"The good of the grace of one soul is greater than the good of the nature of the whole universe"
- St Thomas Aquinas Ia IIa, q.24, a. 3, ad 2

 
REALITY—A Synthesis Of Thomistic Thought

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O. P.

CH52: CHRISTIAN PERFECTION

Perfection, so we are taught by the Gospel and St. Paul, means perfection in charity. "Every being," says St. Thomas, [1292] "is perfect when it attains its final goal. But charity unites us to God, the goal of all human life, a truth expressed by St. John's word on him who abides in God and God in him. Hence charity constitutes the life of Christian perfection." Faith and hope, since they can coexist with mortal sin, cannot constitute perfection. Nor can infused moral perfections, since they are concerned with the roads that lead to God, and hence are meritorious only so far as they are vivified by charity, which is their animating principle.

"Perfection," St. Thomas [1293] continues, "lies principally in love of God, secondarily in love of neighbor, and only accidentally in the evangelical counsels," obedience, chastity, and poverty, which are unprescribed instruments of perfection. Hence perfection can be attained without literal observance of the counsels, in the state, say, of matrimony, though the spirit of the counsels, i. e.: detachment from worldliness, is necessary for perfection in any state. The advantage of literal observance of the counsels lies in this: they are the most sure and rapid road whereby to reach sanctity.

Love of neighbor, though secondary in value when compared to love of God, is nevertheless first in the order of time, because love of our neighbor, who is the visible image of God, is the indispensable first proof of our love for God. Our Lord says: "By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love one for another." [1294].

Which is higher in value, love of God, or knowledge of God? In this life, so runs the answer of St. Thomas, [1295] love of God stands higher than knowledge of God. Why? Because, although in general the intellect is higher than the will which it guides, our intellect, until it obtains the beatific vision, draws God down within its own limited and finite ideas, whereas when we love God we ourselves are drawn upward to God's own unlimited and infinite perfection. Hence it comes that when a saint, the Cure of Ars, for example, teaches catechism, his act of love his higher value than the wisest meditation of a theologian with a lower degree of love. [1296] In this sense we can love God more than we know Him, and we love Him the more, the more His mysteries surpass our knowledge. Charity is the bond of perfection, since it draws all virtues into one unit which is anchored in God.

But love of God and neighbor, in matrimony, priesthood, or religion, is subject to the law of unlimited growth. It is an error, says St. Thomas, [1297] to imagine that the commandment of charity is limited to a degree beyond which it becomes a simple counsel. The commandment itself has no limits. We must love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength. Charity is in no way a mere counsel, but the purpose and goal of all commandments. [1298] Means may be loved with measure, but not the end itself. No one, says Aristotle, [1299] wills a goal by half. Does the physician will to restore merely half of health? No. What he does limit and measure is the medicine, the means whereby to restore, if he can, unlimited health. Now the counsels are means, the precept, the love of God, is the end. But why does God command, not merely counsel, to love Him completely, with heart, soul, mind, and strength, seeing that our love here below can never be perfect? Because, as St. Augustine [1300] answers his own question, love of God and neighbor is not a thing to be finished here and now, but a goal to be ceaselessly aimed at by all men each according to his own state of life. [1301] This ancient doctrine, from which in part Suarez [1302] departs, is well preserved by St. Francis de Sales, [1303] and reappears in two encyclicals of Pius XI. [1304].

In relation to this perfection which consists in charity we distinguish three forms of human life: the contemplative life, the active life, and the apostolic life. [1305] Contemplation studies divine truth, action serves our neighbor, preaching and teaching gives to our neighbor the fruits of our own contemplation. [1306].

The active life is the disposition for the contemplative life, because it subordinates passion to advancement in justice and mercy. Its end is contemplation, the better part, which leads us to rest eternally in the inner life of God. The apostolic life is the completion of the contemplative life, because it is more perfect to illumine others than to be merely illumined ourselves. Hence the perfect apostolic life, as exemplified in the apostles and their successors, presupposes plenitude of contemplation, which itself advances by the gifts of knowledge, understanding, and wisdom, which make faith penetrating and attractive. [1307].

Bishops must be perfect both in the active life and in the contemplative. And whereas religious are tending to the perfection of charity, [1308] bishops are already in the state of perfection to which they are to lead others. [1309] Hence a bishop who would enter religion would make a step backward, as long as he is useful to the souls for whom he has accepted responsibility. [1310].

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Footnotes

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