WHAT a number of precepts, what a wealth of detail is contained in this maxim. Spiritual Maxims
To begin with, virtue is not virtue unless it is lovable: where it is not, it is imperfect. And its imperfection is due to self-love and self-esteem. When humility has dried up these two sources of all our shortcomings and evil habits, then virtue reveals itself in all its loveliness, and men cannot help but pay it homage, even though they may not show it. For virtue causes us to render to others the feelings we entertain for ourselves, so that what would be unwarrantable self-love in our own case becomes praiseworthy charity when directed towards others. It leads us to do to others as we would be done by; to think and speak, and even suffer from them, as we would have them act in our regard. Certainly no one could refuse the tribute of his love for such a virtue when he sees it in others, and all men would love one another if they were virtuous.
True piety, therefore, will inspire in the true servant of God all that will make him lovable, and its first sign is gentleness. If he is austere, it is only towards himself, and even then only in the measure of a holy discretion. Towards others, he is kind, easy and accommodating, in so far as his conscience permits. If at times he is obliged to be severe, charity is always the principle of his severity. He is never forbidding or rude, but always approachable and friendly. When we decide to live devoutly in the world, it would be a mistake to break off all social intercourse and lead too secluded a life, in order to give ourselves up wholly to pious exercises. Because we have given ourselves to God, that does, mean that we are to have no more friends (assuming, of course, that such friendships are not dangerous or will not dissipate us in any way). There is no need to deprive ourselves of the pleasure of their society. Visits of courtesy -- even those which would appear to be purposeless and tiresome -- need not be a burden to us. What would the world think of a pious person who shut himself up in his home and refused to see anybody; or, if he must see them, presented a cold and forbidding countenance? By withdrawing thus from all social intercourse, he would render piety odious, and give the impression that it was most unreasonable. It would also deprive him of many opportunities for practising virtue, and he would contract the very faults and form a habit of mind which true religion condemns.
Undoubtedly it is good to have a fixed time for one's religious duties and, so far as possible, to discharge them faithfully. But we should not multiply them to such an extent that they effect our whole day, and leave us no time to give to our fellow creatures. Besides, charity always knows how to adapt and even sacrifice itself in the matter of devotions, in accordance with the consideration it owes to others.
True piety, further, evinces much gentleness in the exercise of authority, especially towards children and other dependents. It is never rigid, unyielding and exacting. When it rebukes, it does so without undue severity. It readily forgives, and does not search for every tiny fault. Threats are never on its lips, nor chastisement in its hand. Above all, it avoids outbursts of impatience and temper, hard words and reproaches, all that mortifies and hurts without helping to correct. It ever seeks to make others good, but not in a harsh way, and it does not expect perfection to be reached in a day. It waits patiently, and returns again and again to the same point. It consoles, encourages, has a good word for good will, and praises the smallest efforts in order to induce greater.
But the especial fault which it is the object of true piety to correct in us is irritability or moodiness. Everyone understands the term, but it is not easy to define it. It is laid to the charge of devout persons more than to any others. Mistaken piety often gives occasions for its display. The cross humour to which I allude does not arise from malice; it is not a failing of bad people, but on the contrary of the frank and straightforward. But it causes many heart-aches of which one is veritably ashamed when the fit has passed, and it is intolerable in the presence of others. Politeness teaches us to check it amongst strangers and those we respect, but we are not so quick to repress it among friends or at home. And those who give way to it are the first to suffer from its effects.
Nothing is more difficult to extirpate than this moodiness, because it is not excited for any particular reason, nor by any recognized moral cause; it depends in great measure on physical causes. What is more, it forestalls any kind of reflection on our part, and its fits come on when least expected. What hold can the will have on such a complaint, once middle-age has been reached? I know of but one remedy and that is the practice of the presence of God and of contemplative prayer. The first warns us of any stirrings of bad temper and checks them; the second gradually establishes the soul in a state of calm, keeps the imagination within bounds, modifies sensitiveness, and puts to flight low spirits, which are, I should say, the chief source of ill humour.
But the gentleness inspired by virtue must not be confused with that mildness which is purely natural. Those who are meek by nature are often weak, soft, indifferent, apathetic and unduly indulgent. Those, on the contrary, whose gentleness is an acquired virtue, are strong and firm. Their feelings run deep and are affected equally by good and evil. They are indulgent when it is advisable to be so, but never if it involves breaking the rules of duty. Those who are naturally meek are afraid to reprove lest they become excited and upset, while those who are virtuously gentle reprove strongly and even vigorously, but always with self-possession. The former dissemble through timidity, the others speak according to the promptings of charity. The former often run the risk of failing in their duty on some point, the latter will always fulfil their duty faithfully, without human respect. The former spare others in order to spare themselves, the latter only for God's greater glory, and as a duty of the highest order. As to that gentleness which is merely scheming, it is a vice which all agree in condemning.
Cordiality is another outcome of true piety. It was long ago banished from ordinary social intercourse, and its place taken by politeness, which resembles it externally, but dissimulates its feelings, affecting those it does not possess and hiding those it does. These demonstrations are received and paid back in the same coin, but in reality no reliance is to be placed on them, and they deceive no one with the least experience. The first lesson taught by the world to its votaries is to appear candid, but never to be cordial. And the word itself is almost as little used in modern-day speech as the thing itself is rare in society. Polite intercourse is reduced to vain and frequently contemptuous compliments, to offers of service the acceptance of which would be annoying, unmeaning promises easily to be evaded at the time of fulfilment, assurances of good will which always end in declarations of regret, and demonstrations of interest in other's concerns that appear to be genuine but are in reality often cold and completely false.
How different is this outward affectation from real Christian cordiality. Charity never fails in the requirements of true courtesy, but with them combines frankness and candour. It expresses only what it feels, and that simply, unaffectedly and persuasively. There is no evasion, no reticence, no affectation, all comes from the heart. It is love that prompts speech, discretion that holds it in check. Sweet and safe and satisfactory are the relations with minds inspired by charity. The first Christians, we are told, had but one heart and one soul, [ 1] for they looked upon themselves as members of one body joined to one Head.
This is the divine unity that Our Lord asked of His Father on the night of His Passion. Father, He prayed, that they all may be one, as Thou in Me and I in Thee; that they also may be one in Us; that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me. [ 2] By that sign Our Lord wills that the divine origin of His religion should be known. If only that unity reigned on earth, happiness would reign likewise. It was Our Lord's mind that it should begin in this world and be consummated eternally in heaven. But where is it today? In the hearts of a very small number of Christians, far fewer than is generally supposed. The hearts of the rest are crossed by a thousand petty views of self-interest and self-seeking, which, though they may not kill it, render charity cold and constrained.
Kindliness adds to cordiality a certain disposition which takes all in good part, puts the best construction on things, is not quick to take offence, and is neither captious nor suspicious: a quality not usually found among devout persons. These are so apt to judge others severely, because they are able to recognize good and evil, and have greater lights by which they discern these things in others.
Another fault which is fairly common in such persons is that of esteeming oneself better than everyone else. Self-esteem and spiritual vanity are among the most dangerous snares which beset anyone new to the interior life. No sooner have we given ourselves to God and think we perceive a noticeable improvement in our behaviour, than we begin to make comparisons. How superior we are and, thank God, how free from the defects we notice in others! And so it goes on, and before we know where we are, we repeat the words of the Pharisee in the Gospel: O God, I give Thee thanks that I am not as the rest of men. [ 3]
These feelings are generally enhanced if one has felt a certain sensible sweetness at communion. If emotion has wrung from us a few tears, at once the soul fancies that it is lifted up right above this world and given eagles' wings for the loftiest of flights. This is a subtle temptation which it is difficult altogether to avoid, unless God gives a helping hand or withdraws His misused consolations. Spiritual pride is unquestionably more to be feared than any other, since its objects are so much more excellent. Wherefore, God allows those who yield to it to be visited with still greater blindness, and its victims are exposed to the danger of their eternal loss.
Those directors who have not the spirit of God are equally apt to presume on their gifts, and fancy themselves more enlightened than others. They persuade themselves that they have a special gift for the guidance of souls, and that others know nothing about it. They are proud of the number and quality of their penitents, and use secret devices to increase their number. If they are not continually boasting of their own powers, that work is done for them by other lips. They express pity for those who apply to other priests and imply that it is a matter for regret that persons so well disposed should not have fallen into better hands. Their first business, therefore, when someone submits to their direction, is to destroy the work that has been done by others and to suggest new methods, insisting that their penitents should adopt an altogether different way of life. Directors of this kind have an intensely domineering spirit, and exercise despotic sway over souls. They do not bring them into subjection to grace but to their own notions. They never tell them to listen to the voice of God speaking in their hearts: no, God is supposed to speak through their instrumentality alone, and any inward inspiration not in accordance with their views is treated as an illusion. I pray you, devout souls, avoid these despots, and seek such as will watch the work of grace in your soul, and conform their advice to the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Their one lesson will be to teach you to be attentive and docile to the voice of the Good Shepherd.
To overlook the faults of others is a fundamental rule of Christian charity; severity with our own the first principle of interior mortification. But many who profess to be interior souls assume just the opposite. There has always been, and always will be, ground for complaint on this score.
How easy is that devotion which consists in blaming and criticizing other people, sometimes with intolerable harshness, sometimes with an affectation of pity. Where is the charity in a person who will not bear with others, but turns to ridicule all that he disapproves, either with or without reason; who makes no allowance for anything, not even for human frailty? We are not obliged to flatter our neighbour in spite of his reprehensible characteristics, but we should bear with him, and not let him see that his company is not agreeable to us. With whom are we to live if we only live with those who are faultless? By what rule of equity would you have others, not only put up with you but take pleasure in your company and adapt themselves to your peculiarities, when you are not prepared to bear their burdens, which are quite as heavy as your own? Are you yourself faultless? And yet you feel that others should make allowances for you. At least, then, be indulgent towards them. Of all defects, intolerance towards others is the most disgraceful. Bear ye one another's burdens, and so you shall fulfil the law of Christ. [ 4] So says St. Paul, and he comes back to the same thing in almost all his epistles. It is, indeed, a most important factor in life, most necessary for the common good, and it helps to make things run smoothly. The natural law has even endowed it with the force of a precept, so essential is it in its eyes. An ancient poet insisted that, just as love is blind to the defects in the object of its affections, so should we be to the shortcomings of our friends; that we should disguise them under favourable terms, even as a father hides the corporal blemishes of his son. The apostle would have Christians love one another with the same kind of love, and encourage the same kind of union, as members of a body. [ 5] The members of the human body, he seems to say, do more than support one another. They come to one another's aid as need arises, and watch with assiduous care in the conservation of the whole, the stronger coming to the aid of the weaker members. So St. Paul would have us act in like manner, one towards another, as members of one body.
Take the example of Our Lord Himself, and consider how He lived with His apostles. He was holiness itself, they coarse and far from perfect. What could He see in them that provoked His love; and what did He not see that did not repel it? It would seem that the holier He was, the more painful it must have been to live with them; He might have been excused if He had had less indulgence towards them, and yet it was just the contrary. Never was a master more compassionate, more condescending. With what kindness He taught them, adapting His teaching to their lack of understanding, repeating His lessons, emphasizing them, explaining in private what He had said in public. With what gentleness He reprimanded them for their jealousy, their ambition, for their quarrels amongst themselves. Their failure to grasp the heavenly meaning of all He said, their Jewish prejudices, their misguided opinion of His Person -- none of these things shocked Him. Indeed, He preferred their ignorant simplicity to the knowledge of the doctors, and to the proud justice of the Pharisees, who found no greater fault in Him than that He associated with the lowly, especially with sinners. See how wonderfully He spoke to the disciples in His discourse after the Last Supper.
And St. Paul, the perfect imitator of Christ, made himself all things to all men, in order that he might win the world to Christ. Not that he sought to please men; his thoughts were far higher than that. But he bent down to them so that he might raise them up to him. He made their miseries his own, so touched was he by their need. He tells Christians that they must rejoice with those that rejoice, and weep with those that weep. [ 6] Who is weak, he said, and I am not weak; who is scandalized, and I am not on fire? [ 7] He wanted the strong to help the weak; that they should not seek their own pleasure, but be to one another what Jesus was to them.
St. John, the beloved disciple, would seem to reduce the whole of his teaching to the love of one's neighbour, and to that charity which endures all. In his extreme old age, no longer able to preach long discourses, he contented himself with repeating the simple words: Little children, love one another. [ 8] And when it was complained that he always said the same thing, he replied in effect that such was the commandment of the Lord, and it alone was enough, provided one fulfilled it.
Now of all the duties contained in this precept the most essential is the patient endurance of one's neighbour, because it calls for sustained effort and its results are of the greatest consequence, whether the commandment be kept or no. It is also the most difficult, since it demands continuous vigilance, and unremitting efforts to overcome ourselves. To bear all from others, giving them no occasion to bear anything from us, is a sign of very great virtue.
But to arrive at this state, what a deadly war must be waged with our personal defects, with that self-love which is at the root of them. Say what we will, the true reason that makes us so fastidious in regard to others is our own excessive self-love and self-esteem. The more we spare ourselves, the less do we consider others. The blinder we are to our own imperfections, the clearer do we perceive the defects of others. The great and only way to become charitable is to give oneself wholeheartedly to the practice of interior mortification, to apply the knife and cautery to our own wounds, and to uproot down to the tiniest fibre our secret self-complacency. Rest assured that in the measure in which self-love dies in us, will the love of our neighbour grow.
But that is just what men will not listen to. Of all the forms of mortification, interior mortification is the most distasteful to nature. Men will willingly overburden themselves with austerities, regretting those they cannot undertake; they will fast beyond their strength, undertake all manner of devotional practices, spend hours of the day in prayer: but break their will, repress their bad temper, try to overcome their sensitiveness, check their unfounded suspicions, their malicious curiosity, their rash judgments and unjust prejudices; in a word, make war on all the vices of the heart and mind -- this few are prepared to do, so painful is it to nature. And fewer still have the courage to carry it to a successful issue.
1Acts iv. 32
2John xvii. 21
3Luke xviii. 11
4Gal. vi. 2
5cf. I Cor. xii. 27
6Rom. xii. 15
7II Cor. xi. 29
8cf. I John iv. 7