Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel, but upon a candlestick, that it may give light to all who are in a house.
Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. (St. Matthew, c. V., vv.
Contend not in words, for it is to no profit, but to the subversion of the hearers. (St. Paul, II Tim., c. II. v. 14.)
1. Conversation should be marked by a gentle and devout pleasantness, and your manner when engaged in it, ought to be equable, composed and gracious. Mildness and cheerfulness make devotion and those who practice it attractive to others. The holy abbot Saint Anthony, notwithstanding the extraordinary austerities of his penitential life, always showed such a smiling countenance that no one could look at him without pleasure.
2. We should be neither too talkative nor too silent,—it is as necessary to avoid one extreme as the other. By speaking too much we expose ourselves to a thousand dangers, so well-known that they need not be mentioned in detail: by not speaking enough we are apt to be a restraint upon others, as it makes it seem as though we did not relish their conversation, or wished to impress them with our superiority.
3. Do not conclude from this that it is necessary to count your words, as it were, so as to keep your conversation within the proper limits. This would be as puerile a scruple as counting one’s steps when walking. A holy spirit of liberty should dominate our conversations and serve to instill into them a gentle and moderate gaiety.
4. If you hear some evil spoken of your neighbor do not immediately become alarmed, as the matter may be true and quite public without your having been aware of it. Should you be quite certain that there is calumny or slander in the report, either because the evil told was false or exaggerated or because it was not publicly known, then, according to the place, the circumstances and your relations towards those present, say with moderation what appears most fitting to justify or excuse your neighbor. Or you may try to turn the conversation into other channels, or simply be content to show your disapprobation by an expressive silence.
Remember, for the peace of your conscience, that one does not share in the sin of slander unless he give some mark of approbation or encouragement to the person who is guilty of it.
5. Do not imitate those who are scrupulous enough to imagine that charity obliges them to undertake the defense of every evil mentioned in their presence and to become the self-appointed advocates of whoever it may be that has deserved censure. That which is really wrong cannot be justified, and no one should attempt the fruitless task: and as to the guilty, those who may do harm either through the scandal of their example or the wickedness of their doctrines, it is right that they should be shunned and openly denounced. “To cry out wolf, wolf,” says Saint Francis de Sales, “is kindness to the sheep.”
6. The regard we owe our neighbor does not bind us to a politeness that might be construed as an approval or encouragement of his vicious habits. Hence if it happen that you hear an equivocal jest, a witticism slurring at religion or morals, or anything else that really offends against propriety, be careful not to give, through cowardice and in spite of your conscience, any mark of approbation, were it only by one of those half smiles that are often accorded unwillingly and afterwards regretted.
Flattery, even in the eyes of the world, is one of the most debasing of falsehoods. Not even in the presence of the greatest earthly dignitaries, will an honest, upright man sanction with his mouth that which he condemns in his heart. He who sacrifices to vice the rights of truth not only acts unlike a Christian, but renders himself unworthy the name of man.
7. In small social gatherings try to make yourself agreeable to everybody present and to show to each some little mark of attention, if you can do so without affectation. This may be done either by directly addressing the person or by making a remark that you know will give him occasion to speak of his own accord,—draw him out, as the saying is. It was by the charm and urbanity of his conversation that Saint Francis de Sales prepared the way for the conversion of numbers of heretics and sinners, and by imitating him you will contribute towards making piety in the world more attractive. In regard to priests you should always testify your respect for the sacerdotal dignity quite independently of the individual.
8. Disputes, sarcasm, bitter language, and intolerance for dissenting opinions, are the scourges of conversation.
9. Although this adage comes to us from a pagan philosopher, we might profitably bear it always in mind: “In conversation we should show deference to our superiors, affability to our equals, and benevolence to our inferiors.”
10. Generally speaking, it is wrong for those whom God does not call to abandon the world, to seclude themselves entirely and to shun all society suited to their position in life. God, who is the source of all virtue, is likewise the author of human society. Let the wicked hide themselves if they will, their absence is no loss to the world; but good people make themselves useful merely by being seen.
It is well, moreover, the world should know that in order to practice the teachings of the Gospel it is not necessary to bury one’s self in the desert; and that those who live for the Creator can likewise live with the creatures whom He has made according to His own image and likeness. Well, again, to show that a devout life is neither sad nor austere, but simple, sweet and easy; that far from being for those in the world an impediment to social relations, it facilitates, perfects and sanctifies such; that the disciples of Jesus Christ can, without becoming wordlings, live in the world; and that, in fine, the Gospel is the sovereign code of perfection for persons in society as well as for those who have renounced the world.
*Fénelon, who perhaps had even greater occasion than Saint Francis de Sales to teach men of the world how to lead a Christian life in society, wrote as follows to a person at court:
“You ought not to feel worried, it seems to me, in regard to those diversions in which you cannot avoid taking part. I know there are those who think it necessary that one should lament about everything, and restrain himself continually by trying to excite disgust for the amusements in which he must participate. As for me, I acknowledge that I cannot reconcile myself to this severity. I prefer something simpler and I believe that God, too, likes it better. When amusements are innocent in themselves and we enter into them to conform to the customs of the state of life in which Providence has placed us, then I believe they are perfectly lawful. It is enough to keep within the bounds of moderation and to remember God’s presence. A dry, reserved manner, conduct not thoroughly ingenuous and obliging, only serve to give a false idea of piety to men of the world who are already too much prejudiced against it, believing that a spiritual life cannot be otherwise than gloomy and morose.”*
11. If all confessors agreed in instilling these maxims, which are as important as they are true, many persons who now keep themselves in absolute seclusion and live in a sad and dreary solitude would remain in society to the edification of their neighbor and the great advantage of religion. The world would thus be disabused of its unjust prejudices against a devout life and those who have embraced it.
12. Never remain idle except during the time you have allotted to rest or recreation. Idleness begets lassitude, disposes to evil speaking and gives occasion to the most dangerous temptations.
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