It will perhaps seem strange to you to be warned in the bloom of youth against a sentiment that seems to be reserved for that period of life when delinquents, through the infinite goodness of God, are brought to enter into themselves; when the illusions of the heart have been replaced by a cold and sad reality; when hope seems to recoil under the weight of sad recollections. Still, because this mental canker preys on the most vital interests of the soul, and because a predisposition to it is found to prevail even among the youthful portion of your sex, a certain knowledge of it is necessary in order to resist it effectually.
It is most delightful and consoling to find in persons of your age and sex that pure joy, so frank and candid, springing out of the innocence and simplicity of the heart; a good conscience and a lively faith, with unbounded confidence in Divine Providence; all of which combine to produce that sweet and saintly cheerfulness which dilates the heart and lights up the soul with its amiable reflections. But, alas! we confess with deep regret, that many young ladies have been ruthlessly robbed of all those charms by a precocious development received under the world's tutorship, by which they have been made to cross with a bound the smiling season of hope and joy, to a premature old age before having tasted the charms of youth.
In order that joy may reign in the heart, the heart must first repose in the bosom of Divine Providence -- free from the pressure of doleful souvenirs, and from the pestering desires stirred up by vanity; in a word, exempt from every obstacle, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, that might in any way oppose the designs of God. But, alas! by some unaccountable inconsistency, we are in contradiction with ourselves; for, notwithstanding our great desire to live, and our horror of death, still we seem to be in a hurry with the time to pass, as though we advanced too slowly to the grave.
Now, we are well aware that of this lifetime the present is all that we can claim, the past and future being in the hands of God; still, true to the same principle of inconsistency we make little or no use of the present, it is something annoying that we wish, to get over, as quickly as possible, while we are absorbed by a countless multitude of useless but importunate desires relative to the past, which we can never recall, and the future, which perhaps we shall never see.
Hence, as we journey onward in this way, we must naturally find ourselves a prey to fears and doubts, sometimes suspended between hope and despondency, while the heart is harassed by corroding desires that succeed each other like waves on a tempest-driven sea. We wish to be our own providence, to dispose of our own future of our lifetime according to those desires, instead of leaving that work to Him from whom we have received all that we possess.
When we are assailed by regrets in the evening, and filled with anxieties for the morrow, how can our heart rebound with joy, or our lips wear the smile of confidence and tranquility? Behold some of the many sources from which the fatal fiend of melancholy is fed and strengthened. But this vile destroyer of peaceful joy springs from another source not less fatal than those just mentioned. That is a certain vagueness of mind and heart, which is sometimes the result of some physical or bodily indisposition, but more frequently the consequence of an imperfect education, or indifference in the service of God.
That which gives to the mind its needed assurance and strength, and to the heart its consistency and solidity, is a lively faith, nourished and sustained by a sincere piety. Of this you are thoroughly convinced, as you know full well that faith alone can give a solid basis to our thoughts, a true direction to our desires, and an eternal destiny to our hopes. Without faith the mind is without ballast -- unsettled as to what it ought to believe or reject; the heart ignores what it should fear or hope for; in a word, the soul is lost in the midst of her vacillating desires.
In order that faith may impart its vivifying influence it must penetrate the soul's substance, and become to her the principle of a new life, directing all her movements, animating all her thoughts, desires and hopes. A superficial and inactive faith that is purely exterior, satisfied with believing what God reveals, without quickening the spiritual pulsations of the soul, will not preserve her from that vagueness and uncertainty which deprive all objects of their natural colors, and lend them a sombre shade which saddens the heart.
If you would escape falling a victim to melancholy, preserve your faith with precious care, enliven it constantly by fervent prayer, by meditation and the abundant graces received through the Sacraments. Let its pure light be the rule of your thoughts and actions, accustom your mind to dwell upon things that are practical, and consequently useful, sedulously avoiding all speculative or doubtful topics, that have no other result than to keep the mind in a state of suspense and indecision. You will fare better in having a clear knowledge of practical things, even at the cost of appearing less learned than others.
A third source of melancholy is a species of mental idleness, concerning which women are exposed to labor under a false impression. As they are naturally given to manual occupation habit begets with them an antipathy to mental labor; their judgment is readily but erroneously convinced by their feelings, which easily lead them to believe that they are sufficiently occupied when their fingers are engaged in fixing an embroidery or something similar. To reason the matter, they will readily admit that labor exclusively manual having no share in the exercise of the mental faculties, cannot be considered to give sufficient occupation to an intelligent being; since the imagination would be left to the mercy of its caprices and the heart to the whims of its desires, which is not worthy of a being created to the image and likeness of God, who commands us to labor as He labored, namely: with mind and heart constantly supplying useful thoughts to the one and noble sentiments to the other.
Such is the heavenly duty enjoined by those consoling words of our Saviour: pray always. At first sight it would seem that such an obligation is impossible and contrary to human nature. We cannot, however, even suppose that He who has made man what he is, misunderstood his nature so far as to command him to do impossibilities.
Every thought that raises the mind towards God, every sentiment that brings the heart near to Him, is a prayer. Hence there is no occupation that may not become a prayer, since there is none that may not be referred to God. The duties and obligations of woman, far from being an obstacle to the practical exercise of the above principle, on the contrary favor its execution most admirably; for her duties, though of the manual order for the most part, are not of a nature to distract the mind or absorb the heart; she can easily and constantly concentrate the thoughts of the one and the affections of the other upon God.
That you should make God the object of all your actions is your first and most imperative duty, and the moment that you discharge your duties for any other end that moment they shall lose the dignity of deeds worthy of a Christian or even of a rational being; moreover, your mind, as you are fully aware, is endowed with perpetual activity, it is never idle, -- you need only chose the objects to which you wish to apply it. But if you fail to apply it to things worthy of your sublime calling it will soon escape from your control, and, flitting from one trifle to another, it will meddle with objects that might become dangerous to the peace of your soul. It will soon become preoccupied by puerile fears, unfounded apprehensions, vague sadness, which, when constantly indulged in, will deliver your soul over to melancholy which never fails to tarnish the purity of the heart and enervate the energy of the will.
The pain that many suffer from their imaginary ills robs them of the noble and generous love of compassionating the real and painful griefs of others. Egotism is nurtured and fortified in those ravings which attach the soul's energies to the consideration of our own ills or sorrows; the heart grows cold and hardened in a deplorable insensibility which estranges it to every sentiment of pity and compassion for others.
There is, I am aware, a sorrow that is salutary to the soul, and conformable to the spirit of Christianity, as also to man's condition in this vale of tears. I know that it is very difficult to be always joyful, when we take into account the dangers by which we are surrounded, the countless calamities to which we are exposed since the day that sin had entered the world. We very often see the objects of our warmest affections disappear from around us; and every day some new misfortune or some new loss adds some new tears to our cup of sorrow, from whose bitterness every one is doomed to drink during life.
Far from me be the thought of engaging you to fly this holy sorrow imposed by our condition and recommended by our Lord Himself. |There is,| says St. Paul, |a sorrow according to God| which, far from plunging the heart into a state of despondency, enables the soul to avoid the dangers which constantly expose her to lose God by sin. But this sorrow does not trouble the peace of either the heart or the mind, for it is that sorrow which our divine Saviour called blessed, and for which He has promised consolation.
Far be from me, also, the thought of advising that foolish and boisterous joy which carries away the soul, absorbing all her energies filling her with void and disgust. This joy, far from being a remedy or a protection against melancholy, is, on the contrary, both its cause and effect. The result of those intemperate paroxysms of joy, so little in conformity with our nature is that which invariably results from any forced or undue influence.
When shackled nature recovers her liberty she revenges the violence that she was made to endure. But, seizing her rights with too great avidity, she suffers more from the reaction than from the force that infringed upon them. This explains the reason of those fitful outbursts of joy and grief that pass in quick succession. Those puerile fears, followed by hopes, without rule or aim, that vain confidence giving place to sad discouragement. Those despondent feelings after moments of zealous fever, during which we seem to be able to do and attempt everything. Here we find the solution of those sudden and varied shades of temperament which will instantaneously cheer or prostrate the energies of the soul.
If you would preserve your soul from melancholy, conserve your heart in a calm composure, your mind in a just equanimity keeping both equally distant from all extremes able to taste joy with discretion, and sorrow without becoming discouraged. This will be putting in practice the advice of the wise man: Give not up thy soul to sadness and afflict not thyself in thy own counsel. The joyfulness of the heart is the life of man and a never-failing treasure of holiness, and the joy of man is length of life. Have pity on thy own soul, pleasing God and contain thyself; gather up thy heart in his holiness and drive away sadness far from thee. For sadness hath killed many and there is no profit in it. Envy and anger shorten a man's days, and pensiveness will bring old age before the time. A cheerful and good heart is always feasting, for his banquets are prepared with diligence. Eccl. xxx.22-27.