That Our Advancement and Perfection Consists in Doing Ordinary Actions Extraordinarily Well

by admin on July 22, 2010

THOU shalt go justly about what is just, says the Lord to His people (Deut. xvi. 20) : what is good and just, do it well, justly, and in knightly fashion. The business of our advancement and perfection does not consist in doing things, but in doing them well; as neither does it consist in being a religious, but in being a good religious, Paulinus made much of St. Jerome’s living in the Holy Places, where Jesus Christ our Lord wrought the mysteries of our redemption; and St. Jerome wrote back to him: “It is not the living in Jerusalem that is praiseworthy, but the living well in Jeru­salem.” Which saying afterwards became a proverb to warn religious not to be content with being in religion, because, as the habit does not make the monk, so neither does the place, but a good and holy life. The point is not being a religious, but being a good religious; not doing the exercises of religious life, but doing them well. All our good consists in what the Evangelist St. Mark relates that the people said of Christ: He ‘hath done all things well (Mark vii. 37).

It is certain that all our good and all our evil depends on our works according as they are good or evil, for we ourselves shall be such as our works have been. They tell what each man is made of, for by the fruit the tree is known. St. Augustine says that the man is the tree, and the works the fruit that it bears; and thus by the fruit of works it is known what each man is. And therefore Christ our Redeemer said of those hypocrites and false preachers: By the fruit of their works ye shall know what they are (Matt. vii. 20). And, contrariwise, He says of Himself: The works that I do give testimony of me; if ye will not believe me, believe my works., for they tell who I am (John x. 25, 38). And our works tell not only what each one is in this life, but also what he must be in the next; for we shall be such forever in the life to come as our works have been in this; for God our Lord will recompense and reward everyone according to his works. As is often said in Holy Writ, as well in the Old as in the New Testament: Thou, O Lord, says the psalmist, wilt render to everyone according to his works (Psalm Ixi. 13); and St. Paul: What a man soweth, the same shall he reap.

But let us descend to particulars and see what those works are upon which all our good and all our advance­ment and perfection depend. I say these are no other than our common and ordinary actions, such as we go through every day. In holding to it that that ordinary meditation which we make be well made, in making those examens that we make well made, in hearing Mass and saying it as we ought, in reciting our hours and other devotions with deference and attention, in exercising ourselves con­tinually in penance and mortification, in doing our office and the duty laid upon us by obedience so that it be well done, in this rests our advancement and perfection. If we do these actions perfectly, we shall be perfect; if we do them imperfectly, we shall be imperfect. And this is the difference between a good and perfect religious and an imperfect and tepid one; the difference lies not in the doing of more or different things in this case and in that, but in doing what one does perfectly or imperfectly. For this reason is the one a good and perfect religious, that he gets these things well done; and for this, is the other imper­fect, that he does them with much tepidity and negli­gence. And the more a man lays himself out and goes for­ward in this particular, the more perfect or imperfect will he be.

In that parable of the sower who went out to sow his seed, the holy Gospel says that even the good seed, sown on good soil, yielded here thirty-fold, there sixty-fold, and there a hundred-fold (Matt. xiii. 23). Whereby, as the saints explain, are denoted the three different degrees of those that serve God—beginners, proficient, and perfect. We all sow the same seed, because we all do the same actions and observe the same rule; all of us have the same hours for meditation and examens and from morning till night we are all occupied by obedience; yet, for all that, how one man excels another—homo homini qui praestat! What a difference, they say, between Peter and Peter, between one religious and another! The reason is that in one the works that he sows yield a hundred-fold, inasmuch as he does them with spirit and perfection, and these are the perfect; in another they yield increase, but not so much, only sixty-fold, and these are they who go on improving; in another they yield only thirty-fold, and these we are saying are beginners in God’s service. Let everyone, there­fore, see to which of these degrees he is arrived. See if you be not amongst those who yield only thirty-fold; and God grant that none of us find ourselves of the number of them of whom the Apostle St. Paul says that on the foun­dation of faith they have built wood and straw and chaff to burn in the day of the Lord (I Cor. iii. 12-13).

Take care, therefore, you do nothing out of ostentation, out of human respect, to please men, or to gain their esteem; for this were to make a building of wood, straw, and chaff, to burn at least in purgatory; but endeavor to do all your actions with the greatest perfection you are able, and that will be to erect a structure all of silver, gold, and precious stones.

The fact that herein lies our advancement and perfection will be well understood from this consideration. All our advancement and perfection consists in two things: in doing what God would have us do, and in doing it as He would have us do it; nothing more can be asked, nothing more can be desired than this. As to the first, the doing of what God would have us do, by the mercy of God we have already secured that in religion; and this is one of the greatest advantages and greatest comforts that we enjoy; that we are sure that in the occupations given us by obedience we are doing what God would have us do. This stands for a first principle in religion, drawn from the Gos­pel and the doctrine of the saints. He that heareth you., heareth me (Luke x. 16). In obeying the superior, we obey God and do His will, for that is what God requires us to do there and then. There remains the second point, which is, doing things as God would have us do them; that is, with all possible perfection, because so God would have us do them. And that is what we are going to speak of. It is recounted in the Chronicles of the Cistercian Order, that St. Bernard, being with his religious at matins, saw a multi­tude of angels who noted and wrote down what the monks did and how they did it. They noted the doings of some in letters of gold, of others in silver, of others in ink, of oth­ers in water, according to the attention and fervor with which each one prayed and sang. But of some they wrote nothing at all, who, being present in body but absent in spirit, let themselves be carried away with vain and unprof­itable thoughts. He saw also that chiefly at the Te Deum the angels were much concerned that it should be sung very devoutly, and that from the mouths of some, when they intoned it, there came out as it were a flame of fire. Therefore let everyone see what his prayer is like; whether it deserves to be written in gold, or in ink, or in water, or not to be written at all. See whether, when you are at prayer, there come forth from your heart and mouth flames of fire, or yawns and expressions of disgust. See whether you are there in body only, but in spirit at your studies or your office or business, or other things not to the point.

Excerpt from Practice of Perfection and Christian Virtues by Alphonsus Rodriguez, translated by Joseph Rickaby (Loyola University Press, 1929). Reprinted with permission.

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