodily by the hand of His servants and prophets, and also gave them His law to teach them, that they might behold His great power which he had glorified against their enemies, and His great love which He had manifested by numberless acts and unspeakable benefits towards themselves, being minded to do yet greater things for them hereafter, if they would truly turn to Him with their whole heart, and love Him, and keep His commandments. And he commanded them that they should never forget the day on which they had been delivered out of the hands of their enemies, and from their cruel bondage and toil, but should set themselves with earnestness and diligence to consider His commandments, to keep them and do them. But this people was stiff-necked, heedless, and unthankful, and did not do as God had commanded by the mouth of His servants, but was continually self-willed, perverse, and bent on sin; and therefore the Lord suffered them all to die in the wilderness, and slew many of them. And afterwards He sent again other servants unto them, saying: "O my chosen people, if ye will be converted and turn unto me with your whole heart, and not go astray halting between two opinions, but follow after me only, and forsake the way of the Egyptians, the way of darkness, of sin, and of death, I will bring you into a land of righteousness, where all good things shall be given you."
Now all these things came to pass under the old dispensation in past ages, with many signs and in hidden mysterious covenants sealed by oaths. But they also foreshadowed all that should come to pass in future ages after the incarnation of the Son of God, in the which we now live. Now He purposes to draw us likewise to Himself, by the help of these same words and teachings, if only we will turn unto Him; and therefore does He give us so many reasons, exhortations, instructions or motives, that we should turn unto Him with our whole hearts. He works now-a-days quite as many miracles and mighty deeds as then, among the Egyptians of this world and Pharaoh its king, spiritually and also visibly, in the conversion of each one among us, if we give heed thereto with thankful hearts. But alas! it is with too many of us as it was with the Israelites, we are only changed outwardly with the body, but our heart is yet in Egypt. We all pass under good names, and make a fair show, but in reality our whole affections and endeavours are turned towards the pleasures and advantages of the flesh and the world. And we are all the time so very careful and diligent to keep strictly to all that is commanded respecting outward observances, such as vestments, chanting, kneeling, and the like, and are satisfied if all these matters are scrupulously observed, and sit down contented, fancying that all is well with us, and that we are far enough from Egypt. Nay, verily, dear children, we are very wide of the mark; this is all a mere semblance and shadow, the leaves of the fig-tree which could not satisfy our Lord's hunger; He must find fruit on the tree, else it is nigh to be cursed by Him, that no man taste fruit thereof to all eternity. Ah! how often have you been taught that you ought not to cleave unto mere shadows and outward forms. Although these be wholesome and needful for beginners, still they are but a long way off from the real truth and substance, for the sake of which all these outward acts are performed. If you do not look to it betimes, you will have the outward shape remaining, while within there is all manner of sin and wickedness cherished in your hearts, as much as with those who have not the show of religion; and alas! men often fall into deeper vice under this cloak, than if they were yet in the Egypt of worldliness. It would be better for them if they had never quitted the world, for now is there damnation greater while they wear the garb of holiness, not acting conformably to it, and yet claim and make use of all the privileges of their religious profession.
Children, I know of nothing so greatly needed as that those who are entering on a religious life should be instructed with all care, that they may know what things they ought first to learn, and then afterwards, when the outward practice of good works and piety has become a habit to them, that they may also know how to advance farther, and not content themselves or be satisfied with outward habits; for these do not in themselves make a perfect life, but are only a good preparation and a slight furtherance thereto. If this be early instilled into beginners, while they are yet young, docile, and quick of apprehension, and also hot and earnest, it may be that some of them will study betimes to press onwards to what is higher. But, alas! and worse than alas! we have so often to behold the sorrowful spectacle of some who began in the spirit with great zeal; who at first were so fervid that they would hardly turn their eyes upon any who might lead their thoughts astray; and who now can hardly be persuaded to quit men's company for an hour's meditation; some who at first could not bear to listen to a worldly word, and now, early and late, you can scarcely get a respite from their gossiping, and unprofitable questions and answers; at first they wanted to withdraw into silence and solitude, that they might by prayer and work sustain their devoutness; and now, the more earthly care they can encumber themselves with, the better they are pleased. Ah! this and the like is a certain sign that they are held captive by the flesh, that they have wandered into darkness, and in their hearts turned back again into Egypt. Children! for the love of Christ, look to yourselves each of you, and see how it stands with you. However well you may begin in virtue, do not rely upon your good beginning, for all your piety may pass away if you are not watchful. Our hearts are more unstable than we can believe.
Some are at first so zealous for all righteousness, that if they hear an idle word, or witness any other little failing, it makes them angry; but when they are a little older, they indulge without any rebuke of conscience in such levity, evil-speaking, and often malicious and scornful speeches, that they not only cause others vexation, but even serious trouble and sorrow, and never even give it a thought whether they may have done so, but behave as if they had done perfectly right.
Some are at first so strong, and ready to withstand temptation and assaults, that they are not even afraid of the Devil: yea, they would fain be great and holy martyrs; yet afterwards, when they have lived for a while among holy, pious people, you would hardly meet with more perverse, cross-grained, self-willed persons. Some are at first so eager to take upon themselves all manner of hardships and indignities, that the severities and self-humiliation of those with whom they live are too light and few for them; but after they have travelled this road for a while, they are not only able to submit to the ordinary habits of others, but it is hardly possible to make things comfortable and easy enough for them to prevent their complaining, and every little inconvenience annoys them. Ah! what would not be needed to stop their murmuring!
Very different from these are many pious, warmhearted, spiritual-minded men, who find the cross very hard to bear at first, but in a short time make great progress, and become a most edifying and useful pattern to others, while those from whom too much was expected have come to nothing. Hence we must be very much upon our guard because of our instability; we know not what may overtake us in time to come.
Dear children, that each of you may be able in some measure to mark whether he be converted or not, I will lay open to you a little, whereby we may perceive the sincerity of our own conversion, and redemption from all the evil which our Enemy may try to lead us into by his various incitements to sin. In our baptism we promised before God and the Church to withstand all sin, and to serve God in all holy living. But afterwards our wicked adversary led us astray again, so that we fell afresh, and lost the grace which had been given us; but God of his unspeakable mercy calls us again to a new repentance, that all which we have lost may be restored unto us. But herein many are beguiled by the Evil One into deadly error, so that they miss this opportunity of amendment; for he knows how, with his cunning wiles, to cover our old sins under the mantle of conversion, and thus to frustrate all a man's labour and toil. That we may be the better able to escape him, I will give you some tokens to mark which man is truly converted and which is not.
A truly converted Christian man abides in a sincere and humble confession of his nothingness; all his desire is that none should set him above others, nor yet to rule over others, but rather to be subject in all meekness to another, according to whose will he may fulfil all his works. He thinks lightly of himself and his own wisdom, and desires in all things to take the lowest place; and is willing to take advice, and interprets everything for the best; and simply in the fear of God, with a thankful heart, fulfils all that which he is bidden or counselled, or that others beg of him to do. But, on the other hand, those who are not truly converted think much of themselves, and deem all their works and services of great value, and it is not at all to their taste to be subject to others, or that any should have a right to command them, and are fond of reproving others unnecessarily, and of discoursing on lofty matters, and boast themselves proudly of all that belongs to them, and yet cover all this under a specious show of piety and humility, that men may not take it amiss of them. If any seem to put a slight upon them, they are contentious, and defend and justify themselves to the utmost that they can. They are arrogant and ambitious, and unyielding in their hardness of spirit. These are all still in the hands of the Enemy, yea, did they wear the Pope's tiara.
Those who are truly converted are kind-hearted to their neighbours, indulgent from brotherly love, praising the works of their neighbours as far as they can, and with great sincerity of heart rejoice in the well-being of their neighbour, and lend him a helping hand wherever they can, and have great sympathy with him in his troubles; but the falsely converted are spiteful, and look with an evil eye on the usefulness or piety of others, are ready to breed mischief with a taunt, and are revengeful, sneering, and puffed up in their own conceits.
The right sort of men are patient under all the annoyance and injustice that God suffers to befall them, and bear it long with peaceable tempers. They speak mildly, using soft words, and are wont meekly to seek reconciliation with those who have done them wrong; but the false burn with anger, are envious of others' good fortune, slanderous, quarrelsome, and censorious, not orderly in all their affairs, and full of murmuring against all, above and below them, who do not conform to their wishes.
The truly righteous are ever gentle and merciful, ready to give and to assist as far as they are able, without regard to their own advantage; for they despise the perishable things of time, and maintain their love, enjoyment, and cheerfulness under distress, poverty, and contempt, being easily contented and cheerful, and thankful to Almighty God, in spirit looking up constantly to God who preserves and sustains them, and casting behind them all unprofitable earthly anxieties, that they may give the more heed to the things of God and eternity. But the false burn like a furnace with the desire of temporal things, and seek their own pleasure and ease when and how they may, and often steal time and other things for it, that they may not be discovered by their superiors; or if they can no longer conceal their practices, then they indulge in them with an obstinate bold face, and steal time for themselves shamelessly in the teeth of their masters. They want to have praise and earthly reward for all that they do, and if they are not honoured and thought highly of, they become like one possessed, and openly or secretly do all the harm they can for spite and vexation. They are always hoping to receive a worldly and corruptible reward for their religious professions, and are often seduced into actual deceit and lying, in their struggle to get honour or to save their reputation.
The upright are careful to fill up their time industriously, with good and useful undertakings to the glory of God and the good of their neighbours, rejoicing in spirit as they exercise themselves in good works, endeavouring to do all things well, and continue with hearty trust in God, steadfast in goodness. The false converts are constantly indolent and half-hearted in their work, wavering, ill-mannered, easily disheartened, and altogether drowsy, their minds lying waste and their hearts undisciplined.
The true converts are moderate and decorous in the satisfying of their natural wants, shunning all excess, and if they by accident transgress, avoiding it for the future. By moderation in eating, they keep their faculties clear and under control; and above all, they most earnestly guard against any excess in drinking. But false professors are given to eating and drinking, yet they can never fully satisfy their desires, and are unthankful to God for the food He gives them. Without restraint or good manners, they cram their bodies, whereby they often bring on grievous sicknesses, and they seek their pleasure without shame wherever they can. And after excess at table, some give way to unseemly levity in words and gestures, and inconvenient jesting, and telling and hearing all manner of tales. Others become quarrelsome, brawling, and so noisy, that to hear their senseless cries you would think them asses, not men. Some become so sleepy and lazy after dinner, that they could scarcely repeat the Lord's Prayer without a blunder; and in general, sloth and the like commonly proceed from strong drinks and over-feeding. Hence it is that all holy men have insisted so strongly upon simplicity in food and drink, that they might give no cause in themselves or others to such infirmities. But now, alas! it has gone so far, that even the clergy, for the most part, cannot, or rather will not, content themselves even with rich men's fare; and from this cause their blindness has grown so great that it is rare now-a-days to find one who is really aware of the dangers from this source to which he is exposed by the assaults or suggestions of the Devil. For the adversary is apt to bring these men sooner than they think for into an inclination towards, or even to commit acts of foul uncleanness, by defiling their heart with obscene thoughts and evil lusts; and in this way they often sin grossly, and provoke God more than they believe. And then the tumult of evil desires within makes them to be unfit for good works, and displeasing to God and holy men; and they are so tossed, and driven, and blinded by passion, that they actually try to quench it in riotous company, and in eating and drinking. This leads to inordinate merriment and light discourse, which are generally wont to estrange a man so much from all godly thoughts, that afterwards he can hardly read a verse with devotion; and in his very prayers the Devil brings the scenes he has witnessed and the language he has heard so vividly before him, that he can scarce hold in his tittering and laughing.
The righteous and truly converted men are so shamefaced and chaste of heart before God and the angels, that they would rather die than conceive an impure image in their hearts, and with all watchfulness they preserve their mind pure and unsullied, and they diligently keep all their senses and members under strict and constant control, insomuch that they will hardly pay any attention to their own bodies, except for safety and cleanliness; and for the better preserving of their pureness of mind, they chastise their bodies with fasting, and watching, and toil, exercising constant prayerfulness and trust in God, in whom all their help lies. But the false of heart do not see much harm in looking at and dwelling on evil, sinful thoughts and images in their hearts; hence they often come into such perturbation of soul and body, that they stand, as it were, in the very gate of hell; yea, they often fall so deep, as to give consent to sin with their heart, and would actually fulfil all wickedness if the opportunity arose. So unthinkingly do they fall through love of themselves, in seeking the pleasure of the body! Some of these become so hardened, and restless, and maddened with the sense of restraint, that they come to hate God for having forbidden the lusts of the flesh, and wish He did not know of their sins, or was not able to punish them, which is as much as to wish that there were no God.
And now, dear children, consider how you stand; and, seeing the perils which beset us all, let no one be too secure or too bold, but let each look to himself in fear; and however well it may be with him now, let him not trust in his goodness; and however deeply he may have fallen, or however far he may have wandered, let him now turn and be converted of a truth, for the path to all goodness stands yet open to him so long as God spares him in life. That we may all enter therein, may God help us! Amen.