You will wonder, no doubt, at my choosing for my Lenten sermons a text that has apparently no bearing at all upon this holy season, when the Church desires us to be recollected, making it a time of meditation, prayer, penance and amendment of life. A preacher is accordingly bound to conform to the wish of the Church, and to supply his people with the means of making a good use of this acceptable time, this day of salvation ( I I . Cor. vi, 2 ) . I have no intention of neglecting this duty, but I shall, I think, fulfill it best by pointing out to you the Signs of the Times, and suggesting how they may be interpreted, so that you may not incur the reproach :
"You know how to discern the face of the sky, but you do not know the signs of the times."
I invite you therefore now, at this holy season, to consider these signs, so that we may be able to answer the cry uttered by the prophet: "Watchman, what of the night?" Would that we could truthfully reply: " I behold the dawn of a bright and joyful day." Alas, we ought rather to say with the prophet: "The morning cometh, also the night."
Wherever we look we find enemies, we find signs foreboding tempests and storms, famine, and war with all its horrors. Yet still worse than all these perils are the doctrines and principles of the socialists—doctrines which threaten to undermine all human society and the Church herself, and to bring about the overthrow of all existing relations between men and nations. These people deny the very existence of God, and reject all Christian teaching on matters of faith and morals. They wish to abolish all authority in State, Church and family; they have no respect for the marriage bond, nor for the rights of property; they will not acknowledge that it is the duty of parents to bring up their own children, and they assert the absolute equality of all men with regard to their mutual relations, rights and obligations. Many even go so far as to renounce all law, both human and Divine, and to declare God, or rather faith in God, to be the source of all evils in human society, and so they assign to man, as his sole duty on earth, the task of seeking in every way to satisfy his own desires and passions. Those employed in diffusing these false and revolutionary doctrines and principles are incessantly active, and carry on their propaganda at public and private meetings, as well as in books, periodicals and newspapers, so that at every turn we are reminded of our Saviour's warning to beware of false prophets.
This is the reason why I wish to lay before you, in this course of sermons, the doctrines and principles current at the present day, in order to put you on your guard and to supply you with the means of refuting them; at the same time I hope to show you where to find guidance in the troubles that beset us, so that you may not lose hold of the anchor which alone can prove your salvation. With one hand we must ward off the enemies' attacks, and with the other build up the walls of the heavenly city.
I intend to begin my sermon to-day by considering a man who denies that religion is indispensable, and thinks it enough to lead an honest life in the world. I have undertaken a difficult task in proposing to discuss these subjects, a task that can not be accomplished without God's assistance and your good will; I can rely upon the latter, and trust that by your prayers you will help me to obtain the former. Let us therefore implore the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth and strength, to aid us, and enable us to begin, continue and end the work for the edification, encouragement and sanctification of God's faithful people.
I . At the present day, and especially among the upper classes there are many who maintain religion to be something superfluous, and say that it is enough for a man to lead an honest life. For this reason they cease to attend public worship, or attend it only for the sake of appearances and as a matter of form, whilst they look down with contemptuous amusement on such of their fellow creatures as still possess and profess some religion. They regard themselves as wise and enlightened, and others as ignorant and behind the times, and whilst they are very anxious to have a good reputation as men of honor, they cast doubts upon the honesty, uprightness and virtue of their neighbors. These are the people who by word and example have sown among the lower classes the seed of unbelief and indifference to religion, thus encouraging the socialists, who now boast of having conquered the religious feelings of their hearts and of having discarded the Church, that gloomy relic of medievalism!
But is it possible to conquer all religious feeling, and to dispense with religion? By religion I mean the sense of our possessing a finite nature dependent upon an infinite Being; I mean the recognition of God, and the worship of Him that results from such recognition; I mean the light from above that illumines our understanding and reveals to us God and the relation in which we stand to Him; finally I mean the bond uniting the creature with the Creator, man with God and earth with heaven. Innate in every human being is a sense of dependence upon some higher power, and this sense influences every mind not corrupted by evil doctrines. A child lifts its little hands in prayer to God, of whom it knows nothing, but whom it already fears. Go where you will , even to the backwoods of savage countries, whither Christianity has not yet penetrated, and everywhere you will find that men believe in a Supreme Being, who governs them and controls their destiny; everywhere some kind of worship, though it may be barbarous and very imperfect, is paid to this Being. No race exists either in the Old or in the New World devoid of all religion, and can we suppose it not to be indispensable, when every simple, uncorrupt individual nature, as well as all the nations of the earth, possesses an innate sense of religion? Men, beasts and plants require the light of the sun, if they are to live, grow and thrive, and in the same way we require religion, the light from above, to enlighten our minds and ennoble the feelings of our hearts. The knowledge and worship of God are as indispensable to the spiritual life of our souls as are food and drink to our physical life. "This," says our Saviour, "is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent" (John xvii, 3). "The bread of God is that which cometh down from heaven and giveth life to the world. . . . I am the bread of life" (John v i , 33, 35). "He that shall drink of the water that I will give him, shall not thirst for ever" (John iv, 13). The greatest and most learned men in every age have always recognized and insisted upon the necessity of religion. Who are those who nowadays maintain that they can do without it, and can be contented and happy when they have neither faith in nor love of God, and do no fear and reverence Him? They are ignorant, mad and unconscientious people, or else foolish windbags, unworthy to be mentioned in the same breath with the really great men to whom I have referred. But why, it may be asked, need we assert so emphatically that religion is absolutely indispensable to mankind? It is not merely for the reason already stated, but also because, without religion, it is impossible for men to be truly wise, good or happy.
II. 1. They can not be truly wise, for none deserve to be calledwise who know nothing of God, in spite of His revealing His existence, His omnipotence, His wisdom and His goodness in all the wonders of the universe. How can a man be truly wise, who fails to see what God has done and still does, day by day, for the welfare of the human race? How can he be wise, who is ignorant of the relation in which he stands to the one great God, and of the way in which he ought to act towards Him, and of what he may rightly hope or fear to receive from Him? A man may be learned in worldly matters and in scientific knowledge, but unless he understands the things of God, he is not truly wise. Just as God is highly exalted above men, and the heavens above the earth, so does the knowledge of things Divine and heavenly far surpass that of earthly and human affairs. The wisdom of this world is enmity against God because it aims at limiting His glory, and it is harmful to men because it originates in pride and ends in wickedness and shame. God is constrained, for the sake of His own majesty and glory, to overthrow this wisdom, and in His holy anger He has sworn to destroy it: "Wisdom shall perish from their wise men, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid" (Is. xxix, 14). "Where is the wise?" asks the Apostle, "where is the scribe? Where is the disputer of this world? Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?" ( I . Cor. i , 20). God effected this, first, by means of revelations given to the patriarchs and prophets, and afterwards through His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, "who of God is made unto us wisdom, and justice, and sanctification, and redemption" (Ibid, v, 30). He alone is truly wise who knows God, and Jesus Christ, whom He hath sent. "The testimony of the Lord is faithful," says the Psalmist, "giving wisdom to little ones, the judgments of the Lord are more to be desired than gold and many precious stones, and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb" (Ps. xviii, 9-11). Wisdom such as this is bestowed upon those only who are guileless as children, since it is the reward of humble piety.
A man who possesses the wisdom derived from religion may not perhaps make a great display, as do those versed in the knowledge of this world, but he knows how to lead a good, God-fearing life. He, may not be able to calculate the course of the stars, but he knows who spread out the heavens like a tent, and created sun, moon, and stars. He may not have read the records of history or the works of learned men, but he realizes that here below all is vanity and that whatever takes place in the world is subject to God's guidance. In short, those trained in the school of religion may not be wise in the sense of discussing every imaginable topic, nor do they possess a knowledge of a great many unprofitable, if not harmful things, but they are wise because they understand the most important thing of all, viz., how to please God and act rightly. Solomon was the wisest of men, and yet he acknowledges that it was the teaching of religion that made him wiser than his elders and more learned than his teachers.
2. Without religion a man can not be truly good and honest, for whoever cuts himself off from God, and severs the bond of union between himself and his Creator, is abandoning himself to his own perverse inclinations and to the dictates of a will ever prone to evil. By ceasing to think of the God who rewards the good and punishes the wicked, he throws off all restraint capable of curbing his disorderly desires and passions, and thus becomes liable to commit even the greatest crimes. Of course our conscience tells us what is right and what is wrong, but men devoid of religion are Godless, and consequently soon become deaf to the voice of conscience, which ceases to make itself heard as soon as it ceases to be regarded as the voice of God. Godless men, heedless of conscience, are little better than the beasts; in fact they are still lower than the brutes, inasmuch as they do more harm and are more prone to every form of wickedness, and at the same time less amenable to law and discipline.
It is useless to maintain that reason bids man act morally, for reason is often deceived when it no longer has a hold upon God, and then it accepts falsehood as truth and declares what is evil to be good. How often is it blinded by self-love and self-interest! Nothing hinders a man with no religion from overreaching, deceiving, robbing, slandering, persecuting and crushing his neighbor. Reason is often pressed into the service of disorderly cravings, for the flesh is ever apt to rebel against the spirit, and to impel man, against his better judgment, to gratify the lusts of the flesh. "I know," says St. Paul, "that there dwelleth not in me, that is to say, in my flesh, that which is good. For to will is present with me, but to accomplish that which is good, I find not. For the good which I will, I do not; but the evil which I will not, that I do" (Rom. vii, 18, 19). Religion alone tells us authoritatively what we ought to do and what not to do; it supplies us with the best means of living good and upright lives; it awakens within us true love of God by representing Him to us as merciful and holy, hating iniquity and loving righteousness; it deters us from evil by the threat of terrible punishments which God in His justice will inflict upon wrongdoers, and it stimulates us to do good, by promising us a reward that is indescribably great and imperishable. If men are deprived of religion they will act as they please, each will give free rein to his passions and use his strength to crush the weak, his cunning to outwit the simple, his eloquence to mislead the credulous and his power to stir up fear and bloodshed in every direction. St. Paul gives us an account of the condition of men without religion before our Saviour's coming. He says that they were filled with all iniquity, malice, fornication, avarice, wickedness; they were full of envy, murder, contention, deceit and malignity; they were whisperers, detractors, hateful to God, contumelious, proud, haughty, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, foolish, dissolute, without affection, without fidelity and without mercy (Rom. i, 29-31). Yes, indeed, if ever God's enemies should succeed in making all men socialists, human society would ultimately be nothing but an ungovernable rabble of savages.
It is impossible, in the short time at my disposal, to give you historical proofs of the manner in which up to the present day all this has repeated itself in the case of men, whenever they have fallen away from God and lost the restraint of religion. It is all recorded in history, where you can read it for yourselves, and I will merely quote a very remarkable utterance made by one who perhaps hated and injured Christianity more than any of those who preceded or succeeded him — I mean Voltaire, the famous philosopher of the 18th century. He said: "Unbelief is the vice of fools, and a mistake that can have originated only in the darkness of prisons. It is not merely opposed to morality and the welfare of mankind—for, where no God is recognized there is no obstacle to secret vice. An unbeliever's heart is capable of all baseness and of the vices of the most abandoned among men."
Experience will have taught you all more or less the truth of these words. Are those who go about ridiculing religion and the Church, and openly boasting that they believe in nothing, are those, as a rule, good, honest, gentle, chaste and amiable people ? As far as my knowledge of the world and of men goes, I must deny them to be such, and I think you will agree with me. With whom do you prefer to have business dealings? Whom do you trust in everyday life? A godless man or one with some sense of religion? Are you not afraid lest a Godless man should cheat you, simply because he has no religion and consequently no conscience? I have no desire to accuse anyone, but it is a fact that those who believe in nothing and do not care for the Church, are as a rule people capable of and even prone to every kind of injustice, sin and vice. They may proclaim their honesty and respectability, but those who know them will not believe them; and even if they are really worthy people, their goodness generally consists merely in avoidance of flagrant vice and of transactions which would bring them under the censure of the law.
It is because men devoid of religion can not be good and upright, that no civil society or state has ever been able to exist long without religion, for peace, order, personal safety, regard for the rights of ownership and for honor, and respect for the law can not exist without it , and they are the very foundations of society and the state. The pagans of old, recognizing this fact, declared faith in their gods to be the foundation of their government; and at the close of the 18th century the moving spirits of the French Revolution learned by experience that religion was indispensable to the settled order of the State. No sooner had they forbidden the French nation to believe in God and immortality, no sooner had they destroyed the churches, overthrown the altars and killed the priests, than the terrible results of their action filled them with alarm, and they were forced hastily to withdraw their prohibition and to allow the people to believe in God and immortality and to restore the churches and altars. The present French Republic is on the way to unbelief; it has banished religious instruction from the elementary schools, under the pretext of thus securing more time for subjects of greater importance, it has secularized education, driven out the religious orders and severed all connection with Rome, and all this has produced a terrible increase in the number of juvenile criminals. According to official statistics in one year almost 29,000 children under 16 years of age were convicted of serious offences, and 443 children committed suicide. If such is the case with the green wood, what will become of the dry? And what will be our fate when our people have lost all religion?;
3. Finally, men devoid of religion can not be happy. It is not necessary for me to say much in proof of this statement; I need only appeal to your experience and ask whether you have ever felt any happiness to compare with that which you feel when, with hearts cleansed from sin, you approach the table of the Lord and receive the Bread of angels. The happiness afforded by religion differs from that afforded by the pleasures, wealth and enjoyments of the world as widely as heaven differs from earth. St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, says: "Our glory is this, the testimony of our conscience, that in simplicity of heart and sincerity of God, and not in carnal wisdom, but in the grace of God, we have conversed in this world, and more abundantly towards you" (II. Cor. i ,12). Let me ask you another question: What gives you strength and courage in trouble and adversity? What comforts you in sorrow and supports you in misfortune? What enables you to bear poverty and trials with patience and composure? What makes you suppress your feelings of anger and vindictiveness when you are persecuted, insulted and slandered, and renders you calm and peaceable? What supplies you with fortitude in time of danger and temptation and in your struggles to resist sin? It is not your reason, not your passions, not your fellow men—it is nothing but religion, which teaches us that happiness and adversity both come from God, and that He who formed the light and created darkness is also He who makes peace and allows evil, and that there is no misfortune but with the Lord's permission. Religion tells us that God punishes us for our good, for "that which is at present momentary and light of our tribulation, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory" ( II. Cor. iv, 17).
Can anything but religion give us strength, comfort and hope at the last fearful conflict between life and death, when we have to leave everything, our dear ones, our possessions, our business and honors, when our intellect fails, the world with its deceptions and vain joys passes away, and the grave is ready to receive us? What can be our aid when we have to appear before the tribunal of our just but inexorable Judge? Religion robs death of its sting, the grave of its terrors, and hell of its victory, since it strengthens the inward man when the outward man perishes. It teaches us that after this fleeting life is over there will be another life that will last for ever, when God will wipe away all tears from our eyes, gratify all our desires and be Himself our reward exceeding great. It tells the anxious, though penitent sinner: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord" (Apoc. xiv, 13).
It is a remarkable fact that almost all those who fancied themselves able to live happily without religion in the days of health and prosperity, evince very different sentiments when sickness lays its hand upon them. Then they are glad to see a priest and to receive the consolations of that religion which they used to ridicule. I myself have often visited sick persons who had previously regarded all religion as superfluous, and I know the truth of my assertion.
Enough has, I think, been said to prove to you that men need religion, and can not be truly wise, good or happy without it . How grievously, therefore, do those people sin who at the present day go about declaring religion to be unnecessary, and trying to destroy all reverence for what is holy and Divine. They are robbing mankind of their most precious possession, of their safest guide amidst the bewildering deceptions of the world, of their sole consolation in the sorrows aad suffering of this life and of their sweetest hope for the world to come. They are depriving virtue of its sole support, severing the bond between earth and heaven, giving men over to their disorderly lusts and desires and thus plunging their fellow creatures into ruin and bringing down upon themselves the curses of their contemporaries and posterity.
Beware of letting yourselves be led astray by these false prophets, these wolves in sheep's clothing; they are enemies of God and aim at the destruction of your souls. Hold fast to the faith of your forefathers, and be careful, each according to his power, to cling to the doctrines of the Church, to respect her principles and teaching, to obey her commandments, and avail yourselves of her aids and consolations. In these gloomy, ominous times nothing but religion can bring salvation, comfort and hope to the human race. It is the only anchor capable of keeping us safe amidst the waves that rage around us, and of preserving us from ruin. I trust most earnestly that you are still all true to your religion; cling to it, cherish it as the most precious treasure of your souls, and let it influence your whole life and all your thoughts and actions. If you do this, thrones may totter, the social order may be shaken to its very foundations and great disasters may come upon us, but you will always have a firm anchorage and will derive thence comfort, courage, help and hope whilst the ungodly fear and despair. Then will our Lord's promise be fulfilled: "Every one that heareth these My words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded upon a rock" (Matt, vii, 24, 25). Amen.
Source: The Signs of the Times - A Course of Lenten Sermons, Imprimatur 1915