Saint Alphonsus de Liguori on the Desire of Perfection

An excerpt from “The True Spouse of Jesus Christ.”
by Staff Writer | Source:

“Whoever wishes, with a true and resolute desire for the friendship of God, instantly obtains it.” 
-St. Alphonsus de Liguori


How Holy Desires are Useful, and even Necessary.
An ardent desire of perfection is the first means that a religious should adopt in order to acquire sanctity and to consecrate her whole being to God. As the sportsman, to hit a bird in flight, must take aim in advance of his prey, so a Christian, to make progress in virtue, should aspire to the highest degree of holiness which it is in his power to attain. VIio, says holy David, will give me wings like a dove, and I will fly and be at rest. Who will give me the wings of the dove to fly to my God, and, divested of all earthly affection, to repose in the bosom of the divinity?

Holy desires are the blessed wings with which the saints burst every worldly tie, and fly to the mountain of perfection, where they find that peace which the world cannot give. But how do fervent desires make the soul fly to God? “They,” says St. Laurence Justinian, “supply strength, and render pains light and tolerable.” On the one hand, good desires give strength and courage, and on the other they diminish the labor and fatigue of ascending the mountain of God. Whosoever, through diffidence of attaining anctity, does not ardently desire to become a saint, will never arrive at perfection. A man who is desirous of obtaining a valuable treasure which he knows is to be found at the top of a lofty mountain, but who, through fear of fatigue and difficulty, has no desire of ascending, will never advance a single step towards the wished-for object, but will remain below in careless indifference and inactivity. And he who, because the path of virtue appears to him narrow and rugged, and difficult to be trodden, does not desire to climb up the mountain of the Lord, and to gain the treasure of perfection, will always continue in a state of tepidity, and will never make the smallest progress in the way of God.

On the contrary, he that does not desire, and does not strenuously endeavor, always to advance in holiness, will, as we learn from experience and from all the masters of the spiritual life, go backward in the path of virtue, and will be exposed to great danger of eternal misery. The path of the just, says Solomon, as a shining light gocth for wards and increastth even to perfect day. The way of the wicked is darksome: they know not when they fall.  As light increases constantly from sunrise to full day, so the path of the saints always advances; but the way of sinners becomes continually more dark and gloomy, till they know not where they go, and at length walk into a precipice.

“Not to advance,” says St. Augustine “is to go back.” St. Gregory beautifully explains this maxim of spiritual life by comparing a Christian who seeks to remain stationary in the path of virtue to a man who is in a boat on a rapid river, and striving to keep the boat always in the same position. If the boat be not continually propelled against the current, it will be carried away in an opposite direction, and consequently, without continual exertion, its station cannot be maintained. Since the fall of Adam man is naturally inclined to evil from his birth. For the imagination and thought of mail s heart are prone to evil from Jiis youth* If he do not push forward, if he do not endeavor, by incessant efforts, to improve in sanctity, the very current of passion will carry him back.  Since you do not wish to proceed,” says St. Bernard, addressing a tepid soul, “you must fail.” “By no means,” she replied; “I wish to live, and to remain in my present state. I will not consent to be worse; and I do not desire to be better.” “You, then,” rejoins the saint, “wish what is impossible.” Because, in the way of God, a Christian must either go forward and advance in virtue, or go backward and rush headlong into vice.

In seeking eternal salvation, we must, according to St. Paul, never rest, but must run continually in the way of perfection, that we may win the prize, and secure an incorruptible crown. So run that you may obtain. If we fail, the fault will be ours; for God wills that all be holy and perfect. This is the will of God your sanctification? He even commands us to be perfect and holy. Be you therefore perfect, as also your Heavenly Father is perfect? Be holy because I am holy.* He promises and gives, as the holy Council of Trent teaches, abundant strength, for the observance of all his commands, to those who ask it from him. “God does not command impossibilities; but by his precepts he admonishes you to do what you can, and to ask what you cannot do; and lie assists you, that you may be able to do it.” God does not command impossibilities; but by his precepts he admonishes us to do what we can by the aid of his ordinary grace; and when greater helps are necessary, he exhorts us to seek them by humble prayer. He will infallibly attend to our petitions, and enable us to observe all, even the most difficult, of his commandments. Take courage, then, and adopt the advice of the Venerable Father Torres to a religious, who was one of his penitents: “ Let us, my child, put on the wings of strong desires, that, quitting the earth, we may fly to our Spouse and our Beloved, who expects us in the blessed kingdom of eternity.” St. Augustine teaches, that the life of a good Christian is one continued longing after perfection. “The whole life,” says the saint, “of a good Christian is a holy de sire.”

He that cherishes not in his heart the desire of sanctity, may be a Christian; but he will not be a good one. If this be true of all the servants of God, how much more so must it be of religious, who, though it is not imperative on them to be actually perfect, are strictly obliged to aspire after perfection. “He that enters the religious state,” says St. Thomas, “is not commanded to have perfect charity; but he is bound to tend to it. It is not,” continues the saint, “obligatory on him to adopt all the means by which perfection may be attained; but it is his duty to perform the exercises prescribed by the Rule, which at his profession he promised to observe.”

Hence, a religious is bound not only to fulfill her vows, but also to assist at public prayer; to make the Communions, and to practise the mortifications ordained by the Rule; to observe the silence, and to discharge all the other duties of the Community. You will, perhaps, say that your Rule does not bind under pain of sin. That may be; but theologians generally maintain, that to transgress without a sufficient cause even the rules which of themselves do not impose a moral obligation, is almost always a venial fault. Because the willful and unnecessary violation of rule generally proceeds from passion or from sloth, and consequently must be at least a venial offence.

Hence, St. Francis de Sales, in his Entertainments, teaches that though the Rule of the Visitation did not oblige under the penalty of sin, still the infraction of it could not be excused from the guilt of a venial transgression. “Because,” says the saint, “ by disobedience to her Rule a religious dishonors the things of God, violates her profession, disturbs the Community, and dissipates the fruits of the good example which everyone should give.”

Whoever, then, breaks the Rule in the presence of others, will, according to the saint, incur the additional guilt of scandal. It should be observed that the breach of rule may be even a mortal sin, when it is so frequent as to do serious injury to regular observance in the Community. To violate the Rule, through contempt, is likewise a grievous transgression.

And St. Thomas remarks, that the frequent infraction of rule practically disposes to the contempt of it. a This is my answer to those tepid religious who excuse their own irregularities by saying that the Rule imposes no obligation. The fervent spouses of Jesus Christ do not inquire whether their rule has the force of a precept or not: it is enough for them to know that it is approved by God, and that he takes complacency in its observance. As it is impossible to arrive at perfection in any art or science, without ardent desires of its attainment, so no one has ever yet become a saint, but by strong and fervent aspirations after sanctity. “God,” observes St. Teresa, “ordinarily confers his signal favors on those only who thirst after his love.” Blessed, says the royal prophet, is the man whose help is from thee: in his heart he hath disposed to ascend by steps in the vale of tears. . . . They shall cro from virtue to virtue. “Happy the jnan who has resolved in his soul to mount the ladder of perfection: he shall receive abundant aid from God, and will ascend from virtue to virtue. Such has been the practice of the saints, and especially of St. Andrew Avellino, who even bound himself by vow “to advance continually in the way of Christian perfection.”

St. Teresa used to say, that “God rewards, even in this life, every good de sire.” It was by good desires that the saints arrived in a short time at a sublime degree of sanctity. JJcing made perfect in a short space, Jic fulfilled a long time? It was thus that St. Aloysius, who lived but twenty-five years, acquired such perfection, that St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, who saw him in bliss, declared that his glory appeared equal to that of most of the saints. In the vision he said to her: My eminent sanctity was the fruit of an ardent desire, which I cherished during my life, of loving God as much as he deserved to be loved: and being unable to love him with that infinite love which he merits, I suffered on earth a continual martyrdom of love, for which I am now raised to that transcendent glory which I enjoy.

The works of St. Teresa contain, besides those that have been already adduced, many beautiful passages on this subject. “Our thoughts,” says the saint, “should be aspiring: from great desires all our good shall come.” In another place she says: “We must not lower our desires, but should trust in God, that by continual exertion we shall, by his grace, arrive at sanctity and felicity of the saints.” Again she says: “The divine Majesty takes complacency in generous souls who are diffident in themselves.” This great saint asserted that in all her experience she never knew a timid Christian to attain as much virtue in many years as certain courageous souls acquire in a few days. The reading of the Lives of the saints contributes greatly to infuse courage into the soul. It will be particularly useful to read the Lives of those who, after being great sinners, became eminent saints; such as the Lives of St. Mary Magdalene, St. Augustine, St. Pelagia, St. Mary of Egypt, and especially of St. Margaret of Cortona, who was for many years in a state of damnation, but even then cherished a desire of sanctity; and who, after her conversion, flew to perfection with such rapidity, that she merited to learn by revelation, even in this life, not only that she was predestined to glory, but also that a place was prepared for her among the seraphim.

St. Teresa says that the devil seeks to persuade us that it would be pride in us to desire a high degree of perfection, or to wish to imitate the saints. She adds, that it is a great delusion to regard strong desires of sanctity as the offspring of pride; for it is not pride in a soul diffident of herself and trusting only in the power of God, to resolve to walk courageously in the way of perfection, saying with the Apostle: can do all things in him who strengthened me. Of myself I can do nothing; but, by his aid I shall be able to do all things, and therefore I resolve, with his grace, to desire to love him as the saints have loved him. It is very profitable frequently to aspire after the most exalted virtue, and to desire it; such as to love God more than all the saints; to suffer for the love of him more than all the martyrs; to bear and to pardon all injuries; to embrace every sort of fatigue and suffering, for the sake of saving a single soul; and to perform similar acts of perfect charity. Because these holy aspirations and desires, though their object shall never be attained, are, in the first place, very meritorious in the sight of God, who glories in men of good will, as he abominates a perverse heart and evil inclinations.

Secondly, because the habit of aspiring to heroic sanctity animates and encourages the soul to perform acts of ordinary and easy virtue. Hence it is of great importance to propose in the morning to labor as much as possible for God during the day; to resolve to bear patiently all crosses and contradictions; to observe constant recollection; and to make continual acts of the love of God. Such was the practice of the seraphic St. Francis. “He proposed,” says St. Bonaventure, “with the grace of Jesus Christ, to do great things.”

St. Teresa asserts that “the Lord is as well pleased with good desires as with their fulfillment.” Oh! How much better is it to serve God than to serve the world. To acquire goods of the earth, to procure wealth, honors, and applause of men, it is not enough to pant after them with ardor; no, to desire and not to obtain them only renders their absence more painful. But to merit the riches and the favor of God, it is sufficient to desire his grace and love.

St. Augustine relates that in a convent of hermits there were two officers of the emperor s court, one of whom began to read the life of St Anthony. “He read,” says the holy Doctor, “and his heart was stripped of the world.” Turning to his companion, he said: “What do we seek? Can we expect from the emperor anything better than his friendship? Through how many dangers are we to reach still greater perils? And how long shall this last? Fools that we have been, shall we still continue to serve the emperor in the midst of so many labors, fears, and troubles? We can hope for nothing better than his favor; and should we obtain it, we would only increase the danger of our eternal reprobation. It is only with difficulty that we shall ever procure the patronage of Caesar, but if I will it, behold I am in a moment the friend of God.” Because who ever wishes, with a true and resolute desire for the friendship of God, instantly obtains it.

I say with a true and resolute desire, for little profit is derived from the fruitless desires of slothful souls, who always desire to be saints, but never advance a single step in the way of God. Of them Solomon says: The sluggard willeih and willeth not? And again: Desires kill the slothful? The tepid religious desires perfection, but never resolves to adopt the means of its acquirement. Contemplating its advantages, she desires it; but reflecting on the fatigue necessary for its attainment, she desires it not. Thus “she willeth and willeth not.” Her desires of sanctity are not efficacious; they have for their object means of salvation incompatible with her state.

Oh! She exclaims, were I in the desert, all my time should be employed in prayer and in works of penance! Were I in another convent, I would shut myself up in a cell to think only of God! if my health were good, I would practise continual mortifications. I would wish, I would wish, she cries, to do all this; and still the miserable soul does not fulfill the obligations of her state. She makes but little mental prayer, and is even absent from the common meditations; she neglects Communion; is seldom in the choir, and frequently at the grate and on the terrace; she practises but little patience or resignation in her infirmities; in a word, she daily commits willful and deliberate faults, but never labors to correct them. What, then, will it profit her to desire what is inconsistent with the duties of her present state, while she violates strict obligations? Desires kill the slothful. Such useless desires expose the soul to great danger of everlasting perdition; because wasting her time, and taking complacency in them, she will neglect the means necessary for the perfection of her state, and for the attainment of eternal life.

“I do not,” says St. Francis de Sales, “approve of the conduct of those who, while bound by an obligation, or placed in any state, spend their time in wishing for another manner of life, inconsistent with their duties; or for exercises incompatible with their present state. For these desires dissipate the heart, and make it languish in the necessary exercises.” It is, then, the duty of a religious to aspire only after that perfection which is suitable to her present state and to her actual obligations; and whether a Superior, or a subject, whether in sickness or in health,, the vigor of youth or the imbecility of old age, to adopt, resolutely, the means of sanctity suitable to her condition in life. “The devil,” says St. Teresa, “sometimes persuades us that we have acquired the virtue, for example, of patience; because we determine to suffer a great deal for God. We feel really convinced that we are ready to accept any cross, However great, for his sake; and this conviction makes us quite content, for the devil assists us to believe that we are willing to bear all things for God. I advise you not to trust much to such virtue, nor to think that you even know it, except in name, until you see it tried. It will probably happen that on the first occasion of contradiction all this patience will fall to the ground."

"Petite, et accipietis." John, xvi. 24.
"Amorem tui solum cum gratia tua mihi clones, et dives sum satis."
"Quis dabit mihi pennas sicut columtxe, et volabo, et requiescam ?"Ps. liv. 7.
"Vires subministrat , poenam exhibet leviorem." DC Disc. won.
"Justorum autem semita, quasi lux splendens, procedit et crescit usque ad perfectam diem; via impiorum tenebrosa, nesciunt ubi corruant." Prov. iv. 18.
"Non progredi, jam est reverti." Ep. 17, E. B. 3 Past. p. 3, c. i.
"Sensus enim et cogitatio humani cordis in malum prona sunt ab adolescentia sua" Gen. viii. 21.
"Non vis proficere; vis ergo deficere? Nequaquam \ Quid ergo? Inquis: Vivere volo et manere in quo perveni; nee pejor fieri patior, nee melior cupio. Hoc ergo vis, quod esse non potest." Ep. 254.
 “Sic currite ut comprehendatis.” i Cor. ix. 24.
 “ Hrec est enim voluntas Dei, sanctificatio vestra.” i Thess. iv. 3.
“Estote ergo vos perfecti, sicut et Pater vester coelestis perfectusest.” Matt. v. 48.
 “ Sancti estote quia ego sanctus sum.” Lev. xi. 44.
“Deus impossibilia non jubet; sed jubendo monet, et faccre quod possis, et petere quod non possis; et adjuvat ut possis.” Sess. vi. c. IT
 “Tola vita christiani boni sanctum desiderium est.” In I Jo. tr. 4.
 “Qui statum religionis assumit, non tenetur habere perfectam charitatem, sed tenetur ad hoc tendere. Non tenetur religiosus ad omnia exercitia quibus ad perfectionem pervenitur, sed ad ilia quse determi
nate sunt ei taxata, secundum regulam quam professus est.” 2. 2, q. 1 86, a. 2. 1 Entret. i. 22. 2, q. 1 86, a. 9.
“Beatus vir cujus est auxiliumabs ste; ascensiones in corde suo disposuit in valle lacrymarum; . . . ibunt de virtute in virtutem.” Ps.Ixxxiii. 6.
“In via christianre perfectionis semper ulterius progrediencli.” Offic. 10 Nov.
“Consummatus in brevi, explevit tempora multa.” Wisd. iv. 13.
“Omnia possum in eo qui me confortat.” Phil. iv. 13.
“Legebat, et exuebatur mundo mens ejus.”
“Quid quaerimus? Majorne esse potent spes nostra, quam ut amiciimperatoris simus? Et per quot pericula pervenitur ad grandius pericuium? Et quando istuc erit?” 1. 8, c. 6
“Amicus autem Dei, si voluero, ecce nunc fio.”
“Vult e-t non vult piger.” Prov. xiii. 4.
“Desideria occidunt pigrutn.” Ibid. xxi. 25.

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