selections from THE SPIRITUAL LIFE
by the Very Rev. Adolphe Tanquerey, S.S., D.D

 Peter Preaches, the Petite Heures of John Duke of Berry

Fr. Tanquerey was a Sulpician priest and professor at St. Mary's Seminary, Baltimore, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.  He published several widely-used textbooks of moral and systematic theology, and in 1923 produced an English translation of The Spiritual Life, his compendium of spiritual theology, from which the following extracts are taken.

It is the perfection of the Christian life that constitutes the proper object of ascetical and mystical Theology.

Tanquerey here describes understanding of the goal of Christian striving, of Christian asceticism:

§ 1.  A GOD of all goodness vouchsafed to give us not only the natural life of the soul, but also a supernatural life,-- the life of grace. This latter is a sharing of God’s very life, as we have shown in our treatise De gratia.2 Because this life was given us through the merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and because He is its most perfect exemplary cause, we call it rightly the Christian life.

ALL life must needs be perfected, and it is perfected by pursuing its end. Absolute perfection means the actual attainment of that end. This we shall attain only in Heaven. There, through the Beatific Vision and pure love, we shall possess God, and our life will have its complete development. Then we shall be like unto God, “because we shall see him as he is.”3


HERE on earth. however, the perfection we can reach is only relative. This we attain by ever striving after that intimate union with God that fits us for the Beatific Vision. The present treatise deals with this relative perfection. After an exposition of general principles on the nature of the Christian life, its perfection, the obligation of striving after it, and the general means of arriving thereat, we shall describe the three ways, purgative, illuminative and unitive, along which must go all generous souls thirsting for spiritual advancement.


1. TH. DL VALLGORNERA, O.P., “Mystica Theologia D. Thomae” t. I q. I; E. DUBLANCHY, “Ascetique” in “Dict. de Theol.,” t. I col. 2038-2046; HOGAN, “Clerical Studies,” ch. Vl, art. I, SCANNELL, “The Priests Studies,” ch. Vl,

2. This treatise is found in our “Synopsis Theologiae Dogmaticae,” t. III.

3. I John III, 2: “ Similes ei erimus quoniam videbimus eum sicuti est.


I. The Nature of Ascetical Theology

Tanquerey defines asceticism and distinguishes between ascetical and mystical theology on the basis of the “threefold way”

In order to show exactly what Ascetical Theology is, we shall explain: (1) The chief names given to it; (2) Its relation to the other theological sciences; (3) Its relation, both with Dogma and Moral; (4) The distinction between Ascetical and Mystical Theology.



§ 3. ASCETICAL Theology goes by different names.

a) It is called the science of the Saints, and rightly so, because it comes to us from the Saints, who have taught it more by their life than by word of mouth. Moreover, ascetical theology is calculated to make saints, for it explains to us what sanctity is, and what the means are of arriving at it.

b) Some have called it spiritual science, because it forms spiritual men, that is to say, men of interior life, animated by God’s own spirit.

c) Others have called it the art of perfection, for it is really a practical science, having for its goal to lead souls to Christian perfection. Again, they have called it The Art of Arts. And indeed, the highest art is that of perfecting the soul’s noblest life, its supernatural life.

d) However, the name most commonly given to it today is that of Ascetical and Mystical Theology.


1) The word “ ascetical” comes from the Greek “askesis” (exercise, effort) and means any arduous task connected with man’s education, physical or moral. Christian perfection, then, implies those efforts that St. Paul himself compares to the training undergone by athletes with the purpose of obtaining the victory.1 It was, therefore, natural to designate by the name of asceticism the efforts of the Christian soul struggling to acquire perfection. This is what Clement of Alexandria and Origen did, and, after them, a great number of the Fathers. It is not surprising, then, that this name of asceticism is given to the science that deals with the efforts necessary to the acquisition of Christian perfection.

2) Yet, during many centuries the name that prevailed in designating this science was that of Mystical Theology (“mustes” mysterious, secret, and especially a religious secret) because it laid open the secrets of perfection. Later a time arrived when these two words were used in one and the same sense, but the usage that finally obtained was that of restricting the name asceticism to that part of the spiritual science that treats of the first degrees of perfection up to the threshold of contemplation, and the name of mysticism to that other part which deals with infused or passive contemplation.  Be that as it may, it follows from all these notions that the science we are dealing with, is indeed the science of Christian perfection. This fact allows us to give it a place in the general scheme of Theology.



§ 10.  What we have heretofore said of Ascetical Theology holds good also of Mystical Theology.

A) In order to make a distinction between them, we may thus define Ascetical Theology: that part of spiritual doctrine whose proper object is both the theory and the practice of Christian perfection, from its very beginnings up to the threshold of infused contemplation. We place the beginning of perfection in a sincere desire of advancing in the spiritual life; Ascetic Theology guides the soul from this beginning, through the purgative and illuminative ways, as far as active contemplation or the simple unitive way.


§ 11. B) Mystical Theology is that part of spiritual doctrine whose proper object is both the theory and the practice of the contemplative life, which begins with what is called the first night of the senses, described by St John of the Cross, and the prayer of quiet, described by St. Theresa.


From Chapter 2:

Tanquerey has characterized Christian life as a constant spiritual warfare: he articulates a theology of merit as the basis of Christian asceticism

§ 226. (1) We have just seen that the Christian life is a warfare, a harassing warfare that entails a lifelong and intricate maneuvering ending only with death, a warfare of supreme importance since it is our eternal life that is at stake. As St. Paul teaches, there are within us two men: a) the regenerated man, the new man, with tendencies which are noble, supernatural, divine. These the Holy Ghost produces in us through the merits of Christ and the intercession of the Blessed virgin and the Saints. We strive to correspond to the higher tendencies by making use, under the influence of actual grace, of the supernatural organism wherewith God has endowed us. b) But there is also in us the natural or carnal man, the Old Adam, with all the evil inclinations which remain even after Baptism, with the threefold concupiscence inherited from our first parents. This concupiscence is stirred up and intensified by the world and the devil; it is an abiding tendency inclining us toward an inordinate love of sensual pleasure, of our own excellence, and of the goods of this world. These two men necessarily engage in conflict. The Old Adam, the flesh, seeks pleasure without regard to the moral law. The spirit in turn reminds the flesh that there are forbidden pleasures and dangerous pleasures which must be sacrificed to duty, that is to say, to the will of God. The flesh, however, is persistent in its desires; it must, therefore, with the help of grace be mortified and, if need be, crucified. The Christian, then, is a soldier, an athlete, who fights unto death for an immortal crown.1

1. II. Tim., II, 1-7. St. Paul describes the Christian’s armor in Eph VI, 10-18.

§ 227. (2) This warfare is constant, for in spite of all our efforts we can never fully divest ourselves of the Old Adam. We can but weaken him, bind him, while at the same time we fortify the New Man against his attacks. At the outset the fight is keener, more obstinate, and the counter-attacks of the enemy more numerous and more violent; but as we by earnest and persevering efforts gain one victory and then another, our enemy weakens, passions subside and, except for certain moments of trial willed by God to lead us to a higher degree of perfection, we enjoy a relative calm, a pledge and a foretaste of final victory. All success we owe to the grace of God. We must not forget that the grace given us is the grace for struggle and not the grace for peace; that we are warriors, athletes, ascetics; that like St. Paul we must fight on to the end if we would merit the crown. I have fought the good fight: I have finished my course: I have kept the faith. As to the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord the just judge will render to me in that day.”1 This is the means of perfecting in us the Christian life and of acquiring many merits.

1. II. Tim., IV, 7-8.




§ 228.We progress, indeed, by the fight we wage against our enemies, but more still by the meritorious acts which we perform day by day. Every good act freely done by a soul in the state of grace and with a supernatural intention, possesses a threefold value for our spiritual growth, inasmuch as it is meritorious, satisfactory and impetratory.

a) The meritorious value means an increase of sanctifying grace and a corresponding right to a higher degree of glory in heaven.

b) The satisfactory value contains a threefold element:

1) propitiation, by which with a contrite and humble heart we turn God auspiciously towards us and incline Him to forgive our trespasses;

2) expiation, that is to say, the effacement of guilt by the infusion of grace;

3) satisfaction, which in view of the element of suffering accompanying our good works, cancels wholly or in part the punishment due to sin.

 This happy result is not merely the outcome of good works properly so-called, but also, as the Council of Trent teaches, of the willing acceptance of the ills and sufferings of this life.2 What is more consoling than to be able to turn all manner of adversity into gain for the purification of the soul and closer union with God?

c) Lastly these same acts, when they embody a request to the Divine Mercy for new graces, possesses also an impetratory value. As St. Thomas justly remarks, we pray not only when we explicitly make a request to Almighty God, but whenever we turn our hearts to Him or direct any act of ours towards Him; so much so, indeed, that our life becomes a continual prayer when our activities are constantly directed towards God. “Man prays whenever he so acts in thought, word and deed as to tend towards God; hence, life is a constant prayer if wholly directed towards God.”3 Is not this an effectual means of obtaining from Him for ourselves and for others whatever we desire?


For the end we have in view it will suffice to explain:

1) the nature of merit;

2) the conditions that increase the merit of our good works.


1. St. THOM., I-II q. 114; TERRIEN, “La Grace et la Gloire,” II, p. 15 ff; LABAUCHE, “Man,” P. III, C. III; HUGON in “La vie spirituelle,” II (1920), p. 28, 273, 353; TANQUEREY, “Syn theol. dog.,” III, n. 210-235; REMLER, “Supernatural Merit;” WIRTH, “Divine Grace,” C. VIII; SCHEEBEN, “Glories of Divine Grace.”

2. Sess. XIV, “De Sacramento poinit.,” Cap. 9.

3. “In Rom.,” C. I, 9-10.




Two points must be made clear: (1) What we mean by merit; (2) What makes our actions meritorious.


§ 229. A) Merit in general is a right to a reward. Hence, supernatural merit of which we speak here is a right to a supernatural reward, a right to a share in God’s life, a right to grace and glory. Since, however, God is in no way obliged to make us share in His life, there must exist a promise on His part that confers upon us an actual title to such supernatural reward. Merit, then may be defined: a right to a supernatural reward arising both from a supernatural work done freely for God’s sake, and from a divine promise to give such a reward.
§ 230. B) There are two kinds of merit : a) merit properly so called (de condigno) to which a recompense is due in justice, because there exists a sort of equality, a real proportion between the work and the reward. b) e other kind of merit, called de congruo, is not based upon strict justice; its claims are simply those of a certain fitness, since the reward outweighs by far the work done. The following example gives an approximate notion of this distinction. A soldier acquitting himself bravely on the battlefield has a strict right to his pay, but he can lay only a claim of fitness to a citation or a decoration.
C) The Council of Trent teaches that the works of the justified man truly merit an increase of grace, eternal life and, should he die in this state, the attainment of glory.
§ 231. D) Let us recall briefly the general conditions for merit. a) A work to be meritorious must be free. If man acts through constraint or necessity, he is not actually responsible. b) The work must be supernaturally good in order to be in proportion with the reward. c) When it is question of merit properly so-called, the work must be performed in the state of grace, for it is this grace that causes Christ to dwell in our souls and makes us share in His merits. d) The work must be performed during our life on earth, for God has wisely decreed that after a period of trial wherein we can merit or demerit, we should reach the end where we shall forever remain fixed in the state in which we die. These are the conditions on the part of man. To them is added on the part of God the promise which gives us a real right to eternal life. As St. James says: “The just receive the crown of life which God hath promised to them that love Him.”1

1. James, I, 12.



§ 232. At first sight it seems difficult to understand how very simple, ordinary and transitory acts can merit eternal life. This would be an insuperable difficulty if these acts were produced by us alone. But as a matter of fact they are the result of the co-operation of God and the human will. This explains their efficacy. God whilst crowning our merits, crowns His own gifts, for our merits are largely His work. To enable us to understand better the efficacy of our meritorious acts let us explain the share of God and the share of man.

A) God is the first and principal cause of our merits: “Not I, but the grace of God with me.”1 In fact, it is God who has created our faculties; God who has perfected them, raised them to a supernatural state by the virtues and by the gifts of the Holy Ghost; God who by His actual grace calls us to perform good works and assists us in doing them. He is, therefore, the first cause exciting the will to action and giving it new energies that enable it to act supernaturally.

1. I Cor.,” XV, 10.

§ 233. B) Our free will, responding to God’s solicitations, acts under the influence of grace and the virtues and thus becomes a secondary, but real and efficacious cause of our meritorious acts, since it truly co-operates with God. Without this free consent there can be no merit. In heaven we can no longer merit, for there we cannot help loving that God whom we clearly see to be Infinite Goodness and the Source of our beatitude. Besides, our cooperation itself is supernatural. By habitual grace the very substance of our being is deified; by the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost our faculties are likewise deified, and by actual grace even our acts are made Godlike. Once our actions are deified there exists a real proportion between our works and grace, which latter is itself a Godlike life, as well as between our acts and glory, which is the full development of that life. No doubt, the acts themselves are transitory, while glory is eternal; yet, as in our natural existence transient acts produce states of soul that endure, it is but just that the same should hold good in the supernatural order, and that virtuous acts producing an abiding disposition to love God be rewarded by a lasting recompense. Lastly, since our soul is immortal it is fitting that such recompense should endure forever.
§ 234. C) It might be objected that in spite of this proportion between act and reward, God is in no manner constrained to bestow a recompense so great and so enduring as grace and glory. We fully grant this, and we acknowledge that God in His infinite goodness rewards us above our deserts. Hence, He would not be bound to have us enjoy the Beatific vision through all eternity had He not promised it. But He has promised it by the very fact that He has destined us for a supernatural end. His promise recurs repeatedly in Holy Writ wherein eternal life is represented as the reward promised to the just, and as a crown of justice: “The crown which God hath promised to them that love Him... a crown of justice which the just judge shall render unto me.”1 Therefore, the Council of Trent declares that eternal life is at once a grace mercifully promised by Jesus Christ, and a recompense which in virtue of this promise is faithfully awarded to good works and to merit.2

1. James, I, 12; II Tim., IV, 8.

2. Sess. VI, Cap. 16.

§ 235. From the fact that merit is based on this promise of God, we can infer that merit is something personal. It is for ourselves and not for others that we merit grace and life everlasting, for the divine promise goes no further. It is different with our Lord Jesus Christ, who having been made the moral head of the human race, has merited for each of His members, and this in the strict sense of the word. We can, indeed, merit for others, but by no title of justice, simply “de congruo,” that is, by a title of mere fitness. This fact is in itself most consoling, because this merit is joined to the one we gain for ourselves and thus it enables us to co-operate in the sanctification of our brethren whilst working at our own.


§ 236. These conditions evidently proceed from the different causes that concur in the production of meritorious acts, hence, from God and from ourselves. We can always count upon God’s liberality, for He is always munificent in His gifts, and therefore, we must center our attention principally upon our dispositions. Let us see what can improve these dispositions either on the part of the one who merits or on the part of the meritorious act itself.




I, Justification; II, Grace:


You are glorified in the assembly of your Holy Ones, for in crowning their merits you are crowning your own gifts.59

2006 The term "merit" refers in general to the recompense owed by a community or a society for the action of one of its members, experienced either as beneficial or harmful, deserving reward or punishment. Merit is relative to the virtue of justice, in conformity with the principle of equality which governs it.

2007 With regard to God, there is no strict right to any merit on the part of man. Between God and us there is an immeasurable inequality, for we have received everything from him, our Creator.

2008 The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.

2009 Filial adoption, in making us partakers by grace in the divine nature, can bestow true merit on us as a result of God's gratuitous justice. This is our right by grace, the full right of love, making us "co-heirs" with Christ and worthy of obtaining "the promised inheritance of eternal life."60 The merits of our good works are gifts of the divine goodness.61 "Grace has gone before us; now we are given what is due. . . . Our merits are God's gifts."62

2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.

2011 The charity of Christ is the source in us of all our merits before God. Grace, by uniting us to Christ in active love, ensures the supernatural quality of our acts and consequently their merit before God and before men. The saints have always had a lively awareness that their merits were pure grace.


After earth's exile, I hope to go and enjoy you in the fatherland, but I do not want to lay up merits for heaven. I want to work for your love alone. . . . In the evening of this life, I shall appear before you with empty hands, for I do not ask you, Lord, to count my works. All our justice is blemished in your eyes. I wish, then, to be clothed in your own justice and to receive from your love the eternal possession of yourself.63




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