The Great Value We Ought to Set on Spiritual Things

by admin on July 14, 2010

I wished, says the Wise Man, and there was given me sense; I asked it of God, and there came upon me the spirit of wisdom; and I preferred her before thrones and royal scepters; and I made no account of riches in compari­son therewith, nor of precious stones; for all gold in com­parison with it is as a little sand, and silver shall be counted as clay before it (Wisdom vii. 7). The true wisdom on which we ought to set our eyes is perfection, which consists in union with God by love, according to the saying of the Apostle St. Paul: Above all I commend to you charity, which is the bond of perfection (Col. iii. 14), and joins and unites us with God. Now the esteem which Solomon says here he had of wisdom, we ought to have of perfection and of all that makes thereto. In comparison with that, all should appear to us as a little sand, a little clay and ordure, as the same Apostle said: I count all things as ordure and refuse in view of gaining Christ (Phil. iii. 8). This is a main means for gaining perfection: at the rate in which that esteem grows in our hearts, at the same will our per­fection grow, and the whole house and the whole order. The reason is that such as is the value that we set upon a thing, such is the desire that we have of obtaining it; for the will is a blind power and follows what the understand­ing dictates and proposes to it: and according to the esteem and value that the understanding sets on a thing, so also is the will and desire to obtain it. And as the will is queen and commands all the other powers and energies of the soul, as well interior as exterior, it follows that according to the will and desire that we have of a thing, will be our contriving and taking means thereto and our efforts to obtain it. Thus it is very important to have a great esteem and appreciation of spiritual things and of what appertains to our spiritual progress, that so the will and desire of them may be great, and great also our effort to procure and gain them, for in all these things like goes with like.

A dealer in precious stones has need to know and form a right estimate of their value under pain of being deceived, for in default of such knowledge and such estimate he will exchange and sell a stone of great value for a thing of very little worth. Our trade is in precious stones and pearls. The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant seeking in precious stones (Matt. xiii. 45). We are merchants of the kingdom of heaven; we must know and form a right esti­mate of the price and value of the merchandise in which we deal, that we be not deceived, changing gold for clay and heaven for earth, which would be a huge mistake. And so says the Prophet Jeremy: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, nor the strong man in his strength, nor the rich man in his riches; but let him that glorieth glory in this, in knowing and understanding me (Jerem. ix. 23). This is the greatest of all treasures, knowing and loving and serving God, and this is the greatest business we can have on hand; or, rather, we have no other business than this; for this we were created and for this we entered religion: this is our end, our terminus, and our glory.

Would that this esteem and appreciation of perfection and of spiritual things appertaining thereto were deeply imprinted in the hearts of all, especially in religious, and that we helped one another and roused one another to this, not in words alone, after treating of it in our ordinary talks and conversations, but much more by the example of our deeds; that from them the beginner and the proficient and all might come to see that what counts in religion is spiritual things, much humility, much obedience, much devotion to recollection and prayer ; not much learning, nor much fine preaching, nor any endowment of natural and human gifts — so says our blessed Father Ignatius in his Constitutions (Reg. 16. Sum.). And it is necessary for all to understand this from the beginning and be nurtured on this milk, to the end that each one forthwith may set before his eyes and his heart that the thing to do is not to turn out a great scholar or a great preacher, but to become very humble and very mortified, since that it is which here in religion is esteemed and made much account of. That fact it is which they come upon and get to see, who have their eyes open to take a right view of things. These hum­ble and mortified men are they who are sought after and held in high esteem by all. Not that we mean to say that we should give ourselves to virtue in order to be sought after and esteemed. But seeing that this it is which is esteemed and made much of in religion, everyone should bethink himself and come to say: “Doubtless this is the better thing, this it is that befits me, this is the right way; I mean simply to give myself to virtue and sincerely aim at my own spiritual progress, for all the rest without that is vanity.”

Hence it will be understood what harm they may do who in their ordinary talk and conversation make it their whole business to discuss genius, abilities, and talents, and rate this man and that man accordingly. The consequence is that the younger members of the community, hearing this language of their elders, think that this it is that is current coin here and is valued, and this is the means they must take to thrive and grow to importance and be regarded. So they set their eyes upon this; and while the desire and esteem of learning, ability, and genius grows upon them, their desire and esteem of virtue, humility, and mortifica­tion decreases in proportion. So they come to make little account of the one in comparison with the other and choose to come short of virtue rather than of learning. Hereby many come to fall off and even afterwards to lose their vocation altogether. Better would it have been to have spoken to them of the importance and necessity of virtue and humility and how little learning and ability are worth— or, to say better, how harmful they are without virtue— instead of engendering in them by such conversations the desire of honor and of making a figure in the world, and being held for men of genius and great talents, which is apt to be their first step to perdition.

Surius, in his Life of St. Fulgentius the Abbot, supplies a very good example to this purpose. He says that, when this holy prelate saw any of his religious to be great workers, never ceasing all day long to serve and help the house, but saw on the other hand some not so diligent in spiritual things nor so interested in prayer, spiritual reading, and recollection, he had no great liking or esteem of them, and did not think they deserved it. But when he saw any­one much attached to spiritual things and very careful to make progress in them, although unable to do any work in the house or be of any service because of his weak and sickly condition, he had a particular love and esteem for such; and rightly so, for to what purpose is the possession of great parts and talents if the man is not obedient and submissive and the superior cannot do with him what he wills? Especially if he then takes occasion to take back a little of his free and easy ways and look for exemptions, much better in that case he had never had those abilities and talents at all. If the superior had to give an account to God whether he had in his house people who were good workers and of great parts, that would stand: but it is not so; it is not of that that he has to give an account, but of the care that he takes to get his subjects to advance in spirit and go on every day growing in virtue; and how, according to the abilities and talents which our Lord gives to each one, they busy themselves about their ministries and offices, not losing for that anything of their spiritual improvements. And of that same thing God will ask account of the subject. Certainly, says a holy man: “In the day of judgment we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done; nor how well we spoke, but how virtuously we lived.”

Christ our Redeemer had sent His disciples to preach, and they returned very satisfied and pleased with them­selves, saying: Lord, we have done marvels and miracles: even the devils were subject and obeyed us in Thy name, The Redeemer of the world answered: Put not your satis­faction and joy in this, that ye do marvels and miracles and command the devils, and they obey you; but rejoice and be glad that your names are written in heaven (Luke x. 20). We should put our satisfaction and joy in acquir­ing and gaining the kingdom of heaven, for without this all the rest will profit us nothing. What doth it profit a man if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? (Matt. xvi. 26). Now if we say this, and Christ says the same, of the spiritual occupations and ministries of gaining and converting souls, that not on that account should we forget ourselves, because in that case it would profit us nothing though we converted the whole world, what is to be said of other occupations? It is not the right thing for a religious to be so absorbed and engrossed in studies or let himself be so carried away by external occu­pations as to forget his own spiritual progress, his medi­tation, his examen of conscience, his practice of mortifica­tion and penance; and to put spiritual things in the last place and take the worst time for them; and if anything has to be left out, to let them be the things left out is to live quite an unspiritual life, and not as a religious.

St. Dorotheus relates that he had for infirmarian and dis­ciple, Dositheus, who was very diligent in his office, took great care of the sick, had their beds well made and their rooms in good order, all very clean and neat. St. Doro­theus went to visit the infirmary, and Dositheus said to him: “Father, there comes over me a thought of vainglory, saying to me: ‘How well you keep everything! How pleased your superior will be with you!’ ” St. Dorotheus gave him an answer that quite cleared him of vainglory: “You have turned out a very knacky man, Dositheus, a very good infirmarian you have turned out, but you have not turned out a good religious.” Let each one, then, take care that this may not be said of him: “You have turned out a very good infirmarian, or a very good porter, but you have not turned out a good religious; you have turned out a very good student, or a very good university man, or a very good preacher, but not a good religious.” We have not come here for that, but to be good religious. That is what we ought to esteem and secure and keep ever before our eyes; and all other things we should take as accessories and additions to our spiritual progress, according to those words of Christ: Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these other things shall be added unto you (Matt. vi. 33).

Of those Fathers of the Desert we read that, since they could not be always reading, or meditating and praying, they spent their spare time in making baskets and in other manual works so as not to be idle, and some of them at the end of the year set fire to all that they had made, because they were not in need thereof for their support, but they worked only to occupy the time and not be idle. So we ought to fix our eyes principally upon our own spiritual progress, and as for other businesses and occupations, though they be with our neighbor, we ought to take to them as those holy Fathers took to making their baskets; not for that should we forget ourselves or neglect ourselves or lose on that account one point of perfection.

So we should always proceed on this foundation and hold it for a first principle, always to put in the first place the spiritual exercises which touch our own advancement, and never leave them off for anything, because this it is that must preserve and carry us forward in virtue; failing this, we shall soon see the falling off that will result. And we have abundant experience that, when we are not getting on as we ought, this always comes from our having grown slack in our spiritual exercises. My heart hath withered, because I have forgotten to eat my bread (Psalm ci. 5). If the upkeep and sustenance of our soul fails us, it is clear that we must become weak and languid. And so our holy Father much commends this to us and warns us of it many times. One time he says: “The aim of all those under pro­bation, and of all others, ought to be what makes for their self-abnegation and their increase in virtue and perfec­tion.” Another time he says: “Let all give due time to spiritual things and try to increase their devotion so far as the grace of God shall impart it to them.” Another time: “Let all give the appointed time to prayer, medita­tion, and reading, with all diligence in the Lord.” And notice the phrase “with all diligence.”

Hence it will be seen that, however many occupations of obedience and official duty one has, it is not the mind of superiors that on that account we should omit our spiritual duties, for there is no superior that wishes you to break your rules, and rules of such leading importance as these. So let no one endeavor to color and gloss over his imper­fection and negligence in his spiritual exercises by a vest and cloak of obedience, saying: “I could not make my medi­tation, or examen, or spiritual reading, because obedience took me off.” It is not obedience that stands in the way here, but the negligence of the individual and the little affection that he has for spiritual things. St. Basil says that we should take care to be very faithful in giving to God all the times that we have marked for prayer and spir­itual exercises; and if at any time by some unavoidable occupation we are not able to make meditation or examen the due time, we must remain with hunger and desire to SuPply and make it up forthwith as soon as we can. So when we miss our bodily allowance of food or of necessary sleep, for having been all night with an invalid, hearing his confession or helping him to die well, we take care to sup­ply it forthwith and never fail to find time for that. This is the will of superiors when they occupy one of us in the time of his spiritual exercises, as is sometimes necessary; they do not mean us to omit them, but to put them off and make them up afterwards very completely, according to the saying of the Wise Man: Be not hindered from praying always (Eccles. xviii. 22). He does not say, Do not hinder, but Be not hindered. Let there be no hindrance or distrac­tion to prevent you from ever holding fast to your prayer; and for the good religious there never is such hindrance because he always finds time to make it up and repair it. It is told of St. Dorotheus that, being guest-master and get­ting to bed very late, and sometimes rising in the night to give welcome to visitors, nevertheless he rose with the rest for prayer, and had asked someone to call him because the ordinary caller did not do so, knowing how he had been busied—and this though he was not yet quite recovered from a fever. This was desiring in good earnest not to fail in his spiritual duties, and not acquiescing in any excuse so as afterwards to go about out of sorts all day long. The same history tells also of a holy old man who saw an angel incensing all those who had gone with diligence to prayer, and also the vacant places of those who were not there for being hindered by obedience, but not of those who were absent through their own negligence. This is a great con­solation for those whom the occupations of obedience pre­vent from coming up to time with the rest for spiritual duties, and a warning not to fail in them through our own negligence.

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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