Book Talk Tuesday, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chapter 23

Book Talk Tuesday, Introduction to the Devout Life, Part 3, Chapter 23

CHAPTER XXIII. On The Practice of Bodily Mortification.

IT has been said that if one writes a word on an almond, and then
replace it carefully in its husk, and sow it, all the fruit borne by
that tree will be marked by the word so inscribed. For my own part, I
never could approve of beginning to reform any one by merely external
things,–dress, the arrangement of hair, and outward show. On the
contrary, it seems to me that one should begin from within. “Turn ye to
Me with all your heart;” [115] “My son, give Me thine heart; ” [116]
for as the heart is the fount whence all our actions spring, they will
be according to what it is. And the Heavenly Bridegroom, calling the
soul, says, “Set Me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine
arm.” [117] Yes verily, for whosoever has Jesus Christ in his heart
will soon show it in all his external actions. Therefore, my daughter,
above all things I would write that precious and Holy Name JESUS in
your heart, certain that having done so, your life–like the almond
tree in the fable–will bear the stamp of that Saving Name in every
act; and if the Dear Lord dwells within your heart, He will live in
your every action, and will be traced in every member and part of you,
so that you will be able to say with S. Paul, “I live, yet not I, but
Christ liveth in me.” [118] In a word, whosoever gains the heart has
won the whole man. But this heart needs to be trained in its external
conduct, so that it may display not merely a true devotion, but also
wisdom and discretion. To this end I would make one or two suggestions.

If you are able to fast, you will do well to observe some days beyond
what are ordered by the Church, for besides the ordinary effect of
fasting in raising the mind, subduing the flesh, confirming goodness,
and obtaining a heavenly reward, it is also a great matter to be able
to control greediness, and to keep the sensual appetites and the whole
body subject to the law of the Spirit; and although we may be able to
do but little, the enemy nevertheless stands more in awe of those whom
he knows can fast. The early Christians selected Wednesday, Friday and
Saturday as days of abstinence. Do you follow therein according as your
own devotion and your director’s discretion may appoint.

I am prepared to say with S. Jerome (to the pious Leta) that I
disapprove of long and immoderate fasting, especially for the young. I
have learnt by experience that when the colt grows weary it turns
aside, and so when young people become delicate by excessive fasting,
they readily take to self-indulgence. The stag does not run with due
speed either when over fat or too thin, and we are in peril of
temptation both when the body is overfed or underfed; in the one case
it grows indolent, in the other it sinks through depression, and if we
cannot bear with it in the first case, neither can it bear with us in
the last. A want of moderation in the use of fasting, discipline and
austerity has made many a one useless in works of charity during the
best years of his life, as happened to S. Bernard, who repented of his
excessive austerity. Those who misuse the body at the outset will have
to indulge it overmuch at last. Surely it were wiser to deal sensibly
with it, and treat it according to the work and service required by
each man’s state of life.

Fasting and labour both exhaust and subdue the body. If your work is
necessary or profitable to God’s Glory, I would rather see you bear the
exhaustion of work than of fasting. Such is the mind of the Church, who
dispenses those who are called to work for God or their neighbour even
from her prescribed fasts. One man finds it hard to fast, another finds
it as hard to attend the sick, to visit prisons, to hear confessions,
preach, minister to the afflicted, pray, and the like. And the last
hardship is better than the other; for while it subdues the flesh
equally, it brings forth better fruit. And as a general rule it is
better to preserve more bodily strength than is absolutely necessary,
than to damage it more than is necessary. Bodily strength can always be
lowered if needful, but we cannot restore it at will. It seems to me
that we ought to have in great reverence that which our Saviour and
Redeemer Jesus Christ said to His disciples, “Eat such things as are
set before you.” [119] To my mind there is more virtue in eating
whatever is offered you just as it comes, whether you like it or not,
than in always choosing what is worst; for although the latter course
may seem more ascetic, the former involves greater submission of will,
because by it you give up not merely your taste, but your choice; and
it is no slight austerity to hold up one’s likings in one’s hand, and
subject them to all manner of accidents. Furthermore, this kind of
mortification makes no show, inconveniences no one, and is admirably
adapted to social life. To be always discarding one dish for another,
examining everything, suspicious as to everything, making a fuss over
every morsel–all this to my mind is contemptible, and implies too much
thought of meats and platters. To my mind there was more austerity in
S. Bernard’s drinking oil by mistake for wine or water than if he had
deliberately drunk wormwood, for it showed that he was not thinking of
what he drank. And the real meaning of those sacred words, “Eat such
things as are set before you,” lies in such an indifference to what one
eats and drinks. I should make an exception of any food which is
unwholesome, or likely to be injurious to the mind’s energies, such as
certain hot, spiced, or stimulating dishes; as also on certain
occasions when nature requires to be refreshed and invigorated in order
to perform the work needful for God’s Glory. At all times a constant
habitual moderation is better than occasional excessive abstinence,
alternated with great indulgence. The discipline has a surprising
effect in rousing the taste for devotion, if used moderately. The body
is greatly subdued by the use of the hair shirt, but it is not fit for
ordinary people, married persons, those who are delicate, or who have
to bear considerable fatigue. On certain days of special penitence it
may be used, subject to the counsel of a judicious confessor.

Every one must take so much of the night for sleep, as his
constitution, and the profitable performance of his day’s work,
requires. Holy Scripture continually teaches us that the morning is the
best and most profitable part of the day, and so do the examples of the
Saints and our natural reason. Our Lord Himself is called the Sun,
risinig upon the earth, and our Lady the Day-star; and so I think it is
wise to go to sleep early at night in order to be ready to waken and
rise early. Moreover, that is the pleasantest, the freshest, and the
freest hour of the day,–the very birds stimulate us to rise and sing
God’s praises. Early rising promotes both health and holiness.

Balaam saddled his ass and went to meet Balak, but his heart was not
right with God, and therefore the Angel of the Lord stood in the way,
with a sword in his hand to kill him, had not the ass three times
turned out of the way as though she were restive; whereat Balaam smote
her with his staff, until at last she fell down beneath him, and her
mouth being miraculously opened, she said unto him, “What have I done
unto thee that thou hast smitten me these three times?” Then Balaam’s
eyes were opened, and he saw the Angel, who said to him, “Wherefore
hast thou smitten thine ass? unless she had turned from me surely now I
had slain thee, and saved her alive.” Then Balaam said to the Angel of
the Lord, “I have sinned, for I knew not that thou stoodest in the way
against me.” [120] Do you see, my daughter, it was Balaam who did
wrong, but he beat the poor ass, who was not to blame. It is often so
with us. A woman’s husband or child is ill, and forthwith she has
recourse to fasting, the discipline, and hair shirt, even as David did
on a like occasion. [121] But, dear friend, you are smiting the ass!
you afflict your body, which can do nothing when God stands before you
with His sword unsheathed. Rather correct your heart, which idolises
your husband, and has indulged your child, letting him give way to
pride, vanity, and ambition. Or, again, a man falls often into fleshly
sins, and the voice of conscience stands before him in the way, rousing
him to a holy fear. Then recollecting himself, he begins to abuse his
flesh for betraying him, he deals out strict fasts, severe discipline,
and the like, to it, and meanwhile the poor flesh might cry out like
Balaam’s ass, Why smitest thou me? It is you yourself, O my soul, that
are guilty. Wherefore do you force me into evil, using my eyes, and
hands, and lips for unholy purposes, and tormenting me with evil
imaginations? Do you entertain only good thoughts, and I shall feel no
unholy impulses, frequent none save pious people, and I shall not be
kindled with guilty fire. You cast me yourself into the flames, and bid
me not to burn! you fill my eyes with smoke, and wonder that they are
inflamed! But God bids you deal chiefly with your heart, for that is
the chief offender. When a man suffers from the itch, there is less
need to bathe him, and cleanse the surface, than to purify his blood;
and so, in order to purge our vices, no doubt it is well to mortify the
flesh, but above all it is necessary to purify the affections and renew
the heart. Make it a rule then never to undertake any bodily
austerities without the advice of your spiritual guide.

[115] Joel ii. 12.

[116] Prov. xxiii. 26.

[117] Cant. viii. 6.

[118] Gal. ii. 20.

[119] S. Luke x. 8.

[120] Numb. xxii.

[121] 2 Sam. xii. 16.