Rev. Alban Butler (171173). Volume I: January. The Lives of the Saints. 1866.
AS in corporal distempers a total loss of appetite, which no medicines can restore, forbodes certain decay and death; so in the spiritual life of the soul, a neglect or disrelish of pious reading and instruction is a most fatal symptom. What hopes can we entertain of a person to whom the science of virtue and of eternal salvation doth not seem interesting, or worth his application? It is impossible, says St. Chrysostom,1 that a man should be saved, who neglects assiduous pious reading or consideration. Handicraftsmen will rather suffer hunger and all other hardships than lose the instruments of their trade, knowing them to be the means of their subsistence. No less criminal and dangerous is the disposition of those who mispend their precious moments in reading romances and playbooks, which fill the mind with a worldly spirit, with a love of vanity, pleasure, idleness, and trifling; which destroy and lay waste all the generous sentiments of virtue in the heart, and sow there the seeds of every vice, which extend their baneful roots over the whole soil. Who seeks nourishment from poisons? What food is to the body, our thoughts and reflections are to the mind: by them the affections of the soul are nourished. The chameleon changes its colour as it is affected by sadness, anger, or joy; or by the colour upon which it sits: and we see an insect borrow its lustre and hue from the plant or leaf upon which it feeds. In like manner, what our meditations and affections are, such will our souls become, either holy and spiritual or earthly and carnal. By pious reading the mind is instructed and enlightened, and the affections of the heart are purified and inflamed. It is recommended by St. Paul as the summary of spiritual advice.2
Devout persons never want a spur to assiduous reading or meditation. They are insatiable in this exercise, and, according to the golden motto of Thomas à Kempis, they find their chief delight in a closet, with a good book.3 Worldly and tepid Christians stand certainly in the utmost need of this help to virtue. The world is a whirlpool of business, pleasure and sin. Its torrent is always beating upon their hearts, ready to break in and bury them under its flood, unless frequent pious reading and consideration oppose a strong fence to its waves. The more deeply a person is immersed in its tumultuous cares, so much the greater ought to be his solicitude to find leisure to breathe, after the fatigues and dissipation of business and company; to plunge his heart, by secret prayer, in the ocean of the divine immensity, and, by pious reading, to afford his soul some spiritual refection; as the wearied husbandman, returning from his labour, recruits his spent vigour and exhausted strength, by allowing his body necessary refreshment and repose.
The lives of the saints furnish the Christian with a daily spiritual entertainment, which is not less agreeable than affecting and instructive. For in sacred biography the advantages of devotion and piety are joined with the most attractive charms of history. The method of forming men to virtue by example, is, of all others, the shortest, the most easy, and the best adapted to all circumstances and dispositions. Pride recoils at precepts, but example instructs without usurping the authoritative air of a master; for, by example, a man seems to advise and teach himself. It does its work unperceived, and therefore with less opposition from the passions, which take not the alarm. Its influence is communicated with pleasure. Nor does virtue here appear barren and dry as in discourses; but animated and living, arrayed with all her charms, exerting all her powers, and secretly obviating the pretences, and removing the difficulties which self-love never fails to raise. In the lives of the saints we see the most perfect maxims of the gospel reduced to practice, and the most heroic virtue made the object of our senses, clothed as it were with a body, and exhibited to view in its most attractive dress. Here, moreover, we are taught the means by which virtue is obtained, and learn the precipices and snares which we are to shun, and the blinds and by-ways in which many are bewildered and misled in its pursuit. The example of the servants of God points out to us the true path, and leads us as it were by the hand into it, sweetly inviting and encouraging us to walk cheerfully in the steps of those who are gone before us.
Neither is it a small advantage that, by reading the history of the saints, we are introduced into the acquaintance of the greatest personages who have ever adorned the world, the brightest ornaments of the church militant, and the shining stars and suns of the church triumphant, our future companions in eternal glory. Whilst we admire the wonders of grace and mercy, which God hath displayed in their favour, we are strongly moved to praise his adorable goodness. And, in their penitential lives and holy maxims, we learn the sublime lessons of practical virtue, which their assiduous meditation on the divine word, the most consummate experience in their deserts, watchings, and commerce with heaven, and the lights of the Holy Ghost, their interior Master, discovered to them. But it is superfluous to show from reason the eminent usefulness of the example, and the history of the saints, which the most sacred authority recommends to us as one of the most powerful helps to virtue. It is the admonition of St. Paul, that we remember our holy teachers, and that, having the end of their conversation before our eyes, we imitate their faith.4
For our instruction the Holy Ghost himself inspired the prophets to record the lives and actions of many illustrious saints in the holy scriptures. The church could not, in a more solemn manner, recommend to us to have these great models often before our eyes, than by inserting in her daily office an abstract of the lives of the martyrs and other saints; which constant sacred custom is derived from the primitive ages, in which the histories of the martyrs were publicly read at the divine office, in the assemblies of the faithful, on their annual festivals. This is testified of the acts of St. Polycarp in the life of St. Pionius, and, by St. Austin,5 of those of SS. Perpetua and Felicitas, &c. The council of Africa, under Aurelius, archbishop of Carthage, in 397, mentions the acts of the martyrs being allowed to be read in the church on their anniversary days.6 St. Cæsarius permitted persons that were sick and weak, to hear the histories of the martyrs sitting, when they were of an uncommon length; but complained that some who were healthful unreasonably took the same liberty.7
All great masters of a spiritual life exceedingly extol the advantages which accrue to souls from the devout reading of the lives of eminent saints; witness St. Nilus,8 St. Chrysostom, and others. Many fathers have employed their pens in transmitting down to posterity the actions of holy men. And the histories of saints were the frequent entertainment and delight of all pious persons, who ever found in them a most powerful means of their encouragement and advancement in virtue, as St. Bonaventure writes of St. Francis of Assisium. By the remembrance of the saints, as by the touch of glowing stones of fire, he was himself enkindled, and converted into a divine flame. St. Stephen of Grandmont read their lives every day, and often on his knees. The abbot St. Junian, St. Antoninus, St. Thomas, and other holy men are recorded to have read assiduously the lives of the saints, and by their example to have daily enflamed themselves with fervour in all virtues. St. Boniface of Mentz sent over to England for books of the lives of the saints,9 and, by reading the acts of the martyrs, animated himself with the spirit of martyrdom. This great apostle of Germany, St. Sigiran and others, always carried with them in their journeys the acts of the martyrs, that they might read them wherever they travelled. It is related of St. Anastasius the martyr, that whilst he read the conflicts and victories of the martyrs, he watered the book with his tears, and prayed that he might suffer the like for Christ. And so much was he delighted with this exercise that he employed in it all his leisure hours. St. Teresa declares how much the love of virtue was kindled in her breast by this reading, even when she was a child. Joseph Scaliger, a rigid Calvinist critic, writes as follows on the acts of certain primitive martyrs.10 The souls of pious persons are so strongly affected in reading them, that they always lay down the book with regret. This every one may experience in himself. I with truth aver, that there is nothing in the whole history of the church with which I am so much moved: when I read them I seem no longer to possess myself.
It would be very easy to compile a volume of the remarkable testimonies of eminent and holy men concerning this most powerful help to virtue, and to produce many examples of sinners, who have been converted by it to an heroic practice of piety. St. Austin mentions two courtiers who were moved on the spot to forsake the world, and became fervent monks by accidently reading the life of St. Antony.11 St. John Columbin, from a rich, covetous, and passionate nobleman, was changed into a saint, by casually reading the life of St. Mary of Egypt.12 The duke of Joyeuse, marshal of France, owed his perfect conversion to the reading of the life of St. Francis Borgia, which his servant had one evening laid on the table. To these, the example of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and innumerable others might be added. Dr. Palafox, the pious bishop of Osma, in his preface to the fourth tome of the letters of St. Teresa, relates, that an eminent Lutheran minister at Bremen, famous for several works which he had printed against the Catholic church, purchased the life of St. Teresa, written by herself, with a view of attempting to confute it; but, by attentively reading it over, was converted to the Catholic faith, and from that time led a most edifying life. The example of Mr. Abraham Woodhead and others were not less illustrious.
But to appeal to our own experiencewho is not awakened from his spiritual lethargy, and confounded at his own cowardice, when he considers the fervour and courage of the saints? All our pretences and foolish objections are silenced, when we see the most perfect maxims of the gospel demonstrated to be easy by example. When we read how many young noblemen and tender virgins have despised the world, and joyfully embraced the cross and the labours of penance, we feel a glowing flame kindled in our own breasts, and are encouraged to suffer afflictions with patience, and cheerfully to undertake suitable practices of penance. Whilst we see many sanctifying themselves in all states, and making the very circumstances of their condition, whether on the throne, in the army, in the state of marriage, or in the deserts, the means of their virtue and penance, we are persuaded that the practice of perfection is possible also to us, in every lawful profession, and that we need only sanctify our employments by a perfect spirit, and the fervent exercises of religion, to become saints ourselves, without quitting our state in the world. When we behold others, framed of the same frail mould with ourselves, many in age or other circumstances weaker than ourselves, and struggling with greater difficulties, yet courageously surmounting, and trampling upon all obstacles by which the world endeavoured to obstruct their virtuous choice, we are secretly stung within our breasts, feel the reproaches of our sloth, are roused from our state of insensibility, and are forced to cry out, Cannot you do what such and such have done? But to wind up this discourse, and draw to a conclusion; whether we consult reason, authority, or experience, we may boldly affirm, that except the sacred writings, no book has reclaimed so many sinners, or formed so many holy men to perfect virtue, as that of The Lives of Saints.
If we would read to the spiritual profit of our souls, our motive must be a sincere desire of improving ourselves in divine love, in humility, meekness, and other virtues. Curiosity or vanity, shut the door of the heart to the Holy Ghost, and stifle in it all affections of piety. A short and humble petition of the divine light ought to be our preparation; for which we may say with the prophet, Open thou mine eyes, and I will consider the wonderful things of thy law.13 We must make the application of what we read to ourselves, entertaining pious affections, and forming particular resolutions for the practice of virtue. It is the admonition of a great servant of God,14 Whatever good instructions you read, unless you resolve and effectually endeavour to practice them with your whole heart, you have not read to the benefit of your soul. For knowledge without works only accuseth and condemneth. Though we cannot imitate all the actions of the saints, we can learn from them to practise humility, patience, and other virtues in a manner suiting our circumstances and state of life; and can pray that we may receive a share in the benedictions and glory of the saints. As they who have seen a beautiful flower-garden, gather a nosegay to smell at the whole day; so ought we, in reading, cull out some flowers, by selecting certain pious reflections and sentiments with which we are most affected; and these we should often renew during the day; lest we resemble a man who, having looked at himself in the glass, goeth away, and forgetteth what he had seen of himself.