The Sinner's Guide
Ven. Louis of Granada
With Imprimi Potest and Imprimatur



Ch 44. The Relative Importance and Values of the Virtues 

A merchant about to purchase precious stones should learn something of their relative value, if he would make a wise selection. In like manner, a Christian should have some knowledge of the intrinsic merit of each virtue to aid him in making a proper choice.

The virtues of which we have been treating may be divided into two classes, the first of which includes the more interior and spiritual virtues, the other those which are exterior or sensible.

To the first belong the three theological virtues, which have God for their immediate object; and the virtues which facilitate the accomplishment of our duty to God, such as humility, chastity, mercy, patience, prudence, devotion, poverty of spirit, contempt of the world, denial of our own will, love of the cross and mortification, with many others to which we here give the name of virtue in the broadest acceptation of the term. These are called interior and spiritual, because their action is chiefly within the soul, Nevertheless they are often manifested to the world, as we see, for instance, in the virtues of charity and religion, which produce a number of exterior works to the praise and glory of God.

The exterior virtues are fasting, mortification, pious reading, vocal prayer, chanting of the Psalms, pilgrimages, hearing Mass, assisting at the offices of the Church, with all the outward ceremonies and practices of a Christian or religious life. Though these virtues, like the others, have their seat in the soul, yet their action is always exterior, while the acts of the spiritual virtues, faith, hope, charity, humility, contemplation, contrition, or repentance, are often entirely within.

There is no doubt that the virtues of the first class are more meritorious and pleasing to God than those of the second. "Woman, believe me," said Our Saviour to the woman at the well, that "the hour cometh, and now is, when the true adorers shall adore the Father in spirit and in truth. For the Father also seeketh such to adore him. God is a spirit, and they that adore him must adore him in spirit and in truth." (Jn. 4:21, 23-24).

For this reason David, describing the beauty of the Church and that of a soul in the state of grace, says that all her glory is within in golden borders, clothed round about with variety. (Cf. Ps. 44:14). And the great Apostle, writing to Timothy, says: "Exercise thyself unto godliness, for bodily exercise is profitable to little; but godliness is profitable to all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come." (1 Tim. 4:7-8). According to St. Thomas, godliness here signifies the worship of God and charity to our neighbor, while bodily exercise means fasting and other austerities.

This is a truth of which even the pagan philosophers were not ignorant. Aristotle has written very little of God, yet in one of his works he expresses himself thus: "If the gods take any interest in human things, as we have reason to believe they do, there is no doubt that they take most pleasure in what bears most resemblance to themselves-----that is, in man's spirit or mind; hence they who adorn their minds with a knowledge of truth, and their souls with the beauty and harmony of virtue, must be most pleasing to them."

The celebrated physician Galen expresses the same thought. Writing upon the structure of the human frame, and the different relations and functions of its various parts, in which the wisdom and power of the Sovereign Artisan are particularly manifest, he is overcome with admiration, and, abandoning the language of science for that of religion, he exclaims, "Let others honor the gods with offerings of hecatombs. [Sacrifices of 100 oxen or cattle offered by the pagans to their deities.] As for me, I shall honor them by proclaiming the greatness of their power, which so readily executes all that their wisdom ordains; and their infinite goodness, which refuses nothing to their creatures, but abundantly provides for all their needs."

Such are the words of a pagan philosopher. Let us refer them to the true God; and what more can a Christian say? The great Galen unconsciously repeats the words of God's prophet: "I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than holocausts." (Osee 6:6). The hecatomb of the pagan may be considered as the imitation of the holocaust of the Jew.

From the praise bestowed upon the interior virtues we must not conclude that the others are of little value. Though not so noble as the former, they are nevertheless most efficacious in acquiring and preserving them. For example, retreat and solitude guard us from innumerable sights and sounds which endanger the peace of our conscience, and imperil our chastity. We are all sensible of the importance of silence in preserving devotion, and avoiding those faults into which we are led by excessive conversation. "In the multitude of words," says Solomon, "there shall not want sin." (Prov. 10:19).

Fasting, when performed in a state of grace, besides being a meritorious act of the virtue of temperance, as it is at all times, also expiates our sins; subdues the inclinations of the flesh; repels our enemy; disposes us for prayer, pious reading, and meditation; and preserves us from the excesses, quarrels, and passions awakened by inordinate indulgence. As for pious reading, the recitation of the Psalms, assisting at the divine office, and hearing sermons, it is evident that these acts of the virtue of religion are most efficacious in enlightening the understanding and inflaming the will with a desire for spiritual things.

To acquire and preserve this precious virtue of devotion, which of itself disposes us for the practice of all other virtues, we must watch over ourselves with special vigilance. So little suffices to make us lose this delicate virtue. Frivolous conversations, excessive mirth, immoderate indulgence at table, slight anger, unnecessary disputes, curiosity and eagerness to see and hear what does not concern us, besides many similar faults, while not grave in themselves; weaken, and sometimes destroy, the spirit of devotion. To preserve the intense heat communicated to it by the fire, iron must be kept continually in the furnace-----or, at least, it must seldom be withdrawn. Otherwise it will quickly resume its former temperature. In like manner, if we would keep our hearts inflamed with the fire of devotion, we must remain closely united to God by the practices we have mentioned.

These reflections will show us the importance of the second class of virtues, and the relation which they bear to the others. The virtues of the first class form the end; the virtues of the second are the means to attain this end. The first may be said to be the health of the body; the second, the medicine to obtain it. The first may be regarded as the spirit of religion, the second as its body-----though absolutely necessary for its welfare.

By observing the counsels we have here laid down you will avoid two equally lamentable errors. One was that of the Pharisees in the time of Christ, and the other is that of certain heretics of the present day. The Pharisees, carnal and ambitious men, accustomed to the literal observance of a law then framed for a carnal people, disregarded true justice and interior virtues, and were satisfied, according to the expression of the Apostle, with "an appearance of godliness." (2 Tim. 3:5). Under a virtuous exterior they concealed a corrupt and wicked heart.

The heretics of our day, endeavoring to avoid this error, fell into the opposite extreme and preached contempt for exterior practices. But the Catholic Church preserves a happy medium between both, and, while maintaining the superiority of the interior virtues, recognizes the merit and advantage of those that are exterior, just as in a well-governed commonwealth each one enjoys the merit and prerogatives which belong to him.