If you wish, beloved in Christ, to reach the height of perfection and, by drawing near to your God, to become one spirit with Him, you must before all else gain a true idea of what constitutes genuine spiritual perfection.
There are many who have believed spiritual perfection to consist exclusively in outward mortification, in long watchings and fastings, and in other bodily sufferings and chastisements. Others think they have reached the climax of perfection when they say many prayers, attend many services and offices, and are regularly at church and at Communion. Some indeed (and among this class are not a few religious persons who have withdrawn themselves from the world) persuade themselves that perfection depends entirely on praying the Divine Office, on silence, solitude, and the exact observance of a rule.
And thus, some in these and others in those external actions suppose perfection to consist. But they are all deceived. For although these practices are sometimes means of gaining the spirit of perfection, and are sometimes its fruits, in no sense can it ever be said that true spiritual perfection consists in these. Unquestionably they are means most efficacious for obtaining spirituality when they are properly and discreetly employed, for by them we gain strength against our own sinfulness and frailty, we are fortified against the assaults and snares of our common enemies, and, in short, we are provided with those spiritual helps that are necessary to all the servants of God, especially to those who have only lately entered His service.
They are also fruits of the Spirit in truly spiritual persons, who restrain the body because it has offended its Maker and in order to keep it low and submissive to His commands: in those who live in solitude and silence in order to avoid even the least occasions of sin, and to have their conversation in Heaven; who give themselves entirely to the service of God and to works of mercy; who pray and meditate upon the life and Passion of Jesus Christ, not for the sake of curiosity and devotional feeling, but that they may gain deeper knowledge of their own corruptness and of God’s mercy and goodness, and that they may be more and more inflamed with the love of God and the hatred of themselves — following the Son of God by self-denial and by taking the Cross upon their shoulders; and who frequent the holy sacraments with the view of glorifying the divine majesty, so that they may be more closely united with God and gain fresh strength against their enemies.
To others, however, who base perfection entirely on external practices, such works may bring greater ruin than do open sins. It is not that these works are bad in themselves, for in themselves they are very good, but in consequence of the mistaken use that is made of them, they have this sad result: those who practice them are so rapt up in what they do that they leave their hearts a prey to their own evil inclinations and to the devices of Satan. He sees them wandering from the right path, and he not only leaves them to the enjoyment of these exercises, but lets them vainly fancy that they are roaming amid the delights of Paradise and lets them persuade themselves that they are borne upward even to the angelic choirs and that they feel the presence of God within them. Such persons sometimes are so absorbed in curious, deep, delightful thoughts that they become, as it were, oblivious of the world and of all creatures and appear to themselves rapt even to the third Heaven.
But in how great an error these persons have entangled themselves, and how far they are from that true perfection which we seek, we may easily gather from their lives and conversation. For in everything, whether great or small, they seek their own advantage and like to be preferred before others. They are self-willed and opinionated, blind to their own faults, sharp-sighted when it comes to the faults of others, and they severely condemn the sayings and doings of other men.
But if you touch only with your finger a certain vain reputation in which they hold themselves and are pleased to be held by others, or if you bid them discontinue any of their regular and formal devotions, they are at once angry and exceedingly disturbed.
And if God Himself visits them with trials and infirmities (which never come without His appointment or permission and which are the tests of His servants’ faithfulness), or if He permits them to be sorely persecuted in order that they may gain a true knowledge of themselves and be brought back to the way of true perfection, immediately the false foundation is discovered, and the miserable condition of the proud heart is seen. For in all events, whether adverse or prosperous, they are unwilling to be resigned and to humble themselves under the mighty hand of God, acquiescing in His just, although hidden, judgments.
Neither will they, in imitation of the most lowly and patient Son of God, abase themselves below all creatures and love their persecutors and enemies as dear friends, because they are the instruments of divine goodness and work together for their mortification, perfection, and salvation.
It is therefore quite evident that all such persons are in great danger. For since the inward eye, by which they see themselves and their outward actions that are good, is darkened, they attribute to themselves a high degree of perfection, and so, becoming more and more puffed up, they readily pass judgment upon others. Yet they themselves need a special miracle of grace to convert them, for nothing short of that would have effect. It is easier to convert and bring back an open sinner to the path of truth than the man whose sin is hidden and mantled with the semblance of virtue.
You clearly and distinctly see, then, from what I have said, that the essence of the spiritual life does not lie in any of those things to which I have alluded. It consists in nothing else but the knowledge of the divine goodness and greatness, of our own nothingness and proneness to all evil; in the love of God and the hatred of self; in entire subjection, not only to God Himself, but, for the love of Him, to all creatures; in giving up our own will and in completely resigning ourselves to the divine pleasure; moreover, in willing and doing all this with no other wish or aim than the glory and honor of God, the fulfillment of His will because it is His will and because He deserves to be served and loved.
This is the law of love engraved on the hearts of His faithful servants by the hand of the Lord Himself. This is the self-denial that is required of us. This is His sweet yoke and light burden. This is that obedience to which our Redeemer and Master calls us, both by word and example.
But if you aspire to such a pitch of perfection, you must daily do violence to yourself, by courageously attacking and destroying all your evil desires and affections. In great matters as well as in small, it is necessary, then, that you prepare yourself and hold yourself in readiness for this conflict, for only he who is brave in the battle will be crowned.
Doubtless this is the hardest of all struggles, because, by fighting against ourselves, we are, at the same time, attacked by ourselves, and on that account, the victory obtained in such a conflict will be of all others the most glorious and dearest to God. Therefore, if you used every endeavor to mortify yourself and to tread down your inordinate affections, inclinations, and rebellious passions, even in the smallest matters, you would be rendering to God a far greater and more acceptable service than if, while permitting some of your inclinations to remain unmortified, you scourged yourself until you bled, fasted rigorously, and practiced an austerity greater than that of the hermits and saints of the desert, or if you converted souls by thousands.
Although in itself the conversion of souls is dearer to God than the mortification of an irregular desire, it is not your duty to will and perform that which is in itself more excellent, but that which God before all else strictly desires and requires of you. For He doubtless seeks and desires that you conquer yourself and thoroughly mortify your passions, rather than that, willfully leaving one of them alive in you, you perform in some other direction some greater and more notable service for His sake.
Now you see wherein the real perfection of a Christian lies, and that to obtain it, you must enter upon a constant and sharp warfare against self. You must provide yourself with four very safe and highly necessary weapons, so that you may win the palm and be finally a conqueror in this spiritual conflict: distrust of self, trust in God, spiritual exercises, and prayer. Concerning all these, with God’s help, we intend plainly and briefly to treat.
This article is adapted from a chapter in the classic work, Spiritual Combat: How to Win Your Spiritual Battles and Attain Inner Peace. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.