Of the Religious Affection and Desire that We Should Have for Christian Virtues and The Pursuit of Perfection

by admin on September 18, 2010

The Pursuit of PerfectionBLESSED are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill (Matt. v. 6). Justice is the particular name of one of the four cardinal virtues, distinct from the others, but it is also a common name for all Christian virtues and holiness. We call a good and virtuous life, justice (righteousness), and the holy and virtuous, just (right­eous). The Wise Man says: The justice of the righteous shall deliver them (Prov. xi. 6): that is to say, their holy life shall deliver them; and so the name is used in many passages of Scripture. Unless your justice be greater than that of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven (Matt. v. 20). So says Christ our Redeemer, meaning, “unless your virtue, religion, and holi­ness be greater.” In the same manner is to be understood what Christ likewise said to St. John the Baptist when the latter made a difficulty of baptizing Him. Thus it behooves us to fulfill all justice (Matt. iii. 15), i.e., to give an exam­ple of obedience, humility, and all perfection. So, too, is the word to be taken in the phrase before us: “Blessed are they who have such a desire and affection for virtue and perfection that they are positively hungry and athirst after it, for they shall have their fill;” they shall gain it. And this is one of the eight beatitudes which He taught us and preached in that sovereign Sermon on the Mount. St. Jerome on these words says: “It is not enough for us to have a mind for justice, unless we suffer a downright hun­ger for justice”—Non nobis sufficit velle iustitiam nisi ius-tifkie patiamur famem. It is not enough to have some sort of desire of virtue and perfection; we must needs have a hunger and thirst after it so that we can say with the prophet: As the hart, wounded and hard-pressed by the hunters, thirsteth after the fountains of waters, so doth my soul desire thee, 0 God (Psalm xli. 1).

For Those Striving For Perfection, They Must Have The Desire

This is a thing of so great importance that, as we were saying in the last chapter, on it depends all our spiritual proficiency; and it is the beginning and only means of attaining to perfection, according to the saying of the Wise Man (Wisdom vi. 16) : The first thing necessary to gain wisdom—which is the knowledge and love of God wherein our perfection consists—is a true and heartfelt desire of it; and the reason thereof is that, as philosophers say, in all things, and particularly in moral matters, the love and desire of the end is the first cause that moves and sets all the rest to work. Thus the greater the love and desire of the end, the greater the care and diligence that are employed to gain it. Thus it is very important that the desire and affection for Christian virtues and perfection be great, since the care and diligence in securing and gaining it will be great in proportion.

The Pursuit of Perfection Is Almost Hopeless If There Is No Desire

So important and necessary is it that there should be in us this desire—springing from the heart and drawing us after it, without there being need of others going to look after us—that, where the desire of advancement in perfec­tion is not found, there will be very little hope. Let us take an example in the case of a religious, and everyone will be able to apply the doctrine to himself according to his state. The care and vigilance of superiors over their subjects is good and necessary in religion, and necessary also are rebuke and penance; but when a man does things for this motive, there is not much trust to be put in him, because this motive at most may secure his going on well for some time while they are looking after him; but if this good behavior does not spring from the heart, from a true desire of his spiritual advancement, not much account is to be taken of it, for it cannot last.

This is the difference there is between things that move by a violent motion and things that move by a natural motion; those that move by violent motions—a motion pro­ceeding from an external force and impression—the far­ther they go on, the weaker and feebler their course, as when you throw a stone up; but in things that move by a natural motion, as when a stone falls towards its center (the earth), the contrary is the case; the farther they go, the more lightly and rapidly they go. This is also the dif­ference between those who do things for fear of penances and scoldings, or because people are looking at them, or for other human considerations, and those who are moved by love of virtue and pure desire of pleasing God, The good behavior of the former lasts only while the scolding con­tinues and an eye is kept upon them; as soon as that is over, down they go. St. Gregory tells of his aunt Gordiana that, when her two sisters, Tharsilla and Aemiliana, rebuked her for frivolous conversation and for not observ­ing the gravity which became the religious habit that she wore, she showed a serious countenance while they were rebuking her and seemed to take it well; but when the hour of rebuke and castigation was over, she lost all that seri­ousness which she had put on and wasted her time in the company of the secular young ladies who lived in the mon­astery. She was like a bow strung with a thick cord; as the cord relaxes, so also the bow relaxes and returns to its first position. Her serious demeanor, not coming from the heart, but being a thing put on, could not last.

This business of perfection is not strained; it is not a thing to be done on compulsion; it must come from the Heart. So Christ our Redeemer said to that young man in the Gospel: If thou wilt be perfect (Matt. xix. 21). But if you do not will it, all the contrivances and methods that superiors can apply will never suffice to make you perfect. This is the solution and answer to the question which St. Bonaventure raises: How is it that in former times one superior sufficed for a thousand monks, and for three thou­sand, and five thousand (for so St. Jerome and St. Augustine say there used to be under one superior); and now one superior is not enough for ten monks and even less? The reason is that those monks of old had in their hearts a lively and ardent desire of perfection, and the fire that burned within made them greatly to take to heart their own advancement and press on their way with great fervor.

The just shall shine, and fly here and there like sparks in a bed of reeds (Wisdom iii. 7). By this metaphor the Holy Spirit aptly declares to us the swiftness and readiness wherewith the just travel on the road of virtue when this fire has caught on in their hearts. See with what swiftness and readiness the flame runs on in a dry reed-bed when it takes fire. In this way the just run on in the way of vir­tue when they are kindled and aglow with this divine fire. Such were those monks of old, and therefore they had no need of a superior to urge them on, but rather to govern them in their fervor. But in the absence of this desire, not only will one superior not suffice for ten monks, but ten, superiors will not suffice for one monk nor be able to make him perfect if he does not want it. This is clear. For what is the use of visiting him at meditation? Can he not do as he likes as soon as the visitor has passed? And while he is there on his knees, he may be thinking of his studies, and of his business, and of other irrelevant things. And when he goes to give an account of conscience, can he not say what he likes and be silent about what is most to the point, and say he is getting on well when he is not getting on well, but badly? How idle it all is if he has no wish and no earnest desire!

When Seeking Perfection, One Must Will It

Here comes in well the answer that St. Thomas Aquinas gave to a sister of his who once asked him how she might save her soul. He answered: “By willing it.” If you will, you will be saved; if you will, you will improve; if you will, you will be perfect. This is the whole knot of the difficulty, that you should will and desire in sober earnest and your desire should spring from your heart, since God on His part is quite ready to help us. If this willing on your part is not done, all that superiors can do will be in vain. You are the person who must take to heart your own improve­ment, because that is your business, and on you it depends and on no one else, and for that you have come into reli­gion. Let each one, then, make up his mind that on what day so ever he relents on this point, and forgets himself and what regards his spiritual progress, and takes no further care to insure his spiritual duties’ being well done, and keeps not up any ardent desire of improving and going for­ward in virtue and mortification, on that day he has missed his business. And so our Father, at the beginning of his Constitutions and Rules, lays down this foundation: “It is the interior law of charity and love which the Holy Ghost writes and imprints on hearts, that must preserve, guide, and advance us in the way of His divine service that we have entered upon.” This fire of the love of God, this desire of His greater honor and glory, it is that must ever be exciting us to mount and go forward in virtue. When this desire really exists in the heart, it makes us diligent and careful to obtain what we desire, since our inclination is very industrious to seek and find what we desire, and means are never wanting thereto. Therefore the Wise Man says: The first thing for gaining wisdom is a true and hearty desire thereof (Wisdom vi. 18).

And, further, this virtue coming from the heart carries with it another advantage, which makes it so effectual as a means; it is that it renders things easy and sweet, how­ever difficult they be in themselves. Else tell me, how came it to be so easy for you to leave the world and enter reli­gion, except that it came from your heart to do so? The Lord gave you a strong will and affection for it; that was the grace of your vocation. He rid you of affection for the things of the world and set your affection on the things of religion, and with that He made it easy for you. And how comes this to be so difficult to those who remain there in the world ? Because God has not given them this will and affec­tion which He has given you; God “has not called them,” as they say, nor done them this favor of the grace of a voca­tion. Now as to enter religion, God made the way easy for you by giving you a will and a great desire of it, so that not your parents and relations nor all the world besides were able to withdraw you from it; so also to make progress in religion and make its practices easy to you, it is necessary to continue that will and desire wherewith you first came to it. While that desire lasts, its practices will be easy to you; but when it drops, everything will be difficult and up-hill. That is why we find ourselves at times so heavy and lump­ish and at other times so light and sprightly; let no one throw the fault on circumstances, nor on superiors, but on his own want of virtue and mortification. Father Master Avila says: “A healthy and strong man easily lifts a two-stone weight; but a sickly person or a child cries, ‘Oh, dear, how heavy!’ ” That is the cause of our difficulty. Things are the same as they were: at another time they were easy to us, and we never boggled about them; the fault is in our­selves, that whereas we ought to be men and have grown in perfection, in virum perfectum (Eph. iv. 13), we are chil­dren in virtue; we have grown weak and slack in that desire of progress with which we entered religion.

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