17. HEARING THE WORD OF GOD
At the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, Our Lord caused the bread to be distributed to the people by His disciples (Matt. xv. 36). And now He employs His ministers to dispense to the faithful the spiritual bread, the word of God. This bread is given to them freely (2 Cor. xi. 7).
1. The word of God is said to be the food of the soul, because it sustains the life and strength of the soul, as bread does that of the body.
The Fathers of the Church speak of the word of God as the food of the soul. Our Lord Himself says: “Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God” (Matt. iv. 4). The manner in which the word of God acts upon the soul is by enlightening the understanding and inciting the will to do what is good. In the darkness of this life it shows us the path to heaven, as a lantern enables the traveller to find his way by night. The word of God reveals to us the stains upon our soul, as a mirror shows us the marks upon our countenance. When St. Augustine had attended the sermons of St. Ambrose at Milan, he said: “That man opened my eyes.” The word of God stimulates the will to what is good. The fable tells us that Orpheus played the lyre with such a wonderful charm, that the sounds he drew from it fascinated the most savage mortals, tamed wild beasts, and even recalled the dead to life. This is true of the word of God; by it whole nations sunk in heathendom, degraded below the level of the beasts, have been converted, and civilized, and rescued from eternal death. St. Anthony the hermit embraced the life of an anchorite in consequence of having heard a sermon on Our Lord’s words to the rich young man. “Are not My words as a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” (Jer. xxiii. 29.) The word of God strikes the heart like a thunderbolt. The thunder of the divine menaces awakens those asleep in sin, indifferent as to their salvation. The word of God banishes sin. “It acts on the soul,” says St. Jerome, “as a plough on the soil, loosening the hardened surface, rooting up the thistles of vice.” The word of God kindles the flame of charity in the heart of man; like fire, it consumes the rust of sin, it promotes the growth of virtue; or it may be compared to the gentle rain that cometh down from heaven to soak the earth and water it, and make it to spring, and give seed to the sower and bread to the eater (Is. Iv. 10).
He who shows indifference towards the word of God exposes himself to the risk of spiritual death and eternal damnation.
Just as a man who refuses to take food will surely die, so those who do not hear the word of God, which is the food of the soul, incur spiritual death. In this life we are travellers on the long and dangerous journey from time to eternity; and as the traveller who walks by night without a lantern strays from the right road, so we shall not reach the end of our journey without the light of God’s word to illumine our mind and guide us to our final end. The word of God is the sun of the soul, without which the spiritual life will droop and fail, as nature would if deprived of the vivifying warmth and radiance of the sun.
2. Hence it is the duty of every Christian either to hear sermons frequently, or to read spiritual books and make a practical application of what he hears or reads.
The Council of Trent orders that there should be a sermon in every parish church on Sundays and festivals. As it has long been customary to have the sermon after the Gospel, all who go to Mass on those days hear a sermon as a matter of course. Consequently there is no special injunction to hear sermons. Preaching was the principal occupation of Our Lord and the apostles (Luke iv. 43; Mark xvi. 20), and the greatest saints have generally been able and zealous preachers. The preached word has more force and effect than what is read in books. The Bible history, the lives of the saints, or books of meditation are much to be recommended; these are preachers to whom we may listen at any hour. Spiritual books are a mirror in which we discern our own feelings, and the virtues of which we stand most in need. Experience shows how much good may be done by reading them; witness the well-known conversion of St. Ignatius Loyola, or of St. John Columbinus, a nobleman and burgomaster of Sienna. One day, returning home from the town-council at noon, he found dinner was not quite ready. His wife gave him a volume of the lives of the saints to while away the time of waiting; at first he threw it aside, but presently opening it, he read the history of St. Mary of Egypt. This touched him so deeply that he became a changed man; from thenceforth he led an austere and saintly life. If we would profit by what we read, we must read with deliberation, and not too much at a time; and above all, be careful in the choice of books. Many books are like fungi, not food, but poison; “evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor. xv. 33). Moreover one must make a practical application of what one hears or reads. As food only nourishes the body when it is properly digested, so the word of God does not profit the hearer unless it be received into the heart and meditated upon. And as when we have been walking in a beautiful garden, inhaling the perfume of the flowers, we like to take away with us a few fragrant blossoms, so after spiritual reading we should retain a few thoughts as a spiritual bouquet to refresh us during the day. Unfortunately people do not think over what they hear or read; they are like a man who beholds his own countenance in a glass and goes his way, presently forgetting what manner of man he is (Jas. i. 23, 24). This is so because either they are distracted by worldly cares (the seed falls on the wayside), or they are prejudiced against the word of God (the seed falls upon a rock), or their hearts are full of corrupt inclinations and unruly passions (the seed falls among thorns) (Luke viii.).
To apply the word of God to another, not to one’s self, is reprehensible; or to listen to a preacher as the Pharisee did, merely in a critical spirit; or again to refuse to obey the word of God, because the example of the preacher does not correspond to his teaching.
We ought to apply the sermons we hear to ourselves. Some are so busy in apportioning what they hear to others, that they leave nothing for themselves. It is recorded in the life of St. Anthony of Padua, and those of other saints, that when they preached against the follies of the day, gambling and love of dress, men brought their cards and dice, women their cosmetics and finery, and burned them in the presence of the preacher. It is not eloquence, but truth, that should attract us in a preacher. If we listen to the simplest discourse in a docile spirit, we are sure to learn something from it. Others will not obey the word of God because the preacher does not practice what he teaches. St. Augustine compares those who will not follow the counsels of a preacher because he himself does not act upon them, to travellers who, coming to a wooden guide-post, will go no further on the road pointed out to them because the guide-post itself is stationary. The preacher is but the instrument of which the divine husband man makes use to sow His celestial seed. Look not at the poverty of the vessel containing the seed, but at the excellence of the grain, and the majesty of the husbandman.
3. Those who are assiduous in hearing sermons or reading spiritual books, will not have great difficulty in attaining eternal salvation.
Our Lord says: “He that is of God, heareth the words of God” (John viii. 47). “Blessed are they who hear the word of God, and keep it” (Luke xi. 28). We delight to hear men speak of those whom we love; therefore, if we rejoice to hear of God, we must have the love of God in our hearts, and those who have divine charity are in a state of grace. Appetite is a sign of health; so the desire for spiritual nourishment is a sign that the soul is in a healthy condition, that is, in a state of grace. A disgust for food shows the body to be sick, and a distaste for the word of God indicates a bad state of the soul.
The profit to be derived from a sermon is proportioned to the enlightening grace of the Holy Spirit present in the hearts of the preacher and his hearers.
This is why the assistance of the Holy Ghost is invoked before the sermon. It is God, not the preacher, Who speaks to the heart. The preacher planteth only and watereth, it is God Who giveth the increase (1 Cor. iii. 7). However splendid the equipments of a ship, she cannot sail unless the wind is favorable; so it is with the preacher: however great his erudition and eloquence, unless the Holy Spirit imparts unction to his words, they avail nothing. An officer of distinction, who had heard all the best preachers of France, once went to hear the sermon of a simple but pious village priest, the Cure d Ars. When asked what he thought of the discourse, he answered: “Hitherto I have only been pleased with the orator, now I am displeased with myself.” It is said that St. Francis of Sales converted seventy thousand heretics by his preaching. When we see a beautifully executed piece of penmanship, we do not praise the pen, but the hand that guided it; in like manner it is not to the preacher who delivers an excellent discourse that praise is due, but to the Holy Ghost Who spoke by his lips. The word of God does not always bear fruit immediately, it is like the grain of mustard-seed (Matt. xiii.), which after a considerable time grew up and became a large tree. Sometimes it produces no fruit at all. Our Lord speaks of three cases in which the seed perished and only one in which it bore fruit; when it bears fruit the amount is not always the same.
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