PRACTICAL PIETY by Hannah More
We deceive ourselves when we fancy that what is emphatically called "the world" is only to be found in this or that situation. The world is everywhere. It is a nature as well as a place; a principle as well as "a local habitation and a name." Though the principle and the nature flourish most in those haunts which are their congenial soil, yet we are too ready, when we withdraw from the world abroad, to bring it home, to lodge it in our own bosom. The natural heart is both its temple and its worshiper.
But the most devoted idolater of the world, with all the capacity and industry which he may have applied to the subject, has never yet been able to accomplish the grand design of uniting the interests of heaven and earth. This experiment, which has been more assiduously and more frequently tried than that of the philosopher for the grand hermetic secret, has been tried with about the same degree of success. The most laborious process of the spiritual chemist to reconcile religion with the world has never yet been competent to make the contending principles coalesce.
But to drop metaphor. Religion was never yet thoroughly relished by a heart full of the world. The world in return cannot be completely enjoyed where there is just religion enough to disturb its false peace. In such minds heaven and earth ruin each other's enjoyments.
Yet life passes in the hopeless project of combining both. It is the object of the worldly system to flatter our passions, of the religious principle to subdue them; we adopt the one practically, while we maintain the other speculatively; we grasp at the gratifications of the one, we will not relinquish the promises of the other. What makes life so little productive of real happiness is, that we are thus driving at opposite interests at the same time, though not with the same zeal.
It is no wonder that the more abstract doctrines of religion can make little impression on minds supremely engrossed by the objects of sense, when its most obvious and practical truths can but superficially impress them; when all the present objects which absorb their thoughts and affections are of a cast and character which furnish a perpetual hindrance and a powerful counteraction.
There is a religion which is too sincere for hypocrisy, but too transient to be profitable; too superficial to reach the heart, too unproductive to proceed from it. It is rather slight than false. It has discernment enough to distinguish sin, but not firmness enough to oppose it; compunction sufficient to soften the heart, but not vigor sufficient to reform it. It laments when it does wrong, and performs all the functions of repentance of sin except forsaking it. It has everything of devotion except the stability, and gives everything to religion except the heart. This is a religion of times, events, and circumstances; it is brought into play by accidents, and dwindles away with the occasion which called it out. Festivals and fasts, which occur but seldom, are much observed, and it is to be feared because they occur but seldom; while the great festival which comes every week comes too often to be so respectfully treated. The piety of these people comes out much in sickness, but is apt to retreat again as recovery approaches. If they die they are placed by their admirers in the Saint's Calendar; if they recover, they go back into the world they had renounced, and again suspend their amendment as often as death suspends his blow.
There is another class whose views are still lower, who yet cannot so far shake off religion as to be easy without retaining its brief and stated forms, and who contrive to mix up these forms with a faith of a piece with their practice. They blend their inconsistent works with a vague and unwarranted reliance on what the Savior has done for them, and thus patch up a merit and a propitiation of their own, running the hazard of incurring the danger of punishment by their lives, and inventing a scheme to avert it by their creed.
Religion never interferes with their pleasures except by the compliment of a short and occasional suspension. Having got through these periodical acts of devotion, they return to the same scenes of vanity and idleness which they had left for the temporary duty; forgetting that it was the very end of those acts of devotion to cure the vanity and to correct the idleness. Had the periodical observance answered its true design, it would have disinclined them to the pleasure instead of giving them a dispensation for its indulgence. Had they used the devout exercise in a right spirit, and improved it to its true end, it would have set the heart and life at work on all those pursuits which it was calculated to promote. But their project has more ingenuity. By the stated minutes they give to religion, they think cheaply to purchase a protection for the misemployment of the rest of their time. They make these periodical devotions a kind of spiritual Insurance Office, which is to make up to the adventurers in pleasure any loss or damage which they may sustain in its voyage.
It is of these shallow devotions, these presumed equivalents for a new heart and a new life, that God declares by the prophet that he is "weary." Though, of his own express appointment, they become "an abomination" to him, as soon as the sign comes to be rested in for the thing signified. We Christians have "our new moons and our sacrifices" under other names and other shapes; of which sacrifices, that is, of the spirit in which they are offered, the Almighty has said, "I cannot put up with them: they are iniquity."
Now is this superficial devotion that "giving up ourselves not with our lips only, but with our lives," to our Maker, to which so many solemnly pledge themselves, at least once a week? Is consecrating an hour or two to public worship on the Sunday morning, making the Sabbath "a delight?" Is desecrating the rest of the day by "doing our own ways, finding our own pleasure, speaking our own words," making it "honorable?"
Sometimes in an awakening sermon, these periodical religionists hear, with awe and terror, of the hour of death and the day of judgment. Their hearts are penetrated with the solemn sounds. They confess the awful realities by the impression they make on their own feelings. The sermon ends, and with it the serious reflections it excited. While they listen to these things, especially if the preacher be alarming, they are all in all to them. They return to the world -- and these things are as if they were not, as if they had never been; as if their reality lasted only while they were preached; as if their existence depended only on their being heard; as if truth were no longer truth than while it solicited their notice; as if there were as little stability in religion itself as in their attention to it. As soon as their minds are disengaged from the question, one would think that death and judgment were a mere invention, that heaven and hell were blotted from existence, that eternity ceased to be eternity, in the long intervals in which they ceased to be the object of their consideration.
This is the natural effect of what we venture to denominate periodical religion. It is a transient homage, kept totally distinct and separate from the rest of our lives, instead of its being made the prelude and the principle of a course of pious practice; instead of our weaving our devotions and our actions into one uniform tissue, by doing all in one spirit, and to one end. When worshipers of this description pray for "a clean heart and a right spirit," when they beg of God to "turn away their eyes from beholding vanity," is it not to be feared that they pray to be made what they resolve never to become, that they would be very unwilling to become as good as they pray to be made, and would be sorry to be as penitent as they profess to desire? But, alas! they are in little danger of being taken at their word; there is too much reason to fear their petitions will not be heard or answered; for prayer for the pardon of sin will obtain no pardon, while we retain the sin, in hope that the prayer will be accepted without the renunciation.
The most solemn office of our religion, the sacred memorial of the death of its Author, the blessed injunction and tender testimony of his dying love, the consolation of the humble believer, the gracious appointment for strengthening his faith, quickening his repentance, awakening his gratitude, and kindling his charity, is too often resorted to on the same erroneous principle. He who ventures to live without the use of this holy institution, lives in a state of disobedience to the last appointment of his Redeemer. He who rests in it as a means for supplying the place of habitual piety, totally mistakes its design, and is fatally deceiving his own soul.
This awful solemnity is, it is to be hoped, rarely approached even by this class of Christians without a desire of approaching it with the pious feelings above described. But, if they carry them to the altar, are they equally anxious to carry them away from it? are they anxious to maintain them after it? Does the rite, so seriously approached, commonly leave any vestige of seriousness behind it? Are they careful to perpetuate the feelings they were so desirous to excite? Do they strive to make them produce solid and substantial effects? Would that this inconstancy of mind were to be found only in the class of characters under consideration! Let the reader, however sincere in his desires, let the writer, however ready to lament the levity of others, seriously ask their own hearts if they can entirely acquit themselves of the inconsistency they are so forward to blame? -- if they do not find the charge brought against others but too applicable to themselves?
Irreverence antecedent to, or during this sacred solemnity, is far less rare than durable improvement after it. If there are, as we are willing to believe, none so profane as to violate the act, except those who impiously use it only as "a pick-lock to a place," there are too few who make it lastingly beneficial; few so thoughtless as not to approach it with resolutions of amendment; few comparatively who carry these resolutions into effect. Fear operates in the previous instance. Why should not love operate in that which is subsequent?
A periodical religion is accompanied with a periodical repentance. This species of repentance is adopted with no small mental reservation. It is partial and disconnected. These fragments of contrition, these broken parcels of penitence, while a succession of worldly pursuits is not only resorted to, but is intended to be resorted to during the whole of the intervening spaces, are not that sorrow which the Almighty has promised to accept. To render them pleasing to God and efficacious to ourselves, there must be an agreement in the parts, an entireness in the whole web of life. There must be an entire repentance. A periodical contrition preceding the sacred seasons will not wipe out the daily offences, the hourly negligences of a sinful life. Sins half forsaken through fear, and half retained through partially resisted temptation, and partially adopted resolutions, make up but an unprofitable piety.
In the bosom of these professors there is a perpetual conflict between fear and inclination. In conversation you will generally find them very warm in the cause of religion; but it is religion as opposed to infidelity, not as opposed to worldly-mindedness. They defend the worship of God, but desire to be excused from his service. Their heart is the slave of the world, but their blindness hides from them the turpitude of that world. They commend piety, but dread its requisitions. They allow that repentance is necessary, but then how easy is it to find reasons for deferring a necessary evil? Who will hastily adopt a painful measure which he can find a creditable pretense for evading? They censure whatever is ostensibly wrong, but avoiding only part of it, the part they retain robs them of the benefit of their partial renunciation.
Our inherent character, and our necessary commerce with the world, naturally fill our hearts and minds with thoughts and ideas, over which we have unhappily too little control. We find this to be the case when, in our better hours, we attempt to give ourselves up to serious reflection. How many intrusions of worldly thoughts, how many impertinent imaginations, not only irrelevant, but uncalled and unwelcome, crowd in upon the mind so forcibly as scarcely to be repelled by our sincerest efforts! How impotent then, to repel such images, must that mind be which is devoted to worldly pursuits, which yields itself up to them; whose opinions, habits, and conduct are under their allowed influence!
We should fairly adjust the claims of both worlds, and having equitably determined their value, act upon that determination. We shall then fix the proportions and the limits of that attention which each deserves. A just estimate of their respective worth would cool our ardor and tame our immoderate desires after things so really little in themselves, and so short in their duration. Providence has set narrow bounds to life; piety should proportionally narrow our anxieties respecting it; for to be inordinately enamored with any object, the worth of which will not justify the attachment, argues an ill-regulated mind and a defective judgment.
All the strong remarks of devout writers on the littleness of those things which the world calls great, might be looked upon as mere rhetorical flourishes, or as the envious ebullitions of retired men, who could not attain to the things they condemn, did not their brief duration justify the description. Let the censurer only image to himself the world passing away, and the earth vanishing, before long, to all, and to every man at his death, which to him is the end of the world, and he whom he now despises as a passionate declaimer will then appear a sober reasoner.
Let us not, then, consider a spirit of worldliness as a little infirmity, as a natural, and therefore a pardonable weakness; as a trifling error, which will be overlooked for the sake of our many good qualities. It is, in fact, the essence of our other faults, the temper that stands between us and our salvation, the spirit which is in direct opposition to the Spirit of God. Individual sins may more easily be cured, but this is the principle of all spiritual disease. A worldly spirit, where it is rooted and cherished, runs through the whole character, insinuates itself in all we say, and think, and do. It is this which makes us so dead in religion, so averse to spiritual things, so forgetful of God, so unmindful of eternity, so satisfied with ourselves, so impatient of serious discourse, and so alive to that vain and frivolous communion which excludes intellect almost as much as it excludes piety from our general conversation.
It is not, therefore, our more considerable actions alone which require watching, for they seldom occur. They do not form the habit of life in ourselves, nor the chief importance of our example to others. It is our ordinary behavior, it is our deportment in common life, it is our prevailing turn of mind in general communion, by which we shall profit or corrupt those with whom we associate. It is our conduct in social life which will help to diffuse a spirit of piety or a distaste to it. If we have much influence, this is the place in which particularly to exert it. If we have little, we have still enough to infect the temper and lower the tone of our narrow society.
If we really believe that it is the design of Christianity to raise us to a participation of the Divine nature, the slightest reflection on this elevation of our character would lead us to maintain its dignity in the ordinary communion of life. We should not so much inquire whether we are transgressing any actual prohibition, whether any standing law is pointed against us, as whether we are supporting the dignity of the Christian character; whether we are acting suitably to our profession; whether more exactness in the common occurrences of the day, more correctness in our conversation, would not be such evidences of our religion as, by being obvious and intelligible, might almost insensibly produce important effects.
The most insignificant people must not, through indolence and selfishness, undervalue their own influence. Most people have a little circle, of which they are a sort of center. Its smallness may lessen their quantity of good, but does not diminish the duty of using that little influence wisely. Where is the human being so inconsiderable but that he may in some shape benefit others, either by calling their virtues into exercise, or by setting them an example of virtue himself? But we are humble just in the wrong place. When the exhibition of our talents or splendid qualities is in question, we are not backward in the display. When a little self-denial is to be exercised; when a little good might be effected by our example, by our discreet management in company, by giving a better turn to conversation, then at once we grow wickedly modest- "Such an insignificant creature as I am can do no good. Had I a higher rank or brighter talents, then, indeed, my influence might be exerted to some purpose." Thus, under the mask of diffidence we justify our indolence, and let slip those lesser occasions of promoting religion, which, if we all improved, how much might the condition of society be raised!
The hackneyed interrogation, "What! must we always be talking about religion?" must have the hackneyed answer -- Far from it. Talking about religion is not being religious. But we may bring the spirit of religion into company, and keep it in perpetual operation, when we do not professedly make it our subject. We may be constantly advancing its interests; we may, without effort or affectation, be giving an example of candor, of moderation, of humility, of forbearance. We may employ our influence by correcting falsehood, by checking levity, by discouraging calumny, by vindicating misrepresented merit, by countenancing every thing which has a good tendency -- in short, by throwing our whole weight, be it great or small, into a right scale.
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