"The Unhappy Life of Sinners and the Happy Life of Those who Love God" a sermon by St Alphonsus de Ligouri for Sexagesima Sunday
“And that which fell among the thorns are they who have heard, and, going their way, are choked with the cares and riches of this life, and yield no fruit.” – Luke 8:14.
In the parable of this day’s Gospel we are told that part of the seed which the sower went out to sow fell among thorns. The Saviour has declared that the seed represents the divine word, and the thorns the attachment of men to earthly riches and pleasures, which are the thorns that prevent the fruit of the word of God, not only in the future, but even in the present life. O misery of poor sinners! By their sins they not only condemn themselves to eternal torments in the next, but to an unhappy life in this world. This is what I intend to demonstrate in the following discourse; first, the unhappy life of sinners, and secondly, the happy life of those who love God.
The devil deceives sinners and makes them imagine that, by indulging their sensual appetites they shall lead a life of happiness, and shall enjoy peace. But there is no peace for those who offend God. “There is no peace to the wicked, saith the Lord.” God declares that all His enemies have led a life of misery, and that they have not even known the way of peace. “Destruction and unhappiness in their ways: and the way of peace they have not known.”
Brute animals that have been created for this world enjoy peace in sensual delights. Give to a dog a bone, and he is perfectly content; give to an ox a bundle of hay, and he desires nothing more. But man, who has been created for God, to love God, and to be united to Him, can be made happy only by God, and not by the world, though it should enrich him with all its goods. What are worldly goods? They may be all reduced to pleasures of the body, to riches, and to honours. “All that is in the world,” says St John, “is the concupiscence of the flesh,” or sensual delights, “and the concupiscence of the eyes,” or riches, “and the pride of life” that is, earthly honours. St Bernard says, that a man may be glutted with earthly goods, but can never be made content or happy by them. And how can earth and wind and dung satisfy the heart of man? In his comment on these words of St Peter – “Behold we have left all things” – the same saint says, that he saw in the world different classes of fools. All had a great desire of happiness. Some, such as the avaricious, were content with riches; others, ambitious of honours and of praise, were satisfied with wind; others, seated round a furnace, swallowed the sparks that were thrown from it – these were the passionate and vindictive; others, in fine, drank fetid water from a stagnant pool - and these were the voluptuous and unchaste. O fools! Adds the saint, do you not perceive that all these things, from which you seek content, do not satisfy, but, on the contrary, increase the cravings of your heart? Of this we have a striking example in Alexander the Great, who, after having conquered half the world, burst into tears, because he was not master of the whole earth.
Many expect to find peace in accumulating riches, but how can these satisfy their desires? Says St Augustine: “A large quantity of money does not close, but rather extends, the jaws of avarice;” that is the enjoyment of riches excites, rather than satiates, the desire of wealth. “Thou was debased even to hell; thou has been wearied in the multitude of thy ways; yet thou saidst not, I will rest.” Poor worldlings! They labour and toil to acquire an increase of wealth and property, but never enjoy repose: the more they accumulate riches, the greater their disquietude and vexation.
“The rich have wanted, and have suffered hunger; but they that seek the Lord shall not be deprived of any good.” The rich of this world are, of all men, the most miserable; because the more they possess, the more they desire to possess. They never succeed in attaining all the objects of their wishes, and therefore they are far poorer than men who have but a competency, and seek God alone. These are truly rich, because they are content with their condition, and find in God every good. “They that seek the Lord shall not be deprived of any good.” To the saints, because they possess God, nothing is wanting; to the worldly rich, who are deprived of God, all things are wanting, because they want peace. The appellation of fool was, therefore, justly given to the rich man in the Gospel, who, because his land brought forth plenty of fruits, said to his soul: “Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years: take rest, eat, drink, make good cheer.” But this man was called a fool. “Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee; and whose shall those things be which thou has provided?” And why was he called a fool? Because he imagined that by these goods - by eating and drinking – he should be content, and should enjoy peace. “Rest,” he said, “eat, drink.” Says St Basil of Seleucia: “Hast thou the soul of a brute, that thou expectest to make it happy by eating and drinking?”
But perhaps sinners who seek after and attain worldly honours are content? All the honours of this earth are but smoke and wind (“Ephraim feedeth on the wind”), and how can these content the heart of a Christian? “The pride of them,” says David, “ascendeth continually.” The ambitious are not satisfied by the attainment of certain honours: their ambition and pride continually increase; and thus their disquietude, their envy, and their fears are multiplied.
They who live in the habit of sins of impurity feed, as the prophet Jeremias says, on dung. How can dung content or give peace to the soul?
Ah! what peace, what peace can sinners at a distance from God enjoy! They may possess the riches, honours, and delights of this world; but they never shall have peace. No; the word of God cannot fail: He has declared that there is no peace for His enemies. “There is no peace to the wicked, saith the Lord.” Poor sinners! They, as St John Chrysostom says, always carry about with them their own executioner – that is, a guilty conscience, which continually torments them. St Isidore asserts that there is no pain more excruciating than that of a guilty conscience. Hence he adds that he who leads a good life is never sad.
In describing the deplorable state of sinners, the Holy Ghost compares them to a sea continually tossed by the tempest. “The wicked are like the raging sea which cannot rest.” Waves come and go, but they are all waves of bitterness and rancour; for every cross and contradiction disturbs and agitates the wicked. If a person at a ball or musical exhibition were obliged to remain suspended by a cord with his head downwards, could he feel happy at the entertainment? Such is the state of a Christian at enmity with God: his soul is as it were turned upside-down; instead of being united with God and detached from creatures, it is united with creatures and separated from God. But creatures, says St Vincent Ferrer, are without, and do not enter to content the heart, which God alone can make happy. The sinner is like a man parched with thirst and standing in the middle of a fountain: because the waters which surround him do not enter to satisfy his thirst, he remains in the midst of them more thirsty than before.
Speaking of the unhappy life which he led when he was in a state of sin, David said: “My tears have been my bread, day and night, whilst it is said to me daily: Where is thy God?” To relieve himself, he went to his villas, to his gardens, to musical entertainments, and to various other royal amusement, but they all said to him: “David, if thou expectest comfort from us, thou art deceived. Where is thy God? Go and seek thy God whom thou hast lost; for He alone can restore thy peace.” Hence David confessed that in the midst of his princely wealth he enjoyed no repose, and that he wept night and day.
Let us now listen to his son Solomon, who acknowledged that he indulged his senses in whatsoever they desired. “Whatsoever my eyes desired, I refused them not.” But, after all his sensual enjoyments, he exclaimed: “Vanity of vanities: … behold all is vanity and affliction of spirit.” Mark! He declares that all the pleasures of this earth are not only vanity of vanities, but also affliction of spirit. And this sinners well know from experience; for sin brings with it the fear of divine vengeance. The man who is encompassed by powerful enemies never sleeps in peace; and can the sinner, who has God for an enemy, enjoy tranquillity? “Fear to them that work evil.” The Christian who commits a mortal sin feels himself oppressed with fear – every leaf that moves excites terror. “The sound of dread is always in his ears.” He appears to be always flying away although no one pursues him. “The wicked man fleeth when no man pursueth.” He shall be persecuted, not by men, but by his own sin. It was thus with Cain, who, after having killed his brother Abel, was seized with fear, and said: “Everyone, therefore, that findeth me shall kill me.” The Lord assured him that no one should injure him: “The Lord said to him: No; it shall not be so.” But, notwithstanding this assurance, Cain, pursued by his own sins, was, as the Scripture attests, always flying from one place to another: “He dwelt a fugitive on the earth.”
Moreover, sin brings with it remorse of conscience – that cruel worm that gnaws incessantly, and never dies. “Their worm shall not die.” If the sinner goes to a festival, to a comedy, to a banquet, his conscience continually reproaches him, saying: Unhappy man! You have lost God; if you were now to die, what should become of you? The torture of remorse of conscience, even in the present life, is so great that, to free themselves from it, some persons have put an end to their lives. Judas, through despair, hanged himself. A certain man who had killed an infant was so much tormented with remorse that he could not rest. To rid himself of it he entered into a monastery; but finding no peace even there, he went before a judge, acknowledged his crime, and had himself condemned to death.
God complains of the injustice of sinners in leaving Him, who is the fountain of all consolation, to plunge themselves into fetid and broken cisterns which can give no peace. “For My people have done two evils; they have forsaken Me, the fountain of living water, and have digged to themselves cisterns – broken cisterns – that can hold no water.” You have, the Lord says to sinners, refused to serve me, your God, in peace. Unhappy creatures! You shall serve your enemies in hunger, and thirst, and nakedness, and in want of every kind. “Because thou didst not serve the Lord thy God with joy and gladness, … thou shalt serve thy enemy in hunger, and thirst, and nakedness, and in want of all things.” This is what sinners experience every day. What do not the vindictive endure after they have satisfied their revenge by the murder of an enemy? They fly continually from the relatives of their murdered foe, and from the minister of justice. They live as fugitives, poor, afflicted, and abandoned by all. What do not the voluptuous and unchaste suffer in order to gratify their wicked desires? What do not the avaricious suffer in order to acquire the possessions of others? Ah! if they suffered for God what they suffer for sin, they would lay up great treasures for eternity, and would lead a life of peace and happiness: but, by living in sin, they lead a life of misery here, to lead a still more miserable life for eternity hereafter. Hence they weep continually in hell, saying: “We wearied ourselves in the way of iniquity and destruction, and have walked through hard ways.” We have, they exclaim, walked through hard ways, through paths covered with thorns. We wearied ourselves in the way of iniquity: we have laboured hard: we have sweated blood: we have led a life full of misery, of gall, and of poison. And why? To bring ourselves to a still more wretched life in this pit of fire.
“Justice and peace have kissed.” Peace resides in every soul in which justice dwells. Hence David said: “Delight in the Lord, and He will give thee the requests of thy heart.” To understand this text, we must consider that worldlings seek to satisfy the desires of their hearts with the goods of this earth; but, because these cannot make them happy, their hearts continually make fresh demands; and how much soever they may acquire of these goods, they are not content. Hence the Prophet says: “Delight in the Lord, and He will give thee the requests of thy heart.” Give up creatures, seek your delight in God, and He will satisfy all the cravings of your heart.
This is what happened to St Augustine, who, as long as he sought happiness in creatures, never enjoyed peace; but, as soon as he renounced them, and gave to God all the affections of his heart, he exclaimed: “All things are hard, O Lord, and thou alone art repose.” As if he said: Ah! Lord, I now know my folly. I expected to find felicity in earthly pleasures; but now I know that they are only vanity and affliction of spirit, and that Thou alone art the peace and joy of our hearts.
The Apostle says, that the peace which God gives to those who love, surpasses all the sensual delights which a man can enjoy on this earth. “The peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding.” St Francis of Assisi, in saying: “My God and my all,” experienced on this earth an anticipation of paradise. St Francis Xavier, in the midst of his labours in India for the glory of Jesus Christ, was so replenished with divine consolations, that he exclaimed: “Enough, O Lord, enough.” Where I ask, has any lover of this world been found, so satisfied with the possessions of worldly goods, as to say: Enough, O world, enough; no more riches, no more honours, no more applause, no more pleasures? Ah, no! worldlings are constantly seeking after higher honours, greater riches, and new delights; but the more they have of them, the less are their desires satisfied, and the greater their disquietude.
It is necessary to persuade ourselves of this truth, that God alone can give content. Worldlings do not wish to be convinced of it, through an apprehension that, if they give themselves to God, they shall lead a life of bitterness and discontent. But, with the Royal Prophet, I say to them: “O taste, and see that the Lord is sweet.” Why, O sinners, will you despise and regard as miserable that life which you have not as yet tried? “O taste and see.” Begin to make a trial of it; hear Mass every day; practise mental prayer and the visit to the Most Holy Sacrament; go to Communion at least once a week; fly from evil conversations; walk always with God; and you shall see that, by such a life, you will enjoy that sweetness and peace which the world, with all its delights, has not hitherto been able to give you.