St. Aloysius’s virtues at school

July 18, 2021 • 11 min

From Life of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, page 75

Of all the periods in the life of man the most important, the one on which depend the highest interests, is the time of youth. The child, it is true, forms many habits which give shape to his future, but he can scarcely be said to realize the meaning and the purpose of his existence. He lives in the atmosphere of innocence and even after reason has sway, he beholds in life a certain amount of fable and fiction. He is mystified; he wonders; but he does not totally comprehend the value of life.

In those few years however, between our childhood and the time when we enter upon our determined work, we begin to know what life means; to understand what is expected of us. It is at this time, while still under the care of our parents, we learn that we must choose our own path. The days of youth then are the brightest and the most important in our existence.

To that part of our saint’s life we have now come which claims especially the attention and consideration of young men, although all, old as well as young, can find here many a noble lesson. Even at this early day St. Aloysius, young in years, was old in judgment and virtue.

In another chapter of his life, his deeds of penance and mortification during this period were dwelt upon at a just length, but here we glance at two phases which must enter into the life of every young man, namely his studies and his choice of a vocation.

As we have already seen, he received his first knowledge from the lips of his fond mother. From her he first learned to lisp with affection the name of Jesus, and to love the name of Mary. By her he was led onward to the light of God’s grace.

And truly it must afterwards have been a great joy to that mother, when she beheld the sanctity of her son, to know that she was the first, in the hands of God, to have instilled into his soul sentiments of love of God, and to have impressed upon his mind thoughts of purity. And, as she was the first to teach him the truths of religion and to place before him principles of piety, so, too, was she the first to instruct him in the rudiments of education. He received then the fundamental frame-work for his studies at his home in Castiglione.

In the year 1577, however, the marquis, in order to give his children all the benefits of a good education, determined to send his two sons to Florence. At that day, Florence was the great centre of education in northern Italy. There art and literature flourished. The standard of classical studies had been elevated, and the university of that city had become one of the most renowned of Christian times.

Of course, our saint, as he was only nine years of age did not enter upon any very advanced study of the classics or of art; the main object of his stay at Florence was to learn the Latin language and to perfect himself in his native tongue.

Nevertheless, even in this short period of the life of St. Aloysius, one can learn a lesson on beholding his zeal and application to whatever duty was assigned him.

To-day, as in fact at all times, the student has many tasks imposed that are naturally disagreeable. And generally too, the student grumbles at these tasks; he does not want unpleasant work. Why should he interpret classical authors or write Greek or Latin exercises? Why should he spend hours in working upon his essays? Why pore over the beauties of literature, or drone over the difficulties of grammar?

Such are his thoughts, and his work at times may be brought to a conclusion in neglect and haste. What a model of student life and work was St. Aloysius. He too was compelled to study, and to do work, no doubt, distasteful. Under the guidance of his tutor he became proficient in his studies.

He had to work out a passage in Latin as well as any other who has studied the ancient writers. No kind hand placed the meaning of the words between the lines, because he happened to be a saint; no invisible helper arranged the words that they might be more easily understood. No Divine inspiration gave him the correct thought of a passage in Cicero or of a verse in Sophocles; but this he was obliged to do for himself.

So far he was the counterpart of any other student. But now comes the lesson. Did he grumble because his work was unpleasant? No, but he received the task with joy. Did he object because he was commanded? No, but he welcomed every obligation. We are not told that he took a special delight in study; we are not told that he was far more capable of this work than most young men. But if a lesson were disagreeable, with the spirit of a follower of our Lord, he made of that unpleasant work a means of merit. He performed it with diligence; every particular was carefully attended to; for he understood that every deed done in obedience was done for God’s honor.

So in this young student at Florence we have an example of zeal, patience, attention and even of that which is higher than all these, an example of love for God.

The effect of this saint’s example is still more heightened when we consider his surroundings. He was of one of the noblest families in Italy, looked upon as the coming heir to all his father’s possessions and titles, courted and respected by all the nobility of Florence; and yet how does he value these honors? He looks upon them as worthy of contempt.

Far from desiring or welcoming them, he rather shuns them. He does not seek the presence of his equals in rank, but remains at home engaged in study and devotion. The only time we hear of him in the society of the nobility, during his days at Florence, is when he and his brother, in accordance with their father’s wish, visit the Grand Duke to pay that noble the customary attention due his rank.

In November, 1579, when St. Aloysius was eleven years of age, the marquis removed his two sons to Mantua where they lived at the Castle of St. Sebastian. His studies here were continued under the direction of Father Bresciani and always with the same zeal and good will on the part of Aloysius.

At various times he was compelled to take part in the celebrations at court, as the Duke of Mantua was a cousin of the Marquis of Castiglione; and Aloysius knew that any disrespect shown to the duke, who was the head of the house of Gonzaga, would be displeasing to his father.

However, the ceremonials, the grandeur, the empty frivolities of court-life were anything but agreeable to the serious and devout mind of our saint. It was while here that Aloysius was first afflicted with sickness, yet every suffering was received with joy and patience.

But we must give our attention to other matters which have a weightier claim on our consideration.

After the winter had passed, the marquis and his family returned to Castiglione. We have already seen how he met here St. Charles Borromeo, from whose hands he had the great joy of receiving his first communion.

Here, as at Mantua, he continued his studies, but what claimed his attention most were books of religion, the life of Christ, of the Blessed Virgin, and of the Saints.

Even for his study of the classics, he did not select books that touched upon light or trivial matters, but rather chose those which, even though written by Pagans, would still be useful to his soul. He studied such works as those of Seneca, Plutarch and Valerius Maximus which treat of morals, and, we are told, that he often made use of these works in his conversation.

It was in the year 1581, as we have seen, that the marquis and his wife with their children, Aloysius, Ralph and Isabella, set out for Spain on the invitation of Philip II., to be present at festivities to be held at his court.

This was to be an eventful epoch in the life of Aloysius, for it was during this visit that he determined upon his vocation and upon the particular way in which this vocation was to be followed. Arriving at Spain, Aloysius and his brother were made pages of honor to the young prince. Study took up a great part of the saint’s time, for he knew there was no royal way to learning.

He had finished the study of the classics and literature in Italy, and now, going a step higher, he devoted his time to logic, astronomy, philosophy and natural theology. In the first he was taught by an ecclesiastic of high rank, while the king’s mathematician, Dimas, by name, taught him the motions of the stars and planets.

In philosophy and theology he became so proficient that two years later, while visiting at Alcala, he took up the argument in a theological thesis, at the school there, and displayed so much knowledge for one so young, that all who heard him marveled. We have a proof of his proficiency in the Latin tongue when, in 1582, he was selected, though against his own will, to deliver a Latin address before King Philip.

The time was now at hand for St. Aloysius to take action in obtaining the one aspiration of his life, to become a religious. As we have seen, the marquis wished Aloysius to enter upon a military career. He thought that court life would soon drive away from the mind of his son all thoughts of a religious life. But this result did not follow, Aloysius was confident that his call came from God and he determined to act consistently with that vocation.

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