George Tyrrell.

Hard sayings; a selection of meditations and studies online

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form such an estimate of those consequences, both to
the individual and to human society at large, as to
understand why God, who loves us so vehemently
and irresistibly, must be so inexorably opposed to


the first beginnings of such harm ; so keen to stamp
out the first spark of so destructive a conflagration.
"Behold," says St. James, "how great a matter a
little fire kindleth." We ourselves hate the very
name or even the suggestion of those things which
we have cause to know to be evil and hurtful ; and
similarly God's love for us leads Him to a pro-
portional hate of all that is even remotely connected
with our spiritual misery and destruction.

If we want to know what sin is and what it leads
to, we must not judge it merely by those effects
which fall under our eyes every day. For no one is
so thoroughly depraved as to give way to any sin
without the least attempt at restraint ; much less to
give way to all sins. Far less likely is it that society
at large or any great part of society should throw off
every yoke and abandon itself freely to evil inclina-
tions of every description. Yet it is only by making
some such supposition that we can form any adequate
idea of the hurtfulness of sin. Let a man give way
to laziness and sloth without any restraint, and at
once we see life becomes impossible for him. One
such example of inertness is enough at times to
destroy a whole family and bring it to poverty and
misery. What if the whole family were made up of
such members ? What if all society were so consti-
tuted ? Plainly this vice alone — whose seed is in
every one of us — would involve the speedy extinction
of the human race were it let have its own way.

How soon and how utterly the habit of telling
lies ruins the moral character of its victims ! how
quickly it extends, and how deeply its roots reach


down into the soul ! How incurable it is ! How it
paralyzes the gift of speech, whose purpose is to
mirror the soul. And when the disease becomes
epidemic, how ruinous it is to mutual trust and
charity and reverence ! Yet perhaps we have seldom
met an wholly unmitigated liar who made no pre-
tence whatever of veracity; and even the most
degraded populations have offered some kind of
resistance to the spread of the practice. Perhaps
one lie in itself may at times seem utterly harmless ;
not only free from all hurtful consequences, but
fruitful in good consequences, conducive to peace,
and charity, and justice. But there is an infinite
distance between the man who has never lied, whose
veracity is still "virgin," and him who has crossed
the line, and who has given proof that his allegiance
to truth is not absolute, but qualified. It may be a
little thing, but like so many other little things, it
involves a great principle. A lie, as such, is an
apostasy from the cause of God ; a concession to
the cause of darkness and deception. " It is only a
venial sin," one may say. Yes, but God would
rather see you blind, halt, and maimed than that
you should commit a venial sin ; so differently does
He judge of what is hurtful to you. A lie, how
harmless soever, how helpful soever, is in His eyes
like to the first plague-spot of a disease which has
swept nations off the face of the earth ; it is a little
germ full of the most virulent poison, and with
unlimited powers of self-dissemination.

We may consider anger in the same way ; the
suffering it causes to its victims and to all those


around them ; what crimes it leads to — blasphemy,
cruelty, violence, injury; yet rarely is it wholly
unrestrained. What then if it had full play ; if it
were indulged in universally ? Who could live in
such a hell upon earth ? And so of resentment,
peevishness, discontent, sarcasm, ill-nature, pride,
arrogance, boasting, meanness, avarice, selfishness,
fraud, dishonesty ; not to speak of coarser vices like
drunkenness and impurity. Let any one of them
run its course unimpeded, and it stands to reason
that it will destroy the happiness of mankind, and
make life, individual and social, altogether unbear-
able and impossible.

It is, then, with the nature of things that our
quarrel is, and not with God. We want to be free
from the necessary consequences of our own actions;
to keep what we have thrown away ; wc barter our
birthright for a mess of potage, and account our-
selves wronged because we are held to our bargain.

We see clearly that it is by the repetition ot
single acts that habits are formed and customs
become general ; and that though no one act can
produce the effect, yet unless single acts are forbidden
absolutely, each man will dispense himself on every
occasion. And notwithstanding we act as the
improvident spendthrift who, regarding each indi-
vidual economy as insignificant, saves nothing, and
ends in beggary.

Again, our reason and intuition tell us that our
whole nature is so designed and intended, that the
spirit should have dominion over the flesh ; that we
should never be swayed by mere feelings, passions


and emotions, except so far as they have first been
summoned before the tribunal of conscience and
there approved. This is what we call self-control,
or being master of oneself; and every virtue or
moral strength is some particular form of self-mastery,
while every vice is some particular form of self- slavery.
Now, though we feel a sort of shame about merely
physical infirmities, to which we are necessarily
subjected, yet it is quite distinct in character from
that shame we experience in being convicted ol
moral weakness, of want of self-control where such
control is both possible and due, e.g., in being
detected in greediness, or meanness, or untruthful-
ness, or dishonesty. We recognize that our nature is
thereby perverted and distorted, nay, rather inverted,
since what should be under is uppermost ; the flesh
leads and the spirit follows : Servi dominati sunt
nostri — " Those who should be our slaves, are our
masters." We feel the unmanliness of sin and vice.
Indeed, we are wont to characterize this lack of self-
mastery as effeminate, brutal, savage — words which
all confess that developed humanity implies perfect
self-control. Hence even when we sin we invariably
try to deceive ourselves and others by finding reasons
to justify our conduct, as though we scorned to ad
on mere inclination or otherwise than on principle,
thereby tacitly confessing that we are thoroughly
ashamed of ourselves for having acted otherwise.

And together with this natural shame at our
moral nakedness, there is a more or less explicit sense
of guilt or of offence committed against that neces-
sary will of God made known to us in the ordinations


of nature and in the design of our own spiritual
constitution ; a sense that we have not only marred
ourselves, but angered Him whose work and image
we are. All this, be it noted, is something quite dis-
tinct from the sense of having merited the censure
of our fellow-men, or the censure that our own
mind tells us we should pass upon another who acted
similarly. It is distinct, moreover, from the appre-
hension of any pains or punishments our sin may
bring upon us, of any pleasures and rewards it may
deprive us of. These apprehensions may co-exist
with the sense of guilt and moral shame, and even
predominate in our thought where conscience has
grown enfeebled, but they are merely prudential and
self-regarding motives, born of a love, right in itself,
but no way akin to that unselfish love of objective
Tightness and of the Divine will which finds utter-
ance in the dictates of conscience.

But besides all the positive harm which sin
works in us, we must remember that it excludes
and deprives us of that Divine goodness and
happiness for which we were created, namely, the
unselfish love of our God and Maker and of our
fellow-men in God and for God. It ties us down
to what is sordid and transitory; it founds our
happiness on the shifting sand, and not on the
eternal rock. Pride is incompatible with the praise
of God ; self-sufficiency with reverence ; self-seeking
with service. In every sense, therefore, sin is our
ruin and destruction ; it is the death and corruption
of our soul ; and it is only because at present we
can drug ourselves with the narcotic of pleasure, or


of distracting excitement, and because the spirit is
not alone with itself but can pour itself out on
creatures, that we do not already somewhat experi-
ence the torments of the damned by a faint fore-

Yet all this objective harm and disorder, this
hurt to ourselves and to others, is the least evil of
sin, even as reason considers the matter. For our
conscience testifies not only to a violation of order,
but to a defiance of the will of the ordainer ; it tells
us that sin is an opposition of person to person,
and of will to will; an unjust opposition of the
creature to its God and Creator ; of the feeble and
finite will to the omnipotent and irresistible will of
the Divine Goodness and Love. We feel that we
have made ourselves hateful to the All- holy and All-
mighty. To be loved, no less than to love, is our
last end or beatitude — for all personal love is im-
perfect and restless till it is mutual. We seek, not
God's gifts, but Himself, just as nothing we give
Him and do for Him will suffice if we withhold our
very self. Sicut non sufficeret tibi, omnibus habitis,
prater me ; ita nee mihi placere potevit quidquid dederis,
te non oblato — " As the whole creation could not
satisfy thee without Me, so neither can all thy gifts
satisfy Me if thou give not thyself." 1 As it is by
loving Him that we give ourselves to God and He
possesses us, so it is by loving us that He gives
Himself to us and we possess Him. To be hated
by God, to be the object of His anger and dislike, is
in itself, apart from all other evil consequences in

Imitation, iv. 8.


the way of punishment, the greatest evil that can
befall us.

And it is precisely as involving a resistance of
will to will that sin generates anger, like the steel
which strikes fire from the flint. We know this
from ourselves. However grieved we may be for
the hurt done to us, or the opposition offered to our
wishes by some inanimate or irresponsible cause,
we are not angry as with a person. But voluntary
opposition, especially if we conceive it to be unjust,
excites first annoyance, then indignation, which
grows and gathers like an angry storm-cloud, and
bursts at last in a fury of vengeance and reprisal. So
it is that by opposing the will and determination of
omnipotent Love, sin stores up Divine indignation
against the sinner, which when let loose from the
restraining hand of mercy, will drive him from the
presence and favour of God as chaff is driven before
the face of the tempest.

And here St. Ignatius would have me contrast
myself with God, person with person; and to this
end first to dwell upon the absolute insignificance
of my own personality, as but one of the almost
innnite multitudes of men which have peopled the
earth. A man may be somebody in his own house-
hold and family; though even there he is soon
forgotten — but what is he in a great crowd or
assembly ? what as one of a nation ? what as one
of a race ? — and yet what is that race compared
with the numberless orders of spiritual personalities
which belong to the other world ? My moral and
personal insignificance therefore is hardly less than


my physical insignificance as an atom of this
material universe, or as a solitary ripple on the
endless sea of time. And then I am to contrast
my frailty and weakness with the Divine strength
and endurance, my fleeting life with God's
eternity ; what am I but an autumn leaf that
trembles on the bough and is caught away by
the first breeze — Folium quod vento rapitur, as Job
says ; on what a slender thread I hang ! What is
my physical force compared with the forces of
nature ; what stand could I make against the rage
of the ocean, or against the earthquake, or the
thunderbolt ; what resistance could I offer to the
impetus of a planet ; wha*; to all the forces 01
the universe leagued against me? And yet God
moves them with His finger, nay, with the least
breath of His Love, of His Holy Spirit— the Digitus
Dei. And it is against the infinite impetus of that
Love, against the omnipotence of that subsistent
Will, that I set myself when I sin. I defy the laws
not only of the universe, but of the Builder of the
universe ; I endeavour not only to turn aside the
course of Nature, but to change that Divine Nature
whence created Nature derives all her force and
necessity. Is it wonderful if sin issues sooner or
later in the destruction of the sinner ?

Further, in every sin I set up my judgment
against God's judgment ; my wisdom against His ;
I pretend to know better than He what is good for
me, what I ought to do. Or I refuse to obey
because I do not see the why and the wherefore.
I, from my little corner of this darkened cave of a


universe, guessing from passing shadows and gleams
as to what is going on above and beyond, pretend
to an equality with Him whose eyes are over all
the earth, and see from end to end of time. Yet
what do I know compared with so many around
me? What, compared with the collective know-
ledge of the race ? And what is this, compared
with what is knowable to man and may yet be
known? And this again is to God's wisdom and
knowledge as the light of a glow-worm to the light
of the sun. How sickening and irritating is the
scepticism or the dogmatism of the half-educated
mind inflated with its modicum of late-acquired,
ill-digested knowledge! Yet is it anything like as
disgusting as must be the self-sufficiency and vain
intellectual conceit involved in every sin ?

And then I am to contrast the Divine good-
ness with my own vileness and poverty of body
and soul; dwelling on this corpus humilitatis — "this
body of humiliation," this burden of corruptible
flesh, with all its infirmities normal and morbid,
designed to be a perpetual Memento of our deri-
vation from the slime of the earth. Memento homo,
says the Church to us year by year, quia pulvis es
et in pulverem reverteris—" Remember, O man, that
dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return."
Yet how little do men seem to remember it when
they strut about with their heads in the air, as
though they were not at best whited sepulchres ; as
though they did not need continual tending and
cleansing in order not to be altogether loathsome and
horrible ; as though they were not at every turn liable


to be seized upon by one of those legion diseases
which lie in ambush round our path in the service
of inevitable death and decay. In making man, in
yoking the lowest grade of spiritual substance to an
animal carcase, God's wisdom seemed to have devised
a being to whom pride should be impossible and
ridiculous, in whom it should find no food to feed
on, no cleft or cranny to lurk in. Even under the
most favourable conditions, if God has endowed me
with perfect health, vigour, strength, and beauty,
how perishable and transitory it is ; how slight and
common an excellence it is ; above all, how entirely
a gift of God through natural and necessary causes !
When I think of all the beauty and grace and
wisdom displayed in physical nature which has
inspired so much joy and worship in hearts of
kindred beauty, and when I remember that all
this, together with that of countless worlds as fair
and wonderful, is but a hint at that undreamt-of
Beauty which is God, surely I must be in straits
for something to pride myself on if I can find aught
in my body. Yet it cannot be denied that perfect
bodily health and beauty often breed a spirit of
independence, an insolence of pride, which leads to

If I turn from my body to my soul, there I find
still less to boast of. Doubtless as it leaves God's
hands, the soul of man, however lowly its rank in
the spiritual order, is immeasurably greater and
nobler than anything in the world of matter. Yet
as there is no animal born so feeble and unprotected
as man, so urgently in need of assistance and nurture


and education, depending as he does on the family
and on society for his proper development, in like
manner his soul's greatness is all potential and in
capacity, and depends for its development on union
and association with God. It is by nature a re-
ceptacle or dwelling-place of God's light and love,
and derives all its goodness and beauty from His
indwelling. For as the body when the soul is
withdrawn becomes so much carrion and rotten-
ness, so the soul when it ceases to " lean on her
beloved," to cling to Him as the vine to the elm,
becomes corrupt and abominable beyond all measure.
What brightness has the mirror apart from the sun,
and what greatness or goodness has the soul which
casts off God ? If this is true of all created spirits,
it is truest of man's soul, the least and feeblest,
albeit the dearest of all God's dear children. And
when the corruption of spiritual death once sets in,
then indeed, as St. Ignatius says, the soul becomes
no better than a centre of pestilential infection
streaming out on all sides.

We can perhaps never sufficiently realize how
sin ramifies in its harmful consequences as long as
the world lasts ; how it is a little spore which of its
own nature tends to multiply with fearful rapidity
long after the act has been forgiven by God and
forgotten by us. And this gives another point of
sharp contrast between the vileness of my own soul
and the goodness of God, whom I offend so easily.
From Him as from its source flows out all that is
good in this world, whether in Nature or the soul
of man ; all the light and glory of creation radiates


from this Sun, all darkness and death is only a name
for His absence; while, the only absolute and un-
qualified evil which mars His work is sin, and sin
flows from the perverse will of man to "increase
and multiply and replenish the earth," and to change
it from Paradise into Hell.

Vile as I am, however, soul and body, by sin I
put myself on an equality with God ; as though
I were as good as He. I refuse to accept a position
of subjection and inferiority. It is so with every
rebel and his liege-lord ; he is always a leveller and
an upstart. We smile now superciliously at the
old Ptolemaic astronomy, which represented the sun
as whirled round the earth once a day. We show
how absurd it would be to suppose a body so vast
should sweep through a circle with a radius ot
ninety million miles in twenty-four hours; how
much easier it is to suppose the daily revolution 01
the earth on its axis ; especially when the fixed
stars, whose mass and distance we now can con-
jecture less inadequately, offer each of them a similar
and greater difficulty. And yet, when we sin we are
guilty of an immeasurably greater absurdity. We
make self the centre round which God and every-
thing else is to revolve ; our will is to rule, and
God's is to be ruled. This is surely the worst part
of sin, the personal opposition of the creature to its
Creator, of will to will ; of our self-love to the love
of God ; the objective harm, which is the matter 01
prohibition, is a little evil compared with this;
though viewed in another aspect this too is an
objective disorder beyond all other. For obedience


is itself a virtue, as much as any other virtue which
we practise under obedience ; and if reason is
violated by a disturbance of the due relation between
men, or by faults against temperance or self-control,
so most of all when man sets his will against the
will of God.

Here St. Ignatius would have me pause and
gather up the results of my recent reflections ;
look back on that long indictment I brought
home to myself in the review of my past life; weigh-
ing well the severity of the Divine justice revealed
to me in Holy Writ ; seeing finally how all this
harmonizes with the dictates of my natural reason,
which is forced to cry out : Justus es, Domine, et
rectum judicium tuum — "Just art Thou, O God, and
right in Thy judgments." And if God has opened
my eyes and touched my heart, I shall surely break
out into a cry of astonishment at God's goodness
and mercy, which has borne with me so long and so
patiently. For when He might most justly over
and over again have cut me off in the midst of my
sins, or withdrawn all His richer graces, and suffered
me to run my own perverse course from bad to
worse, He has instead pursued me, and overwhelmed
me with forgiveness and generosity ; He has served
me in all His creatures, has fed and supported me;
He has given me all my life, movement, thought,
and will — nay, the very acts and energies I turned
against Him were the gifts and evidences of His
present love. He might well have sent His angels
to destroy me, but instead, He gave them special
charge over me to keep me in all my ways. Insteaa


of turning a deaf ear to the prayers of His Blessed
Mother and of His saints, and forbidding them so
much as to mention my name, He not only harkened,
but longed to be entreated in my behalf. In a word,
when every claim to His forbearance was forfeited,
when He might have loathed me in my degradation,
He pitied me instead, and secretly drew me to a
better mind, to a desire for His service ; and when
I was yet afar off He could bear the separation no
longer, but ran out to meet me, and silenced my
confession with a kiss of peace.

And so I betake myself once more to the foot of
His Cross, and marvel what there can be in my
miserable soul that God can so love ; what has
enslaved Him to this degree of self-abasement. And
from marvelling I pass to love and adoration, and
thence to the sorrow of a broken and contrite heart.


" Amen I say to thee, thou shalt not go out from thence
till thou repay the last farthing." — St. Matt. v. 26.

In the preceding considerations we have spoken of
sin chiefly as of a personal offence and estrangement
from God. But how does this offence re-act upon
our own soul ? We know that God is the life of the
soul here and hereafter. The mind is made for
truth, as the eye is for colour or the ear for sound.
Knowledge is the life of the mind ; colour is the
life of the eye ; music is the life of the ear ; God is
the life of the whole soul, mind and heart. As the
ear is dead till music strikes it into life ; so the soul,
till God breaks upon its vision. Without God, it is

Yet there is the negative death of inaction,
and the positive death of destruction. To hate
is more than not to love. When the soul hates
what is lovable ; when it loves what is hateful,
then it is dead with the death of conscious destruc-
tion. This is the " eternal death " which the Gospel
opposes to " eternal life." As the exercise of any
faculty concerning its fitting and proper object is
attended with joy, so pain results from its applica-
tion to a wrong object. It is like forcing a lock with
a wrong key. By sin we do not merely cease to be


God's friends, but we become His enemies; and this
with a mutual enmity. If it is the greatest ot
spiritual consolations to be at one with God ; it is
the greatest of miseries to be driven from His face.
A stone is not drawn more necessarily to the centre
of the earth than is the created spirit to the bosom
of God. Were the stone conscious of being held
back from its goal, still more of being driven from
it by some contrary violence, this consciousness
would mean misery. To continue the metaphor: the
nearer it approaches the centre, the more forcibly
and impetuously is it borne on. So when the soul
shakes off the fetters of matter, space, and time, and
enters its proper spiritual ether, its flight towards
God is as that of a bird, no longer wearying itseli
with futile flutterings upwards, but freed from the
snare of the fowler, and steered to its home by an
unerring, God-given instinct. What then, if opposed
to this fundamental attraction of our whole spiritual
being, this blind restless craving for God, there be
found an overmastering repulsion, so that we are at
once driven and drawn ; drawn, by the deep-down,
ineradicable instinct of our spiritual nature and

Online LibraryGeorge TyrrellHard sayings; a selection of meditations and studies → online text (page 8 of 31)