Theology and the Interior Life – How do they help each other? Fr R. Garrigou-Lagrange, 1943

Editors’ introduction:

Fr Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP, the respected thomist theologian of the twentieth century, needs little introduction. He addresses an extraordinary range of topics in his writings. He was a teacher at the Angelicum university in Rome, where his students included two very different figures: Mgr Joseph Clifford Fenton and Karol Józef Wojtyła, later John Paul II. It is received wisdom – though never proved – that he was instrumental in the drafting of Pius XII’s encyclical Humani Generis.

The section below is from The One God: a commentary on the first part of St. Thomas’ Theological Summa, and addresses the relationship between theology and the interior life. Garrigou-Lagrange is significant for his synthesis of Carmelite spiritual theology with that of St Thomas, and here we see the beautiful mutual influence which should arise between the study of theology, the life of grace and the love of God.

Theology and the spiritual life should not be opposed, but rather should strengthen each other. For this reason, it is misguided to dismiss the theology manuals of the early twentieth century as dry and dusty. YouTube, podcasts and lightweight, popular polemics are not substitutes objects for those who are able to study theology. This received, traditional theology – which is nothing more than the scientific expression of the message of our Lord Jesus Christ – should be a fuel which we throw on the fire of our hearts, to help us grow in the love and service of Almighty God.

This extract is reproduced with the kind permission of Baronius Press. They will be publishing the entire work, and a large collection of other works by Garrigou-Lagrange, in 2022.

Picture: the Angelicum is centre-right. Jacopo Fabris Ansicht der Villa Aldobrandini (source)

The relation between the study of theology and the interior life

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP

There is often too great a separation between study and the interior life; we do not find sufficiently observed, that beautiful gradation spoken of by St. Benedict which consists in: reading, cogitation, study, meditation, prayer and contemplation.[1] St. Thomas, who received his first education from the Benedictines, retained this wonderful gradation when speaking of the contemplative life.[2]

Several defects result from separating study too much from prayer. Thus the hardship and difficulty that not infrequently accompany study are no longer considered a salutary penance, nor are they sufficiently directed to God. Thus weariness and disgust sometimes result from study, without any spiritual profit.

St. Thomas speaks about these two deviations[3] when discussing the virtue of studiousness or application to study, which must be commanded by charity as a check to inordinate curiosity and sloth, so as to study those things which one ought to study, how, when, and where one ought, especially with regard to the spiritual end in view, this being for the acquisition of a better knowledge of God and for the salvation of souls.

To avoid the above-mentioned defects that are opposed to each other, it is good to recall how our intellectual study can be sanctified, by considering first what benefit the interior life receives from a study that is properly directed, and then, on the other hand, what the study of theology can hope to receive in an increasing degree from the interior life. It is in the union of these two functions of our nature that we find the best verification of the principle “Causes mutually interact, but in a different order.” There is a mutual causality and priority among them, which is truly wonderful.

The indebtedness of the interior life to study

By the study of theology the interior life is especially preserved from the two serious defects of subjectivism in piety and particularism.

Subjectivism, as it applies to piety, is often now called “sentimentalism.” It consists in a certain affected love which lacks a true deep love for God and souls. This defect arises from the fact the natural inclination of our sensitive nature prevails in prayer according to each one’s disposition. An emotion of our sensitive nature prevails, and this emotion sometimes expresses itself certain outbursts of praise which are quite without solid foundation in reality. In our days several sceptical psychologists, such as Bergson in France, think that even Catholic mysticism is the result of some prevailing and noble emotion that arises from the subconscious self, and that afterward finds expression in the ideas and judgments of the mystics. But a doubt always remains whether these judgments are true that result from the impulse of the subconscious self and the affections.

Contrary to this, our interior life must be founded on divine truth. It already has this from infused faith that rests upon authority of God revealing. But study that is properly directed is of great help in fully realizing what the truths of the faith are strictly in themselves, independently of our subjective dispositions. Study is of special help, indeed, in forming a true concept of God’s perfections, of His goodness, love, mercy, justice, as also of the infused virtues of humility, religion, and charity, and this without any admixture of emotion that has not its foundation in truth. Therefore St. Theresa says that she received much help by conversing with good theologians, so that she might not deviate from the path of truth in difficult straits.[4]

When our study is rightly ordered, it frees the interior life not only from subjectivism but also from particularism resulting from the excessive influence of certain ideas prevalent at some period of time or in some region, ideas which after thirty years will appear antiquated. Some years ago ideas of this or that particular philosophy prevailed, which now no longer find favourable acceptance. It is so in every generation. There is a succession of opinions and events that arouse one’s admiration; they pass with the fashion of the world, while the words of God remain, by which the just man must live.

Thus, in truth, study that is well ordered preserves intact the objectivity which the interior life should have above all the deviations of our sensitive nature, and it also preserves the universality of the same which is founded upon what the Church teaches everywhere and at all times. Thus it becomes increasingly clear that the higher, the deeper, and the more vital truths are none other than the elementary truths of Christianity, provided they are thoroughly examined and become the subject of daily meditation and contemplation. Such are the truths enunciated in the Lord’s Prayer and in the following words from the first page of the catechism: “What must we do to gain the happiness of heaven? To gain the happiness of heaven we must know, love, and serve God in this world.” Equally so it becomes increasingly clear that the fundamental truth of Christianity is: “God so loved the world as to give His only begotten Son.”[5]

It is a matter of great importance that these truths profoundly influence our lives, without our deviating into the subjectivism, sentimentalism, and particularism prevalent at some period of time or in some region. In this, however, our interior life is in many ways benefited by good study; and the choicest fruit of penance is to be found in the arduousness of study. It is a fruit much more precious than the natural pleasure to be found in study that may consist in intellectual labour not sufficiently sanctified or directed to God. In diligent study that is commanded by charity, we find pre-eminently verified the common saying: If the roots of knowledge are bitter, its fruits are the sweetest and best. We are not considering here the knowledge that inflates, but that which, under the influence of charity and the virtue of studiousness, is truly upbuilding.

The interior life, which study saves from a number of deviations, therefore remains objective in its tendency and is truly founded on what has been universally and at all times the traditional doctrine. On the other hand the interior life influences the study of theology.

This extract is reproduced with the kind permission of Baronius Press.

What the study of theology owes to the interior life

Often this study remains lifeless, whether viewed in its positive, or in its speculative and abstract aspect. Sometimes it lacks the noble inspiration and influence of the theological virtues and of the gifts of understanding and wisdom. Hence theological wisdom is sometimes not that “savoury knowledge” which St. Thomas speaks of in the first question of the Theological Summa.

At times our mind is occupied too much with dogmatic formulas, in the analysis of their concepts, in the conclusions deduced from them, and it does not by means of these formulas penetrate the mystery of faith sufficiently to taste its spiritual sweetness and live thereby.

Here it is fitting to state that a number of saints, who were incapable of such serious studies as we engage in, penetrated these mysteries of faith more deeply. Thus St. Francis of Assisi, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Benedict Joseph Labré, and many others, who certainly did not attempt to analyse in an abstract and speculative manner the dogmatic concepts of the Incarnation, the Redemption, and the Eucharist, and did not deduce theological conclusions that are known to us. Yet from the fountainhead of these mysteries with a holy realism they drew abundant life for themselves.

Through the formulas they reached by a vital act, in the obscurity of faith, the divine reality itself. As St. Thomas says: “The act of the believer does not terminate in a proposition, but in a thing,” in a revealed truth.[6]

Even without the great grace of contemplation, a number of very good Christians, by humility and self-denial, penetrate in their own way the depths of these mysteries. And if this fact is verified in these good Christians among the faithful, with far more reason it must be verified in the religious or priest who has truly understood the dignity of his vocation. Daily the priest must celebrate the Holy Sacrifice with a firmer faith, a more vivid hope, and a more ardent charity, so that his Eucharistic Communion may be almost every day substantially more fervent, and not only preserve but also keep on increasing in him the virtue of charity.

St. Thomas well says: “The more a physical motion approaches its terminus, the more it is intensified. It is just the opposite with a violent motion (the throwing of a stone). But grace inclines in a way similar to that of nature. Therefore (as the physical motion of a falling stone is always accelerated), so for those who are in a state of grace, the nearer they approach the end, the more they must increase in grace”; because the nearer they approach God, the more they are enticed or drawn by Him, just as the stone is drawn toward the centre of the earth.[7]

If our interior life were to receive such increase of grace every day, it would have a most favourable influence upon our study, and each day this would become more vigorous. Thus study and the life of prayer are causes that interact in beautiful harmony.

The fruit of this mutual influence

When the priest’s interior life is one of great and solid piety, his theology is always more vigorous. After this theologian has made the descent from faith for the purpose of acquiring theological knowledge by the discussion of particular questions, he desires to return to the source, namely, to ascend from the theological knowledge thus acquired by the discussion of particular questions to the lofty peak of faith. The theologian is like a man who is born on the top of a mountain, for instance, Monte Cassino, and who afterward descends into the valley to acquire an accurate knowledge of individual things. Finally this man wishes to return to his lofty abode, that he may contemplate the whole valley from on high and in a single glance.

There are some men who prefer the plains, but others are more attracted by the mountains: “Wonderful is the Lord on high.”[8] So the good theologian must daily breathe the mountain air and derive from the Apostle’s Creed an abundance of spiritual nourishment for himself, and also, at the end of the Mass, from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, which is, as it were, the synthesis of all Christian revelation. Daily, in like manner, he must live his life on a higher plane, directed by the Lord’s Prayer, the beatitudes, and the Sermon on the Mount in its entirety, which is a synthesis of all Christian ethics in its wondrous elevation.

When the priest has, as he should have, the spirit of prayer, then his interior life urges him to search more in dogmatic theology and in moral theology for that which savours preferably of vitality and fecundity. For then, under the influence of the gifts of understanding and wisdom, faith becomes more penetrating and savoury.

Then the most beautiful quasi-obscurity in Christian doctrine becomes apparent, or the harmonious blends of light and shade which, like chiaroscuro in a painting, hold the intellect spellbound and are the subject of contemplation for the saints. As an example of this, gradually all the great questions of grace are reduced to these two principles: on the one hand, “God does not command what is impossible, but by commanding, both admonishes thee to do what thou art able, and to pray for what thou art not able to do,” as St. Augustine says, who is quoted by the Council of Trent against the Protestants.[9] On the other hand, against the Pelagians and Semipelagians we have: “For who distinguisheth thee? Or what hast thou that thou hast not received?”[10] As St. Thomas says: “Since God’s love is the cause of goodness in things, no one thing would be better than another, if God did not will greater good for one than for another.”[11]

These two principles taken separately are clear and most certain; but their intimate reconciliation is very obscure, the obscurity resulting from too great a light. To perceive this intimate reconciliation, we would have to see how infinite justice, mercy, and liberty are reconciled in the eminent Deity.

Likewise there is another example; for in proportion as the interior life develops within us, so much the more do we realize the sublimity of the treatise on the Incarnation accomplished for the purpose of our redemption; and we are especially impressed with the motive of the Incarnation of the Son of God, “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and became man.”

In the same way, under the influence of a life of prayer, the treatise on the Incarnation is presented to us in a more striking light, and among the various opinions concerning the Sacrifice of the Mass we more and more realize that the teaching of the Council of Trent surpasses them all, when it states: “The victim is one and the same, the same now offering by the ministry of priests, who then offered Himself on the Cross, the manner of offering being different.”[12] Increasingly Christ appears as the high priest, “always living to make intercession for us,” especially in the Mass, which is therefore of infinite value.[13] Thus we gradually discover in the councils those most precious adamantine rocks, and likewise in the Theological Summa the dominant chapters or the more sublime articles are by degrees made known to us, which are, as it were, the higher peaks by which the whole mountain range is clearly outlined.

If we were to apply ourselves to the study of theology in a true spirit of faith, prayer, and penance, we would find verified in us these words of St. Thomas: “Doctrine and preaching proceed from the fullness of contemplation,” somewhat in the manner of the preaching of the apostles after the day of Pentecost.[14]

Theology, understood in this sense, is of great importance in the ministry of souls. It thoroughly imbues a priest with the spirit of sound judgment according to the mind of Christ and the Church, so that souls are exhorted to strive after perfection in accordance with true principles, by showing one, for instance, that according to the supreme precept, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart,” all Christians must strive after the perfection of charity, each one, however, according to the manner of his state in life.

And we cannot reach this fullness of perfection in the Christian life unless our lives are profoundly influenced by the mystery of the Incarnation in its redemptive aspect and by the Eucharist, and unless, by faith, enlightened by the gifts of wisdom and understanding, we penetrate these mysteries and taste their sweetness. For this, indeed, the study of theology is of great help provided it be properly directed, not for the satisfaction we get from it, but for the purpose of knowing God better and for the salvation of souls.

Thus these beautiful words of the Vatican Council [I] become increasingly possible of verification in us: “Reason, enlightened by faith, when it seeks earnestly, piously, and calmly, attains by a gift of God some, and that a very fruitful, understanding of mysteries; and this both from the analogy of those things which it naturally knows, and from the relations which the mysteries bear to one another and to the last end of man.”[15]

The study of sacred theology, which sometimes is hard and arduous, though fruitful, thus disposes our minds for the light of contemplation and of life, which is, as it were, an introduction and a beginning of eternal life in us.

With thanks again to Baronius Press for their permission.

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange OP, The One God: a commentary on the first part of St. Thomas’ Theological Summa. trans. Dom Bede Rose OSB. B. Herder Book Co, London 1943, 31-37.


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[1] Rule of St. Benedict, chap. 48.

[2] Summa theol., IIa IIae, q.180, a.3.

[3] Ibid., q. 166.

[4] St Teresa of Avila, Autobiography, chap. 13.

[5] John 3: 16.

[6] Summa theol., IIa IIae, q. 1, a.2 ad 2um.

[7] Com. in epist. ad Hebr., 10: 25.

[8] Ps. 92: 4.

[9] Denz., no. 804.

[10] 1 Cor 4:7.

[11] Summa theol., Ia, q.20, a.3.

[12] Denz., no. 940.

[13] Heb. 7: 25.

[14] Summa theol., IIa IIae, q.188 , a.6.

[15] Denz., no. 1796.

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