"Many words do not satisfy the soul; but a good life eases the mind and a clean conscience inspires great trust in God."

Thomas á Kempis

* * *

"God gives us some things, as the beginning of faith, even when we do not pray. Other things, such as perseverance, he has only provided for those who pray."

St Augustine

* * *

"Spiritual persons ought to be equally ready to experience sweetness and consolation in the things of God, or to suffer and keep their ground in drynesses of spirit and devotion, and for as long as God pleases, without their making any complaint about it."

St Philip Neri

* * *


John Nicholas Grou, S.J. 




by John Nicholas Grou, S.J.

Seventh Maxim: Purity of intention, simplicity and uprightness

Let your intention be pure, and your devotion simple and upright

If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome. [32] All the Fathers explain these words to refer to purity of intention, and understand them to signify that, if our aim be pure, our actions will be just. As the eye guides, and in some sense enlightens, the body, so the intention enlightens the soul. It guides its actions, and imparts to them their value for good or evil. Therefore, as the holiness of our actions depends on the purity of our intention, it is of the utmost importance that we should make sure of our intention; yet nothing is more difficult.

Intention lies in the deepest part of the human heart, so that, to discover it as fully as is possible, we must be practised in the science of reflecting on our own soul, examining its hidden motives, and penetrating its deepest recesses. This is what few persons do, and in what concerns supernatural matters it can only be satisfactorily performed by the help of divine light, which must unceasingly be sought by diligent prayer.

Our self-love endeavours studiously to hide our intentions from ourselves. It does so with a view to its own interests, and succeeds only too well. We deceive ourselves in a multitude of things, and although we do so simply because we want to, it is all so subtle that we are hardly aware of it. There are very few persons who are completely honest with themselves, and self should be the very first thing we mistrust. We must always, therefore, be on our guard against the devices of self-love, which are more subtle in religious matters than in anything else. Yet how few are really watchful in this matter; how few are proof--I do not say always, but for the most part--against being taken off their guard.

If we are to know ourselves really, we must discern the true motive of our actions, and that is not an easy matter, seeing how twisted our nature is, and how blind we are to it. True knowledge of self is very rare.

The truth is, of course, that only God knows us through and through; above all in the most essential thing, namely whether we are worthy in His eyes of love or hatred. [33] We cannot be absolutely certain that any of our actions are pleasing to Him, and this uncertainty will remain with us all our life; we will never be able to pronounce with certitude on the purity of our intentions. For if we were sure on this point, we would be equally sure that our actions were holy, and consequently that we were in a state of grace. For this reason, we must always say with David: From my secret sins, cleanse me, O Lord. [34] And who knows fully his own frailty? The truth is in itself very painful, and particularly grievous to self-love, which is always seeking for assurance. According to God's designs, however, it should humble us, but not drive us to despair. If in this matter we cannot arrive at absolute certitude, yet by learning to know ourselves and by humbly asking it of God, we can obtain sufficient moral certitude to give us peace. But we must do all that lies in our power.

What, then, is purity of intention? Purity of intention is having God alone as our object, free from all self-interest. Yet our intention, although not absolutely pure, may not be fundamentally bad. It often happens that our primary intention is good, but it is spoilt by a secondary intention which is not good. Thus a priest in his apostolic work seeks in general the glory of God, but at the same time takes pleasure in the approbation of men. In God's eyes, therefore, which are infinitely pure, the total intention and the acts consequent on it, are not perfectly holy and beyond reproach.

Imperfect Christians that we are, we can judge by this example of the hidden imperfections which insinuate themselves into all we do. If only we were fully persuaded of this truth, how reluctant we would be to indulge in any self-complacency; and this is just what God wants, for He only saves us by humility, certainly not by confidence in our own merit. The saints knew this only too well, and like Job [35] trembled at the thought of their actions. And even St. Augustine cried, when he thought of Monica his mother: 'O my God, who can stand in Thy sight, if Thou searchest without mercy?'

What must we do to acquire this precious purity of intention? We must continually watch our motives, in order to eschew not only those that are obviously bad, but even those that are imperfect. But we only discern our imperfections as we advance, and as our spiritual light increases. God increases this light progressively, according to the use we make of His gift. He adapts it to our present needs, and to the degree of purity He expects of us at the time. It is by this light that we gradually discover those imperfections in our intention which at first were not apparent, and which God Himself actually hid from us. For what beginner, with how ever good a will, could bear the sight of those actions which he believes to be his best, if God showed them to him as they are in His sight? It would be enough to reduce him to the depths of despondency. God has done so in the case of certain saints, but not everyone can stand such favours!

To make myself better understood, I will give an example of this imperfect knowledge of ourselves. The entrance to the spiritual life is often strewn by God with flowers. He fills the soul with sweetness and consolation in order to detach it from all that is not Himself, and to facilitate the exercises of an interior life, which otherwise would prove too difficult. The soul, which never before knew anything so delightful, clings impetuously to these new pleasures, and in order to enjoy them gives up everything else. It yields itself to prayer and mortification, and is only happy when alone with God. It cannot bear any interruption in its communion with Him. If God hides Himself for a time, it is wretched, and cries to Him to return. It seeks Him restlessly, and knows no rest until He is found again.

Much imperfection unquestionably exists here. The motive is good: God is the object sought; but the intention is not pure, because spiritual sweetness and sensible enjoyment are sought as well. The soul does not see this imperfection at the time; God Himself hides it, and it would be imprudent in a spiritual director to reveal it. But when the soul has for some time been fed on this milk, and begins to grow strong, the times of God's absence will grow longer, and will become habitual. Then a light will be given to show the previous imperfection in the intention, and the soul will gradually learn to serve God for Himself, and not for His gifts. This light would have done harm at first, but will be profitable when it is given. And at every new step fresh light is received, which reveals the imperfections of the preceding state. Therefore, instead of over-wearying ourselves by scrutinizing our intentions, we need only make good use of the light given us by God. Yet we must faithfully consult that light, and at once reject every imperfection which it makes known to us. And thus we gradually attain to a purity of intention which is more or less perfect, according to God's will concerning us. For purity of intention is the measure of holiness, and is proportionate to the degree of light communicated by God, and to the fidelity with which we correspond to it. God indeed considers, not our actions in themselves, but our motives. That is why the slightest action of Our Lady was of greater value in God's sight than the noblest works of other saints, because her intention was incomparably pure.

Simplicity is identical with purity of intention. Thus Our Lord said: If thy eye be single: [36] that is, if your gaze is directed to one object only, namely God. I could, therefore, be silent concerning simplicity, and content myself with what I have said concerning purity of intention. But it is desirable to show that simplicity, which so few persons rightly understand, is the root and essence of all perfection. To this intent, we must raise our minds to God Himself, and in the first place consider simplicity as it is revealed in Him.

Now only what is infinite is perfectly simple, and only what is perfectly simple is infinite. All things finite are manifold and complex, and all things complex are finite. There is no exception to this rule. Therefore, perfect simplicity can be postulated only of God, and that accounts for the infinity of His perfections. The being of God is infinite, because it is simple and all in all, without division or extension. His eternity is infinite, because it is simple, having neither beginning, middle nor end, and excludes the very idea of duration expressed by a succession of moments. His power is infinite, because it is simple, extending to all things possible, and exercised without contradiction or effort, by a pure act of will. His knowledge is infinite, because it is simple, and consists in one single idea, which is the idea of God Himself, in which He sees all that has been, is and will be, and all that is in the realm of mere possibility. The very essence of God is infinite, because it is simple. In Him essence is existence; His attributes are one with themselves and with His essence, being only distinguishable by the definitions we conceive of them, according to our own feeble imagination. In Him, finally, power means act, and faculty means exercise; divine intelligence an eternal understanding, and divine will an eternal volition.

So, too, in regard to His moral attributes. Although finite when viewed in their effects on us, they are infinite in themselves, by virtue of their simplicity. Such are His holiness, His wisdom, goodness, justice and mercy. The end of all His works is likewise infinite, being simple: it is to His glory that they must all concur. Minds accustomed to reflection will be able to follow the sublime theory which I here merely indicate.

Simplicity, then, being the chief characteristic of the perfections, designs and operations of God, we cannot wonder that it is the chief constituent of perfection in the case of rational creatures. Being finite, they are incapable of physical simplicity, but not of moral simplicity, and this they are bound to make their one aim.

In the case of the creature, simplicity is reduced to one point, namely that God alone is to be the standard of his ideas and judgments, the aim of his desires, and the end of his actions and sufferings. Everything is to be referred to God; His good pleasure is to be preferred in all things, His holy will alone to be envisaged, sought and pursued. This summary is short, but its content deep.

The soul is truly simple, when it has attained to this single view of God, and is perfected in unity. An ineffable unity, which in some sort deifies us by a most perfect moral union with Him Who is supremely and absolutely One. One to One was the continual saying of a great contemplative: a short expression, but full of meaning. It contains all the truth and perfection of holiness, all the blessedness of which it is the source. God is One by a unity which befits Him, and Him alone. He is One, and necessarily draws all things into His own unity. He is One, and sanctifies all things by participation in His unity. He is One, and all creatures capable of being happy are so only by sharing in His unity. Therefore, in order to be holy or happy, the soul must be one by its cleaving of mind and heart to Him alone, for Him alone, without any turning back towards self. If, besides looking to God, the soul gazes upon itself, in any way whatsoever distinguishing itself from God, with a sense of ownership which separates its interests from God's interests, then that soul is no longer one or simple, but double, having two objects. And as long as it is in this state, it cannot possibly be immediately united to God, neither in this world by faith, nor hereafter until it has been purified of all its multiplicity.

Therefore, if you would aspire to holiness and happiness, aspire to simplicity and unity. Study to simplify your desires, reducing them to God alone. Forget yourself, think of Him; have no will nor interest but His. Seek only His glory, and find your happiness in His. This is the state of the blessed in heaven, and we shall only be admitted to the beatific vision with all its beatitude when we have arrived at that consummation. Why not, then, begin on earth, so far as we can?

But how are we to acquire this simplicity, the mere idea of which transcends all our conceptions? First, we must pray to the Being Who alone is infinitely holy, and ask Him to undertake the work of our simplification. Let this be our great, our sole aim. All our efforts will never rid us of our multiplicity. But the more God acts in us, and the more we yield to the operations of grace, the more shall we increase in simplicity, without seeing, or even wanting to see, the progress we are making.

In what are we to seek simplicity? In our mind: from which God will banish much prejudice and uncertainty, many doubts and false judgments, substituting in their place the simple truth, and from which in turn He will drive away all undue worrying, misgivings, want of trust and cares for the future, which are the consequences of a false prudence. Thus will He gradually reduce our multifold reasonings to the prayer of simple regard.

Simplicity in our will, which will henceforth own but one desire, one fear, one love, one hatred, and one sole object of its affection, drawing us ever nearer to that object, with an inviolable rectitude and an unconquerable strength.

Simplicity in virtues, which will all meet and fuse in charity, so far as the state of this present life permits. Simplicity in prayer, which will be, so to speak, one only act containing all acts in itself. And lastly, simplicity in conduct, which will be consistently even, uniform, straight and true, emanating from one principle and culminating in one end.

Uprightness is but another name for purity of intention and simplicity. Of this I would speak but briefly.

The Sacred Word, speaking of Job, found no higher praise than to call him simple and upright. [37] A man is upright, when he follows a simple rule pointing always in one direction, and aiming always at a centre. For the soul, this centre is God; and God has given it an innate tendency towards Himself. So long as it preserves and obeys this tendency, it will retain its innocence and peace; departing from it, it cannot fail to fall back into sin and distress. It does this when it turns back on itself, assuming another direction and another centre, thereby losing its primitive rectitude. It was given an original impulse, but has chosen another and in an opposite direction, which in devious ways draws it away from God and towards self.

Again, Scripture tells us: God made man upright: [38] that is, turned towards Himself alone, with an inward yearning for closeness to and union with Him. But owing to his radical imperfection man had the power of turning towards himself, and he was tempted and fell. Thence arose original sin and its consequences, which gave a prodigious impetus to this tendency towards self, and to which, without God's recalling grace, we cannot but yield.

I am aware that as long as man retains sanctifying grace, he does not lose that essential uprightness which is necessary and sufficient for salvation. But every act of self-love, of self- complacency, of seeking one's own interest unsubordinated to the interest of God, is a deflection from that uprightness which, however slight, may entail the most grievous consequences. The danger of the least error of this kind is twofold. First, we can never, by our own strength, regain our former uprightness, however slightly we may have diverged from it. Secondly, we have no power of stopping, nor of carrying our deflection to a given point and no further. These two considerations ought to weigh with us so deeply as to prevent our ever taking one deliberate step out of the right way.

Try to preserve, then, as far as you can, that rectitude which God has restored to you. Fear its loss, even in the smallest degree. Keep a watch over your natural tendencies, which would draw you away from God. In this, we are our worst enemies, loving ourselves but in a wrong way, with a secret inclination to make self our centre, towards which we try to make everything, even God Himself subservient. This love of self is extremely dangerous, because its devices are so subtle that often enough we are not aware of them, so deeply embedded are they in our nature. Life to self is death to the soul, since it is taking us always farther from God.

Wise will we be if we examine well the nature of our devotion, to see if it be pure, simple and straight. And as it is possible that we are blind to ourselves, we should pray about it, seek counsel, and profit by the light God gives us. The good use we make of the little we have will draw down still greater graces, and insensibly we shall acquire that purity of intention and simplicity and uprightness of heart which are, and always have been, so rare among those who profess to be devout.  

31. Cf. Matt. v. 24
32. Matt. vi. 22
33. Cf. Eccles. IX,!
34. Ps. xviii. 13
35. Cf. Job xxxvii, 1
36. Matt. vi. 22
37. Job 1:1
38. Eccles. vii:30