Seven Principles of the Spiritual Life

Fr. Thomas Bolin, O.S.B.

There can be no exhaustive account of the principles of the spiritual life, for there can be no such account in any practical matter, yet we can set down the following seven principles as possessing particular importance.

  1. To keep God in mind at all times.
  2. To trust in God as much as possible.
  3. To do all things for the love of God.
  4. Not to trust in oneself.
  5. Not to seek oneself.
  6. To do all things with joy.
  7. To be as energetic as possible.1

First Principle: To keep God in mind at all times

First, we should keep God in mind at all times. God is the ultimate end of all things, and in particular of our lives. In order to order ourselves to God as perfectly as possible, we must actually think of him as often as possible, since we aim more perfectly at an end that we are actually considering than at an end that we intend only virtually.

Second Principle: To trust in God as much as possible

Second, we must have perfect trust in God. God is the first efficient cause of all things, including our actions, and therefore we must put our trust in him as in the first cause. Confidence is one of St. Therese’s most fundamental attitudes: “In order to remain a little child, we must expect everything from our good Lord, as a child expects everything from his father, without worrying about anything.”2

This implies accepting all things as the will of God, and as a general rule, refraining from worry, anger, annoyance, and the like, insofar as they imply discontent with the world and with what happens in it. Everything that happens is either willed or permitted by God, and it should be accepted as such. This applies both to what happens to us and to what happens in general in the Church and in the world, since all things are equally guided by the providence of God. Thus St. Therese says, “I love Him so much that I am always satisfied with anything He sends me,” and again, “My heart is full of the will of God; so if anything else were poured over it, it could not even get in. I still remain in a state of peace that nothing can disturb.” Again, “The only happiness here below consists in always finding joy in whatever Jesus gives us.”

Nonetheless, this does not remove the need to repent and amend our lives when we do wrong. We should do this without being worried or depressed about our own failures. According to St. Therese, “to brood gloomily over our own imperfection paralyzes our soul.” Her faults even increase her confidence: “I entrust my infidelities to Jesus for, in my audacious abandonment to Him, I believe that I shall in this way gain greater power over His Heart and attract more fully the love of Him who came not to call the just but the sinners.”

Likewise, this does not imply that we should not set out to attain certain goals, even while knowing that simply speaking, God may not wish to bring about these goals. We can pursue the ends for which we are responsible without worrying about whether we will actually attain these ends, since their fulfillment depends on divine providence.

Trusting in God’s providence to guide our lives, we should not be too concerned about choices in matters that are not very important. Nor should we be quick to question choices that we have made, unless new reasons appear which show us that we made a mistake in our original choice.

Trusting in God does not mean merely resigning ourselves to what happens, but having a positive confidence that God always intends something good, and that he will bring it about. Regarding ourselves, we should trust that he intends to bring about our good and will do so if we cooperate. St. Therese says, “O Jesus, let me tell You, in my boundless gratitude, that Your love becomes truly folly. In the presence of such folly, how could I prevent my heart from trying to fly to You? How could I set limits to my confidence? What a pity that I am not able to reveal Your ineffable condescension to all little souls… I feel certain that if—though this is impossible—You found one soul that is more feeble and insignificant than mine, You would inundate it with even greater favors, provided that this soul would abandon itself with absolute confidence to Your infinite mercy.”

Nor is there a need to worry about whether we will in fact cooperate with God’s grace, since this too is God’s work—although again, this does not imply that we need make no effort of our own. Thus St. Therese does not even worry about her own progress: “I follow the way traced for me by Jesus… He wants me to practice abandonment, like a little child which does not worry about what others might do with him… I try to be no longer occupied with myself in anything and I abandon to Him whatever He wants to accomplish in my soul.” And again, “You do not need to know what the good Lord is doing in you; you are too little.”

Like our remembrance of God, our trust in God should be as actual as possible; as often as possible, we should actually consider the work of God’s providence in all the events of our lives, and we should actually trust in that providence.

Fourth Principle as a corollary to the Second: Not to trust in oneself

The second principle is intimately connected to the fourth, that we must not put trust in ourselves. Since our trust should be completely in God, we must not place it in anything else.

Accordingly, we should not be surprised at our imperfections, deficiencies and failures, but rather we should expect them, and trust in God to use them for good.

Nor should we worry about our past successes or failures, or whether or not we will succeed in attaining our future goals, but we should leave this in God’s hands.

Again, we must not aim at goals out of proportion with our condition. Thus St. Therese says, “Let us humbly take our place among the imperfect. Let us consider ourselves little and in need of God’s support at every instant. As soon as He sees that we are truly convinced of our nothingness, He extends His hand to us. If we are still trying to do something great, even under the pretext of zeal, our good Lord Jesus leaves us alone.”

Nor should we put trust in other human beings or in other created goods, whether money and other material possessions, or goods of other kinds. For when we trust in such things, we are using them as instruments and are in effect trusting in ourselves to attain the good by means of these instruments.3

Third Principle: To do all things for the love of God

We must act explicitly from the love of God as often as possible. Once again, God is the ultimate end, and we seek this end more perfectly when we do so more explicitly. This is why St. Therese says that “there is only one thing for us to do here below: to throw at Jesus’ feet the flowers of little sacrifices, to win Him through our caresses.”

This principle concerns not only the “little sacrifices” of which St. Therese speaks, but all of our acts insofar as they can be related to the love of God in some way. Insofar as something can be considered as the will of God, or as pleasing to God, or as leading ourselves or others to the knowledge and love of God, or as aiding us in the service of God, or as in any way relating to God as the final end, then it can be done explicitly from the love of God.

This also implies acting according to the love of neighbor, since what we do for our neighbor is done for God, according to the teaching of the Gospel that what we do “for the least of these” is done for Jesus. Thus, when we act for the good of our neighbor, we should consider that we are acting for God. As a general rule, if we have a choice between acting for our own good or for the good of our neighbor, it is better to act for the good of our neighbor, since in doing this we purify our intention and aim it more directly towards the common good and towards God.

We should also strive to give obedience to legitimate authorities of whatever kind. Since all authority is from God, obedience can be considered as fulfilling the will of God, and it should be actually considered as such. Thus St. Therese says, “How great and numerous the anxieties from which we free ourselves, when we take the vow of obedience! How happy are simple religious! Their only compass is the will of their superiors; hence, they are always certain of being on the right path. They need not fear to be mistaken even when it seems certain that the superiors are mistaken.”

For a like reason, we should try to give an analogous obedience to those who are not our superiors: when we do the will of another rather than our own will, we are acting according to love of neighbor, and therefore according to the love of God. As often as possible, then, we should do the will of another rather than our own will. Thus St. Therese says, “We must never refuse anyone, even when it costs us much pain. Think that it is Jesus who is asking this service of you; how eager and friendly you will then be in granting the favor requested.”

We should take a positive attitude, insofar as this is possible, toward suffering, humiliation, and in general the painful things of this life. Since these things come from God for the sake of something good, we should be happy to have the chance to prove our love for him by accepting these things. St. Therese comments, “Suffering is, of all the things God can give us, the best gift. He gives it only to His chosen friends.” She explains her attitude towards suffering: “I have always endeavored to love suffering and welcome it. When I suffer much, when painful, disagreeable things happen to me, instead of looking sad, I try to smile. I was not always successful in this at the start, but it has now become a habit. I have suffered much since I am on earth, but if, in my childhood, I suffered with sadness… I now suffer with joy and peace. I am truly happy to suffer.”

Acting for the love and service of God also implies taking advantage of all the concrete means that he has provided us for his service, namely the Church and the sacraments, devotion to the Blessed Virgin and to the saints, and the like. These means are not distinctly discussed here, not because they are less important, but because they are more easily known to all, being explicitly proposed by the Church.

Fifth Principle as a corollary to the Third: Not to seek oneself

Fifth, we should not seek ourselves, i.e. treat ourselves or our good as the final end. This is correlative to the third principle that we must act from the love of God as the final end. Along with the fourth principle, this principle implies acting according to the virtue of humility, and it also implies detachment from self and from creatures in general.

We must act according to humility because pride implies an inordinate attachment to self, which to one degree or another implies making ourselves the end. With respect to honor, for example, we must seek the honor of God, not our own honor. St. Therese goes even further, saying, “That they [others] find you imperfect is precisely what you need. That is a real blessing, for you can then practice humility which consists not only in thinking and saying that you are full of faults, but in rejoicing because others think and say the same thing about you.”

The perfection of this humility is not only in relation to God, but also in relation to others. We should consider the weakness, sinfulness, and nothingness of ourselves more than we should consider that of others, and likewise we should be more prone to attribute excellence and virtues to others than to ourselves.

Detachment from self and from creatures is needed because to the degree that our heart is attached to creatures, which are for the sake of the end, we are removed from the love of God, who is the end: “True love is found only in complete self-forgetfulness, and it is only after we have detached ourselves from every creature that we find Jesus.” Just as we should not be attached to ourselves or to our possessions, whether material or spiritual, so we should not be attached to other human beings: “Jesus alone; no one but Him. The grain of sand is so small. If it wished to put anyone besides Him in its heart, there would be no room for Jesus.”

Not seeking ourselves also implies self-denial. In other words, we should strive to deny ourselves those things to which we are inclined by self-love, and which are not particularly ordered to God or neighbor.

Sixth Principle: To do all things with joy

Sixth, we should be as joyful as possible. Joy is both a cause and an effect of living well in any kind of life, and so it is in the life of service to God. This is why St. Therese says, “Jesus loves a cheerful heart. He loves persons who are always smiling.” An action performed joyfully is performed more perfectly and is more in accord with charity towards God and towards our neighbor.

There are many ways to dispose ourselves to this joy. As St. Therese noted, smiles and cheerful laughter are one simple but very important way to do this. Such things not only dispose us to this joy, but they are an act of charity as well, since they also dispose our neighbor to the same joy.

Taking a positive viewpoint toward things is another very important way, and in fact this is also implied by the second principle regarding trust in God. To see the events of our lives as caused or permitted by God for a good end is already to take a positive attitude towards them. St. Therese says regarding this, “I always see the bright side of things. There are people who always take everything from the most painful point of view. I do just the opposite. If I am faced with pure suffering; when heaven is so black that there is no bright spot to be seen anywhere, I then make that itself a source of joy.” Even apart from the particular application of trust in God, there are always various aspects to events, and we should consider the positive aspects rather than the negative ones, insofar as this is possible. For example, in addition to charity, this is a secondary reason to think well of others; St. Therese remarks, “There is nothing sweeter than to think well of one’s neighbor.”

Contemplation is also very important in maintaining our joy. This can be seen in St. Thomas’s explanation of how one should resist the temptation to acedia.4 “Sin should always be fled from, but the temptation to sin sometimes should be conquered by fleeing, sometimes by resisting. It should be conquered by fleeing when continued thought increases the incentive to sin, as in the case of sexual sin, whence it is said in 1 Cor. 6, ‘Flee fornication.’ It should be conquered by resisting when persevering thought takes away an incentive to sin which comes from some light apprehension. And this happens in acedia, since to the degree that we think more about spiritual goods, they become more pleasing to us, and thus acedia goes away” (ST. II-II q.35, a.1, ad. 4).

Seventh Principle: To be as energetic as possible

Seventh, we must be as energetic as possible. This pertains to the perfection of action considered in itself. An action which is performed with greater intensity is performed more perfectly. It is humanly impossible to act continuously with the greatest possible intensity, and so we should often deliberately renew the intensity of our action, just as a runner in a marathon might repeatedly renew the intensity of his running in order to avoid slowing down. St. Therese states, “Many perform their actions in a careless or nonchalant way; few fulfill their duties as perfectly as possible.” The formal perfection of our actions is most important, but this also implies a certain degree of material perfection, insofar as this is often a consequence of formal perfection. It is natural that one who cares about his action should perform it more perfectly, even materially, than one who does not so care.

The natural causes of energy are one’s motive and one’s joy in an activity, and thus the third and the sixth principles are closely associated with this principle. It is possible and desirable, when lacking in energy, deliberately to renew the intensity of our action, but it is also important to take care with respect to the third and sixth principle.

Without excluding other times, particular occasions for renewing the strength of our intention for spiritual things are the time upon waking and before going to sleep, when making an examination of conscience, and in addition, some form of retreat at least once a year. Confession is also an important help.

Difficulty is a natural impediment to energy, but St. Therese suggests using the difficulty itself as an opportunity: “What great grace is ours when, in the morning, we seem to be filled with lassitude and to lack both courage and strength to practice virtue! Then is the ideal moment to put the axe to the root of the tree, though our effort may lag for a few moments and we may neglect to gather our treasures. This is the critical moment, for we may be tempted to give up everything.” By viewing the difficulty as an opportunity for meritorious action and as a challenge to be overcome, the difficulty itself can become a reason for the intensity of our action, just as the runner might increase his pace when he sees others beginning to pass him. Another text from St. Therese illustrates this in conjunction with the third principle: “St. Teresa of Avila says that we must keep the fire of our love going. We have no wood when we are in the state of aridity and darkness, but must we not at least cast in a few small straws? Surely Jesus can keep that fire going all by Himself! Nevertheless, He likes to see us feeding it a little. Such a gesture gives Him pleasure. He then throws in much wood. We don’t see it but we feel the vehement heat of love. This I have personally experienced; when I am as it were without feeling, seem unable to pray or practice virtue, that is the time when I must look around for little opportunities, for ‘nothings’ which please Jesus more than if I gave Him complete dominion over the world, or suffered martyrdom; for example a smile, a kind word, when I would prefer to say nothing or might wish to show a sad countenance… And when I see no opportunities for such things, I at least wish to tell Him repeatedly that I love Him. Even if it seemed to me that the fire of love had gone out, I still would want to cast something in it, and I know for sure that Jesus would revive it.”

Regularity is often another natural impediment to energy, since we have a tendency to do things simply out of habit, without much intensity or much actual intention of the end. Like difficulty, regularity should be used as an opportunity. For if we find ourselves performing an action simply out of habit, we can use this as a chance to renew our intention and the intensity of the action. If there is little or no regularity in our life, on the other hand, this opportunity may not arise, since as the intensity of our action weakens, we may be tempted to cease from action entirely. This is why it is said that hermits are especially subject to the temptation of acedia. St. Therese therefore strongly emphasizes the importance of regularity. “Even if all were to fail in the observance of the rule, that would not be a reason for justifying ourselves.” Again, she says, “If only we knew the value of regularity!” As another example, she says regarding the time set aside for lectio divina, “The hours set apart by the Constitutions are God’s own time, and it is not right to rob Him of it.”

The counsels as means to the perfect practice of these principles

All seven principles can be practiced by all, but St. Thomas suggests that the counsels are ordered to putting these things most perfectly into practice. “Even though the perfection of the blessed is not possible to us in this life, we ought to imitate it so that we might bring ourselves to the likeness of that perfection, insofar as this is possible: and in this consists the perfection of this life to which we are invited by the counsels. For it is manifest that the human heart is more intensely directed toward something one, to the degree that it is withdrawn from many. Thus the soul of a man is directed to loving God more perfectly to the degree that it is removed from affection for temporal things… Thus all the counsels by which we are invited to perfection pertain to this, that the soul of a man might be turned away from affection for temporal things, and so the mind might more freely tend to God, by contemplating, loving, and fulfilling his will” (De Perfectione Spiritualis Vitae c.6). The first three principles are implied in the words, “so the mind might more freely tend to God.” The fourth and fifth principles are implied in the removal of affection for temporal things. The sixth and seventh principles could be said to be implied in the comparison with the life of blessed. In sum, we should act from the actual knowledge and love of God and with actual trust in him, while consequently refraining from inordinate trust in self and love of self, as continuously, energetically, and as joyfully as possible.

Even in this life, then, to the degree that this is possible, we shall share in that perfection in which “the rational creature will love God with its whole heart, when its whole intention will be focused on God with respect to all the things which it thinks, loves, or does; with its whole mind, when its mind is always actually focused on God, always seeing him and all things in him, and judging all things according to his truth; with its whole soul, when its whole affection is continuously focused on loving God, and all things will be loved on account of him; with its whole strength or with all its powers, when the reason for all external actions will be the love of God” (De Perfectione Spiritualis Vitae c.4).

Appendix: The division and order of the principles

Given the practical purpose of this essay, we did not discuss the division and order of the principles, which is primarily a speculative matter. The seven principles can be divided into two kinds, namely into principles mainly concerned with God, and principles mainly concerned with ourselves.

The principles concerned with God are divided into two. The first principle, keeping God in mind, concerns the relation of our mind to God, while the second and third concern the relation of our will to God. The second, trusting in God, concerns our relation to God insofar as he is the first efficient cause, and the third, the love of God, concerns our relation to God as the ultimate end.

The principles concerned with ourselves can be divided into three. The fourth principle, not to trust ourselves, concerns us insofar as we are not the first cause. The fifth, not to seek ourselves, concerns us insofar as we are not the final cause. The sixth and seventh principles concern the formal perfection of our action. This formal perfection itself has a formal aspect, joy, and a material aspect, energy. There is no single general principle relating to the material perfection of our action, because this perfection involves the right ordering of our passions and actions in detail, and thus it is beyond the scope of a single principle.

Thus the order of the principles is clear. The first three principles, namely, knowledge, trust, and love of God, are of the greatest importance. The fourth and fifth principles, humility and detachment from self, follow from trust and love of God. Lastly, joy and energy must be added to bring the others to perfection.

1 For this list special acknowledgements are due to St. Therese of the Child Jesus, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Joseph Bolin.

2 Quotations from St. Therese are from Complete Spiritual Doctrine of St. Therese of Lisieux, by Rev. Francois Jamart, O.C.D.

3 This fourth principle is not intended to deny that that we should have a reasonable self-confidence, nor that we can trust our friends in the way proper to friendship, but refers to an excess which would subtract from the absolute trust which is due to God. In fact, by putting our trust completely in God, it becomes easier to maintain a reasonable self-confidence and a reasonable trust in our friends, since we realize that all of us are human and sometimes fail, but that this cannot happen without God’s permitting it.

4 Acedia is sadness about spiritual goods; thus to resist the temptation to acedia is to attempt to preserve one’s joy in spiritual goods.

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