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The Witness of the Saints - Bowden
On the Truth, the Unity of Holy Church, and the Examples of the Saints
Extracts from The Witness of the Saints by Henry Sebastian Bowden, Of the Oratory.
These extracts are taken from a small book published in 1943, by Burns Outes & Washburne Ltd., Publishers to the Holy See. The text was originally published in 1886 as an Introduction to the Virtue & Co. edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints.
THE SAINTS OUR TEACHERS.
…For instance, am I to restrict my assent to what binds under pain of mortal sin, or short of heresy can I by certain sceptical carping habits of mind easily imperil my soul? Are the supernatural principles which faith gives to enlighten me only as regards the mysteries of religion, or am I to look at everything here below, politics, history, social questions, the conclusions of science, omne scibile, nay, every sorrow, pain, hope, disappointment that I feel, by the ray of that heavenly light? Is faith to be part of my life, or my life's whole, its one sovereign guide?
Again, how is the Gospel to be interpreted, not as to dogma - by God's mercy the Church fixes that - but as to the individual daily application of its moral teaching? Are its sublime maxims - an all-absorbing love of God; charity to our neighbour whether friend or foe; the forgiveness, immediate and entire, of wrongs the most bitter and injurious; a purity, not only outward and of the body, but of thought and desire; a detachment from things of earth, a contempt for its best gifts; growing self-hatred and daily self-sacrifice; thirst for a perfection of which God Himself is the model - are these maxims for a time or for always? Are Christ's words and Christ's call to be obeyed and answered as simply as in the Gospel age, when men rose and left all and followed Him; or have they another sense now, so that they are not to be understood in their literal force, but to be accommodated to the exigencies of our times and to the circumstances under which we live? This, then, has to be answered. With the commandments and creed in his hand, not only once, but again and again through life, a man still cries out with the jailor at the feet of Paul, "What must I do to be saved?"
And to this question there are, there always have been, and as long as man's trial lasts there always will be, two answers given. The one, the answer of human prudence, the other of divine wisdom; the one of the world, the other of God; the one false, the other true. And yet though the two replies are diametrically opposed to each other, the world's answer is so skilfully masked, its disguises are so subtle and manifold, its arguments apparently so reasonable, moderate, and just, and so sympathetic to our corrupt inclinations, that the most fatal and pernicious doctrines, doctrines prompted only by the lust, the pride, the selfishness of man, are accepted as the right interpretation of the Gospel and the true teaching of Christ. And nowhere is this conflict between the two systems more clearly manifested than in the Saints, whose principles and aims are ever directly opposed to those of the world around them.
Our Blessed Lord, as He looked through the course of ages, though He had built His Church on a rock, saw the triumph not of truth, but of falsehood. "Do you think," He said to His disciples, "that when the Son of Man cometh, He shall find faith on the earth?" Nay, He warned those very men His own disciples, who had listened to His words, witnessed His miracles, and been trained under His eye, that there would arise even in their own time, within a few years of His death, "false Christs and false prophets, who would shew great signs and wonders, and deceive if possible even the elect." And as He spoke, so it was.
How, then does God secure the faith of His elect? Neither Pope nor Council can condemn beforehand all the diverse workings of error, which, at first hidden in the heart, spread secretly and vary from day to day. In the long fight between truth and falsehood one class has never been deceived, those to whom the faith was once delivered, the Saints of God. Not through human learning nor through any divine gift of infallibility, but through a supernatural instinct begotten of their love of Jesus Christ, they are to be found ever on the side of the Church. By thought and prayer, by daily life-long endeavour, prevented, sustained, and perfected by His grace, they have absorbed His doctrine into their souls, and like St. Paul they know nothing else. The Saints then are lux mundi, a light shining bright and steadfast through the mists of error and clouds of falsehood which overspread the world. They are, as Saint Liguori calls them, the Gospel in practice, real, palpable, visible examples of the whole circle of Christian doctrine. They make clear for us, says Saint Augustine, the difficulties of Scripture, and they form an historical supplement to the revelation therein contained. And the truth seen in their lives is unmistakable. Written words may be misinterpreted, definitions minimised, their purport perverted or ignored, but the truth as witnessed to by the Saints is written in living letters, in characters of flesh and blood.
Our purpose then is to consider the light which their lives shed upon the divine character of the Church, and especially in manifesting her claim to be that body designated by the Nicene creed as one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic.
CHAMPIONS OF UNITY
Let us consider first the world's teaching and that of the Saints concerning religious truth and error. The subject is important, for false teachers still abound, and the philosophers and the wise of this world lay down for us what they say is our only just mode of action. They say, then, and teach that since we are convinced we have the truth, we should not fear to meet our opponents and discuss our common differences, for that truth must prevail; or that if we both worship the same God, other points are unimportant; or that truth and falsehood in religion are but matters of opinion, that one doctrine is as good as another, that the Creator of the world does not intend that we should gain the truth; that there is no truth; that we are not more acceptable to God by believing this than by believing that; that no one is answerable for his opinions, that they are a matter of necessity or of accident, that it is enough if we sincerely hold what we profess; that religion is after all only a help to morality; and that if in any creed we succeed in leading good honest lives, there is no reason why we should change it. Such is the world's theory, and as such it is everywhere preached, and by most men accepted. The State proclaims it by its theories of government and by its educational laws; men of science by their teaching as to what knowledge is certain and what not, historians by the causes to which they attribute the rise and fall of nations, and by their standard for discerning the worth of great men; poets by the ideals they draw of love, courage, and sacrifice, and the meaning they give to life and death; every popular writer who knows how to express the faith and feelings of the multitude preaches the world's theory of religious truth.
Now in contrast with this consider the actions and teaching of the Saints. We have abundant evidence of their manner of dealing with heretics from the earliest times. For the first three centuries the Church in general conclave never met; such a large and public assemblage was impossible in those ages of persecution. The defence of the faith then was left in great measure to the individual testimony of the Saints. And their action in every age has been uniform, and will be found to be based on these first principles: that there is a truth, that truth is always and everywhere one and the same, that the denial of that truth or the profession of a false religion is of itself a gravely immoral act, one of the worst of sins; that man's first duty is to seek that truth with fear and humility as a child wishing to be taught; that it is not given as a prize to the smartest disputant but as the reward of an earnest desire to be saved at all cost; that to discuss the truth as to whether it be true is an insult to truth itself and to the Lord of truth; that its possession is a most sacred gift which may be forfeited by reading or hearing aught written or said against it; that the Christian therefore, who without a just reason voluntarily associates with heretics or unbelievers, imperils his soul and dishonours his faith.
What else do the following examples show? St. Paul, who was omnia omnibus, all things to all men, so large was his heart, so gentle and universal his sympathy, comes across false teachers among his Galatian converts, and his nature at once seems changed. Where now his tender compassion for the weakly, the scandalized, the erring? He does not enquire into the nature of the new doctrines or the character of the teachers, but curses them on the spot. So again with St John, the apostle of love. He tells his children not to receive a heretic into the house or to say as much as God speed you to him, "for that he that saith to him God speed you communicated with his wicked works." And as he spoke he acted. In his life we learn that he refused to enter a bath-house because Cerinthus the heretic was within. He feared lest the roof should fall in on them were he to stay in such company. St. Peter call heretics "irrational beasts, naturally tending to snare and destruction." St. Jude says "they are corrupted in what they naturally know, and blaspheme what they know not; they are clouds without water which are carried about by the winds, trees of the autumn unfruitful, twice dead." And the Saints in every age are one with the Apostles in their attitude to apostates and heretics. When the apostate Marcion met St. Polycarp at Rome, he asked the aged Saint if he knew him. "Yes," St. Polycarp answered, "I know you for the first-born of Satan." The answer came instinctively from his burning love of God.
Pass on to later times and we shall find the same loyalty, witnessed to not only by bishops and teachers, but by the faithful at large, of every age and sex. St. Louis of France, the flower of Christian knights, the defender of the fatherless and the poor, passed a law that blasphemers should be branded on their lips, and when his courtiers remonstrated with him for his severity, "I would willingly," he said, "have my own lips branded to root out blasphemy from my kingdom." God's honour was his own, and he would defend it with his life.
Mere children felt the same inherent repugnance to heresy and dread of its poison. St. Jane Frances when only eight years old left her father's dinner table on perceiving there was a heretic among the guests. When a Protestant sought her hand she replied, "How can I marry an enemy of God and His Church?" Her master, St. Francis of Sales, the gentlest of saints, placed the Calvanists under most severe penal laws, and excluded them from all offices of the State. In all temptations against faith, he writes, "Say to the devil, Oh, wretch, thou hast left the Church of the Angels, and thou wouldst that I should leave the Church of the Saints. Begone, Satan; I will not dispute to please you. I adhere to Holy Church and never will forsake her." Such instances could be multiplied indefinitely from the lives of the Saints. They all bear witness to the sacredness of the truth and to the duty laid upon every individual Catholic of protecting it from contagion and of witnessing at all cost against unbelief.
Again, they show us the wisdom of the Church in prohibiting the reading of irreligious books. If the mere society of an unbeliever is to be avoided as pestilential, what poison must be imbibed by reading books, written in scholarly, attractive style, and in a spirit apparently just and fair, but filled with unsound doctrine? How many Catholics have first begun to doubt through reading one such book or even one passage from them? How many souls have been wrecked for eternity through a dangerous curiosity, a wish for unlawful knowledge! Nor is this a peril to which we can be unknowingly exposed. Apart from any express prohibition of the Church, our own conscience, enlightened by grace, will unfailingly point out matter which poisons the mind, no less than temptations of other kinds which ensnare the soul. Reading dangerous books without due cause is a mortal sin. When their study is necessary to refute error, God's grace protects the soul, but even then great caution and earnest prayer is needed. St. Dyonisius of Alexandria is conspicuous among the Fathers of the Church for his learning and talent and also for his defence of the faith. When he was presiding over the theological school at Alexandria he was obliged to study many works of heretics to refute them. Yet so little did he trust himself, so much did he fear the danger to his own soul, that it needed a vision to reconcile and encourage him. Our Lord Himself appeared before the future saint and doctor and addressed him thus: "Read all that cometh to thy hand, for thou art fit to correct and examine all." Those alone are safe who like St. Dyonisius place their faith under the guardianship of humility.
By their love of the faith, by their hatred of heresy and dread of its contagion, the Saints then teach us the essential unity of divine truth.
In Christ our King.