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The Creation of Men and Angels: The dominion of man over himself

This is one in a series from Bossuet’s Elevations on the Mysteries. The previous post is here. More information on the Bossuet Project is here.

“Let us make man in our image and likeness, so that he orders the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the animals and all the earth, and everything that moves or crawls above.” The third special aspect of the creation of man: it is an animal born to the commandment: if he controls the animals, even more so he controls himself, and it is in this I see a new feature of the divine likeness shine. The man controls his body, his arms, his hands, his feet, and at the start, we will see how far everything is subject to his dominion. There is still something of absolute command which he had over his passions. He commands his own intelligence, he applies what he pleases, consequently to his own will, because of his free will, as we shall see soon: to his interior and exterior senses, and to his imagination which he holds captive under the authority of reason, and which he uses for higher operations. He moderates the appetites which come from images of the senses, and at the start he was the absolute master of all these things. Because such was the power of the image of God in the soul, she held everything in submission and respect.

Let us work to restore in ourselves the dominion of reason, let us restrict the lively projections of our wandering thoughts; in this way we will order in some way like the birds of the air. Let us prevent our thoughts from always crawling in bodily necessities, as do reptiles on earth; in this way we will dominate these low feelings, and correct in ourselves the baseness. When they are allowed to dominate, always occupied with their health, mortal life, and the needs of their bodies, they are plunged into flesh and blood, and crawl on the earth. That is to say, they have no other movements than those terrestrial and sensual. We would sooner tame lions than to control our impetuous anger. We will dominate poisonous animals when we punish hatreds, jealousies and backbiting. We will put the brakes to the mouth of a spirited horse when we hold back in ourselves pleasure. What need is there to push further the analogy, unless we we apply that of fish? We could only say that their particular character is to be silent, never to breathe the air and still be attached to a heavier element. Such are those who, possessed of “the deaf and dumb demon” do not listen to the preaching of the Gospel and are prevented by deep shame to confess their sins. They are always in coarse feelings, and barely glimpse the sunlight. Let is get out of these carnal movements, where we swim, so to speak, by the pleasure which takes us there. We exercise a kind of low freedom, as we walked from one passion to another, and never leaving either this low sphere, so to speak, or that heavier element. Such as it is, we dominate in all that is an animal, that flies, or crawls. If it is necessary to use our imagination, let it be in purifying all tangible and earthly thoughts, and occupying in a holy way in mysteries of Christ, the examples of the saints, and of all the pious representations that are offered to us by Scripture. We should not stop there, but aim to rise higher, having taken the essence, that is to say the instructions that must feed our souls: for example, the mysteries of the life and passion of our Lord, the spirit of poverty, gentleness, humility and patience.

To correct the abuse and distraction of our wandering and dissipated imagination, it is necessary to fill it with holy images. When our memory fills up, it will only take us to those religious ideas. The water wheel pushed by the flow of a river always goes, but it only matters that water crosses its path. If the waters are pure, it will carry nothing but pure water; but if they are impure, the contrary happens. Thus, if our memory is filled with pure ideas, the turning, so to speak, of our restless imagination will not draw from this well and will only take us to holy thoughts. The wheel of a mill will always turn, but it will grind the grain that is there: if it is barley, we will have ground barley; if it is wheat and pure grain, we will have flour. Let us put in our memory all holy and pure images, and whatever is the agitation of our imagination, it will only return to us, at least generally, in the spirit, as the fine and pure substance of items with which we will be filled.

Let us be filled in Jesus Christ, in his actions, his suffering, his words. To give more than one object to our senses, let us be filled with the holy ideas of Abraham sacrificing his son; of a Jacob pulling from God by a holy battle the blessing he hoped for: from a Joseph leaving His coat in the hands of an immodest person to rescue his chaste body; of a Moses who dared approach the burning bush which the fire does not consume, and take off his shoes out of respect; of an Isaiah, who trembles before God until His lips Were purified; of a Jeremiah, who stutters so humbly before God and dares to announce His word; of the three young men for whom the flame of a burning furnace respects the faith; of a Daniel also saved by faith from the teeth of hungry lions: of a John the Baptist preaching repentance under poverty and the hair shirt; of Saul, who was beaten down by the powerful word of Jesus whom he persecuted; and all the other beautiful images of prophets and apostles. Your memory and imagination, consecrated as a holy temple by these holy images, should not bring you anything that is not worthy of God.

Only take care never to let your imagination heat up too much; because overly heated and agitated, she herself is consumed by her own fire, and blocks the pure light of intelligence. These are those which must shine in your spirit, and only to whom imagination must prepare a throne, as it did to the holy prophet Ezekiel and to other holy prophets, companions inspired by the same spirit.


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