Although all the Evangelical Counsels cannot and should not be practised by every Christian in particular, yet every one is obliged to love them all, because they are all very good. If you have a sick headache, and the smell of musk annoys you, will you therefore deny that this smell is good and delightsome? If a robe of gold does not suit you, will you say that therefore it is worth nothing? Or will you throw a ring into the dirt because it fits not your finger? Praise therefore, Theotimus, and dearly love, all the counsels that God has given unto men.
Oh! blessed be the Angel of Great Counsel for ever, together with all the counsels he gives and exhortations he makes to men! Ointment and perfumes rejoice the heart, says Solomon, and the good counsels of a friend are sweet to the soul! But of what friend, and of what counsels, do we speak? O God! it is of the friend of friends; and his counsels are more delightful than honey: our friend is our Saviour, his counsels are to save us. Let us rejoice, Theotimus, when we see others undertake to follow those counsels, which we either cannot or must not observe; let us pray for them, bless, favour and assist them: for charity obliges us not only to love what is good for ourselves, but that also which is good for our neighbour.
We shall sufficiently testify our love for all the counsels, when we devoutly observe such as are suitable to our calling. For, as he that believes one article of faith because God has revealed it by his Word (announced and declared by the Church), cannot disbelieve the others: and as he who observes one commandment for the pure love of God is most ready to observe the others when occasion offers: -- so he that loves and prizes one evangelical counsel because it came from God, must necessarily love all the others, because they are also from God. Now we may with ease practise some of them, though not all of them together; for God has given many, in order that every one may observe some of them, and not a day passes without our having some opportunity of doing so.
If charity require that to assist your father or mother you must live with them, preserve at the same time the love and affection for your seclusion; do not keep your heart in your father's house more than is required for doing what charity orders to be done there. Is it inexpedient for you, on account of your rank, to preserve perfect chastity? Keep it at least, as much as you may without violating charity. Let him who cannot do all, at least do some part. You are not obliged to seek out him who has offended you, for it is his place to return to himself, and to come to you to give you satisfaction, since he began the injury and outrage: yet go, Theotimus, follow our Saviour's counsel, prevent him in good, render him good for evil, cast upon his head and heart the burning coals of signs of charity, that may wholly inflame him and force him to a reconciliation. You are not bound by rigour of law to give alms to all the poor you meet, but only to such as are in very great need of them: yet do not therefore cease to give willingly, according to our Saviour's counsel, to every poor person you find, so far as your condition and your real necessities may allow. You have no obligation to make any vow at all, yet make some, such as shall be judged fit by your ghostly father for your advancement in Divine love. You have liberty to use wine within the limits of propriety; yet following S. Paul's counsel to Timothy, take only so much as is requisite for your stomach's sake.
In counsels there are various degrees of perfection. To lend to such poor people as are not in extreme want is the first degree of the counsel of alms-deeds; to give it them is a degree higher; higher still to give all; but the highest is to give oneself, dedicating our person to their service. Hospitality except in extreme necessity is a counsel. To entertain strangers is the first degree of it; but to stay by the wayside to invite them as Abraham did, is a degree higher; and yet higher than that is it to live in places of danger, in order to rescue, help and wait upon travellers: in this excelled that great S. Bernard of Menthon, a native of this diocese, who, being a scion of a most noble house, did for many years inhabit the precipices and peaks of our Alps, and there got together many associates to wait for, lodge and rescue, and to deliver from the danger of the storm, travellers and passers-by who would often perish amidst the tempests, snow and colds, were it not for the hospices which this great friend of God erected and founded upon the two mountains, which, taking their names from him, are called the Great S. Bernard, in the diocese of Sion, and the Little S. Bernard, in the diocese of Tarentaise. To visit the sick who are not in extreme necessity is a laudable charity, to serve them is yet better, but to consecrate a man's self to their service is the excellence of that counsel: this, by their institute, the Clerks of the Visitation of the Sick exercise; as do many ladies in various places; in imitation of the great S. Samson, a gentleman and physician of Rome, who at Constantinople, where he was made priest, with a wonderful charity devoted himself to the service of the sick in a hospital which he began there, and which the Emperor Justinian erected and finished: and in imitation of SS. Catharine of Siena and of Genoa, S. Elizabeth of Hungary, and the glorious friends of God S. Francis and the Blessed (S.) Ignatius of Loyola, who in the beginning of their Orders performed this exercise with an incomparable fervour and spiritual profit.
Virtues have then a certain sphere of perfection, and commonly we are not obliged to practise them to the height of their excellence. It is sufficient to go so far in the practice of them as really to enter upon them. But to go farther, and to advance in perfection, is a counsel, as the acts of heroic virtues are not ordinarily commanded, but counselled only. And if upon some occasion we find ourselves obliged to exercise them, it is by reason of some rare and extraordinary occurrence, which makes them necessary for the preservation of God's grace. The blessed door-keeper of the prison of Sebaste, seeing one of the forty who were then martyred lose courage and the crown of martyrdom, took his place without being apprehended, and thus made up the forty of those glorious and triumphant soldiers of Our Lord. S. Adauctus seeing S. Felix led to martyrdom, -- I, quoth he (no one urging him), I also am as much a Christian as he, worshipping the same Saviour; and with that, kissing S. Felix, he walked with him to martyrdom and was beheaded. Thousands of the ancient martyrs did the like, and having it equally in their power to avoid or undergo martyrdom without sin, they chose rather generously to undergo it than lawfully to avoid it. In these, martyrdom was an heroic act of the fortitude and constancy which a holy excess of love gave them. But when it is necessary to endure martyrdom or else to renounce the faith, of martyrdom does not cease to be martyrdom, and an excellent act love and valour, yet do I scarcely think it is to be termed an heroic act, not being chosen by any excess of love but by force of the law which in that case commands it. Now in the practice of the heroic acts of virtue consists the perfect imitation of our Saviour, who, as the great S. Thomas says, had all the virtues in an heroic degree from the first instant of his conception; yea I would willingly say more than heroic, since he was not simply more than man but infinitely more than man, that is, true God.