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OF THE SETTING OF MAN’S LIFE
So that a man may be righteously directed to the worship of God and to his own profit and the profit of his neighbour, four things are to be said.
First: what is it that defiles a man. There are three sins, or three kinds of sin; that is to say of thought, of mouth and of work. A man sins in thought when he thinks aught against God. If he occupies his heart not with the praise and loving of God, but suffers it to be abstracted or stirred with divers thoughts, and to go void in the world. In mouth he sins when he lies; when he forswears; when he curses; when he backbites; when he defends a wrong; when he uses fond speech, or foul speech; or brings forth vain things or idle. In deed he sins many wise: by lechery; touching sinfully, or kissing; defiling himself wilfully; or, without great cause, procuring or sustaining occasions by which he trows he might be defiled; in robbing; stealing; beguiling; smiting; and other such.
Secondly: which are they that cleanse a man? And they are three, against the three aforesaid, that is to say: Contrition of thought and pulling out of desires that belong not to the praise or worship of God and love of Him. Confession of mouth, that ought to be timely, bare, and whole. Satisfaction of deed, that has three parts, that is to say: Fasting because he has sinned against himself; prayer because he has sinned against God; alms because he has sinned against his neighbour. Yet I say not he should do alms of other men’s goods, but he should restore; for sin is not forgiven unless that that is withdrawn, be restored.
Third: which things keep cleanness of heart? And they are three: lively thought of God, that there be no time in which thou thinkest not of God except in sleep that is common to all; busy keeping of thine outwards wits, that tasting, savouring, hearing, and seeing they may wisely be restrained under the bridle of governance. The third is honest occupation, as reading of holy writ, speaking of God, writing, or some other good deed doing.
There are three things also that save cleanness of mouth: avisedness of speech; to eschew mickle speech; and to hate lying.
Also three things keep cleanness of working: moderation in meat; fleeing ill company; and oft to mind of death.
The fourth: which things are they that allure us to conform us to God’s will? And there are three. First, the example of creatures, that is had by consideration; the goodliness of God, that is gotten by meditation and prayer: and mirth, of the heavenly kingdom, that is felt in a manner by contemplation.
The man of God set to live in this wise shall be as a tree that is set by running waters—that is the flowing of grace—so that he shall always be green in virtue and never be dry by sin; and shall give fruit in time; that is, he shall give good works as an example, and good words to the worship of God, and these he shall not sell for vainglory. He says ‘in time’ against them that give example of fasting in time of eating, and the reverse way also; and against covetous men that give their fruit when it is rotten; or else they give not until they die.
Therefore he prays wisely who says: Bonitatem et disciplinam et scientiam doce me, that is to say: ‘goodliness, discipline and knowledge teach me.’ What is discipline but the setting of, or correcting, of manners? First therefore we are taught righteousness, and corrected of ill by discipline; and after that we know what we should do, or what we should eschew. At the last we savour not fleshly things, but everlasting heavenly and godly.
And when a man with all busyness has dressed himself to the will of his Maker and grown in virtue, and has passed another that peradventure went before, in steadfastness of living and desire of Christ, he ought not thereof to joy nor give praise to himself, nor trow himself better than others—although they be low—but rather hold himself as the foulest and most wretched. He shall deem no man but himself, and all others set before himself; he shall not desire to be called holy of men, but worthy to be despised. When he comes amongst men, he should procure to be last in number and least in opinion; for the greater thou art the more shouldest thou meek thyself in all things and then thou shalt find grace before God to be made high. For the might of God is great, and honoured by the meek; therefore it is despised by the proud, for they seek their own joy not God’s worship.
Truly if thou takest with gladness the favour of the people and the honour of men that is done to thee for thy holiness and good fame in this life, know it well thou hast received thy meed. And if thou seemest marvellous in penance and chastity whiles thou joyest more in man’s joy than in angels’ in the time to come nought but tormentry shall be for thee. Therefore thou oughtest perfectly to despise thyself, and entirely to forsake all joy of this world, and to think nor do nothing but in the sight of God’s love, that all thy life, inward and outward, may cry the praise of God.
In meat and drink be thou scarce and wise. Whiles thou eatest or drinkest let not the memory of thy God that feeds thee pass from thy mind; but praise, bless, and glorify Him in ilka morsel, so that thy heart be more in God’s praising than in thy meat, that thy soul be not parted from God at any hour. Thus doing, before Christ Jesu thou shalt be worthy a crown, and the temptations of the fiend, that in meat and drink awaits most men and beguiles them, thou shalt eschew. Either soothly by immoderately taking of food they are cast down from the height of virtue, or by too mickle abstinence they break down that virtue.
Many truly there are that always fluctuate in eating, so that over little or over mickle they always take; and the form of living they never keep whiles they trow that now this, now that, be better. The unwise and untaught, which have never felt the sweetness of Christ’s love, trow that unwise abstinence be holiness; and they trow they can not be worthy of great meed with God unless they be known as singular of all men by scarceness and unrighteous abstinence.
But truly abstinence by itself is not holiness, but if it be discreet it helps us to be holy. If it be indiscreet it lets holiness, because it destroys discipline, without which virtues are turned to vice. If a man would be singular in abstinence he ought to eschew the sight of men and their praising, that he be not proud for nought and so lose all: for men truly ween they be holiest that they see most abstinent, when in truth ofttimes they are the worst.
He certain that has truly tasted the sweetness of endless love shall never deem himself to pass any man in abstinence, but the lower he supposes himself in abstinence with himself, the more he shall be held marvellous with men. The best thing, and as I suppose pleasing to God, is to conform thyself in meat and drink to the time and place and estate of them with whom thou art; so that thou seem not to be wilful nor a feigner of religion.
Know it truly, without doubt, if one or two think well of him, yet others will call him an hypocrite or a feigner. But there are some covetous of vainglory that in no wise will be holden as common men; for either they eat so little that they always draw the speech of men to them, or they procure other manner of meats to be seen diverse from others: whose madness and obstinacy be far from me.
Truly it is wholesome counsel that they that fast little give preference to them of greater abstinence, and since they may not do so great abstinence be sorry in mind. And they that are of great abstinence should trow others higher in virtue; whose virtue, in which they surpass, is hidden to men, whiles their virtue, that is to say abstinence, is praised of many. But unless it be dight with meekness and charity before Christ, it is nought.
It behoves him truly to be strong that will manfully use the love of God. The flesh being enfeebled with great disease ofttimes a man cannot pray, and then mickle more he cannot lift himself to high things with hot desire. I would rather therefore that a man failed for the greatness of love than for too mickle fasting; as the spouse said of herself: Nunciate dilecto quia amore langueo; that is: ‘Show thyself to my love, for I long for love.’
Be thou therefore steadfast in all thy ways and dress thy life after the rule shown to thee, and if thou may not get that thou desirest in the beginning mistrust not, but abide; for by long use and time thou shalt come to perfection.
If thou be a pilgrim and rest by the way, whatever thou dost in this life to God ever have an eye. Let not thy thought go from Him; think that time lost in which thou thinkest not of God. In the night praise Him and desire His love, that sleep may not find thee in any other wise occupied than praying or thinking of God. See that thou flow not with vain thoughts, nor give thyself to many charges, but study to get and hold this steadfastness of mind so that thou dread not the wretchedness of this world nor desire the goods thereof unmannerly. He that dreads to suffer adversity knows not yet how it behoves us to despise the world; and he that joys in earthly things is far from everlasting things.
To the virtue of strength truly belong all adversities and prosperities; and also to despise death for endless life. And charity is to desire only heavenly things. A perfect lover forsooth joys to die, and suffers life meekly. To which perfection if thou ascend by the gift of Christ, yet shalt thou not be without tribulation and temptation: to show which our words shall turn.
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