THE CHAPTERS OF BOOK ONE
Of the Imitation of Christ and despising the futilities of the world
‘Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness,’ says our Lord.1
In these words, Christ calls us to imitate His life and conduct, if we desire true enlightenment and freedom from all hardness of heart.2 So let our chief endeavour be to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ teaching exceeds the teachings of all the Saints, so whoever has His Spirit will discover the secret heavenly manna.3 But many people, although they often hear the Gospel, have little desire to follow it, because they do not have the Spirit of Christ in them.4 Those who wish to understand and appreciate the words of Christ must strive to model the whole of their life on Him.
What use is it for learned people to discuss the doctrine of the Trinity if they have no humility, and so displease the Trinity?5 Learned words do not make anyone wise or holy; it is a good life which draws us closer to God. I would rather feel deep sorrow than be able to define it. If you knew the whole Bible by heart and the teachings of all the philosophers, what good would that be without the grace and love of God? ‘Vanity of Vanities – all is vanity’6 except to love and serve God alone.7 And it is supreme wisdom to come daily nearer to the Kingdom of Heaven by despising the world.
It is futile to seek for riches or public approval.
It is futile to be a slave to bodily desires8 and to crave for things which will have bad consequences.
It is futile to desire a long life if you do not wish for a good life.
It is futile to think only about this world and to ignore eternal life.
It is futile to love temporary things and not to move towards the place of everlasting joy.
Keep constantly in mind the saying, ‘The eye is not satisfied with seeing or the ear filled with hearing.’9 Strive to remove your heart from the love of visible things, and direct your concerns to invisible things. For those who follow their natural inclinations defile their conscience, and fall away from the grace of God.
On personal humility
Naturally everyone desires knowledge,1 but what use is that without a sense of the mystery of God? A humble peasant who serves God is more pleasing to God than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars but ignores the things of the spirit.2Those with real self-knowledge realize their own worthlessness, and do not enjoy public approbation. If I possess all the knowledge in the world, but have no love,3 it will not assist me when God judges my actions. Avoid excessive desire for knowledge, which will lead to much perplexity and deception. Intellectuals wish to appear to be learned and to be widely respected for their wisdom. But knowledge of a great many things has no spiritual advantage. Many words do not satisfy the soul, but a good life refreshes the mind; and a clear conscience4 leads to confidence in God.
The more complete and the better your knowledge, the stricter will be the judgement on you, unless you lead a holy life. So do not be proud of any skill or knowledge you may possess, but respect the learning that you have. If it appears that you know a great deal and have deep interest in many things, remember that there are many other matters where you are very ignorant. So put away your pride and admit your ignorance.5 Why do you wish to consider yourself above others, while there are many people who are wiser and more perfect in the law of God? If you want to know or learn anything for your personal gain, then rejoice in being unknown and unregarded.
A realistic and humble attitude is the highest and most valuable thing we can learn. The wisest form of self-understanding is to think little of ourselves and to think kindly and well of others. If you see someone doing evil, or carrying out a wrong act, do not for that reason think you are better than they; for you cannot tell how long you will remain in a state of grace. We are all frail; remember that no one is frailer than you.
On teaching the truth
The happy person is not edified by omens and passing appearances1 but by truth itself, as it is in reality. Our own conjectures and observations often mislead us, and we learn very little. Of what value is specious reasoning on deep and obscure matters, when we are not going to be judged by our knowledge of such things? It is supreme folly to neglect things that are useful and vital, and deliberately turn to those that are curious and harmful. Actually ‘we have eyes but do not see’.2 What do origins and appearances really matter to us?
Ultimately it is the Eternal Word which speaks to us. It is from that Word that all things come into being,3 and all things speak of Him. It is the author of all things who speaks to us.4 Without Him no one can judge anything rightly. It is those who see all things as one, and who relate everything to the One God, and who see everything as in Him, who are able to remain single-minded and live at peace with God.
O God, the Living Truth,5 unite me to Yourself in everlasting love!6 Frequently, I am wearied by all that I hear and read. All that I really desire and long for lies in You alone. So may all teachers keep silence, and let all creation stand still in Your presence. May You, and You alone, speak to us Your Word.7
The more closely we are united to You in simplicity, the more varied and profound will be the matters we grasp without effort. For we receive illumination and understanding from heaven. However hectic life becomes, the single-minded, simple and humble person will not become distracted; for everything will be done to God’s glory. It is the undisciplined passions of your own heart which harm and hinder what you are doing. A good and devout person puts priorities in order, so that whatever task is being done, none will be an occasion for sin, but everything will be subjected to the dictates of sound judgement. The person who is trying to achieve self-mastery has the fiercest struggle.8 But it must be our main priority to conquer the self, and to advance in holiness by growing stronger every day.9
All achievements in this life contain a level of imperfection. All our speculations include an element of darkness. A humble self-understanding is a safer way to God than a profound knowledge of academic disciplines. Learning in itself is not to be blamed, nor can we despise the acquisition of knowledge (for true learning is good in itself and comes from God), but a good conscience and a holy life are even better. Because people prefer to acquire knowledge rather than to live well, they often go astray and so bear little fruit.10 If only such people were as concerned to uproot vices and replace them with virtues, as they are to share in learned discourses, there would not be so much dissolution and scandal among us, nor slackness in Religious Communities.11 On the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done; not how eloquently we have spoken, but how holy our lives have been. Where now are the once well-known teachers and philosophers who were famous for their learning? They are hardly ever remembered, and others now occupy their seats. In their lifetime they seemed to be very important, but now no one speaks of them.12
How swiftly the glories of this world pass away!13 If only people’s conduct had been as admirable as their learning, their study and reading would have been of real value! Many in this world care little for the service of God and their lives end up in futility. They perish through their own ambition, because they chose to be famous rather than humble.14 The truly great are humble in mind, and consider public acclamations to be worthless. In order to find Christ, the truly wise consider all earthly things to be rubbish.15 The really wise surrender their own wills to the will of God.
On caution in our actions
We should not believe every word or impulse1 but we should carefully and patiently examine whether they are in accordance with the will of God. Human nature is so weak that evil rather than good is more often believed2 and spoken about others. But the wise do not willingly believe every tale that is told, for they know that people love gossip and that words can be careless.3
It is much better to avoid being precipitate in our actions, or clinging strongly to our own opinions. We should not believe all that we hear, nor gossip about what we hear of others. Listen to wise and sensible advice4 and be guided by someone who is better than you, rather than following your own opinions. Experienced people understand what they are talking about.5 The more humble and pleasing we are to God, the more we are at peace in all that we are doing.
On reading the Holy Scriptures
When you read Holy Scripture, look for truth rather than fine words. It should be read in the spirit in which it was written. We should seek food for our souls rather than subtleties of speech, and we would do well to read simple devotional books rather than those which are very intellectual. Do not be influenced by the importance of the author, whether that person has a great reputation or not, but by the desire for the truth which attracts you. Do not ask, ‘Who said that?’1 but pay attention to what is said.2
People pass away, but the faithfulness of the Lord lasts for ever.3 God speaks to us in many and varied ways4 and He is no respecter of persons.5 When reading the Scriptures, our curiosity often hinders us, for we try to examine and dispute matters which it would be better either to ignore or simply accept. If you wish to benefit, read with humility, simplicity and faith and have no desire to appear learned. Always ask questions and listen in silence to the words of the Saints. Listen to the parables of the Fathers,6 for they are told for good reasons.
On controlling desires
If we have excessive desires, we become restless. The proud and the greedy are never at rest; but the poor and the humble rejoice in great peace. If you are not really dead to yourself, you will be tempted easily and succumb to insignificant and worthless things. The weak in spirit will be inclined to sensual and bodily desires. This makes them miserable and introverted and they become angry when they are despised. But those who obtain what they desire will soon be stricken with remorse, because they have given in to their desires. This does not assist us in a search for peace. True peace of heart can only be found in resisting the passions, not by giving in to them. The worldly, who do things for show, will find no peace. Peace is for those who are strongly devout.
On avoiding false confidence and conceit
Those who put their trust in animals or people are very foolish.1 For Christ’s sake, do not fear to be the servant of others, nor to seem to be poor in the world. Do not trust yourself but put your whole trust in God.2 Do all you can, and God will bless your good intentions. Do not trust in your intellectual ability nor in the cleverness of anyone else, but trust in the grace of God, who helps the humble3 and humbles the proud.
If you have possessions or influential friends, do not boast of them, but only give glory to God.4 He gives us all things and desires above all that we should give ourselves to Him. Do not be proud of your physical strength or beauty, which sickness could spoil or disfigure. Do not be proud of your own ability or cleverness, which will offend God, who has showered on us all our natural gifts. Do not think that you are better than others, or you will appear worse in the eyes of God, who alone knows the secrets of our hearts.5
Do not boast of your good deeds, for God does not judge as the world does; and what delights us often displeases God.6 You need to remain humble and remember that if you have any good qualities, others may have more. It is good for you to esteem others as better than yourself, but it does you great harm if you put yourself above others. True peace lies in humility; those who are proud are always full of pride and jealousy.
Of the dangers of intimacy1
Do not tell others what is on your mind2 but seek advice from someone who is wise and fears God. Keep company with young people or strangers sparingly. Do not admire the wealthy, and avoid the company of celebrities. It is better to keep company with the poor and simple, the devout and the virtuous, and talk to them about uplifting matters. Avoid undue familiarity with the opposite sex, but commend all good women to God. Seek to be familiar only with God and His Angels, rather than human company.
We must live in charity with everyone, but intimacy with them is not desirable. Sometimes we meet a public celebrity, but we will not be impressed. Equally, we may think that we are good company when, in fact, our bad behaviour offends other people.
On obedience and discipline
It is a good thing to live under obedience to a Superior and not to be one’s own master. It is much safer to obey than to rule. Many live under obedience more out of necessity than love, and such people often complain and are discontented. They will never find freedom of mind, unless they are totally submissive in their hearts and in their love of God. Wherever you go you will not find rest, except in humble obedience to the rule of a Superior.1 Having fantasies about other places and wanting a change unsettles people.
We gladly do the things we enjoy, and keep company with the like-minded; but, if Christ is to live among us, we must sometimes surrender our own opinions for the sake of peace. No one is wise enough to know everything. So do not have confidence in your own views, but listen to the ideas of others. If your opinion is right but you surrender it for the love of God and follow another, you will win great merit. I have often heard that it is better to accept advice than to give it. It may be that two opinions are equally good but it is a sign of pride and obstinacy to refuse to come to an agreement with others when it is required.
On avoiding gossip
Stay away from public meetings as much as you can, for even with the best of intentions discussion of mundane matters can be a distraction, as we are easily corrupted and ensnared by vanity. I often wish that I had remained silent and had not been with others. Why is it that we injure our consciences when we are ready to chatter and gossip with each other, but seldom resort to silence? The reason we are so fond of talking with others is that we find it consoling and it refreshes a weary heart. We enjoy thinking and speaking of those things we like or desire, and equally of those we dislike. It is of no avail, for such outward consolation is a severe obstacle to inner and divine consolation.
We must watch and pray1 so that we do not make bad use of our time. When it is right to speak, do so to offer enlightenment.2 Bad habits and neglect of devotional progress are the chief reasons for failing to guard our tongues.3 But committed conversation on spiritual matters helps our spiritual progress greatly, especially with those who share a common mind in the service of God.4
On peace and spiritual progress
We could enjoy much peace if we were not bothered by what other people say and do, for they are no concern of ours. We cannot remain at peace if we meddle in other people’s affairs or if we find the opportunity to rush about and make little or no attempt at recollection. Blessed are the pure in heart1 for they will enjoy much peace.
How did some of the Saints become so perfect and contemplative? It is because they strove with all their might to suppress in themselves all earthly desires and so to cling to God in their inmost heart and offer themselves willingly and fully to Him. But we are gripped too much by our passions and are over-concerned with the passing affairs of the world. It is seldom that we fully master any small fault and we do not have enough zeal for our daily progress. So we remain spiritually cold or tepid.
If we were completely dead to self and free from inner conflict, we could taste divine things, and gain the experience of heavenly contemplation. But the greatest, and indeed the biggest, obstacle to our advance is that we are not free from our passions and lusts. Nor do we make any effort to follow the perfect way of the Saints. When we encounter a small trouble, we are quickly discouraged and turn to human consolation.
If, like brave heroes, we endeavoured to stand firm in battle we should not fail to experience the help of our Lord from heaven. He is always ready to help those who fight, trusting in His grace. He also gives us opportunities to fight victoriously. If we rely only on outward religious observances, our devotion will rapidly fade away. But let us put the axe to the root2 so that, cleansed from our passions, we may possess our souls in peace.
If we could just root out one fault each year we would soon gain perfection. But, alas, the opposite is often the case. Frequently we are often better and purer at the beginning of our conversion than after many years in religious vows. Our fervour and virtue should grow daily; but it is now considered a good thing if someone retains even a small part of their early zeal. If only we would begin by strongly disciplining ourselves3 then we would be able later to do everything easily and gladly.
It is hard to give up old habits and harder still to conquer our own wills. But if you cannot triumph in small and easy things, how can you succeed in big things?4
From the start, resist your evil inclinations and break off evil habits for fear that you are led into greater difficulties. If only you could know what great peace for yourself and what great joy for your friends your efforts would win, you would take even more care of your spiritual progress.
On the uses of adversity
From time to time, it is good for us to encounter troubles and adversities, for troubles compel us to search our hearts. It reminds us that we are strangers here1 and that we can have no hope of anything in this world. Also, we benefit when we face opposition, and when people think badly of us and misjudge us, even when we do and mean well. Such things assist our humility and preserve us from pride and empty glory. When others despise us and think no good of us, we more readily turn to the inner judgement of God.
Therefore we should place such complete trust in God that we need no human comfort. When good people are troubled, tempted or disturbed by evil thoughts, they come to realize more clearly than ever that they need God, without whom we can do nothing.2Then, amid our misfortunes, we grieve and lament greatly and turn to prayer. Those who are weary of life long for the liberation of death, so that they may depart and be with Christ.3 It is then that we know fully that in this life there can be no total security, nor perfect peace.
On resisting temptations
As long as we live in this world, we will always face trial and temptation.1 As Job says, ‘Do not human beings have a hard service on earth.’2 Therefore we must be on guard against temptations and be watchful in prayer3 so that the Devil has no means of deceiving us; for he never rests, but prowls around seeking someone to devour.4 No one is so perfect and holy that they cannot be tempted, and we can never be safe from temptations.
Although temptations are so troublesome and grievous, they are also profitable for us. Through them we are humbled, cleansed and edified. All the Saints went through many hardships5 and benefited from them; but those who could not resist temptations became reprobate and fell away.6There is no Religious Community so holy, no place so secluded that it is without adversities and temptations.
As long as we live, we will never be without temptations. The root of temptation lies within our own nature, because we are born with a tendency to evil.7 When one temptation comes to an end, another takes its place. We shall always have something to resist, for we have lost the blessing of innocent happiness. Those who fly from temptations will encounter them more fiercely, for no one can gain a victory simply by running away. It is only through patience and true humility that we can grow stronger than our enemies.
If we just avoid superficial evil but fail to tear out its roots in ourselves, we will gain very little. In fact, temptations will return quickly and we will find ourselves in a worse state than before.8 Slowly and by fortitude and patience9 we can triumph by God’s help rather than by our own violence and assertiveness. When you are tempted seek regular advice, and do not treat harshly those who suffer temptation. Rather, offer them the sort of encouragement that you would value yourself.
All evil temptation begins with an unstable mind and a lack of trust in God. Just as a ship without a helm is tossed about by the waves,10 so are those who are careless and lose direction tempted in many ways. As the furnace tests iron, when it is being tempered,11 so temptation tests the just. Often we do not know what we can tolerate, but temptation reveals our true nature. At the start of temptation we have to be especially on our guard, for the Enemy can be more easily overcome if he is unable to open the door to our minds. He must be refused entry as soon as he knocks. Hence the saying: ‘Resist from the beginning; the medicine may not arrive in time.’12
Firstly, an evil thought crosses the mind; then comes a strong imagination; then delight and the desire to do evil and in the end we consent. So, if he is not resisted from the beginning, the Enemy gains complete mastery. The longer a lazy person delays, the weaker is resistance and the stronger is the power of the Enemy.
Some people face their deepest temptations soon after their conversion; for some it comes at the end of life; others are troubled throughout their lives; while there are those whose temptations are light. This is in accordance with the wisdom and justice of God’s ways, who measures the condition and virtues of us all and provides all things for the salvation of those whom He chooses.
So when we are tempted we must not despair, but earnestly pray to God in the hour of need. For as St Paul says, ‘When the test comes, God will at the same time provide a way out so that you may be able to endure it.’13 So let us humble ourselves under the hand of God14 in every trial and tribulation, for He will save and raise on high the lowly.15 In all these trials our progress is being tested, so we may secure great merit and our virtue will be revealed. If, when we are without trials, we reveal great devotion, that is not so significant; but we can make great spiritual progress if we show patience in adversity. Some people are spared major temptations but are overtaken by small ones every day, so that they may be humble and learn to avoid trusting in themselves and recognize their frailty.
On avoiding rash judgements
Judge yourself, but avoid passing judgement on others.1 In judging others, we spend our energy to no good purpose. We are often mistaken and so we sin; but it is a beneficial exercise to examine ourselves. Frequently, our personal feelings influence our judgement, and if we are encouraged by personal motives it may become a false judgement. If God were the only and constant object of our desires, we would not be so upset when our own opinions are rejected.
Frequently, we are drawn to act on the basis of an inner impulse or outward attraction. Many people are influenced in their actions through self-interest, but they may not be conscious of it. As long as events fit in with their own desires, they seem to enjoy full peace of mind, but when things fall out differently they become distressed and disconsolate. Similarly differences of opinion or belief can often be the cause of quarrels among friends and neighbours and even among Religious and devout people.
It is hard to break old habits and no one is easily weaned from their own opinions. If you rely on your own reasoning and ability rather than submit your will to Jesus Christ,2 you will rarely and slowly attain wisdom. For it is God’s will that we become fully obedient to Him and that we overcome mere reason on the wings of a burning love for Him.
On deeds inspired by love
Nothing in the world, nor affection for anyone, can justify doing evil. But in helping someone in need, we may put aside a good deed, so that a better one may be done in its place. For by doing this, the good deed is not lost, but changed for one that is better. Our outward deeds are of no value without love; but whatever is done out of love, however small, is totally fruitful. For God takes account of the greatness of our motives rather than the greatness of our achievements.
Whoever loves much, does much. Whoever does something well, does much. It is good to serve the community before serving our own interests. Often an apparently loving action can spring from selfish motives; for natural inclination, self-will, hope of reward and our own self-interest will rarely be entirely absent.
Whoever is inspired by true and perfect love is never self-seeking, but wishes only to serve the glory of God in all things. Those who seek no selfish pleasure will envy no one. Those who desire above all to merit God’s blessing will not act out of self-gratification. We should ascribe no good to humanity but only to God, from whom all things come, who is their origin1 and in whom all the Saints enjoy perfection and peace. If only we had a spark of true love in our hearts, we would know for certain that all earthly things are futile.
On living with the faults of others
If we are unable to correct ourselves, or others, we should wait patiently until God decides otherwise. It is perhaps good to think that this is better, so that our patience is tested, without which our merits are of little value. Whenever such obstacles hinder you, pray to God that He may grant you His help, and give you grace to endure them with a good heart.1
If someone who has been warned once or twice remains stubborn, do not dispute with them but commend all things to God that His will may be done, and His name hallowed2 in all His servants. God knows perfectly well how to bring good out of evil.3 Strive to be patient, bear with the faults and frailties of others, for you also have many faults which others have to tolerate. If you cannot mould yourself as you would wish, how can you expect other people to be entirely to your liking? For we expect other people to be perfect, but we do not correct our own faults.
We like to see others severely reprimanded, but we are unwilling to be corrected ourselves. We wish to restrict the liberty of others, but are not willing to be denied anything ourselves. We like to see others controlled by rules, yet we will not restrict ourselves. So it is very clear that we rarely consider our neighbour in the same light as ourselves. Yet if we were all perfect, what would we have to tolerate in others for Christ’s sake?
For God has designed things so that we may learn to bear one another’s burdens.4 There is no one without faults and none without burdens.5 We are not sufficient in ourselves.6We are not wise in ourselves.7 So we must support one another,8 be tolerant of each other,9 help, teach and advise one another. It is in times of trouble that we really discover the true value of our helpers. They do not weaken us, but reveal their true nature.
On the monastic life
If you wish to live in peace and harmony with others, you must learn to discipline yourself in many ways. It is not easy to live in a Religious Community and remain there without fault1 and faithfully persevere unto death.2 Those who live this life happily to the end are greatly blessed. If you wish to achieve stability3 and grow in grace, remember that you are a stranger and pilgrim on this earth.4 If you wish to be a Religious, it is enough to be accounted a fool for Christ’s sake.5
Having a tonsure and a habit are in themselves of little significance.6 It is the transformation of your way of life and the total mortification of the senses that makes a true Religious. Those who seek anything in life, other than God and personal salvation, will find nothing but trouble and sadness.7 Nor will we remain at peace if we cease to be the least and the servant of all.8
You have come here to obey orders, not to give orders. Remember you are called to work and service, not to pass your time in idleness and gossip, for in this life we are tried like gold in the furnace.9 No one can remain here, unless they are ready to humble themselves with their whole being for the love of God.
On the example set us by the Holy Fathers
Think about the glowing examples of the Holy Fathers, from whom shone true religion and perfection. Compared with them, we do little or nothing. Compared with them, our life is sadly lacking. The Saints and friends of Christ served our Lord in hunger and thirst, in cold and nakedness, in toil and weariness; in watching and fasting, in prayer and contemplation, in persecutions and many insults.1
The tribulations endured by the Apostles, Martyrs, Confessors, Virgins and others who strove to follow the footsteps of Christ were countless and endless. They all hated their lives in this world, so that they might gain eternal life.2 How strict and self-denying were the lives of the Holy Fathers in the desert! How long and grievous the temptations they endured. How often they were assaulted by the Devil! How frequent and fervent their prayers to God! How strict their fasts! How great their zeal and ardour for spiritual progress! How valiant the battles they fought to overcome their vices! How pure and upright their intention towards God!
All day long they laboured and all night long they prayed continuously. Even as they worked, they never stopped praying.3
They used their time well; every hour seemed short in God’s service. Through sweet contemplation, often they even forgot their bodily needs.
They renounced all riches, dignities, honours, friends and relations; they wanted to possess nothing in this world.
They would accept the necessities of life and bodily needs only with reluctance. Thus, though lacking in worldly goods, they were very rich in grace and virtue. Outwardly they were poor, but inwardly they were enriched by grace and heavenly consolation.
They were strangers to the world, but to God they were dear and familiar friends.4 In their own eyes they were nothing, but in the eyes of God they were precious and beloved. Established in true humility, they lived in simple obedience. They walked in love and patience5 and so daily increased in the Spirit and received great grace from God. They were given as an example to all Religious and they should encourage us to move forward in holiness, unlike the lukewarm people who encourage us in laxity.
When the communities were established how deep was the fervour of the Religious! How great was their devotion in prayer and their zeal for virtue! How strict was their observance of the Rule. What reverence and obedience was shown to the orders of the Superiors in those days! Their examples still reveal that there were indeed holy and perfect people, who fought valiantly and trampled the world under their feet. Nowadays, anyone who does not break rules or is very obedient is regarded as outstanding!
Oh, the negligence and coldness of the present time! Sloth and lukewarmness make life wearisome for us, and we soon lose our initial enthusiasm! May the desire to grow in grace not remain asleep in you, who have been honoured to contemplate so many examples of the devout life.
On practices suitable for those in the Religious Life
The life of a good Religious should shine with all the virtues, so that what appears outwardly to others is matched by inward practices. Indeed, there should be far more inward goodness than that which appears outwardly; for God searches all hearts.1 We must respect Him above all things and live purely in His sight, like the Angels. Each new day we should renew our commitment and exert ourselves to devotion, as if it were the first day of our conversion, and say ‘Help me, O Lord God, in my good resolution and in Your holy service; help me to start this day perfectly, for so far I have achieved nothing.’
Our intentions will reveal our spiritual progress and, if we wish to go far, we will need strong perseverance. Even someone with firm determination often encounters failure; and someone who rarely makes any firm commitment will not achieve anything. We fail in our intentions in many ways, and the casual omission of our spiritual exercises rarely passes without detriment to our souls. Even the commitment of holy people depends more on the grace of God than on their own wisdom, and they put their whole trust in Him in all they do. ‘The human mind plans the way but the Lord directs the steps.’2 And ‘the way of human beings is not in their control, mortals, as they walk, cannot direct their steps’.3
If, in order to perform some act of kindness or to help someone, any of our spiritual exercises are omitted they can be resumed later. But if they are set aside casually, out of laziness or carelessness, this is inexcusable and will be harmful to our souls. However hard we try, we shall still fail too easily in many things. Even so we should always have a strong resolve, especially against those faults that most hinder our progress. There should be a careful scrutiny and organization of both our inward and outward life, since both are essential to our growth.
Although we cannot always preserve our recollection, yet we should do so from time to time, and at least once every day, either in the morning or the evening. Shape your intentions in the morning and at night review your behaviour (what you have done, said and thought during the day), for in all of these things you may have offended both God and your neighbour. Arm yourself strongly against the wickedness of the Devil.4 If you control your appetite you will more easily control your bodily desires. Never be entirely idle but be occupied through reading, or writing, prayer and meditation, or in some work for the common good. But be discreet in practising physical mortification5 for this is not for everybody. Non-essential spiritual exercises should not be done in public; for whatever is purely personal is best done in private.
Do not become casual about the community observances, by putting your personal devotions as a priority. But when you have fully and faithfully fulfilled your obligations, if there is time left over, use it for your own prayer. Not everyone prays in the same way. One pattern suits one person and a different devotion another. Also, the seasons require different devotions; some are best for festivals and others for ordinary days. When we are tempted, a suitable devotion may help; at other times we need peace and quietness. Some are suitable when we are sad and others when we are full of joy in the Lord.
We should renew our spiritual exercises on major festivals and ask the Saints for their prayers more fervently than ever. Between festivals we should resolve to live as if we were about to leave this world and come to the Heavenly Feast. So we should carefully prepare ourselves during the holy seasons and live even more devoutly, keeping every observance more strictly, as if we were about to receive the reward for our labours from God Himself. But if the reward is delayed, we should realize that we are not yet worthy of the greater glory, which will be revealed to us at the appointed time.6 So let us prepare ourselves better for our departure from this world. ‘Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives,’ says St Luke the Evangelist; ‘Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions.’7
On the love of solitude and silence
Set aside a suitable time for recollection and regularly consider the loving kindness of God. Do not read out of curiosity or just to pass the time, but read those things which stir your heart to adoration. If you keep away from casual talk and aimless visits, listening to novelties and gossip, you will find plenty of time to spend in meditation on holy things. Whenever they could, the Saints avoided society and preferred to serve God in solitude.
A wise man wrote, ‘As often as I have been among men, I have returned home a lesser man.’1 We share this experience when we spend a lot of time in conversation. It is easier to be completely silent than not to talk more than we should. It is easier to be silent at home than to be careful about what we say in public. So whoever is determined to live an inward and spiritual life must withdraw from the crowd to be with Jesus.2 No one can live in the public eye without harm to the soul, unless they want total obscurity. Only those who are happy to be silent can safely speak in public. Only those who have learned to obey can safely give orders. Only those who demonstrate a good conscience are able to celebrate.
The composure of the Saints was grounded in the fear of God, nor were they less careful and humble because they had outstanding virtues and kindness. But the negligence of the wicked emerges from pride and presumption and it leads to self-deception. Never promise yourself confidence in this life, even though you seem to be a good Religious or a holy hermit.
Those who are seen as public celebrities are the most exposed to serious peril, because they have far too much self-confidence. Hence it is better not to be without temptation, and to be tested in order to avoid becoming composed and full of pride or to turn too easily to the comforts of the world. We would have a good conscience if we never ran off after passing pleasures, or were preoccupied with worldly affairs. If only we could reject fruitless anxiety, and just think about the things of God and salvation, how much peace and tranquillity we would have.
None of us are worthy of heavenly consolation unless we have spent time in devout penitence. If you want deep penitence, enter your room3 and shut out the noise of the world; as it is written, ‘Let awe restrain you, while you rest, meditate in silence.’4 Inside your room you will discover what you will lose frequently outside. The continuous occupation of the room becomes a delight, but if it is ill-kept it will lead to weariness of spirit. If, from the beginning of your Religious Life, you have lived in your room and kept it well, it will later become a friend and a welcome comfort.
The devout soul benefits from quietness and silence and so learns the hidden secrets of the Scriptures.5 There, in floods of tears, the soul can be washed and cleansed.6 The more the soul withdraws from the noise of the world, the nearer the soul draws to her Creator. For God and His Holy Angels will come close to those who go apart from friends and acquaintances. It is better to live in obscurity and to seek one’s salvation than to neglect it, even to work miracles. It is best for the Religious not to go out and about, and to avoid seeing others, rather than being seen by them.
Why do you want to admire and seek things you do not possess? The world with all its allurements is passing away.7 Sensual desires want us to rush about, but when it is over what do you bring back except a spoiled conscience and a distracted heart? A cheerful departure often leads to a sad homecoming, and a merry evening will lead to a miserable morning. Every bodily pleasure may flow smoothly, but in the end it will bite like a snake and poison like a cobra.8
What can you see elsewhere that you cannot see here?9 Look at the sky, the earth and all the natural elements – God made them all. What you see anywhere under the sun will only last for a little time. Possibly you hope for full satisfaction, but that cannot be achieved. If you could see the whole of existence in front of you, it would be nothing but an empty shadow.10 Look to heaven, look to God11 and seek forgiveness for your neglect and your sins. Leave empty matters to the empty-headed and pay attention to the things God commands you to do. Close the door and call upon the beloved Jesus.12 Stay with Him in your room, for you will not find peace anywhere else. If you had never gone out and gossiped you would be much more at peace, and not suffering from a disturbed mind.
On true penitence
If you wish to grow in holiness, you must live in the fear of the Lord.1 Do not look for lots of freedom, but train your senses and do not take up trivial activities. Rather, if you want to find true holiness, devote yourself to penitence. Dissipation will blind us to the many good things which penitence will reveal to us. If we consider our state of exile and the many perils which test our souls, it is amazing that anyone can feel completely contented with this life.
Frivolity and neglecting our faults will make us insensible to the real sorrows of our soul. So when we should be weeping, we engage in empty laughter. The only way to find true freedom and joy is in the fear of God and a clear conscience. Those who are happy can set aside every restricting distraction and concentrate on the main purpose of penitence. Those who reject whatever smears or weighs down their conscience are happy. Fight bravely, for one habit overcomes another. If you are willing to leave other people alone, they will gladly leave you alone to achieve your purposes.
Do not bother yourselves with other people’s affairs, nor concern yourself with the affairs of your Superiors. Watch yourself at all times, and discipline yourself before you lecture your friends. If you do not enjoy popularity, do not feel sorry for yourself; rather be sorry that you are not living as well and as carefully as is appropriate to a servant of God and a devout Religious. Frequently, it is better and safer not to enjoy many bodily comforts in this life. But if we rarely or never feel God’s consolation, it is our own fault because we have not sought to be penitent, nor given up all vain and worldly comforts.
Think of yourself as unworthy of divine consolation but actually deserving of considerable suffering. If we are really contrite, the present world becomes painful and bitter to us. A good person always finds reason for sorrow and tears, for if we think about our neighbours or ourselves, we know that in this life no one can live without trouble. The more strictly we examine ourselves, the more reason there is for sorrow. Our sins and vices are grounds for rightful sorrow and contrition of heart; for they have such a strong hold over us that we are rarely able to contemplate heavenly things.
If you had more concern for a holy death than for a long life, you would certainly desire to live better. If you were to consider carefully the pains of hell and purgatory2 you would willingly endure toil and sorrow and would not shrink from hardships. But because such reflections do not move our hearts, we remain cold and unresponsive and cling to our old vanities.
Often it is our lack of spiritual life that enables our wretched body to rebel so easily. So humbly pray to our Lord to give you the spirit of penitence and say with the Prophet, ‘You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure.’3
On human misery
Wherever you are and wherever you go you will find no happiness until you turn to God. Why are you so disturbed when things do not go the way you want them to? Does anyone enjoy everything they wish for? Neither do you, nor I, nor anyone else on this earth. In this life no one goes without trouble and anxiety, not even a Monarch or a Pope. Who then is the happiest person? Surely someone who is able to suffer for the love of God.
Many weak and foolish people1 say, ‘See what a good life that man enjoys! He is so rich, so great, so powerful, so distinguished!’ But look up to the riches of heaven, and realize that all the riches of this world are nothing. They are a weight on our minds and uncertain, for they are never enjoyed without some anxiety or fear. Our happiness does not consist in the amount of things we possess,2 for a modest amount is sufficient. Life on earth is a misery. The more spiritual we desire to become, the more bitter does this life seem to be, because we see and discover more clearly the defects and corruptions of human nature. To eat and drink, to wake and sleep, to rest and work and to be subject to the necessities of nature is a great trouble. It afflicts the devout, who would prefer to be released and set free from all sin.3
Our physical needs greatly hinder our spiritual life. So the Prophet prays to be set free from them, saying, ‘Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.’4 For it will be hard for those who fail to realize their own wretchedness, and harder still for those who love this wretched and transitory life.5 For some cling so closely to this world that even by working and begging they can hardly earn the bare necessities. If it were possible they would be willing to remain here for ever, caring nothing for the Kingdom of God.
How mad and unfaithful are those who are so engrossed in earthly affairs that they care for nothing except material things.6 These miserable people will ultimately know, to their great sorrow, that the things which they loved were vile and empty. But the Saints of God and all the devoted friends of Christ took little notice of either bodily pleasures or worldly prosperity, because all their hopes and desires were directed to the good things which are eternal.7 All their desires lifted them up to eternal and invisible things, so that the love of visible things could not drag them down. Do not lose confidence in the progress of the spiritual life.8 There is still time and opportunity.
Why postpone your good resolutions? Rise and start this very instant and say, ‘Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.’9 The time to achieve excellence is when things are going badly and you are in trouble. You must pass through fire and water before you can enter into the place of rest.10 You will only overcome your depravity if you discipline yourself severely. As long as we live in a human body, we are bound to know sin and live with great weariness and sorrow. We would gladly be free of all troubles; but as we have lost our innocence through sin, we have also lost real happiness. We must therefore have endurance11 and wait for God’s mercy, until this wickedness passes away and death is swallowed up in life.12
Our frailty is very great because we are ever prone to evil.13 Today you confess your sins; tomorrow you again commit the very sins you have confessed! Now you resolve to guard against them, and within an hour you succumb, as if you had not made any resolution! So considering our weakness and instability, it is right that we should humble ourselves and never be self-righteous. Through carelessness we can easily lose the progress that we had so earnestly won by God’s grace.14
What state will we be left in, if our enthusiasm vanishes so quickly? Our fate will be very unhappy, if we decide to take some time off as though we had already reached the haven of peace and security,15 when there is no vestige of holiness in our lives. It would be better to be instructed in the paths of a good life all over again, like a faithful novice. Then there might be some hope for our future improvement and greater spiritual progress.
A meditation on death
Very shortly, the end of your life will be imminent, so reflect on the state of your soul. We are here today and gone tomorrow,1 and when we are out of sight we are out of mind. Our hearts are sluggish and hard, and if we think only of the present, nothing is provided for the future. You should arrange every action and thought as if today were the day of your death. If you had a clear conscience, death would hold no terrors for you,2 but it would be better to avoid sin than to escape death.3 If you are unprepared to die today, will you be more ready tomorrow?4 Tomorrow is uncertain, so how can you be sure of it? If we have put so little right, what use is a long life? Sadly, a long life tends to increase our sins rather than our virtues!
If only we could spend even one day really well! Many calculate the years since their conversion, but their lives show little sign of improvement. It is frightening to die; it is even more perilous to live a long life. Blessed are those who keep in mind and prepare for the hour of their death. If you have ever witnessed someone’s death remember that you also must go the same way.5
Every morning remember that you may not live until the evening. In the evening do not presume that you will see another day. Be ready at all times6 and live so that death may never find you unprepared. Many die suddenly and unexpectedly; for the Son of Man will come at the time that you least expect Him.7 When your final hour comes, you will begin to think very differently about your past life, and deeply regret that you have been so careless and remiss.
It is a very wise and happy person who tries to live life in such a way as they expect to be found in death. The following attitudes will ensure a happy death: utter contempt for the world; a strong desire to grow in holiness; a love of discipline; the practice of penance; willing obedience; self-denial; accepting every trial for the love of Christ. While you enjoy health, you can do much good; but when sickness comes you can do little. Not many are made better through sickness and those who go on frequent pilgrimages rarely find that it increases their sanctification.8
Do not rely on friends and neighbours, and do not postpone the salvation of your soul to a future date; for you will be forgotten more quickly than you think. It is better to make proper provision and to gain favour than to depend on the help of others. And if you make no provision for your own soul, who will care for you in the future? The present moment is very precious. Now is the hour of favour; now is the day of salvation.9 It is very sad that you do not employ your time better when you could win eternal life. The time will come when you will long for even one day or one hour in which to repent; and who knows whether you will find it?
Dear soul, from what peril and fear you could free yourself, if you lived in holy fear, conscious of your death? Commit yourself so to live now, that when you die you will be happy and unafraid. Learn to die to the world so that you may live with Christ.10 Learn to despise all earthly things so that you may freely go to Christ. Suppress your body now through penance so that you may enjoy a certain hope of salvation.
It is foolish to promise yourself a long life when you are not sure about a single day.11 How many have deceived themselves and been snatched away unexpectedly? You have often heard how someone was killed by the sword; another was drowned; another fell from a height and had a broken neck; how another died during a meal; another died while playing a game. Someone dies in a fire, another by the sword, another from disease, another at the hands of robbers. Death is the end of us all12 and our days are like a fleeting shadow.13
Who will remember you when you are dead? Who will pray for you? Act now, dear soul, do all you can; for you know neither the hour of your death nor how you will die. Gather the riches of everlasting life while you have time.14 Think only of your salvation and care for the things of God. Now is the time to make friends by honouring the Saints of God and by following their examples, so that when life is over they may welcome you into your eternal home.15
Remain as a stranger and pilgrim on this earth.16 Do not be concerned with the things of this world. Keep your heart free and lift yourself up to God, for here you have no lasting city.17 Direct your prayer and longings to heaven every day, so that at your death your soul may be free to pass joyfully into the presence of God.
On judgement and the punishment of sinners
Always keep in mind your final end and how you will stand before the just Judge.1 Nothing is hidden from Him and He cannot be influenced by bribes or excuses and is completely just.2 O wretched and stupid sinner, you tremble before the anger of others, how will you answer to God3 who knows all your evil ways? Why do you not prepare yourself for the Day of Judgement, when no one can defend you or excuse you? Then everyone will have to answer for themselves. While you live, your work is beneficial and your tears acceptable because sorrow cleanses the soul and makes peace with God.
A patient person goes through a healthy purgation. While suffering injuries, such a person is more concerned with the faults of others than their own wrongs and gladly prays for their enemies and forgives their offences. There is no delay in seeking pardon from others and they move more quickly to compassion than to anger. Such people have self-discipline and try to put the body under the spirit in every way. It is better to purge our sins and overcome our vices now than to save them up for future purgation. We can deceive ourselves by excessive love of the flesh.
The flames of hell have only our sins to feed on. The more you spare yourself now and indulge carnal pleasures, the more severe will be your ultimate punishment and the more fuel there will be for the flames. The pattern of our sins will be reflected in our punishment.4
Then the indolent will be prodded by fiery goads, and the gluttonous tormented by severe hunger and thirst.
Then the luxurious and pleasure-seeking will be plunged into burning pitch and stinking sulphur while the envious will howl like angry dogs.
Every vice will receive appropriate retribution. The proud will be subjected to deep humiliation, and the greedy will experience misery and starvation.
An hour’s punishment then will be more severe than a century of penance on earth. Here, we may often enjoy a rest from our work and the comfort of our friends, but thereafter there will be neither rest nor comfort for the damned. So live well now and grieve for your sins, so that on the Day of Judgement you may stand safely in the company of the blessed.
Then the just will be full of assurance to confront those who have oppressed them and made light of their sufferings.5
Then those who have humbly submitted to the judgement of others will judge others.
Then the poor and humble will have confidence, while the proud will be surrounded by fears on every side.
Then it will be revealed that those who have learned to be despised and fools for Christ’s sake in this world were in fact wise.6
Then the devout will be happy and the ungodly will be sorry.
Then those who have patiently borne every trial will be glad and the mouths of the wicked will be silenced.7
Then those who disciplined their bodies will have greater joy than those who greatly indulged themselves.8
Then the ragged clothes of the poor will look splendid and those in gorgeous clothes will look drab.
Then the humble cottage of the poor will seem more desirable than a golden palace.
Then will a patient life be of more value than worldly power.
Then will humble obedience be raised up above the scheming and cunning.
Then a good, clean conscience will bring more joy than learned philosophy.
Then will contempt for riches be more valuable than all worldly treasures.
Then will devout prayer produce more pleasure than fine food.
Then those who have kept silence will be happier than those who gossip.
Then good deeds will be better than fine words.
Then will a disciplined life and deep penance prove to be more valuable than all worldly indulgence.
Learn to suffer a little now, so that you may be spared much worse troubles. Prove here what you can suffer hereafter. If you can put up with very little now, how will you endure the pains of hell? No one can enjoy both kinds of happiness: you cannot enjoy all the pleasures of this life and also reign with Christ in heaven. If you had enjoyed all the honours and pleasures of life here, how would that benefit you if you were to die now? All is vanity except to love God and serve God alone. For those who love God with all their hearts will not fear death, punishment, judgement or hell. For we gain access to God only through perfect love.9 But if you continue to enjoy wickedness, it is not surprising if you fear death and judgement. However, if the love of God does not hold you back at least the fear of hell might restrain you. Those who put aside the fear of God cannot, for long, live a good life and will rapidly fall into the hands of the Devil.
On our enthusiasm to amend our lives
Be alert1 and persistent in the service of God, and frequently consider why you are here and why you have renounced the world. It was so that you could live with God and have a spiritual life. So work hard to make progress, and you will soon receive a reward for your endeavours. Then you will not be troubled by fear or sorrow. Work hard for a brief time now and you will find rest for your soul and everlasting joy. If you remain faithful in all you do, you can be sure that God will be faithful and be generous in rewarding you.2 Keep a firm hope that you will receive the victor’s crown,3 but do not be overconfident lest you become smug and self-satisfied.
There was once a man4 who was very anxious and dithered between hope and fear. One day, when overcome with despair, he lay prostrate in prayer before the altar in church and, pondering these matters in his mind, said: ‘Oh, if only I knew that I would always persevere!’ Then he heard in his heart a reply from God: ‘If you knew this what would you do? Do now what you would do then, and all will be well.’ So, having been comforted and strengthened, he committed himself to the will of God. His restless anxiety went away, and he no longer wished to ask what would happen to him, but strove eagerly to learn the perfect and acceptable will of God.5 So he was equipped for good work of every kind.6
‘Trust in the Lord, and do good,’ says the Prophet, ‘so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.’7 One thing that deters people from their spiritual journey and enthusiastic correction is the fear of great difficulties and the cost of victory. But be assured that those who grow in virtue more than their companions are those who fight manfully to triumph over whatever is most difficult and distasteful. The more completely we overcome and cleanse ourselves in the spirit, the more we gain and deserve overflowing grace.
We do not all have the same things to overcome, but whatever strong passions we have to subdue, those who are diligent and committed will certainly make greater progress than those who are naturally self-controlled but less committed to spirituality. The two main things which assist the amendment of life are a forcible withdrawal from the vices to which we naturally incline, and a determined pursuit of any grace that we especially need. In particular, try to avoid and overcome those things that you dislike in other people.
Seek to advance in everything, imitate any examples that you see or hear and inspire you. But if you notice anything blameworthy, take care to avoid doing the same yourself. And if you ever fail to do so, correct your behaviour straight away. As you observe others, so others observe you.8How good and pleasant it is to see enthusiastic and devout members of the community keeping good manners and discipline.9 And how sad and painful it is to see those who are disorderly and fail to live up to their calling. It is very harmful if people neglect the real purpose of their vocation and turn to matters which are not their real concern.
Remember that your avowed purpose is to keep before you the likeness of Christ crucified.10 As you meditate on the life of Christ you should feel sorry that you have not tried hard enough to conform yourself to Him, even though you have spent a long time as God’s disciple. A Religious who earnestly and devoutly contemplates the most holy life and Passion of our Lord will find in it everything profitable and needful. Nor would any Religious seek any other model than Jesus.11 If only Christ crucified would come into our hearts, how quickly and fully we would be instructed!
A zealous Religious readily accepts and obeys all orders. But a careless and lukewarm Religious has trouble after trouble and, lacking real inward consolation, finds sorrow on every side and is forbidden to seek exterior support. Religious who disregard the Rule are exposed to dreadful ruin. Those who desire an easier and undisciplined life will always be unstable, because one thing or another around them will be displeasing.
Examine how many of those who live under strict discipline behave. They rarely go out, they live a secluded life; they eat the dullest food; they work hard; they talk little; they keep long vigils; they rise early; they spend a lot of time in prayer; they study regularly and control themselves with discipline.
Think about the Carthusians, the Cistercians and the monks and nuns of the various Orders,12 how they rise during the night to sing praises to our Lord. If you were slothful it would shame you when such a great company of Religious are singing the praises of God.
Would that all we could do was to offer endless praise to the Lord our God with our heart and voice! If you had no need of food, drink or rest you could praise God without ceasing13 and give yourself wholly to spiritual matters. This would make you far happier than you are when compelled to serve your bodily needs. If only those needs did not exist, then we might enjoy the spiritual feasts of the soul which alas we so rarely taste.
When we no longer seek human comfort from anyone then we begin to enjoy God perfectly and we will be content whatever comes to us. Then we will not rejoice in owning a great deal, or feel sorry for having nothing, but will simply commit ourselves to be faithful to God who is All in All.14 In God nothing passes away or dies, for all things live for Him and fulfil His will continually.15
Always remember your end16 and that lost time never returns. You will only acquire virtue with care and diligence. If you begin to be careless everything will go wrong for you. But if you give yourself to prayer, you will find great peace and your work will grow lighter by the help of God’s grace and your love of virtue. Those who are enthusiastic and sincere are ready for anything. The war against our vices and passions is harder than any physical work. Whoever fails to overcome smaller faults will find them being replaced, little by little, by larger ones.17 If you have spent the day well, your evenings will always be peaceful. Watch yourself, lift yourself up, discipline yourself and, whatever the action of others, do not neglect your own soul. The stricter you are with yourself, the greater is your spiritual progress.