October 21, 2005

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

Giving St. Bernard credit for proverbial words

The second most quoted person in the English language is Samuel Johnson, the famous 18th-century essayist, lexicographer, poet, editor, critic and speaker. Sometimes quotations are attributed to him erroneously, such as this one: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” This actually was a proverbial expression of the times. Not only that, the man originally credited for having written something similar is St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153): “Hell is full of good intentions of desire.”

For the record, the most quoted person in the English language is, of course, William Shakespeare, but I doubt St. Bernard’s words were incorporated into any of the Bard’s manuscripts. So, why was Johnson credited with the “road to hell” comment? Because lawyer James Boswell (1740-95), Johnson’s contemporary—in his biography, Life of Johnson—claims his friend once said it. Boswell outlived Johnson by nine years.

So, let’s return to the quotation about the road to hell being paved with good intentions. Haven’t many of us said that ourselves? The meaning, according to the website www.samueljohnson.com, is: “Merely intending to do good without actually doing it is of no solace.”

This I believe! In fact, I am always filled to the brim with good intentions, especially in the evening when silently praying and pondering over my goals. The next day or week or month when I realize I have not accomplished what I set out to do, I feel keen disappointment then I “let go and let God” take over. I try not to chastise myself too much over what I did not accomplish, but focus instead on what I did do as well as what I think I can accomplish within the limits of my energy, strength, alertness, and, of course, time.

Sometimes I also wonder: If “the road to hell is paved with good intentions,” then with what are the roads to heaven and to purgatory paved? I certainly will not focus on this. Temptations and evil might seem the easy path at times, but God expects otherwise.

St. Bernard of Clairvaux knew this even as a young man. According to the “Catholic Encyclopedia on the New Advent” Internet site, “During his youth, he did not escape trying temptations, but his virtue triumphed over them, in many instances in a heroic manner… from this time, he thought of retiring from the world and living a life of solitude and prayer.”

There’s a special place in my heart for St. Bernard. Most of my grade school years were at St. Bernard Parish. I’ve always intended to share his story with readers, so for a thorough understanding of his life, please go to www.newadvent.org/cathen/02498d.htm.

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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