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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Section II: The Heroic Degree of the Virtues

To apprehend clearly what the unitive way should be in the full and strong sense of the term, we must treat of the heroic degree of the virtues in general, and more particularly of each of the theological virtues that chiefly constitute our life of union with God. With this intention, we shall also consider devotion to Jesus crucified and to Mary in the unitive way.

Ch 42: The Heroic Degree of the Virtues in General

More perfectly to characterize the spiritual age of the perfect, we shall discuss at this point the heroic degree of the virtues which the Church requires for the beatification of the servants of God.(1)

Heroic virtue commences even in the illuminative way, which begins by the passive purification of the senses, in which there are heroic acts of chastity and patience. With still greater reason it exists in the passive purification of the spirit, which introduces the soul into the unitive way. As we have seen, during this trial the soul must make heroic acts of the theological virtues in order to resist temptations against faith and hope. But this heroic degree manifests itself still more when the soul emerges from this trial into the unitive way of the perfect. We even pointed out earlier in this work that these two nights of the senses and the spirit are like two tunnels whose darkness is quite disconcerting. When we see a soul emerge from the first tunnel and with greater cause from the second with manifestly heroic virtues, it is a sign that the soul has successfully traversed these dark passages, that it did not go astray, or that, if in them it committed some sins, like the Apostle Peter during our Savior's passion, divine grace raised it up again and led it to still greater humility, a greater mistrust of self, and a firmer hope in God.

We shall discuss first the distinctive marks of heroic virtue, then the connection of the virtues in relation to their heroic degree. In the following chapters we shall treat of the heroic degree of the theological and moral virtues in the perfect.


On this subject St. Thomas says in his Commentary on St Matthew, apropos of the evangelical beatitudes, which are the most perfect acts of the infused virtues and of the gifts: "Common virtue perfects man in a human manner, heroic virtue gives him a superhuman perfection. When a courageous man fears where he should fear, it is a virtue; if he did not fear in such circumstances, it would be temerity. But if he no longer fears anything, because he relies on the help of God, then it is a superhuman or divine virtue." (2)

It is these heroic virtues that are spoken of in the evangelical beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who weep over their sins, those who hunger and thirst after justice, the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers, those who suffer persecution for justice' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. "Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you untruly, for My sake."

The true Christian notion of heroic virtue is expressed in these words of our Savior and in the commentary on them given us by the fathers of the Church, in particular by St. Augustine.(3) St. Thomas explains this traditional idea in the Summa,(4) where he distinguishes between the social virtues, the perfecting virtues, and those of the purified soul; and also where he treats of the beatitudes. After treating of the acquired virtues of the good citizen (social virtues), St. Thomas describes the infused perfecting virtues as follows: "These virtues. . . are virtues of men who are on their way and tending toward the divine similitude; and these are called perfecting virtues. Thus prudence by contemplating the things of God, counts as nothing all things of the world, and directs all the thoughts of the soul to God alone; temperance, so far as nature allows, neglects the needs of the body; fortitude prevents the soul from being afraid of neglecting the body and rising to heavenly things; and justice consists in the soul giving a whole-hearted consent to follow the way thus proposed."

In a higher degree, these same infused virtues are called virtues of the fully purified soul; they are those of great saints on earth and of the blessed in heaven. "Thus prudence sees naught else but the things of God (the rules of our conduct); temperance knows no earthly desires (after having often overcome them); fortitude has no knowledge of passion (as in the martyrs); and justice, by imitating the divine Mind, is united thereto by an everlasting covenant." (5)

Treating of the beatitudes, St. Thomas (6) tells us that, as meritorious acts, they are the highest acts of the infused virtues and of the gifts, and that their reward is here on earth the prelude of eternal life (aliqua inchoatio beatitudinis). He distinguishes those of the flight from sin, which is attached to wealth, pleasure, earthly power; those of the active life (the thirst after justice and mercy), and those of the contemplative life (purity of heart, radiating peace); the highest contains all the preceding in the midst even of persecution.

This traditional teaching on the distinctive marks of heroic virtue is summed up by Benedict XIV when he says: "Four things are required for proven or manifest heroic virtue: (I) the matter or object should be difficult, above the common strength of man; (2) the acts should be accomplished promptly, easily; (3) they should be performed with holy joy; (4) they should be accomplished quite frequently, when the occasion to do so presents itself." (7)

The heroic degree of virtue is therefore superior to the common way of acting of even virtuous souls. Heroic virtue is present when one practices all one's duties with ease and spontaneity, even in particularly difficult circumstances.

The different signs pointed out by Benedict XIV should be clearly understood in relation to the subject who practices heroic virtue. Thus, what is difficult for a ten-year-old child is what is above the ordinary strength of children of his age; likewise, what is difficult for an old man differs in a measure from what is hard for a man in his prime.

The second distinctive mark, promptness and facility, is understood especially in regard to the higher part of the soul; it does not exclude difficulty in the less elevated part, as the mystery of Gethsemane shows. That the holocaust may be perfect, there must be suffering involved and great difficulty to be overcome; but heroic charity promptly surmounts them.

Likewise holy joy, the third sign, is that of the sacrifice to be accomplished, and does not exclude sorrow and sadness; it is even at times accompanied by extreme dejection, which is religiously offered to God. The joy of suffering for our Lord even increases with suffering, and for that reason it is the sign of a very great grace.

The fourth mark, frequency in the accomplishment of such acts when the occasion demands it, greatly confirms the preceding ones and shows tested heroic virtue.

The heroic degree of virtue is especially evident in martyrdom undergone with faith for love of God; but outside of martyrdom, this heroic degree is often manifest, and at times in a striking manner. This was the case especially in the life of Jesus before His passion, as shown by His humility, meekness, abnegation, magnanimity, and even more so by His immense charity toward all, the charity of the supreme Shepherd of souls who is preparing to give His life for them.

An example of heroic virtue outside of martyrdom is frequently found in the saints, in their pardon of injuries, in their admirable charity toward those who persecute them. For example, one day a spiteful man seeing St. Benedict Joseph Labre passing by, hurled a sharp stone at him; the stone struck the servant of God on the ankle, and the blood gushed forth. The saint immediately bent down, picked up the stone, kissed it, doubtless praying for the man who had thrown it, and then placed the stone at the edge of the road so that it would injure no one else. Still another example is Henry Mary Boudon, archdeacon of Evreux, counselor of his bishop and of many other bishops of France, and the author of excellent spiritual books. As the result of a calumnious letter to the bishop of his diocese, he was forbidden to celebrate Mass and to hear confessions. On receipt of this prohibition, he immediately threw himself at the feet of his crucifix and thanked God for this grace, of which he judged himself unworthy. His action is an example of perfect promptness in the acceptance of the cross.

Such examples could be endlessly multiplied. St. Louis Bertrand remained calm in the midst of great dangers. On one occasion when he perceived that he had drunk a poisoned beverage offered to him, he remained in peace and trusted to God. In the midst of sharp pain, he did not lament, but said to God: "Lord, now burn and cut that Thou mayest spare me in eternity."

We should note that in heroic virtue the happy mean is far higher than in ordinary virtue. In proportion as the acquired virtue of fortitude grows, without deviating to the right or the left toward contrary vices, its happy mean rises. Higher up still is found the happy mean of the infused virtue of fortitude, which itself rises progressively. Finally, still more elevated is the superior measure of the gift of fortitude, dictated by the Holy Ghost. Now, heroic virtue is exercised conjointly with the corresponding gift and, as it is thus placed at the service of charity, something of the impulse of this theological virtue is found in it.

Moreover, as the acts of the gifts depend on the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, the Christian hero remains very humble like a child of God who continually looks toward his Father. In this respect he differs notably from the hero who is conscious of his personal strength, like the Stoic, and who aims at great things or exalts his personality instead of allowing the Lord to reign profoundly in him.

The distinctive marks of heroic virtue are dominated by charity toward those who make one suffer and by prayer for them. This consideration leads us to discuss the connection of the virtues from this higher point of view.


To discern more clearly between heroic virtue, which comes from a great help from God, and certain deceptive appearances, we must consider, besides the four distinctive marks already indicated, the connection of the virtues in prudence and charity. Prudence, the driver of the virtues, directs the moral virtues that it may kindle in our sensible appetites and will the light of right reason and faith. We saw earlier in our study that in this work of direction acquired prudence is at the service of infused. Charity, on its part, directs the acts of all the other virtues to God loved supremely, making them meritorious. This is why all the virtues, being connected in prudence and charity, grow together, says St. Thomas, like the five fingers of the hand, like the different parts of one and the same organism.(8) This point of doctrine is of primary importance in discerning heroic virtues, for there is extraordinary difficulty in practicing, especially at the same time, seemingly contradictory virtues, like fortitude and meekness, simplicity and prudence, perfect truthfulness and the discretion which knows how to keep a secret.

Difficulty in practicing simultaneously virtues that are so unlike springs from the fact that each one of us is determined by his temperament in one direction rather than in another. A person naturally inclined to meekness is but little inclined to fortitude; a naturally simple person sometimes carries simplicity to naivete and a lack of prudence; one who is very frank does not know how to answer an indiscreet question relative to something about which he should keep silent; one who is inclined to mercy will at times lack the firmness which justice or the defense of truth demands. Each one's temperament is determined in one direction; natura determinatur ad unum, the ancients used to say. All must climb toward the summit of perfection by opposite slopes; the meek must learn to become strong, and the strong to become meek. Thus the acquired and the infused virtues should complete man's excellent natural inclinations and combat the numerous defects which sully his moral character. Were we to count all the virtues annexed to the moral and theological virtues, we would discover that there are about forty of them to be practiced, and that each one occupies a middle position between two opposing defects to be avoided, as fortitude between cowardliness and temerity. It is essential to know how to play the keyboard of the virtues without sounding false notes, without confounding meekness with pusillanimity, and magnanimity with pride.

Hence the importance of the connection of the virtues and the difficulty there is in practicing them all at the same time, or practically so, in order that the equilibrium or harmony of moral life may be preserved fortiter et suavite.

It also follows that a virtue exists in the heroic degree only if the others exist in a proportionate degree, at least in praeparatione animi, that is, in such a way that they can be practiced should the occasion arise. Thus the deeper the root of a tree is, the loftier is the highest of its branches.(9)

Therefore one must possess lofty charity, eminent love of God and neighbor, and also great prudence, aided by the gift of counsel, in order to have simultaneously a high degree of fortitude and meekness, perfect love of truth and justice joined to great mercy for those who have gone astray. God alone, who unites all perfections in Himself, can grant that His servants unite them also in their lives. This is why St. Paul asserts this connection when he says of the charity poured forth in our hearts by the Holy Ghost: "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." (10)

Likewise Benedict XIV declares: "The heroic degree, properly so called, demands the connection of all the moral virtues, and although pagans have excelled in one virtue or another, like love of country, it is not evident that they had the heroic degree properly so called, which cannot be conceived without great love of God and neighbor and the other virtues which accompany charity." (11)

This admirable harmony of the virtues appears especially in our Lord, particularly during the Passion. In Him, together with His heroic love of God and immense mercy for sinners, which led Him to pray for His executioners, we see the greatest love of truth and uncompromising justice. In Him are united the most profound humility and the loftiest magnanimity, heroic fortitude in self­forgetfulness and the greatest meekness. Our Savior's humanity thus appears as the spotless mirror in which the divine perfections are reflected.(12)

The connection of the virtues likewise enables us to distinguish as Benedict XIV points out,(18) between true and false martyrs. The latter endure their torments through pride and obstinacy in error whereas only true martyrs unite to heroic fortitude that meeknes which leads them, in imitation of our Lord, to pray for their executioners. In their martyrdom, St. Stephen and St. Peter Martyr exemplified this teaching, showing us, in consequence, that their constancy was true Christian fortitude, united to the gift of fortitude, in the service of faith and charity. In them especially we have living examples of the four characteristics of heroic virtue explained above: to accomplish very difficult acts, promptly, with holy joy, and not only once, but every time that circumstances demand such action. To act in this manner requires a special intervention on the part of God who sustains His servants and who, in extreme circumstances, gives extreme graces.

We must insist on the point that the heroic degree of virtue thus defined is relative to different ages of life.(14) Heroic virtue in children is judged in relation to the common strength of virtuous children of the same age. If certain grown persons are morally very small, there are little children who by reason of their virtues are very mature. Scripture declares: "Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings Thou hast perfected praise." (15) Christ reminded the chief priests and the scribes of this passage when they grew indignant at the children who were crying in the temple: "Hosanna to the Son of David." (16) And if the faith of little ones is at times an example for their elders, as much must be said of their confidence and love.

An example of such virtue is the heroism of little four-year-old Nellie of Ireland, whose well-known life written some years ago, aroused wonder and delight in Pope Pius X.(17) Tortured by caries of the bone which ate away her jaw, she used to press her crucifix to her heart in order to endure her sufferings; tears streaming down her cheeks, she accepted all her suffering, repeating unceasingly: "See how Holy God suffered for me!"

In 1909 little Guglielmina Tacchi Marconi, known in Pisa for her extraordinary love for the poor, died just as heroically. (18) In the streets she used to watch for the poor in order to assist them; at table she could not eat if they lacked anything. She died at the age of eleven, after seven months of torture by endocarditis; throughout this period she was never guilty of a pout or a caprice. From the very first day, though she was never again to know an hour of peaceful sleep, she contented herself with repeating with great confidence: "All for the love of Jesus!" After her first Communion, made just before she died, she remained for a long time as if in ecstasy, and died exclaiming: "Come, Jesus, come."

Another striking example is the martyrdom of the three little Japanese boys, canonized by Pope Pius IX in 1861. One of them, thirteen years of age, made the following reply to the governor who urged him to apostatize: "How foolish I would be to give up today certain and eternal goods for uncertain and passing goods!" Another, Louis Ibragi, twelve years of age, died on his cross singing the Laudate, pueri, Dominum.(19)On reading the account of these heroic acts performed by children from ten to twelve years of age and even less, and recalling the sublime words that several of them uttered before dying, one recognizes in them a wisdom incomparably superior in its simplicity and humility to the often pretentious complexity of human knowledge. In it is evident an eminent degree of the gift of wisdom, proportionate to the charity of these little servants of God, who were great by the heroic testimony they gave Him even unto death.(20)



1. On this subject, consult Benedict XIV: De servo rum Dei beatificatione, III, chaps. 21 f., on how the examination into the heroic degree of the virtues of the servants of God should be made in view of beatification.

2. Commentary on Matt. 5, lect. I.

3. De sermone Domini in monte, Bk. I, chap. 4.

4. Cf. Ia IIae, q.6I, a.5; q.69.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid., q.69.

7. De servorum Dei beatificatione, Bk. III, chap. 21.

8. Summa, Ia IIae, q.65. a.1-3; q.66, a.2; q.68. a.5.

9. Two observations are essential here:

(1) It would be imprudent to affirm too hastily the heroic degree of a particular virtue in a servant of God and then to deduce, as it were a priori, that he must also have the other virtues in a heroic degree. To affirm the heroic quality of one of them without rash haste, the elevation of the others must have already been considered.

(2) Although the virtues grow together, especially the infused virtues, a
given servant of God has a greater natural or acquired disposition for the practice, for example, of fortitude than for that of meekness, or inversely. In addition, there are servants of God who, by reason of a special mission, receive actual graces which incline them more particularly to the exercise of one virtue than to that of another. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q.66, a.2, corp., and ad 2um.

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

11. Op. cit., III, chap. 21.

12. Cf. St. Francis de Sales, Second Sermon for the Visitation, Explanation of the Magnificat: The union of profound humility and lofty charity.

13. Op. cit., chap. 20.

14. We treated this subject at greater length in "L'heroicite de la vertu chez les enfants" (Anne de Guigne), La Vie spirituelle, January 1, 1935, pp. 34-51.

15. Ps. 8:3.

16. Matt. 21:I5f.

17. Father Bernard des Ronces, Nellie (Maison du Bon-Pasteur, Paris).

18. Myriam de G., Guglielmina, 1898-1909 (Paris).

19 These and many other similar facts are related in a book written with great love of God: Mes Benjamins, Myriam de G., Italian transl., Turin.

20. It should be noted that in the innocence of the baptized child the Holy Ghost has not much to purify before communicating His light of life and atttracting power. There are, to be sure, certain consequences of original sin, which, after baptism, are like wounds in the process of healing; but they are not poisoned by repeated personal sins. The Holy Ghost dispenses the child that is faithful to grace in the accomplishment of the duties proper to its age from the painful purifications necessary, according to the degree of their guilt, for Christians who have sinned. Such a child may rise to great heights of virtue.