Saturday, 3 September 2016
The Paths of Goodness part 2.
WE remember reading long ago a bit of lively verse which told a very human story. It was the tale of a knight of old who sallied forth from his ancestral castle armed cap-a-pie with glistening mail and fired with youthful chivalry. Bright was the morn and fair the sun when the castle gates swung open to usher out this young adventurer, and brave his young heart beat as he vowed to do doughty deeds in distant lands and send his fame to history. But alas, so the story ran, just at the castle gate, crouched under a shady stone, the good young knight met his first adversary. It was a wicked dragon, small and ugly and mean, and it gave him battle without pause for breath from the sunrise to the sunset of all that long summer day. The dragon snarled and breathed black flame; the young knight thrust and thrust again. It was a weary and stubborn fight, and when the sunset came and they could fight no more, it was a weary and bedraggled knight that wandered back through the castle gate to wash his wounds and make him ready for another fray, for the dragon was still unslain. The good knight's armor was dented with many a mark of tooth and claw. His noble plume was scorched and shorn, his flesh was dark with dragon's breath and his sword with dragon's blood.
Came the next morn and out he went again, with armor brightened and plume renewed, and dreaming again of distant lands. But there by the shady stone was the small, mean dragon still in wait. Again and again the whole day long the goodly knight fought and thrust and hewed and hacked, but he could not beat the dragon down. Thus it went on for days on days, the dull, inglorious combat every day renewed. Forever the weary knight would dream on the conquest of distant lands, forever the small and ugly dragon at the door would waste his youthful strength and send him back bedraggled and outworn. Until at length the golden hair grew gray, the bright young eyes dimmed over with age and care, the ruddy limbs grew wrinkled and weak with eld, and, turning at last from the weary fight, the aged knight went back into his gate never to come forth again, leaving the wide world unconquered still, save in his dreams, and the dragon, small and ugly and mean, unconquered by his door. And the name of the dragon, concluded this touching tale, was—Self !
It is a proper allegory. So do we all, when we sally forth with noble dreams, meet a dragon by the door. Day by day our strife with ourselves is renewed, and at the end of many days we give over fighting at last, with that selfsame dragon of self, weakened and wounded perhaps, but not quite slain, still lurking at our door.
Many a one of fine hopes and noble aspirations has been scared and worried into discouragement and despair by the daily fear and weariness of this dragon Self. Day by day, in the course of the wearisome combat, many a one has slowly given up hope of great and distant achievement because of the weariness and horror which the vision of self and its sickening shortcomings has bred. It is literally true in this strange world that a man's enemies are of his own household. True too that men and women courageous and good, who could not be frightened from their high resolves by any common fear, have by degrees abandoned their noble purposes and given up hope of achievement because, in simple truth, they were afraid of their own selves.
Truth to say, it is a not unreasonable fear. We have more cause to be afraid of ourselves than of anything else in the world. No one else, not all the devils in hell, can do us any lasting harm. All of our woe and all of our loss at the last is due to our troublesome self. The reason of this is clear. We shall be judged and shall stand or fall not by what others do to us but by what we do ourselves. It is our own free acts that must ruin us or save. When our life is added up and the great sum total of merit or guilt cast and declared, every item for or against us in the long account will be a free and deliberate action of ourselves.
And a troublesome self it is, to be sure! For all the brave front they put on before the world, it is only the fools among men who in their hearts are not out of conceit with their troublesome selves. There is a popular phrase, often heard about certain types of men, that they are their own worst enemies. Alas, the saying might be applied to us all. We all of us do ourselves more harm than anyone else in the world could do us. Indeed, all our true misfortunes come not from without but from within us. For the one true misfortune is sin, and it is we ourselves and we alone who can inflict this harm on our souls.
Again, we all know to our cost, and even the greatest of saints have groaned with dismay at the thought, how weak and fickle we are and how many our faults and defects. Original sin has left its wound in our body and soul, and we feel our hearts tugged and pulled with impulses and desires which, as St. Paul has so eloquently said, are a law in our members which fights with the law of our "* mind. All literature, sacred and profane, is a constant witness to the truth of this memorable saying. Ovid voiced it when he said: Video meliora proboque deteriora sequor — "I see the better deed and I approve it, and then I do the worse." Many a saint and many a poet and many a one of lesser worth or fame has joined in the lament of all humanity against their troublesome selves. So the whole of mankind who are intent on higher things and seek the vision and the dream are forever in sordid conflict with the dragon at their very door.
What then? Shall we grow weary and despair? Is it an unhappy thing, a pure misfortune, for us always to meet the dragon at the door? It might seem so indeed to those of little faith. Yet to us who have the Christian teaching there is great merit and consolation in the perpetual conflict we must wage with our troublesome selves. For notice well that our merit here and glory hereafter does not depend on victory, but on fighting. We shall not be asked whether or not we quite utterly slew the troublesome dragon Self, but how nobly and how patiently we withstood him. There are indeed some happy mortals who do seem nearly to have scotched the poisonous serpent. They are so good, unselfish, and gentle, have so overcome whatever is harsh, mean, and unworthy in their nature, that the victory over self seems almost perfect in them, and one is fain to think that they have gained the life-long struggle with their adversary. Yet ask these favorite souls, and even they will tell of vigilance unrelaxed and struggles always renewed. The snake is stunned maybe and dormant, but it is not slain. "Our self-love," says St. Francis de Sales, "will die just about a quarter of an hour after ourselves."
So that it is God's design in giving us this enemy at our door to prove our courage and endurance not in swift victory but in patient fighting. It would have been a thrilling and inspiriting thing for that young knight of the story to have galloped forth in his glistening mail and done great deeds in distant lands. But daily to sally out to struggle with the ugly dragon at the door required a finer courage and more sterling mettle. It was courage that did not need the stimulus of glory and of victory. So also the obscure battles we carry on with self, in those dark inward realms where there is no eye to see but God's and no tongues to praise but those which sound in heaven, are more glorious and more full of merit than if we waged them in the eyes of men and for the praise of the admiring world. Indeed, in proportion as self is troublesome and difficult to subdue, our merit and the glory of our conflict grows. It needs a finer courage and a more Christian hope to fight without sparing against a harsh and difficult disposition than it does to resist the prompting of a self less troublesome and perverse.
We have reason, then, not to grieve but to be glad over our perpetual and daily conflict. Even though we take wounds and suffer scars, this will not destroy our merit and glory at the last. Even though we seem to make no great headway with our foe, we still are gaining the solid glory of fighting on. Every onslaught is a summons to merit, and every advance of our plaguing enemy is an opportunity. It is told of St. Gertrude that once on a time she saw the heavens opened and the angels looking with envy on the children of men. "Why do ye envy us," she cried out, "ye celestial intelligences'?" "Because," replied the angels, "you have still a chance of merit, and you can suffer and toil and strive and gain a yet higher place in heaven." Doubtless the blessed in heaven, whom God Himself enlightens as to the true value of all things, must look with wonder on us, marveling that we make so little use of our vast opportunities, that we miss so many-happy chances of gaining victories over our troublesome selves.
We must, therefore, not lose courage nor grow weary of the daily struggle. Indeed, our one misfortune would be to allow ourselves to lose heart and give up the battle. Discouragement is the fatal end of meritorious striving. It is our part to keep up the fight, and if we yield, the dragon has the field. A goodly company is watching us from heaven. None of our obscurest efforts or the most hidden blows we deal our adversary escape the eyes of those celestial witnesses. When we overcome the thought of vanity, the stirring of pride, the pang of envy, the torpor of sloth, the sting of covetousness, the flare of anger, the craving of gluttony, or any other of those base impulses which are the fangs and claws of the dragon Self or the reek of his bitter breath blowing hot on our soul, then bright applause and smiling satisfaction run round the fair circle of our friends in heaven. The sleepless gaze of the Most Holy Trinity is on us. Christ and His Blessed Mother watch from their height. The goodly company of our patron saints with all their peers are the beholders of our victories. The angels, who have never experienced the dark rebellions of the flesh, wonder that clay can strive so well, and cheer us with their watchful company. Who would not fight courageously forever, with such lookers-on to grace and crown the victory!
So let us go forth like the good knight of old, with morning face and gallant looks, each day to do good battle with our ancient adversary. When we feel the claws and the withering breath of our troublesome selves, and groan under the onslaught of our enemy, let us remember the merit of the battle and who are looking on to see us bear ourselves like fit warriors of the Cross in this daily controversy. For the merit of the fight is not in winning, but in striving. Great help from heaven must come to those who only struggle on. Our glory and the credit of our courage is not to come from quite conquering our adversary, but from bravely struggling on, without ever losing heart or giving over, against the perpetual and daily onslaught of our own troublesome selves.