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Perfection and Heroic Virtue


Garrigou-Lagrange (1) asks the question whether obtaining Christian perfection requires the practice of virtues to a heroic degree—particularly charity. The common teaching by most theologians is that Christian perfection requires great charity because perfection requires long exercise of the infused and acquired virtues.

And if at the beginning, “the weakest charity could overcome all temptations," as time goes on it triumphs over them effectively and becomes more and more intense. It is inconceivable, therefore, that a Christian be perfect, that is, superior to beginners and proficients, without having great charity. (2)

There is no mathematical formula for determining the quantity of charity required for perfection, nor is there a known fixed degree. Spiritual perfection, Garrigou-Lagrange writes, must be judged much the same as a mature body requires more strength than that of an adolescent. The fact is true but in no way measurable.

St. Thomas stated that the degrees of charity present in beginners, proficients and the perfect is directly proportional to the degree of intensity of this infused virtue. Much of this is due to a resulting decrease in deliberate venial sins and detachment from earthly things in order to unite us more strongly to God. "Thus it follows," Garrigou-Lagrange surmises, "that Christian perfection essentially requires (per se loquendo et non solum per accidens) (3) great charity."

It is possible that a certain perfect Christian will have a lesser degree of charity than a great saint has at the outset. For example, St. Mary Magdalen could have, immediately after her conversion, had a higher charity than many perfect souls called to a lesser sanctity. A good analogy may be the vigorous strength of a youth surpassing the strength of a grown man.

It should also be observed that, with the same degree of habitual charity, one man avoids venial sin more than another, whether it is because the first has more actual generosity, or because he has fewer difficulties in his temperament, less work, fewer contradictions from men.

St. Teresa remarks that, when she left her monastery to make a foundation, it happened that in the midst of unforeseen circumstances she committed more venial faults but also acquired more merits because of the difficulties to be overcome.

The same is true when a man climbs a mountain: he stumbles from time to time, which he scarcely ever does on a level road, but he has the merit of a difficult ascent. (4)

Though these examples suggest the possibility that a certain perfect soul may have a lesser charity than a certain beginner called to very high sanctity, perfection essentially requires great charity. Generally speaking, such a level of charity is achieved only after conquering many temptations and acquiring many merits.

Garrigou-Lagrange cites several passages from Scripture to demonstrate that though a weak charity can resist temptation, it only achieves total victory over them by increasing and becoming stronger:

“Because thou wast acceptable to God, it was necessary that temptation should prove thee” (Tobias 12:13).

“The furnace trieth the potter’s vessels and the trial of affliction just men” (Ecclesiasticus 27:6).

“Everyone therefore that heareth these My words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock. And the rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew; and they beat upon that house. And it fell not, for it was founded on a rock” (Matthew 7:24).

The teaching of St. John of the Cross confirms this doctrine. In "The Ascent of Mount Carmel," he writes as follows:

Some consider any kind of retirement from the world and any correction of excesses to be sufficient; others are content with a certain degree of virtue, persevere in prayer, and practice mortification, but they do not rise to this detachment, and poverty, or self-denial, or spiritual pureness.

They render themselves spiritually enemies of the cross of Christ, for true spirituality seeks for bitterness rather than sweetness in God, inclines to suffering more than to consolation, and to be in want of everything for God rather than to possess; to dryness and afflictions rather than to sweet communications, knowing well that this is to follow Christ and deny self, while the other course is perhaps nothing but to seek oneself in God, which is the very opposite of love.

Would that I could persuade spiritual persons that the way of God consisteth not in the multiplicity of meditations, ways of devotion or sweetness, though these may be necessary for beginners, but in one necessary thing only, in knowing how to deny themselves in earnest; inwardly and outwardly, giving themselves up to suffer for Christ’s sake, and annihilating themselves utterly.

He who shall exercise himself herein will then find all this and much more. And if he be deficient at all in this exercise, which is the sum and root of all virtue, all he may do will be but beating the air; utterly profitless, notwithstanding great meditations and communications.

And when he [the spiritual man] shall have been brought to nothing, when his humility is perfect, then he will take place the union of the soul and God, which is the highest and noblest estate attainable in this life.
In "Dark Night of the Soul," he reiterates this opinion: "The state of perfection consists in the perfect love of God and contempt of self." (5)

St. Thomas cites the seven degrees of humility as proof that perfection requires great charity:

  1. to acknowledge ourselves contemptible
  2. to grieve on account of this
  3. to admit that we are so
  4. to wish our neighbor to believe it
  5. patiently to endure its being said
  6. willingly to be treated as a person worthy of contempt
  7. to love to be treated in this fashion (7)

Such humility is truly perfection, or, as St. Thomas says:

The state of those who aim chiefly at union with and enjoyment of God: this belongs to the perfect who desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ, (8) and who do not recoil before hard things to be accomplished for the glory of God and the salvation of souls. (9)

Garrigou-Lagrange considers the question of whether or not a person can reach a lofty degree of charity through habitually logging in hours of Communion and "rather weak meritorious acts," which are lacking in great effort and generosity. Would he remain notably imperfect due to a lack of generosity in combating inordinate passions?

Again, he defers to St. Thomas and the ancient theologians who claim a direct relationship between fervor of will and the amount of grace received.

In their opinion, imperfect acts of charity do not immediately obtain the increase of charity that they merit, but only when there is a serious effort toward good. (10)

Likewise, Holy Communion received with very little devotion obtains only a scant increase of charity, just as a person profits from the heat of a fireplace in proportion as he draws nearer to it instead of remaining at a distance. (11)

Lastly, according to St. Thomas, by absolution, lost merits are restored in the same degree only if the penitent has contrition commensurate with his sin and with the graces lost. (12)

He concludes, therefore, that reaching a high degree of charity requires great effort. Years of daily Communion and weakly meritorious acts will maintain a state of grace but does nothing in the way of attaining lofty charity.

Garrigou-Lagrange compares a patriot's heroism when his country is in danger, to the heroic practices of the virtues, "at least in praeparatione animi," to attain Christian perfection—even to the point of martyrdom if it comes down to a choice between the denial of faith and death.

Such heroic practice of the virtues is necessary even for salvation and even more so to attain perfection.

Moreover, St. Thomas teaches (13) that the gifts of the Holy Ghost are necessary to salvation in order to prepare us to receive the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost with promptness and docility, especially when the acquired virtues and even the infused virtues do not suffice: that is, in the most difficult circumstances.

Benedict XIV (14) stated that four conditions are necessary to prove heroic virtue:

  1. the matter, object of the virtue, must be difficult, above the common strength of man;
  2. the acts must be accomplished promptly, easily;
  3. they must be accomplished joyously, with the joy of offering a sacrifice to the Lord;
  4. they must be performed rather frequently, when the occasion presents itself.

John of the Cross teaches that Christian perfection requires the passive purification of the senses of the soul, which does away with the defects of beginners and proficients. (15) In the course of these purifications, the soul is often required to heroically resist temptations against chastity, patience, faith, hope, and charity. From this, Garrigou-Lagrange concludes that a certain level of heroism of the virtues, which continues to increase with time, is required for Christian perfection.

Lastly, it is certain that Christian charity, which is ordained to our configuration with the Savior crucified for us, ought for that very reason to tend to the heroic practice of the virtues.

This may be deduced from what precedes: namely, since every Christian ought, in fact, to have the virtues in a heroic degree in praeparatione animi, and to be ready, with the help of God, to endure even martyrdom rather than to deny his faith, this heroic act is not superior to that to which charity, or the love of God above all else, is ordained.

By its very nature, this love prefers God to corporeal life and ought, therefore, to be disposed to the sacrifice of life, which is required in certain circumstances. (16)

Next, we're getting to the fun part! "Full Christian Perfection and the Passive Purifications"


(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) Ibid., p175
(4) Garrigou-Lagrange, p176
(5) John of the Cross, "Ascent to Mt. Carmel," Chapter 7
(6) John of the Cross, "The Dark Night of the Soul," Bk. II, chap. 18
(7) IIa IIae, q. 161, a.6
(8) Ibid., q.24, a.9
(9) III Sent., d.29, a.8, q. I
(10) IIa IIae, q.24, a.6 ad 1um; Ia IIae, q. 114, a.8 ad 3um
(11) IIIa, q.79, a.8
(12) Ibid., q.89, a.2
(13) Ia IIae, q.68, a.2
(14) "De servorum Dei beatificatione," Bk. III, chap. 21
(15) John of the Cross, "The Dark Night of the Soul," Bk. I, chaps. 2-10; Bk. II, chaps. 1-5. St. John of the Cross here describes this purification as it occurs in contemplatives called to the highest perfection by the most direct route. There is, however, something similar in others, in whom these interior purifications are accompanied by the sufferings and difficulties of the apostolate.
(16) Garrigou-Lagrange, p181