SUBLIME EXTRAVAGANCE

 


 "AGod on the Cross! That is
 all my theology!
"

Lacordaire

by Jean Baptiste Henri Lacordaire, O.P.

A saint is not simply the point of confluence, the meeting of all the Christian virtues in one and the same soul. This is but ordinary sanctity, that which is necessary to the salvation of every Christian.

There is no Christian in the state of union with God in whom humility, chastity, and charity do not meet together in a degree more or less perfect. We call such people pious men; we might even, to speak widely, call them saints; but this is not what we understand by that great expression--the saints! What then are the saints? What then is sanctity thus understood?

Sanctity is the love of God and of men carried to a sublime extravagance. If communion between the Infinite and the finite really exists; if the heart of God creates a dwelling and lives in the heart of man, it is impossible, at least in certain souls more ardent than the rest, that the presence of an element so prodigious should not become visible, should not produce extraordinary effects which the weakness of our nature and of our language would constrain us to call extravagant. For what is the meaning of this word?  It means that which goes beyond.

There is in sanctity a phenomenon of extravagance, a love of God and men which frequently defies ordinary human understanding. But this is not the unique characteristic of sanctity; extravagance alone would be only singularity, and singularity proves nothing in favor of the man who makes it a part of his actions, if it is not perhaps a great deal of vanity and a little of bad education.

Extravagance in sanctity should be corrected by another element, and it is in fact by the sublime--that is to say, by moral beauty in its highest degree; by that beauty which causes the rapture of human sense. Thus, there is in sanctity something which wounds human sense and something which enraptures it; something which produces stupor and something which produces admiration.

And these two things are not separated there, like two streams which flow side by side. But the extravagant and the sublime, that which wounds human sense and that which enraptures it, mingled and dissolved the one with the other, make of sanctity but one tissue, in which it is impossible for the most active spirit of analysis, at the moment when it sees the saint in action, to distinguish that which is extravagant from that which is sublime--that which binds man to earth from that which lifts him up even to God.

Defining sanctity in these terms, we would naturally expect the history of the saints to be a rare phenomenon, reserved to one time or to one country. But the truth is the exact opposite.

It is a general and a constant phenomenon. Wherever Catholic doctrine takes root, even where (so to speak) it is placed as a grain of seed between rocks, sanctity appears and becomes manifest in some souls by fruits which defy the esteem and the scorn of reason.

That sublime extravagance dates from a yet higher and more unutterable folly--the folly described by Saint Paul of a God dying upon a Cross, His head crowned with thorns, His feet and His hands pierced, His body bruised and mutilated. Since that time the contagion of holiness has never ceased to choose victims in the world--victims to whom belong the heritage of the cross, the living tradition of voluntary martyrdom, the dignity of extravagance and the glory of the sublime.


The following letter was written to a priest, and a beloved friend. Fr Lacordaire had a great gift of friendship and a profound loyalty, rooted in faith. How beautifully this is manifested in this touching letter!

ON FRIENDSHIP IN JESUS CHRIST

Soreze, October 11, 1859

Have you noticed what I have just said, my dear father? You have, in fact, become my father since you consented to look after the spiritual concerns of my soul. I do not know whether you are like myself, but I can no longer love any one without the soul slipping behind the heart, and Jesus Christ being the uniting link. 

Communications no longer appear to me intimate, unless they become supernatural; for what intimacy can there be where we do not go to the depths of the thoughts and affections which fill the mind with God? I am aware that friends do not confess to one another, do not help one another out with their penances, but make their spiritual life a life hidden from all eyes,  even the eyes of those they love best. 

But is this really friendship? Is not friendship the complete gift of one's self, and when Jesus Christ has become ourself, can we really give ourselves without giving Him who forms but one with  us? How can conscience be excluded from the gift of one's self, if that gift be complete?  And how give one's conscience without a confession of all that is good and bad in us? 

It is such a sweet thing to humble ourselves before those we love. And if pride keeps us back, if we put on a mask even before our friend, do we love him ? It is certain that confidence is the first element of friendship; one might even say that it is but the vestibule of it, because sacrifice is the sanctuary: now, does confidence exist where there is no confession; and is confession anything else but supernatural confidence?

It was then quite natural that you should become my father on the day when Jesus Christ gave you His priesthood, and on which you were able to absolve me from, and cure me of my faults with His blood.

I am now thinking about death, and I imagine nothing can be sweeter in death than to be assisted by a priest who is our friend. Friendship so greatly facilitates openness, humility, and candor! What a grace to die in the arms of a man who has the same faith as ourselves, who knows our conscience and loves us!


PRAYER, PENANCE, READING OF SCRIPTURE

PARIS, Nov. 7, 1849

Your letter, my dear friend, shows me that you have already made some way at least in candor and simplicity with me. A long and continuous watchfulness over yourself, prayer, reading, meditation, the sacraments, and works of penance and charity, will alone enable to root out what is bad in you, and above all your pride.

Thus, for instance, you ought to be very watchful over yourself in recreation in order to see whether it is the desire of giving others pleasure or that of shining which actuates you.

Kind-heartedness in one's dealings with others is the great charm of life. A mind attentive to the wants of others, which avoids everything calculated to give them pain, which is generous, which does not keep silence out of touchiness or pride, that mind is the mind of a Christian, and is the joy of every one who comes in contact with it. If you succeed in winning love, you will have done enough, for virtue is the only way to that end.

With regard to your meditation, I think the best thing you could do would be to listen attentively to what is read to you, and to look out in it for something upon which your mind can rest. The contemplation of truth, the application of it to one's self, and an endeavor to practice it, as lovingly as possible, such is real meditation.

Don't let dryness discourage you. Sensible joy is a consolation but the accomplishment of duty is the real source of all interior progress.

Continued meditation, even indifferently made, produces in the long run an increase of spiritual life: even if it does not produce perfection, it produces at least a habit of the steps to it, namely, reading and reflection. "Attende lectioni," says St. Paul.

Don't attempt any practices of penance which might be seen by others: not that we ought to be afraid of being taken for penitents, but because nothing extraordinary ought to be done before every one; and also because we must not lay ourselves open to be thought holier than we really are. You can very easily practice certain outward penances which others cannot detect : for instance, some slight mortifications in your meals, prostrations in your room, and other things of the same sort.

During your recreations associate with those who are least agreeable to you: humbly beg pardon of those whom you have offended; offer up your body interiorly to God to be humbled and chastised according to His good pleasure: think of the passion of our Lord, reflect upon those parts of it for which you feel the greatest repugnance; do this particularly on Fridays.

It is the meditation of our Lord's sufferings which has made all the saints: it is this which corrects in us pride, impurity, and all vices of what nature soever. If you meet some good young man towards whom you feel yourself drawn, ask him to point out to you your faults and defects, but be careful not to form connections of which the heart alone and not God is the groundwork, for it is difficult for the flesh not to be the base of them.

Read daily with attention two chapters of the Holy Scriptures, one of the Old Testament, beginning with the first chapter of Genesis; the other of the New Testament, beginning with the first chapter of St. Matthew.

Go down on your knees for a moment in order to prepare yourself for this reading, and kiss your Bible affectionately on beginning and ending. You must get to esteem above everything else every word of that book, and to esteem other books only in so far as they approach it. After having thus read the whole Bible, you would do well to confine yourself to the Psalms in the Old Testament, and to the Epistles of St. Paul in the New. If you could learn those two parts by heart, it would be of great advantage to your soul.

I should not advise you to widen the circle of your philosophical studies, but, on the contrary, to narrow and concentrate them. Concentration is the prime and sole element of strength. Learn to sound thoroughly a few lines even of an indifferent author, at a time. Nothing can be turned to sound except what has been ripened by meditation. A large range of reading dazzles the mind, and may, in the case of him who has a good memory, dazzle others, but it gives neither solidity nor depth. Depth always supposes extent, but extent does not involve depth. 

You may take as a penance, for the faults of which you speak, a prostration of ten minutes in your room.

I recommend myself to your prayers, and embrace you tenderly in our Lord.

A Priest

To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; to be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; to share all sufferings; to penetrate all secrets; to heal all wounds; to go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; to return from God to men to bring pardon and hope; to have a heart of fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity; to teach and to pardon; console and bless always. My God, what  a life! And it is yours, O Priest of Jesus Christ!

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