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Full Christian Perfection and the Passive Purifications

St. John of the Cross Photo:
St. John of the Cross Photo:

In the previous chapters, Garrigou-Lagrange (1) discussed the many virtues necessary for Christian perfection, placing charity, always, as the stronghold. Both infused and moral acquired virtues are necessary for Christian perfection in certain degrees, along with the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, which grow in proportion to the increase in charity.

He is now beginning to move into how we develop these virtues and one of those is the purification, or purgation process.

In his commentary on the words of Christ as recorded by St. John: "I am the true vine; and My Father is the husbandman . . . Every branch that beareth fruit, (2) He will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit," Thomas Aquinas writes:

In order that the just who bear fruit, may bear still more, God frequently cuts away in them whatever is superfluous. He purifies them by sending them tribulations and permitting temptations in the midst of which they show themselves more generous and stronger. No one is so pure in this life that he no longer needs to be more and more purified. (3)

Because of our fallen human nature, we battle temptations of sensuality, vanity, and pride and though the love of God exists in us, the fight against over all egoism and self-love is continuous. Thus, to weaken and ultimately expunge these weaknesses, it is not only necessary for us to mortify ourselves, but additional purification initiated by God, Himself, is essential.

John of the Cross illustrates this concept in his prologue to "The Ascent of Mount Carmel":

The dark night, through which the soul passes on its way to the divine light of the perfect union of the love of God, so far as it is possible in this life, requires for its explanation greater experience and light of knowledge than I possess.

For so great are the trials, and so profound the darkness, spiritual as well as corporal, through which souls must pass if they will attain to perfection, that no human learning can explain them, nor experience describe them.

He only who has passed through them can know them.

In Christ's metaphor of a branch bearing fruit, He clearly states that a purging process is compulsory for growth. John of the Cross adds that only those who have experienced this "pruning" can understand the meaning of carrying the cross. Like gold tried in the fire, suffering melts away spiritual defects such as egoism, sensuality, laziness, impatience, jealously, envy, injustice in judgment, self-love, foolish pretensions, self-seeking in piety, immoderate desire of consolations, and pride. Only then, in the absence of these imperfections, are we able to love God perfectly, with our whole heart, our whole soul, and with all our strength and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.

This purification is not one that we can impose upon ourselves. St. John explains this when he writes,

For, after all the efforts of the soul, it cannot by any exertion of its own actively purify itself so as to be in the slightest degree fit for the divine union of perfection in the love of God, if God Himself does not take it into His own hands, and purify it in the fire, dark to the soul, in the way I am going to explain. (4)

So what's story on this whole purification/purgation process with which John of the Cross is so consumed?

It all goes back to the "no pain, no gain" methodology. With the final days fast approaching, more people are going to experience this spiritual purgation without even realizing it. The ability to comprehend the spiritual aspect to events occurring in one's life will not only draw him closer to God and enhance his docility to the Holy Ghost, but it lends itself to a sense of comfort in understanding the necessity for these trials.

Going back to the pregnancy metaphor, (5) this is somewhat similar to the difference between a woman in labor who has prepared herself with childbirth classes and a woman who goes into labor completely unprepared. Both women will experience the pains of childbirth, but the woman who is prepared—who sought an understanding beforehand of what the pain is accomplishing—will be more docile to the labor process and most likely expedite the process, as opposed to she, who resists the pain because of her fear of the unknown.

There are three levels of perfection, commonly referred to as beginners, proficients (those who have experienced purgation on some level) and the perfect (also known as union with God or the "last end").

The purgation process starts out with the purgation of the senses. This is a detachment process of sorts from the sensual (not to be confused with sexual) attachments in life. Immediately from birth, the soul is conditioned to absorb information through its senses. The infant knows the sound of its mother's voice, it feels her loving caress, and enjoys the sweet taste of her milk. As a child ages, it readily adapts to the learning process via its senses and comes to rely on them completely.

People also learn to comprehend emotional pleasure and pain through the senses. If someone is in fear, his heart will beat rapidly; stress and anxiety causes a tightening of the stomach or intestines, and joy manifests itself through a light, uplifted sensation.

Consequently, the soul learns to "like" those events in life that give it a sense of pleasure, while avoiding those which cause pain or discomfort. Purgation of the senses is kind of like a rewiring process in which the soul finds itself less attracted to that which pleases the senses and more attracted to the things of God.

Many souls, as these times progress, will experience, for example, financial or relationship trials. The loss of a job may cause one to lose his home or to become unable to enjoy the pleasures he once shared with friends. By removing the "things" in his life that shackle him to the sensual things of the world, the soul in the proper disposition learns humility and self-denial. Once these distractions are removed from his life, he learns to seek happiness in a more God-centered than self-centered way.

John of the Cross describes the purgation process in beginners in a somewhat "less colorful" way:

Souls begin to enter the dark (passive) night when God is drawing them out of the state of beginners, which is that of those who meditate on the spiritual road, and is leading them into that of proficients, the state of contemplatives, that, having passed through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the divine union with God.

First of all, the soul is weaned from sensible consolations, which are useful for a time but become an obstacle when sought for themselves. Whence the necessity of the passive purification of the senses, which places the soul in sensible aridity and leads it to a spiritual life that is much more freed from the senses, the imagination, and reasoning.

At this point, the soul receives, through the gifts of the Holy Ghost, an intuitive knowledge which, despite a painful obscurity, initiates the soul profoundly into the things of God. At times, this knowledge makes us penetrate them more deeply in an instant than would meditation over a period of months and years.

To resist temptations against chastity or patience –temptations which present themselves rather frequently in this night of the senses—there are required at times heroic acts of chastity and patience, which are, however, extremely fruitful. (6)

I always chuckle to myself when I hear someone describe consolations that he or she receives from God. As they float along on their spiritual cloud, their naiveté leads them to assume this as a sign that they have reached total union with him. Eagerly, they wait for their first vision or levitation.

First of all, seeking consolation is not only the sign of a beginner, but it is detrimental to the soul's progress as it encourages self-love. That is, the soul seeks sensual gratification rather than union with God. It is a normal process, but theologians and saints always warn of too much attachment to them.

So they start receiving all these "warm fuzzies," feeling God draw them to him like a tractor beam. They may increase their prayer life and Mass attendance, not out of love for God, but because such efforts increase the frequency and depth of their consolations. (Going back to the pregnancy metaphor, this is the stage wherein the new mother-to-be discovers that she is pregnant and finds herself filled with joy and excitement.)

Suddenly, the soul discovers that the consolations, which so completely satisfied its sensual nature, have ceased. Consolations—to which I refer as God's incomprehensible sense of humor—are a sort of "divine fishing." God drops the fishing line loaded with a big, fat, juicy worm, into the water to see if he gets a bite. The fish (soul), attracted by the yummy treat, bites, only to find out that things are not quite what he expected—and there is no turning back.

Just like the mother-to-be in her first trimester (who spends the last two months of that trimester wiping vomit off her lips), the beginner's euphoric look of utter contentment morphs into a blank stare of disillusionment. Many begin to struggle with their faith, suddenly feeling abandoned and betrayed. This is often a turning point, wherein one chooses either to persevere or to flee back to the material comforts of this world.

John of the Cross describes the purgation process as a casting of the soul into obscurity and dryness, wherein the sensible graces on which the soul dwelt with an egotistical complacency are taken away.

But in the midst of this obscurity, the higher faculties begin to be illumined by the light of life, which goes beyond reasoned meditation and leads to a loving and prolonged gaze upon God during prayer. (7)

The purgation of the senses may last for years, with occasional breaks occurring throughout.

It is difficult to describe the crippling pain of the purgation of the spirit. The closest description, perhaps, may be the grief that a parent feels at the loss of a child. This is a pain that runs deeply into the core of the spirit.

Garrigou-Lagrange writes that it is "found in far more advanced souls, which ardently desire goodness, but which have too strong a desire that good be done by them or in their way." In other words, the purgation of the spirit instructs the soul into the way of self-abandonment to divine providence.

They must be purified from every human attachment to their judgment, to their excessively personal manner of seeing, willing, acting, from every human attachment to the good works to which they devote themselves.

This purification, if well borne in the midst of temptations against the three theological virtues, will increase tenfold their faith, their confidence in God, and their love of God and neighbor.

This purifying trial presents itself under rather varied forms in the purely contemplative life and in that devoted to the apostolate. It differs also according as it is intended to lead the soul even here on earth to lofty perfection, or when it occurs only at the end of life to help souls to undergo, at least partially, their purgatory before death while meriting, while growing in love, instead of undergoing it after death without meriting.

The dogma of purgatory thus confirms the necessity of these passive purifications of the senses and of the spirit. (8)

During this purgation process, the soul feels stripped of its ability to pray, further diminishing the remnants of self-love and pride that gave it satisfaction in such endeavors. Whereas chastity and patience are the virtues most strongly attacked in the purgation of the senses, in the purgation of the spirit it is faith and hope that most often come under assault.

In the midst of the pain, however, a superior light appears like three stars of the first magnitude: the first revealing truth, the helpful mercy, and the sovereign goodness of God. As a result, the soul learns to love God in a very pure sense, as it becomes an adorer in spirit and truth.

Garrigou-Lagrange concludes, from the information presented, that infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith is morally necessary to full Christian perfection (i.e. to enter heaven). This is the same perfection of which Christ spoke in the Sermon on the Mount with regard to the beatitudes. Both St. Thomas and St. Augustine agree that the beatitudes are the highest acts of the Christian virtues perfected by the gifts.

What is more, they would reach only a diminished perfection, and not the full Christian perfection, which Christ spoke of in the Sermon on the Mount while preaching the beatitudes. As St. Augustine and St. Thomas say, the beatitudes are, in fact, the highest acts of the Christian virtues perfected by the gifts. The teaching of St. John of the Cross, which we stated above, thus fully conforms to what is said of the beatitudes in the Gospel, and to the way St. Augustine and St. Thomas understood them.

In accordance with these great theologians, Thomas à Kempis stated that, “There are found so few contemplative persons because there are few that know how to separate themselves entirely from perishable creatures." (9)

The loftiness of the end to be attained must not be lessened, but should be considered as it was set forth for us by Christ when He preached the beatitudes.

As far as the means are concerned, prudence ought to propose them with the moderation that considers the diverse conditions in which souls find themselves, and according as they are among the beginners or the proficients.

By so doing, the loftiness of the end to be attained is safeguarded, and also the realism of a truly practical direction. The greatness of the end to be pursued should certainly never be lost sight of. (10)

Next: Perfection and the precept of the love of God


(1) Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald, O.P., "The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Volume I," trans. Sister M. Timothea Doyle, O.P., Illinois: Tan Books, 1989
(2) John 15: 1
(3) St. Thomas, "In Joannem," 15:1
(4) "The Dark Night of the Soul," Bk I, chap. 3
(6) "The Dark Night of the Soul," chap. I
(7) Ibid., chap. 14: “Via iluminativa o de contemplacion infusa"
(8) Ibid., chap. 10. St. John speaks here of souls which “because of their perfect purification by God will not
have to pass through purgatory." According to St. John of the Cross, the full perfection attainable here below, is found only in the transforming union. Cf. The Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 22: “For in this state, the soul is no longer molested, either by the devil, or the flesh, or the world, or the desires, seeing that here is fulfilled what is written in the Canticle (2: 11 f.): ‘Winter is now past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have appeared in our land’," The soul then, finds a holy joy in suffering in union with our Lord (ibid., stanza 24), all the virtues have reached their perfect development (ibid.) and also the gifts of the Holy Ghost (cf. ibid., stanza 16 and The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. III, chap. I).
(9) The Imitation of Christ, Bk. III, chap. 31
(10) Garrigou-Lagrange, p195