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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 17 : The Spirit of Faith and Its Progress

We have spoken of the progress of the Christian moral virtues in the illuminative way; now we shall discuss the progress of the theological virtues, first of all that of faith and its influence on our whole life. By so doing we shall be prepared to see what mental prayer should be in the illuminative way.

We shall see the nature of the spirit of faith, then how it should grow in us, finally what its excellence and power should be that we may continually live by it, according to the words of Scripture: "The just man liveth by faith." (1)


In reality man always lives according to one spirit or another; whether it be according to the spirit of nature, when he does not go beyond practical naturalism, or according to the spirit of faith, when he tends seriously toward his last end, toward heaven and sanctity.

The spirit according to which we live is a special manner of considering all things, of seeing, judging, feeling, loving, sympathizing, willing, and acting. It is a particular mentality or disposition that colors almost all our judgments and acts, and communicates to our life its elevation or depression. Consequently the spirit of faith is a special manner of judging all things from the higher point of view of essentially supernatural faith, which is based on the authority of God revealing, on the veracity of God, Author of grace and glory, who by the road of faith wishes to lead us to eternal life.

We may better grasp the nature of the spirit of faith by considering the spirit opposed to it, which is a sort of spiritual blindness that enables man to attain divine things only materially and from without.(2) Thus Israel, the chosen people, did not have a sufficiently spiritual understanding of the privilege which it had received and in which, with the coming of the Savior, other peoples, called also to receive the divine revelation, were to share. The Jews thought that the bread reserved to the children of Israel should not be given to pagans. Christ reminds us of this way of thinking in the first words He addresses to the woman of Canaan; then He immediately inspires her with the admirable reply: "Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters." Then Jesus answering, said to her: "O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt. And her daughter was cured from that hour." (3)

The spirit of faith, which the Jews lacked and this humble woman possessed, is the spirit of divine and universal truth, the very object of faith, above any particularism of peoples or human societies. Thus St. Paul, who was at first strictly attached to the Synagogue and its prejudices, became the Apostle of the Gentiles. Similarly the glory of St. Augustine and St. Thomas does not consist in their being the masters of only a group of disciples, but in their being the common doctors of the Church.

The spirit of faith can have this universality only because of its eminent simplicity, which is a participation in the wisdom of God. The act of faith, as St. Thomas points out, is far above reasoning, a simple act by which we believe at the same time in God revealing and in God revealed.(4) By this essentially supernatural act we adhere infallibly to God who reveals and to the mysteries revealed. Thus by this simple act, superior to all reasoning, we tend in obscurity toward the contemplation of divine things above all the certitudes of a natural order. The essentially supernatural certitude of infused faith, as we said before,(5) greatly surpasses the rational certitude that man can have of the divine origin of the Gospel through the historical and critical study of the miracles which confirm it.

Faith, which is a gift of God,(6) is like a spiritual sense enabling us to hear the harmony of revealed mysteries, or the harmony of the voice of God, before we are admitted to see Him face to face. Infused faith is like a superior musical sense enabling us to hear more or less indistinctly the meaning of a mysterious spiritual harmony of which God is the author. St. Paul states the matter clearly: "We have received not the spirit of this world, but the Spirit that is of God; that we may know the things that are given us from God. Which things also we speak, not in the learned words of human wisdom; but in the doctrine of the Spirit, comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the Spirit of God; for it is foolishness to him, and he cannot understand, because it is spiritually examined. But the spiritual man judgeth all things; and he himself is judged of no man. For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ." (7)

For judging in this manner, faith is aided by the gift of understanding, which makes man penetrate the meaning of the mysteries, and by the gift of wisdom, which makes him taste them. But it is faith itself which makes us adhere infallibly to the word of God.

The theological virtue of infused faith, in spite of the obscurity of the mysteries, is very superior to the intuitive and very luminous knowledge which the angels possess naturally. Infused faith, in reality, belongs to the same order as eternal life, of which it is like the seed; as St. Paul says, it is "the substance of things to be hoped for," (8) the basis of our justification.(9) The angels themselves needed to receive this gratuitous gift of God in order to tend to the supernatural end to which they were called.(10)

As St. Francis de Sales (11) says in substance, when God gives us faith, He enters our soul and speaks to our spirit, not by way of discourse but by His inspiration. When faith comes, the soul strips Itself of all discourses and arguments and, subjecting them to faith, it enthrones faith on them, recognizing it as queen. When the light of faith has cast the splendor of its truths on our understanding, our will immediately feels the warmth of celestial love.(12)


It is important for the sanctification of our souls to remember that faith should daily increase in us. It may be greater in a poorly educated but holy, just man than in a theologian. St. Thomas Aquinas states: "A man's faith may be described as being greater, in one way, on the part of his intellect, on account of its greater certitude and firmness, and, in another way, on the part of his will, on account of his greater promptitude, devotion, or confidence." (13) The reason is that "faith results from the gift of grace, which is not equally in all." (14) Thus our Lord says of certain of His disciples that they are still men "of little faith," (15) "slow of heart to believe," (16) whereas He said to the woman of Canaan: "O woman, great is thy faith." (17)

"But my just man liveth by faith," (18) and increasingly so. There are holy individuals who have never made a conceptual analysis of the dogmas of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and who have never deduced from these dogmas the theological conclusions known to all theologians; but in these souls the infused virtue of faith is far more elevated, more intense than in many theologians. Many recent beatifications and canonizations confirm this fact. When we read the life of St. Bernadette of Lourdes or of St. Gemma Galgani, we can well exclaim: God grant that I may one day have as great faith as these souls!

Theologians say justly that faith may grow either in extension or in depth or in intensity. Our faith is extended when we gradually learn all that has been defined by the Church on the mysteries of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, and the other points of Christian doctrine. Thus theologians know explicitly all that has been defined by the Church; but it does not follow that they have a faith as intense and profound as it is extended. On the contrary, among the faithful there are saints who are ignorant of several points of doctrine defined by the Church, for example, the redemptive Incarnation and the Eucharist, and who penetrate profoundly these mysteries of salvation as they are simply announced in the Gospel. St. Benedict Joseph Labre, for example, never had occasion to read a theological treatise on the Incarnation, but he lived profoundly by this mystery and that of the Eucharist.

The apostles asked for this faith that is greater in depth and intensity when they said to the Lord: "Increase our faith." (19) And Jesus answered: "All things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive." (20) We shall obtain it especially if we ask perseveringly for ourselves what is necessary or manifestly useful to salvation, like the increase of the virtues.


The value of the spirit of faith is measured in trial by the difficulties which it surmounts. St. Paul says this eloquently in the Epistle to the Hebrews: "By faith Abraham, when he was tried, offered Isaac: and he that had received the promises, offered up his only begotten son. . . . Accounting that God is able to raise up even from the dead. . . . By faith he [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the fierceness of the king [Pharao]: for he endured as seeing Him that is invisible. . . . For the time would fail me to tell of Gedeon, Barac, Samson, Jephthe, David, Samuel, and the prophets; who by faith conquered kingdoms, wrought justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions [like Daniel], quenched the violence of fire [like the three children in the furnace]. . . . And others had trial of mockeries and stripes, moreover also of bands and prisons. They were stoned [like Zachary], they were cut asunder [like Isaias], they were tempted, they were put to death by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being in want, distressed, afflicted; of whom the world was not worthy." (21) (This same type of thing has been renewed in our own day in Russia and Mexico.) And St. Paul concludes: "And therefore, . . . let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us: looking on Jesus, the Author and Finisher of faith, who having joy set before Him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God." (22)

In his commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, St. Thomas Aquinas, carried away by the word of God and raised to the contemplation of this mystery, tells us: "Consider Christ who bore such contradiction on the part of sinners. . . , and in no matter what tribulation, you will find the remedy in the cross of Jesus. You will find in it the example of all the virtues. As St. Gregory the Great says, if we recall the passion of our Savior, there is nothing so hard and so painful that we cannot bear it with patience and love." (23)

The more the spirit of faith grows in us, the more we grasp the sense of the mystery of Christ, who came into this world for our salvation. That we may have this understanding, the Church, our Mother, places daily before our eyes at the end of Mass the prologue of the Gospel of St. John, which contains the synthesis of what revelation teaches about the mystery of Christ. Let us nourish our souls daily with this sublime page which we shall never sufficiently penetrate. It recalls to us the three births of the Word: His eternal birth, His temporal birth according to the flesh, and His spiritual birth in souls. It is the summary of what is loftiest in the four Gospels.

In this summary of Christian faith we have, first of all, the eternal birth of the Word: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." We have here a clear statement of the consubstantiality of the Word. "No man has seen God at any time: the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He hath declared Him." (24) Thus light is thrown on the loftiest words of the Messianic psalms: "The Lord hath said to Me: Thou art My Son; this day have I begotten Thee," (25) today in the unique instant of immobile eternity. "For to which of the angels," St. Paul asks, "hath He said at any time: Thou art My Son, today have I begotten Thee?" (26) The Word, splendor of the Father, is infinitely above all creatures, whom He created and preserves.

We should also nourish our souls with what is said in the same prologue about the temporal birth of the Son of God: "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us (and we saw His glory, the glory as it were of the only begotten of the Father), full of grace and truth." (27) This temporal birth of Christ is the realization of all the Messianic prophecies and the source of all the graces that men will receive until the end of the world.

Lastly, we should live by what this same prologue tells us of the spiritual birth of the Word in our souls: "He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. But as many as received Him, He gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in His name, who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." (28) He gave them to become children of God by adoption, as He is the Son of God by nature. Our sonship is a figure of His, for we read in the same chapter: "And of His fullness we all have received, and grace for grace." (29)

To show us how He wishes to live in us, the Son of God says to us: "If anyone love Me, he will keep My word. And My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and will make Our abode with him." (30) It is not only the created gift of grace that will come, it is the divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and also the Holy Ghost promised by the Savior to His disciples.

Instead of daily reciting the Credo and the Gloria in a mechanical manner, instead of almost mechanically saying the prologue of the Fourth Gospel, we should live more profoundly by this very substantial abridgment of divine revelation. The spirit of faith should thus, while growing, normally give us in ever greater measure the meaning of the mystery of Christ, the supernatural meaning that should gradually become penetrating and sweet contemplation, the source of peace and joy, according to St. Paul's words: "Rejoice in the Lord always. . . . And the peace of God, which surpasseth all understanding; keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." (31)


We should live by the spirit of faith by judging all things under its superior light, thus considering God first of all, then our own soul, next our neighbor, and all the events of life.

Is it necessary to say that we should consider God in the light of faith? Unfortunately, it is only too necessary. Do we not often consider God Himself in the light of our prejudices, our very human sentiments, our petty passions, contrary to the testimony that He Himself gives us in Scripture? Does it not happen even in prayer that we listen to ourselves, that we ascribe to the Lord our own reflections which are more or less inspired by our self-love? In hours of presumption, are we not inclined to think that the divine mercy is for us, and divine justice for those who do not please us? In moments of discouragement, on the contrary, do we not in practice doubt the love of God for us, and His boundless mercy? We often disfigure the spiritual physiognomy of God, considering it from the point of view of our egoism, and not from that of salvation, under the true light of divine revelation.

From the point of view of faith, God appears not through the movements of our self-love, but in the mirror of the mysteries of the life and passion of the Savior and in that of the life of the Church, renewed daily by the Eucharist. Then the eye of faith, which St. Catherine of Siena often speaks of, is increasingly purified by the mortification of the senses, of inordinate passions, of personal judgment and self-will. Only then does this blindfold of pride gradually fall away, this veil which hinders us from glimpsing divine things or allows only their shadows and difficulties to appear. Often we consider the truths of faith in the same way as people who see the stained-glass windows of a cathedral only from without; it is under the interior light that we should learn to contemplate them.

We should consider ourselves in the light of faith. If we see ourselves only under a natural light, we discover in ourselves natural qualities that we often exaggerate. Then contact with reality, with trial, shows us our exaggeration; and we fall into depression or discouragement.

In the light of faith we would recognize the supernatural treasures that God placed in us by baptism and increased by Communion. We would daily realize a little better the value of sanctifying grace, of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in us; we would consider what the fruit of a fervent Communion should be; the grandeur of the Christian vocation, in the light of the precept of love, would become increasingly apparent to us.

We would also see more clearly the obstacles that hinder the development of grace in us: the levity that makes us forget we have in us the seed of eternal life, and a foolish pride, completely contrary to the spirit of wisdom. From this higher point of view, we would not delay in discovering in ourselves two things that are exceedingly important for us to know: our predominant fault and our principal attraction of grace, the black and the white, what must be destroyed and what should grow.

But it is our neighbor especially whom we forget to consider in the light of. faith. We see him in the light of reason, which is deformed by our prejudices, egoism, pride, jealousies, and other passions. Consequently we approve in our neighbor what pleases us from a human point of view, what is conformed to our natural tastes or to our whims, what is useful to us, what makes us important, what our neighbor owes us. As a result, we condemn in him what annoys us, often what renders him superior to us, what offends us. How many rash, harsh, pitiless judgments, how many more or less conscious calumnies spring from this gaze that is darkened by self­love and pride!

If we could see our neighbor in the light of faith, with a pure spiritual gaze, what profit for him and for us! Then we would see in our superiors the representatives of God; we would obey them wholeheartedly without criticism, as we would our Lord Himself. In people who are naturally not congenial to us, we would see souls redeemed by the blood of Christ, who are part of His mystical body and perhaps nearer to His Sacred Heart than we are. Our supernatural gaze would pierce the opaque envelope of flesh and blood which prevents us from seeing the souls that surround us. Often we live for long years in the company of beautiful souls without ever suspecting it. We must merit to see souls in order to love them deeply and sincerely. Had we this love, we could then tell them salutary truths and hear such truths from them.

Similarly, if we saw in the light of faith persons who naturally please us, we would occasionally discover in them supernatural virtues that would greatly elevate and purify our affection. With benevolence we would also see the obstacles to the perfect reign of our Lord in them, and we could with true charity give them friendly advice or receive it from them in order to advance seriously in the way of God.

Lastly, we should see all the events of our lives, whether agreeable or painful, in the light of faith in order to live truly by the spirit of faith. We are often content to see the felicitous or unfortunate occurrences, as well as the facts of daily life, under their sensible aspect, which is accessible to the senses of the animal, or from the point of view of our more or less deformed reason. Rarely do we consider them from the supernatural point of view which would show us, as St. Paul says, that "to them that love God all things work together unto good," (32) even contradictions, the most painful and unforeseen vexations, even sin, says St. Augustine, if we humble ourselves for it.

In the injustices of men which we may have to undergo, we would also often discover the justice of God and, when wrongly accused of faults, we would see a well-merited punishment for hidden sins for which no one reproves us. We would also comprehend the meaning of the divine trials and of the purification which God has in view when He sends them to us.

We shall speak farther on of the passive purification of faith by certain of these trials, which free this theological virtue from all alloy and bring into powerful relief its formal motive: the first revealing Truth. Before reaching this stage, let us grow in faith, not judging everything from the sole point of view of reason. We must know how to renounce certain inferior lights or quasi-lights, that we may receive others that are far higher. The sun must set to enable us to see the stars in the depths of the heavens; likewise we must renounce the misuse of reason, which may be called practical rationalism, that we may discover the highly superior splendor of the great mysteries of faith and live profoundly by them.(38)



1. Gal. 3: II.

2. Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.15, and I Cor. z: 14: "But the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the spirit of God; for it is foolishness to him."

3. Matt. 15:27 f.

4. Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.2, a.2 ad 1um: "These three (to believe in a God, to believe God, to believe in God) do not denote different acts of faith, but one and the same act having different relations to the object of faith." By a single and identical, essentially supernatural and simple act, the believer adheres infallibly to God who reveals, and believes a given mystery that is revealed, such as the Trinity, the Incarnation.

5. Cf. supra, I, O 52-55.

6. Eph. 2:8: "For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, for it is the gift of God."

7. Cf. I Cor. 2: 12-16.

8. Heb. 11:1.

9. Rom.3:22.

10. Cf. Ia, q.62, a.2.

11. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. II, chap. 14.

12. Cf. ibid., chap. 17.

13. Cf. IIa IIae, q.5, a. 4.

14. Ibid., ad 3um.

15. Matt. 6: 30.

16. Luke 24:25.

17. Matt. 15:28.

18. Heb. 10: 38.

19. Luke 17:5.

20. Matt.21: 22.

21. Heb. 11:17ff.

22. Ibid. 12: 1f.

23. Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 12:3.

24. John 1:1, 18.

25. Ps. 2:7.

26. Heb. 1:5.

27. Johu 1:14.

28. Ibid., 11-13.

29. Ibid., 16.

30. Ibid., 14:23.

31. Phil. 4:4, 7.

32. Rom. 8: 28.

33. Therefore we see why in temptations against faith we must not reply to the enemy or pretend to hear what he says. We must repulse these temptations, or better, rise above them by more intense acts of faith. The Lord permits them only that they may aid our progress. Cf. St. Francis de Sales, Letter 737 to the Baroness de Chantal.