by Humbert of Romans
XX. Motives for Devoting Oneself to Preaching When One is Capable of It
Among the exercises of the supernatural life which occupy spiritual men in general, those who have the gift of preaching ought to consecrate themselves to it in preference to every other, and this is for the three following reasons:
First of all their work enjoys special prerogatives which do not belong to others. Indeed, there are some who mortify the flesh by fasts, abstinences, coarse garments, vigils, and similar practices. All this is, according to the Apostle, of certain value but preaching is more useful, as has been seen above in the fifth paragraph. Moreover, who could adequately describe all the pains that a preacher, poor and zealous for the good of souls, endures in the care he expends in their behalf, in the fatigues of travel, in numerous privations, in anxiety concerning his success, and so many other similar causes, so that he has been compared to a woman in the pains of childbirth, exposed to sufferings truly inexpressible? Has not St. Paul said:
“My dear children, with whom I am in labor again, until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).
Likewise, a religious of the order of Citeaux, who became a Friar Preacher, said that he suffered in his new life, in a few days, much more than in the whole time spent in his first vocation. It is true, then, that one ought to prefer preaching to fasting and other forms of mortifying the flesh, since there results from it, with the same sacrifices and from even greater ones, a usefulness to one’s neighbor which is incomparably greater.
There are some who with love apply themselves to works of corporal mercy, but preaching, because it devotes all its zeal to the salvation of souls in danger of death, surpasses in excellence the above mentioned works, as the soul surpasses the body. For this reason Our Lord said to him who wished to bury his father:
“Leave the dead to bury their own dead, but do thou go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
So that if it is necessary, according to this command, to place preaching above the duty of burying one’s father, one of the most pious of corporal works of mercy, how much more should preaching in general be placed above all the works which have as their object only the well-being of the body. Whoever by his word nourishes souls with everlasting food does more, St. Gregory observes, than he who gives material bread in order to preserve the life of the body.
Some devote themselves especially to the holy exercise of prayer, either for themselves or for others; but their prayer is of less value than preaching, for the prayer of a sinner for his neighbor does not profit the latter, whereas the preaching of even the extremely wicked is sometimes very useful to others, as happened to Balaam, and to ourselves today and for all time.
“If I have not charity,” St. Paul said, it is true, “I am like a tinkling cymbal” (I Cor. 13:1);
nevertheless, this cymbal is useful to others, although it merits nothing for itself.
Others apply themselves to the study of holy writings but if this study has not preaching for its end, of what use is it?
“Wisdom that is hid, and treasure that is not seen: what profit is there in them both?” (Ecclus. 20:32).
Similarly the Apostle advises his disciple to apply himself at the same time
“to reading and to doctrine” (I Tim. 4:16).
He places reading first but he adds doctrine because the latter is the end of the former; but the end is always preferable to the means which are subordinate to it.
Others put their devotion in holy objects and in the celebration of the sacred mysteries of the Mass; but although the Sacrament of the Eucharist procures for the Church the greatest benefits, it could happen to be perilous for many who are unworthy of it.
“For he who eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks judgment to himself” (I Cor 11:29),
as St. Paul declares; and if it is thus of the faithful, what will it be of the one who consecrates unworthily? Different is the condition of the preacher, for a sinner, provided his is not a public sinner, can preach without offense to God.
Others willingly occupy themselves with the hearing of confessions, but the work of the preacher is more excellent; for the confessor can give help to only one at a time, whereas the preacher addresses a great number simultaneously. Thus it was that the preaching of St. Peter converted about three thousand souls at one time, and about five thousand at another time. Other confer Baptism, Confirmation, Extreme Unction, the consecration of virgins, the ordination of clerics, or the other Sacraments of the Church, but these Sacraments do not profit adults, if they have not a sufficient knowledge of them with and expressed will to receive them; but it is preaching which gives them these good dispositions. Job said to God:
“With the hearing of the ear, I have heard thee”– in preaching – “but now my eye seeth thee,” that is the first effect, namely, true knowledge; “therefore I reprehend myself” (Job 42:5-6),
the second effect, which is good will; but these results are obtained without the assistance of the Sacraments, by preaching alone, which consequently, under this aspect, is preferable to them.
Others finally consecrate themselves to the praises of God following assiduously in church the Divine Office, but the laity usually does not comprehend the words which are recited in the Office, whereas they do understand the language and instructions of the preacher. By preaching, too, God is extolled more manifestly and clearly than by these Offices and for this reason it is called the “Praise of God” by autonomasia in Psalm 72, where our version says:
“That I may declare your preachings in the gates of the daughter of Zion” (Ps. 72:28),
while another version, in place of “preachings,” as “praises.”
From all that has just been said, it can be seen how many prerogatives preaching enjoys, and of its preference over many other spiritual works.
The second reason which should lead us to prefer preaching is found in certain examples which recommend it. Jesus Christ, in the whole time He spent upon earth, celebrated Mass but once, at the Last Supper; moreover, it is not said that He heard one confession; He administered the Sacraments rarely and to a small number; He never devoted Himself to the recitation of the canonical Office; and one can make the same observation about all the rest, except for preaching and prayer. It is also worthy of note that when He began to preach He spent more time in that then in prayer. Similarly, the most excellent of the Apostles, thanking God for his ministry, declared that he had baptized few;
“For Christ did not send me,” he said, “to baptize, but to preach” (I Cor. 1:17),
and we see, in fact, that he devoted himself to no other spiritual function like he did to preaching. He said to the Romans:
“From Jerusalem round about as far as Illyricum I have completed the gospel of Christ” (Rom 15:19);
and after that he traveled to the western regions to preach the Gospel to them also. Did the other Apostles and disciples of the Lord, throughout the world, devote themselves to any other task more than they did to preaching?
“They went forth,” says St. Mark, “and preached everywhere” (Mark 16:20).
And so for our instruction there is the example of Our Lord, of St. Paul, and of all the Apostles and disciples of Jesus Christ.
The third reason why we should prefer preaching to every other work is that Our Lord seemed to wish it to be so. Did He not recommend it in fact, at the moment of His Ascension, as a work supremely pleasing to Him?
“Go,” He said, “into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:16).
And according to the gloss, did He not reserve, as a special recompense for this office, a crown in the form of a halo which surmounted the table of the twelve loaves of proposition? So as to insure the exercise of this office, God has, in addition, performed great miracles, infusing in an instant into unlettered and common men he highest knowledge, granting them the gift of tongues, and the power to work miracles in order to confirm their words, all of which shows ho much more pleasing is the work to Him than any other kind.
Since preaching enjoys such prerogatives, since it is recommended by such examples, since it is so dear to God, it is only right that it be preferred to all other kinds o work by spiritual men capable of undertaking it; and for them it also becomes a duty:
“Woe to me,” said St. Paul, “if I do not reach, for it is a duty incumbent on me” (I Cor. 9:16).