PART 4 - The Unitive Way of the Perfect
Ch 43: Heroic and Contemplative
"This is the victory which overcometh the world, our faith." I John 5:4
Since we have studied the heroic degree of the virtues in general, it will be profitable next to consider that of faith and the principal virtues in particular. We shall thus form an accurate idea of perfect Christian life according to the common teaching of the Church. There is no room for discussion in these matters, for they are the great common grounds of sanctity on which all theologians agree.
This description of the signs of the heroic degree of the principal virtues may be very useful in the beatification of the servants of God. A knowledge of these signs will also make clear why in these causes the Church does not seek to establish whether the servants of God in question had infused contemplation under a more or less determined form; it is sufficient to see that they had heroic faith, the signs of which we shall examine, since in them are often visible the fruits of contemplation, which makes such souls live in an almost continual conversation with God.
Heroic faith is not only the living faith, vivified by charity, which is found in all the just; it is eminent faith which has for its principal characters firmness of adherence to the most obscure mysteries, promptness in the rejection of error, penetration, which makes it contemplate all things in the light of divine revelation, while living profoundly by revealed mysteries.(1) Thereby it is victorious over the spirit of the world, as is evident especially in times of persecution.(2)
When we spoke of the passive purification of the spirit, we saw that faith must be very firm to overcome the strong temptations which then present themselves. We stated,(3) on the one hand, that during this painful period the gift of understanding vividly enlightens the soul on the grandeur of the divine perfections, on infinite justice, as well as on the gratuitous character of the favors of mercy toward the elect. In consequence the soul asks itself how infinite justice can be intimately harmonized with infinite mercy. On the other hand, the devil tells it that infinite justice is excessively rigorous and that mercy is arbitrary. But the faithful soul, which is purified in this crucible, rises above these temptations, and divine grace convinces it that the darkness found in these mysteries comes from a light too great for the weak eyes of the spirit. Hence, in spite of the fluctuations of the lower part of the intellect, at its summit faith not only remains firm but daily grows stronger. In this darkness it rises toward the heights of God, just as at night we glimpse the heights of the firmament, which remain invisible during the day.
This firmness of faith then manifests itself more and more by love for the word of God contained in Holy Scripture, by the cult of tradition preserved in the writings of the fathers, by perfect adherence to even the most minute details of the doctrine proposed by the Church, by docility to the directions of the supreme shepherd, the vicar of Jesus Christ. This firmness of faith appears especially in the martyrs, and also, during great conflicts of opinion, in those who, far from vacillating, are capable of sacrificing their selflove in order to keep immutably to the right road.
In the practical order, this firmness of perfect faith is also evident when the servants of God, faced with the most painful and unforeseen events, are not astonished at the unsearchable ways of Providence, disconcerting to reason. Of this firm faith Abraham gave evidence when he prepared to sacrifice is son Isaac, in spite of the fact that God Himself had promised him that from this Son was to spring his posterity, the multitude of believers. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Paul says: "By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son. . . . Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. Whereupon also he received him." (4) This was a remote figure of the sacrifice of Christ.
This heroic obedience emanated from heroic faith. In the practical affairs of daily life as well as in the mysteries which we must believe, the obscurity of certain ways of God comes from a light too strong for our weak eyes. So in the life of Christ, His passion was at one and the same time the darkest hour, considered from a worldly point of view, and the most luminous from a spiritual point of view. This is what made St. Philip Neri say with admirable firmness of faith: "I thank Thee, Lord God, with all my heart that things are not going as I wish, but as Thou dost." In Isaias the Lord says: "My thoughts are not your thoughts: nor your ways My ways." (5) These words are sometimes quoted to emphasize the disconcerting character of certain ways of God; but in this passage of Isaias, it is a question especially of the divine mercy which comes to us in these astounding ways. In the same chapter the Lord says: "All you that thirst, come to the waters. . . . Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unjust man his thoughts, and let him return to the Lord, and He will have mercy on him, and to our God; for He is bountiful to forgive. . . . And as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and return no more thither, but soak the earth, . . . so shall My word be, which shall go forth from My mouth. It shall not return to Me void, but it shall do whatsoever I please. . . . For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace." (6) The firmness of the faith of the true servants of God makes them see, but a little indistinctly, that the most disconcerting trials are directed by Providence to their sanctification, their salvation, and that of many souls.
Heroic and contemplative faith is characterized not only by firmness in adherence, but by promptness in rejecting error. It not only immediately spurns the false maxims of the world that cloak themselves in deceiving formulas, but it quickly perceives errors that are small in appearance, but that may become the cause of a great deviation; a slight deviation at the summit of an angle becomes great when its sides are prolonged. Thus, for example, when Jansenism was leading some theologians astray, St. Vincent de Paul, through his great spirit of faith, immediately grasped the error of this doctrine, so opposed to the divine mercy, which kept the faithful away from Holy Communion. He denounced this error to Rome through love for the word of God, which it altered, and for souls, which it was leading astray.
Promptness in rejecting every source of deviation is shown in the practical order by the way a person makes his confession, that is, without routine, with a clear view of his sins, and perfect sincerity that avoids every attenuation, as if he were reading in the book of life, which will be open to his gaze after death.
Promptness of faith in rejecting error causes the servants of God great suffering when they see souls being lost. After disciplining himself for those to whom he was to preach, St. Dominic used often to say in his nocturnal prayers: "O my God, what will become of sinners? "
Thence is born great zeal for the propagation of the faith in the missions and in countries where faith was once alive but now is lamentably declining. This zeal is ardent but not bitter or harsh; it manifests itself chiefly by fervent and almost continual prayer, which should be the soul of the apostolate.
Perfect faith makes the soul see everything in the light of Scripture and, as it were, with the eye of God. Possessed of this degree of faith, it sees with increasing clearness all that has been revealed about the majesty of God, the divine perfections, the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity, the redeeming Incarnation, the intimate life of the Church, and eternal life. Under the same supernatural light with increasing clarity the soul sees itself, its qualities, and its weaknesses, and also the value of graces received. Similarly, in peace it considers other souls, their frailty and their generosity; hence it judges agreeable or painful events in relation to the end of our journey toward eternity. Judgment rises above sensible things and above the purely rational aspect of these events in order to attain though indistinctly, God's supernatural plan.
St. Catherine of Siena often insists on this point in her Dialogue. Speaking of the perfect, the Lord says there:
The perfect soul thus attains to a penetrating faith, which enters the depths of the mystery of Christ, of the Son of God made man and crucified for our salvation. We read on this subject in the same Dialogue: "Such as these follow the Immaculate Lamb, My onlybegotten Son, who was both blessed and sorrowful on the cross. He was sorrowful in that He bore the cross of the body, suffering pain and the cross of desire, in order to satisfy for the guilt of the human race, and He was blessed because the divine nature, though united with the human, could suffer no pain, but always kept His soul in a state of blessedness, being revealed without a veil to her." (10) Likewise, says St. Catherine of Siena, the intimate friends of the Lord Jesus suffer at the sight of sin, which offends God and ravages souls, but they are happy at the same time because no one can take away their charity, which constitutes their happiness and beatitude. Thus to the gaze of the servants of God there appear more clearly the infinite value of the Mass, the worth of the real presence of our Savior in the tabernacle, the grandeur of the intimate life of the Church, which lives by the thought, the love, the will of Christ. Everything takes on a true value in the liturgy, which is like the song of the Spouse accompanying the great prayer of Christ, perpetuated by the sacrifice of our altars.
This penetrating and contemplative faith leads man to rejoice in the triumphs of the Church, to see in men not rivals or indifferent persons, but brothers bought by the blood of Christ, members of His mystical body. St. Vincent de Paul, going to the assistance of abandoned children or of prisoners condemned to the galleys, had a high degree of contemplative faith which inspired his whole apostolate.
Perfect faith leads the just man always to base his decisions not on human but on supernatural motives. It gives life a superior radiant simplicity, which is like the reflection of the divine simplicity. Sometimes it shines forth on the countenances of the saints, which are as if illumined by a celestial light. One day St. Dominic, all unsuspecting, escaped an ambush prepared by his adversaries to bring about his death. When those who were awaiting him in a lonely place in order to kill him, saw him approaching, they were so struck by the light illuminating his countenance that they did not dare to lay hands on him. St. Dominic was thus saved, as someone has said, by his contemplation, which radiated over his features; and with him was saved the Order he was to found.
St. John writes in his First Epistle: "Whatsoever is born of God overcometh the world. And this is the victory which overcometh the world, our faith. Who is he that overcometh the world, but he that believeth that Jesus is the Son of God?" (11)
The victory of heroic faith appears even in the Old Testament, as St. Paul says: "By faith, Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac. . . . By faith also of things to come, Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau. By faith Jacob dying, blessed each of -the sons of Joseph. . . By faith he [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the fierceness of th king: for he endured as seeing Him that is invisible. . . . By faith they [the Israelites] passed through the Red Sea. . . . The prophets . . . by faith conquered kingdoms, wrought justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions [like Daniel], quenched the violence of fire [like the three children in the furnace]. . . . They were stoned, they were cut asunder, they were tempted, they were put to death by the sword. . . being in want, distressed, afflicted: of whom the world was not worthy." (12) This is what makes St. Paul say in the same epistle: "And therefore, . . . let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us: looking on Jesus, . . . who having joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God. . . . For you have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin." (13)
The numerous martyrs who have died in Spain since July, 1936, gave our Lord this testimony of blood; they won the victory of heroic faith over the spirit of the world or the spirit of evil. Without going as far as the shedding of blood, this victory is won by the faith of all the saints: in the last century by that of the Cure of Ars, Don Bosco, St. Joseph Cottolengo, and nearer our day by that of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, and of many very generous souls whose names we do not know, but whose oblation ascends toward God like the sweet odor of incense. "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy." (14) In this way souls are configured to Christ: first of all, to His childhood, then to His hidden life, in a measure to His apostolic life, and finally to His sorrowful life, before sharing in His glorious life in heaven.
1. Firmness in adherence comes from infused faith itself; promptness in rejecting error and penetration come especially from the gift of understanding, so far as it perfects faith. Cf. IIa IIae, q.8, a.1, 3.
2. Cf. Philip of the Blessed Trinity, Summa theol. mysticae (ed. 1874), III, 132 ff.
3. Cf. chap. 39.
4. Heb. 11:17, 19.
5. Isa. 55:8.
6. Isa. 55: 1,7, 10-12.
7. The Dialogue, chap. 99.
8. Ibid., chap. 100.
9. Ibid., chap. 85.
10. Ibid., chap. 78.
11. Cf. I John 5:4 f.
12. Heb. 11:17-38.
13. Heb. 12:1-4.
14. Ps. 125:5.