Chapter II. Of our General Preparation to the Worthy Reception of the Blessed Sacrament,
and the Participation of the Mysteries.
THE holy sacrament is, in its nature and design, a solemn prayer, and the imitation of the intercession, which our glorious High Priest continually makes for us in heaven; and as it is our ministry, and contains our duty, it is nothing else but the solemnity and great economy of prayer, for the whole, and for every member, and for all and every particular necessity of the church; and all the whole conjugation of offices and union of hearts, and conjunction of ministers, is nothing but the advantages, and solemnity, and sanctification of prayer; and, therefore, in order to do this work in solemnity as we ought, it were very fit that we examine ourselves, how we do it in ordinary and daily offices.
For since there are so many excellent promises made to prayer, and that nothing more disposes us to receive the grace of the sacraments, and the blessings of communion, than holy prayer; since prayer can obtain every thing, it can open the windows of heaven, and shut the gates of hell,--it can put a holy constraint upon God, and detain an angel till he leave a blessing--it can open the treasures of rain, and soften the iron ribs of rocks, till they melt into tears and a flowing river;--prayer can unclasp the girdles of the north, saying to a mountain of ice, 'Be thou removed hence, and cast into the bottom of the sea;'--it can arrest the sun in the midst of his course, and send the swift-winged winds upon our errand; and all those strange things, and secret decrees, and unrevealed transactions, which are above the clouds, and far beyond the regions of the stars, shall combine in ministry and advantages for the praying man;--it cannot be but we should feel less evil, and much more good than we do, if our prayers were right. But the state of things is thus: it is an easy duty, and there are many promises, and we do it often, and yet we prevail but little. Is it not a strange thing that our friends die round about us, and, in every family, some great evil often happens, and a church shall suffer persecution for many years together without remedy, and a poor man groans under his oppressor, who is still prosperous, and we cannot rescue the life of a servant from his fatal grave;--and still we pray, and do not change the course of providence in a single instance many times, whether the instance be of little or great concernment:--What is the matter? we patiently suffer our prayers to be rejected, and comfort ourselves by saying, that, 'it may be, the thing is not fit for us, it is against the decree of God, or against our good, or to be denied is better; and there is a secret order of things and events, to which a denial does better minister than a concession.' This is very true, but not always when we are denied; for it is not always in mercy, but in anger very often we are denied, because our duty is ill performed. For if our prayers were right, the providence of God would often find out ways to reconcile his great ends with our great desires; and we might be saved hereafter, and yet delivered here besides; and sometimes we should have heaven and prosperity too, and the cross should be sweetened, and the days of affliction should, for our sakes, be shortened, and death would not come so hastily: and yet we should be preserved innocent in the midst of an evil generation, though it waited for the periods and usual determinations of nature: let us rectify our prayers, and try what the event will be; it is worth so much at least; but however, as to the present case, if we perform this duty pitifully and culpably, it is not to be expected we should communicate holily. The gradation and correspondencies of this holy ministry will demonstrate this truth.
For what Christ did once upon the cross in real sacrifice, that he always does in heaven, by perpetual representment and intercession; what Christ does by his supreme priesthood, that the church doth by her ministerial; what he does in heaven, we do upon earth; what is performed at the right hand of God, is also represented, and, in one manner, exhibited upon the holy table of the Lord: and what is done on altars upon solemn days, is done in our closets in our daily offices; that is, God is invocated, and God is appeased, and God is reconciled, and God gives us blessings and the fruits of Christ's passion in the virtue of the sacrificed Lamb; that is, we, believing and praying, are blessed, and sanctified, and saved, through Jesus Christ. So that as we pray, so we communicate; if we pray well, we may communicate well, else at no hand. Now in this, besides that we are to take account of our prayers, by all those measures of the Spirit, which we have learned in the holy Scriptures, there are two great lines of duty, by which we can well examine ourselves in this particular.
1. That our prayers must be the work of our hearts, not of our lips; that is, that we heartily desire what we so carefully pray for: and God knows this is not very ordinary. For besides that we are not in love with the things of God, and have no worthy value for religion, there are many things in our prayer which we ask for, and do not know what to do with, if we had them; and we do not feel any want of them, and we care not whether we have them or no. We ask for the Spirit of God, for wisdom, and for a right judgment in all things; and yet there are not many in our Christian assemblies, who use to trouble themselves at all with judging concerning the mysteries of godliness. Men pray for humility, and yet at the same time think, that all that which is indeed humility, is a pitiful poorness of spirit, pusillanimity, and want of good breeding. We pray for a contrition and a broken heart; and yet, if we chance to be melancholy, we long to be comforted, and think that the lectures of the cross bring death, and, therefore, are not the way of eternal life. We pray sometimes, that God may be first and last in all our thoughts; and yet we conceive it no great matter whether he be or no; but we are sure that he is not, but the things of the world do take up the place of God, and yet we hope to be saved for all that, and, consequently, are very indifferent concerning the return of that prayer. We frequently call upon God for his grace, that we may never fall into sin; now in this, besides that we have no hopes to be heard, and think it impossible to arrive to a state of life, in which we shall not commit sins, yet if we do sin, we know there is a remedy so ready, that we believe, we are not much the worse if we do. Here are prayers enough: but where are the desires all this while? We pray against covetousness, and pride, and gluttony; but nothing that we do but is either covetousness or pride; so that our prayers are terminated upon a word, not upon a thing. We do covetous actions, and speak proud words, and have high thoughts, and do not passionately desire to have affections contrary to them, but only to such notions of the sin as we have entertained, which are such as will do no real prejudice or mortification to the sin: and whatever our prayers are, yet it is certain our desires are so little, and so content with any thing of this nature, that for very many spiritual petitions, we are indifferent whether they be granted or not.
But if we are poor or persecuted, if we be in fear or danger, if we be heart-sick or afflicted with an uncertain soul, then we are true desirers of relief and mercy; we long for health, and desire earnestly to be safe: our hearts are pinched with the desire, and the sharpness of the appetite is a pain; then we pray, and mind what we do. He that is in fear of death, does not, when he prays for life, think upon his money and his sheep; the entering of a fair woman into the room does not bend his neck, and make him look off from the prince's face, of whom he sues for pardon. And if we had desires as strong as our needs, and apprehensions answerable to our duty, it were not possible that a man . should say his prayers and never think of what he speaks: but as our attention is, so is our desire, trifling and impertinent; it is frighted away like a bird, which fears as much when you come to give it meat, as if you came with a design of death.
When, therefore, you are to give sentence concerning your prayers, your prayer-book is the least thing that is to be examined,--your desires are the principal, for they are fountains both of action and passion. Desire what you pray for, for certain it is, you will pray passionately if you desire fervently. Prayers are but the body of the bird: desires are its angel's wings.
2. If you will know how it is with you in the matter of your prayers, examine whether or no the form of your prayer be the rule of your life. Every petition to God is a precept to man; and when in your litanies you pray to be delivered from malice and hypocrisy, from pride and envy, from fornication and every deadly sin; all that is but a line of duty, and tells us that we must never consent to an act of pride, or a thought of envy, to a temptation of uncleanness, or the besmearings and evil paintings of hypocrisy. But we, when we pray against a sin, think we have done enough, and if we ask for a grace, suppose there is no more required. Now prayer is an instrument of help, a procuring auxiliaries of God, that we may do our duty; and why should we ask for help, if we be not ourselves bound to do the thing? Look not, therefore, upon your prayers as a short method of ease and salvation, but as a perpetual monition of duty; and by what we require of God, we see what he requires of us; and if you want a system or collective body of holy precepts, you need no more but your prayer-book; and if you look upon them first as duties, then as prayers, that is, things fit to be desired, and fit to be laboured for, your prayers will be much more useful; not so often vain, not so subject to illusion, not so destitute of effect, or so failing of the promises. The prayers of a Christian must be like the devotions of the husbandman, 'God speed the plough;'--that is, labour and prayer together; a prayer to bless our labour. Thus, then, we must examine:
Is desire the measure of our prayer? and is labour the fruit of our desire? if so, then what we ask, we shall receive as the gift of God, and the reward of our labour; but unless this be the state of our prayer, we shall find that the receiving of the sacrament will be as ineffective, because it will be as imperfect as our prayer. For prayer and communion differ but as great and little in the same kind of duty. Communion is but a great, public, and solemn address and prayer to God, through Jesus Christ: and if we be not faithful in a little we shall not be intrusted in a greater; he that does not pray holily and prosperously, can never communicate acceptably. This, therefore, must be severely and prudently examined.
But let us remember this, that there is nothing fit to be presented to God, but what is great and excellent; for nothing comes from him, but what is great and best, and nothing should be returned to him that is little and contemptible in its kind. It is a mysterious elegancy that is in the Hebrew of the Old Testament,--when the Spirit of God would call any thing very great, or very excellent, he calls it "of the Lord:" so 'the affrightment of the Lord;' that is, a great affrightment, fell upon them. And the fearful fire that fell upon the shepherds and sheep of Job, is called the "fire of God;" and when David took the spear and water-pot from the head of Saul, while he and his guards were sleeping, it is said, that "the sleep of the Lord," that is, a very great sleep, was fallen upon them. Thus we read of the "flames c of God," and "a land of darkness of God," that is, vehement flames, and a land of exceeding darkness:--and the reason is, because when God strikes, he strikes vehemently; so that 'it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.'--And on the other side, when he blesses, he blesses excellently: and, therefore, when Naomi blessed Boaz, she said, "Let him be blessed of the Lord," that is, according to the Hebrew manner of speaking, "Let him be exceedingly blessed." In proportion to all this, whatsoever is offered to God, should be of the best; it should be a devout prayer, a fervent, humble, passionate supplication. He that prays otherwise, must expect the curses and contempt of lukewarm-ness, and will be infinitely unworthy to come to the holy communion, whither they that come, intend to present their prayers to God in the union of Christ's intercession, which is then solemnly imitated and represented. An indevout prayer can never be joined with Christ's prayers. Fire will easily combine with fire, and flame marries flame; but a cold devotion and the fire of this altar can never be friendly and unite in one pyramid, to ascend together to the regions of God and the element of love. If it be a prayer of God, that is, fit to be intitled, fit to be presented unto him, it must be most vehement and holy. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man" only can be confident to prevail; nothing else can ever be sanctified by a conjunction with this sacrifice of prayer, which must be consumed by a heavenly fire. There is not, indeed, any greater indication of our worthiness or un-worthiness to receive the holy communion, than to examine and understand the state of our daily prayer.