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

PART 1 The sources of the interior life and its end


Since the interior life is an increasingly conscious form of the life of grace in every generous soul, we shall first of all discuss the life of grace to see its value clearly. We shall then see the nature of the spiritual organism of the infused virtues and of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, which spring from sanctifying grace in every just soul. We shall thus be led to speak of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in the souls of the just, and also of the continual influence exercised on them by our Lord Jesus Christ, universal Mediator, and by Mary, Mediatrix of all graces. Such are the very elevated sources of the interior life; in their loftiness they resemble the high mountain sources of great rivers. Because our interior life descends to us from on high, it can reascend even to God and lead us to a very close union with Him. After speaking, in this first part, of the sources of interior life, we shall treat of its end, that is, of Christian perfection to which it is directed, and of everyone's obligation to tend toward it, according to his condition. In all things the end should be considered first; for it is first in the order of intention, although it may be last in the order of execution. The end is desired first of all, even though it is last to be obtained. For this reason our Lord began His preaching by speaking of the beatitudes, and for this reason also moral theology begins with the treatise on the last end to which all our acts must be directed.

Ch 1: The Life of Grace, Eternal life begun

The interior life of a Christian presupposes the state of grace, which is opposed to the state of mortal sin. In the present plan of Providence every soul is either in the state of grace or in the state of mortal sin; in other words, it is either turned toward God, its supernatural last end, or turned away from Him. No man is in a purely natural state, for all are called to the supernatural end, which consists in the immediate vision of God and the love which results from that vision. From the moment of creation, man was destined for this supreme end. It is to this end that we are led by Christ who, after the Fall, offered Himself as a victim for the salvation of all men.

To have a true interior life it is doubtless not sufficient to be in the state of grace, like a child after baptism or every penitent after the absolution of his sins. The interior life requires further a struggle against everything that inclines us to fall back into sin, a serious propensity of the soul toward God. If we had a profound knowledge of the state of grace, we would see that it is not only the principle of a true and very holy interior life, but that it is the germ of eternal life. We think that insistence on this point from the outset is important, recalling the words of St. Thomas: "The good of grace in one is greater than the good of nature in the whole universe"; (1) for grace is the germ of eternal life, incomparably superior to the natural life of our soul or to that of the angels.

This fact best shows us the value of sanctifying grace, which we received in baptism and which absolution restores to us if we have had the misfortune to lose it.(2)

The value of a seed can be known only if we have some idea of what should grow from it; for example, in the order of nature, to know the value of the seed contained in an acorn, we must have seen a fully developed oak. In the human order, to know the value of the rational soul which still slumbers in a little child, we must know the normal possibilities of the human soul in a man who has reached his full development. Likewise, we cannot know the value of sanctifying grace, which is in the soul of every baptized infant and in all the just, unless we have considered, at least imperfectly, what the full development of this grace will be in the life of eternity. Moreover, it should be seen in the very light of the Savior's words, for they are "spirit and life" and are more savory than any commentary. The language of the Gospel, the style used by our Lord, lead us more directly to contemplation than the technical language of the surest and loftiest theology. Nothing is more salutary than to breathe the pure air of these heights from which flow down the living waters of the stream of Christian doctrine.


The expression "eternal life" rarely occurs in the Old Testament, where the recompense of the just after death is often presented in a symbolical manner under the figure, for example, of the Promised Land. The rare occurrence of the expression is more easily understood when we remember that after death the just of the Old Testament had to wait for the accomplishment of the passion of the Savior and the sacrifice of the cross to see the gates of heaven opened. Everything in the Old Testament was directed primarily to the coming of the promised Savior.

In the preaching of Jesus, everything is directed immediately toward eternal life. If we are attentive to His words, we shall see how the life of eternity differs from the future life spoken of by the best philosophers, such as Plato. The future life they spoke of belonged, in their opinion, to the natural order; they though it "a fine risk to run," (3) without having absolute certltude about it. On the other hand, the Savior speaks with the most absolute assurance not only of a future life, but of eternal life superior to the past, the present, and the future; an entirely supernatural life, measured like the intimate life of God, of which it is the participation, by the single instant of immobile eternity.

Christ tells us that the way leading to eternal life is narrow,(4) and that to obtain that life we must turn away from sin and keep the commandments of God.(5) On several occasions He says in the Fourth Gospel: "He who heareth My word and believeth Him that sent Me, hath life everlasting," (6) that is, he who believes in Me, the Son of God, with a living faith united to charity, to the practice of the precepts, that man has eternal life begun. Christ also affirms this in the eight beatitudes as soon as He begins to preach: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . . Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill. . . . Blessed are the clean of heart: for they shall see God." (7) What is eternal life, then, if not this repletion, this vision of God in His kingdom? In particular to those who suffer persecution for justice' sake is it said: "Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven." (8) Before His passion Jesus says even more clearly, as St. John records: "Father, the hour is come. Glorify Thy Son that Thy Son may glorify Thee. As Thou hast given Him power over all flesh, that He may give eternal life to all whom Thou hast given Him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou hast sent." (9)

St. John the Evangelist himself explains these words of the Savior when he writes: "Dearly beloved, we are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that when He shall appear we shall be like to Him: because we shall see Him as He is." (10) We shall see Him as He is, and not only by the reflection of His perfections in creatures, in sensible nature, or in the souls of the saints, in their words and their acts; we shall see Him immediately as He is in Himself.

St. Paul adds: "We see (God) now through a glass in a dark manner; but then face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know even as I am known." (11) Observe that St. Paul does not say that I shall know Him as I know myself, as I know the interior of my conscience. I certainly know the interior of my soul better than other men do; but it has secrets from me, for I cannot measure all the gravity of my directly or indirectly voluntary faults. God alone knows me thoroughly; the secrets of my heart are perfectly open only to His gaze.

St. Paul actually says that then I shall know Him even as I am known by Him. In the same way that God knows the essence of my soul and my inner life without any intermediary, so I shall see Him without the intermediary of any creature, and even, theology adds, (12) without the intermediary of any created idea. No created idea can, in fact, represent such as He is in Himself the eternally subsistent, pure intellectual radiance that is God and His infinite truth. Every created idea is finite; it is a concept of one or another perfection of God, of His being, of His truth or His goodness, of His wisdom or His love, of His mercy or His justice. These divers concepts of the divine perfections are, however, incapable of making us know such as it is in itself the supremely simple divine essence, the Deity or the intimate life of God. These multiple concepts are to the intimate life of God, to the divine simplicity, somewhat as the seven colors of the rainbow are to the white light from which they proceed. On earth we are like men who have seen only the seven colors and who would like to see the pure light which is their eminent source. As long as we have not seen the Deity, such as It is in Itself, we shall not succeed in seeing the intimate harmony of the divine perfections, in particular that of infinite mercy and infinite justice. Our created ideas of the divine attributes are like little squares of mosaic which slightly harden the spiritual physiognomy of God. When we think of His justice, it may appear too rigid to us; when we think of the gratuitous predilections of His mercy, they may seem arbitrary to us. On reflection, we say to ourselves that in God justice and mercy are one and the same thIng and that there is no real distinction between them. We affirm with certitude that this is true, but we do not yet see the intimate harmony of these divine perfections. To see it, we should have to see immediately the divine essence, such as it is in itself, without the intermediary of any created idea.

This vision will constitute eternal life. No one can express the joy and love that will be born in us of this vision. It will be so strong, so absolute a love of God that thenceforth nothing will be able to destroy it or even to diminish it. It will be a love by which we shall above all rejoice that God is God, infinitely holy, just, and merciful. We shall adore all the decrees of His providence in view of the manifestation of His goodness. We shall have entered into His beatitude, according to Christ's own words: "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." (13) We shall see God as He sees Himself, immediately, without however exhausting the depth of His being, His love, and His power, and we shall love Him as He loves Himself. We shall also see our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Such is eternal beatitude in its essence, not to speak of the accidental joy that we shall experience in seeing and loving the Blessed Virgin and all the saints, more particularly the souls whom we knew during our time on earth.


The immediate vision of God, of which we have just spoken, surpasses the natural capacity of every created intellect, whether angelic or human. Naturally a created intellect may indeed know God by the reflection of His perfections in the created order, angelic or human, but it cannot see Him immediately in Himself as He sees Himself.(14) If a created intellect could by its natural powers alone see God immediately, it would have the same formal object as the divine Intellect; it would then be of the same nature as God. This would be the pantheistic confusion of a created nature and the divine nature.

A created intellect can be raised to the immediate vision of the divine essence only by a gratuitous help, by a grace of God. In the angel and in us this grace somewhat resembles a graft made on a wild shrub to enable it to bear good fruit. The angel and the human soul become capable of a supernatural knowledge of God and a supernatural love only if they have received this divine graft, habitual or sanctifying grace, which is a participation in the divine nature and in the inner life of God. Only this grace, received in the essence of our soul as a free gift, can render the soul radically capable of essentially divine operations, can make it capable of seeing God immediately as He sees Himself and of loving Him as He loves Himself. In other words, the deification of the intellect and that of the will presuppose the deification of the soul itself (in its essence), whence these faculties spring.

When this grace is consummated and inamissible, it is called glory. From it proceed, in the intellects of the blessed in heaven, the supernatural light which gives them the strength to see God, and in their wills the infused charity which makes them love Him without being able thereafter to turn away from Him.

Through baptism we have already received the seed of eternal life, for through it we received sanctifying grace which is the radical principle of that life; and with sanctifying grace we received infused charity, which ought to last forever.

This is what our Savior told the Samaritan woman, as St. John recounts: "If thou didst know the gift of God, and who He is that saith to thee: Give Me to drink; thou perhaps wouldst have asked of Him, and He would have given thee living water. . . . Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again; but he that shall drink of the water that I will give him shall not thirst forever. But the water that I will give him shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting." (15) If one should ask whether these words of our Lord belong to the ascetical or the mystical order, the question would seem unintelligent; for, if our Lord is speaking here of the life of heaven, all the more do His words apply to the close union which prepares the soul for that life.

St. Thomas says: "He who will drink of the living water of grace given by the Savior will no longer desire another, but he will desire this water more abundantly. . . . Moreover, whereas material water descends, the spiritual water of grace rises. It is a living water ever united to its (eminent) source and one that springs up to eternal life, which it makes us merit." (16) This living water comes from God, and that is why it can reascend even to Him.

Likewise, in the temple at Jerusalem on the last day of the feast of tabernacles, Christ stood and cried in a loud voice: "If any man thirst, let him come to Me, and drink. He that believeth in Me, as the Scripture saith: Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." (17) He who drinks spiritually, believing in the Savior, draws from the source of living water, and can draw from it not only for himself but also for other souls to be saved.

On several occasions, as we have already remarked, Jesus repeats: "He that believeth in Me, hath everlasting life." (18) Not only will he have it later on, but in a sense he already possesses it, for the life of grace is eternal life begun.

It is, in fact, the same life in its essence, just as the seed which is in an acorn has the same life as the full-grown oak, and as the spiritual soul of the little child is the same one that will eventually develop in the mature man.

Fundamentally, the same divine life exists as a germ or a seed in the Christian on earth and as a fully developed life in the saints in heaven. It is these who truly live eternal life. This explains why Christ said also: "He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, hath everlasting life: and I will raise him up in the last day." (19) "The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say: Behold here or behold there. For lo, the kingdom of God is within you." (20) It is hidden there like the mustard seed, like the leaven which causes the dough to rise, like the treasure buried in the field.

How do we know that we have already received this life which should last forever? St. John explains the matter to us at length: "We know that we have passed from death to life because we love the brethren. He that loveth not, abideth in death. Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer. And you know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in himself."(21) "These things I write to you, that you may know that you have eternal life, you who believe in the name of the Son of God." (22) Jesus had said: "Amen, amen I say to you: If any man keep My word, he shall not see death forever." (23) In fact, the liturgy expresses this idea in the preface of the Mass for the Dead: "For to those who believe in Thee, Lord, life is only changed, not taken away"; on the contrary, it reaches its full development in heaven. All tradition declares that the life of grace on earth is in reality the seed of glory. St. Thomas delights also in saying: "For grace is nothing else than a beginning of glory in us." (24) Bossuet often expresses himself in the same terms.(25)

This explains why St. Thomas likes to say: "The good of grace in one is greater than the good of nature in the whole universe." (26) The slightest degree of sanctifying grace contained in the soul of an infant after baptism is more precious than the natural good of the entire universe, all angelic natures taken together included therein; for the least degree of sanctifying grace belongs to an enormously superior order, to the order of the inner life of God, which is superior to all miracles and to all the outward signs of divine revelation.(27)

The same supernatural life, the same sanctifying grace, is in the just on earth and in the saints in heaven. This is likewise true of infused charity, with these two differences: on earth we know God not in the clarity of vision, but in the obscurity of infused faith; and besides, though we hope to possess Him in such a way as never to lose Him, we can lose Him here on earth through our own fault.

In spite of these two differences pertaining to faith and hope, the life is the same because it is the same sanctifying grace and the same charity, both of which should last forever. This is exactly what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: "If thou didst know the gift of God. . . thou perhaps wouldst have asked of Him. . . . He that shall drink of the water that I will give him, shall not thirst forever: but the water that I will give him shall become in him a fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting." (28) By the light of this principle we must judge what our interior life should be and what should be its full, normal development that it may be the worthy prelude of the life of eternity. Since sanctifying grace, the infused virtues, and the gifts are intrinsically ordained to eternal life, are they not also ordained to the mystical union? Is not this union the normal prelude of the life of eternity in souls that are in truth completely generous?


From what we have just said, we may at least infer the nonextraordinary character of the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith and of the union with God which results therefrom. This presumption will be more and more confirmed in what follows and will become a certitude.

Sanctifying grace and charity, which unite us to God in His intimate life, are, in fact, very superior to graces gratis datae and extraordinary, such as prophecy and the gift of tongues, which are only signs of the divine intervention and which by themselves do not unite us closely to God. St. Paul affirms this clearly,(29) and St. Thomas explains it quite well.(30)

Infused contemplation, an act of infused faith illumined by the gifts of understanding and wisdom, proceeds, as we shall see, from sanctifying grace, called "the grace of the virtues and the gifts," (31) received by all in baptism, and not from graces gratis datae and extraordinary. Theologians commonly concede this. We may, therefore, even now seriously presume that infused contemplation and the union with God resulting from it are not intrinsically extraordinary, like prophecy or the gift of tongues. Since they are not essentially extraordinary, are they not in the normal way of sanctity?

A second and even more striking reason springs immediately from what we have just said: namely, sanctifying grace, being by its very nature ordained to eternal life, is also essentially ordained, in a normal manner, to the proximate perfect disposition to receive the light of glory immediately. This proximate disposition is perfect charity with the keen desire for the beatific .vision, an ardent desire which is ordinarily found only in the union with God resulting from the infused contemplation of the mysteries of salvation.

This contemplation is, therefore, not intrinsically extraordinary like prophecy, but something eminent which already appears indeed to be in the normal way of sanctity, although relatively rare like lofty perfection.

We must likewise add that the ardent desire for the beatific vision is found according to its full perfection only in the transforming union, or the higher mystical union, which consequently does not seem to be outside the normal way of sanctity. To grasp the meaning and import of this reason, we may remark that, if there is one good which the Christian ought to desire keenly, it is God seen face to face and loved above all, without any further possibility of sin. Evidently there should be proportion between the intensity of the desire and the value of the good desired; in this case, its value is infinite. We should all be "pilgrims of the Absolute" "while. . . we are absent from the Lord." (32)

Finally, as sanctifying grace is essentially ordained to eternal life, it is also ordained to a proximate disposition for us to receive the light of glory immediately after death without passing through purgatory. Purgatory is a punishment which presupposes a sin that could have been avoided, and an insufficient satisfaction that could have been completed if we had accepted with better dispositions the sufferings of the present life. It is certain, in fact, that no one will be detained in purgatory except for sins he could have avoided or for negligence in making reparation for them. Normally purgatory should be spent in this life while meriting, while growing in love, instead of after death without merit.

The proximate disposition to receive the light of glory immediately after death presupposes a true purification analogous to that in souls that are about to leave purgatory and that have an ardent desire for the beatific vision.(33) This ardent desire exists ordinarily in this life only in the union with God which results from the infused contemplation of the mysteries of salvation. Hence contemplation stands out clearly even now, not as an extraordinary grace,
but as an eminent grace in the normal way of sanctity.

The keen desire for God, the sovereign Good, which is the normal proximate disposition to the beatific vision, is admirably expressed by St. Paul: "Though our outward man is corrupted, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. . . . For in this also we groan, desiring to be clothed upon with our habitation that is from heaven. . . . Now He that maketh us for this very thing, is God, who hath given us the pledge of the Spirit." (34)

Obviously, that we may treat of questions of ascetical and mystical theology in a fitting manner, we must not lose sight of these heights as they are made known to us by Holy Scripture explained by the theology of the great masters. If there is a field in which men must be considered not only as they are, but as they ought to be, that field is evidently spirituality. One should be able there to breathe freely the air of the heights above human conventions. Blessed are those tried souls who, like St. Paul of the Cross, breathe freely only in the domain of God and who aspire to Him with all their strength.



1. See Ia IIae, q. 1 13, a.9 ad 2um.

2. At the beginning of a treatise on the interior life, it is important to get a high idea of sanctifying grace; Protestantism, following several nominalists of the fourteenth century, has lost the conception of it. In Luther's opinion, man is justified not by a new infused life, but by the exterior imputation of the merits of Christ, in such a way that he is not interiorly changed and that it is not necessary for his salvation that he observe the precept of the love of God above all else. Such an opinion is a radical misconception of the interior life spoken of in the Gospel. This lamentable doctrine was prepared by that of the nominalists, who said that grace is a gift which is not essentially supernatural, but which morally gives a right to eternal life, like paper money which, though only paper, gives a right, by reason of a legal institution, to receive money. This doctrine constituted the negation of the essentially supernatural life; it was a failure to recognize the very essence of grace and of the theological virtues.

3. Even in the Phaedon, the future is thus represented.

4. Matt. 7: 14.

5. Ibid., 19: 17.

6. John 5:24; 6:40, 47, 55.

7. Matt. 5:3-8.

8. Ibid., 5: 12.

9. John 17: 1-3.

10. See I John 3:2.

11. See I Cor. 13: 12.

12. St. Thomas, Ia, q.12, a.2.

13. Matt. 25:21, 23.

14. St. Thomas, Ia, q.12, a.4.

15. John 4: 10-14.

16. Commentum in Joannem, 4:3 ff.

17. John 7:37 f.

18. John 3:36; 5:24, 39; 6:40,47,55.

19 John 6: 55.

20. Luke 17:20f.

21. See I John 3: 14 f.

22. Ibid., 5: 13.

23. John 8: 51.

24. See IIa IIae, q. 24, a. 3 ad 2um; Ia IIae, q.69, a.2; De veritate, q. 14, a.2.

25. Meditations sur l'evangile, Part II, 37th day, in Joan. 17: 3.

26. See Ia IIae, q. I 13, a.9 ad 2um.

27. Ibid., q. II I, a. 5: "Gratia gratum faciens is much more excellent than gratia gratis data"; in other words, sanctifying grace, which unites us to God Himself, is very much superior to prophecy, to miracles, and to all the signs of divine intervention.

28. John 4: 10-14.

29. See I Cor. 12:28 ff.; 13:1 ff.

30. Cf. Ia IIae, q. III, a.5: "Gratia gratum faciens is much more excellent than gratia gratis data."

31. See IIIa, q.62, a. 1.

32. See II Cor. 5:6.

33. St. Thomas gives a good explanation of this keen desire for God which the souls in purgatory have. (We shall return to this point later on when we speak of the passive purifications.) Cf. IV Sent., d.21, a.1 ad quaestionem 3am. "The more a thing is desired, just so much the more is its absence painful. And because the love, by which the highest good is desired after this life, is most intense in holy souls, because love is not held back by the weight of the body, and also, because the time of enjoying the highest Good has now come, unless something impedes it, for the very same reason they suffer to a great degree from the delay." Thus we would suffer greatly from hunger if deprived of food for more than a day, when it would be in the radical order of our organism to restore itself. It is radical to the order of the life of the soul, in the actual economy of salvation, to possess God immediately after death. Far from being essentially extraordinary, this is the normal way, as we see it in the lives of the saints.

34. See II Cor. 4: 16 ff.; 5: 1 ff.