Article of the Month
by William Law
Having in the foregoing chapters shown the necessity of a devout spirit or habit of mind in every part of our common life, in the discharge of all our business, in the use of all the gifts of God, I come now to consider that part of devotion which relates to times and hours of prayer.
I take it for granted that every Christian that is in health is up early in the morning, for it is much more reasonable to suppose a person up early because he is a Christian than because he is a labourer, or a tradesman, or a servant, or has business that wants him.
We naturally conceive some abhorrence of a man that is in bed when he should be at his labour or in his shop. We cannot tell how to think anything good of him who is such a slave to drowsiness as to neglect his business for it.
Let this, therefore, teach us to conceive how odious we must appear in the sight of heaven if we are in bed, shut up in sleep and darkness, when we should be praising God, and are such slaves to drowsiness as to neglect our devotions for it.
For if he is to be blamed as a slothful drone that rather chooses the lazy indulgence of sleep than to perform his proper share of worldly business, how much is he to be reproached that had rather lie folded up in a bed than be raising up his heart to God in acts of praise and adoration?
Prayer is the nearest approach to God, and the highest enjoyment of Him that we are capable of in this life.
It is the noblest exercise of the soul, the most exalted use of our best faculties, and the highest imitation of the blessed inhabitants of heaven.
When our hearts are full of God, sending up holy desires to the throne of grace, we are then in our highest state, we are upon the utmost heights of human greatness; we are not before kings and princes, but in the presence and audience of the Lord of all the world, and can be no higher till death is swallowed up in glory.
On the other hand, sleep is the poorest, dullest refreshment of the body, that is so far from being intended as an enjoyment that we are forced to receive it either in a state of insensibility, or in the folly of dreams.
Sleep is such a dull, stupid state of existence that even amongst mere animals we despise them most which are most drowsy. He, therefore, that chooses to enlarge the slothful indulgence of sleep rather than be early at his devotions to God chooses the dullest refreshment of the body before the highest, noblest employment of the soul; he chooses that state which is a reproach to mere animals rather than that exercise which is the glory of angels. You will perhaps say, though you rise late, yet you are always careful of your devotions when you are up.
It may be so; but what then? Is it well done of you to rise late because you pray when you are up? Is it pardonable to waste great part of the day in bed because some time after you say your prayers?
It is as much your duty to rise to pray as to pray when you are risen. And if you are late at your prayers, you offer to God the prayers of an idle, slothful worshipper, that rises to prayers as idle servants rise to their labour.
Further, if you fancy that you are careful of your devotions when you are up, though it be your custom to rise late, you deceive yourself, for you cannot perform your devotions as you ought. For he that cannot deny himself this drowsy indulgence, but must pass away good part of the morning in it, is no more prepared for prayer when he is up than he is prepared for fasting, abstinence, or any other self-denial. He may indeed more easily read over a form of prayer than he can perform these duties, but he is no more disposed to enter into the true spirit of prayer than he is disposed to fasting. For sleep thus indulged gives a softness and idleness to all our tempers, and makes us unable to relish anything but what suits with an idle state of mind, and gratifies our natural tempers as sleep does. So that a person that is a slave to this idleness is in the same temper when he is up, and though he is not asleep yet he is under the effects of it, and everything that is idle, indulgent, or sensual pleases him, for the same reason that sleep pleases him; and, on the other hand, everything that requires care, or trouble, or self-denial, is hateful to him for the same reason that he hates to rise. He that places any happiness in this morning indulgence would be glad to have all the day made happy in the same manner, though not with sleep yet with such enjoyments as gratify and indulge the body in the same manner as sleep does, or at least with such as come as near to it as they can. The remembrance of a warm bed is in his mind all the day, and he is glad when he is not one of those that sit starving in a church.
Now you do not imagine that such a one can truly mortify that body which he thus indulges; yet you might as well think this as that he can truly perform his devotions, or live in such a drowsy state of indulgence and yet relish the joys of a spiritual life.
For surely no one will pretend to say that he knows and feels the true happiness of prayer who does not think it worth his while to be early at it.
It is not possible in nature for an epicure to be truly devout; he must renounce this habit of sensuality before he can relish the happiness of devotion.
Now he that turns sleep into an idle indulgence does as much to corrupt and disorder his soul, to make it a slave to bodily appetites, and keep it incapable of all devout and heavenly tempers as he that turns the necessities of eating into a course of indulgence.
A person that eats and drinks too much does not feel such effects from it as those do who live in notorious instances of gluttony and intemperance; but yet his course of indulgence, though it be not scandalous in the eyes of the world, nor such as torments his own conscience, is a great and constant hinderance to his improvement in virtue; it gives him “ eyes that see not,” and “ ears that hear not”; it creates a sensuality in the soul, increases the power of bodily passions, and makes him incapable of entering into the true spirit of religion.
Now this is the case of those who waste their time in sleep; it does not disorder their lives, or wound their consciences, as notorious acts of intemperance do; but, like any other more moderate course of indulgence, it silently, and by smaller degrees, wears away the spirit of religion, and sinks the soul into a state of dulness and sensuality.
If you consider devotion only as a time of so much prayer, you may perhaps perform it, though you live in this daily indulgence; but if you consider it as a state of the heart, as a lively fervour of the soul, that is deeply affected with a sense of its own misery and infirmities, and desiring the spirit of God more than all things in the world, you will find that the spirit of indulgence, and the spirit of prayer cannot subsist together. Mortification of all kinds is the very life and soul of piety; but he that has not so small a degree of it, as to be able to be early at his prayers, can have no reason to think that he has taken up his cross, and is following Christ.
What conquest has he got over himself? what right hand has he cut off? what trials is he prepared for? what sacrifice is he ready to offer unto God, who cannot be so cruel to himself as to rise to pray at such a time as the drudging part of the world are content to rise to their labour?
Some people will not scruple to tell you that they indulge themselves in sleep, because they have nothing to do ; and that if they had either business or pleasure to rise to, they would not lose so much of their time in sleep. But such people must be told that they mistake the matter; that they have a great deal of business to do; they have a hardened heart to change; they have the whole spirit of religion to get. For, surely, he that thinks devotion to be of less moment than business or pleasure, or that he has nothing to do, because nothing but his prayers want him, may be justly said to have the whole spirit of religion to seek.
You must not, therefore, consider how small a crime it is to rise late, but you must consider how great a misery it is to want the spirit of religion, to have a heart not rightly affected with prayer; and to live in such softness and idleness, as makes you incapable of the most fundamental duties of a truly Christian and spiritual life.
This is the right way of judging of the crime of wasting great part of your time in bed.
You must not consider the thing barely in itself, but what it proceeds from; what virtues it shows to be wanting; what vices it naturally strengthens. For every habit of this kind discovers the state of the soul, and plainly shows the whole turn of your mind.
If our blessed Lord used to pray early before day; if He spent whole nights in prayer; if the devout Anna was day and night in the temple; if St. Paul and Silas at midnight sang praises unto God; if the primitive Christians for several hundred years, besides their hours of prayer in the day-time, met publicly in the churches at midnight to join in psalms and prayers, is it not certain that these practices showed the state of their hearts? Are they not so many plain proofs of the whole turn of their minds?
And if you live in a contrary state, wasting great part of every day in sleep, thinking any time soon enough to be at your prayers, is it not equally certain that this practice as much shows the state of your heart, and the whole turn of your mind?
So that, if this indulgence is your way of life, you have as much reason to believe yourself destitute of the true spirit of devotion, as you have to believe the Apostles and Saints of the primitive Church were truly devout. For as their way of life was a demonstration of their devotion so a contrary way of life is as strong a proof of a want of devotion.
When you read the Scriptures, you see a religion that is- all life, and spirit, and joy in God; that supposes our souls risen from earthly desires and bodily indulgences to prepare for another body, another world, and other enjoyments. You see Christians represented as temples of the Holy Ghost, as children of the day, as candidates for an eternal crown, as watchful virgins that have their lamps always burning in expectation of the Bridegroom. But can he be thought to have this joy in God, this care of eternity, this watchful spirit, who has not zeal enough to rise to his prayers?
When you look into the writings and lives of the first Christians, you see the same spirit that you see in the Scriptures. All is reality, life, and action. Watching and prayers, self-denial and mortification, was the common business of their lives.
From that time to this there has been no person like them, eminent for piety, who has not, like them, been eminent for self-denial and mortification. This is the only royal way that leads to a kingdom.
But how far are you from this way of life, or rather how contrary to it, if, instead of imitating their austerity and mortification, you cannot so much as renounce so poor an indulgence as to be able to rise to your prayers? If self-denials and bodily sufferings, if watchings and fastings, will be marks of glory at the day of judgment, where must we hide our heads that have slumbered away our time in sloth and softness?
You perhaps now find some pretences to excuse yourself from that severity of fasting and self-denial, which the first Christians practised. You fancy that human nature is grown weaker, and that the difference of climates may make it not possible for you to observe their methods of self-denial and austerity in these colder countries.
But all this is but pretence; for the change is not in the outward state of things, but in the inward state of our minds. When there is the same spirit in us that there was in the Apostles and primitive Christians, when we feel the weight of religion as hey did, when we have their faith and hope, we shall take up our cross and deny ourselves, and live in such methods of mortification as they did.
Had St. Paul lived in a cold country, had he had a constitution made weak with a sickly stomach, and often infirmities, he would have done as he advised Timothy, he would have mixed a little fine with his water.
But still he would have lived in a state of self-denial and mortification. He would have given this same account of himself. : I, therefore, so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air; but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.”
After all, let it now be supposed, that you imagine there is no necessity for you to be so sober and vigilant, so fearful of yourself, so watchful over your passions, so apprehensive of danger, so careful of your salvation as the Apostles were. Let it be supposed that you imagine that you want less self-denial and mortification to subdue your bodies and purify your souls than they wanted; that you need not have your loins girt and your lamps burning as they had, will you, therefore, live in a quite contrary state? Will you make your life as constant a course of softness and indulgence as theirs was of strictness and self-denial?
If, therefore, you should think that you have time sufficient both for prayer and other duties, though you rise late, yet let me persuade you to rise early, as an instance of self-denial. It is so small a one, that if you cannot comply with it you have no reason to think yourself capable of any other.
If I were to desire you not to study the gratifications of your palate in the niceties of meats and drinks, I would not insist much upon the crime of wasting your money in such a way, though it be a great one; but I would desire you to renounce such a way of life, because it supports you in such a state of sensuality and indulgence as renders you incapable of relishing the most essential doctrines of religion.
For the same reason I do not insist much on the crime of wasting so much of your time in sleep, though it be a great one; but I desire you to renounce this indulgence, because it gives a softness and idleness to your soul, and is so contrary to that lively, zealous, watchful, self-denying spirit, which was not only the spirit of Christ and His Apostles, the spirit of all the saints and martyrs which, have ever been amongst men, but must be the spirit of all those who would not sink in the common corruption of the world.
Here, therefore, we must fix our charge against this practice; we must blame it, not as having this or that particular evil, but as a general habit that extends itself through our whole spirit, and supports a state of mind that is wholly wrong.
It is contrary to piety, not as accidental slips and mistakes in life are contrary to it, but in such a manner as an ill habit of body is contrary to health.
On the other hand, if you were to rise early every morning as an instance of self-denial, as a method of renouncing indulgence, as a means of redeeming your time and fitting your spirit for prayer, you would find mighty advantages from it. This method, though it seems such a small circumstance of life, would in all probability be a means of great piety. It would keep it constantly in your head that softness and idleness were to be avoided, that self-denial was a part of Christianity. It would teach you to exercise power over yourself, and make you able by degrees to renounce other pleasures and tempers that war against the soul. This one rule would teach you to think of others; it would dispose your mind to exactness, and be very likely to bring the remaining part of the day under rules of prudence and devotion.
But, above all, one certain benefit from this method you will be sure of having; it will best fit and prepare you for the reception of the Holy Spirit. When you thus begin the day in the spirit of religion, renouncing sleep, because you are to renounce softness and redeem your time; this disposition, as it puts your heart into a good state so it will procure the assistance of the Holy Spirit; what is so planted and watered will certainly have an increase from God. You will then speak from your heart, your soul will be awake, your prayers will refresh you like meat and drink, you will feel what you say, and begin to know what saints and holy men have meant by fervours of devotion.
He that is thus prepared for prayer, who rises with these dispositions, is in a very different state from him who has no rules of this kind, who rises by chance, as he happens to be weary of his bed, or is able to sleep no longer. If such a one prays only with his mouth; if his heart feels nothing of that which he says; if his prayers are only things of course; if they are a lifeless form of words, which he only repeats because they are soon said; there is nothing to be wondered at in all this, for such dispositions are the natural effects of such a state of life.
Hoping, therefore, that you are now enough convinced of the necessity of rising early to your prayers, I shall proceed to lay before you a method of daily prayer.
I do not take upon me to prescribe to you the use of any particular forms of prayer, but only to show the necessity of praying at such times and in such a manner.
You will here find some helps how to furnish yourself with much forms of prayer as shall be useful to you. And if you are such a proficient in the spirit of devotion that your heart is always ready to pray in its own language, in this case I press no necessity f borrowed forms.
For though I think a form of prayer very necessary and expedient for public worship, yet if any one can find a better way of raising his heart unto God in private than by prepared forms of prayer, I have nothing to object against it, my design being only to assist and direct such as stand in need of assistance.
Thus much, I believe, is certain, that the generality of Christians ought to use forms of prayer at all the regular times of prayer. It seems right for every one to begin with a form of prayer; and if, in the midst of his devotion, he finds his heart ready to break forth into new and higher strains of devotion, he should leave his form for a while, and follow those fervours of his heart till it again wants the assistance of his usual petitions.
This seems to be the true liberty of private devotion; it should be under the direction of some form, but not so tied down to it but that it may be free to take such new expressions as its present fervours happen to furnish it with, which sometimes are more affecting, and carry the soul more powerfully to God, than any expressions that were ever used before.
All people that have ever made any reflections upon what passes in their own hearts must know that they are mighty changeable in regard to devotion. Sometimes our hearts are so awakened, have such strong apprehensions of the divine presence, are so full of deep compunction for our sins, that we cannot confess them in any language but that of tears.
Sometimes the light of God’s countenance shines so bright upon us, we see so far into the invisible world, we are so affected with the wonders of the love and goodness of God, that our hearts worship and adore in a language higher than that of words, and we feel transports of devotion which only can be felt.
On the other hand, sometimes we are so sunk into our bodies, so dull and unaffected with that which concerns our souls, that our hearts are as much too low for our prayers; we cannot keep pace with our forms of confession, or feel half of that in our hearts which we have in our mouths; we thank and praise God with forms of words, but our hearts have little or no share in them.
It is, therefore, highly necessary to provide against this inconstancy of our hearts by having at hand such forms of prayer as may best suit us when our hearts are in their best state, and also be most likely to raise and stir them up when they are sunk into dulness. For as words have a power of affecting our hearts on ill occasions, as the same thing differently expressed has different affects upon our minds, so it is reasonable that we should make this advantage of language, and provide ourselves with such forms of expressions as are most likely to move and enliven our souls, and fill them with sentiments suitable to them.
The first thing that you are to do when you are upon your knees is to shut your eyes, and, with a short silence, let your soul place itself in the presence of God; that is, you are to use this or some other better method to separate yourself from all common thoughts, and make your hearts as sensible as you can of the living presence.
Now if this recollection of spirit is necessary, as who can say t is not? then how poorly must they perform their devotions who re always in a hurry, who begin them in haste, and hardly allow themselves time to repeat their very form with any gravity or attention? Theirs is properly saying prayers, instead of praying.
To proceed. If you were to use yourself (as far as you can) to pray always in the same place; if you were to reserve that place of devotion, and not allow yourself to do anything common in it; you were never to be there yourself but in times of devotion; any little room, (or if that cannot be) if any particular part of a room, was thus used, this kind of consecration of it, as a place holy unto God, would have an effect upon your mind, and dispose you to such tempers as would very much assist your devotion, or by having a place thus sacred in your room, it would in some measure resemble a chapel or house of God. This would dispose you to be always in the spirit of religion when you were there, and fill you with wise and holy thoughts when you were by myself. Your own apartment would raise in your mind such sentiments as you have when you stand near an altar, and you would be afraid of thinking or doing anything that was foolish near that place, which is the place of prayer and holy intercourse with God.
When you begin your petitions, use such various expressions of e attributes of God as may make you most sensible of the greatness and power of the divine nature.
Begin, therefore, in words like these: “O Being of all beings, Fountain of all light and glory, gracious Father of men and angels, Whose universal Spirit is everywhere present, giving life and light and joy to all angels in heaven and all creatures upon earth,” etc.
For these representations of the divine attributes, which show us in some degree the majesty and greatness of God, are an excellent means of raising our hearts into lively acts of worship and adoration.
What is the reason that most people are so much affected with this petition in the burial service of our Church: “Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death”? It is because the joining together so many great expressions gives such a description of the greatness of the Divine Majesty as naturally affects every sensible mind.
Although, therefore, prayer does not consist in fine words or studied expressions, yet as words speak to the soul, as they have a certain power of raising thoughts in the soul, so those words which speak of God in the highest manner, which most fully express the power and presence of God, which raise thoughts in the soul most suitable to the greatness and providence of God, are the most useful, and most edifying in our prayers.
When you direct any of your petitions to our blessed Lord, let it be in some expressions of this kind: “O Saviour of the world, God of God, Light of Light, Thou that art the Brightness of Thy Father’s glory, and the express Image of His person; Thou that art the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and End of all things; Thou that hast destroyed the power of the devil, that hast overcome death; Thou that art entered into the Holy of Holies, that sittest at the right hand of the Father, that art high above all thrones and principalities, that makest intercession for all the world; Thou that art the judge of the quick and dead; Thou that wilt speedily come down in Thy Father’s glory to reward all men according to their works, be Thou my light and my peace,” etc. For such representations which describe so many characters of our Saviour’s nature and power are not only proper acts of adoration, but will, if they are repeated with attention, fill our hearts with the highest fervours of true devotion.
Again, if you ask any particular grace of our blessed Lord, let it be in some manner like this:
“O Holy Jesus, Son of the most high God, Thou that wert scourged at a pillar, stretched and nailed upon a cross for the sins of the world, unite me to Thy cross, and fill my soul with Thy holy, humble, and suffering spirit. O Fountain of Mercy, Thou that didst save the thief upon the cross, save me from the guilt of a sinful life; Thou that didst cast seven devils out of Mary Magdalene, cast out of my heart all evil thoughts and wicked tempers. O Giver of Life, Thou that didst raise Lazarus from the dead, raise up my soul from the death and darkness of sin. Thou that didst give to Thy Apostles power over unclean spirits, give me power over mine own heart. Thou that didst appear unto Thy disciples when the doors were shut, do Thou appear to me in the secret apartment of my heart. Thou that didst cleanse the lepers, heal the sick, and give sight to the blind, cleanse my heart, heal the disorders of my soul, and fill me with heavenly light.”
Now these appeals have a double advantage: First, As they are so many proper acts of our faith, whereby we not only show our belief of the miracles of Christ, but turn them at the same time into so many instances of worship and adoration.
Secondly, As they strengthen and increase the faith of our prayers, by presenting to our mind so many instances of that power and goodness, which we call upon for our own assistance.
For he that appeals to Christ, as casting out devils and raising the dead, has then a powerful motive in his mind to pray earnestly and depend faithfully upon His assistance.
Again, in order to fill your prayers with excellent strains of devotion, it may be of use to you to observe this further rule.
When at any time, either in reading the Scripture or any book of piety, you meet with a passage that more than ordinarily affects `our mind, and seems, as it were, to give your heart a new notion towards God, you should try to turn it into the form of a petition, and then give it a place in your prayers.
By this means you would be often improving your prayers, and storing yourself with proper forms of making the desires of your heart known unto God.
At all the stated hours of prayer it will be a great benefit to you to have something fixed and something at liberty in your devotions.
You should have some fixed subject, which is constantly to be the chief matter of your prayer at that particular time; and yet have liberty to add such other petitions as your condition may then require.
For instance: As the morning is to you the beginning of new life, as God has then given you a new enjoyment of yourself and a fresh entrance into the world, it is highly proper that your first devotions should be a praise and thanksgiving to God as for a new creation; and that you should offer and devote body and soul, all that you are, and all that you have, to His service and glory.
Receive, therefore, every day as a resurrection from death, as a new enjoyment of life; meet every rising sun with such sentiments of God’s goodness as if you had seen it, and all things, new created upon your account; and, under the sense of so great a blessing, let your joyful heart praise and magnify so good and glorious a Creator.
Let therefore praise and thanksgiving, and oblation of yourself unto God, be always the fixed and certain subject of your first prayers in the morning; and then take the liberty of adding such other devotions as the accidental difference of your state, or the accidental difference of your heart, shall then make most needful and expedient for you.
For one of the greatest benefits of private devotion consists in rightly adapting our prayers to these two conditions, the difference of our state, and the difference of our hearts.
By the difference of our state is meant the difference of our external state or condition, as of sickness, health, pains, losses, disappointments, troubles, particular mercies, or judgments from God; all sorts of kindnesses, injuries, or reproaches from other people.
Now as these are great parts of our state of life, as they make great difference in it, by continually changing, so our devotion will be made doubly beneficial to us when it watches to receive and sanctify all these changes of our state, and turns them all into so many occasions of a more particular application to God of such thanksgivings, such resignation, such petitions, as our present state more especially requires.
And he that makes every change in his state a reason of presenting unto God some particular petitions suitable to that change, will soon find that he has taken an excellent means, not only of praying with fervour, but of living as he prays.
The next condition, to which we are always to adapt some part of our prayers, is the difference of our hearts, by which is meant the different state of the tempers of our hearts, as of love, joy, peace, tranquillity, dulness and dryness of spirit, anxiety, discontent, motions of envy and ambition, dark and disconsolate thoughts, resentments, fretfulness, and peevish tempers.
Now as these tempers, through the weakness of our nature, will have their succession more or less even in pious minds, so we should constantly make the present state of our heart the reason of some particular application to God.
If we are in the delightful calm of sweet and easy passions, of love and joy in God, we should then offer the grateful tribute of thanksgiving to God for the possession of so much happiness, thankfully owning and acknowledging Him as the bountiful Giver of it all.
If, on the other hand, we feel ourselves laden with heavy passions, with dulness of spirit, anxiety, and uneasiness, we must then look up to God in acts of humility, confessing our unworthiness, opening our troubles to Him, beseeching Him in His good time to lessen the weight of our infirmities, and to deliver us from such passions as oppose the purity and perfection of our souls.
Now by thus watching and attending to the present state of our hearts, and suiting some of our petitions exactly to their wants, we shall not only be well acquainted with the disorders of our souls, but also be well exercised in the method of curing them.
By this prudent and wise application of our prayers, we shall get all the relief from them that is possible; and the very changeableness of our hearts will prove a means of exercising a greater variety of holy tempers.
Now by all that has here been said, you will easily perceive that persons careful of the greatest benefit of prayer ought to have a great share in the forming and composing their own devotions.
As to that part of their prayers which is always fixed to one certain subject, in that they may use the help of forms composed by other persons; but in that part of their prayers, which they are always to suit to the present state of their life, and the present state of their heart, there they must let the sense of their own condition help them to such kinds of petition, thanksgiving, or resignation as their present state more especially requires.
Happy are they who have this business and employment upon their hands!
And now, if people of leisure, whether men or women, who are so much at a loss how to dispose of their time, who are forced into poor contrivances, idle visits, and ridiculous diversions, merely to get rid of hours that hang heavily upon their hands; if such were to appoint some certain spaces of their time to the study of devotion, searching after all the means and helps to attain a devout spirit; if they were to collect the best forms of devotion, to use themselves to transcribe the finest passages of Scripture prayers; if they were to collect the devotions, confessions, petitions, praises, resignations, and thanksgivings, which are scattered up and down in the Psalms, and range them under proper heads, as so much proper fuel for the flame of their own devotion; if their minds were often thus employed, sometimes meditating upon them, sometimes getting them by heart, and making them as habitual as their own thoughts, how fervently would they pray who came thus prepared to prayer?
And how much better would it be to make this benefit of leisure time than to be dully and idly lost in the poor impertinences of a playing, visiting, wandering life?
How much better would it be to be thus furnished with hymns and anthems of the saints, and teach their souls to ascend to God, than to corrupt, bewilder, and confound their hearts with the wild fancies, the lustful thoughts of a lewd poet?
Now though people of leisure seem called more particularly to this study of devotion, yet persons of much business or labour must not think themselves excused from this, or some better method of improving their devotion.
For the greater their business is, the more need they have of some such method as this to prevent its power over their hearts; to secure them from sinking into worldly tempers, and preserve a sense and taste of heavenly things in their minds. And a little time, regularly and constantly employed to any one use or end, will do great things and produce mighty effects.
And it is for want of considering devotion in this light, as something that is to be nursed and cherished with care, as something that is to be made part of our business, that is to be improved with care and contrivance, by art and method, and a diligent use of the best helps; it is for want of considering it in this light, that so many people are so little benefited by it, and live and die strangers to that spirit of devotion, which, by a prudent use of proper means, they might have enjoyed in a high degree.
For though the spirit of devotion is the gift of God, and not attainable by any mere power of our own, yet it is mostly given, and never withheld from, those who, by a wise and diligent use of proper means, prepare themselves for the reception of it.
And it is amazing to see how eagerly men employ their parts, their sagacity, time, study, application, and exercise; how all helps are called to their assistance when anything is intended and desired in worldly matters; and how dull, negligent, and unimproved they are, how little they use their parts, sagacity, and abilities to raise and increase their devotion!
Mundanus is a man of excellent parts and clear apprehension. He is well advanced in age, and has made a great figure in business. Every part of trade and business that has fallen in his way has had some improvement from him, and he is always contriving to carry every method of doing anything well to its greatest height. Mundanus aims at the greatest perfection in everything. The soundness and strength of his mind, and his just way of thinking upon things, make him intent upon removing all imperfections.
He can tell you all the defects and errors in all the common methods, whether of trade, building, or improving land, or manufactures. The clearness and strength of his understanding, which he is constantly improving by continual exercise in these matters, by often digesting his thoughts in writing, and trying everything every way, has rendered him a great master of most concerns in human life.
Thus has Mundanus gone on increasing his knowledge and judgment as fast as his years came upon him.
The only thing which has not fallen under his improvement, nor received any benefit from his judicious mind, is his devotion. This is just in the same poor state it was when he was only six years of age, and the old man prays now in that little form of words which his mother used to hear him repeat night and morning.
This Mundanus, that hardly ever saw the poorest utensil, or ever took the meanest trifle into his hand, without considering how it might be made or used to better advantage, has gone all his life long praying in the same manner as when he was a child, without ever considering how much better or oftener he might pray; without considering how improvable the spirit of devotion is, how many helps a wise and reasonable man may call to his assistance, and how necessary it is that our prayers should be enlarged, varied, and suited to the particular state and condition of our lives.
If Mundanus sees a book of devotion, he passes it by as he does a spelling-book, because he remembers that he learned to pray so many years ago under his mother when he learned to spell.
Now how poor and pitiable is the conduct of this man of sense, who has so much judgment and understanding in everything but that which is the whole wisdom of man?
And how miserably do many people more or less imitate this conduct?
All which seems to be owing to a strange infatuated state of negligence, which keeps people from considering what devotion is. For if they did but once proceed so far as to reflect about it, or ask themselves any questions concerning it, they would soon see that the spirit of devotion was like any other sense or understanding, that is only to be improved by study, care, application, and the use of such means and helps as are necessary to make a man a proficient in any art or science.
Classicus is a man of learning, and well versed in all the best authors of antiquity. He has read them so much that he has entered into their spirit, and can very ingeniously imitate the manner of any of them. All their thoughts are his thoughts, and he can express himself in their language. He is so great a friend to this improvement of the mind that if he lights on a young scholar, he never fails to advise him concerning his studies.
Classicus tells this young man he must not think that he has done enough when he has only learned languages, but that he must be daily conversant with the best authors, read them again and again, catch their spirit by living with them, and that there is no other way of becoming like them, or of making himself a man of taste and judgment.
How wise might Classicus have been, and how much good might he have done in the world, if he had but thought as justly of devotion as he does of learning?
He never, indeed, says anything shocking or offensive about devotion, because he never thinks or talks about it. It suffers nothing from him but neglect and disregard.
The two Testaments would not have had so much as a place amongst his books, but that they are both to be had in Greek.
Classicus thinks that he sufficiently shows his regard for the holy Scripture when he tells you that he has no other books of piety besides them.
It is very well, Classicus, that you prefer the Bible to all other books of piety; he has no judgment that is not thus far of your opinion.
But if you will have no other book of piety besides the Bible, because it is the best, how comes it, Classicus, that you do not content yourself with one of the best books amongst the Greeks and Romans? How comes it that you are so greedy and eager after all of them? How comes it that you think the knowledge of one is a necessary help to the knowledge of the other? How comes it that you are so earnest, so laborious, so expensive of your time and money to restore broken periods and scraps of the ancients?
How comes it that you read so many commentators upon Cicero, Horace, and Homer, and not one upon the Gospel? How comes it that your love of Cicero and Ovid makes you love to read an author that writes like them ; and yet your esteem for the Gospel gives you no desire, nay, prevents your reading such books as breathe the very spirit of the Gospel?
How comes it that you tell your young scholar he must not content himself with barely understanding his authors, but must be continually reading them all, as the only means of entering into their spirit, and forming his own judgment according to them?
Why, then, must the Bible lie alone in your study? Is not the spirit of the saints, the piety of the holy followers of Jesus Christ, as good and necessary a means of entering into the spirit and taste of the Gospel as the reading of the ancients is of entering into the spirit of antiquity?
Is the spirit of poetry only to be got by much reading of poets and orators? And is not the spirit of devotion to be got in the same way by frequently reading the holy thoughts and pious strains of devout men?
Is your young poet to search after every line that may give new wings to his fancy or direct his imagination? And is it not as reasonable for him who desires to improve in the divine life, that is, in the love of heavenly things, to search after every strain of devotion that may move, kindle, and inflame the holy ardour of his soul?
Do you advise your orator to translate the best orations, to commit much of them to memory, to be frequently exercising his talent in this manner, that habits of thinking and speaking justly may be formed in his mind? And is there not the same benefit and advantage to be made by books of devotion? Should not a man use them in the same way, that habits of devotion and aspiring to God in holy thoughts may be well formed in his soul?
Now the reason why Classicus does not think and judge thus reasonably of devotion is owing to his never thinking of it in any other manner than as the repeating a form of words. It never in his life entered into his head to think of devotion as a state of the heart, as an improvable talent of the mind, as a temper that is to grow and increase like our reason and judgment, and to be formed in us by such a regular diligent use of proper means as are necessary to form any other wise habit of mind.
And it is for want of this that he has been content all his life with the bare letter of prayer, and eagerly bent upon entering into the spirit of heathen poets and orators.
And it is much to be lamented that numbers of scholars are more or less chargeable with this excessive folly; so negligent of improving their devotion, and so desirous of other poor accomplishments, as if they thought it a nobler talent to be able to write an epigram in the turn of Martial than to live and think and pray to God in the spirit of St. Austin.
And yet, to correct this temper, and fill a man with a quite contrary spirit, there seems to be no more required than the bare belief of the truth of Christianity.
And if you were to ask Mundanus and Classicus, or any man of business or learning, whether piety is not the highest perfection of man, or devotion the greatest attainment in the world, they must both be forced to answer in the affirmative, or else give up the truth of the Gospel.
For to set any accomplishment against devotion, or to think anything or all things in the world can bear any proportion to its excellency, is the same absurdity in a Christian as it would be in a philosopher to prefer a meal’s meat to the greatest improvement in knowledge.
For as philosophy professes purely the search and inquiry after knowledge, so Christianity supposes, intends, desires, and aims at nothing else but the raising fallen man to a divine life, to such habits of holiness, such degrees of devotion, as may fit him to enter among the holy inhabitants of the kingdom of heaven.
He that does not believe this of Christianity may be reckoned an infidel; and he that believes thus much has faith enough to give him a right judgment of the value of things, to support him in a sound mind, and enable him to conquer all the temptations which the world shall lay in his way.
To conclude this chapter: Devotion is nothing else but right apprehensions and right affections towards God.
All practices, therefore, that heighten and improve our true apprehensions of God, all ways of life that tend to nourish, raise, and fix our affections upon Him are to be reckoned so many helps and means to fill us with devotion.
As prayer is the proper fuel of this holy flame, so we must use all our care and contrivance to give prayer its full power; as by alms, self-denial, frequent retirements, and holy readings, composing forms for ourselves, or using the best we can get, adding length of time, and observing hours of prayer; changing, improving, and suiting our devotions to the condition of our lives and the state of our hearts.
Those who have most leisure seem more especially called to a more eminent observance of these holy rules of a devout life. And they who, by the necessity of their state, and not through their own choice, have but little time to employ thus, must make the best use of that little they have.
For this is the certain way of making devotion produce a devout life.
William Law (1686-1761) was born at King’s Cliffe, Northamtonshire. He entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1705, and was elected a fellow of the college and ordained in 1711. Upon the accession of George I, however, he was dismissed from Cambridge as a nonjuror. Besides a Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, from which this article is taken, Law wrote a number of other books on Christian Living.
DISCUSS THIS TOPIC
Please join others who have commented upon this and other topics in our Discussion Group.