V. STRIVING AFTER PERFECTION.
Promptitude in the service of God is eagerness to please Him. It flows from a spirit of docility animated by the love of God, and manifests itself (1) in the exactness with which we perform the duties of our state in life; (2) in the willingness with which we carry our cross; (3) and in the alacrity, cheerfulness, and thoroughness with which we strive to please God in all things. It induces us to concentrate our energies on the task before us, and to accomplish much under disadvantages and in a short time.
2. Continuous Effort.
By a continuous effort in the service of God we mean that our efforts should never relax till our earthly pilgrimage is ended. The very nature of our earthly trial demands this uninterrupted endeavor on our part. Now time, grace, and opportunity are given us. If we employ them in God's service we progress; if we neglect to use them we recede. In this life there is no stopping place, no time when we are exempt from doing God's holy will. Eternal rest awaits us in heaven. If, then, we neglect to co-operate even with a single grace, that neglect may break the chain of graces that leads to final perseverance, and so may be the first step to our final reprobation.
3. Gradual Progress.
The spiritual life is composed of a divine and a human element. The divine element is the grace of God; the human, our fallen nature actuated by good will. Both elements combine to effect the spiritual life within us, the human element supplying the material or favorable condition, while the grace of God is the efficient cause of our sanctification. The human element progresses by self-denial and patient endurance of the cross in imitation of the Master; the divine, by an infusion of additional grace.
As the human element progresses by being more and more subjected to the influence of grace, its progress is usually slow and necessarily gradual, though always proportionate to the violence we do to ourselves. The progress of the divine element, or the influence of grace, when not miraculous^ is also gradual, because proportionate to the capacity of the human element. God is indeed lavish, but not reckless, with His grace. He gives the increase in proportion to our fidelity in co-operating with it, or in proportion as we increase our capacity for grace by the gradual surrender of ourselves through conformity to His holy will.
Patience is that self-possession which enables us to conform to the will of God in the trials of life. The trials of life arise (1) from the nature of our earthly pilgrimage; (2) from the infirmity of human nature; (8) from the conduct of others; (4) from the influence of the spirit-world; (5) and from the special dispensations of divine Providence.
Patience (1) makes us masters of ourselves and our surroundings; (2) makes us Christlike in our love of the cross; (3) makes us the be- loved children of God; (4) entitles us to the reward of heaven; (5) and gives that "peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding" (Phil. iv. 7). To possess our souls in patience St. Alphonsus exhorts us (1) to anticipate the trials that await us; (2) to pray for strength to endure them; (3) to frequent the sacraments; (4) to live in intimate union with God.
5. Decision in Temptation.
Decision in temptation is vigor and promptitude in resisting the inclinations to sin. Our will may act with this decision even when our nature is rebellious and hankers for what is forbidden. And, practically^ the greater the effort necessary to triumph over a temptation, the greater is also the victory and the merit.
As every temptation puts our loyalty to Jesus Christ to the test, we should be more concerned about our decision than about the nature of the temptation which may assail us. Our hope of triumph is in the goodness and promises of God, but the grace of God cannot crown us with victory before we have stood the test of resisting the temptation with decision.
To maintain this decision and conquer every temptation we must (1) habitually despise the flesh, the world, and the devil; (2) be constant in prayer and the frequentation of the sacraments; (3) make devout use of blessed articles; (4) and occasionally reveal our severer temptations to our director. Most temptations are easily overcome by making contrary acts in a spirit of faith. The saints of God advise us, however, to turn away from temptations against faith and holy purity, and conquer them by invoking the aid of Jesus and Mary while occupying our minds with other subjects. The reason for this salutary advice is because temptations against faith and holy purity are intensified by actual opposition. "I do believe. Lord; help my unbelief (Mark ix. 23). “As I knew that I could not otherwise be continent, except God gave it; I went to the Lord and besought Him" (Wis. viii. 21).
6. Avoidance of the Occasion of Sin.
The occasion of sin is something external to us, which allures us to sin. For one it is association with a certain person, for another the reading of a certain book, for a third the frequentation of a certain place. Again, some occasions are dangerous to faith, others to modesty, to temperance, to justice, or to charity.
By the law of self-preservation we are bound to avoid the proximate occasion of sin. When this is impossible we must render its danger, or allurement, remote by special vigilance and prayer. For the Holy Ghost says: ''He that loveth the danger shall perish in it” and " He that contemneth small things shall fall by little and little" (Ecclus. iii. 27; ix. 1).
As long as we (1) avoid the proximate occasion of sin when we can; (2) render the occasion remote where it is impossible to avoid it; (3) renew our determination to avoid every sin; (4) and fortify ourselves by prayer, we have a claim on the special protection of Providence, and may rest assured that God will deliver us. But, to seek the occasion of sin, or tarry voluntarily in it, besides incurring the guilt of the sin, is an act of presumption in which Samson, the strongest, and Solomon, the wisest, of men, succumbed.
7. Search for the Occasion of Doing Good.
An occasion of doing good is an opportunity of pleasing God. All are given the opportunity of fulfilling the duties of their state in life, as well as the opportunity of performing various acts of fraternal charity and Christian mercy. Our first aim should be to perform the duties of our state in life conscientiously, and then to seek those occasions of doing good (1) which harmonize with our calling; (2) which are most urgent; (3) which are nearest at hand. It is better to seek the ordinary occasions of doing good rather than the extraordinary, and to prefer the hidden ones to those which earn for us the applause of the world.
8. Sadness and Cheerfulness.
Sadness is a depression of heart which tends to exaggerate our troubles, to paralyze our energies, and to make us rebel at the trials of life. It may be caused (1) by physical infirmity, (2) by nervous strain, (3) by a sulky mood of our wounded pride or self-love, (4) by the weight of the burdens of life, (5) by remorse of conscience, (6) by the possession of an evil spirit, (7) by an extraordinary visitation of Providence.
Cheerfulness, on the other hand, is a buoyancy of spirit which inclines us to look on the bright side of things, fills us with enthusiasm, and enables us to bear the burdens of life with ease and pleasure. It may be caused (1) by the glow of health, (2) by the gratification of our pride or self-love, (3) by congenial occupation or surroundings, (4) by the peace of a good conscience, (5) by sensible fervor, (6) by the alluring influence of grace.
We can repress tendencies to sadness and cultivate cheerfulness by resigning ourselves unreservedly to the dispensations of Providence, and by seeking to please God alone in all things.
9. Attention to Details.
Attention to details is essential to produce a perfect work. Our daily life is made up mostly of minor obligations and petty trials. Heroic sacrifices are rarely required in a lifetime. Though the main duties of our calling demand our first attention, the details are also of obligation. By performing these with due attention, we also fulfill the former well and thus bring forth fruit a hundred-fold. Continual attention to details in shunning evil and doing good is not only the greatest evidence of our loyalty to God, but also the evidence of virtue as heroic as is found in the lives of the canonized saints.
10. Good Use of the Present Moment.
The present moment links the eternity of the past with the eternity to come. The past will never return; the future is in God's keeping. The present is the time of grace and opportunity. If we concentrate our energies on the present moment, our labor will be easy because sustained by grace, and our burden light because proportioned to our strength.
The present moment is so precious that St. Augustine calls it "a drop from the ocean of eternity." When used well it accumulates treasures for us in heaven, but when neglected or misspent it will be evidence of our guilt for the day of wrath.
11. Frequent Renewal of Our Good Intention.
As the hand of the compass turns to the North so human nature instinctively inclines to earthly things. To concentrate our energies on spiritual things we must counteract the downward tendency of our corrupt nature by a frequent renewal of our good intention. No matter how clear our perception of the Christian ideal, how complete the conquest over our enemies, how sincere our intention, how ardent our desires, and how determined our resolution, if we do not recollect ourselves and renew our intention from time to time, our fervor will cool, our generosity will decrease, and our vigilance will relax. In this lamentable condition we not only squander time and grace and commit many faults, but are apt to succumb to any serious temptation. On this account all Christians are exhorted to renew their good intention at least every morning. St. Alphonsus exhorts us to make good intention at the beginning of every undertaking, to renew it when the clock strikes, and to make it efficacious by the practice of ejaculatory prayer and the occasional recitation of a Hail Mary. At least let us accustom ourselves to repeat as often as we think of God, ''All for the glory of God and the good of souls. All out of love for Jesus and Mary. All according to God's holy will."