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 (cont)


The scriptural teaching which we have just recalled assumes a more precise form in the doctrinal body of theology. Relying on the Scriptures, St. Thomas easily establishes the fact that Christian perfection consists especially in charity. "A thing is said to be perfect," he says, "in so far as it attains its proper end, which is the ultimate perfection thereof. Now it is charity that unites us to God, who is the last end of the human mind, since 'he that abideth in charity abideth in God, and God in him' (I John 4: 16). Therefore the perfection of the Christian life consists chiefly in charity." (25)

Infused faith and hope could evidently not be that in which perfection chiefly consists, for they can exist in the state of mortal sin, in a man whose will is turned away from God, his last end. They remain in him like the root of a tree which has been cut down and can revive. Not every mortal sin, in fact, makes a man lose faith and hope, but only a mortal sin that is directly contrary to these virtues. When the sinner who continues to believe and who still hopes, recovers charity, it revivifies faith and hope, and renders their acts not only salutary but meritorious, by ordaining them to God efficaciously loved above all else. St. Thomas adds farther on: "Primarily and essentially, the perfection of the Christian life consists in charity, principally as to the love of God, secondarily as to the love of our neighbor, both of which are the matter of the chief commandments of the divine law. . . . Secondarily and instrumentally, however, perfection consists in the observance of the counsels." (26) The great sign of the love of God is precisely love of one's neighbor. Christ Himself says so, and we cannot insist too strongly on this point: "A new commandment I give unto you: That you love one another, as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for another." (27) This love of our neighbor is the great sign of the progress of the love of God in our hearts, so much so that St. John adds: "He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now." (28) "We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love the brethren. . . . Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer." (29)

Farther on we shall speak of the counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience; but even now it is clear that they are subordinate to charity, to the love of God and of one's neighbor in God.

We should like to insist here on two points that show the difference between Christian perfection on earth and perfection in heaven.


Some intellectuals raise an objection to the traditional doctrine, based on Scripture, according to which perfection consists primarily in charity. They ask whether the intellect is not the first faculty of man, the one which directs the others and which primarily distinguishes us from the animal. Since this is true, they say, should we not then conclude that the perfection of man lies chiefly in the intellectual knowledge that he can have of all things, considered in their principle and in their end, and therefore in the knowledge of God, the supreme rule of human life? From this point of view, a Bossuet may seem to surpass a number of canonized servants of God who did not particularly excel in intelligence, as for example, a holy lay brother or a St. Benedict Joseph Labre.

We have already virtually cleared up this objection by pointing out in one of our previous chapters that speculative and abstract knowledge of God can exist without being accompanied by profound righteousness of the will. It may exist in a very intelligent but heartless man, who could not be called "a man of good will" in the meaning given to this term by the Gospel. For the same reason, infused faith can remain in a soul that has lost charity and has turned away from God. Moreover, we said with St. Thomas, that on earth the love of God is better than the knowledge of God.(30) It is important to insist on this point. St. Thomas clearly recognizes that the intellect is superior to the will which it directs. The intellect has, in fact a more simple, more absolute, more universal object, being in all its universality, and consequently all beings; the will has a more restricted object, the good, which is a modality of being, and which is in everything the perfection that renders it desirable. Besides, we must not confound apparent good with true good, which the intellect recognizes and judges, and proposes to the will. As the good presupposes the true and being, the will presupposes the intellect and is directed by it. Therefore by the intellect, which is the first of his faculties, man differs primarily from the animal.

St. Thomas admits also that in heaven our beatitude will consist essentially in the beatific vision, in the intellectual and immediate vision of the divine essence, for it is above all by this immediate vision that we shall take possession of God for eternity. We shall plunge the gaze of our intellect into the depths of His inner life seen directly. God will thus give Himself immediately to us, and we shall give ourselves to Him. We shall possess Him and He will possess us, because we shall know Him as He knows Himself and as He knows us. Beatific love will be in us a consequence of this immediate vision of the divine essence; it will even be a necessary consequence, for the beatific love of God will no longer be free, but superfree, above liberty. Our will will be invincibly ravished by the attraction of God seen face to face. We shall see His infinite goodness and beauty so clearly that we shall be unable not to love Him; we shall even be unable to find any pretext of momentarily interrupting this act of superfree love, which will no longer be measured by time, but by participated eternity, by the single instant of the immobile duration of God, the instant that never passes. In heaven the love of God and the joy of possessing Him will necessarily follow the beatific vision, which will thus be the essence of our beatitude.(31) All this is true. It is difficult to affirm more strongly than St. Thomas does the superiority of the intellect over the will in principle and in the perfect life of heaven.

Since this is true, how can the holy doctor maintain that Christian perfection on earth consists primarily in charity, which is a virtue of the will, and not in wisdom or contemplation, which belong to the intellect? To this question he gives a profound answer, which should be meditated on for the spiritual life. He says in substance: Although a faculty may by its nature be superior to another, it may happen that an act of the second is superior to an act of the first. For example, sight is superior to hearing, it is less painful to be deaf than blind; nevertheless, although sight is superior to hearing, the audition of a Beethoven symphony is more sought after than the sight of an ordinary object. Likewise, although the intellect by its very nature (simpliciter) superior to the will which it directs, here on earth the love of God is more perfect than the knowledge of God.(32) Therefore perfection lies chiefly in the love of God. A saint who has little learning in theological matters but who has a very great love of God, is certainly more perfect than a theologian who has a lesser charity. This observation, which is elementary for every Christian, appears upon serious reflection as a lofty and precious truth. It could be illustrated by many quotations from Scripture and from the works of the great spiritual writers, especially from The Imitation of Christ.

Whence comes this superiority of the love of God over the knowledge of Him that we have on earth? St. Thomas answers as follows: "The action of the intellect consists in this, that the idea of the thing understood is in the one who understands; whereas the act of the will consists in this, that the will is inclined to the thing as existing in itself. And therefore the Philosopher says (Metaph., VI) that good and evil, which are objects of the will, are in things, but truth and error, which are objects of the intellect, are in the mind." (33) It follows that on earth our knowledge of God is inferior to the love of God, since, as St. Thomas further says,(34) when we know God, we draw Him in a way to ourselves, and in order to represent Him to ourselves, we impose on Him the bounds of our limited ideas; whereas when we love Him, it is we who are drawn to Him, lifted up to Him, such as He is in Himself. An act of love of God made by the Cure of Ars as he taught catechism, was worth more than a learned theological meditation inspired by a lesser love. Our knowledge of God draws Him to us, whereas our love of God draws us to Him. Therefore, as long as we have not the beatific vision, that is, while we are on earth or in purgatory, the love of God is more perfect than the knowledge of God. It presupposes this knowledge, but it surpasses it.

Further, says St. Thomas, even here on earth our love of charity attains God immediately; (35) it adheres immediately to Him, and from Him it goes on to creatures. "For knowledge begins from Charity ought, therefore, incontestably to have the first place in our soul, above that of the love of knowledge and of any kind of human progress. Moreover, charity will increase tenfold all our moral and intellectual powers by placing them in the service of God and of our neighbor. The love of esteem (appretiative summus) which we ought to have for God will thus become more intense, as it should.


In comparing Christian perfection on earth with that of heaven, St. Thomas observes (39) that God alone can love Himself infinitely as much as He is lovable, as He alone can have a comprehensive vision of His essence. However, without loving God as much as He is lovable, the saints in heaven love Him with all their strength with an ever actual, uninterrupted love. This absolute continuity in love is not possible on earth; sleep, in particular, does not permit it.

The perfection possible on earth excludes everything that is contrary to the love of God, that is, mortal sin, and also all that hinders our love from being completely directed toward God. Thus those of the just who are called beginners and proficients tend toward this union with God, which is the possession of the perfect.(40)

According to these principles formulated by St. Thomas, the perfection of charity in the perfect excludes not only mortal sin and fully deliberate venial sin, but also voluntary imperfections, such as a lesser generosity in the service of God and the habit of acting in an imperfect manner (remissa) and of receiving the sacraments with little fervor of will. He who has a charity equal to five talents and acts as if he had only two talents still performs meritorious but weak acts. These acts of charity, called remissi, do not immediately obtain the increase of charity that they deserve,(41) and are not proper to the perfect, who ought indeed ever to 'advance more rapidly toward God, for the nearer souls approach Him, the more they are drawn by Him.(42)

St. Thomas (43) points out also that in the perfect, charity toward one's neighbor, the great sign of our love of God, extends not only to all in general, but as soon as the occasion presents itself to each of those with whom the perfect have relations, not only to friends but to strangers and even to adversaries. Moreover, this fraternal charity is intense in them, reaching even to the sacrifice of exterior goods and of life itself for the salvation of souls, since Christ said: "This is My commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you." (44) We see this charity in the apostles after Pentecost, when they were "rejoicing that they were accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus." (45) This is also what made St. Paul say: "But I most gladly will spend and be spent myself for your souls." (46)

Perfect charity demands serious effort, a veritable struggle, a spirit of abnegation or renunciation, in order that our affection, ceasing to descend toward the things of earth or to fall back egoistically on ourselves, may always rise more purely and strongly toward God. For this ascent toward God we need prayer, habitual recollection, a great docility to the Holy Ghost, and the generous acceptance of the cross which purifies. As soon as the soul's life ceases to descend, it ascends toward God. It cannot remain stationary on earth; and its law, like that of the flame which symbolizes it, is not the law of descent, but of ascent. Therefore, without having the absolute continuity of the love of heaven, the charity of the perfect on earth is characterized by an admirable and almost ceaseless activity.

The author of The Imitation admirably expresses this thought when he says: "Because I am as yet weak in love and imperfect in virtue, therefore do I stand in need of being strengthened and comforted by Thee. Wherefore do Thou visit me often, and instruct me in Thy holy discipline. . . . A great thing is love, a great good in every way, which alone lighteneth all that is burdensome and beareth equally all that is unequal. It carrieth a burden without being burdened, and maketh all else that is bitter sweet and savory. The noble love of Jesus impelleth us to do great things, and exciteth us always to desire that which is the more perfect. Love will tend upwards and not be detained by things beneath. Love will be at liberty, and free from all worldly affection that its interior vision be not hindered; that it suffer itself not to be entangled with any temporal interest, or cast down by misfortune. Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant. . . for love is born of God, and cannot rest but in God, above all created things. The lover flieth, runneth, and rejoiceth; he is free, and cannot be restrained. He giveth all for all, and hath all in all; because he resteth in one sovereign Good above all, from whom all good floweth and proceedeth. . . . Love often knoweth no measure, but groweth fervent above all measure. . . . Love watcheth, and sleeping slumbereth not. When weary it is not tired; . . . but like a vivid flame and a burning torch, it mounteth upward and securely passeth through all" (47)

This is truly the life of the saints. We are called to it, for we are all called to the life of heaven where there will be only saints. In order to attain it, we must sanctify all the acts of our day, remembering that above the succession of daily deeds, whether pleasurable a or painful, foreseen or unforeseen, there is the parallel series of actual graces which are granted to us from moment to moment that we may draw the best spiritual profit from these daily deeds. If we think about this, we shall no longer see these acts only from the point of view of the senses, or from that of our reason which is more or less led astray by self-love, but from the supernatural point of view of faith. Then these daily deeds, whether pleasurable or painful, will become the practical application of the doctrine of the Gospel, and gradually an almost continual conversation will be established between Christ and us. This will be the true interior life, as it were, eternal life begun.



25. See IIa IIae, q. 184, a. I.

26. Ibid., a.1.

27. John 13:34f.

28. See I John 1:9.

29. Ibid., 3: 14 f.

30. See Ia, q.8:, a. 3. "Wherefore the love of God is better than the knowledge of God; but, on the contrary, the knowledge of corporeal things is better than the love thereof. Absolutely, however, the intellect is nobler than the will."

31. See Ia IIae. q. 3. a.4; q.5, a.4.

32. See Ia, q.82, a.3. On the contrary, it is better to know inferior things than to love them.

33. Ibid.

34. Ibid.

35. See IIa IIae, q.27, a.4.

36 lbid., ad 2um.

37. lbid., q.45, a.2, 4.

38. See Col. 1: 9. Thomists generally hold (cf. Passerini, De statibus hominum, in IIa IIae, q. 184, a. 1) that perfection consists formally not in the habitus or virtue of charity, but in the activity of this virtue, which is morally continuous in the perfect. It is clear, in fact, that the virtue is ordained to its operation and that perfection is in actual union with God; "It is good for me to adhere to my God" (Ps. 72:28). St. Thomas says: "Man's third pursuit is to aim chiefly at union with and enjoyment of God" (IIa IIae, q.24, a.9).

On the contrary, the quietists, inclined to inaction, were disposed to say that perfection is not in the acts of charity, but in the habitus of charity, for, in their opinion, "velIe operari active est Deum offendere, qui vult esse ipse solus agens" (d. Denzinger, no. 1222). They thus reached a pseudo-passive state, not infused but acquired and, what is more, acquired, not by acts but by the cessation of every act, by a sort of pious somnolence. Therein were two grave errors, which with one stroke of the pen suppressed asceticism and distorted mysticism.

An opposite excess to quietism would make perfection consist chiefly in the exterior activity of charity on behalf of one's neighbor. From this point of view, one might end by forgetting practically that the love of God is superior to that of one's neighbor, and that this second love is only the effect and sign of the first. One would thus unconsciously invert the order of charity.

Others, more attentive to the interior life than to its activity, aim too greatly at multiplying its acts, instead of tending to simplified affective prayer, which is, so to speak, the continuation of one and the same act, like a prolonged spiritual communion.

39. See IIa IIae, q. 184, a. 2.

40. We treated this question in greater detail in Christian Perfection and Contemplation, pp. 167-75.

41.  See IIa IIae, q.24, a.6.

42. St. Thomas, In Ep. ad Hebr., 10:25.

43. See IIa IIae, q. 184, a.2 ad 3um.

44. John 15:12.

45. Acts 5:41.

46. See II Cor. 12: 15. Cf. also St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue, chaps. 74, 78, 79, passim; Perfect love and its signs.

47. The Imitation of Christ, Bk. III, chap. 5. St. Thomas teaches that we cannot love God as much as He ought to be loved, or believe in Him or hope in Him as much as He deserves. Cf. Ia IIae, q.64, a.4: "The measure and rule
of theological virtue is God Himself. . . . So that never can we love God as much as He ought to be loved." Cf. IIa IIae, q.27, a.5.

See also Tauler, Sermons, for the distinction between the upright man and the interior or spiritual man, and the description of the state of the perfect. Cf. Sermons de Tauler (trans. Hugueny. Thery, 1927). I, 200-4. 218-24, 265-69. 284, 296 ff., 357.