Saint Augustine says very admirably, that beginners in devotion are wont to commit certain faults which, while they are blameable according to the strict laws of perfection, are yet praiseworthy by reason of the promise they hold forth of a future excellent goodness, to which they actually tend.
For instance, that common shrinking fear which gives rise to an excessive scrupulosity in the souls of some who are but just set free from a course of sin, is commendable at that early stage, and is the almost certain forerunner of future purity of conscience. But this same fear would be blameable in those who are farther advanced, because love should reign in their hearts, and love is sure to drive away all such servile fear by degrees.
In his early days, Saint Bernard was very severe and harsh towards those whom he directed, telling them, to begin with, that they must put aside the body, and come to him with their minds only. In confession, he treated all faults, however small, with extreme severity, and his poor apprentices in the study of perfection were so urged onwards, that by dint of pressing he kept them back, for they lost heart and breath when they found themselves thus driven up so steep and high an ascent.
Therein, my daughter, you can see that, although it was his ardent zeal for the most perfect purity which led that great Saint so to act, and although such zeal is a great virtue, still it was a virtue which required checking. And so God Himself checked it in a vision, by which He filled S. Bernard with so gentle, tender, and loving a spirit, that he was altogether changed, blaming himself heavily for having been so strict and so severe, and becoming so kindly and indulgent, that he made himself all things to all men in order to win all.
S. Jerome tells us that his beloved daughter, S. Paula, was not only extreme, but obstinate in practising bodily mortifications, and refusing to yield to the advice given her upon that head by her Bishop, S. Epiphanius; and furthermore, she gave way so excessively to her grief at the death of those she loved as to peril her own life. Whereupon S. Jerome says: “It will be said that I am accusing this saintly woman rather than praising her, but I affirm before Jesus, Whom she served, and Whom I seek to serve, that I am not saying what is untrue on one side or the other, but simply describing her as one Christian another; that is to say, I am writing her history, not her panegyric, and her faults are the virtues of others.” He means to say that the defects and faults of S. Paula would have been looked upon as virtues in a less perfect soul; and indeed there are actions which we must count as imperfections in the perfect, which yet would be highly esteemed in the imperfect.
When at the end of a sickness the invalid’s legs swell, it is a good sign, indicating that natural strength is returning, and throwing off foul humours; but it would be a bad sign in one not avowedly sick, as showing that nature was too feeble to disperse or absorb those humours.
So, my child, we must think well of those whom we see practising virtues, although imperfectly, since the Saints have done the like; but as to ourselves we must give heed to practise them, not only diligently, but discreetly, and to this end we shall do well strictly to follow the Wise Man’s counsel, (1) and not trust in our own wisdom, but lean on those whom God has given as our guides.
And here I must say a few words concerning certain things which some reckon as virtues, although they are nothing of the sort–I mean ecstasies, trances, rhapsodies, extraordinary transformations, and the like, which are dwelt on in some books, and which promise to raise the soul to a purely intellectual contemplation, an altogether supernatural mental altitude, and a life of pre-eminent excellence.
But I would have you see, my child, that these perfections are not virtues, they are rather rewards which God gives to virtues, or perhaps, more correctly speaking, tokens of the joys of everlasting life, occasionally granted to men in order to kindle in them a desire for the fulness of joy which is only to be found in Paradise. But we must not aspire to such graces, which are in nowise necessary to us in order to love and serve God, our only lawful ambition.
Indeed, for the most part, these graces are not to be acquired by labour or industry, and that because they are rather passions than actions, which we may receive, but cannot create. Moreover, our business only is to become good, devout people, pious men and women; and all our efforts must be to that end. If it should please God further to endow us with angelic perfection, we should then be prepared to become good angels; but meanwhile let us practise, in all simplicity, humility and devotion, those lowly virtues to the attainment of which our Lord has bidden us labour,–I mean patience, cheerfulness, self-mortification, humility, obedience, poverty, chastity, kindness to our neighbour, forbearance towards his failings, diligence, and a holy fervour.
Let us willingly resign the higher eminences to lofty souls. We are not worthy to take so high a rank in God’s service; let us be content to be as scullions, porters, insignificant attendants in His household, leaving it to Him if He should hereafter see fit to call us to His own council chamber. Of a truth, my child, the King of Glory does not reward His servants according to the dignity of their office, but according to the humility and love with which they have exercised it. While Saul was seeking his father’s asses, he found the kingdom of Israel: (2) Rebecca watering Abraham’s camels, became his son’s wife: (3) Ruth gleaning after Boaz’ reapers, and lying down at his feet, was raised up to become his bride. (4) Those who pretend to such great and extraordinary graces are very liable to delusions and mistakes, so that sometimes it turns out that people who aspire to be angels are not ordinarily good men, and that their goodness lies more in high-flown words than in heart and deed.
But we must beware of despising or presumptuously condemning anything. Only, while thanking God for the pre-eminence of others, let us abide contentedly in our own lower but safer path,–a path of less distinction, but more suitable to our lowliness, resting satisfied that if we walk steadily and faithfully therein, God will lift us up to greater things.