PENTECOST - 4th Sunday After
Doubtless, my brethren, It has often happened to you, as it has happened to me, as it happens indeed to every Christian – to have distractions at your prayers. You kneel down by your bedside in the new morning that God gives you, and you strive to raise up your hearts to Him in gratitude – to implore His blessing, and beseech His grace. You have, unquestionably, I will suppose, a sincere desire to pray attentively; but it is equally unquestionable that you find it difficult to fix your attention. Perhaps you are no sooner on your knees than your mind begins to work, and show an inclination to work in any direction but one – and that one is precisely the direction in which it is your business to turn it. It is marvelously active, this busy mind. It runs forward to meet the business of the coming day – it makes a new discovery about something that happened yesterday, or a brilliant conjecture about something that may happen to-morrow. Never was it so active never so penetrating, never did it seem so capable of work – in fact, it will do anything except pray. The body is tolerably well under control; we can keep it, at all events, on its knees for a definite number of minutes; the difficulty is to keep the mind at home.
But, perhaps, it will be better when the day’s work is done. Mind as well as body will look for rest, and surely in the rest we will find God Who is ever near us, whose gracious ear lies ever on our lips, and like tired children, after a weary day, we will sink at His feet and say Our Father. Alas, even then, will the distractions come! The mind isn’t yet too tired to make distractions. There is something within us making pictures, with rare artistic power, pictures of faces we have seen, of places to which the day’s business led us, of things we heard, of persons we have spoken with. The mind becomes a very gallery of such pictures – so life-like and so vivid, that it is not so much that we think of these various things – we actually seem to see them. I kneel down to say my prayers, and straightaway a picture rises in my mind. I have been holding a conversation with someone during the day – well, here is the scene back again. Perhaps when I was actually engaged in the conversation my companion said something, used some argument to which I did not quite see the answer, something that quite staggered me in some opinion which I was in the habit of holding. But now that I am at my prayers, the right answer comes to me like a revelation, though, probably, not from Heaven. I act the whole thing over again, I have my opponent before me, I make my triumphant reply, and I am so delighted with my argumentative power, that it is no wonder I quite forget that I knelt down to say my prayers.
Fortunately, however, all this is not so discouraging as it seems. Distractions may come in crowds, but it is always true that they do not, in the slightest degree, injure prayer, unless they are willful. God looks only to our good will, and He can disentangle our prayers from any complication of distractions, however intricate, just as an earthly father can at once read the wish that lies at the bottom of his child’s broken words, and all but unintelligible speech. Nevertheless, distractions, even when involuntary, have a tendency to become willful, and it is highly desirable to diminish their number, or even, of possible, to destroy them utterly.
Now, can we do this? Let us see first, whence these distractions come. They are, for the most part, the product of that power of ours, called imagination. In fact, the word imagination itself means precisely what I have spoken of a moment ago – picture making in the mind. Now, imagination is a faculty which it is neither possible nor desirable to get rid of. How the, since it must exist, are we to prevent it from injuring our prayers?
My brethren, when you meet with some law or some fact in external nature, which you can neither alter nor ignore, how do you act? – you resort to some contrivance by which this stubborn fact, this unchangeable law, may be made to serve your purpose. For instance, you cannot prevent the river from flowing, nor can you change its curse, but you can build your mill upon its bank, and immediately the river begins to do your work. This is the whole history of human invention – given certain laws of nature which I cannot alter, how can I make these laws do my work? In this way has the genius of man-made steam his servant, and the lightning of Heaven carry his messages; not surely by changing their laws, but by putting himself in such a position with regard to them, that in the very act of fulfilling their own law, they will be also serving his purpose.
Something like this we may, in a measure, do with our power of imagination. We cannot stifle it, but we can accept its law, and make it work for the advantage, even of our prayers.
But there is yet another way in which we can turn the imagination to the service of prayer. We can resolve, that, if there be picture-making at our prayers, the pictures shall be such as may help, and not hinder us. We should endeavor to sanctify our imagination by using it on holy things. We might, when we kneel down to pray, make a picture in our minds, according to the nature of our prayer, of some sacred place or person – of our Divine Lord, our Blessed Lady, or some saint – and in this way we can make the very faculty which is so often a source of distraction, a powerful aid to attention in our prayers. This exercise has been treated of by spiritual writers, and St. Ignatius, the great master of the science of prayer, gives rules for its practice, calling it Composition of Place.
Just see how it works. Take the portion of the Gospel which I have read for you. Is it not the simplest thing in life to make a picture of it? There lies the Lake of Genesareth, the grey light of the early morning creeping over it, the boats have just come in for the night’s work, the fishermen, Peter and the rest, are washing the nets. They hear a sound – they look up from their work, and they see a great crowd coming towards them. They guess at once that it is Jesus of Nazareth, and as the crowd draws nearer they recognize His Sacred Person. You may be sure Peter throws by his net and prepares to listen, and you may be equally sure that he is delighted when Jesus gets into his boat to avoid the pressure of the crowd. They pull out a little way from the shore, the men lie on their oars, and Jesus speaks to the multitude. When the discourse is finished, He turns to those in the boat, and says, “Launch out your nets into the deep.” Now, they are experienced fishermen – they do not think there is much use, in fact, Peter says, “Master, we have labored all night and taken nothing.” But Peter is more than a mere fisherman, he has begun to e a Christian, and he adds at once, “but at Thy Word I will let down the net.” There, my brethren is a picture that has hung before the world for eighteen hundred years, and the coloring has not faded in the least.
I have been speaking about distractions in prayer, and the means to avoid them, because that forms one branch of the subject, which this picture from the Gospel suggested to me. The whole subject is – the importance of making use of the common things of our daily lives for our spiritual advantage. Thus – we have a busy imagination to distract our prayers, but we have seen how we may turn that very faculty to the purposes of prayer. And thus, also, there are many other things that meet us in our daily lives: there is the daily business we have to attend to, there are the cars, the troubles, the anxieties which come to everyone, and which are to so many, occasions of sin. And the question naturally suggests itself – how are these things t be managed? On the one hand we cannot lay aside our business – we were born to work, and work we must – we must take things as we find them; we cannot, all of us, fly into deserts or into monasteries; we must meet the world as it comes. But, on the other hand, with all this, we must save our souls; if we do not succeed in that, the gain of the whole world will profit us nothing. Now, how are these things to be reconciled? There are people who, in the midst of their cars, keep some eye on the state of their souls, and they come often to confession; and it is constantly fund that when they have told their sins their troubles are by no means over. They have, besides, the constant complaint that they find it hard to serve God amidst the pressure of their daily business. They have so much to do, the world and its care distracts them – seems to come between them and God; they say, in short, of their lives what St. Peter said of his work – “We have labored, and have taken nothing” – we work hard, have many cares, we have a real desire to save our souls, yet our lives do not seem to be drawing any nearer to holiness or to God.
Well, to such persons I say: as you have made St. Peter’s complaint your own, suppose you were also to make your own the remainder of his speech. Having declared that you have labored a long time, and effected little or nothing, suppose that you were now to say – But for the future, at the word of the Lord, I will do my work, I will put it under His protection, do it for His sake. I will begin to make religion a part of my daily life, to take supernatural views of things, to put before me supernatural ends. I have hitherto, perhaps, been working at random, and I cannot see that it has profited me much; now I will begin to work for God, and knowing what I know of His infinite goodness, I may fair4ly expect to have a success so great that, as in the case of St. peter, the net will break and the boat nearly sink I shall be so filled with blessings.
I ask you to make your daily life religious, to put a supernatural stamp upon your acts, that they may not only serve the purposes of this life, but may als9 pass current in the Kingdom of Grace, and purchase the treasures of eternal glory.
There are a great many persons, and by no means badly disposed persons, who maintain a sharp distinction between their religious lives and their daily lives in the world. Many a man uses his religion precisely as he uses his Sunday coat. It is far too good for everyday wear; he puts it by carefully all the week, and as soon as Sunday comes, he takes it out of the box and puts it on. It is very respectable, there is a fine gloss upon it; but sides the gloss there are creases in it, that show that it is not worn every day. It is more than likely that, while he is wearing it, he does not feel quite at home, and has a half-longing for the time to arrive when he can take it off, and return to his ordinary week-day clothes. Now, all this is very prudent in the matter of clothes, but it is quite a mistake in the matter of religion, because religion, to be of any service, must be something that is not put off and on, something that makes a part of your very selves. You have souls to save on weekdays as well as on Sundays; and when the Church consecrates one day specially to God, she by no means intends to leave room for the conclusion that the other six belong to the world, or the flesh, or the devil.
All our days must be holy. First, we must make them holy by avoiding at least mortal sin, if we have the slightest wish to avoid hell. But we must try and do more – we must not only avoid evil, we must also do good.
Suppose I said to you, you must all become saints, you would be very apt to think that I was asking too much. We are apt to draw a wide distinction between those of God’s servants whom we call “the saints” and ordinary Christians like ourselves. And a wide distinction there undoubtedly is. But let not the distinction blind us to the common likeness that must exist between the saints and our poor weak selves, if we ever enter heaven. We all hope to be saved; but has it ever struck you that the only claim you will have to heaven is the title that you, too, are saints? There will be no human being in heaven who is not a saint, and whose sanctity has not been attained in this mortal life. Hence, if you really wish to avoid hell and gain heaven there is just one way – be saints.
Now, let us see what this means. What is your idea of a saint? In the first place you know that you are far from being like the saints of whom you read, and you have a vague impression that in order to be saints yourselves you would have to do something extraordinary – that you would have to break up your settled course of life, lay aside your worldly pursuits, spend on your knees in prayer the time you now spend working for your daily bread. Perhaps in addition to this you have certain floating notions of hair shirts, and disciplines, of fasts carried to the verge of starvation, and of austerities that frighten this cowardly body of ours. It may be, too, that you are under the impression that it would be essential to fall into an ecstasy, to see a vision, to work a miracle. All these elements enter vaguely into the popular notion of a saint. Now, suppose you found that none of these things are absolutely essential to sanctity. Suppose you found that you could be, to all intents and purposes, saints, without making any violent change in your condition of life. Suppose you found that ecstasies and visions are not essential, and that no one is bound, on the peril of his salvation, to work a miracle. Suppose you found that, though fasting and austerity are admirable means of sanctity, yet you can be, in your measure, saints, without carrying them to an extraordinary length. Suppose, in short, you fund that you could make yourselves saints by just doing the work you have to do every day, if you only did it rightly, would not this encourage you to begin at once and try to be saints on such easy conditions. Now, this is just the case. The saints, however they differed in gifts or graces, all showed one thing in common – they did rightly, they did for God, the duties of their state of life, whatever it happened to be.
The way of it is this. First, you must keep free from mortal sin. If a man will continue to live in a state of damnation, if he is such a madman as to face the dangers of the day and the mysteries of the night, in a state of mortal sin, there is little use in talking to him about sanctity. He is walking on the edge of a precipice, and if he continue to do so, one day, when he least expects it, he will find himself in hell. To do any good, then, you must first be free from moral sin; next, you must daily beg of God the grace you stand in need of; and lastly, you must do your daily acts for God. Offer up to Hm your daily work, your trials, your troubles, the crosses and annoyances you meet with, everything you do, and say, and think, and suffer, through the infinite merits of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, if a man would only do this; if, being free from mortal sin, he made this offering every morning and evening, and renewed it during the day whenever it came into his mind, he would, without any trouble, be advancing in sanctity every moment of his life. Our sanctity is measured by the amount of grace we have; and there is not a separate act so done, but would bring its separate reward of grace here, and its corresponding degree of eternal glory hereafter. The evil, the great evil is, that for the neglect of so small a thing as purifying and sanctifying his intention, many even well-meaning, pious-minded Christians, are, all their lives, losing inestimable treasures of merit.
Our Blessed Lord has laid down for us a very simple rule of life: “If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” From the fact that our Lord uses the word “daily” it is evident that He does not mean any extraordinary cross, but just such crosses as daily life is liable to bring. Now, with regard to this rule of life, it is worth remarking that everyone, saint and sinner, must, in the very nature of things, deny himself and bear a cross. No matter how self-willed a man may be, no matter how determined he may be to have his own way, there are a thousand things in which his will is thwarted. Nature, and society, the distinctions of rank, the unequal distribution of wealth, impose limits to the most imperious self-will. There are certain things which a man cannot afford to do, because the law would punish hm, certain others from which he has to abstain because if he did them his prospects in life would be injured, and so on. In fact, there is nothing a man sooner learns in his dealings with the world, that that, do his best, he cannot always have his own way. He must deny himself. Why, then, will he not do for God what he has to do, in spite of himself, for a world, which can neither give him peace here nor heaven hereafter?
It is the same thing in the matter of crosses. A man may , in the perversity of his heart, refuse to be a disciple of Jesus at all; he may take his soul into his foolish hands, and not the very power of heaven will prevent him from damning himself if he will; but suppose he is mad enough and wicked enough to do this, does he thereby escape the cross? Not a bit of it. The cross will be laid on him whether he will or no. The troubles of life, the cares and the annoyances which we call crosses will come to him as well as to his Christian neighbors. He will feel their weight, and groan under hem, he will rebel against them and curse them, but they are there, and he must bear them. All his life he has had to deny himself, and to take up his cross, but he would not do the last and easiest part, he would not follow Jesus, he would not put himself in the state of grace, and do those things for God. And at the bitter end he will find himself in hell; and he will find that others who were in the same state of life, his friends and neighbors, who did the labors he did, who bore the crosses he bore, who worked, perhaps, by his side, in the same field or in the same workshop, these, because they lived for God, will be receiving the reward of their works in everlasting happiness.
If hitherto you have been careless about doing your daily duties for God, about directing the intentions of all your acts to Him, resolve to begin now. Make a resolution in the presence of God that for the future you will, at your morning and evening prayers, and as often during the day as the thought occurs to you, offer up to God, through the merits of Jesus, your thoughts, words, and actions. And you could not begin such a practice on a more appropriate day than this, when the Church is celebrating the Festival of the Most Precious Blood of our dear Lord. In that is all our salvation, all our hope. From “those fountains of salvation, all our hope. From “those fountains of the Savior we may draw water with joy.” The infinite merits of that Precious Blood are at our disposal if we will only use them. Through them we can make our own poor lives meritorious, and make our every act a preparation for the solemn, inevitable hour when we shall be judged according to our works.