S. John Baptist, 1863.
The Transfiguration of Toil.
Isaiah xl. 10.
IF you come to consider, the collocation of these words is very remarkable. Had it been written, "His work is with Him: and His reward before Him," that would have been plain enough. Then we should simply have seen the present toil, and the future reward: just as a Priest (if it were not for the symbolism, awkwardly enough) puts on the maniple, the type of the LORD'S yoke, before he assumes the stole, the emblem of everlasting glory, the scarcely seen ends of which just appear below the chasuble, the symbol of Christian armour, and therefore of the battle of this life. But here it is the other way: here it seems as if the glory came first, and then the work: and therein the mystery of the text.
"His reward is with Him." Yes; but how does He, the LORD, come? "Behold, the LORD will come with strong hand." That is, He comes in all the power of His grace; comes, not only to touch the heart of the scorner, but to strengthen up, and lead on His ordinary servants into saintliness: comes to help forward, to guide and instruct, in such lives as yours, my Sisters, ought to be.
And then, of a truth, "His reward is with Him;" for His very work itself, be it active or passive, be it labour or pain, is its own reward. Just as that Asiatic Martyr, who was, by the space of a whole day, racked beyond what human nature seemed able to endure: but who, when loosed at evening, lamented sorely, saying that it was the most blessed day of his life: that not only he had felt no pain, but that an Angel in white raiment had stood by him, and wiped away with a napkin the sweat as it poured off him, and had infused such perfection of joy in his heart, that he verily thought Heaven could have nothing better. And he survived many years after, and was in the habit of constantly affirming this to the brethren.
In like manner, your reward may be present in any work, on that one condition: "The LORD GOD will come with strong hand."
"Be strong, and He shall comfort thine heart." But put less than all your strength to the work, send less than all your forces to the fight, give less than all j-our self-denial to the suffering, and Joash in the room of the dying Elisha, and Israel before Ai, and the young man that had great possessions, will tell you what to expect.
"His reward is with Him." Notice the present tense in all the Beatitudes. "Blessed are," not, shall be, "the poor in spirit;" "Blessed are ye that mourn;" "Blessed are ye when men shall revile you; Rejoice ye in that day" And S. James, no less: "Blessed is the man that endureth temptation, for when he is tried he shall receive the crown of life." Here literally, you have the crown given before the battle is finished: already given in the sight of the Angels, already welcomed in the heart of the athlete. As S. Bernard says: "O good JESU, this above all things I ask for myself and for mine: that always in that which by nature is hardest, by grace we may take the most pleasure: and that not by an effort, but naturally, because of Thy love. Daily we see the lover not only enduring, but rejoicing and exulting, in hardships and dangers and pain for the sake of her whom he loves; and that, not for the sake of possessing her, for, whether or not, she has pledged herself to him: but simply and solely because it is a joy to suffer for a dear one, and such suffering is its own reward."
Those are good brave words, my Sisters: and the man who spoke them, we all know, as bravely acted them out.
But now how is this: "and His work before Him?" And there the Prophet a little, a very little, lifts the veil, and shews us something of that great mystery, the other world.
I often think, if GOD allowed us but one half-hour's talk with any of those that are gone before,--one of our Sisters, for example,--what marvellous questions one might ask, what more marvellous answers one should receive. "Where is it that you ordinarily dwell? Is it in one fixed locality? Do you exist as an absolutely disembodied spirit? or have you some material vehicle? and if so, of what nature? In what manner was your entrance made into that world? Did you become conscious of it all at once? or did you gradually become sensible that there was a spirit-world? Above all, how does that wonderful thing, Death, appear to you, now that you look back upon it? What thought or feeling have you with respect to your deserted body? Is its present condition a source of anything like pain to you? Do you feel an intense yearning for reunion with it? Do you retain a vivid remembrance of the world, and of the scenes you have quitted? Do those do so, who have been centuries in eternity? Can you, at will, associate with the friends that have preceded you? Can you with us? "What is your manner of intercommunion with other spirits? What are specifically your employments? What note do you take of time? Have you anything that remotely answers to our sleep? But, most earnestly, Do you see our LORD in a way differing in kind, or only in degree, from your perception of Him on earth? Can you now, or have you ever, seen His Human Body? If so, when, and where? Have you stated times of prayer and praise? and if so, are they in common with others? Of what specific benefit are our prayers, and especially our offering the Holy Eucharist, to you? Are you sensible of progressive increase in holiness? In that case, have you struggles to contend with in yourself, as on earth? If so, is it possible that you ever yield to them, and then in what way are you free from sinning? Have you any power of influencing our minds? and, if so, always, or only by special permission? Do you know anything more of our future, especially of the time of our deaths, than we do?" Ah, my Sisters! what a conversation that would be! And only to remember that they know it all now! To recollect that I have spoken to those who are in that world, as I am speaking to you, and that they are familiar with the whole! To recollect, too, that as one of us goes after another, the rest will speculate and strive to pierce the darkness, when to us the great mystery has all been made clear!
"His work before Him." Then there is work to be done for GOD in that work, as well as here. And so S. John tells us. "His servants shall serve Him." And these are the only two passages where the HOLY GHOST has explicitly said so (for that, "They rest not day nor night," has rather to do with the especial work of praise). And then, this is what makes all work done for GOD so glorious. See: I cannot give you the exact words, for I have not the book by me; but a great Saint of the sixteenth century thus speaks concerning that command of GOD to Abraham: "Arise, walk through the land in the length of it, and in the breadth of it; for I will give it unto thee." "You are labouring for GOD? His Name be praised: you are not labouring alone. We regard ourselves, and we are, fellow-soldiers in one great army, the LORD GOD of Hosts being our Leader. We are no less fellow-labourers in one great toil: He, the Great Labourer, sharing in our burden. There you have the breadth. We are spread over the face of the whole earth: some to preach the Gospel to the heathen; some to go out among the highways and hedges of Christian lands; some to minister in hospitals; some to be, as it 'were, fellow-prisoners in prisons: some to take charge of little country villages; some to be cloistered in convents; some, as Bishops, to be Shepherds of shepherds; some in every craft or science to do their best for the Name of GOD. Breadth of the earth indeed! So now, so increasingly it is, and will be. But is that all? There is the length as well. Is the work for this generation, and there an end? GOD forbid! It will run on, long after we have mouldered to the dust out of which we came: living on still, till the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. Till then, and no further? Onwards, onwards still, in a new state of being, in a glorious necessity of sinlessness: still the light yoke and the easy burden: still the same work we have done here, only made sublime and transfigured. How can we imagine what noble works of service there may be in store for the elect? how can it enter into the heart of man how, ten thousand times ten thousand years hence, we may be called to work for GOD? Only be certain of this: that if we now are working, and if we go out of the world working, for Him, then millions of years hence we shall be also, as truly, however far more gloriously, working. It staggers the mind to realize this. It staggers the mind, to think, my children, that then, after that countless course of ages, you and 1, then without spot of sin, then having almost forgotten the possibility of temptation, may together be carrying on some work that the Everlasting GOD would have us do."
So he says: and, my Sisters, I confess that, as I was writing out that passage, it did seem a thing hardly to be realized. "His work before Him," in that sense, and we, hoping, in His infinite love, to be ministers, and perhaps fellow-ministers together, of that work. It is so: we know it is; hut when we come to put it into words, then we understand what S. Paul means, where he says of Abraham, "He staggered not at the promise." But, so realizing the text, what pains are too great, what self-denial is too hard, what temptations are too fierce, or too sudden, that we should not with all our strength and courage throw ourselves into a labour to be so carried on, so infinitely lasting? Work? Yes. But, before I end, one word of that which, in that world, will co-exist with work. It is written, "His Rest shall be glorious." There GOD'S dear Work, and GOD'S dear Rest, will go hand in hand. How, we know not; what alternation of actual service and passive repose there may be, who can tell? and who ought greatly to care? Martha and Mary were two on earth: there, where things severed are united, they are but one.
To labour, then, for and with Him here, that is what we have taken in hand: to rest with Him there, that is what we hope; but that rest does not exclude work: spotless, sinless, perfect, glorious, transfigured work--work that at once employs and rests, work that at once suggests the labour in the gardens of your own book of Canticles, and the happy, happy repose of the same book: both in Him, both for Him, our LORD JESUS CHRIST.
And now to GOD the FATHER, GOD the SON, and GOD the HOLY GHOST, be all honour and glory now and for ever. Amen.