The Penalty of Neglect, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 22 January 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'Since God chose to make a moral universe in which, by the right of the gift of freedom, characters might emerge, then this world is a battleground of the forces of good and evil. This being so, it is important to ask ourselves if we may be distinterested in that struggle. There are two answers to this question: one, the answer of the world; the other, the answer of Our Blessed Lord. The answer of the world is summed up in one word – “indifference”; the answer of Our Blessed Lord in the words, “The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence and the violent bear it away.” I shall suggest today why the indifference of the modern world is wrong, and next Sunday I shall suggest why the violence of Our Blessed Lord is right.

In religious matters, the modern world believes in indifference. Very simply, this means it has no great loves and no great hates; no causes worth living for and no causes worth dying for. It counts its virtues by the vices from which it abstains, asks that religion be easy and pleasant, sneers the term “mystic” at those who are spiritually inclined, dislikes enthusiasm and loves benevolence, makes elegance the test of virtue and hygiene the test of morality, believes that one may be too religious but never too refined. It holds that no one ever loses his soul, except for some great and foul crime such as murder. Briefly, the indifference of the world includes no true fear of God, no fervent zeal for His honor, no deep hatred of sin, and no great concern for eternal salvation. Such indifference has always been in the world, and Our Blessed Lord has warned that it shall be in it unto the end: And as it came to pass in the days of Noe, so shall it be also in the days of the Son of man. They did eat and drink, they married wives, and were given in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark: and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise as it came to pass, in the days of Lot: they did eat and drink, they bought and sold, they planted and built. And in the day that Lot went out of Sodom, it rained Are and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all. Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man shall be revealed.

It is important to remember that such indifference to our souls and the conflict of good and evil is wholly wrong. As a matter of fact, we lose our souls by the very process of not resisting the forces which pull us down. This is true in the natural order as well as in the spiritual. What is life, for example, but the sum of those forces which resist death? What is the biological principle of reversion to type but a proof of how we may lose ourselves by neglect? Suppose a bird fancier, through industry and skillful mating, has brought a flock of pigeons to a high degree of perfection as regards color and form. Suppose, furthermore, they were brought to a desert isle, and there abandoned. After many years the bird fancier returns for his pigeons. He would discover that they had lost the improvement which was due to his skill and knowledge, and that their highly developed colors had changed to a dull gray slate.

What is true of the animal order, as regards reversion to type, is true also of man. Man, too, degenerates by the mere fact that he neglects. Though there is within him a spiritual principle which, like a flame, mounts upward to the heavens heavenly with God, there is also within him something which drags him down to the earth earthly with the beasts. Hence man is always conscious of being a dual being: of wanting the better but of sometimes choosing the worse. This force of degeneration within him, the consequence of original sin, if it be not resisted by nature and grace, will eventually end in his reversion to the type Adam, or sin. Hence the degeneration of the moral and intellectual faculties of man follows like an inexorable law upon his neglect to combat the forces which make for spiritual death.

To illustrate this principle, suppose a man had fallen from the eightieth floor of the Empire State Building. In his rapid descent he would still be alive as he passed the twenty-fifth floor, and yet no one who saw him falling at that point would be sufficiently an optimist to believe that he would escape, death, simply because the principle of death is already in him. The man had neglected to take the precautions which would prevent the principle of death from working itself out in his life, and because he neglected, he must succumb. Or, suppose a man had taken poison. As it begins to eat its way through the gates and alleys of his body an antidote is brought him. In order that the poison work out its law of death, it is not necessary that the sick man violently cast the antidote out of the window, or with a biasphemy against the one who brought it, throw it on the floor. It merely suffices that he neglect to take the remedy. So it is with the moral life of man. He loses his soul not only by committing grave sins, but also by neglecting to respond to the grace which prevents sin and brings everlasting union with God.

What is it that dries up the wells of repentance but the neglect of meditating on the heinousness of sin? What makes devotion well-nigh impossible, but the neglect of prayer? What makes God seem so far away and so unreal, but the neglect of living in His Holy Presence? What is it that drags a soul down to hell but the neglect to lift itself up to heaven? Let a man be solely at ease in himself, satisfled with what he is, consenting to the customs of the world, drawing in the unwholesome breath of reflned evil and letting his moral inclinations run their natural course without check or stay, and he will most surely tide onward, with an easy and gentle motion, down the broad current of eternal death, for in the language of Paul, “How shall we escape, if we neglect?”

Even in this life there is a terrible penalty for neglect. That penalty is the warping and the atrophying and the dulling of those faculties which were meant to feed on the things of God. God gave us a mind to know Him, a will to love Him, and a body to serve Him. If these energies of body and soul are neglected, by not lifting them up in adoration of the Father from Whom all gifts come, nature takes a terrible revenge. Something happens to us that happens to the lower animals, namely, we lose the . use of those faculties and also the high objects toward which they should have been directed. There is some scientiflc warrant for the belief that the mole was not always blind. It chose, however, to spend its life underground and not to use its faculty of vision. Nature, as if sitting in judgment, practically said to the mole: “If you will not use the eyes which I have given you, then I shall strike you blind.”

And so, the penalty of neglect is the surrender of even the gifts which we have. It is this lesson which Our Blessed Lord revealed in the Parable of the Talents. “And to one he gave five talents, and to another two, and to another one. . .” He that received the five talents gained another five. In like manner, he that received the two gained another two. “But he that had received the one, going his way digged into the earth, and hid his lord’s money.” But when the reckoning day came, he who had received the five talents and he who had received the two talents, through their work having earned another five and another two, were admitted into the joy of the Lord. But he who had done nothing with the gift which had been given him, but merely hid it in the earth, had to suffer the penalty of the forfeiture of the talent, for the Lord said: “Take ye away therefore the talent from him…” The deprivation was the natural consequence of his sloth. As the arm of a man, which is never called into exercise, loses its strength by degrees, and its muscles and its sinews disappear, even so the powers which God gave us, when unexercised, fail and fade from us. “For to everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall abound: but from him that hath not, that also which he seemeth to have shall be taken away.”

Our land is full of a great many men and women who have neglected their talents, whose spiritual faculties have dried up, through sheer indifference, and who now no more think of God than they think of the political situation in Timbuctoo. The eternal aspirations of their souls are crushed, each inlet to Heaven is barricaded, every talent is squandered, every faculty of the Divine so bent on things of earth as to lose all relish for those of spirit. Daily and hourly they lose their sensitivity as regards the great realm of the soul. Just as the deaf are dead to the harmonies of life, such as the sigh of a waterfall and the rhythm of poetry; just as the blind are dead to the beauties of nature, such as the colors of a rainbow and the smile of a child; so too these atrophied souls are dead to the sweet whisperings of the Holy Spirit and blind to the dazzling vision of Jesus in the monstrance. It was of such souls who neglected hearing the word of God and seeing the vision of His Son, Our Blessed Lord spoke, when He said: “. . . seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.'”

If, then, the penalty for neglect and indifference is so terrible, should we not gird up the energy of our moral nature for a struggle? The most watchful must feel as one who cannot neglect for an hour, even as the Apostles in the garden; the most aspiring must feel as one who aims his shaft from a strained and slackened bow; the most hopeful of eternal life as one who must enter the narrow gate and travel the straight road. Salvation is not the by-play of idle hours! When the mind is wearied of ever toiling and is cloyed with the oppressive customs of the world, it must goad itself to remember that redemption is not for those who bury their talents in napkins. Across the centuries there comes the cry for strong men who will enter into the struggle, take up their crosses, and persevere to the end. From out high heaven, in thoughts of sweet inspiration and actual grace, there comes the challenge to develop and perfect the faculties God has given us, lest by our neglect and our abuse we lose their use. Hands must not be neglected, but trained to break the bread for the poor who come in the name of Christ; feet must not be neglected, but bid- den zealously, like the Man of Nazareth, to go about doing good; eyes must not be neglected by turning them outward to the beauties of nature, but inward to the soul where resides the beauty of the daughter of the king; ears must not be neglected but attuned to the delicate whisperings of the Trinity, taking up Its abode in the soul and making of the body a veritable temple of God; hands must not be dulled, fumbling with the treasures which rust consumes and moths eat and thieves break in and steal, but quickened to enjoy, like the Canaanite woman, the touch of the hem of the garment of God; taste must not be neglected by eating only the meat which perishes, but refined to enjoy the Bread of Life and the Wine which germinates virgins; the sense of smell must not be neglected by dulling itself with the perfumes of Arabia, but by absorbing the odor of sanctity which emanates from every soul which has touched the rod and root of Jesse; and finally, the heart must not be neglected by loving only the embrace of that which time steals away, but by loving that “Love we fall just short of in all love and the Beauty which leaves all other beauty pain. . . In a word, every fiber, every muscle, every sense, every faculty must be used to win the eternal crown, for may it not be that all our indifference to the gifts and the graces of God in this day and age is more crucifying to Our Lord than the cruel intolerance which nailed Him on a Cross?

“When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged Him on a tree,
They drave great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary;
They crowned Him with a crown of thorns, red were His wounds and deep,
For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.

“When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by.
They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;
For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain.
They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

“Still Jesus cried, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do,’
And still it rained the winter rain that drenched Him through and through;
The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see.
And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary.”