Meditations for Layfolks - Fervour

Somehow or other, though it is bewailed by many who describe themselves as having lost it, fervour has about it a rather unpleasant sound. It seems to suggest an individual with an extreme love of singularity, who carries his or her head slightly on one side, adopting this quaint posture in times of public service or generally in church, and is endowed with a bustling activity which meddles with everybody and everything. With sublime superciliousness we look on fervour as an unpleasant gift, the particular attribute of the Latin races, the Celts, and a large proportion of girls. It would be possible to take the ordinary notion of a fervent Catholic and define him to be an interfering person with much pretension, to piety, but of such a kind as varies from season to season. Now really, of course, this is not fervour at all. The critical busybody probably has no conception of what fervour means; for people of this type owe their characteristics very largely to temperament, and depend not unfrequently for their restless and disturbing influence far more on the colour of their hair than on any spirit of God. Such supposed fervour frequently inspired by the best heart in the world, is supposed by those who indulge in it to be of the very essence of the Faith, whereas it does an immense amount of harm to the Faith by giving people to suppose that Catholicism means chiefly a burning desire to set everyone else right but oneself; and exaggerated postures at prayer do much to disgust others with religion and bring in a notion that talking to God is unnatural, stilted, unmanly, and conducted chiefly for the benefit of spectators.

All this, then, shows us what fervour is not; but when we turn to discover what exactly it is, we shall find it extremely difficult to define it in its spiritual significance. Feelings, we say as Catholics, have no lot or part in supernatural religion in the sense that we do not by them deepen our holiness. Because I feel good, it is no guarantee that I am good; because I feel devout in my prayers, I have no right to suppose my prayers to be in consequence any more pleasing to God. Whether our feelings are present or absent does not in itself affect our fervour one way or the other. We must exclude, therefore, the emotional side from our notion of what is meant by it. But if it is at all possible in one single word to sum up what we conceive fervour of soul to signify, perhaps it would be better to say that it stands for thoroughness in religion. A fervent Catholic is a Catholic who is absolutely thorough in his faith. He performs all, and more than all, his duties with a promptitude, a regularity, and a cheerfulness, extending to every detail of a complicated existence. Nothing escapes the principles or application of his faith. But perhaps it will be suggested that thorough ness is not so much fervour itself as an effect of it; and this may, indeed, be a more accurate description of the process. Yet for all practical purposes we may test our fervour, not by our feeling but by our thoroughness. It is the slipshod way of gabbling prayers, dodging or deferring duties, sheltering our laziness under the excuse of ill-health, that betrays its absence. Praxiteles, the Greek sculptor, who carved even the backs of the statues on the frieze of the Parthenon, because though men did not see, the gods did, was a fervent, because thorough, artist.

I have, therefore, to see whether in my spiritual life I am so poor a workman as to scamp my work. I probably find myself denouncing labouring folk and commercial people generally for doing as little as they can in their contract work. Now just let me realize that I, too, am a labourer. I am given my life that out of it I may build up something to be, as well as I can make it, worthy of God. I am a spiritual bricklayer. How is my work done? Do I take an interest in the thing growing under my hands? Is each brick carefully placed and steadily fixed in position? Is the full time given to my work none of it idled away? Is my choice of material exercised with a view to the bettering of the thing done, or do I merely seize on the nearest things to hand, broken ends, or rubble, or bricks that I see are flawed? This may seem fantastic and too metaphorical. Well then, let me take my own profession. Is it a pride to me that all that is turned out from my business is as good as any other firm can do it? Should I, then, be ashamed if my professional life was as hastily rushed through, as foolishly left incomplete, as is the spiritual life by which, in the abstract, I set such store? A firm that makes its boast that no inferior goods leave its factories or its business houses has what may be called commercial fervour; but when it begins to give up its high standard of work, we note that it is near its fall: people will soon lose confidence in it its pride in its work has gone, and the loss of pride precedes a fall. Such honest pride, too, I must take in my soul. I must be an industrious apprentice, a worthy journeyman, a willing and competent labourer, a painstaking artist. In all the work of my soul I must be, above all things, thorough, and I shall then be fervent.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.