A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XLI.

A Study Of “On The Character of Men And the Virtuous Life”: Part XLI. December 7, 2011

Introduction and Part II

“The truly intelligent soul is not disturbed when she sees the success of the wicked and the prosperity of the worthless. Unlike the stupid, she is not deluded by the gratification by such people in this life. For she understands clearly the inconstancy of fortune, the uncertainty and brevity of life, and the unbribability of the Judge; and she is confident that God will not fail to provide her with the nourishment she needs.”[1]

The bodily enjoyment of wealth or earthly authority in this life brings death to the soul.[2] “But toil, patient endurance, privation accepted with thankfulness, and the death of the body are life and eternal delight to the soul.”[3]

One given insight into the world and how it works will be “indifferent to the material world and this swiftly-passing life.”[4] Thus, with such intelligence, one will choose “the delight of heaven and eternal life” which they will be given by God if they live out a holy life.[5]

We have been given a limited time in this world, and we are called to use it to make ourselves ready for eternal life. What happens in this world is important because it will have eternal significance. However, its place in eternity is not often the same as it is in worldly life. Just because we became someone important in the worldly sense does not mean we have become someone important in the eternal sense. What is expected of us for eternal glory is for us to follow the path of the cross, the path of love. If we live a life of love – love for God and for our neighbor – we will find the fruit of such love given to us in eternity. It will be great, greater than anything we can imagine. On the other hand, if we sought only for the self, if we gained power and exercised it for our own selfish pleasure, we will have only generated spiritual rot and that rot will be with us in eternity. It hollows us out – we will find ourselves empty, suffering the consequences of such rot. While we might have been encouraged by others and how they have treated us, it is our decision, our action, which will be judged and rewarded. We will create our eternal destiny – the judge will only confirm our conscience and what it reveals of us and the character we have created for ourselves.

It is easy to look to the world, to see the success of others, and to desire it for ourselves. However, we must remember how transitory it all is. Everything comes and goes. What we do with what we have is more important than what we have. We need to learn to accept where we are, and do with what we have, realizing that our life here is temporal and will quickly be over. If we think of our life as preparation for eternity, if we understand the path of love, we will be able to overcome the temptations of this life. We will not find ourselves attached to temporal goods, and so we will be able to use them well, knowing that they have been given to us, not for our own private benefit, but rather, so we can use them for the common good.  If we seek them for ourselves, once we gain them, they will not provide the reward we expect; we will grow weary of them and find out that what we have, even in our worldly existence, is worthless:

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun (Ecc. 2:9-11 RSV).

We can then seek after more earthly goods, never finding fulfillment, or else we can look elsewhere. We can contemplate the nature of things and understand why our thirst for them would be never-ending if we tried to grasp at them as if they were our final good. What we get does not satisfy; getting more unsatisfactory goods will not change it. The wicked will often succeed in getting the things they want, because they do not look to the consequences of their actions and so are willing to do whatever it takes, no matter the cost. They might not see the cost of their actions immediately. We might not see it. We will see they have gotten their reward, but once again, we must remember, what they got is transitory and will not last. They will be seduced by what they got, and ignore the harm they have done to their own souls:

The thoughts of the rich of this world are: to keep what they have gained, and to sweat in gaining more; and therefore seldom or never is contrition found in them. They despise it, being entirely set on transitory things. While they are set so ardently on the sweetness of temporal things, they forget contrition, the life of the soul, and incur death.[6]

Focusing on the things of the world, one will ignore what is happening within one’s spiritual life. If there is any discontent, it is believed because one has not yet achieved proper worldly success. So they continue to act in any and all ways to get what they want, often hurting and destroying the lives of those who get in their way. The transitory pleasure they get makes them think this is the way of happiness. They don’t reflect on the fact that such pleasure doesn’t last. If they did, they would begin to see why they have to abandon their wickedness and look elsewhere for true happiness. What appears, in this world, to be success, will show itself in eternity to be anything but success as one finds oneself discontent with what one has or as one finds out the world has moved on and what once one had is now worthless in the eyes of the world.

O blessed soul, what are these worldly things? Nothing but empty dreams. What did pride or the boasting of riches profit those who love them? For all of them have passed like a shadow … like a ship traversing the waves. When it has passed, no trace can be found…. For they are consumed in their wickedness. And, sad to say, how many there are who have left no trace of virtues behind them! Where are the rulers of the nations, who lorded it over the wild beasts of the earth … who heaped up silver and the gold, who built up cities and encampments, who conquered kings and kingdoms in war?[7]

The great of the past are no more; they have been overcome by the great of today, and they will be replaced by the great of tomorrow. Earthly glory is fleeting. We can get it, but once we have it, then what? Holiness remains and is brought with us into eternity. Should we not seek it out? Yes, we might suffer in this life, we might be unfairly treated because we have not followed the path of earthly glory, but eternal life and eternal beatitude far outweigh what we have lost. We must be careful and not read into this a denial of worldly things, as if they are unimportant – they have a place in our life. We can and should decry the wicked when they act unjustly. But we should not see their success here as indication of any real, eternal success. They might have gotten more, but what is it, exactly, they have gotten?

“Are you really so animal-like, so devoid of understanding as to what is good for the soul, that you offer it the foods of the flesh and serve it things that go into the latrine? If your soul possesses virtue, if it is full of good works and dwells near to God, then indeed it has ‘many good things,’ and should rejoice with the soul’s own pure joy. But because you consider only earthly things and have made your belly into a god, because you are entirely fleshly and enslaved by the passions, hear the fitting appellation that is given to you, not by any human being, but by the Lord Himself: ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ Worse even than eternal punishment is this scorn on account of your folly.[8]

 

We see a dualism in this text, where the body and soul are seen as in a contest against one another. While such dualism can end up Gnostic and problematic, we see it also in authentic spiritual classics, with the dualism being reverted to the need of the soul to take control and to guide the body instead of being driven by it. This is exactly the kind of spiritual position we have already seen in our work, and the kind which is in accord with what we know of Anthony. What we have here could easily be by him or his disciples.


[1] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#144).

[2] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#145).

[3] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#145).

[4] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#146).

[5] “On the Character of Men and on the Virtuous Life,” 351 (#146).

[6] Saint Anthony of Padua, Sermons for Sundays and Festivals. Volume IV. Trans. Paul Spilsbury (Padua: Edizioni Messaggero Padova: 2010),156.

[7] St. Bonaventure, “Soliloquim” in Writings on the Spiritual Life. Intr. and Notes by F. Edward Coughlin, O.F.M. (Saint Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2006), 273.

[8]St. Basil the Great, “I Will Tear Down My Barns” in On Social Justice. Trans. C. Paul Schroeder (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2009), 67.

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