"Though the path is plain and smooth for people of good will, those who walk it will not travel far, and will do so only with difficulty if they do not have good feet, courage, and tenacity of spirit. "

St John of the Cross, OCD - Doctor of the Church

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"If you wish to learn and appreciate something worth while, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel."

Thomas á Kempis

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"We must not be behind time in doing good; for death will not be behind his time. "

St Phillip Neri

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Venerable Louis of Granada, OP  (1504-1588)

 
 

THE SINNER'S GUIDE

   

By Venerable Louis of Granada, OP

 

Motives for Practising Virtue

 

Ch 27. Of those who allege that the Path of Virtue is too Difficult


As virtue is entirely conformable to reason, there is nothing in its own nature which renders it burdensome. The difficulty, therefore, which is here objected arises not from virtue, but from the evil inclinations and appetites implanted in us by sin. Thus the Apostle tells us, "The flesh opposes the spirit, and the spirit opposes the flesh; for these are contrary one to another. For I am delighted with the law of God, according to the inward man; but I see another law in my members, fighting against the law of my mind, and captivating me in the law of sin, that is in my members." (Gal. 5:17 and Rom. 7:22-23). By these words we are taught that the law of God is acceptable to the superior part of the soul, the seat of the will and understanding, but that we are opposed, in obeying it, by the corruption of our appetites and passions, which reside in the inferior part of the soul.

When man rebelled against God, the passions rebelled against reason and from this arose all the difficulties which we encounter in the practice of virtue. Thus we see that many who appreciate virtue refuse to practice it, just as sick men earnestly desire health, but refuse the unpalatable remedies which alone would restore it. As this repugnance is the principal barrier to virtue, which, when known, is always valued and loved, if we succeed in proving that there is little foundation for such repugnance we shall have accomplished a good work.

The principal cause of this illusion is that we only regard the obstacles to virtue, and do not consider the grace which God gives us to overcome these obstacles. The servant of Eliseus was frightened at the numbers who were coming armed against his master, until God, at the prayer of the prophet, opened his eyes and caused him to see that Eliseus was surrounded by a still greater number of defenders. A like fear leads men to reject virtue, when they know not the succors which God reserves for it.

But if the way of virtue is so difficult, how could David express himself as he does? "I have been delighted in the way of thy testimonies, as in all riches. Thy commandments are more to be desired than gold and many precious stones, and sweeter than honey and the honeycomb." (Ps. 118:14 and 18:11). Not only does he award to virtue the excellence which all ascribe to it, but praises it for that pleasure and sweetness which the world denies it. Whoever, therefore, speaks of virtue as a heavy yoke shows that he has not yet penetrated this mystery.

Tell me, you who claim to be a Christian, why did Christ come into the world? Why did He shed His Blood? Why did He institute the sacraments? Why did He send down the Holy Ghost? What is the meaning of the Gospel, of grace, of the name of Jesus, whom you adore? If you know not, hear the angel who says, "Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins." (Matt. 1:21).
Now, what is saving from sin, if not obtaining the pardon of past faults and the grace to avoid others in the future? What was the end of Our Saviour's coming, if not to help you in the work of your salvation? Did He not die on the cross to destroy sin? Did He not rise from the dead to enable you to rise to a life of grace? Why did He shed His Blood, if not to heal the wounds of your soul? Why did He institute the sacraments, if not to strengthen you against sin? Did not His coming render the way to Heaven smooth and straight, according to that of Isaias, who said, in prophesying of Him, "The crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways plain"? (Is. 40:4). Why did He send the Holy Spirit, if not to change you from flesh into spirit? Why did He send Him under the form of fire but to enlighten you, to inflame you, and to transform you into Himself, that thus your soul might be fitted for His own divine kingdom?

What, in fine, is the object of grace, with the infused virtues which flow from it, but to sweeten the yoke of Christ, to facilitate the practice of virtue, to make you joyful in tribulations, hopeful in danger, and victorious in temptation? This comprises the teaching of the Gospel. Adam, an earthly and sinful man, made us earthly and sinful. Jesus Christ, a heavenly and just Man, makes us spiritual and just. This is the sum of the doctrine proclaimed by the evangelists, preached by the Apostles, and promised by the prophets.

But, to study the subject more in detail, what is the cause of the difficulty you find in practicing virtue? You say it is the evil inclinations of your heart, as well as the perpetual conflict between the spirit and the flesh, which has been conceived in sin. But why should you be dismayed, when you have the infallible promise of God that He will take away these corrupt sources of sin, and, giving you a new heart, will establish you in strength and courage to conquer all your enemies? "I will give them," He says, "a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in their bowels; and I will take away the stony heart out of their flesh, and I will give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my commandments, and keep my judgments and do them, and that they may be my people, and I may be their God." (Ezech. 11:19-20). What, then, can arrest you in the path of virtue? Do you fear that the promise will not be fulfilled, or that with the assistance of God's grace you will not be able to keep His law? Your doubts are blasphemous; for, in the first instance, you question the truth of God's words, and, in the second, you respect Him as unable to fulfill what He promises, since you think Him capable of offering you succor insufficient for your needs.

No, doubt not, but be assured that in addition to all this He will give you the necessary strength to overcome the passions which torment you. This is one of the principal benefits purchased for us by the Blood of Our Saviour, one of the most precious fruits of the tree of life. "Our old man is crucified with Jesus Christ, that the body of sin may be destroyed, and that we may serve sin no longer." (Rom, 6:6). By the "old man" and the "the body of sin" the Apostle designates our sensual appetite with its evil inclinations. He tells us that it was crucified with Jesus Christ, because the sacrifice of the cross obtained for us grace and strength to overcome it. This is the victory which God promises us by Isaias who says, "Fear not, for I am with thee; turn not aside, for I am thy God; I have strengthened thee, and have helped thee, and the right hand of my just one Jesus Christ hath upheld thee. Behold all that fight against thee shall be confounded and ashamed; they shall be as nothing, and the men shall perish that strive against thee. Thou shalt seek them, and shalt not find the men that resist thee. They shall be as nothing, and the men that war against thee shall be as a thing consumed. For I am the Lord thy God, who take thee by the hand and say to thee: Fear not, for I have helped thee." (Is. 41:10-13). With such assistance who will yield to discouragement? Who will be daunted by fear of his evil inclinations, over which grace obtains such a glorious victory?

You will urge, perhaps, that the just are not without their secret failings, which, as Job says (Cf. Job 16:9), bear witness against them. To this I reply, in the words of Isaias, that "they shall be as if they never had been." (Is. 41:12). If they remain, it is only to exercise our virtue, not to overcome us; to stimulate us, not to master us; to serve as an occasion of merit, not of sin; for our triumph, not for our downfall; in a word, to try us, to humble us, to make us acknowledge our own weakness and render to God the glory and thanksgiving which are due Him. They are a source of real profit to us. For as wild animals, when domesticated, can be made most serviceable to man, so our passions, when moderated and controlled, aid us in the practice of virtue.

"If God be for us, who is against us?" (Rom. 8:31 ). "The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? If armies in camp should stand together against me, my heart shall not fear. If a battle should rise up against me, in this will I be confident." (Ps. 26:1-4). Surely, my dear Christian, if such promises do not encourage you to serve God, your cowardice is very great. If you have no confidence in them your faith is very weak. God assures you that He will give you a new spirit, that He will change your heart of stone into a heart of flesh, that He will mortify your passions to such a degree that you will not know yourself. You will seek in vain for the evil inclinations which warred against you; they will be as a thing consumed, for He will weaken all their forces. What more can you desire? Have, then, a lively faith and firm hope, and cast yourself into the arms of God.

But, perhaps, you will still object that your sins are so numerous that God must refuse you His grace. Away with such a thought! It is one of the greatest insults you could offer to God. By it you virtually say either that God cannot or will not assist His creatures when they implore His aid. Do not yield to such a blasphemy. Rather let your prayer be, with St. Augustine, "Give me grace, Lord, to do what Thou commandest, and command what Thou pleasest." (Conf. L.10,31). This prayer will always be answered, for God is ever ready to cooperate with man in doing good. God is the principal cause, man is the secondary. God aids man, as a painter aids a pupil whose hand he guides, that he may produce a perfect work. Both concur in the labor, but equal honor is not due to both. Thus does God deal with man, without prejudice to his free will. When the work, therefore, is accomplished, he glorifies God, and not himself, saying with the prophet, "Thou, Lord, hast wrought all our works for us." (Is. 26:12).

Lean, then, on the power of God, and you will ever fulfill His will. Be mindful of the words He addresses to you through Moses: "This commandment that I command thee this day is not above thee nor far off from thee. Nor is it in heaven, that thou shouldst say: Which of us can go up to heaven to bring it to us, that we may hear and fulfill it in work? Nor is it beyond the sea, that thou mayest excuse thyself, saying: Which of us can cross the sea and bring it unto us, that we may hear and do that which is commanded? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it." (Deut. 30:11-14).

Let these words assure you that however difficult God's commandments may appear, His grace will render their observance very easy, and if faithful to them, you will soon experience that His yoke is sweet and His burden light.

Moreover, call to mind the assistance which charity affords us in the pursuit of virtue. Charity, or the love of God, renders the law sweet and delightful; for, as St. Augustine says, love knows no fatigue. How willingly men fond of hunting, riding, or fishing bear the labor of these sports! What makes a mother insensible to the fatigue she endures for her child? What keeps a devoted wife day and night at the bedside of her sick husband? What excites even in animals the solicitude, the self-denial, with which they care for their young, and the courage with which they defend them? I answer that it is the great power of love. Strong by this power was St. Paul when he exclaimed, "Who, then, shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or persecution, or the sword?" (Rom. 8:35).

It was love which caused St. Dominic and so many other saints to sigh for martyrdom. It was love which raised the martyrs above their sufferings and gave them refreshments in the midst of the most cruel torments. "True love of God", says St. Peter Chrysologus, "finds nothing hard, nothing bitter, nothing difficult. What weapon, what wounds, what pains, what death, can conquer true love? As an impenetrable armor it defies all attacks, and fears not even death, but triumphs over all things." (Serm. 147, "De Incarnat.").

But perfect love is not content with these victories. It longs to combat for the Beloved. Hence the thirst of the just for martyrdom; hence their desire to shed their blood for Him who shed His precious Blood for them. And when this desire is not satisfied, they become their own executioners and martyr their bodies with hunger, thirst, cold, and every kind of mortification. Thus they find their happiness in suffering for Christ.

Doubtless this language is not understood by worldlings. They cannot conceive that one should love what they abhor, or abhor what they love. Yet so it is. Holy Scripture tells us that the Egyptians worshipped certain animals as gods. The Israelites justly called these false gods abominations, and sacrificed them to the honor of the true God. In like manner the virtuous regard as abominations the idols which the world adores pleasures, riches, and honors and sacrifice them to the glory of God. Let him, therefore, who would offer a pleasing sacrifice to God observe what the world adores, and let him offer that as a victim to the Lord. It was thus that the Apostles acted when they came forth from the council, rejoicing that they had received the honor of suffering for Christ. Can you, then, believe that the power which rendered the prison, the scourge, the stake, welcome to God's servants, will not be able to lighten the yoke of His commandments for you? Will not that power which supported the just under fasts, vigils, austerities, and sufferings of every kind enable you to bear the burden of the commandments? Alas! How feebly you comprehend the force of charity and divine grace!

But let us suppose that the path of virtue is sown with difficulties and hardships. Will this prove that you ought not to walk in it? Oh, no! Are you not expected to do something for the salvation of your soul? Will you not do at least as much for this grand purpose, for eternity, as you do for your body and for time, which for you is rapidly passing away and will soon leave you at the tomb? What is a little suffering in this life, if you are spared everlasting torments? Think of the rich glutton, now burning in Hell. What would he not do to expiate his sins, could he return to this world? There is no reason why you should not now do as much, if you feel that you have ever offended God.

Consider, moreover, what God has done for you and what He has promised you. Reflect on the many sins you have committed. Think of the sufferings endured by the saints, particularly the Saint of saints. If such thoughts will not make you blush for your past life of ease, and incite you to suffer something for the love of God, I know not what will move you to abandon the things in which you formerly delighted and by which you formerly sinned. Thus St. Bernard tells us that the tribulations of this life bear no proportion to the glory we hope for, to the torments we fear, to the sins we have committed, or to the benefits we have received from our Creator. Any of these considerations ought to suffice to make us embrace a life of virtue, however hard and laborious.

Though we acknowledge that in every condition of life there are trials and difficulties, yet the path of the wicked is far more thickly strewn with hardships than is that of the just. One necessarily grows weary on a long journey, but a blind man who stumbles at every step will certainly tire sooner than the traveler who clearly sees and guards against the obstacles in his way. In the journey of life we must expect to feel fatigue and experience hardships until we reach our destination. The sinner, guided by passion, walks blindly, and therefore often falls. The just man, guided by reason, sees and avoids the rocks and precipices, and thus travels with less fatigue and more safety.

"The path of the just," says Solomon, "as a shining light, goeth forward and increaseth even to perfect day; but the way of the wicked is darksome, and they know not where they fall." (Prov. 4: 18,19). And not only is it dark, but also slippery, as holy David tells us. (Cf. Ps. 34:6). Judge, then, what a difference there is between these two paths. Behold how excessive are the difficulties which beset the wicked. Reflect, moreover, that the just find a thousand means of alleviating their trials which the sinner does not experience. They have God's fatherly providence to guide them; the grace of the Holy Spirit to enlighten and encourage them; the sacraments to sanctify them; the divine consolations to refresh them; the example of the pious to animate them; the writings of the saints to instruct them; the testimony of a good conscience to comfort them; the hope of future glory to sustain them, besides the numerous other favors which the virtuous enjoy. Hence they are ever ready to sing to the Lord with the prophet, "How sweet are thy words to my palate, more than honey to my mouth." (Ps. 118:103).

Reflect on these truths, and you will soon understand the Scriptures where they seem to speak in contradictory terms of the ease or difficulty of practicing virtue. At one time David says, "For the sake of the words of thy lips I have kept hard ways." (Ps. 16:4). At another: "I have been delighted in the way of thy testimonies, as in all riches." (Ps. 118:14). Both declarations are true, for the path of virtue is difficult to nature, easy to grace.

Our Saviour Himself tells us this when He says, "My yoke is sweet and my burden light." (Matt. 11:30). By the word yoke He expresses the difficulty which nature experiences. By calling it sweet, He shows us the power of grace to enable us to carry it. This He accomplishes by sharing our burden, according to the prophet: "I will be to them as one that taketh off the yoke from their jaws." (Osee 11:4). Is it, then, astonishing that the yoke is light which God Himself bears? The Apostle experienced this when he said, "In all things we suffer tribulation, but are not distressed; we are straitened, but are not destitute; we suffer persecution, but are not forsaken; we are cast down, but we perish not." (2Cor. 4:8-9). Behold on one side the weight of tribulation and on the other the sweetness which God communicates to it.

Isaias expressed this even more clearly: "They that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall take wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint." (Is. 40:31). Learn from this that the yoke is removed by grace, and the strength of the flesh is changed into that of the spirit, or rather the strength of God replaces that of man. Remember also that the prophet says the just will run, though taking no pains; they will walk, and not faint. Be not dismayed, therefore, by the roughness of a road on which you find so many aids to render your journey smooth and pleasant.

If, like the Apostle St. Thomas, you are still incredulous and ask for further proof, I will not deny it. Take, for example, a man who has led a wicked life, but who has finally turned to God by the power of grace. Such a man will be an excellent judge in this matter, for he has not only heard of these two lives, but he has experienced them. Ask him which he found the sweeter. He will tell you of the marvels effected in the depths of his soul by grace.

There is nothing in the world more astonishing, no more interesting spectacle, than that afforded by the action of grace upon the soul of a just man. How it transforms him, sustains him, strengthens him and comforts him! How it subdues and governs him exteriorly and interiorly! How it altars his affections, making him love what he formerly abhorred, and abhor what he formerly loved! How strong it makes him in combat! What peace it gives him! What light it pours into his soul to enable him to learn God's will, to realize the vanity of the world, and to set a true value on the spiritual blessings which he formerly despised! And still more wonderful is the short space of time in which these great changes are made. It is not necessary to spend long years in study, or to wait until old age helps us by experience. Men in the fire of youth are sometimes so changed in the space of a few days that they hardly seem the same beings. Hence St. Cyprian says that the sinner finds himself converted even before he has learned how to bring about such a change, for it is the work of grace, which needs neither study nor time, but which acts in an instant, like a spiritual charm.

St. Cyprian; already mentioned, who was for a time a prey to the illusions of the world, gives, while writing to his friend Donatus, some beautiful and forcible thoughts on this subject: "When I walked in darkness, when I was tossed about by the tempests of this world, I knew not what my life was, because I was deprived of light and truth. I regarded as impossible all that God's grace promised to do for my conversion and salvation. I would not believe that man could be born again (Cf. Sn. 3:5), and by virtue of Baptism receive a new life and spirit, which, while leaving his exterior untouched, would entirely reform him within. I urged that it was impossible to uproot vices implanted in us by our corrupt nature and confirmed by the habits of years. Is temperance possible, I asked, to one long accustomed to a sumptuous table? Will he who has been clothed in purple willingly put on a plain and modest dress? Will he who found all his happiness in honors and dignities willingly forego them and be content to lead a quiet and obscure life? Will he who was accustomed to travel with a grand retinue now be content to travel unattended? Former habits will cling to him and struggle for mastery. Intemperance will solicit him, pride will inflate him, honors will allure him, anger will inflame him, and sensuality will blind and overpower him. These were the reflections in which I frequently indulged. I was bound by numerous, habits of vice from which I felt I never could be freed, and which I encouraged and strengthened by this very distrust.

"But my sins were no sooner washed away in the waters of Baptism than a new light shone upon my soul, now purified from all stains. By the reception of the Holy Spirit I was born to a new life. Suddenly, as if by a miracle, doubt gave place to certainty; my darkness was dissipated; what heretofore appeared difficult had now become easy; the insurmountable obstacles I feared had vanished completely. I clearly saw that the life of the flesh with all its failings was of man, and that the new life to which I had come was of God. You know, dear Donatus, from what the Holy Spirit has delivered me, and what He has bestowed upon me. He has delivered me from the slavery of vice and has restored me to the true liberty of virtue. You know all this, and that, so far from boasting, I am only publishing the glory of God, It is not pride but a sentiment of gratitude which prompts me to speak of this wonderful transformation, which is due only to God. For it is evident that the power to abandon sin is no less the effect of the divine grace than the will to commit it is the effect of human frailty." (L. 2, Ep. 2).

These words of St. Cyprian perfectly describe the illusion which paralyzes the efforts of many Christians. They measure the difficulties of virtue according to their own strength, and thus deem its acquisition impossible. They do not consider that if they firmly resolve to abandon sin, and cast themselves into the strong arms of God's mercy, His grace will smooth the roughness of their way and remove all the obstacles which formerly alarmed them. The example of St. Cyprian proves this, for the truth of what he relates is incontestable. If you imitate his sincere return to God, the grace which was given him will not be denied you.

Another no less remarkable example is that of St. Augustine, who, in his Confessions, tells us that when he began to think seriously of leaving the world a thousand difficulties presented themselves to his mind. On one side appeared the past pleasures of his life, saying, "Will you part from us forever? Shall we no longer be your companions?" On the other, he beheld virtue with a radiant countenance, accompanied by a multitude of persons of every state in life who had led pure lives, and a voice said to him, "Can you not do what so many others have done? Was their strength in themselves? Was it not God who enabled them to do what they did? While you continue to rely upon yourself you must necessarily fall. Cast yourself without fear upon God; He will not abandon you." In the midst of this struggle the saint tells us that he began to weep bitterly, and, throwing himself upon the ground, he cried from the depth of his heart, "How long, Lord, how long wilt Thou be angry? Remember not my past iniquities. How long shall I continue to repeat, 'tomorrow, tomorrow'? Why not now? Why should not this very hour witness the end of my disorders?" (Confess., L. 8, c. 11).

No sooner had Augustine taken this resolution than his heart was changed, so that he ceased to feel the stings of the flesh or any affection for the pleasures of the world. He was entirely freed from all the irregular desires which formerly tormented him, and broke forth into thanksgiving for the liberty which had been restored to him: "O Lord! I am Thy servant; I am Thy servant and the son of Thy handmaid, Thou hast broken my bonds. I will sacrifice to Thee a sacrifice of praise. (Cf. Ps. 115).

"Let my heart and my tongue praise Thee. Let all my bones say: Who is like unto Thee, O Lord? Where was my free will all these years, O Jesus, my Redeemer and Helper, that it did not return to Thee? From what an abyss hast Thou suddenly drawn it, causing me to bend my neck to' Thy sweet yoke and to take upon me the easy burden of Thy law? How delighted I am with the absence of those pleasures which I formerly sought with so much eagerness! How I rejoice no longer to possess those follies which I formerly trembled to lose! O Thou true and sovereign Good! Thou hast driven all false pleasures from my soul; Thou hast banished them and hast Thyself taken their place, O Joy exceeding all joy! O Beauty exceeding all beauty!" (Conf. L.9).

Behold the efficacy of grace! What, then, prevents you from imitating the example of these great saints? If you believe what I have related, and that the grace which wrought such a change in St. Augustine is at the disposal of all who earnestly seek it, what is there to prevent you from breaking your sinful bonds and embracing this Sovereign Good who so solicitously calls you? Why do you prefer, by a hell on earth, to gain another Hell hereafter, rather than by a paradise here to gain Heaven hereafter? Be not discouraged. Put your trust in God, and resolutely enter the path of virtue. Have an unshaken confidence that you will meet Him there with open arms, to receive you as the father received his prodigal son. (Cf. Lk. 15).

Were a charlatan to assert that he could teach the art of changing copper into gold, how many would be eager to test his suggestion! God offers to teach us that art of changing earth into Heaven for our welfare, of converting us from flesh into spirit, from men into angels, and how many there are who refuse to hear Him! Be not of their unhappy number.

Sooner or later you must acknowledge this truth, if not in this life, surely in the next. Think, therefore, of the confusion and anguish which on the day of judgment will overwhelm all those who will then have been condemned for abandoning the path of virtue. Too late they will recognize how excellent is this path, and how far it exceeds that of sin, not only for the happiness it affords in this life, but for the security with which it leads us to eternal joy.