The Priesthood and Perfection by Garrigou-Lagrange - Chapter 9

Interior Life of the Priest

1. Introduction

It is the aim of Spiritual Theology to unite, with a practical view, teaching which is to be found in various theological tracts of St. Thomas.

There are many Christians who, though accepting in general the redemption of mankind by Jesus Christ, yet fail to give sufficient thought to their own personal sancti-fication and salvation. The early Christians, on the contrary, were most zealous and generous in their striving after personal holiness. Influenced by practical naturalism, many men and women of today, including Christians, no longer appreciate the sterling worth of a temperate and personal Christian life and seem to think that the achievements of our modem civilization are of more lasting value than that nobility of soul which was the possession of our Christian forefathers. Indeed the terrifying breakdown of the modern world is due precisely to the fact that it is no longer profoundly or properly Christian. It is important to emphasize in a practical way the value of redemption, not only for mankind in general but for the individual and humble follower of Jesus Christ, thereby encouraging all to greater personal generosity.

This has been discussed in various ways by St. Bernard, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, and recently for priests by Cardinal Mercier in La Vie Intérieure, Appel aux Ames Sacerdotales, and by my grand-uncle Canon Maurice Garrigou, who during the French Revolution accomplished much in the province of Toulouse. I quote from his principal writing on the interior life, published in the Revue d' Ascétique et de Mystique, 1937, pp. 124-140: "Considerations sur la Vie Interieure."

2. Erroneous ideas

Some think that the interior life is a state of soul in which sensible feeling plays a dominant part, a "sentimen-talism" which emphasizes a sickly shadow of love which is wholly or partly absent from the will. Effective charity is thus sacrificed to affective charity, which in turn is adulterated and confused with sensible devotion. Shortlived as a fire in chaff, this state of soul gives way to one of spiritual sloth from which it is difficult to escape. In short, these souls erroneously believe that they possess an interior life which they are far from having and they simulate something they could not have experienced.

Others, on the contrary, have such an elevated concept of the spiritual life that they make it a thing extraordinary, reserved, a privilege for the few, unattainable by the many. Accordingly, these rest content with a lifeless and mechanical round of spiritual exercises and seek in outward activity the life for which they yearn. As will later be apparent, both these views have false notions of the goal to be achieved and the principal means of attaining it. There are, indeed, other erroneous views of the interior life, but they can be reduced to the two which we have just mentioned. This is how Cardinal Mercier speaks of them: "Some would have the perfect interior life to be the exclusive possession of privileged souls. Others despair of attaining it because of some sin of frailty, whereas the chief obstacle for them is not their weakness, but their pride. Then there are inexperienced souls who confuse imaginary perfection with that real and concrete perfection which the Gospel bids us, in accordance with God's will, seek here and now. Others would seem to believe that perfection is inseparable from some particular natural ability which they themselves do not possess They do not realize that the indispensable condition for the life of union is humility, which is founded on supernatural charity and strengthened by our Holy Communion."

3. True interior life

What then is the true interior life? The great spiritual writers reply: The interior life is a life of intimate union with God, achieved by perfect self-denial and by constant recollection and prayer. This doctrine, taught and developed by St. Augustine, St. Anselm, St. Bernard, St. Thomas, the Imitation of Christ, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, has strong scriptural foundation, in particular these words of St. Paul: "Therefore if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Mind the things that are above, not the things that are upon the earth. For you are dead and your life is hid with Christ in God. When

Christ shall appear, who is your life, then you also shall appear with him in glory" (Col. 3:1 3). "But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection" (Ibid., 3:14). That is: you are dead with reference to a life of sin, but your new life is a hidden one, the life of sanctifying grace which with charity is the seed of glory. Hence every just man, every soul in sanctifying grace, must develop an interior life so conceived that he can say with St. Paul: "For I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20). For this new life infused into the soul by baptism and nourished by the Eucharist is the life of Christ, Head of the Mystical Body of which I am a member. We must live more and more by virtue of this higher life so that Christ may be more living within us than we ourselves; so that through Him and with Him we think, pray, desire, suffer and work indeed, so that His life may be extended to and prolonged in ours. In brief, our life is hidden in God with Christ, who desires unceasingly to live in us as in His members: "I am the true vine, you are the branches" (John 15:3). This is clearly the teaching of revelation upon the true nature of the interior life as viewed from the goal of that life, namely intimate union with God through Christ. Book II, chapter 1, of the Imitation should be read as a commentary on this doctrine. There the author speaks of the internal conversation of the soul with God, and goes on to explain the words of our Lord: "If anyone love me, he will keep my word. And we will come to him and will make our abode with him" (John 14:23) 'we' i.e., the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

To avoid all danger of illusion, however, the distance

between the two terms of this spiritual ascent must always be kept in mind. Father Maurice Garrigou writes: "We live, but it is we ourselves rather than Christ that lives within us, because 'vanity, flightiness of thought, inconstancy, dissipation, the bewitching of vanity that obscures good things' (Wisdom 4:12) and inordinate love of self all get the better of us and hinder in us the growth of the love of God and our neighbor. Frequently we live not interiorly, but exteriorly in the regions of imagination and sensibility; and our soul is so confused that the very source of our being remains unknown to us. And yet the center of our being should be the dwelling-place of the Most Holy Trinity. In this way only can the Kingdom of Christ be established within us so that He may be for us the life-giving Vine and the Head of His members. This interior life, however, remains for us as strange as that of a far-off country."

4. Growth in true interior life

(A) Perfect self-denial

To reach the desired goal, two means are vitally necessary: perfect self-denial, and a constant and prayerful recollection in God. The same truth is expressed more formally in the statement that union with God is achieved by the purgative way in which self-denial plays a considerable part, and the illuminative way which is characterized by constant recollection and quasi-continual prayer. To each of these two means great attention must be paid, as well as due consideration for the situation and circumstances in which each individual person will find himself. Self-denial, according to St. Basil, is a parting from that self-will not conformed to the divine will. It is a mysterious dying to all inordinate inclinations, says St. John of the Cross. This voluntary emptying calms the tumult of our passions and creates in the soul that peace and tranquility which is the foundation of the interior life. But we will be deceiving ourselves if we think that our passions are dead when they are but quieted; what is cast forth returns promptly and what is quenched is easily set afire again. We must be on our guard against dalliance with the initial suggestion of sin. Self-denial is a voluntary dying to the world, to vanity, pride, attachment to one's own opinions and impulses. It is opposed to any self-complacency in the virtues or talents which God has granted to us and is indeed, in the words of St. Paul, "a daily dying" to the lower life in order that we may receive the higher. By this voluntary renunciation or expropriation, the soul, no longer moved by inordinate self-love, is rendered entirely docile to the Holy Spirit, and full scope is given to His gifts. Previously, these gifts were like sails fastened to the mast of a ship; now they are unfurled and filled by the wind. The mind follows the inclination of a heart which has been renewed, because everyone judges according to his inclination; and these inclinations are now those of a heart purified and inflamed by the love of God, and it is toward God that the flame consistently rises. Thus the soul that has been freed from the hindrance of self-love and egoism finds its rest "heart-to-heart" in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. It is there attentive to every divine inspiration and God speaks, as it were, spiritually to such a soul by the inspiration of the seven gifts which are in the soul of every just man. So "the Spirit himself giveth testimony that we are the sons of God" (Rom. 8:16).

(B) Constant and prayerful recollection

Self-abnegation thus understood in a practical and concrete way leads to that habitual recollection which is the second necessary means toward union with God. Inconstant souls who are one day recollected and the following day given to outward things, thus losing great graces, do not arrive at the goal. They never seem to grasp the meaning of the Psalmist: "Taste and see how sweet is the Lord" (Ps. 33). This is the recollection which our Lord speaks of when He says: "We ought always to pray and not to faint" (Luke 18:1). It is the interior prayer of desire which is ever ascending before the throne of God, the breathing-in by the soul, so to speak, of the actual grace which sustains us spiritually just as the air we breathe into our lungs clears and renews the blood stream. The illuminative way consists in this almost continuous prayer of recollection and docility to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Hence the words of the Imitation are very appropriate: "Many are found to desire contemplation, but they are not careful to practice those things which are required for its attainment." Again: "Unless a man be disengaged from all things created, he cannot freely attend to things divine. And this is the reason why there are found so few contemplative persons, because there are few who know how to separate themselves entirely from perishable creatures. For this a great grace is required, such as may elevate the soul and lift her above herself. And unless a man be elevated in spirit and freed from attachment to all creatures and wholly united to God, whatever he knows and whatever he has is of no great importance. Far more noble is that learning which flows from above, from the divine influence, than that which is laboriously acquired by the industry of man." That a priest should be able to preach the divine word from the abundance of his heart is certainly much more noble and necessary. "A good man out of a good treasure bringeth forth good things" (Matt. 12:35) and this good treasure will not remain idle.

5. Perfect self-denial and continual recollection lead to intimate union with God

Perfect self-denial and continual recollection, which are in no way incompatible with an active life, lead the Christian soul, in particular the soul of a priest, toward union with God that is, to true joy and youth, and to the uni-tive life of the perfect which is the treasure from which the priest draws forth good things. It is founded upon a lively faith enlightened by the gifts of the Holy Spirit and upon a charity which is both affective and effective. Faith of this kind, enlightened by the gifts of Understanding and Wisdom, usually acquires a cognitio sapida et penetrans "a penetrating and savouring knowledge" of divine things; and this leads to a special act of charity called "infused," as it proceeds not only from infused charity but also from a particular inspiration. This act, however, remains human, free, and meritorious, made by the soul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Thus in a very real sense "the Spirit gives testimony that we are the sons of God"; by the gift of Piety He fills us with the love of children for their Father. This intimate union with God proceeds in the normal development of things from the three theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, all of which are in the soul of every man in the state of grace, and increase step by step with charity and should continue to increase until we have drawn the last breath.

A priest must desire, humbly yet confidently and eagerly, this intimate union with God and Jesus Christ, in order that he may be united with Christ the supreme priest and truly nourish the souls of his flock. In every prayer, humility and confidence should be united. Otherwise a priest cannot become another Christ.

Elevated though it be, this intimate union is not de jure extraordinary, a fact which marks it off from graces which, properly speaking, are extraordinary, such as the gift of prophecy, knowledge of hearts, stigmatization, the gift of tongues.

The unitive life fulfills in various ways those words of St. Paul: "I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened by his Spirit with might unto the inward man: that Christ may dwell by faith in your hearts: that, being rooted and founded in charity, 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. 3:14-19). "So that," comments St. Thomas, "you may participate perfectly in all God's gifts, namely in the plenitude of virtue and afterwards in that of beatitude which is the effect of charity."

But all this does not mean that in the unitive life the soul has no longer any crosses to bear. On the contrary, the soul now begins to read with an understanding which daily grows deeper the lesson of the cross, and fired with the love of Christ crucified she desires to have some share in His sorrows. I "now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ in my flesh for his body, which is the Church" (Col. 1:24). Thus it is that Christ, the Head of the Mystical Body, leads certain of His members to a life of reparation for the salvation of others. Just as the supreme Cause bestows on creatures the dignity of causality, so likewise does Christ our Redeemer bestow on many of His members the dignity of a life of reparation. These privileged souls make reparation in Christ and through Christ and with Christ, so that the merits of His passion, which of itself is all sufficient and of infinite value, may be applied to their own souls and to the souls of others. To be effective of salvation, these merits lack nothing but their full application to our own souls and the souls of all sinners.

6. Answering the call of Christ

There is a danger that we do not sufficiently answer this call of Christ. The call to intimate union with God corresponds, for the priest, not only to the counsel but to the precept and obligation to strive after the perfection of charity. Nor is it only, as we have said, a general obligation based on the supreme precept to love God and our neighbor, but a special obligation based on priestly ordination and on the priestly office. It is serious, therefore, not to answer this call. Christ calls His priests to intimate union with Himself. He calls them in many ways: externally through the Gospel and through lectures given during spiritual exercises; interiorly by special graces. If a priest does not answer this call, if he does not come, if he does not hear, if he even draws back, then there is danger that Christ will no longer call him in the same way, nor in the same way will He "knock at the gate of our heart." "Behold I stand at the gate and knock. If any man shall hear my voice and open to me the door, I will come in to him and will sup with him: and he with me" (Apoc. 3:20). The proximately sufficient graces which the soul has resisted will then become more rare, and there will perhaps remain graces which are only remotely sufficient for intimate union with God. This has happened because the priest "has not known the time of the visitation of the Lord." He should then say to himself: "I am a priest and souls need my ministry." As St. Augustine said: "God does not order us to do impossible things, but in ordering us He admonishes us to do what we can and ask His help for whatever is outside our power." I must pray, therefore, with humility, confidence, perseverance, and Christ will hear me again so that I may work with fruit in His vineyard. To me also has it been said: "Come to me all you who labor and are burdened and I will refresh you."

The priest ought then to continue his ascent until he reaches the summit to which he was called on the day of his ordination, and he should do so particularly because the souls of his flock need it. And he should not break his journey until he has reached the end.

This teaching is based on the Gospels, on the Epistles of St. Paul, and on what St. Augustine, St. Thomas, St. John of the Cross, and St. Francis de Sales later taught about the greatness of the supreme precept, the charity of those in via which should always increase until death, and their teaching on the seven gifts which are connected with charity and which as infused habits grow normally with the growth of charity. It is based also on the fact that in order for a priest to preach from the abundance of his heart he must have a living faith illuminated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and both affective and effective charity which can be communicated for the salvation of souls.

In short, that a priest may be another Christ he must have in his soul the fire of charity a zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls which will imply an almost constant communion with God about the ministry which is to be carried out in His name. This is not merely probable, but certain.

As a complement to what has been said about the need for a perfect self-denial and recollection in order for a priest to reach perfection, we shall speak now about the interrelation of the virtues and their progressive purification in view of perfection. Here we shall show more clearly the harmony between the teaching of St. Thomas on the virtues and on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the teaching of the great spiritual writers like St. John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales and others.