Wednesday, 10 June 2015

The Heroic Act of Charity for the Suffering Souls. § 63. The Practice of the Heroic Act of Charity. Part 1.

La Mappa dell'Inferno – Sandro Boticelli
496. When we are about to perform an act pleasing to God or beneficial to our neighbor, human nature is inclined to make us fear that we are going too far or are doing too much. Hence we are easily satisfied with what we do and imagine that God is satisfied with us also. Our zeal is not ardent; the words of Scripture do not apply to it, "The fire never saith, it is enough." (Prov. xxx. 16.) Our sacrifices are therefore of a limited character. And this first fault generally causes another; for once having resolved to reserve something to ourselves, we rarely. follow the example of Abel, but rather that of Cain. What we esteem highly, what is dear to us—that we select for ourselves; and God and our neighbor must content themselves with whatever we can spare without self-denial. Hence our sacrifice is but too often one that costs us no effort. .Moreover, the motives of our good works are often not pure, and hence they are of little or no value before God. We seek to please men; we do not wish to be rated lower than others; we desire to please ourselves. What our Lord said of the pharisees may therefore and perhaps often be applicable also to us, "Amen I say to you, they have received their reward." (Matth. vi. 16.) Finally, our sacrifices very often proceed from vanity and are corrupted by self-interest.

497. Instead of examining ourselves closely on this point—which scrutiny would most probably result to our confusion—, let us rather view the grand example of heroic charity given us by Christians of former ages, and so learn to avoid our faults for the future. It is self-evident that charity must be manifested by actions. Of this truth St. Gregory was so convinced that he maintains, as a principle of Christian life, that where there is action there is, charity; but let there be ever so much declaration of charity, if action be wanting, charity is defective. Nevertheless acts—works alone—are not the sole proof of charity. It is proved even better by trials. Works are performed by voluntary selection; trials come to us against our will. Works show themselves exteriorly and are often rendered worthless by vainglory; trials are considered as punishments, and therefore they humble us. Works are performed when and where our inclination prompts us to perform them; to trials we must submit always and as long as it pleases heaven. Not to be overwhelmed by them we must have a great love of God. There have been men who have accomplished great things for God, but they did not stand the test of tribulations. Hence it follows that charity must be the more ardent, the more difficult the trials that must be borne, be they spiritual or corporal trials. Now judge for yourself from the following examples what a high degree of charity must have been attained by those who undertook so great works for God and for their deceased brethren.

498. First let. us consider the great solicitude with which all nations of the earth sought, from natural instinct, to honor the dead and to come to their aid.— The display and pomp of the ancient Gauls at their funerals is almost incredible; their perverted sense of devotion to their dead led them even to cruelty and superstition. Julius Caesar, in his book De bello Gallico (vi. 19.), relates that they cremated together with the deceased not only everything that he held dear, but also his slaves and freed-men, his furniture, weapons, horses, dogs, etc.—Could they do more to prove their devotion to his memory, their love for him?

499. The ancient Romans were no less anxious to honor their dead. During the cremation of the corpse those attending went repeatedly around the funeral pyre, moving in procession to the sound of doleful music; and at every round the weeping relatives would throw into the flames some costly pledge of their affection for the deceased. Thus not only the clothing and war trophies of the deceased were burned together with his corpse, but the wives tore out their hair and threw their rings and bracelets into the fire. Others, despite the prohibition of the law, mutilated themselves in the excess of their grief; and some wives even sprang into the flames to be consumed with their husbands, as is related by Cicero, Suetonius, Pliny and other authors. This latter circumstance reminds us of the custom of the natives of India mentioned by Cicero. The natives of that country were given to the practice of polygamy; and so it happened sometimes that the wives struggled with one another for the privilege of being cremated alive with the deceased husband, because the one selected for it was considered the favorite.

500. The pagans preserved the ashes of their relatives in an urn of clay, bronze, marble or gold, according to the wealth and rank of the deceased. During the funeral services the surviving relatives wept so profusely, that small vases called lacrymatories were filled with their tears. These vases were placed next to the ashes of the. deceased; and over the tomb was placed a burning lamp, to indicate that their love and grief would be everlasting, that they would ever have tears in their eyes and love in their hearts for their departed kinsman.—To perpetuate the memory of her husband, king Mausolus, queen Artemisia had a tomb constructed which was regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world. Not content with this external demonstration of her love, she placed the ashes of her husband into a golden cup, mixed them with a beverage and courageously drank them, thus burying him in her own bosom.—The funeral celebration which Alexander the Great arranged for his friend Hyphaestion surpassed all other deeds performed by this king. The pyre alone is estimated to have cost eleven million dollars.—Miltiades was sentenced to pay a certain sum; as he was not able to do so, he was cast into prison and died there. As the term of his imprisonment had not expired at the time of his death, the authorities would not make arrangements for his burial. His son Cimon immediately offered himself to serve out the unexpired term, and thus he procured his father's interment.—A beautiful example of filial devotion given by a pagan !

501. Should our charity for the deceased, supernatural and infused by God Himself, not be incomparably more ardent and effective? , If these pagans had been Christians, what would they not have done to release the souls of those they loved from the torments of Purgatory and to open heaven to them? And now, behold the indifference of Christians; behold the small number of those who have at heart the release of the Holy Souls! On the other hand, consider how great is the number of those who ape the extravagant funeral display of the modern pagans of our day! Is vanity to triumph over true Christian charity, frivolity over piety, the American pagan over the Roman Catholic ? Shall natural affection have the power of producing heroic deeds of charity while Christian charity stands vanquished?—O piety without essence, charity without works, devotion without effect—if we are not moved to compassion by the fiery torments suffered by the Holy Souls! Pagans will sit in judgment over us on the last day, and will accuse us of believing one way and acting another, because we did little or nothing for our departed friends!

502. Great and heroic as are the works of the pagans for their deceased, the deeds of zealous Christians for the faithful departed greatly surpass them. To be productive of self-sacrificing, heroic members who hasten to assist the Suffering Souls, is one of the beautiful prerogatives of the Catholic Church, and a distinctive mark by which she is known from other denominations. The great number of her heroes of charity and the diversity of their practices in favor of the Suffering Souls is truly wonderful. No country is so sterile, no century so barbarous, but it produced its heroes; there is no work of charity to which the Church cannot point as an example; no day of the year on which she does not remind us of a model of some charitable practice for the repose of the dead.— The wise men of pagan times are praised; their moral rigor, austere principles and intellectual vigor are lauded; incidents of their lives are pointed out as examples for imitation. But—not to mention the difference between Christian and pagan virtue—what are two or three good men in so many centuries when contrasted with the countless number of Christian saints? After the Greeks have pointed out their Socrates, their Cimon, the Romans their jCato—there are not many more left to them. And the Catholic Church ?—All saints in heaven, and all true and zealous members of the Church militant are heroic friends of the Suffering Souls!

503. Heroic acts of charity are not restricted to one class of benefactors, or to one kind of works. Zealous charity for the Suffering Souls has ever been inventive in its modes of expression; and accordingly it has produced that beautiful and harmonious diversity which is a joy to the Church, an honor to humanity, and an effective means for the continual population of heaven. Search the bleak deserts, the snowy mountain peaks and the wooded vales throughout the world: you will find heroes of charity everywhere. Every age,condition and sex has its representatives. You find heroes and heroines of charity in palaces and on thrones. Remember the holy king St. Louis of France. He wore the habit of St. Francis* Third Order of Penance beneath the royal purple; his tender hands were stained with bandaging the leprous sores of beggars; his alms were scattered broadcast from the Seine to the Jordan. Behold him in the manifold character of a just ruler, a wise law-giver, a brave warrior, a loving husband, a kind father, a devout son of the Church; and with all these saintly virtues he joined a tender charity for the Suffering Souls!—And again, turn your eyes to the lowly shepherds of the plains. Their virtues were hidden to the world; their virtuous deeds were unknown except to the all-seeing eye of God; and yet the Church has sought them out and accords to them the honor of her altars—for instance, St. Genevieve in ancient times, St. Germaine Cousin in our own! Remember St. Alexius, the outcast in his fathers own house, in times so long ago that they seem ages ; and again, see the holy pilgrim of the last century, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, begging his way from shrine to shrine:—they all are friends, heroic friends, of the Holy Souls; their every act is a prayer, an offering for the release of these -sufferers. O wonderful fecundity of grace and charity, yielding every day new and living proofs of its efficiency, productive of heroes in all phases of life, in every age, condition, character and sex, and yet ever retaining its creative power! O wonderful religion, begetting in its saints the true type of heroism, regenerating human society in the charity of Christ!

504. Heroism is but another word for fortitude; and where is greater fortitude to be found than with the faithful, generous followers of Christ ? True, the world laughs at them. It has ever been so, as Holy Scripture informs us, "The simplicity of the just man is laughed to scorn." (Job xn. 4.) The world demands virtues of a different type, which call forth the praise of men: certain virtues of position, easy of practice and seldom put to a test; acts of bravery applauded by admiring crowds; a life of glory, fame and renown ; an end like that of the tragedian counterfeiting death on the stage, and closing the scene with a striking utterance. This the world considers to be the height of heroism. But to overcome self; to be ruler of one's heart; to pardon injuries and to bear trials; to despise the honors which the world idolizes; to love truth to the point of giving one's life for it; to be resigned in all the vicissitudes of life; to go through life quietly and peacefully, leaving no other foot-prints but those of charity; to forgive and love one's enemies :—is this not great heroism ? And such was the heroism of the devout friends of the Suffering Souls, of those who offered themselves as victims of charity for them. Their virtue was not the caprice of a moment, but the result of a life-long combat, until finally it became and remained a fixed and stable disposition of their being. If we read their utterances or consider their achievements, we find no attempt at appearing great before the world. Always engaged in combat with the world, with hell and with the passions, and ever victorious, their mode of life was simple and unostentatious. The world accuses them of narrow-mindedness, because of their humility and contempt of fame. The children of the world seek their greatness in public applause and display: but is not the disdain of such greatness a proof of real heroism ?

Does it not require great courage to fulfil the promises made in baptism of renouncing satan, his works and his pomps ? Or is the world to be called strong-minded because it succumbs to the temptations of pride while the friends of the Holy Souls triumph over them? Moreover, these helpers of the sufferers in Purgatory despised the world, not from the motives which actuate so-called philosophers who veil their pride with poverty and appear to disdain fame in order to achieve it more easily. What could the friends of the Suffering Souls gain by hypocrisy ? Unknown to the world, known only to God, the good works of these holy Christians were performed for heaven, not for transitory honor.

505. Yet we must not infer from this that the friends of the Holy Souls hid their light under the bushel (Matth. v. 16), that they did not shine by the light of their good example. History abounds with their words spoken and deeds performed in favor of the suffering spouses of Christ. They were indeed heroes, rejoicing at being able to do and to suffer something for the Holy Souls —for example, those brave virgins who defaced their beauty with their own hands to escape the assaults of libertines, and offered up this heroic act for the relief of those souls in Purgatory that suffered for sins of impurity ; those apostolic men who defied the icy blasts of the north pole and the scorching heat of the tropics, who travelled through barren wildernesses and across unknown seas to bring the glad tidings of the Gospel to barbarous nations, and suffered all the fatigues of their holy calling for the souls of the faithful departed. Others sanctified themselves amid the dangers of the world and found ways and means to live in it without being of it. If they had not gold to give to the poor, they gave the cup of cold water in a spirit of charity, sure that even this would be rewarded in heaven. They were ever solicitous to dry the tears of the distressed, to minister to the sick, to comfort the afflicted, to loosen the bonds of prisoners, to relieve the oppressed and to strengthen the weak. Knowing that man is subject to so much wretchedness and misery, their aim was to aid and encourage, to instruct and improve him, and thus to assist him on his way through the portals of death ; and all this they did to atone for the Suffering Souls. These heroes achieved a three-fold result: their virtues secured for them a blissful eternity ; for the souls of Purgatory they obtained relief and deliverance; and to their survivors they left an example of heroic fortitude. And though the enemies of God and the Church may have destroyed the monuments of their zeal, the spirit that prompted it still animates their followers: they, too, are steadfast friends of the Holy Souls.