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Perfection and the Precept of the Love of God

In this chapter, Garrigou-Lagrange (1) discusses our love for God and that there should be no limit on our desire to do so. St. Thomas wrote:“Never can we love God as much as He ought to be loved, or believe and hope in Him as much as we should." (2)

The Precept of the Love of God
The Precept of the Love of God
Photo: 2011/04/17/love-god-first/

He approaches this using the concept of "means" or averages. In other words, one cannot perceive of our love for God in terms of what the normal or required "mean" is for our love for Him. There is no limit, no "mean," that can describe this love when considering perfection.

In contrast to the moral virtues, the theological virtues (3) (faith, hope and charity) do not consist essentially in a happy mean: their object, their formal motive, their essential measure is God Himself, His infinite truth and goodness. (4)

As an example, Garrigou-Lagrange cites the aurea mediocritas (5) (golden mean) of which Horace (6) spoke, arguing against Horace's attempt to reduce the golden mean of the moral virtues. In Horace's opinion, the truly golden mean of the moral virtues was selfish calculation, lacking love of virtue and avoiding the disadvantages of opposing vices. It is Garrigou-Lagrange's contention that the truly golden mean of these virtues greatly surpasses the philosophy taught by Horace. Rather, the mean, in and of itself, is already a summit, "that of right reason and of virtuous good loved for itself, over and above the useful and the delectable."(7)

Unlike our love for God, this summit, however, lacks an infinite elevation, as it is measured by our acts in the use of exterior goods and in our relations with our neighbor. He uses, as an example, our allegiance to our country. We must be willing to die for our country if it is in danger, but to expose ourselves to death unnecessarily is temerity, rather than courage. In addition, there is a limit to what our country can demand of us, specifically, to sacrifice our Christian faith and our eternal salvation. This, Garrigou-Lagrange explains, would be an excessive love of country.

Now the theological virtues, infused by God and unaffected by our moral actions, cannot consist in a golden mean.

We cannot love God too much, believe too greatly in Him, hope too much in Him; we can never love Him as much as He should be loved. Thus we see more clearly that the supreme precept has no limit. It asks us all ever to strive here on earth for a purer and stronger love of God. (8)

Because we are all travelers on the way to eternity, and our advancement depends on our growing love of God and our neighbor, it follows that charity should likewise continue to grow until the final end. This is not only an obligation but absence of the desire to grow in charity offends God. Those of us who are still travelling toward that final end are obliged to continue to grow, just as a child must grow in accordance with nature.

In contrast to the physical growth of a child, our advancement toward God requires steps of love through a growth in charity, evolving into a purer and stronger love for God. A person who does not yet fulfill the precept of love of God does not transgress it, however. St. Thomas writes, "To avoid this transgression, it is enough to fulfill the law of charity to a certain extent as beginners do."

Does it follow that a person who does not yet fulfill the precept perfectly, transgresses it? Not
at all; for, as St. Thomas says, “To avoid this transgression, it is enough to fulfill the law of charity to a certain extent as beginners do.

The perfection of divine love falls entirely (universaliter) within the object of the precept; even the perfection of heaven is not excluded from it, since it is the end toward which one must tend, as Augustine says (De perfectione justitiae, chap. 8; De Spiritu et littera, chap. 36). But a person avoids the transgression of the precept by putting into practice a little love of God.

Now, the lowest degree of the love of God consists in loving nothing more than God or contrary to God or equal with God, and he who has not this degree of perfection in no wise fulfills the commandment. There is another degree of charity which cannot be realized in this life and which consists in loving God with all our strength, in such a way that our love always tends actually toward Him. This perfection is possible only in heaven, and therefore the fact that a person does not yet possess it, entails no transgression of the commandment. And, in like manner, the fact that a person has not attained the intermediate degrees of perfection, entails no transgression, provided only that he reaches the lowest degree." (9)

It should be understood, however, that those who remain in this lowest degree are not fulfilling the supreme commandment in all its perfection: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind."

One cannot assume that imperfect charity is sufficient for the precept of the love of God and that superior charity is only advised. Rather it is a goal that should remain ever in our hearts and toward which we should never cease to strive. Referring once again to the growth of a child as an example, Garrigou-Lagrange states that just as a child must grow in order to become a man, the law of spiritual growth demands an increase in charity.

The law of growth has serious demands. If the divine seed, placed in us by baptism, does not develop, it runs the risk of dying, of being choked out by weeds, as we read in the parable of the sower. In the spiritual life these abnormal souls are certainly not the true mystics, but the retarded and the lukewarm. (10)

In his 1923 encyclical, Studiorum ducem, (11) Pius XI quotes St. Thomas in stating that the perfection of charity falls under the supreme precept of loving God and is an end toward which every Christian must cultivate according to his condition in life. That same year, Pius XI quoted St. Francis de Sales as having also taught this same doctrine. (13)

There are three consequences to this doctrine:

First, in the way of salvation, he who does not advance, goes back. Why is this so? Because it is a law that one must always advance, under penalty of becoming a retarded soul, just as a child who does not develop as he should, becomes abnormal.

Second, the progress of charity should indeed be more rapid in proportion as we approach nearer to God, who draws us more strongly. Thus the movement of a falling stone is so much the more rapid as the stone approaches the earth, which attracts it.

Lastly, since such is the loftiness of the first precept, assuredly actual graces are progressively offered to us proportionate to the end to be attained, for God does not command the impossible. He loves us more than we think. In return, we must give Him our love.

When we have succeeded in loving Him with all our heart, even with an affective love, we must love Him with all our soul, with an effective love, with all our strength, when the hour of trial strikes for us, and finally, with all our mind, progressively freed from the fluctuations of the sensible faculties, that, henceforth spiritualized, we may become truly “adorers in spirit and in truth.

All this doctrine shows that sanctification must not be too greatly separated from salvation, as is done by those who say: “I shall never become a saint; it is enough for me to be saved." This statement contains an error of perspective. Progressive sanctification is, in reality, the way of salvation. In heaven there will be only saints, and, in this sense of the word, each of us must strive for sanctity. (14)

Next: Perfection and the Evangelical Counsels


(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) Ia IIae, q.64, a.4: “Whether the theological virtues observe the mean"
(4) Garrigou-Lagrange, p. 100
(7) Garrigou-Lagrange, p200
(8) Ibid., p200
(9) IIa IIae, q.184, a.3 ad 2um
(10) Garrigou-Lagrange p203
(12) Studiorum ducem, June 29, 1923: “That the love of God ought always to grow was most certain doctrine.
‘This is evident from the very form of the commandment, pointing, as it does, to perfection... Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart... The reason of this is that the end of the commandment is charity, according to the Apostle (I Tim. 1: 5); and the end is not subject to a measure, but only such things as are directed to the end’ (IIa IIae, q. 184, a.3). This is why the perfection of charity toward which every Christian must tend according to his condition, falls under the precept."
(13) In this encyclical, written for the third centenary of St. Francis de Sales, January 26, 1923, we read: “Christ
constituted the Church holy and the source of holiness, and all those who take her for guide and teacher must, according to the divine will, aim at holiness of life: ‘This is the will of God’, says St. Paul, ‘your sanctification’. What type of sanctity is meant? Our Lord Himself explains it in the following manner: ‘Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’. Let no one think that this invitation is addressed to a small, very select number and that all others are permitted to remain in a lower degree of virtue. As is evident, this law obliges absolutely everybody without exception. Moreover, all who reach the summit of Christian perfection, and their name is legion, of every age and class, according to the testimony of history, have experienced the same weaknesses of nature and have known the same dangers. St. Augustine puts the matter clearly when he says: ‘God does not command the impossible, but, in giving the commandment, He admonishes us to accomplish what we can according to our strength, and to ask aid to accon1plish whatever exceeds our strength’." Concerning this doctrine, see St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. III, chap. I.
(14) Garrigou-Lagrange, p205