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.