Book Talk Tuesday, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chapter 2

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CHAPTER II. The same Subject continued.

SAINT AUGUSTINE says very admirably, that beginners in devotion are
wont to commit certain faults which, while they are blameable according
to the strict laws of perfection, are yet praiseworthy by reason of the
promise they hold forth of a future excellent goodness, to which they
actually tend. For instance, that common shrinking fear which gives
rise to an excessive scrupulosity in the souls of some who are but just
set free from a course of sin, is commendable at that early stage, and
is the almost certain forerunner of future purity of conscience. But
this same fear would be blameable in those who are farther advanced,
because love should reign in their hearts, and love is sure to drive
away all such servile fear by degrees.

In his early days, Saint Bernard was very severe and harsh towards
those whom he directed, telling them, to begin with, that they must put
aside the body, and come to him with their minds only. In confession,
he treated all faults, however small, with extreme severity, and his
poor apprentices in the study of perfection were so urged onwards, that
by dint of pressing he kept them back, for they lost heart and breath
when they found themselves thus driven up so steep and high an ascent.
Therein, my daughter, you can see that, although it was his ardent zeal
for the most perfect purity which led that great Saint so to act, and
although such zeal is a great virtue, still it was a virtue which
required checking. And so God Himself checked it in a vision, by which
He filled S. Bernard with so gentle, tender, and loving a spirit, that
he was altogether changed, blaming himself heavily for having been so
strict and so severe, and becoming so kindly and indulgent, that he
made himself all things to all men in order to win all.

S. Jerome tells us that his beloved daughter, S. Paula, was not only
extreme, but obstinate in practising bodily mortifications, and
refusing to yield to the advice given her upon that head by her Bishop,
S. Epiphanius; and furthermore, she gave way so excessively to her
grief at the death of those she loved as to peril her own life.
Whereupon S. Jerome says: “It will be said that I am accusing this
saintly woman rather than praising her, but I affirm before Jesus, Whom
she served, and Whom I seek to serve, that I am not saying what is
untrue on one side or the other, but simply describing her as one
Christian another; that is to say, I am writing her history, not her
panegyric, and her faults are the virtues of others.” He means to say
that the defects and faults of S. Paula would have been looked upon as
virtues in a less perfect soul; and indeed there are actions which we
must count as imperfections in the perfect, which yet would be highly
esteemed in the imperfect. When at the end of a sickness the invalid’s
legs swell, it is a good sign, indicating that natural strength is
returning, and throwing off foul humours; but it would be a bad sign in
one not avowedly sick, as showing that nature was too feeble to
disperse or absorb those humours.

So, my child, we must think well of those whom we see practising
virtues, although imperfectly, since the Saints have done the like; but
as to ourselves we must give heed to practise them, not only
diligently, but discreetly, and to this end we shall do well strictly
to follow the Wise Man’s counsel, [56] and not trust in our own wisdom,
but lean on those whom God has given as our guides. And here I must say
a few words concerning certain things which some reckon as virtues,
although they are nothing of the sort–I mean ecstasies, trances,
rhapsodies, extraordinary transformations, and the like, which are
dwelt on in some books, and which promise to raise the soul to a purely
intellectual contemplation, an altogether supernatural mental altitude,
and a life of pre-eminent excellence. But I would have you see, my
child, that these perfections are not virtues, they are rather rewards
which God gives to virtues, or perhaps, more correctly speaking, tokens
of the joys of everlasting life, occasionally granted to men in order
to kindle in them a desire for the fulness of joy which is only to be
found in Paradise. But we must not aspire to such graces, which are in
nowise necessary to us in order to love and serve God, our only lawful
ambition. Indeed, for the most part, these graces are not to be
acquired by labour or industry, and that because they are rather
passions than actions, which we may receive, but cannot create.
Moreover, our business only is to become good, devout people, pious men
and women; and all our efforts must be to that end. If it should please
God further to endow us with angelic perfection, we should then be
prepared to become good angels; but meanwhile let us practise, in all
simplicity, humility and devotion, those lowly virtues to the
attainment of which our Lord has bidden us labour,–I mean patience,
cheerfulness, self-mortification, humility, obedience, poverty,
chastity, kindness to our neighbour, forbearance towards his failings,
diligence, and a holy fervour. Let us willingly resign the higher
eminences to lofty souls. We are not worthy to take so high a rank in
God’s service; let us be content to be as scullions, porters,
insignificant attendants in His household, leaving it to Him if He
should hereafter see fit to call us to His own council chamber. Of a
truth, my child, the King of Glory does not reward His servants
according to the dignity of their office, but according to the humility
and love with which they have exercised it. While Saul was seeking his
father’s asses, he found the kingdom of Israel: [57] Rebecca watering
Abraham’s camels, became his son’s wife: [58] Ruth gleaning after Boaz’
reapers, and lying down at his feet, was raised up to become his bride.
[59] Those who pretend to such great and extraordinary graces are very
liable to delusions and mistakes, so that sometimes it turns out that
people who aspire to be angels are not ordinarily good men, and that
their goodness lies more in high-flown words than in heart and deed.
But we must beware of despising or presumptuously condemning anything.
Only, while thanking God for the pre-eminence of others, let us abide
contentedly in our own lower but safer path,–a path of less
distinction, but more suitable to our lowliness, resting satisfied that
if we walk steadily and faithfully therein, God will lift us up to
greater things.
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[56] Ecclus. vi. 2, 32, 36.

[57] 1 Sam. ix.

[58] Gen. xxiv.

[59] Ruth ii. iii.
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