Book Talk Tuesday, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chapter 24

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CHAPTER XXIV. Of Society and Solitude.

EITHER to seek or to shun society is a fault in one striving to lead a
devout life in the world, such as I am now speaking of. To shun society
implies indifference and contempt for one’s neighbours; and to seek it
savours of idleness and uselessness. We are told to love one’s
neighbour as one’s self. In token that we love him, we must not avoid
being with him, and the test of loving one’s self is to be happy when
alone. “Think first on thyself,” says S. Bernard, “and then on other
men.” So that, if nothing obliges you to mix in society either at home
or abroad, retire within yourself, and hold converse with your own
heart. But if friends come to you, or there is fitting cause for you to
go forth into society, then, my daughter, by all means go, and meet
your neighbour with a kindly glance and a kindly heart.

Bad society is all such intercourse with others as has an evil object,
or when those with whom we mix are vicious, indiscreet, or profligate.
From such as these turn away, like the bee from a dunghill. The breath
and saliva of those who have been bitten by a mad dog is dangerous,
especially to children or delicate people, and in like manner it is
perilous to associate with vicious, reckless people, above all to those
whose devotion is still weakly and unstable.

There is a kind of social intercourse which merely tends to refresh us
after more serious labour, and although it would not be well to indulge
in this to excess, there is no harm in enjoying it during your leisure
hours.

Other social meetings are in compliance with courtesy, such as mutual
visits, and certain assemblies with a view to pay respect to one
another. As to these, without being a slave to them, it is well not to
despise them altogether, but to bear one’s own due part in them
quietly, avoiding rudeness and frivolity. Lastly, there is a profitable
society;–that of good devout people, and it will always be very good
for you to meet with them. Vines grown amid olivetrees are wont to bear
rich grapes, and he who frequents the society of good people will
imbibe some of their goodness. The bumble bee makes no honey alone, but
if it falls among bees it works with them. Our own devout life will be
materially helped by intercourse with other devout souls.

Simplicity, gentleness and modesty are to be desired in all
society;–there are some people who are so full of affectation in
whatever they do that every one is annoyed by them. A man who could not
move without counting his steps, or speak without singing, would be
very tiresome to everybody, and just so any one who is artificial in
all he does spoils the pleasure of society; and moreover such people
are generally more or less self-conceited. A quiet cheerfulness should
be your aim in society. S. Romuald and S. Anthony are greatly lauded
because, notwithstanding their asceticism, their countenance and words
were always courteous and cheerful. I would say to you with S. Paul,
“Rejoice with them that do rejoice;” [122] and again, “Rejoice in the
Lord alway: let your moderation be known unto all men.” [123] And if
you would rejoice in the Lord, the cause of your joy must not only be
lawful, but worthy; and remember this, because there are lawful things
which nevertheless are not good; and in order that your moderation may
be known, you must avoid all that is impertinent and uncivil, which is
sure to be wrong. Depreciating this person, slandering another,
wounding a third, stimulating the folly of a fourth–all such things,
however amusing, are foolish and impertinent.

I have already spoken of that mental solitude into which you can retire
when amid the greatest crowd, and furthermore you should learn to like
a real material solitude. Not that I want you to fly to a desert like
S. Mary of Egypt, S. Paul, S. Anthony, Arsenius, or the other hermits,
but it is well for you to retire sometimes within your own chamber or
garden, or wheresoever you can best recollect your mind, and refresh
your soul with good and holy thoughts, and some spiritual reading, as
the good Bishop of Nazianzum tells us was his custom. “I was walking
alone,” he says, “at sunset, on the seashore, a recreation I am wont to
take in order somewhat to lay aside my daily worries.” And S. Augustine
says that he often used to go into S. Ambrose’ room–his door was open
to every one,–and after watching him absorbed in reading for a time,
he would retire without speaking, fearing to interrupt the Bishop, who
had so little time for refreshing his mind amid the burden of his heavy
duties. And we read how when the disciples came to Jesus, and told Him
all they had been doing and preaching, He said to them, “Come ye
yourselves apart into a desert place, and rest awhile.” [124]
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[122] Rom. xii. 15.

[123] Phil. iv. 4, 5.

[124] S. Mark vi. 30, 31.
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