The principle of the interior life

Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.

It is all the more important to recall the necessity and the true nature of the interior life, because the true conception of it, as given to us in the Gospel, in the Epistles of St. Paul and in the whole of Tradition, has been partially obscured by many false ideas. In particular it is evident that the notion of the interior life is radically corrupted in the Lutheran theory of justification or conversion. According to this theory the mortal sins of the convert are not positively blotted out by the infusion of the new life of grace and charity; they are simply covered over, veiled by faith in the Redeemer, and they cease to be imputed to the person who has committed them. There is no intrinsic justification, no interior renewal of the soul; a man is reputed just merely by the extrinsic imputation of the justice of Christ. According to this view, in order to be just in the eyes of God it is not necessary to possess that infused charity by which we love God supernaturally and our fellowmen for God’s sake. Actually, according to this conception, however firmly the just man may believe in Christ the Redeemer, he remains in his sin, in his corruption or spiritual death.

This grave misconception concerning our supernatural life, reducing it essentially to faith in Christ and excluding sanctifying grace, charity and meritorious works, was destined to lead gradually to Naturalism; it was to result finally in considering as ‘just’ the man who, whatever his beliefs, valued and practised those natural virtues which were known even to the pagan philosophers who lived before Christ.

In such an outlook, the question which is actually of the first importance does not even arise: Is man capable in his present state, without divine grace, of observing all the precepts of the natural law, including those that relate to God? Is he able without grace to love God the sovereign Good, the author of our nature, and to love Him, not with a merely inoperative affection, but with a truly efficacious love, more than he loves himself and more than he loves anything else? The early Protestants would have answered in the negative, as Catholic theologians have always done. Liberal Protestantism, the offspring of Luther’s theology, does not even ask the question; because it does not admit the necessity of grace, the necessity of an infused supernatural life.

Nevertheless, the question still recurs under a more general form: Is man able, without some help from on high, to get beyond himself, and truly and efficaciously to love Truth and Goodness more than he loves himself?

Clearly, these problems are essentially connected with that of the nature of our interior life; for our interior life is nothing else than a knowledge of the True and a love of the Good; or better, a knowledge and love of God.

In order fully to appreciate the lofty conception which the Scriptures, and especially the Gospels, give us of the interior life, it would be necessary to study a theological treatise on justification and sanctifying grace. Nevertheless, we may here emphasize a fundamental truth of the Christian spiritual life, or of Christian mysticism, which has always been taught by the Catholic Church.

In the first place it is clear that according to the Scriptures the justification or conversion of the sinner does not merely cover his sins as with a mantle; it blots them out by the infusion of a new life. ‘Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy great mercy,’ so the Psalmist implores; ‘and according to the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my iniquity. Wash me yet more from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin…. Thou shalt sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; thou shalt wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow…. Blot out all my iniquities. Create a clean heart in me, O God; and renew a right spirit within my bowels. Cast me not away from thy face, and take not thy holy spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation, and strengthen me with a perfect spirit.’

The Prophets use similar language. Thus God says, through the prophet Isaias: ‘I am he that blot out thy iniquities for my own sake.’  And the same expression recurs throughout the Bible: God is not content merely to cover our sins; He blots them out, He takes them away. And therefore, when John the Baptist sees Jesus coming towards him, he says:’ Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who taketh away the sin of the world!’ We find the same idea in St. John’s first Epistle: ‘The blood of Jesus Christ… clean seth us from all sin.’ St. Paul writes, similarly, in his first Epistle to the Corinthians : ‘Not the effeminate nor the impure nor thieves nor covetous nor drunkards nor railers nor extortioners shall possess the kingdom of God. And such some of you were. But you are washed; but you are sanctified; but you are justified; in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Spirit of our God.’

If it were true that by conversion sins were only veiled, and not blotted out, it would follow that a man is at once both just and ungodly, both justified, and yet still in the state of sin. God would love the sinner as His friend, despite the corruption of his soul, which He is apparently incapable of healing. The Saviour would not have taken away the sins of the world if He had not delivered the just man from the servitude of sin. Again, for the Christian these truths are elementary; the profound understanding of them, the continual and quasi-experimental living of them, is what we call the contemplation of the saints.

The blotting out and remission of sins thus described by the Scriptures can be effected only by the infusion of sanctifying grace and charity — which is the supernatural love of God and of men for God’s sake. Ezechiel, speaking in the name of God, tells us that this is so: ‘I will pour upon you clean water, and you shall be cleansed from all your filthiness; and I will cleanse you from all your idols. And I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh and will give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit in the midst of you; and I will cause you to walk in my commandments.’

This pure water which regenerates is the water of grace, of which it is said in the Gospel of St. John: ‘Of his fulness we have all received; and grace for grace.’ ‘By (our Lord Jesus Christ) we have received grace,’ we read in the Epistle to the Romans ; […] ‘the charity of God is poured forth in our hearts, by the Holy Ghost who is given to us’ ; and in the Epistle to the Ephesians: ‘To every one of us is given grace, according to the measure of the giving of Christ.’

If it were otherwise, God’s uncreated love for the man whom He converts would be merely an idle affection, and not an effective and operative love. But God’s uncreated love for us, as St. Thomas shows, is a love which, far from presupposing in us any lovableness, actually produces that lovableness within us. His creative love gives and preserves in us our nature and our existence; but his life-giving love gives and preserves in us the life of grace which makes us lovable in His eyes, and lovable not merely as His servants but as His sons. (I, Q. xx, art. 2).

Sanctifying grace, the principle of our interior life, makes us truly the children of God because it makes us partakers of His nature. We cannot be sons of God by nature, as the Word is; but we are truly sons of God by grace and by adoption. And whereas a man who adopts a child brings about no interior change in him, but simply declares him his heir, God, when He loves us as adoptive sons, transforms us inwardly, giving us a share in His own intimate divine life.

Hence we read in the Gospel of St. John: ‘(The Word) came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them he gave the power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name. Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’ And our Lord Himself said to Nicodemus [15] ‘Amen, amen, I say to thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Wonder not that I said to thee: You must be born again.’

St. John himself, moreover, writes in his first Epistle ‘Whosoever is born of God committeth not sin; for God’s seed abideth in him. And he cannot sin because he is born of God.’ In other words, the seed of God, which is grace — accompanied by charity, or the love of God — cannot exist together with mortal sin which turns a man away from God; and, though it can exist together with venial sin, of which St. John had spoken earlier, yet grace is not the source of venial sins; on the contrary, it makes them gradually disappear.

Still clearer, if possible, is the language of St. Peter, who writes: ‘By (Christ) he hath given us most great and precious promises, that by these you may be made partakers of the divine nature’ ; and St. James thus expresses the same idea: ‘Every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change nor shadow of alteration. For of his own will hath he begotten us by the word of truth, that we might be some beginning of his creature.’

Truly sanctifying grace is a real and formal participation of the divine nature, for it is the principle of operations which are specifically divine. When in heaven it has reached its full development, and can no longer be lost, it will be the source of operations which will have absolutely the same formal object as the eternal and uncreated operations of God’s own inner life; it will make us able to see Him immediately as He sees Himself, and to love Him as He loves Himself: ‘Dearly beloved,’ says St. John, ‘we are now the sons of God; and it hath not yet appeared what we shall be. We know that when it shall appear we shall be like to him, for we shall see him as he is.’

This is what shows us, better than anything else, in what the true nature of sanctifying grace, the true nature of our interior life, consists. We cannot emphasize it too much. It is one of the most consoling truths of our faith; it is one of those vital truths which serve best to encourage us in the midst of the trials of our life on earth.

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