The Holy Priest
Milwaukee, WI: The Young Churchman, 1899. 176 pp.
Trials of Sanctity.
THE Christian life is "exceedingly tossed with tempests." Not yet has dawned the "morning without clouds." All life is swept by storms, but he who possesses that secret of transmutation which is whispered in his ear at the foot of Calvary enjoys peace when others are reduced to despair. It is the storm which makes a sailor. Especially for him who is seeking all the possibilities of grace are troubles healthful, regenerative, and sanctifying. Whether internal or external, they constitute a training-school of the will. This is God's way of lifting the curse and causing it to minister life, power, and purity. Have you never noticed the autumn wind as it beat on the soft, downy crest of the nettle, with its cluster of winged seeds? Cruel wind, why do you scatter the little family of beautiful creatures? The remorseless wind answers notit smites. But look! those fairy wings, separated by the blast, make their way everywhere, and thus fulfil the purpose of their existence, bearing new life with them wherever they go.
I.THREE WAYS OF TAKING TROUBLE.
THERE are three ways in which men, exercising their free wills, may take troubles. 1. As something that happens which they would not have to happen, against which they murmur and rebel, hardening their hearts against God. Here the will asserts itself vindictively.
2. As something that happens which they would not have to happen, but which they accept with submission because it is inevitable. In this case the will surrenders helplessly.
3. As something that happens which they wish to have happen because they are firmly convinced that it reveals, or only half conceals, a real good. And here the will concurs generously and gladly.
Any one will confess that this is the nobler way, but it is also the most difficult. The holy priest, however, did not shrink from the cost, but pressed on until he learned the meaning of what was once to him the mystery of S. Paul's words, "we glory in tribulations." You and I have not soared so high as that, and it is hard to think of it as real; but we are painting the portrait of another of whom it- may be affirmed that he has acquired the secret wisdom of sorrow, and does honestly regard troubles as blessings.
A blessing is the bestowment of something which makes for the welfare or happiness of the object of divine favor. All trouble comes by divine order or permission, and is, as to the purpose of God, intended to work out a good, nor can anything cause it to miscarry save the manner of reception it gets from us. He who takes troubles in the spirit in which they are sent finds them to be blessings. He may not be able to perceive at once how the transformation takes place, but it is far better to trust God in the storm than to miss the blessing. He would rather rest on God's bare word, on His general promise, than presume to interpret His providences unfavorably for no other reason than that they involved him in some little present pain, or discomfort, or loss. Neither may he be discouraged if he feel some twinges of pain. When pain is transformed into a blessing, it does not cease to be pain. He could not bear trouble, should it cease to be trouble. It is the bearing of it with courage and serenity which proves the perfect trust of a triumphant soul. God's help in trouble is not an opiate, but a tonic.
The holy priest, therefore, banishes from his heart every kind of anxiety and solicitude, present or prospective. He is not afraid of evil tidings, nor is his calm soul unbalanced by sudden blows. The trials of his love do not diminish charity, nor can doubts shake his faith. Whether there be tempest or sunny depths of blue, he looks up to the sky, and is not afraid. Knowing as he does that the Captain of his salvation was in a sense made perfect through suffering, and that the portion of the Church which has reached its final destination in the full perfection and beauty of confirmed holiness came out of great tribulation and made white their robes in the blood of the Lamb, he is quite content to traverse as they did the path of sorrow, in the hope that he may share with them the blessedness of perfect sanctity.
We have great need to learn this lesson of pain's mystery. But how we shrink from the costly and burdensome process! Our wills are paralyzed by self-indulgence, and we do not like spiritual exertion. We are quite willing to substitute in its place any amount of outward work, if we may be excused from the conflicts of the soul with self. The atmosphere we breathe is charged with sentiment, emotion, zeal, and self-worship, the very opposite of the religion of self-denial, and hence much of the current Christianity has lost the sign of the cross altogether. Many do not know what a cross is. They speak of their ordinary trials, reverses, disappointments, failures, as such, but sadly wide of the mark is their judgment. To find the true cross, they must renounce their own wills through preference for God's; they must do what God commands, though obedience be distasteful, and surrender what He forbids, though its possession be to them a surpassing pleasure. A little experimenting will show them what a cross is, for experience is the school in which the doctrine of the cross is taught, and there only can the will be trained to say, Thy will be done, on the distinct basis of belief that pain sent by God is better than pleasure secured through self-will.
It is, then, not only the ordinary troubles of life which, rightly accepted, sanctify the soul, but those which come through voluntary opposition to favorite impulses and desires, to attractive though evil tendencies and passions. The Christian who would pluck the palatable fruit of trouble must not wait for something grievous to happen; let him make his own crosses, and then let him take them up and follow Christ. When that kind of cross-bearing reaches its perfect results, there are no crosses to bear; they have become crowns. Such a life may have many ordinary sorrows, many pains and afflictions, but it has no cross.
Can as much be said for those who will not take up Christ's cross daily? All men have their sorrows, their pains, their despairs, and none can escape the common lot. What is the meaning of all this daily record of sobbing voices, of broken hearts, and early graves? What does the sad catalogue of suicides testify? What makes the end, with its presumed "surcease of sorrow," so longed for by thousands of fagged out and hopeless souls? Have all these sought the school of Christ and failed to find there the blessed secret of how to glory in tribulation?
II.ENMITY AND PERSECUTION.
The holy priest has many trials from the enmity of others. He has to come into relation with unreasonable men, with gossips and meddlers, with the envious and the thankless, and with traitors, for in every company of twelve there will be one Judas. His efforts to do good will be criticised and opposed, while the very simplicity and quietness of his ways will be misinterpreted, his humility pointed at as indifference, his reserve as pride, his charity as weakness, his forbearance as pusillanimity, and his unselfishness as a lack of thrift. Men who are quite willing to acknowledge the beauty of theoretical holiness do not make speed to admire its exemplification. Virtue in the concrete is never above their criticism. Because it is not perfect, they suspect it of hypocrisy. Because they do not share its motives or understand its aims, they doubt its reality. Its primary note, that life is gained by losing it and that self-spoliation brings great riches, is, from the point of view of their self-love, wholly unintelligible; and this is precisely the difference between Him and themthey do not or will not, and he does understand that the more a man gives the more he receives, or, as it is worded by Thomas a Kempis, "forsake all and thou shalt find all."
He that would be strong and pure unto God must also beware of the enmity of the world when it takes the form of friendship, for the friendship of the world is enmity to God. By "the world" is understood whatever in human society, as to use or abuse, omission or commission, active or passive opposition, arrays itself against the will of God and is out of sympathy with positive religion. Men who are governed by their animal propensities or their temporal aims, exclusively, are the natural foes of those who are trying to live for God and eternity, but their hostility is frequently concealed under a garb of good-will. The world is quick to compromise with religion on a basis of mutual concession. If devout men will tone down their scruples, the world will not only refrain from censure, but will smile its sweetest approval, will hold in honor those who concede its claim or at least tacitly acknowledge its attractions, and will even assume the outward semblances of religion, if the other party will only adjust conscience to its equivocal standards. It is a right and laudable ambition for a priest to seek the good will of good men, and he would prove recreant to his mission did he not commend himself to every man's conscience, in the sight of God, "that he that is of the contrary part may be ashamed, having no evil thing to say." But false to Christ is he who lets the lure of the world's praise entice him, and who, for the paltry gain of its plaudits, for "popularity's" sake, abates the austerity of his devotion to God and to the brightest ideals of character.
The antagonism and false friendship of the world are to be looked for, but one of the sorest of his trials comes to the holy priest when he has to acknowledge that he has tasted the bitterness of the Psalmist's cup, "Yea, mine own familiar friend whom I trusted, who did also eat of my bread, hath laid great wait for me." Wounded in the house of his friends, he feels the fierce tempter's presence in his soul and almost rebels at the shame and disappointment. Could he not have been spared this blow? Must he make no moan while thus smitten and bruised? Must he live despoiled of human sympathy, and shut up to solitude? The conflict in his soul brings peace at length, for it comes to him as a new revelation, what he had for the time strangely forgotten, that he who proposes to exhaust present possibilities of holiness does engage himself to live for God Alone. It is not wise to trust too implicitly in human love and friendship, not too fondly in the loves that never fail him and shall never die, nor too strongly in the wisdom of the noblest, if he would make God his All. Let him nevermore forget that the religion of God Alone is the religion of the cross, upon which everything which claims precedence of the love of God must be crucified. Thus only can he bear the shocks of the heart when friends fail; thus only enter into fellowship with Him who said to His disciples in Gethsemane, "What! could ye not watch with Me one hour?"
It is by such experiences that he learns to be indifferent to the enmity of the world and the defection of false or weak brethren, and to be joyful in the friendship of heaven, persuaded that they which are for him are more than they which are against him; and that the ever-faithful love of God will cause things grievous and sore to bear to speed him in his pursuit of perfection, provided he stand the test of faith which is involved in the honest acceptance of tribulations as blessings, and provided he renounce the delusive dream that when one surrenders wholly to God he thereby ensures for himself certain exemption from vexations and misfortunes. Instead of murmuring at enmities, he will learn to hail them as badges of discipleship, according to the word of our Lord, as S. Mark reports it: "There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for My sake, and the gospel's, but he shall receive an hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions, and in the world to come life everlasting."
III.THE TEMPORAL PENALTIES OF SIN.
But in taking refuge in God from the misrepresentations of enemies and the unfaithfulness of friends, he finds good reasons for doing so in the philosophy of the situation. Thus, having learned how little God expects of him (for in sooth he has very little to give), he expects little of others. He is not surprised or chagrined to find that he must endure the injustice of being adjudged to be what he is not or to have said or done what he neither did nor said. Has he lived all these years, and not learned that human nature, which never superabounds in charity, is seldom deficient in harsh judgments of others? No man is a hero to his valet, the proverb goes; and yet a hero he may be, and the valet only another of the common herd of detractors.
It is at first blush a grievous thing to be painted in false colors and condemned for offences which exist only in the imagination of the malicious, and measures of self-defence suggest themselves. Mature is ever ready to give a Roland for an Oliver. But a holy priest will repress natural indignation and take a little time for silence and consideration.
1. He will reflect that passing criticisms, however misrepresenting they may be, have little power to hurt, and soon pass into silence, like the wailing winds of yesterday. They cannot violate his soul's interior peace. They could harm him only were he to decline to use them as means of gaining closer fellowship with God.
2. Perhaps the injustice would be more biting did he not know how superficially he knows himself, and that, possibly, these misrepresentations after all really represent (while they may exaggerate) serious defects of his. Or, granting the judgment to be baseless, a venture of malice, false and unjust, still the priest will not jeopardize humility by indignant protests, but will prefer to moderate his feelings and consider how justly and severely he might be criticised for other faults of which he could confess himself to be guilty.
3. It may be revealed to him that his own breaches of the law of charity deserve that the sinfulness of them experience a penalty after their kind. He is only getting what he has given.
4. He will not neglect to consider that harsh judgments and censorious criticisms give him a fine field for the exercise of the opposite virtues of charity and patience. Now is his opportunity to answer back the reviler with gentleness and mercy, and bless through grace whom he would have cursed by nature. Purest of the prayers which reach God is that which prays for enemies, and the holy priest will testify how sweet is the peace with which God rewards such a prayer.
5. He knows also that disciplines are never more wholesome than when one can say, "they hated me without a cause." He gets very near to the cross who suffers innocently the penalties due to the guilty. The bitterest waters are turned to sweet when he drinks, even if it be only a drop, from the chalice which his dear Lord drained to the dregs. By such lessons the holy priest is instructed how to find a real joy in contumely and detraction, and to covet pain as one of the higher forms of blessing. Thus he is trained to enter into such keen fellowship with the sufferings of Christ that, like S. Paul, he can "glory in tribulation."
These considerations well taken leave little margin for further action. For the vindication of God's honor, there may in rare cases be a duty of self-defence, but ordinarily the priest's strength is to sit still, and remember his Lord how He "made Himself of no reputation," and was all the stronger and nobler for setting His face to His work with heroic self-forgetfulness, indifferent to the misjudgments and misrepresentations of men.
IV.MISUNDERSTANDINGS AND MISREPRESENTATIONS.
The holy priest willingly accepts the temporal penalties of his sins. If he believed that the divine forgiveness which crowns the contrite heart did at the same moment absolve him from the natural results of sin, it would be impossible to account for the pains which he still suffers as consequences of former wrongdoing. For who can deny that the penalty manifests itself as well in the physical as in the moral nature? As our returning soldiers have Santiago graven on their bodies and limbs in wounds and scars, so do we all bear the marks of former sins. As Job said, "thou writest bitter things against me; thou makest me to possess the iniquities of my youth." Early contempt of the law of purity has often resulted in years of suffering, and excessive indulgence in other appetites, has dug many an early grave. The mind often suffers greater damage than the body, nor can the soul escape the temporal pains of its sins. The old customs of self-love and self-assertion, the old preference for self-will, the old ways of disobedience, indifference, and irreverenceall these have become crystallized into habit and exercise a terrible retarding influence upon one who is at length turning to God and trying to be what he has so long refused to be.
It is the surviving effect of former sins which makes such mixed quantities of his contrition, his love, his obedience, and his hope, distracts his mind in prayer, and often drives him to the brink of despair.
There is no escape from the temporal penalties; but the holy priest has learned to bear his by considering that he deserves them. He bears them with a humiliated heart, and offers them to God in union with the passion of Christ. They would be more severe if they were the full measure of his desert. Borne meekly, they promote holiness, and please God.
In his contact with temptation the holy priest practises wisdom, the result of experience, and is thereby forearmed against every insidious foe. He has seen enough of human nature to know that great advantages accrue to him who falls in with the seductions of temptation. What is called "the world" has power to make itself very attractive. Its cup is sweet to the taste, its viands are most palatable, its music is enchanting, its pleasures are captivating. It appears to be profitable to a man to enjoy the favor of the world, and all the more profitable if he can gain the whole world. He sees no profit in refusing to do what gives him pleasure, no inherent attraction in the denial of his inclinations; and who indeed does? Self-denial has no charm unless one prefers the fruits of it to the results of unregulated self-indulgence. The man of the world counts it a very great profit to be able to gratify every taste, to indulge every appetite, and to propitiate every fancy. It sounds to him like folly to say that sin is so horrible a thing, because lie finds that it is fascinating. It ministers pleasure, it promises rewards and keeps its promises, it sends its agents to watch the conscience and buy it off from adverse legislation, and it pays large sums for the service. There is an immense output of pleasure on sin's account. Do you suppose that men would do what God has forbidden if it did not seem to them to pay to do it ?
In one word temptation, when one yields to it, accompanies its victory with rewards. That these are evanescent, and that there ensues a secondary result which is crushing and terrible, is to such an one the prattle of nervous people. Nevertheless, afterwards sin reveals its true nature, the world loses its glamor, the electric current of pleasure is turned off, and pah! there is a smell of corruption and graves.
Two things are involved in the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil. First, that man has a capacity of being deceived. In other words, we can be made to think that right is wrong, and wrong right. "I verily thought that I ought to do many things contrary to the name of Jesus," said S. Paul. No maniac could more implicitly accept his hallucination than do men sincerely justify, at least in the overt act, their infractions of the law of God. And men, so easily deceived, are followed by hosts of deceiversthe fascinating but false world, the treacherous and insatiate flesh, the devil who goes about as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour, all purposing to hypnotize their consciences and make them think "broken cisterns that can hold no water" to be "the fountain of living waters."
Admitting the fascination of sin, the imperial power of it, the splendor of its court, the generosity of its almoners, the priest knows in his soul that it can fill the air with its music and flaunt its carnival banners only for a season, for the world passeth away and the lust thereof. They who yield to temptations must at the last feed on ashes. Their final reward is the paralysis of powers that have exhausted themselves upon disappointing objects, the deep dejection of a heart that has tried to live without God and now has nothing to lean upon but the harrowing memory of a misspent life, the craving thirst of a soul that perishes on the desert where no waters be. The old attractions are only creeping things to sting and slime the soul, and death is nigh.
From that ghastly finality the good priest shrinks by shrinking from temptations. No one is so assaulted as he who tries to lead an interior lifeno one so assailed by doubts, by scruples, by passions, by discouragements, by resuscitations of the old Adam; but he who desires to reach the final triumph, will not show the white feather on any field, be the foe never so fierce. He resists, for he believes that temptations vanquished "are the raw material of glory." He spurns their false glare, knowing that he who doeth the will of God shall live in the light of an eternal day.