A SERIOUS CALL TO A DEVOUT AND HOLY LIFE
by William Law
Showing how the education which men generally receive in their youth makes the doctrines of humility difficult to be practised. The spirit of a better education represented in the character of Paternus.
ANOTHER difficulty in the practice of humility arises from our education. We are all of us, for the most part, corruptly educated, and then committed to take our course in a corrupt world; so that it is no wonder if examples of great piety are so seldom seen.
Great part of the world are undone by being born and bred in families that have no religion: where they are made vicious and irregular, by being like those with whom they first lived.
But this is not the thing I now mean; the education that I here intend, is such as children generally receive from virtuous and sober parents, and learned tutors and governors.
Had we continued perfect, as God created the first man, perhaps the perfection of our nature had been a sufficient self-instruction for every one. But as sickness and diseases have created the necessity of medicines and physicians, so the change and disorder of our rational nature have introduced the necessity of education and tutors.
And as the only end of the physician is to restore nature to its own state, so the only end of education is to restore our rational nature to its proper state. Education, therefore, is to be considered as a reason borrowed at second-hand, which is, as far as it can, to supply the loss of original perfection. And as physic may justly be called the art of restoring health, so education should be considered in no other light, than as the art of recovering to man the use of his reason.
Now as the instruction of every art or science is founded upon the discoveries, the wisdom, experience, and maxims, of the several great men that have laboured in it; so human wisdom, or right use of our reason, which young people should be called to by their education, is nothing else but the best experience, and finest reasonings, of men that have devoted themselves to the study of wisdom, and the improvement of human nature.
All, therefore, that great saints, and dying men, when the fullest of light and conviction, and after the highest improvement of their reason, all that they have said of the necessity of piety, of the excellency of virtue, of their duty to God, of the emptiness of riches, of the vanity of the world; all the sentences, judgments, reasonings, and maxims, of the wisest of philosophers, when in their highest state of wisdom, should constitute the common lessons of instruction for youthful minds.
This is the only way to make the young and ignorant part of the world the better for the wisdom and knowledge of the wise and ancient.
An education which is not wholly intent upon this, is as much beside the point, as an art of physic that had little or no regard to the restoration of health.
The youths that attended upon Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato, and Epictetus, were thus educated. Their everyday lessons and instructions were so many lectures upon the nature of man, his true end and the right use of his faculties; upon the immortality of the soul, its relation to God, the beauty of virtue, and its agreeableness to the Divine Nature; upon the dignity of reason, the necessity of temperance, fortitude, and generosity, and the shame and folly of indulging our passions.
Now as Christianity has, as it were, new created the moral and religious world, and set everything that is reasonable, wise, holy, and desirable, in its true point of light; so one would expect, that the education of youth should be as much bettered and amended by Christianity, as the faith and doctrines of religion are amended by it.
As it has introduced such a new state of things, and so fully informed us of the nature of man, the ends of his creation, the state of his condition; as it has fixed all our goods and evils, taught us the means of purifying our souls, pleasing God, and becoming eternally happy; one might naturally suppose, that every Christian country abounded with schools for the teaching, not only a few questions and answers of a Catechism, but for the forming, training, and practising youth in such an outward course of life, as the highest precepts, the strictest rules, and the sublimest doctrines of Christianity require.
An education under Pythagoras, or Socrates, had no other end, but to teach you to think, judge, act, and follow such rules of life as Pythagoras and Socrates used.
And is it not as reasonable to suppose, that a Christian education should have no other end, but to teach youth how to think, and judge, and act, and live, according to the strictest laws of Christianity?
At least, one would suppose, that, in all Christian schools, the teaching youth to begin their lives in the spirit of Christianity, in such severity of behaviour, such abstinence, sobriety, humility, and devotion, as Christianity requires, should not only be more, but a hundred times more regarded, than any, or all things else.
For our education should imitate our guardian Angels; suggest nothing to our minds but what is wise and holy; help us to discover and subdue every vain passion of our hearts, and every false judgment of our minds.
And it is as sober and as reasonable to expect and require all this benefit of a Christian education, as to require that physic should strengthen all that is right in our nature, and remove that which is sickly and diseased.
But, alas, our modern education is not of this kind.
The first temper that we try to awaken in children, is pride; as dangerous a passion as that of lust. We stir them up to vain thoughts of themselves, and do everything we can to puff up their minds with a sense of their own abilities.
Whatever way of life we intend them for, we apply to the fire and vanity of their minds, and exhort them to everything from corrupt motives. We stir them up to action from principles of strife and ambition, from glory, envy, and a desire of distinction, that they may excel others, and shine in the eyes of the world.
We repeat and inculcate these motives upon them, till they think it a part of their duty to be proud, envious, and vain-glorious of their own accomplishments.
And when we have taught them to scorn to be outdone by any, to bear no rival, to thirst after every instance of applause, to be content with nothing but the highest distinctions, then we begin to take comfort in them, and promise the world some mighty things from youths of such a glorious spirit.
If children are intended for holy orders, we set before them some eminent orator, whose fine preaching has made him the admiration of the age, and carried him through all the dignities and preferments of the Church.
We encourage them to have these honours in their eye, and to expect the reward of their studies from them.
If the youth is intended for a trade, we bid him look at all the rich men of the same trade, and consider how many now are carried about in their stately coaches, who began in the same low degree as he now does. We awaken his ambition, and endeavour to give his mind a right turn, by often telling him how very rich such and such a tradesman died.
If he is to be a lawyer, then we set great counsellors, lords, judges, and chancellors, before his eyes. We tell him what great fees, and great applause, attend fine pleading. We exhort him to take fire at these things, to raise a spirit of emulation in himself, and to be content with nothing less than the highest honours of the long robe.
That this is the nature of our best education, is too plain to need any proof; and I believe there are few parents, but would be glad to see these instructions daily given to their children.
And after all this, we complain of the effects of pride; we wonder to see grown men actuated and governed by ambition, envy, scorn, and a desire of glory; not considering that they were all the time of their youth called upon to all their action and industry, upon the same principles.
You teach a child to scorn to be outdone, to thirst for distinction and applause; and is it any wonder that he continues to act all his life in the same manner?
Now if a youth is ever to be so far a Christian, as to govern his heart by the doctrines of humility, I would fain know at what time he is to begin it: or, if he is ever to begin it at all, why we train him up in tempers quite contrary to it?
How dry and poor must the doctrine of humility sound to a youth, that has been spurred up to all his industry by ambition, envy, emulation, and a desire of glory and distinction! And if he is not to act by these principles when he is a man, why do we call him to act by them in his youth?
Envy is acknowledged by all people to be the most ungenerous, base, and wicked passion that can enter into the heart of man.
And is this a temper to be instilled, nourished, and established, in the minds of young people?
I know it is said, that it is not envy, but emulation, that is intended to be awakened in the minds of young men.
But this is vainly said. For when children are taught to bear no rival, and to scorn to be outdone by any of their age, they are plainly and directly taught to be envious. For it is impossible for any one to have this scorn of being outdone, and this contention with rivals, without burning with envy against all those that seem to excel him, or get any distinction from him. So that what children are taught is rank envy, and only covered with a name of a less odious sound.
Secondly, If envy is thus confessedly bad, and it be only emulation that is endeavoured to be awakened in children, surely there ought to be great care taken, that children may know the one from the other:-- that they may abominate the one as a great crime, whilst they give the other admission into their minds.
But if this were to be attempted, the fineness of the distinction betwixt envy and emulation would show that it was easier to divide them in words, than to separate them in action.
For emulation, when it is defined in its best manner, is nothing else but a refinement upon envy, or rather the most plausible part of that black and venomous passion.
And though it is easy to separate them in the notion, yet the most acute philosopher, that understands the art of distinguishing ever so well, if he gives himself up to emulation, will certainly find himself deep in envy.
For envy is not an original temper, but the natural, necessary, and unavoidable effect of emulation, or a desire of glory.
So that he who establishes the one in the minds of people, necessarily fixes the other there. And there is no other possible way of destroying envy, but by destroying emulation, or a desire of glory. For the one always rises and falls in proportion to the other.
I know it is said in defence of this method of education, that ambition, and a desire of glory, are necessary to excite young people to industry; and that if we were to press upon them the doctrines of humility, we should deject their minds, and sink them into dulness and idleness.
But those people who say this, do not consider, that this reason, if it has any strength, is full as strong against pressing the doctrines of humility upon grown men, lest we should deject their minds, and sink them into dulness and idleness.
For who does not see, that middle-aged men want as much the assistance of pride, ambition, and vainglory, to spur them up to action and industry, as children do? And it is very certain, that the precepts of humility are more contrary to the designs of such men, and more grievous to their minds when they are pressed upon them, than they are to the minds of young persons.
This reason, therefore, that is given, why children should not be trained up in the principles of true humility, is as good a reason why the same humility should never be required of grown men.
Thirdly, Let those people who think that children would be spoiled, if they were not thus educated, consider this:--
Could they think, that, if any children had been educated by our Blessed Lord, or His Holy Apostles, their minds would have been sunk into dulness and idleness?
Or could they think, that such children would not have been trained up in the profoundest principles of a strict and true humility? Can they say that our Blessed Lord, who was the meekest and humblest Man that ever was on earth, was hindered by His humility from being the greatest example of worthy and glorious actions, that ever were done by man?
Can they say that His Apostles, who lived in the humble spirit of their Master, did therefore cease to be laborious and active instruments of doing good to all the world?
A few such reflections as these are sufficient to expose all the poor pretences for an education in pride and ambition.
Paternus34 lived about two hundred years ago; he had but one son, whom he educated himself in his own house. As they were sitting together in the garden, when the child was ten years old, Paternus thus began to him:
The little time that you have been in the world, my child, you have spent wholly with me; and my love and tenderness to you has made you look upon me as your only friend and benefactor, and the cause of all the comfort and pleasure that you enjoy; your heart, I know, would be ready to break with grief, if you thought this was the last day that I should live with you.
But, my child, though you now think yourself mighty happy, because you have hold of my hand, you are now in the hands, and under the tender care of a much greater Father and Friend than I am, whose love to you is far greater than mine, and from whom you receive such blessings as no mortal can give.
That God whom you have seen me daily worship, whom I daily call upon to bless both you and me, and all mankind, whose wondrous acts are recorded in those Scriptures which you constantly read; that God who created the heavens and the earth, who brought a flood upon the whole world, who saved Noah in the ark, who was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom Job blessed and praised in the greatest afflictions, who delivered the Israelites out of the hands of the Egyptians, who was the Protector of righteous Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and holy Daniel, who sent so many Prophets into the world, who sent His Son Jesus Christ to redeem mankind; this God, who has done all these great things, who has created so many millions of men who lived and died before you were born, with whom the spirits of good men that are departed this life now live, whom infinite numbers of Angels now worship in Heaven; this great God, who is the Creator of worlds, of Angels, and men, is your loving Father and Friend, your good Creator and Nourisher, from whom, and not from me, you received your being ten years ago, at the time that I planted that little tender elm which you there see.
I myself am not half the age of this shady oak, under which we sit; many of our fathers have sat under its boughs, we have all of us called it ours in our turn, though it stands, and drops its masters, as it drops its leaves.
You see, my son, this wide and large firmament over our heads, where the sun and moon, and all the stars appear in their turns. If you were to be carried up to any of these bodies at this vast distance from us, you would still discover others as much above you, as the stars that you see here are above the earth. Were you to go up or down, east or west, north or south, you would find the same height without any top, and the same depth without any bottom.
And yet, my child, so great is God, that all these bodies added together are but as a grain of sand in His sight. And yet you are as much the care of this great God and Father of all worlds and all spirits, as if He had no son but you, or there was no creature for Him to love and protect but you alone. He numbers the hairs of your head, watches over you, sleeping and waking, and has preserved you from a thousand dangers, which neither you, nor I, know anything of.
How poor my power is, and how little I am able to do for you, you have often seen. Your late sickness has shown you how little I could do for you in that state; and the frequent pains of your head are plain proofs that I have no power to remove them.
I can bring you food and medicines, but have no power to turn them into your relief and nourishment. It is God alone that can do this for you.
Therefore, my child, fear, and worship, and love God. Your eyes, indeed, cannot yet see Him. But all things that you see are so many marks of His power and presence, and He is nearer to you than anything that you can see.
Take Him for your Lord, and Father, and Friend, look up unto Him as the fountain and cause of all the good that you have received through my hands; and reverence me only as the bearer and minister of God's good things unto you. And He that blessed my father before I was born, will bless you when I am dead.
Your youth and little mind is only yet acquainted with my family, and therefore you think there is no happiness out of it.
But, my child, you belong to a greater family than mine; you are a young member of the family of this Almighty Father of all nations, who has created infinite orders of Angels, and numberless generations of men, to be fellow-members of one and the same society in Heaven.
You do well to reverence and obey my authority because God has given me power over you, to bring you up in His fear, and to do for you as the holy fathers recorded in Scripture did for their children, who are now in rest and peace with God.
I shall in a short time die, and leave you to God and yourself; and, if God forgiveth my sins, I shall go to His Son Jesus Christ, and live amongst patriarchs and prophets, saints and martyrs, where I shall pray for you, and hope for your safe arrival at the same place.
Therefore, my child, meditate on these great things; and your soul will soon grow great and noble by so meditating upon them.
Let your thoughts often leave these gardens, these fields and farms, to contemplate God and Heaven, to consider upon35 the Angels, and the spirits of good men living in light and glory.
As you have been used to look to me in all your actions, and have been afraid to do anything, unless you first knew my will, so let it now be a rule of your life, to look up to God in all your actions, to do everything in His fear, and to abstain from everything that is not according to His will.
Bear Him always in your mind, teach your thoughts to reverence Him in every place, for there is no place where He is not.
God keepeth a book of life, wherein all the actions of all men are written; your name is there, my child; and when you die, this book will be laid open before men and Angels, and, according as your actions are there found, you will either be received to the happiness of those holy men who have died before you, or be turned away amongst wicked spirits, that are never to see God any more.
Never forget this book, my son, for it is written, it must be opened, you must see it, and you must be tried by it. Strive, therefore, to fill it with your good deeds, that the handwriting of God may not appear against you.
God, my child, is all love, and wisdom, and goodness; and everything that He has made, and every action that He does, is the effect of them all. Therefore you cannot please God, but so far as you strive to walk in love, wisdom, and goodness. As all wisdom, love, and goodness, proceed from God, so nothing but love, wisdom, and goodness, can lead to God.
When you love that which God loves, you act with Him, you join yourself to Him; and when you love what He dislikes, then you oppose Him, and separate yourself from Him. This is the true and the right way: think what God loves, and do you love it with all your heart.
First of all, my child, worship and adore God, think of Him magnificently, speak of Him reverently, magnify His providence, adore His power, frequent His service, and pray unto Him frequently and constantly.
Next to this, love your neighbour, which is all mankind, with such tenderness and affection as you love yourself. Think how God loves all mankind, how merciful He is to them, how tender He is of them, how carefully He preserves them; and then strive to love the world, as God loves it.
God would have all men to be happy; therefore do you will and desire the same. All men are great instances of Divine Love; therefore let all men be instances of your love.
But above all, my son, mark this; never do anything through strife, or envy, or emulation, or vain-glory. Never do anything in order to excel other people, but in order to please God, and because it is His will that you should do everything in the best manner that you can.
For if it is once a pleasure to you to excel other people, it will by degrees be a pleasure to you to see other people not so good as yourself.
Banish therefore every thought of self-pride, and self-distinction, and accustom yourself to rejoice in all the excellencies and perfections of your fellow-creatures, and be as glad to see any of their good actions as your own.
For as God is as well pleased with their well-doings, as with yours; so you ought to desire, that everything that is wise, and holy, and good, may be performed in as high a manner by other people, as by yourself.
Let this therefore be your only motive and spur to all good actions, honest industry, and business, to do everything in as perfect and excellent a manner as you can, for this only reason, because it is pleasing to God, who desires your perfection, and writes all your actions in a book. When I am dead, my son, you will be master of all my estate, which will be a great deal more than the necessities of one family require. Therefore, as you are to be charitable to the souls of men, and wish them the same happiness with you in Heaven, so be charitable to their bodies, and endeavour to make them as happy as you upon earth.
As God has created all things for the common good of all men, so let that part of them which has fallen to your share be employed, as God would have all employed, for the common good of all.
Do good, my son, first of all to those that most deserve it; but remember to do good to all. The greatest sinners receive daily instances of God's goodness towards them; He nourishes and preserves them, that they may repent, and return to Him: do you therefore imitate God, and think no one too bad to receive your relief and kindness, when you see that he wants it.
I am teaching you Latin and Greek, not that you should desire to be a great critic, a fine poet, or an eloquent orator; I would not have your heart feel any of these desires; for the desire of these accomplishments is a vanity of the mind, and the masters of them are generally vain men. For the desire of anything that is not a real good, lessens the application of the mind after that which is so.
But I teach you these languages, that at proper times you may look into the history of past ages, and learn the methods of God's providence over the world: that, reading the writings of the ancient Sages, you may see how wisdom and virtue have been the praise of great men of all ages, and fortify your mind by their wise sayings.
Let truth and plainness therefore be the only ornament of your language, and study nothing but how to think of all things as they deserve, to choose everything that is best, to live according to reason and order, and to act in every part of your life in conformity to the will of God.
Study how to fill your heart full of the love of God, and the love of your neighbour, and then be content to be no deeper a scholar, no finer a gentleman, than these tempers will make you. As true religion is nothing else but simple nature governed by right reason, so it loves and requires great plainness and simplicity of life. Therefore avoid all superfluous shows of finery and equipage, and let your house be plainly furnished with moderate conveniences. Do not consider what your estate can afford, but what right reason requires.
Let your dress be sober, clean, and modest, not to set out the beauty of your person, but to declare the sobriety of your mind, that your outward garb may resemble the inward plainness and simplicity of your heart. For it is highly reasonable that you should be one man, all of a piece, and appear outwardly such as you are inwardly.
As to your meat and drink, in them observe the highest rules of Christian temperance and sobriety; consider your body only as the servant and minister of your soul; and only so nourish it, as it may best perform an humble and obedient service to it.
But, my son, observe this as a most principal thing, which I shall remember you of as long as I live with you:--
Hate and despise all human glory, for it is nothing else but human folly. It is the greatest snare, and the greatest betrayer, that you can possibly admit into your heart.
Love humility in all its instances; practise it in all its parts, for it is the noblest state of the soul of man; it will set your heart and affections right towards God, and fill you with every temper that is tender and affectionate towards men.
Let every day, therefore, be a day of humility; condescend to all the weaknesses and infirmities of your fellow-creatures, cover their frailties, love their excellencies, encourage their virtues, relieve their wants, rejoice in their prosperities, compassionate their distress, receive their friendship, overlook their unkindness, forgive their malice, be a servant of servants, and condescend to do the lowest offices to the lowest of mankind.
Aspire after nothing but your own purity and perfection, and have no ambition, but to do everything in so reasonable and religious a manner, that you may be glad that God is everywhere present, and sees and observes all your actions. The greatest trial of humility is an humble behaviour towards your equals in age, estate, and condition of life. Therefore be careful of all the motions of your heart towards these people. Let all your behaviour towards them be governed by unfeigned love. Have no desire to put any of your equals below you, nor any anger at those that would put themselves above you. If they are proud, they are ill of a very bad distemper; let them, therefore, have your tender pity; and perhaps your meekness may prove an occasion of their cure. But if your humility should do them no good, it will, however, be the greatest good that you can do to yourself.
Remember that there is but one man in the world, with whom you are to have perpetual contention, and be always striving to exceed him, and that is yourself.
The time of practising these precepts, my child, will soon be over with you, the world will soon slip through your hands, or rather you will soon slip through it; it seems but the other day since I received these same instructions from my dear father, that I am now leaving with you. And the God that gave me ears to hear, and a heart to receive, what my father said unto me, will, I hope, give you grace to love and follow the same instructions.
Thus did Paternus educate his son.36
Can any one now think that such an education as this would weaken and deject the minds of young people, and deprive the world of any worthy and reasonable labours?
It is so far from that, that there is nothing so likely to ennoble and exalt the mind, and prepare it for the most heroical exercise of all virtues.
For who will say, that a love of God, a desire of pleasing Him, a love of our neighbour, a love of truth of reason, and virtue, a contemplation of eternity, and the rewards of piety, are not stronger motives to great and good actions, than a little uncertain popular praise?
On the other hand, there is nothing in reality that more weakens the mind, and reduces it to meanness and slavery, nothing that makes it less master of its own actions, or less capable of following reason, than a love of praise and honour.
For, as praise and honour are often given to things and persons, where they are not due, as that is generally most praised and honoured, that most gratifies the humours, fashions, and vicious tempers of the world; so he that acts upon the desire of praise and applause, must part with every other principle; he must say black is white, put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter, and do the meanest, basest things, in order to be applauded.
For in a corrupt world, as this is, worthy actions are only to be supported by their own worth, where, instead of being praised and honoured, they are most often reproached and persecuted.
So that to educate children upon a motive of emulation, or a desire of glory, in a world where glory itself is false, and most commonly given wrongly, is to destroy the natural integrity and fortitude of their minds, and give them a bias, which will oftener carry them to base and mean, than to great and worthy actions.
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