By the ladder of sanctity, men ascend and descend at the same
All Christian sanctity is contained in two things: the knowledge
of God, and the knowledge of self. 'Lord, that I may know Thee'
cried St. Augustine, 'and that I may know myself'. A short prayer,
but one opening out on to an infinite horizon. The knowledge of
God elevates the soul; knowledge of self keeps it humble. The
former raises the soul to contemplate something of the depths of
the divine perfections, the latter lowers it to the abyss of its
own nothingness and sin.  The amazing thing is that the very
knowledge of God which raises man up, at the same time humbles him
by the comparison of himself with God. Similarly self-knowledge,
while it humbles him, lifts him up by the very necessity of
approaching God in order to find solace in his misery.
Marvellous ladder of sanctity, whereon men descend even as they
ascend. For the true elevation of man is inseparable from his true
humiliation. The one without the other is pride, while the latter
without the former is to be unhappy without hope. Of what use
would be the most sublime knowledge of God to us, if the knowledge
of ourselves did not keep us little in our own eyes? Similarly,
would we not fall into terrible despair, if the knowledge of our
exceeding meanness and misery were not counterbalanced by our
knowledge of God? But this two-fold knowledge serves to sanctify
us. To be a saint, we must know and admit that we are nothing of
ourselves, that we receive all things from God in the order of
nature and grace, and that we expect all things from Him in the
order of glory.
By the knowledge of God, I do not mean abstract and purely ideal
knowledge such as was possessed by pagan philosophers, who lost
their way in vain and barren speculations, the only effect of
which was to increase their pride. For the Christian, the
knowledge of God is not an endless course of reasoning as to His
essence and perfections, such as that of a mathematician concerned
with the properties of a triangle or circle. There have been many
philosophers and even theologians who held fine and noble ideas of
God, but were none the more virtuous or holy as a result of it.
The knowledge we must have is what God Himself has revealed
concerning the Blessed Trinity; the work of each of the Persons in
creating, redeeming and sanctifying us. We must know the scope of
His power, His providence, His holiness, His justice and His love.
We must know the extent and multitude of His mercies, the
marvellous economy of His grace, the magnificence of His promises
and rewards, the terror of His warnings and the rigour of His
chastisements; the worship He requires, the precepts He imposes,
the virtues He makes known as our duty, and the motives by which
He incites us to their practice. In a word, we must know what He
is to us, and what He wills that we should be to Him.
This is the true and profitable knowledge of God taught in every
page of Holy Scripture, and necessary for all Christians. It
cannot be too deeply studied, and without it none can become holy,
for the substance of it is indispensably necessary to salvation.
This should be the great object of our reflection and meditation,
and of our constant prayer for light. Let no one fancy that he can
ever know enough, or enter sufficiently into so rich a subject. It
is in every sense inexhaustible. The more we discover in it, the
more we see there is yet to be discovered. It is an ever-deepening
ocean for the navigator, an unattainable mountain height for the
traveller, whose scope of vision increases with every upward step.
The knowledge of God grows in us together with our own holiness:
both are capable of extending continually, and we must set no
bounds to either.
Now this knowledge is not merely intellectual knowledge: it goes
straight to the heart. It touches it, penetrates it, reforms and
ennobles it, enkindling it with a love for all the virtues. Anyone
who really knows God cannot fail to possess a lively faith, a firm
hope, an ardent love, filial fear, a complete trust in Him in
times of trial, and an entire submission to His holy will. He
fears no difficulty in avoiding evil, nor in doing good. He
complains of no rigour in God's law, but wonders at its mildness,
and loves and embraces it in all its fulness. To the precepts he
adds the counsels. He contemns earthly things, deeming them
unworthy of his attention. He uses the things of this world as
though he used them not.  He looks not at the things that are
seen and are temporal, but presses forward towards those that are
eternal.  The pleasures of this world do not tempt him, nor its
dangers imperil him; neither do its terrors alarm him. His body is
on earth, but his soul, in thought and desire, is already in
It is from the sacred Scriptures, rightly studied, that such
knowledge is drawn, but many read them without understanding them,
or understand them only according to the letter and not the
spirit. The sacred writings are the principal source of all that
God has pleased to reveal to us of His essence and perfections,
His natural and supernatural works, His designs regarding man, the
end He wills him to attain, and the means conducive to that end.
Therein we see that God is the beginning of all things; that He
governs all and intends all for His glory, and has accomplished
all things for Himself, there being no other end possible for Him.
We see the plan, the economy and sequence of religion, and the
intimate connection of the rise and fall of empires with that
supreme end. In a word, all that man needs to know concerning his
salvation and that can fill his soul with fear, veneration and the
love of God, is to be found in the tradition of the Church and
Holy Writ, and there alone.
True, this knowledge is to be found in the writings of the saints
also, and in other pious works. These are, however, but a
development of what is contained in tradition and Scripture, and
are good in the measure in which they express their meaning more
clearly, and explain them more fully.
But, above all, this knowledge is to be found in immediate
intercourse with God by prayer and meditation. Come ye to Him and
be enlightened, sayst he Psalmist.  God is Light, and in Him
there is no darkness whatever. His presence casts out darkness in
him who prays. Indeed, the soul comes away from prayer better
instructed concerning divine things, than learned men are by all
their study. Many a simple and unlettered soul, taught in the
school of divine Love, speaks of God more fittingly and nobly,
more fluently and fervently, than the ablest doctors who, unless
they are men of prayer, speak and write of heavenly things in a
dry and uninspiring manner, devoid of grandeur, warmth and
But besides this knowledge, which may be called illuminative since
it appertains to the mind, there is another kind of knowledge
which consists in sensitiveness and is the portion of the heart.
This is sweeter, stronger and deeper. It is a kind of experimental
knowledge given by God of Himself and of His presence. He seems to
say to the soul: O taste and see that the Lord is sweet.  The
advantage of this knowledge beyond the other is that it binds the
will to Godmuch more strongly. Here the soul no longer acts of
itself; it is God Who acts in it, and sets it aglow with a spark
of His own bliss.
St. Antony knew God after this manner, when he complained that the
sun rose too early and put an end to his prayer. So did St.
Francis of Assisi, when he spent whole nights repeating with
wonderful gladness the words: My God and my All. This sense of
God, this experimental knowledge, has been the desire of all the
saints, and the fruit of their union with Him. But if God is to
give Himself thus to us, we must give ourselves wholly to Him;
for, as a rule, He bestows this great grace on none but His best
beloved. When, like St. Francis, we have given up all things; when
God becomes for us, as for him, our sole good, then we may as
truly and as earnestly say: My God and my All.
To explain this experimental knowledge of God is impossible. What
is solely the heart's concern presents no idea to the mind, and is
not to be expressed in words. How can we expect words to express
supernatural things, when they are inadequate to represent mere
natural affections and feelings? But for one who has not
experienced them to call such things dreams and fancies, is the
same as to deny the effect of natural love on the heart, because
one has not experienced it. What is certain is that this sense of
God elevates the soul to a greater height than any illuminative
knowledge can do, and renders it capable of heroic designs and of
the greatest sacrifices.
The knowledge of ourselves is no less precious and no less
necessary to sanctity than the knowledge of God. To know ourselves
is to render ourselves justice. It is to know ourselves exactly as
we are; to see ourselves as God sees us. What does God see in us?
Sin and nothingness: no more. That is all we can call ours; all
the rest comes from God, and must be attributed to Him. When we
know ourselves thus, what must be our humility, our contempt and
hatred of self?
I am absolutely nothing. From all eternity, I was not, and there
was no reason why I should exist, nor why I should be what I am.
My existence is the simple effect of God's will: He bestowed it on
me as it pleased Him, and it is He Who keeps me in being. Were He
to withdraw His all-powerful hand for one instant, I would fall
back into nothingness. My soul and body and the good qualities of
both, everything that is estimable or pleasing in me, comes from
God. On that foundation my education has done its work, and, seen
in its proper light, that very education is more the gift of God
than the fruit of my own industry or application.
Not only what I am, but what I possess, what I enjoy, all that
surrounds me, whatever I meet with wherever I go--all comes from
God, and is for my use. I am nothing; and, apart from God, all
else is nothing. What, then, is there to love and esteem in myself
or in others? Nothing but what God has freely given. Whence it
follows that in all that is of itself nothing, and exists only by
the will of God, I must only love and esteem God and His gifts.
And this is a strong foundation for humility and the contempt of
self and created things.
But this is not all. I am sin, by my own will, by the abuse of my
most excellent gift of liberty. When I say 'I am sin', what do
these words mean? In the first place, they mean that in the depths
of my nature, and even by my having been brought out of
nothingness, I have the unhappy power of offending God, of
becoming His enemy, of transgressing His law, of failing in my
most essential duties, and of falling short for ever of my true
end. And this power is so inherent in me as a creature that
nothing can separate me from it. Since the Fall, the power of
sinning has become a tendency, a strong inclination, to sin.
Through Adam's fault, I lack the perfect equilibrium of liberty in
which I would otherwise have been created.
In the second place. After having arrived at the age of reason, I
have actually sinned and have been guilty of a great number of
offences more or less grievous. There are very few, indeed, who
have retained their baptismal innocence. As for venial sins, which
are always serious, the greatest of saints --Our Lady excepted--
have not been exempt from them.
Thirdly, there is no sin, however great, that I am not capable of
committing, if I am not always on my guard, and if God does not
preserve me from it. It needs only an opportunity, a temptation,
an act of unfaithfulness, to induce the most fearful train of
consequences. The greatest saints believed this of themselves, and
we would do well to have the same holy fear.
Then, having fallen, I am absolutely incapable of rising up again
by my own strength, or of truly repenting of my sin. If God does
not open my eyes and move my will, and extend to me a helping
hand, all is over with me. I shall add sin to sin, shun amendment,
and harden my heart and die impenitent, a frightful evil which I
must always fear, no matter to what degree of virtue I have
But still this is not all. To my wretched inclination to evil is
added an equal distaste for what is good. All law is irksome to me
and would seem to threaten my liberty. Every duty is unpleasant,
every virtuous act costs an effort. Besides, in myself, I am
incapable of any supernatural act, even of thinking of or planning
any. I am in constant need of special grace, to inspire good
actions and to help me in carrying them out.
In such a state, which is that of my whole life, how can I think
well of myself? Of what can I boast? Is there anything of which I
have not reason to be ashamed and confounded?
This is the self-knowledge imparted by faith, and borne witness to
by my own feelings and experience. The purest and sanest of
philosophers would never have taught me half as much. Man has ever
been the chief object of the study and consideration of
philosophers; but the most eminent genius, with all its
penetration and researches, has never been able to arrive at a
real knowledge of self. That, to my mind, is a most humiliating
thing. If faith does not enlighten me, it is greatly to be feared
that reason alone will never tell me that I came from nothing, and
that God is my Creator. It is very doubtful if it ever told any of
the ancient philosophers that truth. They were all ignorant, it
would seem, of this primary relationship between man and God,
which is the foundation of all the rest. And how strangely at a
loss they were in consequence of their ignorance regarding the
origin of man. What curious absurdities they uttered on the
subject. And our modern unbelievers, refusing the light of
revelation, have not fared much better.
As concerns our tendency to evil and repugnance for good, the
inherent frailty of creatures, the nature of sin considered with
regard to God, and the necessity of grace, the most religious
philosophies had only a faint glimmering on some points and clear
notions on none. Generally speaking, they were involved in
What did they know about the matter, then? What no one can be
ignorant of: namely the miseries of life, the weakness of
childhood, the infirmity of age, the natural defects of mind and
body, the passions and their tyranny and disorder, the inevitableness of death but without any certainty of a future
state. This was a wretched, miserable sort of knowledge, and made
most philosophers bitterly revile nature, and accuse her of
treating man like an unjust and unnatural stepmother. For the
little they knew, they were right, of course, and the destiny of
man must have appeared to them the more deplorable, since they
could find no remedy for their troubles, either in their own vain
systems or in the false religion of the people.
Yet they were offended rather than humbled by this knowledge,
distressing as it was, because it was, in reality, too imperfect.
For while unable to fathom the depth of our misery, it offered
nothing to counterbalance the little it was able to perceive.
It is otherwise with our own holy faith. Whilst making man little
in his own eyes, deeply humbling him and reducing him to a state
of nothingness, and even of less than nothingness, at the same
time it supports and comforts him and gives him hope; showing him
what great reason he has to trust in God. More, it inspires him
with a noble idea of himself, since it reveals to him his true
greatness, the nobility of his faculties, his closeness to God,
the sublimity of his destiny, the fatherly care of Divine
Providence, the inestimable grace of redemption, and the price
paid for his soul by the incarnate God. It also teaches him to
respect his body as the temple of God, destined to share one day,
by a glorious resurrection, in the soul's eternal happiness.
This is the knowledge that religion gives us concerning our human
nature, and this light is sure, for it derives from an abiding
revelation. It is bright and penetrating, and is constantly
increased by the study and practice of the faith. It crushes our
human pride, when we think of what we are in ourselves, and
elevates the soul when we contemplate God's plans in our
But in addition to the motives for humility furnished by the study
of the Gospels and the practice of the moral law, God has other
ways of deeply humbling those whom He destines for a high degree
of sanctity. He makes them feel that their light is darkness, and
their will weakness; that their firmest resolutions count for
nothing, and that they are incapable themselves of meritoriously
correcting the smallest fault, or of performing the tiniest act of
supernatural virtue. He allows them to feel the greatest
repugnance for their duties; their pious exercises are painful and
almost intolerable because of the dryness, listlessness and
weariness with which they are assailed. The passions they fancied
dead come to life again and cause them strange conflicts. The
devil tempts them in countless ways, and they seem abandoned to
the wickedness and corruption of their own hearts, so that they
see in themselves nothing but sin and a violent inclination to
In the light of His infinite holiness, God shows them the impurity
of their motives and the selfishness of their aims, the stain of
self-love on their good actions, and its poison in their virtues.
He reproaches them with their negligences and cowardice, with
their faithlessness and self-seeking, with the desire for
approbation and human respect. He brings them to hate and despise
themselves for their ungrateful abuse of His many graces.
For their yet greater self-abasement, He appears to turn His face
from them, and deprives them of all sensible gifts and graces,
leaving them in miserable nakedness, from the sight of which they
shrink, yet to which they cannot close their eyes. He seems to be
angry with them and to forsake them. On the other hand, He allows
men to suspect their piety and call it hypocrisy, to disturb them
with calumny and persecution. And this, not only on the part of
wicked men and ordinary Christians, but also on the part of
persons of good understanding and exemplary life who, whilst
decrying and ill-treating these servants of God, fancy that they
are honouring their Master. Our Lord Himself, the Saint of saints,
willed to bear all these miseries and contumely, and greater yet
than these, because He made Himself the Victim for sin. And upon
His own beloved friends He bestows a precious draught from the
same bitter cup. Thus, perfecting them in humility, He perfects
them in sanctity, making them proof against all temptations.
Let us ascend, then, and descend by this wonderful ladder of the
knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. With the help of
grace, ascend as high as you can, and descend as low as you can;
and, when you have done all in your power, ask our divine Lord to
use all the means, known only to Himself, to raise you and lower
you still further.
Strange paradox! The more we ascend, the less are we conscious of
ascending; and the more we descend, the less we feel like having
done so. Yet it is true. The more one advances in the knowledge of
God, the more inadequate will our concepts of what He is and what
He merits appear to be. So, too, the deeper we penetrate in our
knowledge of ourselves, the more convinced are we that we do not
despise or hate ourselves enough. Only thus shall we become both
exalted and humble, and all unconsciously sanctified.