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

The Purification of the Soul in Beginners (cont)


Ch 37: Retarded Souls

At the beginning of the third part of this work, we shall speak of the second conversion through which one passes, with greater or lesser generosity, from the purgative way of beginners to the illuminative way of the advanced. Some souls, because of their negligence or spiritual sloth, do not pass from the age of beginners to that of proficients. These are retarded souls; in the spiritual life they are like abnormal children, who do not happily pass through the crisis of adolescence and who, though they do not remain children, never reach the full development of maturity. Thus these retarded souls belong neither among beginners nor among proficients. Unfortunately they are numerous.

Of these retarded souls, some who formerly served God with fidelity are now in a state bordering on indifference. Though in the past they knew true spiritual fervor, we may say without fear of rash judgment that they seriously misused divine graces. Had it not been for this misuse, as a matter of fact the Lord would have continued what He had begun in them, for He does not refuse His help to those who do what is in their power to obtain it.

How did these souls reach this state of tepidity? As a rule, two principal causes are indicated: the neglect of little things in the service of God and the refusal to make the sacrifices He asks.


The neglect of little things seems slight in itself, but it may become grave in its results. Our daily merit is ordinarily constituted by little acts of virtue from morning to night. As drops of water gradually wear away a stone, as drops of rain render the dried-up earth fertile, so our good acts by their repetition engender a good habit, an acquired virtue; they preserve it and increase it; and, if they proceed from a supernatural or infused virtue, they obtain the increase of this virtue.

In the service of God, things which seem small in themselves are great in their relation to our last end, to God who should be loved , above all else. They are also great by reason of the supernatural spirit of faith, confidence, and love which should make us accomplish them. If we acted thus, we would live from morning to night in the presence of God, which is infinitely precious; and we would live by Him, by His spirit, instead of living by the natural spirit in accordance with the inclination of egoism. Little by little there would grow up in us zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. Unless we strive in this way, we may end by following the downward path of practical naturalism, allowing ourselves to be dominated by the more or less unconscious gross selfishness which inspires many of our acts.

The neglect of little things in the service of God leads rapidly to neglect of great things: for example, in the case of a priest or religious, it leads to the recitation of the Office without true piety, to scarcely any preparation for Mass, to saying Mass hastily or assisting at it without the requisite attention, to replacing thanksgiving by the obligatory recitation of a part of the Office, so that all personal piety disappears and gradually gives place to piety that is, in a way, official and exterior. If a priest were to follow this downward path, he would little by little become a mere functionary of God. He would end by treating holy things with carelessness, whereas, on the other hand, he would perhaps acquit himself with the utmost seriousness in those duties which assure his reputation as a professor, writer, lecturer, or man of affairs. Gradually emphasis would be shifted from what is of greatest moment in life to what is secondary. The holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which perpetuates in substance on our altars the sacrifice of the cross and applies its fruits to us, is evidently the most serious and greatest thing in life for the priest and the true Christian. A Mass well celebrated or well heard with a spirit of faith is far superior to our personal activity; it orientates this activity toward its true supernatural end and renders it fruitful. On the contrary, we swerve from this end when we reach the stage of seeking self in our activity, to the point of forgetting the salvation of souls and all that it demands on our part. Neglect of little things in the service of God may lead us to this forgetfulness, which renders everything unfruitful.

We read, on the contrary, in St. Luke: "He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in that which is greater." (1) Whoever is daily faithful to the smallest duties of Christian life, or to those of the religious life, will receive the grace to be faithful even to martyrdom, if he should have to bear witness to God in his blood. Then will be fully accomplished in him the words of the Gospel: "Well done, good and faithful servant; because thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will place thee over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." (2) But whoever habitually neglects little things in the service of God, will end by neglecting great ones. How, then, will he accomplish the difficult acts that may be required of him?


A second cause of tepidity in retarded souls is the refusal to make the sacrifices which the Lord asks. Some persons feel themselves called to a more serious, a more perfect life, to true prayer, to the practice of humility, without which there are no true virtues; but these souls refuse, if not directly at least indirectly, by seeking diversion. They do not wish to hear the words that recur daily in the invitatory of Matins: "Today, if you shall hear His voice, harden not your hearts." Some, who are preoccupied with doing something, for example, a book, a work that would let the world know they exist, say to themselves from time to time: "First of all, it is essential to become an interior soul; if the soul is empty, it can give nothing. To do something exterior is unprofitable unless the soul is united to God." To become an interior soul, only some sacrifices of self-love would be necessary; God would have to be truly sought instead of self. Without these sacrifices, how can anyone enter on a true interior life? If these sacrifices are refused, the soul remains retarded; it may stay so permanently.

Then it loses zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of its neighbor, the fervor of charity. It falls into tepidity, which, with habitual negligence, is affection for venial sin or the disposition of the will to commit certain venial sins deliberately when the occasion presents itself. There is finally, as it were, the firm resolution to remain in this state. In addition to the lack of the spirit of sacrifice, other causes may produce this tepidity of retarded souls: namely, levity of spirit, the thoughtlessness with which one tells, for example, officious lies (i.e., lies of expediency) whenever the occasion offers; spiritual sloth, which leads finally to the abandonment of the spiritual war against our defects, against our predominant fault, which quite frequently tries to pass for a virtue, and gives rise in us to other more or less inordinate passions. A person thus arrives at carelessness and indifference in regard to perfection and no longer truly tends toward it. The fact that he has perhaps promised to tend toward it by the way of the counsels is forgotten, as is also the loftiness of the supreme precept: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind." (3)


Among the causes of tepidity in retarded souls, the tendency to derision should be particularly noted. St. Thomas speaks of the derider when he discusses the vices opposed to justice: insult, detraction, murmuring against the reputation of our neighbor. He points out (4) that to deride or to ridicule someone, is to show that we do not esteem him; and derision, says the saint, may become a mortal sin if it affects persons or things that deserve high esteem. It is a grievous sin to ridicule the things of God, or our parents, or superiors, or good persons who lead a virtuous life. Derision may even become very grievous by reason of its consequences, for it may turn weak souls forever away from the practice of good. Job replied to his friends: "He that is mocked by his friends as I, shall call upon God; and He will hear him. For the simplicity of the just man is laughed to scorn." (5) But it is also said of deriders: "He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh at them." (6) The terrible irony of heaven will chastise that of earth.

The derider is himself a retarded soul, holding others back and becoming, often without being aware of it, the instrument of the spirit of evil. His cast of soul, which is the direct opposite of evangelical simplicity, is the one most opposed to supernatural contemplation. The derider, who wishes "to play the rogue," ridicules the just man who tends truly to perfection; he emphasizes the latter's defects and depreciates his good qualities. Why is this? Because he feels that he himself has little virtue, and he is unwilling to admit his inferiority. Then, out of spite, he lessens the real and fundamental value of his neighbor and the necessity of virtue itself. He may greatly harm weak souls which he intimidates, and, while working his own ruin, he may labor at their perdition.


The saints tell us that retarded and tepid souls may reach such a state of blindness of spirit and hardness of heart that it is very difficult to reform them. This statement is borne out by St. Bernard, who says: "You will more easily see a great number of seculars renounce vice and embrace virtue than a single religious pass from tepidity to fervor." (7) The higher a retarded or tepid soul has been raised, the more deplorable is its fall and also the more difficult is its conversion; in fact, it reaches the point where it judges its state to be satisfactory, and no longer has a desire to ascend higher. When the time of the Lord's visit is disregarded, He sometimes returns only after long petitions. Retarded souls are in danger; they should be entrusted to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who alone can bring them back to the Savior and obtain for them the graces that will rekindle in them the desire for perfection.

On this subject Father Lallemant, S.J., wrote a striking chapter reminiscent of certain pages from the writings of St. Catherine of Siena and of Tauler. Lallemant's beautiful book, The Spiritual Doctrine, contains the following statement:

In a community there may be four classes of religious: some perfect; others wicked, haughty, full of vanity, sensual, enemies of regularity; others tepid, cowardly, indifferent; and finally, the virtuous who tend to perfection, although they may perhaps never reach it.

Religious belonging to these four classes may be found in the holiest religious orders, as well as in those communities which have fallen into relaxed condition; with this difference, however, that in an order which has fallen from its first fervor, the larger number belong to the tepid group, and the remainder is composed of a few wicked souls, of a small number who work at their perfection, and of a very limited number of perfect souls. But in an order in which regular observance is still in its vigor, the bulk of the community is composed of those who tend to perfection, and the remainder comprises a few perfect souls, a small number of tepid religious, and very few wicked souls.

We may make a very important observation here: that is, that a religious order leans toward decadence when the number of the tepid begins to equal that of the fervent. By the fervent, I mean those who strive from day to day to make fresh progress in prayer, recollection, mortification, purity of conscience, and humility. Those who do not make this effort should be considered tepid, although they may keep from mortal sin; they corrupt many others, do extreme harm to the whole body, and are themselves in danger, either of not persevering in their vocation, or of falling into interior pride or great darkness.

The duty of supeirors in religious houses is to act in such a way, as well by their good example as their exhortations, their individual conferences, and their prayers, that their inferiors may remain in the ranks of the fervent who tend to perfection; otherwise, the superiors themselves will bear the punishment, and a terrible punishment it will be.(8)

All this is only too true and shows how easy it is to become a retarded soul, to stray from the road of perfection, by ceasing to live according to the spirit of faith. Then, evidently, it becomes difficult to admit that the contemplation of the mysteries of faith is in the normal way of sanctity; or one may conclude that this doctrine seems true in theory, but is little in accord with the facts. To tell the truth, we should say that, as a matter of fact, many souls remain retarded; they are not in order; they do not really tend toward perfection and certainly do not nourish themselves sufficiently with the mysteries of faith, with the mystery of the Mass, at which, however, they frequently assist, but in a manner that is not sufficiently interior to assure the progress that should be made.

Father Lallemant adds:

There are four things prejudicial to the spiritual life, and on them are based the evil maxims that slip into holy communities: (I) the esteem of purely human talents and qualities; (2) the care to make friends for solely human reasons; (3) a politic conduct directed only by human prudence, a spirit that is sly and opposed to evangelical simplicity; (4) superfluous recreations which the soul seeks or conversations and reading which give a wholly natural satisfaction to the mind.(9)

These four enemies of the spiritual life give rise, as Father Lallemant points out in this same chapter, to ambition, the desire for eminent positions or the wish to make a reputation for oneself in the sciences, and the seeking after one's ease; all of which are manifestly opposed to spiritual progress.

In this discussion of retarded souls, a most important consideration should be noted: namely, that we must be on the alert to preserve in our souls the subordination of the natural activity of the mind to the essentially supernatural virtues, especially to the three theological virtues. These three infused virtues and their acts are certainly very superior to the natural activity of the mind necessary for the study of the sciences, of philosophy, and of theology. To deny this truth would be a heresy; but it is not sufficient to admit it in theory. Otherwise we would end by really preferring the study of philosophy and theology to the superior life of faith, to prayer, to the love of God and of souls, to the celebration of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which would be hurriedly celebrated without any spirit of faith, in order to give more time to a piece of work, to an intellectual overloading that would remain quite empty and fruitless, because it would be destitute of the spirit that ought to animate it. Thus we would fall into an evil intellectualism, in which there would be something like the hypertrophy of the reasoning powers to the detriment of the life of faith, of true piety, and of the indispensable training of the will. Then charity, the highest of the theological virtues, would no longer truly hold the first place in the soul, which might remain forever retarded and in part fruitless.

To remedy this retardation, we should often recall that God in His mercy continually offers us the grace to make us daily fulfill a little better the supreme precept, that is, the duty to tend toward the perfection of charity: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind: and thy neighbor as thyself." Let us remember that in the evening of life we shall be judged on the sincerity of our love of God.


Tauler in his sermons often speaks of two inclinations in us, the one good, the other evil. His disciples gathered up his preaching on this subject in the third chapter of The Institutions. At this point in our study, we must emphasize the essential elements of this teaching, by noting the indications of the inclination that seeks self, and by showing how to bring about the predominance of the other fundamental inclination by means of which we are in the image of God.

Since all our works draw their value from the intention and love which produce them, and since all should spring from the love of God, we ought often to recall the fact that all sins and eternal damnation come from an evil inclination which seeks self and is opposed to God.

Christ Himself declares: "Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone, but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." This is equivalent to saying that without the death of the evil inclination in us our soul will never become rich in merits, in fruits of life for eternity. If, on the contrary, the evil inclination dies, then the seed of eternal life will grow in us. The knowledge of this evil inclination is, therefore, more useful to man than knowledge of the entire universe.

By what traits can this evil inclination be recognized? Simply by the fact that it continually seeks self rather than God in everything. If at times it gives evidence of love for God and neighbor, such a manifestation is only a deception and an illusion. This inclination fancies that it possesses justice and goodness; it often glories in its works, but chiefly in such as have some appearance of virtue and holiness. It takes delight in them, attributes them to itself, and, although it does not love true virtues, it seeks the praise that is due them.

This evil inclination considers its sins as trifles. Such an attitude is a proof that it is destitute of true light and does not know what sin is; for, if it had a true and clear understanding of what it is to turn away from God, the sovereign Good, it would doubtless not willingly consent to do so.

This same inclination makes an effort always to appear good, although it is not. For this reason, some people would not dare to grieve anyone by a reproof because they could not endure a cross reply. This inclination at times even imagines that it loves God fervently, and consequently it reprehends its neighbor for his sins with extreme asperity. "But," says Tauler, "if it could see its own sins, it would completely forget those of others, no matter how great they might be." (11)

Every time this inclination is reproved, it strives to justify and defend itself, and cannot bear to be corrected. It tells itself that others have their defects, but that it has always acted with a good intention or through ignorance or weakness. This inclination reaches the point of persuading itself that it seeks God in everything, whereas in reality it seeks itself always and lives only on appearances and externals. It prefers appearance to reality. Therefore it seeks itself even in prayer and the taste for spiritual things, in interior consolations turning the gifts of heaven, whether interior or exterior, and even God Himself, to its own satisfaction. If it happens to lose an object of its delight, it immediately seeks another, in order to rest in it and to refer all to self.


To bring about the predominance of the good inclination, man must be a severe guardian and observer of self, of his exterior and interior senses. He must not allow his senses to become dissipated, to run after creatures. "He must," says Tauler, "build a cell within his heart, withdraw to it and live in it as far as possible unknown to the whole world, that he may be less turned away from divine contemplation. He must not lose sight of the life and passion of our Savior." (12) The consideration of Christ's life and passion will give birth in him to the desire to resemble Christ by humility of heart, patience, meekness, true love of God and neighbor.

When a man finds that he is not conformed to the divine model, he will ask the Holy Ghost to give him the grace better to see the ugliness of sin and its deadly results. He will abase himself with sincerity and humility, but with confidence in infinite mercy, begging it to raise him up again.

The more a man promptly mortifies his evil inclination, the more living and beautiful the image of God that is in him becomes: the natural image, that is, the soul itself in so far as by nature it is spiritual and immortal, and the supernatural image, in other words, sanctifying grace from which spring the infused virtues and the gifts. Then gradually man begins to think frequently of God instead of thinking always of himself, and instead of seeking self by referring everything to self, he begins to seek God in everything that happens, to love Him truly, effectively, practically, and to refer all to Him.

Tauler concludes: "As long as you seek yourself, as you act for yourself, as you ask for the reward of and the wages for your actions, and cannot endure being known by others for what you really are, you dwell in illusion and error worthy of pity. When you despise another because of his defects, and when you wish to be preferred to those who do not live according to your maxims, you do not know yourself, you are still ignorant of the evil inclination that subsists in you." (13) It is this inclination that hinders the image of God from being what it ought to be, so that the soul may truly bear the fruits of eternal life; therefore the necessity of knowing oneself profoundly in order to know God and to love Him truly.

These reflections on retarded souls lead us to speak of the necessity of the second conversion or passive purification of the senses, which marks, according to St, John of the Cross, the entrance into the illuminative way of the advanced. We will discuss this subject in the second volume of this work.



1. Luke 16: 10.

2. Matt. 25:23.

3. Luke 10:27.

4. Cf. IIa IIae, q.75, a.2.

5. Job 12:4.

6. Ps. 2:4.

7. Epist. ad Richard

8. The Spiritual Doctrine, Appendix, chap. 8.

9. Ibid.

10. Luke 10:27.

11. The Institutions, chap. 3.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.