The Story of Penitens


Penitens was a busy, well-known, and successful businessman who died when he was only thirty-five years old. A little before his death, when the doctors had determined that his case was terminal, some of his friends and neighbors came to see him. This is an account of what he said to them.

The Dream of Life

"My friends, I can tell by the sadness on your faces what a loving concern you have for me, and I'm sure I know your thoughts toward me now. You are thinking how sad it is to see such a young man, with such a flourishing business, given up to death. And if I had visited any of you under the same circumstances, I would have thought the same about you."

"But now, my friends, my thoughts are no more like your thoughts than my condition is like your condition. It is no trouble to me now to think that I am to die young, before reaching the pinnacle of my success. These things have now sunk to such mere nothings that I have no name small enough to call them by. For in a few days or hours, I am to leave this body to be buried in the earth, and then I will find myself either forever happy in the favor of God, or eternally separated from all light and peace. Can any words sufficiently express the insignificance of everything else? Is there any dream like the dream of life, which amuses us with the neglect and disregard of these things?"

"When we consider death as a tragedy, we think of it only as a tragic separation from the enjoyments of this life. We seldom mourn over an old man who dies rich, but we lament the young who are taken away in the pursuit of their fortune. You yourselves look upon me with pity, not because I am going unprepared the meet the Judge of the living and dead, but because I am to leave a properous business while I am in the flower of my life. What folly of the silliest children is as great as this? For what is there miserable or dreadful in death, except the consequences of it?"

Death Makes All Else Trivial

"Our poor friend Lepidus died, you know, as he was getting dressed for a party. Do you think that he now worries that he did not live until that entertainment was over? Parties, business, pleasures, and diversions seem so important to us while we think of nothing else, but as soon as we add death to them they all sink into an equal smallness. And the soul that is separated from the body no more laments the loss of business than missing a party."

"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 old? Could it be a sad thing to go to heaven before I had concluded a few more deals, or sat a little longer at my desk? When you are as near to death as I am, you will know that all the different states of life -- whether of youth or age, riches or poverty, fame or oblivion -- mean no more to you than whether you die in a poor or fancy apartment. What happens after death makes all that goes before completely trivial."

"But, my friends, how surprised I am that I have not always had these thoughts! What a strange thing it is that a little health, or the minor matter of a business, should keep us so unaware of these great things that are coming upon us so quickly! If i now had a thousand worlds, I would give them all for one year more, that I might give God one year of such devotion and good works as I never before so much as intended."

A Churchgoer By Habit

"When you consider that I have lived without any great scandal, regularly attending church, perhaps you wonder to see me so full of remorse and self-condemnation at the approach of death. But, alas! What a poor thing it is to have lived only free from murder, theft, and adultery -- which is all that I can say of myself. It is true that I have been part of the Church, and generally attended its Sunday services, when I was neither too idle nor otherwise occupied with my business and pleasures. But my attendance at public worship has been more a matter of habit than any real intention of doing that which the Church requires. Had that not been so, I would have been more often at church, more devout when there, and more fearful of neglecting it."

Never Managing Spiritual Growth

"But the thing that now surprises me most is this: that I never intended to live up to the Gospel. This thought never entered my head or heart. I never once considered whether I was living as the requirements of faith direct, or whether my way of life was the kind that would gain God's mercy at this hour. What is the reason that I -- who have so often talked of the necessity of processes, methods, and diligence in managing my worldly business -- have all this time never once thought of any processes, methods, or controls to help me manage a life of devotion? If i only had my weaknesses and faults 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 complete neglect of all spiritual improvement a weakness or fault, when it was in my power to have been as careful and diligent in a course of spiritual growth, as I was in my business? I could have called on many resources, instituted several practices, and learned as many methods of holy living as I learned ways to succeed in business -- if I had only intended and desired to do so."

Penitens was going on here, but he was stopped by a convulsion which never permitted him to speak again.


This story is taken from original text by William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Much of the wording is taken from abridged version published by Westminister Press, though i have freely adapted it to produce a work with minor original content. The greatest credit is nevertheless due to Law and his clarity of insight into the importance of seriously pursuing holy living.