Thus in times of greatest peril the shepherd protects his sheep, and wrests them from the jaws of harm. The sheep know this, and they fear no evils; they know that their master is with them. Yea, though they walk in the shadow of perils and dwell in the midst of the valley of death, they faint not, neither do they fear, for they know that the shepherd is near.
The case of the sheep in the valley of perils is not unlike our own in the midst of the evils of the world; and the peace and safety which we enjoy should be similar also to theirs. We are assured, first of all, by an unflinching faith in God and our Redeemer that, if we trust our Master and obey Him, we shall be led aright throughout our lives, even to the kingdom of Heaven. We shall be led in the paths of justice and love, and crowned at length with the crown of glory, if we but follow the voice of our Shepherd-King, and avoid the walks of disaster and ruin. And to hear His voice and to know it we have but to listen to the teachings of His Church, which will hush to silence our troubled hearts, and direct our wayward feet into the paths of heavenly peace.
But, like the shepherd's flock, we have to avoid in our journey through life, as perils to our safety and spiritual welfare, not only the false shepherds and teachers and doctrines that surround us on all sides; but we must also, to pass to our reward, actually encounter inevitable evils and fight many necessary battles. Many of the paths of life through which we must of necessity pass are hard and difficult, and full of deadly perils. We must remember that sin has ruined the primeval beauty of our earthly habitation and made our life here below a labor and a toil to the end.
We not only come into the world with sin on our souls, and are thereby exiles from the city of God, but even when our sin is forgiven us the remains of the malady continue as wounds in our nature as long as we live on earth. The deadly guilt is wiped away, but the effects of the evil remain. And it is chiefly these wounds of our nature, in ourselves and in others, that render life's journey, even when pursued in accordance with the law of God, at times truly difficult and perilous. Fidelity to God and to His law is not always a safeguard against the wickedness of the world and of men; at times, in fact, it is just the contrary. Indeed, is it not a truth that many, perhaps the majority, of those who endeavor sincerely to please and to serve God must often suffer severely for their very goodness and faithfulness? Are they not misunderstood, and criticised, and censured? Are they not frequently accused of all manner of wrong, their work disparaged, and their motives impugned? Are not persecution, and even martyrdom, often their portion? Now all this is the result of sin. Those who call into question the deeds and motives of God's saints; those who upbraid, and criticise, and impute evil to the sincere, faithful servants of God, inflicting upon them dire evils, are but showing the effects of sin in themselves, are but giving exercise to the evil that rules within them. Their particular acts and words may be without present malice, they may be inwardly persuaded that in reviling and condemning their neighbor and doing him harm, they are rendering a service to God Himself; but in so doing they but manifest the effects of earlier sin, personal, perhaps, and original, which has darkened their understanding and made perverse their moral vision, so that, having eyes, they see not, having ears, they hear not, neither do they understand.(35) Following the corruption of their own nature, bleeding from the wounds of original sin, they are prone to blaspheme whatsoever they fail to comprehend;(36) and thus it is that they often make life and the world for the servant of God a truly perilous sojourn, a veritable valley of death.
This failure to be understood, this misjudgment of actions, motives, deeds, are doubtless common evils from which, in a measure, we all must suffer. But it is also true that the more elevated the life, the higher its aims, the loftier the spiritual level on which it proceeds, the greater the difficulty of its being understood and appreciated by the majority, who always tread the common paths of mediocrity. A saint is nearly always a disturbance to his immediate surroundings, he is frequently an annoyance and an irritation to the little circle in which his external life is cast, simply because he really lives and moves in a sphere which the ordinary life cannot grasp. Like a brilliant, dazzling light that obscures the lesser luminaries, and is therefore odious to them, the man of God is frequently a disturber to the worldly peace of common men, his life and works are a living reproach to their life and works; and hence, without willing it, he becomes a menace to their society and is not welcome in their company. Worldly, plotting minds cannot understand the spiritual and the holy; sinful souls are out of harmony with the virtuous; the children of darkness cannot find peace with the children of light. And not only is there a lack of sympathy in the worldly-minded for the men and women who are led of God, but there is often positive hatred for them -- a hatred which spends itself in actual, persistent persecution. To be devout, to refrain from sinful words and sinful deeds, to shun the vain and dangerous amusements of worldlings, to attend much to prayer and recollection, to love the house and worship of God, to be seen often approaching the sacraments and partaking of the bread of life at the communion rail -- even these holy acts are sufficient frequently to draw down on the servants of God the curse and persecution of a world which knows not what it does.
And that which happens individually to the faithful children of God takes place on a larger scale with respect to God's Church. The children of this world, those who have set their heart on temporal things, or who, through wilful error have deviated from the right path to things eternal, never cease from pursuing and persecuting the Church of God. They hate the Church and attack it unceasingly. Like the perverse and blinded Jews of old who reviled the Saviour and His words and deeds, who pursued Him and put Him to death, these ever-living and ever-active enemies of light and truth never abate in their fury against the chosen friends of Christ, and against His holy Church. But need we be surprised at this? Was it not foretold? Did not our blessed Shepherd, speaking in the beginning to His little flock, warn them that men would deliver them up in councils and scourge them? Did He not say to them plainly, "And you shall be hated by all men for my name's sake; but he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved. And when they persecute you in this city, flee into another.... The disciple is not above the master, nor the servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be as his master, and the servant as his lord. If they have called the good man of the house Beelzebub, how much more them of his household."(37)
It happens, therefore, that fidelity to God, and careful adherence to the paths of justice and holiness, can frequently be the occasion of perils and sufferings for us individually, as they also are the excuse for a vaster persecution of the Church in general. All holy persons and holy things are signs of contradiction. They are not of the world, they do not fit in with it; and between them and the world there will be strife and contention until the renovation comes.
But the enemies that lie along the ways of life, that beset and threaten even the most righteous paths of our pilgrimage, are not all from without -- the most numerous and menacing are perhaps from within. "The enemies of a man," says the inspired writer, "are those of his own household."(38) That is to say, the most potent evils which we suffer, the chiefest foes to our present and future welfare are from ourselves -- our own waywardness, our tendencies to evil, our wilfulness, our self-love and self-seeking, our own sins. It is from these and like causes that we suffer most. Hard and trying it surely is to bear persecutions and contradictions from others; severe is the strain to nature when, in the face of our noblest efforts, proceeding from noblest motives, we meet with misunderstanding and even condemnation; but to the upright, religious heart that is sincerely and truly seeking God amid the shadows and pitfalls of life, the sorest of all trials and the fiercest of all enemies are one's own temptations and passions and inclinations to evil. Easier it were to conquer the whole external world of foes, than to reign supreme over the little world within. Of Alexander the Great it is said, that while he actually subdued the whole known world of his time, he nevertheless yielded in defeat before his own passions. He could overcome his external enemies, but surrendered miserably in the battle with self.
This, then, is our greatest warfare, the struggle with ourselves; and this our greatest victory, a triumph over self. "If each year," says the Imitation, "we could uproot but one evil inclination, how soon we should be perfect men!"(39) But it is not for us to be free from enemies and perils, both from without and from within, during our earthly sojourn. They are a part of our lot here below, they are necessarily bound up with the darkened regions through which the Shepherd must lead his flock; and hence, entire safety there shall never be before the journey's end, until we say farewell to present woes, and hail "the happy fields, where joy forever dwells."
In our present state, therefore, it is important for us to realize our dangers and to be prepared for conflict. There is no way of escape from crosses, and perils, and dreadful battles for all those who wish to win the crown of victory. They must follow the Shepherd as he leads the way, and hence our Lord has said, "if any man will come after me, let him take up his cross daily and follow me."(40) Yes, it is the following of the Shepherd, it is his leadership, his constant presence, that give comfort to the sheep, and dispel the dread and fear of perils. And though we pass through the valley and shadow of death, we need fear no evil, for He is with us. At times, frequently perhaps, as we sail the sea of life, the waves roll over and deluge us so completely that we are all but smothered. The clouds gather, thick and black, and overcast the sky of our souls; the sorrows of death surround us, and the pains of the pit encompass us;(41) we are overwhelmed with sadness and plunged in darkness. We think of God, we remember Him, but He seems afar off. The evil which weighs us down -- the pain of body, the agony of soul, the sadness and dejection of heart and mind, "the madness that worketh in the brain," muffle the voice and all but still the trembling pulse, and we are not able so much as to lift our drooping heads and tear-dimmed eyes to see the gentle Shepherd standing faithfully at our side. It is our failure to discern and apprehend Him that causes extreme agony. If at these times of utter desolation, when the soul is swept by the winds of sorrow, we could only raise our eyes and thoughts to Him, with faith and hope and child-like trust, the spell would be broken; and we should see the clouds lift and part and float away on the wind, only to let in God's cheerful sun to raise the drooping spirit, and warm and soothe the troubled soul.
But it is difficult, when oppressed by sorrow and affliction, to lift the heart and mind to things above. Nature of itself tends downward, and unless it has learned to discipline itself and to engage with the enemy in sturdy battle, it is not yet prepared for life. For the world is a battlefield and life a warfare, even from a natural point of view, and only they can hope to win in life's hard contest who have learned to brave the battle, who have prepared themselves for conflict. But who is ready for the struggle, and how shall we be able to encounter our foes? Left to ourselves and to our own resources, we shall surely go down in defeat. The opposing forces are too gigantic, too numerous. They throng from near and from afar. They swarm from within and from without; from our own nature and from others, from the world around, and from our own household; from those at home, and from them that are abroad. Frequently during life we are, of a certainty, encompassed round with perils; we hardly know where to turn or what to do, we are breathless with fright; but even then, if we have proper faith, we shall grow calm, like the shepherd's flock in the midst of devouring animals and beasts of prey, for our Saviour and Shepherd is with us, and no evil can befall us. Even when we think Him farthest, He is often nearest; when we think Him sleeping, His heart is watching. He loves us, His weak and timid sheep; we are the objects of His heart's affection and ever active solicitude; He will not let perish, if we trust Him, the price of His precious Blood.
And the training we are to receive, and the preparation we are to make, in order worthily and victoriously to engage in the battle of life are nothing, therefore, but lessons of love and trust in the constant goodness and faithfulness of our divine Saviour. Unless we viciously drive Him away by deliberate, grievous sin, He is really never absent from us, and least of all when we need Him most. It is our fault, if we do not by faith discern Him, if we do not feel His ever-gracious presence. We need to discipline ourselves in acts and deeds of faith and love, and then we shall realize that He is always near us, even in the darkness of the shadow of death.
We must try to know our Shepherd, first of all; we must endeavor intimately to understand Him. For to have faith in Him, to trust Him, to believe in His power and goodness, in His overruling care for us and our interests, presuppose a knowledge of Him, just as faith and confidence in an earthly friend follow upon an intimate acquaintance with that friend. But this close knowledge of our Master, so necessary to our present peace and future happiness, will never be ours unless we make Him our confidant, unless we accustom ourselves to live in His presence, to look to Him, to speak to Him often, to listen to His gracious direction. And this intimate relationship with our Saviour, this habitual communion with Him, will enkindle in our souls the fire of love. Once we know Him, we will trust Him, and having faith and confidence in Him, we will link our poor lives to His divine life by the strong cords of heavenly charity. Fear and uncertainty will then be impossible, even in the darkest hours.
It is love, above all, that directs our life -- love, indeed, which is born of knowledge. We do not, it is true, love anything before we have some knowledge of it; this would be an impossibility; but once the soul has caught the vision, it is love that drives the life and stimulates and enriches the knowledge. The objects of our affections are the interpreters of our life and actions. If we love the world, we are led by the world; if we love God, it is God that leads and directs us. Where the treasure is, there will the heart be also;(42) and where the heart is, thither will the life make its way. But if God is the object of our love, we shall fear no evil; for "God is charity," says St. John, "and he that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him ... Fear is not in charity; but perfect charity casteth out fear, because fear hath pain."(43)
It is only the love of God, therefore, that will steady our lives, and bear us up in the thick of tribulations. It is the confident assurance that we, although so unworthy, are the objects of divine complacency that awakens in our hearts a return of burning charity, and enables us to say, with the Psalmist, when the day is darkest "The Lord is my light and salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the protector of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?"(44) We are not to fear men, said our Lord, who, when they have destroyed the body, can do no more;(45) neither shall we be in dread of our Master, if armed with the gift of His love, "for fear hath pain, but love casteth out fear." Rather shall we, like the martyrs of old, mindful of the gift of God, go bravely forth to the battle of life, or to the slaughter, calmly, hopefully, cheerfully. While humbly, but steadfastly trustful of the Shepherd that leads us, we shall not be disturbed or troubled; the present shall be shorn of its terrors, the future of its forebodings. This truly is the triumph of life, when love, not fear, has come to rule us. This is the broader, larger life -- the forerunner of life eternal in which our days are passed in calm serenity -- in which we press on with undaunted tread, alike under frowning clouds, or under a star-lit sky; alike with the joys of friendship around us, or alone amidst the graves of the dead.
We must not infer from this that the love of God which is our strength, the source of our courage, will blunt our feelings or harden our lives. It does not seal up the fountain of tears, or make us insensible to the pains and sorrows of life, which belong to the lot of all. In a certain sense it is likely true that those suffer most in life who are most united to God; for they feel most the coldness of the world and its desolation, its want of love and sympathy, its degradation and its misery. Hence it would be a mistake to think that the friends of God in this life are either exempted from pain and sorrow, or made insensible to them, either in themselves or in others. Of these and other evils they are truly more keenly aware than worldly men, if for no other reason than because of the superior refinement of their nature and the spiritual outlook of their vision. It is sin, after all, that hardens while it weakens. Sin closes the heart to love, it renders its victims cold, unsympathetic and selfish; whereas the gifts of grace and holiness are tenderness, mercy, strength. But though all have to suffer, both the holy and the unholy, the difference between them is this, that the ungodly are borne down and overcome by their sorrows and crosses, while the spiritual are always triumphing even in the midst of apparent defeat. To the foolish they seem to be vanquished, yet they conquer; often they seem on the verge of surrender, when they emerge in victory; they seem to die, when behold they live!(46)
The spiritual man, then, does suffer; he suffers in the cause of God; he suffers for others and for himself. More than this, it is doubtless true that he feels his crosses more keenly, he grieves more profoundly, than do the children of the world; but through it all he remembers his Saviour and is comforted. He knows that the tribulations of the just are many, and that from all these the Lord will soon deliver him,(47) and he shall not be confounded forever.