The Wisdom of Holiness No. 16


Besides the faculties of our reason, or the powers of our understanding, it has pleased the Divine Wisdom to confer also upon us certain affections of the will, which we usually allot to the province of the heart. Such are the feelings of love and aversion, the sentiments of joy, sorrow, fear, etc. Their end and design is to promote and facilitate the work of our salvation; to be the wings, as it were, of the soul, enabling it to soar to the heights of virtue, and to fly away from the haunts of vice. When properly directed, they become the chief instruments, both of our present comfort and of our future happiness -- so much so, that it is upon the prudent or imprudent use and regulation of our affections that everything depends, not only in the next life, but even in this.

as it is deplorable that, although these qualities have been thus bestowed upon us for the most beneficent purposes, they are still everywhere perverted; and instead of being made (as in the designs of God they should be) the principles of our salvation and the conductors to present happiness, they are on the contrary, converted into the prolific sources of vice, and into the instruments of our misery. It is when they are thus misapplied and degenerated that we give them the appellation of our passions.

In the great business, therefore, of our salvation, what, beyond every other consideration, demands our care, is the proper direction and the enlightened government of the dispositions of our heart. These, when neglected and once debased into passions, become the very tyrants of the soul, exercising over it the most despotic power, weakening its best faculties, extinguishing, not infrequently, the light itself of the understanding; in short, rendering their unhappy victims little else than so many sensual slaves. Hence it is that in the Sacred Scriptures, the individuals who are given up to their passions are compared to the beasts of the field, and placed on a level with them.

Effects of Unbridled Passions

If we trace the effects of the passions -- whether it be on the great theater of public life, in the private walks of domestic society, or in the breasts of individuals, we shall, in each case, find that their invariable operation is to produce wretchedness and distress. Thus, referring to the great theater of the world -- if we take a view of their consequences there, we find that the whole history of the misfortunes which have at anytime scourged and afflicted nations, is but the history of the workings of the passions. These alone were the causes and the instruments of all the crimes and disorders, of all the discord and confusion, of the wars, rebellions, tribulations, etc., which have so often rendered the world an Haceldama of blood and a vale of tears.

In the private walks of domestic life, although the evils are, of course, less striking, yet they are often truly awful and afflicting. It is the passions which, here again and alone, disturb the harmony and destroy the peace of families -- poisoning their comforts, and embittering their enjoyments. Experience everywhere proves that wheresoever these enemies prevail, no real happiness resides. Contentment and all real satisfaction fly away from the unhallowed roofs; and in their place there enter cares, anxiety, and fears, and not infrequently, temporal calamity, disgrace and shame.

The Reign of Lust

Neither is it the united concert of a multitude of passions that is required to produce these evils. Often the operation of a single passion will suffice to bring them into existence. Thus, let us only consider the long train of miseries and mischiefs which the passion of lust alone brings daily upon its unhappy victims. This is one of the primary passions which now reigns with tyrant sway in every avenue of society--corrupting every age, sex, and condition; tainting the purity of infancy itself, and degrading the decrepitude of old age. The first entrance into the paths of this fatal disorder often appears to its unthinking slaves as pleasant and bestrewed with flowers. Hence, urged on by the ardor of their feelings, they rush headlong and heedlessly into its inviting bowers; and there eagerly seizing, as they conceive, the cup of pleasure, greedily drink of its empoisoned beverage. It may be that for a time, while the intoxication lasts, they experience little or no uneasiness. But, oh! what ere long is the case? Soon, like the visions of a dream, their imaginary satisfactions fade away. The paths become strewn with thorns; and the fair flowers lose all their fragrance. The illusory charm has vanished. Disgust comes on, and a frightful void takes the place of that fullness of sentiment which the force of passion had created. The conscience becomes alarmed, and remorse -- a long, deep remorse succeeds, filling the soul with distress, and uttering groans through every recess and cavern of the heart. It is true, the feelings of the unhappy victims are by no means always alike. They must, of course, vary in different characters, ages, and situations. Still, the above are its frequent and general consequences. And in particular, they are almost invariably such in the case of those individuals, who, possessed of well-informed minds and trained once to virtue in the schools of piety, have either by accident or the effects of bad example, been unhappily drawn into the indulgence of this disorder. These experience all the horrors just alluded to. But at all events, if we only look around us and contemplate the public walks of society, we cannot but remark that whenever this passion prevails, there are seen attending it a long train of miseries and afflictions, distress, inordinate temporal cares, reputations lost, and fortunes squandered away; pain, sickness, and infirmity; youth fading in its bloom, and millions perishing under its terrible consequences. Whence a distinguished worldling has made this observation: "There exists, I believe, a Hell. But if there were no Hell to punish the vice of lust, what I have seen in the world, what I have witnessed in our hospitals and asylums, is more than sufficient to inspire any thoughtful mind with a deep horror of this disorder" Such as these, to say nothing of the prospects of future misery, and of the sacrifice of eternal happiness, are the effects and trophies of but one single passion.

Vigilance and Fortitude

In order, therefore, to preserve ourselves from the evils and miseries of our passions, it is both our duty and our interest to adopt every expedient that religion prescribes and that prudence dictates. We must, in the first place, be watchful. Watchfulness is here peculiarly necessary, because there is nothing in reality that is so artful and insidious, so flattering and treacherous as our passions. They insinuate themselves by so many artifices; they steal in upon us by so many inlets; they seduce us by so many wiles and stratagems, that it is only by means of the most constant vigilance that we can preserve and secure our hearts against them.

To this spirit of vigilance we must be careful also to unite the spirit of fortitude and resolution. This indeed, is a duty at least as essential as our vigilance. It is a duty, it is true, that is sometimes trying to our weakness and painful to our self-love; because our passions are portions of ourselves, dear to our vitiated tastes, and pleasing to our sensual inclinations. They are domestic enemies that we love. It is for these reasons, therefore, that it behooves us to fight so much the more generously against them. But above all, this fortitude is the most particularly requisite, whenever it so happens that our passions, in consequence of our having indulged them, are formed into a habit. In this case, our fortitude must be bold, stern, and determined. For then the very principles of our liberty are changed into the principles of our slavery; and we are bound fast in chains, stubborn as so many bolts of steel, but which still, because we have forged them ourselves, and wear them with satisfaction, appear to us light and easy.

There is here, too, another circumstance in relation to our passions which, still more than any other, should seem to require our most serious care and consideration. It is this: We, each of us, inherit or experience within ourselves one leading disposition -- one darling and favorite propensity. It is this that principally rules our feelings, regulates our desires, and forms the chief feature in our character. It is what we call our ruling or predominant passion. It is against this, therefore, and to its wise and proper government, that both all the prudence of our watchfulness and all the energy of our resolution ought most essentially to be directed. It is upon the art and fortitude with which we do this, that the success of our spiritual warfare and the prospects of our eternal happiness almost wholly depend. For should it ever be our lot to have our portion with the damned, it is our ruling passion, the chief source of our sins, that will prove the principal cause of our condemnation. Impressed, therefore, with this awful truth, let us consider this passion as our mortal and most formidable enemy. Let us look upon it as a monster, a serpent, whose head we must not fail to crush. Without this, its venom will infect and corrupt our hearts; and will, even in death itself, poison our last sighs and taint our expiring breath.

The Conquest of Our Passions

We often complain of the violence and importunity of our passions. We, perhaps, even pretend that it is vain to attempt, for now anyway, to subdue them. These pretexts are very frequently in the minds and in the mouths of a multitude of sinners. However, reasons such as these are only the apologies for our corruption and excuses for our indolence. They are opinions and judgments which we do not in reality entertain. We know and feel that we have a power within us by which we can, if we please, not only resist, but conquer our very strongest passions. If such were not our conviction, we should then be reduced to deny both the efficacy of grace and the first law of human morals. We, can, therefore, if we but choose to do so, restrain and subdue our worst and most dangerous inclinations. Ah! let us only think how often and how easily we do this when there is question of obtaining the benefits and honors or those distinctions of this world that we deem important. On such occasions we find little or no difficulty in sacrificing our very dearest passions. We can then combat every obstacle, renounce every pleasure, and give up our will to the will of others. But, if so, if we can conquer ourselves for the sake of the trifling advantages of this world, we surely cannot, with anything like consistency, pretend that we cannot do the same for the blessings of our salvation. However, unhappily, so it is: we can do a great deal for this world, but we are all weakness for the next. We find everything difficult that relates to God or to our future happiness. Did we only put half the restraints upon ourselves to preserve our virtue that we do to purchase the satisfactions of this life, with these precautions, the victory over our passions would be complete and our salvation certain.

But admitting that the conquest of our passions is a painful and arduous task, still we know that we have always at hand the means, and even, if we seriously apply for it, the easy means of overcoming them. Grace -- this is the powerful instrument, is far stronger than our passions, and this is always granted to our requests. It is the property of grace to change our inclinations, to exalt our weakness into strength and our timidity into courage. It even converts our very passions into virtues, making our sensibility the principle of Divine love; our ardor, holy zeal; our obstinacy, resolution. Saint Cyprian tells us that he was no sooner renewed by grace than all His difficulties vanished, and his perplexities died away; so much so, that what had before appeared to him insurmountable became at once easy and agreeable. It was so, too, with St. Augustine. He informs us that, after he had become fortified by grace, what had seemed to him but ten days before impossible, he now performed without any difficulty whatsoever. It was so, again, with the sensual and sinful Magdalene. She but cast herself at the feet of Jesus, and she quitted them victorious over her passions, her habits, and herself. Thus it will be with us, provided only that we follow the example of these saints, applying like them for aid at the throne of grace. In this case, our weakness, like theirs, will be converted into strength, and our slavery into freedom. The old heart will be broken, and a new one created; and our inclinations, which are now, perhaps, so sensual and corrupted, reformed in their tastes will begin to cherish and pursue what alone is innocent and pure.

Religion does not, of course, require anything from us that is impossible. It but requires of us that we should do for God and for our salvation what the generality of us do for this world and its trifling interests. Nay, it even, in most cases, requires less. For what we are commanded to do for God and for our salvation is neither so painful nor so fatiguing as what we constantly undergo in the service of the world and under the slavery of our passions. It is not equal to the labors of trade, to the hardships of war, to the toils of the sailor, nor yet to the fatigue and watchings of pleasure and dissipation. Surely then, to ask for God and for our salvation what we daily give to the benefits and satisfactions of this life ought not to appear unreasonable. However, let us but do this, and we may be confidently assured that the justice of God will be satisfied, and our passions conquered.

Wherefore, if we wish to secure our salvation, and to enjoy in this life true peace of mind, let us learn to govern our passions, and to give a right direction to our feelings. Thus, if we love pleasure, let us pursue that which is real; if riches, let us seek those which never fade; if honors, let us aspire to such as are worthy of our ambition; if joy, let us exult in the testimony of a good conscience. With our hearts thus regulated, we shall enjoy what the sinner never tastes -- contentment without bitterness, and satisfactions without alloy. Or should it so chance that our passions, notwithstanding our exertions, still give us pain, or that we sometimes think it hard to do violence to them, let us on such occasions, calling on the spirit of prudence, remember how much harder it is, and how much more cruel, to endure the torments of the world to come. It is hard and cruel to cut off the dead limb; but it is still worse to die for want of the operation, which alone can preserve life and give back health. With our passions subdued, both our peace of mind here and our happiness hereafter are secure. Let us but generously take the first step towards the conquest and the very next -- the second -- will prove easy.

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