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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Prayer
By Jean-Baptiste Massillon (1663–1742)
 
        
Translation of Joel Foote Bingham
  
  An exhaustive, masterly, and tremendous discourse, perhaps without a parallel in all literature for boldness and terrible severity in scoring the sin of unchastity, was that on the ‘Prodigal Son,’ pronounced before Louis XIV. in the chapel at Versailles during the ‘Grand Carême.’ His text was: “He went into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.” His exordium consists in repeating minutely the story, dwelling on the willingness to live far from home, with swine and like swine,—the nastiness, the emptiness, the deadliness of such a life,—and closes with this affecting prayer.

PURIFY my lips, O my God! and while I shall recount the excess of a voluptuous sinner, furnish me with expressions which will not offend a virtue, the love of which I come to-day to inspire in those who hear me; for the world, which no longer knows any restraint on this vice, exacts much notwithstanding of us in the language which condemns it.  1
 
  Then he opens upon this sin his clean-sweeping artillery thus:—  2
 
  The vice the deadly consequences of which I am to-day undertaking to expose—this vice so universally spread abroad on the earth, and which is desolating with such fury the heritage of Jesus; this vice of which the Christian religion had purged the world, and which to-day has prevailed on religion itself—is marked by certain peculiar characteristics, all which I find in the story of the wanderings of the Prodigal Son.  3
  There is never a vice which more separates the sinner from God; there is never a vice which, after it has separated him from God, leaves him less resource for returning to Him; there is never a vice which renders the sinner more insupportable to himself; finally, there is not one which renders him more contemptible in the eyes even of other men. Observe, I pray, all these characteristics in the story of the sinner of our gospel.  4
  The first characteristic of the vice of which we are speaking is the putting, as it were, an abyss between God and the voluptuous soul, and the leaving him almost no more hope of return. The prodigal of our gospel went off at first into a very far country, which left no longer anything in common between him and his natural father: “He took his journey into a far country.”  5
  Indeed, in all the other vices, the sinner seems still to hold upon God by some feeble ties. There are some vices which respect at least the sacredness of the body, and do not strengthen its inordinate inclinations; there are others which do not spread so deep darkness on the mind, and leave at least some use of the light of reason; finally, there are some which do not occupy the heart to such a degree as absolutely to take away from it the relish for all which could lead back to God. But the shameful passion of which I am speaking dishonors the body, extinguishes reason, renders all the things of heaven disagreeable, and raises a wall of separation between God and the sinner which seems to take away all hope of reunion.—“He took his journey into a far country.”  6
  I said that it dishonors the body of the Christian; it profanes the temple of God in us; it makes the members of Jesus do an ignominious service: it soils a flesh nourished on his body and his blood, consecrated by the grace of baptism; a flesh which is to attain immortality and be conformable to the glorious likeness of Jesus risen; a flesh which will repose in the holy place, and whose ashes will await, under the altar of the Lamb, the day of revelation, mingled with the ashes of the virgins and the martyrs; a flesh more holy than those august temples where the glory of the Lord reposes; more worthy of being possessed with honor and with reverence than the very vases of the sanctuary, consecrated by the terrible mysteries which they inclose. But what a barrier does not the opprobrium of this vice put to the return of God into us! Can a holy God, in whose sight even the heavenly spirits are unclean, sufficiently separate himself from a flesh covered with shame and ignominy? The creature being but dust and ashes, the holiness of God must suffer by lowering himself down to it: ah, what then can the sinner promise himself who joins to his own nothingness and baseness the indignities of a body shamefully dishonored?—“He took his journey into a far country.”  7
  I said that this vice extinguishes even in the soul all her lights, and that the sinner is no longer capable of those salutary reflections which often lead back an unbelieving soul. The prodigal of our gospel, already blinded by his passion, does not see the wrong he is doing himself in separating himself from his paternal home; the ingratitude of which he is rendering himself culpable towards his natural father; the dangers to which he is exposing himself in wishing to be the sole arbiter of his own destiny; the decencies even which he is violating in setting out for a far country, without the counsel and advice of him to whom he owes at least the sentiments of reverence and deference which mere nature itself inspires. He starts, and no longer sees but by the eyes of his passion.—“He took his journey into a far country.”  8
  Such is the characteristic of this ill-fated passion,—it spreads a thick cloud over reason: men wise, shrewd, brilliant, lose here at once all their shrewdness, all their wisdom; all their principles of conduct are instantly effaced; a new manner of thinking is made up, in which all the ordinary ideas are proscribed,—it is no longer light and counsel, it is an impetuous inclination which decides and rules all their proceedings; what one owes to others and what one owes to one’s self is forgotten; one is blind to one’s fortune, to one’s duty, to one’s reputation, to one’s interests, to the decencies even of which the other passions are so jealous; and while one is giving one’s self for a spectacle to the public, it is one’s self alone that does not see one. One is made blind to fortune: and Ammon loses his life and crown for not having been able to subdue his unjust feebleness. One is made blind to duty: and the impassioned wife of Potiphar no longer remembers that Joseph is a slave; she forgets her birth, her glory, her pride, and no longer sees in that Hebrew aught but the object of her shameful passion. One is made blind to gratitude: and David has no longer eyes either for Uriah’s faithfulness, or for the ingratitude of which he is going to render himself guilty towards a God who had drawn him from the dust to set him on the throne of Judah; from the time that his heart was touched, all his lights were extinguished…. Thus it is, O my God! that thou punishest the passions of the flesh by the darkness of the mind; that thy light shines no longer on souls adulterous and corrupt, and that their foolish heart is darkened.—“He took his journey into a far country.”  9
  Finally, this deplorable passion puts into the heart an invincible disgust for the things of heaven…. Whatever is not marked by the shameful characteristic of voluptuousness interests no longer. Even the duties of society, the functions of a charge, the decencies of a dignity, domestic cares,—all weary, all become disagreeable, outside of passion…. Solomon is more attentive to building profane temples to the gods of his foreign wives than to easing his people of the weight of the public expense. [A thrust of amazing boldness in the face of Louis XIV.!]… One employs one’s self in occupations all which go to nourish voluptuousness,—profane shows, pernicious reading, lascivious music, obscene pictures…. It is the characteristic of this passion to fill the whole heart entirely; one is no longer able to occupy one’s self but with it; one is possessed, drunk with it; one finds it everywhere; everything shows the marks of its deadly impress; everything awakens its iniquitous desires; the world, solitude, presence, absence, objects the most indifferent, occupations the most serious, the holy temple itself, the sacred altars, the terrible mysteries, recall the remembrance of it: and everything becomes unclean, as the Apostle says, to him who is already himself unclean.—“He took his journey into a far country.”  10
  Look back, unbelieving soul; recall those first sentiments of modesty and virtue with which you were born, and see all the way you have made in the road of iniquity, since the fatal day when this shameful vice soiled your heart; and how much you have since removed yourself away from your God: “He took his journey into a far country.”  11
 
  Probably the most visibly effective of all the many extraordinary bursts of Massillon’s oratory was the celebrated passage in the peroration of the sermon on the ‘Small Number of the Saved,’ pronounced before Louis XIV. in the chapel royal at Versailles in the course of the ‘Grand Carême’; when, having in a long discourse wrought up and prepared his auditory, he began:—  12
 
  If Jesus should appear in this temple, in the midst of this assembly, the most august in the whole world, to be our judge, to make the terrible separation between the sheep and the goats, do you believe that the greater number of us would be set on his right hand?—do you believe that things would be at least equal?—do you believe there would be found here only ten righteous, which the Lord was not able to find formerly in five entire cities? I ask you;—you do not know, I do not know myself. Thou alone, O God, dost know those who belong to thee! But if we do not know who belong to him, we do know at least that sinners do not. But who are the faithful believers here assembled?—Titles and dignities must be counted for nothing; you will be stripped of them before Jesus. Who are they? A mass of sinners who do not wish to be converted; still more who wish to be, but who are putting off their conversion: a good many who were converted, but only always to backslide; finally, a great number who think they have no need of conversion: here is the party of the reprobates. Retrench these four sorts of sinners from this holy assembly; for they will be retrenched in the great day;—appear now, ye righteous: where are you! Remnant of Israel, pass to the right; wheat of Jesus, separate yourselves from this chaff destined to the fire. O God! where are thine elect? and what remains for thy portion?  13
 
  It is a curious and very significant tradition that this tremendous sermon had been pronounced before in St. Eustache in Paris, where the turn in the passage given above was unexpected, and the effect unparalleled. At his call for “the remnant of Israel,” it is said that the whole congregation, carried away in sympathy with the orator, rose to their feet in a body, not knowing what they were doing. Stranger still, this was known at Versailles, and the passage was expected and eagerly awaited. Yet hard as it is to credit it, we are told that the effect was not a whit less tremendous. Strangest perhaps of all, it is said that Massillon himself, by his posture, by his look of dejection, by his silence of some seconds (a frequent usage of his to add emphasis), associated himself with and augmented the terror of the audience in the chapel royal at Versailles. But we must suppose that it was an expression of sincere sympathy, as well as a sentiment of refinement and decency.  14
 
 
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