(By St. Alphonsus de Ligouri)
He who feels himself to be called by God to an Order of exact observance (I say of exactobservance, for it would be better for him to remain in the world than to enter an Order which isrelaxed), should know that the end of every Order of exact observance is to follow as exactly aspossible the footsteps and examples of the most holy life of Jesus Christ, who led a life entirelydetached and mortified, full of suffering and contempt. He, then, who resolves to enter such anOrder must at the same time resolve to enter it for the sake of suffering and denying himself inall things, as Jesus Christ himself has declared to those who wish perfectly to follow him: “If anyman will come after me. Let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew16:24). He, then, who wishes to enter such an Order must firmly establish within himself thisresolution to suffer, and to suffer much, so that afterwards he may not give way to temptations,when, having entered, he shall feel depressed under the hardships and privations of the poor andmortified life which is there led.Many, on entering Communities of exact observance, take not the proper means of finding peace therein, and of becoming saints, because they place before their eyes only theadvantages of the Community life, such as the solitude, the quiet, the freedom from the troublescaused by relatives, from strife and other disagreeable matters, and from the cares consequent onbeing obliged to think of one's lodgings, food, and clothing. There is no doubt that every religious is only too much indebted to his Order, whichdelivers him from so many troubles, and thus procures for him so great a facility to serve Godperfectly in peace, continually furnishing him with so many means for the welfare of his soul, somany good examples from his companions, so much good advice from his Superiors, who watchfor his benefit, so many exercises conducive to eternal salvation. All this is true; but with all thishe must also, in order not to be deprived of so blessed a lot, resolve to embrace all the sufferingsthat he may, on the other hand, meet with in the Order; for if he does not embrace them withlove, he will never obtain that full peace which God gives to those who, overcome themselves:“To him that overcomes I will give the hidden manna” (Apocalypse 2:17). For the peace whichGod gives his faithful servants to taste is hidden, nor is it known by the men of the world, who,seeing their mortified life, know not how to envy them, but pity them and call them the unhappyones of this earth. But “they see the cross, the unction they do not see,” says St. Bernard. Theysee their mortification, but they do not see the contentment God gives them to enjoy.It is true that in the spiritual life one has to suffer, but, says St. Teresa, when one resolvesto suffer, the pain is gone. Nay, the pains themselves turn into joy. “My daughter,” so the Lordsaid one day to St. Bridget, “the treasure of my graces seems to be surrounded with thorns, butfor him who overcomes the first stings, all changes itself into sweetness.” And then thosedelights which God gives to his beloved souls to enjoy in their prayers, in their Communions, intheir solitude; those lights, those holy ardors and embraces, that quiet of conscience, that blessedhope of eternal life, who can ever understand them if he does not experience them? “One drop of the consolations of God,” said St. Teresa, “is worth more than all the consolations and thepleasures of the world.” Our most gracious God knows well how to give to him who sufferssomething for His sake, even in this valley of tears, the experience of the foretaste of the glory of the blessed; for in this is properly verified that which David says: “Thou who framest labor incommandment” (Psalm 63:20). In the spiritual life, God, announcing pains, tediousness, death,seems to frame labor, but, in fact, afterwards it is not so; for the spiritual life brings to them whoentirely give themselves to God that peace which, as St. Paul says, “surpasseth allunderstanding” (Philippians 4:7). It surpasses all the pleasures of the world and of worldlings.Hence we see a religious more content in a poor cell than all the monarchs in their royal palaces.“Oh, taste and see that the Lord is sweet” (Psalms 33:9).But, on the other hand, he must be persuaded that he who does not resolve to suffer andto overcome himself in the things contrary to his inclinations will never be able to enjoy this truepeace, though he should have already entered religion. “To him that overcometh I will give thehidden manna” (Apocalypse 2:17). It is, then, necessary that he who wishes to be admitted intoan Order of exact observance should enter with a mind determined to overcome himself ineverything, by expelling from his heart all inclinations and desires that are not from God, nor forGod, so that he must detach himself from all things, and especially from the four following: 1.From his comforts; 2. From his parents; 3. From his self esteem; 4. From his own will.
Section 1: Detachment from comforts
In religion, after the year of novitiate, one makes, besides the vows of chastity andobedience, also the vow of poverty, in consequence of which one can never possess anything asone's individual property, not even a pin, no rents, no money, nor other things. The Order willprovide him with all that he needs.
But the vow of poverty does not suffice to make one a true follower of Jesus Christ, if one does not afterwards embrace with joy of spirit all the inconveniences of poverty. “Notpoverty, but the love of poverty is a virtue”, says St. Bernard; and he means to say that for one tobecome a saint, it is not enough to be poor only, if one does not love also the inconveniences of poverty. “Oh, how many would wish to be poor and similar to Jesus Christ!” says Thomas aKempis; “they wish to be poor, but without any want,” but so that they be in want of nothing. Ina word, they would wish the honor and the reward of poverty, but not the inconveniences of poverty. It is easy to understand that in religion no one will seek for things that are superfluous,clothes of silk, costly food, furniture of value, and the like; but he may desire to have all thingsthat are necessary, and these he may be unable to procure. For then it is that he gives proof thathe truly loves poverty, when things that are needful, such as his necessary clothing, bedcovering,or food, happen to be wanting and yet he remains content and is not troubled. And what kind of poverty would that be to suffer, if he were never in want of anything necessary? Father BalthasarAlvarez says that in order truly to love poverty, we must also love the effects of poverty; that is,as he enumerates them, cold, hunger, thirst, and contempt.In religion, every one should not only be content with that which is given to him, withoutever asking for anything of which, through the neglect of the officials, he should be in want, thiswould be a great defect. but he should also prepare himself sometimes to bear the want even of those simple things that the Rule allows. For it may happen that sometimes he is in want of clothes, coverings, linen, or such like things, and then he has to be satisfied with the little that hasbeen given him, without complaining or being disquieted at seeing himself in want even of whatis necessary. He who has not this spirit, let him not think of entering religion, because this is asign that he is not called thereto, or that he has not the will to embrace the spirit of the Institute.He who goes to serve God in his house should consider that he is going not to be well treated forGod, but to suffer for God.
Section 2: Detachment from parents
He who wishes to enter religion must detach himself from his parents and forget themaltogether. For, in religious houses of exact observance, detachment from parents is put inpractice in the highest degree, in order perfectly to follow the doctrine of Jesus Christ, who said:“I came not to send peace, but the sword; I came to set a man at variance with his father. and thedaughter against her mother” (Matthew 10:34), and then added the reason: “A man's enemiesshall be they of his own household”. This is especially the case, as has been remarked above, inthis point of religious vocation: when there is question of any one leaving the world, there are noworse enemies than parents who, either through interest or passion, prefer to become enemies of God by turning their children away from their vocation rather than to give their consent to it. Oh,how many parents shall we see in the valley of Josaphat damned for having made their childrenor nephews lose their vocation: and how many youths shall we see damned who, in order toplease their parents and by not detaching themselves from them, have lost their vocation andafterwards their souls! Hence Jesus declares to us: “If any man hate not his father, etc., he cannotbe my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Let him, then, who wishes to enter a religious Order of perfectobservance, and to become a true disciple of Jesus Christ, resolve to forget his parents altogether.When any one has already entered religion, let him remember that he must practice thenthe same detachment from parents. Let him know that he cannot go to visit his parents in theirown house, except in the case of some dangerous illness of his father or mother, or of some other urgent necessity, though always with the permission of the Superior. Otherwise, to go to thehouse of one's parents without the most express permission, would be considered in religion as amost notable and scandalous fault. In religion it is also considered as a great defect even to ask permission or to show a desire of seeing parents or of speaking with them.St. Charles Borromeo said that when he visited the house of his parents he always, afterhis return, found himself less fervent in spirit. And thus let him who goes to the house of hisparents by his own will and not through a positive obedience to his Superiors, be persuaded thathe will leave it either under temptation or will be less fervent.St. Vincent of Paul could only be induced once to visit his country and his parents, andthis out of pure necessity; and he said that the love of home and country was a great impedimentto his spiritual progress. He said also that many on account of having visited their country, hadbecome so tender towards their relatives that they were like flies which, being once entangled ina cobweb, cannot extricate themselves from it. He added: “For that one time that I went,although it was for a short time only, and though I took care to prevent in my relatives everyhope of help from me, yet I felt at leaving them such a pain that I ceased not to weep all alongthe road, and was for three months harassed by the thought of coming to their aid. At last, God inhis mercy took that temptation from me”.Let him know, moreover, that no one may write to his parents without permission, andwithout showing the letter to the Superior. Otherwise, he would be guilty of a most grievous faultwhich is not to be tolerated in religion, and should be punished with severity; since from thismight come a thousand disorders tending to destroy the religious spirit. Let especially the newcomer know that during the novitiate this is observed with the greatest rigor; for novices duringtheir year of novitiate do not easily obtain permission to talk to their parents, or to write to them.Finally, let him know that, in case a subject should become sick, it would be a notabledefect to ask or to show an inclination to go to his own house for his restoration to health, underthe plea of being better taken care of, or of enjoying the benefit of his native air. The air of hisown country becomes almost always, or even always, hurtful and pestilential to the spirit of thesubject. And if he should ever say that he wishes to be cured at home in order not to subject theOrder to expenses for remedies, let him know that the Order has charity enough to take sufficientcare of the sick. As to the change of air, the Superiors will think of that; and if the air of onehouse is not beneficial to him, they will send him to another. And as for remedies, they will evensell the books, if need be, to provide for the sick. And so let him be sure that divine Providencewill not fail him. And if the Lord should decree against his recovery, he should conform himself to the will of God, without even mentioning the word “home.” The greatest grace that he whoenters an Order can desire is to die, when God wills it, in the house of God, assisted by thebrethren of his Order, and not in a secular house in the midst of his relatives.
Section 3: Detachment from self esteem
He must also be altogether detached from all self esteem. Many leave their country, theircomforts and parents, but carry with them a certain esteem for themselves; but this is the mosthurtful attachment of all. The greatest sacrifice that we can make to God is to give to him notonly goods, pleasures, and home, but ourselves also by leaving ourselves. This is that denying of self which Jesus Christ recommends above all to his followers. And for this self denial it isnecessary that every one should first place under foot all self esteem, by desiring and embracingevery imaginable contempt which he may meet with in religion, as, for instance, to see others whom perhaps he thinks less deserving preferred to himself, or to be considered unfit to beemployed, or only employed in lower and more laborious occupations. He should know that inthe house of God those charges are the highest and the most honorable which are imposed byobedience. God forbid that any one should seek for or aspire to any office or charge of preeminence! This would be a strange thing in religion, and he would be noted as proud andambitious, and as such be put in penance, and especially mortified in this point. Better would itbe, perhaps, that a religious Order should be destroyed than that there should enter into it thataccursed pest of ambition which, when it enters, disfigures the most exemplary Communities andthe most beautiful works of God.But he should feel even consoled in spirit when he sees himself mocked and despised byhis companions. I say consoled in spirit, for as to the flesh this will be impossible; nor need asubject be uneasy when he sees that he resents it: it is enough that the spirit embraces it, and thathe rejoices at it in the superior part of the soul.Thus also seeing himself continually reprimanded and mortified by all, not only bySuperiors, but also by equals and inferiors, he should heartily and with a tranquil mind thank those who thus reprimand him and have the charity to admonish him, answering that he will bemore attentive not to fall into that fault again. One of the greatest desires of the saints in thisworld was to be contemned for the love of Jesus Christ. This it is that St. John of the Cross askedfor, when Jesus Christ appeared to him with a cross on his shoulder and said, “John, ask from mewhat thou wishest,” and St. John answered, “O Lord, to suffer and to be despised for Thee.” TheDoctors teach, with St. Francis de Sales, that the highest degree of humility we can have is to bepleased with abjections and humiliations. And in this consists also one of the greatest merits thatwe can have with God. Some contempt or affront suffered in peace for the love of God is of greater value in his sight than a thousand disciplines and a thousand fasts.It is necessary to know that to suffer contempt either from Superiors or from companionsis a thing unavoidable even in the most holy Communities. Read the lives of the saints, and youwill see how many mortifications were encountered by St. Francis Regis, St. Francis of Jerome,Father Torres, and others. The Lord sometimes permits that, even between saints there shouldexist, though without their fault, certain natural antipathies, or at least a certain diversity of character between subjects of the greatest piety, which will cause them to suffer manycontradictions. At other times false reports will be spread and believed; God himself will permitthis, in order that the subjects may have occasion to exercise themselves in patience andhumility.In a word, he will gain little in religion and lose much who cannot quietly put up withcontempt and contradiction; and, therefore, he who enters religion to give himself entirely to Godshould be ashamed not to know how to bear contempt when he appears before Jesus Christ, whowas “filled with opprobriums” for love of us. Let every one be attentive to this, and resolve to bepleased in religion with all abjections, and to prepare himself to suffer many of them, for withoutthe least doubt he will have many to bear. Otherwise, the disquiet caused by contradictions andcontempt badly endured might trouble him so much as to make him lose his vocation, and drivehim out of religion. Oh, how many have lost their vocation on account of such impatience inhumiliations! But of what service to the Order or to God can he be who does not know how tobear contempt for His sake! And how can any one ever be said to be dead according to thatpromise which he made to Jesus Christ, on entering religion, to die to himself, if he remain aliveto resentment and disquiet when he sees himself humbled? Out of the Order with such subjects,so attached to their own esteem out with them! It is well for them to go as soon as possible, that they may not also infect the rest with their pride. In religion every one should be dead, andespecially to his own self esteem; otherwise it is better for them not to enter, or to depart again if they have already entered.
Section 4: Detachment from one's own will
He who enters into religion must altogether renounce his own will, consecrating itentirely to holy obedience. Of all things, this is the most necessary. What does it avail to leavecomforts, parents, and honors, if still one carries into religion one's own will? In this principallyconsists the denial of ourselves, the spiritual death, and the entire surrender of ourselves to JesusChrist. The gift of the heart, that is, of the will, is what pleases Him most, and what He wishesfrom the children of religion. Otherwise, if we do not entirely detach ourselves from our ownwill and renounce it in all, all mortifications, all meditations and prayers, and all other sacrificeswill be of little avail.It is, then, evident that this is the greatest merit that we can have before God, and this isthe sure and only way of pleasing God in all things, so that then we can each one of us say whatJesus our Saviour said. “I do always the things that please him” (John 8:29). Certainly he who inreligion lives without self will may say and hope that in all that he does he pleases God, whetherhe studies or prays or hears confession, whether he goes to the refectory or to recreation or torest; for in religion not a step is made, not a breath drawn, but in obedience to the Rule, or toSuperiors.The world does not know, and even certain persons given to spirituality have little ideaof, the great value of a Community life under obedience. It is true that outside of religiousCommunities there are to be found many persons who do much, and, may be, more than thosethat live under obedience; they preach, do penance, pray, and fast: but in all this they consultmore or less their own will. God grant that at the day of judgment they may not have to lament asthose mentioned in Scripture: “Why have we fasted, and Thou hast not regarded: why have wehumbled our souls, and Thou hast not taken notice? Behold, in the day of your fast your own willis found!” (Isaias 58:3) On which passage St. Bernard remarks: “Self will is a great evil, for it isthe cause that what is good in itself may be for you no good at all.”This is to be understood, when in all these exercises one seeks not God, but one's self. Onthe contrary, he who does all by obedience is sure that in all he pleases God. The VenerableMother Mary of Jesus said that she prized so much her vocation to religion principally for tworeasons: the first was that in the monastery she enjoyed always the presence and company of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament; and the other was that there by obedience she entirely belongedto God, sacrificing to Him her own will.It is related by Father Rodriguez that after the death of Dositheus, the disciple of St.Dorotheus, the Lord revealed that in those five years he had lived under obedience, though byreason of his infirmities he could not practice the austerities of the other monks, yet by the virtueof obedience he had merited the reward of St. Paul the Hermit, and of St. Antony, Abbot.He, then, who wishes to enter religion must resolve to renounce altogether his own will,and to will only what holy obedience wills. God preserve any religious from ever letting fallfrom his mouth the words I will or I will not! But in all things, even when asked by Superiors,what he desires, he should only answer, I wish that which holy obedience wills. And, providedthere is no evident sin, he should in every command imposed on him obey blindly and withoutexamination; because the duty of examining and deciding the doubts belongs not to him, but to his Superiors. Otherwise, if in obeying he does not submit his own judgment to that of theSuperior, his obedience will be imperfect. St. Ignatius of Loyola said that prudence in things of obedience is not required in subjects, but in Superiors; and if there is prudence in obeying, it is toobey without prudence. St. Bernard says, “Perfect obedience is indiscreet”; and in another placehe said, “For a prudent novice to remain in the congregation is an impossible thing;” and addingthe reason for it, he said: “To judge belongs to the Superior, and to obey to the subject.”But to make progress in this virtue of obedience, on which all depends, he must alwayskeep his mind ready to do all that to which he feels the greatest repugnance, and on the contraryhe must be prepared to bear it quietly when he sees that all that he seeks or desires is refused tohim. It will happen that when he wishes to be in solitude, to apply himself to prayer or study, hewill be the most employed in exterior occupations. For, though it is true that in religion one leadsas much as possible a solitary life when at home, and that for this end there are many hours of silence, the retreat each year of ten days in perfect silence, and of one day each month, besidesthe fifteen days before the receiving of the habit, and one of fifteen before the profession, whenthe vows are made, nevertheless, if it is an Order of priests called to work and to be employed forthe salvation of souls, the subject, if he is continually employed in this by obedience, should becontent with the prayers and exercises of the Community. He must be prepared sometimes to goeven without these, when obedience will have him do so, without either excusing himself orbeing disquieted, being well persuaded of that of which St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi was soconfident when she said that: “All the things which are done through obedience are but so many prayers.”