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Of daily Examination of our Actions in the whole course of our Health, preparatory to our Deathbed.
He that will die well and happily must dress his soul by a diligent and frequent scrutiny; he must perfectly understand and watch the state of his soul; he must set his house in order, before he be fit to die. And for this there is great reason and great necessity.
1. For if we consider the disorders of every day, the multitude of impertinent words, the great portions of time spent in vanity, the daily omissions of duty, the coldness of our prayers, the indifference of our spirit in holy things, the uncertainty of our secret purposes, our infinite deceptions and hypocrisies, sometimes not known, very often not observed by ourselves, our want of charity, our not knowing in how many degrees of action and purpose every virtue is to be exercised, the secret adherences of pride, and too forward complacency in our best actions, our failings in all our relations, the niceties of difference between some virtues and some vices, the secret, indiscernible passages from lawful to unlawful in the first instances of change, the perpetual mistakings of permissions for duty, and licentious practices for permissions, our daily abusing the liberty that God gives us, our unsuspected sins in the managing a course of life certainly lawful, our little greedinesses in eating, our surprises in the proportions of our drinking, our too great freedoms and fondnesses in lawful loves, our aptness for things sensual, and our deadness and tediousness of spirit in spiritual employments; besides infinite variety of cases of conscience that do occur in the life of every man, and in all intercourses of every life, and that the productions of sin are numerous and increasing, like the families of the northern people, or the genealogies of the first patriarchs of the world; from all this we shall find that the computations of a man's life are busy as the tables of sines and tangents, and intricate as the accounts of eastern merchants; and therefore it were but reason we should sum up our accounts at the foot of every page, I mean that we call ourselves to scrutiny every night, when we compose ourselves to the little images of death.
2. For if we make but one general account, and never reckon till we die, either we shall only reckon by great sums, and remember nothing but clamorous and crying sins, and never consider concerning particulars, or forget very many; or if we could consider all that we ought, we must needs be confounded with the multitude and variety. But if we observe all the little passages of our life, and reduce into the order of accounts and accusations, we shall find them multiply so fast, that it will not only appear to be an ease to the accounts of our death-bed, but by the instrument of shame will restrain the inundation of evils; it being a thing intolerable to human modesty to see sins increase so fast, and virtues grow up so slow; to see every day stained with the spots of leprosy, or sprinkled with the marks of a lesser evil.
3. It is not intended we should take accounts of our lives only to be thought religious, but that we may see our evil and amend it, that we dash our sins against the stones, that we may go to God, and to a spiritual guide, and search for remedies, and apply them. And indeed no man can well observe his own growth in grace, but by accounting seldomer returns of sin, and a more frequent victory over temptations; concerning which every man makes his inquires and search after himself. In order to this it was that St. Paul wrote, before receiving the holy sacrament, ‘Let a man examine himself and so let him eat.' This precept was given in those days when they communicated every day; and therefore a daily examination also was intended.
4. And it will appear highly fitting, if we remember that, at the day of judgment, not only the greatest lines of life, but every branch and circumstance of every action, every word and thought, shall be called to scrutiny and severe judgment; insomuch that it was a great truth which one said, Woe be to the most innocent life, if God should search into it without mixtures of mercy. And therefore we are here to follow St. Paul's advice, ‘Judge yourselves, and you shall not be judged of the Lord.' The way to prevent God's anger is to be angry with ourselves; and by examining our actions, and condemning the criminal, by being assessors in God's tribunal, at least we shall obtain the favour of the court. As therefore every night we must make our bed the memorial of our grave, so let our evening thoughts be an image of the day of judgment.
5. This advice was so reasonable and proper an instrument of virtue, that it was taught even to the scholars of Pythagoras by their master;5151Hierocl. Let not sleep seize upon the regions of your senses before you have three times recalled the conversation and accidents of the day.” Examine what you have committed against the Divine law, what you have ommitted of your duty, and in what you have made use of the divine grace to the purposes of virtue and religion; joining the judge, reason, to the legislative mind or conscience, that God may reign there as a lawgiver and a judge. Then Christ's kingdom is set up in our hearts: then we always live in the eye of our Judge, and live by the measures of reason, religion, and sober counsels.
The benefits we shall receive by practising this advice, in order to a blessed death, will also add to the account of reason and fair inducements.
1. By a daily examination of our actions we shall the easier cure a great sin, and prevent its arrival to become habitual. For to examine we suppose to be a relative duty, and instrumental to something else. We examine ourselves, that we may find out our failings and cure them; and therefore if we use our remedy when the wound is fresh and bleeding, we shall find the cure more certain and less painful. For so a taper, when its crown of flame is newly blown off, retains a nature so symbolical to light, that it will with greediness rekindle bolical to light, that it will with greediness rekindle and snatch a ray from the neighbour fire. So is the soul of man when it is newly fallen into sin; although God be angry with it, and the state of God's favour and its own graciousness is interrupted, yet the habit is not naturally changed; and still God leaves some roots of virtue standing, and the man is modest or apt to be made ashamed, and he is not grown a bold sinner; but if he sleeps on it, and returns again to the same sin, and by degrees grows in love with it, and gets the custom, and the strangeness of it is taken away, then it is his master, and is swelled into a heap, and is abetted by use, and corroborated by newly-entertained principles, and is insinuated into his nature, and hath possessed his affections, and tainted the will and the understanding; and by this time a man is in the state of a decaying merchant, his accounts are so great and so intricate, and so much in arrear, that to examine it will be but to represent the particulars of his calamity; therefore they think it better to pull the napkin before their eyes than to state upon the circumstances of their death.
2. A daily or frequent examination of the parts of our life will interrupt the proceeding and hinder the journey of little sins into a heap. For many days do not pass the best person in which they have not many idle words or vainer thoughts to sully the fair whiteness of their souls; some indiscreet passions of trifling purposes, some impertinent discontents or unhandsome useages of their dearest relatives. And though God is not extreme to mark what is done amiss, and therefore puts these upon the accounts of his mercy, and the title of the cross; yet in two cases these little sins combine and cluster; and we know that grapes were once in so great a bunch, that one cluster was the load of two men; that is, 1. When either we are in love with small sins; or, 2. When they proceed from a careless and incurious spirit into frequency and continuance. For so the smallest atoms that dance in all the little cells of the world are so trifling and immaterial, that they cannot trouble an eye, nor vex the tenderest part of a wound where a barbed arrow dwelt; yet when, by their infinite numbers, (as Melissa and Parmenides affirm,) they danced first into order, then into little bodies, at last they made the matter of the world; so are the little indiscretions of our life; they are always inconsiderable if they be not despised, and God does not regard them if we do. We may easily keep them asunder by our daily or nightly thoughts and prayers and severe sentences; but even the least sand can check the tumultuous pride, and become a limit to the sea, when it is in a heap and in united multitudes; but if the wind scatter and divide them, the little drops and the vainer froth of the water begin to invade the strand. Our sighs can scatter such little offences; but then be sure to breathe such accents frequently, lest they knot and combine, and grow big as the shore, and we perish in sand, in trifling instances. ‘He that despiseth little things, shall perish by little and little:' so said the son of Sirach.5252Ecclus. xix.1.
3. A frequent examination of our actions will intenerate and soften our consciences, so that they shall be impatient of any rudeness or heavier load; and he that is used to shrink, when he is pressed with a branch of twining osier,5353Qui levi comminatione pellitur, non opus est, ut fortitudin et armis invadatur.—Seneca. will not willingly stand in the ruins of a house when the beam dashes upon the pavement. And provided that our nice and tender spirit be not vexed into scruple, nor the scruple turn into unreasonable fears, nor the fears into superstition; he that, by any arts, can make his spirit tender and apt for religious impressions, hath made the fairest seat for religion, and the unaptest and uneasiest entertainment for sin and eternal death, in the whole world.
4. A frequent examination of the smallest parts of our lives is the best instrument to make our repentance particular, and a fit remedy to all the members of the whole body of sin. For our examination, put off to our death-bed, of necessity brings us into this condition, that very many thousands of our sins must be (or not be at all) washed off with a general repentance, which the more general and indefinite it is, it is ever so much the worse. And if he that repents the longest and the oftenest, and upon the most instances, is still, during his whole life, but an imperfect penitent, and there are very many reserves left to be wiped off by God's mercies, and to be eased by collateral assistances, or to be groaned for at the terrible day of judgment; it will be but a sad story to consider that the sins of a whole life, or of very great portions of it, shall be put upon the remedy of one examination, and the advices of one discourse, and the activities of a decayed body, and a weak and an amazed spirit. Let us do the best we can, we shall find that the mere sins of ignorance and unavoidable forgetfulness will be enough to be entrusted to such a bank; and if that a general repentance will serve towards their expiation, it will be an infinite mercy; but we have nothing to warrant our confidence, if we shall think it to be enough on our death-bed to confess the notorious actions of our lives, and to say, “The Lord be merciful unto me for the infinite transgressions of my life, which I have wilfully or carelessly forgot;” for very many of which the repentance, the distinct, particular, circumstantiate repentance of a whole life have been too little if we could have done more.
5. After the enumeration of these advantages, I shall not need to add, that if we decline or refuse to call ourselves frequently to account, and to use daily advices concerning the state of our souls, it is a very ill sign that our souls are not right with God, or that they do not dwell in religion. But this I shall say, that they who do use this exercise frequently will make their conscience much at ease, by casting out a daily load of humour and surfeit, the matter of diseases and the instruments of death. “He that does not frequently search his conscience, is a house without a window,” and like a wild untutored son of a fond and undiscerning widow.
But if this exercise seem too great a trouble, and that by such advices religion will seem a burden, I have two things to oppose against it:
1. One is, that we had better bear the burden of the Lord than the burden of a base and polluted conscience. Religion cannot be so great a trouble as a guilty soul; and whatsoever trouble can be fancied in this or any other action of religion, it is only to inexperienced persons. It may be a trouble at first, just as is every change and every new accident; but if you do it frequently, and accustom your spirit to it, as the custom will make it easy,5454Elige vitam optimam, consuetudo faciet jucundissimam.—Seneca. so the advantages will make it delectable; that will make it facile as nature, these will make it as pleasant and eligible as reward.
2. The other thing I have to say is this, that to examine our lives will be no trouble, if we do not intricate it with the businesses of the world and the labyrinths of care and impertinent affairs.5555Securae et quietae mentis est in omnes vitue partes discurrere; occupatorum animi velut sub jugo sunt, respicere non possunt.—Seneca. A man needs a quiet and disentangled life who comes to search into all his actions, and to make judgment concerning his errors and his needs, his remedies and his hopes. They that have great intrigues of the world have a yoke upon their necks and cannot look back; and he that covets many things greedily, and snatches at high things ambitiously, that despises his neighbour proudly, and bears this crosses peevishly, or his prosperity impotently and passionately; he that is prodigal of his precious time, and is tenacious and retentive of evil purposes, is not a man disposed to this exercise; he hath reason to be afraid of his own memory, and to dash his glass in pieces, because it must needs represent to his own eyes an intolerable deformity. He therefore that resolves to live well, whatsoever it costs him; he that will go to heaven at any rate, shall best tend this duty by neglecting the affairs of the world in all things where prudently he may. But of our death-bed and the examination made by a disturbed understanding will be very empty of comfort and full of inconveniences.
6. For hence it comes that men die so timorously and uncomfortably, as if they were forced out of their lives by the violence of an executioner. Then, without much examination, they remember how wickedly they have lived, without religion, against the laws of the covenant of grace, without God in the world; then they see sin goes off like an amazed, wounded, affrighted person from a lost battle, without honour, without a veil, with nothing but shame and sad remembrances; then they can consider, that if they had lived virtuously all the trouble and objection of that would now be past, and all that had remained should be peace and joy, and all that good which dwells within the house of God and eternal life. But now they find they have done amiss and dealt wickedly, they have no bank of good works, but a huge treasure of wrath, and they are going to a strange place, and what shall be their lot is uncertain: (so they say, when they would comfort and flatter themselves:) but in truth of religion their portion is sad and intolerable, without hope and without refreshment, and they must use little silly arts to make them go off from their stage of sins with some handsome circumstances of opinion: they will in civility be abused, that they may die quietly, and go decently to their execution, and leave their friends indifferently contented, and apt to be comforted; and by that time they are gone awhile they see that they deceived themselves all their days, and were by others deceived at last.
Let us make it our own case: we shall come to that state and period of condition in which we shall be infinitely comforted if we have lived well; or else be amazed and go off trembling, because we are guilty of heaps of unrepented and unforsaken sins. It may happen, we shall not then understand it so, because most men of late ages have been abused with false principles, and they are taught (or they are willing to believe) that a little thing is enough to save them, and that heaven is so cheap a purchase that it will fall upon them whether they will or no. The misery of it is, they will not suffer themselves to be confuted till it be too late to recant their error. In the interim, they are impatient to be examined, as a leper is of a comb, and are greedy of the world, as children of raw fruit; and they hate a severe reproof as they do thorns in their bed; and they love to lay aside religion as a drunken person does to forget his sorrow; and all the way they dream of fine things and their dreams prove contrary, and become the hieroglyphics of an eternal sorrow. The daughter of Polycrates dreamed that her father was lifted up, and that Jupiter washed him, and the sun annointed him; but it proved to him but a sad prosperity; for after a long life of constant prosperous success he was surprised by his enemies, and hanged up till the dew of heaven wet his cheeks, and the sun melted his grease. Such is the condition of those persons who, living either in the despite or in the neglect of religion, lie wallowing in the drunkenness of prosperity or worldly cares; they think themselves to be exalted, till the evil day overtakes them; and then they can expound their dream of life to end in a sad and hopeless death. I remember that Cleomenes was called a god by the Egyptians, because when he was hanged a serpent grew out of his body, and wrapped itself about his head, till the philosophers of Egypt said it was natural that from the marrow of some bodies such productions should arise. And indeed it represents the condition of some men, who being dead are esteemed saints and beatified persons, when their head is encircled with dragons and is entered into the possession of devils, that old serpent and deceiver. For indeed their life was secretly so corrupted, that such serpents fed upon the ruins of the spirit, and the decays of grace and reason. To be cozened in making judgments concerning our final condition is extremely easy; but if we be cozened we are infinitely miserable.
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