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Holy Wisdom Or Directions For The Prayer Of Contemplation by Ven. F. Augustine Baker

CHAPTER VIII. Superiors ought carefully to examine the dispositions of those that they admit to religion.à

§ 1. Superiors ought carefully to examine the dispositions of those that they admit to religion.

§§ 2, 3. Great danger to communities from loose spirit.

§§ 4, 5. Other ill qualities to be avoided.

§§ 6, 7, 8, 9. Of a good nature; what it is, and how to be prized.

§§ 10, 11. Inconveniences by admitting active spirits into contemplative religions.

§§ 12, 13, 14, 15. Sufficient time for recollection is to be allowed to all religious.

§ 16. Superiors will be accountable for disorders in their flock.

1. Now one of the principal points of a superior's care for the welfare of his community consists in providing or admitting into it only such spirits and dispositions as are likely to promote the good of it, by living according to the spirit of it. And in this all such officers and counsellors are concerned, to whom the laws have referred the examination and trial of such as offer themselves to a regular life, and are afterward, upon their approbation, to be professed; and a greater consideration of this point is more necessary in these days than anciently it was; for it is not now as in our holy Father's time, when incorrigible persons might be expelled the congregation.

2. It is not, I suppose, needful to advise such as are in those offices to take care how they admit loose spirits into religion among them, who will not so much as intend God or His service -- all whose actions have no other motive but either fear of penance or hope of gaining reputation, preferments, &c.; whose bodies are prisoners in religion, but their minds and desires wandering in the world; who must enjoy all privileges and corporal helps equally with the best, yea, and generally use them most wastefully, without consideration of others; who, finding no taste or contentment in spiritual matters, are even forced to seek satisfaction in sensual pleasures, and for the passing of time, to frame designs, to raise and maintain factions, and this especially against those that they see do most intend God, on whom they will cast from off themselves all the burdens of a regular life; who will think themselves excused from all duties for the least corporal incommodity; who will desire and endeavour to make others like themselves, that their party and power may be greater; lastly, who reap so little good to their own souls, and are likely to do so much prejudice to others, that probably it had been much better for them to have continued in the world, the state of religion only serving to increase their guilt and misery.

3. Such loose spirits are worse in a community where the knowledge of true spirituality is common than in other places, because there they are wilfully nought, and do resist amendment. If by the severity of laws and constitutions they may come to be kept in some tolerable order, yet this reaches only to the exterior, and lasts no longer than the superior's eyes are upon them. And indeed the superiors themselves will in all probability feel the greatest smart from such undue admissions, being likely to find daily great bitterness from their obstinacy. Such loose spirits are the cause of such a burdensome multiplicity of laws, all which, notwithstanding, are little available for their amendment, and yet do abridge the due liberty of spirit necessary to devout well-minded souls, nourishing scrupulosity, &c., in them.

4. Let the best care that is possible be used, notwithstanding some unfit persons will, through easiness, partial affection, or other respects in the examiners, slip in. If, therefore, those who are apparently bad be received, what a community will there be provided? Many that seem good will prove bad, but seldom or never will those that appear bad become good. God indeed can change the worst; but yet an uncertain hope in extraordinary grace is not to be relied upon, especially where public good is concerned.

5. Generally there is great fervour in souls at their first entrance into religion. Therefore, if any show unruliness, obstinacy, and indevotion during their noviceship, small good is to be expected from them.

6. A little devoutness will not serve to countervail ill inclinations to lying, dissembling, factiousness, a humour of calumniating, &c.; for a great and scarce-to-be-hoped-for measure of grace will be requisite to subdue such pernicious qualities. On the contrary, a good nature, even where there is not so much devotion, yet will bear up a soul, and make her a tolerable member of a community. It is likewise a great disposition for grace, which it may well be hoped will one day follow, and that such an one will become devout. Especially this may be hoped for in those that have naturally a good sound judgment, which is much to be considered.

7. Now by a good nature I mean not such an one as is generally in the world styled so, to wit, a facility and easiness to grant a request or to comply with others. On the contrary, forasmuch as regards a coenobitical life, I account such to be an ill nature, being easily seduced and perverted. By a good nature, therefore, in this place, I mean such an one as is endued with modesty, gentleness, quietness, humility, patience, love of truth, and other such morally good qualities, which are good dispositions for Christian perfection. Now a person of an ill nature, that will make a good show out of hope to steal a profession, ought the rather for his dissimulation to be rejected.

8. And indeed subtle natures are much to be taken heed of. Some novices will behave themselves so cunningly as at the end of their probation none can be able to produce any special accusation against them, and yet they may in their conscience believe them to be unfit. In this case every one is to follow his own judgment; and especial heed is to be taken of the judgment of the master or mistress of the novices, who are most to be credited, as having the opportunity and means to espy and penetrate more deeply into their interior dispositions.

9. This goodness or virtuousness of natures is an essential point, and far more to be regarded than those accidental ones, as strength of bodily complexion, acuteness of wit, gracefulness of behaviour, skill in singing, nobility, portion, &c. And particularly for this last, how far religious souls ought to be from regarding riches or gain in matters of this nature, or for such carnal ends to admit those that are unfit, or whom God hath not sent, the General Decree of the Church in the first OEcumenical Council of Lateran (can.64) will show; besides, the practice of antiquity, as we may read in an epistle of St. Augustine. Surely the only way of founding convents securely, even in regard of temporalities, is by making choice only of those to whom God hath given fitting dispositions, whereby we may engage His omnipotence in their preservation.

10. Those, therefore, upon whose suffrages the admission and profession of new-comers do depend, are to consider that they are intrusted by the whole congregation with a matter of such consequence as not only the present but future welfare or ruin of convents is interested in their proceedings: all which trust they shall betray if any undue consideration of friendship, kindred, gain, &c., or a zeal of multiplying convents (which is but carnal), shall corrupt their judgments.

11. Surely, therefore, in all reason none should be admitted into communities professing the aspiring to contemplation, but only such as are disposed thereto, and that are willing, yea, desirous, to spend their whole lives in solitude, prayer, and regular observances, without any designs or thoughts of ever being employed abroad (yet always with an entire submission to the ordinances of superiors).

12. And indeed (as was said before concerning superiors, that active spirits being to direct the contemplative do endanger the extinguishing of the spirit of contemplation; so likewise) if such be without choice admitted, the same mischief will follow. Yea, I am persuaded that many active spirits, though of a good seemly outward carriage, are no less harmful to a community than a lesser number of loose spirits. And the reason is because by their good exterior show they will seem worthy of superiority, to which also their activity will incline them. And those are they indeed, saith Thaulerus, that are persecutors of contemplation; for having a good opinion of themselves and their own ways (which loose spirits have not), they think themselves even obliged to depress those other good souls that do not judge those external exercises and fashions suitable to their profession. And for this reason they will by faction seek to increase their number; yea, and to strengthen their own party, they will not spare to join, with loose spirits, for their own interests yielding to their disorders. Neither when they have compassed their ends by the ruin of the spirit of contemplation will unquietness cease; for in a community wholly consisting of active spirits factions and partialities for several ends and designs will never be wanting.

13. Now the same care that superiors ought to have about the choice and admission of virtuous and fit souls into communities, must be continued in the managing and directing of them being admitted. Great care, therefore, is to be taken that the misbehaviour of novices do not proceed from want of knowledge and instruction in matters of the spirit; that so it may appear that, if they do not well, it is for want of good will, and not of light. Now it is not to be expected that novices should be perfect; it will suffice that they seriously tend to it by a constant pursuance of internal prayer and abstraction of life.

14. Above all things, therefore, superiors ought to allow to their subjects a competent time daily for their recollections, which is the food of the soul, and to deny which would be a greater tyranny than to refuse corporal food to slaves after their travail. He deserves not the name of a religious man, saith Cajetan, no, nor of a Christian, saith Thaulerus, that doth not every day spend some reasonable space in his interior. St. Bernard would not excuse even Pope Eugenius himself, in the midst of those continually most distractive weighty affairs of the popedom, from this duty; the want whereof is more harmful to the soul than that of corporal food is to the body. For he that fasts one day, besides the present pain he finds, will the next have a better and more eager appetite; but a soul that through neglect is deprived of her daily food of prayer will the next day have a less stomach and disposition to it, and so in time will come willingly and even with pleasure to starve in spirit; and to such neglect and loathing of prayer she will come, if superiors do hinder, or indeed not encourage her to a constant exercise of it.

15. Now this care of superiors must extend itself as well to lay brethren or sisters as those of the choir. For they also have the same obligation to aspire to contemplation; and if the appointed vocal prayers of the Divine Office without the joining of daily recollections will not avail to procure in these the spirit of recollectedness, much less will those short prayers or offices to which the others are obliged.

16. To conclude this point: It concerns most deeply superiors to take care that their subjects live according to their profession and obligation; for if it should be by their fault that they fail, it will be no excuse to the subjects, but a great part of the burden and punishment will light upon superiors. And it were far better they had never come under their direction, but stayed in the world, where, not having the like obligation to the perfection of Christian virtues, their guilt would have been the less. Hence St. Augustine saith that as he never saw better souls than those in religion, so likewise he never saw worse. And the reason is because it argues a most maliciously ill habit of soul when, in the midst of so great light and such helps to piety, spiritual sloth and tepidity reign. And where tepidity is in religion, although carnal open sins may be avoided, yet the more dangerous sins of the spirit, pride, factiousness, envy, &c., do find occasions of being raised and nourished, perhaps more than in the world. Add hereunto that irreverences and profaning of the sacraments are not so common in the world, where the obligations and commodity of participating are not so frequent. And lastly, which is most considerable, those who in religion are sluggish and indevout do grow continually worse and worse, being more and more hardened by the daily heartless exercise of prayer and tepid communions; for where the sacraments do not produce the good effects for which God gave them, they do occasionally increase hardness of heart and impenitency. Hence, saith Thaulerus, it were better to take into one's body a million of devils, than once to take the Body of our Lord, being in an unfit disposition. And so it is a very extraordinary and almost miraculous thing, if God give the grace of a new conversion to souls that in religion are become habitually tepid and stained with known impurity, for they, being insensible of their soul's good in the midst of all advantages possible to be had, cannot by any change to a better state be amended; and, therefore (it is to be feared), such do generally die in the state wherein they lived. Whereas, in the world, an ill liver may far more probably meet with helps of conversion by change of state, place, &c., or by sickness: whereupon St. Bernard professed that he would not doubt to give a present absolution to the most enormous sinner living in the world, if he would promise to enter into a religious life; but what hopes can be of him that after he has left the world so habitually neglects God? What change, what new occasions, can be afforded to him for his conversion?

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