TEXTS FROM ENGLISH RELIGIOUS HISTORY
Turning Fifty: Meditations on Aging
is an abridged reprint of Meditations for the Aged: Adapted to the progress
of human life by John Brewster, 3rd Edition,
In Brewster's world, turning fifty was cause for superannuated boasting. In these meditations the writer, a solitary clergyman in later life, addresses the role of time, society, the failing body, preservation of the intellect, and the place of the eucharist in meeting old age with an open heart
John Brewster, M.A.
Rector of Boldon
and vicar of Greatham
moves to meet his latter end,
To be enabled to look forward to the enjoyment of a happy and prosperous old age, the preparation for it should be commenced in the vigor of mind and fulness of health. Meditations proper for the aged, therefore, are such as should have their origin at a much earlier period of human life and should progressively increase in inward warmth as the visible orb of their sun vanishes from the sky. The author has endeavored to meditate after this model and to repose his thoughts on subjects suitable to his different stations as he tends toward the grave. If one gleam of this departing ray should be permitted to gild the limit of his own horizon, or that of his friends who may travel with him the same journey, thankfully may they join in singing the song of aged Simeon, "Lord, now lettest thy servant depart in peace according to thy word, for our eyes have seen thy Salvation!"
gentle life's decline
In every period of advancing life the unreflecting mind is liable to deception, but in no period is this more manifest than when we have passed the meridian of our days and have taken our first footsteps toward old age. To mark that footstep well, however difficult, is necessary because advancing years, if not happily improved, will bring with them increasing pains and increasing sorrows. Bare and hackneyed as the path of life is, when trod by thoughtless multitudes, deep and serious instruction will be found upon the road by those who contemplate the whole compass of their being and consider the present moment only as introduction to the future. Mortality is called a common topic, and we pass by it in thought as easily, as carelessly, as we pass by the various memorials of it in a place of graves. But when the eye is suddenly arrested by the record of some well-remembered and once well-beloved name, we start from the careless posture of the mind, feel the full force of serious reflection, and endeavor to become familiar with a state sanctified by the happy dead and offering to us a prospect of the entrance into everlasting life.
If there be a time when the contemplative character is, more than at any other, suitable to our condition, it is this. The gay visions of youth are past. The energy of adulthood is perceptibly declining. The shadow of our setting sun is lengthened and, though its feeble ray be still above the horizon it is hastening to its close. The evening of the day is not more certain than the evening of life. Both precede but a little the last faint gleam of their departed rays. It is time then to withdraw from busy scenes, futile cares, and empty pleasures, when more satisfying joys are rising to our sight. Let me thankfully accept the moment of recollection, and with the eye of religious meditation dart beyond the tomb, and cheer my mind with a view of future glories!
But everyone is not qualified to meet advancing age. The wicked are wholly unprepared for it and many who would be offended to be ranked in their society are equally unfit for its approach. Though every other eye perceive it, the former will not and the latter do not observe the alterations of time. The progress of human life being almost imperceptible and its changes gradual, and the natural man feeling a reluctance to part with what indeed must be to him invaluable, its present enjoyments, he dares not trust himself with reflections on its decline. He therefore shuts his eyes andfatal delusion"thinks it is a plain."
But this fancied plain, however extended, however amusing and diversified with the most alluring and pleasing scenes of nature, must gradually sink under our feet. We shall not have traveled far upon this road before the declivity will be sensibly felt, and we shall be reminded from a thousand intervening circumstances that, a material change of country, or of climate, may soon be expected. After this warning, if we proceed further unprepared, our danger will be great for, just as there is no returning to the place from whence we came, so there will be no new opportunity of retrieving what w have lost, or left behind, in the place to which we shall go. What then will the wise man do? "Forgetting these things which are behind, and reaching forth to those things which are before, he will press towards the mark, for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 3:13).
Here then we begin to perceive the only principle which can make the latter years of human life comfortable. Many must necessarily be the deprivations attendant upon advancing age. The depredations of time, unaccelerated by vicious indulgencies or natural corruption, are sufficiently visible to every eye, and the decays, even of intellectual strength, are felt in every heart. But there is a principle which, though it cannot renovate our bodily powers, or retard the extinction of our mortal part, keeps alive the vital spark within us, gives new vigor to our decaying faculties, and illuminates with the beam of heaven and of hope the last moment of our earthly existence. That principle is faith: the faith of the Gospel, the sure and certain anchor of our soul.
Many fine and brilliant passages on mortality may be found in the works of the ancients. Many more, no less apposite and eloquent, in the writings of modern moralists. Yet in both something is wanting to bring the subject home to the heart. Do we inquire what that is which extinguishes the fear of death, which even makes that state an object of our earnest desire, and hearty wish? I once more answer in the language of eternal truth"This is the victory which overcometh the world, even our faith" (1 John 5:4).
An abstract proposition may make an impression upon the mind, and sometimes recall it to serious thought. But if it be destitute of a proper motive, it will be wholly unproductive. Thus the popular apophthegm, "death is common to all," is in every mouth. But is it in every heart? Do we ask ourselves why death is common to all? Do we trace the question to its original source"by man came death"? If we did, we should not only understand the cause of death, but the blessed means of obtaining everlasting life"by man came also the resurrection of the dead; for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor. 15:21).
Where can the old rest with greater confidence than on this single declaration of the revealed will of God? From the revolutions of time which his eyes have seen, he must surely have obtained full experience of the vanity of human actions, and be satisfied that those who trust in themselves trust to a broken reed. What then should be the old person's conduct? A cheerful acquiescence in the dispensation of Providence, in compliance with the will of God made known to mankind. He should be ready to say with Job, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him," (Job 13:15) and then may he welcome with a smile all the changes and chances of this mortal life. Some of these perhaps may shake his trembling nerves, but he adopts the strong and pious language of the Apostle Paul: "I know in whom I have believed," and in the spirit of such support he will sustain his feeble frame and feel his heart still stronger than his hand.
That radical change, or well grounded stability of principle and conduct, which Christianity requires at every age from the cradle to the grave, should be doubly visible in the maturity of life. There is, at that period, but one great issue before our eyes. If we fall short here we are lost forever. But if the fervency of our prayer be equal to the importance of our petitions, we shall not ask; neither shall we labor in vain.
How delightful to behold old age attended by venerable and appropriate graces! How much more delightful, when those graces have accompanied us, by gradual improvement, through every stage of life, and we have grown old together! Amiable and excellent as every virtue, every Christian virtue shines, in its progression through the world, it acquires a golden tint as it verges to the ocean.
May all we whose lives Providence hath prolonged beyond the middle period of the age of man, expect advancing years with solid and substantial piety, for nothing but this can crown our heads with glory! May we employ our minds in holy meditation and our tongues in prayer! May the book of God be ever in our hands! And may we catch the flame of devotion from many a venerable and holy sage who hath trod the path before us!
The meditations of one Bishop Andrews, I will venture to suggest, whose pious mind gave fervency, if not sublimity, to his language:
Having passed over the day, I render thanks to thee, my God, for thy good providence. The evening now draws on; make thou it comfortable. But as each day has its evening, so likewise hath human life. Life's evening is old age; make thou this also comfortable. O cast me not away in the time of age, neither forsake me when my strength faileth me. Even to hoary hairs do thou carry me. Thou hast made, and hast sustained me hitherto; continue still to support and to deliver me. Abide with me, my Jesus, for the time is far spent. Yea, the shadows of the evening are stretched out, and the day is declining upon me. Let my strength now especially be made perfect in my weakness; for as the day, so life is near its end, a life wherein we scarcely live. The night posts on apace. So do that death, of which night is the image: a night after which we must expect no morning. In constant remembrance and due sense of which, I earnestly entreat thee, blessed Lord, to order such an end of life to me as may be truly Christian, acceptable to thee, and perfectly void of sin and shame, and so far as thou seest fit, of extreme pain too. So gathering me to the remainder of thine elect, in peace and innocence, at thy own time, and after thy own way, only let it be free from guilt and from reproach. As long as I live I will magnify thee after this manner and lift up my hands in thy name.
The traveler who is compelled to take a long journey and makes no preparation for his subsistence on the road, or whose preparation is so scanty and unsuitable to his condition that he faints for food, or is in great want of necessities long before he has reached the place of destination: this person resembles him who begins his journey of life without any provident preparation for his passage through it and who finds himself even hard at death's door through the famine of his soul, even before he has entered into those days of darkness which, by the constitution of Providence, generally attend on a prolonged state of our mortal existence.
If the reflection be at all applicable to your state, O my soul, let me accept it as an omen of good. Let me before swift-winged time shall have borne from me hours, days, and years, which have in them an intrinsic value, as affording continual opportunities of seeking those spiritual advantages which without them would be lost forever: let me prepare for my eternal journey by laying up treasure that will not fade, food that never can decay. If I set any just value on your condition, my soul, I cannot be insensible of the importance of the preparation. My earthly habits draw my attention. I eat, drink and am solicitous to have all my temporal wants supplied. The reason is because my earthly frame cannot subsist without them. But when I see the abundance which is spread around us, when I reflect on the infinite variety which a merciful and kind Provider permits me to enjoy, may I not say with the Athenian philosopher, "How many things are here which I do not want!" Let me be thankful for, and satisfied with, these. But let me consider only one thing as absolutely necessary. If I "seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness," I may well be content with any addition which he may be pleased to make me, and what he takes from me, may I willingly resign! There is no care of greater value, whether we note it or not, than the care of our immortal souls.
This care of the soul, at our first entrance on the study, startles us by its infinite importance, and presses upon us in many a serious thought, in many a penetrating reflection. We have a soul: that we have at last discovered. We have a soul to be saved: that is the object both of our hopes and fears. Happy for us, we begin to think, and when our thought is fixed, we begin to reason. Much now remains to be done. Much, perhaps the severer task, remains to be undone. We have attained, by God's blessing, the middle period of life. We have lived in cities, and bustled through miseries and follies. We have lived in villages and seen even those otherwise peaceful places visited by vices and crimes. The share we have had in both now calls loudly for attention. We wish to retrace many of our footsteps, and would gladly annihilate no inconsiderable portion of our existence. But the die is cast: the deed is done. What then remains? The answer is repentance. But can repentance recall the long accomplished sin? Can repentance restore life to the body that has been destroyed? "Would that it could!" says almost every murderer. Can it give purity to the mind which has been led astray, and left forlorn and destitute by an insidious and unrelenting seducer? "Would that it could!" says almost every unhappy person of that description. To what then must we look for a restoration of solid and substantial peace under circumstances so critical? To whom must we apply? We have but one resource, that is all-sufficient. We must turn our eye on Him "who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree that we, being dead to sin, should live unto righteousness" (1 Peter 2:24). Here we have one to do for us what even repentance could not effect. We are to be saved solely through his merits, and by his mediation. Repentance then takes its proper place in the heart when it is presented before God by the Savior of man, as a fruit of that faith which opens the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
This belief, and the corresponding duties, necessary from the earliest moment of our lives, are peculiarly desirable as we approach the limit of human life. Impiety and iniquity melt before us. And though, after all, we feel ourselves still too much oppressed, we rejoice in having cast away such heavy fetters. The happy voice of liberty sounds in our ears: "We are no more strangers and pilgrims, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Eph. 2:19).
This change the voice of inspiration emphatically describes as a new creation in the soul. We breathe a freer and a purer air. We are altered in our habit, temper, disposition. Our thoughts, which partook too much of earth, now centre on heaven. What we once called mirth and gaiety, divine truth pronounces dissipation, and inconsistent with that sobriety of character which christianity invariably demands. But divine truth does not offer gloom and melancholy in their stead. No, it informs us that religious faith is always a cheerful principle to the true believer: that the Author of our salvation was himself a partaker of the inoffensive feast, and that love, in its purest and most attractive form, is one great emanation of his Gospel.
we have brought our convert to this point in the journey of human life,
we have shown him what is indeed the true consolation of advancing years.
He begins to estimate the intrinsic value of that condition which he
still possesses. He compares it with one much more valuable which he
has in view; and though he may not wish to accelerate the period of
old age, he is neither fearful of its approach, nor shrinks at its arrival.
The paroxysms of former follies is over. His hoary head is not exposed
to a stormy sky. He receives the bright beam of the evening on his venerable
and placid countenance, and his breast, more venerable and more placid,
reflects that ray of heaven which unites his holy mind with celestial
When a man has attained the maturity of life, he must be blind indeed to the natural course of Providence who does not perceive his tendency to decay. He must also have been very little acquainted with his own heart, less with the world, and still less with his God, who at his age is unable to appreciate the value of each. How delightful to hear a good man relate his own experience of life at so critical a period! The declaration of such a one is at hand. The amiable Professor Gellert said to his friends and pupils:
Let me here be allowed to make an ingenuous confession. I have lived fifty years, during which I have had many subjects of joy. None of these have been more lasting, more innocent, more satisfactory to my heart than those I have sought and tasted in following the counsels of religion, whose mild restraints captivated my soul. This I attest to be truth on my conscience. I have lived fifty years, and have experienced many afflictions, but I never obtained more light in my perplexities, more comfort, more consolation, more strength and courage in my troubles, than what I have derived from religion, and this I attest on my conscience. I have lived fifty years, and have frequently found myself on the borders of the grave, and I have experienced that nothing, no, nothing can help us to triumph over the fears of death but the divine efficacy of religion in our souls. Nothing is so powerful in strengthening it in these decisive moments in which it sees itself, not without emotion, on the confines of eternity. And for calming us when our conscience rises up against us, nothing is so efficacious as faith in our divine Saviour and Redeemer. I attest this as in the presence of God! O, if the testimony of a friend, of a tutor, can have any weight with you, if mine, my dear young friends, can have any influence over you, whenever any presumptuous reasoner would set you against the doctrines of the holy Scriptures, or when the infidel, not knowing how to tranquilize his own mind, undertakes to extinguish in yours a belief, the holiness of which confounds himO Christian youth, let him never find one amongst you who may dare to despise the most excellent of all books, and make it a subject of raillery! Let the Scripture be at all times the object of your veneration. It constitutes your happiness on earth and secures it in heaven.
I the choice of sublunary good,
The fabulous story of the Sybil's books affords an instructive allusion to the value of human life as it draws towards its termination. Tear successive pages from the volume of time and inquire of the contemplative man the price of what remains. He who computes his days by the duties which he is called upon to fulfill and the perpetual impediments which the best intentioned meet with to obstruct the usefulness of their endeavors, can alone be sensible of their real value.
In early life we lay long plans of conduct. After a considerable interval we find most of our plans unexecuted. We then begin to reflect that if they are to be accomplished, a far smaller portion of our time than we had originally allotted to them can be employed in their execution. What is perhaps more fatal to our schemes: that portion is uncertain. An awful thought for those who have in their possession many of the chief blessings of life and are approaching by a rapid progress that mortal bourne from whence no traveler returns.
Health, leisure, competence of means, the sweets of friendship, and the love of peace, are indeed valuable possessions. But they are also trusts which rest not in the sensible pleasures they bring, but extend to those promised joys which they are the means of acquiring. Under the protection of these, what may not man perform? Without them much has been done, even by the "weary and heavy-laden." With them, greater things may be expected and, if disappointment follows, there is generally reason to imagine that it arises, not from the circumstance of situation but from the misapplication of the talent.
Constant occupation, perpetual engagement in the active scenes of life, continued and unwearied attention to the important duties of his station, form at once the happiness of man and the test of his obedience.
Human arrangements indeed must be made because human purposes demand them. The world must be conducted according to the order of Providence. Men must be found to fill temporal offices, whose duty it is to endeavor to bring to a prosperous issue such lawful trusts as are committed to their charge. In the world we are not ministering spirits but energetic and accountable men. But while we esteem ourselves being of a material kind, of strong and effective abilities, we are not to forget our two-fold nature. We were born to live in another world as well as this, and if we neglect, disgrace or endanger our spiritual part, our temporal state of existence will not only have been no blessing to us, but the fatal cause of an everlasting regret.
The intent of this observation is to show that though necessarily engaged in temporal occupations, the golden thread of a heavenly temper ought to run through them all. Sanctified by divine grace, every lawful engagement has its value. Nay, so very necessary to the real happiness of man is the principle of vital religion and, as conducive to that, the cultivation of useful and agreeable temporal avocations, that if we draw aside the veil which conceals the character of good men in eminent public stations, we shall find these united friends affording the purest satisfaction to their most rational and most retired hours.
He whose mind the world wholly occupies imagines that no time can be spared for divine duties. But many circumstances in the lives of good men inform him that he is mistaken. The wise statesman, the sound lawyer, the eminent merchant, the skillful physician, the most profound mathematician, astronomer, or general student of almost any description, will rise up in judgment against the man who endeavors to excuse the observance of his religious duties under the plea of learned or professional employment. Addison, Hale, Thornton, Boerhaave, Bacon, Boyle, Newton, Lockethemselves a host (omitting many modern names well known in the record of the righteous)are ready to offer full proof that while the most important of wordly studies and occupations employed their outward attention, God rested at their hearts. The Ethiopian treasurer read Isaiah in his chariot. Isaac meditated in the fields. The friends of good Hooker, when they went to visit him at his parsonage, found him with a book in his hand tending his own sheep. In short, the true Christian will neither lack place or opportunity for devotion, nor for the cultivation of those useful and general talents which may contribute to the benefit or happiness of man.
I may accommodate to this observation the remark of a learned judge in his history of the life and character of another eminent person who had occupied a situation of life similar to his own, Lord Woodhouselee, who says:
"The professional occupations of the best employed lawyer or the most distinguished judge," "cannot fill up every interval of his time. The useful respite of vacation, the hours of sickness, the surcease of employment from the infirmities of age, all necessarily induce seasons of languor against which a wise man would do well to provide a store in reserve and an antidote and cordial to cheer and support his spirits. In this light the pursuits of science and of literature (and surely I may add, above all, the study of theology in its pure and genuine sense) afford an unbounded field, and endless variety of useful occupations. Even in the latest hours of life the reflection on the time thus spent and the anticipation of an honorable memorial in after-ages (or rather, in the case of a truly religious conversation, the confidence of hope) are sources of consolation, of which every ingenuous (every pious) mind must fully feel the value. How melancholy was the reflection uttered on his deathbed by one of the ablest lawyers and judges of the last age, but whose mental stores were wholly limited to the ideas connected with his profession: My life has been a chaos of nothing!'"
As I have taken from the bench this reflection which is equally applicable to men of all professions, I shall select from the same learned quarter the diary of a most eminent, excellent and pious judge of a former age. If we should be inclined to contrast it with the dying exclamation just recited, I trust that there is not an old man of sound intellect and good understanding who shall peruse it who will not fortify and improve his mind by the comparison. The following schedule is from Sir Matthew Hale's private thoughts and resolutions:
To lift up my heart to God in thankfulness for renewing my life.
must be an employment: two kinds.
Meat and drinkmoderation, seasoned with somewhat of God
Beware of wandering, vain, lustful thoughts. Fly from thyself rather
than entertain them.
Do good to them. Use God's name reverently. Beware of leaving an ill example. Receive good from them more knowing.
Cast up the accounts of the day. If aught be amiss, beg pardon. Gather resolution of more vigilance. If well, bless the mercy and grace of God that hath supported thee.
After this specimen of Sir Matthew Hale's private thoughts and resolutions, we shall not be surprised to be informed by his biographer, Bishop Burnet, that
His whole life was nothing else but a continual course of labor and industry. When he could borrow any time from the public service he was wholly employed either in the philosophical or divine meditations. He that considers the active part of his life, and with what unwearied diligence and application of mind he dispatched all men's business that came under his care, will wonder how he could find time for contemplations. He that considers again the various studies he passed through, and the many collections and observations he made, may as justly wonder how he could find any time for action. But no man can wonder at the exemplary piety and innocence of such a life so spent as this was, wherein, as he was careful to avoid every evil word, so it is manifest he never spent an idle day.
May the example of so good a man stimulate my endeavors after greater degrees of improvement, and may I be enabled to mingle somewhat of God's immediate service in the employment of every day!
old, he still retained
The placid resignation of an old man, deprived indeed of many of the substantial comforts of his life, yet possessing in himself a confidence not found on the fragile nature of mortality, is an enviable condition. The trunk indeed suffers, but the man survives. The world recedes but heaven is in view.
Hope and fear have each their periods in the history of man's life. In youth and middle age we are sanguine and fear nothing. In our advanced years, sensible that we have lost something, we grow timorous and are afraid of losing more. Something therefore remains to be corrected in both situations. In one we must check our impetuosity by reflecting that, in an uncertain life, old age may never come. In the other, we must cherish our resolution by the thought that the more protracted the hour of our dissolution be, the greater scope has a kind Providence allowed us for the exercise of those duties which our situation, as men and as Christians, demands: "To whom much is given, of him much will be required."
The balancing of hope and fear, and the remedy for both, are admirably considered in a familiar letter from Dr. Young at a very late period of his life to his friend Richardson:
There is great difference between middle and old age. Hope is quartered on the middle of life, and fear on the latter end of it; and hope is ever inspiring pleasant dreams, and fear hideous ones. If any good arises beyond our hope, we have such a diffidence of its stay that the apprehension of losing it destroys the pleasure of possessing it. It adds to our fears rather than increases our joys. What shall we do in this case? Help me to an expedient: There is but one that I know of, which is, that since the things of this life, from their mixture, repetition, defectiveness, and in age, short duration, are unable to satisfy, we must aid their natural by a moral pleasure. We must season them with religion to make them more palatable. We must consider that it is God's will that we should be content and pleased with them. And thus the thinness of the natural pleasure, by our sense of joining an obedience to heaven to it, will become much more substantial and satisfactory. We shall find great account in considering content, not only as a prudence, but as a duty too. Religion is all (and happy for us!) It is all sufficient too in our last extremities, a full proof of which I will steal from yourself. So all sufficient is religion that you could not draw, in Clarissa the strongest object of pity without giving us in it (thanks to her religion) an object of envy too.
Hope, triumphing over fear by the assistance of religion, in the person of an aged man, affords a beautiful and an interesting subject for a picture. The old should view it with complacency, the young with delight. And when we consider that aged man as the author of Night Thoughts, our pleasure and veneration will increase and we shall be assured that seriousness of meditation does not necessarily imply moroseness of character or gloominess of mind. We shall not even require the pen of David to delineate his feelings: "Mark the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace" (Ps. 37:37).
But the old man, under such happy circumstances, possesses joy as well as peace in believing. "A cheerful mind is a continual feast" (Prov. 15:15). It checks, as it were, even the decays of nature, corrects or soothes every infirmity as it approaches, and prolongs not only the happiness but the utility of its possessor. It affords too this peculiar advantage that it does not seek to hide its sorrows or its infirmities in an impenetrable solitude, where a less easy temper would have driven him who had not meliorated or removed them by reflection, but that it is still able to mix with a society composed of qualities like its own, and to diffuse a genial warmth into kindred bosoms.
A misanthropic dislike of society in old age indicates as much the absence of true religious principle as the insatiable thirst after crowds and indiscriminate companions. Solitude, unsocial solitude, is the parent of innumerable diseases, mental as well as bodily diseases in an old person. Miserable habits re acquired, not always innocent. Brooding over lost pleasures and enjoyments, disgusted with present possession, and having no stability in the expectation of futuritywhat condition of life can be imagined more deplorable? But as mind is wanting, as there is no steady principle of conduct, no spiritual information, no spiritual feeling, we cannot expect what so defective a character does not possess.
But he who has grown gray in his heavenly master's service will find many advantages in well chosen society. I pass by the communication of his own valuable experience, the well-tempered results of his own mature judgment, as it is the effect of society upon himself rather than others which is the object of my present consideration.
The good old man will not look for associates among the dissipated of any age. He will not wish to communicate freely even with those whose days are consumed in trifling which, for that reason, may not always be considered as innocent avocations. He who starts back from decided vice and as decided irreligion, will not willingly consume his time and hazard his principles among those whose conduct has more than a tendency to endanger both. "There is not, I think" says Cowper (and he draws not his pencil too deeply along the picture), "there is not so melancholy a sight in the world (an hospital is not to be compared to it) as that of a thousand persons distinguished by the name of gentry, who gentle perhaps by nature and made more gentle by education, have the appearance of being innocent and inoffensive, yet being destitute of all religion, or not governed at all by the religion they profess, are none of them at any distance from an eternal state where self-deception will be impossible and where amusements cannot enter."
Such a society as this can add no comfort to the breast of an old man, and miserable indeed are the effects on the morals and principles of a young one. A few social friends of similar sentiments of piety and virtue connected on terms of intercourse consistent with the pure motives of civil or religious duties and of equal or nearly equal years is indeed a most desirable circumstance, and must contribute in a high degree to the general happiness of life. But as a society of this nature must at not distant period dissolve itself, is it not reasonable to inquire whether great or peculiar advantages would not arise from an occasional intercourse with persons inferior in age to themselves?
One of the failings of old age is to be prejudiced in opinion. The intercourse thus recommended would rub off the rust of years and give an unexpected polish to the sound principles of youth.
This subject is so well treated by a late eminent physician that I shall sum up the argument in his language rather than my own:
Many causes contribute to destroy cheerfulness in the decline of life besides the natural decay of youthful vivacity. The few surviving friends and companions are then dropping off apace. The gay prospects that swelled the imagination in more early and happy days are then vanished and, along with them, the open, generous and unsuspicious temper and that warm heart which dilated with benevolence to all mankind. These are succeeded by gloom, disgust, suspicion, and all the selfish passions which sour the temper and contract the heart. When old people associate only with one another they mutually increase these unhappy dispositions by brooding over their disappointments, the degeneracy of the times, and such like cheerless and uncomfortable subjects. The conversation of young people dispels this gloom and communicates a cheerfulness and something else which perhaps we do not wholly understand, of great consequence to health and the prolongation of life. There is a universal principle of imitation among mankind which disposes them to catch instantaneously and without being conscious of it, the resemblance of any action or character that presents itself. This disposition we can often check by the force of reason or the assistance of opposite impressions. At other times it is insurmountable. We have numberless examples of this in the similitude of characters and manners induced by people living much together, in the sudden communications of terror, of melancholy, of joy, or the military ardor when no cause can be assigned for these emotions. The communication of nervous disorders, especially of the convulsive kind, is often so astonishing that it has been referred to fascination and witchcraft. We will not pretend to explain the nature of this mental infection, but it is a fact well established that such a thing exists and that there is such a thing in nature as an healthy sympathy as well as a morbid infection.
An old man who enters into this philosophy [or, as the author may be allowed to say, in addition to this ingenious philosophyan old man who is, besides, impressed with the certainty and feeling that the religion of Christ offers a cheerfulness and placidity of mind beyond all other considerations] is far from envying or provoking a check on the innocent pleasures of young people and particularly of his own children. On the contrary, he attends with delight to the gradual opening of the imagination and the dawn of reason. He enters by a secret sympathy into their guiltless joys, that revive in his memory the tender images of his youth, which by length of time have contracted a softness inexpressibly agreeable; and thus the evening of life is protracted to an happy, honorable, unenvied [and religious] old age.
May my mind be always open to appropriate pleasures; and may those pleasures improve the temper and disposition of my heart as it passes towards that yet unknown country where pure and unmixed delight only can be found!
Then let the
trial come! And witness thou
Fortitude, Christian fortitude, can never be held in higher estimation as a cardinal virtue than when it is exerted to sustain the inevitable evils of human life. Pain of mind is frequently the result of pain of body. How greatly are these aggravated by an unaccommodating and undisciplined old age! O, my soul, be thou ready and prepared when the hand of the Almighty presses upon you in personal sufferings. "It is good for me that I have been in trouble. Before I was troubled I went wrong. Thou art good and gracious; O teach me thy statutes" (Ps. 119).
Thus armed, let us go forward in the spirit and with bold intrepid breast let us meet the rising storm:
let the trial come! And witness thou
To what purpose have so many years passed over our heads, so many thoughts rested in our minds, so many lessons of instruction been received into our hearts, so many warnings, awful and not to be mistaken warnings, given if all are in vain at the moment when their value is the greatest? Let us reflect on the old man bowed toward the earth. We have witnessed his abridged walk, his prolonged slumbers, his lack-luster eye, and unsteady paralytic hand are all before us. The chronic pain is not unnoticed. Here then we stand, andare what we deplore.
The state of old age is undoubtedly obnoxious to many infirmities of body. The old man in some degree or other must feel them. His most important care ought to be that he feels them well, that is, that he does not accumulate unnecessary misery by aggravating what he cannot avoid. When we lose reason from the helm, our actions are not our own. A glimmering of reason may remain when almost every part of the animal frame is lost in irrecoverable debility. "This thy hand, and thou, Lord, hast done it" (Ps 119:27).
The miracles of nature which were accomplished by the Messiah still spiritually exist in the miracles of divine grace. The blind, the deaf, the lame, the dumb, claim and receive the kind offices of a still and ever merciful Deliverer. Let us review them, connected with that state when old age is supposed to heighten infirmity.
Old age and blindness contemplated at a distance produce heavy and melancholy thought. But blindness and old age are sometimes necessarily connected. The aged eye will be dim; and worldly prospects will naturally fade. Is there no consolation? Yes, the eye of the soul is enlightened by a heavenly ray. To the contemplative mind the obscurity of earthly vision is indeed attended with incalculable advantages. One source of temptation is wholly cut off. What does not enter by the eye? Who but will rejoice at their deliverance from such seductions. Old as we may be we are not exempt from the dangers of a covetous, envious or evil eye. Not distracted by the eye of vanity, you can think down hours to moments. How quick the sense! How strong the memory! How active the fancy! How apprehensive the understanding! So long as these remain, so long the comforts of an aged blind man may continue. What a vision that will be when "we shall see God as he is and know him even as we are known."
I cannot dismiss the subject from my mind without one example (and many more might be given) of a good old man deprived of his sight. Dr. Blacklock's biography says,
The writer has frequently been a witness of the family scene at Dr. Blacklock's, has seen the good man amidst the circle of his friends, eager to do him all the little offices of kindness, which he seemed so much to merit and to feel. In this society he seemed entirely to forget the privation of sight and the melancholy which at other times it might produce. He entered with the cheerful playfulness of a young man, into all the sprightly narrative, the spotful fancy, the humorous jest, that rose around him. It was a sight highly gratifying to philanthropy to see how much a mind endowed with knowledge, kindled by genius, and above all lit up with innocence and piety, could overcome the weight of its own calamity and enjoy the content, happiness and gaiety of others.
O my God, let me be thankful for my sight. Preserve to me that inlet of happiness though the light of the sun may be partially obscured through the infirmity of old age. But far above all other considerations, let me possess the light within, the heavenly brightness of God who is light itself and in whom is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).
Our dim eye is commonly succeeded by a dull ear. Like other miseries each bears its own burden; each possesses its own consolation. The ear is the entrance of knowledge: the ear is the entrance of faith. Faith cometh by hearing: but the avenue of the ear is shut up. Is all knowledge than abortive? By no means. The blind man grows quicker of apprehension by the loss of sight. The deaf man watches his eye. The divine gift of letters becomes more peculiarly to the deaf a treasury of information. He possesses the advantage of selection and needs not be tempted to associate with the wicked and seducer. His book lies open before him, the book of God, the source of truth and fountain of divine life. He that can have no ear for man becomes all ear to God.'
No man indeed will desire deafness because it is a bodily defect greatly deplored, attended with much inconvenience in our intercourse with man. But it is not without its benefit. Our attention is directed to one point. We are not interrupted in thought, but possess the same advantages with the blind in meditation.
Deafness then is an old man's infirmity, but it is often an old man's blessing. If he possesses sufficient energy of mind not to express his feelings with an over-anxious curiosity, his deafness will not injure himself, nor be any inconvenience to his friends. Let our natural deafness operate towards our spiritual cure. Our external hearing is gone: let our internal hearing be improved.
not our deafness entirely frustrate our usefulness. We hear for
ourselves but we speak [and write] for others.'
Bodily infirmity presses further. The nerveless arm becomes shattered by paralytic affection. Even the stout and healthy in a moment suffer this change. In many cases the mind itself is shook, the train of thinking altered and irritability and uneasiness are its inseparable companions. The trial indeed is great, for even extreme old age may feel it. But where one particle of mind remains, cherish it as a grain of gold. The breathings of God's spirit may again revive it. "And he said to me, Can these bones live?' and I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest."
The infliction of diseases is a lesson for every age of man but those require our present notice which are connected with our declining years.
Chronic pain, which makes early inroads on the human condition, often protracts to a late period of life. It is sometimes welcomed (doubtless for consolation's sake) as the "friendly earnest of fourscore." We are glad to deceive ourselves, or our friends, by promising old age as a blessing. God grant that it may be a real blessing to its possessor, but that will not be acquired by deception. Consider life as it exists. Improve it if you can, but dissemble not its comforts. All pain is the punishment of sin, or the trial of our Christian faith. This is the touchstone of age. Our Redeemer is as strong for us at fourscore as at forty. Though our sensations may be duller, our confidence should be stronger.
There are circumstances incident to old age which may not perhaps be called natural disease and yet are to be distinguished as bodily infirmity. Of these I particularly note that restlessness of person and lack of repose. Both may arise from the unsteadiness of the nervous system where they are not occasioned by a moral unhappiness of mind. Medicine may relieve the former, assisted by reflection. Only a quiet conscience can relieve the latter.
The loss of rest without the addition of disease will produce weakness of body and unhappiness of mind. But listen, thou good old man, listen to that heavenly voice which whispers to you on your bed. Use the dark and solemn season of the night in contemplation of spiritual joys. Commune with your own soul. Cast your mind on Him who is invisible. Heal your mind and the infirmities of your body will wonderfully decrease. Here the power of religion on the soul will be visible indeed. The shattered frame, the ruin of mortality will be restored with fresh architectural beauty. Debility of body is no longer an excuse for an indulgence in vicious habits nor relaxation of mind for weakness of faith. The bright ray of heavenly light as cleared away the cloud and the old man, "rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord" (Rom. 12:1112) completes the remnant of his years in the happy conscience of health, vigor and salvation.
That I may have meditated on the old man's bodily infirmities with some effect, teach me, blessed Lord, to bear my own. It is easy to bear another man's calamities; let me transfer that easiness to my own burden. Here may I try my strength, and here may I be triumphant!
Subdued at length
beneath laborious life,
Yet not in flowery
Amidst the waste
of years, preserve entire
Among the several blessings for which we have daily reason to be thankful, there is not one in which our souls are more interested than in the preservation of our intellectual faculties. What can recompense the loss of intellect? When that divine principles disarrayed or extinguished in man, all is blank and dreariness, all is shut up in misery and ruin. The delicate texture of the brain and the nice distribution of those subtle organs which contribute to the use of reason lie too deep for human investigation. The effect is visible; the cause is hidden. Cowper felt and said it exquisitely:
is an harp whose chords elude the sight
The use of intellect is considered a common blessing like that of the elements which are as essential to our existence in an animal as that is in a spiritual state. We are apt to pass them equally by, as if equally insensible of their value. Nor can anything but the fear of deprivation in either case restore us to reasonable reflection. Such is the use, or rather misuse, of our faculties in the days of health and youth. Old age arrives with all its feeble exertions and we lament the departure of sound and virtuous intellect.
I know no consideration more important to the aged than this. Do they complain of the rapidity of time? Here they may add to their years. Do they regret the departure of enjoyments? Here they can arrest them in their course. By the true use of every remaining faculty, by watching the encroachment of indolence, by guarding against self-indulgence, by abstaining from seductive and pernicious allurements, by renouncing enervating pleasures, they may retain, if not the full flow of youth, the animating vigor of a healthy age. "Bless the Lord," he may then say, "O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name: who redeems thy life from destruction, who crowns thee with lovingkindness and tender mercies, who satisfies thy mouth with good things so that thy youth is renewed like the eagle's" (Ps. 103:1,4,5).
The first rational operation of intellect at our entrance into the world is the adoration of God. The next is, or ought to be, the study of the avowed and authentic revelation of his will. I would not use so false an argument as to recommend, under any sanctions, temporal health merely as a compensation for the performance of religious duties. Valuable as a sound body is, and inestimable as are all the faculties of man, I would not wish to possess even these advantages on such mercenary, such unbecoming terms. Be our motives pure, whatever the event. What God bestows, receive, but receive it as of grace, and not of debt.
Yet under the consideration of the moral government of the world, a due attention to health is certainly a duty of religion. To retain our intellectual faculties as long as we are able is to protract our thankfulness to God and our usefulness to men. Vice is injurious to health; therefore vice is injurious to our intellectual faculties. Reason and religion, as they sprang together from the bosom of divine wisdom, will forever remain united, and "what God has joined together, let no man put asunder."
Apathy and dullness are two distresses of the aged which, unrepelled and unconquered, will make formidable inroads on the understanding. Sometimes indeed they are involuntary affections and afford symptoms of a natural decay which precedes but little those melancholy hours of which many complain, "I have no pleasure in them" (Eccl 12:1). But may not the recollection of his Savior and his judge, and the recollection of that love, that pure delight often kindled on the view of his redemption, burn bright to his latest hour, and give an animation even to his expiring lips?
Let the old man beware of losing this anchor of hope. Good thoughts and good desires are too apt to slip from us, particularly at that age when activity of imagination is past and the decaying body affords at least a specious pretense for giving way to greater indolence of mind than even that advanced period of life allows.
But religion is always young, as flourishing in the last breath of life as when it was first touched at the creation by the finger of the Almighty.
is the reign of fancy. At that season ideas flow spontaneously and the
exercise of the intellectual faculties is made with less exertion. But
at a later period of life the scene is changed. Men of maturer years,
intent on the passing business of life, neglect the use of intellect.
"Ideas in the mind quickly fade and often vanish quite out of the
understanding, leaving no more footsteps or remaining characters of
themselves" as a celebrated philosopher poetically expresses it,
"than shadows do flying over fields of corn; and the mind is as
void of them as if they had never been there." But are they therefore
never to be recovered? Though the impression be obscured, it is not
lost. The faculty of recollection will bring them again before us, and
repetition and retention will preserve them to us. Our devotional exercises
will operate asa a technical memory, and we shall retain, even to hoar
hairs, those traces of intellect which are most valuable. Whatever fades
from the mind, the love of God will never fade. However debility may
oppress the body, while one vivid spark of intellectual fire continues
to illuminate the soul, the religious principle will be kept vigorously
alive, and will communicate its brightness to all the pure Christian
graces of the heart.
Let me awake from the torpor of reiterated sinful life, and keep every faculty alive in the warm feeling of religious faith.
There is an annihilation of mind as well as a supposed annihilation of body. Both are abhorrent from that consciousness of an intellectual existence, implanted by the God of nature in the breast of man. There is no one who has felt the genial beams of a warm imagination who would not wish to preserve it to his last hour.
There is so much of mechanism in the constitution of man, our earthly part requires such continued touches, as it were, of our spiritual affections, that the least intermission of such an operation produces an intellectual torpor and sends us to our graves in melancholy or misery. That this combination of soul and body should be properly tempered is the office of judgment. Mere nature will hardly help us forward in so arduous a task. The natural passions are ungovernable. The imagination too is naturally wild and difficult to restrain. The intellectual faculties, excellent as they are in principle, are often defective in operation. External objects press upon them. The thought is interrupted, the design is lost.
Were the soul a material substance the old man might in vain bewail his situation and weep. But an unerring guide gives him a more cheerful h ope and he proceeds, led by a celestial hand, "As is the heavenly such are they, also that are heavenly, and as we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly" (1 Cor. 15:48,49). And what is the image of god in the soul of man if not that intellectual union which incorporates the spiritual man with the spiritual nature of the Almighty? Here then is an object worthy of attainment. To preserve those faculties which constitute this union, as clear and long as the purposes of Divine Providence permit, is a duty which every aged man is called upon to perform.
But the old man says, "The powers of nature fail; memory grows weak. Arrangement of thought is difficult. Imagination gradually and almost imperceptibly evaporates, and reason itself decays." We acquiesce in the general justness of this reply. But if he produces this apology to cover every future exertion of his mind, we cannot so far soothe his sorrows as to bid him dismiss all solicitude. Hear the words of the prophet: "Even to your old age I am he; and even to hoar hairs will I carry you; I have made and I will beareven I will carry, and will deliver you" (Isaiah 71:4). Time, then, which has bereft you of many comforts, cannot wholly deprive you of this. The divine union, the spiritual intercourse will remain til "this corruptible shall have put on incorruption and this mortal shall have put on immortality" (1 Cor. 15:53). If God requires this of you, God will support you to the end. He will supply both the recompense and the means. The recompense is his, but the application of the means is in your power. Lack of use will destroy every energy of the body. Lack of use will destroy every energy of the soul.
Weakness of the animal powers will bring on weakness of the mental faculties, and thus may every indolent man be guilty of a moral suicide Harsh as this language may appear, it will not be found too severe if attributed to those for whom it is intended. If it rouses from a state of unproductive indolence any aged person who may imagine himself less called upon for exertion as the number of his years increase, I feel myself bold enough not to retract the observation. I am willing, however, to qualify the admonition by allowing an important and justifying difference between the real loss of sensible emotions, the extinction or deadness of the rational passions, and that supposed and premature debility which is merely the covering and apology of mental sloth.
The improvement of memory, and all the advantages to be derived from a continual use of the intellectual faculties, must not be begun in age. It is progressive in every period of life. To make it valuable to the end it requires superior vigilance, new habits of arrangement as we approach the limit of our years.
None of our faculties is more wonderful than that of memory. As Locke says,
Our minds represent to us those tombs to which we are approaching: where though the brass and marble remain, yet the inscriptions are effaced by time, and the imagery molders away. The pictures drawn in our minds are laid in fading colors and if not sometimes refreshed, vanish and disappear. In viewing again the ideas that are lodged in the memory, the mind is oftentimes more than barely passive, the appearances of these dormant pictures depending sometimes on the will. The mind very often sets itself to work in search of some hidden idea, and turns, as it were, the eye of the soul upon it."
When we consider memory in this light, how serious will it be to those who, through carelessness and inattention, or who through a wilful dismissal of all pious and improving thoughts, are wont to exclaim, "I have a bad memory!"
A religious memory, at that period when this world closes, and the next opens its prospects, will bear its own value with it. We may be allowed to forget much that has encumbered life, if we remember and cherish thoughts that wander through eternity. The intellectual faculties which are capable of a progressive improvement, we have reason to believe, will be increased rather than diminished in a state of immortality. What true dignity this bestows upon the soul of man!
O Lord, protect your aged servant by your favor from all powers of darkness. Preserve his mind free and unclouded, purified by your grace and fit for his removal. Give me, O Savior, a firm footing in your love, entire confidence in your merits, and a grateful hope of your salvation! Look graciously on my failings, and forgive my negligences and offenses. Support me by a renewal of your Holy Spirit under the oppressions and infirmities of declining years, and when I walk through the valley of the shadow of death remove from me the fear of evil. Be always with me, and let your rod and your staff, your comfort and holy consolation, remain with me forever! Amen.
indeed of heavenly truth,
a being formed for eternity, thus born capable of heavenly truth, should
neglect these inestimable advantages, debase his reason, degrade his
feelings, welcome his corruptions, and delight in iniquity, is repugnant
to every moral, religious, and even natural impression. If he does not
believe himself accountable for his actions, he offends against society.
If he has no faith in God and in the reconciliation through the Redeemer
of the world, he offends against religion. If, rejecting both, he follows
only what seems right in his own eyes, his very nature will revolt against
him and leave him a prey to the most insatiable enemies.
The vacant mind must be left wholly to itself in the late periods of human life. The sun has gone too far down to revive, or even to cherish its decaying powers. We may indeed lament the state to which such old age has fallen, but to recall its vivifying warmth is then impossible. The effect of many years of indolence has at last arrived and truly to be pitied is that aged man whose happiness (I use the word with diffidence) consists in torpid indifference and want of feeling.
But he who has been wise enough in the progress of his life to have the end of it always in view will find himself, as life declines, in a very different situation. A good old man, being asked what prescription he would recommend for attaining an old age as healthful and happy as his own, said, "My prescription is simple: short but cheerful meals, music and a good conscience." We shall believe that this worthy character followed his own prescription when we are told that
He was one of those fortunate praisers of times past who are perfectly alive to the enjoyment of the present, whose partial recollection of former times and former joys results from the same warm and active temperament that still preserves cordiality for present friends and spirit for present amusements. He retained this ardor and activity to the close of life, and at fourscore was as ready as ever to join in the conversation, and to participate in the mirth of his young friends and relations.
How good is God to allow alleviation to our decaying faculties! How good is God to prompt the faltering tongue and strengthen the drooping heart! Though the faculties decay, a gleam of pure piety may remain; inclination may still be vigorous and faith and hope retain their usual strength.
God grant that when it is said to me, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people saith your God; cry to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned" (Isaiah 40:2), so shall I find fresh vigor in my moldering limbs, be sensible of renovated strength, and through the fostering spirit of the Almighty, take wing for eternity!
see the man, you see his hold on heaven.
Among the interesting incidents which attend the aged man on the bed of his last sickness, none is more illustrative of his faith and hope than his reception of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. If he has been trained in piety and remembered his creator in the days of his youth, he will need no suggestion, in his departing years, to remember his Redeemer as he sinks into the grave. If he has not experienced the blessing of early piety but has been reclaimed from vicious courses by the convictions of his heart on the pure motives of the Gospel, still greater reason has he to remember the cause of his conversion, and to commemorate the event by a participation of what is truly called the "holy Eucharist," or sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. But in either case mere remembrance does not constitute the duty. We often remember what we do not imitate. We often see and admire, but as often go away and forget. The parable explains the cause of our moral forgetfulness: the cares of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lust of other things entering in, choke the word and it becomes unfruitful" (Mark 4:19).
That time is past. From the advanced period of the old man's life we now behold only the candidate for heaven. We see him in a situation where worldly cares may well be expected to be extinguished, where he has one prospect only before his eyes, and that prospect so wholly spiritual as entirely to absorb the remaining dregs of a corrupt and sinful nature. But still he lingers on the margin of the earth; still he has occasion to require those divine succors which have been promised to those who travel in the faith and fear of God through the valley of the shadow of death. These succors are at hand, and the administration of them shows that the voice of revelation is true to itself.
I would not here by any means encourage the expectation of supernatural assistance on such occasions. I would not promote an enthusiastic rapture or a fanatic exultation in the dying, incompatible with that calm, steady, rational piety which the long life of a consistent Christian has experienced, for I do not find such a state promised by any revelation of the Gospel. On the other hand I would not repress those warm feelings, that heightened piety, which a nearer view of everlasting happiness cannot but excite. If ever the blessed spirit of God may be addressed as our comforter, it is at that moment when the soul is passing from the body. Extraordinary gifts and graces may indeed at this moment be received, for the help that comes from above is most eminent in cases of the greatest danger, but the natural man, on ordinary occasions, has no reason to expect an extraordinary or particular inspiration. The prophets and apostles were confessedly inspired, and I will not say that persons of great sanctity may not have been favored even in succeeding ages with a more abundant effusion of the spirit. But I certainly desire to check all false feelings and imagined inspirations, and while I joy sincerely in that spirit which animates the pious Christian on the bed of death, while I behold grace poured abundantly on his heart, while I see his heart illuminated with the light of heaven, I rejoice that his feelings are consistent with his character, that he is still humble, composed, resigned, that he has no trust but in him who will neither leave him nor forsake him, no hope but that which is productive of joy unspeakable and full of glory.
Thus circumstanced, the dying Christian gladly would express the stability of his faith, and put his last seal to the profession of it. Can he do this more effectually than by a participation of the sacrament of the Lord's supper? How congenial with his long established piety is this memorial of his Savior's love! How fervent are the sensations of his heart, when it reclines upon its last refuge! How abstracted his mind, how concentrated his ideas, when, with the first martyr, Stephen, he looks up to heaven and by faith beholds his great intercessor standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55).
So necessary a part of the sick man's duty on his bed of death has the reception of the holy communion been esteemed, that by persons of another church it has been called the Viaticum, that is the last rite used (if we except, perhaps, the Roman Catholic sacrament of extreme unction) to prepare the passing soul for its departure. The sacred chalice, too, with the consecrated element, has been put into the dead man's hand at his interment, through superstitious notions that it will facilitate his approach to the kingdom of the Savior. I mention this merely to guard against superstition in every form. The church of England, as well as the church of Rome, may err by an improper application of her most sacred rites. The sacrament of the Lord's supper is no viaticumno talisman to produce a false confidence in a dying sinner. Had I not sometimes thought that I perceived this effect, I should not be thus earnest to protest against it. Alas! It is not a moment for repentance, nor the application of the most sacred rite that ever was established, that can make the passage to the grave secure. The refreshment of bread and wine has cheered the sick man's heartI have known it to do sowhile the Savior's merits have been but faintly felt. This is an alarming state, but I trust that the spirit of God is working in such subjects to bring its fruit to greater perfection.
There is another state of mind that has also fallen within my observation, which renders the reception of the Lord's supper by the sick nugatory and vain: I mean here, when the ignorant and deluded talk of balancing their accounts with God, clearing off their debts, and enumerating before him a list of their good deeds, when they use the words of Nehemiah, but without his sincerity and truth: "Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds" (Neh. 13:14). When the young man addressed our Savior, "Good master! What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" (Matt. 19:17), he checked him at his first inquiry: "Why callest thou me good? There is none good but one, that is God." Such unworthy receivers call the sacrament a good deed in this sense, and thus pervert its most beneficial purposes. It is a valuable fruit of faith, a seal of the promise, and a blessed mean of salvation through the grace communicated by it. But let no man mistake the means for the end, the way that leads to truth for truth itself. The plain answers of our Church Catechism will remove all delusion on this subject:
"Why was the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper ordained?
For the continual remembrance of the sacrifice of the death of Christ, and of the benefits which we receive thereby.
What are those benefits?
The strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the body and blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the bread' and wine.'"
As our natural food is not life, though it administers to life, so the reception of this holy sacrament is not salvation, though it administers to salvation. But as life cannot be supported without natural food, so our spiritual part would decline and die without a continual supply of divine grace by those means which God has provided.
Besides positive good works, which are easily defined, and which are truly acceptable to God when performed as the expressions of a faithful principle settled in our hearts, we find many claiming merit from the assumption of a mere negative character: they have never injured anyone, and they wish no one ill. I shall not enter into this at all. The slightest knowledge of Christian truth will utterly repel it. But as these assertions are endeavored to be supported by receiving the Lord's supper, and as I have heard the latter observation especially, frequently repeated on the bed of sickness by persons of every age, I am induced to bear this testimony against them: "When we have done all, we are unprofitable servants; we have done what was our duty to do" (Luke 17:1), and "If we say that we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8). Where then is the balance of our account? Low, low is our computation, and much lower our treasury, if we expect salvation on such worldly terms.
In no respects whatever will the sacrament of the Lord's supper be the comfort and refreshment of our souls, either in youth or in age, if we rest in it at all as an external form. It is true of this sacrament, as of circumcision, the prototype of Christian baptism:
"Circumcision verily profiteth if thou keep the law, but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. For he is not a Jew which is one outwardly, neither is that circumcision which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew which is one inwardly, and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter, whose praise is not of men but of God." (Romans 2:25,28,29)
O almighty Lord our God! Pour forth thy spirit upon all thy servants! That those who are ministered unto, as well as those who minister, may attend upon this holy ordinance, in meekness, simplicity, purity and love! And grant that every violation of that unblemished sanctity, which our high calling requires, may bring us to a more humble and contrite sense of the darkness, impiety, impurity, impotence and misery of fallen nature. And prompt us continually to depend upon the redeeming power of Christ to strengthen the divine life which he hath quickened in us, and raise it to the perfection of thy image!
-In his blest
What subject of contemplation can be presented to the old man better qualified to support and comfort him in his last hours than that of the life, death and resurrection of his blessed Savior! But as his moments are few, and his days precious, an enlarged view of all the valuable properties communicated to man by Christ's appearance in our nature may not be within his power. Let him therefore concentrate the whole in his death, the price paid for our redemption. That the subject is mysterious will be no objection, as it is not offered to us for our discussion but as an object of our faith. We have reason to believe, and do believe, all that is recorded in the law of Moses, in the Psalms, and in the Prophets confirmed by the writings of the Evangelists and Apostles concerning Christ. Here then let us rest satisfied, and apply our belief spiritually, otherwise no beneficial effects can apply themselves to our hearts.
The commemoration of Jesus Christ in the Sacrament of the Lord's supper is that point which should now occupy the old man's thoughts, as it is the last seal which can now be given of his faith. A participation of this sacrament at every preceding period was, or ought to have been, a renewal of divine life in his soul. It is a gift indeed peculiarly intended to excite the warmest affections of a devout mind, and to kindle a flame which will burn unto eternity. Man, in his renewed state, is continually aspiring after greater degrees of perfection. He is sensible of the loss his nature has sustained and is no less sensible that in his own person he has contributed to make the loss more severely felt. The means of his restoration he has always before his eyes. He contemplates the price of his redemption, and is overwhelmed by its value. But as he knows the love of God in Christ to be more than equal to his utmost conceptions of mercy, he reposes in the means which God has provided, accepts the kind offer of the Mediator of man, and trusts solely to the propitiatory sacrifice which was thus given for him.
This contemplation is comprised within a narrow compass, and all the benefits of faith, communicated by these means, are easy to be apprehended by the most aged of God's servants.
One peculiar advantage attends the aged while thus receiving the blessed elements of bread and wine on their last pillow. This renewal is their last. They have commemorated their Savior and forgotten their vows. They have communicated with the best intentions but in these intentions they have often been deceived: "The rain descended and the wind blew, and beat upon their house and it fell" (Matt. 7:27). Their decay of grace was in proportion to their temptations. But the same temptations will not occur again; and they may reasonably hope, through the communication of the Spirit in this holy rite, to be preserved from any further severe trials of their strength.
Now has the hour arrived, when the aged man should wholly dedicate himself to God. This act of complete devotion he cannot accomplish with surer hopes of success than by a profound reliance on the imputed merits of his Savior, through the beneficial means, and refreshing grace of the sacrament of the Lord's supper.
Let us attend to the state of his mind upon this solemn occasion. Every pious principle connected with the great and incomprehensible Author of his being will be visible in his conduct: "I am a worm, and no man" (Ps. 22:6); but, reflecting on the condescension of his Maker, "Will god indeed dwell on the earth?" (1 Kings 8:27), he adds, "What is man that thou art mindful of him? Or the son of man that thou visitest him?" (Ps. 8:6) The pious old man has good reason to know that God is mindful of him, and he needs go no further than the spiritual banquet now offered to him, to be sensible to his presence who has thus "visited and redeemed his people" (Luke 1:68). How humbled will he feel, and yet how happy! How dejected, and yet how resigned! He casts all his cares upon God because he knows that God cares for him, and will not desert him at the latter end. How blessed is the man, whose heart is, at this trying moment, stayed on the Lord! How warmly will a saving faith then apply itself to the dying Christian! "By the replenishments of thy spirit," he will say, "I find my faith strong; yea, stronger than I expected on the bed of death. This is thy mercy and I thankfully accept it as a token of thy love. Even so, come Lord Jesus!"
This sense of guilt, and sense of pardon raises the good old man's mind to the warmest feelings of adoration. When he has surrendered himself up to God, "God is in all his thoughts." His union now truly commences with a spiritual nature, and the present object of his wishes is the perfect blessedness of perfect spirits. The sensible representation of his Savior's death he considers as a spiritual communion with him, and with the spirits of just men made perfect, his family in heaven as well as his family on earth. How the holy sacrament, in this view, excites the pure grace of devotion, and bear on its wings to heaven that heart, now saturated with human vanities, and exclaiming in the fervor of true Christianity, "I will receive the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord" (Ps. 116:13).
The name of the LordHow does the expression excite in us an imagination of all that is great, wonderful and holy! Though the nature of God be above the comprehension of man, and his essence not to be conceived by the human understanding, yet has divine revelation made known to us the three distinct persons of the Godhead, and explained how they are severally concerned in the salvation of man. A critical view of the Christian doctrines will not be expected on the bed of death, but the purity of our reception of the sacrament will depend on the purity of our faith, and the purity of our faith is essential to salvation. How far God will pardon error is not for man to decide. "Charity hopes all things," and the bed of death is the scene for charity. But the dying Christian receives his consolation from the fullness of his faith and offers up his prayers to a good and gracious God through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ and by the influences of the Holy Spirit. Had not an infinite sacrifice been necessary, the Son of God would not have been that sacrifice. Had not human nature failed, there would have been no occasion for the replenishment of divine grace by the spirit of the Lord. These gifts and graces are fully communicated by a faithful reception of the Lord's supper. How they powerfully support the venerable Christian in the chamber of his last sickness is best known to those who have beheld him there.
An old man, thus happily disposed, is an object that cannot even be thought of without reverence and a desire of imitation. May the hand that writes and the eye that reads this feel strengthened by this contemplation of the old man's faith! He speaks to us in the words of Paul the aged: "Be ye followers of me, even as I also am of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1).
The communion of saints is now complete in the breast of the aged and devout communicant. He is at peace with man. He is at peace with God through Christ. He has received the unction of the holy One, and is now waiting with resignation and perfect satisfaction for the hour of his deliverance.
But as it may happen from particular circumstances arising either from his own infirmities or otherwise, that the good old man may be prevented from communicating on his death bed according to the rites of his church, let not his mind be depressed. The cause, perhaps, cannot be removed. But he is no formalist. Though the reception of the Lord's Supper would have added to his comfort, he acquiesces in the circumstances that withholds it. But his piety is not prevented. He meditates on the sacred subject and thus, by what has been called spiritual communion, enjoys that composure of soul which nothing earthly can give or take away. "Christ died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto Christ which died for them" (2 Cor. 5:15). From this moment on Christ,
I consecrate that life to thee which thou hast redeemed from the slavery of sin and Satan, by thy most precious blood. Fortify my soul, I beseech thee, against all the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the Devil, by the remembrance of this thy love, that I may live to thee, and to the glory of God.
And when that awful hour shall come which will remove me from the present world, may I be prepared to meet my God with a mind and spirit which shall be wholly thine. Give me such heavenly graces as shall be necessary for my safe removal, and receive me to thyself in the kingdom of everlasting glory.
The Meditations of a Recluse: chiefly on religious subjects. The Third Edition.
Meditation for Penitents: and for those engaged in the important duty of self-examination.
Lectures on the Acts of the Apostles, delivered in the Parish church of Stockton-upon-Tees during Lent in the years 1803, 1804, 1805 and 1806. In two volumes with three maps illustrating the travels of the apostles.
A Secular Essay, containing a retrospective view of events connected with the ecclesiastical history of England during the Eighteenth century: with reflections on the state of practical religion in that period.