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Sermon for St. Stephen’s Day
Of three grades of those who learn to die unto themselves, like corn of wheat, that they may bring forth fruit; or of those who are beginners, those who are advancing, and those who are perfect in a Divine life.
John xii. 24.—“Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”
BY the corn of wheat we understand our Lord Jesus Christ, who by His death has brought forth much fruit for all men, if they are but willing not only to reign with Him, but also and in the first place desire to follow Him in a dying life. For this may be called a dying life, when a man for the love of God refuses to gratify his senses and take his natural pleasure, and follow his own will; and as many lusts as he dies to, so many deaths does he offer to God, and so many fruits of life will he receive in return. For in what measure a man dies to himself, and grows out of himself, in the same measure does God, who is our Life, enter into him.
Now mark, dear children, that the path of a man thus dying may be divided into three stages. Those who have entered on the lowest stage, do acts of self-denial 396from fear of hell, and for the hope of heaven, with some love to God mingled therewith, which leads them to shun the most flagrant sins; but the love of God seldom works strongly in them, except it be stirred up by the contemplation of hell or heaven; for by reason of their blind self-love these men are terribly afraid of death, and by no means eager to set their hand to the work of mortifying their undisciplined nature, which shrinks therefrom; and they have little faith, which is the cause of this timorous weakness, that leads them to be ever fearing for their own safety: thus, just as formerly they sought and loved themselves in all kinds of carnal enjoyments and worldly vanities, and avoided bodily pain and inconvenience out of self-love, so now is the same motive at work leading them to shun sin on account of punishment, in order to escape hell, and obtain the rewards of heaven. And when they are still young in the love of God, they are apt to taste little sweetness in loving God, save when they hope to enjoy something from His love; as for instance, to escape hell and get to heaven; and if sometimes they meditate on the sufferings of our Lord, and weep over them with strong emotion, it is because they think how he was willing to suffer so much for their sakes, and to redeem them by his bitter death; still (because their love is small) they are much more inclined to dwell upon the bodily sufferings that He endured in His human nature, than to reflect how He manifested by His death the highest perfection of all virtue, as humility, love, and patience, and therein so greatly glorified His Heavenly Father. For this sort of persons set out and begin to die while as yet they love themselves far too well; hence they are 397not yet able to see truly what it is to resign themselves to God, and to maintain a spirit of submission; and although God does all things for the best, yet this they will never believe, and it is a perpetual stumbling-block to them. Thus, they often ask and wonder why our Lord chose to suffer so much, and why He leads His friends and followers to Himself along such a path of suffering. And when they are at the outset of a dying life, and only half-way inclined towards true perfectness, nor perceive as yet wherein this consists, they ofttimes torment themselves with watching and fasting, and an austere way of life; for whatever is outwardly painful to the flesh, they fancy to be greatly and mightily regarded and prized by God. So when they eagerly take upon themselves all the hardships they can, then they think they have reached the summit of perfection, and judge all other men, nay even those who are much more perfect than themselves, and think meanly of all who do not practise outward austerities, calling them low-minded and ignorant in spiritual things; and those who do not feel as they do, they think to have gone astray altogether from a spiritual course, and desire that all men should be as they are; and whatever methods of avoiding sin they have practised and still make use of by reason of their infirmity, they desire, nay, demand, that every one else should observe; and if any do not do so, they judge them, and murmur at them, and say that they pay no regard to religion. Now, while they thus keep themselves and all that belongs to them as it were working in their own service, and in this self-love unduly regard themselves as their own property, they cut themselves off from our 398Lord and from the universal charity. For they ought to cherish continually a general love toward all men, both good and bad; but they remain absorbed in their partial and separate affections, whereby they bring upon themselves much disquiet, and remain a prey to their besetting sin of always seeking and intending themselves. And they are very niggardly of their spiritual blessings towards their fellow-Christians; for they devote all their prayers and religious exercises to their own behoof; and if they pray or do any other kind act for others, they think it a great thing, and fancy they have done them a great service thereby. In short, as they look little within, and are little enlightened in the knowledge of themselves, so also they make little increase in the love of God and their neighbour; for they are so entangled with unregulated affections, that they live alone in heart, not thoroughly commingling their soul with any in the right sort of thorough love. For the love of God which ought to unite them to God and all mankind, is wanting in them; and although they appear to keep the ordinances of God and the Holy Church, they do not keep the law of love. What they do is more out of constraint and fear than from hearty love; and because they are inwardly unfaithful to God, they dare not trust him, for the imperfection which they find in themselves makes a flaw in their love to God. Hence their whole life is full of care, full of fear, full of toil and ignoble misery; for they see Eternal Life on the one side, and fear to lose it, and see hell on the other, and fear to fall into it; and all their prayers and religious exercises cannot chase away their fear of hell, so long as they do not die unto themselves. For the more 399they love themselves, and take counsel for their own welfare, the more the fear of hell grows upon them; insomuch that when God does not help them forward as much as they wish, they complain; and they weep and sigh at every little difficulty they encounter, however small, such as being tempted to vanity, wandering thoughts, and the like. They make long stories of what is of no consequence, and talk about their great difficulties and sufferings, as if they were grievously wronged; for they esteem their works, although small, to be highly meritorious, and that God Almighty owes them great honour and blessings in return. But our Lord will tell them (as He does in fact afterward, when He has enlightened them with His grace) a poor fool loves his own wooden stick, or any other little worthless article, as well as a rich and wise man does his sword or any other great and precious thing.
All such are standing on the lowest steps of a dying life, and if they do not mortify themselves more, and come to experience more of what a dying life is, it is to be feared, that they will fall back from that little whereunto they have attained, and may plunge into depths of folly and wickedness, from which God keep us all! But before a man comes to such a fall, God gives him great spiritual delight; and upon this he is so greatly rejoiced that he cheerfully endures all sorts of austerities and penances, and then he weeneth that he hath arrived at perfection, and begins to judge his neighbours, and wants to shape all men after his own model, so greatly does he esteem himself in his own conceits. Then God comes in His mercy to teach him what he is, and 400shows him into what error he has fallen, and permits the Enemy to set before him and make him taste the sweetness of sin; and then, when he has thus tasted, he conceives an inclination to one sin after another, and he cannot rid himself of these inclinations. Then he wishes to flee sin that he may escape hell, and begins to do outward good works; and yet it is a dreadful toil to perform these good works as a mere labour, and to put himself to pain; thus he is brought into an agonizing struggle with himself, and does not know which way to turn; for he dimly sees that he has gone astray. Then must God of His mercy come and raise him up, and he shall cry earnestly to God for help, and his chief meditation shall be on the life and works and especially the sufferings of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The second degree in which the corn of wheat dies, is when a man is called upon to endure insult, contempt, and such like deaths; and so long as his grace lasts he would fain continue to suffer, for by the sense of undeserved injury all his powers are but quickened and raised into a higher state of activity. But when he is bereft of this gracious sense of the Divine presence, forasmuch as he is still far from perfection, he cannot bear up under this spiritual destitution, and, through his infirmity, falls a prey to mistrust of God, and fancies that God has forgotten him, and is not willing to help him towards perfection. Often he is in a hundred minds what to do or not do, and if our Lord show him some kindness, then he feels as if all were well between his soul and God, and he feels himself so rich as if he could never more be poor, and thinks to enjoy the presence and favour of God (though as yet he is quite untried) 401just as if the Almighty were his own personal, special friend, and is ready to believe that our Lord is, so to speak, at his disposal, will comfort him in adversity, and enrich him with all virtue. But forasmuch as our gracious Lord sees that such a man will be very apt to rely upon his imagined powers, and thus to fall grievously, and sees also that the best and ripest fruit is being lost, inasmuch as the man has not yet attained to that perfection to which our Lord desires to lead him, therefore in due time He withdraws from him all that He had revealed to him, because the man was too much occupied with himself, with thinking about his own perfection, wisdom, holiness and virtues; He thus brings him through poverty to dissatisfaction with himself, and a humble acknowledgment that he has neither wisdom nor worthiness; then does he begin to reflect within himself how justly Almighty God has stayed His hand from bestowing any sensible tokens of His mercy, because he fancied that he was something; now he sees clearly that he is nothing. He was wont to care for his good name and honour in the world and to defend them as a man stands up for his wedded wife, and to count them who spoke evil of him as an enemy to the common good. He was wont to desire and thirst after the reputation of holiness, like a meadow after the dew of heaven. He weened that men’s praises of him had proceeded altogether from real goodness and sympathy of heart and by God’s ordination, and had wandered so far from self-knowledge as not to see that he was in himself unsound from head to foot; he fancied that he was really as he stood in man’s opinion and knew nothing to the contrary.402
Here we must mark that he who wishes to heal himself of such like grievous mistakes, and subdue such an unmortified nature, must take note of three points in himself. First, how much he has striven to endure cheerfully, for the sake of goodness, all the rebuke, slander, and shame that has come upon him, patiently enduring it in his heart without outward complaint. Secondly, how much in the time of his rebuke, shame, and distress he has praised and glorified God and his fellow-men, and shown kindness to his neighbour in all ways, in spite of all contradiction against himself. Thirdly, let him examine himself whether he have loved with cheerful and willing heart the men or creatures who have thus persecuted him, and sincerely prayed for them; and if he finds that he has not done so, and is unwilling to do so, but is hard and bitter in his grief, then he may surely know and ought to feel certain that there is something false in him, and some resting in the praise of men and in his own spiritual pride, and that he is not dead. He has not yet come to the second step in a dying life.
But our kind Lord, like a tender mother who is full of love, or a wise physician who desires to restore a sick man to perfect health by his powerful remedies, suffers him to fall many times, that he may learn to know himself, and thus he falls into fleshly, unspiritual temptations such as he never experienced in those past days, in which he fancied himself very good and spiritual-minded. Out of mercy God deprives him of all understanding, and overclouds all the light in which he walked aforetime, and so hedges him in with the thorns of an anguished conscience, that he thinks nothing else but that he is 403cast off from the light of God’s countenance; and he moans greatly, and often with many tears exclaims: “O, my God, why hast Thou cast me off, and why go I thus mourning all the days of my pilgrimage?”
And when he finds himself thus from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot unlike God, and at variance with Him, he is filled with the sense of his own unworthiness and with displeasure at himself, insomuch that he can hardly abide himself; and then he thinks many miserable things about himself from passages of Holy Scripture, and sheds many tears in the sense of his sinfulness, till he is weighed down to the earth with the pressure of God’s hand, and exclaims with the Prophet: “My sins are more in number than the sands of the sea; they have taken hold upon me that I am not able to look up; for I have stirred up God’s anger against me, and done much evil in His sight.” These things he saith, and more of the like. And at times he is not even able thus to weep and lament and then he is still more tormented with tribulation and assaults; for on the one hand he feels a strong desire to cast himself down humbly and die to himself, and on the other he is conscious of great pride and arrogance about himself, till he is so exasperated at himself, that but for the dishonour to God he could fain kill himself. I believe that all such conflict greatly wears out the intellectual and natural powers, for it is so excessive, that one would rather suffer oneself to be put to death than endure it. Yet one grace is left him, namely, that he looks on it all as of no moment, whatever may be poured out over him, if only he may not knowingly offend God. 404After a while the grace of tears comes back to him, and he cries to God and says; “O Lord, arise! why sleepest thou?” and asks Him why He hath sealed up the fountains of His mercy. He calls upon the holy angels and blessed spirits to have pity on him. He asks the heavens why they have become as brass, and the earth wherefore she is as iron, and beseeches the very stones to have compassion on his woes. He exclaims: “Am I become as the blasted hill of Gilboa, which was cursed of David that no dew or rain should fall on it? And how should my wickedness alone vanquish the invincible God, and force Him to shut up His mercies whose property it is to have mercy and to help?”
In the second stage of the dying life God leads the soul through these exercises and operations of His hand as through fire and water by turns, until the workings of self-sufficiency are driven out from all the secret corners of the spirit, and the man henceforward is so utterly ashamed of himself, and so casts himself off, that he can never more ascribe any greatness to himself, but thoroughly perceives all his own weakness, in which he now is and always has been; and whatever he does or desires to do, or whatever good thing may be said of him, he does not take it to his own credit, for he knows not how to say anything else of himself, but that he is full of all manner of infirmity. Then he has reached the end of this stage; and he who has arrived at this point is not far from the threshold of great mercies, by which he shall enter into the bride-chamber of Christ. Then when the day of his death shall come, he shall be brought in by the Bridegroom with great rejoicing.405
It is hard to die. We know that little trees do not strike their roots deep into the earth, and therefore they cannot stand long; so it is with all humble hearts, who do not take deep root in earth, but in heaven. But the great trees which have waxed high, and are intended to endure long upon the earth, these strike their roots deep, and spread them out wide into the soil. So it is with the men who in old times and now at this present have been great upon earth, they must needs through many a struggle and death, die unto themselves before all the self-sufficiency of their heart can be broken down, and they can be surely and firmly rooted for ever in humility. It does, however, happen sometimes that the Holy Spirit finds easier ways than those of which we have spoken, whereby He brings such souls to Himself.
The third degree in which the corn of wheat dies belongs only to the perfect, who, with unflagging diligence and ceaseless desire, are ever striving to approach perfection. These men’s state is one of mingled joy and sorrow, whereby they are tossed up and down; for the Holy Spirit is trying and sifting them, and preparing them for perfection, with two kinds of grief and two kinds of joy and happiness, which they have ever in their sight. The first grief is an inward pain and an overwhelming sorrow of heart, in the sense of the unspeakable wrong done to the Holy Trinity by all creatures, and specially by the bad Christians who are living in mortal sin. The second grief consists in their fellow-feeling for and experience of all the grief and pain which the human nature of Christ has undergone.
The first of the two joys lies in this dying; it is a 406clear intuition and a perfect fruition to which they are raised in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, that they may enjoy the fruition of Him, and triumph in all the joys which they hope and believe after this life to behold in all their perfect fulness. The second triumph is that they are fulfilled in all the joys which the human nature of Christ possessed. This joy such a man hopes to share as a member of Christ; and even if he cannot fathom the abyss of God, he rejoices therein, for he sees that the overflowings of God’s mercy are unspeakable, and feels that it is good for him that he is vanquished in the effort to comprehend God’s power, and bends down beneath God in his self-dying.
To this state a man cannot attain except he unite his will with God, with an entire renunciation and perfect denial of himself, and all selfish love of himself; and all delight in having his own will be over-mastered and quenched by the shedding abroad in his heart of the Holy Spirit in the love of God, so that it seem as though the Holy Spirit Himself were the man’s will and love, and he were nothing and willed nothing on his own account. Yea, even the kingdom of heaven he shall desire for God’s sake and God’s glory, because Christ hath earned it in order to supply his needs, and chooseth to bestow it on him as one of His sons. When in this stage, a man loveth all things in their right order, God above all things,—next the blessed (human) nature of Christ, and after that the blessed Mother of Christ, and the saints of all degrees, each according to the rank which God hath enabled him to attain. When his affections are thus regulated, he sets himself in the lowest place at the wedding-feast of the Bridegroom. 407And when the Bridegroom comes who has bidden him to the feast, He saith unto him; “Friend go up higher.” Then he is endowed with a new life, and illuminated with a new light, in the which he clearly perceives and sees, that he alone is the cause of his own evil, that he cannot, with truth, throw the blame either on nature, the world, or the devil. Yea, he confesses that God has appointed him all these exercises and assaults out of His great love, in order that he may glorify God in overcoming these, and deserve a higher crown. Further, he perceives and sees, that it is God alone who has upheld him, and stayed his steps, so that he has no longer an inclination to sin, and who has removed the occasion to sin that he might not fall. Yea what is still worse, he is forced to confess that he has often been dissatisfied that he was not able to derive more enjoyment from his sins. Thus all his being is swallowed up in sorrow and remorse for that he is still laden with his boundless infirmity.
But he hath delight and joy in that he seeth that the goodness of God is as great as his necessities, so that his life may well be called a dying life by reason of such his griefs and joys which are conformable and like unto the life of our Lord Jesus Christ, which from beginning to end was always made up of mingled grief and joy. Grief, in that He left His heavenly throne and came down into this world; joy, in that He was not severed from the glory and honour of the Father. Grief, in that He was a Son of Man; joy, in that He nevertheless was and remained the Son of God. Grief, because He took upon Him the office of a servant; joy, in that He was nevertheless a great Lord. Grief, because in 408human nature He was mortal, and died upon the cross; joy, because He was immortal according to His Godhead. Grief, in His birth, in that He was once born of His mother; joy, in that He is the only-begotten of God’s heart from everlasting to everlasting. Grief, because He became in Time subject to Time; joy, because He was Eternal before all Time, and shall be so for ever. Grief, in that the Word was born into the flesh, and hath dwelt in us; joy, in that the Word was in the beginning with God, and God Himself was the Word. Grief, in that it behoved Him to be baptized like any human sinner by St. John the Baptist in the Jordan; joy, in that the voice of His Heavenly Father said of Him: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Grief, in that like others, sinners, He was tempted of the Enemy; joy, in that the angels came and ministered unto Him. Grief, in that He ofttimes endured hunger and thirst; joy, because He is Himself the food of men and angels. Grief, in that He was often wearied with His labours; joy, because He is the rest of all loving hearts and blessed spirits. Grief, forasmuch as His holy life and sufferings should remain in vain for so many human beings; joy, because He should thereby save His friends. Grief, in that He must needs ask to drink water of the heathen woman at the well; joy, in that He gave to that same woman to drink of living water, so that she should never thirst again. Grief, in that He was wont to sail in ships over the sea; joy, because He was wont to walk dry-shod upon the waves. Grief, in that He wept with Martha and Mary over Lazarus; joy, in that He raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. Grief, in that He 409was nailed to the cross with nails; joy, in that He promised paradise to the thief by His side. Grief in that He thirsted when hanging on the cross; joy, in that He should thereby redeem His elect from eternal thirst. Grief, when He said, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” joy, in that He would with these words comfort all sad hearts. Grief, in that His soul was parted from His body, and He died and was buried; joy, because on the third day He rose again from the dead with a glorified body.
Thus was all His life, from the manger to the cross, a mingled web of grief and joy. Which life He hath left as a sacred testament to His followers in this present time, who are converted unto His dying life, that they may remember Him when they drink of His cup, and walk as He hath walked! May God help us so to do! Amen.
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