A sermon on the Means Necessary for Salvation by St Alphonsus de Ligouri for the Third Sunday Of Advent.
“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord” – John i, 23.
All would wish to be saved and to enjoy the glory of Paradise; but to gain Heaven, it is necessary to walk in the straight road that leads to eternal bliss. This road is the observance of the divine commands. Hence, in his preaching, the Baptist exclaimed: “Make straight the way of the Lord”. In order to be able to walk always in the way of the Lord, without turning to the right or to the left, it is necessary to adopt the proper means. These means are, first, diffidence in ourselves; secondly, confidence in God; thirdly, resistance to temptations.
“With fear and trembling”, says the Apostle, “work out your salvation.” To secure eternal life, we must be always penetrated with fear, we must be always afraid of ourselves (with fear and trembling), and distrust altogether our own strength; for, without the divine grace we can do nothing. “Without me”, says Jesus Christ, “you can do nothing”. We can do nothing for the salvation of our own souls. St Paul tells us, that of ourselves we are not capable of even a good thought. “Not that we are sufficient to think anything of ourselves, as of ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God.” Without the aid of the Holy Ghost, we cannot even pronounce the name of Jesus so as to deserve a reward. “And no one can say the Lord Jesus, but by the Holy Ghost.”
Miserable the man who trusts to himself in the way of God. St Peter experienced the sad effects of self-confidence. Jesus Christ said to him: “In this night, before cock-crow, thou wilt deny me thrice.” Trusting in his own strength and in his good will, the Apostle replied: “Yea, though I should die with thee, I will not deny thee.” What was the result? On the night on which Jesus Christ had been taken, Peter was reproached in the court of Caiphas with being one of the disciples of the Saviour. The reproach filled him with fear: he thrice denied his Master, and swore that he had never known Him. Humility and diffidence in ourselves are so necessary for us, that God permits us sometimes to fall into sin, that, by our fall, we may acquire humility and a knowledge of our own weakness. Through want of humility David also fell: hence, after his sin, he said: “Before I was humbled, I offended.”
Hence the Holy Ghost pronounces blessed the man who is always in fear: “Blessed is the man who is always fearful.” He who is afraid of falling, distrusts his own strength, avoids as much as possible all dangerous occasions, and recommends himself often to God, and thus preserves his soul from sin. But the man who is not fearful, but full of self-confidence, easily exposes himself to the danger of sin: he seldom recommends himself to God, and thus he falls. Let us imagine a person suspended over a great precipice by a cord held by another. Surely he would constantly cry out to the person who supports him: Hold fast, hold fast; for God’s sake, do not let go. We are all in danger of falling into the abyss of all crime, if God does not support us. Hence we should constantly beseech Him to keep His hands over us, and to succour us in all dangers.
In rising from bed, St Philip Neri used to say every morning: O Lord, keep thy hand this day over Philip; if thou do not, Philip will betray thee. And one day, as he walked through the city, reflecting on his own misery, he frequently said, I despair, I despair. A certain religious who heard him, believing that the saint was really tempted to despair, corrected him, and encouraged him to hope in the Divine Mercy. But the saint replied: “I despair of myself, but I trust in God”. Hence, during this life, in which we are exposed to so many dangers of losing God, it is necessary for us to live always in great diffidence of ourselves, and full of confidence in God.
St Francis de Sales says, that the mere attention to self-diffidence on account of our own weakness, would only render us pusillanimous, and expose us to great danger of abandoning ourselves to a tepid life, or even to despair. The more we distrust our own strength, the more we should confide in the Divine Mercy. This is a balance, says the same saint, in which the more the scale of confidence in God is raised, the more the scale of diffidence in ourselves descends.
Listen to me, O sinners who have had the misfortune of having hitherto offended God, and of being condemned to Hell: if the Devil tells you that but little hope remains of your eternal salvation, answer him in the words of Scripture: “No one hath hoped in the Lord, and hath been confounded.” No sinner has ever trusted in God, and has been lost. Make, then, a firm purpose to sin no more; abandon yourselves into the arms of the divine goodness; and rest assured that God will have mercy on you, and save you from Hell. “Cast thy care upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee.” The Lord, as we read in Blosius, one day said to St Gertrude: “He who confides in me, does me such violence that I cannot but hear all his petitions.”
“But”, says the Prophet Isaias, “they that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall take wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint.” They who place their confidence in God shall renew their strength; they shall lay aside their own weakness, and shall acquire the strength of God; they shall fly like eagles in the way of the Lord, without fatigue and without ever failing. David says, that “mercy shall encompass him that hopeth in the Lord.” He that hopes in the Lord shall be encompassed by His mercy, so that he shall never be abandoned by it.
St Cyprian says, that the Divine Mercy is an inexhaustible fountain. They who bring vessels of the greatest confidence, draw from it the greatest graces. Hence, the Royal Prophet has said: “Let thy mercy, O Lord, be upon us, as we have hoped in Thee.” Whenever the devil terrifies us by placing before our eyes the great difficulty of persevering in the grace of God in spite of all the dangers and sinful occasions of this life, let us, without answering him, raise our eyes to God, and hope that in His goodness He will certainly send us help to resist every attack. “I have lifted up my eyes to the mountains, from whence help shall come to me.” And when the enemy represents to us our weakness, let us say with the Apostle: “I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me.” Of myself I can do nothing; but I trust in God, that, by His grace, I shall be able to do all things.
Hence, in the midst of the greatest dangers of perdition to which we are exposed, we should continually turn to Jesus Christ, and, throwing ourselves into the hands of Him who redeemed us by His death, should say: “Into thy hands I commend my spirit: thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, the God of truth.” This prayer should be said with great confidence of obtaining eternal life, and to it we should add: “In thee, O Lord, I have hoped; let me not be confounded forever.”
It is true that when we have recourse to God with confidence in dangerous temptations, He assists us; but, in certain very urgent occasions, the Lord sometimes wishes that we cooperate, and do violence to ourselves, to resist temptations. On such occasions, it will not be enough to have recourse to God once or twice; it will be necessary to multiply prayers, and frequently to prostrate ourselves, and send up our sighs before the image of the Blessed Virgin and the crucifix, crying out with tears: Mary, my mother, assist me; Jesus, my Saviour, save me; for thy mercy’s sake, do not abandon me – do not permit me to lose thee.
Let us keep in mind the words of the Gospel: “How narrow is the gate and strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it.” The way to Heaven is strait and narrow: they who wish to arrive at that place of bliss by walking in the paths of pleasure shall be disappointed; and therefore few reach it, because few are willing to use violence to themselves in resisting temptations. “The kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.” In explaining this passage, a certain writer says: “Vi quaeritur, invaditur, occupatur.” It must be sought and obtained by violence: he who wishes to obtain it without inconvenience, or by leading a soft and irregular life, shall not acquire it – he shall be excluded from it.
To save their souls, some of the saints have retired into the cloister; some have confined themselves in a cave; others have embraced torments and death. “The violent bear it away”. Some complain of their want of confidence in God; but they do not perceive that their diffidence arises from the weakness of their resolution to serve God. St Teresa used to say: “Of irresolute souls the devil has no fear”. And the Wise Man has declared, that “desires kill the slothful.” Some would wish to be saved and to become saints, but never resolve to adopt the means of salvation, such as meditation, the frequentation of the sacraments, detachment from creatures; or, if they adopt these means, they soon give them up. In a word, they are satisfied with fruitless desires, and thus continue to live in enmity with God, or at least in tepidity, which, in the end, leads them to the loss of God. Thus in them are verified the words of the Holy Ghost, “desires kill the slothful”.
If, then, we wish to save our souls, and to become saints, we must make a strong resolution, not only in general to give ourselves to God, but also in particular to adopt the proper means, and never to abandon them after having once taken them up. Hence we must never cease to pray to Jesus Christ, and to His holy Mother, for holy perseverance.