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Deferring Conversion Until Death

“We must bear in mind an undeniable principle, concerning which St. Augustine and all the holy Doctors are agreed – namely, that as true repentance is the work of God, so He can inspire it when and where he wills.”

-Ven. Louis of Granada

The excerpt below is taken from the 16th-century TAN classic known as The Sinner’s Guide The author of this work is the Spanish Dominican theologian, preacher, and spiritual writer by the name of Ven. Louis of Granada (1504-1588).

Ven. Louis writes here on the subject of resisting temptation and overcoming sin.  This work was widely read in his own time by such luminaries as St. Charles Borromeo and Pope Gregory XIII. 

The sermons and writings prove a mastery of subject and have been enthusiastically recommended over the generations on account of the ease in which they are read and understood.

In this excerpt the author provides an excellent meditation on a holy death, giving a stern warning to those who may commit the risky mistake of putting off conversion until the point of death.

Below is the excerpt, taken from chapter 25:

Of Those Who Defer Their Conversion Until the Hour of Death

The arguments we have just stated should certainly be sufficient to convince men of the folly of deathbed repentances; for if it be so dangerous to defer penance from day to day, what must be the consequence of deferring it until the hour of death?

But as this is a very general error, causing the ruin of many souls, we shall devote a special chapter to it.  The reflections which we are about to make may alarm and discourage weak souls, but the consequences of presumption are still more fatal, for a greater number is lost through false confidence than through excessive fear.  Therefore, we, who are one of the sentinels mentioned by Ezechiel, must warn you of these dangers, that you may not rush blindly to your ruin, and that your blood may not be upon us.  As the safest light for us is that of Holy Scripture, interpreted by the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, we shall first study their opinions on the subject, and afterwards we shall learn what God Himself teaches us by His inspired writers.

Before entering upon the subject we must bear in mind an undeniable principle, concerning which St. Augustine and all the holy Doctors are agreed – namely, that as true repentance is the work of God, so He can inspire it when and where he wills.  Hence if the heart of the sinner, even at the hour of death, be filled with true contrition for his sins, it will avail him for salvation.  But, to show you how rare such examples of repentance are, I shall give you the testimony of the Saints and Doctors of the Church.  I do not ask you to believe me, but believe them, the chosen instruments of the Holy Spirit.

And first hear St. Augustine.  In a work entitled True and False Penance he says,

“Let no one hope to do penance when he can no longer sin.  God wishes us to perform this work cheerfully and not through compulsion.  Therefore, he who, instead of leaving his sins, waits until they leave him, acts from necessity rather than from choice.  For this reason they who would not return to God when they could, but are willing to seek Him when they are no longer able to sin, will not so easily obtain what they desire.” 

Speaking of the character of true conversion, he says,

“He is truly converted who turns to God with his whole heart, who not only fears punishment but earnestly desires to merit God’s graces and favors.  Should anyone turn to God in this way, even at the end of his life, we would have no reason to despair of his salvation.  But as examples of this perfect conversion are very rare, we cannot but tremble for one who defers his repentance until the hour of death.”

“Moreover, if he obtain the pardon of his sins, their temporal punishment is not remitted; he must expiate them in the fire of Purgatory, the pain of which is greater than any suffering known on earth.  Never did the martyrs in their most terrible torments, never did malefactors, though subjected to all the cruelties which human malice could invent, endure sufferings equal to those of Purgatory.  Let him, then, if he would avoid these dreadful punishments after death, begin from this time to amend his life.”

St. Ambrose, in his book on penance, which some attribute to St. Augustine, treats of this subject at great length.  Here is one of the excellent things he tells us:

“If a man ask for the sacrament of penance on his deathbed, we do not refuse what he asks, but we are far from assuring you that if he dies after it, is he on the way to Heaven.  It is more than we dare affirm or promise, for we would not deceive you.  But if you would be relieved of this uncertainty, if you would dissipate this doubt, do penance for your sins while you are in health, and then I can positively assure you that you will be in a good way, for you will have repented for your crimes when you might have been increasing them.  If, on the contrary, you defer your repentance until you are no longer able to sin, it will not be that you have abandoned your sins, but rather that they have abandoned you.”

St. Isidore forcefully expresses the same truth:

“If you would have a hope of being pardoned your sins at the hour of death, do penance for them while you are able.  But if you spend your life in wickedness, and still hope for forgiveness at your death, you are running a most serious risk.  Though you are not sure what you will be damned, your salvation is by no means more certain.”

The authorities which we have just quoted are very alarming; yet the words of St. Jerome, uttered as he lay in sackcloth upon the ground awaiting his last hour, are still more terrifying.  I dare not give his words in all their rigor, lest I should discourage weak souls; but I refer him who desires to read them to an epistle on the death of St. Jerome written by his disciple, Eusebius, to a bishop named Damasus.  I will quote only this passage:

“He who daily preservers in sin will probably say: ‘When I am going to die I shall do penance.’  Oh!  Melancholy consolation!  Penance at the hour of death is a very doubtful remedy for him who has always done evil, and has thought of penance only as a dream, to be realized in the uncertain future.  Wearied by suffering; distracted with grief at parting from family, friends, and worldly possessions which he can no longer enjoy; a prey to bitter anguish – how will he raise his heart to God or conceive a true sorrow for his sins?  He has never done so in life, and he would not do it now had he any hope of recovery.  What kind of penance must that be which a man performs when life itself is leaving him?  I have known rich worldlings who have recovered from bodily sickness only to render the health of their souls still more deplorable.  Here is what I think, what I know, for I have learned it by a long experience: If he who has been a slave to sin during life die a happy death, it is only by an extraordinary miracle of grace.”

St. Gregory expresses himself not less strongly upon this subject.  Writing upon these words of Job,

“What is the hope of the hypocrite, if through covetousness he take by violence?  Will God hear his cry when distress shall come upon him? (Job 27:8-9) he says, “If a man be deaf to God’s voice in prosperity, God will refuse to hear him in adversity, for it is written: ‘He that turneth away his ears from hearing the law, his prayer shall be an abomination.’” (Prov. 28:9).  And Hugh of St. Victor, comprehending in one sentence the teaching of the Fathers, says, “It is very difficult for that penance to be true which comes at the hour of death, for we have much reason to suspect it because it is forced.” 

You now know the sentiments of these great Doctors of the Church on deathbed repentance.  See, then, what folly it would be in you to contemplate without fear a passage of which the most skillful pilots speak with terror.  A lifetime is not too long to learn how to die well.  At the hour of death our time is sufficiently occupied in dying.  We have then no leisure to learn the lesson of dying well.

The teaching of the Fathers which we have just given is also the teaching of the doctors of the schools.  Among the many authorities whom we could quote we shall select Scotus, one of the most eminent, who, after treating this subject at great length, concludes that conversion at the hour of death is so difficult that it is rarely true repentance.  He supports his conclusion by these reasons:

First, because the physical pains and weakness which precede death prevent a man from elevating his heart to God or fulfilling the duties of true repentance.  To understand this you must know that uncontrolled passions lead man’s free will where they please.  Now, philosophers teach that the passions which excite sorrow are much stronger than those which cause joy.  Hence it follows that no passions, no sentiments, exceed in intensity the passions and sentiments awakened by the approach of death; for, as Aristotle tells us, death is the most terrible of all terrible things. 

To sufferings of body it unites anguish of soul awakened by parting from loved ones and from all that bind our affections to this world.  When, therefore, the passions are so strong and turbulent, whither can man’s will and thoughts turn but to those things to which these violent emotions draw them?  We see how difficult it is even for a man exercised in virtue to turn his thoughts to God or spiritual things when his body is raked with pain.  How much more difficult will it be for the sinner to turn his thought from his body, which he has always preferred to his soul!

I myself knew a man who enjoyed a reputation for virtue, but who, when told that his last hour was at hand, was so terrified that he could think of nothing but applying remedies to ward off the terrible moment.  A priest who was present exhorted him to turn his thoughts to his soul’s interests; but he impatiently repelled his counsels, and in these disedifying dispositions soon after expired.  Judge by this example the trouble which the presence of death excites in those who have an inordinate love for this life, if one who loves it in moderation clings to it so tenaciously, regardless of the interests of the life to come.

The second reason given by Scotus is that repentance should be voluntary, not forced.  Hence St. Augustine tells us that a man must not only fear, but also love his Judge.  We cannot think that one who has refused to repent during life, and only has recourse to this remedy at the our of death, seeks it freely and voluntarily. 

This article is taken from a chapter The Sinner’s Guide by Venerable Louis of Granada which is available from TAN Books.

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