SINCE the Providence of God has placed us in this world for the express purpose of being tried, no watchfulness or prudence upon our part will enable us to escape altogether from temptation.
Whether we live in the midst of the noisy world and occupy ourselves in trade and business, or whether we fly into the silent desert and lead a life of perpetual solitude and prayer, it is all the same: we shall most certainly have our spiritual battles to fight and our spiritual enemies to overcome.
The poor may not have the same trials as the rich, nor servants and dependents the same difficulties as masters and mistresses; but all of us, without exception, and whatever may be our
calling, are sure to meet with many tribulations of one kind or another, and to have our virtue thoroughly exercised during the course of our earthly career, be it short or be it long.
The devil, the world and the flesh are our chief enemies; and so persistent are they that it is impossible to continue long without experiencing their hostility. Yet the manner in which they make their assaults differs very considerably from age to age. Sometimes they will seek to lead us astray by exciting fear and terror, while at other times they will rather strive to beguile us with soft and honeyed words; the end sought is always the same, the means employed are often quite opposite.
In this connection, we are forcibly reminded of one of .Aesop's well-known fables. We refer to that in which he represents the Sun and the Wind disputing with each other as to which of them exercised the greater influence and power over the world of men. Since each claimed the superiority, and neither would yield to the other, they finally consented to try their skill upon a poor belated traveler, who chanced to be pursuing his way, along a rugged and difficult ascent, toward his native village, and then to abide by the result. The victory was to be declared in favor of the competitor who should first compel the traveler to remove a thick cloak that was now hanging loosely from his shoulders.
The Wind was the first to essay the task. It blew and blew and blew with all its might and main, and raised such a blast that the traveler could scarcely keep his footing. It caught up the dust and scattered the withered leaves and the dry twigs far and wide, and enveloped the unfortunate man in a perfect whirlwind. Then it seized hold of his cloak by every available fold and lappet, and tugged and pulled and wrestled and strove with relentless energy, until it had worked itself into a regular frenzy of passion.
But all to no purpose; in fact, the more violently the Wind howled and raged and beat upon the traveler, the more tightly and resolutely did he grasp his cloak, and the more closely did he draw its folds about him. The Wind, utterly disgusted, then subsided, and, abandoning the useless struggle, defied the Sun to succeed any better.
The Sun, nothing loath, at once issued forth in all its glory from behind a dark cloud, and darted down its fiery rays upon the weary pedestrian. Already hot and tired, he became yet more so. But the Sun, without pity, continued to shoot down its scorching beams upon him with ever increasing fierceness. At last the wretched man, panting for breath and perspiring from every pore, began to loosen the folds of his cloak, and, finally unfastening it, threw it off altogether. Thus the Sun easily won in the contest. Its quiet, penetrating action proved far more efficacious and powerful than all the bluster and noisy violence of the Wind.
In this ingenious story we find a very excellent and apt illustration of the two different plans the devil makes use of in order to persuade us poor travelers, wending our way along the strait and difficult path of virtue, to divest ourselves of the supernatural garment of divine grace. In bygone days, we were in imminent danger from the fierce winds and storms of cruel persecution. The old Roman emperors left no stone unturned in their efforts to crush out and utterly destroy the infant Church. Their arguments were torture, fire and the sword, ruthlessly applied century after century, until, literally, millions had been butchered and done to death on account of their loyalty to Christ and the Gospel.
In England, too, after a thousand years of comparative religious peace, a similar spirit took possession of the King and his greedy and servile minions. The glorious Catholic Faith, that for ten long centuries had been England's boast and England's glory, was forbidden by Act of Parliament. The heaviest penalties were enforced upon all who preferred the law of God to the law of man. Thousands of persons, of both sexes and of all ages, whose only offense was loyalty to God and to conscience, were fined, imprisoned, racked, tortured, or transported beyond the seas. They were stripped of all they possessed, and, in many cases, hanged and drawn and quartered, without pity and for what? For holding what countless generations of Englishmen had held before them—namely, that the Pope is the divinely appointed representative of Christ upon earth, and the supreme spiritual head of His Church; and for denying that which no Christian till then had ever been called on to affirm—namely, that the King, within his own dominions, is supreme, not only in civil and worldly matters, but in those also which are purely religious and ecclesiastical. As a consequence, the noblest heads rolled on the block, and the grandest and most splendid characters were brutally murdered at the behest of an infamous and adulterous King.
Such times are happily passed, or survive as mere memories amongst us; and full liberty now exists, at least in English-speaking countries, for everyone to believe or to disbelieve, just as his fancy or his inclination may suggest. Indeed, nowhere (except in France?) does there seem any likelihood of the cloak of divine grace being rudely torn from our backs by the storm of direct persecution. Still, though this form of danger no longer menaces us, there is yet considerable risk lest, under the pressure of another and a more insidious power, we should be induced to cast off our cloaks—in other words, to renounce our allegiance to God—of our own free will.
The old serpent still lives. His hatred and malevolence are as deep and as strong as ever, but he has changed his tactics. He no longer exhibits himself as " the roaring lion" described by St. Peter, "going about seeking whom he may devour," and striking terror and consternation into every breast by his threats of torture and of death. No. In these days he generally seems to prefer the disguise he assumed in the Garden of Eden. As a deceitful and wily serpent, he strives to insinuate himself into our hearts by the exercise of duplicity, craft, and cunning.
This I take to be one of the special dangers of these times, against which I wish now to warn the gentle reader. The devil's modern and up-to-date weapons are deceit, falsehood, and misrepresentation. Indeed, God seems to send a special message to us, in this twentieth century, from the remote past. For He certainly refers to modern and up-to-date methods when, speaking by the mouth of His prophet Isaias, He denounces and anathematizes all those followers of Satan "who call evil good, and good evil; who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter."* In any case, these inspired words most accurately describe the system and plan followed by the three great enemies of our salvation, in this highly refined, enlightened and boastful twentieth century. The world no longer looks with favor on persecution. It has gone out of fashion, like the pointed shoes and stiff frills of a former generation. Yet the world is still our enemy, and it is still our duty to be ever on our guard against it.
The world! But perhaps the reader will ask what I mean by "the world." Let me, then, say that I mean what the disciple St. John meant when he said: "Love not the world. "f I mean what St. Paul meant when he wrote to the Romans (xii, 2): "Be not conformed to this world." In fine, I mean what Jesus Christ meant when He said: "Fear not: I have overcome the world." Yes, this
is the world to which I refer. It is the enemy of God; it is continually striving by every means within its reach to draw us away from the service of God, and to plunge us into sin, and to deprive us of all the great sources of grace and strength, especially of prayer and the sacraments.
Such is its set purpose. And what are the means it employs? Well! Now that harsher means are frowned down upon, it has recourse to every kind of stratagem, deception, and misrepresentation; so that, unless we are able to detect its sophistries and to see through its cunning, we shall be in imminent risk of losing our souls.
Suffer me to explain. The world is far too astute openly and frankly to condemn what is good. If it attempted such a thing, we should see through its malice at once, and be put on our guard. Consequently, it most carefully conceals its enmity under an assumed and hypocritical appearance of friendship. It makes great professions in order to deceive us and lead us astray. It encourages vice by calling it virtue, and will so deck out and adorn evil that the unwary will often mistake it for good. By these means thousands allow themselves to be taken in. An example or two will enable us to see how this plan works. Thus, if a man be conceited and arrogant, domineering with his servants, and overbearing and imperious with his friends, quick to pick a quarrel, and hyper-sensitive and exacting about what he is pleased to call his rights, and so forth, he can be described only as a proud man. Now, if he realizes and acknowledges that he is proud, there are great hopes of his ultimate conversion and repentance. But if he refuses even to call it "pride," if, on the contrary, he calls it "firmness" or "courage" or "justice," or any other high-soundingname,—how will he ever fight against it?
The very first step in his reformation must be to diagnose his case correctly, and to recognize the truth. Until he can acknowledge to himself, with all sincerity, "I am a proud man," he will never acquire the virtue of true humility; no, nor even set out in quest of it. Similar observations may be made in many other cases. Take, for instance, any religious duty that we, as Catholics, are called upon to perform,—let us say the duty of fasting or almsgiving. It is astonishing how easily the world will persuade us to neglect it, and on wholly false grounds. To understand the situation, it must be borne in mind that most people suffer far more from eating too much than from eating too little. So eminent a physician as Dr. Vorke Davies, to quote a single authority, says: "There is far more harm done by taking too much food than there is by taking too little, and it is only in very exceptional cases that injury results from the latter cause; whereas an enormous amount of discomfort, disorder, and disease, and even curtailment of life, arise from excess in eating." Indeed, it is said that thirty per cent of the diseases for which medical men prescribe, arise from eating too much. Yet people pretend they can not now even abstain! The medical faculty are constantly prescribing for persons whose ailments arise (though they seldom venture to say so openly) from over-indulgence. Doctors tell us that the weekly abstinence on Friday, and the occasional fast-days throughout the year, are excellent even from a hygienic point of view, and that any one in ordinarily fair health would be all the better for their observance. But we have not the spirit of self-denial and are unwilling to deprive ourselves of anything; consequently, we persuade ourselves that we are far too delicate to follow the Church's prescriptions, and would seriously injure ourselves by taking an ounce less than our appetite demands. " The wish is father to the thought," and will lead us to accept dispensations which we really have no business to seek. Mundus vult decipi. The world wishes to be deceived, and so do many of us also.
We allow ourselves to be similarly cajoled in the matter of almsgiving and the disposal of our wealth. Our bountiful God, in the pages of Holy Writ, frequently points out the obligations and the spiritual advantages of giving to those in need. " By charity of the Spirit serve one another," He says; and, "He who soweth sparingly shall also reap sparingly." So again: "According to thy ability be merciful. If thou have much, give abundantly; if thou have little, take care even so to bestow willingly a little. . . . For alms deliver from all sin and from death, and will not suffer the soul to go into darkness." And many other similar texts occur throughout the Bible. In these words God urges us to lay up for ourselves eternal treasures in heaven, and to make compensation for our innumerable offenses and failings; assuring us at the same time that whatever we give to the indigent in His name. He will take as given to Himself. "As long as you did it to one of these My least brethren you did it to Me."
Now, our spiritual enemies are naturally unwilling that we should reap all the advantages that are so closely bound up with the exercise of generosity and compassion toward the poor, and will do all they can to dissuade us from carrying out the recommendations of Holy Scripture. Yet, if they are to succeed, they are well aware that they must act very cautiously. They dare not show their hand, by openly condemning that which God commends; so, while admitting the excellence of generosity in general and in the abstract, they cunningly suggest a thousand plausible reasons which relieve us individually from any such obligation. Thus, one man will say: "Oh, I make it a rule never to give anything to a beggar in the street!" Not, of course, because he is ungenerous. No! That must never be even hinted at. But simply because "beggars are always, or nearly always, impostors, and I should be encouraging idleness." Indeed, he will willingly admit that " almsgiving is a most admirable thing, but we must not countenance imposture. Besides, the recipients are sure to spend it in drink." But neither will these men bestow a penny upon beggars who came to their doors. Not because they are unwilling to part with their money—at least, that is not the reason they care to allege,—but because " one beggar will attract another, and the constant visits of these tatterdemalions become a regular nuisance. Besides, it would never do to entice tramps and doubtful characters about the house." Thus, for
one reason or another, they excuse themselves from giving anything to anybody.
In some cases a man's income, though considerable enough, is not equal to his pretensions, and he is anxious to keep Up appearances. He occupies a certain position or rank in society, and every farthing is needed if he is to continue living in his present style, and to retain his customary staff of servants and dependents. He is really very sorry, or imagines he is. In fact, he does not hesitate to say that were he only as wealthy as A or as B, it would be positive joy to him to found hospitals and to erect churches, schools, and orphan asylums.
In short, he quite envies millionaires and possessors of colossal fortunes their opportunities and all the good they might do; and consoles himself by thinking how very much more generous he would be than they are, were he but treated half so well by Dame Fortune. But, alas! with his modest revenues, it is as much as he can do to clothe and educate his children, and live up to the requirements of his position. Further, he reflects that he is bound to put something by for a rainy day, and that "it won't do to be improvident." And so, for one specious
pretext or another, life passes, and he rests perfectly satisfied, though he never makes any real sacrifice for the sake of God or for the sake of His poor suffering brethren.
Observe, I do not wish to imply that there is never any grain of truth or of reason in the foregoing statement. Quite the contrary. The very danger of such arguments is precisely in the fact that there is just enough of truth in them to render them effective; just enough reason to quiet our consciences, and to persuade us that all is as it should be. It is a well recognized fact that there is no lie so difficult to deal with as a lie which is half a truth, and great candor is needed to detect its real character. Pure brass we may always know, but when mixed with gold it may often pass for the more precious metal.
But to continue. Excessive parsimony is simply niggardliness and stinginess. It is not prudence. True. But if we will insist upon calling it prudence, we cover up its hideous deformity, we hide its repulsive nature, and we represent it as a positive virtue. Then, under that guise, we do not hesitate to cultivate and practice it. Instances of self-deception are constantly thrusting themselves under our notice. What are we, for example, to think of a lady who laments in agonizing tones that she really can not afford ten shillings for some starving orphans or destitute children, when we find her a day or two later offering ten guineas in the advertising columns of the Morning Post for the recovery of her lost cat or stolen poodle? Or how shall we fittingly describe a wealthy nobleman whose family claims make it quite impossible for him to send a five pound note to a struggling mission, but who can, nevertheless, afford to bet five hundred pounds on a losing race horse?
This system of self-deception pursues us through life, and affects all our relations with the supernatural. Even the most sacred duties are often neglected on account of it; and yet we fail to see through the cunning of the devil, who deceives us. Consider, for instance, the duty of receiving Holy Communion, the greatest of the sacraments, in which Our Lord Himself comes to strengthen our weakness, and to help us by His powerful grace to overcome concupiscence and to vanquish all the enemies of our salvation.
The very great importance of this sacrament is reason enough to induce the Evil One to do all he can to prevent our making use of it. Yet he is far too astute to hint that it is a bad thing to approach the Holy Table. Oh, dear; no! He is much too diplomatic. He declares it to be a most excellent practice, at least in the abstract. He merely throws out doubts as to whether we, with our delicate chest, or with our tendency to bronchitis or asthma, ought to go. He demands, quite casually of course, whether it is "not just a little risky, especially on these cold, raw mornings, to go out fasting."
He becomes so very, very solicitous for our health, and would persuade us that we are far too delicate to expose ourselves to catching cold. Perhaps he even recalls to our minds how our medical adviser warned us that we should be more careful, and never leave the house until we had reinforced ourselves by at least a cup of tea and a slice of bread and butter. He may even add that "good people are scarce," and that "prudence is the better part of valor." And thus, without alarming us, or creating so much as a suspicion of his perfidy, or uttering even one syllable directly against Communion, which we might resent he succeeds, all the same, in keeping us from the sacrament. We postpone our Communions till the weather grows warmer and more settled. Weeks develop into months, and what is the consequence? Well! We have deprived ourselves of great graces; we have acquired a habit of postponing our Communions; we come to think less highly of this gift of God; and the end aimed at by the devil is secured quite as fully as if the penal laws against Communion were still in full force.
The fallacy of the whole argument, and the measure in which we deceive ourselves, are made manifest by a glance at our conduct in purely worldly matters. Thus, how very often it happens that, though we are too delicate to breathe the morning air, we are not too delicate to go out to late dinners or parties, and to come home in the dead of night through the cold, damp atmosphere of the reeking streets! Or we can pass the night in a hot, stuffy ballroom, and dance
till the day is dawning, and can then expose ourselves to the inclemency of the weather, on our way home, in the early hours, without any one taking us to task for our imprudence. The plain fact is that where ecclesiastical observances and religious duties are concerned, we are influenced and swayed by arguments which are summarily dismissed as utterly trivial and baseless when directed against our pleasures and amusements. In thousands of similar ways we allow ourselves to be cajoled, to our great spiritual hurt.
Among so many other instances that suggest themselves, it is difficult to make a selection. Perhaps the question of reading may serve our purpose. As we are well aware, the book-market is flooded to overflowing with a most varied assortment of literature. There are good books in abundance, but there is also an enormous and ever-increasing assortment of worthless books,—books vicious and demoralizing in tendency, and corrupt and depraved in tone; together with tales and stories which are sensuous and immoral, and sometimes obscene. There is nothing useful or really instructive in the class of publications to which I am now referring. They are full of hidden dangers, unbecoming conversations, suggestive dialogues between imaginary persons of opposite sexes, of impossible love scenes, and situations of a compromising character, which, even if they do not defile the heart and excite the passions, at all events fill the imagination with impure images and forms, and familiarize the mind with every sort of horror and abomination. (The same can be applied to the movies and music of the day)
There is, of course, a vast difference between one book and another, but it is not too much to say that some of the romances of the present day are such that any really good Catholic would feel bound to leave them severely alone. He can not read them without exposing himself to dangerous temptation. Will the world advise the purchase of such scandalous works? Will it openly counsel their perusal? Certainly not. At least, it is far too tactful to express itself in that blunt way; for some of us might resent it. Besides, it may accomplish its evil purpose yet more effectively in another manner; by inquiring, for instance, quite innocently: "Oh, by the way, have you seen So and So's last delightfully naughty book?"—"No?"—"Oh, how very odd!
Why, everybody is talking about it. And it is so very awkward, don't you know, not to be able to join in the conversation! One looks so foolish when one knows nothing about what is on everybody's lips. Do you say one ought not to read it? Oh, nonsense! It can't be so bad as all that. We are no longer children; and surely we can not be expected, in these days, to live with our head in a well, and to be ignorant of all that is passing around. As well become a recluse altogether, and live on beans in a hermitage," and so forth. And we, gentle readers, alas! are influenced by such banter. Thus, without appearing to approve in the least degree of immoral or infidel books, the devil, nevertheless, manages to get his own way. We read them on some worldly and wholly inadequate pretext; but we read them all the same, and irreparable harm is done. In one word, we are constantly being deluded by those who "put light for darkness, and darkness for light."
How many a silly worldling, when he comes to be judged, will find nothing better to say in his defense than to repeat the words of his mother Eve: Serpens decepit me—"The serpent deceived me!"
It is the same everywhere. How often, to take a somewhat different illustration, indecent pictures and statuary are displayed in drawing-rooms, and in halls of public buildings and even of private houses, on the ground that they administer to aesthetical taste and promote a love of
art! I do not wish to imply that every statue or painting is indecent merely because it is undraped; but I am referring to genuinely indecent and suggestive representations, whether draped or not. They are a source of much temptation, and often do a great deal of harm; yet they are retained, and left exposed to every eye, on the plea of their artistic merits, and because they are thought to reveal the talents and the genius of some famous wielder of the brush or the chisel. The devil eases the consciences of such exhibitors by laying all the stress on plausible motives, and by closing their eyes to the evil; for, provided he can introduce the poison of sin into our minds, he cares little about the nature of the spoon with which he administers the deadly draught.
Innumerable other instances might be mentioned, but I have probably presented a sufficient variety to illustrate my theme, and to enable the thoughtful reader to realize the special danger which, at the present day, besets us from this source. It may be well to remark that the present age is an age of deceit. Fraud is practiced everywhere. Traders and merchants and sellers do not scruple to deceive their customers, when they judge they can do so with impunity. The Chamber of Commerce Journal (April, 1907) informs us that "needles made in Germany and Austria are imported into France, and marked 'Redditch.' English hosiery is imitated in Germany and sent to America and other countries, marked as British goods. Linen made on the Continent is labelled as Irish linen, and sold in Egypt and other places."
In fact, goods of all kinds are offered to the public under false names, to make them sell. Chalk is put in the milk, sand in the sugar, and water in the wine. Paste is passed off for diamonds, shoddy for leather, and cotton for wool. We have lying advertisements, misleading prospectuses, and quack medicines. Every purchaser is afraid of being cheated; and in matters of business, commerce, and exchange, a brother can scarcely trust a brother.
This spirit of deception penetrates everywhere, not excepting the supernatural. It affects the minds of unthinking Catholics, even as regards their highest spiritual interests, and their duty to God. They grow lax and fall away into easy and negligent ways, simply because they do not, or will not, see things as they really are. They so dress up and disguise evil that they mistake it for good, and call light darkness and darkness light, and deliberately live in an atmosphere of untruth.
The remedy consists in courageously throwing off the mask of deception which evil still wears, and in beginning at once to call things by their rightful names. Let men learn above all things to know themselves, and to read their own characters aright; and then they will at least understand what is wrong and defective, and what it is precisely that they have to struggle against and overcome. So long as they insist on describing "cheating" as a trick of the trade, and "avarice" as a form of thrift, and "pride" as firmness, and "insolence" as courage, and speak similarly of all the other forms of human weakness and wickedness, they do but canonize vice and connive at evil. And unless that habit it reformed but little amendment can be expected.
Let us, then, arouse ourselves, " knowing that it is now the hour for us to rise from sleep. . . The night is passed and the day is at hand. Let us, therefore, cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day"; and no longer "call evil good, and good evil; nor put darkness for light, nor light for darkness; nor bitter for sweet, nor sweet for bitter."