"To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. Wherefore, if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain in good estate. All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself. "

Thomas á Kempis

* * *

"The essence of perfection is to embrace the will of God in all things, prosperous or adverse. In prosperity, even sinners find it easy to unite themselves to the divine will; but it takes saints to unite themselves to God's will when things go wrong and are painful to self-love. Our conduct in such instances is the measure of our love of God."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

* * *

"Whom do you seek, friend, if you seek not God? Seek him, find him, cleave to him; bind your will to his with bands of steel and you will live always at peace in this life and in the next."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

* * *


John Nicholas Grou, S.J. 




by John Nicholas Grou, S.J.

Second Maxim: Christian liberty and the active and passive ways

Yield your liberty to God, and have no will but His

In order the better to comprehend what I have now to say, it would be as well in the first place to establish certain principles, on which all will, I think, agree.

When we were created God bestowed on us reason and understanding in order that we might know and love Him. It was His mind that we should enjoy this knowledge and love eternally, and that such enjoyment should be our reward; accordingly, we must merit that reward. And so God placed us on earth for a certain space of time, known only to Himself, and gifted us with liberty, that is, with command over our actions so that, being performed by our own will, they might merit praise or blame, reward or punishment. Merit, praise and reward are thus attached to the free fulfilment of the duties imposed upon us by God; and blame and punishment follow the wilful violation of those duties.

Liberty, in the abstract, has no essential power of doing good or evil; otherwise God, Who possesses supreme liberty, would not be free, because He can never will, or do, evil. Therefore, our power of doing wrong does not proceed from our liberty, but from two other causes.

The first of these is that, being necessarily dependent upon God by a moral dependence, our actions should follow the rule of His will, so that they are morally good if they conform to that rule and morally bad if they do not. The second is that, being defective in our very nature, we are always liable to deviate from this rule. From these two causes, combined with the free will which makes us masters of our actions, arises that fatal power of sinning, which it would be unjust and blasphemous to reproach God for having given us. It did, indeed, depend upon Him to prevent its effect, but no reason obliged Him to do so, and His supreme wisdom deemed it fitter to permit that consequence, since it could not be prejudicial to His glory.

Unquestionably, the most perfect liberty is that possessed by God, Who can only will what is good. Therefore, the more our liberty resembles His, the nearer it approaches perfection; whilst the more unlike it is, the more imperfect it becomes. The will to sin is thus a defect and an abuse of liberty, and the stronger and more habitual it is, the greater will be the defect.

It is obvious that we ought to desire never to abuse our liberty, but by our love of good and hatred of evil bring it into the closest resemblance to God's will. The more we are morally necessitated to good, the more shall we be free like God, Who is necessarily so by nature. And the more we are morally necessitated to evil, the more will our liberty be fettered. That is why St. Paul says that when the will yields to evil, it becomes the servant of sin; but being freed from sin becomes the servant of justice: [6] a two-fold servitude, of which the first degrades liberty, whilst the second exalts and perfects it.

For God Himself, if one may say so, is the servant of justice, and that infinitely more than we can ever be; and it is in this servitude that His perfect liberty consists. And if the word 'servitude' seems extravagant when applied to God, it is because He is Himself His rule, and can know no other rule than His own will. The words the apostle used, Our Lord had already used when He said to the Jews: Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin; but He added: if the Son of man shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. [7]

Now grace alone can deliver us from the bondage of sin, and assure us true liberty. Whence it follows that the more our wills are subject to grace, and the more they endeavour to depend fully and constantly upon it, the freer they will become. Our perfect deliverance is reserved for heaven, where we shall once and for all be established in grace. But in this world, however completely we may have submitted ourselves to the dominion of grace, we are always liable to throw off the yoke, and must be always on our guard against this peril.

This peril will be more or less imminent, according as the soul continues to be its own master, or gives itself up freely to be dealt with as God wills. And so, all it has to do is to place itself in His hands, using its activity only in order to become more dependent on Him, allowing grace to act in its regard freely and fully in all circumstances, reserving no power to itself save to correspond with entire fidelity to grace.

These principles conceded, it is clear that the surrender of our liberty is the same thing as true devotion to God; because devotion, or devotedness, is only another word for forsaking our own will for the will of God. This gift of our liberty is made in two ways, one of which stresses what therein depends on ourselves, the other what depends upon God. It depends on ourselves to retain the exercise of our liberty, but to be determined that it shall be subject to the inspirations of grace, and to hold bravely to this resolution. It depends upon God to make Himself master of our liberty, once we have made it over to Him, governing it Himself directly, yet without doing violence to it, holding it captive in His hand. Hence the two ways of serving God, of which the one is called active and the other passive. Both are good; both are agreeable to God; both are interior and lead to sanctity.

Following the first way, the Christian makes due use of the faculties God has bestowed upon him, his memory, his understanding and will: these he exercises himself. Although acting under the inspiration of grace and fully determined to follow its direction, yet he preserves his liberty; deliberating, judging, choosing and determining his choice in all that pertains to his salvation. By meditation, he saturates himself with the truths of the Gospel; stirs his affection by acts of the will; applies these truths and draws conclusions from them as a guide to his conduct, and forms resolutions which he endeavours toput into practice; in general, putting to good use whatever the Holy Spirit may suggest to him in the way of personal devotion, or that he may find in the lives of the saints or in other spiritual works. Thus, by continual thought and perseverance, together with the aid of prayer, counsel and the use of the sacraments, he succeeds in correcting his faults and in acquiring the Christian virtues.

Most persons who have their salvation seriously at heart follow this way, which is the most common and that taught by most popular writers on the spiritual life. That is why we have so many methods, so many exercises and practices for learning to meditate, for hearing Mass, for confession and communion and so on. This is the usual way of beginning, and it must always be persevered in unless God Himself calls us from it. This point must never be lost sight of, and is of the greatest importance, as it destroys many illusions and saps the very roots of any kind of Quietism.

We enter the passive way when we feel ourselves drawn by the strong and sweet workings of grace which, in order to gain space for its action, as it were, leads us to suspend our own; when we are inwardly moved to yield up our heart and liberty and our natural self-government into God's hands, in order that He may govern them by His adorable will. Then God takes possession of the powers of the soul, acting upon them, and making them act according to His designs. Man only follows, though always freely, in the path marked out for him. He holds himself prepared to do at any moment what God requires of him. And God, by a secret inspiration, makes known to him what He requires; yet this inspiration never involves disobedience to the Church, to her rules, or to all lawful authority. On the contrary, there are no souls more docile or more submissive than those who walk in this way.

Here, then, all exercise of natural liberty with regard to interior things (for of such only am I speaking) consists in seconding--never in forestalling--the movements of grace. As soon as these movements are forestalled or resisted, the human spirit is plainly at work. In the state of which I am speaking, the Christian lies under the hand of God like an instrument on which and by means of which He works: not, however, a purely passive instrument but one which consents and cooperates by its own act, often with extreme repugnance, and with violence to itself. Its state may well be compared to that of a child writing under its master's guiding hand.

Now it is easy to see why this way is called passive, and wherein it differs from the active way. In the latter, the powers of the soul, aided always by grace, act, as it were, of themselves and by their own effort. It is like a child, writing from his master's copy, under his inspection and obedient to his teaching. We choose our subject for meditation, apply our mind to it, form our reasonings, make acts of love, and by the ordinary methods arrive at our conclusions. All this, as is obvious, is active.

The passive way is not without its action, but it is God's action which motivates ours. The soul remains freely attentive, pliant and docile under the divine inspiration, just as the child places his hand in that of his master, intending to follow all its movements. But just as the child, though able to write, waits until the master shall guide his hand, so the powers of the soul, held and suspended, only exert themselves on the object to which God applies them, and to the extent to which He applies them. This work is thus more simple and hidden, and for that reason less apparent, so that the soul often thinks that it is doing nothing, when the very opposite is the case.

The soul is naturally active and restless, but when subdued by the divine action which invites it to be still, dwells in habitual calm. In prayer, no distinct object presents itself to the mind, and as a rule it perceives things in an obscure and indistinct manner. The sense of God's presence is a peaceful and abiding feeling, which does not take the form of expressed affections. The heart is satisfied, but without any effort on its part. St. Teresa, and later St. Francis of Sales, used the comparison of a child at its mother's breast. When the soul is in the passive state, the lips speak and the hand writes of divine things, without premeditation. God Himself provides all that is necessary, and the very memory of it passes away. There is no studying to root out one's faults, or to acquire virtues by different means. By His continual action on the soul, by the practices He suggest, no less than by the interior trials with which He visits it, God insensibly purifies the soul of its faults, impressing on it the various virtues which He causes it to exercise on occasion, without so much as reflecting on them, or even knowing that it possesses them.

There is more of what is infused in the passive way, and more of what is acquired in the active. And yet what is infused is, in a manner, acquired also, because it costs something to preserve it and to cause it to grow.

Here I am only speaking of the ordinary passive way, otherwise called the way of pure faith. Of extraordinary states, rare in any case, in which are to be found ecstasies and so on, and in which the devil troubles body and mind alike with vexations and divers torments, I propose to say nothing, since they ought to be neither sought nor feared. Nor is it right to indulge in any kind of curiosity concerning these states, nor to read books about them, except when it is necessary to do so for the guidance of others.

Such in the main is the difference between the active and passive ways. All men can and ought to follow the first with the help of ordinary grace; only God can introduce us into the second. Yet it is not to be denied that many, through their own fault, either do not enter it, or fail to persevere in it. But it is also true that, in God's intention, the first should very often dispose souls to the second, if they responded more faithfully to grace, and were more generous, brave and simple; and if they could only make up their minds to get rid of their self-love, and the entrance were not barred by their many mistaken notions.

Now as this way is far more conducive to our sanctification, since it is God Who then undertakes it and works at it Himself, it is most important that we should put away all such mistaken notions, and neglect nothing that may open it to us, for I am persuaded that God calls more souls by that way than is generally supposed. The important thing is to recognize the signs of His invitation, and to follow them with docility.

Some persons are invited to it from their earliest years by an inward attraction, as we learn from the lives of many of the saints. If this attraction were followed, if good parents and instructors of youth, instead of discouraging it, would favour it and carefully put aside all that was adverse to it; if confessors would take pains to cultivate the first seeds of grace and to develop this germ of the interior life, the number of souls led by the Holy Spirit would be much greater, especially among women, who with their quiet education and natural disposition are more inclined to be led by this way. The innocence of childhood, when the soul is simple, tractable and unprejudiced, is unquestionably the most favourable to true devotion, and if children were early guided in that direction, by lessons suited to their age, and with the necessary tact, skill and patience, wonderful results would follow.

Others, later in life, after following for a long or shorter time the common way, find that they can no longer fix their minds in meditation, nor produce the same affections as hitherto. They even feel a kind of disgust for the methods they have so far followed. Something which they cannot explain leads them to suspend all action when at prayer -- it is God Himself Who is inducing them to it, by the peace and calm which He allows them to taste. When this state is not a temporary one, but persists in spite of repeated endeavours to return to one's former practice, it is an infallible sign that God wants to take possession of such souls and bring them into the passive way.

Others are prepared for it by distress, anxieties, temptations and set-backs, which they can neither understand nor explain. God, wanting to raise a new edifice in their hearts, demolishes the former one completely, destroying it to its very foundations. It is the work of an experienced confessor to discover God's designs in all this, and to encourage those who are in this painful state to make a generous sacrifice of themselves, and yield themselves without reserve once and for all to the divine will. The sacrifice made, all agitation ceases, and the soul experiences a peace hitherto unknown, and enters into a new world.

There are some persons who, though leading pious lives, are dissatisfied with themselves and with their state. They feel that God is calling them to something else, without, however, being able to express what it is they are looking for. An opportunity furnished by Divine Providence at last leads them to someone who, though unacquainted with them, and without very well knowing why, speaks to them immediately of the interior life. At once, their uneasiness ceases, and they are calmed and satisfied, and when least expecting it find what they have sought so long.

Not only good men but sinners, and great sinners too, are called by God to the passive way. Some, at the moment of their conversion, are suddenly transformed by grace, and become new creatures, like St. Mary Magdalen, St. Paul, St. Mary the Egyptian and St. Augustine. Others, after spending many years in exercises of penitence, are gradually raised to a state of sublime contemplation. It is difficult to believe, but it is nevertheless true, that the sudden and wonderful change wrought by divine mercy in sinners, is usually more perfect and solid than that wrought in the just. Full of a sense of their own wretchedness and of God's overwhelming goodness, they give themselves to Him more generously, are more deeply humbled by His favours, and bear His purifying trials more bravely.

But all, whether just men or sinners, who have walked in the passive way, have entered it in no other manner than by giving up their liberty to God, entirely and absolutely, saying with St. Paul: Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do? [8] ... 'I am no longer mine but Thine'. They could not enter it in any other way, for God only takes what is offered Him. The violence He does to the soul at such times is always very gentle, and He awaits the consent of the heart whereof He would be the Master.

And what reason is there for fear in thus yielding ourselves to God? His tender invitations, His earnest solicitations, have no other object than our good, our true good, which He understands infinitely better than we do, and which He desires more keenly and alone can procure. Is not our salvation incomparably safer in His hands than in our own? If we trust Him unreservedly with our dearest interests, do we not preserve them from all those dangers to which the devil and our own hearts would expose them? Is any power strong enough to wrest our souls from God, once He has accepted them, unless we ourselves are cowardly and faithless enough to draw back? Can we more strongly induce God to take care of us than by surrendering ourselves to Him?

And in reality, what can we do in the matter of our salvation apart from what God enables us to do? Whom have we to fear or mistrust most, God or ourselves? Surely, our liberty is the means to our eternal happiness or loss. But so long as we cling to the use of our free will, we run the risk of misusing it: a risk which entirely disappears when we commit our liberty to God, asking Him to hold it captive by the gracious chains of His grace. Are we afraid that He will use our liberty in spite of ourselves; and that what He desires of us He will not know how to urge us to desire too? And if we do desire it with all our hearts, how can we fear a Master Who will not ask anything of us but what we are most willing to give?

And what better use -- what more glorious for Him and more conformable to the eternal ideas His love has for us -- can we make of our liberty than to become His willing servants, placing ourselves under His yoke, and inviting Him to exercise in our regard all the plenitude of the power which belongs to Him by right? What heroic acts of homage, faith, love, trust and abandonment are not combined in this one sacrifice? And, given that God will continue to the end the work He has begun; that the victim having once offered himself as a holocaust to the good pleasure of God will allow himself to be uncomplainingly immolated, what purpose can that immolation have other than to procure the greatest glory for God and at the same time assure our own eternal reward? And to give to God our liberty, what is it but to do in this life what the blessed do in heaven?

There is no doubt that our self-love rebels with all its strength against such a sacrifice. It shudders at the mere idea of abandoning itself without reserve to God. What! Never shall I be able to dispose of myself again in anything; never be master of a single thought, a single glance, a single word. Submit to being led by the obscure paths of faith, by ways beset with danger, knowing not where to place my feet, and believing all along that I am being led to certain death! Consent to face the most delicate and dangerous temptations, to submit to rough trials and suffer terrible loneliness on God's part; and, on the part of men, violent contradictions, calumnies, humiliations, persecutions! In a word, lay myself down on the cross, permit myself to be bound to it, and suffer its pains until I draw my last breath! For such can be the result of the gift of one's liberty to God: such the meaning of the gift of self. And whether one actually has to suffer these things or not, one must be prepared for them, since the devotion I speak of knows of no exceptions.

Self-love revolts against the mere thought of these things. But what is self-love? A love blind, and no true friend of ours; the unhappy fruit of sin, an enemy of God and of our own happiness, that the Gospel bids us fight and pursue to the bitter end; that closes heaven's gate to us until it is utterly vanquished, and of which the soul must be completely purified, either here or hereafter in Purgatory, before we can enjoy the possession of God.

That being the case, it would seem that the more self-love opposes this sacrifice, the more reason have we to endure it. For not only does our self-love not know its true interests, but it is absolutely hostile to them. We need not be surprised, therefore, that it should set itself up against what threatens it with complete annihilation. Since the love of God and the love of self dispute the possession of our heart (which must belong to one or the other), ought we not to seize with joy the surest means of delivering ourselves from this dread enemy, since it is God Himself Who is undertaking to do that for us? Is it not better to be consumed in this world by the fires of charity, with the incomparable glory that it gives to God and untold merit for ourselves, than to be consumed by the divine justice in Purgatory, where God will receive glory from our loving sufferings, but without any increase of merit on our part? Suffering for suffering, which is the greater? In this life, it is less a matter of justice than of real mercy; in Purgatory, it is rather inexorable justice, which must be completely satisfied. Here, our miseries do have their intervals of rest and consolation; there, nothing relieves the suffering, and there is no rest. Here, grace sustains us on the cross, and infuses a sweet unction unknown in Purgatory. If we have any faith, therefore; if we have one spark of love for God or any true love for ourselves, in whatever light we consider the matter, how can we hesitate in our choice?

I say, if we have any true love for ourselves. For what is such love? It is the desire and endeavour to obtain our most perfect well-being: in other words, it is the love of God and His glory, and the love of His interests, with which our own are so closely bound. There is no doubt that we shall love ourselves in heaven: but how? With the same love with which we shall love God; we shall be unable to have any other love than that. Could we form a separate act of love for ourselves, we should at once forfeit our beatitude.

Let us, then, even in this life, commence to love ourselves thus, by giving ourselves to God in order to love Him alone. This love, which will consummate our happiness in heaven, will give us even now a foretaste of that happiness. I would add one last consideration: it is that should we die, having made this generous act of consecration, God will take it as though we had passed a long life in the continual exercise of this devotion, since the will to do so was ours, though the execution of it was not in our power.

It may be objected that the passive way is not open to any and every person who would like to walk in it; and that, according to our own showing, no one can enter it unless God calls them. All this is true: but I say that there are certain states of mind which prepare us for such a call, and that these are within our power. And I say further: even if this call should never come, we shall have had the merit of preparing ourselves for it.

The first of these dispositions is to conceive a real desire (but always quiet and patient) to live under the influence of grace, and to offer ourselves repeatedly to God, in order that He may be pleased to reign in our hearts. The second is to perform all our good works with a view to obtaining this grace. And, finally, to be extremely faithful in all our relationships with God, corresponding with all His inspirations according to our present state. With that intention, we could not do better than make our own the prayer of that great saint who was so devoted to the greater glory of God:4444 Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Accept my memory, my understanding and my whole will. All that I have and possess, Thou hast given me: to Thee do I restore it all, and deliver it up wholly to Thee that Thou mayest dispose of it. Grant me only Thy love and Thy grace, and I am rich enough: nor do I seek aught beside. [9]

6. Cf. Rom. vi. 17, 18
7. John viii. 34, 36.
8. Acts ix. 6
9. Prayer of St. Ignatius, in the 4th week of the Spiritual