Penitens was a busy, notable tradesman, and very prosperous in his dealings, but died in the thirty-fifth year of his age. A little before his death, when the doctors had given him over, some of his neighbors came one evening to see him, at which time he spake thus to them:
I see, my friends, the tender concern you have for me, by the grief that appears in your countenances, and I know the thoughts that you have now about me. You think how melancholy a case it is, to see so young a man, and in such flourishing business, delivered up to death. And perhaps, had I visited any of you in my condition, I should have had the same thoughts of you. But now, my friends, my thoughts are no more like your thoughts than my condition is like yours.
It is no trouble to me now to think, that I am to die young, or before I have raised an estate. These things are now sunk into such mere nothings, that I have no name little enough to call them by. For if in a few days or hours, I am to leave this carcass to be buried in the earth, and to find myself either forever happy in the favor of God, or eternally separated from all light and peace, can any words sufficiently express the littleness of everything else?
Is there any dream like the dream of life, which amuses us with the neglect and disregard of these things? Is there any folly like the folly of our [earthly] state, which is too wise and busy, to be at leisure for these reflections?
When we consider death as a misery, we only think of it as a miserable separation from the enjoyments of this life. We seldom mourn over an old man that dies rich, but we lament the young, that are taken away in the progress of their fortune. You yourselves look upon me with pity, not that I am going unprepared to meet the Judge of quick and dead, but that I am to leave a prosperous trade in the flower of my life. This is the wisdom of our [earthly] thoughts. And yet what folly of the silliest children is so great as this?
For what is there miserable or dreadful in death, but the consequences of it? When a man is dead, what does anything signify to him, but the state he is then in? Our poor friend Lepidus died, you know, as he was dressing himself for a feast. Do you think it is now part of his trouble that he did not live till that entertainment was over? Feasts and business and pleasures and enjoyments seem great things to us, whilst we think of nothing else; but as soon as we add death to them, they all sink into an equal littleness; and the soul that is separated from the body no more laments the loss of business, than the losing of a feast.
If I am now going into the joys of God, could there be any reason to grieve, that this happened to me before I was forty years of age? Could it be a sad thing to go to Heaven, before I had made a few more bargains, or stood a little longer behind a counter?
And if I am to go amongst lost spirits, could there be any reason to be content, that this did not happen to me till I was old, and full of riches?
If good angels were ready to receive my soul, could it be any grief to me, that I was dying upon a poor bed in a [dismal one-room flat]? And if God has delivered me up to evil spirits, to be dragged by them to places of torments, could it be any comfort to me, that they found me upon a bed of state? When you are as near death as I am, you will know that all the different states of life, whether of youth or age, riches or poverty, greatness or meanness, signify no more to you than whether you die in a poor or stately apartment.
The greatness of those things which follow death makes all that goes before it sink into nothing. Now that judgment is the next thing that I look for, and everlasting happiness or misery is come so near me, all the enjoyments and prosperities of life seem as vain and insignificant, and to have no more to do with my happiness, than the clothes that I wore before I could speak.
But, my friends, how am I surprised that I have not always had these thoughts? For what is there in the terrors of death, in the vanities of life or in the necessities of piety, but what I might have as easily and fully seen in any part of my life? What a strange thing is it, that a little health, or the poor business of a shop, [or the pleasures or goals of earthly life in general,] should keep us so senseless of these great things that are coming so fast upon us!
Just as you came in my chamber, I was thinking with myself, what numbers of souls there are now in the world, in my condition at this very time, surprised with a summons to the other world; some taken from their shops and farms, others from their sports and pleasures, these at suits of law, those at gaming tables, some on the road, others at their own firesides, and all seized at an hour when they thought nothing of it; frightened at the approach of death, confounded at the vanity of all their labors, designs and projects, astonished at the folly of their past lives, and not knowing which way to turn their thoughts, to find any comfort. Their consciences flying in their faces, bringing all their sins to their remembrance, tormenting them with deepest convictions of their own folly, presenting them with the sight of the angry Judge, the worm that never dies, the fire that is never quenched, the gates of hell, the powers of darkness, and the bitter pains of eternal death.
Oh, my friends, bless God that you are not of this number, that you have time and strength to employ yourselves in such works of piety, as may bring you peace at the last. And take this along with you, that there is nothing but a life of great piety, or a death of great stupidity, that can keep off these apprehensions. Had I now a thousand worlds, I would give them all for one year more, that I might present unto God one year of such devotion and good works, as I never before so much as intended. You, perhaps, when you consider that I have lived free from scandal and debauchery, and in the communion of the Church, wonder to see me so full of remorse and self-condemnation at the approach of death. But, alas! what a poor thing is it, to have lived only free from murder, theft, and adultery, which is all that I can say of myself. You know, indeed, that I have never been reckoned a [habitual drunkard], but you are at the same time witnesses, and have been frequent companions of my intemperance, sensuality, and great indulgence. And if I am now going to a judgment, where nothing will be rewarded but good works, I may well be concerned that though I am no [habitual drunkard], yet I have no Christian sobriety to plead for me. It is true, I have lived in the communion of the Church, and generally frequented its worship and service on Sundays, when I was neither too idle nor otherwise disposed of by my business and pleasures. But then, my conformity to the public worship has been rather a thing of course, than any real intention of doing that which the service of the Church supposes … living up to the piety of the Gospel.
And can it be thought that I have kept the Gospel terms of salvation, without ever so much as intending, in any serious and deliberate manner, either to know them or keep them? Can it be thought that I have pleased God with such a life as He requires, though I have lived without [truly] considering what He requires, or how much I have performed? How easy a thing would salvation be, if it could fall into my careless hands, who have never had so much serious thought about it, as about any one common bargain that I have made? In the business of life I have used prudence and reflection. I have done everything by rules and methods. I have been glad to converse with men of experience and judgment, to find out the reasons why some fail and others succeed in any business. I have taken no step in trade but with great care and caution, considering every advantage or danger that attended it. I have always had my eye upon the main end of business, and have studied all the ways and means of being a gainer by all that I undertook.
But what is the reason that I have brought none of these tempers to religion? What is the reason that I, who have so often talked of the necessity of rules, and methods, and diligence, in worldly business, have all this while never once thought of any rules, or methods, or managements, to carry me on in a life of piety? Do you think anything can astonish and confound a dying man like this? What pain do you think a man must feel, when his conscience lays all this folly to his charge, when it shall show him how regular, exact, and wise he has been in small matters, that are passed away like a dream, and how stupid and senseless he has lived, without any reflection, without any rules, in things of such eternal moment, as no heart can sufficiently conceive them? Had I only my frailties and imperfections to lament at this time, I should lie here humbly trusting in the mercies of God. But, alas! how can I call a general disregard, and a thorough neglect of all religious improvement, a frailty or imperfection, when it was as much in my power to have been exact, and careful, and diligent in a course of piety, as in the business of my trade? I could have called in as many helps, practiced as many rules, and been taught as many certain methods of holy living, as of thriving in my shop, had I but so intended, and desired it.
Oh, my friends! a careless life, unconcerned and unattentive to the duties of religion, is so without all excuse, so unworthy of the mercy of God, such a shame to the sense and reason of our minds, that I can hardly conceive a greater punishment, than for a man to be thrown into the state that I am in, to reflect upon it.
Penitens was here going on, but had his mouth stopped by a convulsion, which never suffered him to speak any more. He lay convulsed about twelve hours, and then gave up the ghost.
Now if every reader would imagine this Penitens to have been some particular acquaintance or relation of his, and fancy that he saw and heard all that is here described; that he stood by his bedside when his poor friend lay in such distress and agony, lamenting the folly of his past life, it would, in all probability, teach him such wisdom as never entered into his heart before. If to this he should consider how often he himself might have been surprised in the same state of negligence, and made an example to the rest of the world, this double reflection, both upon the distress of his friend, and the goodness of that God, who had preserved him from it, would in all likelihood soften his heart into holy tempers, and make him turn the remainder of his life into a regular course of piety.
This therefore being so useful a meditation, I shall here leave the reader, as I hope, seriously engaged in it.
— William Law. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.