SERMON XLIX. TWENTIETH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST. – ON THE PREDOMINANT PASSION.
“For he was at the point of death. Lord, come down before that my son die.” JOHN iv. 47, 49.
OUR passions are not of themselves bad nor hurtful, when regulated according to the dictates of reason and prudence, they do us no injury, but are, on the contrary, profitable to the soul; but, when disorderly, they are productive of irreparable mischief to those who obey them; for, when any passion takes possession of the heart, it obscures the truth, and makes the soul incapable of distinguishing between good and evil. Ecclesiasticus implored the Lord to deliver him from a mind under the sway of passion. “Give me not over to a shameless and foolish mind.” (Eccl. xxiii. 6.) Let us, then, be careful not to allow any bad passion to rule over us. In this day’s gospel it is related that a certain ruler, whose son was at the point of death (incipiebat enim mori), knowing that Jesus Christ had come into Galilee, went in search of him, and entreated him to come and cure his son. “Come down before that my son die.” The same may be said of him who begins to submit to the tyranny of any passion. “He is at the point of death”of the soul, which should be dreaded far more than the death of the body. Hence, if he wishes to preserve spiritual life, he ought to ask the Lord to deliver him as soon as possible from that passion Lord, come down before my soul die; if he do not, he shall be miserably lost. I intend Today to show the great danger of damnation to which all who submit to the domination of any bad passions are exposed.
1. “Only this,” said Solomon, “I found, that God made man right, and he hath entangled himself with an infinity of questions.” (Eccl. vii. 30.)”God created man right” that is, in the state of justice; but, by giving ear to the serpent, man exposed himself to temptations, and was conquered. He rebelled against God, and his passions rebelled against himself. These are the passions which, according to St. Paul, cause a continual war between the flesh and the spirit. “For the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh.” (Gal. v. 17.) However, with the aid of divine grace, it is in man’s power to resist these passions, and not to allow them to rule over him. It is, as the Lord told Cain, even in the power of man to rule over them, and to bring them into subjection to reason. “But the lust thereof shall be under thee, and thou shalt have dominion over it.” (Gen. iv. 7.) Let the assaults of the flesh and of the devil, to make us abandon the way of God, be ever so violent, Jesus Christ has said: “Lo! the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke xvii. 21.) Within us he has established a kingdom, in which the will is the queen that ought to rule over all the senses and passions. And what greater honour or glory can a man have, than to be the master of his passions?
2. The proper regulation of the motions of the mind constitutes the interior mortification so much recommended by spiritual masters, and secures the salvation of the soul. The health of the body depends on the regulation of the humours: if one of them predominate to excess it causes death. But the health of the soul consists in the proper control of the passions by reason. But, when any passion rules over reason, it first enslaves, and then kills the soul.
3. Many pay great attention to their external conduct; they endeavour to appear modest and respectful; but, at the same time, they cherish in their hearts sinful affections against justice, charity, humility, and chastity. For them is prepared the chastisement with which the Saviour threatened the Scribes and Pharisees, who were careful to have their cups and dishes clean, but nourished within unjust and unclean thoughts. “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees hypocrites; because you make clean the outside of the cup and of the dish; but, within you are full of rapine and uncleanness.” (Matt, xxiii. 25.) The Royal Prophet says, that all the beauty of a soul that is the true daughter of God consists in an interior good will. “All the glory of the king*s daughter is within.” (Ps. xliv. 14.) Of what use, then, says St. Jerome, is it to abstain from food, and at the same time to allow the mind to swell with pride? or to abstain from wine, and to indulge in the drunkenness of anger?”Quid prodest tenuari abstinentia, si animus superbia intumescit? quid vinum non bibere, et odio inebriari ?” Christians who act in this manner do not lay aside their vices; they only cover them with the mantle of devotion. A man, then, must divest himself of all bad passions; otherwise he will not be the king, but the slave of his affections, and in opposition to the command of the Apostle sin shall reign in his heart. “Let not sin, therefore, reign in your mortal body, so as to obey the lusts thereof.” (Rom. vi. 12.) Man, then, is, as St. Thomas says, the king of himself when he regulates his body and his carnal affections according to reason. “Rex est homo per rationem, quia per cam regit totum corpus et affectus ejus.” (In Joan, iv.) But, according to St. Jerome, “when the soul serves vice she loses the honour of a kingdom.” (In Thren., ii. 7.) She loses the honour of a queen, and becomes, as St. John teaches, the slave of sin. “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.” (John viii. 34.)
4. St. James exhorts us to treat the body and its lusts as we would treat a horse. “We put a bridle in the mouth of a horse, and we bring him wherever we please. “We put bits in the mouths of horses, that they may obey us, and we turn about their whole body.” (St. James iii. 3.) Hence, as soon as we feel the cravings of any bad passion, we must restrain it with the bridle of reason; for, if we yield to its demands, it will bring us to the level of brute animals, that obey not the dictates of reason, but the impulse of their beastly appetites. “And man, when he was in honour, did not understand: he is compared to senseless beasts, and is become like to them.” (Ps. xlviii. 13.)”It is worse,” says St, John Chrysostom, “to become like, than to be born, a senseless beast; for, to be naturally without reason is tolerable.” The saint says, that to want reason by nature is not disgraceful; but, to be born with the gift of reason, and afterwards to live like a beast, obeying the lusts of the flesh, is degrading to man, and makes him worse than a senseless brute. What would you say if you saw a man who would, of his own accord, live in a stable with horses, feed with them on hay and oats, and sleep, as they do, on dung? The man who submits to the tyranny of any passion, does what is far worse in the eyes of God.
5. It was thus the Gentiles lived, who, because the darkness of their understanding prevented them from discerning between good and evil, went wherever their sensual appetite led them. “That you walk not,” says St. Paul, “as also the Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind, having their understanding darkened.” (Ephes. iv. 17, 18.) Hence they were abandoned to their vices to impurity and avarice, and blindly obeyed the commands of their passions. “Who, despairing, have given themselves up to lasciviousness, unto the working of all uncleanness, unto covetousness.” (verse 19.) To this miserable state are reduced all Christians who, despising reason and God, follow the dictates of passion. In punishment of their sins God abandons them, as he abandoned the Gentiles, to their own wicked desires. “Wherefore God gave them up to the desires of their own heart.” (Rom. i. 24.) This is the greatest of all chastisements.
6. St. Augustine writes, that two cities may be built up in the heart of a Christian; one by the love of God, the other by self-love. “Cœlestem (civitatem) ædificat amor Dei usque ad contemptum sui; terrestrem ædificat amor sui usque ad contemptum Dei.” (Lib. li, de Civ., cap. xxviii.) Thus, if the love of God reign within us, we will despise ourselves: if self-love reign, we will despise God. But, in conquering self-love consists the victory to which shall be given a crown of eternal glory. This was the great maxim which St. Francis Xavier always inculcated to his disciples: “Conquer yourself; conquer yourself.” All the thoughts and feelings of man, says the Scripture, are inclined to evil from his boyhood. “The imagination and thought of man*s heart are prone to evil from his youth.” (Gen. viii. 21.) Hence we must, during our whole life, zealously combat and conquer the evil inclinations which continually rise within us, as noxious weeds spring up in our gardens. Some will ask how they can free themselves from bad passions, and how they can prevent them from starting up within them. St. Gregory gives the answer: “It is one thing to look at these heasts, and another to keep them within the den of the heart.” (Mor. lib. 6, cap. xvi.) It is one thing, says the saint, to look at these beasts, or bad passions, when they are outside, and another to harbour them in the heart. As long as they are outside they can do us no harm; but if we admit them into the soul they devour us.
7. All bad passions spring from self-love. This is, as Jesus Christ teaches all who wish to follow him, the principal enemy which we have to contend with; and this enemy we must conquer by self-denial. “If anyone shall come after me let him deny himself.” (Matt. xvi. 24.)”Non intrat in te, amor Dei,” says Thomas a Kempis, “nisi exulet amor tui.” Unless we banish self- love from the heart the love of God cannot enter. Blessed Angela of Foligno used to say, that she was more afraid of self-love than of the devil, because self-love has greater power than the devil to draw us into sin. St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi used to say the same, as we read in her life: “Self-love is the greatest traitor we have to guard against. Like Judas, it betrays us with a kiss. He who conquers it conquers all enemies; he who does not conquer it is lost.” The saint then adds: “If you cannot kill it with a single stroke give it poison.” She meant, that since we are not able to destroy this accursed enemy, which, according to St. Francis de Sales, dies only with our latest breath, we must at least labour to weaken it as much as possible; for when strong it kills us. Death, says St. Basil, is the reward which self-love gives its followers. The wages of self-love is death; it is the beginning of every evil. “Stipendium amoris proprii mors est, initium omnis mali.” (S. Bas. Apud Lyreum, lib. 2.) Self-love seeks not what is just and honourable, but what is agreeable to the senses. Hence Jesus Christ has said: “He that loveth his life” that is, his sensual appetite or self-will”shall lose it.” (John xii. 25.) He who truly loves himself, and wishes to save his soul, should refuse to the senses whatever God has forbidden; otherwise he shall lose God and himself.
8. There are two passions which reign within us: the concupiscible and irascible appetites that is, love and hatred. I have said, two principal passions; for each of them, when vicious, draws in its train many other bad passions. The concupiscible appetite brings with it temerity, ambition, greediness, avarice, jealousy, scandal. The irascible brings with it revenge, injustice, slander, envy. St. Augustine advises us, in our combat with the passions, not to endeavour to beat them all down in a single conflict. “Calca jacentem, conflige cum resistente.” (In cap. viii. Rom.) We must trample on the passion which we have cast to the ground, so that it may be no longer able to contend with us, and then we must endeavour to subdue the other passions which resist our efforts.
9. But we must endeavour above all to find out our predominant passion. He who conquers this conquers all his passions; he who allows himself to be overcome by it is lost. God commanded Saul to destroy all the Amalecites, along with all their animals and all their property. He destroyed everything that was vile, but spared the life of King Agag, and preserved all that was valuable and beautiful. “And Saul and the people spared Agag and the rest of the flocks of sheep …. and all that was beautiful, and would not destroy them; but everything that was vile and good for nothing, that they destroyed.” (1 Kings xv. 9.) In this Saul was afterwards imitated by the Scribes and Pharisees, to whom our Lord said: “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, because you tithe mint, and anise, and cummin, and have left the weightier things of the law, judgment, and mercy, and faith.” (Matt, xxiii. 23.) They were careful to pay the tithe of things of least value, and neglected the more important things of the law: such as justice, charity to their neighbour, and faith in God. Some persons act in a similar manner; they abstain from certain defects of minor importance, and, at the same time, allow themselves to be ruled by their predominant passions; but if they do not destroy this passion, they never shall gain the victory of salvation. The King of Syria commanded the captains of his cavalry to kill the King of Israel only, and not to mind the others. “Fight ye not with small or great, but with the King of Israel only.” (2 Paral. xviii. 30.) They obeyed the order, slew King Achab, and gained the victory.
10. We must imitate the captains of Syria: unless we kill the king that is, the predominant passion we shall never be able to obtain salvation. The passion which brings man under its sway, first blinds him and prevents him from seeing his danger. Now, how can a blind man, led by a blind guide, such as passion, which follows not reason, but sensual pleasures, possibly avoid falling into some abyss?”If the blind lead the blind, both fall into the pit.” (Matt. xv. 14.) St. Gregory says that it is a common artifice of the devil to inflame daily more and more our predominant passion, and thus he brings us into many horrible excesses. Through passion for a kingdom, Herod spilled the blood of so many innocent infants. Through love for a woman, Henry the Eighth was the cause of so many frightful spiritual evils, put to death several most worthy individuals, and, in the end, lost the faith. No wonder: for he who is under the domination of any passion no longer sees what he does. Therefore he disregards corrections, excommunications, and even his own damnation: he seeks only his own pleasures, and says: “Come what will, I must satisfy this passion. And, as eminent virtue is accompanied by other virtues, so an enormous vice brings in its train other vices. “In catena iniquitatis,” says St. Lawrence Justinian, “foederata sunt vitia.”
11. It is necessary, then, as soon as we perceive any passion beginning to reign within us, to beat it down instantly, before it acquires strength. “Let cupidity gain strength,” says St. Augustine, “strike it down while it is small.” (In Ps. cxxxvi.) St. Ephrem gives the same advice: “Unless you quickly destroy passions, they cause an ulcer.” (De Perfect.) A wound, if it be not closed up, will soon become an incurable ulcer. To illustrate this by an example, a certain monk, as St. Dorotheus relates (Serm. xi.), commanded one of his disciples to pluck up a small cypress. The disciple obeyed, and drew it up with a slight effort. The monk then ordered him to pull up another tree, which was somewhat larger. He succeeded in the task; but not without a good deal of labour. The disciple was then told to pluck up a tree which had taken deep root; but all his efforts were ineffectual. The monk then said to him: Thus it is, my son, with our passions; when they have taken deep root in the heart, we shall not be able to extirpate them. Dearly beloved brethren, keep always before your eyes this maxim: that either the spirit must trample on the flesh, or the flesh shall trample on the spirit.
12. Cassian has laid down an excellent rule for conquering our passions. Let us endeavour, he says, to change the object of our passions; and thus from being vicious they shall become holy. Some are prone to anger against all who treat them with disrespect. Such persons ought to change the object of their passions, and turn their indignation into a hatred of sin, which is more injurious to them than all the devils in hell. Others are inclined to love every one who possesses amiable qualities: they should fix all their affections on God, who is infinitely amiable. But, to recommend ourselves to God, and to beg of him to deliver us from our passions, is the best remedy against them. And, when any passion becomes very violent, we must multiply prayers. Reasoning and reflections are then of little use; for passion obscures our faculties; and the more we reflect the more delightful the object of passion appears. Hence, there is no other remedy than to have recourse to Jesus and to most holy Mary, saying with tears and sighs: “Lord, save us, or we perish: do not permit us to be ever separated from thee. “We fly to thy protection, holy mother of God.” O souls created to love God, let us raise ourselves above the earth; let us cease to fix our thoughts and affections on the miserable things of this world; let us cease to love dross and smoke and dung; let us endeavour with all our strength to love the Supreme Infinite Good, our most amiable God, who has made us for himself, and expects us in heaven to make us happy, and to make us enjoy the very glory which he enjoys for eternity.