Book Talk Tuesday, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chapter 1

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PART III. CONTAINING COUNSELS CONCERNING THE PRACTICE OF VIRTUE.
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CHAPTER I. How to select that which we should chiefly Practise.

THE queen bee never takes wing without being surrounded by all her
Subjects; even so Love never enters the heart but it is sure to bring
all other virtues in its train; marshalling and employing them as a
captain his soldiers; yet, nevertheless, Love does not set them all to
work suddenly, or equally, at all times and everywhere. The righteous
man is “like a tree planted by the water side, that will bring forth
his fruit in due season;” [50] inasmuch as Love, watering and
refreshing the soul, causes it to bring forth good works, each in
season as required. There is an old proverb to the effect that the
sweetest music is unwelcome at a time of mourning; and certain persons
have made a great mistake when, seeking to cultivate some special
virtue, they attempt to obtrude it on all occasions, like the ancient
philosophers we read of, who were always laughing or weeping. Worse
still if they take upon themselves to censure those who do not make a
continual study of this their pet virtue. S. Paul tells us to “rejoice
with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep;” [51] and
Charity is patient, kind, liberal, prudent, indulgent.

At the same time, there are virtues of universal account, which must
not only be called into occasional action, but ought to spread their
influence over everything. We do not very often come across
opportunities for exercising strength, magnanimity, or magnificence;
but gentleness, temperance, modesty, and humility, are graces which
ought to colour everything we do. There may be virtues of a more
exalted mould, but at all events these are the most continually called
for in daily life. Sugar is better than salt, but we use salt more
generally and oftener. Consequently, it is well to have a good and
ready stock in hand of those general virtues of which we stand in so
perpetual a need.

In practising any virtue, it is well to choose that which is most
according to our duty, rather than most according to our taste. It was
Saint Paula’s liking to practise bodily mortifications with a view to
the keener enjoyment of spiritual sweetness, but obedience to her
superiors was a higher duty; and therefore Saint Jerome acknowledges
that she was wrong in practising excessive abstinence contrary to the
advice of her Bishop. And the Apostles, whose mission it was to preach
the Gospel, and feed souls with the Bread of Life, judged well that it
was not right for them to hinder this holy work in order to minister to
the material wants of the poor, weighty as that work was also. [52]
Every calling stands in special need of some special virtue; those
required of a prelate, a prince, or a soldier, are quite different; so
are those beseeming a wife or a widow, and although all should possess
every virtue, yet all are not called upon to exercise them equally, but
each should cultivate chiefly those which are important to the manner
of life to which he is called.

Among such virtues as have no special adaptation to our own calling,
choose the most excellent, not the most showy. A comet generally looks
larger than the stars, and fills the eye more; but all the while comets
are not nearly so important as the stars, and only seem so large to us
because they are nearer to us than stars, and are of a grosser kind. So
there are certain virtues which touch us very sensibly and are very
material, so to say, and therefore ordinary people give them the
preference. Thus the common run of men ordinarily value temporal
almsgiving more than spiritual; and think more of fasting, exterior
discipline and bodily mortification than of meekness, cheerfulness,
modesty, and other interior mortifications, which nevertheless are far
better. Do you then, my daughter, choose the best virtues, not those
which are most highly esteemed; the most excellent, not the most
visible; the truest, not the most conspicuous.

It is well for everybody to select some special virtue at which to aim,
not as neglecting any others, but as an object and pursuit to the mind.
Saint John, Bishop of Alexandria, saw a vision of a lovely maiden,
brighter than the sun, in shining garments, and wearing an olive crown,
who said to him, “I am the King’s eldest daughter, and if thou wilt
have me for thy friend, I will bring thee to see His Face.” Then he
knew that it was pity for the poor which God thus commended to him, and
from that time he gave himself so heartily to practise it, that he is
universally known as Saint John the Almoner. Eulogius Alexandrinus
desired to devote himself wholly to God, but he had not courage either
to adopt the solitary life, or to put himself under obedience, and
therefore he took a miserable beggar, seething in dirt and leprosy, to
live with him; and to do this more thoroughly, he vowed to honour and
serve him as a servant does his lord and master. After a while, both
feeling greatly tempted to part company, they referred to the great
Saint Anthony, who said, “Beware of separating, my sons, for you are
both near your end, and if the Angel find you not together, you will be
in danger of losing your crowns.”

Saint Louis counted it a privilege to visit the hospitals, where he
used to tend the sick with his own royal hands. Saint Francis loved
poverty above all things, and called her his lady-love. Saint Dominic
gave himself up to preaching, whence his Order takes its name. [53]
Saint Gregory the Great specially delighted to receive pilgrims after
the manner of faithful Abraham, and like him entertained the King of
Glory under a pilgrim’s garb. Tobit devoted himself to the charitable
work of burying the dead. Saint Elizabeth, albeit a mighty princess,
loved above all things to humble herself. When Saint Catherine of Genoa
became a widow, she gave herself up to work in an hospital. Cassian
relates how a certain devout maiden once besought Saint Athanasius to
help her in cultivating the grace of patience; and he gave her a poor
widow as companion, who was cross, irritable, and altogether
intolerable, and whose perpetual fretfulness gave the pious lady
abundant opportunity of practising gentleness and patience. And so some
of God’s servants devote themselves to nursing the sick, helping the
poor, teaching little children in the faith, reclaiming the fallen,
building churches, and adorning the altar, making peace among men.
Therein they resemble embroidresses who work all manner of silks, gold
and silver on various grounds, so producing beautiful flowers. Just so
the pious souls who undertake some special devout practice use it as
the ground of their spiritual embroidery, and frame all manner of other
graces upon it, ordering their actions and affections better by means
of this their chief thread which runs through all.

“Upon Thy Right Hand did stand the Queen in a vesture of gold wrought
about with divers colours.” [54]

When we are beset by any particular vice, it is well as far as possible
to make the opposite virtue our special aim, and turn everything to
that account; so doing, we shall overcome our enemy, and meanwhile make
progress in all virtue. Thus, if I am beset with pride or anger, I must
above all else strive to cultivate humility and gentleness, and I must
turn all my religious exercises,–prayer, sacraments, prudence,
constancy, moderation, to the same object. The wild boar sharpens its
tusks by grinding them against its other teeth, which by the same
process are sharpened and pointed; and so when a good man endeavours to
perfect himself in some virtue which he is conscious of specially
needing, he ought to give it edge and point by the aid of other
virtues, which will themselves be confirmed and strengthened as he uses
them with that object. It was so with Job, who, while specially
exercising the virtue of patience amid the numberless temptations which
beset him, was confirmed in all manner of holiness and godly virtues.
And Saint Gregory Nazianzen says, that sometimes a person has attained
the height of goodness by one single act of virtue, performed with the
greatest perfection; instancing Rahab as an example, who, having
practised the virtue of hospitality very excellently, reached a high
point of glory. [55] Of course, any such action must needs be performed
with a very exceeding degree of fervour and charity.
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[50] Ps. i. 3.

[51] Rom. xii. 15.

[52] Acts vi. 2.

[53] The Preaching Friars.

[54] Psalm 5. 13, 14. “En son beau vestement de drap d’or recame, Et
d’ouvrages divers a l’aiguile seme.”

[55] S. Francis evidently alludes here to the mention made of Rahab by
S. Paul. Heb. xi. 31.
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