Dialogue About Perfection (Part 3)
by Saint Catherine of Siena
(Published in French by Éditions du Sel)
The Instruments of Perfection
And, when that soul had heard what the will of God was, that to execute it faithfully a perfect charity was required, and that this could only be obtained by an entire annihilation of self-will, she spoke thus to the Lord:
Thou hast manifested to me, O my Lord and God, Thy Will, and hast shown me, that, if I love Thee perfectly, I shall love nothing transitory and earthly, nor even my own self for myself, but all alone for Thee and in Thee. Thou hast added, that, in order to love Thee, I must seek with earnest care to praise and glorify Thee in all things and at all times; and that in such a manner as that others may do so like wise; that I must endeavor further to bear with a peaceful, cheerful, tranquil heart whatever may befall one in this miserable life.
And now, since I gather from what Thou hast hitherto said that all these things are to be done by the abnegation of my own will, since the more I die to myself, the more perfectly I shall live in Thee; I beseech Thee to teach me in what manner I may acquire this great virtue of the perfect abnegation of myself.
And God, who is so good that He can deny nothing to the pious desires of His servants, thus replied to her:
It is certain that everything depends upon the perfect abnegation of thyself, since the more thou dost empty thyself of thy own will, the more will I fill thee with My grace. And all thy perfection comes from the participation of My Divine goodness by means of grace, without which the human creature, in all that concerns its true dignity and perfection, is absolutely nothing.
If thou dost indeed desire to attain this perfect abnegation of self, thou must prostrate thyself before Me in the most profound humility, with a thorough conviction of thine own poverty and misery; and thou must at all times eagerly seek this one thing, to obey Me alone and to do My Will only.1
The Inner Cell
And to this end thou must make in thy soul as it were, a little spiritual cell, closed in with the material of My Will, in which thou must enclose thyself and make therein thy constant dwelling-place; so that, wherever thou goest, thou mayest never go forth from it, and, wherever thou lookest, thou mayest never see anything beyond it; but My Will must so encompass every faculty of thy body and soul, that thou shalt never speak of anything but what thou deemest pleasing unto Me, nor think, nor do anything, but what thou believest agreeable to My Will.
And it shall be that the Holy Ghost shall teach thee what thou shalt do in all things.2
Moreover thou mayest attain this abnegation of thine own will by another road, if thou canst obtain those who are able to guide and instruct thee according to My Spirit; namely, by subjecting thy will to them, by obediently following their counsels, and by trusting thyself and thy concerns fully to them; since he who hears My faithful and prudent servants “heareth Me” (St. Luke 10:16).
Contemplation of God
* But I desire further that thou shouldst consider with firm faith and profound meditation that I, thy most glorious God, I, who have created thee for eternal beatitude, am eternal, sovereign, omnipotent; that I can do with you whatever pleaseth Me; and there is none who can oppose himself in the least degree to My Will; that no good can happen to you unless sent by Me; nor can any evil befall you except by that same Will of Mine, as I have already told you by My Prophet Amos: “shall there be evil in a city which the Lord hath not done?” (Amos 3:6), that is, which I have not permitted.
* In the second place, I wilt that thou seriously meditate that in Me, thy God, dwell the most perfect Intelligence, and Knowledge, and infinite Wisdom; that, therefore, I behold all things with the utmost clearness and acutest penetration; so that in My government of thee, the heavens, and the earth, and the entire universe, I cannot be deceived in any way or misled by any error. Were it otherwise, I should neither be all wise, nor should I be God. And, that thou mayest acknowledge the more the power of My infinite Wisdom, know that even from the evil of guilt and punishment I am able to draw a good greater than the evil.
* In the third place, consider attentively that, as I am thy God, so am I infinitely good, yea, charity itself by My Essence; that, therefore, I cannot will anything but that which is useful and salutary to thee and to all men; nor can I wish any evil to My creatures; that, as man was created by My bounty, so is he loved by Me with inestimable charity.
The Fruits of Contemplation
1. Acceptance of Trials and Adversities
When with a firm faith thou shalt have received and pondered in thy mind these truths, thou shalt see that I only suffer tribulations, temptations, difficulties, sicknesses, and all other forms of adversity to befall men for the greater advantage of their eternal salvation; that through the very things which to you seem evils, the true evil of your bad habits may be corrected, and firm resolutions made to attain that virtue which can alone guide you to that true and ultimate good which as yet you know not.3
Thus illuminated by the living light of faith, thou wilt perceive that I, thy God, have infinitely more Knowledge, Power, and Will to advance thy happiness than thou hast; and further, that thy own knowledge, power, and will for thine own good depends entirely on My grace.
2. Peace and Joy
For this cause, seek with all diligence to submit thyself totally to My Will; so shalt thou take thy rest and abide in continual tranquility of spirit, and shalt have Me for ever with thee, for My “place is in peace” (Ps. 75:3). Nothing will then agitate or irritate thee; nothing shall be to thee an occasion of sin or scandal, for “much peace have they who love My law; and to them there is no stumbling-block” (Ps. 118:165). For they so love My law, that is, My Will which is My law by which all things are directed, they are so intimately united by it to Me, and experience such great delight in observing it, that (sin only excepted, which is offensive to God) nothing has power to disturb them, from whatsoever quarter it may come, or of whatsoever weight or quality it may be. For the eyes of their soul are clear and undefiled; and therefore they see that from Me, the sovereign Ruler of the world, Who govern all things with infinite Wisdom, Order, and Charity, nothing but good can spring; and that I can take care of them and their affairs far better and more successfully than they could of themselves.4
2. Patience and Inner Sweetness
And thus considering that I and none other am the Author of all that they have to endure, they are strong with an invincible patience, and suffer all things, not only with resignation, but with cheerfulness and joy,5 tasting in all things which befall them externally or internally the sweetness of My ineffable charity.
And this is to “think of the Lord in goodness” (Wis. 1:1), that is, to believe, and meditate with a cheerful and grateful spirit, even in the midst of tribulations and difficulties, that it is I who sweetly dispose all things, and that whatever happens springs from the inexhaustible fountain of My goodness.
But the great good which this holy consideration and blessed disposition of heart would effect, is hindered, corrupted, and destroyed solely by this one thing, the love of yourselves and of your own will. If you destroy this within you, there shall be no more hell for you, neither the eternal torment of body and soul prepared for the damned, nor that other hell of interior turmoil which you make for yourselves and suffer during your mortal life, through your perpetual agitations and anxious cares about many things.
If, therefore, thou wouldst live in grace in this world which passes rapidly away, and if thou wouldst live in glory in that world which has no end, seek to die to thyself, denying thyself and laying down thine own will.
For “blessed are the dead who die in the Lord” (Apoc. 14:13), and “blessed also are the poor in spirit” (St. Matt. 5:3), since they already see Me in a manner in this their pilgrimage by reciprocal love, and shall behold Me hereafter in glory and honor in their true home. So be it.
Translation by Sister Drane
Footnotes by Fr Bernadot O.P., published in 1919
1The eternal Father also said: “if you will arrive at a perfect knowledge and enjoyment of Me, the Eternal Truth, that you should never go outside the knowledge of yourself, and, by humbling yourself in the valley of humility, you will know Me and yourself, from which knowledge you will draw all that is necessary. No virtue, my daughter, can have life in itself except through charity, and humility, which is the foster-mother and nurse of charity. In self-knowledge, then, you will humble yourself, seeing that, in yourself, you do not even exist; for your very being, as you will learn, is derived from Me, since I have loved both you and others before you were in existence” (Dialogue 4, Treatise of Divine Providence, § “How desire and contrition of heart satisfies”).
2St. Catherine loved to recommend her followers to live in the inner cell: “if you want to hear and find the fruit of my will, be you always dwellers in the cell of your soul, which cell is a well, and which well holds water and earth within itself (in which earth we can know our misery: we know we do not exist; since we are not, we thus see that our being is from God). O ineffable inflamed charity, I therefore see that the earth is found, the living water is gushing, that is, the true knowledge of His sweet and true will, which wants nothing more than our sanctification. So let us enter the depth of this well, for by force it will be agreed that, by living in it, we know ourselves and we know the goodness of God. Knowing we are not, we humiliate ourselves and enter the open consumed burnt heart, like a window without a door that never closes.” (Letter to Br. Th. della Fonte, n. 41).
3St. Catherine herself wrote: “God allows us to be tempted to prove our virtue, and for the growth of grace; not because we are defeated, but because we are victors: not trusting in our strength, but in divine help, saying with the sweet Apostle Paul: through Christ crucified “I can do all things in him who strengtheneth me.” (Ph. 4:13).” (Letter to Dom Christopher, 335).
4St. Catherine to Br. William of England: “For, were it truly humble and not presumptuous, it would see well that the Sweet Primal Truth gives conditions, time and place, and consolation and tribulation, according as is needful to our perfection, and to fulfill in the soul the perfection to which it is chosen. It would see that everything is given through love, and therefore with love.” (Letter 54; Catherine of Siena. “To Brother William of England of the Hermit Brothers of St. Augustine.” In Saint Catherine of Siena as Seen in Her Letters, translated by Vida Dutton Scudder, 61. London; New York: J.M. Dent & Co.; E.P. Dutton & Co., 1905. https://archive.org/details/saintcatherineof00cath/page/61).
5The Lord said to Catherine: “Those who are in this sweet light know it, and remain constantly in peace and quiet, and no one scandalizes them, for they have cut away that thing by which stumbling-blocks are caused, namely their own will. […] And he rejoices more in the different ways of holiness which he sees, than if he were to see all traveling by one road, because, in this way, he perceives the greatness of My Goodness become more manifest, and thus, rejoicing, draws from all the fragrance of the rose.” (Dialogue 100, Treatise of Prayer, § “Of the third and most perfect state”).