Four Ways to Discern a Man’s Soul by His Appearance – Fr. Cornelius a Lapide, S.J.

Rev. Cornelius Cornelii à Lapide, SJ (né Cornelis Cornelissen van den Steen; 18 December 1567 – 12 March 1637) was a Catholic, Flemish, Jesuit priest and exegete of Sacred Scripture.

He was born at Bocholt, in Belgian Limburg. He studied humanities and philosophy at the Jesuit colleges of Maastricht and Cologne, first theology for half a year at the University of Douai and afterwards for four years at the Old University of Leuven; he entered the Society of Jesus on 11 June 1592 and, after a novitiate of two years and another year of theology, was ordained a Catholic priest on 24 December 1595. After teaching philosophy for half a year, he was made a professor of Sacred Scriptureat Leuven in 1596 and next year of Hebrew also. During his professorship at Leuven it pleased him to spend his holidays preaching and administering the Sacraments, especially at the pilgrimage of Scherpenheuvel (Montaigu). Twenty years later in 1616 he was called to Rome in the same capacity, where, on 3 November, he assumed the office that he held for many years thereafter. The latter years of his life, however, he apparently devoted exclusively to completing and correcting his commentaries. He died in Rome on 12 March 1637.

He described himself in a prayer to the Prophets at the end of his commentary on the Book of Daniel: “For nearly thirty years I suffer with and for You [God] with gladness the continual martyrdom of religious life, the martyrdom of illness, the martyrdom of study and writing; obtain for me also, I beseech You, to crown all, the fourth martyrdom, of blood. For You I have spent my vital and animal spirits; I will spend my blood too.”

The attire of the body and the laughter of the teeth and the gait of the man show what he is. (Ecclesiasticus 19:27)“Interpreting this verse, Siracides gives four ways by which one can see, as through windows of the soul, the hidden virtues or vices, the simplicity or hypocrisy of a person.

“The first quite clear way is the outward appearance and the expression of the face, principally the eyes. The nature of a person shows and reveals itself by the eyes. For if the lamp of the body is the eyes, why is it surprising if that lamp should reveal the body? So, when one first meets a ferocious man, his eyes seem to spread terror; when one meets a pious man, his eyes spread joy. Just as wisdom and sanctity shine in the face of the wise and the holy, (Eccles, 8:1), so also foolishness and evil darken the face of the stupid and wicked.

“St. Ambrose (Book on Elias, chap. 10) admirably says: “The face is a witness of the thoughts and is a silent interpreter of the heart. The outward appearance is often a sign of the conscience and the unspoken words of the mind.”

“St. Augustine (Rule for the Servants of God, at the end) says: “Do not say that you have pure souls if you have impure eyes, because impure eyes are messengers of an impure heart.”

“The second way is the clothing or dress: overbearing apparel reveals interior pride, false dress reveals falsity; dissolute dress, dissolution; capricious apparel, capriciousness; grave clothing, gravity; sensual dress indicates and represents sensuality of spirit. Hence St. Augustine (Letter 73 to Possidium) says: “The true adornment of the Christian is not false make up, nor opulent and ostentatious dress, but rather good customs.”

“By means of the face, dress, and dissolute customs of Julian the Apostate, St. Gregory Nazianzen discerned his hidden impiety. He refers to it (Speech 2, in Julian) with these words: “Nor does it speak of any good to me to see a man with a weak neck, stooping shoulders, a constantly agitated bearing, insolent eyes and a roving and furious gaze, unstable and tottering feet, an offensive nose breathing contempt, and an arrogant and unrestrained laugh.” After describing his dissolute soul with other similar observations, he argues: “Hence his bearing speaks clearly: What a great evil the Roman land has nourished!” ….

“The third way is the laugh. Indeed, the sincere and regular laugh reveals a sincere, constant and open heart. The short, twisted, sardonic, and arrogant laugh reveals a narrow, twisted, fraudulent, and arrogant spirit and signifies an imbued hatred. In this respect Rabanus says that by the bearing of the body one demonstrates the quality of the will. ….

“The fourth way is the manner of walking. The fast and precipitate way of walking is a symptom of the impulsive spirit, just as the slow step reveals slowness of spirit; the light step, lightness of spirit; the arrogant step, an arrogant spirit; the furious step, an angry spirit; and an affected or feigned step, falseness of spirit.

“For this reason, Bede (in Proverbs) says: “The movement of the body demonstrates the habit of the mind.”

“And St. Bernard (On the Way to Live Well, chap. 9) says: “Let your way of walking be simple, and your step honest. No shame, no sensuality, no arrogance, no insolence, no frivolity should appear in your way of walking. Indeed, the spirit shows itself in the movement of the body, the carriage of the body is a signal of the soul.”

(Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram, Paris 1875, vol. 9, pp. 542-542)

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