In What the Goodness and Perfection of Our Actions Consists, and of Some Means to Do Them Well

by admin on October 11, 2010

LET us now see in what the goodness of our actions con­sists, to the end that thereby we may better come to know the means of doing them well. I say briefly that it consists in two things, of which the first and chiefest is that we act purely for God. St. Ambrose asks the reason why God in the creation of the world, after He had created the corporeal things and the animals, praised them at once. God created the plants and trees, and Scripture says at once that He saw that it was good (Gen. i. 10-25). He created the beasts upon the earth, the birds also and fishes; and He saw that it was good. He created the heavens and stars, the sun and moon; and He saw that it was good. He praised everything He created as soon as He had created it. But man He seems to leave alone without praise, because He added not presently: He saw that it was good, as He said of the rest. What mystery is this ? And what can be the cause of this difference? The cause, says the saint, is this, that the beauty and goodness of beasts and corporeal things consists in their outward appearance and there is nothing perfect in them besides what at once strikes the eye, and therefore they may be praised as soon as they are seen. But the goodness and perfection of man consists, not in the exterior, but in what lies inwardly hid. All the glory of the king’s daughter is from within (Psalm xliv. 14). It is this which is pleasing in God’s sight. For man seeth what outwardly appeareth, but the Lord seeth the heart (I Kings xvi. 7). He sees with what intention everyone does each action, and it is upon this account that He did not praise man, as He did all other creatures, as soon as He had created him. The intention is the founda­tion of the goodness of all our actions. Foundations are not seen, and yet they sustain the whole edifice. Our inten­tion also does the same. The second thing required for the perfection of all our actions is that we do what we can on our part to do them well. It is not enough that your inten­tion be good, nor to say that you do this for God, but you must contrive to do it in the best way you can, the better to please Him. Our blessed Father Ignatius once asked a brother who was somewhat negligent in his office: “Brother, for whom do you do that?” “For the love of God,” answered the brother. Said our Father: “Then I assure you that if hereafter you do it in that way, I shall take care to give you a right down good penance; for if you did it for men, it were no great fault to do it with so little care; but doing it for so great a Lord, it is a great fault to do it in that style.”

The second means which the saints set forth as very efficacious to this end is to walk in the presence of God. Seneca says that a man desirous of virtue and of doing things well should imagine that he is in presence of some personage for whom he has a great respect, and do and say all things as he would do and say them if he really were in that person’s presence. Sic vive tanquam sub alicuhis boni viri ac semper praesentis oculis. Now if this be suffi­cient for doing things well, how much more effectual will it be to walk in the presence of God and keep Him ever before our eyes, considering that He is looking at us—especially as this is no imagination, like the other, but a reality and fact, as Scripture so often repeats. The eyes of God are clearer than the light of the sun: they see all the ways and steps of men, and the depths of the abyss, and the hearts of mortals and the most hidden things there (Ecclus. xxiii. 28).

Hereafter we shall consider the presence of God in a trea­tise expressly dealing with the subject; for our present pur­pose it is enough to point out how important the exercise of the presence of God is for doing our ordinary actions well. If, indeed, through attention to the presence of God we were to be careless over our work and make mistakes in it, that would be no devotion, but an illusion. The exer­cise of the presence of God that the Scriptures and the saints recommend to us consists in doing our actions in such fashion that they may well appear before God and contain nothing unworthy of His sight and presence. St. John seems to remind us of this in the Apocalypse when, speaking of the four living creatures he saw before the throne of God, he says that within and without, they were full of eyes (Apoc. iv. 6) : eyes in their feet, eyes in their hands, eyes in their ears, eyes in their lips, eyes in their very eyes; to signify that those who would perfectly serve God and be worthy of His presence, ought to be very cir­cumspect to do nothing whereby they may render them­selves unworthy to appear before Him.

You ought to be full of eyes within and without, so as to see how you work, and see how you walk, and see how you talk, and see how you hear, and see how you see, and see how you think, and see how you want, and see how you desire, that in all these things there may be nothing to offend the eyes of God, in whose sight you are.

Let the just, says the Royal Prophet, eat and drink— there is no harm in that—and feast and rejoice in due sea­son (Psalm Ixvii. 4), but before God, so that all may appear before the eyes of God, and there be nothing in it unworthy of His presence.

Let us take notice that, instead of these words in Genesis: Henoch walked with God, and was seen no more, because the Lord took him (Gen. v. 24), Ecclesiasticus and St. Paul say: Henoch pleased God, and was translated to paradise (Ecclus. xliv. 16; Heb. xi. 5), giving us hereby to understand that it is all one to walk with or before God, and to please God, because they explain the one by the other. Origen and St. Augustine give the same explanation to what is said in Exodus, where, when Jethro came to see his son-in-law Moses, Aaron and the chief of the people of Israel assembled to eat bread with him before the Lord (Exod. xviii. 12). The Scripture says not that they assem­bled to eat bread before the Tabernacle, or before the Ark, for they were not then in being; but they met together to rejoice and divert themselves with him by entertaining and feasting him, and kept the same moderation and decency during their mirth and feasting as they would have done had they eaten in God’s presence, taking care that there should be nothing that might offend His sacred eyes. It is after this manner that the just and perfect walk before God in all things, even in the most indifferent actions necessary for the preservation of life.

In this way also many saints say that we accomplish what Christ our Redeemer says in His Gospel: One must always pray and never desist (Luke xviii. 1), and what St. Paul says to the Thessalonians: Pray without ceasing (I Thess. v. 17). They say that he prays always who is always doing good. So St. Augustine on the verse, all day long thy praise (Psalm xxxiv. 28), says: “Would you find a good means of being all day long praising God? Do well all that you do, and so you will be ever praising God.” Quidquid egeris bene age, et laudasti Deum. The same says St. Hilary: “By this we succeed in praying without ceasing, when by means of actions pleasing to God and done always to His glory, all our life is converted into prayer. Sancti cuiusque viri vita omnis oratio fit. And in this way, living according to the law day and night, that very life will come to be a meditation on the law day and night (Psalm i. 2).” And St. Jerome on that verse: Praise ye him, sun and moon, praise ye him all ye stars, and thou light, praise the Lord (Psalm cxlviii. 3), asks how can sun and moon and light and stars praise God, and answers: “Do you know how they praise Him? In that they never cease doing their duty well; they are always serving God and doing that whereunto they were created, and this is to be always praising God.” Thus he who does his duty well, he who does very well the daily and ordinary things of religious life, such a one is always praising God and always in prayer. We may confirm this from what the Holy Ghost says by the Wise Man: He who observeth the law multipli-eth prayer; it is a wholesome sacrifice to keep the com­mandments and stand aloof from all sin (Ecclus. xxxv. 1). Hereby is well seen how much value and perfection attaches to doing the ordinary things that we do, taking care that they be well done; and how this is living ever in prayer and in the presence of God, and is a sacrifice very wholesome and very pleasing to God.

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