What Is the Good and True Zeal That Pleases God, and What Not

by admin on April 17, 2011

There are apparent virtues that are not true virtues, but false and pretended, as the Wise Man says of humility: There is one who humbleth himself cunningly, and his interior is full of guile (Ecclus. xix. 23) . There are those who appear humble, and are not. They wear poor clothes, walk with their heads down and their eyes on the ground, speak in a humble tone, heave many a sigh, and call themselves miserable sinners at every breath; but give them a flick with a slight word, and they at once let it be seen what they are within, for all that exterior was a vain show and a make-up. So the Apostle says that there are certain sorts of zeal that appear good, and yet are not good, but indiscreet. They have zeal, but not according to knowl­edge (Rom. x. 2). Such was the zeal of the disciples of Christ, St. James and St. John, when, seeing that the Samaritans would not receive them, they waxed mighty wroth and said: Lord, shall we bid fire come down from heaven, and burn and consume them all ? So the Redeemer of the world chid them, saying: Ye know not of what spirit ye are. You know not the spirit of the law of grace, which does not consist of severities and chastisements. The Son of Man came not to destroy men, but to save them (Luke ix. 54-56). In order, then, that we may not go astray in a matter of so much importance, we will here explain what is the zeal that is not according to knowledge, and what is good and pleasing to God, that we may make sure of the one and avoid the other.

St. Denis the Areopagite treats this point very well. He says that, though blind men do not hit the road nor know where to go, and yet we do not beat them on that account nor get angry with them, but rather take them by the hand and guide them, having compassion on them; so we should behave to sinners, who are ignorant and blind, as the Prophet Sophonias says: They shall walk as- blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord (Soph. i. 17). We should not be minded at once to beat them, or see them chastised or destroyed, but compassionate them, and teach them the way of truth, and guide and help them with great love and charity in imitation of Christ our Redeemer, Who went on the hills to seek the strayed and lost sheep, calling and whistling for it; and on finding it did not take the stick to it, but took it on His shoulders and brought it to His flock (Luke xv. 3-7). See it in the case of the prodigal son, how He behaved to him, and the loving-kindness with which He received him. This is the zeal that is good and according to God; other zeals and outbursts of indig­nation against sinners are not good, nor pleasing to God, because they are not to His nature nor according to His heart.

St. Dionysius relates to this purpose an instance, very good and very consoling, of what happened to St. Carpus, a man of many revelations, who never came to offer the Holy Sacrifice without first getting a revelation to do so. He says that this saint told him this story. There was a recent convert to the faith of Jesus Christ, whom an unbeliever had perverted. Carpus was so pained and sad­dened at this that for grief he fell ill. This was in the eve­ning. Midnight approached, at which time it was his cus­tom to rise and praise God. He rose accordingly, full of zeal and indignation against the two of them; at the unbe­liever for having perverted the new Christian; and at the Christian for having reverted to his unbelief. Putting him­self in prayer, he began to complain to God, saying: “It is not just that the wicked should live; how long art Thou going to endure them? Send, Lord, fire from heaven to consume them.” While he was at this, there seemed to come an earthquake which shook the whole house. The ground opened from above downwards on two sides, and he saw a huge fire that reached from there up to heaven. Above, on the other side, there in heaven, he saw Jesus Christ accompanied by innumerable angels; and, looking down below, he saw the earth yawning open, and a deep and dark gulf that reached down to hell, at which he stood horrified and amazed. The story goes on that there appeared those two men, the objects of his indignation, standing close to that opening in the earth, trembling and on the point of falling in; and that there came out from below fiery serpents, who sometimes twined and coiled themselves round their feet, and at other times with their teeth and horrid aspects and wrigglings tried to make them fall into the abyss. There were black men also among the serpents, endeavoring to do the same, sometimes throw­ing things at them, sometimes pushing them. And St. Car­pus went on to say that, as he had been so indignant against them and had asked God to send down fire from heaven to consume them, he now rejoiced to see them in this danger, and was only sorry and much annoyed that they did not once for all fall in—in fact, he thought he would have been glad to have gone and given them a push. Upon this, he raised his eyes to heaven, and saw the most merciful Jesus giving signs of compassion for them and for the great dan­ger they were in. He rose from His heavenly throne and, accompanied by the angels, descended to the spot where these wretches were, and gave them His hand to draw them out of that danger, and the angels received them into their company. Jesus Christ turned to St. Carpus, who was long­ing to give them a push that they might fall altogether, and said to him: “Put out thy hand and strike Me, since I am ready once more to suffer and die for sinners. Does it not seem to thee to be better to be in the company of angels than in the company of serpents and devils?” With that the vision disappeared, and the holy man stood corrected for his indiscreet zeal, and taught better in future—and we with him—to understand that these outbursts of zeal do not please God, Who wishes not the death of the sinner, sinners having cost Him much, and being His Benjamins, the sons of His pain (Gen. xxxv. 18). In great pains did He beget them on the Cross; they cost Him His lifeblood, and so He would not have them perish, but be converted and live forever.

The Prophet Jonah was very grieved and put out that God did not send upon the Ninevites the punishment that he had prophesied. And God said to him: “Thinkest thou that this is a good zeal ? Thou art grieved that the ivy is dried up, at which thou didst not work, for the little shade it gave thee; and shall I not grieve on My own account at the destruction of a city, in which the children alone who have not come to the age of reason exceed one hundred and twenty thousand?” (Jon. iv. 9-11). That is also a mar­velous utterance to this effect, which was spoken by the Emperor Constantine at the Council of Nice to a bishop named Acacius, who had shown himself very hard in admit­ting to the council those who had erred and were converted. The most religious and pious emperor said to him: “O Acacius, get a ladder, and climb up to heaven alone, if you can.” Another holy man in another similar case said to one who was showing great severity: “If this man had cost you your blood, as he has cost Christ, you would pick him up and receive him into your flock, and not leave him outside to be devoured by wolves.”

In Exodus Holy Scripture gives us a marvelous example and pattern of good and true zeal such as God’s servants should have. Our zeal should be such as Moses had when the children of Israel made the calf and worshipped it for an idol. St. Augustine makes very good reflection on this. Moses had gone up the mountain to receive from God the law which he was to give to the people, and had now received it on two tables, made by the hand of God and written also by His hand on both sides. He came down from the mountain and found that the people had made the calf and were adoring it. Whereupon he grew so angry that he broke to pieces the tables which he held in his hands. See, says St. Augustine, how angry Moses was at the sin of the people, since he broke the tables of the law which he had just received from God, made and written by God’s own hand, and given with such solemnity and such great preparations, after having been forty days and forty nights on the mountain, fasting and conversing with God. But, though his anger and indignation against the sin was so great, nevertheless he returned at once to God to intercede for the people, and that with such persistence as to beg God either to pardon them or blot him out of His book. Of this sort, says the saint, should be the zeal of the true ministers of God. We should be so zealous for His honor that the offenses committed against His Divine Majesty should pierce us to the quick; and on the other hand be so full of compassion and pity for sinners as to put ourselves for mediators to appease God and obtain their pardon, as Moses did.

The like example we read also of the Apostle St. Paul.  I tell the truth in Christ Jesus, I lie not, my conscience bearing me witness in the Holy Ghost, that I suffer great sadness and continued grief in my heart; for I should wish to be anathema from Christ for the salvation of my breth­ren, the children of Israel, who are my kinsmen according to the flesh (Rom. ix. 1-3). On the one hand the Apostle felt such great sadness and grief for the sins of his people, because he felt such great hatred and abhorrence for sin; and on the other he felt so great compassion and such desire of their good that he says he desired to be anathema for their salvation. The saints give many explanations of this desire of Moses and of St. Paul. St. Jerome explains it is to be understood of the death of the body. He says that these holy men desired to shed their blood and die the death of the body that the others might be alive in the spirit and be saved. St. Jerome proves that the word ana­thema is often used in Holy Writ for the death of the body. But, leaving out other explanations, the glorious Bernard gives one very tender and touching, as he usually does. He says that Moses speaks there with the affection and love of a father, or, to put it better, of a most loving mother, who can never be satisfied to see her children left out in the cold, not to share her joys. He illustrates this by an example. Suppose a rich man to give an invitation to a poor woman, and say to her: “You come and dine with me; but as for that infant in arms that you have got, you must leave him outside, because he will give us trouble with his crying.” Think you that woman would accept the invitation under that condition? No, certainly not. She would rather go without her dinner than make such a bargain. “Either he must come in there with me,” she would say, “or if not, I decline your invitation.” In this way, then, Moses speaks, says St. Bernard. “I have no mind to enter into the joy of the Lord, and leave out in the cold the people of Israel,” whom he loved as his children. This affection of a mother, this heart of compassion and love, are very pleasing to God; and our zeal ought to be of this sort. One of the virtues that best find a place in anyone who is working for God is this compassion for souls who are under the thralldom of the devil. So says the Apostle St. Paul: Put ye on hearts of mercy, as becom-eth the elect of God, holy and well-beloved (Col. iii. 12), to fall in well with the likeness of the nature of God, and of that great High Priest Whom He has given us, of Whom the Apostle says: We have not a high priest who cannot have compassion on our infirmities (Heb. iv. 15). Let us have compassion on our neighbor, as Christ has had com­passion on us. St. Ambrose in the second book of his trea­tise on penance asks nothing else of God but that He would give him this tender compassion for sinners. And He did give it to him in such abundance, as Paulinus writes of him in his Life, that he wept with those who came to confession to him and declared to him their miseries. Penitents are better won over in this way than by severity and indiscreet zeal; for the love that the confessor shows the penitent, compassionating him and feeling his affliction and misery, wins his heart and greatly moves him to love also his con­fessor and be very fond of him, for there is nothing that moves one more to love than to see oneself loved. Anything that you say to him on this footing of love makes an impression on his heart; and though you rebuke him in this manner, he does not grow angry, because he takes the rebuke as coming from a true father. So St. Basil says that all our rebukes ought to be in the style of a mother caress­ing the child at her breast—tanquam si nutrix foveat filios suos (I Thess. ii. 7); so that the party rebuked may take it that the words come from a heart that loves him and desires his welfare and salvation. This is to know how to mingle oil and wine as the holy Gospel says in the par­able of the Good Samaritan (Luke x. 34), how to mingle and temper the strong wine of reprehension with the soft and sweet oil of compassion and mercy. This is the right way to cure and heal wounds; whereas that other method of severe and harsh indignation and scolding not only does no good, but positively does harm, and alienates penitents not only from you, but from the Society, because they take it that all the rest of us are as ungracious and ill-tempered as you are. St. Bernard quotes to this purpose the example of Joseph, who in rebuking his brethren could not restrain his tears. He showed clearly that his words of fault-find­ing did not spring from anger and indignation, but from a tender and loving heart.

To have such a heart and such affections of tenderness and compassion for the sins of our neighbor, and not be indignant nor angry with him on that account, Father Mas­ter Avila alleges a consideration that will be very helpful. Our neighbor’s sins may be looked at in two ways. First, as offenses and injuries done to God; and in that way they move to anger and indignation and desire of punishment. Secondly, as the calamity of our brother; and, looked at in that way, they do not move to anger, but to compassion; for no evil can come upon men that does them so much harm as sin, and so there is no more proper matter for compassion and mercy than guilt, regarded in that light. And the greater the sin, the more it calls for compassion, as doing the more harm and being the greater evil. As the injurious and bad language of a madman does not move us to anger, but to pity and compassion, since we regard it as the misfortune and infirmity of him who says such things, so God Himself is moved by our sins to compassion and not to anger when He takes a merciful view of them, not as an offense against Himself, but as our calamity and misery. In this way we should regard the sins of our neighbor as his calamity and loss, to compassionate them, as we would wish God to regard our sins, not with anger and justice to punish us, but with mercy and compassion to pardon and heal us. This will make a good zeal, a zeal according to the heart of God, Who is merciful and a doer of mercies.

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