"The greatest glory we can give to God is to do his will in everything."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"The one thing necessary which Jesus spoke of to Martha and Mary consists in hearing the word of God and living by it."

R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP

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"Try to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God. "

Thomas á Kempis

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PART 4 - The Unitive Way of the Perfect

Ch 55: Supernatural Words and Divine Touches

Supernatural words are manifestations of God's thought which are heard either by the exterior senses or by the interior senses or immediately by the intellect.


An auricular supernatural word is a vibration formed in the air by the ministry of angels. For example, St. Luke records (1) that Zachary heard the angel Gabriel speak to him. The same angel Gabriel said to Mary: "Hail, full of grace." (2) Like corporal visions, these locutions are subject to illusions; the same rules should be applied to them to discern those of divine origin.

Imaginary supernatural words are heard by the imagination, when the person is either awake or asleep. They sometimes seem to come from heaven; at other times from the depths of one's heart. They are perfectly distinct, although not heard with bodily ears.(3) They are not easily forgotten; those especially which contain a prophecy remain graven on the memory. (4) To recover the exact statement of the words heard, it is sometimes necessary that the person who has heard them should recollect himself and make mental prayer; in this way he can avert the slightest variation.

These supernatural words can be distinguished from those of our spirit by the fact that they are not heard at will, and that they are words and works at one and the same time. For example, when they reprove us for our faults, they suddenly change our interior dispositions and render us capable of undertaking everything for the service of God.(5) It is then easy to discern them.(6)

When imaginary words come from the devil, they not only do not produce good effects, but, on the contrary, produce evil effects. The soul is disturbed, troubled, frightened, disgusted; and if it experiences any sensible pleasure, it is very different from divine peace.(7) These diabolical words resemble supernatural words of divine origin as glass beads resemble diamonds. It is often easy to perceive the difference immediately.

Intellectual words are heard directly by the intellect without the intermediary of the senses or imagination, in the way the angels communicate their thoughts to one another at will. They suppose a divine light and the coordination of pre-existent acquired ideas, and at times of infused ideas.(8) As St. Teresa says: "It is a wordless language, which is the tongue of the fatherland." (9)

Theologians teach, with St. John of the Cross, that intellectual words may be either successive, formal, or substantia1.(10) We shall recapitulate their teaching here.

Successive intellectual words are produced only in the state of recollection; they come from our spirit which is enlightened by the Holy Ghost, and with such facility and new views that the understanding cannot imagine that they spring from its own depths.(11) These successive words are subject to illusion, for the spirit, which at the beginning followed only the truth, may deviate and even go seriously astray, inasmuch as the devil often insinuates himself into these successive words, especially when people are attached to them. He acts thus with even greater reason toward those who are bound to him by a tacit or formal act, with heretics who persist in their errors, and especially with heresiarchs.(12)

Successive words come from God when they simultaneously produce in the soul an increase of charity and humility. But it is sometimes difficult clearly to discern supernatural love from a certain natural love, and true humility from pusillanimity. Therefore it is not easy to recognize the divine origin of successive words.(13) They should not be desired, for obscure faith is far superior to them.(14)

Formal intellectual words are so called because the soul knows formally that they are uttered by another, without any contribution on its part. . . and it can hear them when not recollected, and even when far from thinking of what is said." (15) They are, therefore, quite different from those we have discussed, and are at times very precise; for example, Daniel says that an angel spoke to him.(16) The Lord sometimes leads souls in this way to great things, at the same time allowing a certain repugnance to the fulfillment of the divine order to subsist(17) If, on the contrary, God inspires humiliating things, He gives greater facility to accomplish them.(18)

These formal intellectual words are in themselves free from illusions, since the understanding cannot contribute anything to them, and the devil cannot act immediately on the intellect.(19) Nevertheless his artifices may be taken for words of God, by confounding what immediately touches the intellect with what takes place in the imagination. "Consequently," says St. John of the Cross,(20) "what they say should not be immediately translated into action, nor should they be held in esteem no matter what their origin. It is indispensable to make them known to an experienced confessor or to a discreet and learned person. . . . If an experienced person is not to be found, the soul should keep whatever is substantial and sure in these words; disregard the rest; and speak of it to no one, lest a counselor be found who would do the soul more harm than good. The soul should not place itself at the mercy of anyone at all, for it is of prime importance whether one acts judiciously or is deceived in such matters."

Substantial intellectual words are formal locutions which effect immediately what they announce. We read in The Ascent of Mount Carmel:

For example, God says formally to a soul: Be good!, and instantly the soul becomes good. Or He says: Love Me!, and at once the soul possesses and experiences in itself true love of God. Or again He may say: Fear nothing!, and at that very instant, strength and peace come upon that soul. . . Thus, God said to Abraham: "Walk before Me, and be perfect," (21) and instantly perfection was given to him, and thenceforth he walked reverently before God. . . . A single one of these words instantly operates more good than the efforts of a lifetime. When the soul receives such locutions, it has only to abandon itself; it is useless to desire or not to desire them, for there is nothing to repulse, nothing to fear. The soul ought not even to seek to effect what is said, for God never utters substantial words in order that we should translate them into acts; He Himself brings about their effect. This is what distinguishes them from successive and formal locutions. . . . Illusion is not to be feared here, for neither the understanding nor the devil can interfere in this matter. . . . Substantial words are, therefore, a powerful means of union with God. . . . Happy the soul to which God addresses them.(22)

God's words are living flames in purified souls.(23)


There is a fourth kind of favor which "frequently" (24) accompanies lofty infused contemplation, that is, divine touches, which are imprinted in the will and which "react on the intellect. . . . They give, thus, a very lofty and sweet intellectual penetration of God." (25) These touches are thereby attached to "particular and distinct contemplation." (26) They do not depend on the activity of the soul, or on its meditations, although these prepare the soul for them.

These divine touches are occasionally so deep and intense that they seem imprinted "in the very substance of the soul." How should this be understood? God, in fact, preserves the very substance of the soul in existence by a virtual contact, which is creation continued.(27) In it He also produces, preserves, and increases sanctifying grace, whence the infused virtues and the gifts spring.(28) He also moves the faculties, either by proposing an object to them, or by applying them to the exercise of their acts, and that from within.(29) The divine touch of which we are speaking is a supernatural motion of this type, but one of the most profound. It is exercised on the very depths of the will and of the intellect, where these faculties take root in the substance of the soul, whence they arise.(30)

Blosius, when explaining what Tauler calls the depth of the soul, tells us that it is the origin or the root of the higher faculties, virium illarum est origo.(31) In truth, our will is, in a way, infinite in its profundity, in the sense that God alone can fill it; hence created goods cannot exercise an invincible attraction on it. It is free to love or not to love; only God seen face to face infallibly attracts it and captivates it, even to the very wellspring of its energies.(32) So-called substantial divine touches (33) affect this depth of the will and of the intellect. The very substance of the soul can operate, feel, perceive, and love only through its faculties; it has received them for that purpose. In this it differs from the divine substance, which alone, because God alone is pure Act, operates immediately by itself without having need of faculties.(34) But God, who is closer to the soul than it is to itself, inasmuch as He preserves it in existence, can from within touch and move the very foundation of the faculties by a contact, not spatial but spiritual (contactus virtutis, non quantitativus), which reveals itself as divine. Thus from within God moves the soul to the most profound acts, to which it could not move itself.

With this in mind, we understand why St. John of the Cross says on this subject:

Nothing is more calculated to dissipate this delicate knowledge than the intervention of the natural spirit. Since it is a question of a sweet supernatural communication, it is useless to try to comprehend it actively, for that is impossible; the understanding has only to accept it. If, on the contrary, the soul seeks to provoke it or desires it, it may happen that what it conceives comes from itself, and thereby gives the devil the opportunity of presenting counterfeit knowledge. . . . Passive acceptance in humility is, therefore, incumbent on the soul. God grants these favors according to His good pleasure, and it is the humble and thoroughly detached soul that receives God's preference. By acting in this way, the progress of the soul suffers no interruption, and such knowledge serves efficaciously to advance it. These touches are touches of union serving to unite the soul passively to God.(35)

This wholly intimate action of God on "the depths of the soul" is that in which everything terminates and, in a sense, that in which everything began, without our having been aware of it. This influence of the Holy Ghost on the depths of the soul, where He produced, preserves, and increases sanctifying grace, in fact precedes, without our knowing it, His influence on the faculties. The completely purified soul experiences this action in its very depths, when it has at length entered the sanctuary where God dwells and operates from the moment of justification. Therefore the great mystics have spoken so much of this depth of the soul and of this "substantial" action of God in which everything has its beginning, and at which everything terminates, when the soul reverts to its principle.(36) It is like a spiritual kiss imprinted by Christ, the Spouse of souls, on the depths of the will, which replies to Him with the most ardent love: "My Beloved to me, and I to Him." This divine touch is quite frequent in the transforming union or the spiritual marriage.

Evidently this favor of the divine touch, like many substantial words, is directly ordained to the sanctification of the person who receives it. It is, however, distinct from infused contemplation or from the mystical state, which it sometimes accompanies. Infused and obscure contemplation continues, in fact, when these touches, which are transitory, have ceased. The fact is that they are very sanctifying and may be more or less explicitly desired with the intimate union which they produce, but this desire should be humble and supernatural. (37)

We must guard against confounding the mystical state (prolonged infused contemplation and the union with God which results from it) with extraordinary facts notably distinct from union. Neither should we lessen the mystical state by confounding it with fervent and simplified affective meditation, which is acquired and not infused. The mystical, or passive and infused, state begins with the passive recollection and prayer of quiet, described by St. Teresa in the fourth mansion. Neither should a chasm be interposed between the initial mystical state and the transforming union, described in the seventh mansion. This last mansion alone is, in this life, the culminating point of the development of grace, the virtues, and the gifts, and the immediate disposition to receive the beatific vision to which we are all called.





1. Luke I: 19.

2. Ibid., I: 28.

3. St. Teresa, Life, chap. 25.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid. St. Thomas, Ia, q.III, a.I, 3; q.114; Ia IIae, q.80, a.1-3.

8. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q. 107, a. I; also Cajetan's commentary.

9. St. Teresa, Life, chap. 27.

10. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. II, chaps. 18-31.

11. Ibid., chap. 29.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., chap. 30.

16. Dan. 9: 22.

17. Exod. 3:11.

18. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. II, chap. 30.

19. f. St. Thomas, la, q. III, a.I, 3; q.114, a.I-4; Ia IIae, q.80, a.I-3; cf. Cardinal Bona, De discretione spirituum, chap. 17.

20. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, loco cit.

21. Gen. 17: 1.

22. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. II, chap. 31.

23. The Living Flame of Love, st. I, I.

24. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. II, chap. 32.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q.8, a. 1-3; q.43, a.3; q. 104, a. 1, 2; q. 105, a.3, 4.

28. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q. 110, a. 3, 4.

29. Ibid., q.9, a.4; q.10, a. 1, 2, 4.

30. Ibid., q.II3,a.8, and De veritate, q.28, a.3.

31. lnstitutio spiritualis, chap. 12.

32. Summa, Ia IIae, q.10, a.2.

33. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. II, chap. 32. Vallgornera, Theol. myst. D. Thomae, q.3, disp. 5, a.9, nos. 1, 3, 4.

34. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q.54, a.I: "Whether an angel's act of understanding
is his substance." Cf. ibid., a.2, 3; q.77, a.I, 2.

35. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. II, chap. 32; The Dark Night, Bk. II,
chap. 23; The Living Flame, st. 2, v. 3.

36 The depths of the soul is also occasionally called the summit of the spirit,
when one considers sensible things, not only as exterior to the soul, but as very inferior to it.

37. In The Ascent of Mount Carmel (Bk. II, chap. 26), St. John of the Cross says of "touches which are so strong and so profound that they penetrate into the inmost substance of the soul": "These touches savor of eternal life. . . . In regard to the other perceptions, we said that the soul should abstract itself from them, but this duty ceases before these, since they are the manifestations of that union to which we are trying to conduct the soul. All that we have taught previously on the subject of despoliation and of complete detachment was directed toward this union."