Wednesday, February 19, 2014

St. John of Avila on the Language of the World

[NB: St. John of Avila, diocesan priest from 16th c. Spain and doctor of the Church, is esteemed for his writings on the spiritual life. By his help and approbation, the Inquisition cleared and approved St. Teresa of Avila's work, especially her autobiography. To his preaching is attributed the conversion of both St. Francis Borgia and St. John of God. He was friends of St. Ignatius of Loyola and many of the first Jesuits. His works on reformation of the clergy and call for more systematic and rigorous formation for seminarians and priests influenced the decrees at the Council of Trent.]


Since the beginning of the spiritual life is faith, which, as St. Paul says, enters the soul "through hearing," [...] it is of little advantage that the voice of divine truth should sound from outside if within there are not ears desirous of hearing it. [...]

It is to be noted that when they were created, Adam and Eve spoke only one language. That language lasted in the world until human pride, desirous of building the tower of confusion, was punished. Then, instead of one language by which all could understand one another, there came about a host of languages through which people could not understand one another (cf. Gen 11:9). We learn from this that, until they rose up against their Creator and broke his commandment with impudent pride, our first parents spoke only one spiritual language in their souls. Because of this, they had perfect concord with one another, within themselves, and with God. They lived in the quiet state of innocence, with their passions obeying reason and reason obeying God. They were at peace with God, within themselves, and with each other. But when, through foolhardy disobedience, they rose up against the Lord of the heavens, they were punished, and we in them. Instead of one excellent language by which they could understand each other exceedingly well, there sprung up innumerable very evil languages, full of such confusion and darkness that people could not agree with one another. Nor could one man be in harmony within himself, and even less with God.

These languages have no order among them, for they are disorder itself. However, in order to speak of them, we may reduce them to the order and number of three: the languages of the world, of the flesh, and of the devil. [...]

We must not listen to the language of the world because it is all lies, exceedingly harmful for those who believe in them. They cause us to turn away from the truth that really is, to follow the lie that exists only in appearance and by convention. So deceived, a person casts God and his holy will behind his back and orders his life by the blind guide of what pleases the world. Thus is engendered a heart desirous of honor and of being esteemed by others. [...] Such people prize their honor so much that they can in no way bear even the slightest word against it, or anything that tastes or smells like contempt, even if it comes from far away. On the contrary, there are such subtleties and trifles in all this that it is a wonder that anyone escapes stumbling on something and offending the sensitive man of the world, often without meaning to do so. But these people, so quick to feel contempt, are hard and slow when it comes to overlooking and pardoning it. Even if they wanted to, what a troop of false friends and relatives will rise up, citing the laws and customs of the world! Thus, the conclusion is drawn that it is better to lose fortune, health, house, wife, and children, and even all this seems little to such people. They say that it is better to lose the life of body and soul and all that is of earth and heaven, and that even God himself and his law must be counted as little and placed underfoot, so that this utterly vain honor might not be lost but be esteemed above all things, even over God himself. [...]

So as not to be despised by human beings, they despise God and are ashamed to follow his laws lest they be ashamed before men.

But let them do as they wish. Let them honor their honor until they can do no more. Yet firm and fixed is the sentence pronounced against them by Jesus Christ, the sovereign judge, who says: "Whoever shall be ashamed of me and of my words, of him the Son of the Virgin shall be ashamed, when he shall come in his majesty, and that of his Father, and of the holy angels" (Lk 9:26). [...] If this lowly worm is ashamed to follow you, O Lord, the King of Majesty, you who are honor and greatness itself, you should be ashamed that one so vile and so evil should remain in your company and that of those who belong to you. [...] Since this evil affection is powerful enough to make people give up believing in Jesus Christ, what evil can it not do? Who will not make the sign of the cross against it? Because of this, Saint Augustine said that no one knows his strength for overcoming the love of vainglory, except the one who has waged war against it (Sermon 4.2). [...]

The Christian should see that, since the world dishonored the blessed Son of God, eternal truth and highest good, it makes no sense to esteem or believe it in anything. Since the world was deceived in not recognizing such a brilliant light and in not honoring the one who is the truest and most perfect honor, Christians should condemn what the world approves and prize and love what the world hates and despises. With great care they should flee from being prized by that world which despised their Lord. For them, it is a great sign of Christ's love to be despised by the world with and for him.

Just as those who belong to the world do not have ears to listen to the truth and the teaching of God, but rather they despise it, so anyone who belongs to the company of Christ has no ears to listen to or believe the lies of the world. For at one time it flatters and at another time persecutes; at one time it promises and at another time threatens; at one time it terrifies and at another appears gentle. But in everything it deceives and intends to deceive. With such eyes we must look upon it. For it is certain that we have caught the world in such great lies and false promises that, if anyone should have told us even half as many, we would not trust that person again in anything. Even if such a one were to speak the truth, we would find it hard to believe. What the world can do is neither good nor bad, for it cannot give or take away the grace of God. Even where it seems to have power, it can do nothing since, without the will of the Lord, it cannot even reach to a hair of our head (cf. Lk 21:18). If the world wants to tell us otherwise about itself, let us not believe it. Who then will not dare to struggle against an enemy that can do nothing at all?


Source: St. John of Avila, Audi, Filia, trans. by Joan Frances Gormley (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 2006), 1.1-3, 41-46.


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