There are very few Christians, even among those who are especially consecrated to God, who have a right idea of what true virtue is. Almost all of them imagine it to consist in a certain routine of piety and in fidelity to certain exterior practices. If with this they have at intervals some emotion of sensible devotion, without taking care to discern whether these emotions come from God or from their own efforts, they at once conclude that they are really virtuous.
Nevertheless, they are subject to a thousand faults and imperfections, of which they take no heed themselves and which anyone else would try in vain to make them conscious of. They are narrow-minded, scrupulously exact in their practices of devotion, full of esteem for themselves, extremely sensitive and touchy, obstinate in holding their own opinions, puffed up with self-love, constrained and affected in their manners; there is nothing true, nothing simple, nothing natural about them. In their own hearts, they prefer themselves to all others, and often they despise, condemn, and persecute really holy persons and true piety, of which they know nothing.
Nothing is more common in Christianity than this false and pharisaical virtue. Those who are really good have no greater enemies than those who are pharisaical; and if we wish to describe them in a few words, we may say it was persons only pretending to be holy who crucified Jesus Christ, and they still crucify Him every day in His most perfect imitators. As soon as anyone really gives himself to God and begins to lead an inner life, he is sure to draw upon himself, first of all jealousy and criticism, and then persecutions and calumnies of every kind, from these devout Pharisees.
If we wish to understand what true virtue is, we must contemplate it in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is our one great example; He gave Himself to us for that reason; He was made man so that holiness might be sensible and palpable to us. All sanctity that is not formed and modeled on His sanctity is false. It is displeasing to God. It may perhaps deceive men, but it is useless for Heaven.
Let us, then, make Jesus Christ our study; and so that we may know Him thoroughly, and express His life in ourselves, let us continually ask Him for light and grace.
Jesus’ piety was interior
Jesus Christ made piety to consist in our interior dispositions, the religion of the heart; not in vain, fleeting feelings, but in sincere and efficacious resolutions, always followed by execution; a disposition of an entire devotion to God, a continual annihilation of self, and a boundless charity toward others.
Every instant of His life was consecrated to the accomplishment of these three dispositions. He neglected no observance of any point of the law; but, at the same time, He declared, both by word and example, that this observance was only of value when it proceeded from an inner principle of love, and that the practice of the letter of the law alone, without the interior spirit, made slaves, and not children of God.
Jesus strove for the eternal, not the temporal
Jesus Christ always looked upon this present life as passing away; as a pilgrimage, a time of trial, simply designed to test our love for God. The things that are eternal were His constant occupation. He gave to nature what was absolutely necessary, without going beyond. Although He possessed nothing and was always dependent on Providence for His simple bodily wants, He was never uneasy about the morrow, and His delight was to experience the effects of poverty.
Jesus Christ embraced by His own free choice that which men accept with the greatest difficulty and to which they submit only out of necessity. He did not absolutely condemn riches, but He preferred poverty. He did not condemn the rank and marks of honor that God Himself has established among men, but He taught us that an obscure condition, bereft of every kind of consideration, is more pleasing to God and more favorable for salvation; and that to think ourselves better than others because we are born great, noble, or powerful, or are in a position of authority is an error and the source of countless sins. With the exception of the simple natural pleasure that the Creator has attached to certain actions, and the use of which is limited by the severest rules, He has absolutely scorned every other kind of pleasure, especially those which men seek with the greatest eagerness, and, as far as He Himself was concerned, He renounced even the most innocent pleasure. Hard work, apostolic labors, prayer, and the instruction of His disciples and the multitude filled up every moment of His life.
Jesus was a model of simplicity
Jesus Christ was simplicity itself, always the same, without any affectation in His speech or actions. With the authority of God-made-man, He taught the most sublime truths and things that had before been unknown. But He propounded His doctrine in a simple, familiar manner, without any pomp of human eloquence, and so that all minds could understand Him. His miracles, divine in themselves, are still more divine from the way in which He wrought them. He wished that the account of the evangelists should agree with the perfect simplicity of His own life. It is impossible to give in a simpler manner than they have done the account of a life, and of words and actions, that bear on them the very impress of Divinity.
Jesus was merciful
Jesus Christ had a most tender compassion for sinners who were sincerely humble and repentant for their sins. “I came for sinners,” He said, “and not for the just,” who trust in their own justice. The publican who stood afar off, Mary Magdalene, the woman taken in adultery, and the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob were all treated by Him with a kindness and tenderness that astonishes us. But the pride of the Pharisees, their hypocrisy, their avarice — these were the objects of His most severe censure and malediction.
The sins of the mind and the spirit, the very sins to which the falsely devout are more subject than any others, are those which He condemned with the greatest severity, because they are a sign of more blindness of the mind and more corruption of the heart.
Jesus Christ bore with a never-failing gentleness the faults and the roughness of His disciples. According to our way of thinking, what must He not have suffered at having to live with men so imperfect and so ignorant of the things of God?
Dealing with our neighbor is perhaps one of the most difficult things in this life; even the saints have felt how much it cost them. And the nearer they are to God, the more they need to lower themselves to others, as it were, to unbend, to conceal and excuse in others a thousand faults that they see and feel more keenly than anyone else. And this is a point on which their practice must be continual, and it all depends on how they acquit themselves with regard to it as to whether they will make virtue amiable or displeasing to others.
Jesus accepted suffering
Jesus Christ suffered every kind of persecution at the hands of His enemies, but He never gave way. He only opposed to them His innocence and virtue, and He always confounded them by His spotless life. When the hour came that He allowed Himself to fall into their hands, He permitted their evil passions to act and looked on them as instruments of divine justice. He kept silence when He saw them so obstinate in their malice. He sought not to justify Himself, although it would have been so easy. He allowed Himself to be condemned. He allowed them to enjoy their imaginary triumph. He pardoned them; He prayed for them; He shed His blood for them. This is the most sublime and the most difficult height of perfection.
Whoever aspires to true sanctity, and to be guided in everything by the Spirit of God, must expect to suffer from the tongues of men, to bear their calumnies and sometimes their persecutions. In this, above all things, we must take Jesus Christ as our model. We must suffer, for His sake, as much as we can, in the interests of truth. Our only answer to calumny must be the innocence of our life; we must keep silence when it is not absolutely necessary to speak. We must leave the care of our justification to God, if He sees fit to justify us. We must stifle in our heart every feeling of resentment and bitterness. We must try to soften our enemies by every kind of charitable actions. We must pray to God for their pardon; and we must try to see, in all they make us suffer only the accomplishment of God’s designs upon us.
And when virtue can thus sustain itself in contempt, in opprobrium, in ill treatment, then we may look upon it as perfected, as consummate virtue. Therefore, God generally reserves this trial to the last. Blessed are those who pass through it! When Jesus Christ comes in His glory, they will have a share in it proportionate to their share in His humiliations. To desire such a state as this, to accept it when it is offered to us, to bear it patiently and with joy when we find ourselves in it — this can only be the effect of grace, and of an extraordinary grace.
As for us, let us rest content in our lowliness; let us never think we can attain of ourselves to anything so high; and let us only ask of God that human respect may never cause us to abandon His interests.
This article is from a chapter in the book The Spiritual Life: A Comprehensive Manual for Catholics Seeking Salvation. It is available from your favorite bookseller and online through Sophia Institute Press.