Tuesday, November 7, 2017
Truth and the Saints
Truth and the Saints
Question. I have often been struck in reading the lives of certain saints who accomplished great works, and thus seemed to give proof of their charity and forethought, yet who spoke of themselves as being more vicious and foolish than the people around them.
How are such statements compatible with truth, and if not true, how can they be pleasing to God, or be placed before us as something edifying? I wish you would give some practical answer to this question which a doubting friend put to me when I read him a passage from the life of St. Catharine, of Siena, who, whilst she could advise the Pope in affairs of great moment, deemed herself a worthless body.
Response. It is the law of proportions that as we rise to a higher level our circle of vision grows wider, whilst the relative estimate of our own size and power diminishes. Thus the greater a man's knowledge, the greater becomes his sense of limitations in the vast regions of still unexplored science. His view reaches farther for others, but he feels less secure in himself. In like manner it happens that the nearer the exercise of virtue brings a person to God, the more the immeasurable distance of God's perfection becomes clear to his mind.
Hence a good man may see good in all around him, yet having by reflection measured his own distance from the point toward which he strives, he realizes his own immense distance from absolute perfection. He sees less of the imperfections of others, the more he is occupied with his own improvement, which, involving concentration and closer introspection, makes him conscious of all the flaws in his own nature. Thus the apparent untruth is simply a disproportion of judgments, owing to different points of view between the man who sees the world around him from above, and the man who sees it close by. The seeming untruth becomes thus the sincerest truthfulness.
As an example of this I am tempted to cite a passage from a popular novel writer, because it shows that this judgment is ratified, even by the world, when it is honest. Dickens, in one of his novels, draws a character, Tom Pinch, who is a very simple, yet quite a gifted fellow, and with a good heart and a good opinion of every person whom he comes in contact with. Martin Chuzzlewit, whom he has met in his master's house, is suddenly cast upon the world a poor student without a penny. Martin is a shrewd lad, selfish, and sure to make his way; but Tom Pinch pities him, and following him on the road thrusts a book into his hand, to the leaves of which he has pinned a half sovereign wrapped in a piece of paper on which are scrawled in pencil the words: “I don't want it, indeed. I should not know what to do with it if I had it.”
Upon these words, which could hardly have been true, and yet were not a lie, Dickens remarks: “There are some falsehoods, Tom, on which men mount, as on bright wings, toward Heaven. There are some truths, cold, bitter, taunting truths, wherein your worldly scholars are very apt and punctual, which bind men down to earth with leaden chains. Who would not rather have to fan him in his dying hour, the lightest feather of a falsehood such as thine, than all the quills that have been plucked from the sharp porcupine, reproachful truth, since time began!” (Martin Chuzzlewit, chap, xiii.).
What is here called falsehood is in truth but the result of that personal view of self which finds itself small in the presence of another's need. Others may not share that view because they do not see the two-fold term of the comparison in the same way; they are on a lower level, and nearer to the earthly, which seems to them accordingly greater than it is when compared with the divine. Like the eye fixed close to the wall, it may see more of the stone, but it sees less of the wall.
~THE AMERICAN ECCLESIASTICAL REVIEW, VOLUME 16, 1897.