"Novi coronabitur nisi qui legitime certaverit." 2 Tim. ii. 5
CH. I. _ OF THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIAN PERFECTION _ OF THE STRUGGLE REQUISITE FOR ITS ATTAINMENT _ AND OF THE FOUR THINGS NEEDFUL IN THIS CONFLICT.
WOULD you attain in Christ the height of perfection, and by a nearer and nearer approach to God become one spirit with Him? Before undertaking this greatest and noblest of all imaginable enterprises, you must first learn what constitutes the true and perfect spiritual life. For many have made it to consist exclusively in austerities, maceration of the flesh, hairshirts, disciplines, long vigils and fasts, and other like bodily hardships and penances. Others, especially women, fancy they have made great progress therein, if they say many vocal prayers, hear many Masses and long offices, frequent many churches, receive many communions. Others (and those sometimes among cloistered religious) are persuaded that perfection depends wholly upon punctual attendance in choir, upon silence, solitude, and regularity. And thus, some in these, others in various similar actions, suppose that the foundations of perfection may be laid.
But it is not so indeed; for as some of these are means to acquire grace, others fruits of grace, they cannot be held to constitute Christian perfection and the true life of grace. They are unquestionably most powerful means, in the hands of those who use them well and discreetly, of acquiring grace in order to gain strength and vigor against their own sinfulness and weakness, to defend themselves against our common enemies, to supply all those spiritual aids so necessary to all the servants of God, and especially to beginners in the spiritual life. Again, they are fruits of grace in truly spiritual persons, who chastise the body because it has offended its Creator, and in order to keep it low and submissive in His service; who keep silence and live solitary that they may avoid the slightest offense against their Lord, and converse with heaven; who attend divine worship, and give themselves to works of piety; who pray and meditate on the life and passion of our Lord, not from curiosity or sensible pleasure, but that they may know better and more deeply their own sinfulness, and the goodness and mercy of God, _ enkindle ever more and more within their hearts the love of God and the hatred of themselves, following the Son of God with the cross upon their shoulders in the way of selfabnegation; who frequent the holy sacraments, to the glory of His divine majesty, to unite themselves more closely with God, and to gain new strength against His enemies.
But these external works, though all most holy in themselves, may yet, by the fault of those who use them as the foundation of their spiritual building, prove a more fatal occasion of ruin than open sins. Such persons leave their hearts unguarded to the mercy of their own inclinations, and exposed to the lurking deceits of the devil, who, seeing them out of the direct road, not only lets them continue these exercises with satisfaction, but leads them in their own vain imagination to expatiate on the delights of paradise, and to fancy themselves to be borne aloft amidst the angelic choir and to feel God within them. Sometimes they find themselves absorbed in high, or mysterious, and ecstatic meditations, and, forgetful of the world and of all that it contains, they believe themselves to be caught up to the third heaven.
But the life and conversation of such Persons prove the depth of the delusion in which they are held, and their great distance from the perfection after which we are inquiring; for in all things, great and small, they desire to be preferred and placed above others; they are wedded to their own opinion, and obstinate in their own will; and blind to their own faults, they are busy and diligent observers and critics of the deeds and words of others.
But touch only with a finger their point of honor, a certain vain estimation in which they hold themselves and would have others to hold them, interrupt their stereotyped devotions, and they are disturbed and offended beyond measure.
And if, to bring them back to the true knowledge of themselves and of the way of perfection, Almighty God should send them sickness, or sorrow, or persecution (that touchstone of His servants' loyalty, which never befalls them without His permission or command), then is the unstable foundation of their spiritual edifice discovered, and its interior, all corroded and defaced by pride, laid bare; for they refuse to resign themselves to the will of God, to acquiesce in His always righteous though mysterious judgments, in all events, whether joyful or sorrowful, which may befall them; neither will they, after the example of His Divine Son in His sufferings and humiliation, abase themselves below all creatures, accounting their persecutors as beloved friends, as instruments of God's goodness, and cooperators with Him in the mortification. perfection, and salvation of their souls.
Hence it is most certain that such persons are in serious danger; for, the inward eye being darkened, wherewith they contemplate themselves and these their external good works, they attribute to themselves a very high degree of perfection; and thus puffed up with pride they pass judgment upon others, while a very extraordinary degree of God's assisting grace is needed to convert themselves. For the open sinner is more easily converted and restored to God than the man who shrouds himself under the cloak of seeming virtue.
You see, then, very clearly that, as I have said, the spiritual life consists not in these things. It consists in nothing else but the knowledge of the goodness and the greatness of God, and of our nothingness and inclination to all evil; in the love of Him and the hatred of ourselves, in subjection, not to Him alone, but for love of Him, to all His creatures; in entire renunciation Of all will of our own and absolute resignation to all His divine pleasure; and furthermore, willing and doing all this purely for the glory of God and solely to please Him, and because He so wills and merits thus to be loved and served.
This is the law of love, impressed by the hand of the Lord Himself upon the hearts. of His faithful servants; this is the abnegation of self which He requires of us; this is His sweet yoke and light burden; this is the obedience to which, by His voice and His example, our Master and Redeemer calls us. In aspiring to such sublime perfection you will have to do continual violence to yourself by a generous conflict with your own will in all things, great or small, until it be wholly annihilated: you must prepare yourself, therefore, for the battle with all readiness of mind; for none but brave warriors shall receive the crown.
This is indeed the hardest of all struggles; for while we strive against self, self is striving against us, and therefore is the victory here most glorious and precious in the sight of God. For if you will set yourself to trample down and exterminate all your unruly appetites, desires, and wishes, even in the smallest and most inconsiderable matters, you will render a greater and more acceptable service to God than if you should discipline yourself to blood, fast more rigorously than hermits or anchorites of old, or convert millions of souls, and yet voluntarily leave even one of these evils alive within you. For although the conversion of souls is no doubt more precious to the Lord than the mortification of a fancy, nevertheless nothing should in your sight be of greater account than to will and to do that very thing which the Lord specially demands and requires of you. And He will infallibly be better pleased that you should watch and labor to mortify your passions than if, consciously and willfully leaving but one alive within you, you should serve Him in some other matter of greater importance in itself.
Now that you see wherein Christian perfection consists, and that it requires a continual sharp warfare against self, you must provide yourself with four most sure and necessary weapons, in order to secure the palm and gain the victory in this spiritual combat. These are: 1. Distrust of self; 2. Trust in God; 3. Spiritual exercises; and 4. Prayer.
Of all these we will, with the Divine assistance, treat briefly and plainly.
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