Let me illustrate what I have said by an anecdote of Saint Bernard.
It is common to most beginners in God’s Service, being as yet inexperienced in the fluctuations of grace and in spiritual vicissitudes, that when they lose the glow of sensible devotion, and the first fascinating lights which led them in their first steps towards God, they lose heart, and fall into depression and discouragement.
Those who are practised in the matter say that it is because our human nature cannot bear a prolonged deprivation of some kind of satisfaction, either celestial or earthly; and so as souls, which have been raised beyond their natural level by a taste of superior joys, readily renounce visible delights when the higher joys are taken away, as well as those more earthly pleasures, they, not being yet trained to a patient waiting for the true sunshine, fancy that there is no light either in heaven or earth, but that they are plunged in perpetual darkness. They are just like newly-weaned babes, who fret and languish for want of the breast, and are a weariness to every one, especially to themselves.
Just so it fell out with a certain Geoffroy de Peronne, a member of S. Bernard’s community, newly dedicated to God’s Service, during a journey which he and some others were making. He became suddenly dry, deprived of all consolations, and amid his interior darkness he began to think of the friends and relations he had parted from, and of his worldly pursuits and interests, until the temptation grew so urgent that his outward aspect betrayed it, and one of those most in his confidence perceiving that he was sorely troubled, accosted him tenderly, asking him secretly, “What means this, Geoffroy? and what makes thee, contrary to thy wont, so pensive and sad?” Whereupon Geoffroy, sighing heavily, made answer, “Woe is me, my brother, never again in my life shall I be glad!”
The other was moved to pity by these words, and in his fraternal love he hastened to tell it all to their common father S. Bernard, and he, realising the danger, went into the nearest church to pray for Geoffroy, who meanwhile cast himself down in despair, and, resting his head on a stone, fell asleep.
After a while both rose up, the one full of grace won by prayer, the other from his sleep, with so peaceful and gladsome a countenance, that his friend, marvelling to see so great and unexpected a change, could not refrain from gently reproaching him for his recent words. Thereupon Geoffroy answered, “If just now I told thee that I should never more be glad, so now I promise thee I will never more be sad!”
Such was the result of this devout man’s temptation; but from this history I would have you observe:–
- That God is wont to give some foretaste of His heavenly joys to beginners in His Service, the better to wean them from earthly pleasures, and to encourage them in seeking His Divine Love, even as a mother attracts her babe to suck by means of honey.
- That nevertheless it is the same Good God Who sometimes in His Wisdom deprives us of the milk and honey of His consolations, in order that we may learn to eat the dry substantial bread of a vigorous devotion, trained by means of temptations and trials.
- That sometimes very grievous temptations arise out of dryness and barrenness, and that at such times these temptations must be stedfastly resisted, inasmuch as they are not of God; but the dryness must be patiently endured, because He sends that to prove us.
- That we must never grow discouraged amid our inward trials, nor say, like Geoffroy, “I shall never be glad;” but through the darkness we must look for light; and in like manner, in the brightest spiritual sunshine, we must not presume to say, “I shall never be sad.” Rather we must remember the saying of the Wise Man, “In the day of prosperity remember the evil.” (1) It behoves us to hope amid trials, and to fear in prosperity, and in both circumstances always to be humble.
- That it is a sovereign remedy to open our grief to some spiritual friend able to assist us.
And, in conclusion, I would observe that here, as everywhere, our Gracious God and our great Enemy are in conflict, for by means of these trials God would bring us to great purity of heart, to an entire renunciation of self-interest in all concerning His Service, and a perfect casting aside of self-seeking; but the Evil One seeks to use our troubles to our discouragement, so as to turn us back to sensual pleasures, and to make us a weariness to ourselves and others, in order to injure true devotion.
But if you will give heed to the above instructions you will advance greatly towards perfection amid such interior trials, concerning which I have yet one word to say. Sometimes revulsions and dryness and incapacity proceed from bodily indisposition, as when excessive watching, fasting, or overwork produce weariness, lassitude, heaviness, and the like; which, while wholly caused by the body, interfere greatly with the soul, so intimately are they linked together.
When this is the case, you must always remember to make marked acts of virtue with your higher will, for, although your whole soul may seem to be sunk in drowsy weariness, such mental efforts are acceptable to God. At such a time you may say with the Bride of the Canticles, “I sleep, but my heart waketh.” (2) And, as I have already said, if there is less enjoyment in such efforts, there is more virtue and merit.
But the best remedy under the last-named circumstances is to reinvigorate the body by some lawful recreation and solace.
S. Francis enjoined his religious to use such moderation in their labours as never to impair the fervour of their minds. And speaking of that great Saint, he was himself once attacked by such deep depression of mind that he could not conceal it; if he sought to associate with his religious he was unable to talk; if he kept apart he only grew worse; abstinence and maceration of the flesh overwhelmed him, and he found no comfort in prayer. For two years he continued in this state, as though altogether forsaken of God, but after humbly enduring the heavy storm, his Saviour restored him to a happy calm quite suddenly.
From this we should learn that God’s greatest servants are liable to such trials, so that less worthy people should not be surprised if they experience the same.