A Brief Portrait of a Virtuous and Civilized Person
A Brief Portrait of a Virtuous and Civilized Person
(San Lazzaro, 1860)
It is a beautiful idea to build cemeteries along main roads, for passersby get to stop before the enclosure for a moment to reflect upon a different journey than the one they are on. And just as one hastens his steps upon seeing the twilight of evening, so too upon recalling his death does he makes haste to do goodness to others, knowing that his time here is not long.
Last month, I was walking by a tomb in the cemetery of a village. Its headstone was engraved with a skeleton and the following lines:
I was like you,
You will become like me.
Reflect on this; may the Lord be with you.
I began to reflect on these lines and let out a sigh, thinking to myself, “Oh, the vanity of human affairs!” Every life concludes thus, from paupers to kings. Here, all of man’s ambitions are shattered. Here, everything comes to rest, save what a man did in the course of his life. So fleeting are our lives, what good is it to live them out with malice? We will all gather here, what good is it to be antagonistic, resentful, and to torment our brothers? Reflecting on these things, I came to my knees and said a prayer from the depths of my heart for those pitiable souls, blessing at the same time my religion, which not even through death dissolves the bonds of charity and love that by our generosity binds us with our brothers. Then, turning my head and seeing a cross, I read the following:
FOR PITIABLE SEROP
WHO LIVED A PIOUS,
HUMBLE, VIRTUOUS AND IRREPROACHABLE LIFE
It seemed to me that these words described
a virtuous and civilized man, so when I came across the head of the village, I
asked him what sort of a person this Serop was.
“Serop was truly a virtuous and civilized man,” he responded. “Not only did he praise God from within, but also with his charitable works, knowing that the most devout and pious person is the one who helps his neighbor. He behaved peaceably, compassionately and graciously with everyone, both wealthy and poor alike. He did not pay attention to the way people dressed, but to the fruit of their works. He loved the kind, condoled with the weak, and had compassion upon the wicked and tried to set them straight. He had very many acquaintances, but very few friends. He considered as a friend every kind and upright soul, be they near or far. He respected the poor and did not malign the rich. He shared company with the meek and obeyed the powerful. He wished to gratify them all one and the same and was content with himself as he was with others. He preferred to have others obliged to him rather than to be indebted to others; to satisfy others before himself.
“He did not know spite or hatred; he was wary of fights; he had no pride, for he believed in God, and no envy, for he loved his fellow man. Not only would he forgive insults to his person, but he was not bothered by these. If he wronged someone with his words or actions, he admitted his fault and reconciled with them at the first opportunity.
“His face expressed sincerity, calmness, guilelessness and generosity; he was neither rough nor arrogant, neither crude nor timid. He merited other people’s trust and reverence by the trust that he placed in himself. With this invariable disposition, he neither rejoiced nor grieved in anything, for ‘Who can know what each thing that meets us brings? Evil often begets goodness, and what once caused us to rejoice today afflicts us. Trust in God.’ He would also say: 'He who finds fault with others for his own failures is ignorant; he who owns his faults corrects his ways. But the virtuous man neither blames others nor himself—he only finds a way given his circumstances.’
“He strove to keep any dissatisfaction in his household restricted to his household. He likened a joyous heart to the May sun, which brings roses to sprout through thorns. That is why, on feast days, he would take his sons together with the youths of his village out for a walk. After that, if he had time, he would reflect upon the sublime beauty of the earth and the heavens, and wished for everyone to spend feast days and holidays giving glory to God and reflecting in astonishment upon His miracles. ‘You pay money to go to the theater or to see something new,’ he’d tell us. ‘While such pictures are ever showing themselves before you, and these are worth much more yet don’t cost a thing: the breeze at the pink sunrise, the glow of the golden sunset, the delightful tranquility of a star-studded night, a laugh on a flowery spring day and the mirth of a fruitful autumn.’ He would think about how one ought never to lie yet not always reveal the truth. And when he was asked which virtue was the most important to impart to youths, he said patience.
“If someone spoke ill of him, he would be grateful for their revealing his shortcomings, that he may rectify them, and he would not wish them harm.
“If he learned that someone was in need or in sorrow, he would not wait for them to ask for help, but would go right away, and secretly comfort and invigorate them with love and generosity, knowing that ‘He who gives quickly gives doubly.’
“His means were limited. He had amassed quite a bit of wealth in his youth thanks to his wits and his thrift, but being cheated in business by a friend he left it behind. Serop suffered this misfortune with unperturbed spirit, reflecting that misfortunes are brought by God, and that God is good, and therefore He does it for the sake of goodness. Once, when he broke his arm, he raised the other to heaven and thanked God that he did not break his neck, and instead of crying over what he had lost, he consoled himself with what he possessed. And just as the proverb says ‘humble yourself, if you wish to repose’, he came to this village. He limited his expenses, made his wants few, and seeing to it that his living would be enough to provide for his loved ones, he took care of them without indebting himself. The only thing he feared was debt, of which he said: ‘If you are not in debt, then even two pennies is enough to make you wealthy.’
“He cultivated his land himself. Look at these orchards; they are quite small, but they yield many great figs and vines, and they are all his. He considered it charitable to help improve the condition of his fellow villagers on his own dime.
“Working with the other villagers, he strove to pluck out their erroneous ways: he wanted them to honor the ways of their elders, but still to try things for themselves, reminding them that ‘this is how it is, was, and will be’. He taught them how to care for silkworms, graft fruit trees and prune vines. He taught them how to keep bees, harvest potatoes, make yarn out of nettle, put dung to good use, and on idle winter days he taught them how to make cups, ladles, chairs and bowls. ‘A good farmer has to be able to extract every necessary thing from his land,’ he’d say.
“He insisted on every piece of furniture having a set place. ‘If you leave them lying around, exposed to the elements, they will decay, you will spend time looking for them when you need them, and such confusion is a sign of disorderliness’. He would train them to observe details, for ‘what is neglected is lost’.
“If he saw that a village or town had many taverns, he’d say ‘it’s a sign that there are many there who are in need of bread’. If in social situations he heard that people were backbiting, he’d say ‘the person most certainly wouldn’t have done that if he knew better.’ He did not want people’s faults or the fruits of their efforts to be attributed to chance. ‘Attributing things to luck is an admission that we do not understand it sufficiently,’ he’d say.
“Once, when someone boasted of all that he had read, he said ‘it would be better if you had boasted about all that you had learned.’
“Another time, someone said ‘the ultimate good lies in getting what we want out of life,’ to which he said: ‘No, the ultimate good is in wanting only what we need in life.’
“‘To understand the world well,’ he’d say, ‘one does not need to travel plenty, but to travel well; and to consider its purpose and what one might serve in doing so; for without reflecting on these we travel in vain, because wherever you happen to go, the sky is blue, the water flows, and sluggards are poor and have bad names.’
“‘You understand, sir,’ said the village head, ‘that Serop loved proverbs. He collected many of his sayings in a small notebook that he left for his children. Do you want to hear a few of them?’
Better what God grants than what man wants.
Do not do as others do, but what those who do rightly do.
Where there is a slanderer, two enemies will soon be born.
The best gift in life is to have a good trade. Better to know one good thing than thirty evils.
Strive to become the man that you want to be known as.
When your hands are at work, your heart is at peace.
When someone does you wrong, think of God.
Do not step where others fall.
Praise all that is worthy of praise, but to do not rebuke all that is worthy of rebuke.
Think not of what you lack, but of what you need.
Without practice, you cannot succeed at anything.
Pay more attention to with whom you eat than what you eat.
Just as every inn-keeper praises his wine, every man attests his decency. Do not put your trust in what they say, but observe their fruits, for those who cluck like chickens do not always lay eggs.
Endure with consent, wait with patience, work with perseverance and keep your expenses to a minimum. Then you shall not meet with misfortune.
Man has three friends: money, which flees his side as soon as he becomes ill; his neighbors and relatives, who separate from him upon death; and his good works, which only befriend him to the grave.
“Serop knew that life is a gift, and he was ever grateful to God for giving him life and protecting him. He also knew that he could die at any moment, and he was always prepared to meet death. ‘We must love life,’ he’d say, ‘for it is the cause of our good works; we must also not fear death, which from this life of exile returns us to our native home.’
“And when at last death approached, he embraced it calmly and consentingly. A few days before his death he had gone out for a walk in the sun; the world he saw and that he would be leaving behind looked much more beautiful to him than usual.
“He looked upon the fields, and bringing his good deeds to mind, he suddenly took cheer. He approached a few flowers, smelled them, and thanked God for giving flowers such marvelous beauty. He bade farewell to those he knew with joy of heart, for he had harbored no distrust of people, nor had he put too much hope in them. Frequently, he sighed, saying: ‘Oh, how sweet it is to be unable to recall having harmed anyone at the hour of death.’ Then he came back to this cemetery to pray for the souls of his parents, shortly before he would repose here with them.’
“Then, on his last day, after preparing his soul, he blessed his children and said: ‘Farewell; I leave you not with riches, but with a good upbringing and trades. No one who possesses these things is called an orphan. Why are you crying? Death is like a sweet night followed by a happy morning. Farewell. I am going to a place where you, too, will soon arrive. Wish goodness for one another, help who you can, keep the fear of God ever in your hearts and obey the words of our priest.’
“And he died, having done much more good in life than harm, which is why the world will very soon forget him. But at this point, we all wept his loss, and the wealthiest man in this village had me write those words on Serop’s tombstone, not only in his memory, but so that others may learn what it means to be virtuous and civilized. For whoever worships God and honors him from his heart is pious, whoever returns goodness with goodness is humble, whoever does good to others without self-interest is virtuous, whoever brings many innocent pleasures to others is irreproachable, and it is on this foundation that a virtuous and civilized person is made.”