The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 3

The Direction of Beginners

Chapter Three


Spiritual directors must make it their care to instruct beginners on the necessity of mortification, the correct approach to the sacraments, and the means to avoid negligence or spiritual sloth in prayer.


In mortifying inordinate desires—the breeding ground of vice—there are two extremes to be avoided: continual lack of mortification which makes the soul lukewarm and remiss in its efforts for perfection, and excessive zeal in the practice of exterior mortification.

As St. Alphonsus wisely remarks (Praxis confessarii, n. 146): "Some spiritual directors would measure all spiritual progress by the degree of exterior mortification. . . . Others look askance at every form of this type of mortification seeing in it a stumbling-block to spiritual progress, and they make the attainment of perfection dependent on interior mortification. But these are no less mistaken in their view than the first, since corporeal austerities are a help to interior mortification and when they can be practised they are in some degree essential for the restraint of our sense-faculties. And so we find them present in the lives of all the saints to a greater or less extent."

What, therefore, is the principle to be followed? St. Alphonsus states it in these words: "Interior mortification is more important, but exterior mortification is extremely useful."

Hence, in practice, penitents are to be urged chiefly to interior mortification of their ill-ordered passions; for example, not to reply to insults and ill-treatment—unless there is a higher and more excellent motive for so doing—, not to reveal anything to others which would make them think well of them, not to look for possible sources of praise from others, to give way in argument so as to avoid pride, ill-feeling, hankering after the things of this world, praise, and one's own will. It cannot be doubted but this is the more essential form of mortification.

At the same time the utility of exterior mortification must not be overlooked. St. John of the Cross used to say that anyone who despised corporeal penances was not to be trusted, even if he performed miracles.

St. Philip Neri shared the same view: "A man who never restrains his appetite cannot attain perfection." St. Alphonsus gives the following advice to a nun desiring perfection: she must scourge herself daily but not to the point of drawing blood except once or twice a month, and her sleep ought always to be limited to six hours, frequently to five. Nowadays, however, seven hours would be allowed.

The better forms of mortification are those which are negative in character: for instance, not to look at or listen to things which excite our curiosity, to be reserved in conversation, to be content with food which is not very palatable or is badly prepared, not to approach the fire during the winter, to choose for oneself things of less value, to rejoice in the lack of even necessary possessions—this, incidentally, being the true meaning of poverty. As St. Bernard says: "The virtue of poverty is not the actual poverty, but the love of poverty for the sake of imitating Christ." Again, one should not complain of the daily inconveniences of life, of the annoyance caused by some bodily infirmity, of being scorned or persecuted by other people: it is suffering and contradiction which perfect the future citizens of Heaven. St. Teresa used to say that it was folly to think that God would admit anyone into his friendship who was in love with his own ease.

Special attention must be given to the mortification of the penitent's predominant fault which is like a worm that gnaws its way into the soul.

Reception of the sacraments

Those who are trying to lead a spiritual life should confess frequently, at least once a week.

Frequent—if possible, daily—Communion is also recommended.2 But their preparation for this sacrament must gradually become more and more perfect, because as a general rule each of our Communions increases our charity and thus disposes us for a better Communion on the following day, provided there is no culpable negligence.

St. Francis of Sales explains this need of frequent Communion in his Introduction to the Devout Life (Part II, c. 21): "There are two kinds of people who ought to communicate often: the perfect ... (so as to remain perfect); and the imperfect so that they may be able to attain to perfection; the strong lest they become weak, and the weak that they may become strong." And the pseudo-Ambrose states in his work De Sacramentis (Part IV, c. 6, n. 28): "Since I am always falling into sin, I am in constant need of the divine remedy"; because, as St. Thomas explains (Ilia, q. 79, a. 4), "venial sins are forgiven by the act of charity caused by Holy Communion."

What is the fundamental condition for a fervent Communion ? It is a sincere spiritual hunger for the Eucharist, a hunger which proceeds from the soul's living faith and firm confidence in Christ and also from its love for him, even if sensible fervour is lacking.

If a person approaches the sacred banquet with this fervent desire for the bread of life, his Communion daily becomes more fruitful, just as a stone increases its speed as it moves towards the centre of the earth. The contrary is true of a person who develops a growing affection for venial sin; his Communions become less fruitful, in the same way as a stone which is thrown up into the" air gradually loses its momentum.

Finally, the director must see that his penitents devote a suitable amount of time to their thanksgiving after Holy Communion. There are even many priests who make little or no thanksgiving after their Mass.

St. Alphonsus (loc. cit., n. 155) lays down the following rule: "Ordinarily speaking, one's thanksgiving should be of an hour's duration; certainly it should never be less than half an hour, during which time the soul will make frequent acts of love and petition. St. Teresa says that after Holy Communion Jesus exists in the soul as if he were sitting on the throne of mercy, eager to enrich the soul with his graces, saying: 'What would you like me to do for you?' "

During the day the soul should adopt the practice recommended by the Council of Trent of making a spiritual communion. Its advantages were recognized by St. Teresa: "Do not overlook the making of a spiritual communion which is of such benefit to the soul. It shows the extent of one's love for God." St. Alphonsus made it a rule for a nun to communicate spiritually at least three times during the day (loc. cit., n. 156).


The spiritual director must exercise special care to prevent beginners from neglecting mental prayer. He must instruct them on the way to meditate on the eternal truths and on the goodness of God, for this is essential if the soul is to continue in the grace of God. Mental prayer and sin cannot exist together. "The soul", says St. Alphonsus (n. 122), "must abandon either prayer or sin. St. Teresa was quite certain that a person who persevered in prayer, no matter how violently the devil tempted him to sin, would assuredly be led by God to the harbour of salvation. For this reason, the devil is never so anxious as he is to obstruct this spiritual exercise, because he knows, as St. Teresa says, that he has lost the soul which perseveres in prayer." The saints have often described prayer as the furnace in which is enkindled the flame of divine love.

To quote St. Alphonsus again: "The director must, therefore, introduce the soul into the way of prayer. At the beginning he should not specify for the exercise any longer than half an hour, and then as the soul develops, this period will be increased to a greater or less degree." He should recommend frequent meditation on the four last things, especially on death, which is more useful for beginners: "Remember at all times what thou must come to at the last, and thou shalt never do amiss" (Eccles. vii, 40). But the most fruitful of all subjects for meditation is the Passion of Christ.

Beginners should imitate the practice of St. Teresa and always use some spiritual book for their meditation. They should be advised by their director to choose those subjects which incite them to greater devotion, and to pause and dwell on those points which make a stronger appeal to their affections, so that they may make penetrating acts of faith.

Meditation should not occupy the whole time of mental prayer. The soul must turn aside from reflection to acts of the will, making a complete offering of itself to God in acts of humility, confidence, and love. Mental prayer proceeds from the three theological virtues which unite us to God and from the virtue of religion, aided by the gift of piety.

The exercise will then conclude with a request for perseverance in conforming one's will to the divine will. And to ensure that this period of mental prayer has an effect on the beginner's daily life he must formulate some practical resolution: as, for instance, to avoid one or other of his more frequent failings and to practise some virtue in which he knows himself to be weak.

Afterwards the director must ask whether his advice has been followed or not.

When souls establish themselves in prayer they find it extremely difficult to renounce their original conversion to God. Hence even sinners ought to be encouraged to pray, because it is often for want of reflection and of love for God that "like a dog at his vomit, the fool goes back to his own folly" (Prov. xxvi, 11).

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There is one period when the director will have to exercise special vigilance over the mental prayer of beginners, and that is during the time of aridity, of spiritual desolation, which is the normal trial preparatory to progress.

When the soul first dedicates itself to the spiritual life, God usually encourages the beginner by granting him special favours and sense consolations. These are of great benefit to the soul, but beginners are apt to develop a kind of spiritual gluttony for them. And so at that point God usually brings to an end this flow of sensible fervour in order to test the fidelity of beginners and to bring them to a purer form of love for the giver instead of for his gifts. The result is a period of sensible aridity. During this time God often allows a series of temptations against those virtues connected with our sense nature, against chastity and patience, so as to give beginners an opportunity of offering generous resistance and of acquiring new merits. According to St. John of the Cross this period of aridity, when prolonged and accompanied by spiritual progress, coincides with the passive purification of the senses, which marks the passage of the soul to its "second conversion", to the illuminative way of proficients, in which begins infused contemplation proceeding from the virtue of faith enlightened by the gifts of the Holy Ghost.

What is the duty of the director during this period of trial? He must do all in his power to encourage the soul to remain faithful to its prayer and Holy Communions. Let him remind beginners of the words of St. Francis of Sales: "A single prayer in times of desolation is of far more value before God than a hundred offered during periods of consolation." He who loves God because of his favours loves the favours rather than God himself; on the other hand, a person who loves God and remains faithful to him even when deprived of all consolation is showing a true and sincere love.

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Beginners must also be urged to sanctify their daily actions.3 In the morning they must offer the entire day to God, both its actions and its sufferings. Throughout the day the soul must be almost continuously recollected so as to avoid thoughtlessness, idle curiosity, waste of time, excessive interest in the things of this world. St. Francis of Sales praised St. Jane Chantal for her practice of making an ejaculatory prayer at the beginning of every hour of the day in order to consecrate it to God.

Useful to this exercise of sanctifying our daily actions is the orderly arrangement of our various occupations so as to leave sufficient time for Mass, mental prayer, spiritual reading, and visits to the Blessed Sacrament.

Retarded souls4

Some beginners never mature in their spiritual life, never reach the illuminative way of proficients, for one or other of the following reasons.

Sometimes they pay little attention to details in the service of God and thus forget the words of Christ: "He who is trustworthy over a little sum is trustworthy over a greater" (Luke xvi, 10). So, for example, a religious who is most faithful in observing his rule in all its details will receive the grace of martyrdom, if an occasion should arise when he has to suffer death for the sake of Christ. St. Augustine points out that although a small thing is in itself of little value, yet to be continually faithful to God's law even in its smallest details is of the highest value. We gradually come to realize the wonderful significance of our many small duties, which ought to be ordered towards our final end in a spirit of faith and love of God. Once beginners grow careless about details in the service of God they will begin to grow careless about things of greater moment. Remember that a year is made up of days, days of hours, and hours of minutes.

Eventually this negligent soul no longer seeks God in everything that it does but self; it loses all sense of the presence of God. On the other hand, a soul which is faithful even in small matters realizes gradually the full supernatural importance of the least—and, a fortiori, of the greatest—of all its duties.

Another cause of the stunted growth of beginners in the spiritual life is their unwillingness to offer to God the sacrifices which he demands of them. "Would you but listen to his voice to-day! Do not harden your hearts." There are many people perfectly willing to do all that they can in the world to make a name for themselves, but they pay little attention to the sanctification of their own soul: "How is a man the better for gaining the whole world, if he loses himself, if he pays the forfeit of himself?" (Luke ix, 25). But some beginners refuse to make the effort; they lose their seriousness of purpose and become spiritually slothful. Perhaps that which prevents the soul from lifting itself up from earth to heaven is an attachment to some useless frivolity for the sake of the pleasure we derive from it, an attachment which though it may be no stronger than a piece of thread is effective in keeping our heart fixed to the earth; "such witchery evil has, to tarnish honour, such alchemy do the roving passions exercise even on minds that are true metal" (Wisdom iv, 12).

A third reason for the retardment of certain beginners is a tendency to derision, when they begin to make fun of the man of virtue as reflecting on their own inferiority. And thus their outlook on the spiritual life becomes warped. Job replied to the carping tongue of his friends: "The simplicity of the upright was ever a laughing stock" (Job xii, 4). But this derision of earth is answered by the chastizing irony of God: "He who dwells in heaven is laughing at their threats ... his fierce anger will hurl them into confusion" (Psalm ii, 4 and 6).

Unfortunately, there seem to be many beginners who do not mature in their spiritual life; they are neither beginners nor proficients nor perfect souls. They resemble abnormal children who never grow; though they do not remain children, they never develop to maturity and become dwarfs.

1Cf. St. Alphonsus, Praxis confessarii, c. 9, Part iii, n. 145, 147; Part iv, nn. 148-155; Saudreau, The Degrees of the Spiritual Life, English tr., vol. 1, bks. 1-3; and the author's previous work, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, English tr., vol. 1, pp. 258 ff.

2This will always bear fruit provided it is received "with a pious and upright intention," Pius X.

3Cf. Saudreau, op. cit., I, p. 76.

4Cf. Saudreau, op. cit., I, pp. 38-41; and my earlier work, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, I, p. 461.