Most appropriately indeed was the name piety
given by our fathers in the faith to the sentiment which elevates the mind and heart to God. It establishes an intimate union between God and the Christian soul, for it is an affection composed of the most generous qualities of the human heart. In woman, it is a mixture of respect, devotedness and tenderness, which are enhanced still more by a certain blending of fear, confidence, and candor. Man is pious towards God and his parents; but the woman whose heart is not vitiated by anything fictitious is pious towards those whom she loves, for in each one of her affections may be found, combined in different degrees, all the shades of sentiment that we have mentioned above; but it is in her piety towards God that they are especially striking.
Woman's heart languishes for God, because it thirsts after the good and beautiful; and all her efforts to satisfy its cravings will prove futile until it is immersed in the bosom of the Divinity, the Source of all goodness and beauty. With woman the heart is the great receptacle of grace, the principal agent in the practice of piety and virtue. If this precious disposition of her heart offers many and great advantages, it carries with it also its inconveniences. The heart is a near neighbor of the imagination, and the latter often allures the former by its charms. Its activity is often developed and exercised at the expense of the will, by diminishing and enfeebling the power and influence of the latter. It not unfrequently happens that the heart becomes the seat of dangerous illusions, when it not only favors, but even indulges in that tender and sensible piety, which is founded on and fed by lively sentiments and beautiful images. In this state it costs no little effort to will and act.
The reading of a pious book, the meditating on the mysteries of the passion and death of our Saviour will melt the heart to tenderness. Thus, nature has a greater share than grace in piety and fervor of this stamp. Self-complacency and self-love are here most adroitly concealed under the garb of humility, and it requires a rare sagacity to discover their presence. The Christian soul in this state seeks not to please God or others, but it seeks rather its own pleasure, and for many women this kind of piety is a form of affectation and vanity. With those fine sentiments and enthusiastic transports they remain unmortified, vain and curious lovers of flattery and averse to reproof, retaining all their faults, which they endeavor to conceal under the mask of external piety.
Do not ask such women to bridle their will or to restrain the sallies of their humor, -- speak not to them of the good derived from self-mortification, self-abnegation and the love of the Cross, -- words such as these have no signification for them. They are satisfied with simply feeling and giving expression to those virtues, after the manner of artists who, by a happy disposition of mind, are expert in becoming penetrated with ideas and sentiments in which their will has no part whatever; and which have no moral influence over their life.
They are delighted to go with Jesus on Mount Tabor and contemplate Him in the splendor of His glory; but when there is question of participating in His ignominy on Calvary they most shamefully abandon Him. And when He asks them to aid Him to carry His cross they do it, if at all, as reluctantly as did Simon of Cyrene. They willingly multiply prayers and exterior practices of piety, which flatter natural inclinations; they frequent the Sacraments, and this furnishes them the occasion and means of producing those lively and tender sentiments upon which the heart loves to feast.
Their doleful condition is rendered still more deplorable by the use of the most sacred things to nourish their self-love and sensibility. Grace, according to their views of the spiritual life, is only a means to render natural sensibility more delicate and refined. Thus, led on from one delusion to another, such women come to the end of their life, rich in foliage and flowers, but without ever having produced any fruit.
I hope, dear reader, that such may not be your case; but, to avoid all error on a point of such vital interest, meditate constantly on the divine instructions that Jesus has left us in the Sacred Scriptures, and on those also with which He inspired the pious author of the |Following of Christ,| their most perfect commentator. Learn to discern genuine piety from that which bears only the name. Learn to distinguish between its object and that which is only a means to attain that object, -- two things which are frequently and erroneously confounded, yet which are very distinct and very different from each other; for it is a great mistake to neglect the end by attaching too much importance to the means by which to attain it.
Piety does not consist in sublime language, mystical thoughts, or angelical sentiments, for, according to St. Paul, we might speak the language of angels and be still only sounding brass; neither does it consist in the knowledge of divine mysteries, nor in the more excellent intellectual gifts; for, according to the same apostle, a man might be a prophet and possess a knowledge of all science, without being on that account anything in the sight of God.
Faith is truly grand, because it is the principal basis of our justification; and because with it we are enabled to obtain all things from God. Nevertheless, man might have faith strong enough to move mountains and be absolutely nothing before God. Charity to the poor, compassion for the unfortunate are indeed excellent virtues, because they cancel numerous sins, and because they seem to form the principal matter of that terrible judgment which will decide our weal or woe for eternity; yet you might distribute all your wealth among the poor, and still merit no reward from God.
We are recommended by the Holy Scriptures and by the masters of the spiritual life to practice mortification, the perfection of which is found in martyrdom; and nevertheless, though you should even lacerate your body till it became one bleeding wound, and deliver it into the hands of the executioner to be burned, you might gain nothing thereby.
None of all those things constitutes the essence of piety. One thing alone can claim this privilege and that is CHARITY, not that charity which consists merely in feeling and speaking, but a charity that is active, and which penetrates the entire life by its divine, influence; that charity which is patient and beneficent, not envious, dealing not perversely, not puffed up. True charity is not ambitious seeks not its own, is not provoked to anger, thinks no evil, does not rejoice in iniquity but for the good it beholds everywhere, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things and endures all things; such is the soul of true piety according to the Apostle St. Paul. (Cor. I Epist., xiii chap.)
Our divine Lord clearly defines its nature in the following terms: |If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me, for he that will save his life, shall lose it, and he that shall lose his life for my sake shall find it.| (Matth. ch. xvi.) To be a Christian consists in walking in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Hence, to follow Him and carry the cross, self-denial is the first and most necessary qualification. In order to enjoy the eternal happiness of the future life we must sacrifice the false joys of earth. Again, He tells us: |The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away,| that is to say, the valiant, the energetic, and persevering, will alone succeed in securing it; for the words bear away express the action of one that seizes a prey. Add to these texts those others of St. Paul: |If any man have not the spirit of Christ, he is none of his,| that is -- he does not belong to Christ, he is not His disciple; and |they that are Christ's have crucified their flesh with the vices and concupiscences.|
Now I would not have you think that the piety of which I speak is too elevated for you, that it can he practiced only by members of religious orders, and very holy laics -- this is by no means the case. What is required of you is nothing more than what our Lord and all the saints would have you do.
I must point out another error not less pernicious to the practice of true piety, namely; that of taking the means to the acquisition of piety as the end for which you practice it, for the means should at all times be appreciated according to their just value, or according to the assistance they give you to attain your end as a true Christian, which consists in dying to self and to self-glory. I would not have you judge of your progress in perfection by the number of your communions, or the multitude of your pious practices, or the length of your prayers, but by the victories which you gain over yourself, over your passions, your character, and your temper.
Like all other good things, you can turn prayer to your spiritual detriment, when you have recourse to it through vain glory. Be thoroughly convinced of the truth expressed by the Evangelist St. John, that he is a liar who says that he loves God, and does not keep his commandments. Remember that the spirit of darkness, as St. Paul tells us, can, and often does, transform himself into an angel of light, and produce in the mind false lights, which dazzle and blind it.
Now that you know in what the essence of piety consists, you ought to learn in what faculty of the soul it resides, and this knowledge will preserve you from many illusions, and point out to you the direction in which you must advance in order to attain your end.
Piety, should, by its divine influence, penetrate all the faculties of the soul and take possession of your whole being; it ought, as we have said above, to make its presence especially felt in your heart, by purifying all its affections; but its principal abode should be in the will, through which it may reach all the other faculties in order to elevate and vivify them.
The will is, indeed, if I may so speak, the organ or the instrument of sacrifice and duty; and since piety properly consists in sacrifice and duty, in suppressing the inordinate appetites of the human heart, and elevating nature above herself, the will is the faculty in which piety should reside.
It is not an easy matter to be truly pious, for, in order to attain to a superior order of spiritual perfection, we must lay aside self which paralyzes all the generous movements of the soul, -- we must also faithfully correspond to divine grace. All this entails much difficulty, many struggles, and, consequently, great and constant efforts.
Every being has a tendency, founded on an imperious instinct, to dwell in its natural sphere, which it can not leave even to enter a superior one without making a great effort. Hence, the Holy Ghost warns him who desires to serve God to prepare for temptation and struggle. Now, among all the faculties of the soul, the will is the best disposed for the combat, because pleasure has a smaller share in its movements than in those of the heart and imagination; it is able, when necessary, to rise superior to the most alluring charms, preferring fidelity to duty with all its difficulties and bitterness.
To be pious implies the faithful observance of God's commandments, |If you love me,| says Christ, |keep my commandments;| it consists in being resigned to the will of God, ready to be disposed of at His good pleasure. To do this you must place all your faculties, and especially your will at His disposal. God has reserved to Himself the right of acting in an intimate and profound manner upon the will. This faculty is His sanctuary, in which He delights to dwell, and operate the prodigies of His grace and love, which He communicates with unbounded prodigality to His elect.
This is the throne upon which He silently engraves the image of His divine Son, the essential characteristic of predestination. It is in this power of the human soul that He plants in the depth of Christian humility the foundation of solid virtue, in defiance to the disorders of the mind, the agitations of the heart and the incoherencies of the memory.
From the bosom of the Divinity our Blessed Lord brought with Him two special favors, one of which was for His eternal Father, and the other to be given persons of good-will. He charged His angels to announce them to the world in the person of the shepherds. They were, glory for His Father and peace for men, but only for men of good- will. This heavenly peace is a foretaste of the never-ending joys of Paradise. It is a prize worth striving for, and easy to secure, at least for you, since it is promised to all persons of good-will.