“The most ominous of modern perversions is the shame of appearing naïve if we do not flirt with evil.”
St. Alphonsus Liguori on the danger of keeping bad company. One of his best sermons, and that is truly saying something.
There met him ten men that were lepers… As they went, they were made clean.” LUKE xvii. 12, 14.
IN this day’s gospel it is related, that ten lepers of a certain town met Jesus Christ, and entreated him to heal the leprosy under which they laboured. The Lord bid them go and present themselves to the priests of the temple; but before they reached the temple they were cured. Now it may be asked why our Saviour, who could heal them in an instant, wished them to go to the priests, and healed them on the way.
A certain author (Anthony of Lisbon) says that Jesus Christ foresaw that, had he cured them on the spot, they, by remaining in the place and conversing with the other lepers, from whom they took the leprosy, should easily relapse into the same disease. Therefore, he first wished them to depart from the place and then healed them. Whatever may be thought of this reason, let us come to the moral sense which may be deduced from it.
The leprosy resembles sin. As the leprosy is a contagious disease, so the bad habits of the wicked infect others who associate with them. Hence, the leper who wishes to be cured shall never be healed unless he separates from bad companions. He that keeps company with robbers soon becomes a thief. In this discourse I shall show, that, to lead a good life, it is necessary to avoid bad companions.
1. “A friend of fools,” says the Holy Ghost, “shall become like them.” (Prov. xiii. 20.) Christians who live in enmity with God are, Father M. Avila used to say, all fools, who deserve to be shut up in a mad-house. For, what greater madness can be conceived than to believe in hell and to live in sin? But the man who contracts an intimacy with these fools shall soon be come like them. Although he should hear all the sermons of the sacred orators, lie will continue in vice, according to the celebrated maxim: ”Examples make greater impressions than words.”
Hence the Royal Prophet has said: ”With the elect thou wilt be elect, and with the perverse thou wilt be perverted.” (Ps. xvii. 27.) St. Augustine says, that familiarity with sinners is as it were a hook which draws us to communicate in their vices. Let us, said the saint, avoid wicked friends, ”lest by their company we may be drawn to a communion of vice.” St. Thomas teaches, that to know whom we should avoid is a great means of saving our souls. Firma tutela salutis est, sciro quem fugiamus.”
2. “Let their way become dark and slippery, and let the angel of the Lord pursue them.” (Ps. xxxiv. 6.) All men in this life walk in the midst of darkness and in a slippery way. If, then, a bad angel that is, a wicked companion, who is worse than any devil pursue them, and endeavour to drive them into an abyss, who shall be able to escape death?”Talis eris,” says Plato, “qualis conversatio quam sequeris ?” And St. John Chrysostom said, that if we wish to know a man‟s moral habits, we have only to observe the character of the friends with whom he associates; because friendship finds or makes him like his friends. ”Vis nosse hominem, attende quorum familiaritate assuescat: amicitia aut pares invenit, aut pares fecit.”
First, because, to please his friends, a man will endeavour to imitate them; secondly, because, as Seneca says, nature inclines men to do what they see others do. And the Scripture says: * They were mingled among the heathens, and learned their works.” (Ps. cv. 35.) According to St. Basil, as air which comes from pestilential places causes infection, so, by conversation with bad companions, we almost imperceptibly contract their vices. ”Quemadmodum in pestilentibus locis sensim attractus aër latentem corporibus morbuin iujicit sic itidem in prava couversatione maxima a nobis mala hauriuntur, etiamsi statim incommodum non sentiatur.” (St. Bas., Hom, ix., ex var. quod Deus, etc.) And St. Bernard says that St. Peter, in consequence of associating with the enemies of Jesus Christ, denied his Master. ”Existens cum passionis dominicæ ministris, Doininum, negavit.”
3. But how, asks St. Ambrose, can bad companions give you the odour of chastity, when they exhale the stench of impurity? How can they infuse into you sentiments of devotion when they themselves fly from it? How can they impart to you a shame of offending God, when they cast it away?”Quid tibi demonstrant castitatem, quem non habent? Devotionem quam non sequuntur? Verecundiam quam projiciunt?”
St. Augustine writes of himself, that when he associated with bad companions, who boasted of their wickedness, he felt himself impelled to sin without shame; and to appear like them, he gloried in his evil actions. ”Pudebat,” he says, ”me esse pudentem.” (Lib. 2, de Conf., c. ix.) Hence Isaias admonishes you to”touch no unclean thing.” (Isa. lii. 11.)
Touch not what is unclean: if you do, you too shall be polluted. He that handles pitch, says Ecclesiasticus, shall certainly be denied with it; and they who keep company with the proud shall be clothed with pride. The same holds for other vices: ”He that toucheth pitch shall be denied with it; and he that hath fellowship with the proud shall put on pride.” (Eccl. xiii. 1.)
4. What then must we do? The Wise Man tells us that we ought not only to avoid the vices of the wicked, but also to beware of treading in the ways in which they walk. ”Restrain thy foot from their paths.” (Prov. i. 15.) That is, we should avoid their conversations, their discourses, their feasts, and all the allurements and presents with which they will seek to entice us into their net. ”My son,” says Solomon, “if sinners shall entice thee, consent not to them.” (Prov. i. 10.)
Without the decoy, birds are not enticed into the fowler’s net. ”Will the bird fall into the snare upon the earth if there be no fowler?” (Amos iii. 5.) The devil employs vicious friends as decoys, to draw so many souls into the snare of sin. “My enemies, ” says Jeremias, ”have chased me, and have caught me like a bird without cause.” (Lamen. iii. 52.) He says, without cause.
Ask the wicked why they have made a certain innocent young man fall into sin, and they will answer: We have done it without cause; we only wish to see him do what we ourselves do. This, says St. Ephrem, is one of the artifices of the devil: when he has caught a soul in his net, he makes him a snare, or a decoy, to deceive others. ”Cum primum capta fuerit, anima, ad alias decipiendas fit quasi laqueus.”
5. Hence, it is necessary to avoid, as you would a plague, all familiarity with those scorpions of hell. I have said that you must avoid familiarity with them that is, all fellowship in their banquets or conversation; for never to meet them is, as the Apostle says, impossible. ”Otherwise you must needs go out of this world.” (1 Cor. v. 10.) But, it is in our power to abstain from familiar intercourse with them. ”But now I have written to you not to keep company, etc. with such a one, not so much as to eat.” (Ibid. v. 11.) I have called them scorpions: so they have been called by the Prophet Ezechiel. ”Thou art among unbelievers and destroyers, and thou dwellest among scorpions.” (Ezec. ii. 6 )
Would you live in the midst of scorpions? You must, then, fly from scandalous friends, who, by their bad examples and words, poison your soul. ”A man‟s enemies shall be they of his own household.” (Matt. x. 36.) Wicked friends, that are very familiar and intimate with us, become the most pernicious enemies of our souls. ”Who,” says Ecclesiasticus, ”will pity an enchanter struck by a serpent, or any that come near wild beasts? So it is with him that keepeth company with a wicked man.” (Eccl. xii. 13.)
If the man that makes free with serpents, or with ferocious wild beasts, be bitten or devoured by them, who will take pity on him? And so it is with him who associates with scandalous companions; if, by their bad example he be contaminated and lost, neither God nor man will have compassion on him; because he was cautioned to fly from their society.
6. One scandalous companion is enough to corrupt all who treat him as a friend. ”Know you not,” says St. Paul, ”that a little leaven corrupts the whole lump ?” (1 Cor. v. 7.) One of these scandalous sinners is able, by a perverse maxim, to infect all his companions. They are the false prophets whom Jesus Christ warns us to avoid. “Beware of false prophets.” (Matt. vii. 15 )
False prophets deceive, not only by false predictions, but also by false maxims or doctrines, which are productive of the greatest mischief. For, as Seneca says, they leave in the soul certain seeds of iniquity which lead to evil. ”Semina in animo relinqueunt, quæ inducunt ad malum. ”
It is too true that scandalous language, as experience proves, corrupts the morals of those who hear it. “Evil communications,” says the Apostle, corrupt good manners. ” (1 Cor xv 63.) A young man refuses, through the fear of God, to commit a certain sin: an incarnate devil, a bad companion comes and says to him what the serpent said to Eve: “No; you shall not die the death.” (Gen. iii. 4.) What are you afraid of? How many others commit this sin? You are young; God will have pity on your youth. They will as is written in the book of Wisdom, say Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that are present-let us everywhere leave tokens of joy (ii 6 9) Come with us; let us spend our time in amusement and in joy. ”O nimis imqua amicitia,” says St. Augustine, cum dicitur, eamus, facimus: pudet non esse impudentum O cruel friendship of those who say let us go and do etc.: it is a shame not to be shameless. He who hears such language is ashamed not to yield to it and not be as shameless as they who utter it
7. When any passion is kindled within us, we must be particularly careful in selecting the persons whom we will consult. For, then the passion itself will incline us to seek counsel from those who will probably give the advice which is most agreeable to the passion. But from such evil counsellors, who do not speak according to God, we should fly with greater horror than from an enemy; for their evil counsel, along with the passion which is excited, may precipitate us into horrible excesses.
As soon as the passion shall subside we shall see the error committed, and the delusion into which we have been led by false friends. But the good advice of a friend, who speaks according to Christian truth and meekness preserves us from every disorder, and restores calm to the soul.
8. ”Depart from the unjust,” says the Lord, and evils shall depart from thee.” (Eccl. vii. 2.) Fly, separate from wicked companions, and you shall cease to commit sin. ”Neither let the way of evil men please thee. Flee from it: pass not by it: go aside and forsake it.” (Prov. iv. 14, 15.) Avoid the ways in which these vicious friends walk, that you may not even meet them. ”Forsake not an old friend; for the new will not be like to him.” (Eccl. ix. 14.) Do not leave your first friend, who loved you before you came into the world. ”I have loved thee with an everlasting love.” (Jer. xxxi. 3.) Your new friends do not love you; they hate you more than your greatest enemy: they seek not your welfare, as God, does, but their own pleasures, and the satisfaction of having companions of their wickedness and perdition.
You will, perhaps, say: I feel a repugnance to separate from such a friend, who has been solicitous for my welfare; to break off from him would appear to be an act of ingratitude. What welfare? What ingratitude? God alone wishes your welfare, because he desires your eternal salvation. Your friend wishes your eternal ruin; he wishes you to follow him, but cares not if you be damned. It is not ingratitude to abandon a friend who leads you to hell; but it is ingratitude to forsake God, who has created you, who has died for you on the cross, and who desires your salvation.
9. Fly then from the conversation of these wicked friends. ”Hedge in thy ears with thorns, hear not a wicked tongue.” (Eccl. xxviii. 28.) Beware of listening to the language of such friends; their words may bring you to perdition. And when you hear them speak improperly arm yourself with thorns, and reprove them, not only for the purpose of rebuking, but also of converting them. ”Ut non solum,” says St. Augustine, ”repellantur sed etiam compungantur.” Listen to a frightful example, and learn the evil which a wicked friend does.
Father Sabatino relates in his “Evangelical Light” that two friends of that kind were one day together. One of them, to please the other, committed a sin; but after they had separated he died suddenly. The other, who knew nothing of his death, saw, in his sleep, his friend, and, according to his custom, ran to embrace him. But the deceased appeared to be surrounded with, fire, and began to blaspheme the other, and to upbraid him for being the cause of his damnation. The other awoke and changed his life. But his unhappy friend was damned; and for his damnation there is not, and shall not be, any remedy for all eternity.