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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 7 : The Spiritual Edifice in Proficients

To describe what the progress of the Christian virtues should be in the illuminative way, we must recall the profound meaning of the traditional symbolism in the figure of the spiritual edifice. In this figure we find many of the teachings of Christ and St. Paul, such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas understood them in their works where they speak of the subordination of the virtues and of their connection with the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost.

Christ is the first to tell us, at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, that we must build our spiritual edifice not on sand, but on a rock, and St. Paul adds that the rock is Christ Himself on whom every­thing must rest.

To build this temple we must, therefore, dig the foundation until we find the rock. According to St. Augustine, the excavation symbolizes humility, which is, says St. Thomas, a fundamental virtue, inasmuch as it removes pride, the source of every sin. If the soul is empty of self, it will be filled with God; if it does not seek itself, it will seek God in everything. To build this temple we must, therefore, not scratch the soil, but dig very deep; and if we allow the Lord to work, He Himself will dig by making us profit by the humiliations He sends us.

The Spiritual Edifice

As the drawing above shows, from humility, the base of this excavation resting on Christ the foundation rock, rises the first column of the edifice, the pillar of faith, as St. Paul calls it. Faith is called a fundamental virtue, not only like humility in that it removes an obstacle, but in that all the other infused virtues rest positively on it.(1) Opposite the pillar of faith is that of hope, which makes us desire God, eternal life, relying on the divine help for its attainment.

These two pillars support the cupola of charity, the highest of the virtues. The part of the cupola which rises toward heaven symbolizes charity toward God, whereas that which slopes toward the earth is a figure of fraternal charity, which makes us love our neighbor for God because he is a child of God or called to become one. The cupola is surmounted by the cross to remind us that our love ascends toward God only through Christ and the merits of His passion.

St. Augustine, speaking of the beatitudes in his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, and St. Thomas tell us that to each of the three theological virtues corresponds a gift of the Holy Ghost; these three gifts are symbolized by three lamps. From the pillar of faith is suspended the lamp of the gift of understanding, which renders faith penetrating. By faith we adhere to the word of God; by the special inspiration of the gift of understanding we penetrate it, as for example, when assailed by temptation, we comprehend that God is truly our last end, the one thing necessary, and that we must remain faithful to Him.

From the pillar of hope is suspended the lamp of the gift of knowledge, which, according to St. Augustine and St. Thomas, makes us know things, not by their supreme cause as wisdom does, but by their proximate, defectible, and often deficient cause. For this reason, according to these doctors, the gift of knowledge shows us the emptiness of earthly things and the vanity of human helps in attaining a divine end. In this sense, the gift, which perfects faith, also perfects hope and leads us to aspire more strongly toward eternal life and to rely on the help of God, the formal motive of hope, to attain it.(2)

From the cupola symbolizing charity is suspended another lamp, the gift of wisdom, which illuminates the whole interior of the spiritual edifice and makes us see all things as coming from God, supreme Cause and last End, from His love or at least by His permission for a greater good which we shall some day see and which from time to time becomes visible here on earth. In this spiritual temple, says St. Paul, dwells the Holy Ghost and with Him the Father and the Son. They are there as in a mansion, where They may be and are from time to time quasi-experientally known and loved.

However, to enter this spiritual edifice there must be a door. According to tradition, in particular the teaching of St. Gregory the Great, often quoted by St. Thomas, the four hinges of this two­leafed door symbolize the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Their name "cardinal" comes from the Latin cardines, meaning hinges. This meaning is preserved in the current expression, "That man is unhinged," when irritation makes a man fail in these four virtues. Without them man is outside the spiritual temple in the uncultivated region ravaged by the evil weeds of egoism and inordinate inclinations.(3) The two upper hinges on the temple door symbolize prudence and justice, which are in the higher part of the soul, and the two lower hinges are figures of fortitude and temperance, which have their seat in the sensible appetites, common alike to man and animal.

To each of these four hinges is fastened a triple piece of ironwork, symbolizing the principal virtues annexed to each of the cardinal virtues. Thus, to prudence is attached foresight (a reflection of divine Providence), circumspection attentive to the circumstances in the midst of which we must act, and steadfastness or constancy, that we may not because of difficulties abandon good decisions and resolutions made after mature reflection in the presence of God. Inconstancy, says St. Thomas, is a form of imprudence.(4)

To the virtue of justice are also attached several virtues. Those which relate to God as forms of justice toward Him are: religion, which renders to Him the worship due Him; penance, which offers Him reparation for the offenses committed against Him; obedience, which makes man obey the divine commandments or the orders of the spiritual or temporal representatives of God.

The virtue of fortitude makes us keep to the right road in the presence of great dangers instead of yielding to fear; it manifests Itself in the soldier who dies for his country and in the martyr who dies for the faith. To fortitude several virtues are also attached: notably, patience that we may endure daily vexations without weakening; magnanimity which tends to great things to be accomplished without becoming discouraged in the face of difficulties; longanimity which makes us bear over a long period of time incessant contradictions that sometimes are renewed daily for many years.

Lastly, to the virtue of temperance, which moderates the inordinate impulses of our sensible appetites, are attached chastity, virginity, meekness which moderates and represses irritation or anger, and evangelical poverty which makes us use the things of the world as though not using them, without becoming attached to them.

According to St. Augustine and St. Thomas, to each of these cardinal virtues corresponds a gift of the Holy Ghost, symbolized by so many precious stones which ornament the door; portae nitent margaritis, as we read in the hymn for the feast of the dedication of a church.

To prudence corresponds manifestly the gift of counsel, which enlightens us when even infused prudence would remain uncertain, for example, as to how to answer an indiscreet question without telling a lie. To justice, which in regard to God is called the virtue of religion, corresponds the gift of piety, which comes to our help in prolonged aridities by inspiring in us a filial affection for God. To the virtue of fortitude corresponds the gift of fortitude, so manifest in the martyrs. To the virtue of temperance, and especially of chastity, corresponds the gift of filial fear, which enables us to surmount the temptations of the flesh, according to the words of the Psalmist: "Pierce Thou my flesh with Thy fear."

Thus the picture of the spiritual edifice condenses the teaching of the Gospel, the writings of St. Paul and of the great doctors on the subordination of the virtues and their connection with the gifts of the Holy Ghost.

This structure may appear somewhat complicated when insistence is placed on the virtues attached to the cardinal virtues; but the superior simplicity of the things of God stands out if the following profound statement is considered carefully: When in a soul or a community the foundation of the edifice and its summit are what they ought to be, in other words, when there is profound humility and true fraternal charity, the great sign of the progress of the love of God, then everything goes well. Why is this? Because God then supplies by His gifts for what may be lacking in acquired prudence or natural energy; and He constantly reminds souls of their duties, giving them His grace to accomplish them. "God . . . giveth grace to the humble," and He never fails those who understand the precept of love: "Love one another as I have loved you; by this shall all men know that you are My disciples."



1. Cf. Summa, Ia IIae, q. 161, a.5.

2. St. Thomas shows especially that the gift of knowledge perfects faith; but he points out that it consequently strengthens hope. This virtue is also assisted by the gift of fear, inasmuch as it preserves the soul from presumption.

3. Cf. Ia IIae, q.61, a.3.

4. See IIa IIae, q.53, a.5.