CHRISTIAN soul! If you seek to reach the loftiest peak of perfection, and to unite yourself so intimately with God that you become one in spirit with Him, you must first know the true nature and perfection of spirituality in order to succeed in the most sublime undertaking that can be expressed or imagined.
Some, who judge only by appearances, make it consist in penances, in hair shirts, austerities of the flesh, vigils, fasting, and similar bodily mortifications. Others, particularly women, fancy themselves extremely virtuous when they indulge in long vocal prayers, hear several Masses, spend many hours in church, and frequently receive Communion.
Others, and this does not exclude some of the religious who have consecrated themselves to God, think that perfection consists in perfect attendance in choir, in observing silence and retirement, and in a strict observance of their rule.
Consequently, different people place perfection in different practices. It is certain that they all equally deceive themselves.
Since exterior works are nothing more than dispositions for achieving true piety, or the effects of real piety, it cannot be said that Christian perfection and true piety consist in them.
They are, without doubt, powerful means for becoming truly perfect and truly holy. When used with discretion they are of unique value in supporting our nature which is always indifferent to good and inclined to evil; in repelling the attacks and escaping the snares of our common enemy; in obtaining from the Father of Mercies those helps that are so necessary for the faithful, and especially for beginners.
They are, moreover, precious fruits of the consummate virtue achieved in truly holy persons. Such men chastise their bodies either in punishment for past offenses or for greater humiliation and subjection to their Creator. They seek solitude and observe silence that, withdrawn from the world, they may preserve themselves free from the least stain of sin, and speak only with Heaven and its angels. Their time is spent in works of piety and in the service of God. They pray and meditate on the life and Passion of our Redeemer, not through curiosity, nor for the sake of some sensible pleasure arising from this, but from a desire of knowing better, on one hand, the grandeur of the Divine Goodness, and on the other hand, the depth of their own ingratitude. They do this in order to increase their love of God and detestation of self, to follow their Lord in shouldering His Cross, and in renouncing their own will. They receive the sacraments for no other reason than the honor of God, a closer union with Him and greater security from the power of the devil.
The situation is much different with those who ignorantly place their devotion in external acts, which frequently are the cause of their own downfall, and are of far deeper consequence than open crime. In themselves they are not evil, but only when wrongly applied. They are so attached to these acts that they utterly neglect to watch the inner movements of their hearts; but giving them free rein, they leave them a prey to their own corruption and to the tricks of the devil. It is then that this destroyer, seeing them go astray, not only encourages them to go on their way, but fills their imagination with empty ideas, making them believe that they already taste the joys of Paradise, the delights of Angels, that they see God face to face! As decoys, he does not hesitate to suggest in their meditation sublime, surprising, and ravishing thoughts, so that, forgetting the world and all earthly things, they are swept up to the third Heaven.
This article is taken from a chapter in The Spiritual Combat and A Treatise on Peace of Soul by Dom Lorenzo Scupoli which is available from TAN Books.