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A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit; a contrite and humble heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Ps. L., 19.)
1. According to the teaching of St. Thomas there are three ways of doing penance, namely, fasting, prayer, and alms-deeds—either corporal or spiritual. Therefore you must not suppose you are prevented from doing penance when not allowed to subject your body to severe fasts and painful mortifications. The other two penitential works, prayer and alms-giving, can in this case take the place of corporal austerities in the fulfilment of the Christian duty of penance. Observe also that it is not in accordance with the spirit of the laws of God and of his Church, which prescribe fasting, to injure your health thereby, nor to hinder the accomplishment of the duties of your state of life.38
2. Labor, sickness, disappointments, reverse of fortune, dryness in prayer, all these when accepted with resignation are penitential works, such, too, as are the more agreeable to God from their being so distasteful to ourselves. All virtues may be divided into two great classes, active and passive. The characteristic of the active virtues is to do good, of the passive, to endure evil. Now the virtues of the second class are more meritorious and less perilous. In the active virtues nature can have a large share, and a dangerous self-complacency, or satisfaction in their effects, may easily glide into them. This danger is less to be feared in the practice of the passive virtues, especially when the sufferings are not of our own choosing but come to us direct from the hand of God.
3. St. Jerome teaches that when the devil cannot turn a soul away from the love of virtue, he tries to urge it to excessive mortification, in order that it may thus become exhausted and lose the vigor indispensable to its spiritual progress. Numbers of devout people have fallen into this snare.
4. “I charge you,” says St. Francis de Sales, “to preserve your health carefully, for God exacts this of you, and to husband your 39 strength so as to employ it in his service. It is even better to save more than the requisite amount of strength than to reduce it too much, for we can always lessen it at will, whereas, once lost, it is no easy matter to regain it.” Therefore give your body the nourishment it needs to maintain its strength and health.
5. We learn from Cassian and St. Thomas that in a celebrated conference held by the holy Abbot St. Anthony with the most learned religious of Egypt, it was decided that of all virtues moderation is the most useful, as it guards and preserves all the others. It is owing to the lack of this essential moderation in their devotional exercises and mortifications that many persons whilst seeking holiness find only ill health. As a consequence they eventually abandon the path of perfection, judging it impracticable because they have attempted to walk in it bound with fetters.
6. St. Augustine makes the following apt comparison, which you can look upon as a good rule in this matter: “The body is a poor invalid confided to the charity of the soul, the soul being commissioned to give it 40 such assistance as it requires. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, are its habitual ailments; let the soul then charitably apply to them the needful remedies, provided these be always within the bounds of moderation and prudence.” He who acts in this way fulfils a duty of obedience to his Creator.
7. From these various opinions it is easy to see how false are certain maxims met with in some ascetical works: for example, that it is of small consequence if one should shorten his life by ten or fifteen years in order to save his soul. If this were true, a much surer way would be to secure a still speedier death, and see to what that would lead. No: it is not permissible in ordinary practice to impose upon ourselves arbitrarily any kind of mortification that would directly tend to shorten life. “To kill one’s self with a single blow,” says St. Jerome, “or to kill one’s self little by little—I make but slight distinction between these two crimes.” Life, health and strength are blessings that have been given us in trust, and we cannot lawfully dispose of them as though they belonged to us absolutely.
8. The example of those saints who practised extraordinary penances deserves our 41 sincere admiration, but it is not in these exterior acts that we should try to imitate them; to do this would necessitate being as holy as they were. Duplicate their miracles also, then, if you can. “If we had to copy the saints in everything they did,” says St. Frances de Chantal, “it would be necessary to spend our life in a horrible cave like St. John Climachus, or on top of a pillar as St. Simon Stylites did, to live several weeks without other nourishment than the Holy Eucharist like St. Catharine of Sienna, or to eat but a single ounce of food each day as St. Aloysius did.” Aspirations to imitate the saints in what is extraordinary are the effect of secret pride and not of genuine virtue.
The French translator of these Instructions had a conversation in Rome with the learned and pious Jesuit, Rev. Father Rozaven, on this subject. Speaking of the extraordinary fasts and mortifications of St. Ignatius, Father Rozaven said: “Do not let us confound cause and effect. It is not because he did these things that Ignatius became a saint: on the contrary, it is because he was already a saint that it was possible and permissible for him to do them.” In truth every act that 42 exceeds human strength is an act of presumption unless it be the result of a special inspiration, and the Church approves it only if she recognizes this divine impulse which alone can authorize a deviation from the general rule. It is owing to such an exception that she venerates among those who suffered for the faith Saint Theodora, Saint Pomposa, Saint Flora and Saint Denys, notwithstanding the fact that they violated the law which forbids any one to seek martyrdom. The same spirit influenced her in sanctioning the voluntary death of Sampson and of Saint Appolonia, who might be called pious suicides were it allowable to connect two such contradictory words.—Read Chap. XXIII, Part III. of the Introduction to a Devout Life.43
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