Path of Perfection

Author: St. Louis de Montfort




I. Introduction. II. Meaning of perfection: 1. Philosophical notion; 2. Biblical teaching; 3. Theological conclusions. III. Nature of Christian perfection: 1. Sanctifying grace; 2. The supernatural organism; 3. The love that is charity.


In order to understand fully the Montfort path to perfection outlined in this Handbook, especially in the article Montfort Spirituality, it is necessary to have a good grasp of the theology of Christian perfection and the various roads that lead to the perfection of charity. Thanks in great part to the Second Vatican Council, and especially its document LG, devout Christians from every walk of life are aware of their obligation to strive for the perfection of charity.1 The people of God are supposed to be the holy people of God. In fact, throughout the twentieth century, the Church has been blessed with theologians and saints who have reminded the faithful of their lofty vocation as Christians. It suffices to recall the teaching and influence of St. Thérèse de Lisieux, Blessed Elizabeth of the Trinity, St. Maximilian Kolbe, Dom Columba Marmion, Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, John Arintero, Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalene, Thomas Merton, and Joseph de Guibert.

These persons and numerous others prepared the way for the profound renewal of the Church that was eagerly awaited when Pope John XXIII summoned the bishops from all over the world to the Second Vatican Council in 1961. A fundamental doctrine that has been repeated again and again since the close of the council is the teaching of Christ himself: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). St. Paul could therefore write to the Thessalonians: "This is the will of God, your sanctification" (I Thess 4:3).

The Church, whose mystery is set forth by this sacred council, is held, as a matter of faith, to be unfailingly holy. This holiness of the Church is constantly shown forth in the fruits of grace that the Spirit produces in the faithful, and so it must be; it is expressed in many ways by the individuals who, each in his or her own state of life, tend to the perfection of love, thus sanctifying others. It is therefore quite clear that all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of love. The forms and tasks of life are many but holiness is one. Each one, however, according to his own gifts and duties, must steadfastly advance along the way of a living faith, which arouses hope and works through love.2

Running parallel to the efforts at renewal and aggiornamento of the Church is the rediscovery of the saints. The saints and mystics are key figures in the life of the Church. They can show the rest of the faithful what it means to be an authentic disciple of Christ. Chosen by God from every walk of life, they are living proof that holiness is not restricted to an elite class in the Church. This is the same doctrine that was taught by the Venerable Louis of Granada, OP, in the sixteenth century and by St. Francis de Sales in the seventeenth century. These two authors addressed their writings specifically to the laity.

Bishop Christoph Schonborn, OP, the general editor of CCC, has stated: "What is unusual for this kind of document [the Catechism] are the many references to the testimony of saintly men and women. The saints alone are sufficiently universal, Catholic, to speak to everyone in words that are born of the light and truth of faith. How could one doubt that the words of a St. Catherine of Siena, a St. Teresa of Avila or the "Little Flower" will have the power to cross all cultural and human boundaries to tell everyone, in a language impassioned by the love of Christ, the ancient and ever new truths of the Good News of Christ?"3

It is precisely in this context that we are to understand the teaching of Saint Louis Marie de Montfort on the stages in the path of perfection. As is well known, the path to perfection is for Montfort a Marian path; Mary is present throughout the entire journey to guide the soul and lead it to a full sharing in the mystery of Christ, and through him to the Trinity.

If, as Bishop Schonborn has stated, the saints are sufficiently universal to cross all cultural boundaries in order to bring to the faithful the Good News of Christ, how much more can his mother Mary do so. Saint Louis Marie stated this truth in the very first sentence of TD: "It was through the blessed Virgin Mary that Jesus Christ came into the world, and it is also through her that he must reign in the world" (TD 1). This is a pivotal principle in Montfort’s description of the path that leads to perfection, and it constitutes one of the distinctive elements of his spirituality.


Before we can discuss the stages of growth on the path to perfection and the means that must be used in order to reach the goal, we must first define what we mean by the term "perfection." We look first at the meaning of the words used in this context, that is, the etymological definition. Our English words "perfection" and "perfect" come from the Latin verb perficere which means "to make completely or to bring to completion." Hence, that is perfect which is complete or finished; it lacks nothing that is proper to its nature. At the risk of being too technical for those who are not trained in philosophy or of seeming to go into great detail unnecessarily, we must nevertheless not only define our terms but make necessary distinctions. Only in that way can we obtain a clear understanding of the theology of Christian perfection and the means for attaining it.

1. Philosophical notion

As we have stated, a thing is perfect when it has all the being, all the reality, that is due to it in accordance with its nature. For example, a newborn baby is said to be physically perfect if it is in good health and has all the vital powers due to an infant; a blind man is physically imperfect because he lacks the use of a faculty that is due to a human being; but it is not an imperfection if a human person lacks wings, because flying is not an activity proper to humans.

We say that the very word "perfection" is an analogous term, which means that it can be applied to a variety of things but not with precisely the same meaning in each case. For example, there are differences in the meanings of the word "perfection" when applied to God, to a human being, to a thoroughbred horse, and to a Parisian croissant. Each one may be perfect in its class or genus, but there is a vast difference when they are all listed in the hierarchy of being. The result is that when we use these analogous terms, we are saying that various objects are partly the same and partly different. To speak precisely and correctly in theology, it is absolutely essential to know how to use analogous terms.

Further distinctions must be made when we try to classify the three types of perfection: a) when a being is integrally whole and entire in accordance with its specific nature (perfection in esse); b) when it has all the faculties, parts, or powers necessary for proper functioning, e.g., a living organism or a machine (perfection in operatione); and c) when it attains its proper goal or achieves its purpose (perfection in assecutione finis).4

The first type of perfection is also called substantial perfection, and in this sense, everything that exists is perfect to the extent that it exists. The other two types of perfection are something over and above substantial perfection: either as a perfection in operation or functioning (e.g., the perfection of a violinist playing at a concert) or the perfection that results from attaining one’s goal (e.g., the perfection represented by graduation from a university or being awarded the gold medal at the Olympics).

All that we have said about perfection thus far pertains to the purely natural order, and it is within the scope of unaided human reason and observation. Nevertheless, the wisdom of the pagan philosophers has been a great boon in the development of theology and has helped Christians to give a reason and sometimes a defense for their faith.

2. Biblical teaching

When we turn to Sacred Scripture, we find numerous references to perfection. First of all, we praise and adore the perfection of God, for He transcends every human and angelic perfection to an infinite degree. It was this awareness of God’s transcendence that fostered the apophatic theology of pseudo-Dionysius and likewise produced the abstract spirituality of the early French school.

God’s essence is existence; his name is Yahweh, "I am who am" (Ex 3:14). The philosophers interpret this by saying that God is Pure Act and contains in Himself all possible perfections. More than that, He is the source of all perfections; it is only because of God’s perfection that we can attribute perfection to any creature. This is part of what is meant when the theologian says that God is the First Cause uncaused.5

The OT speaks of God’s sanctity or holiness rather than his perfection. The reason is that God is of a completely different order than the things of this world, and His attributes far transcend anything we can comprehend. Can we say that they spoke this way because they did not understand the use of analogy? Whatever the reason, the OT writers speak of the perfection of God’s creation and the perfection of His Law, but they do not apply the word to God.

When God chose a people as His own, however, He commanded them to be holy. "Be holy, for I am holy" (Lev 11:45); "Walk in my presence and be perfect" (Gen 17:1)." Yahweh must be served "with a perfect heart" (1 Kings 8:61). The holiness of God’s chosen people was found in their observance of the Law: "Happy, perfect in their way, are those who walk in the Law of Yahweh" (Ps 119).

In the NT, Jesus reveals that the most holy God is our Father and a God of love. He challenges his followers to "be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mt 5:48). But their perfection is to be measured not only by obedience to the Law but by obedience to the "new commandment" of Christ. The children of God are commanded to strive for the perfection of love, love of God and love of neighbor. In this regard, they are to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, meek and humble of heart (cf. Lk 9:23; Mt 11:29).

3. Theological conclusions

If now we subject the three types of philosophical perfection to theological analysis, we can identify them as follows: substantial perfection (in esse) is sanctifying grace, which is the very soul of the supernatural life and the basis of our status as children of God. Without sanctifying grace, a person is spiritually dead and can do nothing of supernatural merit. Functional or operational perfection (in operatione) is the virtue of charity, because love is the springboard of all our actions, even on the purely natural level. On the spiritual level, we have the statement attributed to St. Augustine: "Love God, and do what you will, you won’t sin." Finally, perfection in reaching the goal (in assecutione finis) is likewise charity, but there is a twofold application here. The goal in this life, in view of our call to holiness, is the perfection of charity; the goal in eternity, in the glory of the beatific vision, is to love the Lord our God with the totality of our being. Let us now discuss briefly the important conclusions that follow from these theological statements.6

a. Christian perfection consists primarily in charity.

Christ taught that the most important precept is the precept of charity (Mt 22:35-40; Mk 12:28-31), and St. Paul’s teaching on charity is explicit and abundant. For example: "But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection" (Col 3:14); "Love is the fulfillment of the Law" (Rom 13:10); "So there abide faith, hope and charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity" (1 Cor 13:13). In the papal bull Ad conditorem, Pope John XXII stated explicitly that "the perfection of the Christian life consists principally and essentially in charity."

This does not mean that the other virtues, such as faith and hope and the moral virtues, are not essential to Christian perfection and sanctity. It simply means, as St. Paul teaches, that without charity we are nothing, but with charity we reach the fullness of Christian perfection, and this requires the practice of the other virtues proper to our state in life.

b. Christian perfection increases in the measure that one’s love is more intense and inspires the acts of the other virtues.

There are two parts to this conclusion. First of all, we say that the individual is more perfect and holy if one’s acts of love are more intense. Jesus commanded his followers to love the Lord their God with their whole heart and soul, mind and strength; that constitutes perfection. Secondly, an ardent love will prompt one to practice the other virtues as well as charity, and especially those pertaining to one’s state of life. Nevertheless, as St. John of the Cross has stated, in the evening of life we shall be judged by love. Hence, it is not what we do that makes us holy but the love with which we do it.

c. All Christians are obliged to strive for the perfection of charity.

The fundamental obligation stems from the very nature of sanctifying grace, which is meant to increase in us, and from the commitment made at our Baptism in Christ. St. Paul says that we must struggle until we attain "to the mature measure of the fullness of Christ" (Eph 4:13). He also tells us: "This is the will of God, your sanctification" (1 Thess 4:3). Finally, Pope Pius XI stated in his encyclical on St. Francis de Sales: "Let no one think that this obligation pertains only to a select few and that all others are permitted to remain in an inferior grade of virtue. They are all obliged to this law, absolutely and without exception."7


Having seen the meaning of perfection in general and the obligation of all baptized Christians to strive for the perfection of charity, we now ask what constitutes Christian perfection. We have already referred in passing to sanctifying grace and the virtue of charity because they are key elements in the life of the spirit. Without them, there can be no supernatural life in the soul and consequently no growth in the spiritual life.

1. Sanctifying grace

There is nothing in our fallen human nature that can lay a claim to the supernatural life; it is a gift that God gives us through the sanctifying grace received at our Baptism in Christ. Indeed, sanctifying grace is the very soul of our spiritual life and the basis of any merit we have before God. It is also our passport to heaven and the Beatific Vision, but even here on earth, says St. Peter, sanctifying grace makes us "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). Consequently, St. Thomas Aquinas has stated that the minimum degree of sanctifying grace in a soul is greater than the good of the entire universe.8

The truth of this statement becomes evident when we consider the effects of sanctifying grace, which are beautifully summarized by St. Paul: "You have received a spirit of adoption as sons, by virtue of which we cry: Abba! Father! The Spirit himself gives testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God. But if we are sons, we are heirs also: heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ" (Rom 8:15-17).

The first effect of grace is to elevate us to the supernatural order, as we have seen. The three effects listed by St. Paul hold a place of eminence: through sanctifying grace we become adopted children of God, heirs of the kingdom of heaven and co-heirs with Christ our Brother. St. Augustine states that whoever says "our Father" to the Father of Christ calls Christ Brother.9 As a result of the soul’s intimate union with God through grace, it is justified and made pleasing to God; in addition, St. Paul tells us: "You are the temple of the living God" (2 Cor 6:16). What does this mean except that the entire Trinity dwells in the soul that is justified by the reception of sanctifying grace? And thus the promise of Christ is fulfilled: "If anyone love me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our abode with him" (Jn 13:23).

2. The supernatural organism

here is a remarkable similarity between the natural human structure and what we call the supernatural organism. In the natural order, the human soul, which is spiritual, is the principle and source of human life and activity. Nevertheless, it is not immediately operative; it functions through the spiritual powers of intellect and will. Similarly, sanctifying grace is the principle and source of our supernatural life and activity, but it functions through the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. All these powers are given to the Christian with the first infusion of sanctifying grace, received at Baptism. Thus we read in CCC: "The grace of Christ is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is the sanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism. It is in us the source of the work of sanctification" (no. 1999).

"Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God’s help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good" (no. 1810).

"The moral life of Christians is sustained by the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These are permanent dispositions which make man docile in following the promptings of the Holy Spirit. . . . They complete and perfect the virtues of those who receive them. They make the faithful docile in readily obeying divine inspirations" (nos. 1830, 1831).10

St. Thomas Aquinas says: "It is not fitting that God should provide less for those he loves that they may acquire supernatural good, than for creatures whom he loves that they may acquire natural good."11 Indeed, by their very nature, grace and the infused virtues are meant to increase, even to perfection. Hence, from the moment of Baptism, every Christian is called to be holy and to strive for the perfection of charity.

Not only that, but even a newly baptized infant already has all the spiritual faculties and powers it needs to attain to the perfection of the Christian life, just as any healthy infant already has the potentiality to become an integrated adult person. That is why theologians and spiritual directors insist on the necessity of cooperating with the graces received. There is an excellent reminder attributed to St. Augustine, to the effect that the God who created us without our help will not save us without our help.

We cooperate with grace by performing the works of virtue: the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the moral virtues of justice, temperance, prudence, and fortitude that pertain to our state of life. With the repetition of the acts of virtue, the individual gains facility in their use and the habit of virtue becomes, as it were, a second nature. On the other hand, if a person ceases to perform virtuous actions or does so but rarely, it becomes very difficult for that person to live the Christian life.

If, however, the acts of virtue are sufficiently perfected, the individual is then disposed to be acted upon by the Holy Spirit. This involves the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which constitutes mystical activity because it is no longer under the control of the individual; it is the work of the Holy Spirit. The soul is docile, passive, and receptive; it is led by the Spirit.

From what has been said, it should be evident that the perfection to which all are called is a "mystical" perfection. Therefore, we cannot label mystical experience and activity as something "extraordinary" or put mysticism in the class of charismatic graces (gratiae gratis datae). The supernatural life of grace is meant to increase in us even to the "plenitude of Christ." The seven gifts of the Holy Spirit are given to us together with the sanctifying grace received at Baptism; they are not meant to lie dormant but to be activated by the power of the Holy Spirit. The fact that the majority of Christians do not seem to reach this state of perfection in this life does not negate the fact that all are called to the perfection of charity.

3. The love that is charity

Having seen the elements of the supernatural organism—sanctifying grace, the supernatural virtues, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit—which are given to every soul in the state of grace, we are now in a position to consider the virtue of charity and its role in the spiritual life. We already drew some conclusions concerning charity when we discussed the meaning of perfection; now we must ask precisely what kind of love is charity.

The reason for asking the question should be apparent: love operates on various levels of the human psyche. Saint Louis Marie de Montfort makes the following distinctions when treating of love: "There are three kinds of love: emotional love, rational love, and the supernatural love of faith. In other words, the love that resides in the lower part of man, in his body; the love in the higher part, his reason; and the love in the highest part of man, in the summit of the soul, that is, the intelligence enlightened by faith" (FC 50).12

It is crucial for the devout Christian striving for the perfection of charity to be correctly informed on the precise nature of the love that is charity. The simplest way to answer the question is to state, with St. Thomas Aquinas, that the theological virtue of charity is "friendship."13 What he means is that this infused supernatural virtue operates through a type of love that constitutes friendship, a love that wishes well to another person. It is a mutual benevolent love. Now, it is in this context that Jesus said to his Apostles: "I have not called you servants, but friends" (Jn 15:15). Therefore, the love that is the bond of this relationship and communication of friendship is the love that is charity.

The friendship love that is charity is not only a virtue; it is the most excellent of all the virtues, as St. Paul says: "So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13:13). In fact, there can be no perfect Christian virtue without charity, as St. Paul also teaches: "If I should distribute all my goods to the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profits me nothing" (1 Cor 13:3).

Since charity is love, and love is the source of all our actions, whatever the Christian does should be motivated by charity. The greatest challenge and the most common source of failure is in the area of self- centered love. Our fallen human nature is so prone to seek self that St. Alphonsus Liguori is reputed to have said that the struggle against selfish love does not end until a few hours after death. That is why spiritual writers constantly urge the practice of self-denial, even to the point of self-annihilation. The justification of such severe asceticism is found in the command of God Himself: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength" (Deut 6:5). And there is no terminus or limit to our love of God because, as St. Augustine taught, God gives us the grace to love Him, and when we love Him, He gives us the grace to love Him more.

J. Aumann

Notes: (1) Cf. Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, in Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post-Conciliar Documents, ed. A. Flannery, Costello, Northport, N.Y. 1975, 396. (2) See ibid., 396-398, passim. (3) Christoph Schonborn, OP, The Divine Economy Interwoven through New Catechetical Work, in Reflections on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, ed. J. P. Socias, Midwest Theological Forum, Chicago 1993, 83. (4) Cf. Summa Theologiae I, q. 6, a. 3. (5) Cf. ibid., q. 20, aa. 1- 3. (6) For a more detailed explanation, cf. A. Royo and J. Aumann, The Theology of Christian Perfection, Priory Press, Dubuque 1962, 121- 155. (7) Pope Pius XI, Rerum omnium, January 16, 1923, AAS, vol. 15, p. 50. (8) Cf. Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 113, a. 9, ad 2. (9) St. Augustine, In Joannem, PL 35:1565. (10) See CCC 484, 445, 450. (11) Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 110, a. 2. (12) Cf. FC 50. Some contemporary theologians and psychologists offer a slightly different classification: natural or instinctual love; emotional or psychic love; rational love (which can be concupiscible or benevolent); and the generous, friendship love that is charity, a supernatural infused virtue. (13) See Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 23, a. 1.

Taken from: Jesus Living in Mary: Handbook of the Spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort (Litchfield, CT: Montfort Publications, 1994).

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