As it is hard to do that well, which can be done but once, and as death is an event which can but once occur for each individual, yet at the same time is one on which our happiness or misery for eternity depends; it has been a frequent object with spiritual writers to teach men to die well. For this purpose, one of the best pieces of instruction which they offer, is frequently during health to anticipate the moment when we shall be summoned away, and to bring before the imagination the various scenes that will present themselves at our last hour: to mark the progress and approach of death, the wasting of the strength, the decay of the frame, the coming of the last sacraments, the agonizing pang: in fine, to descend into the silent tomb, to view the progress of the worm of corruption, the shapeless skeleton, the mouldering dust! To the Christian, judgment is as certain as death; like death, it can neither be tried nor practiced beforehand; its consequences also are equally important to each individual, since on its result hangs an eternity of happiness, or an eternity of woe. To prepare ourselves, then, for this great assize should be the business of life; for which purpose it is highly proper, as in the former in stance, to anticipate, by the help of imagination, the part which we shall most certainly have then to act; to represent to ourselves the bar, the Judge, the law, and the sentence; and to consider, attentively and in detail, the awful scene which will then be opened upon us. This, fellow-Christians, I propose this day to do. I will not delay in describing the fearful signs and prognostics that are to precede that day of terrors, nor the thrilling trumpet, which shall be heard to the utmost verge of the region of death, and arouse all from the first to the last of its countless inhabitants; but will commence where, being all for the last time assembled, they shall wait to hear their final doom: when, in the emphatic language of the Prophet Daniel, the Judgment , and the books were opened. In doing this, there is one reflection which I would have each of you perpetually to bear in mind;—that the event which you are now considering is one in which you yourselves must share; that the scene is such as those very eyes shall witness, with which you now behold the objects around you; the interrogatories, those to which the very tongue with which you now speak is to reply; in a word, that yourself and not another is to be the criminal at the bar. With this application of the subject, I will proceed to consider, in the first place, some of the circumstances which accompany" the trial, and in the next, the nature of the trial itself. To begin then with that, which in every assize (but particularly in this) forms the most conspicuous object, the person of the Judge. It is, my brethren, an Omniscient, Just, and Omnipotent God, charged with avenging the injuries which he has received at the hands of his own creatures. An Omniscient God! A God, whose searching eye kens, at one view, the whole compass of creation; pierces the heavens and the earth, and penetrates the lowest caverns of the infernal abyss. A God, to whom there is neither past nor future; to whom the events of the most distant ages that have gone by, as well as of those that are to come, are all in actual occurrence; to whom, in the language of holy writ, a thousand years are as yesterday, and whose thoughts are from generation to generation; a God, who knows all the ways of men, who reads all the secrets of their hearts, who, by a single act of his all-piercing mind, beholds, distinctly and without confusion, all that has been thought, said, or done, by any of his creatures. In an earthly court, the criminal often may indulge a hope, that, in the course of the proceedings, he may by artifice or effrontery conceal, if not the whole, at least a part of his guilt; what he cannot deny, he may palliate or excuse; and to a mortal judge, innocence of intention may be, and often is, falsely adduced, to lessen the criminality of an action. Then, before this Judge of infinite knowledge, the possibility of concealment or deception will be altogether precluded: to him the most open action is not more clear than the most occult intention. His penetrating eye has all along beheld those secret springs of action which the sinner had thought to wrap in impenetrable obscurity. He has witnessed the first ambiguous leanings of his heart to temptation, has traced it through its subsequent, and almost imperceptible degrees of guilt, has marked the moment when complacency gave place to delectation, delectation to consent, consent to gratification. Every minute, every complicated circumstance of time, of place, of person, of means, of consequence, is opened and unravelled before him; nothing is forgotten, nothing altered, nothing disguised. Their ways are always before him, they are not hidden from his eyes; and all their works are as the sun in his sight. It is a Just God! A God, not now sighing out the tender waitings of commiseration over an impenitent Jerusalem, nor shedding the last drop of his blood to redeem offending men; but a God bound by the laws of his own eternal justice to avenge upon the sinner the blood which he has shed for him in vain. At present we behold the wicked sharing, equally with the righteous, the goods of life; the attribute of justice seems to be forgot, and only that of mercy exercised. In that day, mercy shall give place to justice,—and what a justice, my brethren! Not a justice like that of man, which is often checked by compassion, which may be eluded by fraud, or prevented by force, which often cannot make a distinction between the innocent and the guilty, and which, to save the former, must be frequently contented to let the latter go unpunished; but a justice, which cannot be deprived of its ends, which will pursue the guilty with inflexible and uncompassionating rigor; a justice, which, with the nicest discrimination, will rectify all that apparent disorder with which we are now puzzled in the distribution of the gifts of heaven; a justice, which in the unerring scales of the sanctuary will weigh the talents that have been lent, with those that have been returned; the time that has been given, with that which has been well employed; the graces and helps that have been imparted, with the virtues that have been acquired; the riches that have been bestowed, with the meritorious objects in which they have been spent; a justice, in fine, which will tear away the mask which here so often conceals man from others and from himself; which shall distinguish between genuine and counterfeit virtue, between the action and intention, between the action which is done for God and the action which is done for the world. When I shall have taken a time, I will judge even justice itself, says the Lord. It is an Omnipotent God. To form some idea of what is meant by such an appellation, let us listen to the language of the inspired writers. Alas! alas! alas! cries out the prophet Jeremiah, O Lord God, behold thou hast made heaven and earth by thy great power, and thy stretched out arm: no word shall be hard to thee. O most mighty, great, and powerful, the Lord of hosts is thy name, whose eyes are open upon all the ways of the children of Adam, to render unto every one according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his devices. The ways of the Lord, says another of the inspired writers, are in a tempest, and in a whirlwind, and clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebuketh the sea and drieth it up, and bringeth all the rivers to be a desert. Basan languisheth, and Carmel and the flower of Libanus fadeth away.
The mountains tremble at him, and the hills are made desolate, and the earth hath quaked at his presence, and the world and all that dwell therein. Who can stand before the face of his indignation, and who shall resist, in the fierceness of his anger! His indignation is poured out like fire, and the rocks are melted by him. With a flood that passeth by, he will make an utter end, and darkness will pursue his enemies. The Almighty stood, says Habacuc, and measured the earth: he beheld and melted the nations, and the ancient mountains were crushed to pieces. The hills of the world were bowed down by the journeys of his eternity. The mountains saw, and were grieved. The great body of waters passed away. The deep put forth its voice, the deep lifted up its hands. The sun and the moon stood still in their habitations. In thy anger thou wilt tread the earth Unfof foot, in thy wrath thou wilt astonish the nations. To such emphatic language, what shall I add? or how shall I heighten the awful impression which it is calculated to make, but by reminding you,, that, on this day of wrath, all the might of this Omnipotent arm is to be exerted against the sinner, in executing the decree which infinite justice shall have pronounced? With God, to will and to perform are but the same act; and as before an all-wise Judge there is no deception, before an all-just Judge no appeal, so before an Omnipotent Judge there is no escape or resistance. Such then, fellow christians, is the Being who is to preside at this last assize; such the Judge, before whom all who are here present, each one of you who hear, as well as I who speak, must on that day stand. Our friends and relations are, one after the other, quickly descending into the tomb, where they wait in silence the awful summons that is to call them to the final judgment. We, too, must soon join them. A moment has elapsed! The trumpet sounds, and the dread prediction is verified by the reality.—But let us proceed to examine the rest of the scene exhibited on this day of terrors. In the next place, then, the spectators, the witnesses of the trial. It is, my brethren, the collective assemblage of all the rational creatures whom God hath made; the united myriads of heaven, earth, and hell. Of heaven—they are thus described by the Prophet Daniel. I beheld till thrones were placed and the ancient of days sat. A swift stream of fire issued forth from before him; thousands of thousands ministered to him, and ten thousand times a hundred thousand stood before him. Of earth —they are all the children of Adam, without exception, from the first to the last, together with their progenitor. Of hell— Lucifer with all his associates. To confine our imagination, which is lost and bewildered at the contemplation of so vast a multitude, to the second of these, we there see collected the successive generations of all the nations which the sun illumines in his daily course; men of all times, of all ranks, of all ages, the master and the slave, the king and the subject, the antediluvian and the modern, all without badge, without title, bereft now of those vain marks and distinctions, which genius, birth, fortune, or accident, had heretofore thrown around them. Here the mighty conqueror of half the globe stands undistinguishable from the last of his followers; here the proud genius, the renowned statesman, the resistless potentate, stands among the immense multitude, unsought, unrespected, unattended. The stroke of death has in all, ere this, broke the spell which gave to the petty affairs and agitations of time any importance.
Then shall the busy whisper of detraction, which perhaps inflicted a mortal wound on the reputation of your neighbor, be urged against you, not as you had apprehended or pronounced it, but pointed and envenomed as it was by all the tongues which had repeated it after you. In relation to yourself, how will you shudder at the spectacle, now for the first time exhibited to you by your own heart; that pride, which you had so long fostered and soothed; that vanity, which had stamped criminality on the very actions which you had considered as the redeeming portions of your conduct; those illicit thoughts and desires, which you had so frequently indulged and so studiously concealed; that envy, which had pined, where charity should have rejoiced; that jealousy, which had concealed itself under the fairest garb; that ingratitude, in fine, which, day after day, had loaded God your benefactor with new indignities, and added a fresh degree of criminality to every similar offence. Next to the examination of the evil which you have done, shall follow that of the good which you have omitted. Here shall you behold registered against you the imprecations of those, whom, by a word of timely admonition, you might have saved from eternal woe; the curses perhaps of a fond child, in whom, through a mistaken love, you had neglected to check those early passions which ultimately hurried him to perdition. Here shall be recalled to you all the opportunities of promoting the honor and glory of God, the cause of truth and religion, and your own salvation, which you have neglected; the time which you have lost, the talents which you have buried. Not only your omissions themselves, but also the causes of them, whether they proceeded from ignorance, frailty, or malice, all shall be nicely sifted and examined. Finally shall commence the inquiry into the gifts and graces which you have received: and here, fellow-Christians, it is, that this last examination shall become doubly terrible. Here shall the just and infallible Judge himself enter into judgment with you. Enumerating in succession all that he had done for your salvation, he shall demand what return you have made for each of the graces and succors with which you have been visited. Here shall he point out to you the grace of adoption which you received in baptism, when, snatched from the jaws of hell, you promised eternal allegiance to your deliverer. Here shall he show you the grace of reconciliation, which, after repeated prevarications, he has never ceased to impart in the sacrament of penance. Here shall he recall all the interior motions of grace with which he has inspired you; all the external helps and admonitions which you have received; the example of his saints, which was given for your encouragement; the promises and threats which he has held out by his sacred oracles; the reproaches of conscience by which he has so often sought to rouse you from the lethargy in which you were engaged: of all shall he demand the strictest return, the most rigorous account. To sum up the measure of your guilt,—to cover, and totally to overwhelm you with confusion, he shall re-demand his own blood at your hands. He shall show you the prints of his wounds. He shall require from you the soul which he purchased on the cross, which he redeemed and made his own by suffering in its stead. Ah, Christians! but too fully will then be verified that prediction of our divine Redeemer, that on that day the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon shall rise up in judgment against those of the favored Jerusalem. A thousand and a thousand times will you envy the lot of him on whom the sun of justice had never shed its illuminating ray. He indeed, for neglecting to obey the voice of reason, cannot escape condemnation; you, to the guilt of rejecting the same voice, have added that of contemning the loud and repeated calls of heaven; you have abused the gifts and succors with which you were enriched, and consummated your impiety by trampling under foot the blood of your Redeemer. My dear friends, awful as is the scene which I have been describing, it is not an ideal one; the points on which the examination turns, are not difficult and obscure questions of morality or doctrine; they are not such as can only regard a small portion of mankind; they are nothing but the common duties of life, the common gifts of grace, in which every true believer shares. From answering then to these interrogations, no one in reason can hope to be exempted. They come home to every breast, and the very nature of infinite justice requires that the pride displayed in the sinner's rebellion should be equalled by the confusion endured in his condemnation. The next question is, how far we, individually speaking, are prepared to meet this searching investigation. To this question, not I, but your own consciences, your past, your present life, must make the important answer. One reflection, however, there is, which I wish to make before I quit this awful subject. It is, that, judging by experience and the ordinary rules of Providence, the sentence that would now be past upon you, were you this instant to be summoned to the bar of divine justice, is the same as will then be uttered. Does this assertion excite your surprise? But the small number of those, who, in the midst of a life of tepidity and sin, are sincerely converted, fully testifies its truth. I deny not indeed that it is a rule to which exceptions may be found; but they are rare. If, therefore, upon a review of life, you find reason to tremble,for the result of a trial that should at this moment be commenced, think not, that you will alter your destiny by a few vain and transient desires of conversion; by restraining yourself from the grosser and more flagrant excesses, while you continue enslaved to the same indifference and tepidity in the service of God, while the same coldness of charity towards your neighbour chills your heart, while the same abuse of divine grace, and the same love of the world, which at present would render your case Hopeless, continue in your soul. No! The very fact that your past life has been a life of guilt, renders it more than dubious, that without the greatest sacrifices and the greatest exertions, you will never be converted. If you fear judgment, fear that by which alone judgment is terrible. Frequently approach in imagination to the dread tribunal. Weigh and examine your actions by its decisions. There will you be undeceived as to all the vain and false judgments of men; there will you learn duly to appreciate in time, that which alone can render you happy in eternity.
Taken from The Catholic Pulpit (1851)