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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 29 : The Errors of the Quietists on Contemplation and Pure love

We find in the condemnation of several errors a confirmation of the traditional doctrine on initial infused prayer which we have just set forth. We shall consider the errors of quietism, then those of semi-quietism.


The propositions of Molinos, which were condemned in 1687,(1) show that quietism deviates from the traditional doctrine to the point of becoming a caricature of Catholic mysticism, which it perverts in its most fundamental principles.

According to Molinos, man should annihilate his faculties, for the desire to act offends God, who wishes to be the only one to act in us. Activity is the enemy of grace, vows to accomplish certain acts are an obstacle to perfection. In refraining from acting, the soul annihilates itself and returns to its principle; then God reigns and lives in it. Such is the interior way, in which the soul no longer produces acts of knowledge, or of love of God, and no longer thinks of eternal life, or of the sufferings of hell. It ought not to desire to know whether it is pleasing to God, nor reflect on its acts, nor on its defects to be corrected; it should not desire its own perfection, its salvation, nor ask God for anything definite. It no longer needs to resist temptations, with which it should no longer
concern itself.(2)

In prayer, according to the quietists, man must remain in obscure faith, in a repose in which he forgets every distinct thought relative to the humanity of Christ, or even to the divine perfections, to the Blessed Trinity. He must remain in this repose without producing any act. As for the knowledge of obscure faith, it is not an act produced by the creature, but a knowledge coming from God alone; it is, said Molinos, an acquired contemplation which is acquired by the cessation of our own operations.(3)

It is evident, therefore, that this acquired contemplation, which Molinos advised for all, was a passivity acquired at will by the cessation of every operation. Consequently he attributed to the contemplation acquired in this manner what is true only of infused contemplation, and with one stroke of the pen he suppressed all asceticism and the practice of the virtues, considered by tradition to be the real preparation for infused contemplation and union with God.(4) All spirituality was thus radically perverted.

According to these principles, Molinos maintained that contemplation continues during sleep, that distaste for spiritual things is good; he confounded voluntary spiritual sloth, or acedia, with involuntary aridity, which is found in the passive purifications of the senses and the spirit. He went so far as to say that the use of the sacraments and the practice of good works are indifferent matters, and that acquired contemplation leads to impeccability, in which one need no longer resist temptations, even when they lead to immodest acts.(5)

One of the initial errors of Spanish quietism was to consider the prayer of quiet as acquired at will (by the suppression of acts), whereas in reality it is infused, as St. Teresa shows in the fourth mansion of The Interior Castle.(6)

In his Precis de theologie ascetique et mystique (no. 1484), Father A. Tanquerey juxtaposes exactly the errors of Molinos and Catholic doctrine. We have added several clarifying statements to his outline:

Catholic Doctrine Errors of Molinos

(I) There is one passive state in which God acts in us by His operating grace; but one reaches it normally only after having practiced the virtues and meditation for a long time.

There is only one way, the interior way or the way of passive contemplation which one can acquire through one's own efforts, with common grace, by the cessation of every operation. One should therefore enter it at once.
(2) The act of contemplation ordinarily lasts only a short time, although the state of soul which results from it may last for several days. The act of contemplation may last for entire years and even for a lifetime, even during sleep, without being repeated.
(3) Contemplation united to the act of love of God contains eminently the acts of all the christian virtues, but does not dispense us from making explicit acts of these virtues outside the time of contemplation. Contemplation being perpetual dispenses from all the explicit acts of the virtues, which are only for beginners: for example, acts of faith, hope, religion, mortification, confession, and so forth.
(4) The principal object of contemplation is God Himself, but Christ is the secondary object of it, and outside of the contemplative act one is not dispensed from thinking about Jesus Christ, the necessary Mediator, or from going to God through Him. It is an imperfection to think of Jesus Christ and His mysteries; it is necessary and sufficient to lose oneself in the divine essence. He who makes use of images or ideas does not adore God in spirit and in truth.
(5) Holy abandonment is a perfect way, but it should not go so far as indifference in regard to eternal salvation on the contrary, one should desire it, hope for it, and ask for it. In the state of contemplation, one must be indifferent to everything, even to one's own sanctification, to one's salvation, and lose hope that love may be dis­interested.
(6) In interior trials the imagination and sensibility may be profoundly troubled, whereas the fine point of the soul enjoys deep peace; but the will is still obliged to resist temptations, at least indirectly by rising above them or creating a diversion in order not to consent to them.

One should not trouble one­self to resist temptations; the most obscene mental images, the acts which result from them are not reprehensible because they are the work of the devil. They are passive trials that the saints themselves experienced, and one must take care not to confess them. In this way one attains to self-contempt, to perfect purity, and to very close union with God.

The quietism of Molinos thus ended in manifestly immoral consequences. It was taken up again in an attenuated form without these consequences by Madame Guyon, who, having been widowed while still young, rushed ardently into an imaginative and emotional piety which she called the way of pure love, or the short road. She won over to her ideas, first of all, Father Lacombe, a Barnabite, then in a measure, Fenelon.


The attenuated quietism of Fenelon," which was condemned in 1699,(8) had to do with errors relative to pure love. The principal error consisted in teaching that in the state of perfect contemplation the soul enters a sort of complete annihilation, that it is in the presence of God, entirely resigned to His holy will and indifferent to its salvation or damnation.

This doctrine thus failed to recognize the obligation of Christian hope; it forgot that the saints in their greatest trials "against hope believed in hope," according to the expression of St. Paul.(9) It also forgot that to sacrifice the desire of our salvation would be to sacrifice charity itself, which leads us to wish to glorify God eternally by the knowledge and love which the blessed enjoy in heaven.

The divine precepts relative to hope and charity, far from being mutually contradictory, are mutually strengthening. By hope, we desire to possess God without subordinating Him to ourselves; (10) by charity, which vivifies hope instead of destroying it, we love God for Himself, and in order to glorify Him eternally we desire our own salvation and that of other souls. Thus zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls is the ardor of one and the same love, whose first object is God and whose second is ourselves and our neighbor.

Among the errors of semi-quietism the following are also important: "There is a state of contemplation so sublime and perfect that it becomes habitual, to such an extent that each time the soul prays, its prayer is contemplative and not discursive. When this state is reached, the soul need never more return to meditation and methodical acts." "The mystical saints excluded the exercise of the virtues from the state of transformed souls." (11)

Fenelon, who submitted humbly to the condemnation, was led into error especially by a falsified edition of the Entretiens spirituels de saint Francois de Sales, published at Lyons in 1628 by a certain Drobet. Bossuet, in the course of his controversy with Fenelon, made a deep study of the questions relative to prayer, and it is a known fact that in his opinion the "prayer in faith and of the simple presence of God," which in its second phase is initial infused contemplation, is in the normal way of sanctity.(12)

All the errors contained in the Maximes des saints, which were condemned in 1699 in twenty-three propositions,(13) may be reduced, according to Bossuet, to the four following propositions: (I) "There is in this life a habitual state of pure love in which the desire for eternal salvation no longer exists. (2) In the final trials of the interior life, a soul may be persuaded by an invincible and deliberate conviction that it is reprobated by God, and in this belief it may make the absolute sacrifice of its eternal happiness. (3) In the state of pure love, the soul is indifferent in regard to its own perfection and the practices of virtue. (4) Contemplative souls lose, in certain states, the distinct, sensible, and reflective view of Jesus Christ." (14)

We italicized in these propositions what is particularly erroneous. What is true is: (I) that in the perfect the desire of beatitude is often inspired by charity and that there are moments in which they do not think explicitly of their salvation. (2) If some saints have had in the lower part of the soul the impression of being reprobate, it was not a reflective persuasion of the higher part, and if they made the sacrifice of their salvation, it was in a conditional and not an absolute manner. (3) Even in the highest states of perfection, the saints recommend concern about progress and the fundamental virtues. (4) Even in the transforming union, many saints, like St. Teresa, have had visions of our Savior's humanity; what is true is that in certain transitory moments the perfect soul, absorbed in the con­templation of the Deity, does not think explicitly of it.


We treated the question of pure love at length in The Love of God and the Cross of Jesus.111 We shall give here a brief summary of our teaching.

The problems of pure love may be stated as follows: Will our love of God always be tainted by self-love? Is pure love possible, and, if so, what is its relation to love of oneself, which seems to be the basis of our natural tendencies?

The errors to be avoided are mutually contradictory; the truth rises like a summit in the midst of these deviations and above them. Under the pretext of pure love, the quietists went so far as to require the absolute sacrifice of the desire of salvation or of personal happiness,(16) and they said that the saints make this sacrifice in the passive purifications of the spirit. On the other hand, it is possible to fall into a practical naturalism which disregards the spirit of sacrifice and believes that without it one can succeed in loving God perfectly and more than oneself. Evidently the truth is above these two opposing deviations.

The saints have often described ardent love of God, insisting on its disinterestedness and its holy follies.(17) Thus St. Paul writes: "For I wished myself to be an anathema from Christ, for my brethren." (18) St. Thomas explains this passage as follows: "He wished to be deprived for a time of the divine fruition which pertains to love of oneself, in order that God might be honored in his neighbor, which pertains to the love of God." (19) But the same St. Paul says that in the greatest trials, man must, like Abraham, "against hope believe in hope," (20) and therefore never renounce salvation; to do so, moreover, would be to sacrifice charity itself or the desire to glorify God eternally. The sacrifice of our happiness cannot, therefore, be absolute, but only conditional and temporary; further, in the saints it is not a permanent state, but a transport of love lasting some moments.(21)

The following difficulty remains to be solved. How is the ardent, disinterested love of the saints reconciled with our natural inclinations, in particular with love of oneself? St. Thomas (22) answers this difficulty by pointing out that by nature we are inclined to love God, the Author and Preserver of our nature, more than ourselves, as in an organism the part naturally loves the whole more than itself, the hand sacrificing itself to save the body. Otherwise the natural inclination which comes from God, the Author of nature, would not be good, and grace, charity, not only would not perfect it, but would destroy it.(23)

The natural inclination to love God, the Author of our nature, was attenuated by original sin (24) and by our personal sins, the results of which must be mortified; but it subsists in the depths of our will, and charity elevates this tendency, making us love God, the Author of grace, more than ourselves. Consequently in loving rightly the superior part of ourselves, we love our Creator still more, and to cease to will our own perfection would be to turn away from God.(25) This is what the quietists did not understand when they asked, in the midst of the great passive purifications, not hope against all hope,(26) but the absolute sacrifice of beatitude.(27) This would have constituted at the same time the sacrifice of charity or the desire to glorify God eternally.

They did not understand that by hope we desire God for ourselves, not subordinating Him to ourselves, as a fruit is inferior to us, but subordinating ourselves to Him: "By hope we desire God for ourselves, not because of ourselves," (28) for the ultimate end of the act of hope is God Himself. Further, by charity we love God in a superior manner, formally for Himself, and we then desire to possess Him in order to glorify Him eternally.

Thus perfect charity, far from destroying hope, vivifies it and renders it increasingly meritorious. One thus avoids the two contrary errors of quietism and of naturalism opposed to the spirit of sacrifice; and, during the passive purifications, the love of God and neighbor is increasingly purified of all inordinate self-love or of all self-seeking. Finally, ardent love, under the form of zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, is victorious over all egoism, as we see in the lives of great saints.(29)


The practice of pure love consists chiefly in abandonment to Providence and to the divine will of good pleasure. This act of abandonment supposes faith and hope, and in it there is a love of God that is daily more pure.

The quietists were, therefore, mistaken in excluding hope from the most perfect state; it should be only subordinated to charity, vivified by it, and finally it should become heroic hope "against hope" as we see in the lives of the saints.

The quietists also erred in excluding from the state of perfection attention to the practice of the virtues and positive resistance to temptations. They failed to consider as they should that abandonment to the divine will of good pleasure should be accompanied by conformity to the divine will signified by the precepts, the counsels (at least the spirit of the counsels), and events.(30) It is constant fidelity to the divine will signified from moment to moment that enables man to abandon himself without presumption, with confidence and love, to God's will of good pleasure, on which the future depends. The signified will is consequently the domain of obedience, and the will of good pleasure that of abandonment. Thus balance is kept above the slothful quiet of the quietists and the fruitless agitation of those who rely on themselves and have no profound prayer.

On this subject St. Francis de Sales,(31) Bossuet,(320 Father Piny,(83) and Father de Caussade (34) may be read with profit. We have treated this question at greater length elsewhere; (35) here we shall give what is essential.

The act of pure love may be considered in three ways: (I) as an exceptional and very rare act; (2) as a continuous exercise; (3) as an ordinary act accessible to all Christians.

1. The exceptional and very rare act of pure love is a close and lofty union with God, found only in already purified souls which, under a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost and without any return on self, no longer actually and explicitly think of their own beatitude. It was in an act of this kind that St. Paul, in excessu mentis, desired to be deprived for a time of the joy of possessing God that, by this sacrifice, he might obtain the conversion of his brethren. (36)

2. The continual exercise of the act of pure love was proposed by the quietists as the state of perfection. In reality, this act exists with continuity only in heaven.

3. The ordinary act of pure love accessible to all Christians is the act of charity by which one loves God with appreciative love, above all, because He is infinitely good and better than all His gifts, while tending to love Him with intensive love, more than all, which will be realized in heaven.(37) This act corresponds to the supreme precept of love, a precept that makes it the duty of all to tend to perfect charity.(38)



1. Denzinger, Enchiridion, nos. 1221-88. Cf. Dudon, S.]., Michel Molinos,

2. Denzinger, nos. 1275-86.

3. Ibid., no. 1243.

4. Ibid., no. 1246.

5. Ibid., nos. 1275-86.

6. Cf. Dudon, S.J., Michel Molinos. In this work (pp. 260-61, 267 f.) the author maintains as we do that "there is no contemplation worthy of this name except passive contemplation. . . . And God, in His common providence, favors with it those who by the heroic generosity of their virtue show themselves worthy of being treated as privileged friends."

7. (OEuvres de Fenelon, ed. Gosselin, IV, and Maximes des saints, new ed.
by A. Cherel, 1911.

8. Denzinger, nos. 1327-49.

9. Rom 4:18.

10. Cf. Cajetan, In IIam IIae, q. 17, a.5. By hope, he says, we desire God for ourselves, but already for God's sake, in the sense that God is the end of the act of hope and of all the acts of virtue. On the contrary, when we desire something inferior to ourselves, we desire it for ourselves and because of ourselves, nobis et propter nos.

11. Denzinger, nos. 1342, 1347.

12. Cf. Bossuet, Maniere courte et facile pour faire l'oraison en foi et de
simple presence de Dieu.

13. Cf. Denzinger, nos. 1317 ff.

14. Cf. OEuvres de Bossuet; Relation sur le quietisme. The articles of Issy, the result of the conferences held between Bossuet, Noailles, bishop of Chilons, Fenelon, and M. Tronson, 1694-95

15. Vol. I, pp. 55-135.

16. Cf. Denzinger, "Errores de amore puro," Enchiridion, nos. 1328, 1331, 1333, 1336.

17. Cf. St. Bernard, Sermons sur le Cantique des Cantiques, Sermons LXXIX, LXXXIII, VIII. Richard of St. Victor, De quattuor gradibus violentae caritatis, PL, CXCVI, 1213-15, translated into French: Les Quatre degres de l'amour ardent, by E. Ledef, Editions of La Vie spirituelle.

See also The Imitation, Bk. III, chap. 54 and chap. 5: "Of the wonderful effect of divine love"; St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, Bk. II, chaps. 19, 20; "The ten degrees of divine love according to St. Bernard."

18. Rom. 9:3.

19. Cf.lla IIae, q.27, a.8 ad 1um.

20. Rom. 4:18.

21. Cf. Massoulie, O.P., Traite de l'amour de Dieu, Bk. I, chap. 5; Bk. II, chap. I, par. 2; treatise written at the time of quietism. Meynard"O.P., Traite
de la vie interieure
 (3rd ed., 1889), I, nos. 221-22, pp. 369-83.

22. Summa, Ia, q.60, a.5.

23. St. Thomas speaks in like terms in several places in his works: II Sent., d.3, q.3; III Sent., d.29, q.I, a.3; In librum Dionysii de div. nominibus, chap. 4, lect. 9f.; Ia IIae, q.109, a.3; IIa IIae, q.26, a.3: "Whether, out of charity, man is bound to love God more than himself"; Quodlibet, I, q.4, a.3.

24. Cf. Ia IIae, q. 109, a.3.

25. Summa, IIa IIae, q.25, a.7: "The wicked know not themselves aright,
they do not love themselves aright. . . , but the good know themselves truly, and therefore truly love themselves."

26. Cf. Rom. 4: 18.

27. Cf. Denzinger, no. 1231: "Qui suum liberum arbitrium Deo donavit de
nulla re debet curam habere, nec de inferno, nec de paradiso; nec debet desiderium habere propriae perfectionis, nec virtutum, nec propriae sanctita­tis, nec propriae salutis, cujus spem purgare debet." Ibid., nos. 1344-45.

28. Cf. Cajetan, In IIam IIae, q. 17, a.5, no.6: "It is one thing to desire this
for myself, and another to desire it because of myself."

29. St. Thomas thus sums up his teaching (IIa IIae, q.19, a.6): "Whether
servile fear remains with charity: Self-love may stand in a threefold relationship to charity. In one way it is contrary to charity, when a man places his end in the love of his own good. In another way it is included in charity, when a man loves himself for the sake of God and in God. In a third way, it is indeed distinct from charity, but is not contrary thereto, as when a man loves himself from the point of view of his own good, yet not so as to place his end in this his own good."

30. Summa, Ia, q. 19, a.11 f.

31. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. IX, chap. 4.

32. Discours sur l'acte d'abandon.

33. Le plus parfait. L'Etat du pur amour.

34. Abandonment to Divine Providence.

35. Providence, Part IV, pp. 215-87.

36. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.27, a.8 ad 1um and Comm. in Ep. ad Rom., 9:3.

37. The appreciative love of God above all else is a love of esteem which is
already efficacious, that is, which orders our whole life to Him, but without excluding venial sin. The love by which we love God intensively, more than all else, is an intense impulse of sensible love, a transport of love which makes one anticipate the life of heaven.

38. Summa, IIa IIae. q.14. a.8 q. 184. a.3.