“Whatsoever ye do, do it from the heart as to the Lord.”
Follow justly that which is just (Deut. 16:20), says Our Lord in Deuteronomy to His elect people. It is not sufficient for our advancement and perfection that we simply perform our actions; we must likewise perform them well. “He hath done all things well” (Mark 7:37), said the people, speaking of Jesus Christ, and it is truly in this “well” that all our good consists.
It is certain that the good or bad state of our souls depends upon our good or bad works because such as our works are, such also shall we be, since they alone show what we are. “Man,” says St. Austin, “is a tree, and his works the fruit; and therefore, by the fruit of his works we may soon perceive what every man is.” Our Savior, also, speaking of hypocrites and false prophets, says, “By their fruits you shall know them” (Matt. 7:6), and speaking of Himself, on the other hand, “The works that I do in the name of My Father, they give testimony of Me; and though you will not believe Me, believe the works” (John 10:25, 38). But our actions discover not only what we are in this life, but also foretell what we must bein the next, for as we are in this life, such shall we forever be in the life to come because God, will recompense every one according to his works, as Holy Scripture teaches us. “Thou, O Lord,” says the Psalmist, “wilt render to every man according to his works” (Ps. 61:13), and St. Paul, “What things a man shall sow [in this life], those also shall he reap [in the next]” (Gal. 6:8).
But let us descend to particulars and see what those actions are upon which all our goodness and our advancement in perfection depend. I say they are none other than the ordinary actions we perform every day. It is in acquitting ourselves well of our charge and of all that obedience imposes upon us – in short, in performing well the most common and familiar actions of our life – that our advancement and perfection consist.
We shall become perfect if we perform these perfectly; we shall be imperfect if we perform them imperfectly. And this is all that properly makes the difference between a perfect and an imperfect Christian. For perfection arises not from our doing them better; and in proportion to the manner in which a man does these works, will he become more or less perfect.
The Son of God tells us in the Parable of the Sower, “That the grain which was sown on good ground, in one place rendered a hundred, in another sixty, and in another thirty-fold” (Matt. 8:8). By this, as the Saints expound it, our Savior would manifest to us the three different degrees of those that serve God: that is to say, those that begin, those that have made some progress and those that have arrived at the height of perfection. We all sow the same grain, because we all perform nearly the same duties. Yet what a difference there is between one man and another. In some, the works they sow produce a hundredfold because they perform them with an extreme fervor of spirit and a very great purity of intention, and these are such as are perfect.
In others they render sixty, and these are they who are still advancing in the way but have not yet arrived at perfection. And others reap but thirty, and these are only beginners in God’s service. Let every one, therefore, see to which of these degrees he has arrived; see if you be not amongst those who render only thirtyfold; and God grant that none of us find ourselves of the number of them of whom the Apostle St. Paul makes mention, who had built upon the foundation of faith, with “wood, hay” and “stubble;” to be burned in the day of Our Lord (1 Cor. 3:12). Take care that you do nothing out of ostentation or human respect, to please men or to gain their esteem, for this were to make a building of wood or straw, to burn, at least in Purgatory. But endeavor to perform all your actions with the greatest perfection you are able, whereby you will, as St. Paul says, erect a structure of “gold, silver” and “precious stones” (1 Cor. 3:12).
It is related in the Chronicles of the Cistercian Order that St. Bernard, being with his religious at Matins, saw a great many Angels, who noted and wrote down the actions of each one and the manner in which they performed them, and according to the greater or less attention shown in their singing and praying, they noted the actions in letters of gold or silver, or else with ink or water. But they wrote nothing at all of some, who being present only in body but absent in spirit, let themselves be carried away with vain and unprofitable thoughts.
He perceived also that the Angels, chiefly at the Te Deum, were very desirous that the religious should sing it devoutly, and he saw, as it were, flames issuing from the mouths of those who performed it with fervor. Let each one, then, reflect upon himself and take notice of the manner in which he makes his prayer, to see whether it deserves to be written in gold or silver letters, or with ink or water – or lastly, to see whether it deserves to be noted at all. Let him observe whether flames issue from his heart and mouth, or whether he yawns through laziness and disgust; and let him reflect whether he be there present in body only, having his mind dissipated or occupied with thoughts of study or business, or with other things still more to be condemned.
This article is taken from a chapter in The Soul Sanctified: Catholic Wisdom on the Way of Salvation which is available from TAN Books.