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It is certain, that when the heart bleeds from some wound of recent misfortune, nothing is of equal efficacy with religious comfort. It is of power to enlighten the darkest hour, and to assuage the severest wo, by the belief of the Divinefavour, and the prospect of a blessed immortality. In such hopes, the mind expatiates with joy; and, when bereaved of its earthly friends, solaces itself with the thoughts of one Friend, who will never forsake it. Refined reasonings concerning the nature of the human condition, and the improvement which philosophy teaches us to make of every event, may entertain the mind when it is at ease; may perhaps contribute to sooth it, when slightly touched with sorrow: but when it is torn with any sore distress, they are cold and feeble, compared with the direct promise from the Father of mercies. This is "an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast." This has given consolation and refuge to many a virtuous heart, at a time when the most cogent reasonings would have proved utterly unavailing.
Upon the approach of death, when, if a man thinks at all, his anxiety about his future interests must naturally increase, the power of religious consolation is sensibly felt. Then appears in the most striking light, the high value of the discoveries made by the gospel; not only life and immortality revealed, but a Mediator with God discovered; mercy proclaimed, through him, to the frailties of the penitent and the humble; and his presence promised to be with them when they are passing through the valley of the shadow of death," in order to bring them safe into unseen habitations of rest and joy. Here is ground for their leaving the world with comfort and peace. But in this severe and trying period, this labouring hour of nature, how shall the unhappy man support himself, who knows not, or believes not, the discoveries of religion? Secretly conscious to himself that he has not acted his part as he ought to have done, the sins of his past life arise before him in sad remembrance. He wishes to exist after death, and yet dreads that existence. The Governor of the world is unknown. He cannot tell whether every endeavour to obtain his mercy may not be in vain. All is awful obscurity around him; and, in the midst of endless doubts and perplexities, the trembling, reluctant soul is forced away from the body. As the misfortunes of life must, to such a man, have been most oppressive, so its end is bitter. His sun sets in a dark cloud; and the night of death closes over his head, full of misery.
Benefits to be derived from scenes of distress.
SOME periods of sadness have, in our present situation, a just and natural place; and they are requisite to the true enjoyment of pleasure; but I shall at present decline considering the subject in this view; and confine myself to point out the direct effects of a proper attention to the distresses of life, upon our moral and religious character.
In the first place, the house of mourning is calculated to give a proper check to our natural thoughtlessness and levity. The indolence of mankind, and their love of pleasure, spread, through all characters and ranks, some degree of aversion to what is grave and serious. They grasp at any object, either of business or amusement, which makes the present moment pass smoothly away; which carries their thoughts abroad, and saves them from the trouble of reflect ing on themselves. With too many, this passes into a habit of constant dissipation. If their fortune and rank allow them to indulge their inclinations, they devote themselves to the pursuit of amusement through all its different forms. The skilful arrangement of its successive scenes, and the preparatory study for shining in each, are the only exertions in which their understanding is employed. Such a mode of life may keep alive, for awhile, a frivolous vivacity it may improve men in some of those exterior accomplishments, which sparkle in the eyes of the giddy and the vain; but it must sink them in the esteem of all the wise. It renders them strangers to themselves; and useless, if not pernicious, to the world. They lose every manly principle. Their minds become relaxed and effeminate. All that is great or respectable in the human character is buried under a mass of trifles and follies.
If some measures ought to be taken for rescuing the mind from this disgraceful levity; if some principles must be acquired, which may give more dignity and steadiness to conduct; where are these to be looked for? Not surely in the house of feasting, where every object flatters the senses, and strengthens the seductions to which we are already prone; where the spirit of dissipation circulates from heart to heart; and the children of folly mutually admire and are admired. It is in the sober and serious house of mourning that the
tide of vanity is made to turn, and a new direction given to the current of thought. When some affecting incident presents a strong discovery of the deceitfulness of all worldly joy, and rouses our sensibility to human wo; when we behold those with whom we had lately mingled in the house of feasting, sunk by some of the sudden vicissitudes of life into the vale of misery; or when, in sad silence, we stand by the friend whom we had loved as our own soul, siretched on the bed of death; then is the season when this world begins to appear in a new light; when the heart opens to virtuous sentiments, and is led into that train of reflection which ought to direct life. He who before knew not what it was to commune with his heart on any serious subject, now puts the question to himself, for what purpose he was sent forth into this mortal, transitory state; what his fate is likely to be when it concludes; and what judgment he ought to form of those pleasures which amuse for a little, but which, he now sees, cannot save the heart from anguish in the evil day. Touched by the hand of thoughtful melancholy, that airy edifice of bliss, which fancy had raised up for him, vanishes away. He beholds, in the place of it, the lonely and barren desert, in which, surrounded with many a disagreeable object, he is left musing upon himself. The time which he has mispent, and the faculties which he has misemployed, his foolish levity and his criminal pursuits, all rise in painful prospect before him. That unknown state of existence into which race after race, the children of men pass, strikes his mind with solemn awe.-Is there no course by which he can retrieve his past errors? Is there no superior power to which he can look up for aid? Is there no plan of conduct which, if it exempt him not from sorrow, can at least procure him consolation amidst the distressful exigencies of life?-Such meditations as these, suggested by the house of mourning, frequently produce a change in the whole character. They revive those sparks of goodness which were nearly extinguished in the dissipated mind; and give rise to principles of conduct more rational in themselves, and more suitable to the human state.
In the next place, impressions of this nature not only produce moral seriousness, but awaken sentiments of piety, and bring men into the sanctuary of religion. One might, indeed, imagine that the blessings of a prosperous condition would prove the most catural incitements to devotion; and that when men were happy in themselves, and saw nothing
hut happiness around them, they could not fail gratefully to acknowledge that God who "giveth them all things richly to enjoy." Yet such is their corruption, that they are never more ready to forget their benefactor, than when loaded with his benefits. The giver is concealed from their careless and inattentive view, by the cloud of his own gifts. When their life continues to flow in one smooth current, unruffled by any griefs: when they neither receive in their own circumstances, nor allow themselves to receive from the circumstances of others, any admonitions of human instability, they not only become regardless of Providence, but are in hazard of contemning it. Glorying in their strength, and lifted up by the pride of life into supposed independence, that impious sentiment, if not uttered by the mouth, yet too often lurks in the hearts of many during their flourishing periods, "What is the Almighty that we should serve him, and what profit should we have if we pray unto him?"
If such be the tendency of the house of feasting, how necessary is it that, by some change in their situation, men should be obliged to enter into the house of mourning, in order to recover a proper sense of their dependent state! It is there, when forsaken by the gaieties of the world, and left alone with the Almighty, that we are made to perceive how awful his government is; how easily human greatness bends before him; and how quickly all our designs and measures, at his interposal, vanish into nothing. There, when the countenance is sad, and the affections are softened by grief; when we sit apart, involved in serious thought, looking down as from some eminence on those dark clouds that hang over the life of man, the arrogance of prosperity is humbled, and the heart melts under the impressions of religion. Formerly we were taught, but now we see, we feel, how much we stand in need of an Almighty Protector, amidst the changes of this vain world. Our soul cleaves to him who " despises not, nor abhors the affliction of the afflicted." Prayer flows forth of its own accord from the relenting heart, that he may be our God, and the God of our friends in distress; that he may never forsake us while we are sojourning in this land of pilgrimage; may strengthen us under its calamities, and bring us hereafter to those habitations of rest, where we, and they whom we love, may be delivered from the trials which all are now doomed to endure. The discoveries of his mercy, which he has made
in the gospel of Christ, are viewed with joy, as so many rays of light sent down from above, to dispe', in some degree, the surrounding gloom. A Mediator and Intercessor with the Sovereign of the universe, appear comfortable names; and the resurrection of the just becomes the powerful cordial of grief. In such moments as these, which we may justly call happy moments, the soul participates of all the pleasures of devotion. It feels the power of religion to support and relieve. It is softened, without being broken. It is full, and it pours itself forth; pours itself forth, if we may be allowed to use the expression, into the bosom of its merciful Creator.
Enough has been said to show, that, on various occasions, sorrow may be better than laughter."-Wouldst thou acquire the habit of recollection, and fix the principles of thy conduct; wouldst thou be led up to thy Creator and Redeemer, and be formed to sentiments of piety and devotion; wouldst thou be acquainted with those mild and tender affections which delight the compassionate and humane; wouldst thou have the power of sensual appetites tamed and corrected, and thy soul raised above the ignoble love of life, and fear of death? go, my brother, go-not to scenes of pleasure and riot, not to the house of feasting and mirthbut to the silent house of mourning; and adventure to dwell for awhile among objects that will soften thy heart. Contemplate the lifeless remains of what once was fair and flourishing. Bring home to thyself the vicissitudes of life. Recall the remembrance of the friend, the parent, or the child, whom thou tenderly lovedst. Look back on the days of former years; and think the companions of thy youth who now sleep in the dust. Let the vanity, the mutability, and the sorrows of the human state, rise in full prospect before thee; and though thy "countenance may be made sad, thy heart shall be made better." This sadness, though for the present it dejects, yet shall in the end fortify thy spirit; inspiring thee with such sentiments, and prompting such resolutions as shall enable thee to enjoy, with more real advantage, the rest of life. Dispositions of this nature form one part of the character of those mourners, whom our Saviour hath pronounced blessed; and of those to whom it is promised, that "sowing in tears, they shall reap in joy." A great difference there is between being serious and melancholy; and a melancholy too there is of that kind which deserves to be sometimes indulged.