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

The Purification of the Soul in Beginners (cont)


Ch 26: The Active Purification of the Intellect

"If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome." Matt. 6: 22

The superior faculties of man, which he has in common with the angels, are the intellect and will. They, too, need to be purified and disciplined, for they suffer from a disorder which is the consequence of original sin and of our personal sins.

The first gaze of the intellect of the baptized infant is simple; the same is true of a soul that begins to respond generously to a higher vocation. But it may happen that in time this gaze loses its simplicity through the complexity of the things it examines with a heart that is more or less pure. Then a serious purification is needed in order to recover the first simplicity of the intellect by a profound view which dominates the details and inevitable griefs, in order to embrace life as a whole. Happy the old people who after long experience and many trials reach this superior simplicity of true wisdom, which they had glimpsed from a distance in their childhood! With this meaning it can be said that a beautiful life is a thought of youth realized in maturity.

We shall discuss here: (I) the necessity of the active purification of the intellect because of the defects found in it; (2) the active principle of this purification and what must be put into practice on this point.


Since the commission of original sin, man's intellect is wounded. This wound is called that of ignorance; (1) because of it, the intellect, instead of inclining spontaneously toward the true, and especially toward supreme Truth, has difficulty in attaining it and tends to become absorbed in the consideration of earthly things without rising to their cause. It is inclined with curiosity toward ephemeral things and, on the other hand, it is negligent and slothful in the search for our true last end and the means leading to it. Consequently the intellect easily falls into error, lets itself be darkened by the prejudices which come from inordinate passions. It may finally reach the state that is called spiritual blindness.

Doubtless, original sin did not render our intellect incapable of knowing the truth, as the first Protestants and the Jansenists held. By patient effort, it can even acquire, without the help of revelation, the knowledge of a certain number of fundamental truths of the natural order, such as the existence of God, Author of the natural moral law. But, as the Council of the Vatican declares,(2) in the terms St. Thomas used,(3) few men are capable of this labor, and they reach this result only after a considerable length of time, without succeeding in freeing themselves from all error.

It is also true that this wound of ignorance, the consequence of original sin, is in the process of healing from the time of baptism, which regenerates us by giving us sanctifying grace. This wound may, however, reopen by reason of our personal sins, especially by reason of curiosity and intellectual pride, of which we must speak here.

Curiosity is a defect of our mind, says St. Thomas,(4) which inclines us with eagerness and precipitation toward the consideration and study of less useful subjects, making us neglect the things of God and of our salvation. This curiosity, says the holy doctor,(5) is born of spiritual sloth in respect to divine things, and makes us lose precious time. Whereas people who have little learning but are nourished with the Gospel possess great rectitude of judgment, there are others who, far from nourishing themselves profoundly with the great Christian truths, spend a great part of their time carefully storing up useless, or at least only slightly useful, knowledge which does not at all form the judgment. They are afflicted with almost a mania for collecting. Theirs is an accumulation of knowledge mechanically arranged and unorganized, somewhat as if it were in a dictionary. This type of work, instead of training the mind, smothers it, as too much wood smothers a fire. Under this jumble of accumulated knowledge, they can no longer see the light of the first principles, which alone could bring order out of all this material and lift up their souls even to God, the Beginning and End of all things.(6)

This heavy and stupid intellectual curiosity, as St. John of the Cross says, is in this sense the inverse of contemplation, which judges all things by the supreme cause. Such curiosity could lead to spiritual folly of which St. Paul often speaks,(7) to the folly which judges all, even the highest things, by what is lowest and at times most contemptible, by the satisfactions of our concupiscence or of our pride.

Spiritual pride is a more serious disorder than curiosity. It gives us such confidence in our reason and judgment that we are not very willing to consult others, especially our superiors, or to enlighten ourselves by the attentive and benevolent examination of reasons or facts which may be urged against us. This state of mind leads to manifest imprudent acts that will have to be painfully expiated. It leads also to asperity in discussions, to stubbornness in judgment, to disparagement which excludes in a cutting tone all that does not fit in with our manner of seeing things. This pride may lead a person to refuse to others the liberty he claims for his own opinions, and also to submit only very imperfectly to the directions of the supreme Shepherd, and even to attenuate and minimize dogmas under the pretext of explaining them better than has been done hitherto.(8)

These defects, especially pride, may finally lead us to spiritual blindness, which is the direct opposite of the contemplation of divine things. It is necessary to insist on this point, as St. Thomas did,(9) after he treated of the gift of understanding.

Holy Scripture often speaks of this spiritual blindness. Christ was saddened and angered by the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees,(10) and finally said to them: "Woe to you blind guides. . . . You tithe mint and anise and cummin, and have left the weightier things of the law: judgment and mercy and faith. . . . Blind guides, who strain out a gnat, and swallow a camel." (11)

In St. John's Gospel (12) we read that this blindness is a punishment of God, who withdraws light from such as do not wish to receive it. (13)

There are sinners who, by reason of repeated sins, no longer recognize the signified will of God manifested in a striking manner; they no longer understand that the evils which befall them are punishments of God, and they do not turn to Him. By natural laws alone, they explain these misfortunes as things that afflict a number of people at the moment. They see in them only the result of certain economic factors, such as the development of machinery and overproduction which results from it. They no longer take into account that these disorders have above all a moral cause and come from the fact that many men place their last end where it is not; not in God who would unite us, but in material goods which divide us, because they cannot belong simultaneously and integrally to a number.

Spiritual blindness leads the sinner to prefer in everything goods that are temporal rather than eternal goods. It prevents him from hearing the voice of God, which the Church recalls in the liturgy for Advent and for Lent: "Be converted to Me with all your heart. . . . Turn to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil" (14)

Spiritual blindness is a punishment of God which takes away the divine light because of repeated sins. But there is also a sin by which we voluntarily turn away from the consideration of divine truth by preferring to it the knowledge of that which satisfies our concupiscence of our pride.(15)

We may say of this sin what St. Thomas says of spiritual folly (stultitia), that it is opposed to the precepts of the contemplation of truth.(16) It hinders us from seeing the proximity of death and the judgment.(17) It takes all penetration away from us and leaves us in a state of spiritual dullness, which is like the loss of all higher intelligence.(18) Then we no longer see the grandeur of the supreme precept of the love of God and of our neighbor, or the value of our Savior's blood shed for us, or the infinite value of the Mass, which substantially perpetuates on the altar the sacrifice of the cross.

Such a condition is a chastisement, and no heed is paid to it. As St. Augustine says: "If, when a thief stole money, he lost an eye, everybody would say that it was a punishment of God; you have lost the eye of your mind and you think that God has not punished you." (19)

It is surprising at times to find among Christians men who have great literary, artistic, or scientific culture, but who have merely a rudimentary and superficial knowledge of the truths of religion, a knowledge mingled with many prejudices and errors. It is a surprising disproportion, which makes them, as it were, spiritual dwarfs.

Some others, better instructed in matters of faith, the history of the Church, and its laws, have a tendency that is, so to speak, anti­contemplative, permitting them to see the life of the Church only from without, as if they were looking at the exterior of the windows of a cathedral, instead of seeing them from within under the soft light which should illumine them.

This dullness of mind especially hinders the hearing of the great preaching of God, who speaks in His own way through great contemporary events. At the present time, there are in the world two radically contradictory universal tendencies, over and above the nationalism of different groups more or less opposed to one another. On the one hand, we find the universalism of the reign of Christ who wishes to draw the souls of men of all nations to God, supreme Truth and Life; on the other hand, we see false universalism, which is called communism, which draws souls in an inverse sense toward materialism, sensualism, and pride, in such a manner that the parable of the prodigal son is verified not only for individuals, but for whole nations, such as Russia.

The great problem of today is found in the conflict between the universalism of the reign of Christ and of the Church, which liberates souls, and communism, which leads them to materialist abjection and to the oppression of the weak under the pride of demagogues and leaders.(20)

In this conflict we must turn to prayer and penance, no less than to study and apostolic work. This is what the Blessed Virgin declared at Lourdes: "Pray and do penance."

Such are the defects of the mind which exist in us in various degrees: curiosity, rash haste to learn what is useless, indifference, negligence in regard to the one thing necessary (i.e., God and our salvation); spiritual pride, blindness, and spiritual folly, which ends by judging everything by what is lowest and most petty, whereas wisdom judges everything by the supreme cause and the last end.

How remedy this disorder, from which we all suffer in a greater or lesser degree?


This purification must be made by the progress of the virtue of faith, as the purification of the memory, immersed in time, is made by the growth of the hope of eternal beatitude.

St. Thomas tells us: "To detach itself from transient things and to tend toward God, the rational creature must first of all have faith in God: faith is the first principle of the purification of the heart in order to free us from error, and faith quickened by charity perfects this purification." (21) The intellect, which directs the will, must itself be thus purified; (22) otherwise the root of the will would be corrupted or deflected, mingled with error.

This purification is accomplished by judging more and more according to the spirit of faith. As Cajetan (23) remarks, faith leads us first of all to adhere to revealed truths because of the authority of God who reveals them; then it leads us to consider and to judge all things according to these truths. This is true even of him who, in the state of mortal sin, has kept faith by which he is preserved from graver sins, such as theft and murder; and by reason of faith he judges that he must go to Mass and not refuse to listen to the word of God. These various judgments may be made without the, gifts of the Holy Ghost, which are not in a man in mortal sin; but without the gifts these judgments do not have all the perfection they should. In the just man they receive this perfection from the gifts; then they are produced in a different manner, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Thus the gift of wisdom leads us to judge according to a certain connaturality or sympathy with divine things. This is the opinion of Cajetan, and many theologians adopt almost the same terms.

Not only must we adhere firmly to the truths of faith, but according to them we must judge what we are to think, say, do, or avoid in life. Then we judge according to the spirit of faith, and not according to the spirit of nature or practical naturalism.

St. John of the Cross tells us that obscure faith enlightens us.(24) It is obscure because it makes us adhere to mysteries we do not see; but these mysteries, which are those of the inner life of God, greatly illumine our intellect, since they do not cease to express to us the goodness of God, who created us, raised us to the life of grace, sent His only Son to redeem us, His Son who gives Himself to us in the Eucharist in order to lead us to eternal life.

Faith is obscure, but it illumines our intellect in our journey toward eternity. It is very superior to the senses and to reason; it is the proximate means of union with God, whom it makes us know infallibly and supernaturally in obscurity.(25)

Faith is very superior to all the sensible and intellectual evidences that can be had on earth. What is evident for our senses, is sensible, not spiritual; therefore it is not God Himself. What is evident for our reason, is what is proportioned to it; at times this is a truth about God, His existence, for example, but it is not the inner life
of God, which surpasses our reason and even the natural powers of the angelic intellect.

To see the intimate life of God, a person would have to die and receive the beatific vision. Now, faith makes us attain here on earth this inner life of God in the penumbra, in obscurity. Consequently a man who would prefer visions to infused faith would deceive himself, even if these visions were of divine origin, for he would prefer what is superficial and exterior, what is accessible to our faculties, to what surpasses them. He would prefer the figures to the divine reality. He would lose the meaning of the mystery; he would forsake true contemplation by withdrawing from this divine obscurity.(26)

Obscure faith enlightens us somewhat like the night, which, though surrounding us with shadows, allows us to see the stars, and by them the depths of the firmament. There is here a mingling of light and shade which is extremely beautiful. That we may see the stars, the sun must hide, night must begin. Amazingly, in the obscurity of night we see to a far greater distance than in the day; we see even the distant stars, which reveal to us the immense expanse of the heavens.

In the same way, the senses and reason allow us to see only what belongs to the natural order, only what is within their reach, whereas faith, although obscure, opens up to us the supernatural world and its infinite depths, the kingdom of God, His inner life, which we shall see unveiled and clearly in eternity.

St. John of the Cross reiterates this teaching, which is like a commentary on the definition of faith given by St. Paul,(27) a definition which St. Thomas sums up by saying: "Faith is a habit of the mind whereby eternal life is begun in us, making the intellect assent to what is non-apparent," since it makes us adhere to the mystery of the inner life of God which we shall see in eternity. (28)

It follows that, to live by faith, we should consider everything under its light: God, first of all, then ourselves, others, friends or strangers, and all agreeable or painful events. We should see them not only from the sensible, but also from the rational point of view, from the supernatural point of view of faith, which would be equivalent to considering all things, so to speak, with the eye of God, or somewhat as God sees them.(29) Whence the manifest necessity of purifying our mind of curiosity, by no longer preferring the study of the secondary, of the subordinate, and sometimes of what is useless to the attentive meditation of the one thing necessary, to the reading of the Gospel and of all that can truly nourish the soul. (30) This necessity of the supernatural point of view shows the importance of spiritual reading together with study and distinct from it.

Consequently it is of prime importance not to devour books in order to appear well informed and to be able to talk about them, but to read what is suitable to the life of the soul, in a spirit of humility in order to be penetrated with it, to put it into practice, and to do real good to others.(31) We may recall with profit what St. Paul says (Rom. 12: 3): "For I say, by the grace that is given me, to all that are among you, not to be more wise than it behooveth to be wise, but to be wise unto sobriety." (32)

Therefore we must avoid rash haste in judgment, for this haste is the source of many errors.(33) We must even more avoid tenacity (34) in our own judgment, and correct this defect by docility to the directions of the Church, to those of our spiritual director, and also to the Holy Spirit, who wishes to be our interior Master that He may make us live increasingly the life of faith and give us in it a foretaste of the life of heaven.

If we followed this rule, the consideration of details would no longer make us lose sight of the whole, as so often happens, just as trees seen too near hinder one from seeing the forest. Those who say that the problem of evil cannot be solved and find in it an occasion of sin, are absorbed in the woeful verification of certain painful details and lose the general view of the providential plan in which everything is ordained to the good of those who love the Lord.

The excessively meticulous study of details makes us depreciate the first global view of things; when the latter is pure, however, it is already elevated and salutary. Thus when a Christian child sees the starry sky, he finds in it a splendid sign of the infinite grandeur of God. Later on, if he becomes absorbed in the scientific study of the different constellations, he may forget the view of the whole, to which the intellect must finally return the better to comprehend its loftiness and profundity. It has been said that if a little learning withdraws a person from religion, great learning brings him back to it.(35)

Likewise the great supernatural facts which are produced by God to enlighten the simple and to save them, such as the fact of Lourdes, are rather easily grasped by the clean of heart. They quickly see the supernatural origin, meaning, and import of these facts. If this simple, and at the same time superior, point of view is forgotten because of absorption in the study of details considered from the material point of view, only an undecipherable enigma may be found in it, and at times only something impossible to see through. Then, while learned men discourse endlessly without being able to reach a conclusion, God does His work in the clean of heart. Finally, more profound learning, accompanied by humility, leads back to the original view of the whole in order to confirm it, and to recognize the action of God and the profound good done to souls. Thus, after a life consecrated to the study of philosophy and theology, the soul delights in returning to the simplicity of faith of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to the words of the psalms, to the parables of the Gospel. It is the purification of the intellect which prepares for contemplation.



1. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q.85, a.3.

2. Denzinger, no. 1786. It is said here that it is thanks to divine revelation that the natural truths of religion can be known by all, quickly, with a firm certitude, and without any admixture of errors.

3.  See Ia, q. 1, a. 1.

4. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 167, a. 1.

5. Ibid., q.35, a.4 ad 3um.

6. St. Thomas, In Epist. I Cor. 8: I, where he discusses the words, "Knowledge puffeth up," writes: "Here the Apostle does not approve of much knowledge, if the mode of knowing is ignored. Moreover, the mode of knowing is that you should know in what order, with what eagerness, to what end each thing must be known: in what order, that you should know first that which is more proper for salvation; with what eagerness, that you should seek with greater ardor that which is more efficacious to inflame love; to what end, that you should not wish to know anything for vainglory and curiosity, but for your own and your neighbor's edification."

See also IIa IIae, q. 166, On the Virtue of Studiousness. St. Thomas discusses here the virtue of studiousness which represses both vain curiosity and intellectual sloth in order to lead people to the study of what should be studied, in the manner in which this should be done, when it should be done, and for a moral and supernatural end.

Cf. also, IIa IIae, q. 188, a.5 ad 3um, On the Studies Which Are Suitable for Religious. They should study sacred science: "It becomes not religious, whose whole life is devoted to the service of God, to seek for other learning, except so far as it is referred to the sacred doctrine."

7. Cf. I Cor. 3: 19: "The wisdom of this world is foolishness with God." Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.46, On Folly. The saint shows that it is opposed to the gift of wisdom, that it is a sin, and that it is born especially of lust.

8. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 138, where St. Thomas speaks of the dangers of obstinacy in a person's own judgment, when he is no longer willing to listen to authorized counsels given to him.

Pertinacity is found sometimes in certain spiritual people who go astray. They have zeal, but it is a bitter zeal; they are no longer willing to listen to the wise advice given them, and they wish to impose their judgment on everyone as if they alone had the Holy Ghost. They are inflated with spiritual pride, they fail in charity under the pretext of reforming everything about them; they may become the enemies of peace and provoke profound discord. St. John of the Cross, deploring these errors, used to say: "Where there is not enough love, put love there, and you will reap love."

9. Cf. IIa IIae, q.15.

10. Mark 3:5.

11. Matt. 23: 16, 23 f.

12. John n:40.

13. Rom. 11:8.

14. Joel 2:12 f.

15. Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q. 15, a. I.

16. Cf. ibid., q.46, a.2 ad 3um: "Folly is opposed to the precepts, which are given by the contemplation of truth."

17. The Imitation, Bk. I, chap. 23.

18. Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q. 15, a.3.

19. In Ps. 47.

20. Jacques Maritain in his book, Le Docteur Angelique (1929, p. 111), says: "How can we reconcile two apparently contradictory facts: the fact that modem history seems to enter on a new Middle Age, in which the unity and universality of Christian culture will be found again and extended this time to the entire universe, and the fact that the general trend of modern civilization seems to draw it toward the universalism of Antichrist and his rod of iron rather than toward the universalism of Christ and His liberating law, and in any event to forbid the hope of the unification of the world in one universal Christian 'empire'?

"My answer is as follows: I think that two immanent movements cross at every point in the world's history and affect each of its momentary complexes. One of these movements draws on high everything in the world which shares in the divine life of the Church, which is in the world but not of the world, and follows the attraction of Christ, the head of the human race.

"The other movement draws downward everything in the world which belongs to the prince of this world, the head of all the wicked. While undergoing these two internal movements, history advances in time. Thus human affairs are subjected to an ever stronger distention until the material finally snaps. Thus the cockle grows with the wheat; the capital of sin grows throughout the course of history and the capital of grace also increases and superabounds. . . . Christian heroism will one day become the only solution for the problems of life. Then as God proportions His graces to needs, and never tempts anyone beyond his strength, a flowering of sanctity will without doubt be seen to coincide with the worst state of human history." The Gospel of St. Matthew (24: 24) declares: "There shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect"; and in the Apocalypse (chap. 12) we are told that the elect will be preserved during the great tribulation. Cf. E. B. Allo, O.P., L'Apocalypse de saint Jean (Paris, 1921), pp. 145 ff. The greatest effort of evil seems to have to coincide with the last triumph of Christ, as happened during His life on earth.

21. See IIa IIae, q.7. a.2.

22. Ibid., ad 1um.

23. In IIa IIae, q.45, a.2, no. 3.

24. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk II, chap.11; Faith is a dark night for the soul.

25. Ibid., Bk. II, chap. 3: The soul must remain in the obscurity of faith which will guide it to the highest contemplation. Ibid., Bk. II, chap. 9: "Faith is the sole proximate and proportionate means of the soul's union with God."

26. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. II, chap. 22; chaps. 10, 11, 16.

27. Heb. 11: 1: "Faith is the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not." "Faith gives us the substance, or rather is itself that of which the reality does not yet appear," says St. John Chrysostom.

28. See IIa IIae, q. 4, a. I; De veritate, q. 14, a. 2: "Faith is in us a certain beginning of eternal life."

29. Cf. St. Thomas, In Boetium de Trinitate, q.3, a. I ad 4.

30. We read in Bk. I, chap. 5 of The Imitation: "All holy Scripture should be read in the spirit in which it was written. . . . Inquire not who may have said a thing, but consider what is said. Men pass away, but the truth of the Lord abideth forever. God speaketh to us in divers ways, without respect of persons. Our curiosity is often a hindrance to us in reading the Scriptures, when we wish to understand and to discuss where we ought to pass on in simplicity. If thou wilt derive profit, read with humility, with simplicity, and with faith; and never wish to have the name of learning. Be fond of inquiring and listen in silence to the words of the saints; and let not the parables of the ancients be displeasing to thee, for they are not uttered without a cause."

31. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 167, a. I. See also ibid., q. 166, on the moral virtue of studiousness or application to study in order to correct the contrary and at times successive deviations of curiosity and intellectual sloth. Once curiosity is satisfied, it often gives place to intellectual sloth in a person who has not the virtue of studiousness, which orders study not only to our personal satisfaction, but to God and to the good of souls.

32. St. Thomas, In Epist. I Cor. 8: I, explains the words of St. Paul, "Knowledge puffeth up; but charity edifieth," by saying: "Knowledge, if alone and without charity, puffs one up with pride. Add charity to knowledge, then knowledge will be usefuL" Then he recalls what St. Bernard says: "There are those who wish to know for the purpose of knowing a great deal, and this is curiosity; some that they may know, and this is vanity; some that they may sell their knowledge, and this is base gain; some that they may be edified, and this is prudence; some that they may edify, and this is charity."

33. Cf. IIa IIae, q.53, a.3.

34. Ibid., q.138.

35. Much could be said about the first intellectual gaze and its profound view, whether in the natural order or in the order of supernatural faith. The first gaze may lead into error if its object is something accidental and not the proper object of the intellectual faculty; it is quite otherwise if the object corresponds to the nature of the intellect. There are two simple beings: the child who does not yet know evil; and the sanctified old man who has forgotten it by dint of conquering it. Therefore the old man loves the child and is loved by it.

The intelligible being of sensible things and truth in general are the object of the first natural gaze of the human intellect; without this gaze, all knowledge and all philosophy would be impossible. Metaphysics is the profound view of intelligible being which permits man to rise in an absolutely certain manner to God, first Being, supreme Cause, and last End. Likewise all ethics proceed from this first gaze: "We must do good and avoid evil."

The first gaze in the order of supernatural faith is that which we see in the patriarchs of the Old Testament; they believe that God is and that He is the supreme rewarder (Heb. 11:6), and in this case God is considered not only as the Author of nature, but as the Author of salvation.

Likewise the first supernatural gaze, at the time of the coming of our Savior, after the Sermon on the Mount, is expressed in these words of St. Matthew (7:28f.): "When Jesus had fully ended these words, the people were in admiration at His doctrine. For He was teaching them as one having power, and not as the scribes and Pharisees," who recapitulated the texts. The first gaze is again that of a child at Christmas before the Savior's crib. The profound view is that of a contemplative at the end of his life, that of a St. John, a St. Augustine, a St. Thomas, a St. John of the Cross.

In the case of a religious also, the first simple and penetrating gaze is that which he has when he hears the call of God in his youth; this simple gaze is often more elevated than many of the complications that will come later. Blessed are they who find it again later on in a profound view, the view of wisdom on all of life.