The Sinner's Guide
Ven. Louis of Granada
With Imprimi Potest and Imprimatur
TAN BOOKS AND PUBLISHERS, INC.
Ch 25. Of Those Who Defer
until the Hour of Death
The arguments we have just stated should certainly be sufficient to convince men of the folly of deathbed repentances; for if it be so dangerous to defer penance from day to day, what must be the consequence of deferring it until the hour of death? But as this is a very general error, causing the ruin of many souls, we shall devote a special chapter to it. The reflections which we are about to make may alarm and discourage weak souls, but the consequences of presumption are still more fatal, for a greater number is lost through false confidence than through excessive fear. Therefore, we, who are one of the sentinels mentioned by Ezechiel, must warn you of these dangers, that you may not rush blindly to your ruin, and that your blood may not be upon us. As the safest light for us is that of Holy Scripture, interpreted by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, we shall first study their opinions on this subject, and afterwards we shall learn what God Himself teaches us by His inspired writers.
Before entering upon the subject we must bear in mind an undeniable principle, concerning which St. Augustine and all the holy Doctors are agreed-----namely, that as true repentance is the work of God, so He can inspire it when and where he wills. Hence if the heart of the sinner, even at the hour of death, be filled with true contrition for his sins, it will avail him for salvation. But, to show you how rare such examples of repentance are, I shall give you the testimony of the saints and Doctors of the Church. I do not ask you to believe me, but believe them, the chosen instruments of the Holy Ghost.
And first hear St. Augustine. In a work entitled, True and False Penance he says, "Let no one hope to do penance when he can no longer sin. God wishes us to perform this work cheerfully and not through compulsion. Therefore, he who, instead of leaving his sins, waits until they leave him, acts from necessity rather than from choice. For this reason they who would not return to God when they could, but are willing to seek Him when they are no longer able to sin, will not so easily obtain what they desire." Speaking of the character of true conversion, he says, "He is truly converted who turns to God with his whole heart, who not only fears punishment but earnestly desires to merit God's graces and favors. Should anyone turn to God in this way, even at the end of his life, we would have no reason to despair of his salvation. But as examples of this perfect conversion are very rare, we cannot but tremble for one who defers his repentance until the hour of death.
"Moreover, if he obtain the pardon of his sins, their temporal punishment is not remitted; he must expiate them in the fire of Purgatory, the pain of which is greater than any suffering known on earth. Never did the martyrs in their most terrible torments, never did malefactors, though subjected to all the cruelties which human malice could invent, endure sufferings equal to those of Purgatory. Let him, then, if he would avoid these dreadful punishments after death, begin from this time to amend his life."
St. Ambrose, in his book on penance, which some attribute to St. Augustine, treats of this subject at great length. Here is one of the many excellent things he tells us: "If a man ask for the sacrament of penance on his deathbed, we do not refuse him what he asks, but we are far from assuring you that if he dies after it he is on the way to Heaven. It is more than we dare affirm or promise, for we. would not deceive you. But if you would be relieved of this uncertainty, if you would dissipate this doubt, do penance for your sins while you are in health, and then I can positively assure you that you will be in a good way, for you will have repented for your crimes when you might have been increasing them. If, on the contrary, you defer your repentance until you are no longer able to sin, it will not be that you have abandoned your sins, but rather that they have abandoned you."
St. Isidore forcibly expresses the same truth: "If you would have a hope of being pardoned your sins at the hour of death, do penance for them while you are able. But if you spend your life in wickedness, and still hope for forgiveness at your death, you are running a most serious risk. Though you are not sure that you will be damned, your salvation is by no means more certain."
The authorities which we have just quoted are very alarming; yet the words of St. Jerome, uttered as he lay in sackcloth upon the ground awaiting his last hour, are still more terrifying. I dare not give his words in all their rigor, lest I should discourage weak souls; but I refer him who desires to read them to an epistle on the death of St. Jerome written by his disciple, Eusebius, to a bishop named Damasus. I will quote only this passage: "He who daily perseveres in sin will probably say: 'When I am going to die I shall do penance.' Oh! Melancholy consolation! Penance at the hour of death is a very doubtful remedy for him who has always done evil, and has thought of penance only as a dream, to be realized in the uncertain future. Wearied by suffering; distracted with grief at parting from family, friends, and worldly possessions which he can no longer enjoy; a prey to bitter anguish-----how will he raise his heart to God or conceive a true sorrow for his sins? He has never done so in life, and he would not do it now had he any hope of recovery. What kind of penance must that be which a man performs when life itself is leaving him? I have known rich worldlings who have recovered from bodily sickness only to render the health of their souls still more deplorable. Here is what I think, what I know, for I have learned it by a long experience: If he who has been a slave to sin during life die a happy death, it is only by an extraordinary miracle of grace."
St. Gregory expresses himself not less strongly upon this subject. Writing upon these words of Job, "What is the hope of the hypocrite, if through covetousness he take by violence? Will God hear his cry when distress shall come upon him?" (Job 27:8-9) he says, "If a man be deaf to God's voice in prosperity, God will refuse to hear him in adversity, for it is written: 'He that turneth away his ears from hearing the law, his prayer shall be an abomination.'" (Prov. 28:9). And Hugh of St. Victor, comprehending in one sentence the teaching of the Fathers, says, "It is very difficult for that penance to be true which comes at the hour of death, for we have much reason to suspect it because it is forced."
You now know the sentiments of these great Doctors of the Church on deathbed repentance. See, then, what folly it would be in you to contemplate without fear a passage of which the most skillful pilots speak with terror. A lifetime is not too long to learn how to die well. At the hour of death our time is sufficiently occupied in dying. We have then no leisure to learn the lesson of dying well.
The teaching of the Fathers which we have just given is also the teaching of the doctors of the schools. Among the many authorities whom we could quote we shall select Scotus, one of the most eminent, who, after treating this subject at great length, concludes that conversion at the hour of death is so difficult that it is rarely true repentance. He supports his conclusion by these four reasons:
First, because the physical pains and weakness which precede death prevent a man from elevating his heart to God or fulfilling the duties of true repentance. To understand this you must know that uncontrolled passions lead man's free will where they please. Now, philosophers teach that the passions which excite sorrow are much stronger than those which cause joy. Hence it follows that no passions, no sentiments, exceed in intensity the passions and sentiments awakened by the approach of death,; for, as Aristotle tells us, death is the most terrible of all terrible things. To sufferings of body it unites anguish of soul awakened by parting from loved ones and from all that bind our affections to this world. When, therefore, the passions are so strong and turbulent, whither can man's will and thoughts turn but to those things to which these violent emotions draw them? We see how difficult it is even for a man exercised in virtue to turn his thoughts to God or spiritual things when his body is racked with pain. How much more difficult will it be for the sinner to turn his thoughts from his body, which he has always preferred to his soul!
I myself knew a man who enjoyed a reputation for virtue, but who, when told that his last hour was at hand, was so terrified that he could think of nothing but applying remedies to ward off the terrible moment. A priest who was present exhorted him to turn his thoughts to his soul's interests; but he impatiently repelled his counsels, and in these disedifying dispositions soon after expired. Judge by this example the trouble which the presence of death excites in those who have an inordinate love for this life, if one who loves it in moderation clings to it so tenaciously, regardless of the interests of the life to come.
The second reason given by Scotus is that repentance should be voluntary, not forced. Hence St. Augustine tells us that a man must not only fear, but also love his Judge. We cannot think that one who has refused to repent during life, and only has recourse to this remedy at the hour of death, seeks it freely and voluntarily.
Such was the repentance of Semei for his outrage against David when he fled from his son Absalom. When King David returned in triumph, Semei went forth to meet him with tears and supplications; but though David then spared his life, on his deathbed he enjoined his son Solomon to deal with the traitor according to his deserts. (Cf. 2 Kg. 16 and 17 and 3 Kg. 2). Similar is the repentance of Christians who, after outraging God with impunity during life, piteously claim His mercy at the hour of death. We may judge of the sincerity of such repentance by the conduct of many who have been restored to health, for they are no sooner released from the imminent fear of death than they relapse into the same disorders. The salutary sentiments excited by fear, and not by virtue, vanish when the danger is past.
The third reason is that a habit of sin confirmed by long indulgence accompanies man as inseparably as the shadow does the body, even to the tomb. It becomes, as we have said, a second nature which it is almost impossible to conquer. How often do we see old men on the verge of the grave as hardened to good, and as eager for honors and wealth, which they know they cannot take with them, as if they were at the beginning of their career!
This is a punishment, says St. Gregory, which God frequently inflicts upon sin, permitting it to accompany its author even to the tomb; for the sinner, who has forgotten God during life, too often forgets his own eternal interest at this terrible hour. We have frequent and striking proof of this, for how often do we hear of persons who refuse to be separated from the objects of their sinful love even at their last hour, and, by a just judgment of God, expire wholly forgetful of what is due to their Maker and their own souls!
The fourth reason given by Scotus is taken from the value of actions done at such a time; for it is manifest to all who have any knowledge of God that He is much less pleased with services offered at this hour than with the same services offered under different circumstances. "What merit is there," says the virgin and martyr St. Lucy, "in giving up what you are forced to leave," in pardoning an injury which it would be a dishonor to avenge, or in breaking sinful bonds which you can no longer maintain?
From these reasons this doctor concludes that repentance at the hour of death is a dangerous and difficult matter. He goes even further, and affirms that the act by which a Christian deliberately resolves to defer his conversion till the hour of death is in itself a mortal sin, because of the injury he thereby inflicts on his soul, and because of the peril to which he exposes his salvation.
As the final decision of this question depends on the word of God, I pray you to hear what He teaches us through Holy Scripture. The Eternal Wisdom, after inviting men to practice virtue, utters by the mouth of Solomon the following malediction against those who are deaf to His voice: "Because I called, and you refused: I stretched out my hand, and there was none that regarded. You have despised all my counsels, and have neglected my reprehensions. I also will laugh in your destruction, and will mock when that shall come to you which you feared. When sudden calamity shall fall on you, and destruction, as a tempest, shall be at hand; when tribulation and distress shall come upon you, then shall they call upon me, and I will not hear. They shall rise in the morning, and shall not find me, because they have hated instruction, and received not the fear of the Lord, nor consented to my counsel, but despised all my reproof." (Prov. 1:24-31).
We have the authority of St. Gregory for saying that these words of the Holy Ghost apply to our present subject. Are they not sufficient to open your eyes and determine you to save yourself from God's vengeance by a timely preparation for this terrible hour?
In the New Testament we find no less striking authority. Our Saviour, when speaking to His Apostles of the day of His coming, never fails to warn them to be always ready. "Blessed is that servant," He says, "whom when his lord shall come he shall find watching. Amen I say to you, he shall place him over all his goods. But if the evil servant shall say in his heart: My lord is long coming, and shall begin to strike his fellow servants, and shall eat and drink with drunkards, the lord of that servant shall come in a day that he hopeth not, and at an hour that he knoweth not, and shall separate him, and appoint his portion with the hypocrites. There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth." (Matt. 24:46-51). In this parable Our Saviour, who reads the secret designs of the wicked, tells them what they are to expect and what will be the result of their vain confidence. You are this bad servant, since you cherish the same designs in your heart and seize the present time to eat and drink and gratify every passion. Why do you not fear the wrath of Him who is all-powerful to execute what He threatens? It is to you that His menaces are addressed. Awake, unhappy soul, and hasten to profit by the time that remains to you!
We are devoting much time to this subject, which ought to be clear to all, but we must do so, since there are so many unhappy Christians who endeavor to satisfy their consciences with this false excuse. Hear, then, another lesson of Our Saviour: "Then shall the Kingdom of heaven," He says, "be like to ten virgins who, taking their lamps, went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride." What time does Our Saviour indicate by "then"? The hour of general judgment and of each particular judgment, St. Augustine replies, for the sentence uttered in secret immediately after death will be ratified before all men on the last day. Five of these virgins were wise and five were foolish, Our Saviour continues. The foolish virgins took no oil with them for their lamps, and when at midnight-----a time of profoundest slumber, when men give least thought to their interests-----a cry was heard, "The bridegroom cometh," all the virgins arose, and they who had trimmed their lamps and furnished them with oil went in to the marriage, and the door was shut. When the foolish virgins, who had gone to seek oil for their lamps, came, saying: "Lord, Lord, open to us," He answered them saying, "Amen I say to you, I know you not." Our Saviour concludes the parable with these words: "Watch, therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour." Could we ask a plainer warning than this? Could we desire a clearer condemnation of the folly of those who rely on deathbed repentances?
You will perhaps urge in opposition to all this that the good thief was saved at the last hour. St. Augustine answers this objection by saying that the good thief received in one hour the grace of conversion and Baptism, which being immediately followed by death, his soul went directly to Paradise. Moreover, the conversion of the good thief was one of the many miracles which marked Our Saviour's coming, one of the chief testimonies to His glory. The rocks were rent; the earth trembled; the sun refused to give its light; the graves were opened and the dead came forth to bear witness to the divinity of Him who was crucified. For a like purpose the grace of repentance was bestowed on the good thief, whose confession of Christ was no less wonderful than his conversion, for he acknowledged Christ when the Apostles fled from Him and denied Him; he glorified Christ when the world blasphemed and insulted Him. This miracle being one of the extraordinary marvels marking the coming of Christ, it is folly to expect that it will be repeated in our behalf. No; St. Paul tells us that the end of the wicked corresponds to their works. This is a truth which is constantly repeated in Holy Scripture. It is sung by the psalmist, foretold by the prophets, announced by the Evangelists, and preached by the Apostles.
Others argue that attrition joined
sacraments suffices to obtain the pardon of sin, and claim that at the
hour of death they will have at least attrition. But they should
that the attrition which, joined to the sacraments, obtains the pardon
of sin, is a special degree of sorrow, and God only can know whether
The holy Doctors were not ignorant of the efficacy of attrition joined to the sacraments; yet see how little confidence they had in deathbed repentances. "We give the ; sacrament of Penance to such a sinner who asks for it," says St. Ambrose, "but we give him no assurance of salvation."
If you cite the example of the Ninivites, whose conversion was the effect of fear, I would remind you not only of the rigorous penance they performed, but of the amendment which was wrought in their lives. Let there be the same amendment in your life, and you will not fail to find equal mercy. But when I see that you no sooner recover your health than you relapse into your former disorders, what am I to think of your repentance?
What we have said in this and the preceding chapters is not intended to close the door of hope or salvation against anyone. Our only intention is to rout the sinner from the stronghold in which he entrenches himself that he may continue to sin. Tell me, dear Christian, for the love of God, how you dare expose yourself to such peril when the Fathers of the Church, the Saints, Holy Scripture, and reason itself unite in warning you of the dangers attending a repentance deferred until the hour of death? In what do you place your confidence? In the prayers and Masses you will have offered for you? In the money you will leave for good works?
Alas! The foolish virgins filled their lamps at the last hour, but they called in vain upon the Bridegroom. Do you think your tears will avail you at that time? Tears, no doubt, are powerful, and blessed is he who weeps in sincerity; but your tears, like those of Esau, who sold his birthright to satisfy his gluttony, will flow, not for your sins, but for what you have lost; and like his, as the Apostle tells us, they will flow in vain. (Cf. Neb. 12:17). Will your promises and good resolutions help you? Good resolutions are excellent when sincere, but remember what edifying and valiant resolutions Antiochus formed when the hand of God had been laid upon him. Yet Holy Scripture tells us, "This wicked man prayed to the Lord, of whom he was not to obtain mercy." (2 Mac. 9:13). And why? Because his good purposes and resolutions sprang not from love, but from servile fear, which, though commendable, is not sufficient of itself to justify the sinner. The fear of Hell can arise from the love man naturally bears himself, but love of self gives us no right to Heaven. As no one clothed in sackcloth could enter the palace of Assuerus (Cf. Esther 4:2), so no one can enter Heaven clothed in the dress of a slave-----that is, with the garment of servile fear. We must be clothed with the wedding garment of love, if we would be admitted to the palace of the King of kings.I conjure you, then, dear Christian, to think of this hour which must inevitably come to you. And it may not be far distant. But a few years, and you will experience the truth of my predictions. You will find yourself distracted with pain, filled with anguish and terror at the approach of death and at the thought of the eternal sentence which is about to be pronounced upon you. Vainly will you then essay to change it, to soften its rigor. But that which will be impossible then is not only possible but easily accomplished now, for it is in your own power to make your sentence what you will wish it at the hour of death. Lose no time, therefore; hasten to propitiate your Judge. Follow the counsel of the prophet, and "seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near." (Is. 55:6). He is now near to hear us, though we cannot see Him. On the day of judgment we shall see Him, but He will not hear us, unless we live so as to merit this blessing from Him.