A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
By WILLIAM LAW, A.M.
CHAPTER XXIVThe conclusion. Of the excellency and greatness of a devout spirit.
I HAVE now finished what I intended in this treatise. I have explained the nature of devotion, both as it signifies a life devoted to God, and as it signifies a regular method of daily prayer. I have now only to add a word or two, in recommendation of a life governed by this spirit of devotion.
For though it is as reasonable to suppose it the desire of all Christians to arrive at Christian perfection, as to suppose that all sick men desire to be restored to perfect health; yet experience shows us, that nothing wants more to be pressed, repeated, and forced upon our minds, than the plainest rules of Christianity.
Voluntary poverty, virginity, and devout retirement, have been here recommended as things not necessary, yet highly beneficial to those that would make the way to perfection the most easy and certain. But Christian perfection itself is tied to no particular form of life; but is to be attained, though not with the same ease, in every state of life.
This has been fully asserted in another place, where it has been shown, that Christian perfection calls no one (necessarily) to a cloister, but to the full performance of those duties, which are necessary for all Christians, and common to all states of life. [Christ. Perfect. p. 2]
So that the whole of the matter is plainly this: Virginity, voluntary poverty, and such other restraints of lawful things, are not necessary to Christian perfection; but are much to be commended in those who choose them as helps and means of a more safe and speedy arrival at it.
It is only in this manner, and in this sense, that I would recommend any particularity of life; not as if perfection consisted in it, but because of its great tendency to produce and support the true spirit of Christian perfection.
But the thing which is here pressed upon all, is a life of a great and strict devotion: which, I think, has been sufficiently shown to be equally the duty and happiness of all orders of men. Neither is there anything in any particular state of life, that can be justly pleaded as a reason for any abatements of a devout spirit.
But because in this polite age of ours, we have so lived away the spirit of devotion, that many seem afraid even to be suspected of it, imagining great devotion to be great bigotry: that it is founded in ignorance and poorness of spirit; and that little, weak, and dejected minds, are generally the greatest proficients in it:
It shall here be fully shown, that great devotion is the noblest temper of the greatest and noblest souls; and that they who think it receives any advantage from ignorance and poorness of spirit, are themselves not a little, but entirely ignorant of the nature of devotion, the nature of God, and the nature of themselves.
People of fine parts and learning, or of great knowledge in worldly matters, may perhaps think it hard to have their want of devotion charged upon their ignorance. But if they will be content to be tried by reason and Scripture, it may soon be made appear, that a want of devotion, wherever it is, either amongst the learned or unlearned, is founded in gross ignorance, and the greatest blindness and insensibility that can happen to a rational creature; and that devotion is so far from being the effect of a little and dejected mind, that it must and will be always highest in the most perfect natures.
And first, who reckons it a sign of a poor, little mind, for a man to be full of reverence and duty to his parents, to have the truest love and honour for his friend, or to excel in the highest instances of gratitude to his benefactor?
Are not these tempers in the highest degree, in the most exalted and perfect minds?
And yet what is high devotion, but the highest exercise of these tempers, of duty, reverence, love, honour, and gratitude to the amiable, glorious Parent, Friend, and Benefactor of all mankind?
Is it a true greatness of mind, to reverence the authority of your parents, to fear the displeasure of your friend, to dread the reproaches of your benefactor? And must not this fear, and dread, and reverence, be much more just, and reasonable, and honourable, when they are in the highest degree towards God?
Now as the higher these tempers are, the more are they esteemed amongst men, and are allowed to be so much the greater proofs of a true greatness of mind: so the higher and greater these same tempers are towards God, so much the more do they prove the nobility, excellence, and greatness of the mind.
So that so long as duty to parents, love to friends, and gratitude to benefactors, are thought great and honourable tempers; devotion, which is nothing else but duty, love, and gratitude to God, must have the highest place amongst our highest virtues.
If a prince, out of his mere goodness, should send you a pardon by one of his slaves, would you think it a part of your duty to receive the slave with marks of love, esteem, and gratitude for his great kindness, in bringing you so great a gift: and at the same time think it a meanness and poorness of spirit, to show love, esteem, and gratitude to the prince, who, of his own goodness, freely sent you the pardon?
And yet this would be as reasonable as to suppose that love, esteem, honour, and gratitude, are noble tempers, and instances of a great soul, when they are paid to our fellow-creatures; but the effects of a poor, ignorant, dejected mind, when they are paid to God.
Farther; that part of devotion which expresses itself in sorrowful confessions, and penitential tears of a broken and a contrite heart, is very far from being any sign of a little and ignorant mind.
For who does not acknowledge it an instance of an ingenuous, generous, and brave mind, to acknowledge a fault, and ask pardon for any offence? And are not the finest and most improved minds, the most remarkable for this excellent temper?
Is it not also allowed, that the ingenuity and excellence of a man's spirit is much shown, when his sorrow and indignation at himself rises in proportion to the folly of his crime, and the goodness and greatness of the person he has offended?
Now if things are thus, then the greater any man's mind is, the more he knows of God and himself, the more will he be disposed to prostrate himself before God, in all the humblest acts and expressions of repentance.
And the greater the ingenuity, the generosity, judgment, and penetration of his mind is, the more will he exercise and indulge a passionate, tender sense of God's just displeasure; and the more he knows of the greatness, the goodness, and perfection of the Divine nature, the fuller of shame and confusion will he be at his own sins and ingratitude.
And on the other hand, the more dull and ignorant any soul is, the more base and ungenerous it naturally is, the more senseless it is of the goodness and purity of God; so much the more averse will it be to all acts of humble confession and repentance.
Devotion, therefore, is so far from being best suited to little ignorant minds, that a true elevation of soul, a lively sense of honour, and great knowledge of God and ourselves, are the greatest natural helps that our devotion hath.
And on the other hand, it shall here be made appear by variety of arguments, that indevotion is founded on the most excessive ignorance.
And first, our blessed Lord, and His Apostles, were eminent instances of great and frequent devotion. Now if we will grant (as all Christians must grant) that their great devotion was founded in a true knowledge of the nature of devotion, the nature of God, and the nature of man; then it is plain, that all those that are insensible of the duty of devotion, are in this excessive state of ignorance, they neither know God, nor themselves, nor devotion.
For if a right knowledge in these three respects produces great devotion, as in the case of our Saviour and His Apostles, then a neglect of devotion must be chargeable upon ignorance.
Again; how comes it that most people have recourse to devotion, when they are in sickness, distress, or fear of death? Is it not because this state shows them more of the want of God, and their own weakness, than they perceive at other times? Is it not because their infirmities, their approaching end, convince them of something, which they did not half perceive before?
Now if devotion at these seasons is the effect of a better knowledge of God and ourselves, then the neglect of devotion, at other times, is always owing to great ignorance of God and ourselves.
Farther; as indevotion is ignorance, so it is the most shameful ignorance, and such as is to be charged with the greatest folly.
This will fully appear to any one that considers by what rules we are to judge of the excellency of any knowledge, or the shamefulness of any ignorance.
Now knowledge itself would be no excellence, nor ignorance any reproach to us, but that we are rational creatures.
But if this be true, then it follows plainly, that that knowledge which is most suitable to our rational nature, and which most concerns us, as such, to know, is our highest, finest knowledge; and that ignorance which relates to things that are most essential to us as rational creatures, and which we are most concerned to know, is, of all others, the most gross and shameful ignorance.
If therefore there be any things that concern us more than others, if there be any truths that are more to us than all others, he that has the fullest knowledge of these things, that sees these truths in the clearest, strongest light, has, of all others, as a rational creature, the clearest understanding, and the strongest parts.
If therefore our relation to God be our greatest relation, if our advancement in His favour be our highest advancement, he that has the highest notions of the excellence of this relation, he that most strongly perceives the highest worth, and great value of holiness and virtue, that judges everything little, when compared with it, proves himself to be master of the best and most excellent knowledge.
If a judge has fine skill in painting, architecture, and music, but at the same time has gross and confused notions of equity, and a poor, dull apprehension of the value of justice, who would scruple to reckon him a poor ignorant judge?
If a bishop should be a man of great address and skill in the arts of preferment, and understanding how to raise and enrich his family in the world, but should have no taste nor sense of the maxims and principles of the saints and fathers of the Church; if he did not conceive the holy nature and great obligations of his calling, and judge it better to be crucified to the world, than to live idly in pomp and splendour; who would scruple to charge such a bishop with want of understanding?
If we do not judge and pronounce after this manner, our reason and judgment are but empty sounds.
But now, if a judge is to be reckoned ignorant, if he does not feel and perceive the value and worth of justice; if a bishop is to be looked upon as void of understanding, if he is more experienced in other things than in the exalted virtues of his apostolical calling; then all common Christians are to be looked upon as more or less knowing, accordingly as they know more or less of those great things which are the common and greatest concern of all Christians.
If a gentleman should fancy that the moon is no bigger than it appears to the eye, that it shines with its own light, that all the stars are only so many spots of light; if, after reading books of astronomy, he should still continue in the same opinion, most people would think he had but a poor apprehension.
But if the same person should think it better to provide for a short life here, than to prepare for a glorious eternity hereafter; that it was better to be rich, than to be eminent in piety, his ignorance and dulness would be too great to be compared to anything else.
There is no knowledge that deserves so much as the name of it, but that which we call judgment.
And that is the most clear and improved understanding, which judges best of the value and worth of things. All the rest is but the capacity of an animal, it is but mere seeing and hearing.
And there is no excellence of any knowledge in us, till we exercise our judgment, and judge well of the value and worth of things.
If a man had eyes that could see beyond the stars, or pierce into the heart of the earth, but could not see the things that were before him, or discern anything that was serviceable to him, we should reckon that he had but a very bad sight.
If another had ears that received sounds from the world in the moon, but could hear nothing that was said or done upon earth, we should look upon him to be as bad as deaf.
In like manner, if a man has a memory that can retain a great many things; if he has a wit that is sharp and acute in arts and sciences, or an imagination that can wander agreeably in fictions, but has a dull, poor apprehension of his duty and relation to God, of the value of piety, or the worth of moral virtue, he may very justly be reckoned to have a bad understanding. He is but like the man, that can only see and hear such things as are of no benefit to him.
As certain therefore as piety, virtue, and eternal happiness are of the most concern to man; as certain as the immortality of our nature and relation to God, are the most glorious circumstances of our nature; so certain is it, that he who dwells most in contemplation of them, whose heart is most affected with them, who sees farthest into them, who best comprehends the value and excellency of them, who judges all worldly attainments to be mere bubbles and shadows in comparison of them, proves himself to have, of all others, the finest understanding, and the strongest judgment.
And if we do not reason after this manner, or allow this method of reasoning, we have no arguments to prove that there is any such thing as a wise man, or a fool.
For a man is proved to be a natural, not because he wants any of his senses, or is incapable of everything, but because he has no judgment, and is entirely ignorant of the worth and value of things. He will perhaps choose a fine coat rather than a large estate.
And as the essence of stupidity consists in the entire want of judgment, in an ignorance of the value of things, so, on the other hand, the essence of wisdom and knowledge must consist in the excellency of our judgment, or in the knowledge of the worth and value of things.
This therefore is an undeniable proof, that he who knows most of the value of the best things, who judges most rightly of the things which are of most concern to him, who had rather have his soul in a state of Christian perfection, than the greatest share of worldly happiness, has the highest wisdom, and is at the farthest distance from men that are naturals, that any knowledge can place him.
On the other hand, he that can talk the learned languages, and repeat a great deal of history, but prefers the indulgence of his body to the purity and perfection of his soul, who is more concerned to get a name or an estate here, than to live in eternal glory hereafter, is in the nearest state to that natural, who chooses a painted coat, rather than a large estate.
He is not called a natural by men, but he must appear to God and heavenly beings, as in a more excessive state of stupidity, and will sooner or later certainly appear so to himself.
But now if this be undeniably plain, that we cannot prove a man to be a fool, but by showing that he has no knowledge of things that are good and evil to himself; then it is undeniably plain, that we cannot prove a man to be wise, but by showing that he has the fullest knowledge of things, that are his greatest good, and his greatest evil.
If, therefore, God be our greatest good; if there can be no good but in His favour, nor any evil but in departing from Him, then it is plain, that he who judges it the best thing he can do to please God to the utmost of his power, who worships and adores Him with all his heart and soul, who would rather have a pious mind than all the dignities and honours in the world, shows himself to be in the highest state of human wisdom.
To proceed: We know how our blessed Lord acted in a human body; it was His meat and drink, to do the will of His Father which is in Heaven.
And if any number of heavenly spirits were to leave their habitations in the light of God, and be for a while united to human bodies, they would certainly tend towards God in all their actions, and be as heavenly as they could, in a state of flesh and blood.
They would certainly act in this manner, because they would know that God was the only good of all spirits; and that whether they were in the body, or out of the body, in Heaven, or on earth, they must have every degree of their greatness and happiness from God alone.
All human spirits, therefore, the more exalted they are, the more they know their Divine original, the nearer they come to heavenly spirits; by so much the more will they live to God in all their actions, and make their whole life a state of devotion.
Devotion therefore is the greatest sign of a great and noble genius; it supposes a soul in its highest state of knowledge; and none but little and blinded minds, that are sunk into ignorance and vanity, are destitute of it.
If a human spirit should imagine some mighty prince to be greater than God, we should take him for a poor, ignorant creature; all people would acknowledge such an imagination to be the height of stupidity.
But if this same human spirit should think it better to be devoted to some mighty prince, than to be devoted to God, would not this still be a greater proof of a poor, ignorant, and blinded nature?
Yet this is what all people do, who think anything better, greater, or wiser, than a devout life.
So that which way soever we consider this matter, it plainly appears, that devotion is an instance of great judgment, of an elevated nature; and the want of devotion is a certain proof of the want of understanding.
The greatest spirits of the heathen world, such as Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Antonius, etc., owed all their greatness to the spirit of devotion.
They were full of God; their wisdom and deep contemplations tended only to deliver men from the vanity of the world, the slavery of bodily passions, that they might act as spirits that came from God, and were soon to return to Him.
Again: To see the dignity and greatness of a devout spirit, we need only compare it with other tempers, that are chosen in the room of it.
St. John tells us, that all in the world (that is, all the tempers of a worldly life) is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.
Let us therefore consider, what wisdom or excellency of mind there is required to qualify a man for these delights.
Let us suppose a man given up to the pleasures of the body; surely this can be no sign of a fine mind, or an excellent spirit: for if he has but the temper of an animal, he is great enough for these enjoyments.
Let us suppose him to be devoted to honours and splendours, to be fond of glitter and equipage: now if this temper required any great parts, or fine understanding, to make a man capable of it, it would prove the world to abound with great wits.
Let us suppose him to be in love with riches, and to be so eager in the pursuit of them, as never to think he has enough: now this passion is so far from supposing any excellent sense, or great understanding, that blindness and folly are the best supports that it hath.
Let us lastly suppose him in another light, not singly devoted to any of these passions, but, as it mostly happens, governed by all of them in their turns; does this show a more exalted nature, than to spend his days in the service of any one of them?
For to have a taste for these things, and to be devoted to them, is so far from arguing any tolerable parts or understandings, that they are suited to the dullest, weakest minds, and require only a great deal of pride and folly to be greatly admired.
But now let libertines bring any such charge as this, if they can, against devotion. They may as well endeavour to charge light with everything that belongs to darkness.
Let them but grant that there is a God and providence, and then they have granted enough to justify the wisdom, and support the honour of devotion.
For if there is an infinitely wise and good Creator, in whom we live, move, and have our being, whose providence governs all things in all places, surely it must be the highest act of our understanding to conceive rightly of Him; it must be the noblest instance of judgment, the most exalted temper of our nature, to worship and adore this universal providence, to conform to its laws, to study its wisdom, and to live and act everywhere, as in the presence of this infinitely good and wise Creator.
Now he that lives thus, lives in the spirit of devotion.
And what can show such great parts, and so fine an understanding, as to live in this temper?
For if God is wisdom, surely he must be the wisest man in the world, who most conforms to the wisdom of God, who best obeys His providence, who enters farthest into His designs, and does all he can, that God's will may be done on earth, as it is done in Heaven.
A devout man makes a true use of his reason: he sees through the vanity of the world, discovers the corruption of his nature, and the blindness of his passion. He lives by a law which is not visible to vulgar eyes; he enters into the world of spirits; he compares the greatest things, sets eternity against time; and chooses rather to be forever great in the presence of God, when he dies, than to have the greatest share of worldly pleasure whilst he lives.
He that is devout, is full of these great thoughts; he lives upon these noble reflections, and conducts himself by rules and principles, which can only be apprehended, admired, and loved by reason.
There is nothing therefore that shows so great a genius, nothing that so raises us above vulgar spirits, nothing that so plainly declares an heroic greatness of mind, as great devotion.
When you suppose a man to be a saint, or all devotion, you have raised him as much above all other conditions of life, as a philosopher is above an animal.
Lastly; courage and bravery are words of a great sound, and seem to signify an heroic spirit; but yet humility, which seems to be the lowest, meanest part of devotion, is a more certain argument of a noble and courageous mind.
For humility contends with greater enemies, is more constantly engaged, more violently assaulted, bears more, suffers more, and requires greater courage to support itself, than any instances of worldly bravery.
A man that dares be poor and contemptible in the eyes of the world, to approve himself to God; that resists and rejects all human glory, that opposes the clamour of his passions, that meekly puts up with all injuries and wrongs, and dares stay for his reward till the invisible hand of God gives to every one their proper places, endures a much greater trial, and exerts a nobler fortitude, than he that is bold and daring in the fire of battle.
For the boldness of a soldier, if he is a stranger to the spirit of devotion, is rather weakness than fortitude; it is at best but mad passion, and heated spirits, and has no more true valour in it than the fury of a tiger.
For as we cannot lift up a hand, or stir a foot, but by a power that is lent us from God; so bold actions that are not directed by the laws of God, as so many executions of His will, are no more true bravery, than sedate malice is Christian patience.
Reason is our universal law, that obliges us in all places, and at all times; and no actions have any honour, but so far as they are instances of our obedience to reason.
And it is as base and cowardly, to be bold and daring against the principle of reason and justice, as to be bold and daring in lying and perjury.
Would we therefore exercise a true fortitude, we must do all in the spirit of devotion, be valiant against the corruptions of the world, and the lusts of the flesh, and the temptations of the devil; for to be daring and courageous against these enemies, is the noblest bravery that an human mind is capable of.
I have made this digression, for the sake of those who think a great devotion to be bigotry and poorness of spirit; that by these considerations they may see, how poor and mean all other tempers are, if compared to it; that they may see, that all worldly attainments, whether of greatness, wisdom, or bravery, are but empty sounds; and there is nothing wise, or great, or noble, in an human spirit, but rightly to know and heartily worship and adore the great God, that is the support and life of all spirits, whether in Heaven or on earth.
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This document is from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library
at Calvin College. Last updated on July 16, 1999.