THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
A TREATISE ON ASCETICAL AND MYSTICAL THEOLOGY
by the Very Reverend Adolphe Tanquerey, S.S., D.D.
It is the perfection of the Christian life that constitutes the
proper object of ascetical and mystical Theology.
#1. A God of all goodness vouchsafed to give us not only the natural
life of the soul, but also a supernatural life,-- the life of grace.
This latter is a sharing of God's very life, as we have shown in our
treatise De gratia.2 Because this life was given us through the
merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and because He is its most perfect
exemplary cause, we call it rightly the Christian life.
All life must needs be perfected, and it is perfected by pursuing its
end. Absolute perfection means the actual attainment of that end.
This we shall attain only in Heaven. There, through the Beatific
Vision and pure love, we shall possess God, and our life will have
its complete development. Then we shall be like unto God, "because we
shall see him as he is."3
Here on earth. however, the perfection we can reach is only relative.
This we attain by ever striving after that intimate union with God
that fits us for the Beatific Vision. The present treatise deals with
this relative perfection. After an exposition of general principles
on the nature of the Christian life, its perfection, the obligation
of striving after it, and the general means of arriving thereat, we
shall describe the three ways, purgative, illuminative and unitive,
along which must go all generous souls thirsting for spiritual
n1. TH. DL VALLGORNERA, O. P., "Mystica Theologia D. Thomae" t. I q.
I; E. DUBLANCHY, "Ascetique" in "Dict. de Theol.," t. I col.
2038-2046; HOGAN, "Clerical Studies," ch. Vl, art. I, SCANNELL, "The
Priests Studies," ch. Vl,
n2. This treatise is found in our "Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae," t. III.
n3. "I John III, 2: " Similes ei erimus quoniam videbimus eum sicuti est."
#2. First, however, some preliminary questions must be made clear in
a short introduction.
In it we shall treat five questions:
1. The Nature of Ascetical Theology;
11. Its Sources,
111. Its Method;
IV. Its Excellence and Necessity;
V. Its Division.
I. The Nature of Ascetical Theology
In order to show exactly what Ascetical Theology is, we shall
explain: (1) The chief names given to it; (2) Its relation to the
other theological sciences; (3) Its relation, both with Dogma and
Moral; (4) The distinction between Ascetical and Mystical Theology.
I. ITS DIFFERENT NAMES
#3. Ascetical Theology goes by different names.
a) It is called the science of the Saints, and rightly so, because it
comes to us from the Saints, who have taught it more by their life
than by word of mouth. Moreover, ascetical theology is calculated to
make saints, for it explains to us what sanctity is, and what the
means are of arriving at it.
b) Some have called it spiritual science, because it forms spiritual
men, that is to say, men of interior life, animated by God's own
c) Others have called it the art of perfection, for it is really a
practical science, having for its goal to lead souls to Christian
perfection. Again, they have called it The Art of Arts. And indeed,
the highest art is that of perfecting the soul's noblest life, its
d) However, the name most commonly given to it to-day is that of
Ascetical and Mystical Theology.
1) The word " ascetical" comes from the Greek "askesis" (exercise,
effort) and means any arduous task connected with man's education,
physical or moral. Christian perfection, then, implies those efforts
that St. Paul himself compares to the training undergone by athletes
with the purpose of obtaining the victory.1 It was, therefore,
natural to designate by the name of asceticism the efforts of the
Christian soul struggling to acquire perfection. This is what Clement
of Alexandria and Origen did, and, after them, a great number of the
Fathers. It is not surprising, then, that this name of asceticism is
given to the science that deals with the efforts necessary to the
acquisition of Christian perfection.
2) Yet, during many centuries the name that prevailed in designating
this science was that of Mystical Theology ("mustes" mysterious,
secret, and especially a religious secret) because it laid open the
secrets of perfection. Later a time arrived when these two words were
used in one and the same sense, but the usage that finally obtained
was that of restricting the name asceticism to that part of the
spiritual science that treats of the first degrees of perfection up
to the threshold of contemplation, and the name of mysticism to that
other part which deals with infused or passive contemplation. Be
that as it may, it follows from all these notions that the science we
are dealing with, is indeed the science of Christian perfection. This
fact allows us to give it a place in the general scheme of Theology.
n1. "I Cor., IX, 24-27; "Ephes.," VI, 11-16; "I Tim.," IV, 7-8.
II. ITS PLACE IN THEOLOGY
#4. No one has made more clear the organic unity that holds all
through the science of Theology than did St. Thomas. He divides his
Summa into three parts. In the first, he treats of God as the First
principle. He studies Him in Himself, in the Oneness of His nature,
in the Trinity of His Persons, in the works of His creation preserved
and governed by His Providence. In the second part, He deals with God
as the Last End. Towards Him men must go by performing their actions
for Him under the guidance of the law and the impulse of grace, by
practicing the theological and the moral virtues, and by fulfilling
the duties peculiar to their state of life. The third part shows us
the Incarnate Word making Himself our way whereby we may go to God,
and instituting the Sacraments to communicate to us His grace unto
In this plan, ascetical and mystical theology belongs to the second
part of the Summa, with dependence however on the other two parts.
#5. Later theologians, without setting aside this organic unity of
Theology, have divided it into three parts, Dogmatic, Moral and
a) Dogma teaches us what we must believe of God: His divine life, the
share in it which He has willed to communicate to intelligent
creatures, specially to man, the forfeiting of this divine life by
original sin, its restoration by the Word-made-flesh, the action of
that life on the regenerated soul, its diffusion through the
Sacraments, and its completion in Heaven.
b) Moral theology shows us how we must respond to this love of God by
cultivating the divine life He made us share. It shows us how we must
shun sin, practice the virtues, and fulfill those duties of state to
which we are strictly bound.
c) Yet, if we wish to perfect that life, desiring to go beyond what
is of strict obligation, and wish to advance systematically in the
practice of virtue, it is to Ascetical theology that we must turn.
III. ITS RELATIONS WITH MORAL AND DOGMATIC THEOLOGY
#6. Ascetical theology is a part of the Christian Life. In truth, it
is its most noble part, for its purpose is to make us perfect
Christians. Although it has become a special, distinct part of
Theology, it holds the closest relations both with Dogma and Moral.
(1) Its foundation in Dogma. When describing the nature of the
Christian life, it is from Dogma that we seek light. This life being
actually a participation in God's life, we must soar up to the
Blessed Trinity itself. There we must find its principle and source,
see how it was bestowed on our first parents, lost through their
fall, and given back by the Redeeming Christ.
There we must see its organism its action in our soul, the mysterious
channels through which it comes and grows, and how it is finally
transformed into the Beatific Vision in Heaven.
All these questions are indeed treated in Dogmatic Theology. But if
these truths are not set down once more in a short and clear
synthesis, Asceticism will seem to be devoid of all foundation. We
shall be demanding of souls costly sacrifices without being able to
justify these demands by a description of what Almighty God has done
for us. In truth, Dogma is fully what Cardinal Manning called it, the
fountain-head of devotion.
#7. (2) Ascetic Theology also depends on Moral Theology and completes
it. The latter explains the precepts we must observe in order to
possess and preserve the divine life. Ascetical Theology gives us in
turn the means of perfecting it, and plainly presupposes the
knowledge and the practice of those precepts. It would be indeed a
vain and dangerous illusion to neglect the precepts and, under the
pretext of observing the counsels, to undertake the practice of the
highest virtues without having learned to resist temptation and avoid
#8. (3) Withal, Ascetical Theology is truly a branch of Theology
distinct from Dogma and Moral. It has its own proper object. It
chooses from among the teachings of Our Lord, of the Church, and of
the Saints, all that has reference to the perfection of the Christian
life, and so coordinates all these elements as to constitute a real
science. 1) Ascetical Theology differs from Dogma in this that,
though grounded upon dogmatic truths, it actually directs these
truths towards practice, making us understand. acquire a taste for,
and live the life of Christian perfection; 2) It differs from Moral
Theology, because, while it presents to our consideration the
commandments of God and of the Church, which are the bases of all
spiritual life, it insists also on the evangelical counsels, and on a
higher degree of virtue than is strictly obligatory. Ascetical
Theology, then, is truly the science of Christian perfection.
#9. Hence its twofold character, at once speculative and practical.
Without doubt, it contains a speculative doctrine, since it goes to
Dogma when it explains the nature of the Christian life. Yet, it is
above all practical, because it seeks out the means that must be
taken to develop that life.
In the hands of a wise spiritual counselor it becomes a real art.
Here the art consists in applying the general principles with
devotedness and tact to each individual soul. It is the noblest and
the most difficult of all arts--"ars artium regimen animarum." The
principles and rules which we shall give will help to form good
IV. DIFFERENCE BETWEEN ASCETICAL AND MYSTICAL THEOLOGY
#10. What we have heretofore said of Ascetical Theology holds good
also of Mystical Theology.
A) In order to make a distinction between them, we may thus define
Ascetical Theology: that part of spiritual doctrine whose proper
object is both the theory and the practice of Christian perfection,
from its very beginnings up to the threshold of infused
contemplation. We place the beginning of perfection in a sincere
desire of advancing in the spiritual life; Ascetic Theology guides
the soul from this beginning, through the purgative and illuminative
ways, as far as active contemplation or the simple unitive way.
#11. B) Mystical Theology is that part of spiritual doctrine whose
proper object is both the theory and the practice of the
contemplative life, which begins with what is called the first night
of the senses, described by St John of the Cross, and the prayer of
quiet, described by St. Theresa.
a) We thus avoid defining Ascetical Theology as the science of the
ordinary ways of perfection, and Mystical Theology as the science of
the extraordinary ways. Nowadays the word extraordinary is rather
reserved to designate a special class of mystical phenomena such as
ecstasies and revelations which are special gifts (charismata)
superadded to contemplation.
b) We do not distinguish here between acquired and infused
contemplation so as not to become involved in controversy. Acquired
contemplation being as a rule a preparation for infused
contemplation, we shall treat it when speaking of the unitive way.
We purposely unite in this one treatise both Ascetical and Mystical
Theology. 1) Surely there are profound differences between them.
These we shall take care to point out later. There is, all the same,
a certain continuity running through these two states, ascetic and
mystic, which makes the one a sort of preparation for the other. When
He sees fit, Almighty God makes use of the generous dispositions of
the ascetic soul and raises it to the mystic states. 2) One thing is
certain, the study of Mystical Theology throws no little light upon
Ascetic Theology and vice versa. This, because there is harmony in
God's ways; the powerful action which He exercises over mystic souls
being so striking, it renders more intelligible the milder influence
He exerts over beginners. Thus the passive trials, described by St.
John of the Cross, make us understand better the ordinary aridity
that is experienced in lower stages. Again, we understand better the
mystic ways, when we see to what degree of docility and adaptability
a soul can arrive that has for long years given itself up to the
laborious practices of asceticism.
These two parts of one and the same science naturally throw light on
one another and their union is profitable to both.
II. The Sources of Ascetical and Mystical Theology
#12. Since this spiritual science is one of the branches of Theology,
it has the same sources as the others. We must give the first place
to those that contain or interpret the data of revelation, that is,
Holy Scripture and Tradition. Next in turn come the secondary
sources, that is, all the knowledge that we acquire through reason
enlightened by faith and experience. Our task is simply to point out
the use we can make of them in Ascetic Theology.
I. HOLY SCRIPTURE
We do not find in Holy Scripture a scientific exposition of spiritual
doctrine, yet, scattered here and there both in the Old and the New
Testaments, we do find the richest data, in the form of teachings,
precepts, counsels, prayers and examples.
#13. (1) We find there the speculative doctrines concerning God, His
nature and attributes, His immensity that pervades all things, His
infinite wisdom, His goodness and justice, His mercy, His Providence
exercised over all creatures and above all on behalf of men, in order
to effect their salvation. We find likewise the doctrine concerning
God's own life, the mysterious generation of the Word, the procession
of the Holy Spirit-- mutual bond of union between Father and Son.
Lastly, we find God's works, in particular, those wrought for the
welfare of man: man's share in the divine life, his restoration after
the fall through the Incarnation and the Redemption, his
sanctification through the Sacraments and the promise of everlasting
It is obvious that such sublime teaching is a powerful incentive to
an increased love for God and to a greater desire for perfection.
#14. (2) As to the moral teaching, made up of precepts and counsels,
we find: The "Decalogue," which is summed up in the love of God and
the neighbor. Next, comes the high moral teaching of the Prophets,
who ever proclaiming the goodness, the justice, and the love of God
for His people, turn Israel away from sin, and especially from
idolatrous practices, whilst at the same time they inculcate into the
nation respect and love for God, justice, equity and goodness towards
all, chiefly towards the weak and the oppressed. We have further the
Sapiential Books, whose counsels, so full of wisdom, contain an
anticipated exposition of the Christian virtues.
Towering above all else, however, stands the wonderful teaching of
Jesus. His "Sermon on the Mount" is a condensed synthesis of
asceticism. We find still higher doctrines in His discourses as
recorded by St. John and commented upon by the same apostle in his
Epistles. Finally, there is the spiritual theology of St. Paul, so
rich in doctrinal ideas and in practical application. even the bare
summary which we shall give in an "Appendix" to this volume will show
that the New Testament is already a code of perfection.
#15. (3) We find also in Holy Writ prayers to nourish our love and
our interior life. Are there any prayers more beautiful than those of
the psalter? The Church has deemed them so fit to proclaim God's
praises and so apt to sanctify us, that She has incorporated them
into her Liturgy, the Missal and the Breviary. Other prayers we also
find here and there in the historical and sapiential books. But the
prayer of prayers is the Lord's Prayer, the most beautiful, the most
simple, and in spite of its brevity, the most complete that can be
found. Added to this we have Our Lord's Sacerdotal Prayer, not to
mention the doxologies contained in the Epistles of St. Paul and in
#16. (4) Finally there are in Scripture examples that incite us to
the practice of virtue: a) The Old Testament musters before us a
whole series of patriarchs, prophets and other remarkable personages
who were not indeed free from weaknesses, yet, whose virtues merited
the praise of St. Paul, and are recounted at length by the Fathers,
who propose them to us for imitation. Who would not admire the piety
of Abel and Henoch, the steadfastness of Noe, who wrought good in the
midst of a corrupt generation? Who would not pay homage to the faith
and trust of Abraham, the chastity and prudence of Joseph, the
courage, the wisdom and constancy of Moses, the fearless zeal,
devotion and wisdom of David? Who would not admire the austerity of
life in the Prophets, the heroic conduct of the Maccabees and
countless other examples?
b) In the New Testament, it is of course Jesus Christ who appears as
the ideal type of sanctity. Next, Mary and Joseph, His faithful
imitators. Then, the Apostles, who imperfect as they were at first,
gave themselves up so completely in body and soul to the preaching of
the Gospel and to the practice of the Christian and Apostolic
virtues, that their lives cry out to us, even louder than their
words," Be ye followers of me as I also am of Christ."1
If some of these holy ones had their faults, the manner in which they
redeemed them adds greater worth to their example, for it shows us
how we can, by penance, atone for our faults.2
n1. "I Cor.," IV, 16.
n2. In order to give an idea of the ascetical treasure contained in
Holy Writ, we shall give, in the from of an "Appendix" a synthetic
summary of the spirituality of the Synoptics, St. Paul and St. John.
#17. Tradition completes Holy Writ. It hands down to us truths which
are not contained in the latter. More, it interprets Scripture with
authority. It is known to us by the solemn and ordinary teaching of
(1) The Solemn Teaching consists chiefly in the definitions of
Councils and Sovereign Pontiffs. It has but rarely concerned itself,
it is true, with questions ascetical or mystical properly so-called;
yet, it has often had to come to the fore in order to clear up and
define those truths that form the bases of the science of perfection,
to wit: God's life considered at its source; the elevation of man to
a supernatural state; original sin and its consequences; the
Redemption; grace communicated to regenerated man; merit, which
increases in our souls the divine life; the sacraments, that impart
grace; the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in which the fruits of
Redemption are applied. In the course of our study we shall have to
make use of all these definitions.
#18. (2) The ordinary teaching is exercised in two ways,
theoretically and practically.
A) The theoretical teaching is given us first in a negative way, by
the condemnation of the propositions of false mystics; secondly, in a
positive manner, in the common doctrine of the Fathers and
theologians or in the conclusions that follow from the lives of the
a) False mystics have at different times altered the true notion of
Christian perfection. Such were the Encratists and the Montanists in
the first centuries, the Fraticelli and the Beguines or Beghards1 of
the Middle-Ages, Molinos and the Quietists2 in modern times. By
condemning them, the Church has pointed out to us the rocks we must
avoid and marked the course to which we must hold.
n1. DENZINGER, "Enchiridion" 471-478; CATH. ENCYCL., "Beguines.".
n2. DENZINGER "Enchiridion", 1221-1288, 1327-1349; CATH. ENCYCL., "
Molinos and Quietism."
#19. b) On the other hand, a common doctrine has gradually evolved
from all those major questions that make up the living commentary of
biblical teaching. This doctrine is found in the Fathers, the
theologians and spiritual writers. In reading them we are impressed
with their agreement on all vital points that have reference to the
nature of perfection, the necessary means of arriving thereat, and
the principal stages to be followed. Doubtless, there remain a few
controverted points, but these concern secondary questions. Their
very discussion simply brings into relief the moral unanimity that
exists with regard to the rest. The tacit approval which the Church
gives to this common teaching is for us a safe guarantee of truth.
#20. B) The practical teaching is to be found chiefly in the
processes of the canonization of Saints, who have taught and
practiced the whole of these spiritual doctrines. We are all
acquainted with the meticulous care exercised both in the revision of
their writings and in the scrutiny of their virtues. It is easy to
find out from the study of these documents just what principles of
spirituality are the expression of the Church's mind with regard to
the nature and the means of perfection. This can be clearly seen by
perusing the learned work of Benedict XIV entitled: "De Servorum Dei
Beatificatione et Canonizatione," or some of the processes of
Canonization, or even by reading biographies of the Saints, written
according to the rules of sound criticism.
III. REASON ENLIGHTENED BY FAITH AND EXPERIENCE
#21. Human reason is a gift of God absolutely indispensable to man
for the attainment of truth, whether natural or supernatural. It
plays a very important role in the study of spirituality, just as it
does in the study of the other ecclesiastical sciences. When it is
question, however, of revealed truth, it needs to be guided and
complemented by the light of faith; and in the application of general
principles to souls, it must look for help to psychological
#22. (1) Its first task is that of gathering, interpreting and
setting in order the teachings of Scripture and Tradition. These are
scattered through many books and need be put together if they are to
form one consistent whole. Besides, the sacred utterances were
pronounced under diverse circumstances, elicited by particular
questions, spoken to different hearers. In the same way,
circumstances of time and place are often responsible for the texts
a) Therefore in order to grasp their meaning, we must needs place
them in their proper setting, harmonize them with analogous
teachings, and lastly, arrange them and interpret them in the light
of the sum-total of Christian truths.
b) Once this first work is done, we may draw conclusions from these
principles, show their legitimacy and their manifold applications to
the thousand and one details of human life in its most varied
c) Lastly, these principles and conclusions will be coordinated into
one vast synthesis and thus will constitute a real science.
d) It is likewise the work of reason to defend ascetical doctrine
against its detractors. Many attack it in the name of reason and
science, seeing nothing but illusion in what embodies sublime
reality. It is in the province of reason to make answer to such
criticisms with the aid of philosophy and science.
#23. (2) Spirituality is a science that is lived. It is important
therefore to show historically how it has been carried out in
practice. This requires the reading of the biographies of the Saints
both ancient and modern, who lived in diverse countries and under
different conditions. Thus we make sure of the way in which ascetical
rules were interpreted when adapted to different epochs and peoples
and to peculiar duties of state. More, since the members of the
Church are not all holy, we must be thoroughly acquainted with the
obstacles encountered in the practice of perfection and with the
means employed to surmount them.
Psychological studies then are paramount, and to reading must be
#24. (3) It is further the task of reason enlightened by faith to
apply principles and general rules to each person in particular. In
this, account must be taken of the individual's temperament,
character, sex and age, social standing, duties of state, as well as
of the supernatural attractions of grace. One must also be mindful of
the rules governing the discernment of spirits.
In order to fulfill this threefold role, it is not only necessary to
possess a keen mind, but also a sound judgment and great tact and
discernment. One must add to this the study of practical psychology,
the study of temperaments, of nervous ailments and morbid conditions,
which exert such a great influence over mind and will. Then, since it
is question of a supernatural science, one must not forget that the
light of faith plays a predominant part, and that it is the gifts of
the Holy Ghost that bring this science to its supreme perfection.
This is true in particular of the gift of knowledge which makes us
rise even up to God; of the gift of understanding which gives us a
deeper insight into the truths of faith; of the gift of wisdom which
enables us to discern and relish these truths; of the gift of counsel
that gives us skill to apply them to each individual case. Thus it
is that the saints, who allowed themselves to be led by the Spirit of
God, are the best fitted to understand and the best to apply the
principles of the spiritual life. They have a sort of instinct for
divine things, a kind of second nature, that enables them to grasp
them more readily and to relish them more. "Thou hast hid these
things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them to little
n1. "Matth." XI, 25.
III. The Method to be followed
What method must be followed in order to make the best possible use
of the sources we have just described? Ought we to employ the
experimental, also called the descriptive method? the deductive one?
or the combination of both? What attitude should we adopt in the
employment of these methods? What aim should control their use?
#25. (1) The experimental method, also called descriptive and
psychological, consists in the observation of ascetical or mystical
phenomena in oneself or in others, and in classifying these, in order
to glean from them the characteristic marks peculiar to each state,
as well as the virtues and dispositions proper to them. This, without
taking into account the nature or cause of these facts, without any
further inquiry as to whether they have their origin in virtues, or
proceed from the gifts of the Holy Ghost or from miraculous graces.
This method, on its positive side, has many advantages, since facts
must be well ascertained before we proceed to explain their nature
and their cause.
#26. a) But if this method were employed to the exclusion of the
others, Ascetical Theology could not be made into a real science.
This method does furnish the bases for a science, that is, facts and
conclusions from these facts, it can even establish which are the
practical means that ordinarily succeed the best. Yet, as long as one
does not go on to the intimate nature and to the cause itself of
these facts one is dealing with psychology rather than with theology.
Again, if one simply describes in detail the means of practicing such
or such a virtue, one does not sufficiently disclose the principle
that motivates that virtue.
b) One would thus be exposed to form ill-founded opinions. For
instance, if in studying contemplation, one does not make a
distinction between what is miraculous, like ecstasy or levitation,
and that which constitutes the essential element of contemplation, to
wit, a prolonged and loving regard of God under the influence of a
special grace, then one can easily reach the conclusion that all
contemplation is miraculous. This, however, is opposed to the common
c) Many a controversy over the mystic states would amount to little,
if to the descriptions of these states were joined the distinctions
and accuracy which the study of theology supplies. Thus a distinction
between acquired and infused contemplation enables us to understand
better some very real states of soul and to harmonize some opinions
which at first sight appear to contradict one another. Again, there
are numerous degrees in passive contemplation: some may be accounted
for by the habitual use of the gifts of the Holy Ghost; in other
cases, God intervenes in order to provoke ideas and to aid us in
drawing to the most striking conclusions. Finally there are some that
can be hardly explained by anything save infused knowledge. All these
distinctions are the result of long and patient research in the
fields of speculation and practice. In abiding by them we shall
reduce to a minimum the differences that divide the various schools.
#27. (2) The doctrinal or deductive method consists in studying the
teaching of Holy Scripture, Tradition, and theology (especially the
Summa of St. Thomas) concerning the spiritual life, and in drawing
conclusions about its nature and perfection, about the obligation we
have of making it the aim of our efforts, and about the means to be
employed. In this method not enough stress is placed on psychological
phenomena, on the temperament and character of individuals, on their
special attractions, on the effects produced on individuals by
certain particular means; nor is there a detailed study made of the
mystic phenomena experienced and described by such persons as St.
Theresa, St John of the Cross, St. Francis de Sales, etc. As we are
liable to err in drawing conclusions, especially if we multiply them,
it is simply wisdom to control our conclusions by facts. If, for
instance, we discover that infused contemplation is rather rare, we
shall then lay a few restrictions round the thesis sustained by some
schools, namely, that all souls are called to the highest degrees of
n1. We rejoice therefore that two Reviews of different tendencies,
"La Vie Spirituelle" and "la Revue d'Ascetique et de Mystique" have
entered upon the course of making most careful and precise
distinctions with regard to the call to contemplation: the general
and individual call, the proximate and remote the efficacious and
sufficient. By narrowing down the sense of these words ;and studying
the facts, the different schools come to understand one another
#28. (3) Combination of both methods.
A) Evidently, one must know how to harmonize both methods. This is in
fact what most authors do, with this difference, that some lay more
stress on facts, others on principles.1
We shall try to keep the golden mean without, however, making bold of
success. a) The principles of mystical theology, drawn by the great
masters from revealed truths, will help us to a better observation of
the facts, to analyze the facts more thoroughly, to arrange them more
systematically, and to interpret them more wisely. We must not forget
the fact that, at least very often, the mystics describe their
impressions without meaning to explain their nature. The principles
spoken of will aid us also in seeking the cause of the facts, by
taking into account truths already known, and to coordinate them into
a real science.
b) The study of the facts, ascetical and mystical, will in turn
correct whatever is too rigid and too absolute in purely dialectic
conclusions. The truth is that there can be no absolute opposition
between the principles and the facts. Hence, if experience shows us
that the number of mystics is quite limited, we cannot hasten to the
conclusion that this is due solely to resistance to grace.2 It is
also well to keep in mind that in the process of canonization the
Church ascertains genuine sanctity rather from the practice of heroic
virtue than from the kind of contemplation. This goes to show that
the degree of sanctity is not always and necessarily in proportion to
the kind and degree of mental prayer.
n1. Thus "Th. de Vallgornera" gives more prominence to the deductive
method while P. Poulain, in the "Graces d'oraison," emphasizes the
n2. The full meaning of these remarks will be better understood when
we come to the study of the contemporary discussions on
#29. B) How can these two methods be combined? a) It is necessary
first of all to study the deposit of revelation as presented to us by
Scripture and Tradition, including, of course, in the latter the
ordinary teaching of the Church. From this deposit of truth we must
determine by the deductive method what is Christian perfection and
Christian life, what are its different degrees, what are the stages
usually followed in order to reach contemplation, passing through
mortification and the practice of the moral and theological virtues.
Finally, from it we must also determine in what this contemplation
consists, considering it either in its essential elements or in the
extraordinary phenomena that at times accompany it.
#30. b) This doctrinal study must be accompanied by methodical
observation: I) Souls must be examined with care; their qualities and
their faults, their peculiar traits their likes and dislikes, the
movements of nature and of grace that take place within them. This
psychological data will allow us to know better the means of
perfection that are best suited to them; the virtues they stand in
greatest need of and towards which they are drawn by grace; their
correspondence with grace; the obstacles they encounter and the means
most apt to insure success. 2) To widen the field of experience we
must read attentively the lives of the Saints, especially those that,
without hiding their defects, describe their tactics in combating
them, the means they availed themselves of to practice virtue, and
lastly, how they rose from the ascetical to the mystical life, and
under what influences. 3) It is also in the life of the
contemplatives that we must study the different phenomena of
contemplation from its first faint glimmers to its full splendor. In
them we must study the effects of sanctity these graces work, the
trials they had to undergo, the virtues they practiced. All this will
complete and, at times, correct the theoretical knowledge we may
#31. c) With clear theological principles, with well-studied and
well-classified mystic phenomena we can rise more easily to the
nature of contemplation, its causes, its species, and distinguish
what is normal from what is extraordinary in it. 1) We shall
investigate how far the gifts of the Holy Ghost are formal principles
of contemplation, and in what manner they must be cultivated so as to
enter into the interior dispositions favorable to mystic life. 2) We
shall examine whether the duly verified phenomena can all be
accounted for by the gifts of the Holy Ghost, whether some of them
postulate infused species, and how these work in the soul. Again we
may have to inquire further and see whether love alone produces these
states of soul without any added knowledge. 3) Then we shall be able
to see better the nature of the passive state, in what it consists,
to what extent the soul remains active, and what part is of God and
what of the soul in infused contemplation. We shall be able to
determine what is ordinary in this state and what is extraordinary
and preternatural. Thus we shall be in a better position to study the
problem of vocation to the mystical state and of the number of real
Proceeding in this manner, we shall have a better hope of arriving at
the truth, and at real practical conclusions for the direction of
souls. Such a study will prove as attractive as it is sanctifying.
#32. (4) What must be our attitude in following this method? Whatever
the method employed, it is essential that we study these difficult
problems with calmness, aiming at knowing the truth, not at making
capital at all costs in behalf of a pet system.
a) Hence it is fundamental to seek out and place to the fore whatever
is certain or commonly admitted, and to relegate to a second place
whatever is disputed. The direction souls must be given does not
depend on controverted questions, but on commonly accepted doctrine.
All schools are unanimous in recognizing that charity and
renouncement love and sacrifice are indispensable to all souls and in
ail the ways of perfection, and that the harmonious combination of
this twofold element depends largely upon the character of the person
directed. It is admitted on all hands that no one can afford at any
time to put out of his life the spirit of penance, even though it may
take different forms according to the different degrees of
perfection. In the same manner, it is agreed that, in order to arrive
at the unitive way, one must exercise oneself more and more perfectly
in the practice of both the moral and the theological virtues; that
the gifts of the Holy Ghost, cultivated with care, endow the soul
with a certain docility that renders it more submissive to the
inspirations of grace, and, should God call it thither prepares it
for contemplation. No one questions the important fact that infused
contemplation is essentially a free gift of God; that God bestows it
upon whom He wills, and when He wills; that consequently it is not in
anyone's power to place himself within the passive state, and that
the indications of a proximate call to such a state are the ones
described by St. John of the Cross. Likewise, all agree that once
souls have reached contemplation, they must advance in perfect
conformity with God's will, in a holy abandon and above all in
#33. b) It is our opinion that if we approach these problems in a
conciliatory manner, looking for what tends to harmonize rather than
for what would emphasize differences, we shall eventually not indeed
eliminate these controversies, but shall certainly mitigate them and
come to recognize the soul of truth contained in every system. This
is the most we can do here and now. For the solution of certain
difficult problems we must patiently await the light of the Beatific
IV. Excellence and Necessity of Ascetic Theology
The little we have said on the nature, sources, and method of
Ascetical Theology will enable us now to survey briefly its
excellence and its necessity.
1. EXCELLENCE OF ASCETICAL THEOLOGY
#34. Its excellence comes from its object, which is one of the most
exalted man can possibly study. It is in fact the divine life present
and constantly fostered in the soul of man. If we analyze this notion
we shall readily note how worthy of our attention this branch of
(1) First of all, we make a study of God in His most intimate
relations with the soul. That is, we consider the Most Blessed
Trinity dwelling and living in us, giving us a share in the divine
life, collaborating in our good works and thus ever aiding us to
develop that life; we see the same Triune God helping us to purify
and beautify our soul by the practice of virtue, transforming it till
it be ripe for the beatific vision. Can we imagine a like grandeur ?
We cannot think of anything more sublime than this transformation God
works in souls in order to unite them to Himself and assimilate them
(2) We next study the soul itself cooperating with God. We see it
weaning itself little by little from its faults and imperfections,
nursing Christian virtues, making efforts to imitate the virtues of
its Divine Model in spite of the obstacles it finds both within and
without, fostering the gifts of the Holy Ghost, developing a
marvelous responsiveness to the least touch of grace, and becoming
each day more and more like its Father in Heaven. To-day, when life
and the questions related thereto are considered the ones most worthy
of our attention, we cannot overestimate the import of a science that
treats of a supernatural life, of a participation in God's own life,
that tells us its origin, its growth and its full development in
eternity. Is it not the most noble object of study?
n1. "The value of the science of Ascetic Theology is so obvious from
its very definition that it need not be dwelt upon at any great
length. The higher christian life is the noblest and greatest thing
in the world. Its principles and its laws are of more importance to
the Christian than all other philosophies and legislations, its
methods more important to know than those by which fame is won and
wealth accumulated." HOGAN, "Clerical Studies," p. 265.
II. NECESSITY OF ASCETICAL THEOLOGY
To be the more precise in such a delicate matter, we shall explain:
(1) Its necessity for the priest; (2) its usefulness for the
faithful; (3) the practical way of studying it.
(1) Its necessity for the Priest.
#35. The priest is bound to sanctify himself and his brethren, and
from this twofold point of view, he is obliged to study the science
of the Saints.
A) We shall demonstrate with St. Thomas, later on, that the priest is
not only obliged to strive after perfection, but that he must possess
perfection in a higher degree even than the simple religious. Now, a
knowledge of what the Christian life is and of the means of
perfecting it is normally necessary to reach perfection, for "nil
volitum quin praecognitum."
a) Knowledge fires and stimulates desire. To know what sanctity is,
its sublimity, its moral obligation, its wonderful effects on the
soul, its fruitfulness, to know all this, we say, is to desire
One cannot for any length of time behold a luscious fruit without
conceiving the thought of tasting it. Desire, especially when vivid
and sustained already constitutes an incipient act. It sets the will
into motion and urges it on to the possession of the good the mind
has apprehended. It gives it impulse and energy to obtain it; it
sustains the effort required to seize upon it. This is all the more
necessary when one considers how many are the obstacles that work
counter to our spiritual advance.
b) To know in detail the various steps in the way to perfection, and
to see the sustained efforts made by the Saints to triumph over
difficulties and to advance steadily towards the desired goal, will
stir up our courage, sustain our enthusiasm in the midst of the
struggle and prevent us from becoming lax or tepid, especially if we
recall the helps and consolations which God has prepared for souls of
c) This study is of capital importance and all the more in our day:
we actually live in an atmosphere of dissipation of rationalism, of
naturalism and sensualism. It envelopes even unawares a multitude of
Christian souls, and finds its way into the sanctuary itself. It is
idle to repeat, that the very best way to react against these fatal
tendencies of our time is to live in close contact with Our Lord by a
systematic study of the principles of the spiritual life-- principles
that are in direct opposition to the threefold concupiscence.
#36. B) For the sanctification of the souls entrusted to their care.
a) Even in the case of sinners, the priest must know Ascetical
Theology to teach them how to avoid the occasions of sin, how to
struggle against their passions, resist temptations and practice the
virtues opposed to the vices they must avoid. No doubt Moral Theology
suggests these things, but Ascetical Theology coordinates and
b) Besides, in almost every parish one finds chosen souls whom God
calls to perfection. If they are well directed, they will by their
prayers, their example, and the thousand means at their disposal, be
a real help to the priest in his ministry. At all events a priest can
train up such by choosing carefully from among the children attending
Sunday school or sodalities. In order to succeed in this important
task, the priest must of necessity be a good guide of souls. He must
know thoroughly the rules given by the saints, which are contained in
spiritual books. Without this, he will have neither the taste nor the
ability required for this difficult art of guiding souls.
#37. c) One more reason for the study of the ways of perfection lies
in the guidance to be given fervent souls. These one meets with, at
times, even in the most secluded country districts. In order to lead
these souls to the prayer of simplicity and to ordinary contemplation
one must, not to blunder and actually place obstacles in their way,
know not only Ascetical but also Mystical Theology. On this point St.
Theresa remarks: " For this, a spiritual director is very much
needed--but he must be experienced... My opinion is, and will always
be, that as long as it is possible, every Christian must consult
learned men-- more learned the better. Those that walk in the ways of
prayer have more need of such than the rest; and the more so, the
more spiritual they are... I am thoroughly persuaded of this, that
the devil will not seduce with his wiles the man of prayer who takes
counsel with theologians, unless he wishes to deceive himself.
According to my opinion, the devil is in mortal fear of a science
that is both humble and virtuous; he knows full well that it will
tear his mask and rout him. "1 St. John of the Cross speaks in the
same way: " Such masters of the spiritual life (who know not the
mystic ways) fail to understand the souls engaged in this quiet and
solitary contemplation... they make them take up again the ordinary
ways of meditation, to exercise the memory, to perform interior acts
in which such souls meet with nothing but dryness and distraction...
Let this be well understood: Whoever errs through ignorance, when his
ministry imposes on him the duty of acquiring knowledge that is
indispensable, shall not escape punishment in proportion to the
resultant evil. "2 Let no one say to himself: If I encounter such
souls, I will abandon them to the guidance of the Holy Ghost.-- The
Holy Ghost will make answer that He has entrusted them to your care,
and that you must cooperate with Him in guiding them. Without doubt,
He can Himself guide them, but to preclude any fear of illusion, He
wills that such inspirations be submitted to the approbation of a
n1. "Life by Herself," ch. 13. The whole passage to be read with
others scattered through the works of the Saint.
n2. "La vive flamme d'amour," strophe III, v. 3, #II, p. 308-311.
(2) Its usefulness for the Laity.
#38. We say usefulness and not necessity, since lay folk can well
entrust themselves to the guidance of a learned and experienced
director and are not therefore absolutely bound to the study of
Nevertheless the study of Ascetical Theology will be most useful to
them for three good reasons:--a) In order to stimulate and sustain
the desire of perfection as well as to give a definitive knowledge of
the Christian life and of the means which enable us to perfect it. No
one desires what one does not know, "ignoti nulla cupido," whereas
reading spiritual books creates or increases the sincere desire to
put into practice what has been read. Many souls, as is well known,
are ardently carried on to perfection by reading "The Following of
Christ," the "Spiritual Combat," "The Introduction to a Devout Life"
or the "Treatise on the Love of God."
b) Even when one has a spiritual guide, the reading of a good
Ascetical Theology facilitates and completes spiritual direction. One
knows better what must be told in confession, what in direction. It
makes one understand and retain better the advice of one's spiritual
adviser because it may be found again in a work to which one can
return and reread. It, in turn, relieves the spiritual director from
entering into endless details. After giving some solid advice he can
have the penitent himself read some treatise where he will find
supplementary information. Thus he can shorten his direction without
causing any loss to his penitent.
c) Finally, if a spiritual guide cannot be had or if spiritual advice
can be had but at rare intervals, a treatise on the spiritual life
will, in a way, take the place of spiritual direction. There is no
doubt, as we shall repeat later on, that spiritual direction
constitutes the normal means in the training to perfection. But if
for some reason or other one is unable to find a good adviser, God
provides for the lack; and one of the means He uses is precisely some
such book as points out in a definite and systematic manner the way
(3) The Way to study this Science.
#39. Three things are needed to acquire the knowledge necessary for
the direction of souls: a Manual, reading the greatmasters, and
(A) The Study of a Manual. The seminarian is indeed helped in
acquainting himself with this difficult art by the spiritual
conferences he listens to, the practice of spiritual direction, and
above all by the gradual acquisition of virtue. To this, however, the
study of a good Manual must be added.
1) The spiritual conferences are chiefly an exercise of piety, a
series of instructions, of advice and exhortation concerning the
spiritual life. Rarely, however, do they treat a~ the questions
concerning the spiritual life in a methodical and complete fashion.
2) At all events, seminarians will soon forget what they heard and
will lack competent knowledge, unless they have a Manual to which
they can relate the varied advice given them and which they can
reread from time to time. Rightly did Pius X say that one of the
sciences young clerics should acquire at the Seminary is: " The
science of Christian piety and practice, called ascetical theology."1
n1 "Motu proprio," 9 Sept. 1910, A. A S., II, p. 668-- Pope Benedict
XV has ordered that a chair of Ascetical Theology be established at
the two great theological Schools of Rome.
In the meeting of the Seminary Department of the Educational
Association at Cincinnati in 1908 the late Bishop Maes of Covington
complained that our young men do not seem to be acquainted with the
spiritual life and added: "If I were to put my finger on the great
defect in the training of many Seminaries, I would point to the
absence of a course of Ascetic Theology."
In the meeting of the same Seminary Department at Milwaukee In 1924,
the following resolution was passed:
"That ascetical theology should be systematically studied With a
suitable text, and that the curriculum should be so ordered as to
provide for such courses."
#40. (B) A deep study of the Spiritual Masters, particularly those
who have been canonized or those, who although not canonized, have
lived saintly lives.
a) As a matter of fact, it is by coming into contact with these that
the heart glows, that the mind, enlightened by faith, sees more
clearly and relishes better the great principles of the spiritual
life. It is at their touch that the will, sustained by grace, is
drawn to the practice of the virtues so vividly described by those
who have lived them ill the highest degree. By the perusal of the
lives of the Saints one will understand even better why and how one
must imitate them. The irresistible influence of their examples will
add new strength to their teaching: "Verba movent, exempla trahunt."
(b) This study, begun at the Seminary, ought to be continued and
perfected in the ministry. The direction of souls will render it more
practical. Just as a good physician is never through advancing in
knowledge by practice and study, just so a good spiritual adviser
will complement theory by actual contact with souls and by further
studies, according to the needs of the souls entrusted to his care.
#41. c) The practice of Christian and Priestly virtues under the care
of a wise director: To understand well the various stages of
perfection, the best means is to go through them oneself, just as the
best mountain-guide is the one that is familiar on first-hand
information with the trails. Once one has been wisely guided, one is
more competent to direct others for the simple reason that it is
experience itself that shows us how to apply the rules to particular
If these three elements are combined the study of Ascetical Theology
will prove most fruitful both to self and to others.
#42. Solution of some difficulties. A) A reproach often directed
against Asceticism is that it produces a false conscience, by going
so far beyond Moral Theology in its exactions and by demanding of
souls a perfection that is well-nigh beyond realization. This
reproach would be indeed well grounded if Asceticism would not make a
distinction between commandment and counsel, between souls called to
high perfection and those not so called. This is not so, for while it
does urge chosen souls toward heights that are out of the reach of
ordinary Christians, it does not lose sight of the difference between
commandment and counsel, between the conditions that are essential
for salvation and those that are necessary to perfection. It keeps in
view on the other hand, that the observance of certain counsels is
indispensable to the keeping of the commandments.
#43. B) Asceticism in also attacked on the. ground that it fosters
egotism since it puts personal sanctification above all else. But Our
Lord Himself teaches us that our chief concern must be the salvation
our souls: " For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole
world and suffer the loss of his own soul?"1 In this there is not the
least egotism, for one of the essentials for salvation is love of the
neighbor. This love is manifested by works both corporal and
spiritual, and perfection precisely demands that we love our neighbor
to the point of sacrifice as Christ loved us. Should this be egotism,
we must acknowledge that we have little to fear from it. We have only
to read the lives of the Saints to see that they were the most
unselfish and the most charitable of men.
C) The further objection is made that Asceticism, by impelling souls
towards contemplation, turns them from a life of action. To state
that contemplation is detrimental to an active life is to pass over
historical facts. " Real, mystics, " says M. de Montmorand,2 an
unbeliever, "are practical men of action not given to mere thought
and theory. They possess the gift and the knack of organization as
well as talent for administration showing themselves well equipped
for the handling of affairs. The works instituted by them are both
feasible and lasting. In the conception and conduct of their
undertakings they have given proof of prudence and enterprise and
full evidence of that exact appreciation of possibilities which
characterizes common sense. In fact, good sense seemed to be their
outstanding quality,--good sense undisturbed either by an unwholesome
exaltation, or a disordered imagination, but rather, possessed of an
uncommon and powerful keenness of judgment."
Have we not seen in Church History that most of those Saints who have
written on the spiritual life were at the same time men both of
learning and action? Consider Clement of Alexandria, St. Basil, St.
John Chrysostom, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St
Anselm, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure, Gerson, St. Theresa, St
Francis de Sales, St. Vincent de Paul, Cardinal de Berulle, M.
Acarie, and numberless others. Contemplation far from hampering
action, enlightens and directs it.
There is therefore nothing worthier, or more important, or more
useful than Ascetical Theology rightly understood.
n1. "Matth.," XVI, 26.
n2. M. DE MONTMORAND, "Psychologie des Mystiques," 1920, p. 20-21.
V. Division of Mystical and Ascetical Theology
1. THE VARIOUS PLANS FOLLOWED BY AUTHORS
We shall first enumerate the various plans generally followed and
then present the one which seems best suited to our purpose.
Different points of view may be taken when making a logical division
of the science of spirituality.
#44. (1) Some look at it chiefly as a practical science. They leave
aside all the speculative truths that form its basis and limit
themselves to coordinate as methodically as possible the rules of
Christian perfection. So did Cassian, in his Conferences, and St.
John Climacus, in the Mystic Ladder. Rodriguez in modern times did
the same in his Practice of Christian Perfection. The advantage this
plan offers is it takes up at once the study of the practical means
that lead to perfection. Its drawback is to leave out the incentives
given by the consideration of what God and Jesus Christ have done and
still do for us, and not to base the practice of virtue upon those
deep and all-embracing convictions that are formed by reflecting on
the truths of dogma.
#45. (2) Likewise the most illustrious among the Fathers both Greek
and Latin, to wit, St. Athanasius and St. Cyril St. Augustine and St.
Hilary have taken care to base their teachings regarding the
spiritual life upon the truths of faith and to build on them the
virtues, the nature and degrees of which they explained. The same is
true of the great theologians of the Middle Ages, Richard of St.
victor, Blessed Albert the Great, St. Thomas and St. Bonaventure.
This is exactly what was done by the French School of the XVI I
century, through such men as Berulle Condren, Olier, St. J. Eudes.1
Its great merit lies in the fact that it makes for the enlightenment
of the mind and the strengthening of convictions so as to render more
easy to men the practice of those austere virtues it proposes. It is
accused at times of being given too much to speculation while
touching little on practice. To unite these two plans would be the
ideal. Several have attempted it and with success. 2
n1 H. BREMOND, "Hist. litt. du sentiment religieux," III, L'Ecole
n2. This has been very well done, among others, by St. Jean Eudes in
his writings; by L. TRONSON in particular Examens, in which making
use of the works of J.J. OLIER, he has aptly condensed the asceticism
of the latter.
46. (3) Of those who strive to combine these two essential elements,
some adopt the ontological order treating successively of the various
virtues; others follow the psychological order of development of the
said virtues throughout the course of the purgative, illuminative and
A) Among the former we find St. Thomas. In the Summa he treats
successively of the theological and moral virtues, and of the gifts
of the Holy Spirit which correspond td each virtue. He has been
followed by the principal authors belonging to French School of the
XVII century and by other writers.1
B) Among the latter are all those whose principal aim was to form
directors of souls. They describe the progress of the soul through
the three ways; at the head of their treatises they simply give a
short introduction on the nature of the spiritual life. Such are
Thomas of Vallgomera, O. P., "Mystica Theologia Divi Thomae," Philip
of the Blessed Trinity, O. C. D., "Summa theologiae mysticae,"
Schram, O. S. B., "Institutiones theologiae mysticae," Scaramelli, S.
J., Directorio Ascetico," and today, A. Saudreau, "The Degrees of the
Spiritual Life," Fr. Aurelianus a SS. Sacramento, O. C. D., "Cursus
n1. In our day by MGR. GAY, "De la vie et des vertus chretiennes;"
CH. DE SMET, S.F., "Notre vie surnalurelle."
47. (4) Others, like Alvarez de Paz, S. J. and P. Le Gaudier, S. J.,
have combined both methods: they treat at length, from the point of
view of dogma, whatever appertains to the nature of the spiritual
life and the chief means of perfection; then they make application of
these general principles to the three ways. It seems to us that to
attain the end we have in view, that is, to form spiritual directors,
the last is the best plan to follow. No doubt, with such a scheme,
one is bound to repeat and to parcel out, yet any division of the
subject would necessarily offer like inconveniences. For these one
can make up by proper references to subjects already dealt with or to
be unfolded later on.
II. OUR PLAN.
#48. We divide our Treatise of Ascetic Theology into two parts. The
first is above all doctrinal. We entitle it "Principles." In it we
explain the origin and nature of the Christian life and its
perfection, the obligation of striving after it and the general means
of attaining it.
We designate the second part as the Application of principles to the
different categories of souls. In it we follow the gradual rise of
the soul that, desirous of perfection, goes successively through
three ways, purgative, illuminative, and unitive. Although resting on
dogma this latter part is chiefly psychological.
The first part is designed to throw light on our path by showing us
the divine plan of sanctification. It should inspire us with courage
in our efforts, for it reminds us of God's generosity toward us. It
traces for us as in a foreground the great lines we are to follow in
order to correspond to this bounty of God Almighty by the complete
giving of self. The second part is meant to guide us in the detailed
exposition of these successive stages, which, God helping, must be
traversed to reach the goal. This plan we hope, will unite the
advantages of the various other divisions.