Take no account of external things: seek strenuously after those blessings which are to be found within
THE natural man, the old or fallen man, is called the outward man on account of his natural bias towards objects of sense. The spiritual man, the new man, or the man according to grace, is called the inward man because, dwelling apart in himself with God, he cleaves only to things that are invisible and supernatural.
Sensible objects hold an extraordinary sway over man. Their power begins in childhood, when pleasures and pain take their rise from these sources alone. It develops with age. The soul is keenly affected by all that strikes it from without; admiration and envy are excited by those accidents which raise some persons above their fellows, such as nobility, office, honours and wealth. Men look on these things as truly good, they bestow esteem and love upon them, seek only to enjoy them, and believe that happiness lies in the possession, and misery in the absence, of these advantages.
The work of sense and of corrupt nature is already far advanced, when grace comes forward to destroy it, and raise a very different structure upon its ruins. Grace teaches us that we are true Christians only in so far as we despise sensible things and turn to those of the spirit, by ceasing to be outward and becoming wholly inward men.
It follows, then, that the Christian who lives an interior life at intervals and, as it were, by fits and starts, is not perfect, while the perfect Christian is so in all things and at all times. To aim at an interior life and at Christian perfection are one and the same thing.
This is a hard lesson for nature to learn. Some refuse to accept it at all, others listen impatiently and resist as long as they can and, when they do put it into practice, do so grudgingly and with great repugnances Only a few learn this wisdom, and even these pass through long and painful struggles in acquiring it. This heavenly wisdom is utterly different from that of the world; indeed, it costs a great deal to rise to so noble a view of life.
The Christian is, in this respect, a being of another world; intended, not only for immortality but for eternal happiness in God; a happiness which surpasses all his thoughts, all his aspirations and hopes, even the very exigence of his nature. It is the pure gift of God, promised by revelation, and known only by faith.
We are prepared for this end by other blessings of the same order, which we call graces. The chief of these is habitual and is called sanctifying grace. The others are actual, and tend either to regain sanctifying grace if it is lost, or to preserve and increase it. The object of these graces is to raise to the supernatural order, both the state of the Christian and his free acts by which alone he can merit the possession of God.
The Christian is born into this world, and dwells herein for a certain time. But he is not of the world: it is not his; he is a stranger and a sojourner in it. Present and sensible objects are not his object. He may use them, as St. Augustine says, but not enjoy them. That is, God grants them to him for the necessities of his animal life, but his heart must not cling to them nor rest in them as in its final end. The true riches of the Christian on earth are grace, close communion with God, and all that fosters the supernatural life within him. Those things only are real evils which weaken that life, or deprive him of it.
External good and evil, therefore, are to him, properly speaking, neither really good nor really bad. But things called good may become evil, and the reverse, according to the use he makes of them. It is not so with interior good and evil. These are essentially connected with his supernatural state: that is, with his state as a Christian, and his eternal happiness or the contrary.
Consequently he ought to be indifferent to sensible good and evil, because in themselves they are indifferent things, which are profitable or harmful according to his interior dispositions. On the other hand, the whole strength of his mind and will must be devoted to the acquirement of such good and the avoidance of such evil things in the supernatural order, which can never be indifferent to him because of their intimate connection with his last end.
All Christians are much of one mind touching this great truth, so far as theory is concerned; but almost all follow other principles in practice. I am not here alluding to those who crave passionately for wealth, honours and pleasures, and who consider all means as lawful whereby their desires can be satisfied. These are Christians only in name, and so long as they continue in such a frame of mind, they can have no claim to being so in deed.
But among the rest, are there not many who are proud of their condition in life; who, having it in their power to aspire to honours and dignities, hanker after them, do all they can to procure them, feel delighted when their plans succeed, and miserable when they fail? And so with many other things.
Take riches alone. I pass over the countless numbers in all ranks of life who amass them by means which probity, to say nothing of our faith, condemn, and concerning which there is so much deceit. But I ask: are there many Christians who, having all they need to support their families in decency and sufficiency, wish for nothing more? Are they not always fancying that they have not enough? And is it not true that where you have opulence you will find pride, and with an increase of wealth an increase of self-esteem?
Then as regards pleasures, even those that are lawful (for I speak not of others): is there not much sensuality, solicitude and fastidiousness to be found even among Christians? Are not these pleasures eagerly sought, and jealously enjoyed? Are they not even invented, varied and multiplied with consummate skill? How careful men are to surround themselves with comforts, to avoid all that is disagreeable. How they flatter their body, and bestow on it all the gratification for which it is so ravenous. People think that they are very good Christians if, in these matters, they keep within the letter of the law, and run into no excess. But that is very different from the attitude of a perfect Christian.
The perfect Christian stifles the slightest germ of ambition in his heart. Not only does he not desire honours, but he fears them, abhors and shuns them, remembering the words of the Gospel: For that which is high to men is an abomination before God. [ ] He sees in positions of dignity nothing but a burden for his conscience, heavy duties to be fulfilled, and grave responsibilities to be answered for. Should birth or Divine Providence call him to such posts, he appears in the simple garb of modesty and humility. He is ever watchful over himself and against the snares that are prepared for him on all sides. He continually examines his conduct with the most scrupulous attention, deeming himself answerable for all the good he fails to do, as for the evil he does not hinder. If he is of low estate, he thanks God and rejoices in it as being a state more conformable to the Gospel, happier and more innocent and more conducive to his salvation, and makes no attempt to change it. Not only does he hate honours but he seeks humiliations, for he knows and appreciates their value. If they befall him, he receives them as favours from heaven, and considers himself happy if he is despised, opposed, slandered and persecuted like his Master.
Then again, the true Christian, taught by the Gospel, looks upon riches as thorns and encumbrances which turn him away, in spite of himself, from more important cares. He possesses them without clinging to them, uses them with extreme moderation, shares them with the poor, whose steward he regards himself. He cuts down his expenses as much as possible in their favour, convinced that his excess is their need, and that all that he can spare belongs to them. If he is poor, he rejoices in his poverty, is glad to feel its effects, and even to want sometimes for necessities. Nor would he change his position even if he could. He esteems it too great a privilege thus to bear some resemblance to his Lord, Who chose to be born, and to live and die, poor.
The holy severity of the Gospel is his rule of conduct in the matter of pleasures. He seeks none for their own sake, and passes through natural and necessary gratifications as through fire. In no respect will he indulge the flesh, but mortifies it ingeniously, giving no quarter to predilections and overcoming repugnances, but all with holy liberty, unaffectedly and with discretion. No saint, that is no true Christian, ever indulged his body, and most have sought to bring it into subjection by fastings, vigils and mortifications generally, which today would terrify our self-indulgence and cowardice. They all considered it an essential duty to bear about them, in their body, the mortification of Jesus. [ ]
Such, with regard to this world's goods, have perfect Christians always been, even when living in the world; for I do not restrict what I have said to those who have embraced voluntary poverty and chastity, and have left the world to live in solitude and in monasteries. In whatever state they were born, and wherever God placed them, they applied themselves to die to their body, and to refuse it even the most innocent satisfaction. Being faithful to grace, they set no bounds to their generosity.
Let not those be alarmed at this picture who, as St. Bernard says, see only the cross they have to bear and not the unction it brings. Let them not fancy that a true Christian's life is one of perpetual torture and restraint. The licentious and impious love to depict it under these frightening colours, to justify their having turned their backs on it; but they blaspheme what they know not, and deceive themselves of set purpose, and want to deceive others too.
No. The true Christian, in following the moral law, is not disturbed or worried. He does, indeed, do violence to his nature, but not to his mind or heart. He is perfectly convinced that he ought to do what he does, and he is glad to do it. If he despises, hates and shuns the delights and false pleasures on which he has turned his back, it is from a supernatural motive. God has raised him above all that. He has shown him the true nature of such things, and that knowledge prevents him from seeing in them anything but vanity and vexation of spirit. [ ] In the school, first of wisdom then of experience, the Christian learns that to serve God is to reign; that to possess virtue is wealth, and that true joy consists in peace of mind.
It is by turning our thoughts inwards to our soul, and by learning from our past errors; it is in the silence of meditation and prayer, that we make the wonderful discovery that true happiness is not to be found in the things of the world. It is there we perceive the nothingness of earthly things, and realize that they are capable, indeed, of exciting our passions but never of satisfying our heart. There a deep secret touch of grace tells us that our true happiness lies in God alone: that in order to enjoy and possess Him we must give up all other joys, or at least our clinging to them. Henceforth, all things seem insipid except prayer and communion with God. The world is crucified to us, and we to the world. [ ] We are drawn to God alone. We have sought Him and found Him in the sanctuary of our own soul. [ ]
How shall we express our delight at having found within ourselves what we have vainly sought elsewhere? How shall we tell of our joy at discovering the real, infinite and inexhaustible treasure, which alone is capable of filling the immense capacity of our heart, or rather for which the heart is too small, and wherein it plunges and loses itself? After having experienced this happiness, how is it possible to think of leaving God and returning to created things, forsaking the Fountain of living waters for broken cisterns that can hold no water; [ ] to hover between God Who is all and things that are naught; to prefer the bitter waters to the sweet; to risk the loss of the substance of our true happiness for the vain shadow?
It is not possible. At least, it is only possible if, with unheard-of infidelity, we little by little leave the interior way upon which we had entered. We may continue to make our meditations, and even to make them well, all the time keeping up some connection with the senses and with the things that please them. What we cannot do is to give ourselves to contemplative prayer without severing, so for as we can, our intercourse with created things; for the essence of such prayer is to concentrate all our affections on God, allowing no love but what is through Him, in Him and for Him.
Make the attempt, O Christian soul, and you will see that I speak truly. If you tell me that it is not within your power to enter upon this way of prayer, I answer in God's Name that He is ready to second your good will, and that He will introduce you into it, if you will do your part. Have at least the good will; and, since we cannot be sure even of that, ask it of God earnestly. That prayer alone is a good beginning; and how can God refuse you what He inspires you to ask? If few possess it, it is because few desire it; and those who do ask, ask often in fear of being heard! God reads the heart, and He sees whether we respond to His advances, and He never fails to cooperate when we do; but not otherwise. We may reproach Him with turning a deaf ear to our prayers. We protest that we have prayed in vain, that it is useless that we ask for a good will: He does not give it. The day will come, however, when God will make it clear to us that we have only ourselves to blame, if this is so. I do repeat: a soul that cooperates to the best of its ability to present grace must infallibly receive still greater graces according to its increasing needs; and if it perseveres, it will arrive at the degree of sanctity that God intends for it.
cf 2 Cor. iv. 10
cf. Eccles. I. 14
cf. Gal. vi. 14
cf. Cant. iii. 4
Jer. ii. 13
Work of God Apostolate