« PreviousContinue »
to us for the display of our virtue, and for the exercise of our noblest faculties on the most important objects. But you will take care not to misapprehend my meaning. I am not letting you loose into the world, on the supposition you have a privilege to act there, as if this were the whole of your existence; and to say the truth, it is rather upon the rejection than the belief of another life, that the best arguments can be founded for solitude. When we see the prosperity of the wicked, and the sufferings of the virtuous—when we reflect on the heavy evils and the sharp disappointments of the world— when we see the snares that are laid by the cunning for the well-meaning, and the cruelties that are exercised by the strong against the defenceless—when we recollect that all these irregularities are never to be rectified by future and more exact retribution, and that our own uprightness and innocence is neither a shield of defence to us here, nor a ground of hope hereafter-then it would not be strange if men of feeling hearts and cultivated understandings should give way to disgust and fretfulness, and retreat from a scene of confusion in which there was so little chance for thein to support their dignity, or preserve their tranquillity. They would retire, not to pray, but to lament that prayer was useless.
But the prospects of the Christian are far brighter, and he knows that by sustaining a proper part in society he does not disqualify himself for communion with God in this life by meditation, or in a better by immediate admission into the presence of the Most High. But how will he be most able to sustain that part? Must he give up his whole mind to temporal affairs ? Must he never look onward to a state that is to succeed his dissolution ? Must his thoughts never be thrown back on his own conduct, and his eyes never raised to the throne of Heaven? No, surely. For in proportion as he sincerely feels the truth and importance of religion, he will be able so to use the good things of this world as not to abuse them—so to taste of pleasure as not to be intoxicated with it—so to labour for the honest acquisition of wealth, that he may not set his whole affection upon that which he cannot carry into his grave, and which thieves, before he is summoned to eternity, may break through and steal.
Let me put home to you these plain questions, and weigh them well, that you may not now lull asleep your consciences by excuses, which cannot avail you in the last day. Business, you say, is too oppressive, or pleasure too enchanting, to leave room for the intrusion of serious reflection, or the use even of momentary devotion. If the plea were true, business and pleasure ought for this reason to be abandoned ; but I know it to be false. In the quieter and more sedentary employments, is it impossible, think you, for the artificer at the loom to snatch a few moments for the service of his God? From his manual task certainly his thoughts and his conversation will stray, and is religion the only mark to which they never point? The argument goes on to yourselves, whose occupations wholly lie in the healthy and invigorating operations of agriculture. And consider, now-did one day ever pass
-do even many hours ever run on in succession, in the course of which, however intense your labour, however eager your zeal, however important your task-I say, did one day, and I had almost said one hour ever pass, in which your whole mind was taken up solely with the business immediately before you? And why then is your God in Heaven the only subject on whom you never reflect—especially among scenes where the verdure of the grove, the rich embroidery of the fields, the serenity of the sky, and the splendour and genial warmth of the sun, every instant spread before your eyes such bright marks of his wisdom and goodness ? That you should pray, it is not necessary for you to go up in the mountain; for in the fields you are surrounded by ten thousand objects, which ought to awaken your attention, and induce you to pour forth your praises to him, by whom they are made.
It must, however, be allowed, that in the general course of things, and by a long intercourse with the world, our hope languishes and our devotion coolsa sort of hardness and numbness gradually gathers upon our whole minds. But in order to prevent these effects, which grow more and more dangerous every day, it is in our power, all of us, sometimes to make voluntary efforts of recollection, and to call up our dissipated thoughts to that state which, whether we prepare for its approach or not, is advancing nearer and nearer, and assuredly will bring on a change most awful and most interesting to our immortal souls. You can break through the common order of your temporal business to bend the force
of your thoughts on some temporal project, which you conceive accompanied by extraordinary difficulties, or productive of essential advantages.
In the same manner you can sometimes call up resolution to step aside from the flowery paths of gaiety and voluptuousness, and to endure the rugged feelings of austerity and toil; and why then, upon questions so very important as those of religion, do you imagine that they, and they only, can be dispatched with ease, taken up in any moment you please, and treated in any way you please? Or, let me rather ask, why is the chamber, in which you are to commune with yourself, terrible to you? And why is solitude a burden? Not merely because they interrupt our favourite pursuits of wealth or pleasure, but because they would lay us open too closely to ourselves--show us our real danger, and our real faults, and convince us of what we already suspect, that the season of reforination is come, and must not be neglected. Be it so. That danger is however increased, and those faults become incorrigible, if we never have courage and diligence enough to chase away that busy swarm of vain and deceitful images, which hover around us, and to collect and purify those scattered desires, which rove after the fleeting concerns of this vain, unsatisfactory, and perishable life. Even the best of us, God knows, are too much immersed in its cares, and too fondly attached to its amusements. We are delivered over from one folly to another, and from one pursuit to another, eager to snatch the treasure, which may soon be wrested from us; or rioting in enjoyments,
which we blush to remember. We are in danger from peculiar temptation to wickedness in every age -amidst every condition, in every kind of occupation, and in every degree of amusement. We are in danger from the contagion of evil example, from the impressions suddenly made upon us when we are off our guard in the agitations and competitions of social life, and from a variety of opportunities for sin and incitements to it, when the number and nearness of objects affect us strongly. Hence then arises the absolute necessity of our leaving the multitude sometimes, to give up ourselves to the solemnities and the severities of self-examination, and the awful stillness of religious contemplation. But, be assured, I mean this to be, not a lasting but a temporary and occasional retreat-which we may at will, and on just occasions, resume or relinquishwhich is consistent with the innocent enjoyments and necessary engagements of our different stationsand which, so far from injuring our duties in secular affairs, enables us to discharge them with more propriety, and I will add, with more facility and more vigour.
In these seasons of retirement you will find many great and valuable opportunities for trimming your lamps, which the public theatre of the world affords
not. Here are no flatterers to deceive, no enemies to intimidate; but you by serious and resolute inquiries know yourselves even as by your Almighty Judge you are known. Here you may trace out all the secret sources of the corruptions which have polluted you, and of the passions which have led