Now that you have read through this overview of the mystical theology of Saint John of the Cross, you may find yourself wondering two questions: 1) Where am I on this journey? 2) What practically do I need to do to advance further? Though a well-trained spiritual director is the best guide for assisting in this area, finding a spiritual director, let alone one who is well-versed in the theology of the spiritual life, may actually be difficult for most people. Therefore, this chapter will first offer a summary of each stage of spiritual development and then conclude with some basic practical advice for each stage as well.
Summary of One’s Initial Conversion
When a person first encounters God and receives from Him an interior call to conversion, he must choose to say “Yes” or “No.” This initial conversion begins in one of two ways: infant conversion or adult conversion. Though Saint John of the Cross does not cover this initial conversion in his writings, he does presume that this initial conversion has already taken place.
Infant conversion: When a child is baptized, sanctifying grace is infused into its soul and Original Sin is removed. Thus, this infant is capable of communion with God. As the child grows and matures on a rational level, he will be continually invited to choose God over sin. If the toddler, child, adolescent, preteen and teen continues to be open to the voice of God speaking as he matures, then he will begin to develop a relationship with God from the earliest stages of development. Even a two-year-old will begin to understand right from wrong and will begin to grasp, albeit on a simplified level, an understanding of God. As the child grows into adolescence and teenage years, and if all along the way he continues to choose God and grows in his relationship with God, then the initial conversion takes place. Some children, such as Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, had a very deep relationship with God as early as the age of four. Of course, even with Saint Thérèse, her life of holiness continually deepened until the final year of her life (age 24) when she was most certainly living in the depths of the spiritual marriage.
Adult conversion: For others, whether they are baptized as infants or as adults, a spiritual conversion may not occur until later in life. This may be especially apparent in the lives of those who have been living in a state of habitual mortal sin. In this case, if at some point in their lives they are open to a special grace of God, inviting them to turn from sin and toward Him, and they do in fact make that choice, God’s grace will rush upon them and bring about their initial conversion, setting them in a state of grace. Of course, when this happens to someone who has lived many years of habitual mortal sin, there is much purgation that needs to happen in their soul until it is capable of full communion with God. But this first step of conversion is essential.
A person who goes through this initial conversion, either as an infant who slowly grows in faith as he matures, or as an adult who turns away from a life of sin, will begin to walk as a new creation and will begin to grow in a knowledge and love of God.
Summary of the Active Night of the Senses
Saint John of the Cross begins his writings with a focus on the “beginner.” He writes about this stage of spiritual development in his work Ascent of Mount Carmel—Book I. The beginner is one who is already initially converted to God, remains free from mortal sin and engages in a regular life of prayer and virtue. Sadly, when we consider all the people throughout the world, it appears that there are actually very few “beginners” who are on this path to perfection. Many people are still in need of initial conversion.
The goal of this “night” (purgation) is first to free the person from every attachment to habitual sin in the appetites. The second is to free the person from every habitual imperfection. Third is to free the person from even the voluntary desire for sin and every disordered affection. The primary focus is on the sensual nature of the soul. Later purgations will focus on the spiritual nature of the soul. This painful purgation of the sensual human nature (the appetites, passions, desires) will be helped by prayer, mortification and intentional acts of virtue. The Sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist will also be of great value.
The Seven Capital Sins are a primary focus of this purgation. The sins will be dealt with in a direct way, helping the soul to eliminate venial sins, imperfections and desires for these sins, and even helping to be freed of the commission of future mortal sins.
Discursive Meditation is the prayer that this person will find most beneficial. This form of meditation includes actively reading and pondering the Gospels in a prayerful way, so as to allow God to speak to the soul and guide it through its senses, desires, inspirations and spiritual consolations.
Passionate love for God will be this person’s experience. The soul will have a zeal for God, virtue and other spiritual practices. In Saint John’s words, the soul will be “Kindled in love with yearnings.”
Summary of the Passive Night of the Senses
Saint John explains this step of the spiritual journey in the Dark Night of the Soul—Book I. The person going through this stage of spiritual development is in a transitional phase between being a “beginner” and a “proficient.”
In this night (purgation), the soul is purified primarily by an act of God, not by anything it can do on its own. Like Step One, this purgation focuses upon the sensory appetites and desires a person has, but in a deeper way. After the soul is freed from all inordinate attachments and desires in the first step, it will come to realize that it also has many deep spiritual sins.
The Seven Capital Sins are looked at in detail during this purgation, but now in a deeper spiritual way. In this stage of spiritual development, the soul will come to realize, through ongoing inspirations from God, that it has so delighted in the things of God that it has many spiritual attachments to the sensory pleasures it has received from its life as a beginner. For example, a soul may be so impressed with its own spiritual journey and virtue that it is filled with spiritual pride. Or it may enjoy the feelings of being close to God so much that it loves the feelings more than God (i.e., spiritual gluttony).
Purgative Contemplation is the prayer proper to this stage of spiritual development. When this happens, the soul will no longer find any satisfaction in the many spiritual consolations it has received, will find only dryness and bitterness in its senses, and will be invited by God to turn away from the many spiritual consolations it received when it was in the beginning stage of the spiritual journey. The dryness and loss of consolation is to draw the person to love of God in a more pure and spiritual way. Purgative contemplation will be infused directly by God, and not through the person’s own efforts. The person will find it necessary to simply sit in silence before God, allowing God to do the work. The only responsibility of the person in this prayer is to consent to what God is doing.
Choosing God for God’s Sake must be the single goal at this stage. Not because the soul finds consolation in loving God, but because God is worthy of love.
Summary of the Active Night of the Spirit
Saint John explains this step of spiritual development in Book Two and Three of the Ascent to Mount Carmel. The soul, now freed from all sensory attachments, including the many consoling sensory delights it received during its journey as a beginner, begins to turn its attention to the spiritual part of its inner self so as to surrender its intellect, memory and will to God in the deepest way.
In this night, the beginner is now a “proficient” in the spiritual life and enjoys an often lengthy period of stability, contemplative prayer and zeal for God. The soul grows in virtue and holiness but begins to sense that God wants more for it. As a result, the soul begins to allow God to infuse within it the pure gifts of faith, hope and charity. It begins to consciously “let go” of all former ideas of God, preferences for the future, selfish convictions about God’s will, and it begins to choose a new level of oneness with God. The intellect begins to have faith in a more general and obscure way, as if the person were staring at the Sun. The memory begins to be purified and “forgotten.” And the will is left in a sort of limbo, waiting upon the moment by moment gentle guidance of God.
Infused contemplation begins to become the normal method of prayer for the proficient. During this prayer, God communicates in a way that is mysterious but transforming. The soul is regularly drawn to God in prayer, but this prayer is not conceptual or meditative. Instead, the soul becomes more and more certain of the glory of God, but its certitude is more general, and less focused on specific ideas of God. The person spends much less time thinking about God and more time thinking of God in a more simple and direct way. Instead of having many hopes for itself, the person slowly learns to turn to one object of hope—God alone.
Choosing to let go of all former knowledge of God and striving to embrace His will must be the focus in this stage. This is so that the soul will be prepared for the total transformation it is about to undergo in the next and final purgation.
Summary of the Passive Night of the Spirit
Saint John explains this stage of spiritual development in Book Two of The Dark Night of the Soul. The soul undergoes its final purgation by means of a total annihilation of its former way of knowing, hoping and willing.
This final stage is a passive purgation in that it is an action of God, requiring only the consent of the soul. The person enters into a sort of “spiritual cocoon” in which the intellect, memory and will are completely transformed. The intellect comes to know God in a new way. It is darkened and forgets its former and lower knowledge of God and comes to know Him more certainly, but in an obscure way, trading concepts and ideas of God for the pure and overwhelming light of infused faith. The will is slowly purged entirely and lets go of everything except the will of God. Though the soul experiences great humility, feels utterly impoverished and empty, it is closer to God than ever before. In this darkness, the soul finds security and safety from the three enemies—the world, the devil and the flesh. These enemies no longer hinder it in any way. In this inner solitude and hiddenness, the soul becomes very strong and deeply resolved in its love for God. It is transformed by a “holy fear” of never wanting to offend God and only wanting to love Him and serve His holy will. In this fortitude of spirit, after relentlessly searching for and finding God, the soul now makes God and His perfect will the one and only object of its desire.
Habitual contemplative prayer becomes the norm, meaning that the soul has completely abandoned all lower forms of prayer and begins to walk always with God, praying always, and never tiring of loving God. Once the soul climbs the ladder to its Beloved, it is prepared for Divine Union.
Summary of Divine Union
Saint John explains this experience of the perfect soul in his works Spiritual Canticle Stanzas 22-40 and The Living Flame of Love. In this state of perfection, the soul is so intimately united to God that it shares fully in the divine attributes of God. Its intellect thinks with pure faith in God, its memory understands all things by the pure hope in God, its will is motivated by the pure charity of God, and all of its appetites, affections, desires and passions are completely ordered in God. The soul knows, understands, loves, feels, interacts and communicates in God and by God. The soul even loves God by the power of God Himself.
The primary image Saint John uses to describe this state of perfection is the log that is one with the flame and burns at its deepest center with the flame of the Holy Spirit.
Practical Advice for One’s Initial Conversion
The best way to assure yourself of this initial conversion is to carefully, humbly and honestly go through the examination of conscience presented below. Once complete, if you are aware of any serious sin, you must firmly resolve to turn away from that sin and go to Confession. If you do not do this, God is greatly hindered in His ability to draw you closer to Him and set you down the journey of deeper conversion.
Examination of Conscience—Seven Capital Sins
Pride—Pride is an untrue opinion of ourselves, an untrue idea of what we are not. Have I a superior attitude in thinking or speaking or acting? Am I snobbish? Have I offensive, haughty ways of acting or carrying myself? Do I hold myself above others? Do I demand recognition? Do I desire to be always first? Am I ready to accept advice? Am I in any sense a “bully”? Am I inclined to be “bossy”? Do I speak ill of others? Have I lied about others? Do I make known the faults of others? Do I seek to place the blame on others, excusing myself? Is there anyone to whom I refuse to speak? Is there anyone to whom I have not spoken for a long time? Am I prone to argue? Am I offensive in my arguments? Have I a superior “know-it-all attitude” in arguments? Am I self-conscious? Am I sensitive? Am I easily wounded?
Envy—Envy is a sadness that we feel on account of the good that happens to our neighbor. Do I feel sad at the prosperity of others? At their success in games? In athletics? Do I rejoice at the failures and misfortunes of others? Do I envy the riches of others?
Sloth—Sloth is a kind of cowardice and disgust, which makes us neglect and omit our duties rather than discipline ourselves. Have I an inordinate love of rest, neglecting my duties? Do I act lazily? Am I too fond of rest? Do I take lazy positions in answering prayers? Do I kneel in prayer in a lounging way? Do I delight in idle conversation? Do I fail to be fervent in the service of God?
Lust—Lust is the love of the pleasures that are contrary to purity. Have I desired or done impure things out of selfishness? Have I taken pleasure in entertaining impure thoughts or desires? Have I read impure material, listened to music with impure lyrics, or looked at impure images, whether in photos or on television or in movies or on the Internet? Have I aroused sexual desire in myself or another by impure kissing, embracing, or touching? Have I committed impure actions alone, i.e., masturbation? Do I dress immodestly or am I too concerned with the way I look? Do I use vulgar language or tell or listen to impure jokes or stories? Have I given in to desires of adultery even in my imagination? Have I acted with seductive charm or been flirtatious?
Greed—Greed is a disordered love of the goods of this world. Do I dispose of my money properly or selfishly? Do I discharge my duties in justice to my fellow man? Do I discharge my duties in justice to the Church? Do I see money only as a means to serving God and others or do I see it as an end in itself? Do I obsessively think about wealth?
Gluttony—Gluttony is a disordered love of eating and drinking. Do I eat to live or live to eat? Do I drink to excess? Do I get drunk? Do I misuse prescription drugs? Do I use illegal drugs? Have I allowed myself to become addicted to alcohol?
Anger—Anger is an emotion of the soul, which leads us violently to repel whatever hurts or displeases us. Am I prone to anger? Does practically any little thing arouse my temper? Am I what is generally termed “a sore-head”? Do I fail to repress the first signs of anger? Do I fail to get along well with everybody? Do I ponder over slights or injuries and even presume them? Do I think of means of revenge? Of “getting even”? Am I of an argumentative disposition? Have I a spirit of contradiction? Am I given to ridicule of persons, places, or things? Am I hard to get along with? Do I carry grudges, remain “on the outs” with anyone? Do I talk about the faults of others? Do I reveal the faults or defects of others? Do I reveal the faults of others from the wrong motive?
Practical Advice for the Active Night of the Senses
Examination of Conscience—The examination of conscience on the Seven Capital Sins in the previous section should be returned to on a regular basis by the beginner. The active purgation of the senses requires that you be freed of all of these sins in a habitual way. Though you will never permanently be free from every venial sin until you enter fully into the Beatific Vision of Heaven, you must seek to eliminate every ingrained habit of sin. Using this examination of conscience in an ongoing and thorough way, coupled with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, will be of great importance to you achieving this purgation. Do not cease to examine your conscience with this method until God has truly freed you from every habitual sin identified.
In addition to the examination of conscience on the Seven Capital Sins, it will be helpful to carefully reflect upon the virtues that bring complete freedom from those sins. Below is an examination of conscience that presents the Seven Capital Virtues. These virtues will bring a much deeper freedom from all sin.
Examination of Conscience—Seven Capital Virtues
Humility—Humility cures pride and is ultimately knowing and believing the truth of who you are. Humility enables you to see yourself as God sees you. You will not find offense in the criticism of others. You are at peace even when you are unnoticed, misunderstood and misjudged. You will not take your identity in the opinions of others. You will regularly speak well of others, see goodness in them, and speak the truth without allowing your sin or the sins of others to cloud your judgment. You will be able to take responsibility for your failings, sincerely apologize as needed and regularly seek to heal discord.
Kindness—Kindness cures envy and leads a person to have a genuine love of neighbor, offering them unprejudiced, compassionate and charitable concern. You will find joy in the success of others and rejoice when they are sincerely honored and loved.
Diligence—Diligence cures sloth and leads a person to great zeal for goodness and for the accomplishment of the works of God. Love of God and others will be far more important to you than your own selfish comfort. Negative conversations will be of no interest. You will find joy and energy in doing what is right and beneficial to others.
Chastity—Chastity cures lust and will enable you to begin living in purity of mind and body. Selfishness will give way to selflessness in regard to disordered sexual desires. Others will no longer be looked upon as objects of desire, but will be seen as children of God our Father. The sacred dignity of each person will be revered in the way that is deserving of a child of God. Great care will be taken not to tempt, mislead or draw inordinate attention to yourself or your own body. Passions will be more easily mastered and brought under the control of the pure love of God. Chastity will especially be lived within marriage so that authentic and pure love can be shared between spouses and selfish love can be eliminated. Simply put, lust steals another’s dignity but chastity affirms the dignity of all.
Liberality—Liberality is the cure for greed in that it will enable you to order your desires for material wealth in such a way that all is used for the single purpose of the greater glory of God. Money, or the lack thereof, presents each person with a powerful test. When you have much wealth, joy will be found in the use of that wealth for the good of others and the fulfillment of God’s will. When you have little wealth, joy will be found in complete trust in God’s providence. Simply put, liberality frees a person from an inordinate attachment to material wealth and even from the desire for it.
Temperance—Temperance cures gluttony in that it will enable you to act with self-control in regard to your desires for food and drink. Excessive cravings for food and drink will be eliminated and will be enjoyed in the ordered way God created them to be enjoyed. Simply put, food and drink will not control you.
Meekness—Meekness cures anger and will enable you to endure that which attempts to inflict harm upon you with patience and love. You will not be controlled by injustice but will respond to it with forgiveness. The ability to reconcile and be at peace with all people will grow strong. Sincere compassion will be offered to those who act with malice. Obsessive brewing over one’s wounds will be eliminated and joy in suffering will grow in proportion to the suffering endured. Others will not be seen as enemies but will be seen with dignity, even if they do not act in a dignified way. Simply put, the malice of others or injustices endured will have no power over you.
Study—Another great help for the beginner will be to feed your mind with the truth by studying the Gospel and especially the person of Jesus. Read books about the Catholic faith, learn the Catechism, read the lives of the saints and continually strive to grow in a greater understanding of all that God has revealed to us through His Church. This knowledge will be a great help to you as you make a daily decision to turn from sin and turn to God. Though this practice will be of great benefit to the beginner, it is necessary for those in every stage of spiritual development. Therefore, make sure you have a regular and faithful plan of ongoing learning.
Prayer—The prayer proper to this stage of spiritual development is discursive meditation, which is a very careful, intentional and extended pondering of the Gospel and other truths God has revealed. This form of meditation is best practiced when you set aside at least 20 minutes, and ideally an hour, for prayer. Read one passage of the Gospel slowly. Reflect upon it and let God speak to you through it. After you feel you have fully pondered one passage, move on to the next, but not in a hurried way. This is not just reading of Scripture, it is meditating on it.
Sometimes meditation will be fueled by reflecting on beautiful prayers, especially those written by the saints. Therefore, find a good prayer book with traditional Catholic prayers and use those prayers for meditation. Meditating on prayers is not the same as simply saying or reading prayers. To meditate on them you must take time with them, make them personal, understand them, and mean every word.
Many people will find that daily devotionals, novenas, the rosary, chaplets, Stations of the Cross and various other forms of prayer will assist them in their meditations. Try new methods, new devotionals, reflections and inspirational meditations. When one feeds your prayer and draws you closer to God, stick with it.
Savor Spiritual Consolations—Sometimes, in prayer or study, God speaks to you in a powerful way. This is a grace, a sensible consolation sent from God to emphasize some particular truth that He wants you to focus on. Therefore, if something strikes you in the Scripture or your spiritual reading, make sure to “chew” on it, ponder it over and over and soak up all that God wants to communicate to you through this inspiration. At this stage of spiritual development, spiritual consolations and inspirations are quite common and useful, so be grateful for them when they come. In the next stage of spiritual development, this form of communication from God to you will end, so that God can communicate to you on an even deeper level. But as long as the consolations and inspirations come to you, receive them and let them help you to change.
Spiritual Maxims—Saint John offers us various spiritual maxims for meditation and prayer. These maxims will be challenging to read and even more challenging to desire. But remember, they come to us from perhaps the greatest spiritual doctor of the Church. You can trust that if these maxims are hard to embrace and live, that is because you need to be changed, not because there is something wrong with the maxim itself. Therefore, if you want to walk through this stage of the active night of the senses, try to spend time reflecting upon these maxims and live them to the best of your ability.
These maxims call the soul to strive to always prefer the most difficult rather than the easiest, the least pleasant rather than the most pleasant, the most wearisome rather than the most restful, and so on. When they are pondered, they will have the effect of revealing to you all selfishness. You may react negatively at first, but this is an intellectual exercise by which you can bring to the surface the various weaknesses, sins, selfish tendencies and the like, so that they can be dealt with.
Therefore, meditate on these maxims and then ponder what comes to mind as you do. You may gain many very helpful insights that will enable you to become a much more selfless person. Use these maxims in an intellectual and moral exercise by which you will see your sinful tendencies in a more honest and humble way.
The maxims are as follows:
Strive always to prefer:
Not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult;
Not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing;
Not that which gives most pleasure, but rather that which gives least;
Not that which is restful, but that which is wearisome;
Not that which is consolation, but rather that which is disconsolateness;
Not that which is greatest, but that which is least;
Not that which is loftiest and most precious, but that which is lowest and most despised;
Not that which is a desire for anything [to desire anything], but that which is a desire for nothing;
Strive to go about seeking not the best of temporal things, but the worst.
Strive thus to desire to enter into complete detachment and emptiness and poverty, with respect to everything that is in the world, for Christ’s sake.
As mentioned, these maxims can, at first, seem contrary to happiness. But if they are practiced and lived, you will discover that they are the path to great delight and consolation. The soul will at first find them repugnant. Ignore that and seek to desire them anyway. The result will be a much better knowledge of who you are, and a clearer revelation of your selfish tendencies that need to be purged.
Once you have spent time on the above maxims (ideally weeks or months), continue to reflect on the ones that follow in the same way. They will also be hard to accept. But remember, they are not literal “commandments” from God; rather, they are exercises by which you will bring your selfishness and sins to the surface.
Further counsel to overcome: 1) concupiscence of the flesh, 2) concupiscence of the eyes, and 3) pride of life:
First, let the soul strive to work in its own despite, and desire all to do so.
Secondly, let it strive to speak in its own despite and desire all to do so.
Third, let it strive to think humbly of itself, in its own despite, and desire all to do so.
With these reflections below, it’s important to note, especially, the first part of each. “In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything…” Like the exercises above, these reflections will help free you from the lower pleasures, possessions, knowledge, etc., that many embrace with passion. God wants so much more for you. Therefore, use them as a way of letting God begin to bestow everything good upon you. The highest good that only God can give!
Obtaining true freedom flowing from humility:
In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything, desire to have pleasure in nothing.
In order to arrive at possessing everything, desire to possess nothing.
In order to arrive at being everything, desire to be nothing.
In order to arrive at knowing everything, desire to know nothing.
In order to arrive at that wherein thou hast no pleasure, thou must go by a way wherein thou hast no pleasure.
In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not, thou must go by a way that thou knowest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou possessest not, thou must go by a way that thou possessest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou art not, thou must go through that which thou art not.
When thy mind dwells upon anything, thou art ceasing to cast thyself upon the All.
For, in order to pass from the all to the All, Thou hast to deny thyself wholly in all.
And, when thou comest to possess it wholly, Thou must possess it without desiring anything.
For, if thou wilt have anything in having all, Thou hast not thy treasure purely in God.
If you found those painful then you are on the right track. Don’t abandon the reflections above until you begin to remember them, think about them and understand the true wisdom in each one of them. They are very valuable exercises for you on your way to holiness.
Practical Advice for the Passive Night of the Senses
If you have successfully spent time with the meditations, maxims and other spiritual exercises spoken of in the previous section “Practical Advice for the Active Night of the Senses,” and if you have established a strong life of prayer, probably over a number of years, then there will be a time when God begins to draw you deeper. That “deeper” will be infused contemplation.
In this stage, the soul begins to be purged by God Himself rather than through its own efforts of mortification and self-denial. Two suggestions will be offered here for those whose senses are passively being purified by God through the invitation to infused contemplation.
Seven Capital Sins on a Spiritual Level—Return to Chapter Two and spend time in a holy hour meditating on the Seven Capital Sins as they are manifested in a new spiritual way. Once you are aware of how these spiritual sins affect you, it’s time to let God do His purifying work. This purgation can only take place through the prayer of purgative contemplation. God will remove the cause of the sin by drying up your spiritual consolations and, in fact, many other spiritual delights you have enjoyed within your sensory appetites.
What do you do in this process of contemplative purgation? As God begins to work on you, drawing you into this contemplation of sensory purgation, consciously allow yourself to be changed. God will do the work, but you must not interfere. You will feel different, see things differently, feel a loss of spiritual delight, and not sense the presence of God in the same way as you used to.
Four Natural Passions of the Soul—Another area to be aware of is what Saint John identifies as the natural passions of joy, hope, sorrow and fear. Each one of these passions, when they are disordered, has the potential to lead you far away from God and His will. They will even leave you confused, thinking that you are serving God when you are, in reality, only reacting to a powerful and inordinate passion.
A good spiritual practice is to spend time examining how these four natural passions influence your life. For example, spend time with fear. What is it that you are fearful of? Does it control you? Do you base decisions on fear? If you do spend time looking deep at your motivations in life and find fear to be one of those motivations, then know that God wants to heal you and free you of the heavy burden that fear imposes. The same is true with the other natural passions. Be sure to understand each one well, not confusing them with spiritual joy, hope, sorrow or fear. All four of these can be gifts from God. We are NOT speaking of those passions. We are speaking of the disordered and misguiding natural passions that control you. Joy in things other than God and His will. Hope for things not in the will of God. Sorrow that results from selfishness. And fear that results from a lack of trust and surrender.
Contemplation, when it is from God and is infused into your soul, will have the effect of purifying you and freeing you from these natural passions when they go astray.
Practical Advice for the Active Night of the Spirit
Those who have been living a stable Christian life and have spent much time (often years) practicing meditation and works of charity, and who have learned much about God and the faith that He has revealed, will eventually find that their long and stable life of union with God will begin to change. Up until this point, the moments of contemplation they have received from God have had the effect of purifying them of their worldly delights as well as the spiritual delights they have received from their Christian living. They have endured dryness in their sensory appetites for worldly things and even for spiritual experiences. But they have persevered through that dryness, and their relationship with God has become more stable and less reliant upon spiritual consolations.
Now, God wants to use contemplative prayer to purify the soul on an even deeper level. The intellect, memory and will must now be purified of former knowledge about God. Former hopes and ideas pertaining to God will begin to change. Charity will begin to be infused in a new way, leading the soul to serve God in a more direct way rather than by using one’s own ideas and constructed hopes of what God may want. Below is a Scripture passage used in Chapter Three which will be good to reflect upon and understand. God wants to take you to a new level of knowing, hoping and loving.
For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13:9-12)
Below are three specific ways that were mentioned in Chapter Three on how to intentionally go about this change in knowing, hoping and loving:
- Knowing—Seek to plunge your mind into the obscurity and blindness of pure faith. A good image for this would be to see God, with your mind’s eye, as pure light, brighter than the Sun itself, shining down upon you. The brightness is so overwhelming that it blinds you of all other knowledge you have about God. His brightness is all you see in a general, obscure but certain way.
- Hoping—Seek to forget all your memories about God. You will be tempted, time and time again, to think about God and your past relationship with Him rather than to just pray. You will be tempted to go through various reasoning processes, trying to put together various pieces of your life so as to arrive at what you think must be God. Forget it. Let it all go. Seek to have an empty memory so that God can fully possess your memory alone with His pure self. Your hope must be in God and for that which you do not see, understand or possess. It’s a blind but certain hope infused by God.
- Loving—Seek to let go of every choice you need to make. Detach from every preference, every spiritual desire, everything you “want” to do for God. Instead, simply rest in His will. Wait on Him. When He is ready, He will guide you at the right time in the right way. Only if you strip your will of all decisions and preferences can God fully possess your will with His. And only then will God’s love be able to become the source of your daily choices. No longer do you choose based on your self-conceived desires. Rather, you choose and act because the Holy Spirit is inspiring you to act.
Simply put, the best practical advice for those engaged in the active night of the spirit is to understand that it is time to begin a transformation of the way you think, hope and act. God wants to draw you into adulthood and bring about a complete transformation within your spirit (intellect, memory and will). Your disordered affections and other habitual attachments have been quieted, but now you must look deeper. God wants to “reprogram” the deepest part of you. In order for that to happen, you must willingly allow yourself to be drawn into a process of “unknowing” so that you can come to know, hope and love in a way directly infused by God. For your part, understand what is happening and consent to the changes God wants to make in you.
Practical Advice for the Passive Night of the Spirit
As you actively seek to let go of your former ways of knowing, hoping and loving, and seek to discover the new and infused way God wants to bestow these three virtues upon you, you must ultimately surrender all and accept that which God wants to do within your soul. Though this stage is a passive stage, meaning it is something that God does in you far more than something you intentionally do, it will require that you continue the two main things mentioned above: 1) understanding, and 2) consent.
In order to understand and consent to that which God is doing, make sure you understand the following experiences you may have. Accept them when you experience them and renew your love and commitment to God in the midst of these experiences:
- Allow yourself to see your sin, in all its misery, as God infuses you with new faith. Don’t be overwhelmed but do acknowledge your wretchedness and weakness with honesty. This humbling realization should also be experienced as you see the infinite mercy of God. The truth of God’s mercy will allow you to gaze more deeply than you ever have before on your weakness and sin.
- Think about Job, the good and faithful man, who was allowed to go through the most severe trial imaginable. He lost everything—his riches, family and even his physical health. His response was to sit in silence before the mystery of his wretchedness, while at the same time he renewed his hope and trust in God. He didn’t complain, explain away his misery, or lose hope. He simply acknowledged the greatness of God in His lowly state. Reading through the story of Job would be a great help in this stage of development.
- Don’t be afraid to allow your former self to die. You must be at peace as you remain still in this “cocoon” of God’s transforming power. Accept that you are being changed by God and willingly consent to the transformation that God wants to bring about in you.
- In this state, God will appear to be absent and silent. As a result, you will not be able to pray as you used to pray. Your prayer must become deeper and more intentional as you experience the apparent loss of God’s presence. Recall Psalm 22, which was perfectly prayed by Jesus on the Cross as an expression of both His interior experience of loss as well as His perfect trust in the Father. God will draw you to live that psalm also. It would be helpful to read the entire psalm over and over: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why so far from my call for help, from my cries of anguish? My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief. Yet you are enthroned as the Holy One; you are the glory of Israel…” (Psalm 22:2-4).
Again, this stage of spiritual development is “passive,” meaning, God will do the work in you. You must make sure you do not hinder what He wants to do in you, and the best way to do this is to make sure that these four points above are understood and embraced.
It’s also important to point out that you cannot force this passive purgation of your spirit to happen. There is nothing you can do to initiate it other than to wait on God’s purifying action. Therefore, if you find you are not sure what to do at this point, then do nothing. Wait on the Lord and work on the former spiritual practices. When the time comes for God to draw you into this spiritual purgation, understanding the four points above will help prepare you for it.
Practical Advice is Not Needed for Those in Divine Union
The final step of the spiritual journey is that of the perfect. Of this state, nothing can be said regarding practical advice. The soul who is living in this state of perfection will know all it needs to know directly from God Himself. God will fill this soul with every knowledge, understanding, love and hope contained within God Himself. However, here are a few final thoughts for your spiritual journey before reaching Transforming Union:
Don’t rush it, but do rush it—On one hand, those who want to become holy will be tempted to rush it. They will want to enter into the state of perfection immediately and may become deluded into thinking that they are already close. Don’t be that person. Humility must be so central in your life that you will not fall into the errors of spiritual pride, thinking and acting as if you are further along in your journey than you are. Therefore, regularly remind yourself that, in a real way, it doesn’t matter how far along you are. What matters is that you daily seek to make progress. That’s it. Make progress every day. If you slip and fall, get back up immediately and resume your journey. As long as you seek to make progress every day, you will be on the right path.
However, though spiritual pride could lead a person to think they are further along the journey than they are, spiritual sloth may lead them to think there is no rush. But there is a rush! There is no reason that every person reading this book should not seek to obtain the divine union of the perfect as soon as possible. Do not put it off until tomorrow; set your feet to the road and walk it vigorously today. Most importantly, let God lead. If you do, you will be eternally grateful.
Embrace the moment—Every stage of spiritual development brings with it its own incredible blessings. Savor each moment. Even the most painful purgations will eventually become sweet to you if you embrace them as God calls you to embrace them. As mentioned above, don’t rush the path to holiness (meaning, don’t try to move faster than God), because to do so would be a result of pride. But another reason not to falsely rush it and pretend you are further along than you are is because doing so will keep you from loving and savoring every moment of interior conversion you are given. The blessings along the way are glorious. Enjoy the journey as you keep your eyes fixed upon God who is your final goal.
Keep your eyes fixed on the goal—Though every moment of the journey is glorious and full of rewards and spiritual treasures, the end is the goal. Therefore, as you enjoy the process of ongoing conversion, never take your eyes off the ultimate end: God Himself. Spiritual fulfillment, delights, virtues, experiences, consolations, etc., are not the ultimate end. God and God alone is the ultimate end. If you remember that, you will keep moving and keep seeing God in His fullness.
The ultimate summary of Saint John of the Cross—Simply put, Saint John of the Cross reveals to us that everything in life is an obstacle to divine union unless it is completely transformed in Christ. Every attachment to sin, to the things of this world, disordered attachment to people, attachments to spiritual pleasure and every other attachment to anything other than to God alone is ultimately an obstacle to divine union. This is radical. But it’s also true.
As you slowly come to understand the countless attachments you have in life, and as you begin to allow God to remove these attachments, you will begin to see that your love of God overflows in your life, leading you to love all things in Him, by Him and through Him. Your love of others, and even your love of the good things of this world, will flow from a new purified love residing in the Heart of God Himself. God’s Heart, living in your heart, will be the instrument through which your life is ordered and experienced. Nothing could ever be better than this.
Scripture as a Basis for Saint John’s Teaching
Below are a few of the Scripture passages Saint John uses as the basis of his teachings. These Scriptures come from Book I of the Ascent and primarily explain the active purgation of the senses. Though Saint John used many other Scriptures throughout his writings, the ones that follow help to illustrate the way Saint John based his teachings upon the Word of God. Prayerfully read them and let God speak to you through them so as to convince yourself of the necessity of these purgations.
Luke 14:33—“In the same way, every one of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple.”
Exodus 34:1-3—Moses is called up the mountain alone. Saint John says this is to be seen as an image of every one of us being called up the mountain of perfection. We go up alone, without any attachments or desires. Furthermore, not even the beasts could graze in front of the mountain. This indicates that the appetites must not even be near us and cannot continue to occupy our attention, curiosity or desire. Thus, we ascend to God with nothing, detached from all.
Genesis 35:2—Jacob was called up the mountain and ordered the people to do three things: 1) Destroy all strange gods (This is an image of our interior affections and attachments). 2) Purify themselves (We must also be purified of the residue of the attachments we have renounced). 3) Change their garments (Our souls will have the old understanding removed, and a new understanding of God, in God, will take its place. All the former loves of the soul will be replaced by divine love. Thus, all human activities of the soul end and only divine activities remain).
Exodus 27:8—The altar for the Ark was to be empty and hollow so as to remind the soul that nothing foreign can mingle with worship of God.
Leviticus 10:1-2—Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire to God. As a result, God struck them dead. This shows that we cannot offer fitting worship to God if we have “unauthorized” attachments in our soul. We cannot love God if our soul is mixed with alien loves.
1 Samuel 5:2-4—The Ark of the Covenant was placed in the temple next to an idol. The idol was subsequently thrown to the ground and broken by God. The manna, the Law and the rod of Moses are the only things that can be present in the Ark. The Manna represents God Himself (especially encountered in the Sacraments and prayer), the Law is God’s Word (especially the Scripture) and the Rod of Moses is an image of the Cross (the only means of our transformation in Christ). If we want to be true arks of God, we must only possess the Law and the Cross. Then we will carry the true Manna within our souls (which is God).
Quotes of Saint John for Reflection
“Now that I no longer desire all, I have it all without desire.” (from the “Sketch of Mount Carmel”)
“So that, in order to come to union with the wisdom of God, the soul has to proceed rather by unknowing than by knowing.” (Ascent 1.4.5)
“It is clear that the desires weary and fatigue the soul; for they are like restless and discontented children, who are ever demanding this or that from their mother, and are never contented. And even as one that digs because he covets a treasure is wearied and fatigued, even so is the soul wearied and fatigued in order to attain that which its desires demand of it; and although in the end it may attain it, it is still weary, because it is never satisfied.” (Ascent 1.6.6)
“The soul is wearied and fatigued by all its desires and by indulgence in them, since they all cause it greater emptiness and hunger; for, as is often said, desire is like the fire, which increases as wood is thrown upon it, and which, when it has consumed the wood, must needs die.” (Ascent 1.6.6)
“Even as vapours darken the air and allow not the bright sun to shine; or as a mirror that is clouded over cannot receive within itself a clear image; or as water defiled by mud reflects not the visage of one that looks therein; even so the soul that is clouded by the desires is darkened in the understanding and allows neither the sun of natural reason nor that of the supernatural Wisdom of God to shine upon it and illumine it clearly.” (Ascent 1.8.1)
“If a man is to enter this Divine union, all that lives in his soul must die, both little and much, small and great, and that the soul must be without desire for all this, and detached from it, even as though it existed not for the soul, neither the soul for it.” (Ascent 1.11.8)
“To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing. To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing. To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing. To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing. To come to enjoy what you have not, you must go by a way in which you enjoy not. To come to the possession you have not, you must go by a way in which you possess not. To come to what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not.” (Ascent 1.13.11)
“When thy mind dwells upon anything, thou art ceasing to cast thyself upon the All.” (Ascent 1.13.12)
“It is clear, then, that faith is dark night for the soul, and it is in this way that it gives it light; and the more the soul is darkened, the greater is the light that comes to it. For it is by blinding that it gives light.” (Ascent 2.3.4)
“A soul may lean upon any knowledge of its own, or any feeling or experience of God, yet, however great this may be, it is very little and far different from what God is; and, in going along this road, a soul is easily led astray, or brought to a standstill, because it will not remain in faith like one that is blind, and faith is its true guide.” (Ascent 2.4.3)
“For, in telling us to look to the faith whereof the prophets spake, as to a candle that shines in a dark place, he is bidding us remain in the darkness, with our eyes closed to all these other lights; and telling us that in this darkness, faith alone, which likewise is dark, will be the light to which we shall cling; for if we desire to cling to these other bright lights — namely, to distinct objects of the understanding — we cease to cling to that dark light, which is faith, and we no longer have that light in the dark place whereof Saint Peter speaks.” (Ascent 2.16.15)
“Some beginners, too, make light of their faults, and at other times indulge in immoderate grief when they commit them. They thought themselves already saints, and so they become angry and impatient with themselves, which is another great imperfection. They also importune God to deliver them from their faults and imperfections, but it is for the comfort of living in peace, unmolested by them, and not for God; they do not consider that, were He to deliver them, they would become, perhaps, prouder than ever. They are great enemies of other men’s praise, but great lovers of their own, and sometimes they seek it. In this respect they resemble the foolish virgins, who, when their lamps gave no light, went about in search of oil, saying: ‘Give us of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’” (Dark Night 1.2.5)
“The more [the soul] is purified and cleansed in the fire of love, the more it glows with it. The better the fuel is prepared for the fire the better it burns. The soul, however, is not always conscious of this burning of love within it, but only now and then, when the contemplation is less profound, for the soul is then able to observe, and even to delight in, the work that is being wrought, because it is visible; the hand of the artificer seems to be withdrawn from the work, and the iron taken out of the furnace, so as to show in some measure the work that is being wrought. Then, too, the soul is able to see in itself that good which it did not see while the process was going on. Thus, when the flame ceases to envelop the fuel, it is possible to see clearly how much of it has been burnt.” (Dark Night 2.10.7)
“[The soul] sallied forth unknown to the whole of its household by a most secret ladder, which, as I shall show in the proper place, is a living faith—in such secrecy and silence, for the better execution of its purpose, that it could not possibly be in greater security; especially now, because in the purgative night, the desires, passions, and affections of the soul are asleep, mortified, and subdued; and these are they which, awake and active, would never have consented to that departure.” (Dark Night 2.15.2)
“But, to speak with more accuracy, and to the purpose, of the ladder of secret contemplation, I must observe that the chief reason why it is called a ladder is, that contemplation is the science of love, which is an infused loving knowledge of God, and which enlightens the soul and at the same time kindles within it the fire of love till it shall ascend upwards step by step unto God its Creator; for it is love only that unites the soul and God.” (Dark Night 2.18.5)
“The soul that loves God lives more in the next life than in this, because it lives rather where it loves than where it dwells, and therefore esteeming but lightly its present bodily life, cries out: ‘Let the vision and Your beauty kill me.’” (Spiritual Canticle 11.16)
“The soul, then, should keep in mind that it is now making greater progress than it could make by any efforts of its own, though it be wholly unconscious of that progress. God Himself is carrying it in His own arms, and thus it happens that it is not aware that it is advancing. Though it thinks that it is doing nothing, yet in truth more is done than if itself were the agent; for God Himself is working.” (Living Flame 3.67)
“O souls, now that God shows you mercies so great, leading you into solitude and recollection, withdrawing you from the labours of sense, do not return thereto. ” (Living Flame 3.75)
“The first effect [within the soul through its union with Himself] is the awakening of God in the soul, and that in gentleness and love. The second is the breathing of God in the soul, and that in grace and bliss given in that breathing. The effect of this upon the soul is to make it love Him sweetly and tenderly. ” (Living Flame 4.2)
“O how blessed is that soul which is ever conscious of God reposing and resting within it. How necessary it is for such a soul to flee from the matters of this world, to live in great tranquillity, so that nothing whatever shall disturb the Beloved ‘at His repose.’” (Living Flame 4.16)