PART 1 - The Sources of the Interior Life and Its End (cont)
Ch 11: Full Christian Perfection and the Passive Purifications
We have seen that Christian perfection consists especially in charity, which, more than any other virtue, unites us to God and to our neighbor in God. We must consider how perfection also requires the acts of the other virtues and of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost.(1)
ACTS OF THE OTHER VIRTUES REQUIRED FOR PERFECTION
Perfection also necessarily requires the acts of the other virtues which are of precept and which ought to be inspired, vivified, and rendered meritorious by charity. (2) Thus acts of faith, hope, religion, prayer, assistance at Mass, Holy Communion, are of the essence of perfection. Assuredly, Christian perfection requires also essentially the acts of prudence, justice, fortitude, patience, temperance, meekness, and humility, at least the acts of these virtues which are of precept. We shall see that the supreme precept of love demands that we should always grow as in charity.
The effective practice of the three evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience belongs only accidentally to perfection, as a precious but not indispensable instrument.(3) They are very useful means for the more certain and rapid attainment of perfection; but they are not indispensable means. A person may reach sanctity, as Blessed Anna Taigi did, in the married state and while retaining the right of ownership and the free use of the goods of this world. Yet a person must have the spirit of the counsels and not be attached to these earthly goods, but according to the expression of St. Paul, "use this world as if they used it not." (4) The three evangelical counsels invite us to renounce certain licit things, which, without being contrary to charity, more or less hinder its activity and its full development.(5) If, therefore, the effective practice of these counsels is not necessary to perfection, one must at least have their spirit of detachment in order to become more and more closely united to God.
From what we have said of the spiritual organism of the virtues and
the gifts, we see that the full perfection of Christian life requires
all the infused virtues connected with charity and also the
We should, moreover, remember that normally the charity of the
perfect ought to be greater and more intense than that of beginners
and proficients, although accidentally a very generous beginner,
called to become a great saint, may have a loftier charity than one of
the perfect. From the natural point of view, there are in the same way
little prodigies. The various ages of the spiritual life must be
judged by what constitutes them as a rule, and not by an exceptional
Thus we see that perfection is a plenitude which implies the exercise of all the virtues and also of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, which are in all the just. No one can be perfect without having, through the gift of understanding, a certain penetration of the mysteries of faith, and without having the gift of wisdom in a degree proportionate to charity, although this gift is found in some saints under a more clearly contemplative form and in others under a form more directed to action, to the apostolate, and to the works of mercy, as it was in St. Vincent de Paul who always saw in the poor the suffering members of our Lord.
Of this plenitude of the virtues and gifts, charity is the bond, to use the expression of St. Paul, "the bond of perfection." This ensemble is like a well-bound sheaf that is offered to God. Moreover, we can truly say with St. Thomas that perfection consists especially in charity, and principally in the love of God, although it necessarily demands also the other virtues and the seven gifts. Thus, although the human body is of the essence of man, his essence is constituted especially by the rational soul, which distinguishes man from the animal.
Evidently the state of grace and the charity of beginners do not suffice to constitute perfection, properly so called, but only perfection in the broad sense, which excludes mortal sin. One must then grow in charity to reach the spiritual age of the perfect. To attain it we need abnegation, a great docility to the Holy Ghost through the exercise of the seven gifts, and the generous acceptance of the crosses or purifications which should destroy egoism and self-love and definitely assure the uncontested primacy of the love of God, of an ever more radiant charity.
At this point, we must emphasize the purifications required for the full perfection of Christian life and speak of them in a general manner, drawing our inspiration from what St. Paul tells us about them, and then from St. John of the Cross, a doctor of the Church who has most profoundly studied this question of the purifications of the soul. If the Church proposes his teaching to us as that of a master, it is especially that we may gather from this teaching what is of primary importance in it. We shall, moreover, find in it a great light by which to distinguish the three ages of the spiritual life: that of beginners, that of proficients, and that of the perfect.
We should not forget the loftiness of Christian perfection, considered in its normal plenitude or its integrity. St. Paul contemplated it when he wrote to the Philippians: "I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ, my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ. . . that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings; being made conformable to His death, if by any means I may attain to the resurrection which is from the dead. Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect; but I follow after, if I may by any means apprehend, wherein I am also apprehended by Christ Jesus. . . . I do not count myself to have apprehended. But one thing I do: forgetting the things that are behind and stretching forth myself to those that are before, I press towards the mark, to the prize of the supernal vocation of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded. . . . Let us also continue in the same rule. . . . For many walk, of whom I have told you often, . . . that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, . . . who mind earthly things. But our conversation is in heaven. . . . So stand fast in the Lord, my dearly beloved." (8)
St. Paul presents here a perfection that is not merely Platonic or Aristotelian, but Christian in the full sense of the word. This perfection St. Paul proposes not only to himself as the apostle of Christ, but to the Philippians to whom he writes, and to all of us, to all who will be nourished by his epistles until the end of the world. Such perfection evidently requires a great purification of the soul and an unusual degree of docility to the Holy Ghost.
It has been said that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote little about the purifications of the soul. Such a statement disregards what he wrote in his commentaries on the Epistles of St. Paul and the Gospel of St. John, when, carried away by the word of God, he rises toward the summits of the spiritual life which the great mystics love to describe. One should read in particular what he wrote on the third chapter of the Epistle to the Philippians, which we have just quoted, about the desire to know Christ intimately and to be admitted to share in His sufferings, at least in order not to lose our crosses, in order to become conformable to Him, and to save souls with Him.(9) One should also read what St. Thomas wrote on these words of Christ that are recorded by St. John: "I am the true vine; and My Father is the husbandman. . . . Every branch that beareth fruit, He will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit." (10) St. Thomas writes on this subject: "In order that the just who bear fruit, may bear still more, God frequently cuts away in them whatever is superfluous. He purifies them by sending them tribulations and permitting temptations in the midst of which they show themselves more generous and stronger. No one is so pure in this life that he no longer needs to be more and more purified." (11) These are the passive purifications of which St. John of the Cross spoke at great length.
We are concerned here with what is required to attain the summit of the normal development of charity. When we use the term "summit," we must not forget the word "normal"; and inversely, when we use the word "normal," we should not forget the word "summit." Frequently the term "normal" is applied to the state at which Christians as a rule actually arrive, and not sufficient attention is given to inquiring to what state they ought truly to reach if they were entirely faithful. Because the generality of Christian souls do not here on earth actually reach the stage of living in an almost continual union with God, we should not declare that this union is beyond the summit of the normal development of charity. We should not confound what ought to be or should be with what actually is: otherwise we would be led to declare that true virtue is not possible on earth, for, as a matter of fact, the majority of men pursue a useful or delectable good, such as money and earthly satisfactions, rather than virtuous good, the object of virtue.
In a society which is declining and returning to paganism, a number take as their rule of conduct, not duty, the obligatory good, which would demand too great effort in an environment where everything leads one to descend, but the lesser evil. They follow the current according to the law of the least effort. Not only do they tolerate this lesser evil, but they do it, and frequently they support it with their recommendations in order to keep their positions. They claim that they thus avoid a greater evil which others would do in their place if, ceasing to please, they should lose their situation or their command. And so saying, instead of helping others to reascend they assist them in descending, trying only to moderate the fall. How many statesmen and politicians have come to this pass! A somewhat similar condition exists in the spiritual life.
At this point we are seeking to learn what should be the full normal development of charity, and not the level which this virtue as a general rule actually reaches in good Christians. To achieve our end, we must remember that the fundamental law of the normal development of charity is quite different from that of our fallen nature. While our nature, in so far as it remains wounded even after baptism, inclines us to weaken and to descend, grace, which regenerates us progressively, ever leads us to ascend and should finally "spring forth into eternal life" according to the words of Christ.
There is in our lives a light and shade that is at times striking. St. Paul often speaks of it when he opposes the flesh to the spirit, the light of God to the shades of death which would like to recapture us: "Walk in the spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh (which here stands for wounded nature) lusteth against the spirit: and the spirit against the flesh; for these are contrary one to another." (12) "Spirit" in this case means the spirit of the new man enlightened and fortified by the Holy Ghost.(13) Even in the baptized, concupiscence and many tendencies to sensuality, to vanity, and to pride remain. The love of God, which is in us, is still far from being victorious over all egoism, all self-love. A profound purification is then necessary; not only that which we must impose on ourselves, and which is called mortification, but that which God imposes when, according to Christ's expression, He wishes to prune, to trim the branches of the vine, that they may bring forth more fruit.
St. John of the Cross has shown this admirably. At the beginning of the prologue of The Ascent of Mount Carmel he writes: "The dark night, through which the soul passes on its way to the divine light of the perfect union of the love of God, so far as it is possible in this life, requires for its explanation greater experience and light of knowledge than I possess. For so great are the trials, and so profound the darkness, spiritual as well as corporal, through which souls must pass if they will attain to perfection, that no human learning can explain them, nor experience describe them. He only who has passed through them can know them." The branch which God trims or prunes is not only a living but a conscious branch. To know the nature of this pruning, which is similar to that of a tree, one must have experienced it. Each one must carry his cross, and only after having borne it with love does he know clearly what the cross is.
Not without suffering indeed, is complete victory obtained over egoism, sensuality, laziness, impatience, jealousy, envy, injustice in judgment, self-love, foolish pretensions, and also self-seeking in piety, the immoderate desire of consolations, intellectual and spiritual pride, all that is opposed to the spirit of faith and to confidence in God, that a man may succeed in loving the Lord perfectly, with his whole heart, with his whole soul, with all his strength, and with all his mind, and his neighbor (enemies included) as himself.(14) Great firmness, patience, and longanimity are also needed to persevere in charity, whatever may happen, when the words of the Apostle are verified: "And all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." (15)
We should not, therefore, be surprised that, when St. John of the Cross describes the road which leads most surely and most rapidly to the full perfection of Christian life, he declares that a soul could not reach it without undergoing the passive purification of the senses, which, in his opinion, marks the entrance into the illuminative way, and the passive purification of the spirit, which is at the threshold of the unitive way (if one understands the unitive way not in a diminished form, but according to its full normal development in the servants of God whom the Church proposes as models).
To show that the active purification which we impose on our
The same master says: "Souls begin to enter the dark (passive) night when God is drawing them out of the state of beginners, which is that of those who meditate on the spiritual road, and is leading them into that of proficients, the state of contemplatives, that, having passed through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the divine union with God." (17)
First of all, the soul is weaned from sensible consolations, which are useful for a time but become an obstacle when sought for themselves. Whence the necessity of the passive purification of the senses, which places the soul in sensible aridity and leads it to a spiritual life that is much more freed from the senses, the imagination, and reasoning. At this point the soul receives, through the gifts of the Holy Ghost, an intuitive knowledge which, despite a painful obscurity, initiates the soul profoundly into the things of God. At times this knowledge makes us penetrate them more deeply in an instant than would meditation over a period of months and years. To resist temptations against chastity or patience -temptations which present themselves rather frequently in this night of the senses there are required at times heroic acts of chastity and patience, which are, however, extremely fruitful.
In the night of the senses there is a striking light and shade. The sensible appetites are cast into obscurity and dryness by the disappearance of sensible graces on which the soul dwelt with an egoistical complacency. But in the midst of this obscurity, the higher faculties begin to be illumined by the light of life, which goes beyond reasoned meditation and leads to a loving and prolonged gaze upon God during prayer.
After treating of this purification, St. John of the Cross says: "The soul began to set out on the way of the spirit, the way of beginners and proficients, which is also called the illuminative way, or the way of infused contemplation." (18) This text is among the most important in all the writings of St. John of the Cross. Farther on we shall consider it again, and see its meaning and import more clearly.
But even after this purification, that the soul may be freed from
the defects of proficients, from the subtle pride which subsists in
them, another purification, that of the spirit, is needed.(19) This
purification is found in far more advanced souls which ardently desire
goodness, but which have too strong a desire that good be done by them
or in their way. They must be purified from every human attachment to
their judgment, to their excessively personal manner of seeing,
willing, acting, from every human attachment to the good works to
which they devote themselves. This purification, if
This purifying trial presents itself under rather varied forms in
the purely contemplative life and in that devoted to the apostolate.
It differs also according as it is intended to lead the soul even here
on earth to lofty perfection, or when it occurs only at the end of
life to help souls to undergo, at least partially, their purgatory
before death while meriting, while growing in love, instead of
undergoing it after death without meriting. The dogma of purgatory
thus confirms the necessity of these passive purifications of the
senses and of the spirit.(20)
We shall, farther on, discuss this matter at greater length.(21) But what we have just said was necessary in order not to diminish the loftiness of the full normal development of Christian life. This summit, attainable here on earth, is, as we have seen, the one Christ Himself described at the beginning of His ministry in the evangelical beatitudes, expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. These beatitudes, especially the last one, go beyond the order of simple asceticism; they truly belong to the mystical order, like the passive purifications of which we have just spoken.(22)
This affirmation of St. John of the Cross, that the full perfection of Christian life requires the passive purifications of the senses and the spirit, is fraught with consequences. From this assertion it follows that the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith is in the normal way of sanctity, for, as St. John of the Cross (23) shows, it begins with the passive purification of the senses, in the aridity of the sensible faculties. It is commonly said that the roots of knowledge are bitter and its fruits sweet. As much must be said of the roots and fruits of infused contemplation. It would be a gross error to confound this contemplation with consolations, which do not always accompany it.
No one any longer maintains that the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith is a grace gratis data, like prophecy and the gift of tongues. In the judgment of all, contemplation is attached to the order of sanctifying grace or "the grace of the virtues and gifts," and proceeds from faith illumined by the gifts of understanding and wisdom, from penetrating and savory faith.
Finally, if one cannot merit de condigno the actual efficacious grace of infused contemplation, it does not follow, as a result, that contemplation is not in the normal way of sanctity. Neither can the just man merit the grace of final perseverance (the state of grace at the moment of death, for this state is the very principle of merit); yet the grace of final perseverance is necessary to obtain eternal life. Likewise we cannot merit the efficacious grace which preserves us from mortal sin and keeps us in the state of grace.(24) But these gifts, which the just man cannot merit, may be obtained by humble, trusting, and persevering prayer, for we read in Scripture: "Wherefore I wished, and understanding was given me: and I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came upon me." (25)
It is clear from what we have already said that the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith is morally necessary to full Christian perfection. Since, according to the Vatican Council (Denzinger, 1786), the revelation of the totality of the natural truths of religion is morally necessary that all these truths "may be easily known by all with firm certitude and without admixture of error," likewise very few Christians would reach perfection without infused contemplation, which proceeds from faith enlightened by the gifts. What is more, they would reach only a diminished perfection, and not the full Christian perfection which Christ spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount while preaching the beatitudes. As St. Augustine and St. Thomas say, the beatitudes are, in fact, the highest acts of the Christian virtues perfected by the gifts.(26) The teaching of St. John of the Cross, which we stated above, thus fully conforms to what is said of the beatitudes in the Gospel, and to the way St. Augustine and St. Thomas understood them.
The author of The Imitation likewise says: "There are found so few contemplative persons because there are few that know how to separate themselves entirely from perishable creatures." (27) Here too, as St. Teresa observes, "Many are called but few are chosen." (28)
Moreover, we must not confuse the question, "Is contemplation in the normal way of sanctity?" with the following: "Can all just souls actually attain to contemplation, no matter what their environment, their training, and direction?" Likewise, one should not confuse the question, "Is habitual grace essentially the germ of eternal life?" with this one: "Are all the baptized, at least the majority of them, saved?" or again with the following question: "Are the majority of those who have persevered for some years saved?"
Even if interior souls have good will, they may possibly not have all the generosity necessary to reach full perfection. The expression "full perfection" designates not only the essence but the integrity of perfection. That one may attain it, good training and direction are very useful, although God supplies these for very generous souls.
It should not be forgotten that the call to intimacy with God, like the call to Christian life, may be either general and remote, or individual and proximate. This last, in its turn, may be either sufficient or efficacious, and efficacious in regard either to the inferior degrees or to the highest degrees of union with God.
Lastly, in the works of authors such as St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, distinction must be clearly made, as is customary, between what is a general principle or at least a main conclusion, and what is only an answer to an accidental difficulty. Otherwise, one would confuse what ought to be with what actually is ideal perfection, and what is still far from it.
The loftiness of the end to be attained must not be lessened, but
should be considered as it was set forth for us by Christ when He
preached the beatitudes. As far as the means are concerned, prudence
ought to propose them with the moderation that considers the diverse
conditions in which souls find themselves, and according as they are
among the beginners or the proficients. By so doing, the loftiness of
the end to be attained is safeguarded, and also the realism of a truly
practical direction. The greatness of the end to
be pursued should certainly never be lost sight of.
|1. In this question, as in the preceding one, there
are two deviations. The quietists seriously diminished the importance
of the virtues which are distinct from charity. Quietism, properly so
called, suppressed mortification (which is the exercise of the virtues
of penance, temperance, and patience) and the exercise of the virtues
relating to our neighbor. It fell into a false mysticism, declaring
that a person must remain in obscure faith and pure love, without
giving thanks to God, without addressing prayers of petition to Him, without gaining indulgences, without positively resisting
temptations. Cf. Denzinger, nos. 1232-38, 1241, 1255-75, 1327.
On the other hand, some authors have insisted on the exercise of the virtue of penance, on the interior and exterior acts of worship and those of fraternal charity, to the point of not recognizing in a sufficiently practical way the superiority of the love of God. This misplaced emphasis would lead either to an almost antimystical asceticism or to an excessively exterior apostolic life. It should not be forgotten that the interior life is the soul of the apostolate.
2. Cf. Passerini, O.P., De statibus hominum, in IIa IIae, q. 184, a. I, no. 8: "Actual perfection consists essentially, not alone in the act of charity, but also in the acts of the other virtues governed by charity, in so far as they are of precept."
Ibid., no. 10: "Actual perfection consists especially and principally in charity alone, in so far as charity perfects simply, the other virtues secundum quid. . . . Therefore actual perfection is formally in charity alone, which is the bond of perfection. . . . Nevertheless the other virtues pertain to the essence of perfection, as matter to the essence of a composite nature." Ibid., p. 23, nos. 20 ff.: "The acts of the other virtues, as they are of counsel, are accidents of perfection."
By this distinction between what is of precept and what is of counsel in the virtues inferior to charity, Passerini brings to bear a precision which Cajetan had forgotten (in IIa IIae, q. 184, a. 1), and clearly states the thought of St. Thomas. Cajetan was accustomed to say: "Corrigendi videntur codices."
3. See IIa IIae, q. 184, a. 3: "Primarily and essentially the perfection of the Christian life consists in charity. . . . Secondarily and instrumentally, however, perfection consists in the observance of the counsels."
4. See I Cor. 7: 31. Cf. St. Thomas' Commentary on this Epistle.
5. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q. 184, a.3: "The counsels are directed to
the removal of things that hinder the act of charity and yet are not
contrary to charity, such as marriage, the occupation of worldly
business, and so forth."
7. Therefore we are surprised that Suarez (De statu perfectionis, Bk. I, chapter 4, nos. 11, 12, 20) should have maintained that a high degree of charity is accidentally proper to the perfect; and that it may happen that a man who is holier than another, by reason of the intensity of his charity, may be less perfect than another. Normally this is not the case, but he who is holier may accidentally have temperamental or exterior difficulties which the other has not. Moreover, here it is a question of perfection according to the judgment of God, not according to the judgment of men, who sometimes characterize as humble one who is pusillanimous, and as proud one who is magnanimous, or inversely.
8. PhiI.3:8-20; 4:1.
9. The world contains many lost or sterile crosses, such as that of the bad thief. These crosses could have been fruitful had they been borne with patience and love in union with our Lord, according to the words of St. Paul which we have just quoted: "In the fellowship of His sufferings."
10. John 15: 1 f.
11. See St. Thomas, In Joannem, 15: 1: "'And everyone that
beareth fruit, He will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit.'
In the life of nature it happens that a palm tree having many sprouts
bears less fruit because of the diffusion of the sap to all the
branches. Thus, in order that it may bear more fruit, cultivators trim away its superfluous shoots. So it is in man.
Now, if in a man who is well disposed and united to God, his affection
inclines to diverse things, his virtue decreases and he becomes more
ineffective in doing good. And so it is that God, that the man may
bring forth fruit, frequently cuts away impediments of this type and
purges him, sending tribulations and temptations by which he may be
made stronger for action. Therefore He says: 'He will purge him,' even
if he is pure, because nobody is so pure in this life that he cannot
be more and more purified."
13. Rom. 8:4.
14. Cf. Luke 10:27. Christ even tells us: "This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you" (John 15: 12). When a person truly loves, if the occasion should arise of taking vengeance on an enemy, and he should ask himself: "Is asceticism or mysticism involved here?" the question would seem ridiculous and marked by an unbearable pedantry desirous, at any price, of classifying in one category or another what constitutes the very impulse of life toward God.
15. See II Tim. 3: 12.
16. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk I, chap. 3.
17. Ibid., chap. I.
18. Ibid., chap. 14: "Via iluminaciva o de contemplacion infusa."
20. Cf. ibid., chap. 10. St. John speaks here of souls which "because of their perfect purification by God will not have to pass through purgatory."
According to St. John of the Cross, the full perfection attainable here below, is found only in the transforming union. Cf. The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 22: "For in this state, the soul is no longer molested, either by the devil, or the flesh, or the world, or the desires, seeing that here is fulfilled what is written in the Canticle (2:11 f.): 'Winter is now past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have appeared in our land.' " The soul then, finds a holy joy in suffering in union with our Lord (ibid., stanza 24), all the virtues have reached their perfect development (ibid.) and also the gifts of the Holy Ghost (cf. ibid., stanza 16. and The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. III, chap. I).
21. At the beginning of the third and fourth parts of this work.
22. The passive character of these purifications, as we shall see more clearly in what follows, belongs to an order superior to simple asceticism or the exercise of the virtues according to our own activity. We have treated this question at greater length elsewhere. Cf. Christian Perfection and Contemplation, pp. 146-78, and L'amour de Dieu et la croix de Jesus, II, 458-657.
23. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chap. 9: The three signs of
the passive purification of the senses.
25. Wisd. 7:7.
26. Hardly any Thomists would wish to deny this proposition: "The full normal act of the gift of wisdom cannot be had without infused contemplation, which is properly called infused in so far as it cannot exist without the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost."
27. The Imitation of Christ, Bk. III, chap. 31.
28. The Interior
Castle, fourth mansion, chap. I.