Book Talk Tuesday, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 4, Chapter 13

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CHAPTER XIII. Of Spiritual and Sensible Consolations, and how to receive them.

THE order of God’s Providence maintains a perpetual vicissitude in the
material being of this world; day is continually turning to night,
spring to summer, summer to autumn, autumn to winter, winter to spring;
no two days are ever exactly alike. Some are foggy, rainy, some dry or
windy; and this endless variety greatly enhances the beauty of the
universe. And even so precisely is it with man (who, as ancient writers
have said, is a miniature of the world), for he is never long in any
one condition, and his life on earth flows by like the mighty waters,
heaving and tossing with an endless variety of motion; one while
raising him on high with hope, another plunging him low in fear; now
turning him to the right with rejoicing, then driving him to the left
with sorrows; and no single day, no, not even one hour, is entirely the
same as any other of his life.

All this is a very weighty warning, and teaches us to aim at an abiding
and unchangeable evenness of mind amid so great an uncertainty of
events; and, while all around is changing, we must seek to remain
immoveable, ever looking to, reaching after and desiring our God. Let
the ship take what tack you will, let her course be eastward or
westward, northern or southern, let any wind whatsoever fill her sails,
but meanwhile her compass will never cease to point to its one
unchanging lodestar. Let all around us be overthrown, nay more, all
within us; I mean let our soul be sad or glad, in bitterness or joy, at
peace or troubled, dry and parched, or soft and fruitful, let the sun
scorch, or the dew refresh it; but all the while the magnet of our
heart and mind, our superior will, which is our moral compass, must
continually point to the Love of God our Creator, our Saviour, our only
Sovereign Good. “Whether we live, we live unto the Lord, or whether we
die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live therefore or die, we are the
Lord’s. Who shall separate us from the Love of Christ?” [193] Nay,
verily, nothing can ever separate us from that Love;–neither
tribulation nor distress, neither death nor life, neither present
suffering nor fear of ills to come; neither the deceits of evil spirits
nor the heights of satisfaction, nor the depths of sorrow; neither
tenderness nor desolation, shall be able to separate us from that Holy
Love, whose foundation is in Christ Jesus. Such a fixed resolution
never to forsake God, or let go of His Precious Love, serves as ballast
to our souls, and will keep them stedfast amid the endless changes and
chances of this our natural life. For just as bees, when overtaken by a
gust of wind, carry little pebbles to weight themselves, [194] in order
that they may resist the storm, and not be driven at its will,–so the
soul, which has firmly grasped the Unchanging Love of God, will abide
unshaken amid the changes and vicissitudes of consolations and
afflictions,–whether spiritual or temporal, external or internal.

But let us come to some special detail, beyond this general doctrine.

1. I would say, then, that devotion does not consist in conscious
sweetness and tender consolations, which move one to sighs and tears,
and bring about a kind of agreeable, acceptable sense of
self-satisfaction. No, my child, this is not one and the same as
devotion, for you will find many persons who do experience these
consolations, yet who, nevertheless, are evilminded, and consequently
are devoid of all true Love of God, still more of all true devotion.
When Saul was in pursuit of David, who fled from him into the
wilderness of En-gedi, he entered into a cave alone, wherein David and
his followers were hidden; and David could easily have killed him, but
he not only spared Saul’s life, he would not even frighten him; but,
letting him depart quietly, hastened after the King, to affirm his
innocence, and tell him how he had been at the mercy of his injured
servant. Thereupon Saul testified to the softening of his heart by
tender words, calling David his son, and exalting his generosity;
lifting up his voice, he wept, and, foretelling David’s future
greatness, besought him to deal kindly with Saul’s “seed after him.”
[195] What more could Saul have done? Yet for all this he had not
changed his real mind, and continued to persecute David as bitterly as
before. Just so there are many people who, while contemplating the
Goodness of God, or the Passion of His Dear Son, feel an emotion which
leads to sighs, tears, and very lively prayers and thanksgivings, so
that it might fairly be supposed that their hearts were kindled by a
true devotion;–but when put to the test, all this proves but as the
passing showers of a hot summer, which splash down in large drops, but
do not penetrate the soil, or make it to bring forth anything better
than mushrooms. In like manner these tears and emotions do not really
touch an evil heart, but are altogether fruitless;–inasmuch as in
spite of them all those poor people would not renounce one farthing of
illgotten gain, or one unholy affection; they would not suffer the
slightest worldly inconvenience for the Sake of the Saviour over Whom
they wept. So that their pious emotions may fairly be likened to
spiritual fungi,–as not merely falling short of real devotion, but
often being so many snares of the Enemy, who beguiles souls with these
trivial consolations, so as to make them stop short, and rest satisfied
therewith, instead of seeking after true solid devotion, which consists
in a firm, resolute, ready, active will, prepared to do whatsoever is
acceptable to God. A little child, who sees the surgeon bleed his
mother, will cry when he sees the lancet touch her; but let that mother
for whom he weeps ask for his apple or a sugar-plum which he has in his
hand, and he will on no account part with it; and too much of our
seeming devotion is of this kind. We weep feelingly at the spear
piercing the Crucified Saviour’s Side, and we do well,–but why cannot
we give Him the apple we hold, for which He asks, heartily? I mean our
heart, the only love-apple which that Dear Saviour craves of us. Why
cannot we resign the numberless trifling attachments, indulgences, and
self-complacencies of which He fain would deprive us, only we will not
let Him do so; because they are the sugar-plums, sweeter to our taste
than His Heavenly Grace? Surely this is but as the fondness of
children;–demonstrative, but weak, capricious, unpractical. Devotion
does not consist in such exterior displays of a tenderness which may be
purely the result of a naturally impressionable, plastic character; or
which may be the seductive action of the Enemy, or an excitable
imagination stirred up by him.

2. Nevertheless these tender warm emotions are sometimes good and
useful, for they kindle the spiritual appetite, cheer the mind, and
infuse a holy gladness into the devout life, which embellishes all we
do even externally. It was such a taste for holy things that made David
cry out, “O how sweet are Thy words unto my throat, yea, sweeter than
honey unto my mouth.” [196] And assuredly the tiniest little comfort
received through devotion is worth far more than the most abundant
delights of this world. The milk of the Heavenly Bridegroom, in other
words His spiritual favours, are sweeter to the soul than the costliest
wine of the pleasures of this world, and to those who have tasted
thereof all else seems but as gall and wormwood. There is a certain
herb which, if chewed, imparts so great a sweetness that they who keep
it in their mouth cannot hunger or thirst; even so those to whom God
gives His Heavenly manna of interior sweetness and consolation, cannot
either desire or even accept worldly consolations with any real zest or
satisfaction. It is as a little foretaste of eternal blessedness which
God gives to those who seek it; it is as the sugar-plum with which He
attracts His little ones; as a cordial offered to strengthen their
heart; as the first-fruits of their future reward. The legend tells us
that Alexander the Great discovered Arabia Felix by means of the
perfumes carried by the winds across the ocean upon which he sailed,
reviving his courage and that of his comrades. And so the blessings and
sweetnesses, which are wafted to us as we sail across the stormy sea of
this mortal life, are a foretaste of the bliss of that Ever-blessed
Heavenly Home to which we look and long.

3. But, perhaps you will say, if there are sensible consolations which
are undoubtedly good and come from God, and at the same time others
which are unprofitable, perilous, even harmful, because they proceed
from mere natural causes, or even from the Enemy himself, how am I to
know one from the other, or distinguish what is most profitable even
among those which are good? It is a general rule, with respect to the
feelings and affections, that their test is in their fruits. Our hearts
are as trees, of which the affections and passions are their branches,
and deeds and acts their fruits. That is, a good heart, of which the
affections are good, and those are good affections which result in good
and holy actions. If our spiritual tenderness and sweetness and
consolation make us more humble,–patient, forbearing, charitable and
kindly towards our neighbours,–more earnest in mortifying our own evil
inclinations and lusts, more diligent in our duties, more docile and
submissive to those who have a claim to our obedience, more simple in
our whole manner of life,–then doubtless, my daughter, they come from
God. But if this sweetness and tenderness is sweet only to ourselves,
if we are fanciful, bitter, punctilious, impatient, obstinate, proud,
presumptuous, harsh towards our neighbour, while reckoning ourselves as
half-made saints, indocile to correction or guidance, then we may be
assured our consolations are spurious and hurtful. A good tree will
bring forth none save good fruit.

4. If we are favoured with any such sweetness, we must humble ourselves
deeply before God, and beware of being led to cry out “How good I am!”
No indeed, such gifts do not make us any better, for, as I have already
said, devotion does not consist in such things; rather let us say, “How
good God is to those who hope in Him, and to the souls that seek Him!”
If a man has sugar in his mouth, he cannot call his mouth sweet, but
the sugar; and so although our spiritual sweetness is admirable, and
God Who imparts it is all good, it by no means follows that he who
receives it is good. Let us count ourselves but as little children,
having need of milk, and believe that these sugar-plums are only given
us because we are still feeble and delicate, needing bribes and wiles
to lead us on to the Love of God. But, as a general rule, we shall do
well to receive all such graces and favours humbly, making much of
them, not for their own importance, but rather because it is God’s Hand
which fills our hearts with them, as a mother coaxes her child with one
sugar-plum after another. If the child were wise, he would prize the
loving caresses of his mother, more than the material sugar-plum,
however sweet. So while it is a great thing to have spiritual
sweetnesses, the sweetest of all is to know that it is the loving
parental Hand of God which feeds us, heart, mind and soul, with them.
And, having received them humbly, let us be diligent in using them
according to the intention of the Giver. Why do you suppose God gives
us such sweetness? To make us kinder one to another, and more loving
towards Him. A mother gives her child a sweetmeat to win a kiss; be it
ours reverently to kiss the Saviour Who gives us these good things. And
by kissing Him, I mean obeying Him, keeping His Commandments, doing His
Will, heeding His wishes, in a word, embracing Him tenderly,
obediently, and faithfully. So the day on which we have enjoyed some
special spiritual consolation should be marked by extra diligence and
humility. And from time to time it is well to renounce all such,
realising to ourselves that although we accept and cherish them humbly,
because they come from God, and kindle His Love in our hearts, still
they are not our main object, but God and His Holy Love;–that we seek
less the consolation than the Consoler, less His tangible sweetness
than our sweet Saviour, less external pleasure than Him Who is the
Delight of Heaven and earth; and with such a mind we should resolve to
abide stedfast in God’s Holy Love, even if our whole life were to be
utterly devoid of all sweetness; as ready to abide on Mount Calvary as
on Mount Tabor; to cry out, “It is good for us to be here,” whether
with our Lord on the Cross or in glory.

Lastly, I advise you to take counsel with your director concerning any
unusual flow of consolations or emotions, so that he may guide you in
their wise usage; for it is written, “Hast thou found honey? eat so
much as is sufficient for thee.” [197]
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[193] Rom. xiv. 8, and viii. 35.

[194] This notion seems to have arisen from the habits of the solitary
mason bee, which early writers did not distinguish from other bees.

[195] 1 Sam. xxiv.

[196] Ps. cxix. 103.

[197] Prov. xxv. 16.
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