Throughout the pastoral country of the Orient there are numerous places of great peril for sheep. There are also, here and there, private fields and vineyards and gardens into which, if a member of a flock should stray and be caught, it is forfeited to the owner of the land. Strange as it may seem, the sheep never learn to avoid these dangerous spots and forbidden places, and it behooves the shepherd to be ever on his guard for them, and to rescue them when wandering.
Here we cannot fail to observe the striking resemblance between this wayward tendency of the shepherd's flock and our own inclination and propensity to wander from God and things eternal. The world is full of occasions to evil; at every turn of the road on our journey through life there are fierce and crouching enemies who are waiting the chance to capture and bear us away. We know this; we have often been warned of the danger; too many sad experiences and breathless escapes have convinced us of the sundry perils to soul and body that lie along the way of life. But we, like senseless, erring sheep, if bereft of the Shepherd's guiding care, do not learn, in life's sad school, the way to keep free from harm. Though wounded repeatedly, and scarred and worn, and left, perhaps, without human aid, to waste and bleed our life away, we do not see the lurking evils; we do not discern beneath the mask the enemy whose purpose is ruin and death.
The creatures of the world, the things of sense take vicious hold of us, and often drag us to the very verge of perdition before we are aware. They come to us unprepared, and seek entrance into our lives and thoughts, and allure us by deception. They tell us that the world is fair and beautiful and full of promise; that God, for the moment, is not concerned; that the soul is secure and safe, and the body and its needs the only object of present solicitude. The process is gradual. The turning away and the loss are not at once and from the beginning of seductive influences, but slowly and unobtrusively in the guise of hope and high expectation. There is Ambition, with its glittering prospects, with its proffered rewards and castles of air. To the young man and young woman, just entering the arena of life, Ambition says, |Come and follow me, and I will crown you with glory and honor. I will lift you above the common, beaten paths of men and seat you on a gilded throne. I will introduce you to my sister Pride, and we two will make you happy. Pride will teach you your true dignity, your place and position in the universe; she will remind you of your gifts and faculties, and enable you to battle with the weak and the strong; she will give you the secret of knowledge and train you to soar above your fellow-creatures and probe the mysteries of God and Heaven.| Then Pleasure, with dimpled cheeks and laughing eyes, and words that sound like music to the ears, hurries out to greet the passers-by, and charms them by her shining gifts. |Make me your object and your end,| she says, |and I will make you blessed. Forget your troubles and your cares, your fears of present and future ills; rejoice and be glad, eat, drink and be merry; indulge and drain to dregs the cups of sense, for this is all there is.| Philosophy comes with another hope. |Drink deeply,| she counsels, |at the spring of wisdom, and fear not God nor man; believe and trust in me, and I will steal away the sting of sorrow and pain; I will restore you to man's primeval state and land you safe on the shores of rest.|
And when these deceivers -- Ambition, Pride, Pleasure, and the like -- have plundered and sacked their victim's goods, when these painted idols of a passing world have led away their worshippers as slaves, and stripped them of all they possessed, they give them over to evil habits and to masters that scourge and tear them. Like other prodigals, these pursuers of earthly phantoms take leave of their Father's house of comfort and plenty, they give up virtue, innocence, honesty, purity; they go into a far country to waste their substance living riotously, only to awake, soon at latest, to a land of famine, and to find themselves alone and in want. Instead of the honor and fame and high estate they sought to gain, instead of the escape from evil and pain and labor they hoped to find, they are sent into fields to minister to swine -- the swine of their own degradation.
So, to a degree, it is with us, each and all, who listen to other voices and heed other calls than the voice and the call of God. If we prefer to stray to other fields and desert the pasture of our Shepherd, if we prefer a far country to our Father's home, if the world and its fleeting pleasures are more to us than God and His paternal rewards, then we must of necessity find ourselves at length in utter want and penury. It is this possibility of deserting God, of seeking happiness outside of Him, of overturning the plans which He has made for our salvation, that gives us a vision of the awful failure of human life. The gifts of this world are by nature fleeting and fast-flying, and if we allow them to take the place of Him who made them, no matter how great our present boons, in spite of wealth and friends and all success, we have missed our chance and our purpose in the world, and can only have at last a desolate and a ruined life.
But how is it, then, one may ask, that man can be so deceived? How is it that we do not learn from others' disasters to avoid, every one of us, those deceiving, ruinous masters, those false gods that can lead us away from the one true Shepherd of our souls? It is, indeed, a curious fact that our deception is so easy. Surely a rational, intelligent being, who stops to consider, ought easily to distinguish between the great God of Heaven and the creatures of His hands. It ought not to be difficult for us to see the transient vanity of human things when compared with the eternal mansions. But the truth of the matter is, that we are deceived, we do not at all times see the objects of our choice as they really are objectively. Our vision is defective and blurred. If God stood out in our lives as He really ought to stand, if He occupied that place in our thoughts and plans which belongs to Him by right, it would not be possible that we should ever be led astray. And that God does not always hold in our lives the place which is His due is partly the result of our fallen nature; partly, therefore, in a way, excusable; but more frequently and chiefly from our own perversity -- from wilful neglect of our highest duties.
The blindness and perversity of our nature, which have come from the wounds of original sin, make it easy for us, if we are neglectful and careless of our higher spiritual obligations, to mistake the false for the true, evil for good, the creature for the Creator. In the midst of the world and its allurements, it behooves us to be ever watching, if we are never to stumble and to fall. Had our nature never been corrupted by original unfaithfulness, had our first parents never turned away from God and transgressed His sacred precept, all our present ills would never have existed. But now it is different. We are born into the world a weakened people; each one of us has had an implicit part in the first transgression; we all, like erring sheep, have gone astray. And while this tendency to evil is part of our natural condition, and therefore less imputable to us, it nevertheless is true that our actual sins and evil-doing are the work of our deliberate choice. If, at any time, we really turn away from God and break His law, it is because we have freely chosen so to act. The native perversity of nature in a normal man can never explain and excuse the grievous sins which he deliberately commits. It is only true that a weak and wounded nature leaves one less able to choose what is right, and more disposed to wrong. And since we know the state of things, since we know that the fault is really ours when we dare to stray to forbidden deeds and places, how constant and unrelenting, if we are truly wise, should be our efforts to keep our vision unobscured and our ears attuned to the voice and call of our heavenly Shepherd! We know that by following Him our way will be certain and clear. Howsoever enormous the evils of life, and notwithstanding all our weakness, we know that in Him we are safe and strong. But we must hear Him to follow Him, we must be guided and directed by His gracious commands.
This failure to hear and obey the voice of God it is which more explains the falls and sins of men than all their inherited frailty. So long as His words are heard and directions heeded, mistake and error are impossible. We see, therefore, why it is that so many actually do desert Him and are led by evil voices. The cause chiefly lies in the wilfulness of human nature and in the abuse of human liberty. We cannot stand unless God support us, and we shall surely fall if He withdraws His supporting hand. But the choice of evil, the beginning of unfaithfulness comes from ourselves; for Almighty God will never forsake us unless we first forsake Him.
If, ever, then, we find our lives to be at variance with God, whether in lesser or in greater matters, if it should ever be our unhappy fortune to wander from Him, like another prodigal, and waste our lives with the enemies of our souls, we can be assured that the desertion is all our own. We forget God, we deliberately wander from His sight and care, and then we fall. Engrossed in worldly affairs, taken up with present vanities, with ourselves, our ease, our temporal advancement, we begin to neglect prayer and communion with God, we begin to rely on ourselves and to forge ahead of our own accord, only to encounter complete defeat and be shorn of all our strength. The secret of our power and success is to keep close to Him, to speak to Him lovingly and often, to seek guidance and protection from Him, and habitually to live in His comforting presence.
But such is the boundless kindness of our heavenly Shepherd that, no matter how often we may have wandered from Him, or how seriously we may have grieved Him, He is ever ready to pursue our wanderings, and to seek until He finds us. He does not stop to consider the enormity of our guilt, or our unreasonableness, or our ingratitude, but He seeks us. He does not pause to take an account of all He has done for us, of the many graces He has given us, of the tears and blood He has shed in our behalf; but He goes after our straying souls, and He will not be appeased until He restore us. God does not will the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live.(23) He knows all our frailties and our diverse temptations; He knows how alluring are the things of sense to a nature perverted like ours; He knows how easy it is for us, blind and ignorant as we are, to forget Him and our dearest interests, and to obey the call of other voices; all this He understands, and He has pity on us. |He knoweth our frame, He remembereth that we are dust.|(24)
To bring us back, therefore, when wandering, and to restore us to the circle of His chosen flock, our Saviour has made ample provision. Through those divine mediums of grace -- the sacraments of His Church -- He has arranged to succor all our wants and to cure our various infirmities. The sacraments of Baptism and Penance, in particular, were instituted to raise our souls from death to life, and to heal our spiritual wounds. Baptism may be aptly compared to the door of the sheepfold. It is the gate through which men must enter into the fold of Christ, it is the entrance to His Church. It clears away the guilt and stain of original sin, and restores the soul from a state of enmity to the friendship and grace of God. None can really belong to Christ, none can be of His true fold who have not entered by way of the door, who have not been baptized. Many there are who pretend to belong to Him and think themselves of the number of His flock; they speak of Him as their Master and Shepherd; they pretend to be doing His work; they call Him Lord and preach in His name; but they have not entered by the door of the sheepfold, and He knows them not. Like thieves and robbers, they have climbed up some other way, and they neither know Him, nor does He know them, neither can they understand His voice. Baptism is the entrance, it is the door, to the fold of Christ.
And as it is through Baptism that our bountiful Lord first recalls us from the ways of sin and makes us members of his flock, so in the sacrament of Penance He has provided a means by which we may at all times be recalled from our wanderings and restored to His friendship. Penance is an inexhaustible means of reconciliation between the erring soul and God. It lasts throughout our lives, it stretches even to the end of time. If only we are men of goodwill and have at heart our eternal interests, we need not be disturbed at our frailty, or at repeated lapses into sin. There is no sin which cannot be forgiven by the sacrament of Penance. Not that anyone, knowing that he can be forgiven, should presume to abuse God's gracious sacrament, and yield freely and without restraint to the voice of sin; nor that we are not to be truly sorry to the end of our days for having even once offended our benign Maker and Redeemer; but we must be confident that, whatever may have been our faults and failings, however prolonged and extraordinary our transgressions, if we approach the sacrament of Penance with sincere sorrow and a firm purpose of amendment, God will always lovingly receive us back to Himself, and remember no more our unfaithfulness. God hates sin, because it is opposed to Himself and is the only evil in the world, but He loves the wounded sinner who is made in His own image and likeness. Precious in the sight of God is the penitent sinner. Does He not tell us Himself that, like a good shepherd, He leaves ninety-nine just to go in search of one lost sheep? Yea, He assures us that there is rejoicing among the angels of Heaven over one sinner who does penance.(25)
To make worthy use of the sacrament of Penance we must be truly sorry for having offended God, and be resolved, at the time of confession, to do what lies in our power never again to turn away from Him. To these dispositions must also be joined the intention of doing something to repair the injury which sin has done to God. Given such conditions, and we need only speak the word to God's duly appointed minister and our sins are no more. The dark veil which hung around the soul like a cloud is lifted, and we again rejoice in the smile of our heavenly Father. How simple, yet how potent are the means provided for our salvation! None but God could have thought of them, nothing but the love of God could have arranged them!
But even before the sinner is brought to penance, even while he is wandering and reveling afar off in the vile delights of sin, God is pursuing him, God is seeking after him, calling him by name, whispering to his heart, disposing him for repentance. We cannot return to God, once we have deserted Him, without His help. It is our awful power to be able to leave Him, but to return alone we are not able. Wherefore He comes after us when we have wandered into the wilds of sin; He pleads as it were, with our souls, and offers us the grace to repent. Oh privileged are our souls to be thus appraised by God, and happy those who hear and heed the appealing voice of His grace!