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

The Purification of the Soul in Beginners (cont)


Ch 24: The Active Purification of the Senses or of the Sensible Appetites

"If thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee." Matt. 5: 29

Now that we have discussed the sins to be avoided, their consequences to be mortified, and the passions to be disciplined, we must treat of the active purification of the senses and of the sensible appetites, then of that of the intellect and the will. We shall then speak of the purification of the soul through the sacraments and prayer, and finally of the passive purification of the senses, which, according to St. John of the Cross, is at the threshold of the illuminative way.


When we treated (1) of mortification in general according to the Gospel and St. Paul, we saw that it is imposed on us for four principal motives: (I) because of the consequences of original sin, especially of concupiscence; (2) because of the effects of our personal sins; (3) because of the infinite elevation of our supernatural end (God seen as He sees Himself), which demands a subjection not only of the senses to reason, but of reason to the spirit of faith and to charity; (4) finally, because of the necessity of carrying the cross in order to follow Christ who died for us.

We must now apply these principles and see, first of all, what the mortification or active purification of the senses and of the sensible appetites should be.

St. Thomas treats this subject at length when he discusses the passions in general and in particular, also the seven. capital sins and their results, and finally when he speaks of the virtues that have their seat in the sensible appetites, such as temperance, chastity, fortitude, patience, meekness, and so on.

Among the great masters of the spiritual life, St. John of the Cross deals with this same subject in The Ascent of Mount Carmel (2) and at the beginning of The Dark Night (3) where he discusses the faults of beginners, or the seven capital sins transposed into the spiritual order: spiritual pride, spiritual gluttony, spiritual sloth, and so on.

Here we should recall the necessity of observing the precepts, especially the supreme precepts of love of God and of our neighbor, consequently of avoiding every mortal sin, and also of guarding ourselves better against our more or less deliberate venial sins. Although a man cannot, without a very special help which the Blessed Virgin received, continually avoid all venial sins taken together, he can avoid each one of them in particular. He should also strive more and more to suppress imperfection, which is a lesser good, an act of a lesser degree of generosity in the service of God. The lesser good is not an evil; but, in the order of good, one should not stop at the lowest rung of the ladder, at the least degree of light and warmth. The happy medium of the acquired virtue of temperance, described by Aristotle, is doubtless already a good, but we should aspire higher, that is, to the happy mean of infused temperance, which, moreover, rises in proportion to the growth of this virtue, united to that of penance, especially when the gifts of the Holy Spirit, like that of fear, incline us to greater generosity in order the better to overcome ourselves and advance more rapidly.(4) Besides, there are still many degrees in this greater generosity, according, for example, as one ascends toward the summit of perfection by the winding road, which is easier, or by the straight road traced by St. John of the Cross, which reaches its goal more rapidly and leads higher.

To avoid sin and imperfection, we must remember here that the capital sins dispose to others, which are often more serious, as vainglory does to disobedience, anger to blasphemy, avarice to hardness, gluttony to impurity, luxury to the hatred of God. We could never beg God too fervently for light to see the gravity of sin and to have a greater contrition for our faults. With fraternal charity, it is one of the greatest signs of spiritual progress.

We must also remember that venial sin, especially if it is repeated, disposes to mortal sin; for he who easily commits venial sin loses purity of intention, and if the occasion presents itself, he may sin mortally. Venial sin is thus on a dangerous slope, like a wall which hinders us from reaching union with God. On the road of perfection, he who does not advance, falls back.

Likewise imperfection, or an act not wholly generous, disposes us to venial sin. Acts that do not measure up to our degree of charity and of the other virtues (actus remissi), although they may still be meritorious, indirectly dispose us to redescend, for they do not exclude as much as they ought the inordinate inclinations which may cause us to fall. We shall discuss especially the mortification of sensuality and of anger.


We shall begin our consideration of this topic by recalling Christ's exhortation: "If thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. For it is expedient for thee that one of thy members should perish, rather than that thy whole body be cast into hell." (6) Christian morality explains this text when, on the subject of the sixth commandment, it teaches that outside of marriage, carnal delectation directly willed with full deliberation is a mortal sin. In this case there is no light matter. Why? Because such direct consent disposes one proximately to a sin that is still more grave; it is like inserting a finger into a gear where the whole arm will be caught. Here one is faced with avoiding a capital sin which leads to inconsiderateness, inconstancy, blindness of spirit, love of self even to hatred of God, and to despair.(7)

Therefore St. Paul strongly recalls the necessity of this mortification, of which he gives an example when he writes: "I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway." (8) The consideration here is the mortification of the senses and of the body in order to assure the liberty of the spirit, and in order that the body may not weigh down the soul, but allow it to follow a higher life.(9)

St. Thomas (10) teaches that lust is avoided rather by flight from the occasions than by direct resistance, which makes one think too much of the thing to be fought against. On the contrary, acedia, or spiritual sloth, is overcome rather by resistance, for, in order to resist it, we think of spiritual goods, and the more we think of them, the more they attract us.

We should also seek to avoid as far as possible even indirectly voluntary movements of sensuality, especially when there is proximate danger of consent. It is thus expedient for a number of people to avoid certain reading (works on medicine, for example) which might become dangerous for them because of their frailty, especially if they read through curiosity and not through a duty of state. (11)

From this point of view, we must also watch over certain affections which may become too sensible and even sensual. The author of The Imitation (12) tells us that we must avoid excessive familiarity with persons in order to enjoy our Lord's, and that certain affections which are too lively and too sensible cause us to lose peace of heart. St. Teresa says also in The Way of Perfection (13) that certain particular friendships are plagues which little by little make the soul lose fervor, then regularity, and which sometimes give rise to the most profound divisions in communities and compromise salvation.(14)

At this point the mortification of the heart is no less necessary than that of the body and the senses.

Finally, care must be taken not to seek sensible consolations for their own sake in prayer through a sort of spiritual gluttony.(15) He who loves God not for Himself, but for the sensible consolations he receives or expects, is not in order. He loves himself first and God in the second place, as a person loves a product inferior to himself. This is an inverted order and, consequently, a more or less conscious perversion. By putting self first, one misuses what is most holy and exposes oneself to all temptations.

Spiritual enjoyments, sought for themselves, will awaken the passions dormant in our heart of flesh, and, instead of taking the road that the saints have followed, we slip insensibly down the slope along which the false mystics, especially the quietists, let themselves be drawn. Corruptio optimi pessima, the worst corruption is that which attacks what is best in us, that is, the love of God, in order to disfigure and pervert it. There is nothing higher on earth than true mysticism, which is the eminent exercise of the loftiest virtue, charity, and of the gifts of the Holy Ghost which accompany it; on the other hand, there is nothing worse than false mysticism, than the false love of God and of our neighbor, which is true only in name and which resembles true mysticism as an imitation diamond does a real one.(16) St. John tells us: "Dearly beloved, believe not every spirit; but try the spirits if they be of God." (17)

To avoid illusion, we need humility and purity of heart here. We may even say that all Christ's teaching on the mortification of sensuality is summed up in these words: "Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God."

But the Gospel insists strongly on another mortification, that of the irascible appetite, the other form of the inordinateness of the sensibility, which is divided, as we have seen, into the concupiscible appetite and the irascible appetite.


We read in the Sermon on the Mount: "You have heard that it was said to them of old: Thou shalt not kill. . . . But I say to you, that whosoever is angry with his brother shall be in danger of the judgment. . . . 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. Be at agreement with thy adversary betimes, whilst thou art in the way with him." (18)

A little farther on, Christ says: "But I say to you not to resist evil: but 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." (19) Acting thus, the Christian does not sharply defend his rights; he thinks more of his duties than of his rights, and often wins over to God the soul of his irritated brother, whom he calms by his patience and meekness. The saints acted in this way and often won to God the violent who opposed them.

In the same sermon Christ tells us: "Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you. . . . For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? . . . Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect." (20)

And, to be sure, if we truly acted in this way toward our adversaries (even exteriorly, where there are no superior interests to safeguard), we would most certainly reach sanctity, that supernatural perfection which is a participation, not alone of angelic life but of the inner life of God, a perfection which is of the same order as that of our Father in heaven.

To reach it we need the mortification of the irascible appetite which makes us acquire the virtue of meekness, not the effeminacy of temperament or the supineness of those who let everything go because they have no energy or because they are afraid to react, but the virtue of meekness, which is a great power to conquer ourselves, to possess our souls, to keep them calm, in the hand of God, and thus to do true good to those very persons who are irritated at us, to those who are like the broken reed that must not be completely
crushed by answering them in the same irritated tone.

This mortification of the irascible appetite is so much the more necessary as the results of anger are more serious; for it leads to other sins, occasionally even to cursing and blasphemy.

On the other hand, meekness is the flower of charity and protects its fruits, for it makes counsels and even reproaches acceptable. A reproach given with great kindness is often well received, whereas when given with sharpness it produces no results. Thus Christ tells us: "Learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of heart."

At this point it is expedient to say something about the type of anger which is the "bitter zeal" mentioned by spiritual writers, especially St. John of the Cross, when dealing with the defects of beginners.(21)

Some, he says, become impatient as soon as they are deprived of consolations: "For when spiritual things minister to them no more sweetness and delight, they naturally become peevish, and in that bitterness of spirit prove a burden to themselves in all they do: trifles make them angry, and they are at times intolerable to all about them. . .. Their natural temper is soured and rendered morose. They are," says the saint, "like a babe weaned from the breast." (22) They also occasionally fall into spiritual sloth.

Or perhaps "they are angry with other people for their faults, with a sort of unquiet zeal, and watch them; they are occasionally moved to blame them, and even do so in anger, constituting themselves guardians of virtue. All this is contrary to spiritual meekness." And there is pride involved. They see the mote in their neighbor's eye and do not see the beam in their own.

"Others, again, seeing their own imperfections, become angry with themselves with an impatience that is not humble. These impatient people show that they expect to be saints in one day." St. John of the Cross says: "Many of these make many and grand resolutions, but, being self-confident and not humble, the more they resolve, the more they fall, and the more angry they become; not having the patience to wait for God's time; this is also opposed to spiritual meekness. There is no perfect remedy for this but in the dark night," or the passive purification of the senses, of which we shall speak farther on.

Finally, the saint remarks: "There are, however, some people who are so patient, and who advance so slowly in their spiritual progress, that God wishes they were not so patient."

The active purification of the sensible appetites or the mortification that we impose on ourselves must cause this double disorder of sensuality and irritability to disappear; but it cannot completely suppress it. To finish its work, there is needed a more profound purification, that which comes directly from God Himself, when he places the sensibility in a special and prolonged aridity in which He communicates to us a superior light - that of the gift of knowledge, knowledge of the vanity of all earthly things - which is not a sensible grace but an entirely spiritual grace. It is the passive purification of the senses of which we shall speak farther on. This purification is one of the forms of the salutary cross we must carry in order to reach the true life of the spirit, which dominates the senses and unites us to God.



1. Cf. supra, chaps. 19 f.

2. Cf. Bk. I, chaps. 4-12.

3. Cf. Bk. I, chaps. 11 ff.

4. We treated elsewhere at length of imperfection in so far as it is distinct from venial sin: cf. L'amour de Dieu et la croix de Jesus, Vol. I, Part II, chap. 6, pp. 360-90: "The lesser good is not an evil, but every man, according to his condition, must tend toward the perfection of charity.'" Cf. Salmanticenses, Cursus theol., De peccatis, disp. 19, dub. I, nos. 8 f.; De lncarnatione, in IIIam P.,. S. Thomae, q.I5, a. I. They show clearly that in our Lord there was
neither venial sin nor imperfection, and they distinguish clearly between them.

5. Cf. The Ascent of Mount Carmel. At the beginning of this work, St. John of the Cross placed a picture which shows the narrow path of perfection, then, far off, the road of the imperfect spirit and the road of the lost spirit.

6. Matt. 5:29.

7. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.153, a.5.

8. Cf. I Cor. 9:27.

9. With this end in view, the Church prescribes certain days of fast and abstinence; with the same purpose, the founders of religious orders established certain special austerities, such as vigils, the discipline, and perpetual abstinence from meat. The saints do not deprive themselves of these means of preserving the perfection of absolute chastity. St. Dominic used to scourge himself three times every night: once, to expiate his own faults; a second time, for those of sinners; and a third, for the souls in purgatory. He consecrated the night to prayer and penance: he slept little, rarely before Matins, and never went to bed afterward. He used to go from one altar to another in the church, praying now on his knees, his arms extended or lifted like arrows above his head, now bowed over or prostrate on the ground. When sleep overcame him, he would lie down on the flagstones or rest his head against an altar. In his life this personal immolation was the accompaniment of the Sacrifice of the Mass, in which our Savior's immolation is continued in a sacramental manner.

Doubtless such mortification presupposes exceptional graces; but there are certain austerities that we can all practice instead of seeking our comfort. For example, the habit of taking the discipline preserves us from many faults, keeps alive the love of austerity, expiates many negligences, and helps us to deliver souls from the bonds they have made for themselves. In a religious order the observances are a little like what the bark is to the tree: if the bark is peeled from a vigorous oak, the sap no longer rises, the tree withers and dies. The saints say: "If you mitigate observances, you relax souls," which will no longer have the enthusiasm needed to run in the way of perfection.

10. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 35, a. I ad 4um.

11. However, it is generally admitted that if by reason of a duty of state certain studies must be made which may produce some inordinate movement of sensuality, they can be made for a virtuous motive though it is foreseen that some so to speak material disorder may arise, which one does not directly wish to experience. Theologians teach in fact: "Carnal delectation, indirectly voluntary or not voluntary in itself but only in its cause, is not always a sin. There is often lacking the proximate danger of future consent, when the act placed is in itself upright and reasonable (as a surgical operation, or the reading of a book on medicine) from which one foresees but does not intend any carnal delectation."

12. Bk. I, chap. 6-8.

13. Cf. chap. 4.

14. St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chap. 4: "Some, too, form spiritual friendships with others, the source of which is luxury and not spirituality. We may know it to be so by observing whether the remembrance of that affection increases our recollection and love of God, or brings remorse of conscience."

St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to a Devout Life, Part III, chap. 21, says on the subject of frivolous friendships, that radical measures must be taken to triumph over them: "Cut them, break them, tear them; do not amuse yourself in unraveling these criminal friendships; you must tear and rend them asunder; do not untie the knots, but break or cut them." In order the better to succeed, a person must divert himself by becoming absorbed in the duties of his state.

In regard to friendships in which there is a mingling of the natural and the supernatural, St. Francis. de Sales says again (ibid., chap: 20):. "They begin with virtuous love, but if they do not use the utmost discretion, fond love will begin to mingle itself in it, then sensual love, and afterwards carnal love: yea, there is even danger in spiritual love, if we are not extremely on our guard; though in this it is more difficult to be imposed upon, because its purity and whiteness make the spots and stains which Satan seeks to mingle with it more apparent, and therefore, when he takes this in hand, he does it more subtly, and endeavors to introduce impurities by almost insensible degrees.

If in a friendship of this kind, the supernatural element dominates, the friendship may be kept through purifying it by the custody and mortification of the senses and the heart, if, on the contrary, the sensible element predominates, every particular relation over and above necessary meetings must be renounced for a considerable time. This is the teaching of all the masters.

15. Since ordinary gluttony leads, as St. Gregory says, to improper pleasantries, buffoonery, foolish talking, stupidity, and impurity (d. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q. 148, a. 5 f.), spiritual gluttony, as St. John of the Cross points out
(The Dark Night, Bk. I. chap. 6), has analogous effects in a less inferior order.

It is, he says, very frequent in beginners: "Many beginners, delighting in the sweetness and joy of their spiritual occupations, strive after spiritual sweetness rather than after pure and true devotion." In order to procure sensible consolations they sometimes take upon themselves, contrary to obedience, indiscreet penances which ruin their health and wear them out. The devil deceives them in this. They are afflicted because their director does not approve of them, and are like children guided by their tastes and sensuality, and not their reason; they pay little heed to their wretchedness and lose sight of the fear of God. Consequently, they need to be weaned from these sensible consolations to which they are too greatly attached; their sensible appetites must be purged, purified that they may be apt for a true spiritual life incontestably dominated by the spirit.

True devotion is the promptness of the will in the service of God (cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.82, a. I); sensible devotion is accidental or accessory, useful only on condition that we do not attribute too much importance to it. The Lord deprives us of it in order to purify us if we take too great pleasure in it. "How," says St. John of the Cross (ibid.), "can one fail to understand that the least of the blessings of Eucharistic Communion is that which touches the senses, and that the invisible grace it confers is far greater; for God frequently withholds the sensible favors from men, that they may fix the eyes of faith upon Himself."

16. On this subject, St. John of the Cross (The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 4) speaks of what he calls "spiritual luxury," that is, involuntary impure movements which are produced in beginners during affective prayer or the reception of the sacraments. Ordinarily these movements come from interior joy overflowing on the sensibility which is not yet sufficiently under control and purified. These rebellions, says the saint, also come occasionally from the devil, who wishes to disturb and trouble the soul in order to make it abandon spiritual exercises. He adds that fear of the return of these movements may become their cause, and that very delicate temperaments experience them under the influence of different emotions.

According to St. John of the Cross, these involuntary movements of sensuality are not sins as long as the will, far from consenting to them, resists them. They are an imperfection of beginners. But they must not be confused with indirectly voluntary movements of sensuality, which could come, for example, from too great familiarity that would distort a spiritual friendship,

17. See I John 4: 1.

18. Matt. 5: 21-25.

19. Ibid., 39 f.

20 Ibid., 44-48.

21. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 5.

22. Ibid., St. John of the Cross observes: "When this natural feeling of displeasure is not permitted to grow, there is no sin, but only imperfection, which will have to be purged away in the severity and aridities of the dark night." The Spanish text reads: "No hay culpa, sino imperfeccion." This statement shows, like what was said in chapter 4 of certain involuntary movements of sensuality, that St. John of the Cross distinguished between imperfection and venial sin, which supposes at least negligence in repressing the disorder of the sensible appetites. For this disorder to be a sin, it must be voluntary, at least in an indirect manner, that is, it is at least necessary that a person could and should have foreseen it and prevented it. St. Thomas spoke in the same way (Ia IIae, q.80, a.3 ad 3um): "The lusting of the flesh against the spirit, when the reason actually resists it, is not a sin, but is matter for the exercise of virtue." Cf. ibid., IIa IIae, q.154, a.5; De malo, q.7, a.6 ad 6um.