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The Spiritual Organism

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In this chapter of "Three Ages of the Interior Life," (1) Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange (2) addresses the virtues and their connection to the "spiritual organism" (eternal life begun in us).

A virtue, simply put, is a good characteristic or quality for which most people (unless you’re a politician) strive. We've all heard the expression, "Patience is a virtue."

There are two classes of virtues: the moral virtues and the theological virtues.

Moral virtues, such as prudence, temperance, fortitude, patience, humility, meekness, and chastity, are qualities that help us to be a good person,. Ordinarly, they "acquired" and are strengthened through acts of our will. Thus it is our choice whether or not we wish to advance in virtue.

At baptism, however, along with the theological virtues, the acquired virtues are infused into our souls like tiny seeds, just waiting to sprout into something magnificent.

The acquired moral virtues do not suffice in a Christian to make him will, as he ought, the supernatural means ordained to eternal life. St. Thomas says, in fact, that there is an essential difference between the acquired temperance described by pagan moralists, and the Christian temperance spoken of in the Gospel.

The difference is analogous to that of an octave between two musical notes of the same name, separated by a complete scale. We often distinguish between philosophical temperance and Christian temperance, or again between the philosophical poverty of Crates’ and the evangelical poverty of the disciples of Christ. (3)

The theological virtues, such as charity, faith, hope, prudence, justice, religion, penance, and obedience, draw us closer to God. So, for the most part, a simplistice way of explaining the difference between the two types of virtues is that the moral virtues pertain to our relationship with our neighbor, and the theological virtues pertain to our relationship with God.

It is easy to understand, then, the importance of receiving the sacrament. Not affording ourselves of the sacraments at every opportunity, is like drowning in the ocean and being approached by someone in a boat with a life preserver. Which is the easier way to get to shore—to swim the distance on our own or to take the help that we so urgently need?

Infused faith, which makes us believe all that God has revealed because He is Truth itself, is a higher spiritual sense that allows us to hear a divine harmony, inaccessible to every other means of knowing.

Infused faith is like a higher sense of hearing for the audition of a spiritual symphony which has God for its composer. This explains why there is an immense difference between the purely historical study of the Gospel and of the miracles which confirm it and the supernatural act of faith by which we believe in the Gospel as in the word of God. (4)

For example, someone can have great knowledge of the scriptures, able to quote them backward and forward, but if he does not have the gift of faith, he cannot believe them. You know that little voice in your heart that tells you whether or not to believe something? That's kind of what it's like. Infused faith unlocks that little door so that you have the ability to choose.

Between the unbeliever, who studies the Gospel, and the believer, there is a difference similar to that which exists between two persons who are listening to a Beethoven symphony, one of whom has a musical ear and the other has not.

Both hear all the notes of the symphony, but one alone grasps its meaning and its soul. Similarly, only the believer adheres supernaturally to the Gospel as to the supernatural word of God; and he adheres to it even though untutored, while the learned man with all his means of criticism cannot, without infused faith, adhere to it in this manner. (5)

Garrigou-Lagrange likens hope and charity to a pair of wings. Without them, we can only make progress in the direction in which our reason can take us. With hope and charity, faith is our guide.

Hope gives us the ability to desire to possess God. We cannot achieve this on our own and need the help that he promised us. Our hope is a reliance on God, that he will always ccome to the aid of those who seek Him.

Charity is a superior and more disinterested love of God. It makes us love God, not only in order to possess Him some day, but for Himself and more than ourselves, because of His infinite goodness, which is more lovable in itself than all the benefits we receive from it.

This virtue makes us love God above all else as a friend who has first loved us. It ordains to Him the acts of all the other virtues, which it vivifies and renders meritorious. Charity is our great supernatural force,the power of love which through centuries of persecution has surmounted all obstacles. (6)

Charity is the highest of the three theological virtues and, according to St. Paul, shall never fall away. "And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity." (7)

Someone in a state of mortal sin may still exhibit signs of having the moral virtues, but they are most likely false virtues.

Above these false virtues, true acquired moral virtues may exist even in a man in the state of mortal sin. Some practice sobriety in order to live reasonably; for the same motive they pay their debts and teach some good principles to their children. But as long as a man remains in the state of mortal sin these true virtues remain in the state of a somewhat unstable disposition (in statu dispositionis facile mobilis); they are not yet in the state of solid virtue (difficile mobilis). (8)

While in a state of mortal sin, a man is habitually turned away from God, loving himself more than God. Consequently, he shows great weakness in accomplishing moral good.


Garrigou-Lagrange uses the example of a pianist to explain the difference between the infused moral virtues and the acquired moral virtues.

First of all, the facility of virtuous acts is not assured in the same way by the infused moral virtues as by the acquired moral virtues. The infused virtues give an intrinsic facility to perform without always excluding the extrinsic obstacles; whereas these extrinsic obstacles are excluded by the repetition of acts that engender the acquired virtues. (9)

The pianist's physical agility of his fingers increases with hours of practice (acquired virtue). The knowledge, however, of how to read the notes and work his fingers is in his intellect (infused virtue). Should he become paralyzed (extrinsic obstacle) he will no longer be able to perform, but the knowledge of how to play remains in his intellect.

The combination, then, of the moral and theological virtues is what make up our spiritual organism. Together, they grow "like the five fingers of one hand," (10) demonstrating that "a soul cannot have lofty charity without profound humility, just as the highest branch of a tree rises toward heaven in proportion as its roots plunge more deeply into the soil." (11)

Next: The Blessed Trinity Present in Us, Uncreated Source of Our Interior Life


(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
(3) Garrigou-Lagrange, p60
(4) Ibid., p52
(5) Ibid., p55
(6) Ibid., p56
(7) 1 Corinthians 13:13
(8) Garrigou-Lagrange, p58
(9) Garrigou-Lagrange, p.62-3
(10) Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Theologica ," Ia IIae, q66, a.2
(11) Garrigou-Lagrange, p65