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Letter II.—The Three Degrees of Virtue.

To Sister Marie-Thérèse de Vioménil (1731).

A general plan of the spiritual combat.

“God has left man in the hands of his own counsel; life or death, good or evil are before him, what he chooses will be given to him.” By these words holy Scripture makes us understand that man is a free agent, and that his salvation depends on the good use he makes of his liberty. It is true that since the fall of man his will has become weakened towards good, and turned towards evil, but with the help of grace which never fails him, it is always in his power to strengthen his will towards good, although naturally so weak; and to fortify it against evil towards which it is, unhappily, so much inclined.

There are three degrees of virtue which the liberty of our enfeebled will can practise only with great pain, and much difficulty. 1st. That virtue essential for salvation, the neglect of which constitutes a mortal sin. 2nd. That virtue enjoined by a less stringent precept the omission of which is a venial sin. 3rd. That perfect virtue that we cannot neglect without a diminution of merit.

All these inclinations which weaken in us the resolution to fulfil our essential obligations, such as, hate, revenge, anger, inordinate attachments, avarice, envy, etc., are so many sources of spiritual ruin. The same can be said, proportionately, of those inclinations which incite us to commit venial sin, or voluntary imperfections, because whoever neglects small faults will fall little by little into grave ones, says the Holy Spirit; and to be lax in the pursuit of perfection in but one point will prevent the acquisition of it for ever. Therefore, every victory by which our will is strengthened in the practice of virtue is a sign of predestination and of salvation. Our principal aim, then, ought to be to fortify continually our will towards virtue, and to overcome our inclination towards evil. We have three means to assure and hasten the success of this undertaking. 126The first is to make great sacrifices to God by overcoming all repugnance in that which costs us the most. The second is to make all those daily little sacrifices for which occasions are frequent and continual, and this with a constant generous and universal fidelity.

The third means and the greatest is prayer, but prayer that is humble, simple, and inspired by the Holy Spirit; because it is He, as St. Paul says, who teaches us to pray and who Prays in us “with unspeakable groanings.” The Publican is an excellent model of prayer: he prayed silently, with deep and humble compunction. The greatest sinners and the most imperfect can pray like him and thus from the depths of their misery will rise by degrees, if they remain faithful, to the highest sanctity.

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