Of the Feast of the Holy virgin St Agnes
How outward purity of body, and inner chastity of mind, may be attained and preserved. Especially, how purity of mind may be preserved, in spite of the outward attacks of human love and imaginations; and that no man, however spiritually minded he may be, can ever be sure, while he is still here in the body, that his frail nature has been completely killed, so that he can never be tempted to impurity. Of three snares that are laid for those who are spiritually minded, into which they may fall and against which they must guard themselves, be they never so perfect.

Virgo cogitat, quae Domini sunt, ut sit sancta et corpore et spiritu.

"A virgin thinketh on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy both in body and spirit."

A virgin, says St Paul, thinks and meditates on the things of the Lord, that she may be holy in body and soul. Four things are needful for virgins, that they may be pure in body and pure in spirit. To purity of body pertain spotlessness of the flesh, and moderation in the use of all bodily necessaries, in eating or drinking, sleeping or waking. A virgin must refrain from talking; she must be modest in all her ways; she must abstain from mixing in dissolute society or amusements, and be lowly and simple in her daily life; industrious in good and seemly work, or in works of penance and such-like; for all these things tend to external chastity. He who seeks to perfect or preserve his chastity in any other way, will find he has been deceived; for that which is visible must be visibly overcome; or else the impurity of the flesh will overcome the purity of the spirit. It is plain that he who tries to tame the flesh by the flesh will not effect much. And now we will say no more of this, but say a little about the chastity of the spirit, how it may be lost or preserved; and this is a useful subject, which all those who are spiritually minded will do well to consider and remember.

Purity of spirit consists in a clean, pure and humble conscience; for a humble conscience is a pure mind and a clean heart. A pure mind is to be gained by exercise in the Holy Scriptures. From thence come holy meditations which fill the heart of man; and therefore it is the sooner freed from all vain and wicked thoughts. Be sure, nothing doubting, that the man, who devotes himself to diligent study of the Holy Scriptures, will be preserved and guarded from the grosser temptations to impurity. This is shown by St Jerome, when he says: "Love to search the Scriptures, and then ye will not care for the lusts of the flesh, nor delight in them." But a clean heart must be gained by driving out all desire for the creature, and especially for man; for a good and holy man is so easily grieved and disturbed in his heart by the inordinate love of man, that it often takes him a long time to drive out that love from his heart, which had entered in a moment. Therefore, unless man shuns the causes which minister to the flesh, he can get no further, and he must receive a hurt that will grieve him. It is here that man is most easily wounded, on account of his natural short-sightedness, which is so deeply rooted in inordinate desire, that he will be kept occupied all the days of his life; though many a man, who does not realize it, is as bold and joyful as though he had conquered in every strife and had overcome.

Now, dear children, though ye had conquered in a thousand fights, and had gained the victory, ye must not trust to it; for as long as body and soul are joined together, to none is freedom assured on earth. That which may not happen in a hundred years, often comes in one moment; so that many a good and pure man has been tempted and led astray in such a manner that he hardly knew how it came about. Not that such men are spotted by outward deeds, or fall into open carnal sins, though sometimes even this occurs; but then they are molested by the charm of evil desire, dangerous, transitory and carnal love, which darkens their understanding and judgment, and the fervour which they had before experienced; and they are cast into a hell of distress and scorn, and feel the gnawings of conscience. Thus man seems to be going to the gates of hell and of external darkness, just like one who is about to be killed, and, who in great fear and horror of death, loses his senses and reason. This comes from lack of watchfulness; but it is at times also ordained by God, that the man may ground himself in true humility, and may learn to know his own infirmity, and may be able to feel for other men in theirs. This is especially the case with those who afflict themselves, in order to overcome and to kill the inner, reasoning and upright man, because they long to attain to absolute poverty of spirit. It is necessary that they, more than all men, should guard themselves in the presence of those who are unlike them. For the Tempter, who never rests, does not forget his cunning when he finds a good opportunity. Now if such men strive diligently to destroy the inner man absolutely, and to walk in all singleness of heart, they will exert themselves to overcome all inner troubles, so that they may uncomplainingly and unresistingly submit themselves to God in all things, whenever and however it may please Him. They must not endeavour to get their own way in His work, but must desire that His will may be done, without any choosing on their part. See, by this means, man will attain to such simplicity of heart, and such peace, both outwardly and inwardly, and also in his nature, that he will be scarcely conscious of any resistance in himself. Neither is he conscious of any shame, nor yet of the burden of a guilty conscience; and, to use a simile, it seems as though he had returned to his original ignorance and innocence, and were like a young child who follows the dictates of nature without shame. In the same way a child might thus naturally go his own way, and grow up, according to nature, taking no care or pains to tame his unruly passions. Thus it would come to pass that his passions would grow stronger and stronger; and, as understanding and desire increased, sin also would increase. This might also happen to a pure and spiritually-minded man, however child-like his innocence might be, who had long lived a life of seclusion, and who seemed to have so conquered his outer and lower nature that he was scarcely conscious at any time of temptation, either sleeping or waking; and who, were the occasion to arise, or where he incited to it, would take no pleasure in it, but would imagine he could easily withstand all these attacks and temptations. Yea, it would even seem to him as though for him in such things, than there would be for a man who was dead; in seeing, hearing, speaking, or in anything else possible. Now see, nature seems quite dead; and yet none should put their trust in it, either men or women, however sure of themselves they may be, and even satisfied as to their condition. Now, however perfect and holy the man in truth may be, however dead he may seem to all these things, if he will not flee from temptations, his heart will of necessity be wounded by sensual desires; and it will be agitated and tempted by the love of a friend, more for one than for another.

Now mark, dear children, how this takes place, and how by degrees man falls into such snares. First of all, love is felt for people on account of their grace, their piety and their spirituality; and this is all-sufficing to the heart, and seems to be all spiritual, and is accepted with great thankfulness to God and to these men. If man does not continue to strive to chase away these emotions, the longing creeps in to show these people outwardly a little kindness out of pure friendliness. He recognises them by pleasant words and gestures, by laughing and bowing, by touching their clothes, or taking them by the hand, or embracing them, or by bowing the head to them, and by many such like things. These are all signs of natural human love, and show that the heart has been wounded by unregulated love. It may be, if the man does not shun it, that he will be still more deeply wounded; and it may go so far, that spiritual pleasure is turned into carnal pleasure; and the man, thus entangled in this net of the devil's and of carnal desires, cannot easily escape from it without great injury and danger of sin in his heart. Yea, it may even go so far that he dallies with such pleasure till at last he consents to it; and that would be a sin unto death; and, if even then he did not become conscious of it, he might fall into great spiritual sin without any opposition on his part.

See, dear children, a good man may thus fall into all kinds of sin, if he does not at once resist the temptation. Yea, and even though he had attained to the highest and most perfect state of virtue, if he does not flee from these sins, he may stand in great danger from them, greater danger than he was ever in before. Never was it more necessary for him to shun them than it would be now; for no one is free from these temptations and incitements, as long as his breath is in his body; and, however holy he may be, it is possible for him to fall into sin and to endanger his salvation, unless he keeps watch over himself.

As all teachers point out to us, three snares are laid for the spiritually-minded, into which they may fall. The first is a man's holiness. The second is when people are of one family, and belong to each other by birth and nature, or are related, that as being brothers and sisters, and so forth. The third snare is personal holiness, and that in the long practice of virtue, so that the occasion of sin is not shunned. This carnal affection sometimes exists between persons of different sex, between a man and a woman. They fall in love with each other, and seek distraction and diversion together, asking each other how they are, and about their station and place in life. Ye will see that this must in the end bring trouble and come to a bad end, and cause sorrow and heaviness of heart. This is especially the case when people of unequal rank start such a friendship together. This cannot be tolerated by anyone with a good conscience; for thence arise contempt, suspicion, irritation and the destruction of inner spiritual peace. Therefore all those who are obliged by necessity, or their office, to speak to people who are not of the same rank as themselves, must do so as little as possible, and go away as soon as possible; and this will be good for their own consciences, and also for their inferiors or equals, who will be the less angered or tempted thereby. Whoever, therefore, wishes to be preserved in such a case, or from other sins, must, as Bonaventura says, seat himself and speak openly, as though he wished everyone to see how he treats such persons, and that he no more desires to carry on improper relations with them than with anyone else. Neither must he set his heart on any other person, to such a degree that he is absorbed in that person. He must never be outwardly too friendly to anyone, especially to people of different sex, either in kindly or spiritual intercourse; but he must behave gravely towards them, and hurry straight away, exchanging only short words with them.

Now ye see, dear children, that if even a good and pious man can thus fall into unchastity from such causes as I have mentioned, how it will be with those who, either in thought, or will, or deed, do not tear themselves away from all such temptations, and who are not ready to die to all superfluity, pleasure, effeminacy, fastidiousness and unruly mirth, and to all the other causes of sin that are evident. Oh! if even a good man is thus tempted to impurity, how will it be with a man who is dilatory, wilful, fastidious, lazy and idle, dull and dead to all spiritual things? Will he not revel in them and be corrupted? This is known alone to the Lord God, Who trieth the reins and the hearts. But may God have mercy upon us, poor sinners, and preserve us from those troublesome snares of unchasity; that we may be found pure and clean in His sight, in body and soul; pure in conscience; from from all vain thoughts and from all evil desires; resting not in the creature, but in God only, and loving Him alone and above all things. May God help us thereto. Amen.

sermon v on st john
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