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Art. VII. - 1. Life of Mrs. Eliza A. Seton, Foundress and
First Superior of the Sisters of Charity in the United States. By Rev. CHARLES J. White, D. D. New York : Dunigan
& Brother. 1853. pp. 581. 2. Memoir of MARY L. WARE, Wife of Henry Ware, Jr. By
EDWARD B. Hall. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, & Co. 1853.
12mo. pp. 434. 3. The Sickness and Health of the People of Bleaburn. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, & Co. 1853. 16mo.
16mo. pp. 148.
“ Holy men of old, who have written the lives of Saints, universally begin by professing their unworthiness to be the historians of the marvellous deeds which the Holy Spirit has wrought in the Church. What then should we say, who, in these memorable times, from the bosom of our quiet homes, in the midst of our literary ease, venture to celebrate the glories of the Saints? We have much that is amiable and domestic among us; but Saints, the genuine creation of the Cross, with their supernatural virtues, are now to us a matter of history."
So says a late devout chronicler of the English Saints; and it seems a strange admission for one whose Church claims, to this day, miraculous powers for her faithful sons and daugh
What are "supernatural virtues ?” Why are they not to be looked for in our day? More interesting for us, as well as more germane to our present purpose, is the inquiry, what constitutes a Saint? Is it the gift of miracles, or asceticism, or pure humility ? Is it devotion, charity, labor for the good of others? Is it a recluse life, - a literal separateness from the world, for the sake of a more entire renunciation of its pleasures and honors ? Our own short answer would be, — something of all these; the power of working miracles being at least represented by the overwhelming potency of a true life in silencing all cavils, and enlightening the minds of those who witness it.
The term Saint has been, and is now, occasionally applied, in a contemptuous sense, to persons who profess a deeper sense of religion and more complete submission to its laws than their VOL. LXXVII. — NO. 160.
neighbors, and who show more piety than the world believes to be sincere and practical. It is not difficult to account for the feeling which has thus sought to cast odium upon a prominent profession of religion. The very name of sainthood involves the supposition that the world in general is “ lying in wickedness,” supine in alienation from God, and impatient of his laws and government; that not merely that abstraction “the world,” but we, with our friends and neighbors, are in this state to such a degree, that if one be found among us, whose life is carefully, and, saving human frailties, fully conformed to the standard which we all pretend to acknowledge, he stands out conspicuous, a peculiar person, worthy of praise and honor. The writer, with whose words we began, states the matter thus: “ To the generality of the world, many of the commandments of Christ are precepts of perfection, but to the Saints they are precepts of OBLIGATION. This is the true distinction of Saints." There is then a broad line to be drawn between those who admire and those who imitate the Divine Saviour; and the world recognizes the distinction without horror or self-condemnation, even while confessing, with cold lips, the duty and the rationality of imitation. The ridicule, but too general, is therefore only one of the poor sops with which sin attempts to silence conscience. The best lives have yet so much of human frailty, that we get rid of the reproach of their goodness by calling up and insisting upon their imperfections, which we make as black as possible, in order to throw the shadow of hypocrisy over the bright side.
But, do what we will, the Saint is always recognized. He is a distinct person.
Whatever be the amount of his astuteness, industry, thrift, fine manners, desire of popularity, he is not the man of the world, but a different creature, because his supreme, his ruling idea, the philosophy of his life, is different. He may even be, to the distant or prejudiced eye, undistinguishable from his neighbor who worships Mammon with heartiest service; but those near enough to feel the spirit of his life, know better. A man is what he believes and aims
. at, on the whole, with whatever short comings or even relapses. If wealth be his main object, occasional paroxysms of generosity must be referred to occasional causes; if pleasure, serious interests will occupy him only under the pressure of
circumstances; if selfish ambition, all the tender affections and disinterested virtues are in abeyance, and must wait or bend, or be annihilated, if the greedy god smile not without such propitiation. So when one vows the allegiance of his soul to God and his fellow-man, all else is, so far as his wish and intention go, put in subordination to this upper purpose; and however riches, pleasure, selfish instincts, boiling ambition, human weakness, or obstreperous passions, may beguile, becloud, or pervert for the time, there is still the grand, holy, leading idea, in distant brightness, like the polestar, shining in blackest skies, and over the billows mountain high, that only for the moment blind and confound the bewildered mariner. It is convenient, for purposes of ridicule or depreciation, to draw the line as between “ Saints" and "Sinners," that the respect accorded to the former may seem absurd; but the world knows very well that although Saints are Sinners, Sinners are none the more Saints for all that; and that, with all his sins, the man who is determined to be on God's side, and a worker for Him in this life, is unhappily always a remarkable personage.
The Saint is especially a worker. He is somebody who does something; not who fasts, or prays, or talks, or preaches merely,
but who does what he finds to do for his fellow-creature, under the guidance, and as the humble follower, of a Divine Master. His having a Divine Master is what alone can preserve him from blundering arrogance in the performance of his work, and from fatal self-complacency in the contemplation of it. As well might the worker at the Gobelins throw away the exquisite painting that hangs behind him, and attempt impromptu flourishes and flowers unknown to botany. With a perfect pattern, even the most ignorant may attempt something, if only his eye be single. With all his errors, there will be a general resemblance, such as a Master whose love is boundless, and whose compassions fail not, will accept and bless.
Seeing, then, that Saints are still, as they have ever been, but sparsely scattered up and down in the world, --here presenting a green spot for the eye to rest on amid the glare and heat of life, there making " a sunshine in a shady place," -- it is surely well to speak of them when they are gone and can no longer feel painfully humbled by praise; to draw them
together for the advantage of phalanx and the strengthening of those still dispersed and unconfirmed, as well as for the prompting and awakening of hearts in which aspirations of duty and holiness are as yet only possible, not present. Who does not know how often the noble deed of another has been the spear of Ithuriel to his own conscience; or a trait of heavenly goodness, the mirror wherein he saw, in all its odiousness, his past remissness or his cherished sin ? Who has not read of devotion, with a stinging sense of his own ingratitude; of disinterestedness, with secret shame at conscious selfishness; of charity, with resolutions against hoarding for the future? Not only is a man known by the company he keeps, but the company he keeps has no small share in making him what he is. The Roman Catholic Church, with its usual astuteness in the use of means, makes the reading of the lives of the Saints a primary duty. To see what has been done is one of the most powerful stimulants to action; the knowledge of what others have surmounted, helps us through many a difficulty. Next in value to the actual companionship of the good, is the study of their lives, as portrayed by kindred spirits. Biographies get nearer the heart than any other writings, as pictures which resemble ourselves are sure to be interesting. We love even egotism and garrulity in the shape of autobiography, so strong is human sympathy. Every way benefactors therefore are they who give us lives of the Saints.
Never have such books as those we are considering been so eagerly sought after as now; perhaps, because the world, conscious of being more worldly than ever, confesses the sore need of recuperative means. It is the trick of a certain class of gourmands to follow each dangerous excess by some remedial drug, because penance is preferable to abstinence, and, the balance once struck, the peril is averted. So it has been known, before our day, that the wickedest men have been, naturally enough, though rather ludicrously, the most anxious for their souls, and, without any thing like a resolve to reform, the most profuse in masses and charities. The reading of good books seems like a good work, and the admiration of good actions seems like a holy sympathy; so we get better
chiefly by the aid of those who have made the sacrifices which are too hard for us. But the best are strengthened by such reading, for who does not need help by the way?
Americans and their doings have as yet found small place in biographical dictionaries and works professing to be cyclopedic. We need the condemned word “ignore,” to express the cool omissions of European writers and hashers, where American worth and worthies are concerned; for ignoring is very different from ignorance. But now we are beginning to make ourselves heard, and may one day, if we choose, be exclusive in our turn, for the whirligig of Time is no more remiss than of yore in bringing about its revenges. In Lives of the Saints, in particular, we are already rich; and when age shall have mellowed our chronicles, some homebred Allan Butler will rise up, surrounded with abundant and choice material. Some of the more recent of these we propose to examine, and we give the priority due to that Church which has always been most assiduous in holding up her Saints for reverence and imitation. She must excuse us if we forestall her in counting “one Saint more," whose name has not yet found its way into the calendar. Canonization is not, in our day, the privilege of popes and councils. We venture to claim for our countrywoman, Mrs. Seton, a niche beside that of St. Bega, who founded the religious house now known as St. Bees, sung by Wordsworth in some stanzas, from which we must be allowed to quote two or three :
“When Bega sought of yore the Cumbrian coast,
To aid the votaress, miracles believed