Chapter Three—Growing in Illumination through Contemplation—The Active Night of the Spirit

STOP it!

There is good news in this chapter for those who have particular struggles.  Specifically, if you are one who tends to obsess in your thoughts, overanalyze, act with scrupulosity, or weary yourself with trying to live God’s will, then this chapter is especially for you!  One simple and straightforward message that could be gained is “STOP it!” Stop overthinking. Stop overanalyzing. Stop causing yourself undue anxiety about spiritual things. Stop being scrupulous.  And stop thinking so much about yourself!

This is important because sometimes those who seek spiritual perfection end up trying too hard when, in truth, they need to try less hard and stop imposing excessive spiritual, mental and emotional burdens on themselves.  Sometimes they need to simply trust in God more and rely upon themselves less.

Additionally, this chapter will present the virtues of faith, hope and charity as they are infused into the soul by God through the prayer of contemplation.  Understanding these infused virtues will help to clarify how the soul can properly dispose itself to receive them more fully. With that said, this chapter will present to us the next step of purgation necessary for perfection: The Active Night of the Spirit.

 

General Overview

At this point of spiritual development, you must prepare yourself to receive the sustained prayer of infused contemplation rather than return to the former prayer of meditation, because you need more than what meditation, reflection, thinking and reasoning can offer.  You need God in His pure form. This is possible only by allowing infused contemplation to become habitual.  Though this infused contemplation will not become perfected and habitual until the next stage of spiritual development, in the passive night of the spirit, the soul must begin to become more disposed to this prayer during this stage of the active night of the spirit.  

We already spoke about how the prayer of contemplation is purgative of the sensual spiritual appetites, freeing a person from spiritual sins (spiritual pride, gluttony, sloth, etc.) and filling the soul with countless virtues.  Now we must see how infused contemplation must continue to grow and completely reform the intellect, memory and will. The new knowledge that is imparted by infused faith continues to grow, a new direction in life is more completely given by infused hope, and a new love of God and neighbor is strengthened by infused charity.

Analogies never suffice to present the clear picture, but let’s use one to try to illustrate this change.  Let’s say you are in school to become a nurse. You spend your first three years studying in class and at home, learning all ABOUT nursing.  You learn the language, the theories, and much more. But learning about nursing cannot make you a nurse. Therefore, in your final year of nursing school you enter into a practicum and actually do the work of a nurse.  All you learned in school helps you, but actually functioning as a nurse makes it real. There is a new knowledge given through the act of being a nurse. And even though your former lessons at school helped prepare you for this point, unless you are willing to learn in a new way, through practical experience, you will forever remain a “theoretical” nurse and not a real one.

So it is with this new stage of spiritual development.  All you’ve learned up until now in your spiritual development is of great value.  But it’s not enough to enter into perfect union with God. What you must do now is embrace “on the job training,” so to speak, which will be accomplished through ongoing infused contemplation.  A new depth of faith, hope and charity must become habitually present in your spirit to a profound degree. Your former gifts of faith, hope and charity must deepen, become purified and be transformed.  This happens as you learn to “pray always” and are led by the Spirit of God every hour of the day, every day of the week! Once infused contemplation becomes a perpetual habit (during the passive night of the spirit), you will be drawn into the depths of the spiritual marriage with God, that is, divine union.

In order to allow faith, hope and charity to become habitually infused into your intellect, memory and will, it is essential that you understand what infused faith, infused hope and infused charity are and how they are communicated to you by God in their purest forms.  During the active night of the spirit, the soul prepares itself for these gifts by eliminating various obstacles to the reception of these three infused virtues.  Henceforth, we will look at what happens as these three virtues are infused into the soul, and then we will look at the active part of this process, meaning, that which you can do to help it take place.

 

Pure Infused Faith and the Intellect

At first, as a soul goes through an initial conversion and begins to live a stable Christian life, it learns much about God.  This process of discovering many truths about God is exciting, inspiring, consoling and encouraging. As the person prays and meditates upon the truths that God has revealed, the new interior discoveries of faith spark much enthusiasm for the Christian walk with Christ.  The soul begins to change its life, goes through the initial detachment from habitual sins and worldly attachments, and allows its newfound relationship with God to bring stability and clarity to its life.

Often times, this stage of spiritual development lasts for many years.  The Christian learns to be selfless, caring, evangelistic and faithful, doing many things for God and for others.  The person becomes very familiar with the teachings of Christ, the Church, the Gospels and the lives of the saints.  

Traditionally, this stage of spiritual development is called the “Illuminative Way” and is a very stable and comfortable way of life.  Within this state, as God begins to call the soul deeper, and as the person continues to discover that prayer is not as consoling as it initially was, perseverance is essential.  As it presses on through those periods, the soul becomes stronger and more committed to God.  The loss of spiritual consolation enables the soul to pray and believe in God NOT because it feels like doing so, but because of something much deeper.  The soul’s knowledge of God becomes purified as faith is more directly infused by God.

The clearest sign of the soul’s deepening relationship with God is the dryness it experiences in prayer and in its perseverance in works of charity.  It may also find that its faith begins to change from being exceptionally clear and passionate, to being a bit more obscure and less passionate. This is because faith is moving from knowledge about God to knowledge of God Himself. As the intellect becomes infused with the gift of faith, it begins to discover that God is beyond what it can figure out.  God cannot be “solved.” The soul’s former knowledge about the many aspects of God’s life begins to be less and less clear, less visual, less particular, less sensory.  In place of this, the soul begins to be given a more general knowledge of God Himself on a spiritual level, but it is a knowledge that is more certain than before because it is being directly infused by God rather than through the use of concepts or ideas gained through the senses.  As a result, the soul grows in confidence and attains a much broader understanding of God. However, this is a knowledge the soul cannot explain as before with the use of sensory concepts and forms.

This is because God cannot be fully understood by the human mind using rational deductions.  Therefore, as you do begin to know Him more deeply, you will actually go through an experience of feeling as if you know Him less clearly.  The more you come to know the INFINITE God, the more you realize that HE IS infinite, incomprehensible, unknowable, and amazing beyond what you could ever fathom.  This discovery of God in a new and more pure way leaves the soul humble, and the knowledge, though greater, is actually more obscure. Therefore, Saint John says that faith causes a sort of “darkness” in the intellect.  Not in a negative way, but in a humble discovery of the infinite.

To illustrate, imagine if you wanted to learn about the Sun.  As a result, you have your pupils dilated so that you can take in more of the Sun.  Then, you go outside on a very sunny day and you attempt to spend an hour gazing directly into the Sun.  What would the result of such an exercise be? You’d blind yourself. Your pupils could not contain the brightness of the Sun in its pure form.  It’s too much.

So it is with the human intellect.  As God is perceived in His more pure form, as a result of Him directly infusing knowledge of Himself into your intellect through infused contemplation, your intellect is blinded, darkened, and overwhelmed at the infinite mystery of God.  But what needs to be understood at this point is that, unlike staring directly at the Sun, infused contemplation of God does not harm your intellect; it enlightens it, illumines it, and strengthens it. But in this experience of infused faith, there is a darkening of all former knowledge about God so that you can begin to know God Himself.

To further our analogy, imagine if you were given a special grace in that you COULD encounter the full splendor of the Sun in a new way.  Imagine if its heat did not harm you and its brightness did not blind you. Then imagine if you could be transported to the Sun to see and touch it up close.  You study the various spots, you enter into its very center, you examine everything about it. That would be AMAZING! And that is what God wants to do with you!  He wants you to encounter Him in His pure form. But to do that, your natural intellect must be transformed so that you can know the very essence of God. This takes time.  But you will know that you know God more certainly, while at the same time the knowledge will be more general, less specific, and experienced as a darkening of all former knowledge.

 

Pure Infused Hope and the Memory

Persons who have moved from the state of beginner to proficient, and who are now living in the Illuminative Way, will have many wonderful memories of God in the form of spiritual concepts.  They will have many memories of all that God has done in their lives. Their memory of all they have learned, experienced, hoped, and discovered will greatly affect who they are and will be integral to their human personality.

In addition to the many good and spiritual memories they have of God, of prayer and their experiences within the Christian life, each person carries many other natural memories, and even sinful ones.  The past hurts, joys, labor, relationships, activities and so on, leave impressed upon the memory countless experiences. Some good, some not so good.

Our memory has a direct effect upon our hope.  Saint John explains that hope focuses upon that which we do not possess.  Therefore, he goes on to explain that the more we “possess” within our memory, the less will be our hope in God.  The more we hold on to, reflect upon, ponder and think about in an earthly way, the less we will be able to have a pure hope in God.

When our memories are very alive and active, our hopes will be based upon the many things we have learned about God and life (good or bad) over the years.  When we have learned that God is faithful and guides us through difficult times, we may more easily trust Him when new hardships arise. And in that case, one’s hope is based on their past experience of God’s fidelity in their life.  And that is good for the beginner, but dangers will eventually arise as the soul strives for perfection.

Additionally, even the proficient who has had many other natural experiences, and sinful ones, will often be tempted to reflect upon those experiences over and over.  Thus, Saint John explains that in both the active night of the spirit and even more so in the passive one, the memory must go through a process of “forgetting” so that it no longer “possesses” all of its past experiences, be they sin, natural experiences or even spiritual ones.  

Forgetting the evils and worldly experiences of life may be easy for many to accept as a wise goal.  It is clear that many of those memories lead to anger, division, obsessive thinking, other sins and the like.  Some will even waste a tremendous amount of time and energy dwelling upon the past.

But what about “forgetting” the good spiritual experiences of one’s life?  Why would this be wise? Saint John explains that just as infused faith leads a soul to move from knowing much about God to a purer knowledge of God, so also infused hope has a similar effect upon the memory.  When hope is divinely infused into one’s memory, the soul no longer relies upon all its past experiences and knowledge of God as the basis of its hope.  It no longer has to come up with its own “good” ideas for the future. Instead, the soul suddenly begins to have something better. It has direction from God Himself rather than from its own process of intellectual reasoning based on past ideas and experiences.  Since it lets go of its possession of these spiritual ideas, the memory becomes “poor,” so to speak. But it is only in this poverty that hope can be born. Hope has as its focus that which one does not possess, and that which one does not see. “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

It may sound strange that infused hope has the effect of causing a soul to begin to forget all of its past ideas of God, its past insights, revelations, experiences, and other forms of knowledge about God.  But unless knowledge about God begins to fade and is no longer the basis for hope, then pure infused hope (that which we do not see) cannot help direct the soul to the unknown will of God in the most perfect way.

This is why, in the beginning of this chapter, it was mentioned that those who overanalyze, overthink, act with scrupulosity and find themselves anxious about many things are in for some good news.  The good news is that they can STOP trying to figure everything out. They can begin by letting go of their attachment to all past memories that are harmful and of no use on their journey to divine union.  There are many things we are tempted to remember that are best forgotten. Even normal daily activities should be recalled only so as to fulfill one’s duty. When the duty is done, the memory should return to God with exclusive focus.

Furthermore, as the soul seeks to move forward fulfilling the will of God, it should seek to set aside its own self-created hopes and begin to let God and God alone be the source of hope.  The overthinkers will suddenly discover that they do hope in God, but with a hope that is not based on some long and complex process of thinking and reasoning based on all they remember about God.  Nor is it based upon what they think is best, namely, THEIR idea of God’s plan. Instead, this new hope is pure and infused. It’s just there. The soul then discovers a new repose, confidence and conviction.  Like faith, this gift of hope is somewhat obscure, not based on a series of logical conclusions. It’s based only on the presence of God in their lives, instilling hope in Him alone.

 

Pure Infused Charity and the Will

The beginner in the Christian life will have to make choice after choice in favor of love rather than selfishness.  The soul will hear the Word of God, be inspired to act according to God’s law, examine its own actions and try to change its sinful ways.  This is so that the soul’s actions more clearly conform to the love of God. This is the stage of charity in the beginner. As the soul begins to act with charity, making one good decision after another, it experiences great delight in what it does.  As a result, it loves being used by God. Charity becomes the soul’s spiritual food and it inspires the soul to love even more.

However, God will eventually begin to purify the person’s will by infusing charity into the will in a process beyond that of mere beginners.  The good feelings, consolations and delights become less and less the motivating force behind what the person does. Instead, God begins to infuse charity directly into a person’s will, and the soul begins to love in God and by God rather than out of its own personal reasoning flowing from consoling motivations.

This process of growing in infused charity is not only fascinating, it’s awe-inspiring.  Therefore, let’s look more clearly at the difference between charity in the life of the beginner, and infused charity in the life of the proficient and perfect.

Initially in the Christian life, a person’s will is often motivated by its inspired passions and emotions.  As God and His will are discovered by the beginner, there is an excitement in the sensory part of a person’s soul, and that excitement is a true motivation.  Other motivating factors for one’s will are the natural passions already mentioned of hope, sorrow and fear.

When a person begins to live in this higher state, as a proficient, charity begins to be infused directly into the will, and not through the passions.  The passions of joy in serving God and more natural hope for doing great things for God begin to fade.  Additionally, natural sorrow and fear also affect the person less.  As a result, the person’s will is no longer directed by the passions, not even the good passions.  Instead, God’s divine will itself infuses charity into one’s will, and thus the divine will becomes the one and only motivating source of a person’s charity.  

But it doesn’t stop there!  As charity is directly infused into a person’s will, and God alone directs their actions, they begin to discover that God’s will, acting upon them, also begins to take hold of their passions and directs them.  So it’s a sort of complete reversal. At first, the natural passions (joy, hope, fear, sorrow) influenced and directed the will. Now, infused charity alone directs the will and the person’s will then directs its passions, tempers them and uses them for love of God and others.

 

Preparing for HABITUAL Contemplation

At this point, you may be wondering what your role is in this process of receiving infused faith, hope and charity.  Well, you do have an essential role. That role could be summarized as actively and consciously getting out of the way!  

Often times, as a soul begins to experience God entering its life in this new and infused way, the soul may feel that things are awkward, strange, new and confusing.  As a result, the soul often interferes with the infused action of God and hinders His ability to transform its mind, memories and will. Therefore, here is some practical advice on how you can get out of the way and allow God to work in you.

FaithWhen God begins to infuse faith into your intellect, don’t fight it.  When this infused contemplation begins, you may sense that you need to sit silently more than to try to meditate or think.  You will begin to discover that all that you formerly knew about God is nothing compared to God Himself. As a result, actively begin to let go of your former ideas of God.  It’s not that they were wrong; they were just incomplete. Recall the words of Saint Paul as he went through this process of discovering pure infused faith:

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)

Saint Paul was in the process of moving from childish ways, seeing only partially, to becoming a spiritual adult and seeing more clearly.  

Therefore, the best practical advice that can be given in regard to growing in infused faith is simply “let it happen.”  You can’t force it to happen, you can only dispose yourself to let God do it in you. In fact, you may end up even stopping it altogether by interfering in the process.  So, get out of the way and let the transformation happen when God begins to give you this gift. Let God communicate Himself to you in this new and deeper way when He chooses to do so.  When you begin to experience this, don’t be surprised if it seems strange. Don’t be afraid to let go of your former knowledge of God. As faith is infused, you will have to go through a whole new process of knowing.  Your formal ideas, concepts, understanding and insights about God will fade, and you will begin to know God in a new, general, obscure but deeply certain way. You will begin to “gaze upon the Sun” and experience a certain level of blindness and darkness in your natural intellect as a result.  But the light you do receive into your spirit will change you, without you even having to figure out how. Think less, surrender more.

Hope—Similarly to the infusion of faith, when God wants to infuse pure hope into your memory, let Him.  The way you do that is by letting go of YOUR own self-conceived hopes. In other words, don’t come up with ideas, imaginations, plans, ambitions, etc., in life and base your hopes for the future on your past experiences of God.  That’s all fine, for the beginner. However, now as a proficient in the Illuminative Way, you will be called to hope in a higher way. The memory must go through a process of forgetting all past sin, natural knowledge and even spiritual knowledge.  With the latter, it’s not that the past spiritual ideas and hopes you had are bad. Rather, they are not as perfect as they could be. As a result, God wants to lead you directly and He wants you to “forget” much of what you learned up until now.

The best thing you can do in this process is to rest, be silent, let God take over and take control of not only your past but also your present and future.  You no longer have to figure everything out. You no longer have to analyze all that you have done. You no longer have to set the course for your future. God will do that, and He will lead you one step at a time.  Thus, divinely infused hope is very freeing to the soul and lifts many heavy burdens that come from human and worldly joys, hopes, sorrows and fears.

Charity—When charity begins to be infused, you will begin to see a complete reordering of the way your passions and will work.  You will no longer be motivated to love out of a passion for God or others. Instead, your motivation will come from God alone.  As a result, your will must be purified. It may feel awkward to allow God to motivate you rather than your passions. In order to let God do this in you, you must be willing to let your passions become stilled, quiet and at rest.  When you do, and when God becomes the pure source of your charity, you will see your passion return in a new way. You will see that your will, now possessed by the will of God, controls your passions and not the reverse any longer.  Your will will be in charge of your actions and your will will be directed by the pure and infused love of God.  You will have new strength to love heroically, deeply and unwaveringly.

As for your responsibility, you must allow this transition to take place.  You must allow your passions to die down so that they can later rise up again under the control of your will.  You must seek to surrender to the will of God so that He and He alone is in control of your life. This surrender must, at first, be very intentional on your part.  But as you consent, God will take over and complete this transformation in love.

Patient endurance—One last bit of practical advice is that the soul must learn to persevere through all forms of suffering and must grow to a profound degree in the virtue of patient endurance.  The transformation of your intellect, memory and will is not easy and will often be accompanied by suffering. Suffering my come through interior dryness, intense temptations, trials, and humiliations.  But these struggles are necessary so that the soul can “pass the test,” so to speak, and become strong in virtue. Patient endurance will grow as one’s prayer is transformed into the infused contemplation spoken of thus far and will be perfected only through the final passive purification of the spirit spoken of in the next chapter.

 

As You Pray…

Though the person in this stage of spiritual development, that of the proficient, will be regularly drawn into contemplation and will need to abandon former practices of meditation, there will be times when it is necessary to pray a certain way, and even to begin a certain meditation.  Below is a good prayer written by Saint Ignatius of Loyola that can be used at this stage, since it seeks to surrender one’s mind, memory and will.

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty,

my memory, my understanding,

and my entire will,

All I have and call my own.

You have given all to me.

To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

Give me only your love and your grace,

that is enough for me.

Amen.

In addition to this prayer, it is helpful to seek three things as you begin your prayer:

  1. 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 of God. His brightness is all you see.
  2. Seek to forget all you remember about God.  You will be tempted, time and time again, to think about God rather than to just pray.  You will be tempted to go through various reasoning processes, trying to put together various pieces of your life.  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 and gift of infused hope.

Seek to let go of every choice you need to make.  Detach from every preference, every spiritual desire, everything you “think” God wants of you.  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 allow God to strip your will of all your own decisions and preferences can God fully possess your will with His.


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