GENERAL MEANS FOR THE ATTAINMENT OF PERFECTION
In order to make sure of attaining Christian perfection, the following means should be adopted.
1. Fidelity in small things.
By this greater graces are obtained and grave sins more easily avoided.
In the natural order we see how great things are evolved out of what is apparently insignificant. How small the acorn is, and yet it contains the germ of a mighty oak! So it is in the spiritual order. Pay heed, therefore, to small things; do not despise even the least; be careful to avoid every untrue word, every word that may give offense; never utter lightly the name of God. To him who is faithful in small things God gives great graces; to him Our Lord says: “Well done, good and faithful servant; because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things” (Matt. xxv. 21). He who, on the other hand, is unfaithful in small things, loses many graces and is punished by God. Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land because he doubted God’s promise, and Zacharias was struck dumb for his incredulity. Many of the saints were deprived of consolations, and visited by aridity, because of slight faults. He who is faithful in small things is not as likely to fall into heinous sins; for Our Lord says: “He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in that which is greater; and he that is unjust in that which is little, is unjust also in that which is greater” (Luke xvi. 10). Hence whosoever is attentive to small things makes rapid progress in virtue. “If thou wouldst become great,” says St. Augustine, “begin with that which is little.” Grains of sand form a mountain, a number of trees make a forest. “He that contemneth small things shall fall by little and little” (Ecclus. xix. 1). Little infidelities to grace often cause great mischief, and embitter a man’s whole life. A spark will occasion a vast conflagration, and a small leak will cause a ship to founder. So it is with small sins. Judas began with purloining, and ended by becoming a traitor and a suicide; Cain first gave way to jealousy and then slew his brother. Contempt of trifles shows secret pride.
2. A habit of self-control.
We should not encourage curiosity, nor stare out of windows; we should avoid useless or loud talking, refrain from complaining of the weather or of our health; from eating between our meals, from finding fault with what is provided for us, from too long indulgence in sleep, from eagerness to join in conversation, from speaking of ourselves, from contradicting others. These and similar acts of mortification cost no great effort. The saints practiced far more severe ones, but in this they are not to be imitated by all. St. John the Baptist led a life of extreme self-denial. St. Paul says of himself: “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection; lest perhaps when have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway” (1 Cor. ix. 27). Self-control is a sort of abstinence; it is far more profitable than merely abstaining from food. He who can rule himself is a king; for instead of being led captive by his passions, he dominates them. Self-conquest is the mark of a true Christian. Our Lord says: “If any man will follow Me, let him deny himself” (Mark viii. 34); that is to say, he that will be My disciple must practice self-abnegation. St. Paul also says: “They that are Christ’s have crucified their flesh with the vices and concupiscences” (Gal v. 24). A fish that is alive swims against the current; a dead one is carried along by it. Hence you can easily ascertain whether you have the life of the Spirit in you, or whether you are dead; ask yourself whether you stem the tide of your sinful desires, or if you are carried away by it.
By the practice of self-control the understanding is en lightened, the will strengthened, and the soul finds peace.
“We have a law in our members fighting against the law of our mind” (Rom. vii. 23). Our members that are upon the earth must accordingly be mortified (Col. iii. 5). The flesh is continually at war with the spirit, and we must continually be at warfare with the flesh. He who does all that is allowed, will soon proceed to do what is not allowed (St. Augustine). But if we deny ourselves what is lawful, it will be easy for us to abstain from what is unlawful. The most perfect among us will fall into sin if he ceases to practice self-denial, as a field that is uncultivated produces a crop of weeds. Self-control enlightens the understanding. All that we deny to our carnal senses is repaid a hundredfold to our spiritual senses. “Let us,” says St. Basil, “stifle our fleshly desires, in order that our spiritual sense may become keener, and our interior vitality and peace be augmented.” Self-control fortifies the will. If the will be strong, carnal impulses are quickly subdued, and the temptations of the devil easily overcome. Mortify yourself in matters that are apparently of little moment; you will thereby learn to conquer where great things are at stake. The mortified man is like an oak, which will break, but will not bend; the unmortified is like a reed, shaken with the wind (Matt. xi. 7). By self-control we acquire true peace of mind. There is no quiet in a house the door of which stands open to all comers, and there is no peace in the soul if the senses are not kept in custody. Our disorderly affections are like a storm at sea; they raise a tempest in the soul and perturb the mind. But if you know how to command the winds of passion, a marvelous peace and great calm will ensue. He who for the love of God has renounced all carnal lusts will enjoy the sweetest consolations of the Holy Spirit. He who is master of himself will not easily be provoked to wrath. Self-control is the parent of meekness and patience.
3. Abstinence from all that is superfluous, especially in regard to eating and drinking.
Among superfluities we reckon splendid dress, costly furniture, theatre-going, giving and taking part in entertainments, banquets, etc. Those who take great delight in such things will never attain perfection; the Holy Ghost will not dwell in a heart that is filled with the love of earthly things. He who would enter upon the path of virtue and perfection must begin by diligent mortification of his appetite. No gourmand can be a good soldier of Christ. Those who eat and drink more than is necessary are in danger of losing grace and succumbing to temptation. Hence Our Lord says: “Woe to you that are filled” (Luke vi. 25). And St. Peter exhorts the faithful thus: “Be sober and watch; because your adversary the devil as a roaring lion goeth about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet. v. 8). Talkativeness is also to be avoided. An unrestrained tongue is a sign of conceit and folly. As a doctor judges of a man’s bodily health by the state of his tongue, so one may judge of the health of the soul by the words the tongue utters. From the ring of a vessel one can perceive whether it is full or empty; so by the conversation of a man it may be seen whether his mind is empty or well-stored. He that setteth bounds to his tongue is knowing and wise; a fool multiplieth words. The temperature of a room is speedily reduced if the door be left open; so the love of God cools in the heart of one whose lips are ever unclosed for idle gossip, and the sanctifying grace of the Holy Spirit departs from the soul. Incontinence of speech is a fruitful source of contention. “If any man offend not in tongue, the same is a perfect man” (Jas. iii. 2). Mortification of the tongue is indispensable to the attainment of sanctity. “If any man bridle not his tongue, that man’s religion is vain” (Jas. i. 26), even though he seem to be God-fearing. “He that hath no guard on his speech shall meet with evils” (Prov. xiii. 3). For this reason St. Paul bids us: “Shun profane and vain babblings” (2 Tim. ii. 16). Speech is silver; silence is gold. Yet we must beware of being too chary with our words, or our silence might appear contemptuous. In this as in all else, a wise medium should be observed.
4. Order and regularity.
For this is conducive to peace of mind and rapid advancement in sanctity.
* “Let all things be done decently and according to order” (1 Cor. xiv. 40). It is well to have a fixed time for rising and retiring to rest, for meals, for work, for recreation, etc. We should endeavor to keep order in all around us, for thus we shall save much time and trouble. St. Augustine says that order leads to God, for all that He ordains is regulated in perfect order. Behold the beautiful order that reigns in the starry firmament. Order must be maintained in all institutions, schools, convents, etc. It is remarkable how many men who have had military training have reached an eminent degree of sanctity.
5. Unremitting prayer.
By this means many temptations are held aloof, and graces in abundant measure obtained.
As fortifications defend a garrison against the attacks of the enemy, so prayer without ceasing protects us from the devil. Our Lord admonishes us: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (Matt. xxvi. 41). St. Paul bids the faithful: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. v. 17). Unremitting prayer is a sure means of drawing down the Holy Ghost from on high. The more a plant en joys the sunshine, the better it will grow and the more luxuriantly will it blossom; in like manner the more often the soul draws near in prayer to the sun of divine grace, the greater will be its increase in perfection. All the saints were instant in prayer. Blessed Clement Hofbauer was accustomed to recite the Rosary while walking through the streets of Vienna. St. Alphonsus used to say that the saints owed their sanctity more to their prayers than to their works. Habituate yourself to ejaculatory prayer; it will refresh you and help you on your way as an occasional draught of wine does the traveller.
6. Frequent confession and communion.
Sins once properly confessed, are, it is true, forgiven; yet it is advisable, though not obligatory upon us, to accuse ourselves of them repeatedly.
The saints used to confess again and again the mortal sins of which they had been guilty. The confession of the sins of our past life serves to keep us humble. And if, after confession, we frequently approach the holy table, we shall increase in perfection, as a tree which is planted near running waters grows to great height. We admire the sanctity of the early Christians; let us remember that they communicated daily. It is said of them that they persevered in the communication of the breaking of bread (Acts ii. 42).
7. Reading attentively the life of Our Lord and the lives of the saints, and meditation on the truths of religion.
By reading the lives of the saints we shall feel ourselves powerfully incited to imitate their example. We shall ask ourselves, as St. Augustine asked himself: “If these and those, could do so much, wherefore canst not thou do the same?” The saints loved to study the lives of the saints and to imitate them; so a draughtsman looks long and often at the picture he is about to copy. However, we must not imagine that with our love of God, so poor, so faint, we can all at once imitate the sublime actions of the saints, or it will be as if a crow were to attempt to imitate the song of the nightingale. The most profitable plan is for us to read the life of a saint whose position corresponded to our own, and learn from it practical lessons. The lives of the saints are the maxims of the Gospel put in practice. Meditation on the truths of religion is supremely useful; it enlightens our understanding, stimulates the will to the pursuit of what is good, and gives us peace of mind. The truths of religion are like a fire, standing near which we receive light and warmth. They impart nourishment to our souls; they are a food that satisfies. Remember Our Lord’s words to the Samaritan woman (John iv. 13). The world would not be as bad as it is if there were not so few who consider the truths of religion in their heart (Jer. xii. 11). Through meditation the saints attained sanctity.
8. Love of solitude.
In solitude we obtain many actual graces; we are preserved from temptation and from sin, and grow in virtue. Our Lord was wont to take Himself to solitary places, to a mountain (John vi. 15), to the desert (Luke v. 16), or the Mount of Olives (John viii. 1), where He spent a long time in prayer. Until He was thirty years of age He led a hidden life. We know also that many holy men withdrew into solitude and devoted themselves to spiritual exercises. St. Benedict passed three years in a cavern among the mountains. St. Ignatius of Loyola dwelt for a considerable time in the cave of Manresa. Those who are now unknown, whose life is hid with Christ in God, will one day appear with Him in glory (Col. iii. 3, 4). St. John Chrysostom says the life of the recluse is that of an angel upon earth. In solitude we obtain many graces; there the Holy Spirit speaks to the heart (Osee ii. 14). One cannot hear a sweet melody in the midst of din and tumult; God’s voice can only be heard by those who flee from the world. The further the soul lives from all worldly tumult, the more familiar does she become with her Creator (Imitation, Book 1, ch. 20). In solitude alone is true contentment to be found. Were the recluse to leave his cell, he would perceive that the world is a field in which more vexation than pleasure is to be reaped. Solitude is a preservative from temptation and sin, as the harbor shelters the mariner from storm and shipwreck. While Adam was alone he did not sin; it was after he had Eve for a companion. The sage Seneca used to say: “As often as I have been among men, I have returned less a man.” Solitude helps to maintain and increase virtue. Choice spices only retain their aroma when shut up; they lose it if exposed to the air. Virtue is more easily preserved in solitude than amid the noise and bustle of the world. He who frequents the drinking saloon, who goes to every place of amusement, who, in a a word, enjoys life, will not enjoy true peace of heart, will not attain perfection. But however great the advantages of seclusion, we must not be unsociable, and withdraw altogether from the society of our fellow-men; we must mix with them freely whenever duty bids, or charity calls upon us to do so. Our Blessed Lady visited her cousin Elizabeth, to congratulate her. Let us hold aloof from the world in spirit, not in bodily presence.