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

The Purification of the Soul in Beginners (cont)


Ch 19: Practical Naturalism and Mortification According to the Gospel

We have given a general idea of the spiritual age of beginners; now we shall speak of the principal work imposed on them that they may avoid falling back into sin. With this end in view, we must get a just idea of the disorder that sin, under its multiple forms, really is and also of its roots and consequences which may continue to exist in us for a long time.

First of all, we must note here two extreme and erroneous tendencies: on the one hand, the frequent, practical naturalism into which the quietists fell; on the other hand, the proud Jansenist austerity that does not spring from the love of God. Truth rises like a summit between these two extremes, which represent the opposing deviations of error.


Practical naturalism, which is the negation of the spirit of faith in the conduct of life, tends to revive under more or less accentuated forms, as it did some years ago in Americanism and Modernism. In several works that appeared during that period, mortification and the vows of religion were disparaged; they were considered not a deliverance which favors the upward flight of the interior life, but a hindrance to the apostolate. We were asked: Why speak so much of mortification, if Christianity is a doctrine of life; of renunciation, if Christianity ought to assimilate all human activity instead of destroying it; of obedience, if Christianity is a doctrine of liberty? These passive virtues, they said, have such importance only for negative spirits that are incapable of undertaking anything and that possess only the force of inertia.

Why, they added, depreciate our natural activity? Is our nature not good, does it not come from God, is it not inclined to love Him above all else? Our passions themselves, the movements of our sensible appetites (desire or aversion, joy or sadness) are neither good nor bad; they become so according to the intention of our will. They are forces to be utilized; they must not be mortified but regulated and modulated. They said that such is the teaching of St. Thomas, very different from that of so many spiritual writers, quite different, too, from Book III, chap. 54, of The Imitation on "The Different Motions of Nature and Grace." In thus opposing the author of The Imitation, they forget the words of our Savior: "Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit. He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal" (1)

They asked, moreover, why one should so greatly combat private judgment, self-will. To do so is to place oneself in a state of servitude which destroys all initiative and makes a person lose contact with the world, which one ought not to scorn, but to ameliorate. Holding this opinion, would one not lose sight of what all true spiritual men have meant by "self-will," or a will not conformed to the will of God?

In this objection formulated by Americanism and taken up again by Modernism,(2) the true is cleverly mingled with the false. Even the authority of St. Thomas is invoked, and the following principle of the great doctor is often repeated: "Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it." The movements of nature are not as inordinate, they say, as the author of The Imitation maintains; we must have the full development of nature under grace.

And as they lack the true spirit of faith, they designedly pervert the principle of St. Thomas which they invoke. He speaks of nature as such, in the philosophical sense of the word, of nature with its essential and also its good elements; of the work of God, and not of wounded, fallen nature, as it actually is in consequence of original sin and of our personal sins, more or less deformed by an often unconscious egoism, our covetousness, our pride. Likewise, St. Thomas speaks of the passions or emotions as such, and not as inordinate, when he says that they are forces to be utilized; but to utilize them one must mortify whatever is inordinate in them. Their inordinateness must not simply be veiled or moderated, but put to death.

All these equivocations were not long in manifesting their consequences. The tree is judged by its fruit. With too strong a desire to please the world, these Modernists, apostles of a new type, let themselves be converted by the world, instead of converting it.

They disregarded the consequences of original sin; to hear them, one would judge that man was born good, as the Pelagians, and later Jean Jacques Rousseau, declared. They forgot the gravity of mortal sin as an offense against God; and they considered it merely an evil which harms man. Therefore they failed particularly to recognize the gravity of the intellectual sins: incredulity, presumption, pride. The most serious offense seemed to them to be abstention from social works; consequently the purely contemplative life was considered quite useless, or the lot of the incapable. God Himself willed to reply to this objection by the canonization of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus and by the extraordinary radiation of that contemplative soul.

They also failed to recognize the infinite elevation of our supernatural end: God, the Author of grace. Instead of speaking of eternal life, of the beatific vision, they talked about a vague moral ideal tinted with religion, in which the radical opposition between heaven and hell disappeared. Finally, they forgot that the great means taken by Christ to save the world was the cross.

By all its consequences, the new doctrine gave proof of its principle: practical naturalism, not the spirit of God but the spirit of nature, the negation of the supernatural, if not in theory, at least in the conduct of life. During the period of Modernism this negation was occasionally formulated by declaring that mortification does not belong to the essence of Christianity. But we reply: Is mortification anything else than penance, and is not penance necessary for the Christian? How could St. Paul have written: "Always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies"? (3)

Under another form, practical naturalism appeared among the quietists, especially at the time of Molinos, in the seventeenth century. This naturalism was not that of action, as it is in Americanism, but that of inaction. Molinos held that "to wish to act offends God, who wishes to be the only one to act in us." (4) By no longer acting, he said, the soul annihilates itself and returns to its principle; then God alone lives and reigns in it.(5) Practical naturalism is thus reached by a way contrary to that of Americanism, which exalts natural activity.

Molinos deduced from his principle that the soul should no longer produce acts of knowledge or of love of God,(6) nor should it think any more of heaven or of hell, nor any longer reflect on its acts or on its defects; (7) the examination of conscience was thus suppressed. Molinos added that the soul should no longer desire its own perfection or its salvation,(8) nor should it ask God for anything positive,(9) but it ought to abandon itself to Him so that He may work His divine will in it, without its cooperation. Finally, he said: "The soul no longer needs to offer positive resistance to temptations, of which it no longer has to take account;(10) the voluntary cross of mortification is a heavy and useless burden which one must get rid of." (11)

He recommended that in prayer one should remain in obscure faith, in a repose in which one forgets every distinct thought relating to the humanity of Christ, or even to the divine perfections or to the Blessed Trinity, and that one should remain in this repose without producing any act. "That," he said, "is acquired contemplation, in which one must remain all one's life if God does not raise the soul to infused contemplation." (12)

In reality the contemplation thus acquired by the cessation of every act was only a pious somnolence, far more somnolent than pious. Certain quietists did not deign to leave it even to kneel at the elevation during Mass. They remained seated in their would-be union with God, which they confounded with an august form of nothingness. Their state reminds one more of the nirvana of the Buddhists than of the transforming and radiant union of the saints.

This shows that the acquired contemplation, which Molinos advised for all, was not an infused passivity, but one acquired at will by the cessation of every operation. He thus attributed to this would-be acquired contemplation what is true only of infused contemplation, and with one stroke of the pen he suppressed all asceticism and the practice of the virtues, considered by tradition as the true disposition for infused contemplation and intimate union with God. Moreover, he claimed that "the distinction between the three ways, purgative, illuminative, and unitive, is the greatest absurdity that has been expressed in mysticism, since," he says, "there is only one way for all, the interior way." (13)

This suppression of mortification led to the worst disorders. Molinos finally reached the point of declaring that the temptations of the devil are always useful, even when they lead to immodest acts; that it is not necessary then to make acts of the contrary virtues, but that one must resign oneself, for such weakness reveals our nothingness.(14) But Molinos, instead of thus reaching contempt of self by the recognition of our culpability, claimed to reach impeccability(15) and mystical death; strange impeccability, reconcilable with all disorders.(16)

This lamentable doctrine is, of course, a caricature of traditional mysticism, which is thus radically perverted in all its principles. And under the pretext of avoiding natural activity, which naturalism of action exalts, one falls here into the practical naturalism of sloth and inaction. Under another form, this doctrine amounted to the suppression of asceticism, of the exercise of the virtues, and of mortification.(17)

The errors of the quietists show that there are two types of naturalism: the practical naturalism of those who have lost the interior life, and the quite different naturalism of those who have never found it.

At the opposite extreme from practical naturalism, there is occasionally the proud austerity of a false supernaturalism, such as we find in Jansenism and, earlier, in different forms of fanaticism, such as that of the Montanists in the second century and of the flagellants in the twelfth century. All these sects lost sight of the spirit of Christian mortification, which is not a spirit of pride, but of love of God.

In the seventeenth century the Jansenists fell into a pessimism which is an alteration of the Christian doctrine of penance. Like the first Protestants, they exaggerated the results of original sin to the point of saying that man no longer has free will, the liberty of indifference, but only spontaneity, and that all the acts of infidels are sins.(18) They taught that "all his life long, a man must do penance for original sin." (19) As a result, they retained souls during a whole lifetime in the purgative way, and kept them away from Holy Communion, saying that we are not worthy of such a union with our Lord. According to their doctrine, only those should be admitted to Holy Communion who have a pure, unalloyed love of God.(20) They forgot that this very pure love of God is precisely the effect of Communion, when it is accompanied by a generous struggle against all that is inordinate in us. Jansenism never attained to deliverance and peace.(21)

Here as elsewhere, two opposing errors must be avoided: practical naturalism and proud austerity. The truth is to be found between these two extremes and above them as a summit. We can see it if we consider, on the one hand, the elevation of our last end and of charity, and, on the other hand, the gravity of mortal sin and of its consequences.


To see the true spirit of Christian mortification, we must consider what our Lord says about it in the Gospel and how the saints understood it and lived it.

The Savior did not come upon earth to carry out a human work of philanthropy, but a divine work of charity. He accomplished it by speaking more to men of their duties than of their rights, by telling them the necessity of dying completely to sin in order to receive an abundant new life, and He willed to show His love for them even to the point of dying on the cross to redeem them. The two aspects of death to sin and of higher life are always spoken of together, with a dominant note which is that of the love of God. Nothing like this appears in the errors mentioned above.

What does our Lord tell us about mortification? In St. Luke's Gospel we read: "He said to all: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whosoever will save his life,(22) shall lose it; for he that shall lose his life for My sake, shall save it.(23) For what is a man advantaged if he gain the whole world and lose himself and cast away himself?" (24)

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points out the necessity of mortification, that is, of the death to sin and its consequences, by insisting on the elevation of our supernatural end: "Unless your justice abound more than that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (25) "Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect." (26) Why? Because Christ brings us grace, which is a participation in the inner life of God, superior to the natural life of the angels, that He may lead us to union with God, since we are called to see God as He sees Himself and to love Him as He loves Himself. This is the meaning of the words: "Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect." But this precept requires the mortification of all that is inordinate in us, of the inordinate movements of concupiscence, anger, hatred, pride, hypocrisy, and so on. These movements represent what is inordinate in the different passions. Our Lord is explicit on this point in the same Sermon on the Mount. Nowhere can we find a better statement of the interior and exterior mortification that the Christian must practice and also of the spirit of this mortification. To show this, it will suffice to recall some of the Savior's words.

The true Christian ought as far as possible to exclude from his heart all resentment, all animosity: "If therefore thou offer thy gift at the altar, and there thou remember that thy brother hath anything against thee; leave there thy offering before the altar, and go first to be reconciled to thy brother; and then coming thou shalt offer thy gift." (27) "Go first to be reconciled to thy brother"; we must see in him not only an adversary, but a brother, a son of God. Blessed are the meek. One day a young Israelite, who knew the Our Father, received the inspiration to pardon his greatest enemy; he did so, and immediately received the grace to believe in the entire Gospel and the Church.

Christ preaches also the mortification of concupiscence, of the evil gaze, of evil desire, by which one would already commit adultery in his heart: "If thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. . . ; if thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off . . . ; for it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body go into hell." (28) Our Lord could not express Himself in a more energetic manner. This explains why, for the conquering of certain temptations, the saints advise recourse to fasts, vigils, and other bodily austerities, which, when practiced with discretion, obedience, and generosity, keep the body in subjection and assure liberty of spirit. (29)

The Sermon on the Mount also speaks of the mortification of every inordinate desire of vengeance: "You have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you not to resist evil." (30) Do not reply to an insult with acrimony in order to avenge yourself. Unquestionably you must resist even to death him who would lead you to evil; but bear offenses patiently, without hatred or irritation. "If one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other. And if a man will contend with thee in judgment and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him": (31) that is to say, be ready to bear injustice with longanimity. This is the patience that breaks the anger of an adversary and sometimes converts him, as can be seen in the three centuries of persecution which the early Church had to endure. The Christian ought to be less preoccupied with jealously defending his temporal rights than with winning over to God the soul of his irritated brother. Here we see the height of Christian justice, which ought always to be united to charity. The perfect are here admonished that it is not fitting for them to enter into litigation, unless for the sake of higher interests of which they have charge. (32)

In the same chapter, the Savior asks us to mortify egoism, self-love, which inclines us to flee from him who wishes to ask us for a service,(33) to mortify rash judgment,(34) spiritual pride, and hypocrisy, which incline men to perform good works or to pray before men "to be seen by them." (35)

Finally, Christ points out to us what the spirit of mortification ought to be: death to sin and its consequences out of love for God. Our Lord's manner of stating His doctrine is most amiable, as opposed to the proud austerity of the Jansenists. In St. Matthew's Gospel, He tells us: "When you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face; that thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee." (36) As the fathers have understood this text, Christ would have us perfume our heads with the oil of charity, mercy, and spiritual joy: wash our faces, that is, purify our souls of all spirit of ostentation. When we accomplish these acts of piety, it is not forbidden us to be seen, but to wish to be seen, for we would thus lose purity of intention, which ought to be directed immediately to the Father present in the secret of our souls.

Such is the spirit of Christian mortification or austerity, which the Jansenists did not understand; it is the spirit of love of God and love of neighbor. It is the spirit of love that radiates on souls to save them; therefore it is the spirit of gentleness, for how can we be meek, even with those who are ill-tempered, without learning to conquer ourselves, to possess our souls? It is a spirit which leads us to offer to God all painful occurrences, so that even these things may help us to advance toward Him and to save souls, and that all, even the obstacles that we encounter, may cooperate unto good, as Jesus made His cross the great means of salvation.

With this idea in mind, we see that, by this spirit of love of God, Christian mortification rises like a summit above the effeminacy of practical naturalism and above harsh and proud austerity. This is the mortification we find in the saints who are stamped with the image of Jesus crucified, whether saints of the early Church, like the first martyrs, or those of the Middle Ages, like St. Bernard, St. Dominic, St. Francis of Assisi, or those of more recent times, like. St. Benedict Joseph Labre, the Cure of Ars, or those more recently canonized, such as St. John Bosco and St. Joseph Cotolengo. Mirabilis Deus in sanctis suis.



1. John 12:24f.

2. Cf. Denzinger, Enchiridion, nos. 1967 ff., 2104.

3. See II Cor. 4: 10

4. Denzinger, nos. 1211 f.

5. Ibid., no. 1224 f.

6. Ibid., no 1226.

7. Ibid., nos. 1227-29, 1232.

8. Ibid., no. 1233 f.

9. Ibid., no. 1234.

10. Ibid., no. 1257.

11. Ibid., no. 1258.

12. Ibid., no. 1243.

I3. Ibid., no. 1246.

14. Ibid., nos. 1257-66.

15. Ibid., nos. 1275-86.

16. Cf. Denzinger, no. 1268: "Hujusmodi violentiae (daemonis) sunt medium magis proportionatum ad annihilandam animam et ad earn ad veram transformationem et unionem perducendam"; no. 1268: "Melius est ea non confiteri; quia non sunt peccata, nec etiam venialia."

17. 0n these aberrations of the quietists, see the work of Father Dudon, S.J., Michel Molinos. The author makes it clear that one of the principal errors of the Spanish quietists was to consider the prayer of quiet as acquired at will (by the suppression of acts), whereas in reality it is infused, as St. Teresa points out (fifth mansion). They thus simulated infused prayer before having received it, and they completely disfigured it by suppressing all asceticism.

18. Cf. Denzinger, nos. 1094, 1291, 1298.

19. Ibid., no. 1309: "Homo debet agere tota vita poenitentiam pro peccato originali."

20. Ibid., no. 1313: "Arcendi sunt a sacra communione, quibus nondum illest amor Dei purissimus et omnis mixtionis expers."

21. It has been said of Pascal that throughout his life he thought of sanctity without ever attaining it, because he remained in his own presence instead of in the presence of God.

22. By wishing, first of all, to enjoy this world, by fleeing purifying suffering and duty, which at times are painful.

23. "For he that shall lose his life," by sacrificing it in the accomplishment of duty out of love for Me, "shall save it."

24. Luke 9:23-25.

25. Matt. 5:20.

26. Ibid., 48.

27. Ibid., 23 f.

28. Ibid., 29 f.

29. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.147 (Of fasting).

30. Matt.5:38 f.

31. Ibid., 39 f.

32. Cf. St. Thomas, In Matth., 5:40.

33. Matt. 5:41 f.

34. Ibid., 7:1.

35. Ibid., 6: 1-19.

36. Ibid., 16-18.