« PreviousContinue »
performance of little duties must preserve us front the commission of what the would calls little sins. This is all I have to propose to you at present.
I. An exact performance of little duties maintains tenderness of conscience. By conscience I mean that instant, and, in some sort, involuntary approbation of our own conduct, when we discharge our obligations; and that sentence of condemnation, which we cannot help denouncing against ourselves, whenever we are so unhappy as to violate them. In the language of St. Paul, it is the work of the law written in our hearts, our thoughts accusing or else excusing one another, Rom. ii. 18.
Conscience, considered in this point of light, is the same in our souls in regard to salvation as the senses are in our bodies in regard to health and life. The office of our senses is to inform us, by the short method of sensation, of whatever may be hurtful or beneficial to our bodies. If, when any exterior body approached us, we were always obliged to measure its size, to examine its configuration, to judge by the laws of motion, action and reaction whether its approach would be hurtful or beneficial to us, our frail machine would be crushed to atoms before we could finish the discussion. If it were necessary, always, before we took any nourishment, to examine the nature of the aliments before us, to understand the properties and effects of them, we should die with hunger before we had finished our researches. God hath enabled the senses of our bodies to supply the place of tedious discussions. This beautiful economy is never disconcerted, except when our bodies are disordered.
It is exactly the same in regard to conscience. If, always when it was necessary to determine the morality of an action, we were obliged to turii over
ists to us.
a large class of books, to consult our casuists, and to examine a whole system of rectitude, what would become of us. The short way of sentiment supplies the place of all this discussion. A sudden horror, excited by the idea of a crime, which we are tempted to commit, a secret joy, excited by the idea of a virtue, which we are going to practise, are in urgent cases systems, books and casu
When we lose this moral sense, we lose our best guide, and are then exposed to an infallible misery of proceeding from one error to another, from a first pernicious practice to a second, and so in the end to a gulf of final wretchedness.
Such being the design of conscience, the end for which God hath appointed it, we can never be too diligent to avoid those things, which impair it, as, on the other hand, we can never apply ourselves too eagerly to such practices as contribute to improve and perfect it. Now, I affirm, that the first of these effects is produced by allowing ourselves to commit little sins, and the second by an exact performance of lillle duties. The commission of little sins lead on to the
perpetration of great crimes; and we cannot assure ourselves, that we should religiously practise great virtues, unless we scrupulously discharge other obligations comparatively small. Of the many examples, which , present themselves to my mind, which shall I select to elucidate this subject? Where originate the vexations caused by those public robbers, who are the scourge of many a country? In a neglect of small virtues; in a practising of what are called little sins. At first the man transgressed in a small degree the laws of frugality and modesty. Not content with a convenient situation, he aspired to make a figure. His table became in his eyes too plain, he wished it might be furnished,
not as formerly with plenty, but with taste and expensive delicacy. To compass these designs he was obliged to exceed his income. His lawful income not being sufficient, he supplied his pressing necessities by means, which at first sight seemed not very blameable. He borrowed money. After some time his creditor became troublesome, at length formidable ; at first he solicited, at last he threatened. The wretched debtor a while thought he must deliver himself up to his creditor ; at length he saw himself reduced to the necessity either of retrenching his expences, or of transgressing a little the maxims of severe equity. He determined on the last, and availed himself of the property of others, for whom he was in trust, intending, however, to replace it the first opportunity. Such an opportunity never happened; and the same motives, that induced him to begin this vicious course of action, engages him to persevere in it. Hence comes his venalty, hence bis public frauds; hence his base inclination to make sale of both church and state, whenever he can find purchasers to come up to his price.
There is a virtue, which we cannot fully treat of without danger. To enforce the practice of some virtues is sometimes to excite a disposition to violate it. To describe exactly the dangers, which niust be avoided by those, who would practise the virtue, of which I now speak, would be to increase the number of delinquents. But whence, think ye, come the utmost excesses of voluptuousness, and the enormous crimes, which its votaries have been capable of perpetrating in order to cover the scandal of having yielded to it? Both proceed from a neglect of little duties, and a commission of little sins. I will here borrow the language of the most eloquent and polite writer of his time. Voluptu
ousness at first is nothing but an unintentional curiosity. It proceeds from an affection apparently lawful. A little worldly complaisance mixes with it. The mind by little and litile turns to its object; the heart softens and dissolves. Means to please are sought. Inquietude follows and presses. Sight kindles desire. Desire engages to see.
Certain vague wishes, at first not perceived, form themselves in the soul. Hence criminal familiarities, scandalous intrigues, continual agitations, and all the other consequences of a passion, fatal, restless, and unsatisfied, whether it be gratified or not.
So true is what we have affirmed, that by neglecting the least virtues we acquire a habit of neglecting others of the greatest importance. So true is it, that we prepare ourselves to practise the greatest crimes by practising what are called little sins. We conclude, then, that exactness in performing little duties cherishes tenderness of conscience. This is Qur first reflection,
II. We affirm, in the second place, that small duties are sources of re-conversion after greut falls. Some
passages of scripture have occasioned a difficult case of conscience, which is this. Is the practice of little duties altogether useless to those, who neglect great ones; and all things considered, would it not be better for a man, who neglects important obligations to omit the performance of small duties than to practice the last, while he neglects the first? This question rises out of these passages. To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? saith the Lord. I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts, and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats,
ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand to tread my courts ? Bring na
more vain oblations, incense is an abomination unto me, the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with, Isa. i. 11.--13. The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, Prov. xv. 8. I spake not unto your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning burnt-offerings and sacrifices : but this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my voice, Jer. vii. 22, 23. He, that killed an ox, is as if he slew a man ; he, that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he had cut off a dog's neck; he, that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine's blood : he, that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol, Isa. Ixvi. 3. Unto the wicked, saith God, What hast thou to do to declare my slututes, or that thou shouldest take my covenant in thy mouth? Psal. 1. 16.
These passages, which might be easily multiplied, seem to determine the question that was just now proposed, and to establish the opinion of those, who affirm, that men ought either to leave off the practice of small duties, if they determine to neglect great obligations, or to perform great obligations if they continue to practise small duties. There are, however, some celebrated casuists, whose morality in some cases may deserve censure, although they are not censured at Rome, except for what merits applause, these casuists, I say have decidedthe question differently, and I cannot help submitting to their reasons.
I have more hope of a man, who attends public worship, though he derive no advantage from it, than of him, who hath resolved for ever to absent himself. I have more hope of a man, who performs only the most superficial parts of the laws of benevolence, than of him, who resolves to violate these, and all the rest too.
I have more hope of bim, who suspends the exercise of his passions only the day before and the day after his para