HAVING, on the last Sunday, called your attention to the reading of the Holy Scriptures, as one of the appointed means of grace, I am now to speak of another duty, which holds a place among those means, and the right performance of which is also eminently conducive to our salvation, namely, the duty of meditation and prayer. I am aware, my brethren, that at the very mention of these occupations, the seriousness which they imply may induce some to think that the whole subject is one which can have no claim upon their attention. Meditation, they may say, [198/199] is the province of sorrow and of age, and prayer the peculiar resource of the melancholy and the miserable. But by those whom health, and youth, and cheerfulness surround, who already possess all that they can desire, and upon whose steps wait pleasure and enjoyment, prayer cannot be needed, and the serious duty of meditation can be regarded only as an invasion of their happiness, and an abridgment of their joy. It is the prevalence of this feeling, and the neglect consequent upon it, which make it needful to address to such in particular, our exhortation and our argument. For they who are in the midst of temptations, stand the most in need of admonition and of caution. They whom the delusions and pursuits of the world do most expose, require most the armour of celestial defence; since "the same dissipation which casts them into the midst of snares and of dangers, takes from them the power to perceive, and the inclination to shun them." [Serm. de mons. L'abbe Poulle sur la vigilance Chretienne, Tom. ii. p. 70.] While then the sorrowing will of themselves seek to God, and the miserable find it their privilege to implore his help, there are none whom it does not behove to attend to their condition, and the obligations which it involves, to their destiny, and the means of making it the happiest and the best. So that if there be any here [199/200] present, who are thoughtless, it is they whom we Would call upon to think; and if there be any who are prayerless, it is they whom we would call upon to pray.
While, then, my brethren, to those who have commenced the Christian course, I would say, in the constant language of Scripture, watch; be mindful of your profession and high vocation; secure by circumspection and prayer, the rewards to which you aspire; to every one who is yet negligent of his religious obligations, I would say, reflect; think; ponder the path of thy feet; take heed to thy destiny; consider the end. And of both of these classes, I would bespeak a candid hearing, while I attempt to show the advantage and necessity of meditation and prayer.
There is a mutual and intimate connexion, my brethren, between these two employments of the mind; in the first of which it holds converse with itself, and in the second aspires to hold converse with God.
If we reflect upon the rational nature and high endowments of man, those considerations which regard his character, his state, his destiny, seem properly to belong to him; and if we look at the actual circumstances in which he is placed, the same considerations seem necessarily and unavoidably to be forced upon him. The capacity for enjoyment or misery, of which he feels himself possessed, the shortness of life, and the little [200/201] of good which can be comprehended within its widest limits, the great preponderancy of evil which he is compelled to experience, the certainty of death, the uncertainty of the hour of its coming, and the still greater uncertainty of all that shall succeed; these are circumstances of our condition, which seem too striking to be overlooked, and which, appealing to our highest reason, might naturally be expected to turn the mind to serious contemplations. Man is indeed by nature a thoughtful being; and though this position might seem to be disproved by his anxiety to avoid all serious reflection, yet does this anxiety, when properly considered, only the more confirm it. It is because his mind is by every thing within him and around him driven to reflection, that he pursues, with such restless endeavour, business, pleasure, and distracting cares. He employs himself in something which will release him from himself. His thoughts go abroad to shun the overpowering stillness and seriousness of home. He is active in pursuing other things to avoid communion with himself; and his mind, never perfectly at rest, is ever looking for something upon which to repose. n the variety and opposing character of the objects which surround him, lies his danger; and in the proper choice of these, his wisdom. On the one hand the world, and on the other God, present their claims; and his happiness or misery depend upon the [201/201] preference which he makes. The former, transient, corruptible, perishing, addresses itself to his senses. The latter, pure, spiritual, eternal, appeals to his better nature, to his mind, his conscience, his judgment, his heart. And in nothing is more displayed the truth, that man is fallen and corrupt, than in this--that he prefers the earthly to the spiritual joys, the transient to the eternal good. For virtuous desires, and for heavenly contemplations, he was originally formed. The capacity to discern and relish them, which he lost by nature, is by grace restored; and this, if encouraged, would lead him to God. To pursue the felicity which he was created to enjoy, he is incited by all the motions of the Holy Spirit, by all his experience and observation of the world, by all the representations and entreaties of the sacred Scriptures. And here it is that the necessity and the wisdom of serious meditation appears, for it is only as we cherish reflections upon holy and spiritual things, that we prefer them. And it is only as we prefer them and desire them, that they influence the character, and produce in us habits of virtue and religion. Thoughtfulness, then, is the parent of devotion; and none can be sincerely pious who do not seriously reflect. They who seem least disposed to reflection, or who have taken most pains to avoid it, are no doubt sensible of times when better dispositions rise in their bosoms. No one can be habituallv [202/203] thoughtless of religion and serious things, without having often done violence to conscience, to the bias of his moral nature, and to the gracious influences of the Holy Spirit, which God vouchsafes to all. On the other hand, he who, often pondering upon his own state, becomes sensible of his frailty, of his imperfect knowledge, of his constant, exposure to danger, and of the many causes of apprehension and solicitude, which oppress hi? short and sinful life, cannot but deeply realize the influence of these thoughts, and look up for some higher object on which to repose them all. And when, by the light of revelation. lie sees in God such a being as his heart desires, and his understanding approves; when he discovers the great sacrifice at which he purchased redemption for our sins, and the participation of his favour; when he sees, in all his dispensations towards him, only goodness unbounded, and mercy; these are such motives to love and fear him, as cannot fail to warm the heart with affection, to fill the mind with a glowing desire for his service, and to call forth the voice of prayer, that he may so fulfil the pure and holy precepts which God enjoins, that he may be admitted at last to come into his presence, and to partake of the enjoyment of his eternal rewards.
Thus, my brethren, does meditation kindle devotion, devotion speak forth its aspirations in [203/204] prayer to God, and prayer receive the completion of its desires in the ability to lead- a righteous and holy life. That we so greatly neglect prayer, is because we have not right conceptions of God and of ourselves; and that we have not such conception, is evidently owing to our want of reflection, to our dissipation of thought, to our forgetfulness of every thing, in the present moment, its fleeting pleasures, or its unavailing cares. My brethren, it is because we live too much in the world and for the world. In its clamorous resorts, the language of the heart is silenced, the voice of conscience hushed, all spiritual desires are suppressed, and religion finds no meet dwelling there.
To excite in us proper recollections of ourselves, to give us true views of our character and of our obligations, to instruct us in the knowledge of God, and lead our thoughts to him, is the object of all his dealings with us, and of all his dispensations towards us. This is the moral which he would read to us in all the works of his creation and providence. This is the end of all the troubles which he sends upon us, and not less of the peaceful leisure which he permits us to enjoy. To this end his Holy Spirit whispers its suggestions in our bosoms, and in his holy word he more loudly addresses to us its audible voice, saying, in distinct and explicit language, "Love [204/205] not the world;" "set your affections on things above;" "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven;" "seek first the kingdom of God."
And, my brethren, to avoid conviction, to dissipate thought, to repress all salutary considerations of our duty, of our danger, and of our immortal destiny, is the great tendency, and would almost seem to be the great object, of all those various occupations and cares, of those follies and amusements, of those studies and pursuits, by which men endeavour to confine their thoughts to earth, to divert their minds from heaven, to forget their God, to neglect their salvation, and ruin their souls.
Even lawful relaxation, needful business, and unavoidable cares, are so far enemies of religion, that if unceasingly pursued, they are apt to engross the affections and the thoughts, to repress the better feelings and exalted desires of the mind, and to prevent our affections from resting exclusively upon the chief and only good. And lest the continued claim of these upon our time, and their overpowering influence upon our hearts, should be the Occasion of our forgetting God, he has appointed a weekly cessation from their duties, and has given us opportunity to recall our thoughts from these momentary and inferior concerns, in order to fix them upon their highest interest, to loose the ties which would bind us here, to abstain from just and meritorious [205/206] callings, in order that like beings destined for immortality, we may know ourselves, excite in our minds a reverence for God's character, a desire of his rewards; and carry forward our views from this earthly rest, to the rest of which it is the type and the pledge, the rest which remaineth for the people of God.
If, my brethren, we would perform this duty of meditation profitably to ourselves, and agreeably in the sight of God, we shall not merely on one day of the week, but frequently, continually, and habitually, set God before us, even striving to lift our affections to heaven and heavenly things. His word is the great treasure-house of holy thoughts, and is calculated to suggest most important and elevated themes; and in it those topics which we find by experience most likely to promote pious dispositions, whether the representations of his threatenings which affect our fears, or his gracious promises which excite our hopes; these should be most diligently and frequently resorted to, in order to dispose our hearts to his service. In the vast disclosures of the Bible, there is enough to excite the best inquiries of the mind, to fill and occupy all its powers, to ennoble all its faculties, to awaken all its apprehensions, and to animate all its desires and its hopes. The condemnation to which we were reduced by the fall, and our recovery by Jesus Christ; the aids of the Holy Spirit which are [206/207] vouchsafed to enable us to work out our own salvation; the accountability of our nature; the immortality of the soul; the resurrection of the body; the joys of heaven, which it is for us by diligence to secure, and the miseries of hell, which it is left to our own prudence to avoid; these are themes which cannot be dwelt upon, felt, and believed, without affecting our desires and our purposes, influencing our prayers, and controlling, in consequence, our whole character and destiny. Mr. Law, in his treatise upon Christian perfection, says, "These truths much more effectually raise the heart to God, than any particular precepts to prayer; they do not so much exhort as carry the soul to devotion. He that feels these truths feels himself devout. They leave a light upon the soul which will kindle in holy flames of love and delight in God." The way, therefore, to live in true devotion, is to live in the contemplation of these truths: we must daily consider the end and hope of our calling, that our minds may be formed and raised to such tempers and dispositions, as are suitable to it; that all little anxieties, worldly passions, and vain desires, may be swallowed up in one great desire of future glory. "When the heart is in this state," then we shall live by faith and not by sight; then the invisible things of the life to come, will form the reason, the motive, and the measure, of all our tempers and desires; then shall we be devout [207/208] worshippers of God every where; the common actions of life be acts of religion, and every place "be turned into a chapel;" and where such a devotion exists, it will not fail to be supported, and kept alive, by its proper exercises of "hours and forms of prayer."
It was in reflections such as these, excited by considering the vanity of life and the afflictions to which it is subject, that the Psalmist was employed, when, as he says in the words of the text, "My heart was hot within me; and while I was thus musing the fire kindled, and at the last I spake with my tongue." And in these words, the process from reflection to devotion, and from devotion to prayer, is most justly and naturally pourtrayed; for reflection is the ground-work of religious feeling, and meditation gives wings to prayer. Indeed, my brethren, when the mind is habitually disposed to meditation, it holds continual communion with God. Its thoughts run into the language of prayer, the meditation of the heart, not less than the words of the mouth, are accepted in the sight of the Lord, so that the truly pious man may submit both to his observation, and say, in the language of David, not merely, "Give ear to my words, O Lord; but also consider ay meditation." Thus the whole book of Psalms, which is a transcript of the thoughts of a pious mind, is also a book of prayer. And the same may be said of all those books of [209/210] meditation, in which, from the days of St. Austin, good men have communicated to the world the train of their thoughts, and the habitual feelings of their hearts. "If any man does not relish devotion, it is because his heart does not enter into it; and that for this reason, that he is engaged on other things. He that would be devout, must have a full view of his own miseries, and his wants, and of the vanity of the world, and then his soul will be full of desires after God." This can only be by reflection upon himself, and therefore "self reflection is the shortest and most certain way of becoming truly wise and truly pious." "The spirit of prayer has no further hold upon us than as we see our wants, imperfections, and weakness," on the one hand, and on the other, "the infinite fulness, willingness, and all-sufficiency of God." Without reflection, however, neither of these truths will duly impress us; and therefore, without reflection, we shall not sincerely pray; for we "can desire nothing but what we think we want, and we can desire it only in such a degree as we feel the want of it."
It is, therefore, the sense of our wants and of our necessities that should induce us to pray to God; and this, though a duty, should never be regarded as a task; nor is there any danger of its becoming one, if we can always bring to it the recollection, that in thus approaching God we [209/210] come to procure his blessing; to promote our own advantage; to receive what we are sensible Ave want, and which we need only to ask for humbly, in order to obtain bountifully.
From what has been said, we may perceive how essential and necessary to our performing the duty of prayer, that of meditation is; and if by prayer we are to procure those blessings which God imparts, and which our need requires, how incumbent upon us is serious consideration upon these subjects? Where meditation is not frequent, we may be sure prayer is not fervent; and of him who never prays, we might safely affirm, he never thinks--never thinks of his own wants, nor of tile fulness which there is in God to supply them--never thinks of the happiness of heaven, nor of the preparation which is necessary to admit him there. Men need no encouragement to remind them of what is due to their temporal interests. They reflect with care upon the steps necessary to acquire honour, wealth, learning, and fame, and are awake to all that concerns the present life. Shall they then think it unworthy of their pains, to reflect upon what is necessary to secure the life eternal? Shall this world have all their cares, their thoughts, their desires, and shall we ask them in vain, sometimes to think of eternity, and the world to come? There is no danger of their forgetting, for a single moment, the pursuits of ambition, of pleasure, of [210/211] avarice; but the high honour, the exalted delights, the rich rewards, of eternity, are every day sacrificed through forgetfulness, and for want of reflection and thought. Still, as has been already suggested, there is enough in the dispensations of God's providence towards men, and in the operations of his Spirit within them, to induce them to think; and there is in the clear disclosures of God's word, wisdom enough to direct their thoughts aright. And indeed, besides the motives which reason, conscience, and the Scriptures furnish to serious reflection, the Most High seems to have interwoven inducements to it in every condition and state of life. The lowly find these inducements to reflection in the cares which oppress them, in the toilsomeness of their lives, and in the inferiority of their allotment. The rich and the great are influenced to reflection by the vanity of all their enjoyments, by their ever increasing desires, and by their imaginary wants. In those minds which are most degraded by ignorance, there is knowledge enough to make them desirous pf greater good than they possess; and the cultivated mind, the more it is elevated by refinement, becomes the more dissatisfied with its ordinary enjoyment, and seeks some higher gratification than it has ever yet been able to attain. The proper influence and tendency of this feeling in all men, should be to lead their thoughts to heaven and to God; and the reason [211/212] why it is not effectual to this purpose is, that it is counteracted in all by the pursuit of mere earthly satisfactions; some seeking relief in debasing gratifications, some in the engrossing cares of business, some in intellectual occupations, some in splendid follies, in costly diversions, in worldly dissipations, and in all those various entertainments of the fancy, which are suggested by the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eye, and the pride of life.
Such is the readiness of man to ruin himself by counteracting the designs of God; mean while he neglects the influences of his grace, hardens his heart, provides no claim for eternal rewards, and loses his own soul.
My brethren, let us all be warned by this danger to which we are all exposed. Let us reflect that "there is nothing more fragile than that sanctifying grace with which we are put in charge. Kindled into a flame, it will purify and save our souls; but the least breath of corruption disturbs it, a single mortal sin endangers it, and while its influence may be resisted and quenched by open transgression, it may be suffered to expire through want of reflection and of care." [Altered from Abbe Poulle, vol. ii. p. 76.]
Let us then be persuaded, often and seriously, to ponder upon our condition, upon our character, upon our capacity for happiness, and especially [212/213] upon that felicity which God has promised, in order that we may employ with diligence the means which he has given us of securing it. Let our thoughts dwell on these things, till they fill and warm our hearts; till the fire of devotion is enkindled, and till the ardent desires of our souls come to be continually expressed in prayer for their fulfilment. Thus, and thus only, shaH we be fitted for the glorious inheritance of the saints in light, and prevent those vain regrets, which at their last hour, overwhelm their souls, who have too long neglected their God.
Having considered so much at large the duty of meditation, I shall conclude with some practical remarks on prayer, in the words of the author to whom I have already referred.
"Every endeavour to pray is an endeavour to feel the truth of our prayers, and to convince our minds of the reasonableness and fitness of the things we ask." Prayer, therefore, considered merely as an exercise of the heart upon such subjects, is the most certain way to destroy the power of sin, because so far as we pray, so far we renew our convictions, enlighten our minds, fortify our hearts by fresh resolutions. We are, therefore, to consider the necessity and benefit of prayer, not only as it is that which God hears, but also as it is that which, by its natural tendency, alters and corrects our opinions and judgments, [213/214] and forms our hearts to that temper and disposition for which we supplicate.
"If a man was to make it a law to himself, to meditate awhile before he began his. prayers; if he was to force his mind to think what prayer is, what he prays for, and to whom he prays; if he should again make it a rule to stop in some part of his prayers, to ask himself whether he really prays, or to let his soul rise up in silence to God; prayers thus performed, and thus assisted by meditation, would, in all likelihood, soon render the mind truly devout, Prayer being not only an invocation of God, but also an exercise of holy thoughts, is never so good a preservative against sin, it never so corrects and amends the heart as when we extend it to all the particulars of our state, enumerating all our wants, infirmities, and disorders, not because God needs to, be informed of them, but because, by this means, we inform ourselves, and make our hearts in the best manner acquainted with our true condition." In conclusion, he who has learned to pray, has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life. To whatever other object we address our hearts, "they will return unto us again empty and weary. Time will convince the vainest and blindest minds that happiness is not to be found in the things of this world. But when the [214/215] motions of our hearts are motions of piety, tending to God in constant acts of devotion, love, and desire, then have we found rest unto our souls. Then is it that we have conquered the misery of our nature, and shall neither love nor desire in vain. Then is it that we have found out a good suited to our capacity, and equal to our wants; a constant source of comfort and refreshment that will fill us with peace and joyful expectations here, and eternal happiness hereafter. For he that lives in the spirit and temper of devotion, and whose heart is always full of God, has arrived at the perfection of human happiness, and is the farthest removed from all the vanities and vexations which disturb and weary the minds of men that are devoted to the present world."