A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The sources of the interior life and its end (cont)


Ch 8: The True Nature of Christian Perfection

So far we have spoken of the sources of the interior life, that is, of sanctifying grace, the infused virtues, the seven gifts, the Blessed Trinity which dwells in us, and the influence which Christ the Redeemer and Mary Mediatrix exert on our souls that we may grow in the love of God. We must now consider the end of the interior life, not, however, its final end, of which we spoke when we said that the interior life is, in a sense, eternal life begun; (1) but the end which may be attained on earth, the Christian perfection that may be realized here below.

We shall see, first of all, the erroneous or incomplete ideas of perfection that have been proposed, then the true nature of Christian perfection. We shall also consider the Christian perfection that is obtainable on earth, comparing it with that of heaven. Then we shall see whether it is a duty or only a counsel for all to tend to it. Next, we shall speak of the different ages of the spiritual life, and then we shall treat of each one separately. Lastly, we shall inquire whether the full perfection of Christian life on earth belongs only to the ascetical order, or whether it truly belongs to the mystical order.


To get an exact idea of the Christian perfection which the Gospel makes known to us and to see its loftiness, we shall not fail to profit by first recalling two other ideas of human perfection that have arisen according as men placed more or less stress on one form or another of their activity.

We may distinguish three principal ideas of human perfection
which always tend to reappear. In antiquity the barbarians made it consist principally in fortitude. The majority of the Greek philosophers thought that it lay principally in wisdom. The Gospel tells us that it is especially in charity, or in the love of God and of our neighbor in God. These three words, fortitude, wisdom, and charity, express the dominant note in these three different conceptions of life. We shall briefly recall the first two by noting the forms they assume among us today; we shall thus better see the loftiness of the third, so much the more so as the first two contain an element of truth which, under the influence of charity, may take on great value.

The heroes of barbarian races made the perfection of man consist above all in fortitude, courage, bravery, as their legends, particularly those of the Niebelungen, remind us. The national pride of races would tend at times to bring them back to this ideal. In it is exalted the virtue of fortitude which has as its object difficult things that demand great energy and in which man's life is exposed, as in combats. An element of truth is contained in this idea, so much the more so as, in less tragic but painful and rather frequent circumstances, patience, constancy, and longanimity are needed. As St. Thomas, following Aristotle,(2) remarks, it is even more difficult thus to hold out, to endure for a long time, to remain firm in the midst of difficulties and blows, than it is to attack in a moment of enthusiasm. To make human perfection consist above all in fortitude, is the idea of a warrior, a soldier, an explorer, or an aviator. Often not a little pride and at times injustice is mingled in it. This idea, moreover, certainly does not suffice to put man in his true place in regard to God and his neighbor.

Some ardent souls transpose this notion into the supernatural order by purifying it, and they conceive of the Christian chiefly as a soldier of Christ, for St. Paul says: "Take unto you the armor of God that you may be able to resist in the evil day and to stand in all things perfect. Stand, therefore, . . . having on the breastplate of justice . . . taking the shield of faith, wherewith you may be able to extinguish all the fiery darts of the most wicked one." (3) From this point of view, all the grandeur of martyrdom may be easily conceived.

But does its true grandeur come especially from the fact that it is an act of fortitude? Does it not rather derive, as St. Thomas says,(4) from the fact that martyrdom is the incontestable and striking sign of great charity? The three centuries of persecution of the early Church were certainly centuries of courage, of heroic fortitude, but even more, centuries of love of God. Surely this is what distinguishes the Christian martyrs from the heroes of paganism.

From a point of view somewhat similar to that we have just discussed, some persons seem to place perfection especially in austerity, fasts, vigils, and other difficult things. This evaluation may be understood in a favorable sense in a religious order particularly vowed to prayer and immolation, or to reparation, which is a manifest sign of an ardent love of God, of real zeal. Care must be taken, however, not to place a value on austerity as such, as if it were, not a means of advancement and reparation, but an end. Were this true, the most perfect religious life would be the most austere, the most difficult, and not that life which would have the best end and the means most adapted to that end. (5) Is what is arduous especially the proper object of virtue? This object is rather the good. Not every difficult act is morally good; at times it is a rash feat of strength. And if the good is often difficult, it is not always so. Some acts of love of God and of our neighbor are accomplished without difficulty, with a great supernatural impulse, and are manifestly very meritorious since they proceed from great charity.

Can fortitude be the highest virtue? For the soldier as such it may be the most necessary virtue; bravery may be the perfection of the soldier. But is it the perfection of man as man, and of a Christian as a Christian? Theology answers that fortitude and patience are virtues necessary and indispensable to perfection. Above them, however, there is justice in regard to others; there is prudence, which directs all the moral virtues; and there are especially the theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity), which have God as their immediate object. This explains why martyrdom, which is an act of the virtue of fortitude, draws its grandeur chiefly from the fact that it is the sign of a great love of God.

We cannot, therefore, admit that the perfection of man and of the Christian consists chiefly in fortitude or in patience, necessary as these virtues are. Fortitude is evidently not the perfection of our intellect in regard to supreme truth, or that of our will in regard to sovereign good; it is merely virtue that represses fear in the midst of difficulties and dangers in order that we may follow right reason.

If perfect on does not consist primarily in fortitude, does it consist chiefly in wisdom? The majority of the Greek philosophers thought so. According to them, man is distinguished from lower beings by his intellect, and therefore the perfection of man as such is chiefly the perfection of his intellect, that is, the wisdom or eminent knowledge of all things by their supreme cause and last end. Perfection would thus lie in the knowledge or contemplation of the sovereign good, and in the love which springs from this knowledge. Plato, among others, even thought that it suffices to know the sovereign good in order to love it efficaciously above all, and that virtue is a science. As Aristotle (6) remarks, this opinion did not take sufficient account of man's free will, which can deviate in spite of the knowledge of the duty to be accomplished. Nevertheless Aristotle himself placed the perfection of man in wisdom accompanied by the virtues which are subordinate to it: that is, prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Wisdom, like prudence which it dominates, is, of a certainty, indispensable to perfection and to the conduct of life; but we cannot say that speculative knowledge of God, the sovereign Good, is necessarily followed by the love of God. A philosopher with a powerful intellect, though he has a correct idea of God, First Cause of the universe and Last End, may not be a good man, a man of good will. At times he may be even a very bad man. That which is true is the good of the intellect, but it is not the good of the entire man, not the whole good of man.(7)

Learning can exist without the love of God and of one's neighbor. When it does, as St. Paul says, it produces the inflation of pride by making us live for ourselves and not for God. The perfection of a professor or of a doctor, as such, is not the perfection of man as man, or of a Christian as a Christian. A good professor who teaches the humanities or the elements of philosophy with distinction is not always a good man. We should not confound the perfection of the speculative intellect with that of the entire man. The latter requires the profound rectification of the will in regard to our last end. The will is the faculty that must be directed toward the good of the entire subject, of the entire man, and not toward the good merely of the intellect.(8) Aristotle made this observation,(9) but it was easier to think it than to live it.

Lastly, is not the love of God here on earth superior to the knowledge of God? Knowledge draws God, in a sense, toward us by imposing on Him in a certain manner the limits of our circumscribed ideas, whereas the love of God draws us toward Him and makes us love in Him what we cannot know precisely, for we are sure that His inner life, which is hidden from us, is infinitely lovable.(10)

The conception of the Greek philosophers, which makes perfection consist in wisdom, is found again today mingled with many errors in those who put intellectual culture above everything else, and also in the theosophists, for whom perfection lies in "a consciousness of our identity with God," in the intuition of what is divine in us. (11)

Far from putting the creature in his humble place beneath the Creator, theosophy presupposes pantheism, which is the negation of the order of grace and of all Christian dogmas, although it often preserves the terms of Christianity while giving them an entirely different meaning. (If a man becomes involved in theosophy, he may find himself enmeshed body and soul.) A most perfidious imitation and corruption of our asceticism and mysticism, theosophy is a product of the imagination in which God and the world are confounded, and in which we find, as we do in a novelty store, all sorts of antiques which attract our curiosity and turn our souls away from divine truth and eternal life. This heresy reminds us of the bewitching foolishness which darkens the intellect, as the Book of Wisdom says: "For the bewitching of vanity obscureth good things"(12)

While keeping themselves free from similar aberrations, some Christians, who have a quietist tendency, are inclined to think that a person can rapidly reach perfection by the assiduous reading of the great mystics, without concerning himself enough about practicing the virtues which these books recommend, and without remembering sufficiently that true contemplation should be completely penetrated by supernatural charity and forgetfulness of self.

Farther on we shall see that contemplation, which is an act of the intellect, is not what chiefly constitutes perfection. As will be made evident, perfection lies in union with God through charity. The loving contemplation of God is, so to speak, a means conjoined to this end; it disposes us immediately to union with God. The end toward which we must tend is not contemplation, but God Himself to be loved above all.

From all that we have just said, it follows that perfection indubitably requires fortitude, patience, abnegation, and also wisdom; indeed, all the theological and moral virtues accompanied by the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost are necessary. Does it follow that perfection consists in the ensemble of the virtues? In a sense it does, but on condition that this ensemble be ordered like an organism and that among the virtues there be one which dominates all the others, inspires, commands, animates, vivifies them, and makes all their efforts converge toward the supreme end. Is it not, then, in this supreme virtue in which all the other virtues ought to meet, that perfection chiefly consists? What is this supreme virtue?


We shall see what answer Christian revelation gives to the question just stated. In the Gospel, on several different occasions and under the most varied forms, Christ incessantly reminds us that the Supreme precept dominating all others and all the counsels is the precept of love, which had already been formulated in the Old Testament: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind: and thy neighbor as thyself." (13) This precept is superior to the ideal of the dominating fortitude of heroes and also to the Greek philosophers' ideal of speculative wisdom. In Christ's command is a fortitude of another order and a wisdom both much more realistic and far loftier. St. Paul explains this doctrine of our Savior when he writes to the Colossians (3:12-15): "Put ye on therefore, as the elect of God, holy, and beloved, the bowels of mercy, benignity, humility, modesty, patience: bearing with one another, and forgiving one another. . . even as the Lord hath forgiven you . . . but above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ rejoice in your hearts, wherein also you are called in one body: and be ye thankful"

Charity is the bond of perfection because it is the highest of the virtues which unites our soul to God. It ought to last forever, and it vivifies all the other virtues by rendering their acts meritorious, ordaining them to the last end, that is, to its object: God loved above all else. Thus St. Paul is so convinced of this superiority of charity over all the other virtues, over the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, and over the graces gratis datae, such as prophecy, that he writes:
"If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing." (14)

Without charity, the most excellent extraordinary gifts (charismata) are of no avail for eternal life. Why is this? Because if I do not have charity, I do not fulfill the first commandment of God; I do not conform my will to His; I am turned away from Him, and my heart is set in the opposite direction from the heart of God. Therefore, "if I have not charity, I am nothing" personally in the order of salvation; I merit nothing, even though by preaching and miracles I should lead others to save their souls. With this meaning, St. Augustine says: "Love and do what you wish," and what you will do, will merit eternal life for you, if you truly love your God more than yourself. Still more, we must have true charity, for there is nothing worse than the false, which has nothing in common with genuine charity except the name.

True charity, as opposed to false charity, implies all the virtues that are subordinate to it and that, from this point of view, appear as so many modalities or aspects of the love of God and of one's neighbor. This is why St. Paul says: "Charity is patient, is kind: charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely, is not puffed up, is not ambitious, seeketh not her own; is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." (16)

As a matter of fact, if after losing charity, we recover it by absolution, we receive with it all the infused moral virtues that are subordinate to it: Christian prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, and the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost. To this we must add with St. Paul: "Charity never falleth away: whether prophecies shall be made void or tongues shall cease or knowledge shall be destroyed. . . . We see now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. . . . And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity." (17) Faith will disappear to give place to vision, hope to possession, but charity will last eternally.

By charity we become the temples of the Holy Ghost: "The charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost, who is given to us." (18) Lastly, the more we love God, the more we know Him by that entirely supernatural, quasi-experimental knowledge that is divine wisdom. This is what made St. Paul say to the Ephesians (3: 17-19): "Being rooted and founded in charity, you may be able to comprehend with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth: to know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge; that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God."

St. Paul is speaking here not only to privileged souls, but to all the faithful. After meditating at length on these words in the presence of God, can we say that the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith is not in the normal way of sanctity? Care must be taken before formulating a negative proposition of this sort, for we must remember that reality, especially the reality of the interior life such as it is willed by God, is richer than even the best of all our theories. Philosophical and theological systems are often true in what they affirm and false in what they deny. Why is this? Because reality, as God made it, is far richer than all our limited and narrow conceptions.

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in our philosophy." (19)

To deny this would be to lose the meaning of the mystery, which is identified with contemplation. To deny it would be to impoverish singularly the words of St. Paul which we have just quoted: "Being rooted and founded in charity, you may be able to comprehend, with all the saints," that is, with all Christians who reach perfection, "what is the breadth and length and height and depth" of the mystery of Christ. . . especially of His love, and "that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God." (20)

St. John gives us the same doctrine, particularly in his First Epistle (4: 16-21): "God is charity: and he that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him. . . . And this commandment we have from God, that he who loveth God love also his brother." Likewise St. Peter writes in his First Epistle (4: 8): "But before all things have a constant mutual charity among yourselves: for charity covereth a multitude of sins." Christ said of Magdalen: "Many sins are forgiven her, because he hath loved much." (21) . . .

According to this doctrine, perfection does not consist chiefly in humility, nor does it consist especially in poverty, nor in acts of worship or of the virtue of religion, but it lies primarily in the love of God and of one's neighbor, which renders the acts of all the other virtues meritorious. "Poverty itself," says St. Thomas, "is not perfection, but the means of perfection. . . . But since the means are sought not for their own sake, but for the sake of the end, a thing is better, not for being a greater instrument, but for being more adapted to the end. Thus a physician does not heal the more, the more medicine he gives, but the more the medicine is adapted to the disease." (22)

As much must be said of humility, which makes us bow before God that we may with docility receive His influence, which ought to lift us up to Him.(23)

The virtue of religion, which renders to God the worship due Him, is also inferior to the theological virtues; it is meritorious only by reason of the charity that animates it.(24) If we should forget this, we would perhaps become more attentive to worship, to the liturgy, than to God Himself, to the figures rather than to the reality, to the manner in which we ought to say an Our Father or a Credo rather than to the sublime meaning of these prayers: the service of God would take precedence over the love of God. Hence our conclusion is that, according to Christian revelation, charity is "the bond of perfection."



1. Cf. supra, chap. I.

2. See IIa Iae, q. 123, .6: "The principal act of fortitude is endurance, that is, to stand immovable In the midst of dangers rather than to attack them."

3. Eph. 6.13-16.

4. See IIa IIae, q. 124, a. 1-3.

5. Ibid., q.188, a.7 ad 1um; a.8.

6. Consult Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. III, chap. 7; Bk. VII, chap. 11, and the commentary of St. Thomas. See also Ia IIae, Q.58, a.2.

7. See Ia IIae, q.57, a. 1: "Whether the habits of the speculative intellect are virtues?"

8. Ibid., a.4, where St. Thomas shows that prudence, which is a true virtue, presupposes the rightness of the will with regard to the good of the whole man, whereas art and the sciences do not presuppose it. The prudent man is a good man, of whom people simply say that he is good, and not only a good painter, a good architect, a good physician, a good mathematician.

9. Ethics, Bk. VI, chap. 5: How prudence, which is truly a virtue, is distinct from art.

10. See Ia, q. 82, a. 3: "The love of God is better than the knowledge of God."

11. Cf. P. Mainage, O.P., Les principes de la theosophie, 1922 (ed. Revue des jeunes).

12. Wisd. 4: 12.

13. Luke 10:27; Deut. 6:5.

14. See I Cor. 13: 1-3.

15. There exists, in fact, a false charity, made up of culpable indulgence, of weakness, such as the meelmess of those who never clash with anybody because they are afraid of everyone. There is also a false charity, made up of humanitarian sentimentalism, which seeks to have itself approved by true charity and which, by its contact, often taints the true.

One of the chief conflicts of the present day is that which arises between true and false charity. The latter reminds us of the false Christs spoken of in the Gospel; they are more dangerous before they are unmasked than when they make themselves known as the true enemies of the Church. Optimi corruptio pessima, the worst of corruptions is that which attacks what is best in us, the highest of the theological virtues. The apparent good which attracts the sinner is, in fact, so much the more dangerous as it is the counterfeit of a higher good. Such, for example, is the ideal of the pan-Christians, who seek the union of the Churches to the detriment of the faith, which this union presupposes. If, therefore, through stupidity or more or less conscious cowardice, those who should represent true charity approve here and there the dicta of the false, an incalculable evil may result. This evil is at times greater than that done by open persecutors, with whom evidently one can no longer have anything in common.

16. See I Cor. 13:4-7.

17. Ibid., 8, 12 f.

18. Rom. 5:5.

19. Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act I, scene 5.

20. Cf. The Commentary of St. Thomas, In Epist. ad Ephes., 3: 17.

21. Luke 7:47.

22. See IIa IIae, q. 188, a.7 ad 1um.

23. Ibid., q. 161, a.5 ad 1um: "Humility holds the first place, inasmuch as it expels pride (the source of all sin), which God resisteth, and makes man open to receive the influx of divine grace. . . .In this sense, humility is said to be the foundation of the spiritual edifice." (It is inferior to the theological virtues which unite us to God.)

24. The virtue of religion has for its immediate object, not God Himself but the worship which is due to God. This is why it is not a theological virtue, but is inferior to the theological virtues. Cf. Summa, IIa IIae, q.81, a.5.