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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


SECTION III - The Forms and Degrees of the Unitive Life

It is not possible to get a right idea of the unitive life without considering its different forms and degrees. We shall, consequently, treat here of the perfect apostolic life, the fruit of contemplation, and of the life of reparation. This will prepare us to understand better what the great spiritual writers have said of arid mystical union, ecstatic union, and the transforming union. We shall thus see how to settle the question whether a soul can have the full perfection of divine love without the mystical union, either in aridity or enjoyment.

To discuss these subjects, so far beyond us, we recall what has been said of young and old professors: "Young professors teach more than they know, that is, many things they do not know. Middle-aged professors teach all that they know. Old professors teach what is useful to their hearers." It is imperative to follow the example of the last named when one approaches the subject we are going to treat of now. To deal with it in a satisfactory manner, one should have personal experience of this eminent union. We can only repeat briefly what seems to us most essential in the testimony of the saints. We are like a spectator who, still in the valley, gazes from below at the ascent of those who are climbing to the very summit of the mountain.

Ch 48: Perfect Apostolic Life and Contemplation

From the fullness of contemplation proceed teaching and preaching." St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q. 188, a. 6.

It is inadvisable to treat of the intimate union of the purified soul with God without speaking of the fruits which result from this union in perfect apostolic life. This life differs from a purely contemplative life, that of the Carthusian, for example, and from the active life of orders devoted to hospital work, since it unites contemplation and apostolic action, which consists in the teaching of sacred doctrine, preaching, and the direction of souls.

This explains why, in the Church, orders dedicated to the apostolic life, like those of St. Dominic and St. Francis, the Carmelites, and others, unite monastic observances, such as abstinence, fasts, night rising, the profound study of philosophy and theology, integral liturgical prayer, that is, the Divine Office chanted in choir, and lastly the apostolate by oral or written teaching and preaching. If one of these elements happens to prevail to the detriment of the others, the harmony of this apostolic life is compromised. Emphasis is placed either on the letter of observances, or on a lifeless study, or on superficial preaching which cannot be fruitful. In this great diversity of functions, it is essential to preserve their balance, their unity, which constitutes the very spirit of this life; otherwise it becomes materialistic and superficial.

Blessed Henry Suso received a vision on this subject which showed him that, in an order devoted to the apostolic life, those who are almost exclusively attached to external observances are not more advanced than those who give themselves to study without the spirit of prayer, without generous love for God and souls, because neither group tends to become like Christ, neither lives by Him or can give Him to others.(1) "Their eyes are not yet opened," says Blessed Henry Suso; they do not know the meaning of the interior life, nor do they understand the value of the cross, without which the apostle cannot work for the salvation of souls.


The apostolic life should resemble as closely as possible that of our Lord and of the Apostles St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. John the Evangelist. The fathers of the Church, shepherds of their dioceses, lived this life, as also did great theologians, apostles like St. Bernard, St. Dominic, great missionaries like St. Francis Xavier. All were priests of deep thought and prayer, true contemplatives, who, to save souls, gave them their living contemplation of God and of Christ.

A striking example of preaching that "proceeds from the fullness of contemplation," to use St. Thomas' expression, is found in the sermons of St. Peter on Pentecost, when, enlightened and fortified by the Holy Ghost, he said to the Jews: "Jesus of Nazareth. . . . This same being delivered up, by the determinate counsel and fore­knowledge of God, you by the hands of wicked men have crucified and slain. Whom God hath raised up." (2) "But the Author of life you killed, whom God hath raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses. . . . This [Jesus] is the stone which was rejected by you the builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other." (3)

The preaching that proceeds from the fullness of contemplation overflows in the epistles of St. Paul: for example, in the following excerpt from the letter to the Ephesians: "I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom all paternity in heaven and earth is named, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened by His Spirit with might unto the inward man, that Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts; that, being rooted and founded in charity, you may be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth; to know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge, that you may be filled unto all the fullness of God." (4)

The eyes that gaze openly upon divine things are those employed in the loving and penetrating contemplation of revealed mysteries, a contemplation superior to the exterior practices of penance and also to simple study. It is the contemplation which, together with profound love of God and neighbor, should be the soul of the apostolate.

Like Jesus Christ and the Twelve, the apostle should be a contemplative who gives his contemplation to others to sanctify and save them. St. Thomas states the special end of the apostolic life in the phrase: "Contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere."(5)

How should the relations of contemplation and action in the apostolic life be understood? That the apostolic life may preserve its unity, contemplation and action cannot be on an equal footing in it. One should be subordinated to the other, otherwise they would harm each other, and finally a choice would have to be made between them.

How should this subordination be understood? Some unconsciously diminish the traditional teaching, saying that the apostolic life has apostolic action for its primary and principal end, but that it also tends toward a certain contemplation as a means requisite for action.

Did holy apostles and great missionaries like St. Francis Xavier consider the loving contemplation of the mysteries of faith a simple means subordinated to action? Did the holy Cure of Ars thus consider prayer, meditation, the celebration of Mass? Would not such an attitude diminish the importance of union with God, the source of every apostolate? By following this point of view which is seldom explicitly formulated, one would reach the point of saying that love of neighbor is superior to love of God; this would constitute a heresy that would overthrow the very order of charity.

St. Thomas and his disciples state in a more lofty, traditional, and fruitful manner that the contemplation of divine things and the union with God which it implies cannot be conceived as a means subordinated to action, for they are superior to it. It is indisputable that there is nothing more sublime on earth than union with God through contemplation and love,(6) and, consequently, there is profound value in apostolic action only so far as it proceeds from this source, which, far from being a subordinated means, is an eminent cause.

Even more, it is apostolic action itself that is a means subordinated to the union with God to which the apostle wishes to lead souls, as he himself has been led thereto. Therefore we must say that the apostolic life tends principally to contemplation which fructifies in the apostolate. As St. Thomas well says: "Preaching of the divine word should proceed from the fullness of contemplation." (7) This is the explanation given by his best commentators, among whom may be named the Carmelites of Salamanca (8) and the Dominican Passerini.(9)

St. Thomas adds that Christ was not content with the purely contemplative life, but chose that which presupposes the abundance of contemplation and comes down from it to share it with men by preaching.(10)

According to several Thomists, there is even between contemplation and action a relationship similar to that existing between the Incarnation and the redemption. The Incarnation, or the hypostatic union of the human nature of Christ with the uncreated person of the Word, is not ordered to our redemption as an inferior means to a higher end, but as an eminent cause to an inferior effect. St. Thomas says: "God loves Christ not only more than He loves the whole human race, but more than He loves the entire created universe. . . . Nor did anything of His excellence diminish when God delivered Him up to death for the salvation of the human race; rather did He become thereby a glorious conqueror." (11) In this passage, St. Thomas shows that his doctrine emanates from the contemplation of the grandeur of the mystery of Christ.

From all eternity God willed the Incarnation, not as subordinated to the redemption, but as fructifying in the redemption. Likewise, in the apostolic life, He willed contemplation and union with God, not as subordinated to action, but as fructifying in the apostolate.

Why should the apostolate proceed from the contemplation of the mysteries of salvation? Is this a necessity? It is, that the preaching of the Gospel and the direction of souls may be luminous, living, simple, and penetrating, imbued with the unction which attracts hearts and the deep conviction which draws them on. St. Thomas says in substance: He who brings the word of God to others should instruct them, draw their hearts toward God, and move their wills to the fulfillment of the divine law.(12)

This should be the case in order that preaching may convey not only the letter, but the spirit of the word of God, of supernatural mysteries, of the precepts, and of the counsels. It is not a question here of romantic lyricism, but of the breath of divine truth which comes from a great spirit of faith and from ardent love for God and souls.

To comprehend what the preaching of the Gospel should be, we must remember that the New Law is only secondarily a written law; it is primarily and principally a law infused into souls, "the grace itself of the Holy Ghost." (13) That we might be made to live by this grace, we had to be instructed by the exterior and the written word on the mysteries to be believed and the precepts to be observed.

The preaching of the Gospel should be spirit and life. And that the apostle may not become discouraged in the midst of all the obstacles he encounters, he must hunger and thirst after the justice of God; he must have the gift of fortitude to persevere to the end and to lead souls on with him. Hunger and thirst for the justice of God grow in liturgical and in mental prayer. But it is chiefly the celebration of the holy Sacrifice of the Mass which, through the union with God found in it, is the summit from which the living preaching of the divine word should descend like a stream.

Normally a priest, to be "another Christ," should reach the supernatural contemplation of the sacrifice of the cross perpetuated in substance on the altar. This contemplation should be the very soul of the apostolate. Evidently it is not a means subordinated to the apostolate, but an eminent cause, similar to the always abundant springs from which great rivers flow. In a word, to bring others to God, a man must himself be closely united to Him.


The fruits of the apostolate should be the conversion of infidels and sinners, the advancement of the good: broadly speaking, the salvation of souls. We should bear in mind that to save souls our Lord was not content simply to preach the truth to them; He died on the cross for love of them. Similarly, apostles cannot save souls by preaching without suffering for them.

St. Paul points this out when he writes: "In all things we suffer tribulation, but are not distressed; we are straitened, but are not destitute; we suffer persecution, but are not forsaken; we are cast down, but we perish not; always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies." (14) Christ announced this persecution when He promised the hundredfold to those who follow Him.(15)

The Lord recalled this truth to St. Catherine of Siena, as we see in her Dialogue: "Now look at the ship of thy father Dominic, My beloved son. He ordered it most perfectly, wishing that his sons should apply themselves only to My honor and the salvation of souls, with the light of science, which light he laid as his principal foundation. . . . At what table does he feed his sons with the light of science? At the table of the Cross, which is the table of holy desire, when souls are eaten for My honor." (16)

Among the spiritual writers of the Society of Jesus, Father Lallemant speaks in like terms in La Doctrine spirituelle: "As our Lord redeemed the world only by His cross. . . ; so too, evangelical laborers apply the grace of the redemption only by their crosses and the persecutions which they suffer. Therefore great returns should not be expected from their labors unless these are accompanied by obstacles, calumnies, insults, and sufferings.

"Some think they do wonders because they preach well prepared sermons, that are delivered with charm, that are in fashion, and welcomed everywhere. They are deceived; the means on which they rely are not those which God makes use of to do great things. Crosses are needed to procure the salvation of the world. Those whom God employs to save souls, He leads by the way of crosses, as we see in the lives of apostles such as St. Francis Xavier, St. Ignatius, St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Dominic. . . . Jesus has chosen our crosses for us, and offers them to us as the material of the crowns He is preparing for us, and as a test of our virtue and fidelity in His service." (17)

St. Grignion de Montfort sets forth the same doctrine in his Lettre aux amis de la croix and in L' Amour de la divine sagesse (Part I, chap. 6).

The amazing fruitfulness of the apostolate of the saints is apparent especially in the missions. In Asia and the Indian Archipelago, St. Francis Xavier converted thousands of pagans; the same was true of St. Peter Claver. St. Louis Bertrand, the St. Francis Xavier of New Granada, in the midst of incessant perils, brought more than 150,000 souls to the Christian faith. In different regions, how many missionaries were cruelly martyred, their blood becoming the seed of Christians! The life of the Church, like that of her divine Founder, is a life which has passed through death and which thus always preserves its youth and an inexhaustible fecundity.

Consequently the fruitful apostolate should proceed from close union with God and the contemplation of divine things; "from the fullness of contemplation," St. Thomas even says, though his language is always so reserved.

Our study of this question has given us an additional confirmation of the doctrine which teaches that contemplation, proceeding from living faith enlightened by the gifts, is in the normal way of sanctity, especially for the priest who must direct, enlighten, and lead souls to perfection.(18)



1. The Book of Eternal Wisdom, Part III, chap. 5.

2. Acts 2:23 f.

3. Acts3:15; 4:11 f.

4. Eph.3:14-19.

5. Cf. IIa IIae, q.188, a.6.

6. Ibid., q. 182, a. I: "The contemplative life is simply more excellent than the active." Ibid., a.4: "With regard to its nature. . . the contemplative life precedes the active, inasmuch as it applies itself to things which precede and are better than others, wherefore it moves and directs the active life."

7. Ibid., q. 188, a.6.

8. Cursus theologicus, tr. XX, De statu religioso, disp. II, dub. III: "The
proximate end of the mixed life is contemplation that it may overflow in action on behalf of one's neighbor."

9. De hominum statibus, in IIam IIae, q. 188, a.6: "A mixed religious order aims principally at contemplation that it may fructify exteriorly for the salvation of souls."

10. Cf. IIIa, q.40, a. I ad 2um; a.2 ad 3um.

11. Cf. Ia, q.20, a.4 ad Ium.

12. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 177, a.1.

13. Cf. Ia IIae, q.106, a.1.

14. Cf. II Cor. 4:8-10.

15. Mark 10: 30.

16. The Dialogue, chap. 139.

17. La Doctrine spirituelle, Second principle, sect. I, chap. 3, a.4: Of the love of crosses.

18. Cf. Cardinal Mercier, La Vie interieure, appel aux ames sacerdotales 1919, pp. 237 ff.: The faithful soul experiences the divine intimacy. Why there are relatively few souls that taste this union. Our responsibility in this regard. What is the apostolic vocation? Pp. 244-96: The devotion of the shepherd to his flock: universal charity, magnanimous charity, effective charity. Pp. 296-315: Worship and preaching of the Christian mystery, the substance of the Gospel. Is this mystery the preferred object of our prayers? The decline of religious beliefs and the insufficiency of dogmatic teaching. Let your life be a life of prayer. Ibid., pp. 443-70.

See also J. Maritain, "Action et contemplation," Revue Thomiste, May­June, 1937, pp. 18-51.