Article: How one should go to sermons.
One should go to sermons 1st, with a heart well-prepared; 2d, with speedy steps. Preached on the tenth Sunday after Pentecost.
Duo homines ascendebant in Templum, ut orarent. Luke 18:10.
”Two men went up into the Temple to pray.”
Two men went to the same place, the Temple of God; they went with the same intention, to pray; but how differently they carried it out! The one was a Pharisee, who was looked upon as a pattern of piety; the other a Publican, a public sinner, whose wicked life was known to all. The one was full of secret pride, the other, of humility and contrition. The one went to extol himself in his prayer, and to raise himself above others; the other to repent of his sins, and to beg the mercy of God. What wonder is it that they both left the Temple in very different states? ”This man went down into his house justified, rather than the other.” A picture, my dear brethren, of many Christians, who go into the same Church, at the usual time, to hear the same sermon; but all of them do not return home in the same state. If there are ten of them who derive great profit for their souls, there are fifty who derive much less, and a hundred who have no profit at all. One sinner is touched and moved to penance, another remains as hardened as he was before. One just man is made more zealous in the service of God, the other remains as he was. One poor unfortunate gets consolation and courage, the other is just as discontented as ever. The one understands, knows, and fulfils the truth preached to him, the other is not at all enlightened by it. Whence arises this difference amongst men of the same nature, who hear the same Word of God, preached at the same time, and in the same place? The fault lies with themselves: they do not come to the sermon in the same way and with the same dispositions. To remedy this great defect, I will tell you, in to-day's instruction, how you must go to a sermon in order to profit by it.
Plan of Discourse.
One should go to sermos – 1st. With a heart well prepared. The firstpoint. 2nd. With speedy steps. The second point.
I rely upon the help of the Holy Ghost, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy angels.
First Part.If you wish to hide a treasure in the ground, you must set to work in a very different manner to that in which you would prepare to sow seeds. He who thinks of hiding a treasure, does not consider the nature of the ground, whether it is free from stones, or full of them; whether it is hard or soft; fruitful or unfruitful: he looks to nothing else, but to making the hole deep enough that his treasure may not be discovered and stolen. On the other hand, he who sows seed must first carefully prepare the ground; for the seed will bring forth little or much fruit, or no fruit at all, according as the ground is ill or well prepared, or altogether unprepared.
Our Lord Jesus Christ uses the same simile in the Gospel of St. Luke, when He speaks of the Word of God: ”The seed is the Word of God.” [Luke 8:11] This is sown by sermons; not the ears, but the hearts of the hearers are the ground in which it is sown, in order to bring forth abundant fruit of eternal life for souls. But, no matter how powerful and impressive this Word may be, the whole profit and advantage of it depends mostly on the preparation and disposition of the heart that is to receive it. Not the preacher, as I said before, but God is the sower, who speaks by the mouth of His preacher and distributes His graces to hearts. Oh, there is no doubt about it! It is neither I, nor any one else, who does the good. Thou, oh. Lord! Thou must do it: ”Neither he who planteth is anything, nor he who watereth, but God who giveth the increase.” [1 Cor. 3:7] Sermons may be as polished, as well conceived, as impressive as you wish, but if the Spirit of God does not enlighten the hearers with supernatural light, those sermons will be as incapable of producing an effect, as ice-cold water is of making a fire burn brighter. The voice of the preacher goes no farther than the ears of his hearers; it has then done its duty, and it comes back again, while the voice of God forces its way into the depths of the heart. We may cry out and shout, and make a great noise, in exhorting you to good, St. Augustine says: ”If there is no one to teach inwardly, all the noise we make is of no use.” There are always two preaching together: besides him whom you see in the pulpit, there is another Preacher in Heaven who with one hand directs the tongue of him who is preaching, while with the other He moves the hearts of his audience. ”He has his seat in the Heavens, who teaches hearts.” ”My tongue is the pen of a scrivener that writeth swiftly” [Ps. 44:2] says David, and all preachers must acknowledge it. Why does he call his tongue the pen of a scrivener? The pen may be made as well as possible, but the good writing is attributed, not to the pen, but to the writer, who knows how to make the letters neatly. So that the meaning of David is, my tongue is the pen of a scrivener, namely, God, who, by means of it, writes good things in the hearts of men. You also were well aware of that, oh, great St. Paul, when you wrote to the Ephesians: ”Pray for me that speech may be given to me, that I may open my mouth with confidence,” [Ef. 6:19] and that God may give me words to move hearts and to stir them up to divine love! It is on that account, my dear brethren, that we always ask the help of the Holy Ghost by devout prayer, in the beginning of a sermon; and I am certain, that if any good is done, it is oftener to be attributed to the pious prayer of some poor, humble, but holy man, who stands in self-abasement behind a pillar, than to the preacher himself.
But to return to our subject. Theologians teach that according to the present general arrangement of Providence, God bestows His lights, gifts, and graces, only on those who are ready and able to receive them; just as the sacraments themselves cause grace according to the disposition of those who receive them. It sometimes happens, as experience teaches, that an impenitent sinner, who chances to go to a sermon, without the least idea of amendment, and with some wicked and impious intention, is struck with the light of grace, moved to repentance and converted. But these are rare and extraordinary examples of the mercy of God. Let no one trust his salvation to a miracle like that. So that the first thing we must bring with us to a sermon, if we wish to profit by it, is a well-disposed and well-prepared heart.
And how? what does that preparation consist in? In this, that we must cleanse our hearts, like ground that we prepare for seed, from the stones that would prevent the Word from fructifying, and from the thorns that would choke it; that is to say, we must lay aside all other cares, evil desires, and thoughts, and wilful attachments to sin, and we must go to the sermon with no other wish, no other intention, but a true and earnest desire to understand the will of God, to learn the truths taught and to act according to them. If I am in the state of sin, my first wish must be to understand the deformity of sin, so that I may be moved to true sorrow and penance, and avoid evil in future. If I am in the state of grace, my only object must be to be incited more and more to the love of God, and to His service, to the esteem of virtue, and to the desire and longing for heavenly things. ”He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” [Luke 8:8] What is the meaning of that? Have not all got ears who come to hear sermons? They are not deaf, or they would remain at home. It is true, says Cardinal Hugo, that all have ears, but all have not ears to hear. They who hear must have such ears that they can profit by what they hear and obey the divine will, when they understand it.
Do we bring such ears with us, my dear brethren, when we come to a sermon? Are our hearts thus prepared, our minds ready, our intentions pure, our desires earnest and sincere? Would to God that it were so! If I might ask each and every one particularly, what induced them to come to the sermon, and expect from all a true answer, how different would be the causes they would assign, and not one of them conformable to the true object of a sermon! Some could not even assign a cause; they go to the sermon, and they hardly know why or how they went; they had simply the desire of following the crowd, of keeping up a custom, of pleasing their fathers, mothers, masters, or mistresses, who ordered them to come and who watch them to see that they do so. There are many simple, good souls, who could give no other reason for their coming except that they wished to hear a sermon, thinking that when they have done that, they have performed a good, holy, and meritorious work; so that it is all the same to them whom they hear, what they hear, and how they hear; nor do they trouble themselves about the subject, for their only object is to hear a sermon, and of course every subject is good. That may be all very true, but the good work does not consist therein. If you have no other intention but that, I would not give you anything for all you could gain, even if you heard ten sermons in the one day. The hearing of sermons, in itself, is not a holy or meritorious work, it is only a means of learning holy things, so as to do something holy and good afterwards; and that is the intention which makes it good and meritorious to hear sermons.
And you others, why do you come now and then to sermons? Is it that you may pass away an hour or so, on Sundays or holydays, which you would otherwise find too long, as you have nowhere else to spend your time? Or is it to satisfy an idle curiosity to hear how the preacher acquits himself of his task, that you may criticise him afterwards? They say, like those people of whom the Prophet Ezechiel writes: ”Come, let us go; and hear what he has to say” what sort of ideas and thoughts he has; as if they were going to see a play! Poor, blind wretches! who only try to satisfy their curiosity, and seek merely for pleasure and enjoyment, where they might find their eternal salvation, and whose only object is to glut their ears, where they might feed their souls, and learn what their obligations are and how to fulfil them. I will say nothing of other still more culpable, nay, even wicked motives, that induce many to come, who have not the least idea of amending their lives; but come with the deliberate intention of opposing holy inspirations, and driving them out of their minds. What sort of profit can all those people hope to have? No one is forced to receive grace against his will; he must seek it, desire and long for it.
I say, my dear brethren, ”bring with you longing and devout hearts” to the sermon! The greater your appetite, when you sit down to table, the better flavor has your food, and the more good it does the stomach. The purer your intention, the greater your desire to be instructed and moved by the Word of God, the more profit will you bring home with you. So that, first of all, before you go to a sermon, or while you are in the church before it commences, you must raise your heart to God. Think to yourself: God is now about to speak to my heart. Sigh and pray in the words of the Prophet Samuel: ”Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.” Enlighten my understanding that I may know what Thou desirest from me, arouse my will that I may do what Thou wiliest; behold, oh, Lord! my heart is prepared, and in Thy hands. Turn it, direct it, draw it whither Thou wilt. Speak, Lord! Thou art my Lord, I am Thy servant, Thy hand maid; it is for Thee to command me in all things, and for me to obey Thee; I am here now with the intention of hearing, learning, knowing, and doing whatever is pleasing to Thee. Thy servant heareth. That is one of the things required, my dear brethren, to draw profit from sermons; to come with a well-prepared heart. The other is, to come with speedy steps, and it will be the subject of the
And what is the meaning of that, you ask, to come with speedy steps? Does it mean that we must all set off running, as soon as we hear the bell ring, and rush into the church in a body? What a noise that would make in the streets, and what confusion at the church doors! No, my dear brethren, my meaning is that you must come in time to the sermon. What prevents a great many from deriving the proper fruit, is their sloth and laziness; for some make it almost a habit not to come until the sermon is begun, or even half over. What a great irreverence this is to the Word of God, what advantages it deprives them of, and what harm it does their souls, they can hardly imagine. And, in the first place, with regard to the irreverence, tell me: Do you think the master should wait for his servant? or should not the servant rather wait for his master? If the Prince sent you word last night to be in his presence this morning, at eight o clock precisely (for he will await you at that hour, as he wishes to say something particular to you), would you neglect being there at the appointed time? Would you think, there is no hurry yet, I can sleep a quarter of an hour longer; I have still something to do at home; there will be time enough for me to get ready at eight o clock; the Prince can wait a little until I come, or he can talk with his other attendants meanwhile? You would never dream of such things, nor let a word to that effect fall from your lips, for fear some one should hear it. Your anxiety not to come too late would drive you out of bed at four o clock, so that you might be dressed in time, and wait half an hour in the audience chamber, be fore the appointed hour. But if you knew, moreover, that he sent for you to grant you a favor at the appointed time, how early and speedily you would get ready! Would you allow your self to be delayed by any other business, no matter how short a time it might occupy? I think not; for, you would say, if I lose this favor now, I may never have such an opportunity again.
My dear brethren, I have often told you before, that you do not come to Church merely to hear the preacher, whom you see in the pulpit; otherwise I should have spoken far too audaciously, when I brought forward the comparison of the master and servant, and it would certainly make little matter whether you came late or early; there is no use in your expecting any grace from me, 1 can give you none. It is the King of Heaven, the great God, who wishes to speak in and to your hearts by the voice of His instrument; it is He who calls you half an hour beforehand, by the sound of the bell, to His audience-chamber; He is there at the hour that is fixed and known to all, and He waits for His servants, to give them gratuitously certain graces, that is. Either to impel them to a certain good, or to restrain them from a certain evil; and if the appointed time is neglected, these graces may never be offered again. Oh, how great are the goodness and mercy of God to us!
Ah, my dear brethren, only think of it for a moment seriously. How many populous cities and countries there are, in the four quarters of the globe, in which God seldom or never speaks to hearts or makes known His truths in this manner? How many millions of men there are amongst the heathens, Jews and heretics, who hear nothing of the mysteries of our faith? How many, even faithful Christians, there are, here and there, in out-of-theway villages, who can sigh and complain with Jeremias: ”The little ones, the afflicted, the ignorant, stretch out their hands for the Bread of the soul, in order to be comforted, strengthened, and instructed, and ”there is no one to break this bread and set it before them.” For a long time they have been without a chance of hearing the Word of God preached. And here we have such frequent and easy opportunities! Have we merited more than they? My God, that is a secret that I cannot find out, or try to find out. It is enough for us (praise and thanks be to Thee forever) that Thy goodness pours itself out upon us, and that Thou speakest so generously to our hearts; we are not capable of valuing such graces and favors according to their worth, much less of making Thee an adequate return for them. And, my dear brethren, do we think so little of these graces, that it is no great matter to us whether we come too late or too early to receive them? We can easily imagine what they, who come late to the sermon without necessity would say, if they gave utterance to their thoughts: let God wait a while and speak with those who are there with Him; there is time enough for me; I will come presently; He can wait, and distribute His graces to others meanwhile; whatever He may have over will be good enough for me. What irreverence, what discourtesy and ingratitude to so great and good a Lord! You might make a great many excuses to an earthly prince, to explain the delay, in case you came too late; but could you hope to do anything of the kind with the Almighty God, who knows the secrets of your heart, and understands the reasons of your delay?
Oh, if you only had a greater love of God and of His Word, you would certainly come earlier! How quickly Magdalen ran to the door when she heard the words: ”The Master is here and calls thee.” Hardly had St. Peter heard the words: ” It is the Lord, ”as he was sitting in the boat and saw Christ coming along the water, then lie leaped overboard immediately, in order to come to Him at once. And if you, too, oh, man, knew that anyone, whom you love very dearly, were at home waiting for you, love would add wings to your footsteps, that you might be there as soon as possible. And, see, whenever there is a sermon, your Lord and God is waiting for you, and you delay! And you come a quarter, or half an hour too late, while He is in the middle of His discourse! Is that a sign that you have a love and esteem for God and His Word?
And what sort of advantage do you expect to draw from such bits of sermons? None, or at least a very slight one. So that, in addition to the irreverence, discourtesy, ingratitude, and want of love towards God, there is also a loss occasioned to your soul by your comng late. Because, first of all, you are not present at the opening prayer, by which the whole congregation asks and receives the light of the Holy Ghost from Heaven; a thing that you need most of all, as I said in the beginning. And in the second place, you are not able to understand che sermon, so that it cannot give you any impulse to good. Imagine that you see two people quarrelling and fighting in the street; the dispute has been going on for some time, and at last you run up and hear how the two are shouting at and abusing each other. They speak distinctly, and you know the meaning of all the words they use, but you do not know the cause and subject of their quarrel; and so you ask one of the bystanders: What is the matter with these two men? But the only answer you get is: Why were you not here sooner, and you might have known all about it? And so you go away just as wise as you came, knowing nothing about the matter, except that two men had a quarrel. In the same way, if you come into the church during the sermon, you see some one standing in the pulpit; he is speaking of all sorts of things, according as his subject requires; he makes use of different comparisons; awakens different affections; sometimes raises his voice with a sigh to Heaven, sometimes speaks directly to his audience in tones of pity and wonder; at one time he threatens, at another entreats. And meanwhile you stand there gaping and wondering what is it all about. What is he preaching about? you think; you dare not ask any one, for fear of distracting him, and if he could tell you the subject in one word, you would still be ignorant of what has gone before, so that all your gaping and listening is of very little or no use to you.
Again, no matter how good a sermon may be, either in form, or in the instruction it gives, or in the eloquence with winch it is delivered, if it is to produce any fruit, the understanding must he convinced, by clear proofs and reasons, of the truth preached, so that the hearer may acknowledge it, and say to himself, yes, that is true, it is right to do this, or to avoid that; and then the will must be moved and excited, by appealing to the affections, in order that it may fulfil the truth; thus, one depends on the other, like the links of a chain. But, if you come too late, you hear: only one part; the chain is broken, the order disturbed; and show can the truth make the proper impression on you. Your will cannot be moved, because the understanding, which must give light to the blind will, is neither convinced nor enlightened by the proofs given in the beginning, which you have not heard. So that you go away just as wise as you came; the only thing you have gained, is to be able to say, I have heard part of a sermon; not another particle of good have you done yourself.
Finally, you do not come prepared; that is, with a real desire and longing to hear the Word of God. What would you think of him who, being invited to table, would delay, without cause, until the first and best dishes were removed? You would say, there is something wrong with that man; either he has no appetite, or he is utterly indifferent to eating and drinking. Certainly, if he was hungry, he would not require to be asked a second time, nor would he wait for the signal of the bell; his stomach would give him sufficient warning, and the cook must look out, if his meal is not ready at the proper time. Is there any reason, then, to think that he has a true desire to hear the Word of God, which is the food of the soul, who, as a matter of habit, without any necessity, through sheer sloth, or because he fritters away his time in useless things, comes too late to the sermon? Oh, certainly not! The Holy Ghost says: ”Teach the just man,” who has a great zeal and desire for justice; ”and he will hasten to receive the teaching.” He will not sit down in his house and wait until the last toll of the bell resounds in his ears: he will hasten, that he may have time to prepare himself beforehand by prayer, so that he may thus derive greater fruit from the sermon; he will hasten so as not to lose a single word. The whole matter depends on getting up half an hour earlier in the morning. But if some complain of the difficulty of having to stand during the sermon, and remain away (as I think some do) on that account, or come late, then I would say to them: would you think it too hard if you had to stand for an hour talking to a Prince? And if it is God who speaks to you, how can you make such a difficulty of it? You are often able to go an hour too early to the theatre, although it is not very comfortable to sit there, on account of the heat and close air. You can stand for hours looking at a juggler or a mountebank. If there is one for whom you have an unlawful affection, can stand talking at the door with that person, for one, two, or three hours, without being tired; and when the great God speaks for the good of your souls, you think an hour too long! The great emperor Constantine, as Eusebius of Caesarea relates, always stood when hearing sermons, because, he said, it was the Supreme Lord of Heaven who was; speaking by the mouth of the preacher, and it was only right to! show that mark of reverence to His Word. I do not mean, my dear brethren, that you should not sit down, if you have the opportunity of doing so; but you must not make such a difficulty of standing, if you have to stand, that you remain away or come too late on that account, and thus deprive your souls of a great advantage.
We see now Jiow we ought to come to sermons: we must come with our hearts wel1 prepared and full of desire to understand and fulfil the will of God; we must come with speedy steps, at the proper time, so as not to lose anything of what is said. When you hear the first sound of the bell, remember what the three holy kings said, when they saw the star: ”That is the sign of a great King:” come, quickly, let us go to him; God is calling us by that signal; I will go at once and hear what the Lord has to say to my heart. Oh, if every one was always thus prepared! and disposed, says St. John Chrysostom, what good might be done by a single sermon! What great treasures of grace the divine generosity would lavish on souls! How sinners would be filled with sorrow and repentance, the just with the love of God, the needy and distressed with spiritual consolation, the tepid with zeal, the ignorant with light, and all with devotion! Would that every one were always thus disposed! Too happy should I be, if God deigned to use me only once as an instrument to further His honor and glory and the salvation of souls! But, as it is, I must; rather fear that instead of doing the good I hope for and desire, I may rather be the cause why many Christians will have to render a far stricter account on the day of judgment, and have to suffer a far deeper damnation; inasmuch as through their own fault, they do not understand the will of God, nor take it to heart, nor fulfil it. But I look for consolation from you, my dear brethren. And Thou, oh, great God, who art the only Lord and Master of our hearts! who canst turn and move them as Thou pleasest! Do Thou open our mouths to announce Thy praise, Thy law, Thy truths, according to Thy will; and, at the same time, open the hearts of our hearers, that they may understand and undertake what is pleasing to Thee; so that Thy Word may profit us all to the cleansing of our souls, increasing in Thy grace, progress in Thy love, and to Thine and our greater glory forever. Amen.