The masters of husbandry admire the gracious innocence and purity of little strawberries, because, though they lie upon the ground and are continually crept over by serpents, lizards, and other venomous beasts, they yet receive no impression of poison, nor are infected with any malign quality; a sign that they have no affinity with poison. Such then are human virtues, Theotimus; which, though they may be in a heart that is low, earthly, and largely occupied by sin, yet are not infected with its malice, being of a nature so noble and innocent that it cannot be corrupted by the society of iniquity, according to what even Aristotle has said: -- that virtue is a habit which no one can make ill use of. And though the virtues which are so good in themselves are not rewarded with an eternal recompense when they are practised by infidels or by such as are not in the state of grace, this is not surprising, because the sinful heart from whence they proceed is not capable of an eternal good (being, as it is, turned away from God), and because no one can receive the celestial inheritance belonging to the Son of God, but such as are in him, and are adoptive brothers of his; to say nothing of this reason, that the covenant by which God promises heaven refers to such only as are in his grace, while the virtues of sinners have no worth nor value save that of their nature, which, consequently, cannot raise them to the merit of supernatural rewards. Indeed these are for this very cause called supernatural, that nature and all that belongs thereto can neither give nor merit them.
But the virtues which are found in the friends of God, though they be only moral and natural in themselves, are yet ennobled, and raised to the dignity of being holy works, by reason of the excellence of the heart which produces them. It is one of the properties of friendship to make the friend and all that is good and honest in him dear to us: friendship pours out its grace upon all the actions of him who is loved, however little ground of favour there may be; the bitternesses of friends are sweets, and the sweets of enemies are bitter. All the virtuous actions of a heart at friends with God are dedicated to God, for the heart that has given itself, how has it not given all that depends on itself? He that gives the tree without reserve, gives he not also the leaves, flowers and fruit? The just shall flourish like the palm-tree: he shall grow up like the cedar of Libanus. They that are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of the house of our God. Since the just man is planted in the house of God, his leaves, his flowers and his fruit grow therein, and are dedicated to the service of His Majesty. He shall be like a tree which is planted near the running waters, which shall bring forth its fruit in due season. And his leaf shall not fall of: and all whatsoever he shall do shall prosper. Not only the fruits of charity, and the flowers of the works which it ordains, but even its very leaves, that is, the moral and natural virtues, draw a special power and efficacy from the love of the heart which produces them. If you are grafting a rose tree, and put a grain of musk in the cleft of the stock, all the roses that spring from it will smell of musk: cleave then your heart by holy penitence, and put the love of God in the cleft; then engraft on it what virtue you please, and the works which spring from it will be all perfumed with sanctity, without need of any further attention.
When the Spartans had heard an excellent sentence from the mouth of some wicked man, they never thought it right to receive it till it was first pronounced by the mouth of some good man: so that to make it worthy of acceptance they did no more than get it uttered again by a virtuous man. If you desire to make the human and moral virtue of Epictetus, Socrates or Demades become holy, cause them to be practised by a truly Christian soul, that is, by one which has the love of God. So God first had respect to the good Abel, and then to his offerings, these taking their favour and worth in the sight of God from the goodness and piety of him who offered them. Oh the sovereign goodness of this great God, which so favours its lovers that it cherishes their least little actions, so long as they have the slightest degree of goodness, and excellently ennobles them, giving them the title and quality of holy! Ah! this is in consideration of his beloved Son, whose adopted children he would honour, sanctifying all there is of good in them, their bones, the hairs of their head, their garments, their graves, yea, down to the very shadow of their bodies; their faith, hope, love, religion, yea even their social life, their courtesy, the affability of their hearts.
Therefore my beloved brethren, saith the Apostle, be ye steadfast and immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labour is not in vain in the Lord. And mark, Theotimus, that every virtuous work is to be esteemed the |work of the Lord,| yea though it were even practised by an infidel; for his divine Majesty said unto Ezechiel that Nabuchodonosor and his army had laboured for him, because he had waged a lawful and just war against the Tyrians: sufficiently showing thereby that the justice of the unjust is God's, and tends and belongs to him, though the unjust who work that justice are neither his, nor tend nor belong to him: for as the great prince and prophet Job, though of pagan extraction and an inhabitant of the land of Hus, did for all that belong to God, so moral virtues, though they proceed from a sinful heart, do none the less belong to God. But when these same virtues are found in a truly Christian heart, that is in a heart endowed with holy love, then they not only belong to God, but they are not |in vain in the Lord,| being rendered fruitful and precious in the eyes of his goodness. |Add charity to a man,| says S. Augustine, |and everything profits; take charity from him, and what remains profits him no longer.| And: To them that love God all things work together unto good, says the Apostle.