SIXTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Short Sermons On The Gospels
by Rev F. Peppert
(Joseph F. Wagner. New York. 1914)
For this cause I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened by His spirit with might unto the inward man.
Ephesians 3: 14 and 16
As all outward mortifications are merely means of perfection, and not an end in themselves, they ought to be recommended and employed only in as far as they do not interfere with health, nor with the performance of the ordinary duties of life. Hence we ought to be very cautious in recommending others to practise austerities, and in imitating the things done by others. All morti fications have the same object, viz., to bring us nearer to Christian perfection, but the means employed must necessarily vary according to the age, constitution, character, circumstances and position of each individual. In the same way all medical treatment aims at the restoration of health, but the remedies prescribed vary according to the disease from which the patient is suffering and his physical peculiarities.
How absurd it would be to give to one patient the medicine prescribed for another, and to imagine that a drug which proved beneficial in one case, must be a cure for all sick people, no matter what malady they have! The absurdity of this is plain to everybody, but some of us do not recognize the folly of a similar treatment of the soul, which is of more value than the body.
It does not at all follow, because a confessor orders one man to practise one particular mortification, that another person ought to practise it too; on the contrary, what is beneficial to one may be harmful to another, and therefore we ought not to tell others what penance has been imposed upon us at our Confession. If we see others practising this or that mortification, it does not follow that we should imitate them. Let us do what is good for us individually, according to our confessor's advice. Imitation in this respect has often done much harm, for, even if the mortifications imitated are not injurious, people are sure to say: "What kind of piety is this, that does this or that simply in order not to be unlike others?" Experience teaches us that those who do things that attract attention, solely from a desire to copy others, are equally ready to copy what is bad. It is my duty to caution you never to put yourselves forward to guide or counsel others with regard to any extraordinary works of mortification. We cannot be too zealous in encouraging others to observe the ordinary rules and duties of religion, but we ought to act with extreme care when any question arises of extraordinary works, which can be beneficially under taken only after a thorough investigation has been made of the circumstances of each person. Some are only too ready to give advice, but it is not easy to acquire both the general knowledge of mankind and the particular knowledge of the individual, which alone can enable anyone to decide whether a work, good in itself, will be useful and advantageous in some particular case. With regard to bodily sickness, we often see that ignorant people, with all the good will in the world, do a great deal of harm by their advice, and precisely the same thing is true with regard to the soul.
All the saints are agreed that, in practising works of exterior mortification, it behooves us to be on our guard against injuring our health and strength. This is a proof that their penances, which would destroy our health or perhaps actually kill us, were performed by them only because God gave them special sanction. On this subject St. Thomas Aquinas writes: "We ought to judge of the e
nd and of the means conducive to it in different ways; the end (viz., perfection) should be sought unreservedly; but, in applying the means, we must always take into consideration whether they are conducive to the attainment of the end in the case of the person applying them. Hence, continues the saint, it is important to reflect that in the spiritual life the end is perfection; but fasting, vigils and other bodily austerities are only means, and should therefore be applied with reasonable moderation, so as to overcome the passions without injuring the health, as St. Paul tells us, when he says: "Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service" (Rom. 12: 1).
St. Jerome says that whoever injured his body immoderately by such exterior mortifications, offered God a sacrifice obtained by violence and robbery. St. Basil expresses a similar opinion when he writes: "Let it be regarded as more honorable and profitable to provide for the preservation and increase of physical strength, than to diminish it by mistaken austerities; let it be thought better to keep the body strong and healthy, so that it may be of service in doing good works, than to exhaust it by excessive mortification." St. Bernard, too, agrees with the saints to whom I have just referred, and gives a reason, derived from sad experience, for, carefully avoiding excessive severity in this respect. He says that people who go too far in their blind zeal as a rule grow tired of all the exercises of piety, and either return to a worldly existence, or, under the pretext of wishing to recover their strength, indulge in every imaginable luxury, even in those that are sinful. All excess, even in what appears to be good, leads to a lamentable end.
There is no need for me to prove that our exterior mortification ought no more to interfere with the performance of our ordinary duties than be prejudicial to our health. Our duty is always the chief thing for us to keep in view, as it is imposed upon us by God, and is the expression of His will. It is by no means right to undertake any voluntary good works that cause us either to neglect our duty, or to discharge it in an imperfect manner; it is in fact absolutely wrong, and an unmist
akable token of thoroughly false piety, unless the mistake is due to some mental weakness.
To sum up what I have said to-day: We may be sure that no exterior practices of mortification ought to injure our health or interfere with our duties. Let us be guided by this principle, and we shall then be in no danger of giving way to false piety, for we shall undertake such practices only as are conducive to our true welfare. Amen.