PART 3 - The Illuminative Way of Proficients
Ch 4 : The Passive Purification of
the Senses and the Entrance into the Illuminative Way
The entrance into the illuminative way, which is the second conversion described by St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Henry Suso, Tauler, and Father Lallemant, is called by St. John of the Cross the passive purification of the senses or the night of the senses. At this point in our study we must see what St. John of the Cross says about: (I) the necessity of this purification; (2) the way it is produced; (3) the conduct to be observed at this difficult time; (4) the trials which ordinarily accompany the purifying divine action. These points will be the subject of this chapter and the following one.
In The Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross says: "The night of sense is common, and the lot of many: these are the beginners"; (1) and he adds farther on, after discussing this trial: "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 without meditation or any active efforts that itself may deliberately make." (2) Nevertheless the soul must always struggle to remove the obstacles to this grace and to be faithful to it. These two texts are extremely important, for they mark the age of the spiritual life in which the purifying trial we are considering is ordinarily produced.
The necessity of this purification, as the saint shows in the same book,(3) arises from the defects of beginners, which may be reduced to three: spiritual pride, spiritual sensuality, and spiritual sloth. St. John of the Cross teaches that remains of the seven capital sins, like so many deviations of the spiritual life, are found even here. And yet the mystical doctor considers only the disorder that results from them in our relations with God; he does not speak of all that taints our dealings with our neighbor and the apostolate which may be under our care.
Spiritual sensuality, with which we are especially concerned here under the name of spiritual gluttony, consists in being immoderately attached to the sensible consolations that God sometimes grants in prayer. The soul seeks these consolations for themselves, forgetting that they are not an end, but a means; it prefers the savor of spiritual things to their purity, and thus seeks itself in the things of God rather than God Himself, as it should. In others, this selfseeking is in the exterior apostolate, in some form or other of activity.
Spiritual sloth comes as a rule then from the fact that, when spiritual gluttony or some other form of selfishness is not satisfied to the desired extent, one falls into impatience and a certain disgust for the work of sanctification as soon as it is a question of advancing by the "narrow way." The early writers spoke much of this spiritual sloth and of this disgust, which they called acedia.(4) They even declared that acedia, when accentuated, leads to malice, rancor, pusillanimity, discouragement, sluggishness, and dissipation of spirit in regard to forbidden things. (5)
Spiritual pride manifests itself quite frequently when spiritual gluttony or some other self-seeking is satisfied, when things go as one wishes; then a man boasts of his perfection, judges others severely, sets himself up as a master, while he is still only a poor disciple. This spiritual pride, says St. John of the Cross,(6) leads beginners to flee masters who do not approve of their spirit; "they even end by bearing them rancor." They seek a guide favorable to their inclinations, desire to be on intimate terms with him, confess their sins to him in such a way as not to lower themselves in his esteem. As St. John of the Cross says: "They go about palliating their sins, that they may not seem so bad: which is excusing rather than accusing themselves. Sometimes they go to a stranger to confess their sin, that their usual confessor may think that they are not sinners, but good people. And so they always take pleasure in telling him of their goodness." (7)
This spiritual pride leads, as is evident, to a certain pharisaical hypocrisy, which shows that the beginners, whom St. John of the Cross is speaking of, are still very imperfect; they are, therefore, beginners in the sense in which this word is generally understood by spiritual authors.(8) And yet it is of them that St. John of the Cross says here that they need to undergo the passive purification of the senses, which therefore marks clearly the entrance into the illuminative way of proficients, according to the traditional meaning of these terms.
To the defects of spiritual gluttony, spiritual sloth, and spiritual pride, are added many others: curiosity, which decreases love of the truth; sufficiency, which leads us to exaggerate our personal worth, to become irritated when it is not recognized; jealousy and envy, which lead to disparagement, intrigues, and unhappy conflicts, which more or less seriously injure the general good. Likewise in the apostolate, the defect rather frequent at this time is natural eagerness in self-seeking, in making oneself a center, in drawing souls to oneself or to the group to which one belongs instead of leading them to our Lord. Finally, let trial, a rebuff, a disgrace come, and one is, in consequence, inclined to discouragement, discontent, sulkiness, pusillanimity, which seeks more or less to assume the external appearances of humility. All these defects show the necessity of a profound purification.
Several of these defects may, without doubt, be corrected by exterior mortification and especially by interior mortification which we should impose on ourselves; but such mortification does not suffice to extirpate their roots, which penetrate to the very center of our faculties.(9) "The soul, however," says St. John of the Cross, "cannot be perfectly purified from these imperfections, any more than from the others, until God shall have led it into the passive purgation of the dark night, which I shall speak of immediately. But it is expedient that the soul, so far as it can, should labor, on its own part, to purify and perfect itself, that it may merit from God to be taken under His divine care, and be healed from those imperfections which of itself it cannot remedy. For, after all the efforts of the soul, it cannot by any exertions of its own actively purify itself so as to be in the slightest degree fit for the divine union of perfection in the love of God, if God Himself does not take it into His own hands and purify it in the fire, dark to the soul." (10)
In other words, the cross sent by God to purify us must complete the work of mortification which we impose on ourselves. Consequently, as St. Luke relates: "He [Jesus] said to all: If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself [this is the law of mortification or abnegation], and take up his cross daily, and follow Me"; (11) per crucem ad lucem. This road leads to the light of life, to intimate union with God, the normal prelude of the life of heaven.
This state is manifested by three signs which St. John of the
In regard to this third sign, St. John of the Cross points out that this inability to meditate in a reasoned or discursive manner "does not arise out of any bodily ailment. When it arises from this, the indisposition, which is always changeable, having ceased, the powers of the soul recover their former energies and find their previous satisfactions at once. It is otherwise in the purgation of the appetite, for as soon as we enter upon this, the inability to make our meditations continually grows. It is true that this purgation at first is not continuous in some persons." (15)
Though this state is manifested by two negative characteristics (sensible aridity and great difficulty in meditating according to a reasoned manner), evidently the most important element in it is the positive side, that is, initial infused contemplation and the keen desire for God to which it gives rise in us. It must even be admitted that then sensible aridity and the difficulty in meditating come precisely from the fact that grace takes a new, purely spiritual form, superior to the senses and to the discourse of reason, which makes use of the imagination. Here the Lord seems to take from the soul, for He deprives it of sensible consolation, but in reality He bestows a precious gift, nascent contemplation and a love that is more spiritual, pure, and strong. Only, we must keep in mind the saying: "The roots of knowledge are bitter and the fruits sweet"; the same must be said in a higher order of the roots and fruits of contemplation.
The theological explanation of this state is to be found in four causes. We already know its formal and material causes from the fact that St. John of the Cross tells us that it is a passive purification of the sensibility. Several authors insist on its final cause or end, which is easily discovered, and do not give sufficient attention to its efficient cause.
The passage just quoted from St. John of the Cross indicates the efficient cause. It is, in fact, a special and purifying action of God, from which comes, says the saint, a beginning of infused contemplation. In this contemplation we have the explanation of the keen desire for God experienced by the soul, since man ardently desires only that of which he experimentally knows the charm. This keen desire for God and for perfection is itself the explanation of the fear of falling back (filial fear). Finally, sensible aridity is explained by the fact that the special grace then given is purely spiritual and not sensible; it is a higher form of life. St. John's text explains this state rationally.
On penetrating more deeply into the theological explanation of this state, we observe that in it there is a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, whose influence then becomes more manifest. Theology teaches that every just soul possesses the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, which enable it to receive His inspirations with docility and promptness.(16) Here, therefore, the influence of the gifts is quite manifest, especially those gifts of knowledge, filial fear, and fortitude.
The gift of knowledge, in fact, explains the first sign pointed out by St. John of the Cross: "No comfort in the things of God and none also in created things." The gift of knowledge, according to St. Augustine (17) and St. Thomas,(18) makes us know experimentally the emptiness of created things, all that is defectible and deficient in them and in ourselves. Knowledge indeed differs from wisdom inasmuch as it knows things not by their supreme cause, but by their proximate, defectible, and deficient cause. For this reason, according to St. Augustine, the gift of knowledge corresponds to the beatitude of tears. The tears of contrition come actually from the knowledge of the gravity of sin and the nothingness of creatures. The gift of knowledge reminds us of what Ecclesiastes says: "Vanity of vanities, . . . and all things are vanity," except to love God and to serve Him.(19) This thought is repeatedly expressed in The Imitation (20) and in the works of great mystics like Ruysbroeck. (21) Before St. John of the Cross, Ruysbroeck pointed out the relations of the gift of knowledge to the passive purification of the senses, in which the soul knows by experience the emptiness of created things and is led thereby to a keen desire for God.(22)
In the passive purification of the senses which we are speaking of, there is also a manifest influence of the gifts of fear and fortitude, as the second sign given by St. John of the Cross indicates: "The true purgative aridity is accompanied in general by a painful anxiety because the soul thinks that it is not serving God. . . . For when mere bodily indisposition is the cause, all that it does is to produce disgust and the ruin of bodily health, without the desire of serving God which belongs to the purgative aridity. In this aridity, though the sensual part of man is greatly depressed, weak and sluggish in good works, by reason of the little satisfaction they furnish, the spirit is, nevertheless, ready and strong." (23)
The second sign manifests, therefore, an effect of the gift of fear, of filial fear, not the fear of punishment but that of sin. Filial fear evidently grows with the progress of charity, whereas servile fear, or that of punishment, diminishes.(24) By the special inspiration of this gift the soul resists the strong temptations against chastity and patience which often accompany the passive purification of the senses. The Christian, who then experiences his indigence, repeats the words of the Psalmist: "Pierce Thou my flesh with Thy fear: for I am afraid of Thy judgments." (25) According to St. Augustine, the gift of fear corresponds to the beatitude of the poor,(26) of those who do not pose as masters, but who begin to love seriously the humility of the hidden life that they may become more like our Lord. In this poverty they find true riches: "Theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
In the keen desire to serve God which St. John of the Cross speaks of here, a desire that subsists in spite of aridity, temptations, difficulties, there is, at the same time, a manifest effect of the gift of fortitude, corresponding to the fourth beatitude: "Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice: for they shall have their fill." (27) The ardent desire to serve God at no matter what cost is truly this hunger, which the Lord arouses in us. He gives rise to it and He satisfies it; as was said to Daniel: "I am come to show it to thee, because thou art a man of desires." (28) The gift of fortitude comes here, in the midst of difficulties and contradictions, to the assistance of the virtues of patience and longanimity; without it spiritual enthusiasm would die away like sensible enthusiasm. This is the time when man must give heed to what The Imitation says about the holy way of the cross: "Follow Jesus, and thou shalt go into life everlasting. He is gone before thee, carrying His cross. . . . If thou carry the cross willingly, it will carry thee and bring thee to thy desired end. . . . And sometimes he gaineth such strength through affection to tribulation and adversity, by his love of conformity to the cross of Christ, as not to be willing to be without suffering and affliction. . . . This is not man's power but the grace of Christ, which doth and can effect such great things in frail flesh, and that what it naturally abhors and flies, even this, through fervor of spirit, it now embraces and loves [i.e., to bear the cross]." (29)
Finally, the third sign which St. John of the Cross speaks of, "the growing difficulty in meditating discursively," shows the influence of the gift of understanding, the source of initial infused contemplation, above reasoning.(30) In the same chapter of The Dark Night,(31) the saint speaks in exact terms of this "beginning of obscure and arid contemplation" by which God nourishes the soul while purifying it and giving it strength to go beyond the figures, to penetrate the meaning of the formulas of faith that it may reach the superior simplicity which characterizes contemplation.(32)
St. Thomas also speaks clearly on this subject: "The other cleanness of heart is a kind of complement to the sight of God; such is the cleanness of the mind that is purged of phantasms and errors, so as to receive the truths which are proposed to it about God, no longer by way of corporeal phantasms, nor infected with heretical misrepresentations; and this cleanness is the result of the gift of understanding." (33) Thereby this gift preserves us from possible deviations and makes us go beyond the letter of the Gospel to attain its spirit; it begins to make us penetrate, beyond the formulas of faith, the depths of the mysteries that they express. The formula is no longer a term but a point of departure. This purifying influence of the gift of understanding will be exercised especially in the passive purification of the spirit, but even at this stage it is manifest. Under the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, the soul now makes an act of penetrating faith, which is called an infused act, for it cannot be produced without this special inspiration.(34)
Thus there begins to be realized what St. Thomas also points out: "But on the part of the soul, before it arrives at this uniformity (of contemplation, symbolized by the uniformity of circular movement, without beginning or end), its twofold lack of uniformity needs to be removed. First, that which arises from the variety of external things. . . and from the discoursing of reason. This is done by directing all the soul's operations to the simple contemplation of the intelligible truth," (35) a process which begins to be realized in the passive purification of the senses. Here, for example, a theologian will see the entire tract on predestination and that on grace reduced to this simple principle: "Since God's love is the cause of goodness in things, no one thing would be better than another if God did not will greater good for one than for another." (36)
St. Augustine, in treating of the degrees of the life of the soul,(37) pointed out that the life of true virtue begins by a purification, which he called "purificationis negotium. . . , opus tam difficile mundationis animae." Such is, we believe, according to the great masters,(38) the explanation of this state or period of transition, which is manifested by the subtraction of sensible graces, but which is in reality the beginning of infused contemplation, the threshold of the mystical life, in which grace is given under a new form, more freed from the senses, that it may spiritualize us, make us attain the vivifying spirit under the letter of the Gospel, and cause us truly to live by it.(39)
To distinguish neurasthenia from the passive purifications, we should note that the most frequent symptoms in neurasthenics are the following: almost continual fatigue, even when they have not worked, accompanied by a feeling of prostration, of discouragement; habitual headaches (the sensation of wearing a helmet, a leaden cap; dull pains at the nape of the neck or in the spinal column); insomnia, to such an extent that the neurasthenic wakes up more tired than when he went to bed; difficulty in exercising the intellectual faculties and in maintaining attention; impressionability (intense emotions for very slight causes), which leads the sufferer to believe that he has illnesses that he does not really have; excessive self-analysis even to minute details, continual preoccupation not to become ill.(40)
Neurasthenics are, however, not imaginary invalids; the powerlessness they experience is real, and it would be very imprudent to urge them to disregard their fatigue and work to the limit of their strength. What they lack is not will, but power.
The causes of neurasthenia may be organic like infections, endocrine or liver troubles, pre-paralysis; but often the causes are also psychical: intellectual overloading, moral worries, painful emotions, which constitute too heavy a load for the nervous system. Even in these last cases, where the cause of the disease is mental, the illness itself affects the organism. For this reason neurasthenics must absolutely be made to rest; and they must be progressively led to perform easy tasks proportionate to their strength, and be encouraged.
We should also note that psychoneuroses may be associated with a
developed intellectual life and a lofty moral life. Consequently we
see, as St. John of the Cross pointed out in speaking of the three
signs of the passive night of the senses, that this night may exist
simultaneously with melancholia, or neurasthenia as it is called
today. But we see also that the passive night is distinguished from
this state of nervous fatigue by the second sign (the soul
ordinarily keeps the memory of God with solicitude and painful
anxiety for fear it may be falling back), and by the third sign (the
quasi-impossibility to meditate, but the ability to keep a simple
and loving gaze on God, the beginning of infused contemplation). The
ardent desire for God and for perfection, which is manifested by
these signs, distinguishes notably this passive purification from
neurasthenia which may sometimes co-exist with it.
1. The Dark Night of the Soul, Bk. I, chap. 8.
2. Ibid., chap. 14.
3. Ibid., chaps. 2-9.
4. Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.35.
5. Ibid., a.4; q.36, a.4.
6. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 2.
8. We cannot admit, as some have held, that the beginners in question here have already reached the ordinary unitive way by active purification, and that they merit the name of beginners only from a special point of view, since they are setting out, not on the interior way but on the passive ways, considered as more or less extraordinary, outside the normal way. The defects of which St. John of the Cross has just spoken show that real beginners are meant here. He does not employ a special vocabulary; his is the traditional terminology, taken in its full and undiminished meaning.
In these chapters of The Dark Night (Bk. I, chaps. 9 f.), where he deals with the passive night of the senses, St. John of the Cross always says "the beginners who are thus tried." We see thereby how greatly deceived they are who wish to place this passive purification of the senses not at the entrance to the illuminative way, as St. John of the Cross himself says it is (ibid., chap. 14), but in the middle of the unitive way and after one has been following this way for a notable period of time.
9. They are what St. Thomas calls reliquiae peccati, which extreme unction should cause to disappear before death. Cf. Supplement, q. 30, a. I.
10. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 3.
11. Luke 9:23.
12. This period of transition has been rightly compared to what happens in children when they are weaned in order that they may have more solid food. They miss the savor of the milk which they are deprived of, and they are not yet accustomed to the taste of the new food that is given them.
13. Evidently all that St. John says links up rationally; it is also clear that we have to do here with a normal progress of the spiritual life and not something extraordinary, like visions, revelations, or the stigmata.
It is likewise patent that the soul, which until now has meditated according to a reasoned and somewhat mechanical method, should experience the need of a more simple, profound, lively, and loving view of the things of God. It is explicable that it is hardly possible for the soul to return, at least habitually, to a reasoned meditation in three points. Likewise if, after a child begins to read little poems and stories, they are taken away from him and he is put at deciphering the alphabet or spelling out words, he would be unable to tolerate this. He has gone beyond the simple stage. There is no longer any interest for him or any life in spelling since he knows how to read fluently. Life advances, and a man's life cannot be reduced to what it was ten years earlier; the same is true in the spiritual life.
14. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 9.
15. Ibid. In The Ascent of Mount Carmel (Bk. II, chaps. 13f.), St. John of the Cross had already indicated these three signs in order to point out the suitable time to pass from discursive meditation to contemplation; and even in the Ascent he was speaking of infused contemplation, for in chapter 14 he says that contemplation "is that general knowledge, wherein the spiritual powers of the soul, memory, understanding, and will, are exerted. This general knowledge. . . is at times so subtle and delicate. . . that the soul, though in the practice thereof, is not observant or conscious of it." In chapter 15 the saint says: "But when this state is attained to, meditation ceases, and the faculties labor no more; for then we may rather say that intelligence and sweetness are wrought in the soul, and that it itself abstains from every effort, except only that it attends lovingly upon God, without any desire to feel or see anything further than to be in the hands of God, who now communicates Himself to the soul, thus passive, as the light of the sun to Him whose eyes are opened." The state described in the passage just quoted is not different from that described in The Dark Night (Bk. I, chap. 9).
As is increasingly admitted today, and as the first commentators held (d. "Saint Jean de la Croix," Diet. de theol. cath.), these chapters of The Ascent do not describe a state which precedes in time that which The Dark Night speaks of (ibid.); rather, they show its active aspect, the conduct to be followed then, whereas The Dark Night shows its passive aspect.
16. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q. 68, a. 1-3.
17. Lib. I de sermone Domini in monte, chap. 4: "Those who weep are they who know by what evils they have been conquered, because they desired them as goods." They weep over all that concupiscence and pride have made them lose.
18. See IIa IIae, q.9, a.4.
19. Eccles. 12: 8.
20. Cf. The Imitation, Bk. III, chap. 42: "That peace is not to be placed in men; Without Me friendship can neither profit nor endure." Chap. 43: "Against vain and worldly learning; Never read anything in order that thou mayest appear more learned or more wise."
21. Le Royaume des amants de Dieu, chap. 18; L'Ornement des notes spirituelles, Bk. II, chap. 5.
22. Cf. L'Ornement des notes spirituelles, Bk II, chap. 63, in which the gifts of fear, piety, and knowledge, and their purifying influence are discussed.
23. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 9.
24.Cf. IIa IIae, q. 19, a.9, 12.
25. Ps. 118: 120.
26. Cf. IIa IIae, q. 19, a. 12.
27. Ibid., q. 139, a.2.
28. Dan. 9:23.
29. Bk. II, chap. 12. Ruysbroeck speaks in the same manner of the gift
fortitude in L'Ornement des noces spirituelles (Bk. II, chap. 64):
"By It man
wills to surmount every obstacle and to disregard all consolation in
30. The beginning of superdiscursive contemplation interrupts reasoning, which made use of the imagination. Then are produced involuntary distractions of the imagination, which, not being methodically occupied, wanders more or less until it grows drowsy, falls asleep, when the power of the mind (vis animae) will be wholly inclined toward loving contemplation in the higher faculties.
These distractions of the imagination are not produced in the theologian while he is reasoning, or in the preacher while he is preaching; their reasoning would be arrested. They are produced at the beginning of superdiscursive contemplation, which does not make use of the linking of images, and the unoccupied imagination cannot by itself become interested in the wholly spiritual object which is then in a confused manner the object of the intellect.
31 Cf. Bk. I, chap. 9.
32. Cf. Ruysbroeck, op. cit., Bk. II, chap. 66: "The first radiation of the gift of understanding creates simplicity in the spirit," a participation in the eminent simplicity of God.
33. Cf. IIa IIae, q.8, a.7.
34. Cf. Ia IIae, q.61, a.5: "Whether the cardinal virtues are fittingly divided into social virtues, perfecting, perfect, and exemplar virtues."
35. See IIa IIae, q. 180, a.6 ad 2um.
36. Cf. Ia, q.20, a.3 f.
37. De quantitate animae, Bk. I, chap. 33, fourth step: The life of true virtue. De sermone in monte, where he compares the seven gifts with the evangelical beatitudes.
38. Cf. St. Gregory, Moral., XXIV, chap. 6; X, chaps. 10, 17; In Ezech., Bk. II, homil. II, 2, 3, 13. Hugh of St. Victor, Homil. I in Eccli. The Imitation of Christ Bk. III, chap. 31: This chapter offers a good summary of what we have just said and shows why there are so few contemplatives: because there are so few men detached from the things of the world.
39. What we have just said may be summed up in the following table,
should be read from the bottom up:
40. Cf. R. de Sinety, Psychopathologie et direction, 1934, pp. 66-87.