The world is like some objects which, when seen from afar, deceive the eyes and allure the imagination; but on approaching or touching them their charms vanish. It is like those carcasses that retain the form of a human body as long as they are buried in the obscurity of the tomb, but which, on being exposed to the air, are immediately reduced to dust. Those who are separated from it without having ever known it are exposed to be deceived by its perfidious allurements; and those who, in order to know it, with a view of despising it, desire to mingle in its feasts and pleasures, run a greater danger of falling a victim to the seductions and corruption of its charms. -- How, then, shall you secure the advantage and escape the danger?
By shunning the world, you secure your heart and conscience against its seductions; but this evasion, leaving you to consider it from a remote standpoint exposes your mind to prejudices favorable to it, and which, later, might become for you the source of many errors and of many faults. How shall you surmount this twofold difficulty? On the one hand you cannot mingle with the world without danger, and on the other hand it will not do for you to ignore its dangers which must be known in order to be avoided. This dilemma would be of no consequence to a frivolous and unreflecting soul, or to a vain and presumptuous mind, which, confiding in its own powers, believes that it has a good knowledge only of what it sees and experiences; and counts for naught the teachings of faith and the experience of those who have gone before.
Let not this be your case, but, listening with an humble and docile heart to the teachings of faith, reason and experience, learn to know the world and its dangers while your age and condition still shield you from its seductions. Of all the means by which divine Providence enlightens our minds here below, divine faith, as you are aware, is the purest, the brightest and the most reliable, -- not only because it comes from God, but because it is presented to us by an authority which He has established, and which, by His special assistance, He preserves from all error.
Sacred Scripture, interpreted and explained to you by this authority is, therefore, the great source to which you must have recourse for the knowledge of the things you should know. Now you will find that there is hardly a single page of those sacred writings in which there is not a malediction pronounced against the world, and a warning for you to avoid its siren charms. You will find in the gospel according to St. John its true character described by Jesus Christ Himself, who, being the Incarnate Wisdom, could not have any other than the most perfect idea of things according to their just value.
In the first place, it is certain, according to this Apostle, that when the Eternal Word came into the world it knew Him not; when Jesus wished to make the Jews feel the confusion of their own blindness, and see the reason of their opposition to His doctrine, He said: You are from beneath, I am from above, you are of this world, I am not of this world, therefore, I say to you that you shall die in your sins. (John viii.23, 24.) Could there be anything more explicit in condemnation of the world? It has its origin and the throne of its power in the lower regions of the earth, while the kingdom of God resides in the sublime abode of the human heart.
When He promised His disciples that He would send them the Spirit of Truth, to console them, He gave as the distinctive mark by which they would know the Holy Spirit, that the world could not receive Him because it has no knowledge of Him. Hence the opposition that exists between the world and the spirit of the New Law is so great that any compromise is impossible. The world is absolutely incompetent to receive or understand the spirit of Jesus Christ. Another fact will render this manifest opposition still more palpable. When Jesus addressed His eternal Father that beautiful prayer preceding His agony and passion, He excluded the world by a positive act of His will, in order to give all to understand that the world could never have any share with Him. |I pray not for the world but for them whom thou hast given me. The world hath hated them because they are not of the world as I also am not of the world.| (John xvii.9, 14.)
St. Paul interprets these words in that energetic style so characteristic of his writings, when he says to the Corinthians that |we have not received the spirit of this world whose wisdom is folly before God.| Now shall you adopt as the rule of your conduct and judgment a wisdom which God has not only reproved, but even branded with the stigma of folly? According to the same Apostle the world proves by its own words that its knowledge is stupidity, since it can see nothing but folly in the cross. The maxims, ideas, judgments, conduct and habits of the world and those of the flock that Jesus came to save are so contradictory, their language is so different, that the wise of the one are fools with the other; and the things regarded as the most sublime by the former are to the latter preposterous absurdities. The reason is simply because the one has its origin, light and end in heaven, while the other draws them from the earth.
Now, if, in order to verify these words of the Sacred Scriptures, you take a view of the doctrine of the world and of that of Jesus Christ, and compare them, you will not find a single point in the one that is not in direct contradiction to the other; so that, by the Gospel, you are enabled to discover the maxims of the world, and vice versa. You may rest assured that what is recommended and sought for by the one is censured and despised by the other. St. Paul, speaking to the Galatians, says; that |if he was still pleasing to men he would not be the servant of Jesus Christ.|
If this be the case, you will say, why remain in the world? Is it not every one's duty to leave it as soon as possible and abandon it to its own corruption? Let the words of our divine Lord answer: |I do not pray you to remove them from the world, but I pray you to preserve them from evil.| Our peace of conscience in this life, and the joys of heaven hereafter require separation from the world and opposition to its maxims. But this separation is one of mind and heart, which consists in a manner of thinking, judging and acting entirely opposed to that of the world. Man ceases to belong to the world the moment he has ceased to make it the arbitrator of his conduct and judgment, and when he has freed himself from its prejudices, caprices and tyranny. Behold what religion requires of you, and what alone will insure you happiness in this life and in the next.
Now, what is this world from which we must separate in order to lead a Christian life? In any society, that we wish to study with a view to obtain a knowledge of its nature and objects, we may consider either the laws by which it is governed, or the body of men who compose it and who are governed by these laws.
Considered from the first point of view, the world consists in its own maxims, laws, customs and judgments, which are in opposition to the letter and spirit of the Gospel; and which tend to withdraw the soul from the love of spiritual things, or at least to create in her a dislike for them.
Considered from the second point of view, the world comprises a mass of men who profess its maxims, adopt its usages, obey its laws, and yield to its judgments.
The world thus considered entails a twofold obligation for you, one of which can never admit of any exception or dispensation, while the observance of the other must be always regulated by prudence and charity. Indeed the world, considered in its maxims, should be for you an object of constant aversion and contempt, because it is the arch enemy of Jesus Christ and of the spirit that He communicates to His true disciples. This is the world that you renounced on the day of your baptism; and the solemn engagement that you then made was the first and most important of all those that you have made, or will make, during life.
But, while it is never permitted you to adopt the maxims of the world, charity, prudence, and the consideration due to your position, age and family, will not allow you to effectively isolate yourself from those who have adopted its maxims as the rule of their actions and judgments. In this you should conform to all that due decorum requires, and endeavor to preserve your mind and heart against the pernicious influences often communicated by words, actions, lessons or examples of those who are slaves of the laws or customs of the world. The danger is the more imminent inasmuch as the sunny side only of the world is displayed to you; while no pains are spared on the part of those bound to you by the most sacred ties to engage you to adopt their views and imitate their example. This is certainly one of the most delicate positions in which a young lady can be placed, when her only arms of defense are the uprightness of her mind, the innocence of her heart and the purity of her instincts.
St. Bernard says, |to serve God is to reign.| By a contradictory assertion, we can safely say, to serve the world is to be a slave; and of all servitudes there is none so hard nor so humiliating as that which the world imposes upon those who yield to its empire. If God were so exacting as the world, so inflexible in the laws that He imposes upon us, so severe in the chastisements by which delinquencies are punished, piety would be an insupportable burden through the weakness of the greater part of men; and God would find very few worshipers who would be willing to submit to such an ordeal.
What is most remarkable and worthy of compassion is the fact that, very often, those who groan the most under this slavery are at the same time those who support it with the greatest resignation.
To suffer for a genuine duty, for a generous sentiment, for a noble or grand idea, is something which the human heart can, not only accept, but even love and choose with a certain pride; but to suffer for the sake of worldly etiquette, for the sake of fashion, for things and parsons despised for their tyranny, is a deplorable humiliation for those who do it. And, nevertheless, the greater part of those who might be called world-worshipers, who seem to give it the tone, bear patiently its yoke, which debases them in their own eyes, -- pandering to necessities which they have imprudently created, and from which they now find it impossible to free themselves.