Upon the Molting of a Peacock
Such is the gaiety of the peacock’s plumes, that Nazianzen (as I find him cited) says, that when he spreads his starry wheal the peahen is provoked to lust. And the naturalists who describe his properties affirm that he is ambitious of praise and affects to show his beauty, when commended by spectators, in a stately tread and free displaying of his various colors against the sun which casts a luster on them.
How short a continuance is this glory? How small is the distance between his delight to expose himself to the view of others and his shame to be looked upon by any? For no sooner do those specious feathers in which he prided himself fall from him, but he walks sorrowfully and has then (as observed) latronis passum [a robber walking] the shifting pace of a thief who flies the light and the eye which beholds him. He is dejected with the sense of loss, as one that is robbed by the autumn of his summer’s riches.
Can we have now, though we should make it our study, a more clear comment upon the text of St. Paul’s, The fashion, or the figure, of this world passes away? Or a more apt emblem of worldly men’s behavior so it does, then this pensive bird affords unto us?
What is the world with which men are so passionately enamored with but a surface, an outside, not so much of beauty as a lust — as St. John styles it? And what are those transient felicities of honor, fame, riches by which some are distinguished from others but so many crowns of breath that nothing of any firmness or solid consistency? What are they but so many painted bubbles which shine and break?
O methinks I never wanted words till now to express their emptiness! How shall I say something that may speak them less than nothing?
And yet in what admiration are these thing held with most? How do men affect to have the eyes of others to behold them? How highly do they who want any of these specious vanities thirst after them? And how hardly can any bear the loss and privation of what this way they enjoy.
And yet this only is certain, that all these things are most uncertain. The sick man’s pulse is not more uneven in its beatings; the leaves of trees are more various in their falling; or the feathers of birds more facile in their molting than the fancy and pomp of all earthly greatness is frail in its continuance.
How many accidents do make a change where men do promise themselves the most firm stability? How too is Job’s hedge pulled up, [Job 1:10] who said he should die in his nest and multiply his days as the sand? [Job 29:18] And David’s mountain removed, and he troubled, who pleased himself in his strength? [Ps. 46:2] What strange alterations and does the frowns of the prince in a courtier’s glory? Haman’s plume of honor and riches were lifted up and spread to the wonder of beholders, upon the change of Ahasuerus his countenance flag and trail in the dirt like the peacock’s train in a storm, yea drop and fall off; leaving him exposed to the utmost of shame and ignominy.
What steadfastness had the rich man in his great possessions beyond his own conceit? He promised himself the rest of many years, and yet lived not to see another morning. Death made an unexpected break upon his designed projects; and while he thinks to imp his wings for an higher flight and mount, he falls as low as the grave.
Can we then make better, or more seasonable mediation, when we find our affections carried out to the prizing and seeking of such perishing vanities, then to expostulate then with ourselves? Why is my foolish heart eaten up with cares? Mine eyes robbed of sleep, mine hands wearied with unceasing labor to grasp clouds, shadows, trifles that have little of reality or worth — and less of duration? Are these the things that make angels happy? Are the robes and crowns of saints made of no other matter than that we may see in the courts of princes?
O what a poor place were heaven if it had no other riches, beauty, excellency than what might be fetched out of the bowels of the earth, or the bottom of the seas and rocks? Add but eternity to such common comforts and you turn them into burdens which cannot be borne; into a satiety that produces loathing and not delight. It being change only that makes them to be grateful, it being sometimes pleasing to want them as to have them; to lay them aside as to put them on.
It is not then wisdom for me, for everyone one to make a right judgment concerning true happiness? And to know that is one thing and not many things; and yet it is sufficient for all persons, for all places both in heaven and earth; for all times both in this life and after it.
It is ever the same, and makes us ever the same; it has no change in itself, but the communication of its growth to us and what is not grace shall be glory in heaven.
If it could decay or lose, it were not happiness but misery.
Lord therefore whatever others judge or think,
make me like the wise merchant willing to sell all to buy the rich pearl,
yea to contemn all for one thing necessary,
and to say as David did,
Whom have I in heaven but thee?
And there is none upon earth that I desire besides thee.