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Conduct me, O Lord, in Thy way, and I will walk in Thy truth. (Psalm LXXXV.)
Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain who build it. (Psalm CXXVI.)
1. A Christian is not obliged to be perfect, but to tend continually towards perfection; that is to say, he must labor unceasingly and with all his strength to increase in virtue. To make no attempt to advance is to go back.
You see it is a question not of succeeding but of laboring earnestly and sincerely. Success does not depend upon us. God grants that or refuses it or defers it according to what He knows is best for us.
“Let us do three things, my dear daughter, says Saint Francis de Sales: first, have a pure intention to look in all things to the honor and glory of God; second, do the little we can towards this end, according to the advice of our spiritual father; third, leave the care of 131 all the rest to God. Why should he torment himself who has God for the object of his intentions and does all that he can? why should he be anxious? what has he to fear? God is not terrible for those whom He loves; He is satisfied with little for He knows well that we have not much to give.”
...“Allow yourself to be governed by God; do not think so much of yourself; make a general and universal resolution to serve God in the best manner you are able and do not waste time in examining and sifting so minutely to find out what that may be. This is simply an impertinence due to the condition of your acute and precise mind which wishes to tyrannize over your will and to control it by fraud and subtlety.... You know that in general God wishes us to serve Him by loving Him above all things and our neighbor as ourselves for love of Him; and in particular, to fulfil the duties of our state of life; that is all. But it must be done in good faith, without deceit or subterfuge, and in the ordinary way of this world, which is not the home of perfection; humanly, too, and according to the limitations of time; to do it in a divine and angelic manner and according to eternity 132 being reserved for a future life. Do not therefore be so anxious to know whether or not you have attained perfection. This should never be; for were we the most perfect creatures on earth we ought not to dwell upon or glory in it but always consider ourselves imperfect. Our self-examination must never be for the purpose of discovering if we are imperfect, for this we should never doubt. Hence it follows that we must not be surprised at seeing ourselves imperfect, since we can never be otherwise in this life; nor on that account give way to despondency, for there is no remedy for it. But, yes; we can correct our faults gently and gradually, for that is the reason they are left in us. We shall be inexcusable if we do not try to amend them, but quite excusable if we are not entirely successful in doing so, for it is not the same with imperfections as with sins.”—Saint Francis de Sales.
2. Now the means to be employed in laboring for perfection and in making progress in virtue do not consist in multiplying prayers, fasts and other religious practices. Some good religious who had fasted three times a week during an entire year, thought that in 133 order to satisfy the obligation of advancing more and more in virtue they ought to fast four times a week the following year. They consulted Saint Francis de Sales on the subject. He laughingly answered them: “If you fast four times a week this year so as to advance in perfection, you will be obliged for the same reason to fast five times the next year, then six, then seven times; and the number of your fasts being always the guage of the degree of perfection you shall have attained, it will be necessary for you, under pain of advancing no more, thereafter to fast twice a day, then thrice, then four times, and so on.” What Saint Francis de Sales said of fasting is just as applicable to all other devout practices.
3. Instead, then, of continually adding to your religious exercises, study to perfect yourself in the practice of those you already perform, doing them with more love and peace of soul, and with greater purity of intention. Should it happen that you are unable to perform all your usual devotions conveniently, omit a portion of them so that the remainder may be done with greater tranquillity. The spirit of perfection, says Saint Bernard, does 134 not consist in doing great things, but in doing common and ordinary things perfectly. Communia facere, sed non communiter.1717See P. Rodriguez, S. J., Christian Perfection, C. I.
Most people when they wish to reform, pay much more attention to filling their life with certain difficult and extraordinary actions, than to purifying their intention and opposing their natural inclinations in the ordinary duties of their state. In this they often deceive themselves, for it would be much better to make less change in the actions and more in the dispositions of the soul which prompt them. When one is already leading a virtuous and well regulated life it is of far greater consequence, in order to become truly spiritual, to change the interior than the exterior. God is not satisfied with the motions of the lips, the posture of the body, nor with external ceremonies: What he demands is a will no longer divided between Him and any creature; a will perfectly docile ... that wishes unreservedly whatever He wishes and never under any pretext wishes aught that He does not wish.
This will, perfectly simple and entirely devoted to God, you should bear with you 135 into all the circumstances of your life, and everywhere that divine Providence leads you.... Even mere amusements may be transformed into good works, if you enter into them only through a kindly motive and to conform to the order of God. Happy indeed the heart of her for whom God opens this way of holy simplicity! She walks therein like a little child holding its mother’s hand and allowing her to lead it without any concern as to whither it is going. Content to be free, she is ready to speak or to be silent; when she cannot say edifying things she says common-place things with an equally good grace; she amuses herself by making what Saint Francis de Sales calls joyeusetés, playful little jests, with which she diverts others as well as herself. You will tell me perhaps that you would prefer to be occupied with something more serious and solid. But God would not prefer it for you, seeing that He chooses what you would not choose, and you know His taste is better than yours: you would find more consolation in solid things for which He has given you a relish, and it is this consolation of which He wishes to deprive you, it is this relish which He wishes to mortify in you, although 136 it may be good and salutary. The very virtues, as they are practised by us, need to be purified by the contradictions that God makes them suffer in order to detach them the better from all self will. When piety is founded on the fundamental principle of God’s holy will, without consulting our own taste, or temperament or the sallies of an excessive zeal, oh! how simple, sweet, amiable, discreet and reliable it is in all its movements! A pious person lives much as others do, quite unaffectedly and without apparent austerity, in a sociable and genial way; but with a constant subjection to every duty, an unrelenting renunciation of everything that does not enter into God’s designs in her regard, and, finally, with a clear view of God to whom she sacrifices all the irregular inclinations of nature. This indeed is the adoration in spirit and in truth desired by Jesus Christ, our Lord, and His eternal Father. Without it all the rest is but a religion of ceremonial, and rather the shadow than the reality of Christianity.”—Fénelon.
4. Apply yourself in a particular manner to become perfect in the fulfilment of the duties of your state of life; for on this all perfection 137 and sanctity are grounded. When God created the world He commanded the plants to produce fruit, but each one according to its kind: juxta genus suum.1818Gen. I., 11. In like manner our souls are all obliged to produce fruits of holiness, but each according to its kind; that is to say, according to the position in which God has placed us. Elias in the desert and David on the throne had not to become holy by a like process; and Joshua amidst the tumult of arms would have sought in vain to sanctify himself by the same means as Samuel in the peaceful retreat of the Temple. This instruction is addressed to those who being placed in the world would wish to practise there the virtues of the cloister, or whilst residing in palaces would attempt to lead the life of the solitaries of the desert. They bear fruits which are excellent in themselves, no doubt, but not according to their kind, juxta genus suum, and hence they do not fulfil the will of God.
5. Perfection has but one aim and it is the same for all,—to wit, the love of God; but there are divers ways of attaining it. Among the saints themselves we find most striking 138 differences. Saint Benedict was never seen to laugh, whereas Saint Francis de Sales laughed frequently and was always animated, bright and cheerful. Saint Hilarion considered it an act of sensuality to change his habit, whilst, on the other hand, Saint Catherine of Sienna was extremely particular about bodily cleanliness which she looked upon as a symbol of purity of soul. If you consult Saint Jerome you hear only of fear of the terrible judgments of God: read Saint Augustine and you will find only the language of confidence and love. The minds, dispositions and characters of men are as varied as their physiognomies; grace perfects them little by little but does not change their nature. Hence in our endeavors to imitate the ways of such or such a saint for whom we feel a particular attraction, we should not condemn those of the others, but say with the Psalmist: Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum.1919Psalm CL., 5. Let every spirit praise the Lord. Consult your director as to whom and what may be most suitable for your imitation.
6. Never be afraid that you are not following the way of perfection because you still have defects and commit many faults. This was true of the greatest saints, for Saint 139 Augustine declares that all of them could exclaim with the Apostle Saint John: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” “He who came into the world with sin,” says Saint Gregory the Great, “cannot live there without sin.”
“Act like the little child who, when it feels that its mother is holding it by the sleeve, runs about quite boldly and without being surprised at all the little falls it gets. Thus, as long as you find that God is holding you by the good will and the resolution He has given you to serve Him, go on bravely and do not be astonished that you stumble and fall occasionally. There is no need to be troubled about it, provided that at certain intervals you cast yourself into your Father’s arms and embrace Him with the kiss of charity. Go on your way, then, cheerfully and heartily, doing the best you can; and if it cannot always be cheerfully, let it at least be always courageously and faithfully.” —Saint Francis de Sales.
7. But we must bear in mind the vast difference that exists between the love of sin and sin committed inadvertently or from weakness. (See Confession, § 14.) Affection for 140 sin is the sole obstacle to perfection. Thus the most learned Fathers of the Church make a distinction between two kinds of tepidity: that which can be avoided and that which cannot be avoided. The former condition is that of a soul that retains an attachment for certain sins; the other, that of one falling into sin through frailty and from being taken unawares, which has been the case even with the greatest saints.
8. Therefore in place of troubling yourself about these accidental falls, inseparable from human nature, make them turn to your spiritual advantage by causing them to increase your humility. It often happens, says Saint Gregory the Great, that God allows great defects to remain in some souls at the beginning of their spiritual life that by means of them they may grow in self-knowledge and learn to place their entire confidence in Him. Saint Augustine tells us that God in his infinite wisdom has been better pleased to bring forth good out of evil than to hinder the evil itself. Thus when you learn to draw fruits of humility from your faults, you correspond to the sublime designs of God’s unspeakable providence.141
9. Should you happen to fear that you are not walking in the true way of perfection, consult your director and place implicit reliance upon the answer he gives you. Who is the saint that has not had to suffer because of a like doubt? But they were all reassured by the consideration of God’s infinite goodness and by obedience to their spiritual father.
“Some persons, although conscious of a sincere desire to serve God, nevertheless are disposed to feel alarmed about their spiritual condition, at the remembrance of all they have heard and read in regard to false consciences, self-illusion and the deceptive security of those who are following a wrong path. There are two ways of forming a false conscience: first, by choosing among our duties those for which we feel most attraction and natural tendency, and then, in order to give ourselves up to them more than is necessary, to persuade ourselves we can neglect the others. Thus a person with a preference for exterior acts of religion will spend all day praying or attending sermons and offices of the Church and considers herself very devout, although she may have been neglecting her temporal duties. Another, being differently 142 disposed, will apply herself exclusively to the duties of her state of life, sacrificing to them without regret those of religion, quite convinced that one who is faithful in all the domestic relations, and gives to every one his due, cannot possibly be otherwise than pleasing to God. The second way of making a false conscience consists in giving the preference in our esteem and practice to those among the Christian virtues which find their analogies in our natural dispositions, for there is not one of the virtues that has not its correlative amongst the various qualities of the human character. Persons of a gentle and placid disposition will affect meekness, the practice of which will be very easy for them and require no effort; and imagining they exercise a christian virtue when in reality they only follow a natural bent, they are liable to fall into a culpable weakness. Those who, on the contrary, have an exact and rigid mind will esteem justice and order above all else, making small account of meekness and charity; and thus justifying themselves falsely by their natural temperament, they follow the tendency of the flesh whilst believing they obey the spirit, and may easily become addicted to excessive severity.143
It is evident, therefore, that the first rule to be observed in order to avoid these dangerous illusions and to walk securely in the way of perfection, is to apply ourselves in a special manner to the practice of those duties for which we feel least innate attraction, and always to mistrust our natural virtues however good they may appear. Then there is one consideration that should serve to reassure all Christians who are in earnest about their salvation; whilst they act in good faith and deal frankly and sincerely with their confessor, it is impossible for them to become the victim of a false conscience.
In the following passage Saint Francis de Sales recommends us to watch carefully over our natural tendencies and to substitute for them as much as possible the inspirations of grace, which he calls living according to the spirit:
“To live according to the spirit, my beloved daughter, is to think, speak and act according to the virtues that are of the spirit, and not according to the senses and feelings which are of the flesh. These latter we should make serve us, but we must hold them in subjection and not allow them to control us; whereas with 144 the spiritual virtues it is just the reverse; we should serve them and bring everything else under subjection to them.... See, my daughter, human nature wishes to have a share in everything that goes on, and loves itself so dearly that it considers nothing of any account unless it be mixed up in it. The spirit, on the contrary, attaches itself to God and often says that whatever is not God’s is nothing to it; and as through a motive of charity it takes part in things committed to it, so through humility and self-denial it willingly gives up all share in those which are denied it.... I am diffident and have no self-confidence, and therefore I wish to be allowed to live in a way congenial to this disposition; any one can see that this is not according to the spirit.... But, although I am naturally timorous and retiring, I desire to try and overcome these traits of character and to fulfil all the requirements of the charge imposed upon me by obedience; who does not see that this is to live according to the spirit?
Hence, as I have said before, my dear daughter, to live according to the spirit is to have our actions, our words and our thoughts such as the spirit of God would require of us. 145 When I say thoughts, I of course mean voluntary thoughts. I am sad, says some one, consequently I shall not speak; magpies and parrots do the same: I am sad, but as charity requires me to speak, I shall do so; spiritual persons act thus: I am slighted and I get angry: so do peacocks and monkeys. I am slighted and I rejoice thereat: that is what the Apostles did.”
In fine, to live according to the spirit is to do in all circumstances and on all occasions whatever faith, hope and charity demand of us, without even waiting to consider if we are or are not influenced by our natural disposition. (The Imitation of Christ, B. III., Ch. LIV.)
10. Generally speaking it is only after a long and painful struggle that one succeeds in climbing the mount of perfection. There are some statues, says Saint Francis de Sales, that it has cost the artist thirty years’ labor to perfect. Now the perfecting of a soul is a much more difficult work. We must therefore set about it with tranquillity, patience and confidence in God. We shall always obtain what we wish soon enough if we obtain it at the time God pleases to grant it.
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