The Sinner's Guide
Ven. Louis of Granada
With Imprimi Potest and Imprimatur
TAN BOOKS AND PUBLISHERS, INC.
Ch 23. The Twelfth
Privilege of Virtue:
The end, it is said, crowns the work, and, therefore, it is in death that the just man's life is most fittingly crowned, while the departure of the sinner is a no less fitting close to his wretched career. "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints" (Ps.115:15), says the Psalmist, but "the death of the wicked is very evil." (Ps. 33:22). Commenting upon the latter part of this text, St. Bernard says, "The death of the wicked is bad because it takes them from this world; it is still worse because it separates the soul from the body; and it is worst because it precipitates them into the fire of Hell, and delivers them a prey to the undying worm of remorse."
To these evils which haunt the sinner at the hour of death add the bitter regrets which gnaw his heart, the anguish which fills his soul, and the torments which rack his body. He is seized with terror at the thought of the past; of the account he must render; of the sentence which is to be pronounced against him; of the horrors of the tomb; of separation from wife, children, and friends; of bidding farewell to the things he has loved with an inordinate and a guilty love wealth, luxuries, and even the gifts of nature, the light of day and the pure air of heaven. The stronger his love for earthly things has been, the more bitter will be his anguish in separating from them. As St. Augustine says, we cannot part without grief from that which we have possessed with love. It was in the same spirit that a certain philosopher said that he who has fewest pleasures in life has least reason to fear death.
But the greatest suffering of the wicked at the hour of death comes from the stings of remorse, and the thought of the terrible future upon which they are about to enter. The approach of death seems to open man's eyes and make him see all things as he never saw them before. "As life ebbs away," says St. Eusebius, "man is free from all distracting care for the necessities of life. He ceases to desire honors, emoluments, or dignities, for he sees that they are beyond his grasp. Eternal interests and thoughts of God's justice demand all his attention. The past with its pleasures is gone; the present with its opportunities is rapidly gliding away; all that remains to him is the future, with the dismal prospect of his many sins waiting to accuse him before the judgment-seat of the just God."
"Consider," the saint again says, "the terror which will seize the negligent soul when she is entering eternity; the anguish with which she will be filled when, foremost among her accusers, her conscience will appear with its innumerable retinue of sins. Its testimony cannot be denied; its accusations will leave her mute and helpless; there will be no need to seek further witnesses, for the knowledge of this life-long companion will confound her."
Still more terrible is the picture of the death of the sinner given by St. Peter Damian. "Let us try to represent to ourselves," he says, "the terror which fills the soul of the sinner at the hour of death and the bitter reproaches with which conscience assails him. The commandments he has despised and the sins he has committed appear before him, to haunt him by their presence. He sighs for the time which he has squandered, and which was given to him to do penance; he beholds with despair the account he must render before the dread tribunal of God. He longs to arrest the moments, but they speed relentlessly on, bearing him nearer and nearer to his doom.
"If he looks back, his life seems but a moment, and before him is the limitless horizon of eternity. He weeps bitterly at the thought of the unspeakable happiness which he has sacrificed for the fleeting pleasures of the flesh: Confusion and shame overwhelm him when he sees he has forfeited a glorious place among the angelic choirs, through love for his body, which is about to become the food of worms. When he turns his eyes from the abode of these beings of light to the dark valley of this world, he sees how base and unworthy are the things for which he has rejected immortal glory and happiness. Oh! Could he but regain a small portion of the time he has lost, what austerities, what mortifications he would practice! What is there that could overcome his courage? What vows would he not offer, and how fervent would be his prayers! But while he is revolving these sad thoughts, the messengers of death appear in the rigid limbs, the dark and hollow eyes, the heaving breast, the foaming lips, the livid face. And as these exterior heralds approach, every thought, word, and action of his guilty life appears before him.
"Vainly does he strive to turn his eyes from them; they will not be banished. On one side – and this is true of every man's death – Satan and his legions are present, tempting the dying man, in the hope of seizing his soul even at the last minute. On the other side are the angels of Heaven, helping, consoling, and strengthening him. And yet it is his own life that will decide the contest between the spirits of darkness and the angels of light. In the case of the good, who have heaped up a treasure of meritorious works, the victory is with the angels of light. But the impious man, whose unexpiated crimes are crying for vengeance, rejects the help that is offered to him, yields to despair, and as his unhappy soul passes from his pampered body, the demons are ready to seize it and bear it away."
What stronger proof does man require of the wretched condition of the sinner, and what more does he need to make him avoid a career which ends so deplorably? If, at this critical hour, riches could help him as they do at many other periods of life, the evil would be less. But he will receive no succor from his riches, his honors, his dignities, his distinguished friends. The only patronage which will then avail him will be that of virtue and innocence. "Riches," says the Wise Man, "shall not profit in the day of revenge, but justice shall deliver from death." (Prov. 11:4).
As the wicked, therefore, receive at the hour of death the punishment of their crimes, so do the just then receive the reward of their virtues. "With him that feareth the Lord ", says the Holy Ghost, "it shall go well in the latter end; and in the day of his death he shall be blessed." (Ecclus. 1:13). St. John declares this truth still more forcibly when he tells us that he heard a voice from Heaven commanding him, "Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. From henceforth, saith the Spirit, they rest from their labors, for their works follow them." (Apoc. 14:13). With such a promise from God Himself, how can the just man fear? Can he dread that hour in which he is to receive the reward of his life's labors?
Since, as we read in Job, he has put away iniquity, brightness like that of the noonday shall arise to him at evening, and when he shall think himself consumed he shall rise as the day-star. (Cf. Job 11:14,17). Explaining these words, St. Gregory says that the light which illumines the close of the just man's life is the splendor of that immortal glory which is already so near. When others, therefore, are weighed down by sadness and despair, he is full of confidence and joy. For this reason Solomon has said that the wicked shall be rejected because of their wickedness, but the just man hath hope in the hour of his death. (Cf. Prov. 14:32).
What more striking example of this confident hope can we find than that of the glorious St. Martin? Seeing the devil beside his bed at the hour of death, he cried out, "What art thou doing here, cruel beast? Thou wilt find no mortal sin in my soul by which thou mayest bind me. I go, therefore, to enjoy eternal peace in Abraham's bosom." Equally touching and beautiful was the confidence of our holy Father, St. Dominic. Seeing the religious of his order weeping around his bed, he said to them, "Weep not, my children, for I can do you more good where I am going than I could ever hope to do on earth." How could the fear of death overcome one who so confidently hoped to obtain Heaven, not only for himself, but also for his disciples?
Far, then, from fearing death, the just hail it as the hour of their deliverance and the beginning of their reward. In his commentary on the Epistle of St. John, St. Augustine writes, "It cannot be said that he who desires to be dissolved and to be with Christ endures death with patience, but rather that he endures life with patience and embraces death with joy." It is not, therefore, with cries and lamentations that the just man sees his end approaching, but – like the swan, which is said to sing as death draws near – he departs this life with words of praise and thanksgiving on his lips.
He does not fear death, because he has always feared God, and he who fears God need fear nothing else. He does not fear death, because his life has been a preparation for death, and he who is always armed and ready need not fear the enemy. He does not fear death, because he has sought during life to secure in virtue and good works powerful advocates for that terrible hour. He does not fear death, because he has endeavored, by devoted service, to incline his Judge in his favor. Finally, he does not fear death, because to the just, death is only a sweet sleep, the end of toil, and the beginning of a blessed immortality.
Nor can the accompanying accidents
of death alarm him, for he knows that they are but the throes and pangs
in which he must be brought forth to eternal life. He is not dismayed
the memory of his sins or the rigor of God's justice, since he has
for his Friend and Advocate. He does not tremble at the presence of
and his followers, for his Redeemer, who has conquered Hell and !
stands at his side. For him the tomb has no terrors, for he knows that
he must sow a natural body in order that it may rise a spiritual body,
that this corruptible must put on incorruption. (Cf. 1Cor. 15:42,44).
Of what avail will be the riches and prosperity which you may enjoy during your short stay in this life, if your eternity will be spent in the endless torments of Hell? Or how can you shrink from the temporary sufferings that will win for you an eternity of happiness? Of what advantage are learning and skill, if the sinner uses them only to acquire those things which flatter his pride, feed his sensuality, confirm him in sin, make him unfit to practice virtue, and thus render death as bitter and unwelcome as his life was pleasant and luxurious? We consider him a wise and skillful physician who prudently seeks by every it means to restore the health of his patient, since this is the end of his science. So is he truly wise who regulates his life with a view to his last end, who constantly employs all the means in his power to fit himself for a happy death.
Behold, then, dear Christian, the twelve fruits of virtue in this life. They are like the twelve fruits of the tree of life seen by St. John in his prophetic vision. (Cf. Apoc. 22:2). This tree represents Jesus Christ, and is also a symbol of virtue with its abundant fruits of holiness and life. And what fruits can be compared to those which we have been considering? What is there more consoling than the fatherly care with which God surrounds the just? What blessings equal those of divine grace, of heavenly wisdom, of the consolations of the Holy Spirit, of the testimony of a good conscience, of invincible hope, of unfailing efficacy in prayer, and of that peaceful and happy death with which the just man's life is crowned? But one of these fruits, rightly known and appreciated, should suffice to make us embrace virtue.
Think not that you will ever regret any labor or any sacrifice made in pursuit of so great a good. The wicked do not strive to attain it, for they know not its value. To them the kingdom of Heaven is like a hidden treasure. (Cf. Matt. 13:44). And yet it is only through the divine light and the practice of virtue that they will learn its beauty and worth. Seek, therefore, this light, and you will find the pearl of great price.
Do not leave the source of eternal life to drink at the turbid streams of the world. Follow the counsel of the prophet, and taste and see that the Lord is sweet. Trusting in Our Saviour's words, resolutely enter the path of virtue, and your illusions will vanish. The serpent into which the rod of Moses was converted was frightful at a distance, but at the touch of his hand it became again a harmless rod. To the wicked, virtue wears a forbidding look; to sacrifice their worldly pleasures for her would be to buy her at too dear a rate. But when they draw near they see how lovely she is, and when they have once tasted the sweetness she possesses they cheerfully surrender all they have to win her friendship and love. How gladly did the man in the Gospel hasten to sell all he had to purchase the field which contained a treasure! (Cf. Matt. 13:44).
Why, then, do Christians make so little effort to obtain this inestimable good? If a companion assured you that a treasure lay hidden in your house, you would not fail to search for it, even though you doubted its existence. Yet though you know, on the infallible word of God, that you can find a priceless treasure within your own breast, you do nothing to discover it. Oh! That you would realize its value! Would that you knew how little it costs to obtain it, and how "nigh is the Lord unto all them that call upon him, that call upon him in truth" (Ps. 144:18)!Be mindful of the prodigal, of so many others who have returned from sin and error, to find, instead of an angry Judge, a loving Father awaiting them. Do penance, therefore, for your sins, and God will no longer remember your iniquities (Cf. Ezech. 18:21-22). Return to your loving Father; rise with the dawn and knock at the gates of His mercy; humbly persevere in your entreaties, and He will not fail to reveal to you the treasure of His love. Having once experienced the sweetness which it contains, you will say with the spouse in the Canticle, "If a man should give all the substance of his house for love, he shall despise it as nothing." (Cant. 8:7).