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States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church/Part 1/Section 2/ARTICLE I. The State of Tendency to Perfection, or the Religious State/CHAPTER XIII

< States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church‎ | Part 1/Section 2/ARTICLE I. The State of Tendency to Perfection, or the Religious State


THIS is the second question that St. Thomas puts. He answers it, at great length, both in his Sum and in his Seventeenth Short Treatise. He first says that in his time the custom of the Church was for parents to offer their children to God, and have them brought up in religious houses in the practice of the counsels. " This custom," he adds, " is sanctioned by many passages in the canons of the Church and by the examples of saints. St. Gregory, for instance, relates, in his Dialogues, that Christian parents belonging to the most distinguished families of Rome flocked to St. Benedict to place their children in his hands, in order that he might train them up for God. It was thus that Maurus and Placidus, two very promising children, were intrusted to the saint by Euticius and Tertullus, their respective fathers. From his tenderest years, St. Benedict himself, disregarding the study of human learning, and seeking only to please God, left his father's house, and every thing in the world, to devote himself to the practice of a holy life.

" It is said that the origin of this pious custom reaches as far back as the days of the apostles ; and if we wish to go still higher, it rests on the authority of our blessed Lord himself. Indeed, we read in St. Matthew that children were presented to Jesus Christ, that he might lay his sacred hands upon them and pray for them. The apostles reprimanded the people who did so, and sought to send their children away, but Jesus said to them : 'Let little ones come to me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.' (Mark x, 14.) On these words of the Gospel St. John Chrysostom says: If children are driven from Christ, who will deserve to go near him? Now, it is evident that we get near Jesus Christ mainly by the practice of the counsels. Children, therefore, should not be kept from Christ by hindering them from practising these counsels. "[1] The Angelical next cites a passage from Origen in proof of his position ; then, having spoken of St. John Baptist, who spent his youth in the desert, he ends by these words: " Not only is it allowed, but it is even very useful, that, in order to merit fully more copious graces, some should, from their earliest years, give up the world and dwell in the retirement of a monastery. Hence we read in Jeremias : It is good for a man when he hath borne the yoke from his youth (Lam. iii, 27) ; and in the book of Proverbs, xxii, 6 : A young man according to his way, even when he is old, he will not depart from it. Hence St. Anselm puts on a level with angels those who from their youth have grown up in monasteries, while he sees only men in others who begin to lead a good life in age or the decline of their years.

" This teaching is clearly the outcome of what occurs every day among men. For, do we not see children put early to those avocations, arts, or trades, which they are to follow in after-life ? Candidates for the sanctuary begin in youth to gather the knowledge which will help them later ; those destined for a military career are trained to arms from their early years, and the future tradesman is apprenticed when only a boy. Why, then, should a rule, so well observed in other spheres, be neglected in the case of the religious state? Why should it not be good to accustom even children to the practices of the religious life ? I say even more : when a state of life is attended with many difficulties, the greater is the need to habituate one's self from youth to overcome them."[2] The illustrious Suarez speaks perhaps still more to the point than St. Thomas. He demonstrates that it is allowable for a child having the use of reason to enter religion, if he wishes to do so, and if his parents raise no objection ; because such a step is forbidden neither by natural, nor by divine, nor by ecclesiastical law.[3] He furthermore teaches that parents may offer their children to a religious community, to be educated and spend their lives in it ; and many texts of canon law are evident proof of the statement.[4] Still, when a child thus offered has attained its twelfth year, if a girl, and its fourteenth, if a boy, it can recall or annul the offering, and leave the monastery ; for, at that age, parents have no right to force a child against its will to enter religion, though they may very well, with its consent, offer it to God and to religion.[5] The question of right being settled, Suarez inquires into the opportuneness or propriety of such action. A Catholic, he says, can have no doubt but that, for children who have reached the age determined by the Church, it is good to enter religion, if such is their wish and inclination. It is because the Church deems such a time of life fitted for religion, that she has legislated for it. According to the ruling of the Council of Trent, religious profession cannot be made before the age of sixteen full years; but, as a year of novitiate must precede profession, it is plain that children can be admitted as novices at fifteen.

" Theology," says Bishop Lucquet, following Lessius, " considers as an imprudent judgment[6] the pretensions of those who find fault with the age fixed by the canons of the Church for taking solemn vows. It is an imprudent judgment, since it prefers its own views to the decision of popes, councils, and doctors of the Church. It is unjust ; for, to retain people many years in the world against the call of God, is to expose them to trials which generally prove spiritually hurtful. To set down of one's own accord twenty, for instance, as the age for entering religion, is far from being a wise decision, for it has against it Holy Scripture, the fathers of the Church, and even reason itself."[7] " A young man can now begin his noviceship at the end of his fourteenth year, and a young girl at the end of her twelfth."[8] But what are we to think of admitting children into a religious house before that age ? St. Thomas teaches that such admission is highly beneficial. We have already given his views on the subject. Suarez says that it is very useful for children to be received into a regular community where religious discipline and the watchfulness of superiors are in full vigor. Besides the testimony and proofs of St. Thomas, this eminent theologian alleges, in favor of his teaching, the authority of SS. Athanasius, Ambrose, Jerome and Augustine, whose words are quoted by Bellarmine.[9]

St. Francis of Sales, writing to Madame de Chantal, says : " As to our little ones, the younger daughters of the Lady I am in favor of your having them brought up in convents, with a view to leaving them there : but on two conditions. First, that the convents be good, and keep faithfully to their rule. Secondly, that, when the time for their profession comes, the children shall be carefully examined, in order to find out whether they enter on that life with piety and good-will. In placing them there, give them sweet and gentle inspirations ; afterward, if they remain in the convent with such dispositions, they will be very happy, and their mother also will be very happy for having planted them in that garden of the heavenly Spouse, who will water them with a hundred thousand graces from on high."[10]

Euphrasia, a kinswoman of the Emperor Theodosius, being left a widow after one year of married life, had only a daughter to bear her name. To shun an alliance proposed by the emperor, she retired with her only child into Egypt, and, in her company, visited the many monasteries of men and women which then flourished in that country. One of them contained a hundred nuns, who led a life of austere penance. Euphrasia took delight in paying them frequent visits, and always had her daughter with her, who was then at that time about seven years old. Now and then the superior of the convent loved to converse with the young Euphrasia, in whom she perceived precocious dispositions for piety. She attempted, in a playful manner, to discover the real sentiments of the child's young heart, and asked her one day whether she liked the convent. The child answered, with great frankness, that she was very fond of it. " Well, then," replied the superior, " if you like us, remain with us." " Indeed," answered the little girl, " I would like very much to do so, but I fear it would give pain to my mother." These words were accompanied with a holy joy, and the child's mother gave evidence of her gladness by her tears.

But matters wore a more serious aspect when the time came for leaving the monastery. The young girl then told her mother that she wished to remain, and she persisted in her resolution. As her resistance was taken for a child's freak, it was thought that, by allowing her to spend the night in the monastery, she would, on the next day, be in no humor to remain any longer. However, the next day her will was unchanged. The abbess, perceiving something supernatural in such constancy, said to the child's mother: " Madame, leave your daughter with us, grace is working in her soul." Euphrasia, whose virtue surpassed her mother's love, hereupon took her daughter before a picture of our Lord, and, with tears streaming from her eyes, said : " My Lord Jesus Christ, accept this child, since she desires only thee." Then turning to her child, she gave her much good advice and put her in the hands of the abbess. A few years later this generous mother died, after a holy life, in the same monastery, in the arms of her daughter. The young Euphrasia walked on with giant steps in the way of virtue and miracles that have given her great renown among the Greeks, and made the Church honor her as a saint.[11]

Perhaps some will fancy that such doctrine and such examples are out of harmony with the manners and ideas of our day. They are not. If there are communities that do not take upon themselves the care of children on account of the dangers mentioned by Suarez, or that, for solid motives, put off beyond sixteen the religious profession, in many religious societies it is nevertheless the custom, even at the present day, to receive children, to train them from youth to Christian perfection, and thus save them from the corrupting influences of the world. Sometimes this is the best, and almost the only, means that certain religious communities have to recruit the subjects of which they are in need.

There are also, in our day, Christian parents capable of sacrificing to God all that they hold most dear. The number of such parents will increase when the advantages and excellence of the religious life will be better understood, and when people will relish still more the words of our Lord : " Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and its justice." (Matt, vi, 33.)

Men who have experience of souls know well what a religious community can do for a child whom vice has not yet robbed of its innocence, or of its yearning for virtue. Read the reports of the apostolic schools where, in knowledge and in virtue, grow up future missioners, who, with their childish hearts, already take in the whole world. Could they who find the teaching of St. Thomas strange inhale the perfume of piety, candor, and grace, which some religious boarding- schools breathe out at the close of a scholastic year; if they could get a close view of the supernatural loveliness which the solitude of a monastery sheds in a few months over these young souls, they would, with the holy doctor, acknowledge that " it is good for a man to bear the yoke of the Lord from his tenderest years." Alas ! these flowers that have opened and bloomed, under the breath of God, in the shade of the cloister, are no sooner exposed to the parching blasts of the world, than they fade and lose all their glory. Sometimes only a few days spent in the world are enough to blast these fairest of hopes. As soft wax, the child, says the poet, receives every impress of vice: Cereus in vitium flecti ;[12] hence nothing better can be done for him than to separate him from every scandal and every occasion of sin, by multiplying around him supports for his weakness. This is what the religious state does.

Give a child forever what a religious boarding-school supplies for a few years, and you will see it grow up in happiness and sanctity. Wherefore, when parents notice in their child an early taste for religious perfection, far from crushing such consoling dispositions by endless delays, they should foster them with the fondest care. Is it reasonable, under pretence of testing a vocation, to oblige a child to spend a long time amid the dangers of the world, to witness all its vanities, and share in the treacherous joys of its festivities ? Could even the most solid virtue resist assaults of this kind? We acknowledge, indeed, that prudence is supremely necessary ; but, had the holy doctors, whose teaching we are here laying down, less of that virtue than we have? Why should we endeavor to be wiser than the Church, who allows the religious profession at sixteen years of age, and entrance into religion at any age ?

When there is question of marrying a young woman, great eagerness is shown ; and still even then an irrevocable engagement is contracted, and one, too, that involves the most serious consequences. But when leave is asked to enter religion, there is always time enough to do it later, and it is ever too soon to give one's self to God. Yet, it is only after long and serious trial that a person embracing the religious state is called upon to assume the obligation of remaining in it forever. We should not be wiser than it behooveth, says St. Paul. (Rom. xii, 3.) Christian souls should abhor the prudence of the flesh, which, according to the same apostle, is the death of the soul. (Rom. viii, 6.) For this reason St. John Chrysostom complains bitterly of parents who are unwilling that their children should enter young into religion. He attacks and refutes all the pretexts by which they seek to justify their conduct. We take a pleasure in laying his splendid pages before the reader :

" What assurance have you that your children will reach mature age ? Many are hurried out of life by a sudden death. But, even supposing that you have such certainty, who will be responsible for their early years ?[13] No one guarantees that they will continue virtuous. On the other hand, parents reply : Who can certify to us that our son will persevere in religion? "And who tells you," answers the eloquent doctor, " that he will not persevere ? Why have you not the same fears with respect to the literary career, or any other career of the kind, about which your fears would be far more in place ? For, in the monastic state, among many aspirants, few fall away ; whereas, among the seekers after eloquence, only a small number meet with success. In the career of letters the inability of the child, the engagements of his father, the absence of the necessary resources to cover expense, the hatred and jealousy of fellow-students, and a thousand other obstacles, prevent a candidate from reaching the goal. And when that goal has been reached, difficulties, in still greater number, arise. The enmity of a chief in office, the envy of a colleague, unfavorable circumstances, want of friends, and poverty, shipwreck a young man's prospects in the very port itself. The case is not the same in the monastic life. There only one thing is required: noble, generous courage. He who has that cannot fail to reach the goal of virtue. Having under your eyes and, so to speak, in your hands, hopes so grand, can you be afraid, can you be discouraged, while, when there is question of a route crossed by so many obstacles, you drive away all fear, your courage redoubles the more the difficulties thicken around you ? Can there be anything more senseless than such behavior? As regards the religious life, no sooner has your son crossed its threshold, than directly your head is filled with the strangest thoughts springing from your discouragement alone. But not long ago you used to say : Can one not remain in the world, and still be saved ? Is it really the same man who at one time has full confidence in the possibility of salvation, even amid all the cares and turmoil of the world, and afterward trembles for the solitary that has been freed from his barriers? You maintained that a man may save his soul in a city : with much more reason will he be able to do so by retiring into solitude."[14] " But my son is young and weak. It is just for that reason," continues St. Chrysostom, " that he should be less exposed, and more surrounded with means of protection. You upset things altogether ; for you throw into the battle of life in the world those whose years, whose weakness and inexperience, have most to fear from the combat. You act like an officer who would order a raw soldier, that cannot yet stand the brunt of war, to throw himself for that very reason into the thickest of the fight, and to command the action. He who waits for the close of life to embrace virtue, spends the remnant of his days in washing out with his tears the sins of his youth ; but he who went early into the arena does not stop to dress his wounds : in his very trial-contest he wins signal victories and glorious rewards. It is now your place to determine what rank you wish your son to occupy in heaven. "[15] This long and remarkable passage is taken, word for word, from St. Chrysostom.


  1. Opusc. 17, c. iii.
  2. Opusc. 17, c. iii.
  3. Suar., lib. 5, c. ii, nn. 2-7.
  4. Ibid., c. i, n. 12.
  5. Ibid., c. ii, n. I, et c. i, n. 13. Ibid., lib. 5, c. iii.
  6. Lessius, De statii vita eligendo, q. I, nn. 8 et 10.
  7. Lucquet, De la vocation, t. ii, p. 335; Lessius, q. 2, nn. 12 et 22.
  8. Lessius, ibid., q. I, n. II.
  9. Suar., lib. 5, c. iii, n. 7.
  10. Letter 107.
  11. " Lives of the Fathers," lib. 2, c. vii.
  12. Horace, "Art of Poetry," line 163.
  13. Adv. oppitgnat, vit. monast., lib. 3 c. xi.
  14. Adv. oppugnat. vit. monast., lib. 3, c. xiii.
  15. Ibid., c. xvii.