You were dead in your transgressions and sins in which you once lived following the age of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh, following the wishes of the flesh and the impulses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest. (Ephesians 2:1-3)
This Scripture reveals three enemies of our souls: the world, the flesh and the devil. What if you could be completely free from the influences of all three of these evils? What if the world and its many enticements were of no interest to you. Or if the many disordered desires of your fleshly appetites were eliminated? Or if the devil himself were to have no influence over you? If this were the case, then you would indeed see and experience life in a whole new way. You would live in a new state of freedom and be able to pursue the will of God with great zeal.
The purpose of this chapter is to explain the purgation that accomplishes just that. This purgation is what Saint John of the Cross calls the passive night of the senses. By “passive,” he means that it is first and foremost a work of God in your soul. Your responsibility is to simply cooperate with what God wants to do in you.
Your Bodily and Spiritual Natures
In order to understand why this purgation is necessary, and to understand how it will accomplish its purpose, you need to first understand more clearly who you are at your very core, and how the devil, the world and the flesh inflict harm on you on a spiritual level.
As a human being, you are made of both body and spirit. The body is the physical part of who you are but is much more than mere biology. The body also contains within it the ability to sense the world around you and to experience it in your sensory nature. You feel, desire, have human love, see, taste, hear, etc. You encounter the world around you through your five senses and as you do, your passions, emotions and appetites are stirred.
But you also have a purely spiritual part to your nature. Though the body and spirit are intimately intertwined, they are distinct from each other and operate in different ways. For example, when you die (and before you rise again at the end of the world), your body and spirit will separate. When that happens, you will no longer perceive the world through your senses. You will no longer see, hear, touch, smell and taste. But you will still possess the spiritual aspects of your human nature, which includes your intellect, memory and will. Furthermore, your intellect, memory and will have been formed by the sensory information you have received in this life. Therefore, if you have been inordinately attached in your sensory appetites, this knowledge will remain in the spiritual part of your soul. Thus, though the spiritual and sensory parts of your soul are distinct, they are intimately united and interdependent.
What More Needs to be Purged?
Is the person who completes the active purgation of the senses, as outlined in the previous chapter, free of all sensory attachments? Well, yes and no. Yes, the person who goes through this first purgation does eliminate all habitual attachments to disordered attachments and desires. But in the process, they became attached to new sensory experiences that they didn’t have before. These new sensory experiences must now be purged so that the soul can attach itself to God and God alone in a spiritual way. What are these “new” sensory attachments? They are all of the many good feelings and delights the soul experiences during its Christian journey as a beginner.
Saint John explains that when a soul is a beginner in the life of spiritual development, it is treated by God like a mother caring for a newborn. The mother gives the infant her warm milk, gentle caresses, much affection and the like. But as the child grows, the loving mother holds the child less and less, no longer offers her warm milk, begins to give the child more substantial food and teaches the child to walk. By analogy, God gives the soul all the warm spiritual delights and gentle consolations during the first stage of spiritual development. These spiritual gifts produce many sensory delights, and they are good! The person takes great pleasure in long hours or even whole nights of prayer, penances, fastings, the celebration of the Sacraments and many other spiritual devotions. And just as it is good for an infant to enjoy the comfort of a mother, so it is good for the beginner to delight in the consolations of God. The problem is that the beginner, after nursing on these pleasant delights from God, often becomes more attached to the good feelings and consolations experienced than to God Himself. The beginner is often unaware of the new sensory attachments that are formed as a result of the many spiritual consolations it has received. These new sensory attachments manifest themselves in the Seven Capital Sins now in a new spiritual form.
The purpose of the passive night of the senses is to strip the soul of all spiritual consolations within the sensory part of the soul so that it will be able to be freed from the spiritual sins it has, and thus more easily obtain union directly with God, rather than to be satisfied only with the sensory pleasures that come from God. This purgation will leave the soul loving God, not because of the consolations, but because of love alone. A good spiritual maxim for this stage of spiritual development is as follows: Learn to love God, not the experience of God.
The following are examples to help describe the Seven Capital Sins, now in spiritual form:
Spiritual Pride—Spiritual pride is the worst of the spiritual sins, and the “mother” of all of these sins. This sin arises when beginners have certain vain satisfactions and desires that come as a result of their engagement in many spiritual activities. The beginners admire themselves and even see themselves as holier than others. Sometimes they even act like Pharisees who boast of their goodness. The devil knows that all the works they do will lead them to pride. They see the splinter in their brothers’ eyes and ignore the logs in their own. They are never satisfied with their confessors, especially if their confessors do not praise them and tell them how great they are. So, they seek out other confessors who do praise them. They are pleased when people praise their holiness. As for their sins, beginners are too embarrassed to confess them honestly, so instead they often communicate to their confessor how good they are rather than how sinful they are. Sometimes they get angry and impatient with themselves when they see their imperfections and faults, thinking they should be a saint already. Beginning souls cannot accept that they are sinners. They beg God to take their imperfections from them, but they pray this way not out of love of God alone, but so that they will not suffer the consequences of their sins. Thus, they often have an imperfect contrition.
Furthermore, beginners do not realize that if God did take their other sins away, this would only increase their pride, which would be worse than continuing to struggle with their present sins! At times, beginners become so fervent for God and for doing good that they become anxious to do more and more. As a result, they fail to see the good that others are doing all around them; they are too consumed with what good they themselves are doing. They only want others to see all the good that they do. And when people don’t, beginners get angry.
Spiritual Greed—Beginners are often discontented with the spirituality they have been given by God and always want more. They cannot get enough of spiritual counsels and consolations. They possess many books and spend more time on them than on penance and mortifications. They are obsessed with spiritual objects such as different rosaries and medals, always thinking one is better than another. They are attached to spiritual trinkets, wanting the best and “holiest.” These souls do not realize that true devotion must come from the heart. All other “devotions” are nothing other than attachments to spiritual things.
The spiritual greed they experience, then, becomes a sensual desire for spiritual things and experiences. It is difficult for these souls to look beyond the spiritual object or experience so as to see the source: God.
Spiritual Lust—Perhaps surprisingly, impure thoughts of a spiritual nature can arise in the soul, even when the person is deep in prayer or engaged in the Sacraments. These imperfections come from one of three things:
- The soul takes delight in spiritual things. It is part of human nature that the spiritual and sensual parts of the soul are connected. Therefore, when the spiritual nature takes pleasure in God, the sensual nature seeks pleasure also. However, since the sensual part of the beginner is still imperfect, it displays sensual thoughts and arousals of the flesh that are lustful and impure.
- The devil also brings these forth when the soul is praying because he does not like prayer. The devil attacks more in prayer than when the soul is not praying. When a soul is in melancholy, and when it is attacked by the devil, it may not have the strength necessary to overcome it.
- Fear of these tendencies can also cause a soul to fall deeper into this sin. When the soul is tempted, especially during prayer, it may become shocked and ashamed. This then produces a form of fear that can overwhelm the person and lead to an increased entertainment of these thoughts or even dissuade the person from continuing prayer.
Saint John also explains that some friendships can bring forth feelings of lust. Though some friendships are purely spiritual and are greatly beneficial, some are not. But even a good spiritual friendship can stir up passions in the soul and cause sensual delights. Furthermore, even the memory of that friendship causes sensual experiences. When a soul becomes attached to the good feelings that a friendship produces, a type of spiritual lust may be formed, even if the sensuality is not sexual. In this case, an attachment is formed to the good feelings produced by the good friendship, which makes it difficult for the soul to love God and this person in a detached and holy way. Instead, the soul finds itself wanting more of the good sensual feelings that are received from that friendship.
Spiritual Anger—When beginners experience an end to spiritual pleasure, they often become bitter and want it to return. They are disappointed and become angry. There is no sin in the natural experience of loss, but some allow that experience of loss to turn into a spiritual sin: they become irritated. Some also become irritated with others because of their loss of spiritual consolation. They find themselves wanting to chastise others and portray themselves as images of virtue.
Some beginners also have a good desire for progress in the spiritual life. However, when they find that this is more difficult than they initially thought, they become angry and impatient with themselves. Humorously, Saint John then says that there are others who are so “patient” with spiritual growth that God would like to see them be less patient.
Spiritual Gluttony—This spiritual sin is another one that Saint John spends much time describing. He explains that, because of the sweetness beginners find in spiritual exercises, some are more indulgent in this sweetness they experience than they are in the progress they make or do not make. This is similar to spiritual lust and greed.
Some people fast or do penances to extreme and seek consolation from them. Their only desire is to do that which they want “for God.” In the end, they seek spiritual pleasure rather than the will of God. And when they fail to experience sweetness, they think they have not accomplished anything good. They are also very weak in journeying on the hard road of the Cross since they are so attached to sweetness. Their goal must be to become spiritually temperate by submitting to God in all things rather than doing what they want for God.
Spiritual Envy—These souls are deterred and saddened when they hear others being praised. They cannot bear the praise of others and want to receive the praise themselves. They see some good action of another being acknowledged and immediately think of all that they have done. And when others do not immediately acknowledge what they do, they turn in on themselves with sadness.
Spiritual Sloth—When the beginner is slowly weaned from the spiritual delights and consolation of God, and when the spiritual milk of God dries up, these souls do not only get angry or greedy for more, they become discouraged. They may abandon the way of perfection when God takes pleasure from them, because they want their will rather than God’s will. They become, then, spiritually lazy when things do not go as they had planned.
It’s not easy to read all that is above, especially when you see some or all of these tendencies within yourself. But do not get discouraged, God is fully aware of your weakness and offers you a cure. You must humbly allow Him to purge you of these spiritual sins so that you will be free to love Him in a more direct way. Only God can help you be purged of these sins through the passive night of the senses. Humility, honesty and surrender are key if you are to pass through this purgation.
The spiritual sins mentioned above need to be purged from your soul if you are to discover freedom and are able to arrive at a point of perfect union with God. It is clear that these spiritual manifestations of the Seven Capital Sins come from an attachment to the sensory pleasure one receives from serving God. Therefore, as a beginning soul moves into the stage of proficients, it will be necessary to confront the newly formed spiritual sins by detaching from the sensory delights initially experienced.
The Witness of Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận
One helpful bit of knowledge that should motivate you to allow God to do His cleansing of these sins is that these sins cause tremendous suffering when they remain. This is well illustrated in the life of Cardinal Nguyễn Văn Thuận. Cardinal Thuận was a native of Vietnam and ordained a priest on June 11, 1953. On April 24, 1975 he was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Saigon. Six days after that appointment, he was arrested by the North Vietnamese and imprisoned in a “reeducation” camp, where he was mostly kept in solitary confinement. He remained there for thirteen years.
His first eight years were spent in a small cell in Nha Trang, an earshot away from the cathedral of his first diocese. Every day he would hear the bells of the cathedral ring and it would cause him great interior suffering. Eventually, he was moved to the reeducation camp in Vinh-Quang where his suffering continued. In his book Five Loaves and Two Fish, Cardinal Thuận recalls:
Many times I was tempted, tormented by the fact that I am 48 years old, the age of maturity; I have worked as a bishop for eight years, I have aquired much pastoral experience, and here I am isolated, inactive, separated from my people, 1700 km away!
One night, I heard a voice prompting me from the depths of my heart: “Why do you torment yourself so? You have to distinguish between God and God’s works. Everything you have done and want to continue doing, pastoral visits, formation of seminarians, men and women religious, lay people, youth, building schools, foyer for all these students, missions to evangelize non Christians… all these are excellent works, God’s works, but they are not God! If God wants you to abandon all these works, putting them in his hands, do it immediately, and have confidence in Him. God will do it infinitely better than you; he will entrust his works to others who are much more capable than you. You have chosen God alone, not his works! ( François-Xavier Nguyễn Văn Thuận. Five Loaves and Two Fish, Copyright © 2000 Lavamis Publishing. Pp. 21-22)
The then bishop, later to be named a cardinal and perhaps one day a saint, made the profound discovery that had already been articulated by Saint John of the Cross several centuries earlier. He discovered that when we serve God, we can often become attached to the “things of God,” the joy of the apostolate, the spiritual feelings, and all that brings consolation and joy in our walk as a beginner. But there, in that prison, in solitary confinement for many years, the bishop discovered that his ongoing attachment to the “works of God” was tormenting him. It wasn’t the prison itself, the guards or the North Vietnamese government that caused him the most pain. It was his own attachment to something good that was not actually God! Namely, God’s works and the pleasure he formerly took in performing those works. This interior discovery gave the bishop a new strength and he was able to begin putting his mind and heart on God alone.
Defining the Passive Night of the Senses
The beginner’s soul learns to love God, grows in passion for Him, allows the satisfaction obtained in prayer to free itself from many sins and becomes zealous for God and His holy will. This is all good. So, if you are in this stage, this is good! But now it’s time to do better. It’s time to deepen your relationship with God by being freed of the many “childish” aspects of your spiritual life. Specifically, you must be freed of the spiritual consolations you enjoy so much. Even though they have helped you to grow up until this point, they can take you no further.
At this point, God is going to do most of the work. For your part, you must do the following two main things: 1) Understand what is happening in your soul, and 2) firmly consent to this action of God in your soul. This will happen through the prayer of purgative contemplation.
Remember also that, up until this point, the beginner spent much time in meditation. That form of prayer was rich in consolation and nourished the soul well for a time. Many holy images and inspirations were received during meditation. But at this next stage of spiritual development, God will dry up the good consolations of meditation and will take on a more active role in your prayer life. And that can hurt! When God, who is all pure and all perfect, enters into your soul, He will immediately begin to “clean house,” so to speak. He will especially purify the above-mentioned spiritual sins so that you can love Him in a purer and more spiritual way.
This next step, the passive night (purgation) of the senses, is a process of stripping you of all sensory pleasure you receive from spiritual things. God is still just as present to you, and in fact He is even more present, but you will not experience His presence any longer. You will feel dry, abandoned, alone and maybe even initially confused. Your sensory appetites will long to return to the former consolations you enjoyed, but you will not be able to do so, no matter how hard you try. Of course, sometimes God will bring you back to the consolations of meditation, but then take them away again. You may find that this experience goes back and forth for a while between dryness and consolation. When dryness occurs, God is strengthening you, producing a deep spiritual trial within you, testing you, purifying your spiritual desires, and preparing you for a much higher form of union with Him. You will no longer love God only because it feels good to love God; rather, you will have to now love God only because you do love God, even when He feels absent and there is no immediate sensory pleasure in that union.
Discerning the Signs of this Purgation
So how do you know if you are experiencing this passive purgation of your senses? How do you know if what you are actually encountering is the prayer of purgative contemplation and not just dry meditation? How do you know that the “dryness” you feel is not actually on account of depression or even some sin? Saint John gives certain signs to help discern if you are experiencing this purgation, as well as some good pastoral advice on how to more fully consent to this purifying action of God.
He explains that aridity in prayer and in our affection for spiritual things may come from one of two sources:
Source 1: sins, imperfection, weakness, lukewarmness, irritable or bodily disposition
Source 2: passive night of the senses
To discern which of these is the source of your dryness, Saint John offers three principle signs:
Sign 1—When a soul is in the passive night of the senses, it finds no sensory pleasure in things of God, AND it also finds no pleasure in creatures. God does not allow the soul to find attraction or sweetness in anything. Therefore, there is a general loss of sensory satisfaction and delight in everything you used to delight in. Hobbies may be less attractive to you, relationships may not produce the same familiar delight they used to bring, and prayer will become dry and even unpleasant.
Sign 2—The memory is ordinarily centered upon God with much care, concern and attentiveness. As it centers on God, it ponders whether it has offended God since it no longer finds sweetness in anything and wonders if its sins are the reason. In other words, your memory experiences a sort of confusion about this new dryness. To discern this experience, you must consider whether there is aridity or if what you actually experience is lukewarmness.
Purgative aridity produces strength and determination in your spirit but lukewarmness causes laziness and weakness. When it is purgative aridity you are experiencing, then the senses are weak but the spirit is strong. God transfers the “energy,” so to speak, that was formerly found in your senses to your spirit. This is because the sensual part of your soul has no capacity for that which is purely spiritual, and thus your sensual desires and affections remain dry. But as this happens, your spirit grows in pleasure, sweetness and delight.
Your soul may become a bit confused by the strangeness of the change that transfers pleasure from the senses to the spirit. You simply must get used to this new experience of pleasure and sweetness in the spirit, but that will take time and purgation. Sometimes you will still long for the nauseating former “food” of the senses and will fail to accept the much sweeter food of the spirit. You may find yourself sitting in a sort of darkness, not able to take pleasure in anything. But if you allow yourself to sit in this purgative contemplation, and remain silent, accepting the fact that all your sensual delight is lost, not thinking of anything or being anxious about anything, then you will begin to experience an inward refreshment that comes from the freedom of the sensual desires, and you will begin to delight in the spiritual ones. In regard to your prayer, when purgative aridity sets in, you must be willing to let go of meditation and no longer rely upon your intellectual reflections as a source of consolation. No reasoning, thinking, memory, or even willing will help. You must simply remain quiet and solitary. God is doing the work alone and you will discover a new peace.
Sign 3—You will no longer be able to meditate using your imagination as you used to do. Your imagination no longer helps prayer, because your sensual inspirations are no longer possible. However, this will not be an absolute experience, meaning that you may go back and forth between periods of meditation and contemplation. God will slowly move you back and forth between these two forms of prayer. At times, you will find that all you can do is sit in silence with an inability to ponder, reflect and meditate. But then you may suddenly find yourself returning to your meditation and reflection for a moment or two. When God does take away your sensory inspirations, you must learn to sit in silence and be fed by God directly while you experience a total aridity in your senses and imagination so that your spirit alone can silently delight in the sweetness of God directly, and not through the imagination, memory, will, etc.
Then Saint John speaks an important line. He says that in this moment “the faculties are suspended.” That is, the intellect, memory and will are suspended. The person is no longer able to obtain sensual delights from thinking and willing. Now, the spirit alone receives communications from God directly. Think about that line for a while. If you can understand what that means, then it is a sign that you are understanding Saint John’s description of this experience.
Do’s and Don’ts of Contemplation
What NOT to do in contemplation—When experiencing the aridity of the senses and the inability to use your intellect, memory and will for meditation on God, you could easily conclude (wrongly) that you are simply not trying hard enough. You may reason that if you just try harder to meditate on God, the sweetness of your prayer will return. You may be tempted to try to regain your former sensual experience in prayer, but this is because you do not realize, at that moment, that God is drawing you higher into a pure spiritual pleasure that is coming directly from God Himself, and not from the thought of God through meditation. As a result, you will experience a sort of fatigue as you try harder and harder. But this is not the right approach..
What you SHOULD do in contemplation—You should simply allow your soul to remain in peace and quiet. It may appear to you that you are actually doing nothing and are wasting time, or that your dryness is the result of weakness or sin, but it’s not. Your only goal in this experience of prayer must be to remain silent, allowing God to do what He wants to do. Simply keep yourself in a state of “loving attentiveness” toward God. That’s it. Do not try harder. Just remain at peace.
The way in which they are to conduct themselves in this night of sense is to devote themselves not at all to reasoning and meditation, since this is not the time for it, but to allow the soul to remain in peace and quietness, although it may seem clear to them that they are doing nothing and are wasting their time, and although it may appear to them that it is because of their weakness that they have no desire in that state to think of anything. (Dark Night, Book I, Ch. 10)
Saint John then offers an analogy to illustrate his point. He says that if you were posing for a portrait that an artist was painting of you, your only responsibility would be to sit still so that the artist could do his job. If, out of a desire to help the artist, you kept getting up to look at the painting, offering this suggestion or that, you would actually hinder the artist.
God is the artist, and His canvas is your soul. If you want this process to move quickly, then sit silently and allow God to do His work. Do not try to do that which is not your responsibility. Let God do His work in your soul. For your part, merely consent to it and remain lovingly attentive to Him as He works.
This action on God’s part is infused contemplation. By remaining silent before this act of God, you allow Him to infuse into your soul “yearnings” of love. Those yearnings you experience will be His purifying fire of love as He strips you of your sensual appetites, removes your spiritual sins, and enables you to receive a new and far better spiritual delight.
Two Effects of this Purgative Contemplation
As this enkindling takes place, and as your soul allows itself to be purified of all sensual desires and pleasures, and even from the sensual pleasure and consolation coming from meditation, it suddenly discovers that this is a “happy chance” in that it realizes there is now an opportunity for something so much greater than the former delights of the senses. Therefore, the spirit begins to have “love with yearnings.”
The soul then “goes forth” in silence, leaving the sensual part and entering into the spirit. It is free when the night (passive purgation) destroys all sensual pleasures. In place of the former pleasures, the soul begins to obtain numerous virtues and finds a much greater and new form of delight. A spiritual delight in all of these virtues. The former self of the senses dies and the spirit alone lives. And this is a much better state of living.
Blessings of a New Knowing and an Unknowing
If your soul is privileged to enter through this purgation coming from contemplation, you will begin to discover numerous blessings in your life. Those blessings will come in many ways but will begin with the gift of Spiritual Knowledge imparted by infused contemplation. As this new knowledge is infused by God, you have to go through a process of unknowing your former thoughts, ideas, insights and beliefs. It’s not that the former knowledge you obtained from your meditations and inspirations was wrong; rather, it wasn’t complete and wasn’t purified. Now, the new spiritual knowledge God imparts directly to your spirit enlightens you NOT with a knowledge of things about God but with a knowledge OF GOD HIMSELF. This is an incredible gift that is only possible by infused contemplation, meaning, you cannot learn this new knowledge by your own effort. You unknow and let go of your former infantlike knowledge and come to a deeper understanding of all things in God.
This knowledge will do many things in you. For one, it will give you an authentic realization of your weakness. Perhaps at first you are not sure you want to know that. But if you were to be given that knowledge through infused contemplation, be assured that you would be exceedingly grateful for the new understanding of yourself as God understands you.
Look at it this way. As mentioned earlier, our human nature is composed of two things: body and spirit. The body contains all the senses and the spirit is the intellect, will and memory. Prior to receiving the gift of infused knowledge, you had to rely upon your five senses and all your passions and appetites to teach your mind and direct your will. As a result, your mind often became confused because your senses, passions, appetites and desires are NOT a very reliable source of learning the profound truths of God. In a state of infused contemplation, your intellect and will no longer rely upon your senses, appetites and passions to teach it. Rather, God Himself teaches your spirit (mind and will), and thus the knowledge you gain is far superior to that which you obtained by the sensual inspirations and by the insights you gained by your senses, meditations, sensual inspirations and the like.
As for gaining a new understanding of your weakness, it’s as if your spirit is now able to look at your sensory appetites in your body and suddenly realizes how poor a guide they have been. That realization includes a clear understanding that your passions, affections and desires are greatly disordered and are hard to tame. This is what St. Paul is speaking of when he says, “Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?” (Romans 7:24) He realized his wretchedness, lowliness and weakness by receiving the gift of knowledge from infused contemplation. Before this new knowledge of your weakness, the sweetness of your many consolations hid the true depth of your wretchedness, but now you see yourself more clearly. Why is this good? Because it is a fuller sharing in the Truth of who you are. In this case, the realization of your wretchedness will not leave you depressed. Rather, it will leave you with incredible gratitude because you simultaneously see your wretchedness in the light of God’s mercy. You are more clearly aware of how much God has done for you. And you are more easily, by God’s grace, able to be freed of your powerful and controlling disordered appetites and desires.
Spiritual Humility Flows—By a special grace, you will no longer be deluded to think highly of yourself. Again, this is simply seeing yourself in the light of Truth. All of the former sensual pleasure you received from meditation and spiritual sweetness left you with the earlier mentioned sin of spiritual pride. Now, the humble truth of who you are is made clear, and spiritual pride is eliminated. Spiritual humility allows you to grow in self-knowledge, and the self-knowledge is that you realize you can do nothing by yourself without God. This is good because you are freed of all false hope of doing great things by yourself and you begin to see only your inability and weakness. As a result, your hope is now in God, and you see that God is the one doing great things in you. You will begin to learn to relate with God in a new way and to treat God with a much greater reverence. As a result, you obey God on a new level and more easily attribute all good things to God rather than to yourself.
Furthermore, you will realize that all you obtained in your prayer of meditation as a beginner is nothing compared to the reality of who God is. You realize that the former insights coming from both meditation and the senses are darkness compared to the spiritual knowledge you gain by this new form of infused contemplation.
All Other Spiritual Sins are Eliminated—Spiritual Pride is the mother of all spiritual sins. Therefore, as spiritual humility grows, so also every other spiritual sin is eliminated, and their contrary spiritual virtue takes their place. Perhaps you would find it helpful at this time to return to the earlier list of the seven spiritual capital sins and consider how this contemplative purgation frees you from each.
Fear of God—“Fear” of God may not be a concept that you are used to seeing as good. But it is a great gift to obtain. When you are given a holy fear of God, you are not frightened by God; rather, you have a new spiritual desire to make sure you never lose the presence of God in your life. Therefore, you become aware that your former sins kept you from this deep state of union with God, and thus you become zealous to never fall into those sins again lest you lose the closeness you have with God. Holy fear also fires your soul with such a love of God that you never want to offend God, simply because you love Him. This holy fear is of great benefit.
Various Virtues—Patience and long suffering are produced. The aridity and lack of consolation you have gone through in your sensory appetites will help you grow in prayer and contemplation, producing patience so that you can more easily endure long suffering, no matter what that suffering entails. You begin to practice the “charity of God” because you no longer are motivated only by the sweetness of your experience of God. Instead, you are now only motivated by the pure love of God. As a result, fortitude is formed, and you become much stronger in the practice of the virtues. In the end, you discover that in your weakness (that is, in the experience of aridity and dryness), you become strong. Chapter Six offers an examination of conscience that may be helpful to review that presents both the Seven Capital Sins as well as their contrary virtues. The Seven Capital Virtues are especially helpful to ponder in more detail at this point.
Bondage is Eliminated—The soul then begins to sing “Oh happy chance, I went forth without being observed.” This poetic expression means that you are freed from the bondage and subjection of the desires and affections of the sensory appetites without being observed, bound or influenced by the world, the devil or the flesh. Recall the first section of this chapter when it was said that the ultimate goal of this purgation was to free you from the influence of these three things: the flesh, the devil and the world.
Natural Passions of the Soul—Joy, hope, grief and fear are what Saint John defines as the natural passions of your soul. These passions were formerly confused and disordered. The devil, the flesh and the world wreaked havoc upon them, misleading you through their disorder. Now, these passions are ordered and benefit you in a new way. Joy is now joy in God alone. Hope is hope in God alone. Grief no longer beats you down. And fear no longer controls you. These natural passions of the lower part of the soul are calmed by aridity. Thus, as the poem says, “My house is now at rest.”
These natural passions are very good sources of self-examination. If you find these passions in you, especially if they have great power over you, then pay attention to them. For example, if you find yourself regularly overwhelmed by fear, God wants to free you from that through this prayer of contemplation. If you are always seeking joy in lowly and passing things, such as the world or the flesh, then know that this prayer of contemplation is the cure. If you are always hoping in this thing or that, and especially if you are obsessed with some self-conceived hope, even if you think it is God’s will, then it’s time to let it go. God will accomplish His will in you if you let Him. Too often we presume we know what is best and we work with great anxiety to do what is, in truth, our will and not God’s. And if grief weighs heavy upon you for any reason whatsoever, let God enter in and lift that heavy burden. The prayer of contemplation is the answer to all of these passions of the soul when they are excessive and disordered.
The Final Test through Trial and Temptations
As you begin to experience the many blessings of this purgation, and as your soul begins to be “at rest” from the former disorders and attachment to your sensual appetites, you will have to endure, sometimes for many years, strong trials and temptations. This is so that God can complete the good work He has begun in you and bring it to completion.
Saint John identifies three main trials people go through but also makes it clear that these are not absolute to every person. Some will experience many other trials, and some will not experience the three he mentions to a serious degree. So, the key is to be aware that trials and temptations will come. But if you know this, then you will be in a good position to continually overcome them and, by God’s grace, complete this purgation of your sensory appetites. The three temptations that Saint John mentions are as follows:
The Spirit of Fornication—This demonic spirit may be allowed to tempt you, in a very vile way, with strong images and desires for sensual pleasure. Though this will involve disordered sexual temptations, it is not exclusive to those specific temptations. Recall that spiritual lust involves not only sexual desires but also a lust for all sensual attractions.
The Spirit of Blaspheme—This demonic spirit will tempt you in the area of the things of God. You may struggle with a strong urge to doubt what God has done in your life, what He continues to do and what He promises to do in the future. This is an attack upon faith and on all that you are coming to know through the gift of infused knowledge.
The Spirit of Confusion—Saint John says that this is one of the most painful spirits to endure. When tempted and afflicted by this spirit, you may find yourself filled with almost unbearable scrupulosity. You may find yourself analyzing everything in your life to an intense degree. When you seek counsel from others, it produces little or no help. You find yourself confused about even the most minute detail of life. Faith and trust in God, attentiveness to His voice and total surrender will enable you to endure and overcome these temptations.
If your soul is not tried, tested and tempted by these and other vile spirits, you cannot grow strong in virtue. Thus, the end goal of God allowing these afflictions is virtue. Very strong virtue. If this is difficult for you, look at these temptations from the point of view of the end result they produce rather than the struggle that is endured as they are afflicted upon you. Affliction produces strength, and the greater the affliction, the stronger you will become.
And don’t worry, God knows exactly how much you can endure. Those who are strong, God purges quickly by afflicting them intensely. Those who are weak, God moves slowly, permitting only slight temptations, giving also regular sensual consolations to make sure they do not fail these trials. And for the weakest souls, Saint John says that God guides them personally by regularly appearing to them, then moving away, then coming again to keep them from turning away completely.
The End Result
The end result of passing through this passive night of the senses is freedom, virtue and a pure love of God. As you pass through this purgation, you enter into what is traditionally called the “Illuminative Way,” the “Way of Proficients,” or the “Way of Infused Contemplation.”
In this spiritual state, life is incalculably more glorious than your former state. You love in purity, not in selfishness. You have a new knowledge of God Himself, not just knowledge of the ways of God. God speaks directly to you, not through images and ideas. You live guided by the Spirit of God, not by your own good effort.