The Aged Christian's Final Farewell to the World and its Vanities
John Whitson, 1558-1629
Since it has pleased Almighty God, of his great mercy and goodness, to afford me a long time of pilgrimage, and whereas my soul is long since been cloyed with the tedious vanities of this life; I begin to feel a willingness to depart, and leave this tiresome wilderness, that I may arrive at that heavenly Canaan, where only I hope to find rest. But before I depart to my long home, I have a great desire to leave some monument of my good-will to after-comers; that what my long experience has taught me, may turn to the profit of those, whose early years have not as yet afforded them such plenty of observations. And since it is customary for men to bequeath to their posterity the goods of fortune, and not to bury them with them—why should they allow that which is more precious to die with them, and not communicate, for the instruction of others, some part of the knowledge and experience with which time has enriched them?
Though the portion of my understanding cannot be much useful to mankind; yet I have endeavored to represent, in this little treatise, the miseries and inconveniences of this life, together with the reasons that make me so willing to leave it; and, like a guest that has his desire satisfied, be content to give thanks and depart; that, by viewing this treatise again and again, I may learn every day more and more to be weaned from the world, and prepare myself for my final change, which I expect of God's mercy every hour.
The principal reason that makes me so much desire to leave this world, is that I have seen enough, if not too much, of it; like the traveler, who having viewed the city thoroughly, and become acquainted with the manners thereof, desires (after he has finished his observations) not to loiter there any longer. And why should I linger here, where there is no new thing for me to see? Since all things in the world have been long since familiar to my eyes, and I am weary every day to see the same things again? "That which is done, is that which shall be done; and that which has been, shall be; and there is no new thing under the sun."
As in the compass of one day and one night we see all the course of time, and whatever follows is but the same that goes before; so in the circuit of a few days, a man, if he is not idle, may read all histories, in observing the rise and fall of the ambitious, the pride and atheism of great ones, etc. Whatever occurrences seem strange, they are but the same fable acted by other persons, and nothing different from those of elder times, but in the names of the actors.
Who would wonder at the present contentions of brethren, that has heard of Cain and Abel? of Esau and Jacob? of Solomon and Adonijah? Or at the fall of great ones, who has heard of the fate of Ahitophel, Haman, etc.? Certainly the volume of one life would afford as great a variety of examples, as the long volumes of antiquity, if we would be diligent to mark them—so that they can be compared to nothing fitter than to a wheel ever turning in the same motion.
How can I choose but be weary of viewing a tedious repetition of vanity, which in many years at length becomes a torment? As was well figured by the ball of Sisyphus, whose greatest misery was the renewing of his labors. The iteration of things, ever so sweet and delightsome to us, will prove at length a continued succession of wretchedness and vanity; nay, trouble and vexation of spirit.
Where the unsettled mind is never at rest, but tossed from one desire to another, it finds contentment in none. As a sick man, whose fever makes him weary of all things, desires to change his bed, and shift his side, persuading himself of more rest by that means; yet the altering of his position seldom produces any other effect than the increase of his pain—just so, miserable man, growing weary of one vanity, longs for another; and, having gotten his desire, is no less discontent, but still craves and wishes for another.
These rueful sights, so frequent in my observation, have appalled me, and now at length made me quite weary; so that I desire nothing more than the hour of my freedom out of this prison of mortality, and dismissal from this theater of wretchedness. But before I go and depart from hence, the Farewell I pronounce to the whole world, and all the vanities thereof, will ease my heart of its burden, and confirm my soul in its wearisomeness of this bondage, and a willingness to be dissolved.
Attend, therefore, you lovers of this world! And you, whose eyes and experience have not as yet been clearly opened; attend, I say, to the dying speech of an aged and worn-out man, willing to impart the benefit of his long observation, before he finishes it with his life!
I. Farewell, in the first place, to Riches, Avarice and Wealth—the idols of earthly minds and groveling affections. It shall not at all trouble me to depart from you, the unnecessary burdens of life, and the clog of all spiritual desires. How grievously have I seen men afflicted in the prosecution of you; and yet more miserable in the enjoyment, than the greatest beggar in the lack of you! They have not fared nor slept the better, nor enjoyed any portion of contentment or quiet, nor taken any delight in the glory and respect attending their riches. But the more they have raked up, the more unquiet and distasteful have been their lives!
So justly is avarice plagued in itself, that I know not whether be greater, the sin or the punishment. For as it is far more miserable to be drowned in sight of shore, and starve with the greatest plenty of victuals, than simply to perish either way—so much more wretched is he who wants what he has, and is a beggar in his greatest abundance, than he who begs from door to door.
This evil is like the dropsy—that continual buildup of fluid in the body. Avarice is so far from bringing pleasure with it, like other vices, that it can bear no better comparison than to that languishing disease, and hellish torture. Yes, more miserable would I deem it than either of these, by how much the easier it is to be remedied, as it is voluntarily embraced. For the dropsy cleaves necessarily to the person so afflicted, and the fatal doom upon him is not to be avoided or removed, and therefore deserves pity.
But the covetous madman willfully afflicts himself; and though he may be cured by his own reason, yet he chooses rather to suffer his affliction. He is like a fool sitting too near the fire, that might be presently relieved by moving his seat, but had rather turn his side, and shift his shins, and be scorched until he roars—than move one foot from his place! Or, like a wretched merchant, who in a long voyage homeward, will rather starve than open one basket of his food in his extremity, though he be owner of the goods!
God keep me from such stupidity! I had rather lack riches, than not know how to use them! I had rather be poor indeed, than feel all the pains of poverty, and yet be rich.
Yes, I have learned to esteem the abundance of riches to be but a more burdensome kind of life, where they are possessed; for they rob a man of his quietness, and take away his time, either in the accumulating of them, or in the disposing of them. For what care is there to be had with rents! What caution and wariness to be had of bad debtors! What fear of losses and casualties! What distrust and suspicion of our best friends! What vigilance and diligence, that we be not over-charged in our bargains! What grief if we be overthrown in our suits, and vexed with fines and taxes! To be brief, what toil and weariness throughout our whole lives! Either we are . . .
troubled with getting of riches,
or cumbered with keeping of riches,
or afflicted and heart-broken with losing of riches, and never at rest, ever paying or receiving.
Farewell again and again to these thorns. I thank my God for the provision he has lent me; that it was enough and not excess. It was not so large as to disquiet my peace, nor so sparingly small, as to afflict my life with poverty or fear of creditors. Of what it has pleased Almighty God of his great mercy and goodness to allow me over and above my own necessities, I have been no unfaithful steward of Christ, nor uncharitable to the needs of my poor brethren. I speak from the confidence of a sincere heart, not being conscious to myself of any injustice, or of negligence in the employment of my blessings. I stand ready to give up my account, when it shall please God to call me; desiring to be discharged of my trust, and to be at rest with him.
II. Farewell, in the next place, to worldly Honors and Ambition—the glorious bubbles of human vanity, the bladder of pride and self-advancement.How many excellent people has the weak admiration of these toys and trifles bewitched and seduced! How many noble and virtuous dispositions has it diverted from the path of true integrity, into the way of proud ambition! Honor is a moth that breeds in the finest cloth, a worm incident to the best complexion. Did honor but deprive and not destroy, it would be more tolerable. Or, if it would be content with part of our hearts, and not engross the whole—it would be less culpable.
But there being no middle ground in it, it sets the whole man on fire, and carries him headlong with a torrent of passion through violence and sacrilege, through rivers of blood. Innocent or guilty, it makes no matter, just so that it may reach to the top of its desire.
Ambition blinds the eye of reason, and will not allow us to distinguish friend or foe, father or mother, wife or sister; but if they stand in the way, ambition will drive over them. It deprives our lives of rest, and discontents us with any fortune; but (like a wheel) it is ever in a whirling motion. Contentment has no greater enemy, nor sleep a more professed adversary. Most miserable then is the condition of those whom this restless disease has taken in their pilgrimage through the world.
Though the blear-eyed multitude may judge them most happy, no man shall persuade me that Alexander and Caesar were not most wretched in their laborious pursuit of this shadow. For how were they tossed from one part of the world to another! How tedious were their journeys to find out their own punishment, their dear-bought victories, their glorious titles! If you but mark their wearisome trouble and anxiety, their continual fears and dangers, the guilt of so much innocent blood shed by them, their miserable fever of ambition, the pitiful manner of their deaths—you will easily be of my opinion, and think nothing less happy than this seeming happiness.
I thank God that I was born in a lower sphere, lived in a more base vocation. No other honor remains for me to aspire to, than the honor of the saints in Heaven. This I daily labor for; and although I am content to wait for the hour which Almighty God shall be pleased to appoint for my dismissal, yet my soul longs earnestly to be crowned with this celestial honor.
III. Farewell Pleasures and Carnal Delights—snares to be avoided in our earthly pilgrimage—the quicksands whereon so many have suffered shipwreck.Though God's providence has hitherto kept me from your dangers, yet, while I am on my journey, I cannot be altogether so safe, even in my advanced years, as to think myself exempted from the power of your chains, because they have not had a predominance over me.
For a soldier may just as well be foiled and disgraced at the end of a battle. Until the end of my life done, and the victory finished, I cannot but fear my enemies, and stand close to my banner. How many has my woeful experience been witness of, who have forsaken their colors in the very close of the life, and (after a manful and victorious fight in the heat and strength of temptation) have failed, and surrendered in the cool of the evening, and lost the crown of their labor. It is at the end of our race, that we should increase our speed, and exert ourselves more at that time, by how much the more eager our adversary becomes, seeing the goal is nearly won.
It is a melancholy reflection, that we can look dangers boldly in the face and endure the stoutest shock of adversity, still keeping our ground; and yet we are so weak against the childish enticements of pleasure and wantonness, as to give up our weapons without striking a stroke! How ridiculous, how cowardly a behavior is this—which yields to the weak enemy, and resists the stronger! That can endure the greater labor, and faints at the less! How should I wonder to see a soldier returning from the victory of the enemy, to be beaten by a child! To see an armed man run away from a cripple old man!
Samson, who was so strengthened by the Spirit of God, that he tore a lion like a young goat, and slew a thousand men with the jaw-bone of an donkey—was not able to resist the weak temptation of Delilah's eye; but yielded himself over, at her entreaty, into the hands of his enemies!
And David, who slew the lion and the bear, and overthrew the great Goliath—could not withstand one look at Bathsheba, but gave up his chastity at the first onset, and his innocence without any resistance!
So pernicious is the nature of this evil, that it denies our reason, and deludes our intellect, by casting such a mist before its eyes, that we take one thing for another, and Satan for an angel of light.
This does plainly appear by the sorrows that follow upon it, which argue that we are seduced, and betrayed against our wills—to give up the good of our souls, for a moment of pleasure. Our eyes being opened, we see our own nakedness, and rue the folly of our judgments—that parted with our integrity in favor of our corrupt appetite. No vice is more dearly bought, and none harder to be avoided!
But grant, Lord, that I may avoid the allurements of enticement by a speedy departure from the enticer; and let my soul fly from the allurements of harlots, leaving my garment rather than my body in their power.
Keeping my soul unspotted, I trust that I shall ascend to that mansion of true and eternal delights, where He sits, in whose presence there is fullness of joy, and at whose right hand there are pleasures for evermore! Oh, good God, hasten my journey thither, and teach me, in the meditation on those joys, to despise these earthly follies.
IV. Farewell Knowledge and earthly Wisdom—the dream of self-conceit; the smoke of vain-glory; the blast of vanity, which has puffed up many until they swell beyond their just dimensions, and burst asunder!The sinful desire for these things have bereaved our first parents of Paradise, and deprives many of their posterity of their only happiness left, namely, contentment and tranquility. For when the insatiable thirst of science enters, the soul is often lost. What perpetual disquiet is it, to long for higher and stranger novelties, and never rest until we are confounded in the multitude of our own reasonings! From sensual objects, we advance to things intellectual; from things intellectual, we pass to things supernatural; until the speculation becomes too difficult for us, and spoil the sight of our eyes by too much brightness.
We are not satisfied with the toilsomeness of grammar, the subtlety of logic, the smoothness of rhetoric, the sweetness of music, the exactness of geometry, and the curiousness of astronomy; but further still we go, until we have tired ourselves with tedious studies in philosophy and contemplation of learning, until we fall into a dropsy by this thirst of science, and never cease drinking, until we have drank up ourselves.
"The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing" (says the Preacher) much less certainly is the mind with learning. There are many so deluded with a depraved mind, as to make science the end of science, and out of a fond opinion heap question upon question, never ceasing to make doubts and distinctions. They make knots and undo them, whereby they ensnare themselves, and mar others. Of such vanity were the schoolmen guilty; bewitching too many men in former and later times, to the consuming of their bodies, and wasting of their strength, in studying unprofitable trifles, deserving reprehension.
What vanity is more unprofitable than this? What life is more unhappy? This moth consumes the richest gifts of nature, and frets the purest metal of the soul; envenoming sometimes the whole frame of it, filling it with madness and distraction, and extinguishing the light of reason. To those that are so unfortunately addicted, let me commend the words of Solomon, "In much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow."
The more we understand, the more we perceive our lack of understanding; the further we discover our own weakness, the more grief we procure. As Socrates was accustomed to say, by the continual addition of knowledge, "He came to know this one thing: that he knew nothing." And Democrates, who lived one hundred and twenty years, and had spent most of them in study, professed at his death, that he did then begin to know; and that it grieved him to leave his learning when he had but the first taste of it.
The ignorant sort of people enjoy a kind of happiness above the learned, in that they know not their unhappiness. The years of our childhood and youth are more pleasant to us and freer from encumbrances, than our older age; because people then discern not what they need, and therefore take no care to get it; nor are they troubled with a foresight of their needs before they feel them. But as time proceeds, and knowledge increases—so our life grows every day more troublesome. We perceive, by experience, the inconstancy of fortune, the difficulties of the world, and take care to prevent necessities before they come. We read every day of new examples of miseries; and see new rocks to beware of, and new dangers to stand in fear of. Whatever benefit accompanies our knowledge, we are sure this evil attends it—that it fills us fuller of doubts and fears, and vexes us with anxiety of mind.
The subject's life is indeed more happy than the king's life. The serving-man's condition is easier than his master's. The passengers in a ship have more quietness than the pilot, because they have less to care for; they fear not dangers, and therefore are not encumbered with the thoughts of them.
As a man in poverty does not in his sleep feel the sting of his sorrow; but when he awakes, he awakes to the sense of his misery. So all the sons of Adam, (heirs of this wretchedness) are happier in this sleep of ignorance, than in the light of great knowledge.
Therefore, though we hear Solomon commending wisdom, and preferring it before ignorance, as light before darkness; yet we are sure darkness would better agree with our infirmities than light, because they are fitter to be covered than looked into.
We then shall find knowledge to be a comfort to us, and science will be felt, as well as attained, after we are loosed from our mortal state. For having put off the rags of our earthly prison, and being washed from our natural pollution in the blood of that Lamb who takes away the sins of the world, and placed in the glorious body of the Church triumphant, in whom is no spot or wrinkle—how will it delight us to survive our vanity as well as errors, and rejoice in the presence of God! Then shall we know as we are known, and see no more the shadow of things through a dark glass, but face to face.
We shall behold the essence of all creatures; the windows of our eyes shall be opened, the doors of our senses shall be opened, the middle wall of our body will be removed far from us, and our souls will freely use their vigor, being no longer obstructed and hindered by the bodies.
This knowledge now remains for me, and I am grieved to be withheld from it. I have had enough, and too much, of the sorrowful and unprofitable knowledge of the things of this world, though never acquainted with the labyrinth of study.
I have seen . . .
the uncertainty of fortune in the rich,
the troubles of the state,
the changes of great ones,
the astonishing rising of some, and the sudden fall of others,
the alteration of time and manners,
the inconstancy of opinions and fashions,
the interchanges of peace and war,
the most devilish enterprises undertaken with equal secrecy and subtlety,
the ruin of pride and hypocrisy,
the confusion of policy,
and the overthrow of falsehood.
I have been a member in many Parliaments, where I daily learned new lessons of the world's vanity, and augmented my grief together with my experience.
And now the distasteful memory of such knowledge, and the unpleasing fruit of so many years observation, have wrought in me a settled dislike of all transitory wisdom, and an earnest desire to be exalted to that knowledge which has no sorrow annexed to it. Bless me with the fruition of this, O God, when it shall please you—and comfort me in the mean time with the meditation on it.
V. Farewell at once to all the outward blessings of Nature, Strength, Beauty, Health and Long Life.I go where I shall have no need of you—even to a perfection of blessedness, where there are no sorrow. The small comfort you afford in this life, the uncertainty in the fruition and the frailty of our delights—have taught me that however you rise in popular estimation—to despise and leave you to the admirers of vanity.
For what is the STRENGTH of man, that he should glory in it? Or the arm of flesh, that he should trust in it? Man is weaker than multitudes of irrational creatures over whom he is master. Naked and weaponless is he born into the world.
The serpent has its sting,
the horse has its hoof,
the ox has its horns,
the wolf has its teeth,
the lion has its claws,
to defend themselves.
But man, the weakest of all creatures, is sent into the world tender and defenseless, altogether unarmed, and nothing but his reason allowed for his guard.
It is foolish therefore for him to vaunt of his strength, and glory in that which is his greatest defect. Let the vain boaster of his might consider the power of the sublunary elements, which are dead and senseless—yet all these exceed man in strength.
The earth sustains all things, and shrinks not.
The water, whose weakness we turn to a proverb, bears weighty ships and vessels, which no force of ours can stir on land.
The air, driven by the winds, rends mighty oaks asunder, and often causes earthquakes.
The fire, stronger than all these, devours and puts all it finds into a combustion, and tears what the strongest arm cannot, into pieces!
But our weak nature is so frail and feeble, that we can scarcely bear our own weight. Yes, we are often crushed with a poor fall, and bruised with the burden of our own flesh. We can endure neither the heat of the sun, nor the cold of the air, nor the sharpness of the wind, nor the abstinence of two days food—but our strength is broken like a potsherd.
How quickly is our strength impaired with sickness, wasted with age, broken with lust, consumed with weariness, and gone away as a puff of wind! And yet this is that which young men glory in and boast of—turning an excellent gift of nature, very often, to their own destruction!
We see our notable fellows ever straining and attempting difficulties, until they meet with something above their strength, and burst like a bow with too much bending. Milo was a remarkable example of this, whose loins were so strong, and joints so firmly compact, that he was able to lift an oak from the ground, and bear it upon his shoulder; but on the confidence of his undertaking to pull up a wedge, newly driven into a mighty oak, he was caught so fast by the hand, that there he remained crying until the wild beasts found and tore him to pieces!
Samson likewise perished by his own strength. Goliath, upon pride thereof, presuming to challenge the whole army of Israel, proved a notable example to boasters, being felled by a stone slung from the hand of a stripling. Such examples, histories are full of. Yes, tis the wisdom of God to confound the strong in their strength by contemptible men, that they may see the folly of their boasting.
Another sort of people, no less vain, boast of their BEAUTY, to whom I bid the like Farewell—as they must of their beauty, which is the most weak and transitory of things. Beauty is no other than a mixture of colors, now glittering—but soon defaced by a thousand accidents. It is scorched by the sun; wrinkled by the wind; withered by sickness and age, and subject to other casualties. I think myself more happy in the lack of it, than others in the enjoyment of it.
As to the two other blessings of HEALTH and LONG LIFE, I have my portion in them according to God's good pleasure, and am thankful to him for them. Yet I must bid them Farewell also; and am ready to give them up, when God shall demand them back. He has been graciously pleased to continue my health in the midst of contagious sickness. I have seen a thousand fall beside me, and well-near ten thousand at my right-hand—and yet by his goodness only, the arrow did not come near me. And though my sins deserved no less than others', his providence has lengthened my life largely to the time of old age; wherein, though I find some decay of strength, yet he has given me health of body, and ability of mind.
The sorrow and infirmities incident to such a burden of old age, he has withheld from me; and has not bowed my back, nor taken away my eye-sight, nor smitten me in my mind, nor weakened my limbs, nor my senses; but has preserved all of these entire to me, to do him service. Blessed therefore is his holy name. How can I sufficiently praise him for his goodness, in that he has so blessed me from my very infancy, and has been with me from my cradle!
He has prospered all my travels and endeavors, and raised me from the dust of poverty to a fortune much greater than my father's. He has guided me in the course of my worldly affairs, as he did Jacob; and as wonderfully has been pleased to increase me from a small beginning. So that the thankful acknowledgment which that holy Patriarch took up, would well become me to rehearse: "With my staff" said he, "I passed over this Jordan—and now I am become two great bands."
I may truly say, and profess to the glory of God, that with my staff I passed over this world, and now am risen to a wealthy portion. God has enriched me with great abundance, and comforted me on every side. He has given me wealth, and the power to use it. He has given me honor, and the happiness to value it. And now what have I more to desire of him? but with David, that he would stand by me, and "not forsake me in my old age, when I am grey-headed, until I have showed his strength to this generation, and his power to those that come after me." I desire no longer continuance here, than to testify my thankfulness to him in the sight of the living; and then welcome that blessed hour, whenever he shall appoint to fetch me hence.
I desire that this may be my text at my funeral: Psalm 42:2, "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?"
Oh! when shall I ascend to the eternal throne of blessedness, where no comforts are lacking?
When shall I be covered with the glorious robe of immortality, and shine in the brightness of my Redeemer's innocence?
When shall I behold the lovely face of my Lord and dwell in the courts of His holy temple, where . . .
all tears shall be wiped away from my eyes,
all sorrows removed from my heart,
and all sins and spots are done away?
Where I shall exchange the dross of this world, for true and durable riches!
Where, instead of these earthly riches, which moth and rust corrupt--I shall enjoy the heavenly riches of perfect peace and good conscience, never to be lost!
Instead of these false and flattering honors, I shall enjoy everlasting glory, and be admitted into the fellowship of my Redeemer, to reign with Him in His glorious kingdom!
Instead of vain and momentary pleasures, I shall be filled with fullness of joy, and be ravished with those delights which neither eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man to conceive!
Instead of this dark and cloudy knowledge, I shall have my heart enlightened with the beams of that true light!
Instead of this feeble strength, I shall be endowed with the might of angels!
Instead of this transitory health, I shall enjoy a powerful and immortal vigor!
Instead of this fading beauty, I shall be adorned with the loveliness of Christ's spouse!
Instead of long life, I shall be crowned with life eternal!
We shall sing, Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord God almighty! Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Glory be to You, O Lord, most High.
And now, as the deer pants for the water-brooks, so longs my soul after You, O God!
O that I had wings like a dove, that I might fly away and be at rest!
For whom have I in Heaven but You--and who is there upon earth that I desire in comparison of You?
My heart and my strength fails me, but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion forever!
Quicken then, O Jesus! the Son of God, my inward man, when my outward man decays, and give me daily preparation and patience to abide your coming; for you have promised, in the last words of your Testament, to come quickly. O establish your word to your servant, and grant me my heart's desire.
Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!