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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 46: The Heroic Degree of the Christian Moral Virtues

Since we cannot discuss here the heroic degree of each of the moral virtues in particular, we shall draw the inspiration for our selection especially from Christ's words: "Take up My yoke upon you, and learn of Me, because I am meek and humble of heart." (1) We shall consider first the heroic degree of humility and meekness. These virtues give the Christian tone we need to treat next of the heroic degree of fortitude, prudence, justice, and other virtues cor­responding to the three evangelical counsels.


Humility, which represses inordinate love of our own excellence, leads us to abase ourselves before the majesty of God and before what is of God in every creature.(2) This virtue is heroic when it reaches the higher degrees described by St. Anselm (3) and recalled by St. Thomas: "The third and fourth degrees regard the avowal of one's own deficiency: namely, that not merely one simply assert one's failing, but that one convince another of it. The other three degrees have to do with the appetite, which seeks, not outward excellence, but outward abasement, or bears it with equanimity, whether it consist of words or deeds. . . . We should especially be humble toward those who make us suffer, and this belongs to the fifth and sixth degrees; or the appetite may even go so far as lovingly to embrace external abasement," (4) in order to be configured to our Lord, who, for love of our salvation, willed the final humiliations of the Passion.

Heroic humility led St. Peter to wish to be crucified head down; it led St. Francis of Assisi and St. Benedict Joseph Labre to rejoice in the worst treatment and to find therein a holy joy.

Perfect humility is manifested outwardly by a great habitual modesty. We read in Ecclesiasticus: "A man is known by his look, and a wise man. . . is known by his countenance. The attire of the body and the laughter of the teeth and the gait of the man, show what he is." (5) St. Paul says: "Let your modesty be known to all men." (6) It appears on a calm, humble countenance, little inclined to laughter, in a grave, simple, unaffected bearing, which shows that a man lives in the presence of God and does not interrupt his intimate conversation with Him. Thus the truly humble and modest man speaks of God by his conduct and even by his silence.(7)

Heroic humility is accompanied by meekness in a proportionate degree. By this virtue man attains to complete self-mastery, to perfect domination of anger, when he does not return evil for evil, but triumphs over it by goodness.(8) The higher degrees of meekness consist in not being disturbed under injury, in experiencing a holy joy at the thought of the higher good it procures for one, and lastly in having compassion on the person who inflicts an injury, in suffering from the evil which it may cause him. Thus Jesus wept over Jerusalem, following its ingratitude; He was more sad over the wretchedness of the ungrateful city than over the cruel death He was about to undergo. The heroic meekness of Jesus is manifested especially by His prayer for His executioners.


In the perfect soul humility and meekness are accompanied by virtues contrary in appearance, but in reality complementary: fortitude and magnanimity. They are like the two opposite sides of a pointed arch, supporting each other.

Fortitude is the moral virtue which strengthens the soul in the pursuit of the difficult good so that it does not allow itself to be shaken by the greatest obstacles. It should dominate the fear of danger, fatigue, criticism, all that would paralyze our efforts toward the good. It prevents man from capitulating in a cowardly manner when he should fight; it also moderates audacity and untimely exaltation which would drive him to temerity.

Fortitude has two principal acts: to undertake courageously and to endure difficult things. The Christian should endure them for the love of God; it is more difficult to endure for a long time than in a moment of enthusiasm, to undertake courageously something difficult. (9)

Fortitude is accompanied by patience to endure the sorrows of life without being disturbed and without murmuring, by longanimity which endures trials for a long time, and by constancy in good, which is opposed to obduracy in evil.
To the virtue of fortitude is also linked that of magnanimity, which leads to the lofty practice of all the virtues,(10) avoiding pusillanimity and effeminacy, but without falling into presumption, vainglory, or ambition.

The gift of fortitude adds a superior perfection to the virtue of fortitude. It disposes us to receive the special inspirations of the Holy Ghost, which are given to sustain our courage in the presence of danger and to drive out worry over not being able to accomplish a great duty or to endure trials. This gift makes us preserve, in spite of everything, "hunger and thirst after the justice of God." (11)

The heroic degree of the virtue of fortitude appears especially in martyrdom, undergone to give testimony to a truth of faith or to the grandeur of a Christian virtue. Outside of martyrdom, the virtue of fortitude, the gift of fortitude, patience, and magnanimity intervene each time that something heroic is to be accomplished or a great trial to be borne.

Christian fortitude differs from stoic fortitude inasmuch as it is accompanied by humility, meekness, and great simplicity. Simplicity is heroic when it has such love of the truth that it excludes absolutely all duplicity, every slightest lie, all simulation, every equivocation. It does not, however, lead a man to tell his every thought and feeling, and it knows very well how to keep a secret.


People speak less of the heroic degree of prudence than of that of fortitude; nevertheless, in most difficult moments, this virtue also assumes a heroic character. Prudence it is that directs our actions toward the last end of life, by determining the golden mean of the moral virtues between deviations through excess and deficiency.(12) It makes us avoid rash haste, inconsideration, indecision, and inconstancy in the pursuit of the good. It has, therefore, for its object practical truth or the truth to be placed in our actions. For this reason our Lord said to His disciples: "Be ye therefore wise as serpents and simple as doves." (13) There is certainly a real difficulty in always perfectly harmonizing these two virtues. They are indispensable to the Christian, with a characteristic unknown to the philosophers: the Christian, in fact, not only should be the perfect upright man who develops his personality in a human manner; he ought always to act as a child of God, in perfect dependence on Him. He should even increasingly recognize this dependence; the child, on the other hand, should, as it grows up, be self-sufficient and not depend on the help of its earthly father.

In its higher degree Christian prudence recognizes with clarity and penetration the true good which the child of God should effect, and it firmly directs the other virtues to make him accomplish this good in a holy manner.

This virtue is, therefore, absolutely necessary to those who tend to perfection, or to intimate union with God. They should aspire to have all the virtues in a lofty degree, which presupposes prudence in a proportionate degree, at least in what concerns personal sanctification. Evidently this virtue is especially necessary for those whose duty it is to advise and direct others.

When we have excessive confidence in our own prudence, for our purification God permits us to fail in tact and refinement, With the result that we suffer more or less visible rebuffs. He also permits at times a certain lack of memory, or failures in attention, which have more or less regrettable results and humiliate us.

After this purification, prudence may become heroic; it is then manifestly accompanied by the gift of counsel in an eminent degree. Through this gift we receive the inspirations which, particularly in difficult cases, give us a  supernatural intuition of what it is advisable to do. We see this strikingly in the counsels which St. Catherine of Siena gave to the pope to bring him back from Avignon to Rome, and in her letters to princes in regard to political matters concerning religion.

Without reaching so high a degree, perfect prudence, united to the gift of counsel, makes us see what must be said and done in difficult moments: for example, when we are asked an indiscreet question and must reply at once without violating the truth or revealing a secret. If the soul is as a rule docile to the Holy Ghost, He will then give it a special inspiration enabling it to find the right answer. There are many such examples in times of persecution, in particular when priests, who exercise their ministry in secret, have to reply to extremely insidious and exacting questions. In such cases, heroic prudence is manifested.

The same is true when the Lord causes certain servants of His to undertake things that may seem imprudent to many. St. Alexius, on the evening of his marriage, received the inspiration to leave his wife and spend his life in solitude and prayer as a pilgrim to the greatest sanctuaries. He did so heroically, and at last returned to Rome, without making himself known in the home of his patrician father where his pious wife was living. He spent several years there as a poor man, sleeping under a staircase; only after his death did his wife learn his secret. This heroic life had not destroyed conjugal love in them, but had completely spiritualized and transformed it. In this exceptional situation, St. Alexius, living incognito in his father's house, often mistreated by the servants, had to practice heroic prudence, united to the gift of counsel. The same is true of St. Francis of Assisi in his love of poverty, and likewise of those who, by a divine inspiration, undertake most difficult works, such as the complete rehabilitation of poor, fallen, criminal girls, finally making them religious consecrated to God.(14) These servants of God are thus at times led into most difficult situations, in which to act and not to act may seem to many equally imprudent. Then one must humbly beg the Lord for light, the inspirations of the gift of counsel, and must remain pliable and docile in the hands of God. Perfect prudence is, therefore, inseparable from continual prayer to obtain divine light. It also inclines man to listen to the good advice of those who can enlighten him. It represents perfect maturity of spirit.

In regard to the "extraordinary supernatural," true prudence is circumspect. It does not reject it a priori; it verifies the truth of the facts and pronounces on the matter only when obliged to do so, after often asking God for light. Superior prudence manifests itself also in the examination of certain exceptional vocations.

The heroic degree of this virtue appears, therefore, especially in acts which, in the eyes of human wisdom, are imprudent, but which, in reality, show by their results that they are those of a higher prudence. Thus our Savior sent His twelve apostles to work without any human means for the conversion of the world. So, too, St. Dominic sent his first sons without resources into different parts of Europe where they founded centers of apostolic life which still subsist. This was an act of lofty prudence, evidently enlightened by the gift of counsel.


The justice in question here is not justice in the broad sense of the term, which designates the totality of the virtues, as when it is said of St. Joseph that he was a just man. The justice we are speaking of is the special virtue inclining our will always to render every man his due. Thus commutative justice establishes, according to just right, order between individuals by regulating exchanges. Distributive justice establishes order in society by distributing congruously to individuals goods of general utility, advantages, and duties. Legal or social justice establishes just laws in view of the common good and sees to their observance. Lastly, equity (epicheia) observes the spirit of laws even more than the letter, especially in exceptional cases where the rigorous application of the letter, of legality, would be too rigid and inhuman.

To form an idea of perfect justice, either acquired or infused we must bear in mind that this virtue forbids not only theft and fraud, but also lying or any voluntary word opposed to the truth, hypocrisy, simulation, the violation of a secret, insult to the honor or reputation of our neighbor by calumny, slander, or action. It also forbids rash judgment, derision, and raillery which unduly disparage our neighbor.

Our justice often has some alloy, when it is practiced at least partially from interested motives: for example, when a person pays a portion of his debts in order to avoid the costs of a lawsuit, or when he avoids lying partly because of the annoying consequences that might result from the lie. Justice, therefore, needs to be purified from all inferior alloy just as the other virtues do.

Perfect justice is necessary for those who aspire to close union with God, because they should become irreproachable in their dealings with others and practice toward them all the duties of justice and charity.

We read in Ecclesiasticus: "Strive for justice for thy soul, and even unto death fight for justice, and God will overthrow thy enemies for thee. Be not hasty in thy tongue: and slack and remiss in thy works. Be not as a lion in thy house, terrifying them of thy household, and oppressing them that are under thee. Let not thy hand be stretched out to receive, and shut when thou shouldst give." (15)

The perfect man who attains to close union with God should exercise heroic justice in all its forms, equity included. He should perfectly observe all divine and human laws, ecclesiastical and civil. If he must make a distribution of goods or offices, he should do so in proportion to the merits of each one, rising above excessively individual considerations of relationship or friendship. He should avoid all, even the slightest, injustice or injury to anyone.

Heroic justice is especially manifest when it is very difficult to harmonize it with certain deeply rooted affections: for example, when the father of a family, who is at the same time a magistrate, must decide against his grievously guilty son, or again when a superior must send a very dear spiritual son to a distant and perilous post.


The virtue of religion appears in a heroic degree when a person practices his duties in spite of sharp opposition from his family or others. It appears also in the exact observance of the vow of the most perfect, or again in the foundation of a religious family in the midst of the great difficulties which generally accompany such a work.

Heroic poverty renounces everything, and is content with what is strictly necessary in order to resemble our Lord, who had not whereon to lay His head. He who desires nothing lacks nothing; thereby, like St. Francis of Assisi, he is spiritually rich and blessed.

Heroic chastity is manifest especially in perpetual virginity, when, in the flesh, one lives an entirely spiritual life and ends by forgetting every disorder of the senses by dint of victory.

Lastly, heroic obedience is shown by perfect abnegation of self­will, when a person does nothing, so to speak, without consulting his superiors, when he obeys all superiors whoever they may be, even though they may be only moderately kind or even ill-willed. At times obedience to very difficult orders is required, as was the case with Abraham who was asked to sacrifice his son. At such a time great faith is needed to see God Himself in the superior, who is His intermediary and who speaks in His name. It is a moment of dark night which, if well traversed, leads to a great light, for the Lord richly rewards with His graces of light, strength, and love, those who thus obey. (16) Evidently the heroic degree of the moral virtues places them more and more in the service of charity and prepares the soul for a very close union with God, which we shall discuss in the following chapter.



1. Matt. 11: 29.

2. Summa, IIa IIae, q. 161, a. I, 3.

3. Lib. de similitudinibus, chaps. 99-108.

4. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 161, a.6 ad 3um.

5. Ecclus. 19: 26 f.

6. Phil. 4:5.

7. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 160, a. I, 2.

8. Ibid., q. 157, a. 1, 2, 4.

9. Summa, IIa IIae, q. 123, a.6: "The principal act of fortitude is endurance, that is, to stand immovable in the midst of dangers rather than to attack them."

10. Ibid., q. 129, a.4 ad 3um: "Every virtue derives from its species a certain luster or adornment which is proper to each virtue; but further adornment results from the very greatness of a virtuous deed, through magnanimity which makes all virtues greater."

11. Ibid., q.139.

12. Cf. IIa IIae, q.47, a.7.

13. Matt. 10: 16.

14. Such is the work of the Rehabilitees founded by the Dominican, Father Lataste, who died in the odor of sanctity.

15. Ecclus. 4: 33-36.

16. The history of the Church recalls the memory of some religious who had great zeal, the stuff of sanctity, terrible trials, but who seemed to have lacked heroic obedience to superiors whose personal lives left much to be desired. Whatever be the merits of these servants of God, their beatification will never be considered.