"In What True Wisdom Consists" sermon for the Sunday Within the Octave of the Nativity by St Aphonsus de Ligouri
“Behold, this Child is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel” – Luke, ii. 34.
Such was the language of holy Simeon when he had the consolation to hold in his hands the infant Jesus. Among other things which he then foretold, he declared that “this child was set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel”. In these words he extols the lot of the saints, who, after this life, shall rise to a life of immortality in the kingdom of bliss, and he deplores the misfortune of sinners, who, for the transitory and miserable pleasures of this world, bring upon themselves eternal ruin and perdition. But, notwithstanding the greatness of his own misery, the unhappy sinner, reflecting only on the enjoyment of present goods calls the saints fools, because they seek to live in poverty, in humiliation, and self-denial. But a day will come when sinners shall see their errors, and shall say: “We fools esteemed their life madness, and their end without honour” – Wis. 5:4. We fools behold how they shall confess that they themselves have been truly fools. Let us examine in what true wisdom consists, and we shall see, in the first point, that sinners are truly foolish, and, in the second, that the saints are truly wise.
What greater folly can be conceived than to have the power of being the friends of God, and to wish to be His enemies? Their living in enmity with God makes the life of sinners unhappy in this world and purchases for them an eternity of misery hereafter. St Augustine relates that two courtiers of the emperor entered a monastery of hermits, and that one of them began to read the life of St Anthony. “He read”, says the saint, “and his heart was divested of the world”. He read, and in reading, his affections were detached from the earth. Turning to his companion, he exclaimed: “What do we seek? The friendship of the emperor is the most we can hope for. And through how many perils shall we arrive at still greater danger? Should we obtain his friendship, how long shall it last?” Friend, said he, fools that we are, what do we seek? Can we expect more in this life, by serving the emperor, than to gain his friendship? And should we, after many dangers, succeed in making him our friend, we shall expose ourselves to greater danger of eternal perdition. What difficulties must we encounter in order to becomes the friends of Caesar.” But, if I wish, I can in a moment become the friend of God”. I can acquire His friendship by endeavouring to recover His grace. His divine grace is that infinite treasure which makes us worthy of His friendship “For she is an infinite treasure to men, which they that use become the friends of God” – Wis. 7:14.
The Gentiles believed it impossible for a creature to become the friend of God; for, as St Jerome says, friendship makes friends equal. But Jesus Christ has declared, that if we observe His commands, we shall be His friends. “You are my friends if you do the things that I command” – John 15:14.
How great then is the folly of sinners, who, though they have it in their power to enjoy the friendship of God, wish to live in enmity with Him! The Lord does not hate any of His creatures: He does not hate the tiger, the viper, or the toad. “For thou lovest all things that are, and hatest none of the things which thou hast made” – Wis. 11:25. But He necessarily hates sinners. “thou hatest all the workers of iniquity” – Ps. 5:7. God cannot but hate sin, which is His enemy and diametrically opposed to His will; and therefore, in hating sin, He necessarily hates the sinner who is united with his sin. “But to God the wicked and his wickedness are hateful alike” – Wis. 14:9.
The sinner is guilty of folly in leading a life opposed to the end for which he was created. God has not created us, nor does He preserve our lives, that we may labour to acquire riches or earthly honours, or that we may indulge in amusements: but that we may love and serve Him in this world, in order to love and enjoy Him for eternity in the next. “And the end life everlasting” – Rom. 6:22. Thus the present life, as St Gregory says, is the way by which we must reach Paradise, our true country. “In the present life we are as it were on the road by which we journey to our country” – S. Greg. Hom. xi. In Evan.
But the misfortune of the greater part of mankind is, that, instead of following the way of salvation, they foolishly walk in the road to perdition. Some have a passion for earthly riches, and, for a vile interest, they lose the immense goods of Paradise: others have a passion for honours, and, for a momentary applause, they lose their right to be kings in Heaven: others have a passion for sensual pleasures, and, for transitory delights, they lose the grace of God, and are condemned to burn for ever in a prison of fire. Miserable souls! If, in punishment of a certain sin, their hand was to be burned with a red hot iron, or if they were to be shut up for ten years in a dark prison, they certainly would abstain from it. And do they not know that, in chastisement of their sins, they shall be condemned to remain for ever in Hell, where their bodies, buried in fire, shall burn for all eternity? Some, says St John Chrysostom (hom. de recup. laps), to save the body, choose to destroy the soul; but, do they not know that, in losing the soul, their bodies shall be condemned to eternal torments? “If we neglect the soul, we cannot save the body”.
In a word, sinners lose their reason, and imitate brute animals, that follow the instinct of nature, and seek carnal pleasures without ever reflecting on their lawfulness or unlawfulness. But to act in this manner is, according to St Chrysostom, to act not like a man, but like a beast. To be men we must be rational; that is we must act, not according to the sensual appetite, but according to the dictates of reason. If God gave to beasts the use of reason, and if they acted according to its rules, we should say that they acted like men. And it must, on the other hand, be said, that the man whose conduct is agreeable to the senses, but contrary to reason, acts like a beast. He who follows the dictates of reason, provides for the future. “Oh! That they would be wise and would understand, and would provide for the their last end” – Deut. 22:29. He looks to the future – that is, to the account he must render at the hour of death, after which he shall be doomed to Hell or to Heaven, according to his merits “One is not wise if one is not so towards one’s self,” says St Bernard – lib. de consid. One is not wise when one is not wise towards one’s self by taking special care to know and to assure one’s self of eternal happiness.
Sinners think only of the present, but regard not the end for which they were created. But what will it profit them to gain all things, if they lose their last end, which alone can make them happy? “But one thing is necessary” Luke 10:42. To attain our end is the only thing necessary for us: if we lose it, all is lost. What is this end? It is eternal life. During life, sinners care but little for the attainment of their end. Each day brings them nearer to death and to eternity; but they know not their destination. Should a pilot who is asked whither he is going, answer that he did not know, would not all, says St Augustine, cry out, that he was bringing the vessel to destruction? The saint then adds: “Such is the one that walks outside of the track.”
Such are the wise of the world, who know how to acquire wealth and honours, and to indulge in every kind of amusement; but know not how to save their souls. How miserable the rich glutton, who, though able to lay up riches, and to live splendidly, was, after death, buried in Hell! How miserable Alexander the Great, who, after gaining so many kingdoms, was condemned to eternal torments! How great the folly of Henry the Eighth, who rebelled against the Church, but seeing at the hour of death that his soul should be lost, cried out in despair: “Friends, we have lost all”! O God, how many others now weep in Hell, and exclaim: “What hath pride profited us? Or what advantage hath the boasting of riches brought us? All those things are passed away like a shadow” – Wis. 5:8. In the world we made a great figure – we enjoyed abundant riches and honours; but now all is passed away like a shadow, and nothing remains for us but to suffer and weep for eternity. St Augustine says, that the happiness which sinners enjoy in this life, is their greatest misfortune. “Nothing is more calamitous than the felicity of sinners, by which their perverse will, like an internal enemy, is strengthened: - Ep., v. ad Marcellin.
In fine, the words of Solomon are fulfilled, with regard to all who neglect their salvation: “Mourning taketh hold of the end of joy” – Prov. 14:13. All their pleasures, honours, and greatness end in eternal sorrow and wailing. “Whilst I was yet beginning, he cut me off” – Is. 38:12. Whilst they are laying the foundation of their hopes of realising a fortune, death comes, and, cutting the thread of life, deprives them of all their possessions, and sends them to Hell to burn forever in a pit of fire. What greater folly can be conceived, than to wish to be transformed from the friend of God into the slave of Lucifer, and from the heir of Paradise to become, by sin, doomed to Hell? For, the moment a Christian commits a mortal sin, his name is written among the number of the damned. St Francis de Sales said, that, if the angels were capable of weeping, they would do nothing else than shed tears at the sight of the destruction which a Christian who commits mortal sin brings upon himself.
Oh! how great is the folly of sinners, who, by living in sin, lead a life of misery and discontent! All the goods of this world cannot content the heart of man, which has been created to love God, and can find no peace out of God. What are all the grandeurs and all the pleasures of this world, but “vanity of vanities”? – Eccles. 1:2. What are they but “vanity and vexation of spirit”?- ibid., 4:16. Earthly goods are, according to Solomon, who had experience of them, vanity of vanities; that is, mere vanities, lies, and deceits. They are also a “vexation of spirit”: they not only do not content, but they even afflict the soul; and the more abundantly they are possessed, the greater the anguish which they produce. Sinners hope to find peace in their sins; but what peace can they enjoy? “There is no peace to the wicked, saith the Lord”- Is. 48:22. I abstain from saying more at present on the unhappy life of sinners: I shall speak of it in another place. At present, it is enough for you to know that God gives peace to the souls who love Him, and not to those who despise Him. Instead of seeking to be the friends of God, sinners wish to be the slaves of Satan, who is a cruel and merciless tyrant to all who submit to his yoke. And if he promises delights, he does it, as St Cyprian says, not for our welfare, but that we may be the companions of his torments in Hell.
Let us be persuaded that the truly wise are those who know how to love God, and to gain Heaven. Happy the man to whom God has given the science of the saints. Oh! how sublime the science which teaches us to know how to love God and to save our souls! Happy, says St Augustine, is the man. “who knows God, although he is ignorant of other things”. They who know God, the love which He merits, and how to love Him, stand not in need of any other knowledge. They are wiser than those who are masters of many sciences, but know not how to love God. Brother Egidius, of the order of St Francis, once said to St Bonaventure: Happy you, O Father Bonaventure, who are so learned, and who, by your learning, can become more holy than I can, who am a poor, ignorant man. Listen, replied the saint: if an old woman knows how to love God better than I do, she is more learned and more holy than I am. At hearing this, Brother Egidius exclaimed: O poor old woman! Poor old woman! Father Bonaventure says, that, if you love God more than he does, you can surpass him in sanctity.
This excited the envy of St Augustine, and made him ashamed of himself. He exclaimed, “The ignorant rise up, and bear away the kingdom of heaven,” and what are we, the learned of this world, doing? Oh! how many of the rude and illiterate are saved, because, though unable to read, they know how to love God; and how many of the wise of the world are damned! Oh! truly wise were St John of God, St Felix and St Paschal, who were poor lay Franciscans, and unacquainted with human sciences, but learned in the science of the saints. But the wonder is, that, though worldlings themselves are fully persuaded of this truth, and constantly extol the merit of those who retire from the world to live only to God, still they act as if they believe it not.
Tell me, brethren, to which class do you wish to belong – to the wise of the world, or to the wise of God? Before you make a choice, St Chrysostom advises you to go to the graves of the dead. Oh! how eloquently do the sepulchres of the dead teach us the science of the saints, and the vanity of all earthly goods! For my part, said the saint, “I see nothing but rottenness, bones, and worms”. As if he said: Among these skeletons, I cannot distinguish the noble, the rich, or the learned; I see that they have all become dust and rottenness: thus all their greatness and glory have passed away like a dream.
What then must we do? Behold the advice of St Paul. “This, therefore, I say, brethren: the time is short: it remaineth that… they that use this world BE as if they used it not; for the fashion of this world passeth away” – I Cor. 7:29 and 31. This world is a scene which shall pass away and end very soon: “The time is short”. During the days of life that remain, let us endeavour to live like men who are wise, not according to the world, but according to God, by attending to the sanctification of our souls, and by adopting the means of salvation; by flying dangerous occasions; by practising prayer; joining some pious sodality; frequenting the sacraments; reading every day a spiritual book; and by daily hearing Mass, if it be in our power; or, at least, by visiting Jesus in the Holy Sacrament of the altar, and some image of the most Holy Mary. Thus we shall be truly wise, and shall be happy for time and eternity.