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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 40 : The Spiritual Age of the Perfect, Their Union with God

The painful passive purification just described is followed by a resurrection of the soul and a new life. The apostles experienced this change when, after being deprived of the presence of Christ's humanity on Ascension Day, they were on Pentecost transformed, enlightened, strengthened, and confirmed in grace by the Holy Ghost that they might preach the Gospel to the ends of the known world and seal their preaching with their blood.

We shall point out here the principal signs of the age of the perfect so far as it is distinguished from the age of beginners and that of proficients. We shall indicate particularly what characterizes the knowledge of God and of self in the perfect and also their love of charity.


After the passive purification of the spirit, which is like a third conversion and transformation, the perfect know God in a quasi­experimental manner that is not transitory, but almost continual. Not only during Mass, the Divine Office, or prayer, but in the midst of external occupations, they remain in the presence of God and preserve actual union with Him.

The matter will be easily understood by our considering the egoist's contrary state of soul. The egoist thinks always of himself and, without realizing it, refers everything to himself. He talks continually with himself about his inordinate desires, sorrows, or superficial joys; his intimate conversation with himself is endless, but it is vain, sterile, and unproductive for all. The perfect man, on the contrary, instead of thinking always of himself, thinks continually of God, His glory, and the salvation of souls; he instinctively makes everything converge toward the object of his thoughts. His intimate conversation is no longer with himself, but with God, and the words of the Gospel frequently recur to his mind to enlighten from on high the smallest pleasurable or painful facts of daily life. His soul sings the glory of God, and from it radiate spiritual light and fervor, which are perpetually bestowed on him from above.

The reason for this state is that the perfect man, unlike the beginner, no longer contemplates God only in the mirror of sensible things or of the Gospel parables, about which it is impossible to think continually. Neither does he, like the proficient, contemplate God only in the mirror of the mysteries of the life of Christ, a prayer that cannot last all day long; but, in the penumbra of faith, he contemplates the divine goodness itself, a little as we see the diffused light that always surrounds us and illumines everything from above.

According to the terms used by Dionysius the Mystic and preserved by St. Thomas,(1) this is the movement of circular contemplation, superior to the straight and the oblique movements. The straight movement, like the flight of the lark, rises from a sensible fact recalled in a parable to a divine perfection, from the sight of the prodigal son to infinite mercy. The oblique movement rises, for example, from the mysteries of the childhood of Christ to those of His passion, of His glory, and finally to the infinite love of God for us. The circular movement is similar to the flight of the eagle, which, after soaring aloft, delights in describing the same circle several times, then hovers seemingly motionless in the light of the sun, scrutinizing the depths of the horizon.

Here it is a question of a knowledge of the radiating goodness of God. The soul sees now in a quasi-experimental manner that everything God has done in the order of nature and that of grace is intended to manifest His goodness, and that if He permits evil, like a dissonance, it is for a higher good, which is glimpsed at times and which will appear on the last day.

This contemplation, by reason of its superior simplicity, may be continual and, far from hindering us from beholding the sequence of events, lets us see them from above, somewhat as God sees them as a man on a mountain sees what is happening on the plain below. It is like the prelude or the aurora of the vision of the fatherland, although the soul is still in the obscurity of faith.

This very simple supernatural view even on earth was continual in Mary, to a lesser degree in St. Joseph. It also enabled the apostles after Pentecost, to see in the divine light what they were to do for the preaching of the Gospel and the constitution of the first churches.

This all-embracing spiritual gaze is to be found in all the saints; it does not exclude significant details, but admirably perceives their profound meaning. At the same time it removes the imperfections springing from natural haste, unconscious self-seeking, and the lack of habitual recollection.

As a consequence the perfect know themselves, no longer only in themselves but in God, their beginning and end. In Him they see their indigence, the infinite distance separating them from the Creator; they feel themselves preserved in being by His sovereignly free love. They ceaselessly experience to what a degree they need His grace for the least salutary act; they do not become discouraged over their sins, but draw a truer humility from them. They make their examination of conscience by considering what is written of their existence in the book of life. They sincerely consider themselves useless servants, who of themselves can do nothing, but whom the Lord deigns to use for the accomplishment of great things, those that prepare the life of eternity. If they see their neighbor's sins, they think there is no sin committed by another which they themselves would not be capable of committing had they the same heredity and were they placed in the same circumstances, faced with the same temptations. If they see the great virtues of other souls, they rejoice in them for the sake of the Lord and of souls, remembering that in the mystical body of Christ the growth of one member redounds to the profit of all the others.

This infused contemplation proceeds from a living faith illumined by the gift of wisdom, which, under the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, shows that nothing good happens unless God wills it, nothing evil unless God permits it for a higher good. This eminent view may be almost continual by reason of its simplicity and universality, because the events of daily life fall under its scope, like lessons about the things of God and like the application of the Gospel to each one's life. It is the continuation of the Gospel which is being written in souls until the end of time.

Then the Christian who has attained to this state has such knowledge of the divine perfections and of the virtues demanded of the soul, that he has passed beyond not only the confused concept but also the distinct concept of the theologian, to the experimental concept, rich in all the experience of life, which becomes concrete, enlightening him from above for the good of souls. Thus he attains to the experiential concept of infinite goodness, as well as to that of perfect simplicity and true humility, which inclines him to love to be nothing in order that God may be all.


The perfect man attains in consequence to that profound intimacy with the Lord toward which charity or the divine friendship tends. Such intimacy is truly reciprocal benevolence together with this convivere, this life shared with another, which is a prolonged spiritual communion.

As the egoist, who is always thinking of himself, loves himself badly in every respect, the perfect man, who is almost always thinking of God, loves Him continually, no longer only by fleeing from sin, or by imitating the virtues of our Lord, but "by adhering to Him, by enjoying Him; and, as St. Paul says, he 'desires to be dissolved and to be with Christ.' " (2) This adherence to God is a simple, direct act, which transforms a man's fundamental will and is at the basis of discursive and reflective acts. This adherence to God loved above all, not only as another self but more than self, contains the solution of the problem of the pure love of God harmonized with a legitimate love of self, for indeed the perfect man loves himself in God while loving God more than himself, and he desires heaven less for his personal happiness than that he may eternally glorify the divine goodness, the source of every created good. He tends more toward God Himself than toward the joy that will come to him from God.(3) This is pure love of God and of souls in God; it is apostolic zeal more ardent than ever, but humble, patient, and meek.

Here the soul grasps the profound meaning of the gradation contained in the statement of the precept of love according to Deuteronomy (6: 5) and St. Luke (10: 1. 7 ): "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind." The beginner already loves God with his whole heart, occasionally receiving sensible consolations in prayer; next he loves God with his whole soul without consolation, placing all his activities at His service; later the advanced Christian loves God with all his strength, particularly in the trials of the night of the spirit; finally, on emerging from these trials, he loves the Lord with all his mind. The perfect man no longer rises only at rare intervals to this higher region of the soul; he is established there; he is spiritualized and supernaturalized; he has become "an adorer in spirit and in truth."

Consequently such souls almost always keep their peace even in the midst of the most painful and unforeseen circumstances, and they communicate it frequently to the most troubled. This is what causes St. Augustine to say that the beatitude of the peacemakers corresponds to the gift of wisdom, which, with charity, definitively predominates in the perfect. Their eminent model, after the holy soul of Christ, is the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Therefore it is evident that the spiritual age of the perfect is characterized by almost uninterrupted intimate conversation with God, loved purely above all, together with the ardent desire of making Him known and loved.


Consideration of what characterizes the purified soul throws light on the nature of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in the perfect soul. In heaven the three divine Persons dwell in the beatified soul as in a temple where they are clearly known and loved. The Blessed Trinity is seen openly in the innermost depths of the beatified soul, which It preserves in existence and in consummated and inamissible grace. Each of the blessed is thus like a living tabernacle, like a consecrated host, endowed with supernatural knowledge and love.

The normal prelude to this life of heaven is realized on earth in the perfect soul that has reached the transforming union, which we shall describe farther on, following St. John of the Cross. Here we wish merely to point out that this close union is not essentially extraordinary, although very rare; but that it is the result of the mystery of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in every just soul(4)

The life of grace, which is the seed of glory, is essentially the same as the life of heaven. And since in heaven the Blessed Trinity is present in the souls of the blessed, where It is seen without any veil, It must already dwell in the just soul here on earth in the obscurity of faith, and according as the soul is more purified, it has a proportionately better experimental knowledge of this divine presence. As the soul is present to itself and knows itself experimentally as the principle of its acts, so it is given to it to know God as the principle of supernatural acts which it could not produce without His special inspiration.

And the purer the soul is, the more it distinguishes in itself what comes from itself with the general help of God and what can come only from the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. Christ declares: "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." (5) "But the Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you." (6) St. John also says to his disciples: "His unction teacheth you of all things." (7) And St. Paul writes to the Romans: "For whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father). For the Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God." (8) Commenting on these words, St. Thomas says that the Holy Ghost gives us this testimony by the filial affection He inspires in us for Him. He thus makes Himself felt at times as the soul of our soul and the life of our life.

It is especially through the gift of wisdom that we have the quasi­experimental knowledge of this divine presence. As St. Thomas explains,(9) this gift makes us, in fact, judge of divine things by a certain connaturalness with these things, by a sort of supernatural sympathy based on charity, and by the inspiration of the Holy Ghost who makes use of this sympathy, which He Himself has aroused to make Himself felt by us. We thus taste the mysteries of salvation and the presence of God in us a little as the disciples of Emmaus did when they said: "Was not our heart burning within us, whilst He spoke in the way?" (10) What the disciples experienced was a quasi-experimental knowledge, superior to reasoning, analogous to that which the soul has of itself as the principle of its acts. God, the Author of grace and salvation, is closer to us than we are to ourselves, and He inspires in us the most profound acts to which we could not of ourselves move ourselves. In this way He makes Himself felt by us as the principle of our interior life.(11)

The term "quasi-experimental" is applied to this knowledge for two reasons: (I) because it does not attain God in an absolutely immediate manner, as happens in the beatific vision, but in the act of filial love which He produces in us; (2) because we cannot discern with absolute certitude these supernatural acts of love from the natural impulses of the heart that resemble them. Hence without a special revelation or an equivalent favor we cannot have absolute certainty of being in the state of grace.

The indwelling of the Blessed Trinity is permanent as long as habitual union with God lasts, from the fact of the state of grace; it is thus that it lasts even during sleep. But this habitual union is manifestly ordered to the actual union we have just spoken of, and even to the closest, to the transforming union, the prelude of that of heaven.

Consequently it is evident that in the purified soul the supernatural image of God appears more and more.(12) By its nature the soul is already the image of God, since it is a spiritual substance, capable of intellectual knowledge and love. By habitual grace, the principle of the theological virtues, the soul is capable of supernatural knowledge and love of God. The more habitual grace and charity grow, the more they separate us from what is inferior and unite us to God. Finally, in heaven, consummated grace will enable us to see God immediately as He sees Himself and to love Him as He loves Himself. Then the supernatural image of God in us will be completed; inamissible charity will render us like the Holy Ghost, personal Love; the beatific vision will liken us to the Word, who, being the splendor of the Father, will make us like to Him. We can thus judge what should be even here on earth that perfect union, which is the proximate disposition to receive the beatific vision immediately after death without having to pass through purgatory. It is the secret of the lives of the saints.(13)


The signs of this indwelling are set forth at length by St. Thomas in the Contra Gentes,(14) and more briefly in the Summa theologica (15) where he asks whether a man can know if he is in the state of grace. Without having absolute certitude that he has grace, he has signs which enable him, for example, to approach the Holy Table without fear of making a sacrilegious Communion.

The principal signs of the state of grace, in ascending gradation, are the following.

The first sign is the testimony of a good conscience, in the sense that he is not conscious of any mortal sin. This is the fundamental sign, presupposed by the following signs which confirm it.

A second sign is joy in hearing the word of God preached, not only for the sake of hearing it, but to put it into practice. This may be observed in several countries where there is preserved, together with a simple life, a great Christian faith which leads the faithful to listen willingly to their pastor when he explains the great truths of the Gospel.

A third sign, confirming the preceding ones, is the relish of divine wisdom, which leads a man to read the Gospel privately, to seek in it the spirit under the letter, to nourish his soul with it, even when it deals with the mystery of the cross and with the cross he must bear every day.

A fourth sign is the inclination leading the soul to converse intimately with God, and faithfully to resume this conversation when it has been interrupted. We cannot repeat too often that every man carries on an intimate conversation with himself, which, at times, is not good. True interior life begins, as we have often pointed out, when this intimate conversation is no longer only with self, but with God. St. Thomas says: "Friendship inclines a man to wish to converse with his friend. The conversation of man with God is made through the contemplation of God, according to these words of St. Paul: 'Our conversation is in heaven' (Phil. 3: 20). And as the Holy Ghost gives us the love of God, He also inclines us to contemplate Him. That is why the Apostle also says: 'But we all beholding the glory of the Lord with open face, are transformed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord'" (II Cor. 3: 18).(16)

This is one of St. Thomas' texts which most clearly shows that in his opinion the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith is not something extraordinary, but something eminent in the normal way of sanctity.

The holy doctor says in the preceding chapter (17) that this intimate conversation with God is like the revelation of the most secret thoughts, in the sense that nothing in us is hidden from the Lord and that He Himself recalls to us the portion of the Gospel that should illumine the duty of every moment. There, says St. Thomas, we have an effect of friendship, "for it in a way unites two hearts in one, and what we reveal to a true friend seems not to have been said outside of ourselves." (18)

A fifth sign is to rejoice in God, fully consenting to His will even in adversity. Sometimes in the midst of dejection there is given us a pure and lofty joy which dissipates all sadness. This is a great sign of the Lord's visit. Moreover, Jesus, in promising the Holy Ghost, called Him the Paraclete, or Comforter. And normally we rejoice so much the more in the Lord as we more perfectly fulfill His precepts, for by so doing we form increasingly one sole heart with Him.

A sixth sign is found in the liberty of the children of God. On this subject, St. Thomas writes: "The children of God are led by the Holy Ghost, not like slaves, but like free creatures. . . . The Holy Ghost, in fact, makes us act by inclining our free will to will, for He gives us to love God and inclines us to act for love of Him and not through fear in a servile manner. That is why St. Paul tells us: 'You have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father). For the Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God.' (19) The Apostle also says: 'Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty' (II Cor. 3: 17, deliverance from the slavery of sin, and 'If by the Spirit you mortify the deeds [and affections] of the flesh, you shall live' (Rom. 8: 13)'" (20) This is truly the deliverance or the holy liberty of the children of God, who reign with Him over inordinate desires, the spirit of the world, and the spirit of evil.

Lastly, a seventh sign of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in the soul, according to St. Thomas,(21) is that the person speaks of God out of the abundance of his heart. In this sense is realized what the holy doctor says elsewhere: "Preaching should spring from the plenitude of the contemplation of the mysteries of faith." (22) Thus, from Pentecost on, St. Peter and the apostles preached the mystery of the redemption; so too, St. Stephen, the first martyr, preached before being stoned; and likewise St. Dominic, who knew how to speak only with God or of God. Thus the Holy Ghost appears increasingly as a source of ever new graces, an unexhausted and inexhaustible source, "the source of living water springing up into life eternal," the source of light and love.

He is, as the saints say, our consolation in the sorrows of exile. A great hope is left to us in the present world crisis, for the hand of the Lord is not shortened. The numerous saints recently canonized evidence the fact that God is always rich in mercy. These saints who are His great servants, furnish us with magnificent, and often imitable, examples of faith, hope, and love. Proof of this statement is found in the lives of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, St. Gemma Galgani, St. John Bosco, St. Joseph Cottolengo, Blessed Anthony Mary Claret, St. Catherine Laboure, St. Louise de Marillac, St. Conrad of Parzham, the humble Capuchin lay brother in whom are so admirably fulfilled our Savior's words: "I confess to Thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them to little ones" (Matt. 11:25).

In this spirit interior souls should consecrate themselves to the Holy Ghost in order to place themselves more profoundly under His direction and impulsion, and not allow so many of His inspirations to pass unperceived.

Good Christians consecrate themselves to the Blessed Virgin that she may lead them to our Lord, and to the Sacred Heart that Jesus may lead them to His Father. Particularly during the Pentecostal season, they should consecrate themselves to the Holy Ghost in order better to discern and follow His inspirations. With this intention they should repeat the beautiful prayer:

O Lux beatissima,
Reple cordis intima
Tuorum fidelium.

Sine tuo numine,
Nihil est in homine,
Nihil est innoxium.

Da virtutis meritum,
Da salutis exitum,
Da perenne gaudium.



1. Summa, IIa IIae, q. 180, a.6.

2. Summa, IIa IIae, q.24, a.9.

3. God, objective beatitude, should evidently be loved for Himself, more
than subjective beatitude, which is created and finite.

4. Cf. St. Thomas. Ia, q.43. a.3. We set forth this doctrine in Volume I,
chapter 4 of this work.

5. John 14:13.

6. Ibid., 26.

7. Cf. I John 2:27.

8. Rom. 8: 14-16.

9. Cf. IIa IIae, q.45, a. 1,2.

10. Luke 24: 32.

11. In the language of the schools we would say: "The act of filial love, proceeding from the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, is at one and the same time that which is known, and that by which one knows without discourse God dwelling within and vivifying the soul." Thus we "taste" the revealed mystery of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity in the just.

12. Summa, Ia, q.93, a.3-8.

13. Sometimes this supernatural image of God and also of our Lord in the souls of the saints is manifested sensibly. For example, one day Blessed Raymond of Capua, the director of St. Catherine of Siena, questioning whether she was truly led by the Spirit of God, saw the features of his spiritual daughter change into those of our Lord. This was a sensible sign of the transforming union which the great mystics speak of. Likewise, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, occasionally appeared to have our Lord's features. An artist, who had been trying for a long time to paint the face of Christ, was very much struck by this sight and sketched his features.

14. Bk. IV, chaps. 21 f.

15. Cf. Ia IIae, q. 112, 5.

16. Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chap. 22.

17. Ibid., chap. 21.

18. Ibid.

19. Rom. 8: 15 f. The Holy Ghost, who operates in us, excites this movement of filial love and thus gives us immediate testimony of our friendship with God and of our divine filiation. Cf. St. Thomas, In Ep. ad Rom., 8: 16.

20. Cf. Contra Gentes, Bk. IV, chap. 22, nos. 4 f.

21. Ibid., chap. 21, no. 6.

22. Summa, IIa IIae, q.188, a.6.