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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 19 : The love of Conformity to the Divine Will

Having spoken of the spirit of faith and of trust in God, we must consider what the progress of charity should be in the illuminative way, that the soul may pass from the mercenary or interested love of the imperfect to perfect charity. Consequently we shall discuss the signs of imperfect love, then those of the progress of charity, the relations of charity with our natural dispositions, and its progressive conformity to the divine will.


St. Catherine of Siena indicates clearly in her Dialogue (1) the signs of mercenary love; we quoted this passage earlier in this work.(2) The saint says in substance that love remains imperfect in the just man when, in the service of God, he is still too much attached to his own interests, when he still seeks himself and has an excessive desire of his own satisfaction.

The same imperfection is then found in his love of his neighbor. In loving his neighbor, he seeks self, takes complacency, for example, in his own natural activity, in which there is rash haste, egoistical eagerness, occasionally followed by coldness when his love is not returned, and he believes that he sees in others ingratitude, a failure to appreciate the benefits he bestows on them.

In the same chapter the saint points out that the imperfection of this love of God and souls is clearly shown by the fact that, as soon as we are deprived of the consolations that we had in God, this love no longer suffices us and can no longer subsist; it languishes and often grows colder and colder as God withdraws His spiritual consolations and sends us struggles and contradictions in order to exercise us in virtue. Nevertheless He acts thus only to put our inordinate self-love to death and to cause the charity that we received at baptism to grow. This charity should become a living flame of love and notably elevate all our legitimate affections.


The signs of the progress of charity are deduced from its very nature. Scripture tells us in several places that the just man is the "friend of God." (3) St. Thomas,(4) explaining 'these words of Scripture, shows us that charity is essentially a love of friendship we should have for God because of His infinite goodness which radiates on us, vivifying us and drawing us to Himself.

Every true friendship, St. Thomas tells us, implies three qualities: it is first of all a love of benevolence by which a man wishes good to another, as to himself; in this it differs from the love of concupiscence or of covetousness, by which one desires a good for oneself, as one desires a fruit or the bread necessary to subsistence. We ought to wish our friends the good which is suitable for them, and we should wish that God may reign profoundly over minds and hearts.

Moreover, every true friendship presupposes a love of mutual benevolence; it is not sufficient that it exist on the part of one person only. The two friends should wish each other well. And the more elevated the good which they wish each other, the more noble is this friendship. It is based on virtue when friends wish each other not only what is pleasant or useful like the goods of earth and fortune, but what is virtuous - fidelity to duty, progress in the love of moral and spiritual good.

Lastly, to constitute a true friendship, this mutual love of benevolence does not suffice. We may, in fact, have benevolence for a person at a distance, whom we know only through hearsay, and that person may have the same benevolence for us; we are not, however, friends for that reason. Friendship requires in addition a community of life (convivere). It implies that people know each other, love each other, live together, spiritually at least, by the exchange of most secret thoughts and feelings. Friendship thus conceived tends to a very close union of thought, feeling, willing, prayer, sacrifice, and action.

These three characters of true friendship - the love of benevolence, mutual love, and community of life - are precisely found in the charity which unites us to God and to souls in Him.

The natural inclination which already subsists in the depths of our will, in spite of original sin, inclines us to love God, the Author of our nature, more than ourselves and above all, as in an organism the part loves the whole more than itself, as the hand exposes itself naturally to preserve the body and especially the head.(5) But this natural inclination, attenuated by original sin, cannot, without the grace which heals (gratia sanans), lead us to an efficacious love of God above all things.(6)

Far above this natural inclination, we received in baptism sanctifying grace and charity with faith and hope. And charity is precisely this love of mutual benevolence which makes us wish God, the Author of grace, the good that is suitable to Him, His supreme reign over souls, as He wishes our good for time and eternity. Such a desire is indeed a friendship based on community of life, for God has communicated to us a participation in His intimate life by giving us grace, the seed of eternal life.(7) By grace, we are "born of God," as we read in the prologue of St. John's Gospel; we resemble God as children resemble their father. And this community of life implies a permanent union, which is at times only habitual, for example, during sleep; at others, when we make an act of love of God, it is actual. Then there is truly community of life, the meeting of the paternal love of God for His child, and of the love of the child for the Father who vivifies it and blesses it. This is especially true when, by a special inspiration, the Lord inclines us to an act of infused love, which we could not make with common, actual grace. There is a spiritual communion, the prelude of the spiritual communion of heaven, which will no longer be measured by time, but by the indivisible instant of changeless eternity.

Such is indeed the friendship with God which begins on earth. Because Abraham had this love, he was called the friend of God. For the same reason the Book of Wisdom tells us that the just man lives in the divine friendship, and Christ says: "I will not now call you servants. . . but I have called you friends." By his analysis of the distinctive marks of friendship, St. Thomas only explains these divine words; he does not deduce a new truth; he explains revealed truth and enables us to penetrate it deeply.(8)

Charity, even in its least degree, makes us love God more than ourselves and more than His gifts with an efficacious love of esteem, because God is infinitely better than we and than every created gift. Efficacious love of esteem is not always felt, for example, in aridity; and at the beginning it has not yet the intensity or spontaneity that it has in the perfect, and especially in the blessed. A good Christian mother feels her love for her child, whom she holds in her arms, more than her love for God, whom she does not see; yet, if she is truly Christian, she loves the Lord with an efficacious love of esteem more than her child. For this reason, theologians distinguish commonly between appreciative love (love of esteem) and intensive love, which is generally greater for loved ones whom we see than for those who are at a distance. But, with the progress of charity, the love of esteem for God becomes more intense and is known as zeal; in heaven its impetuosity will exceed that of all our strongest affections.

Such is the nature of the virtue of charity; it is the principle of a love of God that is like the flowing of our hearts toward Him who draws us and vivifies us. Thus we ultimately find a great gratification in Him, desiring that He may reign more and more profoundly in our souls and in the souls of others. For this love of God, knowledge is not necessary; to know our heavenly Father through faith suffices. We cannot cease to love Him without beginning our own destruction, and we can cease to love Him by any mortal sin.

The efficacious love of esteem of God above all else, which may subsist in great aridity of the sensible faculties, is very much opposed to sentimentality, which is the affectation of a love one does not have.

Since such is the nature of charity, what are the indications of its progress? There are, first of all, the signs of the state of grace: (I) not to be conscious of any mortal sin; (2) not to seek earthly things, pleasures, wealth, honors; (3) to take pleasure in the presence of God, to love to think of Him, adore Him, pray to Him, thank Him, ask His pardon, talk to Him, aspire to Him.(9) To these signs must be added the following: (4) to wish to please God more than all those whom one loves; (5) to love one's neighbor effectively, in spite of the defects which are in him, as they are in us, and to love him because he is the child of God and is beloved by Him. Then one loves God in one's neighbor, and one's neighbor in God. Christ says: "By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for another." (10)

These signs are summed up in St. Paul's words: "Charity is patient, is kind; charity envieth not, dealeth not perversely, is not puffed up, is not ambitious, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth with the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." (11)

Happy is the heart that loves God in this manner, without any other pleasure than that which it has in pleasing God! If the soul is faithful, it will one day taste the delights of this love and take an unequaled happiness in Him who is limitless good, the infinite plenitude of good, into which the soul may plunge and lose itself as in a spiritual ocean without ever meeting with any obstacle. Thus the just man begins to love God with a love of esteem (appreciative love) above all things, and he tends to love Him above all intensively with the ardent zeal which perseveres in aridity in the midst of trials and persecutions.


But, it will be objected, there are harsh, rude, bitter characters, little inclined to affection. How, therefore, does what we have just said apply to them? St. Francis de Sales replies to this objection as St. Thomas does, stating that one cannot admit, without falling into the naturalism of the Pelagians, that the distribution of divine love is made to men according to their natural qualities and dispositions.(12) St. Francis de Sales adds:

The supernatural love which God by His goodness pours into our hearts. . . is in the supreme point of the spirit. . . , which is independent of every natural character. . . . It is, nevertheless, true that naturally loving souls, once they are well purified of the love of creatures, do marvels in holy love, love finding a great ease in dilating itself in all the faculties of their hearts. Thence proceeds a very agreeable sweetness, which does not appear in those whose souls are harsh, melancholy, and untractable.

Nevertheless, if two persons, one of whom is loving and gentle, the other naturally fretful and bitter, have an equal charity, they will doubtless love God equally, but not similarly. The heart that is naturally gentle will love more easily, amiably, sweetly, but not more solidly, or more perfectly. Thus the love which will arise among the thorns and repugnances of a harsh and cold nature, will be braver and more glorious, as the other will be more delightful and charming.(13)

It matters little, then, whether one is naturally disposed to love when it is a question of a supernatural love by which one acts only supernaturally. Only, Theotime, I would gladly say to all men: Oh, mortals! If your hearts are inclined to love, why do you not aspire to celestial and divine love? But, if you are harsh and bitter of heart, poor souls, since you are deprived of natural love, why do you not aspire to supernatural love, which will lovingly be given you by Him who calls you in so holy a manner to love Him? (14)

From this doctrine on the relation of the life of grace and of our natural dispositions spring consequences of great importance in mystical theology. (15)


The love of conformity consists in wishing all that the divine will signifies to us as being its intention.(16) This will is signified to us by the precepts and by the counsels conformable to our vocation, and by events, some of which are painful and unexpected.(17) We are speaking of the signified divine will when we say in the Our Father: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Thus we see what progressive conformity to the divine will should be.

To love God in prosperity is good, provided that one does not love prosperity as much or more than God Himself. In any case, this is only an inferior degree of love, easy to all. When facility in the practice of duty ceases, to love the divine will in its commandments, counsels, inspirations, to live by it, constitutes a second degree which is more perfect and which recalls the words of Jesus: "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me." (18)

But we must also imitate Christ in loving God in painful and unbearable things, in daily vexations and tribulations, which His providence permits in our lives for a higher good. And, indeed, we cannot truly love God unless we love these tribulations, not in themselves, but for the spiritual good which results from patience in bearing them. Consequently, to love sufferings and afflictions for the love of God is the highest degree of holy charity. Our adversities are then converted into good, for, as St. Paul says: "To them that love God [and who persevere in this love], all things work together unto good." (19)

St. Francis de Sales (20) remarks on the subject of ardent love that, according to Plato, it is poor, ragged, naked, pale, emaciated, homeless, always indigent; it sleeps out of doors on the hard ground, for it makes a man leave everything for the one he loves; it causes him to lose sleep and to aspire to an ever closer union. Plato spoke thus of natural love; but, adds the holy Bishop of Geneva, all of this is still truer of divine love when it wounds a soul deeply. Therefore, St. Paul wrote: "Even unto this hour we both hunger and thirst, and are naked, and are buffeted, and have no fixed abode. . . . We are made as the refuse of this world." (21)

"Who reduced him to this state," asks St. Francis de Sales, "except love? It was love which cast St. Francis of Assisi naked before his bishop and made him die naked on the ground. It was love that made him a beggar all his life. It was love that sent the great St. Francis Xavier, poor, indigent, tattered, here and there in the Indies; . . . it was love which reduced the great cardinal, St. Charles, archbishop of Milan, to such poverty. . . that he was (in his episcopal palace) like a dog in the house of his master."

The love of conformity to the divine will is like a fire, the flames of which are the more beautiful and bright as they are fed with more delicate matter, for example, with drier, purer, and better wood. For this reason, says the same saint, every love that does not have its origin in the Savior's passion is frivolous and dangerous.(22) The death of Jesus, the supreme expression of His love for us, is the strongest incentive to our love of Him. Nothing satisfies our hearts as does the love of Jesus Christ, by the way of perfect spoliation which unites the soul very closely to the divine will.(23)

The love of conformity to the divine will signified by the precepts and counsels, and by events, enables us to abandon ourselves to the divine will of good pleasure, not yet manifested, on which our future depends.(24) In this filial abandonment there is faith, hope, and love of God; it may be expressed as follows: "Lord, I trust in Thee!" From this comes the motto: "Fidelity and abandonment," which preserves the balance between activity and passivity, above slothful quiet and restless and fruitless agitation. Abandonment is the way to follow; daily and hourly fidelity, the steps to take on this way. By fidelity in the light of the commandments, we enter the obscure mystery of the divine good pleasure, which is that of predestination.

We certainly do not possess all the love we need; therefore, the saints tell us, it is folly to expend our love inordinately upon creatures. The cooling of divine love comes from venial sin or from affection to venial sin. On the contrary, a generous act of charity merits and obtains for us immediately the increase of this infused virtue, which vivifies all the others and renders their acts meritorious. The increase of charity prepares us to see God better eternally and to love Him more intimately forever.

We should, therefore, deem as nothing all that we give to obtain the priceless treasure of the love of God, of ardent love. He alone gives to the human heart the interior charity that it lacks. Without Him our hearts are cold; we experience only the passing warmth of an intermittent fever.

When we give our love to God, He always gives us His. Indeed He forestalls us for, without His grace, we could not rise above our self-love; only grace, for which we should ask incessantly, just as we always need air in order to breathe, gives us true generosity.

During the journey toward eternity, we must never say that we have sufficient love of God. We should make continual progress in love. The traveler (viator) who advances toward God progresses with steps of love, as St. Gregory the Great says, that is, by ever higher acts of love. God desires that we should thus love Him more each day. The song of the journey toward eternity is a hymn of love, that of the holy liturgy, which is the voice of the Church; it is the song of the spouse of Christ.

It is not unfitting to tremble at times in the presence of God, but love must predominate. We must fear God filially through love, and not love Him through fear; therefore filial fear, that of sin, grows with charity, whereas servile fear, that of punishment, diminishes.

Our love of God grows by our carrying the cross. St. Francis de Sales declared: "The most generous and courageous characters are formed in crosses and afflictions, and cowardly souls are pleased only in prosperity. Moreover, the pure love of God is practiced far more easily in adversities than in comforts, for tribulation has nothing amiable about it except the hand of God who sends it . . . whereas prosperity has of itself attractions which charm our senses." (25)

As the love of conformity to the divine will grows, it renders sweet the sufferings on which it feeds; the soul then walks with assurance according to the words of the Savior: "He that followeth Me walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (26)

The love of God grows each time we mortify self-love. To desire ardently divine love, we must, therefore, retrench all that cannot be quickened by it. Growing thus, the love of God renders the virtues eminently more pleasing to God than they are by their own nature; the meritorious degree of their acts depends upon the degree of love. Thereby the accomplishment of our duties of state can be greatly sanctified and not a minute will be lost for eternity.(27)

If a person has had a high degree of charity and has never sinned mortally, but his love has grown cool through some attachment to venial sin, he still keeps the treasure of lofty charity (28) although he has lost its radiation or fervor like a golden chalice that has become tarnished and covered with dust, or like a flame in a clouded glass shade. Therefore, it is important to remove as quickly as possible this dust, these spots, and restore to charity its fervor and radiation.

As a practical conclusion, let us consider how we can subordinate all our affections to the love of God. St. Francis de Sales tells us: "I can combat the desire of riches and mortal pleasures either by the scorn that they deserve or by the desire of immortal pleasures; and by this second means, sensual and earthly love will be destroyed by heavenly love. . . . Thus divine love supplants and subdues the affections and passions," (29) or places them at its service.

The love of conformity to the divine will leads to the love of complacency by which we rejoice over everything that contributes to the glory of God: we rejoice that He possesses infinite wisdom, limitless beatitude, that the whole universe is a manifestation of His goodness, and that the elect will glorify Him eternally. The love of complacency or of fruition is more particularly felt under a special inspiration of God: in this sense it is infused and passive; whereas the love of conformity of which we have spoken, may exist without this special inspiration, with common actual grace; from this point of view, it is called active.

For this reason certain authors have held that St. John of the Cross proposed in The Ascent of Mount Carmel the union of the love of conformity as the end of the ascetical life, and in The Dark Night and The Living Flame the union of the passive love of enjoyment as the end of the mystical life.

We, as well as many contemporary writers,(30) think, on the contrary, that St. John of the Cross preserves the unity of the spiritual life by speaking, in all his works, of only one end of the normal development of the life of grace on earth, and of only one union and transformation of love, which, it is true, presents itself under two aspects. The first of these aspects is the entire conformity of our will to the will of God; but this active gift of self is normally accompanied by the communication of the divine life passively received, which is the second aspect. Therefore the normal term of the spiritual life is a state at once ascetical and mystical, in which the perfection of active love, manifested by the virtues, is joined to infused or passive love, which leads the soul to the summit of union. The way leading to this union should, consequently, be not only active but also passive; it implies both the active purification described in The Ascent and the passive purification spoken of in The Dark Night. They are two aspects of purification: in other words, what the soul should do, and what it should receive and bear. Thus the unity of the spiritual life is maintained, and perfect union is the normal prelude of the life of heaven.(31)



1. The Dialogue, chap. 60.

2. Cf. supra, chap. 3. pp. 30 f.

3. In the Book of Judith (8:22), Abraham is called the friend of God. Wisdom (7:27) says that the just man lives in the divine friendship. And Christ especially tells us: "I will not now call you servants. . . but I have called you friends."

4. Cf. IIa IIae, q.23, a.1.

5. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q.60, a.5; IIa IIae, q.26, a.3. See also St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on tbe Love of God, Bk. I, chaps. 9, 16-18.

6. Summa, Ia IIae, q.109, a.3.

7. In supernatural attrition which, with the sacrament of penance, justifies the soul, there is an initial love of benevolence, according to many theologians; but there is not yet community of life, the convivere, for there is not
the state of grace.

8. St. Thomas shows that therein lies the essence of charity.

9. In Ia IIae, q. 112, a.5, St. Thomas speaks of these signs, and he adds others in the Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chaps. 21 f. Among these last signs, St. Thomas enumerates the following: "To converse with one's friend, to delight in his
presence, to be of one mind with one's friend through conformity of will, the liberty of the sons of God is in this conformity, most willingly to speak of God or to hear the word of God."

10. John 13:35.

11. Cf. I Cor. 13:4-7.

12. In his treatise on charity (IIa IIae, q.24, a. 3), St. Thomas writes: "Since charity surpasses the proportion of human nature, . . . (and of angelic nature) it depends, not on any natural virtue, but on the sole grace of the Holy Ghost who infuses charity." Cf. Eph. 4:7: "To everyone of us is given grace according to the measure of the giving of Christ." Cf. Rom. 12: 3; I Cor. 12:11.

St. Thomas likewise says (Ia IIae, q. 109, a.6): "Man cannot prepare himself to receive the light of grace except by the gratuitous help of God moving him inwardly." Ibid., q. 112, a.3, and also a.4: "The first cause of this diversity [of graces] is to be sought on the part of God, who dispenses His gifts of grace variously, that the beauty and perfection of the Church may result from these various degrees."

13. Thus it is, as has often been said, that meekness dominated in St. Francis de Sales, and fortitude in St. Jane de Chantal.

14. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. XII, chap. I.

15. Those who do not wish to admit that mystical contemplation proceeds from infused faith illumined by the gifts of wisdom and understanding, and who thus misunderstand the traditional doctrine of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost granted to all the just, may seek to explain the mystical life in two very different manners.

Some, whose minimizing of the necessity of grace here recalls Pelagian naturalism, will apply their doctrine not to common Christian life but to the mystical life. They will declare that the mystical life is explained especially by the natural qualities of certain persons who are more emotional and poetical than others. In this system there is danger of confounding the true mysticism of the great servants of God, for instance, of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa, with the sentimentality or the affectation of sentiment which they combated ardently, teaching that in the interior life we must not seek to feel consolation, but to tend toward God in aridity as well as in joy.

Others, on the contrary, to escape admitting that the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith and the union with God resulting from it is in the normal way of sanctity, will seek to explain the mystical life by extraordinary graces, such as prophecy, and will not adequately distinguish it from
visions and revelations. St. John of the Cross, on the other hand, continually insisted on this distinction, maintaining that as much as one should desire the close union with God, which becomes the transforming union, just so much
should one avoid the desire of extraordinary and, as it were, exterior graces, such as visions and revelations. These deviations show how important it is to preserve the traditional doctrine on the relations of the life of grace to our natural dispositions.

16. Cf. St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. VIII, chap. 3; Bk. IX, chap. 6.

17. Cf.. Summa, Ila, q. 19, a. 11 f., and Ia IIae, q. 19, a.9 f.

18. John 4:34.

19. Rom.8:28.

20. Treatise on tbe Love of God, Bk. VI, chap. 15.

21. Cf.I Cor.4:11, 13.

22. The Love of God, Bk. IX, chap. 16.

23. Ibid.

24. The signified will of God is thus the domain of obedience, and His will of good pleasure not yet manifested is the domain of abandonment.

25. Cf. L'Esprit de saint Francois de Sales, Part XV, chap. 13.

26. John 8: 12.

27. Cf. St. Alphonsus Liguori, Opusc. Uniformita alla volonta di Dio.

28. Summa, IIa IIae, q.24, a.10.

29. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. XI, chap. 20.

30. This opinion is held by Fathers Arintero, O.P., Gardeil, O.P., Msgr. A. Saudreau, Father Gabriel of St. Magdalen, OCD., and several modern writers of the same Order; also by Father A. Rozwadowski, S.J.; cf. La Vie Spirituelle, January, 1936, suppl. pp. [1]-[28].

31. Cf. infra, chap. 29, for a discussion of the errors of the quietists in regard to contemplation and pure love.