|VI. THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN ASCETICAL AND MYSTICAL
THEOLOGY AND THEIR RELATIONS TO EACH OTHER
We must recall here the division between ascetical and mystical
theology that was generally accepted until the eighteenth century, and
then the modification that Scaramelli and those who followed him
introduced at that time. The reader will, therefore, more readily
understand why, with several contemporary theologians, we return to
the division that seems to us truly traditional and conformable to the
principles of the great masters.
Until the eighteenth century,
authors generally set forth under the title Theologia mystica
all the questions that ascetical and mystical theology treats of
today. This is evident from the title of the works written by Blessed
Bartholomew of the Martyrs, O.P., Philip of the Blessed Trinity,
O.C.D., Anthony of the Holy Ghost, O.C.D., Thomas Vallgornera, O.P.,
Schram, O.S.B.., and others. Under the title Theologia mystica
all these authors treated of the purgative way of beginners, of the
illuminative way of proficients, and of the unitive way of the
perfect. In one or the other of these last two parts, they spoke of
infused contemplation and the extraordinary graces which sometimes
accompany it, that is to say, visions, revelations, and like favors.
Moreover, in their introduction these authors customarily treated of
experimental mystical theology, that is, of infused contemplation
itself, for their treatises were directed to it and to the intimate
union with God which results from it.
An example of this division which was generally admitted in former
times may be found in Vallgornera's Mystica theologia divi Thomae
(1662). He closely follows the Carmelite, Philip of the Blessed
Trinity, by linking the division Philip gave with that of earlier
authors and with certain characteristic texts from the works of St.
John of the Cross on the period when the passive purifications of the
senses and of the spirit generally appear.(16) He divides his treatise
for contemplatives into three parts (the purgative way, the
illuminative way, the unitive way).
I. The purgative way, proper to beginners, in which he treats of
the active purification of the external and internal senses, of the
passions, of the intellect and the will, by mortification, meditation,
and prayer, and finally of the passive purification of the senses,
which is like a second conversion and in which infused contemplation
begins. It is the transition to the illuminative way.
This last point is of prime importance in this division, and it
conforms closely to two of the most important texts from the works of
St. John of the Cross: "The night of sense is common, and the lot of
many: these are the beginners." (17) "The soul began to set out on the
way of the spirit, the way of proficients, which is also called the
illuminative way, or the way of infused contemplation, wherein God
Himself teaches and refreshes the soul." (18) Infused contemplation
begins, according to St. John of the Cross, with the passive
purification of the senses, which thus marks the transition from the
way of beginners to that of proficients. Vallgornera clearly preserves
this doctrine in this division as well as in the one that follows.
2. The illuminative way, proper to proficients, in which, after a
preliminary chapter on the divisions of contemplation, are discussed
the gifts of the Holy Ghost, infused contemplation, which proceeds
especially from the gifts of understanding and wisdom and which is
declared desirable for all interior souls,(19) as morally necessary
for the full perfection of Christian life. After several articles
relating to extraordinary graces (visions, revelations, interior
words), this second part of the work closes with a chapter of nine
articles dealing with the passive purification of the spirit, which
marks the passage to the unitive way. This also is what St. John of
the Cross taught.(20)
3. The unitive way, proper to the perfect, in which is discussed
the intimate union of the contemplative soul with God and its degrees
up to the transforming union. Vallgornera considers this division
traditional, truly conformable to the doctrine of the fathers, to the
principles of St. Thomas, and to the teaching of the greatest mystics
who have written on the three ages of the spiritual life, noting how
the transition from one to the other is generally made.(21)
In the eighteenth century, Scaramelli (1687-1752), who was followed
by many authors of that period, proposed an entirely different
division. First of all, he does not treat of ascetical and mystical
theology in the same work but in two separate works, comprising four
treatises: (1) Christian perfection and the means that lead to it; (2)
Obstacles (or the purgative way); (3) The proximate dispositions to
Christian perfection, consisting in the moral virtues in the perfect
degree (or the way of proficients); (4) The essential perfection of
the Christian, consisting in the theological virtues and especially in
charity (the love of conformity in the perfect). This ascetical
directory does not, so to speak, discuss the gifts of the Holy Ghost.
The high degree of the moral and theological virtues therein described
is, nevertheless, not reached without the gifts, according to the
common teaching of the doctors.
The Direttorio mistico is composed of five treatises: (1)
The introduction, in which are discussed the gifts of the Holy Ghost
and graces gratis datae; (2) Acquired and infused
contemplation, for which the gifts suffice, as Scaramelli recognizes
(chap. 14); (3) The degrees of indistinct infused contemplation, from
passive recollection to the transforming union. In chapter 32,
Scaramelli admits that several authors teach that infused
contemplation may be humbly desired by all interior souls, but he ends
by concluding that practically it is better not to desire it before
receiving a special call: "altiora te ne quaesieris"; (22) (4) The
degrees of distinct infused contemplation (visions and extraordinary
interior words); (5) The passive purifications of the senses and the
It is surprising to find only at the end of this mystical directory
the treatise on the passive purification of the senses which, in the
opinion of St. John of the Cross and the authors quoted above, marks
the entrance into the illuminative way.
By a fear of quietism, at times excessive, which cast discredit on
mystical theology, many authors in the eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries followed Scaramelli, who was most highly esteemed by them.
According to their point of view, ascetical theology treats of the
exercises which lead to perfection according to the ordinary way,
whereas mystical theology treats of the extraordinary way, to which
the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith would belong. At
the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the present
period this tendency appears again clearly marked in the study of
mental prayer by Father de Maumigny, S.].,(23) in the writings of
Bishop Farges,(24) and in the work of the Sulpician, Father
Pourrat.(25) According to these authors, ascetical theology is not
only distinct from mystical theology, but is separated from it; it is
not ordained to it, for mystical theology treats only of extraordinary
graces which are not necessary for the full perfection of Christian
life. Taking this point of view, some writers even maintained that,
since St. Teresa of the Child Jesus did not receive extraordinary
graces, she sanctified herself by the ascetical way and not by the
mystical way. Strange supposition.
In the last thirty years, Father Arintero, O.P.,(26) Monsignor
Saudreau,(27) the Eudist, Father Lamballe,(28) Father de la Taille,
S.J.,(29) Father Gardeil, O.P.,(30) Father Joret, O.P.,(31) Father
Gerest,(32) several Carmelites in France and in Belgium,(33)
Benedictines such as Dom Huijben, Dom Louismet, and several
others,(34) examined attentively the bases of the position taken by
Scaramelli and his successors.
As we have shown at length elsewhere,(35) we have been led, as
these authors were, to formulate the three following questions on the
subject of the division given by Scaramelli and his successors:
I. Is this absolute distinction or separation between ascetical and
mystical theology entirely traditional, or is it not rather an
innovation made in the eighteenth century? Does it conform to the
principles of St. Thomas and to the doctrine of St. John of the Cross?
St. Thomas teaches that the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, while
specifically distinct from the infused virtues, are, nevertheless, in
all the just, for they are connected with charity.(36) He says,
moreover, that they are necessary for salvation, for a just man may
find himself in difficult circumstances where even the infused virtues
would not suffice and where he needs a special inspiration of the Holy
Ghost to which the gifts render us docile. St. Thomas likewise
considers that the gifts intervene rather frequently in ordinary
circumstances to give to the acts of the virtues in generous interior
souls a perfection, an impulse, and a promptness which would not exist
without the superior intervention of the Holy Ghost.(37)
On the other hand, St. John of the Cross, as we have said, wrote
these most significant words: "The passive purification of the senses
is common. It takes place in the greater number of beginners." (38)
According to St. John, infused contemplation begins with it. And again
he says: "The soul began to set out on the way of the spirit, the way
of proficients, which is also called the illuminative way, or the way
of infused contemplation, wherein God Himself teaches and refreshes
the soul." (39) In this text the holy doctor did not wish to affirm
something accidental, but something normal. St. Francis de Sales
expresses the same thought (40). The division proposed by Scaramelli
could not be reconciled with this doctrine because he speaks of the
passive purifications of the senses and the spirit only at the end of
the unitive way, as not only eminent but essentially extraordinary.
2. It may be asked whether such a distinction or separation between
ascetical and mystical theology does not diminish the unity of the
spiritual life. A good division, in order to be necessarily basic and
not superficial an accidental, should rest on the very definition of
the whole to be divided, on the nature of, this whole, which in this
case is the life of grace, called by tradition the "grace of the
virtues and the gifts"; (41) for the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost,
being connected with charity, are part of the spiritual organism and
are necessary for perfection.
3. Does not the sharply marked division between ascetical and
mystical theology, proposed by Scaramelli and several others, also
diminish the elevation of evangelical perfection, when it treats of it
in ascetical theology, taking away from it the gifts of the Holy
Ghost, the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith, and the
union which results therefrom? Does not this new conception weaken the
motives for practicing mortification and for exercising the virtues,
and does it not do so by losing sight of the divine intimacy for which
this work should prepare us? Does it not lessen the illuminative and
unitive ways when it speaks of them simply from the ascetical point of
view? Can these two ways normally exist without the exercise of the
gifts of the Holy Ghost proportioned to that of charity and of the
other infused virtues? Finally, does not this new conception diminish
also the importance and the gravity of mystical theology, which,
separated thus from ascetical theology, seems to become a luxury in
the spirituality of some privileged souls, and one that is not without
Are there six ways (three ascetical and ordinary, and three mystical
and extraordinary, not only in fact but in essence) and not just three
ways, three ages of the spiritual life, as the ancients used to say?
As soon as ascetical treatises on the illuminative and unitive ways
are separated from mystical theology, they contain scarcely more than
abstract considerations first on the moral and then on the theological
virtues. On the other hand, if they treat practically and concretely
of the progress and the perfection of these virtues, as Scaramelli
does in his Direttorio ascetico, this perfection, according to
the teaching of St. John of the Cross, is manifestly unattainable
without the passive purifications, at least without that of the
senses, and without the cooperation of the gifts of the Holy Ghost.
The question then arises whether the passive purification of the
senses in which, according to St. John of the Cross, infused
contemplation and the mystical life, properly so called, begins is
something essentially extraordinary or, on the contrary, a normal
grace, the principle of a second conversion, which marks the entrance
into the illuminative way. Without this passive purification, can a
soul reach the perfection which Scaramelli speaks of in his
Direttorio ascetico? Let us not forget what St. Teresa says: "For
instance, they read that we must not be troubled when men speak ill of
us, that we are to be then more pleased than when they speak well of
us; that we must despise our own good name, be detached from our
kindred. . . with many other things of the same kind. The disposition
to practice this must be, in my opinion, the gift of God; for it seems
to me a supernatural good." (42) By this statement the saint means
that they are due to a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, like the
prayers which she calls "supernatural" or infused.
For these different reasons the contemporary authors whom we quoted
above reject the absolute distinction and separation between ascetical
and mystical theology that was introduced in the eighteenth century.
It is important to note here that the division of a science or of
one of the branches of theology is not a matter of slight importance.
This may be seen by the division of moral theology, which is notably
different as it is made according to the distinction of the precepts
of the decalogue, or according to the distinction of the theological
and moral virtues. If moral theology is divided according to the
precepts of the decalogue, several of which are negative, more
insistence is placed on sins to be avoided than on virtues to be
practiced more and more perfectly; and often the grandeur of the
supreme precept of the love of God and of one's neighbor, which
dominates the decalogue and which ought to be as the soul of our life,
no longer stands forth clearly enough. On the contrary, if moral
theology is divided according to the distinction of the virtues, then
all the elevation of the theological virtues will be evident,
especially that of charity over all the moral virtues, which it should
inspire and animate. If this division is made, the quickening impulse
of the theological virtues is felt, especially when they are
accompanied by the special inspirations of the Holy Ghost. Moral
theology thus conceived develops normally into mystical theology,
which is, as we see in the work of St. Francis de Sales, a simple
development of the treatise on the love of God.
What, then, is ascetical theology for the contemporary theologians
who return to the traditional division? According to the principles of
St. Thomas Aquinas, the doctrine of St. John of the Cross and also of
St. Francis de Sales, ascetical theology treats of the purgative way
of beginners who, understanding that they should not remain retarded
and tepid souls, exercise themselves generously in the practice of the
virtues, but still according to the human mode of the virtues, ex
industria propria, with the help of ordinary actual grace.
Mystical theology, on the contrary, begins with the illuminative way,
in which proficients, under the illumination of the Holy Ghost,
already act in a rather frequent and manifest manner according to the
superhuman mode of the gifts of the Holy Ghost.(43) Under the special
inspiration of the interior Master, they no longer act ex industria
propria, but the superhuman mode of the gifts, latent until now or
only occasionally patent, becomes quite manifest and frequent.
According to these authors, the mystical life is not essentially
extraordinary, like visions and revelations, but something eminent in
the normal way of sanctity. They consider this true even for souls
called to sanctify themselves in the active life, such as a St.
Vincent de Paul. They do not at all doubt that the saints of the
active life have had normally rather frequent infused contemplation of
the mysteries of the redeeming Incarnation, of the Mass, of the
mystical body of Christ, of the value of eternal life, although these
saints differ from pure contemplatives in this respect, that their
infused contemplation is more immediately ordained to action, to all
the works of mercy.
It follows that mystical theology is useful not alone for the
direction of some souls led by extraordinary ways, but also for the
direction of all interior souls who do not wish to remain retarded,
who tend generously toward perfection, and who endeavor to maintain
union with God in the midst of the labors and contradictions of
everyday life. From this point of view, a spiritual director's
ignorance of mystical theology may become a serious obstacle for the
souls he directs, as St. John of the Cross remarks in the prologue of
The Ascent of Mount Carmel. If the sadness of the neurasthenic should
not be taken for the passive purification of the senses, neither
should melancholy be diagnosed when the passive purification does
From what we have just said, it is evident that ascetical theology
is ordained to mystical theology.
In short, for all Catholic authors, mystical theology which does
not presuppose serious asceticism is false. Such was that of the
quietists, who, like Molinos, suppressed ascetical theology by
thrusting themselves into the mystical way before receiving that
grace, confounding acquired passivity, which is obtained by the
cessation of acts, of activity, and which turns to somnolence, with
infused passivity, which springs from the special inspiration of the
Holy Ghost to which the gifts render us docile. By this radical
confusion, the quietism of Molinos suppressed asceticism and developed
into a caricature of true mysticism.
Lastly, it is of prime importance to remark that the normal way of
sanctity may be judged from two very different points of view. We may
judge it by taking our nature as a starting point, and then the
position that we defend as traditional will seem exaggerated. We may
also judge it by taking as a starting point the supernatural mysteries
of the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity, the redeeming Incarnation,
and the Blessed Eucharist. This manner of judging per altissimam
causam is the only one that represents the judgment of wisdom; the
other manner judges by the lowest cause, and we know how "spiritual
folly," which St. Thomas speaks of, is contrary to wisdom.(44)
If the Blessed Trinity truly dwells in us, if the Word actually was
made flesh, died for us, is really present in the Holy Eucharist,
offers Himself sacramentally for us every day in the Mass, gives
Himself to us as food, if all this is true, then only the saints are
fully in order, for they live by this divine presence through
frequent, quasiexperimental knowledge and through an ever-growing
love in the midst of the obscurities and difficulties of life. And the
life of close union with God, far from appearing in its essential
quality as something intrinsically extraordinary, appears alone as
fully normal. Before reaching such a union, we are like people still
half-asleep, who do not truly live sufficiently by the immense
treasure given to us and by the continually new graces granted to
those who wish to follow our Lord generously.
By sanctity we understand close union with God, that is, a great
perfection of the love of God and neighbor, a perfection which
nevertheless always remains in the normal way, for the precept of love
has no limits.(45) To be more exact, we shall say that the sanctity in
question here is the normal, immediate prelude of the life of heaven,
a prelude which is realized, either on earth before death, or in
purgatory, and which assumes that the soul is fully purified, is
capable of receiving the beatific vision immediately. This is the
meaning of the words "prelude of eternal life" used in the title of
When we say, in short, that infused contemplation of the mysteries
of faith is necessary for sanctity, we mean morally necessary; that
is, in the majority of cases a soul could not reach sanctity without
it. We shall add that without it a soul will not in reality possess
the full perfection of Christian life, which implies the eminent
exercise of the theological virtues and of the gifts of the Holy Ghost
which accompany them. The purpose of this book is to establish this
VII. DIVISION OF THIS WORK
Following what we have said, we shall divide this book into five
1. The sources of the interior life and its end.
The life of grace, the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity, the in
fluence of Christ the Mediator and of Mary Mediatrix on us. Christian
perfection, to which the interior life is ordained, and the obligation
of each individual to tend to it according to his condition.
II. The purification of the soul in beginners.
The removal of obstacles, the struggle against sin and its results,
and against the predominant fault; the active purification of the
senses, of the memory, the will, and the understanding. The use of the
sacraments for the purification of the soul. The prayer of beginners.
The second conversion or passive purification of the senses in order
to enter the illuminative way of proficients.
III. The progress of the soul under the light of the Holy Ghost.
The spiritual age of proficients. The progress of the theological
and moral virtues. The gifts of the Holy Ghost in proficients. The
progressive illumination of the soul by the Sacrifice of the Mass and
Holy Communion. The contemplative prayer of proficients. Questions
relating to infused contemplation: its nature, its degrees; the call
to contemplation; the direction of souls in this connection.
IV. The union of perfect souls with God.
The entrance into this way by the passive purification of the soul.
The spiritual age of the perfect. The heroic degree of the theological
and moral virtues. Perfect apostolic life and infused contemplation.
The life of reparation. The transforming union. The perfection of love
in its relation to infused contemplation, to the spiritual espousals
and spiritual marriage.
V. Extraordinary graces.
The graces gratis datae. How they differ from the seven gifts of
the Holy Ghost, according to St. Thomas. Application of this doctrine
to extraordinary graces, according to the teaching of St. John of the
Cross. Divine revelations: interior words, the stigmata, and ecstasy.
Conclusion. Reply to the question: Is the infused contemplation of
the mysteries of faith and the union with God which results from it an
essentially extraordinary grace, or is it in the normal way of
sanctity? Is it the normal prelude to eternal life, to the beatific
vision to which all souls are called?
We could discuss here the terminology used by the mystics as
compared with that used by theologians. The question is of great
importance. Its meaning and its import will, however, be better
grasped later on, that is, at the beginning of the part of this work
that deals with the illuminative way.
We could also at the end of this introduction set forth in general
terms what the fathers and the great doctors of the Church teach us in
the domain of spirituality. It will, however, be more profitable to do
so at the end of the first part of this work when we treat of the
traditional doctrine of the three ways and of the manner in which it
should be understood.
Moreover, we have elsewhere set forth this teaching and that of
different schools of spirituality.(46) On this point Monsignor
Saudreau's work, La vie d'union a Dieu et les moyens d'y arriver
d'apres les grands mattres de la spiritualite,(47) may be
consulted with profit. It will be well also to read Father Pourrat's
study, La spiritualite chretienne. This work is conceived from
a point of view opposed to the book mentioned above, for it considers
every essentially mystical grace as extraordinary. We recommend
particularly the excellent work of Father Cayre, A.A., Precis de
patrologie,(48) in which he sets forth with great care and in a
very objective manner the spiritual doctrine of the fathers and of the
great doctors of the Church, including St. John of the Cross and St.
Francis de Sales.(49)
||17. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chap. 8.
18. Ibid., chap. 14.
19. Prior to Vallgornera, Philip of the Blessed Trinity had
affirmed this idea in the same terms in that part of his work in which
he speaks of infused contemplation. This is the same teaching that is
found also in the works of the Carmelites, Anthony of the Holy Ghost,
Joseph of the Holy Ghost, and of many others whom we shall quote
farther on when discussing this subject.
20. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. II, chaps. 2, 11
21. Another Dominican, Giovanni Maria di Lauro, in his Theologia
mystica which appeared in Naples in 1743, divides his work in the
same way, placing the passive purification of the senses as the
transition to the illuminative way (p. 113 ), and the passive
purification of the spirit as the disposition to the perfect unitive
life (p. 303), according to the teaching of St. John of the Cross.
22. Scaramelli, Direttorio mistico, tr. I, chap. I, no. 10.
23. Pratique de l'oraison mentale, 2e traite: Oraison
extraordinaire, 8e ed. Paris: G. Beauchesne, 1911.
24. Les phenomenes mystiques (Traite de theologie mystique).
25. La spiritualite chretienne. Cf. Introduction, pp. vi if.
26. Evolucion mistica. Salamanca, 19°8. Cuestiones misticas,
2nd. ed. Salamanca, 1920.
27. La vie d'union a Dieu, 3d ed., 1921; Les degres de la
vie spirituelle, 2 vols.,5th ed., 1920; L'etat mystique, sa
nature, ses phases, 2nd ed., 1921.
28. La contemplation (principles of mystical theology).
29. L'oraison contemplative. Paris: Beauchesne, 1921. See
also Louis Peeters, S.J., Vers l'union divine par les exercises de
saint Ignace (Museum Lessianum), 2nd ed., 1931.
30. La structure de l'ame et l'experience mystique, 2 vols.
Paris, 1927. See also the posthumous book of the same aUthor: La
vraie vie chretienne. Paris, 1935.
31. La contemplation mystique d'apres St. Thomas d'Aquin.
32. Memento de vie spirituelle, 1923.
33. Gabriel of St. Magdalen, O.CD., "La contemplation acquise chez
les theologiens carmes dechausses," an article which appeared in La
34. Cf. "The Inquiry" on this point which appeared in the
supplement of La vie spirituelle from September, 1929 to May,
193 I. It will be of interest to read in particular the testimony of
Fathers Marechal, S.J., Alb. Valensin, S.J., M. de la Taille, S.J.,
Cayre, Assumptionist, Jerome of the Mother of God, Carmelite, and
35. Christian Perfection and Contemplation, chaps. 1, 2, 4,
a.3, 4; chap. 5, a. 3-5; chap. 6, a.I-5. L'amour de Dieu et la
croix de jesus, 1929, Vol. II, Parts IV and V. Les trois
conversions et les trois voies, 1932, chap. 4 and
36. See Ia IIae, q.68.
37. Ibid., a. 1,1,5.
38. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chap. 8.
39. Ibid., chap. 14.
40. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. VI, chap. 3. "So it is
with prayer; it is called meditation until it has produced the honey
of devotion; after that it becomes contemplation." See the following
chapters on contemplation.
41. See IIIa, q.62, a.2: "Whether sacramental grace confers
anything in addition to the grace of the virtues and gifts." In this
article, St. Thomas states that habitual or sanctifying grace perfects
the essence of the soul, and that the infused virtues (theological and
moral) and the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost spring from it in the
42. St. Teresa, Life, chap. 31, par. 11
43. From this point of view, which is ours, mystical theology.
properly so called, begins with the age of proficients when the three
signs of the passive purification of the senses appear, as noted by
St. John of the Cross (The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chap.
9). Infused contemplation of the mysteries of salvation, contemplation
which leads to close union with God, begins then in prolonged aridity,
accompanied by true generosity. We shall see that these three signs of
the passive purification of the senses are: (I) prolonged sensible
aridity; (2) a keen desire for perfection and for God; (3) a
quasi-inability to apply oneself to discursive meditation and the
inclination to consider God by a simple gaze with loving attention.
These three signs must exist together; one alone would not suffice.
44. See IIa IIae, q.46.
45. See ibid., q. 184, a.3.
46 Cf. Perfection chretienne et contemplation, II, 662-769.
47. Third edition, Paris, Amat, 1921. (Les Peres grecs, les Peres
latins, la doctrine mystique au XIIe, au XIIIe, au XIVe, au XVIe, au
XVIIe, siecle et depuis lors.)
48. Desclee, Paris, 1930, 2 vols. (Histoire et doctrines des
Peres et Docteurs de l'Eglise.)
49. Ibid. See the analytical table in volumes I and 2 of this work
and also II, chap. 20, p. 3.