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

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


Ch 10: Perfection and Heroic Virtue

To COMPLETE what we have said about the grandeur or elevation of Christian perfection, we must see whether it essentially demands great charity and the practice of the virtues even to a heroic degree.


Certain theologians, such as Suarez, (1) have maintained that one can be perfect without great charity.(2) This proposition would greatly astonish us if we were to find it in the works of St. Thomas or of St. John of the Cross, for it seems little in conformity with their principles. Yet it has been defended because, it has been said, the weakest charity can, according to St. Thomas, overcome all temptations, and because what is lacking in the intensity of charity can easily be supplied by the acquired virtues. Thus, according to this opinion, a person may be perfect without having great charity, and inversely he who has great charity may not be perfect, because he does not sufficiently govern his passions.

The common teaching is, on the contrary, that Christian perfection requires great charity. Why is this? The reason lies in the fact that perfection is obtained only after long exercise of the infused and the acquired virtues, an exercise by which these virtues increase more and more. And if at the beginning, "the weakest charity could overcome all temptations," (3) as time goes on it triumphs over them effectively and becomes more and more intense. It is inconceivable, therefore, that a Christian be perfect, that is, superior to beginners and proficients, without having great charity.

Nevertheless, perfection does not require a fixed intense degree of charity, as if mathematically determined and known to God alone. We do not find here the mathematical precision which is observed for the point of fusion of such or such bodies. We must judge spiritual perfection by analogy with maturity, which normally requires more physical strength than adolescence, without, however, exacting a mathematically determined degree of strength.

Moreover, this doctrine is based on the fact that charity increases, properly speaking, intensively rather than extensively.(4) Intact, even the slightest charity ought to extend to God and to all men, at least vaguely, without excluding anyone. Finally, we have seen that, according to St. Thomas, the three degrees of charity proper to beginners, proficients, and the perfect, are degrees of the intensity of this infused virtue, which more and more excludes deliberate venial sins and detaches us from earthly things in order to unite us more strongly to God. Thence it follows that Christian perfection essentially requires (per se loquendo et non solum per accidens) great charity.

But it may happen accidentally that a certain perfect Christian has a lesser degree of charity than a great saint has at the outset. St. Mary Magdalen could, immediately after her conversion, already have a higher charity than many perfect souls called to a lesser sanctity. Likewise in the corporeal order, it may happen accidentally that a certain especially vigorous youth is stronger than many grown men. But if it is a question of maturity in general and of perfection as such, prescinding from a given individual, it must be said that normally they require powers superior to the preceding age. It should also be observed that, with the same degree of habitual charity, one man avoids venial sin more than another, whether it is because the first has more actual generosity, or because he has fewer difficulties in his temperament, less work, fewer contradictions from men. St. Teresa remarks that, when she left her monastery to make a foundation, it happened that in the midst of unforeseen circumstances she committed more venial faults but also acquired more merits because of the difficulties to be overcome. The same is true when a man climbs a mountain: he stumbles from time to time, which he scarcely ever does on a level road, but he has the merit of a difficult ascent.

All these reasons show that, although accidentally a certain perfect soul may have a lesser charity than a certain beginner called to very high sanctity, perfection essentially requires great charity. It is obtained only after the conquering of many temptations and the acquiring of many merits. We read in the Book of Tobias (12: 13) :
"Because thou wast acceptable to God, it was necessary that temptation should prove thee." The Scriptures also say: "The furnace trieth the potter's vessels; and the trial of affliction just men." (5) And our Lord says at the end of the Sermon on the Mount: "Everyone therefore that heareth these My words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock. And the rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew; and they beat upon that house. And it fell not, for it was founded on a rock." (6) These words show that, although a weak charity can resist temptations, it is actually victorious over them only by increasing and becoming stronger and stronger. Therefore true Christian perfection of itself requires great charity. This truth is evident from the principles commonly accepted.

The teaching of St. John of the Cross confirms this doctrine. In The Ascent of Mount Carmel (7) he writes as follows:

Some consider any kind of retirement from the world and any correction of excesses to be sufficient; others are content with a certain degree of virtue, persevere in prayer and practice mortification, but they do not rise to this detachment, and poverty, or self-denial, or spiritual pureness. . . . They render themselves spiritually enemies of the cross of Christ, for true spirituality seeks for bitterness rather than sweetness in God, inclines to suffering more than to consolation, and to be in want of everything for God rather than to possess; to dryness and afflictions rather than to sweet communications, knowing well that this is to follow Christ and deny self, while the other course is perhaps nothing but to seek oneself in God, which is the very opposite of love. . . . Would that I could persuade spiritual persons that the way of God consisteth not in the multiplicity of meditations, ways of devotion or sweetness, though these may be necessary for beginners, but in one necessary thing only, in knowing how to deny themselves in earnest; inwardly and outwardly, giving themselves up to suffer for Christ's sake, and annihilating themselves utterly. He who shall exercise himself herein, will then find all this and much more. And if he be deficient at all in this exercise, which is the sum and root of all virtue, all he may do will be but beating the air; utterly profitless, notwithstanding great meditations and communications. . . . And when he [the spiritual man] shall have been brought to nothing, when his humility is perfect, then will take place the union of the soul and God, which is the highest and noblest estate attainable in this life.

Now this state, which is perfection, manifestly requires great charity together with the perfect humility spoken of in this passage. St. John of the Cross also says: "The state of perfection. . . consists in the perfect love of God and contempt of self." (8)

This doctrine, requiring great charity for perfection, is entirely conformable to what St. Thomas says of the seven degrees of humility. Following St. Anselm, he enumerates them as follows: (1) to acknowledge ourselves contemptible; (2) to grieve on account of this; (3) to admit that we are so;. ('4) to wish our neighbor to believe it; (5) patiently to endure its being said; (6) willingly to be treated as a person worthy of contempt; (7) to love to be treated in this fashion.(9) Such humility is truly perfection, or, as St. Thomas says, "the state of those who aim chiefly at union with and enjoyment of God: this belongs to the perfect who desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ," (10) and who do not recoil before hard things to be accomplished for the glory of God and the salvation of souls.(11) Perfection thus conceived evidently requires great love of God.

Can a person attain to a lofty degree of habitual charity without great effort and generosity, by long years of daily Communion and of rather weak meritorious acts, so that, with this lofty charity, he would remain notably imperfect through lack of generosity in combating inordinate passions? Some theologians seem inclined to think so, notably Suarez in the passages we quoted at the beginning of this chapter. This opinion comes from the fact that, in the question De augmento caritatis, Suarez holds that imperfect (remissi) acts of charity at once obtain the increase of charity which they merit. He is led thereby even to admit that Holy Communion, though received with little devotion, still obtains a notable increase of charity, and that by absolution lost merits are restored in the same degree, even if the attrition of the penitent is barely sufficient.

On all these points, St. Thomas and the ancient theologians consider far more the disposition of fervor of will required in the subject that there may be a notable increase of grace. In their opinion, imperfect acts of charity do not immediately obtain the increase of charity that they merit, but only when there is a serious effort toward good.(12) Likewise Holy Communion received with very little devotion obtains only a scant increase of charity, just as a person profits from the heat of a fireplace in proportion as he draws nearer to it instead of remaining at a distance. (13) Lastly, according to St. Thomas, by absolution lost merits are restored in the same degree only if the penitent has a contrition commensurate with his sin and with the graces lost.(14)

From what we have said, we conclude that without great effort a person cannot reach a high degree of charity by years of daily Communion and weakly meritorious acts. By such practices he can succeed in remaining in the state of grace or in rising rapidly after having sinned mortally, but certainly he cannot reach a lofty charity in this way.


If patriotism requires heroism when one's country is in danger, certainly Christian perfection requires the heroic practice of the virtues, at least in praeparatione animi, in this sense, that the Christian must be ready, with the help of God, to endure even martyrdom if it is a question of choosing between the denial of his faith and torture. This is necessary even for salvation,(15) and with still greater reason is required for perfection. In other words, a Christian who is faithful to his daily obligations should expect that in most difficult circumstances the Lord will give him help proportionate to the greatness of the duty. We read in the Gospel: "He that is faithful in that which is least, is faithful also in that which is greater." (16) "Fear ye not them that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul" (17) "Be not solicitous how or what you shall answer, or what you shall say. For the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what you must say." (18) "All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." (19) We must also love our enemies and come to their help if they are in grave need.

Moreover, St. Thomas (20) teaches that the gifts of the Holy Ghost are necessary to salvation in order to prepare us to receive the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost with promptness and docility, especially when the acquired virtues and even the infused virtues do not suffice: that is, in the most difficult circumstances.

Since, according to these principles, every Christian must endure martyrdom rather than deny his faith or call it into question, what bout the priest who has charge of souls? Even at the peril of his life he must bring the sacraments to those of the faithful entrusted to him when they are in grave necessity: for example, he must go and hear the confession of persons suffering from a contagious disease. With even greater reason, a bishop is obliged, in certain circumstances, to give his life for his flock.

Nevertheless, to have heroism of the virtues in praeparatione animi, in the sense that we have just explained, does not mean that the soul possesses the virtues in the heroic degree. To prove heroic virtue, as Benedict XIV (21) explains, four conditions are necessary: (I) the matter, object of the virtue, must be difficult, above the common strength of man; (2) the acts must be accomplished promptly, easily; (3) they must be accomplished joyously, with the joy of offering a sacrifice to the Lord; (4) they must be performed rather frequently, when the occasion presents itself.

Does Christian perfection require the heroic degree of the virtues? In the following chapter we shall see that St. John of the Cross teaches that Christian perfection requires the passive purifications of the senses and of the soul, which do away with the defects of beginners and those of proficients.(22) Now, in these purifications or interior trials, the soul must often heroically resist temptations against chastity and patience, then against faith, hope, and charity. From this point of view, it seems evident, therefore, that Christian perfection requires a 'certain heroism of the virtues which can and ought, as time goes on, to continue to grow. This seems to be the opinion of St. Thomas,(23) when he describes the perfecting virtues and the perfect virtues; both are lofty and are not inferior to what Benedict XIV calls heroic virtues.(24)

Lastly, it is certain that Christian charity, which is ordained to our configuration with the Savior crucified for us, ought for that very reason to tend to the heroic practice of the virtues. This may be deduced from what precedes: namely, since every Christian ought, in fact, to have the virtues in a heroic degree in praeparatione animi and to be ready, with the help of God, to endure even martyrdom rather than to deny his faith, this heroic act is not superior to that to which charity, or the love of God above all else, is ordained. By its very nature, this love prefers God to corporeal life and ought, therefore, to be disposed to the sacrifice of life, which is required in certain circumstances.

That Christian charity ought to tend to the heroic practice of the virtues appears also in the enumeration of the degrees of charity given by St. Bernard and explained by St. John of the Cross.(25) "Amor Dei tacit operari indesinenter et sustinere infatigabiliter." This appears especially in the interior and exterior trials which the servants of God bear both for their personal purification and, following the example of the Savior, for their work for the salvation of souls.

The objection may be raised that, if this doctrine were true, many more Christians would reach heroism, for that to which charity is essentially ordained ought to be found in the majority. Heroism is rare.(26)

The answer to this objection must be that it is also rare for a person to spend his whole life in the state of grace, without ever sinning mortally, from the moment that he receives baptism; yet sanctifying grace, by its very nature, is ordained to eternal life and therefore to last forever, without ever being destroyed by mortal sin. But we have received this very precious treasure in a fragile vessel, and sensuality or pride may make us lose it. Though the human soul is essentially rational and immortal, and grace ought to make it live an essentially divine life (which the state of grace normally demands), many souls live only a life of sensibility, only a few live a life of right reason. Likewise, charity, which is in every Christian, as it is the seed of eternal life, tends by its very nature to heroism and, if circumstances so require, to the sacrifice of the present life in order to remain faithful to God. What the love of country requires in certain circumstances, the love of God and of souls requires even more.

As far as great sanctity is concerned, it manifests itself especially by the connection or harmony of even the most dissimilar virtues. One man may be inclined by nature to fortitude, but not to meekness; for another, the inverse is true. Nature is, so to speak, determined ad unum; it needs to be completed by the different virtues under the direction of wisdom and prudence. Great sanctity is thus the eminent union of all the acquired and infused virtues, even of the most dissimilar ones, which God alone can so intimately unite. It is the union of great fortitude and perfect meekness, of ardent love of truth and justice and of great mercy toward souls that have gone astray. This union indicates a very close union with God, for what is divided in the kingdom of nature is united in the kingdom of God, especially in God Himself. Thus sanctity is a beautiful representation of the union of the most varied divine perfections, of infinite justice and infinite mercy in the eminence of the Deity or of the inner life of God. Christian martyrs manifest at one and the same time the greatest fortitude in their torments and the greatest meekness by praying for their executioners.(27) They are truly marked with the image of Jesus crucified.



1. De statu perfectionis, Bk. I, chap. 4, nos. 11 f.

2. Suarez (loc. cit.) says: "Perfection is posited in any suitable disposition or facility for acting perfectly according to the precepts and counsels of Christ; this good disposition can be obtained and subsist with greater and lesser intensity of charity, because it does not spring from intensity only, and although the intensity of charity helps much, what is lacking from that part can be easily supplied from another source." These last words, which would astonish us greatly if we were to find them in an article written by St. Thomas, mean, it seems, that the acquired virtues can easily supply for the lack of intensity of charity. Does this not notably diminish the supernatural character of Christian perfection?

Suarez adds (ibid., no. 11): "A man can be holier in the sight of God and yet rather imperfect. . . . Nor is this unfitting, because true sanctity in the sight of God and the right to eternal beatitude depend on the degree of charity and grace. Moreover, perfection of this life depends on the disposition and inclination of a man to act in this life with promptness, ease, and purity of action."

A Thomist will say that, with an equal degree of habitual charity, one person is actually more generous than another who is content with imperfect (remissi) acts, or who having five talents lives as though he had only three. Further, with an equal degree of habitual charity and of actual generosity, one person will have fewer interior and exterior difficulties than another who easily avoids every misstep because he follows an easier road. But these are accidental things relative to a given individual, whereas we are treating here of perfection in itself and in general, and we are considering whether it essentially demands a great charity, notably superior to that of beginners and to that of proficients.

3. St. Thomas, IIIa, q.62, a.6 ad 3um.

4. See Ia IIae, q.24, a.4 ad 1um, 2um; a.5 ad 2um.

5. Ecclus. 27:6.

6. Matt. 7:24f.

7. Bk. II, chap. 7, passim.

8. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. II, chap. 18.

9. See IIa IIae, q. 161, a.6.

10. Ibid., q.24, a.9.

11. See III Sent., d.29, a.8, q. I.

12. See IIa IIae, q.24, a.6 ad 1um; Ia IIae, q. 114, a.8 ad 3um.

13. See IIIa, q.79, a.8.

14. Ibid., q.89, a.2.

15. See IIa IIae, q.124, a.1 ad 3 um; q. 152, a.3 ad 2um.

16. Luke 16:10.

17. Matt. 10:28.

18. Luke 12: 11 f.

19. See II Tim. 3: 12.

20. See Ia IIae, q.68, a.2

21.  De servorum Dei beatificatione, Bk. III, chap. 21.

22. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chaps. 2-10; Bk. II, chaps. 1-5. St. John of the Cross here describes this purification as it occurs in contemplatives called to the highest perfection by the most direct route. There is, however, something similar in others, in whom these interior purifications are accompanied by the sufferings and difficulties of the apostolate.

23. See Ia IIae, q.61, a.5; IIIa, q.7, a.2 ad 2um.

24. St. Thomas (ibid.) thus describes the perfecting virtues: "Thus prudence, by contemplating the things of God, counts as nothing all things of the world and directs all the thoughts of the soul to God alone; temperance, so far as nature allows, neglects the needs of the body; fortitude prevents the soul from being afraid of neglecting the body and rising to heavenly things; and justice consists in the soul's giving a wholehearted consent to follow the way thus proposed."
The perfect virtues (ibid.) are even loftier and are the distinctive character of some very perfect servants of God ("some who are at the summit of perfection in this life"). St. Catherine of Siena expresses the same idea in her Dialogue (chap. 74), when she enumerates the signs of the charity of the perfect.

25. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. II, chaps. 19 f.

26 St. Thomas answers a similar objection in regard to the number of the elect (Ia, q.13, a.7 ad 3um): "The good that is proportionate to the common state of nature is to be found in the majority and is wanting in the minority. The good that exceeds the common state of nature is to be found in the minority and is wanting in the majority. Thus it is clear that the majority of men have a sufficient knowledge for guidance of life; . . . but they who at attain to a profound knowledge of things intelligible are a very small minority in respect to the rest." The human intellect is not incapable of knowing those things, but as a matter of fact few men reach this knowledge.

27. False martyrs, on the contrary, do not pray for their executioners. We do not see in these martyrs the connection between the most varied virtues; rather because of pride, their wills resist suffering, instead of abandoning themselves to God while seeking to save souls.