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Jaques-Bénigne Bossuet: Sermon on the Profession of Mlle. de la Vallière: First Point

The beginning of the sermon, with an introduction and links to the second point, is here.

Man, which you see bonded to himself by his self-esteem, was not created with this defect. In the beginning, God made him in his image, and the name of the image that was proclaimed was not for himself. An image is entirely made for its original. If a portrait could suddenly become animated, one would not see any trait that does not reflect the person whom it represents. It would only live for the original, and would only breathe for the original’s glory. And yet these portraits that we bring to life would be forced to share their love between the originals they represent and the painter who made them. But we are not in this dilemma: we are the image of our Maker, and he who made us also made us in his likeness: and in any case we should be his alone, and to him alone our soul must be bonded.

In effect, although this soul be disfigured, though that image of God be erased by sin, if we seek out all the old features, we acknowledge, despite her corruption, that she still looks like God and that God made her. O soul, you know and love. This is what you hold most important, and that is where you are like your author, who is only knowledge and love. But knowledge is given to hear what is true, as love is given to love what is best. What is more true than that the truth itself, and what is better than him who is goodness itself?

The soul is made for God: to him she was bonded and held, suspended by his knowledge and his love. In this way she is the image of God. God knows himself, he loves himself, and this is his life. The rational soul must also live by knowing and loving. Thus by its natural constitution, the soul was joined to its author, and should make her happiness the joy of a being so perfect and beneficent. In that it constituted its integrity and strength.

In the end this made the soul rich. Because she had nothing of her own resources, the soul had an infinite good by the generosity of its author, that is to say she possessed God himself. She had a manner so assured that the soul only had to love him persistently to possess him forever, since to love such a great good is what ensures its possession or before that makes that possession a reality.

But the soul did not remain long in this state. This soul, which was happy because God had made her in his image, has not wanted just to resemble him, but to be absolutely like him. It was happy knowing and loving him who knows and loves forever, but the soul wanted, like him, to make her own happiness. Alas! She was mistaken and her fall was fatal! The soul fell from God upon herself. How will God punish his defection?

He will give what she asks: seeking herself, she will find herself. But in finding herself, strange confusion! She will soon lose herself. See, she already begins to exercise bad judgement. Carried away by her pride, she said: I am a God, and I made myself. Thus the Prophet makes arrogant souls speak: they put their happiness in their own greatness and excellence (cf. Ezekiel 28:2, Ezekiel 29:9)

Indeed it is true that to say, “I want to be happy with myself and be enough for myself,” one must also say, “I did it myself,” or rather, “I am myself.” Thus the rational soul wants to be like God by an attribute that can not be possessed by any creature: the independence and fullness of being. Released from her original state for trying to be happy apart from God, the soul can not keep her ancient and natural happiness, or to obtain that which she pursues in vain. But as the soul’s pride deceives her, everywhere else the soul goes she must feel her poverty and misery. It is not necessary that she be left for some time to herself; this soul, who was both so loved and long sought, may not be able to bear it.

As soon as the soul is alone, her loneliness becomes a horror; she finds herself in an infinite void that only God can fill. In being separated from God, her inner resources make endless demands: tormented by her poverty, boredom consumes her and grief kills her. It is necessary to look for external amusement. The soul will never rest unless she finds something to kill the pain. So it is true that God punishes the soul by her own disorder and that, for having been sought, she becomes her own instrument of torture. But the soul can not remain in this state, sad as it is. She must fall further, and here is how it happens.

Imagine a man who is born into wealth and has dissipated it by his extravagance: he can not endure his poverty. These bare walls, this unset table, this abandoned house, where we no longer see the crowd of servants, makes him afraid. To hide himself from his misery, he borrows from all sides. In this way somehow he filled the emptiness of his house, and maintains the brilliance of its former abundance. He is blind and miserable who does not realise that anything that dazzles him threatens his freedom and rest! Thus the rational soul, born rich by the goods that her Author had given her, became voluntarily impoverished in her self-search, reduced to narrow and sterile resources. She tries to divert the pain which caused her poverty, and to repair the ruins by borrowing from all sides to fill her void. The soul begins with the body and the senses, because it can not find anything which is closer. This body which is so closely united, but which nevertheless is of a nature so inferior to her own, became the dearest object of her affection. The soul turns all her cares to that side. The slightest ray of beauty that she sees is enough to stop her. The soul is mirrored, so to speak, and sees itself in the body: she sees in the sweetness of those looks and that face, the softness of a peaceful mood; in the delicacy of feature, the delicacy of spirit; in this bearing and uplifted expression, the greatness and nobility of courage. Low and misleading image without doubt, but in the end it feeds the vanity. What are you reduced to, rational soul? You who were born for eternity and as an immortal being, you become enamoured and captivated of a flower which the sun dries up, a vapour which the wind carries away, and, in short, a body which by its mortality has become an obstacle and a burden to the spirit.

The soul is not happier in enjoying the pleasures that the senses give her: to the contrary, it is impoverished in this search, since in pursuing the pleasure she first loses reason. Pleasure is a feeling that we carry, which makes us drunk, which seizes us regardless of reason, and leads us despite its laws. In effect reason is never so weak when pleasure dominates. What marks an eternal conflict between reason and pleasure, it is that while reason asks one thing, pleasure demands another. The soul which becomes captive of pleasure is at the same time the enemy of reason. This is where the soul had fallen when she wanted to borrow enough senses to recoup her losses, however, this is not yet the end of her woes. These senses, of which she borrows, borrow in turn from every direction. They pull in all things they perceive, and therefore engage all of these things outside the soul. Delivered up to the senses, the soul can not have anything by them.

I do not want to talk about all the senses to make you confess their poverty. Consider only sight, to how many external objects it binds us. All that glitters, all that laughs to the eyes, everything that seems big and beautiful, become the object of our desires and our curiosity. The Holy Spirit advised us well when he said these words: “Ne sequantur cogitationes suas et oculos per res varias fornicantes. Do not follow your own thoughts and eyes going astray after divers things,” says the word of the Holy Spirit: “You prostitute yourself to everything in front of you.” (cf. Numbers 15:39) We do everything opposite of what God commands. We move out in all directions; we once needed only God, we begin to need everything. This man thinks he will improve himself with his expanding retinue, with his apartments which he remodels, with his land which he extends. This vain and ambitious woman believes she is worth much when she wears much gold, precious stones and a thousand other vain ornaments. To make it happen, all nature is emptied, all the arts sweat, all industry is consumed. So we amass around us all that is rarer. Our vanity is fed with this false wealth, and thus we senselessly fall into the trap of greed and sad, dark passion, cruel and insatiable.

It is she, St. Augustine says, who, finding the soul dark and empty inside, pushed it outside, divided it into a thousand worries, and consumed it by efforts as vain as they are laboured. She worries as if in a dream: she wants to talk, but the voice does not follow. She wants to make great movements, but feels numb limbs. Thus the soul wants to be filled, but she can not. Her money, which she calls her good, is outside, but it is inside which is empty and poor. She agonises to see her property so detached from herself, so exposed to chance, so subject to the power of others. Meanwhile she sees her evil desires grow with its wealth. “For the desire of money,” says St. Paul, “is the root of all evils, radix enim omnium malorum est cupiditas.” (1 Timothy 6:10). In reality wealth is a means of having almost everything you desire. By wealth, the ambitious may be gorged with honours, the voluptuous, with pleasure. Each one, finally, gets what he asked for. All evil desires arise in a heart that believes that having money is the means to satisfy them. Do not be surprised if the passion for wealth is so violent, because it gathers for itself all of the others. The soul is enslaved! With what a yoke it is charged! And for having sought itself, how is she now become poor and captive!

But perhaps more noble and generous passions will be able to satisfy. Let’s see what glory will produce. There is nothing more striking, nothing that makes so much noise among men, and put together there’s nothing more miserable or poorer. To convince us, let us consider it at its most beautiful and greatest. There is no greater glory than that of conquerors, so let’s choose the most famous of them. When one wants to talk about a great conqueror, everyone thinks of Alexander. If you wish, let it be so: Alexander, who will show us the poverty of conquering kings. What did this great Alexander wish for, to undergo so much work and so much pain which he sufferer, and make others suffer? He wanted to make a noise in the world during his lifetime and after his death. He had everything he asked for, nobody has done so much: in Egypt, in Persia, India, in all the land in East and West for over two thousand years one only speaks of Alexander. He lives in the lips of all men, without which his glory would be erased or diminished over many centuries: Praises for him do not fail, but he fails to praise. He got what he asked for, but has he been more fortunate? Tormented by ambition during his life and now tormented in hell, he carries eternal punishment for having wanted to be worshipped as a God, or by pride, or by politics? The same is true of all his fellows. Those who want the glory, are often given glory. “They have received their reward,” said the Son of God (Matthew 6:2), they were paid according to their merits. These great men, says St. Augustine, celebrated as among the Gentiles, and I might add esteemed too much among Christians, have got what they wanted. They have acquired this glory they wished so hard for, “…and when they have reached this they have reached their reward: vain men, and vain reward. Quœrebant non apud Deum, sed apud homines gloriam … Ad quam pervenientes perceperunt mercedem suam, vani vanam (Augustine, Exhortations on the Book of Psalms, Psalm CXIX (CXVIII), 38).

You see, gentlemen, the rational soul fallen from its original dignity, because she leaves God and God leaves her; led from captivity to captivity, captive herself, her body captive, captive of the senses and pleasures, captive of all the things that surround her. St. Paul says all in one word when he speaks thus: Man, he says, is “sold under sin, venundatus sub peccato.” (Romans 7:14). Delivered to sin, captive under its laws, overwhelmed with this shameful yoke like a sold slave. What price is the sin that he bought? He bought all the false goods that he has been given. Driven by all these false goods and enslaved by all the things he believes he possesses, he can not breathe, or look at the heavens from which it came. Thus he has lost God, and all the while the unhappy one he can not get around it, for at the bottom of our heart there is a secret desire that constantly asks for more.

The idea of him who created us is imprinted deeply within us. But, oh, unbelievable woe and lamentable blindness! nothing is etched deeper into the heart of man, and nothing is used less in his conduct. Religious sentiments are the last thing that disappear in man and the last that man consults. Nothing excites greater turmoil among men, nothing stirs up more and nothing at the same time stirs up less. Like to see proof? Now I’m sitting in the pulpit of Jesus Christ and the apostles, you listen carefully. If I go, (ah! sooner death!) if I go teach you some error, I would see all my audience revolt against me. I am preaching the most important truths of religion: what will they do? O God, then what is man? Is he a prodigy? Is he a monster composed of incompatible things? Or is he an unexplainable riddle?

No, gentlemen, we explained the riddle. What is so great in man is a remnant of his first institution: what is so low and that seems so ill-suited with his first principles, is the unfortunate effect of his fall. It looks like a ruined building, which in its skeleton state still retains something of the beauty and grandeur of its first plan. Founded at the start on the knowledge of God and his love, by his depraved will he has fallen into ruin. The roof has fallen on the walls, and the walls on the foundation. But when one stirs these ruins, one will find in the remainder of this toppled building the traces of its foundations, the idea of its first design and the mark of the architect. The impression of God is still so strong in man that he can not lose it, and all together it is so weak that it cannot follow: it only remains to convince her of her fault, and make her feel her loss. Thus it is true that he has lost God, but we have said, and it is true, that after that he could not avoid getting himself lost as well.

The soul that has moved away from the source of her being no longer knows what she is. “She was embarrassed,” says St. Augustine (On the Trinity, X, 7) “in everything she loves,” and hence in losing those things she soon believes that she is lost. ‘My house is burned,’ there is torment, and they say, ‘I am lost, my reputation is injured, my fortune is ruined, I am lost.’ But above all when the body is attacked, that’s when one cries more than ever: ‘I’m lost.’ A man believes himself attacked to the core of his being, without wanting to think about what he’s saying: ‘I am lost.’ It is not the body, because the body itself has no feeling. The soul which says that it is lost, feels nothing else than the future loss she understands, so she feels lost in losing. Ah! Ah! if she had not forgotten God, if she had always thought she was his image, she would have held him as the sole support of her being. Attached to a principle so high, she would not have believed she would perish, seeing this fall is so far down. But, as St. Augustine says (On the Trinity, X, 11), “having committed herself entirely to her body and material things, wound up and wrapped among the things she loves and is completely focused on, she can no longer unravel herself,” she no longer knows what she is. She says: ‘I’m a vapour, I’m a breath, I am thin air, or a subtle fire; doubtless a vapour that loves God, a fire that knows God, an air in his own image. O soul, that is the height of your pain: in seeking you’ve lost yourself, and you don’t understand yourself. In this sad and unhappy state, listen to the word of God through his prophet: “convertimini sicut in profundum recesseratis filii Israhel.” (Isaiah 31:6). O soul, come back to God from the depths where you were so deeply withdrawn.


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