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.   

Sanctity & Sanity (2/2)


Few would deny, however unsatisfactory their own lives, that to be a saint is the supreme expression of human life on earth.  We recognise in sanctity or great holiness the closest possible relationship between a man and God who is supreme Reality, the supreme Truth, Goodness and Beauty.’ – Introduction, ‘Francois de Sales’ – Michael de le Bedoyere

The last article on ‘Sanctity and Sanity’ spoke about the various modern proposals that are offered as ways of alleviating psychological distress.  These range from toxic legal and illegal drugs to dangerous new age practices.  But there is one solution to psychological distress that is guaranteed to work.  Now, this solution does not take away physical pain, nor does it take away suffering that life inevitably brings.  It offers a cross to carry.  This is its central symbol and message. To many, it does not appear to be a great solution yet its Founder asserts that it is the only path.  This solution is the road to sanctity through the Catholic Faith. Many reject this offer and Him who offers it, because they see this offer as unhelpful for their happiness and sanity as Fr Edward Leen (‘Why the Cross?’) explains,  ‘Men once killed the heir and thought that, by stifling his voice, the inheritance of earth would be theirs.  In all ages the same crime is repeated, instigated by the same idle expectations. Men, again and again, seek to slay Christ, living in His Church, and indulge the hope that, once they have silenced Him, they will be left in tranquil enjoyment of the earth and the fullness thereof.  They persist in regarding Christ, and Christ because of His Cross, as the great barrier to their happiness and well-being.’ Let us not despair at this offer. If it was solely the pain of the cross that was offered and promised to us, then we may have a right to feel aggrieved.  Yet, Christ also promised that this burden, if willingly taken up, would be light.  His life on earth and the examples of the saints only show us how infinitely good and generous God is in this supreme offer.  ‘God is infinite goodness.  Goodness seeks nothing except to give itself and to communicate the riches which it enjoys.’ (Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard, ‘The Soul of the Apostolate’). God seeks to enrich us with His happiness.  He implores us to take up His offer as He promises to satiate the desire for happiness in us.

These things I have spoken to you that My joy may be in you, and your joy may be filled,’ (John 15:11)

Man has an innate desire for happiness.  ‘The craving for happiness comes from the bottom of the human nature.’ (Dom Anscar Vonier, ‘The Human Soul and Its Relations with Other Spirits’).  This search for happiness is what drives man on.  But where is this happiness to be found? When modern man views the saints, what does he see?  Does he just see their poverty, their mortifications, their penances, their low worldly position, the eccentricities of their life story and character? Does he see, through worldly eyes, only the cross and the hardships of their exterior life? Or can he see deeper and see the beauty of their hearts and souls which were filled with joy, happiness and peace?  By just looking at the exterior, through worldly eyes, does he mistakenly believe that a miserable earthly life is the deal that needs to be made with God for eternal happiness in the next?  Surely this can not be the case and Fr Edward Leen (‘Why the Cross?’) highlights how this is not so, ‘To many, religion appears to demand actual misery as a condition of future well-being.  This is a totally mistaken view of things…God does not demand unhappiness as the price of happiness.  He plans happiness here as a prelude and foretaste of happiness hereafter.’ But where is the evidence that happiness in this life is given to those who follow the Catholic way?  It is to be found in those who truly embraced the cross. It is to be found in the saints that followed Christ’s example.

When we die to something, something comes alive within us. If we die to self, charity comes alive; if we die to pride, service comes alive; if we die to lust, reverence for personality comes alive; if we die to anger, love comes alive.’ – Bishop Fulton Sheen, ‘Peace of Soul’

You don’t need no ticket, And you don’t pay no fee’ – Mike Scott (The Waterboys), ‘This is the Sea’

The opportunity for true happiness and joy is offered to us all. Saints have come from every conceivable walk of life. Sanctity is not solely for those born into ‘privileged’ circumstances. In God’s infinite mercy and goodness and through His gratuitous grace everyone gets a shot at sanctity. Those who have responded faithfully to these graces are the saints.  They willingly took up their crosses and followed the path that Jesus had walked before them. 

As Jesus practiced and taught, man’s true greatness and his highest liberty consists in his complete independence of what is created and in his utter subjection to the Uncreated.  Detachment from creatures and loving submission to God alone give man the greatness and happiness he instinctively aspires to.  Sanctity, or greatness of character – for they are actually the same thing – does not consist in anything external nor does it depend on it: it is to be found entirely in the interior.  The presence of this world’s goods, good or evil fortune, easy circumstances or hardship, health or sickness, protection from or exposure to the unkindness of the elements, or the perverse wills of men, these things in themselves cannot take from or add to us.’ – Fr Edward Leen, ‘In the Likeness of Christ’

But yes, it must be admitted that the lives of many saints were often hard and yes, their sufferings could be immense. But can we see the peace and joy that flourished in their hearts and, from their hearts, out into the world? What a joy it must have been to behold the joy, happiness and peace that radiated from the likes of St Bernard or St Francis of Assisi or St Catherine of Sienna or St Francis de Sales!  Thank God, they have left us glimpses of this in the words they have written and in the biographies written about them.  They give us a glimmer of the happiness that comes when one completely surrenders one’s will to that of God’s.  As Fr Leen (‘In the Likeness of Christ’) rhetorically asks, ‘Was there ever a man who had completely surrendered his will to the will of God who could not confess that he was supremely happy?’  These were men and women who truly tasted the Lord and saw how sweet He is (Psalms 33:9).  These saints are not those who ‘dabble’ with the Catholic Faith, who are lukewarm and having got an incomplete and inaccurate sense of it, eventually drift away from it.  If truly living the Catholic Faith brings peace, happiness and joy in this life then we should look to those who truly lived it to the fullest for guidance. As Fr D’Arcy, described by Henry Sire as ‘the philosopher of Christian love’, points out in his book, ‘Mirage and Truth’, ‘The argument of those who have given up religion should receive little attention, unless they can claim with truth that they tried and tested it to the full. If we appeal to those who have gone the full distance and not fallen out with a broken wind we shall find invariably that they have experienced an incomparable joy and enjoyed a fullness of being which can only be called divine.

But if imitating Christ and the saints and following the Catholic Faith brings such joy why do we not see this in Irish society today?  Ireland still has many people who profess to be Catholic.  However, we all know Catholics who appear to be more miserable, irrational and more unbalanced than atheists we may know.  Too often it is bitterness, harshness and resentment, rather than joy, love and peace, that exudes from them.  The joy that Christ promised to His followers does not appear to be present in them and they provide no encouragement for taking up, what they propose to be, their beliefs. The young person who has been told that the Catholic Faith is the way to happiness may look away in disillusionment, if not disgust. Yet this is not the fault of the Catholic Faith but a problem in its application as Fr Leen (‘Why the Cross?’) explains, ‘If Christians in considerable numbers are not happy, it is not because they are followers of Jesus Christ, but because they follow Him very far off, very hesitatingly, and with many a start aside by the way. Happiness (not, however, unattended by suffering) is for those who ‘believe in’ Him, and of the many who subscribe to His teaching theoretically, there are relatively few that adhere to it practically.’  He explains how it is the saints who ‘understood Christianity to be what it actually is, a divinely fashioned instrument, made for the express purpose of transforming human nature.  Christianity guarantees this result – this divine transformation of humanity – if it be applied to the work…It does not guarantee this result if inadequately used, or if ill used; and ill used it must be, if not wholly accepted or if badly understood’ and he points out how it was the saints, through their application of the graces they received, that ‘became human beings – more human than the others, and yet human beings who diffused rays of the divinity.’  These saints inspired people around them.  People saw God in the saints.  It is to their lives that we must look if we are going to be as happy and peaceful as we can be in this life.  Society, especially in these times of mass apostasy from the Faith, may call this solution to psychological distress mad or foolish as they offer their modern ‘progressive’ and ‘enlightened’ approaches to distress, but as St Francis de Sales (‘The Devout Life’) said to those who received ridicule for aspiring to Christian perfection, if ‘the world considers us fools, let us consider it mad.’

The Christian idea of perfection, of completion, is, in part, in every humanism; the idea of self-surrender is in every mystic; the idea of love is in every human heart. And is there not in the various forms of socialism and communism, in the mutualism of the modern humanists, some hint of that idea which is in the Church herself, that union which transcends altruism and is so much more personal, more living, than any form of communism, that communion of saints which is also the communion of us ordinary sinners, for in it are included all those who own Christ for their head?’ I am the true vine, ye are the branches’ – it is a member of the mystical Body of Christ that the Christian sees the face of his birth, God’s ideal of what manner of man he should be.’ –Coudenhove, ‘Burden of Belief’

The solution to one’s psychological battles is not to be found in convoluted modern psychological theories.  They are not to be found in non-Catholic mystics, gurus and shamans who make a living from Westerners who had the Truth at one stage and who appear desperate to find it again. They are not to be found in the falsehoods of psychiatry nor are they to be found in the deluded utopian visions of humanists, sociologists and communists. They are to be found in willingly picking up one’s cross and following the example of those happy holy Catholic souls that have come before us.

Now, the road to sanctity is narrow.  Obstacles, temptations and sufferings will be encountered along the way. But there is a choice to be made.  The grace that opens one’s eyes to the reality of this choice can come with its own challenges for those who have grown accustomed to their own way of viewing the world as Ida Friederike Coudenhove (‘The Burden of Belief’) outlines, ‘It is perfectly true…that on the purely natural plane, something, even a great deal, may be destroyed through the irruption of Grace as a consciously life-forming principle. It really is an irruption, where the individual has shut himself up in his right little, tight little world; it shatters the clear security he enjoys in the order of visible, calculable things, and exposes him to all the storms of the infinite. Now he is torn in two, and his way lies through night and conflict, through the struggles and tension of inward transformation, through the unspeakably long, dark agony of dying to be born again: everything that you have read behind the smiling countenance of the saints.’ This straight and narrow path, which involves inward transformation, is the only true way to happiness.  It is a far more joyful route than the route that the world offers with its fleeting pleasures, vanities and vicious snares.  This path of virtue is the route that makes the saints smile and which finds them radiating their happiness and joy to others.  It is open to everyone. 

Finally, let us respond to the prayer of St Paul who prays that ‘You may be able to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth, and length, and height, and depth: To know also the charity of Christ, which surpasseth all knowledge, that you may be filled unto all the fulness of God.’ (Eph 3:18-19).  Essentially, may you be a saint.