Four Counsels to a Religious for the Attainment of Perfection

Source: District of Asia

Reply given by St John of the Cross to a lay brother, Martin of the Assumption, who had accompanied him on various journeys when he was Provincial of Andalusia.

  1. Your Holy Charity has asked much of me in a few words. Much time and paper would be needed for a reply. Seeing, however, that I am short of all these things, I will try to sum up my argument and set down only a few points or maxims, which in a short space contain much matter, Whoever observes them perfectly will come to great perfection.  He who would be a true religious and fulfil the duties of the state he has promised God to stay in, and make progress in virtue and enjoy the consolations and sweetness of the Holy Ghost, will never be able to do so unless he strives to observe with the greatest care the following four recommendations, which are resignation; mortification; the practice of the virtues; bodily and spiritual solitude.
  2. In order to keep the first point, which is resignation, you must live in the monastery as if no one else were living in it, and so never busy yourself, either in word or in thought, with the things that go on in the community or with what happens there, and not seek to know its possessions, misfortunes or circumstances, Remembering Lot's wife, who was changed into hard stone because she turned her head to note the cries and uproar of them that were perishing, in order to keep your peace of soul, you must refuse to observe the world or busy yourself with it, even if it is sinking into ruin. This must be done with great energy, for through it you will free yourself from many sins and imperfections and keep calm and tranquility of soul with great profit before God and men. Pay great attention to this it is so important that for want of putting it into practice, many religious not only have derived no profit from the other works of virtue and religion they have done but have gone farther and farther' back from bad to worse.
  3. To accomplish the second thing-mortification -and to profit by it, you must fumly fix this truth in your heart that you have come to the convent for no other purpose than to be shaped and exercised in virtue, like a stone that is trimmed and smoothed before being placed in the building. And so you must understand that all the people in the convent are simply officials put there by God solely to shape and smooth you by mortification. Some are there to shape you by words, saying what you do not like to hear; others by deeds, doing to and against you what you do not like to suffer; others by character, for they are disagreeable and trying in themselves and in their ways; others by thoughts, for you feel or think you see in them that they have no esteem or liking for you. All these mortifications and annoyances you ought to suffer with inward patience, keeping silent for love of God and understanding that you have not come to religion for any other end than to be trimmed into shape and so made fit for heaven. Had not this been your aim, you would have had no reason to come to religion, but rather to stay in the world and seek your consolation, honour, reputation and comfort.
  4. This second counsel, too, is absolutely necessary for a religious wanting to live in accordance with his state and find real humility, inward rest and joy in the Holy Ghost. And if he does not put it into practice, he does not know how to be a religious or why he came to religion, he has no skill in the seeking of Christ but rather in self-seeking. He will find no peace in his soul, he will continually commit sins and often be troubled; for occasions of sin can never be lacking in religion, nor does God want them to, for since he draws souls to the religious life to be tried and purified, as gold is with fire and hammer, it is fitting that there should be no lack of trials and temptations from men and devils or fire of anguish and desolation. The religious should discipline himself in all these things, striving to bear them patiently, in comformity with the will of God. He should bear them in such a way that God will not have to disapprove of his conduct in time of trial and rebuke him for refusing to bear the cross of Christ patiently. Because they do not understand that, many religious bear ill with one another. On the day of reckoning they will find themselves covered with shame and confusion.
  5. To accomplish the third thing, viz. the practice of the virtues, you must have constancy in doing the things of your order and obedience, without any regard for the world but only for God, And in order so to do, without illusion, never consider any taste or distaste that may present itself in the work, for doing or omitting it, but the reason there is to do it for God's sake. And so should you do everything, whether it is interesting or dull, with the sole aim of serving God thereby.
  6. And for working stoutly with this constancy and climbing quickly to the light through the virtues, there should always be care to lean more to the hard than to the easy, more to the rough than to the smooth, more to the dull, laborious side of the work than to the pleasant and interesting, and not to be always choosing what is less of a cross, because the cross is a light burden, and the more burdensome it is, the lighter it is when borne for God's sake. Be careful, too, to see that the brethren are preferred before you for all amenities, always put yourself in the lowest place and do so gladly, for that is the way to become greater in the spiritual order, as God tells us in his gospel: Qui se exaltat humiliabitur. (Luke, 14.11.)
  7. To practise the fourth point, which is solitude, you should consider everything in the world as dead, and when you cannot do otherwise than busy yourself with things, it should be with such detachment as if they did not exist.
  8. And take no notice of things without, since God has withdrawn you from them and rid you of them, If you can handle your business through a third person, do not do it yourself, because it is very important for you not to want to see or be seen by anyone. And note carefully that if God is to ask of every Christian a strict account of every idle word, he will do so all the more, on the day of reckoning, with the religious who has consecrated all his life and works to him.
  9. By that I do not mean that you are to stop doing your work or anything else that obedience lays upon you, with all the care that is possible or necessary. You must do it in such a way that no one can accuse you of negligence, for neither God nor obedience wants that. Therefore, take care to be continually at prayer and do not abandon prayer during bodily exercises. Whether eating, drinking, speaking, dealing with seculars or doing anything else, he always desiring God and fixing your heart on him. This is a thing most necessary for inward solitude, in which the soul must not be allowed to produce a single thought that is not directed towards God and (which must be preserved in) in forgetfulness of all that goes on in this brief and wretched life. Have no desire to know anything about any subject, except how to serve God more and how better to keep the traditions of your institute.
  10. Your Charity will soon become perfect if you observe these four points, which give assistance one to another, in such sort that if you are lacking in one you lose the profit and gain you have derived from the others, by reason of the one in which you are wanting.