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States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church/Part 1/Section 2/ARTICLE I. The State of Tendency to Perfection, or the Religious State/CHAPTER XIV

< States of Christian Life and Vocation, According to the Doctors and Theologians of the Church‎ | Part 1/Section 2/ARTICLE I. The State of Tendency to Perfection, or the Religious State


" WHEN there is question of entering religion in order to lead a life at once more perfect and more secure against the dangers of this world, it is astonishing," says St. Liguori, " to what a degree people of the world carry their pretensions. They insist that, before coming to such a determination, long deliberation is essential ; there must be no haste in the execution of the project, so as to gain a certainty that the call comes really from God, and not from the evil spirit. They do not speak in this way when some high office in the state is to be accepted, which is attended with so many dangers for the soul. Then they do not require the aspirant to go through so many ordeals in order to test the divine origin of his call. This is not the way in which the saints speak. St. Thomas asserts that, even though a religious vocation did come from the devil, it ought to be followed as an excellent counsel from an enemy."[1]

Here is the passage of the Angelical to which St. Liguori refers : " When Satan, hiding his malice, says or does anything that suits the good angels, any error which may follow from it is not very dangerous. Later on, when he will attempt to make use of his deceit for an evil purpose, we must be extremely on our guard, so as not to listen to his suggestions. Were the devil, then, to urge any one to enter religion there would be no danger in following the impulse, as it is a good suggestion in itself, and such as the holy angels might make. Afterward, however, we should have to be on the watch to protect ourselves against pride and the many other dangerous insinuations of the enemy of our salvation. God often uses the malice of the spirits of darkness for the good of his saints, whose struggles and victories he crowns ; and it is thus that holy souls make a sport of the devil. Still we must keep in mind that, were the devil to infuse into one a desire to enter religion, such desire would beget no result, unless God drew the soul to himself by his own divine grace. "[2]

" Things that are certain need no discussion," says the same holy doctor. " Those whose duty it is to receive into religion a subject who presents himself for admission, may not be aware of his intention in seeking admission : whether he comes for his own spiritual benefit, or whether he comes, as it sometimes happens, to spy and do some harm, or, again, whether he is suited for the religious state. In order that those empowered to admit may solve these questions judiciously, they must subject the candidate to trial : and this trial is prescribed by the Church and by the constitutions of every religious order. But persons having the intention to enter a religious order are in no doubt with regard to that intention. They have therefore no need of deliberation, especially when they have no reason to mistrust their bodily strength ; and this they will have abundance of time to test during the year of noviceship."[3]

It is said that, when an undertaking is liable to failure, we should proceed in it with great caution and reflection. This is true where the undertaking is in itself dangerous, and often exposed to serious risks. In that case mature deliberation is imperative in order to eschew all danger, or even to forego the project altogether; but, when risks are rare, there is no need of much hesitation. Ordinary watchfulness will suffice to ward off every mishap. " He that observes the wind, shall not sow : and he that considers the clouds, shall never reap." (Eccl. xi, 4.) " The slothful man says : There is a lion in the way, and a lioness in the roads." (Prov. xxvi, 13.) But there are enterprises, sound and solid in themselves, which still withal turn out badly, because those who embark in them are wanting in perseverance. No one should allow himself to be thwarted, or to defer his entrance into religion, on the plea that lengthy deliberation is necessary, for the reason that many have given up the religious life, and afterward became worse than they had previously been ; otherwise we should never embrace the Catholic faith, for it is written : "It had been better for them not to have known the way of justice than, after they have known it, to turn back from that holy commandment which was delivered to them." (2 Pet. ii, 21.)

People say also that, if a work is from God, it will not come to naught. (Acts v, 38.) Heretics, misunderstanding this passage of Scripture, endeavor to base two errors on it. The first is, that bodies which are subject to corruption do not come from God ; and the second is, that he who has the grace of God cannot lose it. According to these heretics, then, since Judas by his treachery excluded himself from the number of apostles, we must conclude that his vocation was not divine. Well, the strange reasoning indulged in by the enemies of the religious state is equally absurd. Here it is : If he who enters religion afterward abandons it, there is proof that God did not call him to it, and that the zeal of those who advised him to take the step did not proceed from God.[4] St. Thomas upsets this senseless argument, and closes by saying that there are some who have received a religious vocation from God, though afterward they do not persevere in it.

It is no shame to attempt to embrace the state of perfection and to fail in the enterprise. The world, that employs every means to stifle the projects of souls aspiring to a holy life, seeks, nevertheless, to make a reproach out of an unsuccessful undertaking of this nature. At all costs, it wishes to prevent men from even making the attempt. No matter, however, what may be the ideas of that world, even the few months spent in a religious house by those who do not persevere, are often fruitful in consolations, in pious exercises, in acts of virtue, and they are sheltered from the dangers and the sins in which life in the world usually abounds.

To those who are of opinion that, if a vocation came from God, delays and obstacles would not be able to destroy it, St. Liguori replies in his turn : " The lights that God sends us are fleeting, not permanent. This is what led St. Thomas to say that divine calls to a more perfect life must be followed without delay : quanta citius" [5]

" St. John Chrysostom, quoted by the Angelical, says that, when God favors us with similar inspirations, he does not wish us to hesitate a moment to follow them. Why so ? Because the Lord loves to see us docile; and the more prompt we are, the more he opens his hand to fill us with blessings. But delays give him great displeasure. God then closes his hand and withholds his graces, so that he who puts off corresponding to his vocation finds it difficult to follow it, and easily gives it up altogether. " Hence," adds St. Chrysostom, " when the devil cannot rob one of his resolution to consecrate himself to God, he endeavors to persuade him, at least, to defer its execution, and he considers it a great gain to obtain a delay of a day, or even of an hour ; for, if, during that day or hour, a new occasion should present itself for delay, it will be less difficult for him to obtain more and more procrastination. In this way does the devil act until the person called by God, finding himself weaker and less influenced by grace, ends by yielding altogether and renouncing his vocation. By such delays how often has not the enemy destroyed a vocation ! For this reason St. Jerome, addressing those who are called to abandon the world, urges them to esape as soon as possible."[6] " Hurry," says he ; " cut, rather than untie, the rope which binds your boat to the shore ;"[7] that is to say, break as quickly as possible the bonds which fasten you to the world.

"Peter and Andrew," says St. Thomas, "directly they were called by our Lord, left their nets on the spot to follow him ; and St. Chrysostom says, to their praise, that, hearing the orders of Christ in the midst of their occupations, they made no delay in executing them. They did not say, Let us go back to our homes and see our friends, but, leaving everything, they followed him."[8] These words were not spoken by the saints with a view to make people enter the religious life rashly, but as a preservative against worldly prejudices, and against the delays in which nature readily delights, but which often extinguish the grace of heaven.

St. Liguori himself observes that the prudence of a confessor may sometimes delay entrance into religion,[9] and Suarez wishes him who enters religion to do so with full knowledge of the step that he is taking. It is not enough to know that the religious state is the best in itself; we must also compare with that state the one who wishes to follow it, and see whether he has sufficient health, or is in the proper circumstances for taking such a determination. What is best in itself is not always the best for every individual.[10] " But," adds the learned theologian, "in this deliberation we must take account, not of our strength only, but we must likewise consider the assistance of God on whom we are bound to rely. Cajetan remarks, with reason, that he who intends to become a religious must trust with firm hope in divine grace. Every one may rely on it ; for, if God calls even those who do not seek him, much more will he protect and sustain those whose sole purpose is to please him."[11] This proves the great delusion of persons who, from a fear of not persevering, can never bring themselves to a full determination to follow the divine call. " He who gives the grace to will," Lessius tells them, " will also grant the grace to accomplish. There will not be wanting to you an abundance of grace that will help you to do easily and joyfully what God requires of you ; but take care that you be not wanting to yourself."[12] Suarez further remarks, with many theologians, that every one should look upon the religious state as suiting him, as long as he has not acquired a certainty of the contrary, either by some evident reason, or by his own personal experience. For, the watchfulness of superiors, the removal of occasions of sin, holy examples, frequent hearing of the word of God, the consolations which the Lord lavishes on religious, all this abundance of help renders easy the obligations of a state which would be above the strength of a man living in the midst of the world.[13] Should we consult many persons before entering religion? " To lay down as a principle that many should be consulted, would be to raise," says St. Thomas, " a great obstacle against the purpose of those intending to follow the path of perfection.

Every sensible person will be of this opinion ; for the advice of carnal men, who always form the greater number, turns away from, rather than exhorts to, spiritual goods."[14] It is not then necessary to consult much. But should we consult at all? The answer of St. Thomas is, that, " in matters which are certain, there is no need of counsel : In his quae certa sunt, non requiritur consilium; and it is certain that, putting out of question the aspirant, entrance into religion, considered in itself, is a higher good. To doubt of it would be to give the lie to Jesus Christ, who made a counsel of it."[15] There is, therefore, no need of consulting in this matter, as Suarez observes.[16]

But are we to consult in order to find out whether our desire to enter religion comes from God? As we have already said, St. Thomas is of opinion there is no obligation to do so ; for, even though the desire came from the devil, it were good to carry it out. Suarez also says that, in itself and ordinarily, the desire of the religious state is from the Holy Ghost. It should therefore be accepted, and there is no need to consult about it, unless some accidental circumstances render the desire suspicious; yet, when it is to be put into execution, it may be necessary to take advice, and my opinion is, continues Suarez, that, as a general rule, advice ought to be taken.[17]

" If a person has some special impediment," says the Angelical, " such as a bodily infirmity, debts, or any other hindrance of the kind, and if he has to decide how he shall enter religion, and on what order he shall fix his choice, he should reflect and ask advice of those who may help him to pursue his purpose, but not of those who might attempt to divert him from it. It is said in Holy Writ (Ecclus. xxxvii, 12) : 'Treat not with a man without religion concerning holiness, nor with an unjust man concerning justice.' "[18]

Suarez, following St. Thomas, wishes us to consult virtuous men who are free from human affection with regard to those who ask their advice, who have right views of a perfect life and of the religious state, and even, if possible, some experience of it. Let this consultation, he adds, be prudent and serious, as the importance of the matter requires it to be, but let it not be drawn out to endless lengths. Protracted counsel is not called for, and, as a general thing, it is an obstacle to a divine vocation, and the source of many dangers.[19]

We have now answered, in the words of the doctors of the Church, the questions bearing on the state of tendency to perfection. It remains to say a word on the state of in exercise or practice.


  1. " The Choice of a State of Life," 2, 2.
  2. Div. Th., opusc. 17. c. x.
  3. Div. Th., opusc. 17, c. x.
  4. St. Th.., opusc. c. x.
  5. "The Choice of a State," 2, 2.
  6. " The Choice of a State," 2, 2.
  7. Hieron., epist. 53 ad Paulin.
  8. Div. Th., opusc. 17, c. ix, et 2, 2, q. 189, a. 10.
  9. Praxis confess., n. 92.
  10. Suar. ; lib. 5, c. viii, n. 2.
  11. Lessius, q. 7, n. 85.
  12. Ibid., n. 2.
  13. Ibid., n. 2.
  14. St. Th., opusc. 17, c. i.
  15. Id., 2, 2, q. 189, a. I0.
  16. Suar., lib. 5, c, viii, n. 2.
  17. Ibid., n. 4.
  18. Div. Th., 2, 2, q. 189, a. 10.
  19. Suar., lib. 5, c. viii, n. 2.