In these words the Psalmist alludes to one of the most touching offices performed by the good shepherd towards his sheep. The day is drawing to a close, the golden orb of light has sunk to rest, and the shadows are creeping up the hills. The hush of night is falling round, and the shepherd must gather his flock into the fold. The labors, the journeys, the trials, the wanderings of the day are over, and now comes the time for rest. It is a scene full of peace, and the sheep greet its approach with feelings of restful anticipation. Many of them are foot-sore and lame; many have received bruises and scratches during the journeyings of the day; some have gaping and bleeding wounds from the attacks of wild beasts; while others are simply tired out and exhausted from the long walks and steep climbing of hills. The shepherd knows all this, and before leading them into rest he takes care to see that the wounds of all are dressed and soothed, so that nothing shall disturb the sweet repose of their sleep. For this purpose he stands at the door of the fold as the sheep pass in. He has olive oil and cedar-tar to use as healing ointments for their wounds, and he has cool, refreshing water for those that are worn and weary. Lovingly and tenderly he regards each member, as one by one they enter into rest; and they that are wounded or over-weary he holds back with his rod, till their scars and sores are duly cared for and made ready for the night's repose.
How closely these offices performed for the sheep by the shepherd resemble the care of our Father and Saviour providing at the end for the souls that He loves! He has been with them all through life, leading, guiding, guarding, shepherding them at all times, going before them with the blessings of goodness. And when at length the end approaches, they feel the need of His loving-kindness perhaps more than ever before. Like the shepherd's flock, their needs are many and various. Some souls there are who, through the special grace of God, are able to pass their lives in innocence and holiness, living in the world, yet not of it, dwelling in the midst of men and in the sight of their wickedness and sin, yet undefiled withal, beautiful witnesses of the power and love of Him that strengthens and preserves them.
But the majority are not thus favored. Notwithstanding all their graces, they have been subject to falls -- perhaps to many grievous falls; they have suffered many wounds and bruises, they have had many tears to shed. Multitudes there are, in fact, who come down to the verge of life, to the very gate of death, sin-stained, racked and wounded, their life blood ebbing out through sores and wounds which they themselves have made by wilful open friendship with sin and vice, the deadly foes of their souls. We have many varying examples of these straying souls. There is the type of Mary Magdalen, of St. Peter, of St. Paul, of St. Augustine, who passed a portion, brief or prolonged, of their mortal days far from the Father's home, feeding on the husks of swine; but who, while yet in the vigor of life, felt the touch of the merciful hand and heard the sound of the loving voice, leading them, calling them back to God, back to the |beauty ever ancient and ever new.| Such souls as these, it is true, constitute one class of erring, but repenting sinners; but there is another class whose plight is far more pitiable. They are those long-delayed, but finally repentant sinners, men and women who have lived their lives away from the Church and its sacraments, who have grown old and gray in the sins of their youth, and now, at the last, when death is coming, are moved, by a special grace from Heaven, to weep for their sins and wasted years before they enter their eternal abode.
For each and all of these how important it is that the Shepherd should stand at the door of the fold and bind up their wounds with His tender grace before they pass through the portals of death! Scarred and wayward children, victims of evil circumstances, creatures of vanity and of folly, they realize at the end how impotent they are, how helpless in the presence of the coldness of death to redeem or make sure the years that are fled, unless He draw near and assist them who has sustained them in life, and who is at once the author and the master of both life and death!
But for all, without exception, the need of the Shepherd is imperative at the end. The victory, the happy issue of life's struggle, |is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth, but of God that sheweth mercy.|(71) All may run, all may strive, indeed, for the prize of eternal life, but none can be sure, short of the mercy of God, that he will be saved; none can merit this crowning glory of life. Whether young or old, whether favored or neglected, whether innocent or guilty, whether the life has been dowered with special blessings and never known the stain of grievous sin, or whether it has been eked out amidst deepest misery and defiled with hateful crimes, the same uncertainty for all remains as to the manner in which the end shall come. Men may reason and conjecture, from what they see and know, that this one or that is in God's favor, and shall so persevere to the end; that the members of a certain family, or class, or station in life, are sure to be saved, and shall never fall short; but that those of another class or condition shall, on the contrary, die as they have lived, in the filth of their sins, to be forever in torment. But these are the reasonings of men, which are of no avail in the sight of God. It is only the Father in Heaven who knows the elect. He alone is able to tell who shall remain to be crowned, and who is to be condemned. Perseverance is a gratuitous gift of God, we cannot merit it. All our good actions and holy deeds, which are performed in the state of grace and out of a motive of charity, do, it is true, merit a reward in Heaven, they tend to increase our blessedness hereafter; but just as it is not in our power to merit the first grace, by which we are raised from a state of sin, so are we utterly unable to do anything which shall secure for a certainty the final grace, by which alone we can be saved. Wherefore the Preacher said: |All these things have I considered in my heart, that I might carefully understand them: there are just men and wise men, and their works are in the hand of God; and yet man knoweth not whether he be worthy of love or hatred. But all things are kept uncertain for the time to come, because all things equally happen to the just and to the wicked, to the good and to the evil, to the clean and to the unclean, to him that offereth victims, and to him that despiseth sacrifices. As the good is, so also is the sinner; as the perjured, so he also that sweareth truth.|(72)
This uncertainty as to the end of life, and of the gift of final perseverance, all holy souls have felt. To die in the friendship of God, and thence to enjoy His presence forever, is a gift of so transcendent a nature, so far above our natural powers and utmost deserts that no creature, which can at all conceive it, would dare claim it as a right. It was this conviction that made the saints tremble to think of it. This it was that prompted St. Paul to admonish the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling,(73) and that also evoked from the same Apostle those candid words concerning himself: |I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection; lest, perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.|(74)
And have we not sometimes witnessed instances which, so far as man can judge, give ground for this fear as to perseverance, and emphasize the great truth that to die in God's favor is, indeed, a singular and a gratuitous gift? How many have we not known who started well, but terminated ill! How many are innocent and holy in youth and give every promise of splendid manhood, but fade and drop, like poisoned flowers, ere the age of maturity has dawned! How many are able to pass through the most critical period of their lives, unshaken and undefiled, full of faith, hope, love, purity; but who, when the age of security is thought to have come, lose the grip which seemed so firm, turn to evil, yield to vicious habits, and die reprobates of God! Look at King Solomon! Who was ever more promising than he in his youth? Who ever gave fairer prospects of continued holiness and of a beautiful end? He was so lovely, so amiable, so favored of God in the morning of life; graced with such high perfections, not knowing evil, a stranger to vice, a lover of sanctity, of wisdom, and of grace. It would seem that he could never fall -- he who was the object of such unwonted favors, who dwelt so supremely in the smile of Heaven. But lo, and behold the end of him who had received so many graces, who chose wisdom as his handmaid that he might be guided aright! Behold that youthful figure, so full of promise and goodly hope, praying to God that he might never deviate from the ways of grace; and then see the gray-haired apostate tottering to the grave, borne down by the weight of his sins and of his years! And how many more there have been, like King Saul, like Renan and Voltaire, and numerous others that we ourselves perhaps have known, who were great and good in youth, and for a term of years, but whose end was a miserable failure!
Our perseverance, then, or the favor to die in the state of grace, is not of ourselves, not the reward of our efforts, or of our good works, |but of God that sheweth mercy.| We must do all in our power to merit eternal life; we must press on to the mark, waging ceaseless battle in behalf of God and of our souls, even to the last moment; but for the happy end of it all we must perforce rely on the tender mercy of God. This is why our Lord, before He departed from earth, prayed to His heavenly Father for His disciples: |Holy Father, keep them in Thy name whom Thou hast given me; ... I pray not that thou shouldst take them out of the world; but that thou shouldst keep them from evil.|(75) This same truth the Psalmist also had in mind when he prayed: |Perfect thou my goings in thy paths, that my footsteps be not moved.|(76)
It is this appalling uncertainty about the end and outcome of life, together with our own inability to make them secure, that makes death so terrible to the minds and thoughts of multitudes, even of Christians and well-living persons. They fear to fall into the hands of the living God. For them the present life may be not so attractive; on the contrary, it is likely replete with pain and toil; but somehow they wish to linger here, preferring that which is certain, although so miserable, to that which is doubtful, perhaps awful and irreparable. So long as they continue in this present world there is chance for change, there is hope of improvement. But when death intervenes, and the soul is removed to the other life, all hopes of change are swept away, and the lot of the soul is fixed for eternity. There is, of course, a fear of death which is altogether natural. Many dread death who pretend not to believe in a future life, or even in the existence of God. And many there are whose lives are holy, and who have not whereof they ought to fear, but for whom, nevertheless, the very thought of death is fraught with all manner of terrors. As some are naturally afraid in the absence of light, and tremble with fear at being alone in a dark and lonely dwelling, or spot, or place, so there are many who, without assignable reason, other than a native tendency, are appalled at the thought of death.
But when all due allowances have been made for the uncertainty of final perseverance, and for the anxiety arising from natural temperament, it seems not too much to say that, for the most part, the fear and dread of death which haunts so many Christians can be reduced to two causes: a defect of faith or a love of the world. It is one of these causes, or both of them together, which alone can explain, in the majority of cases, why such numbers of Christians and Catholics are unwilling to surrender the present life, and are disturbed at the very thought of dying. Either they do not realize by faith the surpassing glories of the life beyond -- doubting its reality, questioning its nature, misunderstanding the goodness and mercy of God; or else they are so attached to the present existence that all serious thought and desire for a better life are excluded from their minds and hearts. Fenelon says that the condition of our spiritual life is indicated by the answers we give to the following questions: |Do I love to think of God? Am I willing to suffer for God? Does my desire to be with Him destroy my fear of death?| We do not fear to meet or to be with one whom we really love, for |love casteth out fear.| There is no dread at the coming of the parent or friend whom we truly love, unless, perchance, we have offended him, and lack full faith that we have been forgiven and reinstated in his favor and friendship.
So it is with God. If we are unwilling to meet Him, or filled with fear at the approach of His coming, it seems of a certainty that our faith is at fault. Why should we not wish to meet Him who has made us, who loves us, who has washed away our sins with His own blood, who alone can comfort our trembling souls and fill us with every good? Perhaps we have sinned and betrayed our Maker many times and grievously in our lives, and the voices of those sins are haunting us, and bidding us beware of the hour of death and of the judgment that follows. Perhaps there is a lurking suspicion that we have not been forgiven, a temptation that we are not sincere, a feeling that our sins are too grave to be pardoned, a conviction that we do not belong to the company of the elect. We may have notions, moreover, altogether severe, of the nature of God and of His justice; we feel His immensity and sanctity, we have heard so much of His ineffable beauty, that, weighed down with a sense of our nothingness, of our poverty and misery and sinfulness, we cannot but shudder at the thought of appearing in His presence. These and similar terrors may take hold of us and fill us with a dread of death; but is it not clear that, whatever their cause, these fears are born of a lack of faith? We do not trust, as we ought, the Shepherd that loves us, we are not convinced of His mercy and kindness, if we do not believe with child-like confidence that He stands ready ever to forgive and bless the least of His children that humbly and sincerely seek Him, asking for the help they need. The severity of God toward sinners endures only so long as they refuse to acknowledge their guilt. His harshness with them, like that of Joseph with his brethren, is but love in disguise; and as soon as they are brought to own their guilt, that which before was the anger of God is swiftly turned into His love and mercy. Christ did not come to destroy, but to save. He will not crush the broken reed, nor extinguish the smoking flax.(77) |As a father hath compassion on his children, so hath the Lord compassion on them that fear him; for he knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust.|(78)
But there is also the love of the world, which enslaves so many. So numerous and so bewitching are the attractions of the present life that they are loath to leave them. It is a beautiful world, this universe of ours, so deep, so wide, so vast! It is filled with pleasures and allurements and graced with myriad charms; and he, indeed, seems cold of heart who can easily turn from its enchanting beauties, and close his ear to its manifold voices. Ponder for a moment the richness of nature, its similarity and variety, its sameness and its diversity; consider the abundance of the harvest -- the glowing fruits, the green and golden crops, the sweet-scented flowers and gift-bearing grasses; see the stars above and the waters beneath -- all the wonders of earth and sky; and then when you have ranged over fields and waves and mountains, when you have climbed up the steeps of the sky and gazed on the marvels of the heavens, descend again to earth and consider the human form -- the chiefest work of the Almighty hand, and the crown of the natural world. What beauties are here concealed! What a mingling of material and spiritual, of human and almost divine! What words can express, what lines portray the beauty of the human countenance? Who can describe or adequately define the loveliness that streams from human eyes, or echoes from the human voice? And yet these are but the outer fringes and dimmest glimpses of the beauties of the soul that dwells within.
How painful, then, it is for the worldly to forsake the beauties and pleasures of this present life. Bound down to their beds of clay by the things of sense, they are grieved to part with a life so full of diverse attractions. How can they think undismayed of closing forever their eyes and ears to these charms of color and sound! It is such a difficult thing, and so hard to nature, to abandon these scenes of enticing pleasure, to bid farewell to those that are dear and be hurried away alone and forlorn to the chill and gloom of the grave.
So reason the children of the world; but are not their reasonings and feelings a proof of their little faith, and of their poor conceptions of spiritual and eternal interests? They do not want to leave the world, because they love it; and they love the world, because their faith is too weak to raise them to a vision of higher things. The plain on which they stand is too low clearly to see the things of Heaven. How poor and trifling at best is the earth and all it contains to Him who beholds with a vivid faith the world above that is to come! How gladly does he lay down his life and give up the struggle with ceaseless battles, who sees by faith, just beyond the portals of death, the great home of the blessed, spread out like a city on the mountains, bathed in light inaccessible, full of joy and unending gladness, where |death shall be no more, nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more.|(79)
The man of faith, therefore, is in no wise straightened or disturbed by the approach of death. He has learned to know and to trust the good Master whom he serves. Like the Apostle, he is only concerned that Christ should be glorified in him at all times and in all things, |whether it be by life or by death;| for to him also, |to live is Christ, and to die is gain.|(80) He lives in the world, but is not of it; he treads the ways of earth, but he really belongs to the kingdom above. Hence his cup of interior peace is ever running over. Though surrounded by many evils, he does not faint; though tempted exceedingly, he does not yield; but is joyous and peaceful withal; because at all times and in all things he feels himself to be the faithful servant of God, |in much patience, in tribulation, in necessities, in distresses, in strifes, in prisons, in seditions, in labors, in watchings, in fastings, in chastity, in knowledge, in long-suffering, in sweetness, in the Holy Ghost, in charity unfeigned; ... as dying, and yet living; as chastised, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as needy, yet enriching many; as having nothing, yet possessing all things.|(81)
|Precious in the sight of God is the death of His Saints.| As they have lived for Christ, they gladly welcome the summons that calls them home to rest. Calmly and fearlessly they go down to death; joyously and with feelings of exultation they hail the coming of Him on whom their thoughts have rested throughout life, of Him whom they have ever seen by faith, whom they have loved, whom they have trusted, whom they have chosen for their own. Confident of the power and goodness of their faithful Shepherd, pain daunts them not, the enemy frets them not. The last hour for them is not one of darkness, but of light; it is not a time for lamentations, but for joyous and gladsome strains. The end may be sudden, or it may be gradual in its approach; it may come early, or late in life; it may be at home or abroad; it may be in the winter, or it may be in summer; on the sea or on the land; but to the just and spiritual it can never be a surprise, it can never be lonely, never sad. It is the time for which they have always longed -- a time of liberation, of emancipation from the trammels of earth and flesh, the end of continuous dying and the beginning of lasting life. What a supreme moment, what a joyous event is death for a just and holy soul! What sweet emotions must thrill the spirit, as the Saviour stoops over the bed of death to wipe away forever the last of earthly tears! Mary is there to hush the voice of reproach and to whisper words of peace; Jesus has come to claim the soul and take it to Himself, and flights of angels are waiting to sing it to its rest.