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But if you have bitter zeal, and there be contentions in your heart, glory not, and be not liars against the truth: for this is not wisdom descending from above, but earthly, sensual, diabolical. (St. James, Cath. Ep., c. III, vv. 14 and 15.)
For the anger of man worketh not the justice of God. (St. James, Cath. Ep., c. I., v. 20.)
1. Zeal for the salvation of souls is a sublime virtue, and yet how many errors and sins are every day committed in its name! Evil is never done more effectually and with greater security, says Saint Francis de Sales, than when one does it believing he is working for the glory of God.
2. The saints themselves can be mistaken in this delicate matter. We see a proof of this in the incident related of the Apostles Saint James and Saint John; for our Lord 154 reprimanded them for asking Him to cause fire from heaven to fall upon the Samaritans.2020Luke, IX., 54.
3. Acts of zeal are like coins the stamp upon which it is necessary to examine attentively, as there are more counterfeits than good ones. Zeal to be pure should be accompanied with very great humility, for it is of all virtues the one into which self-love most easily glides. When it does so, zeal is apt to become imprudent, presumptuous, unjust, bitter. Let us consider these characteristics in detail, viewing them, for the sake of greater clearness, in their practical bearings.
4. In every home there grows some thorn, something, in other words, that needs correction; for the best soil is seldom without its noxious weed. Imprudent zeal, by seeking awkwardly to pluck out the thorn, often succeeds only in plunging it farther in, thus rendering the wound deeper and more painful. In such a case it is essential to act with reflection and great prudence. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent, says the Holy Spirit.2121Ecclesiastes III., 7. Prudent zeal is silent when it realizes that to be so is less hurtful than to speak.155
5. Some persons are even presumptuous enough in their mistaken zeal to meddle in the domestic affairs of strange families, blaming, counselling, attempting to reform without measure or discretion, thus causing an evil much greater than the one they wish to correct. Let us employ the activity of our zeal in our own reformation, says Saint Bernard, and pray humbly for that of others. It is great presumption on our part thus to assume the rôle of apostles when we are not as yet even good and faithful disciples. Not that you should be by any means indifferent to the salvation of souls: on the contrary you must wish it most ardently, but do not undertake to effect it except with great prudence, humility and diffidence in self.
6. Again, there are pious persons whose zeal consists in wishing to make everybody adopt their particular practices of devotion. Such a one, if she have a special attraction for meditating on the Passion of our divine Lord or for visiting the Blessed Sacrament, would like to oblige every one, under pain of reprobation, to pass long hours prostrate before the crucifix or the tabernacle. Another who is especially devoted to visiting the poor and the 156 sick and to the other works of corporal mercy, acknowledges no piety apart from these excellent practices. Now, this is not an enlightened zeal. Martha and Mary were sisters, says Saint Augustine, but they have not a like office: one acts, the other contemplates. If both had passed the day in contemplation, no one would have prepared a repast for their divine Master; if both had been employed in this material work, there would have been no one to listen to His words and garner up His divine lessons. The same thing may be said of other good works. In choosing among them each person should follow the inspirations of God’s grace, and these are very varied. The eye that sees but hears not, must neither envy nor blame the ear that hears but sees not. Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum: let every spirit praise the Lord, says the royal prophet.2222Ps. CL., 5.
7. Bear well in mind that the zeal which would lead you to undertake works not in conformity with your position, however good and useful they may be in themselves, is always a false one. This is especially true if such cause us interior trouble or annoyance; for 157 the holiest things are infallibly displeasing to God when they do not accord with the duties of our state of life.
8. Saint Paul condemned in strong terms those Christians who showed a too exclusive preference for their spiritual masters; some admitting as truth only what came from the mouth of Peter, others acknowledging none save Paul, and others again none but Apollo. What! said he to them, is not Jesus Christ the same for all of you! Is it then Paul who was crucified for you? Is it in his name you were baptized?2323St. Paul, I Cor. I., 13. This culpable weakness is often reproduced in our day. Persons otherwise pious carry to excess the esteem and affection they have for their spiritual directors, exalt without measure their wisdom and holiness, and do not scruple to depreciate all others. God alone knows the true value of each human being, and we have not the scales of the sanctuary to weigh and compare the respective wisdom and sanctity of this and that person. If you have a good confessor, thank God and try to render his wisdom useful to you by your docility in allowing yourself to be guided; but do not assume that nobody 158 else has as good a one. To depreciate the merits of some in order to exalt those of others at their expense is a sort of slander, that ought to be all the more feared because it is generally so little recognized.
9. “If your zeal is bitter,” says Saint James, “it is not wisdom descending from on high, but earthly, sensual, diabolical.”2424S. James, Cath. Ep. III., 14-15. These words of an Apostle should furnish matter of reflection for those persons who, whilst making profession of piety, are so prone to irritability, so harsh and rude in their manners and language, that they might be taken for angels in church and for demons elsewhere.
10. The value and utility of zeal are in proportion to its tolerance and amiability. True zeal is the offspring of charity: it should, then, resemble its mother and show itself like to her in all things. “Charity,” says Saint Paul, “is patient, is kind, is not ambitious and seeketh not her own.”2525S. Paul, I Cor. XIII., 4-5.
“You should not only be devout and love devotion, but you ought to make your piety useful, agreeable and charming to everybody. The sick will like your spirituality if they are 159 lovingly consoled by it; your family, if they find that it makes you more thoughtful of their welfare, gentler in every day affairs, more amiable in reproving, and so on; your husband, if he sees that in proportion as your devotion increases you become more cordial and tender in your affection for him; your relations and friends, if they find you more forbearing, and more ready to comply with their wishes, should these not be contrary to God’s will. Briefly, you must try as far as possible to make your devotion attractive to others; that is true zeal.”—Saint Francis de Sales.
11. Never allow your zeal to make you over eager to correct others, says the same Saint; and when you must do it remember that the most important thing to consider is the choice of the moment. A caution deferred can be given another time: one given inopportunely is not only fruitless, but moreover paralyses beforehand all the good that might have subsequently been done.
12. Be zealous, therefore, ardently zealous for the salvation of your neighbor, and to further it make use of whatever means God has placed in your power; but do not exceed 160 these limits nor disquiet yourself about the good you are unable to do, for God can accomplish it through others. In conclusion, zeal, according to the teachings of the Fathers of the Church, should always have truth for its foundation, indulgence for its companion, mildness for its guide, prudence for its counsellor and director.
“I must look upon whatever presents itself each day to be done, in the order of Divine Providence, as the work God wishes me to do, and apply myself to it in a manner worthy of Him, that is with exactness and tranquillity. I shall neglect nothing, be anxious about nothing; as it is dangerous either to do God’s work negligently or to appropriate it to one’s self through self-love and false zeal. When our actions are prompted by our own inclinations, we do them badly, and are pretentious, restless, and anxious to succeed. The glory of God is the pretext that hides the illusion. Self-love disguised as zeal grieves and frets if it cannot succeed. O my God! give me the grace to be faithful in action, indifferent to success. My part is to will what Thou willest and to keep myself recollected in Thee amidst all my occupations: Thine it is to give to my 161 feeble efforts such fruit as shall please Thee,—none if Thou so wishest.”—Fénelon.162
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