"If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome." Matt. 6:
The superior faculties of man, which he has in common with the angels,
are the intellect and will. They, too, need to be purified and
disciplined, for they suffer from a disorder which is the consequence
of original sin and of our personal sins.
The first gaze of the
intellect of the baptized infant is simple; the same is true of a soul
that begins to respond generously to a higher vocation. But it may
happen that in time this gaze loses its simplicity through the
complexity of the things it examines with a heart that is more or less
pure. Then a serious purification is needed in order to recover the
first simplicity of the intellect by a profound view which dominates
the details and inevitable griefs, in order to embrace life as a
whole. Happy the old people who after long experience and many trials
reach this superior simplicity of true wisdom, which they had glimpsed
from a distance in their childhood! With this meaning it can be said
that a beautiful life is a thought of youth realized in maturity.
shall discuss here: (I) the necessity of the active purification of
the intellect because of the defects found in it; (2) the active
principle of this purification and what must be put into practice on
THE NECESSITY OF THIS PURIFICATION: THE DEFECTS
OF OUR INTELLECT
Since the commission of original sin, man's
intellect is wounded. This wound is called that of ignorance; (1)
because of it, the intellect, instead of inclining spontaneously
toward the true, and especially toward supreme Truth, has difficulty
in attaining it and tends to become absorbed in the consideration of
earthly things without rising to their cause. It is inclined with
curiosity toward ephemeral things and, on the other hand, it is
negligent and slothful in the search for our true last end and the
means leading to it. Consequently the intellect easily falls into
error, lets itself be darkened by the prejudices which come from
inordinate passions. It may finally reach the state that is called
Doubtless, original sin did not render our
intellect incapable of knowing the truth, as the first Protestants and
the Jansenists held. By patient effort, it can even acquire, without
the help of revelation, the knowledge of a certain number of
fundamental truths of the natural order, such as the existence of God,
Author of the natural moral law. But, as the Council of the Vatican
declares,(2) in the terms St. Thomas used,(3) few men are capable of
this labor, and they reach this result only after a considerable
length of time, without succeeding in freeing themselves from all
It is also true that this wound of ignorance, the consequence
of original sin, is in the process of healing from the time of
baptism, which regenerates us by giving us sanctifying grace. This
wound may, however, reopen by reason of our personal sins, especially
by reason of curiosity and intellectual pride, of which we must speak
Curiosity is a defect of our mind, says St. Thomas,(4) which
inclines us with eagerness and precipitation toward the consideration
and study of less useful subjects, making us neglect the things of God
and of our salvation. This curiosity, says the holy doctor,(5) is born
of spiritual sloth in respect to divine things, and makes us lose
precious time. Whereas people who have little learning but are
nourished with the Gospel possess great rectitude of judgment, there
are others who, far from nourishing themselves profoundly with the
great Christian truths, spend a great part of their time carefully
storing up useless, or at least only slightly useful, knowledge which
does not at all form the judgment. They are afflicted with almost a
mania for collecting. Theirs is an accumulation of knowledge
mechanically arranged and unorganized, somewhat as if it were in a
dictionary. This type of work, instead of training the mind, smothers
it, as too much wood smothers a fire. Under this jumble of accumulated
knowledge, they can no longer see the light of the first principles,
which alone could bring order out of all this material and lift up
their souls even to God, the Beginning and End of all things.(6)
This heavy and stupid intellectual curiosity, as St. John of the Cross
says, is in this sense the inverse of contemplation, which judges all
things by the supreme cause. Such curiosity could lead to spiritual
folly of which St. Paul often speaks,(7) to the folly which judges
all, even the highest things, by what is lowest and at times most
contemptible, by the satisfactions of our concupiscence or of our
Spiritual pride is a more serious disorder than curiosity. It
gives us such confidence in our reason and judgment that we are not
very willing to consult others, especially our superiors, or to
enlighten ourselves by the attentive and benevolent examination of
reasons or facts which may be urged against us. This state of mind
leads to manifest imprudent acts that will have to be painfully
expiated. It leads also to asperity in discussions, to stubbornness in
judgment, to disparagement which excludes in a cutting tone all that
does not fit in with our manner of seeing things. This pride may lead
a person to refuse to others the liberty he claims for his own
opinions, and also to submit only very imperfectly to the directions
of the supreme Shepherd, and even to attenuate and minimize dogmas
under the pretext of explaining them better than has been done
These defects, especially pride, may finally lead us to
spiritual blindness, which is the direct opposite of the contemplation
of divine things. It is necessary to insist on this point, as St.
Thomas did,(9) after he treated of the gift of understanding.
Scripture often speaks of this spiritual blindness. Christ was
saddened and angered by the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees,(10)
and finally said to them: "Woe to you blind guides. . . . You tithe
mint and anise and cummin, and have left the weightier things of the
law: judgment and mercy and faith. . . . Blind guides, who strain out
a gnat, and swallow a camel." (11)
In St. John's Gospel (12) we read
that this blindness is a punishment of God, who withdraws light from
such as do not wish to receive it. (13)
There are sinners who, by
reason of repeated sins, no longer recognize the signified will of God
manifested in a striking manner; they no longer understand that the
evils which befall them are punishments of God, and they do not turn
to Him. By natural laws alone, they explain these misfortunes as
things that afflict a number of people at the moment. They see in them
only the result of certain economic factors, such as the development
of machinery and overproduction which results from it. They no longer
take into account that these disorders have above all a moral cause
and come from the fact that many men place their last end where it is
not; not in God who would unite us, but in material goods which divide
us, because they cannot belong simultaneously and integrally to a
Spiritual blindness leads the sinner to prefer in everything
goods that are temporal rather than eternal goods. It prevents him
from hearing the voice of God, which the Church recalls in the liturgy
for Advent and for Lent: "Be converted to Me with all your heart. . .
. Turn to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, patient
and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil" (14)
blindness is a punishment of God which takes away the divine light
because of repeated sins. But there is also a sin by which we
voluntarily turn away from the consideration of divine truth by
preferring to it the knowledge of that which satisfies our
concupiscence of our pride.(15)
We may say of this sin what St.
Thomas says of spiritual folly (stultitia), that it is opposed to the
precepts of the contemplation of truth.(16) It hinders us from seeing
the proximity of death and the judgment.(17) It takes all penetration
away from us and leaves us in a state of spiritual dullness, which is
like the loss of all higher intelligence.(18) Then we no longer see
the grandeur of the supreme precept of the love of God and of our
neighbor, or the value of our Savior's blood shed for us, or the
infinite value of the Mass, which substantially perpetuates on the
altar the sacrifice of the cross.
Such a condition is a
chastisement, and no heed is paid to it. As St. Augustine says: "If,
when a thief stole money, he lost an eye, everybody would say that it
was a punishment of God; you have lost the eye of your mind and you
think that God has not punished you." (19)
It is surprising at times
to find among Christians men who have great literary, artistic, or
scientific culture, but who have merely a rudimentary and superficial
knowledge of the truths of religion, a knowledge mingled with many
prejudices and errors. It is a surprising disproportion, which makes
them, as it were, spiritual dwarfs.
Some others, better instructed
in matters of faith, the history of the Church, and its laws, have a
tendency that is, so to speak, anticontemplative, permitting them to
see the life of the Church only from without, as if they were looking
at the exterior of the windows of a cathedral, instead of seeing them
from within under the soft light which should illumine them.
dullness of mind especially hinders the hearing of the great preaching
of God, who speaks in His own way through great contemporary events.
At the present time, there are in the world two radically
contradictory universal tendencies, over and above the nationalism of
different groups more or less opposed to one another. On the one hand,
we find the universalism of the reign of Christ who wishes to draw the
souls of men of all nations to God, supreme Truth and Life; on the
other hand, we see false universalism, which is called communism,
which draws souls in an inverse sense toward materialism, sensualism,
and pride, in such a manner that the parable of the prodigal son is
verified not only for individuals, but for whole nations, such as
The great problem of today is found in the conflict between
the universalism of the reign of Christ and of the Church, which
liberates souls, and communism, which leads them to materialist
abjection and to the oppression of the weak under the pride of
demagogues and leaders.(20)
In this conflict we must turn to prayer
and penance, no less than to study and apostolic work. This is what
the Blessed Virgin declared at Lourdes: "Pray and do penance."
are the defects of the mind which exist in us in various degrees:
curiosity, rash haste to learn what is useless, indifference,
negligence in regard to the one thing necessary (i.e., God and our
salvation); spiritual pride, blindness, and spiritual folly, which
ends by judging everything by what is lowest and most petty, whereas
wisdom judges everything by the supreme cause and the last end.
remedy this disorder, from which we all suffer in a greater or lesser
THE PRINCIPLE OF THE ACTIVE PURIFICATION OF THE
This purification must be made by the progress of the
virtue of faith, as the purification of the memory, immersed in time,
is made by the growth of the hope of eternal beatitude.
tells us: "To detach itself from transient things and to tend toward
God, the rational creature must first of all have faith in God: faith
is the first principle of the purification of the heart in order to
free us from error, and faith quickened by charity perfects this
purification." (21) The intellect, which directs the will, must itself
be thus purified; (22) otherwise the root of the will would be
corrupted or deflected, mingled with error.
This purification is
accomplished by judging more and more according to the spirit of
faith. As Cajetan (23) remarks, faith leads us first of all to adhere
to revealed truths because of the authority of God who reveals them;
then it leads us to consider and to judge all things according to
these truths. This is true even of him who, in the state of mortal
sin, has kept faith by which he is preserved from graver sins, such as
theft and murder; and by reason of faith he judges that he must go to
Mass and not refuse to listen to the word of God. These various
judgments may be made without the, gifts of the Holy Ghost, which are
not in a man in mortal sin; but without the gifts these judgments do
not have all the perfection they should. In the just man they receive
this perfection from the gifts; then they are produced in a different
manner, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Thus the gift of
wisdom leads us to judge according to a certain connaturality or
sympathy with divine things. This is the opinion of Cajetan, and many
theologians adopt almost the same terms.
Not only must we adhere
firmly to the truths of faith, but according to them we must judge
what we are to think, say, do, or avoid in life. Then we judge
according to the spirit of faith, and not according to the spirit of
nature or practical naturalism.
St. John of the Cross tells us that
obscure faith enlightens us.(24) It is obscure because it makes us
adhere to mysteries we do not see; but these mysteries, which are
those of the inner life of God, greatly illumine our intellect, since
they do not cease to express to us the goodness of God, who created
us, raised us to the life of grace, sent His only Son to redeem us,
His Son who gives Himself to us in the Eucharist in order to lead us
to eternal life.
Faith is obscure, but it illumines our intellect in
our journey toward eternity. It is very superior to the senses and to
reason; it is the proximate means of union with God, whom it makes us
know infallibly and supernaturally in obscurity.(25)
Faith is very
superior to all the sensible and intellectual evidences that can be
had on earth. What is evident for our senses, is sensible, not
spiritual; therefore it is not God Himself. What is evident for our
reason, is what is proportioned to it; at times this is a truth about
God, His existence, for example, but it is not the inner life
of God, which surpasses our reason and even the natural powers of the
To see the intimate life of God, a person would
have to die and receive the beatific vision. Now, faith makes us
attain here on earth this inner life of God in the penumbra, in
obscurity. Consequently a man who would prefer visions to infused
faith would deceive himself, even if these visions were of divine
origin, for he would prefer what is superficial and exterior, what is
accessible to our faculties, to what surpasses them. He would prefer
the figures to the divine reality. He would lose the meaning of the
mystery; he would forsake true contemplation by withdrawing from this
Obscure faith enlightens us somewhat like the
night, which, though surrounding us with shadows, allows us to see the
stars, and by them the depths of the firmament. There is here a
mingling of light and shade which is extremely beautiful. That we may
see the stars, the sun must hide, night must begin. Amazingly, in the
obscurity of night we see to a far greater distance than in the day;
we see even the distant stars, which reveal to us the immense expanse
of the heavens.
In the same way, the senses and reason allow us to
see only what belongs to the natural order, only what is within their
reach, whereas faith, although obscure, opens up to us the
supernatural world and its infinite depths, the kingdom of God, His
inner life, which we shall see unveiled and clearly in eternity.
John of the Cross reiterates this teaching, which is like a commentary
on the definition of faith given by St. Paul,(27) a definition which
St. Thomas sums up by saying: "Faith is a habit of the mind whereby
eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is
non-apparent," since it makes us adhere to the mystery of the inner
life of God which we shall see in eternity. (28)
It follows that, to
live by faith, we should consider everything under its light: God,
first of all, then ourselves, others, friends or strangers, and all
agreeable or painful events. We should see them not only from the
sensible, but also from the rational point of view, from the
supernatural point of view of faith, which would be equivalent to
considering all things, so to speak, with the eye of God, or somewhat
as God sees them.(29) Whence the manifest necessity of purifying our
mind of curiosity, by no longer preferring the study of the secondary,
of the subordinate, and sometimes of what is useless to the attentive
meditation of the one thing necessary, to the reading of the Gospel
and of all that can truly nourish the soul. (30) This necessity of the
supernatural point of view shows the importance of spiritual reading
together with study and distinct from it.
Consequently it is of
prime importance not to devour books in order to appear well informed
and to be able to talk about them, but to read what is suitable to the
life of the soul, in a spirit of humility in order to be penetrated
with it, to put it into practice, and to do real good to others.(31)
We may recall with profit what St. Paul says (Rom. 12: 3): "For I say,
by the grace that is given me, to all that are among you, not to be
more wise than it behooveth to be wise, but to be wise unto sobriety."
Therefore we must avoid rash haste in judgment, for this haste
is the source of many errors.(33) We must even more avoid tenacity
(34) in our own judgment, and correct this defect by docility to the
directions of the Church, to those of our spiritual director, and also
to the Holy Spirit, who wishes to be our interior Master that He may
make us live increasingly the life of faith and give us in it a
foretaste of the life of heaven.
If we followed this rule, the
consideration of details would no longer make us lose sight of the
whole, as so often happens, just as trees seen too near hinder one
from seeing the forest. Those who say that the problem of evil cannot
be solved and find in it an occasion of sin, are absorbed in the
woeful verification of certain painful details and lose the general
view of the providential plan in which everything is ordained to the
good of those who love the Lord.
The excessively meticulous study of
details makes us depreciate the first global view of things; when the
latter is pure, however, it is already elevated and salutary. Thus
when a Christian child sees the starry sky, he finds in it a splendid
sign of the infinite grandeur of God. Later on, if he becomes absorbed
in the scientific study of the different constellations, he may forget
the view of the whole, to which the intellect must finally return the
better to comprehend its loftiness and profundity. It has been said
that if a little learning withdraws a person from religion, great
learning brings him back to it.(35)
Likewise the great supernatural
facts which are produced by God to enlighten the simple and to save
them, such as the fact of Lourdes, are rather easily grasped by the
clean of heart. They quickly see the supernatural origin, meaning, and
import of these facts. If this simple, and at the same time superior,
point of view is forgotten because of absorption in the study of
details considered from the material point of view, only an
undecipherable enigma may be found in it, and at times only something
impossible to see through. Then, while learned men discourse endlessly
without being able to reach a conclusion, God does His work in the
clean of heart. Finally, more profound learning, accompanied by
humility, leads back to the original view of the whole in order to
confirm it, and to recognize the action of God and the profound good
done to souls. Thus, after a life consecrated to the study of
philosophy and theology, the soul delights in returning to the
simplicity of faith of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to
the words of the psalms, to the parables of the Gospel. It is the
purification of the intellect which prepares for contemplation.
1. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q.85, a.3.
2. Denzinger, no. 1786. It is said here that it is thanks to divine
revelation that the natural truths of religion can be known by all,
quickly, with a firm certitude, and without any admixture of errors.
3. See Ia, q. 1, a. 1.
4. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 167, a. 1.
5. Ibid., q.35, a.4 ad 3um.
6. St. Thomas, In Epist. I Cor. 8: I, where he discusses the
words, "Knowledge puffeth up," writes: "Here the Apostle does not
approve of much knowledge, if the mode of knowing is ignored.
Moreover, the mode of knowing is that you should know in what order,
with what eagerness, to what end each thing must be known: in what
order, that you should know first that which is more proper for
salvation; with what eagerness, that you should seek with greater
ardor that which is more efficacious to inflame love; to what end,
that you should not wish to know anything for vainglory and curiosity,
but for your own and your neighbor's edification."
See also IIa IIae, q. 166, On the Virtue of Studiousness. St. Thomas
discusses here the virtue of studiousness which represses both vain
curiosity and intellectual sloth in order to lead people to the study
of what should be studied, in the manner in which this should be done,
when it should be done, and for a moral and supernatural end.
Cf. also, IIa IIae, q. 188, a.5 ad 3um, On the Studies Which Are
Suitable for Religious. They should study sacred science: "It becomes
not religious, whose whole life is devoted to the service of God, to
seek for other learning, except so far as it is referred to the sacred
7. Cf. I Cor. 3: 19: "The wisdom of this world is foolishness with
God." Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.46, On Folly. The saint shows that
it is opposed to the gift of wisdom, that it is a sin, and that it is
born especially of lust.
8. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 138, where St. Thomas speaks of the dangers of
obstinacy in a person's own judgment, when he is no longer willing to
listen to authorized counsels given to him.
Pertinacity is found sometimes in certain spiritual people who go
astray. They have zeal, but it is a bitter zeal; they are no longer
willing to listen to the wise advice given them, and they wish to
impose their judgment on everyone as if they alone had the Holy Ghost.
They are inflated with spiritual pride, they fail in charity under the
pretext of reforming everything about them; they may become the
enemies of peace and provoke profound discord. St. John of the Cross,
deploring these errors, used to say: "Where there is not enough love,
put love there, and you will reap love."
9. Cf. IIa IIae, q.15.
10. Mark 3:5.
11. Matt. 23: 16, 23 f.
12. John n:40.
13. Rom. 11:8.
14. Joel 2:12 f.
15. Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q. 15, a. I.
16. Cf. ibid., q.46, a.2 ad 3um: "Folly is opposed to the precepts,
which are given by the contemplation of truth."
17. The Imitation, Bk. I, chap. 23.
18. Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q. 15, a.3.
19. In Ps. 47.
20. Jacques Maritain in his book, Le Docteur Angelique (1929, p. 111),
says: "How can we reconcile two apparently contradictory facts: the
fact that modem history seems to enter on a new Middle Age, in which
the unity and universality of Christian culture will be found again
and extended this time to the entire universe, and the fact that the
general trend of modern civilization seems to draw it toward the
universalism of Antichrist and his rod of iron rather than toward the
universalism of Christ and His liberating law, and in any event to
forbid the hope of the unification of the world in one universal
"My answer is as follows: I think that two immanent movements cross at
every point in the world's history and affect each of its momentary
complexes. One of these movements draws on high everything in the
world which shares in the divine life of the Church, which is in the
world but not of the world, and follows the attraction of Christ, the
head of the human race.
"The other movement draws downward everything in the world which
belongs to the prince of this world, the head of all the wicked. While
undergoing these two internal movements, history advances in time.
Thus human affairs are subjected to an ever stronger distention until
the material finally snaps. Thus the cockle grows with the wheat; the
capital of sin grows throughout the course of history and the capital
of grace also increases and superabounds. . . . Christian heroism will
one day become the only solution for the problems of life. Then as God
proportions His graces to needs, and never tempts anyone beyond his
strength, a flowering of sanctity will without doubt be seen to
coincide with the worst state of human history." The Gospel of St.
Matthew (24: 24) declares: "There shall arise false Christs and false
prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to
deceive (if possible) even the elect"; and in the Apocalypse (chap.
12) we are told that the elect will be preserved during the great
tribulation. Cf. E. B. Allo, O.P., L'Apocalypse de saint Jean
(Paris, 1921), pp. 145 ff. The greatest effort of evil seems to have
to coincide with the last triumph of Christ, as happened during His
life on earth.
21. See IIa IIae, q.7. a.2.
22. Ibid., ad 1um.
23. In IIa IIae, q.45, a.2, no. 3.
24. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk II, chap.11; Faith is a dark
night for the soul.
25. Ibid., Bk. II, chap. 3: The soul must remain in the obscurity of
faith which will guide it to the highest contemplation. Ibid., Bk. II,
chap. 9: "Faith is the sole proximate and proportionate means of the
soul's union with God."
26. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. II, chap. 22; chaps. 10,
27. Heb. 11: 1: "Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the
evidence of things that appear not." "Faith gives us the substance, or
rather is itself that of which the reality does not yet appear," says
St. John Chrysostom.
28. See IIa IIae, q. 4, a. I; De veritate, q. 14, a. 2: "Faith
is in us a certain beginning of eternal life."
29. Cf. St. Thomas, In Boetium de Trinitate, q.3, a. I ad 4.
30. We read in Bk. I, chap. 5 of The Imitation: "All holy Scripture
should be read in the spirit in which it was written. . . . Inquire
not who may have said a thing, but consider what is said. Men pass
away, but the truth of the Lord abideth forever. God speaketh to us in
divers ways, without respect of persons. Our curiosity is often a
hindrance to us in reading the Scriptures, when we wish to understand
and to discuss where we ought to pass on in simplicity. If thou wilt
derive profit, read with humility, with simplicity, and with faith;
and never wish to have the name of learning. Be fond of inquiring and
listen in silence to the words of the saints; and let not the parables
of the ancients be displeasing to thee, for they are not uttered
without a cause."
31. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 167, a. I. See also ibid., q. 166, on the moral
virtue of studiousness or application to study in order to correct the
contrary and at times successive deviations of curiosity and
intellectual sloth. Once curiosity is satisfied, it often gives place
to intellectual sloth in a person who has not the virtue of
studiousness, which orders study not only to our personal
satisfaction, but to God and to the good of souls.
32. St. Thomas, In Epist. I Cor. 8: I, explains the words of St. Paul,
"Knowledge puffeth up; but charity edifieth," by saying: "Knowledge,
if alone and without charity, puffs one up with pride. Add charity to
knowledge, then knowledge will be usefuL" Then he recalls what St.
Bernard says: "There are those who wish to know for the purpose of
knowing a great deal, and this is curiosity; some that they may know,
and this is vanity; some that they may sell their knowledge, and this
is base gain; some that they may be edified, and this is prudence;
some that they may edify, and this is charity."
33. Cf. IIa IIae, q.53, a.3.
34. Ibid., q.138.
35. Much could be said about the first intellectual gaze and its
profound view, whether in the natural order or in the order of
supernatural faith. The first gaze may lead into error if its object
is something accidental and not the proper object of the intellectual
faculty; it is quite otherwise if the object corresponds to the nature
of the intellect. There are two simple beings: the child who does not
yet know evil; and the sanctified old man who has forgotten it by dint
of conquering it. Therefore the old man loves the child and is loved
The intelligible being of sensible things and truth in general are the
object of the first natural gaze of the human intellect; without this
gaze, all knowledge and all philosophy would be impossible.
Metaphysics is the profound view of intelligible being which permits
man to rise in an absolutely certain manner to God, first Being,
supreme Cause, and last End. Likewise all ethics proceed from this
first gaze: "We must do good and avoid evil."
The first gaze in the order of supernatural faith is that which we see
in the patriarchs of the Old Testament; they believe that God is and
that He is the supreme rewarder (Heb. 11:6), and in this case God is
considered not only as the Author of nature, but as the Author of
Likewise the first supernatural gaze, at the time of the coming of our
Savior, after the Sermon on the Mount, is expressed in these words of
St. Matthew (7:28f.): "When Jesus had fully ended these words, the
people were in admiration at His doctrine. For He was teaching them as
one having power, and not as the scribes and Pharisees," who
recapitulated the texts. The first gaze is again that of a child at
Christmas before the Savior's crib. The profound view is that of a
contemplative at the end of his life, that of a St. John, a St.
Augustine, a St. Thomas, a St. John of the Cross.
In the case of a religious also, the first simple and penetrating gaze
is that which he has when he hears the call of God in his youth; this
simple gaze is often more elevated than many of the complications that
will come later. Blessed are they who find it again later on in a
profound view, the view of wisdom on all of life.