This translation of Aquinas's work, On the Perfection of the
Spiritual Life, has been made by Fr. Joseph Bolin, based in part on the public domain text originally published 1902 under the title "The Religious State, the Episcopate and the Priestly Office."
It has not yet been completely translated here (Chapters 1-12 and 15 are
Love of God - See also a Summary of these Degrees
of Love of God
Chapter 3 - The Perfection of Love of God That Belongs to God Alone
Chapter 4 - The Perfection of Love of God That Belongs to Those Who Enjoy Beatitude
Chapter 5 - The Perfection of Love of God That is Necessary to Salvation
Chapter 6 - The Perfection of Love of God That Falls Under Counsel
Ways to Perfection
Chapter 7 - The First Way to Perfection, Which is the Renunciation of Temporal Things
Chapter 8 - The Second Way to Perfection, Which is the Renunciation of Fleshly Affection and of Marriage
Chapter 9 - Helps for Preserving Chastity
Chapter 10 - Third Way to Perfection, Which is the Denial of Our Own Will
Chapter 11 - These Three Ways to Perfection Pertain Properly to the Religious State
Chapter 12. - Against the Errors of Those Who Presume to Detract From the Merit of Obedience, Or of Vows
Love of Neighbor - See a Summary of the Degrees
of Love of Neighbor
Chapter 13 - The Perfection of Love of Neighbor That is Necessary for Salvation
Chapter 14 - The Perfection of Love of Neighbor That Falls Under Counsel
State of Perfection
Chapter 15 - What is Required to Constitute the State of Perfection
Chapter 16 - To Be in a State of Perfection Belongs to Bishops and Religious
Chapters 17-25 (On the state of bishops and priests) - Not translated here
Chapter 26 - On the Works A Religious May Lawfully Undertake - Not translated here
This work of Aquinas on the spiritual life, together with St. Therese, was part of the inspiration for the writing of the Seven Principles of the Spiritual Life.
The Author’s Intention in This Work
Since certain persons, knowing nothing about perfection, have presumed to speak follies concerning the state of perfection, our purpose is to treat of perfection: what it is to be perfect; how perfection is acquired; what is the state of perfection; and what befits those who take up this state.
The Perfection of the Spiritual Life Simply Speaking is Found According to Charity
We must first consider that "perfect" is said in several ways. For something may be simply speaking perfect, or something may be called perfect in a certain respect. Something is simply speaking perfect when it attains to the end that belongs to it according to its proper nature, while something can be called perfect in a certain respect when it attains an end in regard to things accompanying its proper nature, as an animal is said to be perfect simply speaking, when it reaches the end that it lacks none of those things that constitute animal life: e.g., when it lacks nothing in number or disposition of its limbs, or the proper size of the body, or the power by which the activities of animal life are accomplished; an animal can be said to be perfect in a certain respect, however, if it is perfect in something that accompanies animal nature: e.g., if it is perfect in whiteness, or in odor, or something like this. Thus also a man is said to be simply speaking perfect in the spiritual life, with respect to that in which spiritual life primarily consists, while he can be called perfect in a certain respect, as regards anything that is connected with spiritual life. Now spiritual life consists primarily in charity, and he who does not have charity, he is regarded as spiritually nothing. Hence the Apostle says, "If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing" (1 Cor 13:2). Blessed John the Apostle also declares that the whole of spiritual life consists in love, saying, "We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren. He who does not love abides in death" (1 John 3:14). Therefore, it is he who is perfect in charity who is simply speaking perfect in the spiritual life. But some can be called perfect in a certain respect, as regards anything connected with the spiritual life. This can also be clearly shown from the words of Holy Scripture. For the Apostle in Col 3:14 attributes perfection primarily to charity: for having enumerated many virtues, such as compassion, benignity, and humility, he adds, "But above all these things have charity, which is the bond of perfection" (Col 3:14). But some are also said to be perfect as regards understanding; for the same Apostle says, "Be babes in evil, but in sense be perfect." (1 Cor 14:20). Elsewhere in the same epistle, he says, "be perfect in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10), although as was said, no matter how perfect knowledge a man has, without charity he is to be judged as nothing. So also a man may be said to be perfect in patience, which "has a perfect work," as St. James says, and in any other virtues. This need not be surprising, for someone may be perfect in a bad thing, as when one speaks of "a perfect thief" or "a perfect robber." And Scripture also sometimes speaks this way: for it is said, "the fool's heart will work iniquity to perfect hypocrisy” (Isa 32:6).
Perfection Is Found Both According to Love of God and Love of Our Neighbor
Having considered that perfection consists primarily in regard to charity, it is clear in what the perfection of the spiritual life consists. For there are two precepts of charity, one pertaining to the love of God, the other to the love of neighbor. These two precepts have a certain order to each other, according to the order of charity. For what we should primarily love out of charity is the supreme good that makes us happy, namely God, while secondarily we should love our neighbor out of charity, with whom we are joined in a certain social bond, in the participation of happiness; hence we should love in our neighbor out of charity in reference to a mutual attainment of beatitude. And the Lord showed this order of the precepts of charity in Mat 22:37-39, saying, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Therefore the perfection of the spiritual life consists first and principally in the love of God; hence the Lord, speaking to Abraham, says, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be perfect" (Gen 17:1). We walk before God not by bodily steps, but by spiritual affections. But secondarily the perfection of the spiritual life consists in the love of neighbor; hence the Lord, having said "Love your enemies," (Mat 5:44), and having added a number of other precepts pertaining to the love of neighbor, concluded by saying, "Be therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Mat 5:48).
The Perfection of Love of God That Belongs to God Alone
In each love we find many degrees of perfection. With regard to the love of God, the first and supreme degree of perfection belongs to God alone. The mode of perfection is considered both on the side of the one who is loved, and of the one who loves: perfection in loving on the side of the one who is loved, means that he is loved as much as he is lovable; and on the side of the one who loves, perfection means that he loves a thing with his full power. Now since everything is lovable to the degree that it is good, and God's goodness is infinite, he is infinitely lovable. But no creature can love infinitely, since no finite power can have an infinite act. Therefore God alone, who has as great a power of loving as his goodness is, can love himself perfectly as regards the first way of being perfect.
The Perfection of Love of God That Belongs to Those Who Enjoy Beatitude
The only mode of loving God perfectly that is possible for a rational creature, is that which is taken on the side of the one who loves, namely that the rational creature love God with his whole power; hence this is also expressed clearly in the precept of divine love. For it is said in Deut 6:5, "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and with your whole soul, and with your whole strength," and in Luke 10:27 it is added, "and with your whole mind"; heart may be referred to intention, mind to knowledge, soul to affection, strength to execution. For all these things are to be given over to the love of God. But it should be considered that this precept may be fulfilled in two ways. For since "whole" and "perfect" is that to which nothing is lacking, one loves God with the whole heart, soul, strength, and mind, if nothing of these fails to be actually turned wholly towards God.
This perfect mode of love does not belong to wayfarers, but only to those who enjoy beatitude. Hence the Apostle says, "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to lay hold of it" (Phil 3:12), as though expecting perfection when he laid hold of the palm of beatitude. But he does not take "laying hold" insofar as it implies comprehending or enclosing, for in this sense God may not be comprehended by any creature, but insofar as "laying hold" implies attaining that which one has followed and sought after. For in that heavenly beatitude the intellect and will of the rational creature shall always be borne actually towards God, since beatitude consists in the enjoyment of God, and beatitude does not consist in habit, but in act. And since the rational creature will cling to God, who is Supreme Truth, as its last end, and all things are referred in intention to the last end, and all things to be done are arranged according to the last end as according to a rule, it follows that in the perfection of beatitude the rational creature will love God with its whole heart, since its whole intention will be borne to God in all that it thinks, loves, or does; with its whole mind, since its mind will always be actually borne towards God, always seeing him, and judging all things and about all things in him and according to his truth; with its whole soul or its whole strength, since the love of God will be that which arranges all external acts. This is then the second mode of perfect divine love, which belongs to the blessed.
The Perfection of Love of God That is Necessary to Salvation
In another way we love God with our whole heart, mind, soul and strength, if nothing in us is lacking to divine love, if there is nothing which we do not, actually or habitually, refer to God. And a precept is given concerning this divine love.
First, man should refer all things to God as his end, as the Apostle says: "Whether you eat or drink, or whatsoever else you do, do all to the glory of God." (1 Cor 10:31). One fulfills this when one orders his life to God's service, and thus all the things that he does for himself, he virtually orders to God, unless they are things that lead away from God, such as sins: thus man loves God with his whole heart.
Secondly, man should subject his intellect to God, believing those things that are divinely revealed, according to the Apostle: "taking understanding captivity, unto the obedience of Christ" (2 Cor 10:5). Thus man loves God with his whole mind.
Thirdly, all the things a man loves, he should love in God, and universally refer all his affection to the love of God; hence the Apostle says "whether we be transported in mind it is to God, or whether we be sober, it is for you; for the charity of Christ presses us" (2 Cor. v. 13). Thus man loves God with his whole soul.
Fourthly, man should derive all his external works, words and deeds from divine love, according to the Apostle: "Let all your things be done in love" (1 Cor 16:14), and thus a man loves God with all his strength.
This is, then, the third mode of perfect divine love, to which all are bound by the necessity of precept. But the second mode is not possible to anyone in this life, unless he is at the same time a wayfarer and an enjoyer of beatitude, as was our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Perfection of Love of God That Falls Under Counsel
When St. Paul had said, “Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect,” and, “but I follow after, if I may by any means lay hold,” he added shortly afterwards, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded.” From these words we can see that although the perfection of the blessed is not possible to us in this life, we ought, to strive to imitate it as far as we can. And it is in this that the perfection of this life consists to which we are invited by the counsels.
For it is manifest that the human heart is more intensely drawn to one thing, to the degree that it is drawn back from many things. Thus the more a man is freed from the affection for temporal things, the more perfectly his mind will be borne to loving God. Hence St. Augustine says that "the desire of temporal things is the poison of charity; the growth of charity is the diminishment of cupidity, and the perfection of charity is no cupidity." (Eighty-Three Questions, Book 83, Quest. 1). Therefore all the counsels, which invite us to perfection, aim at this, that man's mind be turned away from affection to temporal objects, so that his mind may tend more freely to God, by contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.
The First Way to Perfection, Which is the Renunciation of Temporal Things
Among temporal goods the first
we should renounce are external
goods, which are called riches, and the Lord counseled this when
he said, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give
to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow
me.” (Matt. 19:21). The utility of this counsel is shown by what
follows. The first evidence for this is what in fact happened
next. For when
the young man who was asking about
perfection heard this response,
he went away sad. And as St. Jerome says in his commentary on Matthew,
of his sadness is stated: "He had many possessions," which
were thorns and thistles that choked the seed of the
Lord’s words.” And St. Chrysostom, explaining the same passage, says
that, "those who possess little are not hindered in the same way
as are those who abound in riches; for the increase
of wealth enkindles a greater fire [of desire for wealth],
and avarice grows stronger.” St. Augustine, too, says in his
letter to Paulinus and Therasia that “we are more firmly fettered by
love for the earthly things that we possess, than by desire for
the things we seek; for why did
this young man go away sad, except because he had many possessions?
For it is one thing not to want to acquire things that we do not
have, but quite another to give up the things we already have. For
these things may be repudiated as extrinsic to
ourselves, but to give up those things we already have is [experience]
like giving up the limbs of our
The utility of this counsel is secondly manifested by the words the Lord goes on to say, "It will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven." For as St. Jerome says, “It is because it is hard to despise the riches that we have. Our Lord did not say that it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, but that it is hard. When he affirms difficulty, he does not indicate that it is impossible, but shows the rarity of it.” And, as St. Chrysostom says on the Gospel of St. Matthew, the Lord goes further, proving that it is impossible, when he says “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” “From these words,” says St. Augustine, “the disciples understood that all who covet riches are included in the number of the rich; otherwise, since the number of the wealthy is small in comparison with the multitude of the poor, the disciples would not have asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Questions on the Gospel)
From these two sayings of
Our Lord it is
clearly shown that it is hard for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. For as the Lord
himself says elsewhere,
“The cares of this world and the delight in riches choke the
word, and it becomes unfruitful” (Matt. 13:22). Indeed it is impossible for those who love riches inordinately to enter heaven,
and much more impossible than for a camel to pass through the eye of a
needle. For the latter feat is impossible because it is contrary
to nature, while the former is impossible because it is contrary to
divine justice, which is more powerful than any created nature. From
this, then, the reason for this divine counsel becomes evident; for a counsel is
given concerning that which is more useful, according to what St. Paul
says, “In this matter I give my advice, for
this is useful for you” (2 Cor. 8:10). But to attain eternal life, it
is more useful to give up riches than to possess them; for those who
possess wealth will with difficulty enter the kingdom of heaven,
since it is difficult for one's affection not to be bound to the riches
that one possesses, which attachment to riches makes it
impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore the Lord's counsel to renounce riches was a
But someone might object, against
the foregoing, that St.
Matthew and Zaccheus had riches, and yet entered the kingdom
of heaven. But St. Jerome answers this objection, saying, “We should
consider that at the time when they entered, they had
ceased to be wealthy.” But Abraham never ceased to be
rich; he died a rich man, leaving
his riches to his sons, as we read in Genesis. According to what was
said he seems not to have been perfect, and yet the Lord said to him,
“Be perfect” (Gen. 17:1).
question could not be resolved if the perfection of Christian life
consisted in the very renunciation of wealth. For it would follow
that no one who possessed riches could be perfect. But if we consider
Lord's words carefully, he does not locate perfection in the very
up of wealth, but shows that this is a certain way
perfection, as his very way of speaking shows, “If you would be
perfect, go, sell all that you possess and give to the poor,
me,” indicating that perfection consists in the following of Christ,
while the renunciation of riches is a way to perfection. Hence St.
Jerome says on the
Gospel of St. Matthew, “Since giving
up our possessions is not sufficient, Peter adds
that wherein perfection
consists, when he says, ‘And we have followed you.’” Origen, too, says
the same passage, “The words, ‘if you would be perfect’ are not to be
understood as though a man becomes immediately perfect when he has
given his goods
to the poor, but that from that time, the
contemplation of God begins to lead him to all virtues.” It can
therefore happen that a rich man is perfect, clinging to God with
perfect charity. And in this way Abraham, who possessed riches,
was perfect--his soul was not entangled in riches, but was totally
united to God. And this is what the words of the Lord
spoken to him signify, “Walk before me and be perfect,” showing that
his perfection lay in walking before God, and in loving Him completely,
even unto the contempt of himself and of all that belonged to him. And
he showed this especially in his readiness to sacrifice his son.
the Lord said to him,
“Because you have done this, and for my sake have not withheld your
son, I will bless you” (Gen. 22:16).
But if anyone wants to argue from this that the Lord's counsel about renouncing wealth is useless, because Abraham was perfect, though he possessed riches, the response to him is evident from what has been already said. For the reason the Lord gave this counsel was not because rich men cannot be perfect, or cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, but because they cannot do so easily. The virtue of Abraham was therefore very great, that although he possessed wealth, his soul was detached from wealth. In a similar way Samson's strength was great, since armed only with the jawbone of an ass, he slew many enemies; and yet counsel is not uselessly given to a soldier to take up arms in combat with his foes. Neither, then, is it useless to counsel those who desire perfection to renounce their earthly goods, although Abraham was perfect with all his wealth.
[Practical] conclusions are not to be drawn from wonderful deeds; for the weak are more capable of wondering at and praising such deeds than of imitating them. Hence we read in Sirach 31:8, “Blessed is the rich man who is found without stain, and who has not gone after gold, nor put his trust in money or in treasures.” This passage shows that the rich man who does not contract the stain of sin by the affection for riches, who does not go after gold by covetousness, nor extol himself over others by pride, trusting in his riches, is indeed a man of great virtue, and adhering to God with perfect charity. Hence St. Paul says to Timothy, “Charge the rich of this world not to be high-minded, nor to trust in the uncertainty of riches” (1 Tim. 6:17). But the greater the blessedness and the virtue of rich persons of this kind, the smaller is their number. Hence [the passage of Sirach] continues, “Who is he, and we will praise him? for he has done wonderful things in his life.” For truly he who while abounding in riches has not set his heart upon them has done wonderful things, and if there is such a person, he has without doubt been proven perfect. Hence it continues, “Who has been tried therein,” i.e., as to whether he can live a sinless life while possessing riches, “and found perfect?” as though it were to say: “such a man is rare," and for him "it will merit for him eternal glory,” which is in harmony with the saying of the Lord, that "it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven."
This, then, is
the first way for reaching perfection, that someone, out of the desire
to follow Christ, renounces riches and chooses poverty.
The Second Way to Perfection, Which is the Renunciation of Fleshly Affection and of Marriage
To better manifest the second way to perfection, we should consider the words of St. Augustine which he says in De Trinitate 12: “The less a man loves what is his, the more closely will he cleave to God.” Hence, according to the order of a man's goods that he gives up for God's sake, will be the order of those things by which he arrives at perfectly clinging to God.
The things that occur first to be given up are those that are least closely united to ourselves. Hence, those aiming towards perfection are to first give up exterior goods, which are extrinsic to our nature. The next objects to be given up are those which are united to our nature by a certain communion and necessary affinity. Hence, the Lord says, "If any man comes to me, and does not hate his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14:26).
But, as St. Gregory says, “It is permissible to inquire how we can be commanded to hate our parents and kinsfolk, when we are bidden to love even our enemies? If, however, we carefully consider this precept, we shall be able to obey it by means of discretion. For, when we refuse to listen to one who, savoring earthly things, suggests to us to do what is wrong, we at the same time love him and hate him. Thus we must bear this discreet hatred towards our kinsfolk, loving in them what they are in themselves, and hating them when they hinder our progress towards God. For, whosoever desires eternal life must, for the love of God, be independent of father and mother, of wife, children, and relations, yea, detached from self, in order that he may the better know God, for whose sake he loses sight of every other. For it is but too clear, that earthly affections warp the mind, and blunt its keenness.”
Now amongst all relationships, conjugal affection engrosses men’s hearts more than another other, so that our first parent said: “A man leaves father and mother, and clings to his wife” (Gen. 2:24). Hence, they who are aiming at perfection, must, above all things, avoid the bond of marriage, since it, in a pre-eminent degree, entangles man in secular concerns. This is the reason St. Paul gives for his counsel concerning continence. “The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife” (1 Cor. 7:32-33).
Therefore, the second way to perfection, by which a man may be more free to devote himself to God, and to cling more perfectly to him, is the observance of perpetual chastity. But continence has the further benefit of giving a particular facility for acquiring perfection. For the soul is hindered from free devotion to God, not only by the love of exterior things, but much more by the impulse of interior passions. And among these passions, the lust of the flesh especially absorbs the reason. Hence in Soliloquies (lib. 1) St. Augustine says, “I know nothing which doth more cast a manly soul down from the tower of its strength, than do the caresses of a woman, and the physical contact essential to marriage.” Therefore continence is a most necessary way to perfection, and is a way counseled by St. Paul, “Now concerning the unmarried, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord's mercy is trustworthy” (1 Cor. 7:25).
The advantage of virginity is also shown in St. Matthew (19:10-11), when the disciples said to the Lord, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to marry,” He answered, “Not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.” In this way he showed the hardness of this way, and that the normal strength of men is insufficient to follow this way of life, and that one attains it only by a gift of God. Hence it is said in the Book of Wisdom (8:21), “I knew that I could not otherwise be continent unless God gave it; and this also was supreme wisdom, to know whose gift it was.” This saying is also in harmony with what the Apostle says (1 Cor. 7:7), “I wish that all were as I myself am” (i.e., living a life of continence), “but each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” Here he clearly explains continence as a gift of God.
But, lest on the other hand, anyone should neglect to make his own efforts to obtain this gift, the Lord exhorts to it. He does so first by way of example, saying, “There are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs”; “not,” as St. Chrysostom explains, “by mutilation, but by resisting evil thoughts.” Then Christ goes on to invite all men to follow this example, for the sake of its reward, saying, “there are some who have made themselves eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Book of Wisdom also says (4:2), “The chaste generation triumphs, crowned forever, winning the reward of undefiled conflicts.” Finally the Lord expressly exhorts men to continence, saying “He who is able to receive this, let him receive it.” “This,” says St. Jerome, “is the voice of the Lord encouraging his soldiers to win the prize of chastity. It is as if He said: he that can fight, let him fight and conquer.”
If anyone should raise as an objection the example of Abraham, and of other just men of old, who were perfect without refraining from matrimony, the answer is evident from what Augustine says in his book, On the Good of Marriage, “The continence that is a virtue is that of the mind, not of the body. And virtue is sometimes revealed in deeds, and sometimes lies disguised as a habit. The patience of John who did not suffer martyrdom was equal in merit to that of Peter who was slain; and Abraham who fathered sons, was equal in continence to the virgin John. The marriage of the one and the celibacy of the other fought, each in their season, for Christ. Therefore, any one of the faithful who observes continence may say, “I am certainly no better than Abraham; but the chastity of celibacy is superior to the chastity of married life. Abraham practiced the one actually, the other habitually. For he lived chastely as a husband, and could have lived continently had he been unmarried. The latter state, however, did not befit the time at which he lived. It is easier for me not to marry at all, (although Abraham married) than to live such a married life as he lived. Therefore, am I better than they, who could not, by continence of heart, do what I do; but I am not better than they, who, on account of the different time at which they lived, did not what I do. Had it been fitting, they, in their time, would have accomplished far better than I, that which I now do; but I, even were it now required, could not do what they achieved.”
This solution of Augustine is in harmony with what wa said above about poverty. For Abraham had so great spiritual perfection in virtue, that his spirit did not fall short of perfect love for God on account either of temporal possessions or of married life. But if another man who does not have the same spiritual virtues, strives to attain perfection, while retaining riches and entering into marriage, his error in presuming to treat Our Lord’s words as of small account will soon be demonstrated.
Helps for Preserving Chastity
Since chastity is so difficult a virtue that, in Our Lord’s words, not all men “take it,” but those only “to whom it is given,” it is necessary for those who desire to live a life of continence, so to conduct themselves as to avoid all that might prove an obstacle in the prosecution of their design. Now there are three principal hindrances to continence. The first arises from the body. The second from the mind. The third from external circumstances, whether they be of persons or of things.
The body is an obstacle to continence. As St. Paul says, “The flesh lusts against the Spirit” (Gal. 5:17), and “the works of the flesh are fornication, uncleanness, unchastity and the like.” Concupiscence is that law of the flesh, of which, in his epistle to the Romans, St. Paul says, “I see another law in my members fighting against the law of my mind” (Rom. 7:23). Now the more the flesh is pampered, by superabundance of food, and by effeminacy of life, the more will its concupiscence increase. For, as St. Jerome says, “A man heated with wine will quickly give the rein to lust.” The book of Proverbs warns us against wine as “a luxurious thing” (Prov. 20:1). Job, again, tells us that Behemoth (by whom Satan is signified) “sleeps under the shadow, in the covert of the reed and in moist places” (chap. 40:16). St. Gregory (33 Moral.) thus interprets this passage. “Moist places,” he says, “betoken voluptuous works. We do not slip on dry ground; but, we have no sure foothold on slippery soil. Hence, those men pursue the journey of this present life in moist places, who cannot hold themselves upright in justice.” He, then, who desires to undertake a life of continence, must chastise his flesh, by abstention from pleasure, and by fasts, vigils, and such like exercises.
St. Paul sets before us his own conduct as an example in this respect, “Every one who strives for mastery, refrains himself from all things... I chastise my body and bring it into subjection, lest, perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway” (1 Cor. 9:25), What the Apostle practiced in deed, he taught in word. In his Epistle to the Romans, after his warning against “chambering and impurities,” he concludes, “make no provision for the flesh in its concupiscences” (Rom 13:14) He rightly lays stress upon the concupiscences of the flesh, i.e. its desire for pleasure; for it is incumbent on us to make provision for what is necessary for our body, and St. Paul himself says, “No man ever hated his own flesh, but he nourishes and cherishes it.” (Eph. 5:29)
An obstacle to continence arises also from the mind, if we dwell on unchaste thoughts. The Lord says by His prophet, “Take away the evil of your devices from my eyes” (Isa. 1:16). For, evil thoughts often lead to evil deeds. Hence the Prophet Micah says, “Woe to you who devise that which is unprofitable,” and he immediately continues, “and work evil in your beds” (Micah 2:1). Amongst all evil thoughts, those which most powerfully incline unto sin, are thoughts concerning carnal gratification. Philosophers assign two reasons for this fact. First, they say, that as concupiscence is innate in man, and grows with him from youth upwards, he is easily carried away by it, when his imagination sets it before him. Hence Aristotle says, that “we cannot easily judge of pleasure, unless we enjoy it.” (Ethics II) The second reason is given by the same philosopher, “Pleasure is more voluntary in particular cases than in general” (Ethics III). It is clear that by dallying with a thought we descend to particulars; hence, by daily thoughts we are incited to lust. On this account St. Paul warns us to “Flee from fornication” (1 Cor. 6:18); for, as the Gloss says, “It is permissible to await a conflict with other vices; but this one must be shunned; for in no other means can it be overcome.”
But, as there are many obstacles in the way of chastity, there are also many remedies against such obstacles. The first and chief remedy is to keep the mind busied in prayer and in the contemplation of Divine things. This lesson is taught us in St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians (Eph 5:18), wherein he says, “Be not drunk with wine wherein is luxury; but be filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual canticles” (which pertain to contemplation), “singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord” (whereby prayer is implied). Hence in Isaiah, the Lord says, “For by my praise I will bridle you, lest you should perish” (Isa 48:9). For the divine praise is, as it were, a bridle on the soul, checking it from sin.
The second remedy against lust is the study of the Scriptures. “Love the study of Holy Writ,” says St. Jerome to the monk Rusticus, “and you will not love the vices of the flesh.”’ And St. Paul in his exhortation to Timothy says, Be an example of the faithful in word, in conversation, in charity, in faith, in chastity,” immediately adding, “Till I come, attend unto reading” (1 Tim. iv. 12).
The third preservative against concupiscence is to occupy the mind with good thoughts. St. Chrysostom, in his commentary on the Gospel of St. Matthew, says that, “physical mutilation is not such a curb to temptation, and such a source of peace to the mind, as is a habit of bridling the thoughts.” St. Paul also says to the Philippians, “For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things” (Phil 4:8).
The fourth help to chastity is to shun idleness, and to engage in bodily toil. We read in the book of Sirach, “Idleness has taught much evil.” (Sir 33:29) Idleness is pre-eminently an incentive to sins of the flesh. Hence Ezechiel says, “Behold, this was the iniquity of Sodom your sister, pride, fullness of bread, abundance, and idleness.” (16:49) St. Jerome likewise writes, in his letter to the monk Rusticus, “Do some work, that so the devil may always find you employed.”
A fifth remedy for concupiscence lies in certain kinds of mental disquietude. St. Jerome relates, in the epistle quoted above, that, in a congregation of cenobites there dwelt a young man who could not, by means of fasting or any laborious work, free himself from temptations of the flesh. The superior of the monastery, seeing that the youth was on the point of yielding, adopted the following means for his relief. He commanded one of the most discreet among the fathers to constantly upbraid the young man, to load him with insults and reproach, and, after treating him thus, to lodge complaints against him with the Superior. Witnesses were called, who all took the senior father’s part, This treatment was continued for a year. At the end of that time, the superior questioned the youth about his old train of thought. “Father,” was the reply, “I am scarcely permitted to live. How, in such straits, shall I be inclined to sin?”
A great obstacle to continence arises from extrinsic circumstances, such as constant intercourse with women. We read in Sirach, “Many have perished by the beauty of a woman, and hereby lust is enkindled as a fire..., for her conversation burns as fire.” (Sir 9:9) And, in the same chapter, the following safeguard is proposed against these dangers: “Do not look upon a woman who has a mind for many, lest you fall into her snares. Do not frequent the company of a dancer, and do not listen to her lest you perish by the force of her charms.” Again, “Do not gaze on everybody’s beauty; and do not tarry among women. For from garments comes a moth, and from a woman the iniquity of a man” (Sir 42:12). St. Jerome, in his book against Vigilantius, writes that a monk, knowing his own frailty, and how fragile is the vessel which he carries, will fear to slip or stumble, lest he fall and be broken. Hence, he will chiefly avoid gazing at women, and especially at young ones, lest he be caught by the eyes of a harlot, and lest beauty of form lead him on to unlawful embraces.
Abbot Moses, in his conferences to the fathers, says that, in order to preserve purity of heart, “we ought to seek solitude and to practice fasting, watching, and bodily labor: to wear scant clothing; and to attend to reading; in order, by these means, to be able to keep our heart uncontaminated by passion, and to ascend to a high degree of charity.” It is for this reason, that such exercises are practiced in the religious life. Perfection does not consist in them; but they are, so to speak, instruments whereby perfection is acquired. Abbot Moses, therefore, continues, “Fasting, vigils, hunger, meditation on the scriptures, nakedness, and the privation of all possessions, are not themselves perfection; but they are the instruments of perfection. The end of discipline does not lie in them; but, by their means we arrive at the end.”
But, perchance, someone may object, that it is possible to acquire perfection without fasting or vigils or the like, for we read that “the Son of Man came eating and drinking” (Matt. 11:19), nor did His disciples fast, as did the Pharisees, and the followers of St. John. To this argument we find in the Gloss the following answer: “John drank no wine nor strong drink; for abstinence increases merit, though nature has no power to do so. But, why should the Lord, to Whom it belongs to forgive sin, turn away from sinners who feast, when he is able to make them more righteous than those who fast?” The disciples and Christ had no need to fast; for the presence of the Bridegroom gave them more strength than the followers of John gained by fasting. Hence our Lord says (Matt. 9:15), “But the days will come when the Bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast.” St. Chrysostom makes the following comment on these words, “Fasting is not naturally grievous, save to those whose weakness is indisposed to it. They who desire to contemplate heavenly wisdom rejoice in fasting. Now, as when our Lord spoke the words we have just quoted, the disciples were still weak in virtue, it was not the fitting season to bring sadness upon them. It was more meet to wait until they were strengthened in faith. They were dispensed from fasting, not by reason of their gluttony, but by a certain privilege.”
St. Paul, however, writing to the Corinthians, expressly shows how fasting enables men to avoid sin, and to acquire perfection. He says, “Giving no offense to any man, that our ministry be not blamed; but in all things let us exhibit ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in tribulation, in necessities, in distress, in stripes, in prisons, in seditions, in labors, in watchings, in fastings, in chastity” (2 Cor 6:3).
The Third Way to Perfection, Which is the Denial of Our Own Will
It is not only necessary for the perfection of charity that a man should sacrifice his exterior possessions: he must also, in a certain sense, relinquish himself. Dionysius, in De Divinis Nominibus IV, says that, “divine love causes a man to be out of himself, meaning thereby, that this love suffers him no longer to belong to himself but to Him whom he loves.”St. Paul, writing to the Galatians, illustrates this state by his own example, saying, “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20), as if he did not count his life as his own, but as belonging to Christ, and as if he spurned all that he possessed, in order to cleave to Him. He further shows that this state reaches perfection in certain souls; for he says to the Colossians, “For you are dead, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Again, he exhorts others to the same sublimity of love, in his second Epistle to the Corinthians, “And Christ died for all, that they also who live, may not now live to themselves, but unto Him who died for them, and rose again” (2 Cor 5:15). Therefore, when our Lord had said, “If any man comes to me, and does not hate his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters,” He added something greater than all these, saying, “yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). He teaches the same thing in the Gospel of St. Matthew when He says, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” (Mat 16:24).
This practice of salutary self-abnegation, and charitable self-hatred, is, in part, necessary for all men in order to salvation, and is, partly, a point of perfection. As we have already seen from the words of Dionysius quoted above, it is in the nature of divine love that he who loves should belong, not to himself, but, to the one beloved. It is necessary, therefore, that self-abnegation and self-hatred be proportionate to the degree of divine love existing in an individual soul. It is essential to salvation that a man should love God to such a degree, as to make Him his end, and to do nothing which he believes to be opposed to the Divine love. Consequently, self-hatred and self-denial are necessary for salvation. Hence St. Gregory says, in his Homily, “We relinquish and deny ourselves when we avoid what we were wont (through the old man dwelling in us) to be, and when we strive after that to which (by the new man) we are called.” In another homily he likewise says, “We hate our own life when we do not condescend to carnal desires, but resist the appetites and pleasures of the flesh.”
But in order to attain perfection, we must further, for the love of God, sacrifice what we might lawfully use, in order, thus to be more free to devote ourselves to Him. It follows, therefore, that self-hatred, and self-denial, pertain to perfection. We see that our Lord speaks of them as if they belonged to it. For, just as in the Gospel of St. Matthew he says, “If you would be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give to the poor,” (Mat 19:21) but does not lay any necessity on us to do so, leaving it to our own will, so He likewise says, “if any man would come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matt. 16:24). St. Chrysostom thus explains these words, “Christ does not make his saying compulsory; He does not say, ‘whether you like it or not, you must bear these things.’” In the same manner, when He says: “If any man will come after Me and hate not his father” etc. (Luke 14:28), He immediately asks, “Which of you having a mind to build a tower, does not first sit down, and reckon the charges that are necessary, whether) he have enough to finish it?” St. Gregory in his Homily thus expounds these words, “The precepts which Christ gives are sublime, and, therefore, the comparison between them and the building of a high tower shortly follows them.” And he says again, “That young man could not have had enough to finish his tower who, when he heard the counsel to leave all things, went away sad.” We may hence understand, that these words of our Lord refer, in a certain manner, to a counsel of perfection.
The martyrs carried out this counsel of perfection most perfectly. Of them St. Augustine says (in his sermon De martyribus, that “none sacrifice so much as those who sacrifice themselves.” The martyrs of Christ, denying themselves, did, in a certain manner, hate their lives, for the love of Christ. St. Chrysostom, again, says, writing on the Gospel of St. Matthew, “He who denies another, be it his brother, or his servant, or whomsoever it may be, will not assist him if he sees him suffering from the scourge or any other torture. And we, in like manner, ought to have so little regard for our body, that, if men should scourge, or in any other way maltreat, us, we ought not to spare ourselves.”
Our Lord would not have us to think that we are to deny ourselves, only so far as to endure insults and hard words. He shows us that we are to deny ourselves unto death, even unto the shameful death of the cross. For He says: “Let him take up his cross and follow Me.” We, therefore, say that the martyrs did a most perfect work; for they renounced, for the love of God, life itself, which others hold so dear, that, for its sake, they are content to part with all temporal goods, and are willing to purchase it by any sacrifice whatsoever. For a man will prefer to lose friends and wealth, and to suffer sickness, or even slavery, rather than to be deprived of life. Conquerors will grant to their defeated foes the privilege of life, in order that they may keep them subject to them in slavery. Satan said to the Lord, “Skin for skin, and all that a man has he will give for life” (Job 2:4), i.e. to preserve his body.
Now, the more dearly a thing is loved according to nature, the more perfect it is to despise it, for the sake of Christ. Nothing is dearer to any man than the freedom of his will, whereby he is lord of others, can use what he pleases, can enjoy what he wills, and is master of his own actions. Just, therefore, as a person who relinquishes his wealth, and leaves those to whom be is bound by natural ties, denies these things and persons; so, he who renounces his own will, which makes him master, does truly deny himself. Nothing is so repugnant to human nature as slavery; and, therefore, there is no greater sacrifice (except that of life), which one man can make for another, than to give himself up to bondage for the sake of, that other. Hence, the younger Tobias said to the angel, “if I should give myself to be your servant, I should not make a worthy return for your care” (Tobit 9:2).
Some men deprive themselves, for the love of God, of some particular use of their free will, binding themselves by vow, to do, or not to do, some specific thing. A vow imposes a certain obligation on him that makes it; so that, for the future, he is not at liberty to do, or not to do, what was formerly permissible to him; for he is bound to accomplish his vow. Thus, we read in Ps. 65. 13, “I will pay you my vows which my lips have uttered,” and again, “If you have vowed anything to God, defer not to pay it; for an unfaithful and foolish promise displeases him” (Eccles. 5:3).
Others there are, however, who make a complete sacrifice of their own will, for the love of God, submitting themselves to another by the vow of obedience, of which virtue Christ has given us a sublime example. For, as we read in the Epistle to the Romans, “As by the disobedience of one man, many were made sinners; so also by the obedience of one, many shall be made just” (Rom 5:19). Now this obedience consists in the denial of our own will. Hence, our Lord said, “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from Me: nevertheless not as I will but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Again He said, “I came down from Heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent Me” (John 6:38). By these words He shows us, that, as He renounced His own will, submitting it to the Divine will, so we ought wholly to subject our will to God, and to those whom He has set over us as His ministers. To quote the words of St. Paul, "obey your prelates and be subject to them" (Heb. 13:17).
These Three Ways to Perfection Pertain Properly to the Religious State
We find the three ways to perfection in religious life, embodied in the three vows of perpetual poverty, chastity, and obedience. Religious follow the first road to perfection by the vow of poverty, whereby they renounce all property. By the vow of chastity, whereby they renounce marriage, they enter on the second road to perfection. They set forth on the third road to perfection, by the vow of obedience, whereby they sacrifice their own will. Now these three vows well beseem the religious life. For, as St. Augustine says in City of God X, “The word religion means, not any sort of worship, but the worship of God.” And Tully says, in his Rhetoric, that “religion is a virtue, paying worship and reverence to a certain higher nature which men term the Divine nature.”
Now the worship which is due to God alone, consists in the offering of sacrifice. Such sacrifices may consist in external things, when they are given for the love of God. Thus, St. Paul says, “Do not forget to do good and to impart; for by such sacrifices God’s favor is obtained” (Hebrews 13:3). We also offer to God the sacrifice of our own bodies, when, as St. Paul says, “we crucify the flesh with its vices and concupiscences” (Gal. 5:24), or, when we obey his exhortation to the Romans, “Present your bodies a living , sacrifice, holy, pleasing, unto God” (Rom 12:1). There is, again, a third and most agreeable sacrifice to God, spoken of in the 50th Psalm, “a sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit” (Psa 50:19).
The difference, says St. Gregory, in his Commentary on Ezechiel, between a sacrifice and a holocaust is, that, whereas every holocaust is a sacrifice, every sacrifice is not a holocaust, In a sacrifice a part of the victim was immolated; but in a holocaust the entire offering was consumed.” When, therefore, a man vows one thing to God, and does not vow another, he offers a sacrifice. When, however, he dedicates to the Almighty all that he has, all that he takes pleasure in, and his entire life, he is offering a holocaust.” This he does, most perfectly, by the three religious vows. Hence, it is clear that the name of religiousis strictly applied, according to the very meaning of the word, to those who pay their vows as a holocaust to God.
According to the Levitical law the offering of sacrifice was ordained for the atonement of sin. Again, in Psalm Iv., immediately after the verse, “the things you say in your hearts, be sorry for them upon your beds,” we read, “offer up the sacrifice of justice,” that is to say (as the Gloss explains), “perform works of justice after your lamentations of penitence.” Since, then, a holocaust is a perfect sacrifice, a man who makes the religious vows, (thereby offering, of his own will, a holocaust to God), makes perfect satisfaction for his sins. Hence we see, that the religious life, is not only the perfection of charity, but likewise the perfection of penitence, since, however heinous may be the sins committed by a man, he cannot be enjoined, as a penance for them, to enter religious life; for the religious state transcends all satisfaction. We see (in Gratian, 33, Quest. II. cap. Admonere, that Astulplus, who had killed his wife, was advised to go into a monastery as the easiest and best course to pursue; for, if he remained in the world, a very severe penance would be imposed upon him.
The vow which, of all the three religious vows, belongs most peculiarly to the religious life, is that of obedience. This is clear for several reasons. First, because, by obedience man sacrifices to God his own will; by chastity, on the other hand, he offers his body, and by poverty his external possessions. Now, since the body is worth more than material goods the vow of chastity is superior in merit to that of poverty, but the vow of obedience is of more value than either of the other two. Secondly, because it is by his own will that a man makes use either of his body or his goods: therefore, he who sacrifices his own will, sacrifices everything else that he has. Again, the vow of obedience is more universal than is that of either poverty or chastity, and hence it includes them both. This is the reason why Samuel preferred obedience to all other offerings and sacrifices, saying, “Obedience is better than sacrifices” (1 Kings 15:22).
Against the Errors of Those Who Presume to Detract From the Merit of Obedience, Or of Vows
Satan, in his jealousy of human perfection, has raised up several foolish and misleading men, who, by their teaching, have shown themselves hostile to the different modes of perfection of which we have been speaking. Vigilantius attacked the first counsel of perfection. St. Jerome thus combats his objections to it: “Some men hold that they act more virtuously who keep the use of their fortune, and divide the fruit of their possessions piecemeal among the poor, than they do who sell their goods, and, at once, give all they possess to the poor. The fallacy of this assertion is proved not by my words but by those of the Lord Himself, “If you would be perfect, go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and come follow me.” Christ is here speaking to one who desires to be perfect, and who, with the Apostles, leaves father, ship, and net. The man who is praised for retaining the use of his possessions is in the second or third degree of perfection; and we know that the first degree is preferable to either the second or the third.” Hence, in order to exclude error on this point, we find in the book, On Dogmas of the Church the following words: “It is good to distribute one’s goods prudently among the poor; but it is better if it be done with the intention of following the Lord, to give them all away at once, and, in our dealings with Christ, to be free from all earthly solicitude.”
Jovinian argued against the second counsel of perfection, and declared that marriage was equal in merit to virginity. St. Jerome refuted his opinions, in the book which he wrote against him. St. Augustine, likewise, thus speaks of his error, in his book Retractations: “The heresy of Jovinian asserted that the merit of consecrated virgins was equaled by conjugal chastity. Hence, it is said that in Rome, certain nuns who had not hitherto been suspected of immorality, contracted marriage. Our holy mother the Church has always stoutly resisted this error. In the book On Dogmas of the Church we find the following declaration: “It is not Christian but Jovinian to set virginity on a level with matrimony, or to deny an increase of merit to those who, for the sake of mortifying the flesh, refrain from wine or flesh meat.”
But the devil is not content with these old devices. Even in our own days he has stirred up some men to declaim against the vow of obedience and all other vows, and to preach that good works are more meritorious when performed without obedience or vow, than when executed under such obligations. Others, again, say that a vow made to enter religious life may, without danger to salvation, be broken, and they strive to confirm their opinion by frivolous and empty arguments. For they contend that an act is meritorious to the degree that it is voluntary, and that, if such an act is less voluntary to the degree that it is more necessary, good works done at a man’s pleasure, without the constraint of obedience or vow of any kind, are worth more than such as are performed under the obligation of a vow, either of obedience or of some other nature. They quote in support of their teaching the words of Prosper (De vita contemplativa II), “We ought to fast and abstain, not as though forced by necessity, lest by acting reluctantly we should be called unwilling rather than devout,” They might also bring forward the words of St. Paul (2 Cor. 9:7), “Every one as he has determined in his heart, not with sadness or of necessity; for God loves a cheerful giver.”
We must now show the fallacy of these arguments, and confute this foolish reasoning. First, in order to manifest the error of these arguments we will quote the Gloss on the verse of Ps. 75:12, “Vow and pay to the Lord your God.” “We must observe,”says the Gloss, “that some vows made to God are common to all men, and are necessary to salvation: such are our Baptismal promises and the like, which we should be bound to keep, even if we had not made them. The verse, ‘Vow and pay,’ alludes to such vows as these, and is addressed to all men. There are also other vows made by individuals, such as chastity, virginity, and the like. The Psalmist invites us, but does not command us, to make such vows as these, and to pay them when we have made them. For the emission of a vow is a decision of the will; but the payment of such a vow is a decided necessity.”
Hence a vow is, in one sense, a matter partly of counsel, and, in another sense, a matter of precept. But, from whichever point of view we consider it, we shall see plainly that good works performed under vow, are more meritorious than those executed without a vow. For, it is clear, that, in all that is necessary for salvation, all men are bound by the precept of God; neither would it be right to think that God would give a command without a purpose. For, as St. Paul says (1 Tim. 1:5), “Now the end of the Commandment is charity.” In vain, then, would God have given a commandment concerning the performance of anything, if the execution of such a thing had not tended more towards the increase of charity than its omission would have done. Now we are not only bidden by precept to believe, and forbidden to steal, but, further, we are commanded to make a vow to believe and to abstain from theft. Therefore, believing on account of our vow, and abstention from theft on the same account, tend more to augment charity than would be the case if we had no vow. Again, the more anything increases charity, the more it is praiseworthy and meritorious. Hence it is more praiseworthy and meritorious to perform any work under vow, than without such an obligation. Once more, the counsel is given to us not only to preserve virginity or chastity, but (as the Gloss points out) to make a vow to do so. But since, as we have said, a counsel is only given concerning that which is the greater good, it must be better to observe chastity under a vow than without one.
The same argument holds good concerning the other counsels, Now, amongst other good works virginity meets with special commendation. Our Lord speaking of it says, “He who can take it, let him take it” (Matt. 19:12). It is, however, the vow of virginity which renders that state so praiseworthy. St. Augustine says, in his book, De virginitate, “Virginity is honorable, not because it is virginity, but because it is consecrated to God, and because it vows to Him, and preserves for Him, the continence of piety.” And, again, he says, “We do not praise virgins because they are virgins, but because they are consecrated to God by the holy continence of virginity.” Hence we see that being performed under a vow renders good works more meritorious.
Again, every finite good acquires additional value by bearing a promise of some other good. There is no doubt that the promise of good is in itself a good. Hence, when one man makes a promise to another, he is considered to confer some advantage upon him; and he to whom the promise is made returns thanks. Now a vow, is a promise made to God, as we see from Ecclesiastes, “If you have vowed anything to God, defer not to pay it; for an unfaithful and foolish promise displeases him” (Eccl. 5:3). It is better, therefore, to make a vow and to perform it, than simply to execute a good work without being bound thereto by vow.
Again, the more one person gives to another, the more he deserves from that other. Now, he that does a good work without a vow, offers to God only that single act which he performs for love of him: he, on the contrary, who not only accomplishes a good work, but also makes a vow to perform it, gives to God not only that which he does, but also the power whereby he does it. For he puts it out of his power not to do such a good work; although, before making his vow, he might legitimately have omitted it. Hence he merits far more from God who acts under vow than he who is not under any obligation.
Once more, the merit of a good work is increased in proportion as the will is confirmed in good, just as the heinousness of sin is aggravated in proportion to the obstinate malice of the will. Now it is evident that he who makes a vow confirms his will to accomplish that which he promises; and that when he accomplishes the good work which he has vowed to do, its consummation proceeds from the strength which his will has acquired. Just as the gravity of a crime proceeds from the fact that he who commits it acts from a determined purpose, or, as is usually said, sins out of malice; so the merit of any good work is enhanced by the fact that it is done under a vow.
Again, the more excellent the virtue from which any action proceeds, the more meritorious does that action become, since an action derives all its merit from the virtue which inspires it. Now, it may sometimes happen that an action of inferior virtue may have its origin in a superior virtue. For example we might do an act of justice from a motive of charity. Hence, it is far best to perform acts of inferior virtue from motives of superior virtue; just as an act of justice is enhanced in value if it be performed out of charity. Now, we know that the particular good works that we accomplish proceed from inferior virtues; fasting, for instance, is an act of abstemiousness; continence proceeds from chastity, and so of the rest. But, on the other hand, a vow is, strictly speaking, an act of latria, which, undoubtedly, is a higher virtue than abstemiousness, chastity, or any other virtue. For it is more meritorious to worship God, than to order ourselves rightly, towards, either our neighbor or ourselves. Hence chastity, abstemiousness, or any other virtue, inferior to latria, derives additional value if it be performed under a vow.
This opinion is supported by the pious desire of the Church which invites men to make a vow to go to the Holy Land, or elsewhere, in her defense, and grants indulgences and other privileges to such as make this vow. She would certainly not invite the faithful to bind themselves by vow, were good works done without such obligation more meritorious than those done under vow. Did she act thus, she would be disobeying the exhortation of St. Paul, “Be zealous for the better gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31). If the good works done without a vow were the most praiseworthy, the Church, far from encouraging her children to bind themselves by vow, would withhold them from so doing, either by prohibition or dissuasion; and, as it is her desire that the faithful should be in the most meritorious state, she would absolve them all from their vows, in order, as far as possible, to enhance the merit of their good works. Hence, the opinion that vows detract from the value of good works, is repugnant to the spirit of the Church, and must be rejected as heretical.
All the arguments alleged in favor of this opinion, may be easily answered. First, the proposition that a good work performed under vow is less voluntary than one done without an obligation is by no means universally true. For many persons perform what they have vowed to do, so promptly, that even had they not already made vows, they would not only have done those same good works, but they would have also vowed to do them. Secondly, granted that a deed performed under vow, or under obedience, be in a sense involuntary, nevertheless, he who accomplishes such a deed, does so from the necessity of his vow or of obedience, which he has no desire to violate. Hence he acts in a more praiseworthy and meritorious manner, than if he were performing a good work at his own pleasure and without a vow. And, even if he have not a will to do some particular thing (e.g. to fast), he, nevertheless, desires to accomplish his vow, or to practice obedience, which is much more meritorious than fasting. Hence, he who fasts out of obedience performs a more acceptable work than he who fasts by his own desire. And the will to fulfill a vow, or to practice obedience, is held to be so much the more perfect in proportion as the deed accomplished for the sake of obedience, or of keeping a vow, is repugnant to nature. Hence St. Jerome says to Rusticus, “My principal exhortation to you is, not to be guided by your own judgment.” Then he adds, “Nor should you act according to your own will; but you shall eat as you are bidden; you shall have as much as is given you; you shall wear the raiment appointed you; you shall perform the whole task allotted to you; you shall be subject to him to whom you would rather not submit; you shall go weary to bed; you shall fall asleep on your feet and shall be forced to rise before you have slumbered your fill.”
The passage just cited shows us, that the merit of a good work consists in a man doing or suffering something for the love of God that is contrary to his own will. For alacrity of will and fervor of divine love are chiefly shown when that which we do for God is repugnant to our own inclinations. The martyrs are commended inasmuch as, for the love of God, they endured many things repugnant to nature. Hence, when Eleazar was tortured he said, “I suffer grievous pains in body: but in soul I am well content to suffer these things because I fear you.”
It is argued that a man may not retain the will to fulfill his vow, or to practice obedience; but God, as we know, judges the heart, and will hold such an one unfaithful to his vow and to obedience. If a man perform what he has vowed, or obey an order, solely out of motives of fear or human respect he gains no merit before God; for he acts, not from a desire to please Him, but solely under compulsion. Nevertheless, his vow, if it were made out of charity, is not unprofitable to him; for he has merited more by making it, than others have done by fasting without any vow. Moreover, the merit of his vow remains to him if he repent of the infidelity of his heart. This is our answer to the authorities adduced. They apply to the cases wherein men keep their vows under the compulsion of human motives, such as fear, or shame; but they do not speak of the necessity whereby men are constrained, from motives of Divine love, to do or suffer what is naturally repugnant to them, in order thereby to fulfill the will of God. This is made clear by the words of St. Paul, "Not with sadness or of necessity" (2 Cor. 9:7). For human necessity induces sadness, whereas the constraining of divine love dissipates or lessens it.
We may, in support of what we have said, quote the words of Prosper. “Lest we should act not devoutly but unwillingly. For the necessity which proceeds from divine love does not diminish love, but increases it.” And St. Augustine, in his epistle to Armentarius and Paulina, shows that this necessity is desirable and praiseworthy. “Since,” he says, “you now have bound yourself, it is not lawful for you to act otherwise. Before you were under a vow, you were free to do as you would: now, however, you are subject to your vow. The freedom by which it happens that what is paid with gain is not owed, is not a freedom to be rejoiced over. But now that your promise is made to God, I do not invite you to great justice (i.e. to the chastity which you have vowed), but I warn you against great iniquity. For, if you do not perform what you have vowed, you will not remain as you were before your vow. Before your vow you were lower than at present, not worse; now, if (which God forbid) you break your faith with Him, you will be as much the more accursed as you will be blessed if you keep your vow. Do not regret that you have vowed, rather rejoice that now you are not permitted what you earlier would have been permitted with detriment to you. Act firmly and fulfill in deed what you have promised by word. He will help you who asks for your vows. Happy is the necessity that compels to better things!” (Epistle 127). From these words we see, how erroneous is the doctrine, that persons are not bound to keep a vow that they may have made to enter religious life.
The Perfection of Love of Neighbor That is Necessary for Salvation
[For a summary of this chapter, see this post on degrees of love of neighbor.
Having considered the perfection of charity with regard to the love of God, we have now to consider the perfection of charity with regard to love of neighbor. Just as with the love of God, so with the love of neighbor we find several degrees of perfection. For there is a certain perfection required for salvation, which falls under the necessity of precept, and there is a further, superabundant perfection, which falls under counsel. The perfection of love of neighbor necessary for salvation should be seen from the measure of loving that is prescribed to us in the precept about loving our neighbor, when it is said: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." For since God is the universal good existing above us, for the perfection of love of God it is necessary for man's whole heart to in some way be turned toward God, as is evident from what was said above. And therefore the measure of love of God is fittingly expressed by the words: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart." But our neighbor is not the universal good existing above us, but a particular good constituted below us, and therefore the mode determined for us is not that one love one's neighbor "with one's whole heart", but "as one self". Three things about love of neighbor follow from this measure. (1) First, it should be true love; for since it belongs to the account of love or affection (dilectionis sive amoris) that one will good for the one whom one loves, it is clear that the movement of affection or love has two objects: him for whom one wills good, and the good one wants for him. And though both of these objects are said to be loved, that is truly loved for whom one wants the good, while the good that one wants for him is said to be loved as it were accidentally, inasmuch as it by way of consequence falls under the act of love. For it is unfitting to say that one properly and truly loves a thing of which he desires the destruction. But there are many goods that are consumed in being turned to our use, e.g., wine, when we drink it, or a horse, when we expose it to the danger of battle. From this it is clear that when we desire to turn things to our use, we truly and properly love ourselves, and are said to love those things only per accidens, and as it were improperly.
Now it is manifest that each person naturally loves himself in this sense, that he desires goods for himself, such as happiness, virtue, knowledge, and the things required for sustaining life. Whatever things, however, someone employs for his own use, he does not truly love, but rather himself. Now as we employ other things for our use, so also do we use men themselves. Therefore if we only love our neighbors inasmuch as they are useful for us, it is clear that we do not truly love them, nor do we love them as ourselves, and this kind of love is found in the friendship of utility and of pleasure. For he who loves someone because he is useful or pleasurable to him, is proven to love himself for whom he seeks the pleasurable or useful good from the other, not him from whom he seeks it, except in the sense in which we are said to love wine or a horse, which we do not love as ourselves, so as to desire good things for them, but want them rather as being things good for us.
In the first place, then, when a man is commanded to love his neighbor as himself, the truth of love is demonstrated, which charity has to possess. For charity comes "from a good heart and a pure conscience and an unfeigned faith," as the Apostle says in 1 Timothy 1:5. And therefore, as he says, "charity does not seek her own" (1 Cor 13:5), but desires good things for those whom it loves. And he gives himself as an example of this when he says "Not seeking my own benefit, but that of the many, that they might be saved" (1 Cor 10:33).
In the second place, the mode determined for us indicates that love of neighbor should be just and right. For love is just and right when the greater good is preferred to the lesser good. Now it is manifest that among all human goods the good of the soul holds the first place, after this comes the good of the body, and in the last place the good that consists in exterior things. Hence we also see this order of loving himself to be naturally given to man. For there is no one who would not prefer to be deprived of his bodily eyes than of the use of reason, which is the eye of the mind. Again, a man will give up all exterior goods in order to safeguard or preserve his bodily life, according to Job 2:4, "skin for skin, and all a man has he will give for his life." This natural order of love of self fails in few or no instances with regard to the natural goods we have given as examples. But there are some who pervert this order of love with respect to goods beyond these. For example, when, for the sake of bodily health or pleasure, many reject the good of virtue of knowledge, or when they expose their body to dangers and immoderate hardships to gain exterior goods, their love is not right; indeed, as I will say further on, it is demonstrated that they do not truly love even themselves. For each thing seems to be whatever is principal in it; hence a state is said to do something that its leaders do. Now it is manifest that the soul is principal in man, and among the parts of the soul reason, or intellect, is principal. He, therefore, who by clinging to bodily or sensible goods, despises the good of the rational soul, manifests that he does not truly love himself. For this reason the Psalm says: "He who loves wickedness, hates his soul."
Thus rightness regarding love of neighbor is established, when each person is commanded to love his neighbor as himself, so that he desires goods for his neighbor in that order in which he ought to desire them for himself: in the first place spiritual goods, then goods of the body, and lastly those that consist in exterior things. But if someone desires exterior goods for his neighbor that are contrary to bodily health, or bodily good contrary to spiritual health, he does not love him as himself.
Thirdly by this measure it is commanded that love of neighbor be holy. For that is called holy which is ordered to God; thus an altar is called holy as being dedicated to God, and other things which are devoted to the divine service. Now that someone love another as himself, comes about because they have some communion with each other; for inasmuch as two things have something in common, they are considered as one, and so each one stands to to the other as to itself.
There are multiple ways for two things to have something in common. Some have their natural generation in common, as when they come from the same parents; others have a civil order in common, as when they are citizens of the same state, under the same leader and governed by the same laws; again, agreement or communion may be found according to some task or business, as those who are fellows in business, or in war, or in construction, or something of this kind. Love of neighbor following from such communion can be honest and right, but are not therefore said to be holy; love of neighbor is holy only by being ordered to God; for as men who are fellow citizens of a state have in common being subject to one leader, by whose laws they are governed, so also all men, inasmuch as they naturally seek happiness, have in a general way something in common in relation to God as the ultimate principle of all things, the source of happiness, and the legislator of all justice.
We should note, however, that right reason requires us to prefer the common good to the private good [bono proprio]; hence the parts of each thing are ordered by a certain natural instinct to the good of the whole. A sign of this is that someone exposes his hand to a blow to preserve the heart or head, on which man's whole life depends. Now in the aforesaid communion, in which all men share the same end, happiness, each man is considered as a certain part, while the common good is God himself, in whom the happiness of all consists. Thus according to right reason and natural instinct each one orders himself to God as each part is ordered to the good of the whole, and this is accomplished by charity, by which a man loves himself for God's sake.
Therefore when someone loves his neighbor for God's sake, he loves him as himself, and thereby the love itself becomes holy; hence it is said: "This commandment we have from God, that he who loves God, should love his brother also" (1 John 4:21).
The aforesaid measure of love instructs us, fourthly, that love of neighbor should be efficacious and active. For it is manifest that each one loves himself not only by wishing that it go well with him and that he be free from ill, but each one takes care, as far as he can, to procure good things for himself, and to ward off evils. Therefore a man loves his neighbor as himself when he not only has affection for him, so that he desires good things for him, but also manifests this affection in work to bring such good about; hence it is said "Not us love in word or in speech, but in deed and in truth." (1 John 3:18).
The Perfection of Love of Neighbor That Falls Under Counsel
[For a summary of this chapter, see this post on the degrees of love of neighbor.
Having considering those things by which love of neighbor is perfected with the kind of perfection necessary for salvation, we should consider the perfection of love of neighbor that exceeds this common perfection and falls under counsel.
Now this perfection shows itself in three respects
First, with respect to its extension. For the more persons to whom love is extended, the greater that love of neighbor is seen to be. Now in this extension of love, three degrees may be considered. (1) There are some who love other men either because of benefits they have conferred upon them, or because they are joined by natural kinship or by a social bond. This degree of love is limited to social friendship, and for this reason the Lord says: "If you love only those who love you, what reward will you have? Do not the publicans do this? And if you greet only brethren, what more do you do? Do not the Gentiles do this?" (Matthew 5:46) (2) There are others who extend the affection of love unto strangers, so long as there is nothing in these strangers inimical to them, and this degree of love is restricted in a certain manner within the limits of nature, for since all men have the same natural species, every man is naturally a friend to every man. And we see this clearly when one man helps another who has lost his way, helps him up if he falls, and does other things resulting from this kind of love. But since man naturally loves himself more than he loves the other, and there is the same basis for one thing's being loved and its contrary being hated, it follows that love of enemies is not included within the limits of natural love. (3) The third degree of love is that the love of neighbor be extended even to enemies, and the Lord teaches this degree of love, saying: "Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you" (Matthew 5:44), and he shows that in this lies the perfection of love, hence he concludes by saying, "be therefore perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." But that this is beyond common perfection is evident from Augustine in the Enchiridion, where he says "those belong to the perfect children of God; indeed every faith should stretch himself towards this, and guide the human spirit to this affection by prayer to God and by struggling with himself. Yet this so great good is not found in as great a multitude as we believe is heard when we pray: forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us."
It seems, though, we should consider the following: since by "neighbor" every man is understood, when it is said, "you shall love your neighbor as yourself," no exception is made, it seems that we are bound by the necessity of precept even to love enemies.
We can easily solve this difficulty if we recall what was said above about the perfection of divine love. For it was said above that when it is said, "you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart," it can be understood about the necessity of precept, and about the perfection of counsel, and further about the perfection of the enjoyer of beatitude. For if we understand "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart" in the sense that man's heart always be actually borne towards God, it pertains to the perfection of the enjoyer of beatitude, while if it is understood in the sense that man's heart accepts nothing contrary to divine love, it belongs to the necessity of precept. But that a man freely give up those things he could licitly use, in order to devote himself more readily to God, belongs to the perfection that falls under counsel.
Here, therefore, we should say that it falls under the necessity of precept that one not exclude an enemy from the common love by which one is the bound to love one's neighbors, nor accept in his heart anything contrary to this love. But that a man's sould be actually born to love of an enemy, even when it is not necessary, pertains to the perfection of counsel. For in the case of some necessity we are bound by the necessity of precept to love enemies even by way of doing something specifically for them and doing good to them, as for example if they are starving or in some other crisis. But apart from such critical situations we are not bound by the necessity of precept to show enemies specific affection or to do specific things out of love for them, as neither are we bound by the necessity of the precept to do this for all. This sort of love of enemies is derived directly from divine love alone. For in all other loves some other good moves us to loving, for example, a benefit shown us, or kinship, or civil unity, or something else of this kind. But nothing can move us to love enemies other than God. For we love them inasmuch as they are of God, as made unto his image and having the capacity for him. And since charity prefers God above all other good things, it considers the loss of any good it suffers from enemies as a reason for hating them, but considers more the divine good, so that it loves them. Hence, the more perfectly the love of God blossoms in some one, the more easily will his soul bend to loving his enemy.
On the perfection of love of enemy with regard to intensity
The perfection of love of neighbor may be considered, secondly, with regard to the intensity of love. For it is manifest that the more intensely something is loved, the more easily other things are despised on account of it. Therefore by looking at what a man despises by reason of the love of neighbor, we can see whether love of neighbor is perfect.
We find three degrees of this perfection. (1) For there are some who despise exterior goods on account of love of neighbors, in that they either bestow particular exterior goods upon their neighbors, or expend all exterior goods to supply their necessities; the Apostle seems to touch on this when he says, "if I give all I have to feed the poor" (1 Cor 13:3), and in the Song of Songs it is said, "If he man gives all the substance of his house for love, he will despise it as nothing." (Song 8:7). Hence the Lord also seems to mean this when he counsels a certain man to pursue perfection, saying, "If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all that you have, and give to the poor, and come, follow me" (Matt 19:21), where giving up all exterior goods seems to be ordered to two things: love of neighbor, when he says, "and give to the poor", and love of God, when he says, "follow me." The same thing also applies when someone is willing to suffer loss of external goods for the sake of love of God or neighbor, hence the Apostle commends certain persons, saying, "you accepted with joy being deprived of your goods" (Heb 10:34), and it is said: "He who neglects a loss for the sake of a friend is just" (Prov 12:26).
From this degree of perfection fall short those who do not use the goods they have to supply the needs of their neighbors suffering necessity; hence it is said: "He who has the substance of this world and sees his brother in need, and shuts his heart against him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (John 3:17)
(2) The second degree of love consists in someone's exposing his body to labors for the sake of love of neighbors; the Apostle gives himself as an example of this when he says "In labor and toil we worked day and night, lest we should be a burden to any of you" (2 Thess 3:8). It comes to the same thing when someone does not refuse tribulations and persecutions for the sake of love of neighbors, hence the Apostle says, "if we suffer tribulations, it is for your exhortation and salvation" (2 Cor 2:6), and "I labor even unto bonds as an evil doer; but the word of God is not bound. Therefore I endure all things, for the sake of the elect, that they may obtain salvation." (2 Tim 2:9)
From this degree fall short those who would give up none of their pleasures or sustain any discomfort for love of others, against whom it is said, "You that sleep upon beds of ivory, and are wanton on your couches: you that eat the lambs out of the Rock, and the calves out of the midst of the herd; you that sing to the sound of the psaltery: they have thought themselves to have instruments of music like David; that drink wine in bowls, and anoint themselves with the best ointments; and they are not concerned for the affliction of Joseph" (Amos 6:4). And Ezechiel also says, “You have not gone up to face the enemy, nor have you set up a wall for the house of Israel, to stand in battle in the day of the Lord” (Ezech. 13:5).
(3) The third degree of love is that someone lay down his life for his friends, wherefore it is said: "In this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren" (1 John 3:16). Love cannot be intensified beyond this degree, for the Lord says "greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13). Hence the perfection of brotherly is constituted in this.
Now two things pertain to one's life (animam). The first is that it receives life from God, and with respect to this one should not lay down one's life for one's brethren. For one loves the life of one's soul to the degree that one loves God, and everyone should love God more than his neighbor; therefore one should not, [even] in order to save one's neighbor, despise the life of one's soul by sinning.
The second thing considered in one's life (anima) is it as animating the body, as the principle of human life, and in this regard one should lay down one's life for one's brethren. For we should love our neighbor more than our bodies. Hence it is fitting to lay down one's bodily life for the sake of the spiritual salvation of one's neighbors, and in the case of necessity falls under the necessity of precept, as for example, if one sees someone being led astray by unbelievers, one should expose oneself to the danger of death in order to free him from this seduction. But apart from such cases of necessity, for someone to expose himself to dangers of death for the sake of others pertains to the perfection of righteousness or the perfection of counsel, of which we find an example in the Apostle, who says "I will most gladly spend myself and be spent for your souls" (2 Cor 12:15), on which the gloss says "perfect charity is being ready even to die for one's brethren." Now slavery has a certain likeness to death, hence it is also called civil death. For life is most evident in a thing's moving itself, while what can only be moved by another, seems to be as if dead. But it is manifest that a slave is not moved by himself, but only at his master's command. Hence inasmuch as a man is subject to slavery, he is in a state comparable to death. Hence the perfection of love shown by a man who exposes himself to the danger of death seems also to be shared by one, for the love of another, delivers himself to bondage, although the former seems to be more perfect, since men naturally shun death more than slavery.
On the perfection of love of enemy with regard to its effect
The perfection of love of neighbor may be considered, thirdly, with regard to its effect. For the greater the goods one bestows on neighbors, the greater love seems to be shown thereby. In this respect, too, three degrees may be found. For some seek bodily goods for their neighbors, when they clothe the naked, feed the hungry, attend to the sick, and do other things of this kind, which the Lord considers as done to himself, as is evident from Matthew 25. There are, again, some who bestow spiritual goods, yet ones which do not surpass the human condition; e.g., those who teach the ignorant, give advice to those in doubt and call back those going astray, who are commended in Job: "Behold, you have taught many, and you have strengthened the weary hands: your words have confirmed them that were staggering, and you have strengthened the trembling knees" (Job 4:3). There are others who bestow spiritual and divine goods that are above nature and reason, teaching of divine truth, leading people to God, and ministering to them the spiritual sacraments; the Apostle mentions these gifts, saying "he who gives you the Spirit, and works miracles among you," (Galatians 3:5) and again, "When you had received of us the word of the hearing of God, you received it, not as the word of men, but (as it is indeed) the word of God" (1 Thess 2:13), and "I have espoused you to one husband to give you as a chaste virgin to Christ," continuing "for if someone comes and preaches another Christ whom we have not preached, or if you receive another Spirit whom you have not received, or another Gospel which you have not received, you bear with him well enough" (2 Cor 11:2).
Bestowing such goods pertains to a certain singular perfection of brotherly love: for these goods join a man to his final end, in which man's supreme perfection consists; hence to show this perfection it is said: "Do you know the great paths of the clouds, and perfect knowledge?” (Job 37:16), where by the clouds, according to Gregory, holy preachers are understood. For these clouds have most subtle paths, i.e., ways of holy preaching, and perfect knowledge, when they know that nothing is of their merits, since those things which they give to their neighbors are above themselves. This perfection is increased if such spiritual goods are extended not only to one or two, but to the whole multitude; for as the Philosopher says, the good of the nation is more perfect and more divine than the good one man. Hence also the Apostle says: "Other pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ," (Eph 4:13), i.e. the Church. And again, "Since you are desirous of spirits, seek to abound unto the edifying of the Church." (1 Cor 14:12)
What is Required to Constitute the State of Perfection
As we said before, we must bear in mind that perfection does not consist only in doing a perfect work, but also in the vow to do such a work. For in each respect a counsel has been given, as we established above. He therefore who performs a perfect work because he has vowed it attains a twofold perfection. As a man who observes continence has one form of perfection, so he who obliges himself by vow to live in continence and who keeps his vow, has both the perfection of continence and the perfection of the vow.
Now the perfection that comes from a vow changes the state and condition of a man as completely as freedom and slavery are different states and condition from each other. For thus is "state" meant in Gratian, II quaestio IX, where Pope Hadrian says, “If at any time we are called upon for judgment in a capital cause, or in a cause affecting a state of life, we must act at our own discretion, and not depend upon others to examine the case.” For when a man makes a vow to observe chastity, he deprives himself of freedom to marry. But he who simply observes chastity without a vow is not deprived of his freedom. Therefore his condition has not changed, as has that of a man who has made such a vow. Again, if one man serves another, his state is not thereby changed, but it is if he enters into an obligation to serve him.
We must consider, however, that a man may deprive himself of freedom either simply speaking or in a certain respect. If he bind himself, either to God or man, to perform some specific work for some allotted time, he renounces his freedom, not simply speaking but only with regard to the particular matter about which he has put himself under an obligation. If, however, he place himself entirely at the disposal of another, reserving to himself no liberty whatsoever, he makes himself a slave simply speaking, and thereby simply speaking alters his condition. Thus, if a person make a vow to God to perform some specified work, such as a pilgrimage or a fast, he does not change his condition or state simply speaking but only in a certain respect. If he dedicate his whole life, however, to serve God by works of perfection, he simply speaking embraces the condition or state of perfection. It happens, however, that some men perform works of perfection without any vow, while others fail to do the works of perfection to which they have vowed their whole lives. Thus it is evident that persons can be perfect without being in the state of perfection, or can be in a state of perfection without being perfect.
To Be in a State of Perfection Belongs to Bishops and Religious
From what has been said it is manifest which classes of men are in a state of perfection. For it was said above that there are three ways to the perfection of divine love: (1) the giving up of exterior goods; (2) the renunciation of marriage and of earthly ties; (3) and self-denial, either by death for Christ, or by the abnegation of self-will. Therefore those who by vow dedicate their whole lives to these works of perfection, manifestly embrace the state of perfection. And, as in every religious order these three things are vowed, it is manifest that every form of religious life is a state of perfection.
Again it has been shown that three things pertain to the perfection of brotherly love: (1) to love enemies and to serve them; (2) to lay down one's life for one's brethren, either by exposing oneself to the danger of death, or by completely devoting one's life to the benefit of one's neighbors; (3) to bestow spiritual good on one's neighbors.
It is manifest that bishops are bound to these three things. For since they receive care of the whole Church, in which for the most part are found some who hate, blaspheme and persecute them, they are under an obligation to repay their enemies and persecutors with love and beneficence. We have an example of this in the Apostles, whose successors the bishops are: for dwelling among their persecutors, they sought their salvation. For this reason the Lord commands them: "Behold I send you as sheep among wolves" (Mat 10:16), so that namely, receiving bites from them, they not only should not be consumed, but should convert them. And Augustine, expounding what is said in Matthew 5:39, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, offer him the left as well," says "These words, inviting us to mercy, appeal most to such as have to minister to those whom they love, whether they be children, or men of frenzied brain. For, from such persons they suffer much; and they are prepared, if need be, to suffer more. Thus, the great Physician and Master of souls instructs His disciples, that they must bear, with serenity, the follies of those whose salvation they desire to secure. For all crime comes from weakness of mind, since no one is more innocent than him who is perfect in virtue." (On the Sermon on the Mount). For this reason the Apostle says, "We are reviled and we bless; we are persecuted and we suffer it; we are blasphemed and we try to conciliate" ( 1 Cor 4:12).
Bishops are also bound to lay down their lives for the salvation of those subject to them. For the Lord says: "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep" (John 10:11). Expounding this Gregory says: "What you have heard, beloved brethren, is an instruction for yourselves, and a danger for us," and goes on to say "There is set before us both the contempt of death, with which we ought to be inspired, and the model that we ought to imitate: first of all, in charity, to distribute our possessions to our sheep, then to serve them, if need be, even by our death", further adding, "The wolf that comes upon the sheep signifies any unjust seducer or oppressor of the faithful and the lowly. He that is no true shepherd but only bears the semblance of such, will leave his sheep and take to flight, being too fearful of death to dare to resist iniquity." From these words it is clear that the pastoral charge entails the duty to face death for the sake of the flock entrusted to them. Therefore by the office entrusted to them, they are obliged to this perfection of love, that they lay down their lives for their brethren.
Similarly the bishop is obliged by his office to bestow spiritual goods on his neighbors, being established as a certain mediator between God and man, acting in the stead of him who is the Mediator of God and man, Jesus Christ, as is said in 1 Tim 2:5. Acting as a type of him, Moses said: "I was the mediator and stood between the Lord and you at that time” (Deut. 5:1). Therefore he bears prayers and offerings to God in the name [pesona] of the people, for as is said, "every high priest taken from among men, is ordained for men in the things that appertain to God, that he may offer up gifts and sacrifices for sins" (Heb 5:1). And again, he acts in the name [persona] of God in relation to the people, when he gives them, as God's vicar, judgments, instruction, examples, and sacraments. Hence the Apostle says: "What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, I have forgiven in the person of Christ" (2 Cor 2:10), and in the same letter, "Do you want a proof that Christ is speaking in me?" And again, "If we have sown spiritual goods among you, is it a great matter if we reap your fleshly goods?" (1 Cor 9:11)
Bishops oblige themselves to this kind of perfection when they are ordained, as religious do when they make their profession; hence the Apostle says in the last chapter of 1 Timothy: "Fight the good fight of faith: lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made a good confession before many witnesses." This "good confession" according to the Gloss, is ordination. Therefore bishops are in a state of perfection, as religious are. And, as human law provides certain ceremonies for the sealing of human contracts, so also the episcopal state is assumed with a certain solemnity and benediction, as religious profession is also so celebrated. Hence Dionysius, speaking of monks, says, “On this account the holy law has given them perfecting grace, and has granted it to them with a certain sanctifying ceremonial (invocatione).” (VI. Cap. Eccles. Hierarch.)
It has occurred to me to say these things in answer to those who strive to detract from the perfection of religious life. Nevertheless, I abstain from reproaches. For, “he who utters reproach is foolish” (Prov. x. 18), and “all fools are meddling with reproaches” (Prov. xx. 3). If anyone desire to send me a reply, his words will be very welcome to me. For the surest way to elucidate truth and to confound error is by confuting the arguments brought against the truth. Solomon says, “Iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of a friend” (Prov. xxvii. 17).
And may the Lord God, blessed for ever, judge between us and them. Amen.
St. Thomas Aquinas - Texts and Articles - texts of Aquinas, articles on vocation, virtue, etc.
Religious Vocation: An Unnecessary Mystery by Richard Butler explains religious vocation in light of the teaching of Aquinas.