Counsel of Poverty – On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life VII

The First Way to Perfection, Which is the Renunciation of Temporal Things

Among temporal goods the first we should renounce are external goods, which are called riches, [This renunciation is first, not in the sense of most important, but rather, in the order from imperfect to perfect. It is a basic starting point.] and the Lord counseled this when he said, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21). [Principal in the consideration of the evangelical counsels is not our judgment of their utility, but the fact that they are counseled by Christ. Hence Thomas begins with Christ's expression of this counsel.]

St. Thomas illustrates the value of this counsel in two ways. First, by the story of the rich young man who received the counsel, and what happened with him. The young man went away sad, being too attached to his possessions to give them up in order to follow the Lord more closely. Secondly, by the words of Christ spoken in this context, namely that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, and that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. St. Thomas sees the second statement as expressing the impossibility of entering heaven when one has an inordinate love of riches (understood in the sense of loving them in a manner incompatible with their being means to true spiritual goods), and the first statement as expressing the difficulty of possessing riches without one's heart being caught by them.

St. Thomas continues to clarify that it is indeed possible to possess riches without one's heart being attached to them, and gives the example of Abraham, who had much wealth, but was perfect in faith and the following of God. But, he says, the fact that Abraham had wealth without being attached to wealth, indicates the great virtue of Abraham. But most persons, not having this kind of virtue, cannot retain wealth without being attached to it. He restates the case more generally: the rich man who does not sin by the affection for riches, who does not covet money, who does not place his trust or hope in his wealth, is indeed a man of great virtue and love of God; but as great virtue is rare, so such a rich man, who has riches without being attached to them, is very rare.

In the Summa Theologiae (II-II 186:3 ad 6) St. Thomas cites Jerome in support of the position that it is better to give away one's wealth all at once for the sake of God, than to distribute it little by little. Jerome says, "to him who says that it is bettter to have possessions and to divide them gradually among the poor, not I, but God will respond saying, 'If you wish to be perfect etc.'… what you praise is the second or third rank, which we also recognize, as long as we admit that the first rank is preferable to the second and third."

Distributing Wealth

But let's suppose that someone in fact could in the long term help many more poor persons by distributing his wealth in a gradual manner than by giving it all away at once–or even not "distribute" at all, in the sense of simply giving it away; the best use of the wealth might be in running a business in a manner that, by being truly fair to employees, partners, etc., is better for the common good of society than giving away the money would be. What should we say about this case? Is such a man forced to choose between his own spiritual perfection and love for the poor? That would seem to be an absurd conclusion. But how do we bring these two desires into harmony, the desire to be free from possessing wealth so as not to be attached to it, and the desire to do good with the wealth?

Granted that the desire to help the poor springs from and corresponds to true love for them as God's children, we would have to say, in the abstract, that this charity for the poor would have to take precedence. To hold otherwise would be to place a certain form of perfection or means to charity over charity itself.

Realistically, however, the two desires may be quite rarely in conflict. It is possible, for example, to found a charitable organization or to transfer ownership of the wealth or business in question to an existing charitable organization… and if the skill of the original owner were necessary for guidance in the use of it, he could be retained for this guiding role. In giving the money he intends to use for charitable purposes over to an organization, he would give up some control over how it is to be used; he might think this is a bad thing, because the organization might make unwise decisions regarding the use of the money. But in fact, supposing that the leadership is wisely chosen, what reason would the original owner of the wealth have for thinking that he knows better how to put it to good use, or that he will remain firm in his pursuit of noble ends, and not fall in love with some distorted ideology?

It would seem, then, that a rich man might best attain these two goals (making good use of the wealth, and guarding himself from attachment to it or the power it brings) by giving his money or his business to a sound charitable organization, or establishing one. I would hesitate to pronounce definitely on this, however. There are some weaknesses to which organizations are more prone than individuals. For example, an organization tends to be more susceptible to influence by the media than a single individual does. So there might be some situations where it is better for a rich person to retain control of the charitable purposes to which it is put.

Freedom for Love – On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life VI

For a brief summary of this and the preceding three chapters, see the earlier post: Aquinas On Degrees of Love For God.

The Perfection of Love of God That Falls Under Counsel

When St. Paul had said, “Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect,” and, “but I follow after, if I may by any means lay hold,” he added shortly afterwards, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded.” From these words we can see that although the perfection of the blessed is not possible to us in this life, we ought, to strive to imitate it as far as we can. [The commandment of the love of God in one sense obliges us to love God in the manner possibly in this life, loving nothing else more than him, and at least implicitly directing to him everything we love and everything we do. But as St. Augustine points out, even the perfection of heaven is included in the commandment of love, not as though we are obliged to have this perfection here and now, which is not possible, but as a perfection for which we are to aim. And this commandment, obliging us to seek the perfection of love, is fulfilled the more perfectly, the more we employ helpful means to strive more for this perfection.] And it is in this that the perfection of this life consists to which we are invited by the counsels. [The counsels are such helpful means for growing in perfection.]

For it is manifest that the human heart is more intensely drawn to one thing, to the degree that it is drawn back from many things. Thus the more a man is freed from the affection for temporal things, the more perfectly his mind will be borne to loving God. Hence St. Augustine says that "the desire of temporal things is the poison of charity; the growth of charity is the diminishment of cupidity, and the perfection of charity is no cupidity." (Eighty-Three Questions, Book 83, Quest. 1). Therefore all the counsels, which invite us to perfection, aim at this, that man's mind be turned away from affection to temporal objects, so that his mind may tend more freely to God, by contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.

[Every created good is good by sharing in God's goodness. And nonetheless giving up created goods is helpful for growing in love of God. This is because of the limitation of human nature, which on the one hand, has a limited power of attention and of love, and on the other hand, cannot all of the time see things only in relation to God. "A person has only one will and if that is encumbered or occuped by anything, the person will not possess the freedom, solitude, and purity required for divine transformation" (St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, book 1, ch. 11).

Indeed, when we desire things or persons in full subordination to God, e.g., when we love other persons as created in God's image, as loved by God, and as persons for whom we desire beatitude in God, then our love for these things or persons is not really a separate love from the love of God, and is no hindrance to the intensity of love for God. St. John of the Cross says, "[When one is not encumbered by attachments], a person remains unencumbered and free to love all rationally and spiritually, which is the way God wants them to be loved…. [This] love is according to God and exceedingly free. If the love contains some attachment there is greater attachment to God, for as the love of neighbor increases so does the love of God, and as the love of God increases so does the love of neighbor" (Ascent of Mount Carmel, book 3, ch. 23).

But in fact, in our imperfection and weakness, we do not, cannot always desire and love only in reference to God. And when a man considers and desires created goods without full reference to God (seeing them as participations in God, images of God, or ways to God), then his attention and love is divided, and he thus cannot give as intense love and attention to God. And this is the basic reason why, other things being equal, giving up temporal goods offers a person the possibility of a freedom of mind and heart which, if he puts to good use, will help him grow more surely in the love of God and neighbor.]

See also: Texts of Aquinas on the Counsels

Commandments and Counsels (previous blogpost)

The Great Commandment – On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life V

In another way we love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength, if nothing in us is lacking to divine love, if there is nothing which we do not, actually or habitually, refer to God. And a precept is given concerning this divine love.

[In the last chapter, St. Thomas described the perfection of love by which the whole power of a creature's faculties were turned to God. In this chapter he describes a lesser degree of perfection, according to which everything is at least habitually, or in one's ultimate orientation, ordered to God. It sounds a bit like the theory of the "fundamental option," which maintains that choices of concrete individual acts cannot separate a person from God, that this is only a matter of one's fundamental orientation. But what is St. Thomas saying here? When a person is ordered to an end, that end remains the goal of all the particular things he does on the way to the end, even when he is not actually thinking about the end. For example, when a person sits down to write a letter to a friend, then even when his thoughts are occupied with the attempt to recall events of previous days, or with the attempt to spell a difficult word correctly, he is doing these things for the sake of his friend. Similarly, if the primary reason a person has a job is to support his family, this motivation is the implicit motivation of the various tasks he does in his job, even though he doesn't explicitly think of his family every moment.]

First, man should refer all things to God as his end, as the Apostle says: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Cor 10:31). One fulfills this when one orders his life to God's service, and thus all the things that he does for himself, he virtually orders to God, unless they are things that lead away from God, such as sins: thus man loves God with his whole heart.

[Everyone naturally seeks a single ultimate goal in the sense of seeking to be happy, and indeed, seeking to live a life of happiness. We do many things that we could not give a precise reason for, but we perceive in a vague manner that they are elements of a happy life. Thus everything we do is, in a sense, for ourselves, insofar as each action is thought to be some component of or necessary for a happy life, and is implicitly or explicitly desired as such. Now, "when one orders his life to God's service," the goal of a "happy life" is seen and desired in light of a more perfect end, namely the fulfillment of God's will (It is important to note that these are not two separate ends–The fulfillment of God's will is not separated from or contrary to being happy, but includes and realizes this happiness). Thus, whatever a man does, he "does for himself" inasmuch as he does it as part of the happy life he desires. And therefore, such a man "virtually orders to God" everything he does–at least, as long as, in acting, he does not implicitly reject his previous life's goal of being happy by fulfilling God's will. The man who is writing a letter to his friend, if he begins deliberately drafting his letter in a manner liable to harm his friend but help himself, is not writing those sentences for the sake of his friend, even if he doesn't consciously reject the goal of writing for his friend, but is only thinking about the profit he can somehow derive from the friendship. Similarly, a man who concretely does something that is not suited for growing in charity, but hinders it, is not doing that concrete action for the sake of God, even if he doesn't reject it. And if he does something that is simply incompatible with charity, he not only is not doing that concrete action for the sake of God, but is no longer even acting as a whole for the sake of God.]

[Since the primary affection of the soul is love, it is by love for the end, by charity, that all things are referred to God as the end. St. Thomas thus goes on explain how the various elements of human life (intellect, will, actions) are referred to God by charity, and how these various aspects can be understood in the commandment to love God "with the whole heart, mind, soul, and strength."]

Secondly, man should subject his intellect to God, believing those things that are divinely revealed, according to the Apostle: "taking understanding captivity, unto the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor 10:5). Thus man loves God with his whole mind.

[Insofar as the intellect, with respect to matters that are not seen as manifestly true or false, is subject to the will's influence, it shares in the movement of the will. Thus a man may be said to love God with his mind, or intellect, inasmuch as his motivation to believe is his friendship with God, his love for him, and inasmuch as his belief is an expression of this friendship.]

Thirdly, all the things a man loves, he should love in God, and universally refer all his affection to the love of God; hence the Apostle says "whether we be transported in mind it is to God, or whether we be sober, it is for you; for the charity of Christ presses us" (2 Cor. v. 13). Thus man loves God with his whole soul.

Fourthly, man should derive all his external works, words and deeds from divine love, according to the Apostle: "Let all your things be done in love" (1 Cor 16:14), and thus a man loves God with all his strength.

[To "refer all his affection to the love of God" and to "derive all his external works" is not to be understood in an explicit and conscious sense, which pertained to the previous kind of perfection of love, but in a general sense–possibly explicit, but at any rate implicit–as explained in the first point about referring all things to God as an end.]

This is, then, the third mode of perfect divine love, to which all are bound by the necessity of precept. But the second mode is not possible to anyone in this life, unless he is at the same time a wayfarer and an enjoyer of beatitude, as was our Lord Jesus Christ.

Love in Heaven – On The Perfection of the Spiritual Life IV

[St. Thomas beings to consider the various degrees of divine love possible to creatures. Having shown that only God can love God as much as he deserves to be loved, he concludes that the only mode of loving God perfectly that is possible for a rational creature, is that which is taken on the side of the one who loves, namely that the rational creature love God with his whole power; [and love that is perfect in this way is the love we are commanded to have] hence this is also expressed clearly in the precept of divine love. For it is said in Deut 6:5, "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole strength," and in Luke 10:27 it is added, "and with your whole mind"; heart may be referred to intention, mind to knowledge, soul to affection, strength to execution. For all these things are to be given over to the love of God. But it should be considered that this precept may be fulfilled in two ways. For since "whole" and "perfect" is that to which nothing is lacking, one loves God with the whole heart, soul, strength, and mind, if nothing of these fails to be actually turned wholly towards God. [Again a distinction regarding ways of being totally given over to love. In the fullest sense, to be totally given over to love means that at every moment, every power and act of ours is fully informed by love.]

This perfect mode of love does not belong to wayfarers, but only to those who enjoy beatitude. Hence the Apostle says, "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to lay hold of it" (Phil 3:12), as though expecting perfection when he laid hold of the palm of beatitude. But he does not take "laying hold" insofar as it implies comprehending or enclosing, for in this sense God may not be comprehended by any creature, but insofar as "laying hold" implies attaining that which one has followed and sought after. [As St. Paul remarks, we will only be truly perfect in heaven, while here we aim for that goal.] For in that heavenly beatitude the intellect and will of the rational creature shall always be borne actually towards God, since beatitude consists in the enjoyment of God, and beatitude does not consist in habit, but in act. And since the rational creature will cling to God, who is Supreme Truth, as its last end, and all things are referred in intention to the last end, and all things to be done are arranged according to the last end as according to a rule, it follows that in the perfection of beatitude the rational creature will love God with its whole heart, since its whole intention will be borne to God in all that it thinks, loves, or does; with its whole mind, since its mind will always be actually borne towards God, always seeing him, and judging all things and about all things in him and according to his truth; with its whole soul or its whole strength, since the love of God will be that which arranges all external acts. This is then the second mode of perfect divine love, which belongs to the blessed. [It is due to the imperfection of our human nature that after we decide to do something, and begin thinking about how to do it, we are no longer thinking as distinctly or vividly about the goal; similarly that when we are doing all the particular daily tasks of a life devoted to one's family, or ultimately, devoted to God, our heart is often turned to those tasks, being distracted either by enjoyment of them or by displeasure or annoyance from them. But since this is only from our weakness, not from an inherent contradiction in loving the person to whom we are devoted, and giving attention to the particular things we're doing at the moment, when God totally fills our mind and heart with his presence, as he will do in heaven ("the Lord God will be their light" {Rev 22:5}), then love for him will pervade each and every one of our particular thoughts and actions.]

God Alone Loves Perfectly – On the Perfection Of the Spiritual Life III

The Perfection of Love of God That Belongs to God Alone

[Having concluded that being perfect in the spiritual life means, first of all, loving God perfectly, and secondly, loving one's neighbor perfectly, St. Thomas will take up each of these in turn. And since perfection consists first of all in the love of God, he first takes up the love of God.]

In each love we find many degrees of perfection. With regard to the love of God, the first and supreme degree of perfection belongs to God alone. [Thomas immediately states the point to be established in this chapter, and will go to explain why it is true.] The mode of perfection is considered both on the side of the one who is loved, and of the one who loves: perfection in loving on the side of the one who is loved, means that he is loved as much as he is lovable; and on the side of the one who loves, perfection means that he loves a thing with his full power. [What does it mean to love a thing perfectly, or completely? Since loving is both a personal act, and has a specific object, we can speak of loving perfectly or completely inasmuch as the love is a personal act, or inasmuch as it is love for a specific object or person.] Now since everything is lovable to the degree that it is good, and God's goodness is infinite, he is infinitely lovable. But no creature can love infinitely, since no finite power can have an infinite act. Therefore God alone, who has as great a power of loving as his goodness is, can love himself perfectly as regards the first way of being perfect.

[In the first sense of loving perfectly, only God is a perfect lover of God; no mere human or angel can love God as much as God deserves love. God, being infinite goodness, deserves infinite love. But any created being, just as it has created and limited being, so it's power and act is limited. Therefore its act of love, even love for God, whom it loves above all else, is limited. God's love is infinite, as his goodness is–in fact God's love is really identical with his goodness.

This chapter is pretty straightforward, at least if we don't get into the question of love of self vs. love of others–whether, e.g., in notion the distinction of persons in the Trinity is essential in order for God's love for God to be the greatest love there is, as some have argued.]

Perfection of Love – On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life II

Perfection Is Found Both According to Love of God and Love of Our Neighbor

[Since to be alive spiritually means to love, Thomas concluded that to be perfect in the spiritual life means to be perfect in love. Here he continues to examine what kind(s) of love that is.]

Having considered that perfection consists primarily in regard to charity, it is clear in what the perfection of the spiritual life consists. For there are two precepts of charity, one pertaining to the love of God, the other to the love of neighbor. These two precepts have a certain order to each other, according to the order of charity. For what we should primarily love out of charity is the supreme good that makes us happy, namely God, while secondarily we should love our neighbor out of charity, with whom we are joined in a certain social bond, in the participation of happiness; hence we should love in our neighbor out of charity in reference to a mutual attainment of beatitude. [Thomas explains (1) that we should love God in the first place, and our neighbor in relation to God, and (2) why this is so, namely because God is the ultimate locus of union with our neighbor; by Christian love we love our neighbor in God and for God, and thus we love God primarily.] And the Lord showed this order of the precepts of charity in Mat 22:37-39, saying, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." [Thomas follows the analytical explanation of the primacy of love of God before love of neighbor with a reference to the definitive, revealed foundation of this doctrine.] Therefore the perfection of the spiritual life consists first and principally in the love of God; [Divine, spiritual love is first of all love of God; therefore perfection in spiritual life principally means perfection in love of God.] hence the Lord, speaking to Abraham, says, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be perfect" (Gen 17:1). We walk before God not by bodily steps, but by spiritual affections. [Again, he follows the analytical argument with a scriptural basis and illustration of the doctrine.] But secondarily the perfection of the spiritual life consists in the love of neighbor; hence the Lord, having said "Love your enemies," (Mat 5:44), and having added a number of other precepts pertaining to the love of neighbor, concluded by saying, "Be therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mat 5:48).

[Divine love, and therefore spiritual life, consists primarily in love of God, and secondarily in love of neighbor. This does not mean, however, that one could seek exclusively love of God, to the neglect of love of neighbor. First, because the love of charity is the love of friendship. To love God implies loving and willing what God loves and wills. This love of God is revealed to us in Christ, who came not to be served but to serve, to give his life for us. "We love, because he first loved us." So genuine love of God as a friend necessarily flows into love of neighbor. Secondly, because we are temporal, physical beings, who are related to other human beings, and if our love does not at all express itself in the temporal, physical order towards other human beings, it can scarcely be a genuine love. As St. John puts it, "he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen."]

What is Perfection – On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life I

I will be doing a series of posts commenting on the work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life by Thomas Aquinas (parallel to the posts on evolution, faith, and theology).


Since certain persons, knowing nothing about perfection, have presumed to speak follies concerning the state of perfection, our purpose is to treat of perfection: what it is to be perfect; how perfection is acquired; what is the state of perfection; and what befits those who take up this state.
[Here Aquinas states the occasion that led him to write this work, his aim in writing it, and what he will consider in the main parts of the work. The occasion of this work was various attacks made on the religious orders, on the religious vows as means of attaining perfection, and on the occupations which religious could lawfully undertake. His aim is to treat of perfection [of the spiritual life] generally, and descend from there to consider how one attains perfection, what are the stable states of life oriented in a special manner to perfection, which are therefore called "states of perfection", and what works a religious community may take up.]

Chapter 1
The Perfection of the Spiritual Life Simply Speaking is Found According to Charity

We must first consider that "perfect" is said in several ways. For something may be simply speaking perfect, or something may be called perfect in a certain respect. Something is simply speaking perfect when it attains to the end that belongs to it according to its proper nature, while something can be called perfect in a certain respect when it attains an end in regard to things accompanying its proper nature, as an animal is said to be perfect simply speaking, when it reaches the end that it lacks none of those things that constitute animal life: e.g., when it lacks nothing in number or disposition of its limbs, or the proper size of the body, or the power by which the activities of animal life are accomplished; an animal can be said to be perfect in a certain respect, however, if it is perfect in something that accompanies animal nature: e.g., if it is perfect in whiteness, or in odor, or something like this.
[Thomas's first aim is to establish what perfection is, what it means to be perfect. It is taken as a given, something understood as a matter of course, that the perfection which ultimately matters to a human and to a Christian, is spiritual perfection, being perfect in the spiritual life. But because the spiritual life, just like animal life, comprises many aspects–knowledge, decisions, attitudes, love, Thomas makes a general distinction about what it means to be perfect. A thing that has many aspects can be perfect in some particular aspect, but be lacking in other aspects, and perhaps more important ones. We cannot then say it is perfect, without qualifying our statement. Only when a thing is perfect in the respect that is most important or essential to it, can we say that it is perfect without needing to qualify ourselves (if we do qualify our statement, it will be to make explicit, perhaps, that there is some aspect of perfection that it is lacking; e.g., no matter how perfect a man's health is, it lacks the perfection of being incorruptible; he is able to die).]

Thus also a man is said to be simply speaking perfect in the spiritual life, with respect to that in which spiritual life primarily consists, while he can be called perfect in a certain respect, as regards anything that is connected with spiritual life. [Thomas notes that the general principle applies to the spiritual life; a man who is perfect in that which is essential to the spiritual life can be called perfect without adding a qualifier to "perfect".]

Now spiritual life consists primarily in charity, and he who does not have charity, is regarded as spiritually nothing. Hence the Apostle says, "If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor 13:2). Blessed John the Apostle also declares that the whole of spiritual life consists in love, saying, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death" (1 John 3:14). [The next step: to be alive spiritually means to share in the life of God, the God who "is love", and this share in God's life is attained in the love of God, in charity. The quotes Thomas chooses here seem to pertain immediately to love of neighbor, though ultimately it is the same gift of charity by which we love God and neighbor.]

Therefore, it is he who is perfect in charity who is simply speaking perfect in the spiritual life. [The primary conclusion of the chapter. "To be perfect" without qualification means to be perfect in charity.] But some can be called perfect in a certain respect, as regards anything connected with the spiritual life. [The other side of the conclusion: one can be perfect in other aspects of spiritual life, and then one is said to be perfect in a certain respect.]
This can also be clearly shown from the words of Holy Scripture. [The conclusion just drawn was based on Scripture, but attained in a more abstract way; here Thomas illustrates the truth more directly by Scripture.] For the Apostle in Col 3:14 attributes perfection primarily to charity: for having enumerated many virtues, such as compassion, benignity, and humility, he adds, "But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection" (Col 3:14). [Charity is the bond of perfection of all virtues, and so it is by charity that we are perfect in the most fundamental sense.] But some are also said to be perfect as regards understanding; for the same Apostle says, "Be babes in evil, but in sense be perfect." (1 Cor 14:20). Elsewhere in the same epistle, he says, "be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10), although as was said, no matter how perfect knowledge a man has, without charity he is to be judged as nothing. So also a man may be said to be perfect in patience, which "has a perfect work," as St. James says, and in any other virtues. [Having cited examples of Scripture using perfection in a qualified sense, even though such perfection without love is not really worth anything, Thomas proceeds to the most extreme examples, of "perfection" used in regard to something bad.] This need not be surprising, for someone may be perfect in a bad thing, as when one speaks of "a perfect thief" or "a perfect robber." And Scripture also sometimes speaks this way: for it is said, "the fool's heart heart will work iniquity to perfect hypocrisy” (Isa 32:6).