A sermon by St. Jean-Marie Vianney for the Feast of all Saints.
“I beseech thee, my son, look upon heaven.” – II Mach. 7:28
Today, my dear Christians, is a day on which, more than on any other, the faithful look up to heaven and reflect, how supremely happy the saints are who enjoy the bliss of heaven at the throne of God; a day on which, by meditating on the never-ending happiness of the saints, an ardent longing is stirred in our hearts that we may one day take part in this happiness. But to reach this happiness we must not be satisfied with meditation alone. We must consider the way of living of the saints upon earth, and ask the question, How did they obtain their blissful state in heaven? We will consider in turn the state of the saints on earth and the state of the saints in heaven. May the Lord bless our meditation.
The state of the saints on earth, my dear Christians, was neither pleasant, nor easy, nor sweet, as the children of this world desire it or try to make it. No. Theirs was a lot both hard and difficult! They trod the paths which their Saviour Himself had pointed out to them in the words: “So likewise every one of you that doth not renounce all that he possesseth cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:33). They followed the path on which Jesus Christ had promised them crosses and tribulations with these words: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). They followed the path which Jesus calls a “narrow” way with the words: “How narrow is the gate, and strait the way that leadeth to life” (Matt. 7:14). They followed in the service of God a threefold hard path – namely, the path of renunciation. They renounced all worldly treasures and goods; they often gave all that they possessed to the poor, and then they themselves led a life of poverty. They wanted to be the disciples of Jesus, who in this world “had nowhere to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). They renounced all honours, all the dignities of man. Many of them who came of princely and royal families renounced their title to the princely or royal throne which would have given them in the eyes of the world the highest honours, and they lived, unnoticed by the world, a life of the greatest humility and retirement, bearing in mind the words of Jesus: “He that humbleth himself shall be exalted” (Luke 18:14). They renounced all the pleasures and delights of the world, for they knew that they draw the heart from God and defile the soul with sin, and they sought only their joy in God by leading a holy life in His service, through which they said in the words of the prophet Isaias: “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, and my soul shall be joyful in my God” (Isaias 51:10). And by all this renunciation they felt in their souls the highest possible happiness; in them was the word of the Psalmist fulfilled: “Blessed is the man who hath not had regard to vanities” (Ps. 39:5).
Dear Christians! We all have today the desire – yes, even the ardent longing – to enjoy one day with the saints in heaven their glory and their happiness. But let us consider well that the Christian whose thoughts and actions are only directed toward transitory treasures, honours, and pleasures is not on the path where the joys of heaven are found. Christians must not desire what is earthly, but what is heavenly; not what is false, but what is true; not what is temporary and fleeting, but what is eternal and never-ending. Therefore our hearts must not be set upon the treasures, honours and pleasures of this world, so that we may not miss the end for which we were created – heaven. “For what doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul?” (Matt. 16:26). Our Saviour calls to us Christians and exhorts us to strive after the happiness of heaven with these words: “Seek first the kingdom of God” (Matt. 6:33). “The fool,” says St Ambrose, “holds with them who are of the world; the wise man prefers the eternal glory of heaven” (Serm. 37).
The saints of heaven, I will say further, chose to reach heaven by the way of mortification. The saints got to heaven by their virtues. Virtue and sin cannot dwell together in the soul. So that virtue might grow and strengthen, the saints uprooted the wicked propensity to sin in their flesh by practising mortification. They considered it the object of their lives daily to mortify the desires of the flesh through the spirit, to overcome them, to struggle against them, and to uproot them entirely. “That was,” as one of the saints said, “their work and their struggle.” For that reason they fasted strictly; only tasted the poorest kind of food so as to give to their bodies only strength absolutely necessary. St. Makarius, to mortify himself, for seven long years only ate raw herbs and vegetables moistened in water. We know that many of the holy hermits lived on herbs and roots. Besides this strict fasting, they practiced mortification by chastising and scourging their bodies. They wore hair shirts and coarse garments of penance next to the skin, scourged their bodies with heavy cords and whipped themselves till the blood came. At night they did not lie on a soft bed, but most often on the hard ground, and only for a few hours to rest from their labours. We read in the life of St Casimir, a Polish prince, that he wore a hair shirt in the midst of the gay pleasures and frivolities of the court; of Louis, King of France, that he never left off his hair shirt; of the pious Philip II of Spain, that on his dying bed he gave his own son Philip a scourge covered with blood, with these words: “Keep this scourge which has so often been stained with my blood.”
You see, dear Christians, this is how the saints mortified themselves. They crucified their bodies inclined to sin, rooted out the cause of sin, so as to overcome all the temptations of the wicked one. What would some of the delicate children of the world say to this, those who never do the least harm to their worldliness, nor fast, nor deny their bodies anything, and therefore in time of temptation they are exposed to sin? Do they not think that what the saints did was a great deal too hard? That they did unnecessary things which God did not require of them? If God does not require such a harsh life of penance, still our Saviour’s words are there when He says: “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away” (Matt. 11:12).
Lastly, the saints in heaven chose, so as to reach heaven, the way of the cross and suffering. They understood those words of Jesus: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). For this reason they endured patiently the dungeon and fetters, the agonies of the stake and the scaffold; allowed themselves to be torn asunder by wild beasts and, like their Lord and Master, be bound to the cross, remembering the words of St Paul: “If we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified with Him” (Rom. 8:17). That is why they bore all sufferings, not only with the greatest patience, but also gladly and with joy. As St Paul said of himself: “I am filled with comfort; I exceedingly abound with joy in all our tribulation” (II Cor. 7:4). So could these saints say. “Never in my life,” cried out St Dorothy, in the midst of her martyrdom, “have I experienced such joy,” and St Andrew saluted the cross on which he was nailed with these words: “O, thou cherished and ardently longed-for cross! Thou bringest me happiness; therefore I approach thee with joy!” The saints, besides bearing with the greatest joy every pain which God sent them, even prayed to God when they were free from suffering that He would not send them pleasures, but sufferings. St Teresa’s lifelong desire was to “suffer or to die.” St Francis Xavier had such a great desire to suffer for Christ that once, when he was filled with consolation and happiness, he cried out, “It is enough, O Lord, it is enough!” while, on the other hand, when tribulation and suffering beset him, he cried: “Still more, O Lord, still more!” He was often heard to say these words: “O Lord, take not this cross away from me, or if so, then give me in its place a heavier one.”
My dear Christians, are we are not astonished at what the saints have suffered, at the patience which they exhibited in all this suffering, at the longing which they showed for crosses and sufferings? And we – we complain when we have to suffer a little! We bear with impatience the slightest adversity sent to us from God. Let us remember that “through many tribulations we must enter into the kingdom of God,” and let us bear the little suffering which God sends us with patience and submission, so that we may by this, like the saints, obtain the everlasting joys of heaven.
So as to encourage us, let us consider what reward the saints have obtained in heaven for their hard and difficult lot while on this earth.
My dear Christians, the saints of God have undertaken and borne great things while on earth, and great things will God give them for all eternity, namely, heaven. They renounced everything in this world; they can, therefore, according to God’s own promises, expect great things in the other world. They mortified themselves on earth, and therefore they can enjoy themselves for all eternity. And what are the joys which they have received from the Giver of all good gifts?
I answer: joy without pain. Whenever man, has any happiness the pain is not far off. If we enjoy a day of festivity, it is soon followed by a day of suffering. If we enjoy good heath it is soon followed by indisposition or probably sickness. Here below our happiness is never perfect; it never lasts long; it is never enduring. But what is the joy of the saints in heaven? Unchangeable and undisturbed. “Joy and gladness,” says the Holy Ghost through the prophet Isaias (51:11), “they shall obtain; sorrow and mourning shall flee away.” “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes,” so we read in the Apocalypse of St John (21:4): “and death shall be no more; nor mourning, nor crying, nor sorrow shall be any more.” Oh, true life! Oh, eternal life! Oh, life of never-ending happiness! There is joy without pain; rest without work, honour without shame, riches without loss, health without sickness, abundance without want, life without death, happiness without suffering. St Augustine says: “It is easier to say what is not in heaven than what is in heaven.” There is found no death, no mourning, no weariness, no weakness, no hunger, no thirst, no heat, no sickness, no infirmity, no sadness, no melancholy. Now these things are not there. Do you wish to know what is there? There is an everlasting home where youth never grows old, where love never grows cold, where beauty never fades, where pleasure never ceases. For this reason the angels are portrayed as beautiful, youthful figures, although they have been created for over six thousand years; there nothing decays; nothing loses its strength and beauty.
These joys without suffering are then unspeakable, great joys. “Oh, how great,” says the Psalmist David, “is the multitude of Thy sweetness, O Lord, which Thou hast hidden for them that fear Thee!” (Ps. 30:20). And he himself gives this answer: “They [the saints] shall be inebriated with the plenty of Thy house; and Thou shalt make them drink of the torrent of Thy pleasure. For with Thee is the fountain of life; and in Thy light we shall see light” (Ps. 35:9). “For better is one day in Thy courts above thousands” (Ps. 83:11). And what reward our blessed Lord has Himself promised His servants in heaven with these words: “Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven” (Matt. 5:12). And what was the joy of St. Paul when he was deemed worthy to look into the third heaven! He is not able to describe it, therefore he falters the words: “The eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God has prepared for them that love Him” (I Cor. 2:9).
The holy fathers of the Church have often taken pains to try to express the sweetness and pleasantness of heavenly joys; but they were not able, as the great thinker St Augustine himself says, to describe these things as they really are, only in a certain way to feel them. “So great,” says St Augustine, comparingly, “is the glory of heavenly bliss that man, if he had only spent a single day there, would give years of bliss and pleasures of this life for it.” “The reward of the saints in heaven,” writes St Bernard, “is so great that man cannot measure it, so rich that man cannot give it utterance, and so precious that man cannot price it.” And, therefore, to give us an idea of the joys of heaven, he breaks out in these words: “O joy above all joys! Joy that overreachest every joy, and out of thee there is no joy!” “O Gaudium super Gaudium! Gaudium vincens omne Gaudium, extra quod non est Gaudium!”
“Place,” writes a great theologian, “all the many great happinesses which the world has together: the happiness to possess all earthly treasures, the happiness of all power and honours, all the joys and pleasures of a worldly life; multiply these happinesses a hundred, a thousand, a million times, multiply them as much and as often as you can, and they are not to be compared with the never-ending joys of heaven. Compare, as in Holy Scripture, the joys of heaven to a magnificent feast, a brilliant, joyous feast, and you are still immeasurably short of the truth. As here below, trouble and suffering, so there above the elect enjoy bliss and joy on all sides; bliss and joy in their glorified bodies; bliss and joy in the beauty and the glory of the heavenly Jerusalem which they inhabit; bliss and joy in Jesus, their Saviour and their King, whose divine gracious countenance they love to look upon; bliss and joy in Mary, their Mother and their Queen, whose unutterable beauty delights them; bliss and joy at the exalted thrones which they themselves occupy and at the glorious crown which adorns their heads; bliss and joy at the hymns of praise sung by the choirs of heaven; bliss and joy at the sight of the glory of their triumphant brethren.” Truly, the prophet is right when he says: “With the stream of Thy glory, O Lord, wilt Thou drown them.”
Lastly, the joys of heaven are everlasting. The soul of man is immortal, and everlasting and eternal is the reward for the souls of the just. From the kingdom of God the Son in heaven the angel said to Mary: “And of His kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:33). Our Divine Saviour says Himself of the reward of the just: “But the just into life everlasting” (Matt. 25:46). When Christ spoke to His disciples of His return to the Father, He said also to console them: “So also you now indeed have sorrow, but I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice; and your joy no man shall take from you” (John 16:22). That is to say, it shall last forever. And lastly, St Paul writes: “For our present tribulation, which is momentary and light, worketh for us above measure exceedingly an eternal weight of glory” (II Cor. 4:17).
The eternal joy of heaven! What a glorious reward for the saints for their short renunciation of earthly things, for a short struggle with sin, for a short suffering borne with patience! “A short time,” says St Augustine, “does work in this world last; eternal is the rest in heaven: short is the pain; eternal the glory: short is the suffering; without end the joy” (in Ps. 26). Therefore he sighed for this eternal life and calls out to God: “O Source of Life, when shall I enter into Thy joys, from which no more will be kept away? Oh true, sweet, and pleasant life! O glorious life, without end! There is the greatest certainty, the most sure rest, the most restful happiness, the most joyful sweetness, the sweetest eternity and eternal happiness.” And how long have the saints enjoyed this happiness? For many decades, many hundreds of years. And how much of eternity has passed for them already? Not a moment. And how much longer will they enjoy the happiness of heaven? Centuries? No, forever! Or thousands of years? No, forever! Or millions of years? No, forever! Or for as many years as there are grains of sand on the earth or drops of water in the ocean? No, much longer, much longer – forever! Oh, you saints in heaven, how inexpressibly happy are you!
Now, my dear Christians, what are we going to do after the contemplation of the happiness of the saints in heaven? We all wish to cry out with St Aloysius: “We want to go to heaven! We want to go to heaven!” And so that we may reach heaven we must place all our thought there, and not on this transitory world. As St Symphorianus was led to the place of martyrdom, his pious mother, who followed him, to give him encouragement to bear his triumphs steadfastly, repeated these words over and over again: “My child, my child, think of everlasting life!” Dear Christians, when it seems hard for you to renounce the world, to fight against sin, to return to God after sinning, to lead a Christian life and steadfastly walk in the paths of virtue; when trials frighten you, which no one is without; then think of the eternal reward which awaits you in heaven. Consider that for a little trouble you will receive a great reward, for an easy victory a good, and for a momentary trouble an everlasting reward. Undertake, therefore, this light, this little short trouble, which the way of virtue requires, and you will receive in return a good, a great, and an everlasting reward in heaven. Amen.