A Guide to Perfection

Perfection can be had in this life.’ – St Thomas Aquinas

Following on from the previous blog on perfection, this blog points to a guide for those aspiring to perfection:

If we have accepted that the desire for perfection is a natural and healthy desire that can be fulfilled, we must search for a guide to help us towards perfection.  In this life we encounter many false notions of perfection. Many routes to perfection that are purposed to us only lead to our own demise. We have to be careful that we find the right path and then stay firmly on this path.  This path is found through the narrow gate and ‘strait is the way that leadeth to life: and few there are that find it!’ (Matthew 7:13).  There have been many people who have tried to guide people towards this path. One of the best recent guides in the ways of perfection is Fr Reginald Marie Garrigou-Lagrange, a Dominican priest and, probably, the greatest theologian of the twentieth century.  This blog provides a very brief summary of the wisdom he has to share about the route to perfection:

I have outlined in previous blogs how the road to sanctity is the normal path that we are called to take.  This is also the path to perfection. Our modern times have brought with them many false notions of the normal life and what order and disorder look like.  These errors have become so prevalent that many of these false notions of perfection and normality have attempted to replace the fundamental truths of the Catholic Faith. These modern falsehoods have distorted people’s understandings of what perfection and normality looks like. Yet, the Catholic Faith remains true and will always remain so.  Therefore, our understanding of the path we must take in this life must be built on these truths as Garrigou-Lagrange points out:

            ‘If the Blessed Trinity truly dwells in us, if the Word actually was made flesh, died for us, is really present in the Holy Eucharist, offers Himself sacramentally for us every day in the Mass, gives Himself to us as food, if all this is true, then only the saints are fully in order, for they live by this divine presence through frequent, quasi-experimental knowledge and through an ever-growing love in the midst of the obscurities and difficulties of life. And the life of close union with God, far from appearing in its essential quality as something intrinsically extraordinary, appears alone as fully normal.  Before reaching such a union, we are like people still half-asleep, who do not truly live sufficiently by the immense treasure given to us and by the continually new graces granted to those who wish to follow Our Lord generously.’  

Given the infallible truths that are contained in the dogmas of the Catholic Faith, such as the Resurrection, the Real Presence and Sanctifying Grace, Garrigou-Lagrange highlights the logical consequences of these truths, i.e. ‘only the saints are fully in order’. He points out how the saints provide examples of what full human development looks like just as a fully developed oak tree gives us an idea of what a fully developed acorn looks like. Today as we drift further and further away from the truth, we lose track of what normal human development should and could look like. People are becoming more and more disordered in their thoughts, words and deeds leading to mass societal disorder. Modern theories that try to explain the normal development of man and the current psychological and social disorder we see around us without recourse to the traditional and infallible teachings of the Catholic Faith are only providing false, dangerous and destructive notions of what order should look like.  Garrigou-Lagrange further explains why false notions about normality are so prevalent today:

      ‘Frequently the term ‘normal’ is applied to the state at which Christians as a rule actually arrive, and not sufficient attention is given to inquiring to what state they ought truly to reach if they were entirely faithful.  Because the generality of Christian souls do not here on earth actually reach the stage of living in an almost continual union with God, we should not declare that this union is beyond the summit of the normal development of charity. We should not confound what ought to be or should be with what actually is: otherwise we would be led to declare that true virtue is not possible on earth, for, as a matter of fact, the majority of men pursue a useful or delectable good, such as money and earthly satisfactions, rather than virtuous good, the object of virtue.

         In a society which is declining and returning to paganism, a number take as their rule of conduct, not duty, the ordinary good, which would demand too great effort in an environment where everything leads to descend, but the lesser evil. They follow the current according to the law of the least effort. Not only do they tolerate this lesser evil, but they do it, and frequently they support it with their recommendations in order to keep their positions. They claim that they thus avoid a greater evil which others would do in their place if, ceasing to please, they should lose their situation or their command. And so saying, instead of helping others to reascend they assist them in descending, trying only to moderate the fall. How many statesmen and politicians have come to this pass! A somewhat similar condition exists in the spiritual life.’     

Garrigou-Lagrange explains how our notions of normal are informed by what we observe of the spiritual development of the ‘average man’, rather than being based on a clear understanding of what man is called to be.  The prevailing and toxic influence of paganism within our cultures has distorted man’s understanding of what he can and should be. If an acorn did not develop into a fully developed oak tree, we would say that it is defective acorn as it did develop as it should have. If a man does not develop eventually into a saint by knowing, honouring and loving God in this life we can call him defective or disordered, i.e. he has not become what he was supposed to become. The defective tree that the acorn has grown into can be simply chopped down and discarded while the disordered man, having a rational eternal soul, free will, and having been called to a much higher and nobler end goal, receives eternal punishment for refusing to choose the end he was designed for. ‘Every tree therefore that doth not yield good fruit, shall be cut down, and cast into the fire.’ (Matthew 3:10).  At moments, we all have a sense that we should be so much more than we are.  However instead of aiming at perfection, we, often, as Garrigou-Lagrange points out above, reject normal human development and choose average human development while making compromises with the world that will cost us for eternity! What a disastrous and tragic choice and one that is sadly encouraged by many psychological ‘experts’ today (as was pointed out in the previous blog).

‘Perfection lies in union with God through charity’ – Garrigou-Lagrange

The central message of Garrigou-Lagrange’s masterpiece, ‘The Three Ages of the Interior Life – Prelude of Eternal Life’, quoted above, is that perfection is achieved through love.  In this book, he provides guidance about how to achieve this. He also provides many more insights into the problems that trouble our own souls and minds and those we detect within our societies. He provides clear guidance on the path to perfection, basing this on the writings of saints and masters of the spiritual life who came before him, especially the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, St John of the Cross and St Francis de Sales.  It is not in the scope of this blog to outline all the glorious light that this book provides but to give readers here a brief taste of the challenge that Garrigou-Lagrange holds out to readers. For those who wish to be average his writings will be dismissed. However, for those who wish to be a normal human being in the fullest, truest, most liberating, and most perfect sense of the word, then his work is most definitely worth studying and taking onboard. 

Perfect charity demands serious effort, a veritable struggle, a spirit of abnegation or renunciation, in order that our affection, ceasing to descend toward the things of earth or fall back egotistically on ourselves, may always rise more purely and strongly toward God.’ – Garrigou-Lagrange

Now, the battle against the enemies we face in this life is not easily won as the quote above indicates. Initially the battle we are asked to fight and the path we are asked to tread may seem like an almost impossible mission and an incredibly narrow path. However, in reality, Garrigou-Lagrange highlights how the road to perdition at first seems broad but then becomes narrower and narrower, ‘whereas the narrow road, which leads upward, becomes ever wider, immense as God Himself to whom it leads.’ In truth, the path to sanctity is the only one that guarantees liberty of spirit. There are many steps that are outlined along this road such as spiritual reading, purification, mortification and spiritual direction, but one of the key steps is also one of the simplest. This is prayer, which helps us to empty ourselves thus allowing us to taste God and see how sweet He is as Garrigou-Lagrange points out: ‘Whereas the egoist always thinks of himself and refers everything back to himself, we shall begin to think always of God dwelling in us, and to refer everything to Him. Then, even when the most unforeseen and painful events occur, we shall think of the glory of God and of the manifestations of His goodness, and we shall glimpse from afar the supreme Good toward which everything, trials as well as joys, should converge. This is truly the life of prayer, which allows us to see all things in God; it is the normal prelude to eternal life.’ 

Eventually, through persistent effort and docility to the Holy Ghost and His inspirations, one can find peace of soul in this life as described in ‘The Imitation of Christ’ (a book frequently quoted by Garrigou-Lagrange): ‘If your thinking is straight and you see things as they really are, you will never allow trouble or adversity to depress you.’  Studying ‘The Three Ages of the Interior Life’ is a great way of getting your thinking straight and helping you to ‘see things as they really are’.  It confirms what other spiritual writers say about the need for a virtuous interior life, such as Fr R. J. Meyer: ‘Vice denotes weakness and imperfection; virtue denotes strength and perfection. Vice is a habit by which one does amiss; virtue is a habit which one never uses amiss. Vice is a flaw, owing to which something is not in a condition becoming its nature; it is, therefore, a disposition against nature. Virtue is an excellence, owing to which something is in a condition favourable to its nature; it is therefore, a disposition according to nature’ (‘Science of the Saints’)

He who considers himself his own director, becomes the disciple of a fool.’ – St. Bernard

We must look to those wiser than ourselves to direct and guide us and not foolishly overestimate our ability to direct ourselves. Whilst it may be hard to find a prudent, wise and charitable counsellor in these current times there are guides to be found through reading and studying. For those who aspire to be perfect and who aspire to live a truly virtuous life the guidance of Garrigou-Lagrange is a great aid. His work can be accessed online for free here. Hopefully you will find the wisdom he provides refreshing and inspiring and, God willing, he will help to guide you towards perfection in this life and eternal happiness in the next.

God bless

Note: If this blog has sparked your interest in the works of Garrigou-Lagrange here is another article encouraging people to read more from and about him.   

The Desire for Perfection


There is nothing so sad as the sight of those who once pressed forward to the goal of perfection frittering away the days and the hours in silly preoccupation about things that are futile, transient and unsubstantial.’  – Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’

There is a distinct, though often faint, voice within us that tells us we could be so much more than we currently are.  It provokes an inner restlessness that is not easy to shake off.  There are moments in our lives where this voice seems to overwhelm us. We are flattened by the disappointment we feel when we look at who we are and what we have done with our lives.  There springs into our consciousness the thought that our lives are not all that they could or should have been.

These moments can be short-lived. Most of us do not pay too much attention to them. We return to the daily grind and distractions where we forget our own mediocrity. Some people around us might notice that we have lost some of our youthful vitality that once drove us forward, now seeing us ‘frittering away the days and the hours in silly preoccupation about things that are futile, transient and unsubstantial’. Sometimes they may let us know what they see but most of the time nothing is said, and we feel relieved by friends and family members that tell us, ‘Don’t be so hard on yourself’. Yet, for some, that lingering sense that we are not all that we should be does not dissipate and it is not easily blocked out. Fr Martin D’Arcy, former Master of Campion Hall, Oxford University, captures this angst: ‘We are haunted by perfection, and we all long to for some golden occasion when we can exhibit our strength, write down for all time what we are and could be and so wipe out the long array of petty deeds which go under our name.’ (‘Mirage and Truth’). This sense of being ‘haunted’ leads to some seeking answers for this desire for perfection from various mental health professionals who claim to be experts or, at least, to be knowledgeable about the solutions to this angst. But what do these ‘experts’ tell us about this desire for perfection? (Footnote 1)

A Rejection of Perfection:

At one of the most popular psychological websites, Psychology Today, one of these ‘experts’, Mel Schwartz, will tell us that ‘[The construct of perfection] remains rooted in an outmoded worldview and constrains our happiness. Shifting our beliefs about perfection can permit the burden that it imposes to lift.’  And he will also tell us that ‘If someone ever could achieve this impossible state of perfection, it’s likely that very few people would tolerate him or her. For the perfect individual would be a constant reminder to all others of their shortcomings. Not to mention that they probably wouldn’t be much fun to be with. Who would really tolerate, let alone enjoy being with, someone who was perfect?’  Mel here is telling the person who desires perfection that perfection is an ‘outmoded worldview’ or outdated concept, that we should really not tolerate anyone who is perfect, and that the concept of perfection needs to be got rid of so we can be truly happy.  The pharisees would be proud!

‘There Is No Finish Line’:

Another modern ‘life and relationship expert’, Anne Cohen, tells us that ‘It’s important to love and embrace your life and enjoy the moment as you strive towards your goals, and not just patiently or impatiently long for the end result, and assume that you’ll feel happy at that point. You won’t be. The truth is, there is no end result or finish line in life. The only finish line in life is when we’re dead. It’s important to enjoy our journey, and not to be so hard on ourselves.’ Basically, it is ‘let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die’ which St. Paul (Corinthians, chapter 15) responds to by saying ‘Be not seduced: Evil communications corrupt good manners. Awake, ye just, and sin not.’ The argument of Anne Cohen was already refuted by ancient Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, before Christ, and it was torn apart by the historical reality of the Resurrection and the preaching of the Apostles.  Yet, almost 2’000 years later these arguments that try to do away with perfection or twist it into one’s own formula persist.    

These are just two examples of the senseless nonsense that it is to be found from modern gurus who claim to lead people to happiness. Elsewhere I have outlined how professional psychologists give the completely wrong answers to those who are ‘haunted by perfection’.  So, if modern psychology cannot provide the answers, where is one to find the answer to this desire for perfection?

‘Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48)

These are the ground shattering words that rock the foundations of those who have settled in the comfortable home of mediocrity. For those who do not know the heavenly Father or who already think they are perfect these words will be ridiculed and scorned. For those who have come up with elaborate, sophisticated, and proud ways of justifying their imperfections they will mean little. This is how the pharisees and scribes responded and is exemplified today in the writings of Mel Schwarz above. For those who would rather enjoy the hedonistic pleasures of this life than aim at the higher path, Our Lord’s words fall on deaf ears. 

But for those who do have some idea of the heavenly Father’s power, beauty and goodness and know something of their own inadequacy and mediocrity these words are like a thunderbolt.  For these humble, generous souls who realise that they are sinners like the publican, these words send shockwaves through them. They may respond with some skepticism: ‘Me, how can I be ‘perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect?’ ‘This saying is hard, and who can hear it?’ (John 6: 61). These challenging words can rock us as much today as they did then. Like Mel Schwartz, we can reject this Man who claims to be perfect and tells us all to aspire to perfection – this Man who is a ‘constant reminder to all others of their shortcomings’.  Or we can take Him and His words seriously despite how overwhelmed we may feel when hearing them. It may initially appear to us to be incredibly difficult to follow this path of perfection when we look at the example set before us. And to top it all, we now know, unlike those listening to the sermon on the mount almost two thousand years ago, that the Speaker’s life was one of suffering and hardship, resulting ultimately in His crucifixion. And he tells us to follow in His example!  This is not the road to happiness that Mel Schwartz, Anne Cohen, psychologists, therapists, counsellors, psychiatrists, and countless others posing as enlightened guides advise! Yet we know that there is something within our soul that tells us that this is the route we must take:

It is dimly felt that though the cross came to Christ only because He permitted it, the cross must come to the Christian of a necessity and the Christian is not free to evade it if his life is to reflect, in some degree, the perfection of the life of the Son of God on earth.  Christ had perfection of soul without the cross: there is a secret instinct which tells the Christian that he cannot have perfection of soul without the crossIt is this obscure but intimate realisation that the Passion is not a mere historical contingent fact, affecting one man, but a theory of life applicable to all men, that stirs uneasiness and a species of discomfort in the heart of the thoughtful and honest Christian in face of the Passion and death of Christ.’ (Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’, my emphasis)

‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me’ (Luke 9:23)

The Catholic Faith teaches us that there is no way to perfection except through the picking up of our cross daily.  There is no getting away from it. No matter how many elaborate psychological theories and professional associations try to twist this message the cross still remains there to be picked up. To reach perfection this is the offer that is put before us. It is not for the fainthearted and great saints do not sugar-coat the hard work and effort that we must put in on this path.  For example, St Bernard speaks to his wayward nephew, Robert, ‘Arouse yourself, gird your loins, put aside idleness, grasp the nettle, and do some hard work.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux – As Seen Through His Selected Letters’) St. Bonaventure, the Seraphic Doctor, is even more direct while writing to a nun who aspired after perfection, says: ‘The spouse of Christ who longs to become perfect must begin with her own self.  She must put aside, forget everything else, and enter into the secrecy of her own heart.  When she has done this, let her sift narrowly all her weaknesses, habits, affections, actions and sins.  She must weigh everything carefully, and make a thorough examination of past and present.  Should she discover even the least imperfection, let her weep in the bitterness of her heart.’ (‘Holiness of Life’) And St Therese of Lisieux, who is often depicted in modern times as nothing but sweetness and roses, says that when we commit a fault, ‘we must not attribute it to a physical cause, such as illness or the weather, but we must attribute it our own lack of perfection…Occasions do not make man weak, but they do show him what he is.’ (‘Counsels and Souvenirs’) (See footnote 2).

The saints know man. They know our distance from God and the effort that needs to be made to try to shorten this distance. If we are to set out on the road to perfection, we must humble ourselves and acknowledge how far from perfection we really are. Yet, this is nothing more than acknowledging reality. It is establishing our starting point upon the map before we set out for our destination. Once the destination is determined, we can set out. On this journey, there will be slips, mishaps, falls, and, perhaps, moments of despair as we begin to truly understand ourselves and our distance from God. But we must be determined to keep on this path as St Teresa of Avila tells us, ‘Everything depends on people having a great and a most resolute determination never to halt until they reach their journey’s end, happen what may, whatever the consequences are, cost what it will, let who will blame them, whether they reach the goal or die on the road, or lose heart to bear the trials they encounter, or the earth falls to pieces beneath their feet.’ (‘The Way of Perfection’). This path towards perfection is the only path to take as the alternative route only leads to misery both in this life and the next. It is the reality that a true understanding of the one true Faith holds out to us.

But what about the objections that claim that it is too hard or unrealistic or unpractical and idealistic to speak in this way about perfection? Well, the Faith has the answers to these complaints through the example and words of Our Lord, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ and through the example of all the saints who followed in His footsteps whose spirits were more free and lives happier than the world will ever know (see here and here for two blogs on this).

It is a great thing to realise that each one of us is meant for sanctity and that God will not allow us to lead a mediocre life. Christ takes us seriously and when we have the hardihood to put ourselves in His path and show ourselves ready to obey Him, He expects us to rise to the ideal He has traced for us, every one according to her own form. That is a dread thought. But He is prepared to give us the means of achieving what He asks of us…We cannot fall back. We have to face reality.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘My Last Retreat’ (See footnote 3)

Let us not languish in the errors and fables about perfection offered by modern psychology and its various proud and foolish gurus. ‘Christ takes us seriously’. Let us take Him seriously and ‘face reality’. Perfection is possible and the path He has led out before us is the only path that will bring this about.  We know that to reach our destination serious effort must be put in. However, lest we despair with the thoughts of what is laid before us, ‘fall back’, and start considering whether modern psychological answers may be right after all, let us finish with a quote from Fr Eugene Boylan describing the spiritual teachings of St Therese of Lisieux:

The perfect picture that St. Teresa of Lisieux has drawn of the spiritual life will help to give us courage.  She sees it as a stairway to be climbed, at the top of which God is waiting, looking down in Fatherly love at His child’s efforts to surmount the first step.  The child, who represents ourselves, fails to manage to climb even the first step; it can only keep on lifting up its tiny little foot. Sooner or later God takes pity on it, and comes down and sweeps the child right up to the top in His arms; but – and St. Teresa insists on this as much as she insists on God’s loving kindness – we must keep on lifting up our foot.  The soul must never be discouraged by the fruitlessness of its repeated efforts. It seems to be a law of the spiritual life that, since all progress ultimately depends on God, He lets us first learn our complete helplessness by long and weary efforts that come to naught.  But we have His word: ‘I Myself will come and save you!’ (‘Difficulties in Mental Prayer’)

So, keep making efforts towards perfection and may Our Lady guide you and God bless you in your endeavours

Footnote 1:

These two articles are the first and fourth results after a duckduckgo.com search with the terms ‘desire for perfection’.  They are a general representation of the dangerous nonsense written about psychological matters that is to be found in our world.

Footnote 2:

Lest the wrong impression is given that the saints were all harshness and extremely demanding towards one’s neighbour we must keep in mind that these were saints who imitated Christ in their words and behaviour. This is how Fr Edward Leen describes Our Lord: ‘He is very tender towards the imperfect, but relentless towards imperfection.’ (‘Why the Cross?’).  The above quotes show the relentless of St Bernard, St Bonaventure, St Therese of Lisieux and St Teresa of Avila towards imperfection while the following quotes show their tenderness towards the imperfect:

St Bernard wrote extensively on Divine love writing, ‘The measure of love is love without measure.’ He also pleaded with popes on behalf of those who showed the slightest sign of repentance, humility and good will as he did for Bishop of Salamanca, writing to Pope Innocent II:

When the man told me the whole story of his tragedy as it had happened, I had nothing but praise for the judge and approval for the judgement; but I must tell you, I was moved by pity for the judged.  The whole theme of his story was those words of the Prophet: ‘I have been lifted up only to be cast down and left bewildered’, and ‘so low hast thou brought me who didst once lift me up on high’. When I thought of your justice and your strong character, which I used to know so well, I thought at the same time of your great mercy which I have experienced on so many occasions…I found grounds for hope, confidence for my petition, a reason for my pity, in that I saw the man did not, as is usual in such cases, turn away in fury, and return to his native land, there to stir up scandals and foment schisms; but that he gave place to wrath, adopted an attitude of meekness, and turned his steps towards your monks of Cluny there to throw himself at the knees of the humble monks and fortify himself with their intercession, as with powerful arms from God.’ (‘St Bernard of Clairvaux – As Seen Through His Selected Letters’)

St Bonaventure on love of God and his neighbour:Give me, O Lord, such great fervour and immense love that I shall see no difference between this or that life, this or that state, person, time, or place, but shall do what is most pleasing to You, whatever or wherever it may be, tending always to You by the affection of my soul. Grant that I may see all things in You, and nothing but You in them, ever eager and anxious to serve You in all things; and that, all on fire and burning with love, I may not take into consideration what is easiest and most agreeable for me, but only what is most pleasing to You.

     Grant, O Lord, that I may imitate the angelic spirits who, although they are with us, never interrupt their divine contemplation. May I treat and serve my brethren by seeing and enjoying You in them, and may I always assist my neighbour, offering my heart to You.’ (cited in ‘Divine Intimacy’)

St Therese of Lisieux on patience and tenderness towards the imperfect: ‘Perfect love means putting up with other people’s shortcomings, feeling no surprise at their weaknesses, finding encouragement even in the slightest evidence of good qualities in them.’ (‘The Autobiography of a Soul’)

St Teresa of Avila on compassion towards one’s neighbour: “For at times it happens that some trifle will cause as much suffering to one as a great trial will to another; little things can bring much distress to persons who have sensitive natures. If you are not like them, do not fail to be compassionate.” (‘The Way of Perfection’)

Footnote 3:

The Irish priest and scholar, Fr Edward Leen, has been quoted a number of times in this blog. It is highly recommended to readers that they check out his inspirational books such as ‘Why the Cross?’, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’ or ‘My Last Retreat’.  See here for a sample of his writing from another of his books, ‘Progress Through Mental Prayer’. These books are very helpful for inspiring and encouraging the desire for true perfection in ourselves.