A Practical Rule of the Supernatural Life
TAKEN FROM HOLY COMMUNION
by St. Peter Julian Eymard
Imprimi Potest, Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1940
In via vitae non progredi, regredi est.
Not to go forward in the way of life is to go back.
(Saint Bernard, 2nd Sermon on the Purification.)
IT IS a law in the order of nature that life shows itself by movement; it has become an axiom.
And when we would define inert and lifeless matter, the mineral kingdom, for example, we say it has no movement. Everything moves that has life. Plants move in a continual upward growth and expansion; even water, though lifeless, becomes a foul swamp if it ceases to move; and fire could not burn if it were not for the current of air that carries its flames upward.
It is the same in the intellectual order. He who ceases to learn, who does not every day keep up an ebb and flow, so to speak, between his intelligence and certain knowledge to be acquired, will become an ignorant person. Memory grows strong only by exercise. That is an old and true saying.
Will it not be the same in the supernatural order? Yes, certainly! God is One, and all the general laws established by Him show the same characteristics, follow the same course. He modifies them only according to the particular plane on which each one operates. Evidence of the supernatural life in us will therefore be movement forward, progress.
This must be progress toward perfection, and, as we shall never attain that, our progress must be unending. The teachings of Jesus Christ in regard to perfection prove that progress, movement forward, is necessary. These expressions bear it out: "Come, follow me; 1 --- walk whilst you have the light." 2 And, in the Old Law, God said to Abraham: "Walk before Me, and be perfect." 3
Our spiritual course will therefore be directed toward the perfection of Jesus Christ, Who is but the perfect and finished copy of the perfection of God Himself: "Be you therefore perfect, as also your Heavenly Father is perfect." 4 As it is impossible ever to attain to this height of perfection, we are obliged to tend ever onward; we can never think we have arrived and so rest from our toil.
Now the means of perfection which are offered to us by Jesus Christ consist in the observance of the law and the counsels.
All the faithful are bound by the law; but religious, by their vocation, are bound also by the counsels.
Are we to conclude, therefore, that pious people of the world do not have to follow these counsels? They are certainly under no real obligation to do so; but here is the danger they incur by not following them and by choosing to stop with observance of the law. "If you content yourselves with doing only what you have to do," I say to them, "no one can reproach you; sin is committed by breaking the law of God and in no other way; and the counsels, being no part of this law as is indicated by their name, cannot oblige you under pain of sin. All very well. But suppose a violent struggle is before you; the devil hurls his legions against you; temptations become more frequent and more irresistible. How long will your soul, behind the single rampart of the law, withstand the siege? Not long surely. The first breach opened will be decisive and will force the citadel to yield. But if, instead, you were surrounded by the triple rampart of devotion, habitual prayer, and the law, before the enemy had overthrown all three, you would have time to petition our Lord and call Him to your aid: Domine, salva nos, perimus! 5 --- "Lord, save us, we perish."
As for the religious, he is held to the evangelical counsels both by his vows and his rule, which are the expression of them. But even his rule does not prescribe explicitly all possible perfection. If he keeps to the letter of it and does not penetrate to its spirit, if he does not strive continually toward the complete perfection it implies, that is, the perfection of our Lord Himself, he will be overtaken by a misfortune similar to the one I have foretold to the pious persons of the world who want to adhere only to the law: he will be but the lifeless semblance of a religious.
We must never be content, then, with what we have, no matter what our condition in life, but must ever press forward. Cessation of progress would be the mark of certain decadence and the sign of approaching death, as the arrow which no longer flies upward descends unfailingly and falls to earth.
Perhaps you will say: "But this is a frightful doctrine. If I do not progress, I am dead! But I do not know whether I am making progress or not. How am I to know?" --- Here are certain signs.
HAVE you a certain, well-determined part of the field of perfection to clear? Have you decided precisely what defect you want to overcome, what virtue you want to acquire? If so, you are progressing. If, as soon as you have finished with one thing, you begin again with another, I have no anxiety for you; it is a certain sign that you are progressing. The proof of this is that when you are fervent you are easily able to admit that such and such a virtue is lacking to you, that you are disfigured by a certain defect, just as a field is made unsightly by brambles. And immediately you set about rooting out this fault and never cease your efforts till you have succeeded. This is certain and a matter of experience; test it for yourself.
But, on the contrary, if you say, "I am not trying to practice any particular virtue; I prefer to keep myself in general readiness for union with our Lord; I do not feel the need of singling out this or that act of virtue to practice, but shall content myself with practicing all virtues as opportunity arises," oh, that is the language of sloth! You will never want to recognize the opportunity. It is the language used by those who have become lukewarm and have not the courage to lay the axe to the root.
"But I love the good God!" If you stop with that, it is nothing but laziness; and your good sentiments, these vague desires, will be your ruin. They are the desires that damn the slothful; Hell is paved with good desires which came to nothing because of cowardice. Like autumn blooms they bore no fruit, because the life-giving rays of the sun of love did not reach them. Not only is this conduct cowardly, it is also, at bottom, a mockery. Perfection is not taken by one cast of the net. Rather, it is like a mine that reveals only at long intervals a slender vein of ore, and that only after we have dug long and deep. What should you think of a child if it assured its mother of its love, yet refused to give proof of it by its conduct and by eager anticipation of her wishes? You would conclude the child did not really love its mother, or, rather, that it was an egoist and loved her only for its personal advantage; and you would be right. Oh, how many souls cherish an illusion in this regard! --- "I love the good God and will do everything He tells me." --- Yes, on condition that He asks nothing of you! That thought is in the depths of your heart though you do not admit it to yourself.
A soul that has hitherto had good resolutions and faithfully followed them finds itself in precisely this vague and indefinable state when it turns lukewarm. Counting upon the strength of its past resolutions, it does not take the trouble to renew them or to make others to answer its new needs. It is always vaguely intending to do everything as opportunity offers, but it never actually sets to work. Observe your inner self, recall your times of tepidity, and you will be convinced of what I have just said.
Saint Bernard said to his religious: Non est perfectum nisi particulare: --- "One arrives at perfection only by particularizing," by acquiring one virtue at a time. And nevertheless they were then in the fervor occasioned by a recent reform in the Order. This great Saint well knew that once we have fought in our first fervor a definite and particular defect, tepidity, under the pretext of making us give battle to all at once, leads us, without our realizing it, to compromise finally with them all.
The only way to escape this snare is to return to the special resolutions we made at first. The Lord, after reproaching one of the seven bishops of the Apocalypse with having grown slack, told him to return to his "first works," prima opera fac, 6 or else He would come to him and overthrow him. Yes, I would rather see you suffer defeats in combating a particular and definite vice than have you struggling against all at once, which really means against none at all, and never be defeated.
2. The second sign of progress includes the preceding, but it goes still farther. It is a sincere and effective desire to do better and better, an effective fear of offending God, which causes us most carefully to avoid even the smallest faults. Our Lord gave expression to it in the words: Beati qui esuriunt et sitiunt justitiam. 7 --- "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice."
This second mark denotes more rapid progress than the first; we must aim at this Divine hunger. --- "We are not bound to do that," you will perhaps answer me. But if you think you have done enough or are doing enough, you are unworthy of the favors of God, unworthy to kneel on this prie-dieu at His feet. What! You think you have done all you need do in response to a God Who has carried His love for you even to the point of folly? Why, perhaps what you are doing does not even suffice to pay the debt you are under to justice! Then how about your debt of love? Oh, alas for him who can think he has done enough! He has stopped, no longer advances, is, in fact, in full retreat! Notice the difference between this hunger for justice, this ardent desire for holiness, and the vague desire we were speaking about before. That was a kind of satisfaction, contentment, self-confidence which disdained taking special measures and waited for opportunities to be forthcoming, hoping to take advantage of them; this one seeks out opportunities, creates them; for love has countless expedients.
3. But these two signs will perhaps not always be recognizable at first glance. Sometimes the skies are so lowering, the tempest so violent that it is difficult to distinguish anything in one's soul with certainty. How can one tell then if he is progressing?
First of all, I reply that these are only passing disturbances, sent to purify us. It is good for us to think now and then that we are doing nothing.
The thought is like a goad which makes us increase our pace. In any case, dark though it be around us and obscured though our conscience be, we still feel a certain assurance that we have not retreated. And this assurance, which gives us peace in the depths of our soul, is the third sign that we are progressing. For it is easy to understand that if, in the midst of your struggle and confusion, you still have the inner certainty that you have not receded, that certainty must be firmly founded. Then be without anxiety in regard to the result of these temptations and the state of your progress, for this third sign is the surest; it is almost unfailing.
Thus, not to advance is to go back. To go back is to be dead even now and to have lost all that we once took so much trouble to acquire. Let us therefore find out whether we are progressing or standing still. Let us set about discovering whether our life shows one of the above-mentioned signs. Let us make very definite and determined resolutions to correct our faults or acquire the virtues we lack. Let us add to this first foundation an ardent desire to love more and more, to avoid even the least appearance of sin. Then shall we come without pause or rest to the threshold of the heavenly country, where at last our progress will cease, because we shall be absorbed in God, beyond Whom it would be impossible for us to go.
1. Matt. 29:21.
2. John 12:35.
3. Gen. 17:1.
4. Matt. 5:48.
5. Matt. 8:25.
6. Apoc. 2:5
7. Matt. 5:6.