A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
Persons that are free from the necessity of labour and employments, are to consider themselves as devoted to God in a higher degree.
A GREAT part of the world are free from the necessities of labour and employments, and have their time and fortunes in their own disposal.
But as no one is to live in his employment according to his own humour, or for such ends as please his own fancy, but is to do all his business in such a manner as to make it a service unto God; so those who have no particular employment are so far from being left at greater liberty to live to themselves, to pursue their own humours, and spend their time and fortunes as they please, that they are under greater obligations of living wholly unto God in all their actions.
The freedom of their state lays them under a greater necessity of always choosing, and doing, the best things.
They are those, of whom much will be required, because much is given unto them.
A slave can only live unto God in one particular way, that is, by religious patience and submission in his state of slavery.
But all ways of holy living, all instances, and all kinds of virtue, lie open to those who are masters of themselves, their time, and their fortune.
It is as much the duty, therefore, of such persons, to make a wise use of their liberty, to devote themselves to all kinds of virtue, to aspire after everything that is holy and pious, to endeavour to be eminent in all good works, and to please God in the highest and most perfect manner; it is as much their duty to be thus wise in the conduct of themselves, and thus extensive in their endeavours after holiness, as it is the duty of a slave to be resigned unto God in his state of slavery.
You are no labourer, or tradesman, you are neither merchant nor soldier; consider yourself, therefore, as placed in a state in some degree like that of good Angels who are sent into the world as ministering spirits, for the general good of mankind, to assist, protect, and minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation.
For the more you are free from the common necessities of men, the more you are to imitate the higher perfections of Angels.
Had you, Serena,13 been obliged, by the necessities of life, to wash clothes for your maintenance, or to wait upon some mistress that demanded all your labour, it would then be your duty to serve and glorify God, by such humility, obedience, and faithfulness, as might adorn that state of life. It would then be recommended to your care, to improve that one talent to its greatest height. That when the time came, that mankind were to be rewarded for their labours by the great Judge of quick and dead, you might be received with a "Well done, good and faithful servant: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." [Matt. xxv. 21]
But as God has given you five talents, as He has placed you above the necessities of life, as He has left you in the hands of yourself, in the happy liberty of choosing the most exalted ways of virtue; as He has enriched you with many gifts of fortune, and left you nothing to do, but to make the best use of a variety of blessings, to make the most of a short life, to study your own perfection, the honour of God, and the good of your neighbour; so it is now your duty to imitate the greatest servants of God, to inquire how the most eminent saints have lived, to study all the arts and methods of perfection, and to set no bounds to your love and gratitude to the bountiful Author of so many blessings.
It is now your duty to turn your five talents into five more, and to consider how your time, and leisure, and health, and fortune, may be made so many happy means of purifying your own soul, improving your fellow-creatures in the ways of virtue, and of carrying you at last to the greatest heights of eternal glory.
As you have no mistress to serve, so let your own soul be the object of your daily care and attendance. Be sorry for its impurities, its spots, and imperfections, and study all the holy arts of restoring it to its natural and primitive purity.
Delight in its service, and beg of God to adorn it with every grace and perfection.
Nourish it with good works, give it peace in solitude, get it strength in prayer, make it wise with reading, enlighten it by meditation, make it tender with love, sweeten it with humility, humble it with penance, enliven it with psalms and hymns, and comfort it with frequent reflections upon future glory. Keep it in the presence of God, and teach it to imitate those guardian Angels, which, though they attend on human affairs, and the lowest of mankind, yet "always behold the face of our Father which is in heaven." [Matt. xviii. 10]
This, Serena, is your profession. For as sure as God is one God, so sure it is, that He has but one command to all mankind, whether they be bond or free, rich or poor; and that is, to act up to the excellency of that nature which He has given them, to live by reason, to walk in the light of religion, to use everything as wisdom directs, to glorify God in all His gifts, and dedicate every condition of life to His service.
This is the one common command of God to all mankind. If you have an employment, you are to be thus reasonable, and pious, and holy, in the exercise of it; if you have time and a fortune in your own power, you are obliged to be thus reasonable, and holy, and pious, in the use of all your time, and all your fortune.
The right religious use of everything and every talent, is the indispensable duty of every being that is capable of knowing right and wrong.
For the reason why we are to do anything as unto God, and with regard to our duty, and relation to Him, is the same reason why we are to do everything as unto God, and with regard to our duty, and relation to Him.
That which is a reason for our being wise and holy in the discharge of all our business, is the same reason for our being wise and holy in the use of all our money.
As we have always the same natures, and are everywhere the servants of the same God, as every place is equally full of His presence, and everything is equally His gift, so we must always act according to the reason of our nature; we must do everything as the servants of God; we must live in every place, as in His presence; we must use everything, as that ought to be used which belongs to God.
Either this piety, and wisdom, and devotion is to go through every way of life, and to extend to the use of everything, or it is to go through no part of life.
If we might forget ourselves, or forget God, if we might disregard our reason, and live by humour and fancy, in anything, or at any time, or in any place, it would be as lawful to do the same in everything, at fancy, at every time, and every place.
If therefore some people fancy that they must be grave and solemn at Church, but may be silly and frantic at home; that they must live by some rule on the Sunday, but may spend other days by chance; that they must have some times of prayer, but may waste the rest of their time as they please; that they must give some money in charity, but may squander away the rest as they have a mind; such people have not enough considered the nature of religion, or the true reasons of piety. For he that upon principles of reason can tell why it is good to be wise and heavenly-minded at Church, can tell that it is always desirable to have the same tempers in all other places. He that truly knows why he should spend any time well, knows that it is never allowable to throw any time away. He that rightly understands the reasonableness and excellency of charity, will know that it can never be excusable to waste any of our money in pride and folly, or in any needless expenses.
For every argument that shows the wisdom and excellency of charity, proves the wisdom of spending all our fortune well. Every argument that proves the wisdom and reasonableness of having times of prayer, shows the wisdom and reasonableness of losing none of our time.
If any one could show that we need not always act as in the Divine presence, that we need not consider and use everything as the gift of God, that we need not always live by reason, and make religion the rule of all our actions; the same arguments would show that we need never act as in the presence of God, nor make religion and reason the measure of any of our actions. If, therefore, we are to live unto God at any time, or in any place, we are to live unto Him at all times, and in all places. If we are to use anything as the gift of God, we are to use everything as His gift. If we are to do anything by strict rules of reason and piety, we are to do everything in the same manner. Because reason, and wisdom, and piety, are as much the best things at all times, and in all places, as they are the best things at any time or in any place.
If it is our glory and happiness to have a rational nature, that is endued with wisdom and reason, that is capable of imitating the Divine nature, then it must be our glory and happiness to improve our reason and wisdom, to act up to the excellency of our rational nature, and to imitate God in all our actions, to the utmost of our power. They therefore who confine religion to times and places, and some little rules of retirement, who think that it is being too strict and rigid to introduce religion into common life, and make it give laws to all their actions and ways of living, they who think thus, not only mistake, but they mistake the whole nature of religion. For surely they mistake the whole nature of religion, who can think any part of their life is made more easy, for being free from it. They may well be said to mistake the whole nature of wisdom, who do not think it desirable to be always wise. He has not learnt the nature of piety, who thinks it too much to be pious in all his actions. He does not sufficiently understand what reason is, who does not earnestly desire to live in everything according to it.
If we had a religion that consisted in absurd superstitions, that had no regard to the perfection of our nature, people might well be glad to have some part of their life excused from it. But as the religion of the Gospel is only the refinement and exaltation of our best faculties, as it only requires a life of the highest reason, as it only requires us to use this world as in reason it ought to be used, to live in such tempers as are the glory of intelligent beings, to walk in such wisdom as exalts our nature, and to practise such piety as will raise us to God; who can think it grievous to live always in the spirit of such a religion, to have every part of his life full of it, but he that would think it much more grievous to be as the Angels of God in Heaven?
Farther, as God is one and the same Being, always acting like Himself, and suitably to His own nature, so it is the duty of every being that He has created, to live according to the nature that He has given it, and always to act like itself.
It is therefore an immutable law of God, that all rational beings should act reasonably in all their actions; not at this time, or in that place, or upon this occasion, or in the use of some particular thing, but at all times, in all places, on all occasions, and in the use of all things. This is a law that is as unchangeable as God, and can no more cease to be, than God can cease to be a God of wisdom and order.
When, therefore, any being that is endued with reason does an unreasonable thing at any time, or in any place, or in the use of anything, it sins against the great law of its nature, abuses itself, and sins against God, the Author of that nature.
They, therefore, who plead for indulgences and vanities, for any foolish fashions, customs, and humours of the world, for the misuse of our time or money, plead for a rebellion against our nature, for a rebellion against God, who has given us reason for no other end than to make it the rule and measure of all our ways of life.
When, therefore, you are guilty of any folly, or extravagance, or indulge any vain temper, do not consider it as a small matter, because it may seem so if compared to some other sins; but consider it, as it is acting contrary to your nature, and then you will see that there is nothing small that is unreasonable; because all unreasonable ways are contrary to the nature of all rational beings, whether men or Angels: neither of which can be any longer agreeable to God, than so far as they act according to the reason and excellence of their nature.
The infirmities of human life make such food and raiment necessary for us, as Angels do not want; but then it is no more allowable for us to turn these necessities into follies, and indulge ourselves in the luxury of food, or the vanities of dress, than it is allowable for Angels to act below the dignity of their proper state. For a reasonable life, and a wise use of our proper condition, is as much the duty of all men, as it is the duty of all Angels and intelligent beings. These are not speculative flights, or imaginary notions, but are plain and undeniable laws, that are founded in the nature of rational beings, who as such are obliged to live by reason, and glorify God by a continual right use of their several talents and faculties. So that though men are not Angels, yet they may know for what ends, and by what rules, men are to live and act, by considering the state and perfection of Angels. Our blessed Saviour has plainly turned our thoughts this way, by making this petition a constant part of all our prayers, "Thy will be done on earth, as it is in Heaven." A plain proof, that the obedience of men is to imitate the obedience of Angels, and that rational beings on earth are to live unto God, as rational beings in Heaven live unto Him.
When, therefore, you would represent to your mind, how Christians ought to live unto God, and in what degrees of wisdom and holiness they ought to use the things of this life, you must not look at the world, but you must look up to God, and the society of Angels, and think what wisdom and holiness is fit to prepare you for such a state of glory. You must look to all the highest precepts of the Gospel, you must examine yourself by the spirit of Christ, you must think how the wisest men in the world have lived, you must think how departed souls would live if they were again to act the short part of human life; you must think what degrees of wisdom and holiness you will wish for, when you are leaving the world.
Now this is not over-straining the matter, or proposing to ourselves any needless perfection. It is but barely complying with the Apostle's advice, where he says, "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." [Phil. iv. 8] For no one can come near the doctrine of this passage, but he that proposes to himself to do everything in this life as the servant of God, to live by reason in everything that he does, and to make the wisdom and holiness of the Gospel the rule and measure of his desiring and using every gift of God.
The Anglican Library, This HTML edition copyright 2000.