A description of the soul's journey to full union with God

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 51: Arid Mystical Union and Ecstatic Union According to St. Teresa

When we spoke (1) of the degrees of contemplative prayer in proficients, taking St. Teresa (2) as our guide, we described arid quiet, next sweet quiet, in which the will alone is captivated by God, and lastly the prayer of simple union, in which not only the will is seized by God, but also the understanding and the memory, and in which the imagination is as if asleep, because all the activity of the soul takes place in its higher part. There is even at times a beginning of ecstasy or an initial suspension of the exercise of the exterior senses. Following what St. Teresa wrote in the sixth mansion, we shall now discuss arid and painful union, which corresponds to the night of the spirit, then ecstatic union or the spiritual betrothal, and lastly, in the following chapter, the transforming union or spiritual marriage.


St. Teresa speaks of this union at the beginning of the sixth mansion,(3) but she describes especially its concomitant outward phenomena. St. John of the Cross, on the other hand, shows more the intimate nature of this state under the name of the night of the spirit, or the passive purification of the spirit, as we saw at the beginning of the fourth part of this work.

God makes the soul desire the immense good which He is preparing for it; and He causes it to pass through a terrible crucible, of which St. Teresa writes:

An outcry is raised against such a person by those amongst whom she lives. . . . They say she wants to pass for a saint, that she goes to extremes in piety. . . . Persons she thought were her friends desert her making the most bitter remarks of all. . . . They make a thousand scoffing remarks. . . . The worst of it is, these troubles do not blow over but last all her life. . . . '

Yet, oh! the rest would seem trifling in comparison could I relate the interior torments met with here, but they are impossible to describe. Let us first speak of the trial of meeting with so timorous and inexperienced a confessor that nothing seems safe to him. . . . The poor soul beset by the same fears, seeks its confessor as judge, and feels a torture and dismay at his condemnation that can only be realized by those who have experienced it themselves. For one of the severe trials of these souls, especially if they have lived wicked lives, is their belief that God permits them to be deceived in punishment for their sins. While actually receiving these graces they feel secure and cannot but suppose that these favors proceed from the Spirit of God; but this state lasts a very short time, while the remembrance of their misdeeds is ever before them, so that when, as is sure to happen, they discover any faults in themselves, these torturing thoughts return.

The soul is quieted for a time when the confessor reassures it, although it returns later on to its former apprehensions, but when he augments its fears they become almost unbearable. Especially is this the case when such spiritual dryness ensues that the mind feels as if it never had thought of God nor ever will be able to do so. When men speak of Him, they seem to be talking of some person heard of long ago. . . .

Her understanding being too obscure to discern the truth, she believes all that the imagination, which now has the upper hand, puts before her mind, besides crediting the falsehoods suggested to her by the devil, whom doubtless our Lord gives leave to tempt her. The evil spirit even tries to make her think God has rejected her. . . . No comfort can be found in this tempest of trouble. . . .

There is no other remedy in such a tempest except to wait for the mercy of God who, unexpectedly, by some casual word or unforeseen circumstance, suddenly dispels all these sorrows. Then every cloud of trouble disappears and the mind is left full of light and far happier than before. It praises our Lord God like one who has come out victorious from a dangerous battle, for it was He who won the victory. The soul is fully conscious that the conquest was not its own. . . . Thus it realizes its weakness and how little man can help himself if God forsake him. This truth now needs no demonstration.(4)

The soul then understands far better the Master's words: "Without Me you can do nothing" in the order of salvation, and it is led more and more to admit, with St. Augustine and St. Thomas, that grace is efficacious of itself, that it excites our effort instead of being rendered efficacious by it.

What conduct should be observed in this trial? St. Teresa tells us in the same chapter:

Their comfort must come from above - nothing earthly can help them. This great God wishes us to acknowledge His sovereignty and our own misery. . . . The best remedy for these crosses. . . is to perform external works of charity and to trust in the mercy of God, which never fails those who hope in Him. . . .

The devils also bring about exterior trials which, being more unusual, need not be mentioned. They are far less painful, for whatever the demons may do, I believe they never succeed in paralyzing the faculties or disturbing the soul in the former manner. In fact, the reason is able to discern that the evil spirits can do no more harm than God permits; and while the mind has not lost its powers, all sufferings are comparatively insignificant.(5)

Farther on,(6) St. Teresa speaks of a still more painful purification of love, which occurs at the entrance to the seventh mansion, "as the purification of purgatory introduces the soul into heaven." But the soul is conscious, while enduring this suffering, that it is an eminent favor.

After the interior sufferings described at the beginning of the sixth mansion, in which there is a painful presence of God, the soul receives such knowledge of the divine majesty that frequently partial or complete ecstasy follows.


Ecstasy is the suspension of the exterior senses; it does not necessarily imply levitation, or the elevation of the body above the ground. This suspension of the exterior senses is manifested by more or less marked insensibility, the slowing of the respiration, the diminution of vital heat. According to St. Teresa: "One perceives that the natural heat of the body is perceptibly lessened; the coldness increases, though accompanied with exceeding joy and sweetness." (7) The body then becomes motionless, the gaze fixed on an invisible object; sometimes the eyelids close.

Instead of weakening the body, this state gives it new strength.(8) A person who ordinarily would find difficulty in kneeling for a long time, does so without difficulty in the state of ecstasy. Occasionally the suspension of the senses is incomplete and allows the ecstatic to dictate the revelations received, as happened to St. Catherine of Siena.(9)

Whence arises the loss of the use of the exterior senses in this state? It proceeds from the soul's absorption in God, which is itself the result of a very special grace of light and love.(10) The abundant light then given, for example, on the mysteries of the redemptive Incarnation, of the Eucharist as the expression of the immense goodness of God, produces lively admiration and great love of God. The will is touched and, as it were, wounded by the divine attraction, and moves toward God with great impetuosity, like a magnetized needle toward a pole. The admiration of the intellect grows through love, and love through admiration; as St. Francis de Sales says: "The sight of beauty makes us love it, and love makes us look at it."

The soul, thus ravished with admiration and love for God, loses the use of its senses because all its activity passes over into its higher part. St. Thomas noted this principle clearly: "When the soul tends wholly to the act of one power, man is abstracted from the act of another power"; (11) when the soul is wholly moved to the act of one of its faculties, the exercise of the other faculties is suspended. If at times a scholar, like Archimedes, is so absorbed by speculation that he no longer hears speech addressed to him, with what far greater reason is this true of the contemplative soul at the time when a very strong grace makes it perceive the infinite majesty of God and absorbs it in this blessed contemplation! Then ecstasy, which follows this eminent infused contemplation, is not, properly speaking, extraordinary; it may be the normal result of the soul's absorption in God, according to the principle which we have just recalled. As we shall see, it is otherwise in rapture, which seizes the soul abruptly and violently in order to raise it to lofty contemplation; then it precedes this contemplation instead of following it.

In ecstatic love, is there still liberty and merit? There most certainly is; (12) as St. Thomas shows,(13) the liberty of the act of love, the condition of merit, disappears only when the soul sees God face to face in heaven. Then it is invincibly attracted by Him and loves Him with a love that is sovereignly spontaneous but no longer free; it is a love superior to liberty.

The duration of divine ecstasy varies greatly; complete ecstasy generally lasts only some minutes, sometimes for half an hour. However, there are cases of prolonged incomplete ecstasy, which St. Teresa says "lasts occasionally for an entire day." (14) There are even complete ecstasies which have lasted as much as four days, or even longer.(15)

Ecstasy ordinarily ends by a spontaneous awakening; only little by little does the soul recover the use of its senses, as if it were returning from another world. The awakening may be provoked by an oral or simply a mental command given by a religious superior. In this connection it should be observed that, in the judgment of the Church, religious obedience during ecstasy is one of the characteristic signs of its divine origin, and a sign which eliminates the hypothesis of hysteria. The ecstatic who does not obey a religious superior lacks the sign considered by the Church as a touchstone, which shows the conformity of the ecstatic's will with the divine will expressed by the superior. It should, in fact, be kept clearly in mind that if in hysteria there is suggestion by hypnosis, it is only through the influence of an imperious will and a strong imagination on a sickly sensibility, with surrender of the will and no merit. In this case there is lacking the moral character of religious obedience, in which, through virtue, a human will subjects itself to the divine will, and even comes out of ecstasy to obey in this way.

False ecstasies are often easy to discern from true ones. The ecstasy of divine origin differs greatly from the so-called hysterical ecstasy, because in the divine there is no trace of the character of morbid excitation, of strained and passionate agitation, of entirely physical enjoyment followed by great depression. Divine ecstasy is a movement of the entire being, body and soul, toward the divine object that is contemplated. In a great calm, it is the absorption of the soul ravished out of its senses by a mysterious power, generally following a vision received in the imagination or the intellect.(16) The end of the ecstasy is the return to the natural state in a calm manner, accompanied by simple regret over the disappearance of the vision and the celestial joy that it gave. This was observed in particular in the ecstasies of St. Bernadette Soubirous, likewise in those of St. Teresa and many other servants of God.

It should be noted also that the natural swoon may have as its cause an excessive over-excitement of the imagination or even the lively impressions of mental prayer on a frail and weak constitution. These swoons should be eliminated as much as possible; they should be resisted and the organism strengthened by more substantial food.(17)

Lastly, it should be kept in mind that there can be diabolical ecstasies, which are a sort of obsession. If a person lives in sin and seems to have ecstasies during which he gives way to unseemly contortions, utters incoherent words which he immediately forgets, seeks frequented places that he may become a spectacle, and if besides, in this state, he receives communications leading to evil or to good for an evil end, these are so many signs, as Benedict XIV declares, of diabolical ecstasy.(18)


Simple ecstasy is a sort of swoon which is produced sweetly following a wound of love. St. Teresa says: "The soul is conscious of having received a delicious wound but cannot discover how, nor who gave it, yet recognizes it as a most precious grace and hopes the hurt will never heal. The soul makes amorous complaints to its Bridegroom, even uttering them aloud; nor can it control itself, knowing that though He is present He will not manifest Himself so that it may enjoy Him." (19) It is like a fleeting interview before more continual union, called the transforming union or spiritual marriage.

The swoon of ecstasy differs from the impetuosity and violence of rapture, in which the soul is suddenly seized by God as by a superior force that carries it away. St. Thomas noted this. He says: "Rapture adds something to ecstasy. For ecstasy means simply a going out of oneself by being placed outside one's proper order; while rapture denotes a certain violence in addition." (20)

Often the spiritual espousals are concluded in rapture; (21) the soul is as if inebriated and can concern itself only with God. Rapture is followed by the flight of the spirit, in which the soul believes itself transported into a new, wholly divine region.(22)


Such absorption in God produces great detachment from creatures, whose nothingness becomes more and more apparent; it also gives rise to immense sorrow for sins committed and for all that separates the soul from God. The soul also sees with increasing clearness the value of our Savior's passion and of Mary's sufferings at the foot of the cross, and from this contemplation draws admirable patience to bear the trials which the Lord will send it that it may work for its neighbor's salvation.

In short, the effects of ecstatic union are great holiness of life. For this reason St. Francis de Sales says: "When you see a person who has raptures in prayer. . . and, nevertheless, no ecstasy in his life, that is, does not lead a lofty life of union with God, by the abnegation of worldly desires and the mortification of natural wishes and inclinations, by interior sweetness, simplicity, humility, and especially by continual charity, believe me, Theotime, all these raptures are seriously doubtful and dangerous." (23)


After ecstatic union, as a preparation for the transforming union, there is a very painful purification of love, of which St. Teresa speaks at the end of the sixth mansion. The saint says:

The heart receives, it knows not how or whence, a blow as from a fiery dart. . . in the very depths and center of the soul. . . . This resembles the pains of purgatory. . . . The spiritual torments are so much more keen that the bodily ones remain unnoticed. . . . She feels a strange loneliness, finding no companionship in any earthly creature. . . . Meanwhile all society is a torture to her. She is like one suspended in mid-air, who can neither touch the earth nor mount to heaven; she is unable to reach the water while parched with thirst and this is not a thirst that can be borne, but one which nothing will quench. . . . Though this torment and grief could not, I think, be surpassed by any earthly cross. . . , yet they appeared to her as nothing in comparison with their recompense. The soul realizes that it has not merited anguish which is of such measureless value.(24)

In the same chapter of the sixth mansion, the saint goes on to say: "This agony does not continue for long in its full violence - never, I believe, longer than three or four hours; were it prolonged, the weakness of our nature could not endure it except by a miracle. . . . This favor entails great suffering but leaves most precious graces within the soul, which loses all fear of any crosses it may henceforth meet with, for in comparison with the acute anguish it has gone through, all else seems nothing. . . . It is also much more detached from creatures, having learned that no one but its Creator can bring it consolation and strength." (25)



1. Cf. supra, chap. 30.

2. The Interior Castle, fourth and fifth mansions.

3. Chap. I.

4. Sixth mansion, chap. I.

5. Ibid.

6. Sixth mansion, chap. 11.

7. Life, by herself, chap. 10, par. 2.

8. Ibid., par. 29.

9. Ecstatic union does not of itself suspend the functions of the organic or vegetative organism, that is, those of nutrition and respiration. Cf. St. Thomas, De veritate, q.13, a.4; IIa IIae, q. 175, a.5.

10. Cf. St. Francis de Sales, Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. VII, chaps. 4 ff.

11. De veritate, q. 13, a.3: IIa IIae, q. 175. a.2.

12. Although certain authors have held the contrary, this is the definite teaching of St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. John Chrysostom, St. Bernard, St. Thomas, Suarez, Alvarez de Paz, Scaramelli, and Philip of the Blessed

13. Cf. Summa, Ia IIae, q. 10, a.1, 2; IIa IIae, q. 175, a.1 ad 3um.

14. Sixth mansion, chap. 6.

15. Cf. A. Poulain, The Graces of Interior Prayer, Part III, chap. 18, no. 7.

16. Cf. infra, chap. 57: "The differences between extraordinary divine facts
and morbid phenomena."

17. Cf. St. Teresa, The Book of the Foundations (chap. 6): "I advise prioresses to eliminate with all possible care from their monasteries these long swoons which take their energy away from the faculties and the senses themselves. The soul can no longer make them obey it, and thereby loses merits which might have been acquired by a constant solicitude to please God."

18. De servorum Dei beatificatione, Bk. III, chap. 49, no. 5. Also Cajetan on IIa IIae, q. 173, a.3.

19. The Interior Castle, sixth mansion, chap. 2.

20. Summa, IIa IIae, q. 175, a.2 ad 1um.

21. The Interior Castle, sixth mansion, chap. 4.

22. Ibid., chap. 5.

23. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. VII, chap. 7.

24. The Interior Castle, sixth mansion, chap. 11, passim.

25. See also St. Teresa, Life, chap. 29; Relation, 54. Cf. St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night, Bk. II, chaps. II ff.; The Living Flame of Love, st. I, v. 2-4; st. 2, v. 1-3. Cf. also Father Gabriel of St. Magdalen, "L'Ecole theresienne et les blessures d'amour mystique," Etudes carmelitaines, October, 1936, pp. 208-42.

The spiritual wound is sometimes accompanied by a corporeal wound of the heart, which is its symbol. Cf. infra, the following chapter and chap. 56: "Stigmatization, suggestion, and ecstasy."