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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 52: The Transforming Union, Prelude of the Union of Heaven

We shall now discuss the supreme development on earth of the life of grace in souls that have undergone the passive purification of the spirit, described by St. John of the Cross in Tbe Dark Nigbt (1) and by St. Teresa in The Interior Castle.(2)

On emerging from these interior trials, the soul receives such knowledge of the divine majesty that it is at times absorbed in God, as Archimedes was by his discoveries, to such an extent that he did not hear speech addressed to him. At other times, the soul exults and cannot refrain from singing the praises of God. In this connection St. Teresa says: "So excessive is its jubilee that the soul will not enjoy it alone, but speaks of it to all around so that they may help it to praise God, which is its one desire." (3) Thus St. Dominic spoke only to God or of God and spent his nights in prayer at the foot of the altar; St. Thomas Aquinas also prayed for hours at night before the Blessed Sacrament.

This holy joy of soul, the fruit of union with God, may be desired, says St. Teresa, (4) whereas it is in no way fitting to desire visions and revelations, for they are extraordinary favors entirely distinct from the full development of the life of grace in our souls. St. Teresa declares: "Know that for having received many favors of this kind, you will not merit more glory, but will be the more stringently obliged to serve, since you have received more. . . . There are many saints who never knew what it was to receive one such favor, while others who have received them are not saints at all. . . . Indeed, for one that is granted, the soul bears many a cross." (4)

Finally, at the end of its earthly ascent toward God, the soul is introduced into the transforming union, described especially by St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, who bring a precision of statement on this point to what the greatest spiritual writers who preceded them had said. Using their description, we shall see the graces which sometimes accompany the transforming union, next the essential nature of this union, its theological explanation, and its fruits.


The spiritual marriage is at times celebrated with expressive symbolism: the favored person receives a ring set with precious stones, which from then on he sees from time to time; he hears celestial canticles. This sensible symbolism is also at times accompanied by an apparition of our Lord and by an intellectual vision of the Blessed Trinity. St. Teresa mentions these two graces which she personally received.(6) She also notes: "Those whom our Lord admits into the seventh mansion. . . are constantly in the company of Christ our Lord both in His humanity and His divinity." (7)

The intellectual vision of the Blessed Trinity which certain persons receive in this state shows them by an infused idea and an eminent light the real distinction between the three Persons and the unity of Their nature incomparably better than the best theologian could by developing the congruous arguments relative to this mystery. The soul thus favored has not yet the immediate vision of the divine essence; it does not possess the intrinsic evidence of the mystery; it does not yet see that if God were not triune, He would not be God. The soul still remains in the order of faith, but its faith becomes singularly penetrating, luminous, and sweet. It grasps far better than before that the Father is God, that the Son is God, that the Holy Ghost is God, and, nevertheless, that the Father is not the Son, and that neither the Father nor the Son is the Holy Ghost. It sees dimly, so to speak, that the Father in His infinite fecundity communicates the entire divine nature to the Son, and the Father and the Son communicate it to the Holy Ghost by the most perfect diffusion of the divine goodness and in the most intimate communion. The soul sees in the Blessed Trinity an eminent exemplar of Eucharistic Communion and of the closest union of the soul with its Creator and Father, according to the words of Jesus: "That they may be one as We also are one."

This intellectual vision of the Blessed Trinity, which is inferior to the beatific vision, is of varying and intermittent clarity. It does not seem necessarily linked to the transforming union according to the description given of it by St. John of the Cross.(8) He does not say that this state requires essentially extraordinary graces, although it implies a very lofty contemplation of the divine perfections.


St. Teresa notes that in this stage ecstasies cease as a rule: "The infirmity [of ecstasy] formerly so troublesome to the mind and impossible to get over, disappears at once. Probably this is because our Lord has now strengthened, dilated, and developed the soul." (9) Thus union with God, which can now take place without troubling the exercise of the faculties, becomes almost continual. It seems indeed that the Blessed Virgin was always in this state, and it is also said that St. Hildegarde never knew the weakness of ecstasy.

According to St. John of the Cross,(10) the essential basis of this wholly eminent state is in no way miraculous; it is, says the saint, "the perfect state of the spiritual life," being here on earth the culminating point of the development of the life of grace and of the love of God, and the closest union with the Blessed Trinity, which dwells in every soul in the state of grace.

In the transforming union the higher faculties are drawn to the innermost center of the soul where the Blessed Trinity dwells. (11) Under this grace the soul cannot doubt the presence in it of the divine Persons and is almost never deprived of Their company. "The soul learns that it is God who gives it 'life,' by certain secret intuitions," says St. Teresa.(12)

St. John of the Cross, in The Living Flame of Love, explains this union by several images:

Thus fire or a stone tend by their natural force to the center of their sphere. . . . When a stone shall have reached the center of the earth and is incapable of further motion of its own, we say of it that it is then in its inmost or deepest center.

The center of the soul is God. When the soul shall have reached Him according to its essence, and according to the power of its operations, it will then have attained to its ultimate and deepest center in God. This will be when the soul shall love Him, comprehend Him, and enjoy Him with all its strength. When, however, the soul has not attained to this state, . . . it is not in the deepest center, because there is still room for it to advance. . . . But if the soul shall have attained to the highest degree of love, the love of God will then wound it in its inmost depth or center, and the soul will be transformed and enlightened in the highest degree in its substance, faculties, and strength, until it shall become most like unto God. The soul in this state may be compared to crystal, lucid and pure; the greater the light thrown upon it, the more luminous it becomes by the concentration thereof, until at last it seems to be all light and indistinguishable from it; it being then so illumined, and to the utmost extent, that it seems to be one with the light itself.(13)

A little farther on, St. John of the Cross uses another image: "It is the same fire that first disposes the wood for combustion and afterward consumes it." (14) It is still wood, but incandescent wood, which has taken on the properties of fire. Thus from the purified heart a flame rises almost ceaselessly toward God.

St. Teresa uses still another figure for this spiritual state, comparing it to rain: "Thus rain which falls from heaven into a river is so mingled with it that it can no longer be distinguished from it." The figure of two candles whose flames unite to form a single flame, has also been used to describe this union, which is like a fusion of the soul's life and God's. As a result, we understand why St. John of the Cross describes the transforming union as the state of spiritual perfection, the full development of the grace of the virtues and the gifts: "The perfect spiritual life," he says, "consists in the possession of God by the union of love." (15)

The transforming union is, therefore, most intimate; it brings with it great, inalterable peace, at least to the summit of the higher faculties. Yet the soul thus favored may still at times be "sorrowful unto death" if Jesus wishes to associate it with His life of reparation and lead it to Gethsemane for the salvation of sinners. In the Garden of Olives, He himself had more than the transforming union; with the hypostatic union, He had the beatific vision, and yet He willed to experience mortal sadness that His holocaust might be perfect.


In A Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross writes of the interior cellars thus: "These cellars are seven in number, and the soul has entered into them all when it has in perfection the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, so far as it is possible for it. . . . Many souls reach and enter the first cellar, each according to the perfection of its love, but the last and inmost cellar is entered by few in this world, because therein is wrought the perfect union with God, the union of the spiritual marriage." (16)

In other words, when the soul perfectly possesses the gift of wisdom, the highest of the seven gifts received in baptism with sanctifying grace, it has reached its inner sanctuary where the Blessed Trinity dwells, and union with God is no longer only habitual, but actual and in some measure transforming. In spite of the infinite distance separating the creature's being from that of the Creator, it is a union of quasi-experimental knowledge and very intimate love, in which the soul is deified by receiving perfect participation in the divine nature. In this sense, St. Paul could write: "He who is joined to the Lord, is one spirit." (17)

In this case union is transforming because the soul, while keeping its created nature, receives a great increase of sanctifying grace and charity, and because it is the characteristic of ardent love to transform us morally into the person loved who is like another self, alter ego, for whom we wish, as we do for ourselves, all suitable goods. If this person is divine, holy souls wish Him to reign ever more profoundly in them, to be closer to them than they are to themselves, closer than the air they breathe is to their lungs, and the freshened blood to their hearts.(18)

St. John of the Cross himself, therefore, gives the theological explanation of this state, which he sums up in a principle enunciated in the Ascent of Mount Carmel: "The more pure and clean the soul in the perfection of a living faith, the greater is the infusion of charity, and the greater the charity, the greater the illumination and the more abundant the graces." (19)

St. Thomas says likewise that the seven gifts are connected with charity; consequently, just as the infused virtues, they grow with it, like the parts of one and the same organism, or "like the five fingers of the hand." (20)

Evidently there are many degrees in the transforming union. St. John of the Cross points out this fact in A Spiritual Canticle,(21) apropos of the spiritual betrothals, in which the soul enjoys perfect union in a transitory way, whereas in the spiritual marriage the soul possesses it in a quasi-continual manner.

According to St. Teresa, (22) the fruitive union of the betrothal lasts scarcely more than half an hour, during which the soul has experimental knowledge of God really present in it and of His embrace.

In the spiritual marriage, which is ratified on earth and will be consummated in heaven, the actual union of love with God experimentally known in the center of the soul becomes more constant. According to several authors, this state is, as it were, the equivalent of a special revelation which gives the soul the certitude of being in the state of grace and, some writers add, a certitude of its predestination. This last point may be verified in many cases, but, as we shall see, it is not certain that it is verified as a rule.

St. John of the Cross says in A Spiritual Canticle: "We are not to suppose that all souls, thus far advanced, receive all that is here described, either in the same way or in the same degree of knowledge and of consciousness. Some souls receive more, others less; some in one way, some in another; and yet all may be in the state of spiritual betrothal." (23) Likewise, there are many degrees in the quasi-continual transforming union, under a more or less manifest form, up to the highest degree which the Blessed Virgin Mary enjoyed on earth. In these different degrees, it may be truthfully said that souls, according to their predestination, have attained here on earth their
deepest center. This is the perfect realization of Christ's prayer: "That they may be one, as We also are one: I in them, and Thou in Me; . . . that the world may know that Thou. . . hast loved them, as Thou hast also loved Me." (24)


The effects of this state of perfection are those of the theological virtues and of the gifts which have attained their full development. One of the fruits of this union is that which was granted to the apostles on Pentecost, confirmation in grace. St. John of the Cross says: "I believe that no soul ever attains to this state without being confirmed in grace." (25)

The Carmelites of Salamanca explain this confirmation in grace as a certain participation in the impeccability of the blessed through a great increase in charity whose progress turns us more and more away from sin. This notable increase of divine love is completed by a special protection of God, who removes the occasions of sin and strengthens the soul when necessary, so that it is henceforth always preserved from mortal sin and even almost always from deliberate venial sin.(26)

Is the soul that has reached this state certain of no longer offending God and of obtaining the grace of final perseverance? St. Teresa simply says that it is almost freed from the disturbance of the passions, that as long as it is under the actual grace of the transforming union it does not sin venially with full deliberation. She writes: "The accustomed movements of the faculties and imagination do not appear to take place in any way that can injure the soul or disturb its peace. Do I seem to imply that after God has brought the soul thus far it is certain to be saved and cannot fall into sin again? I do not mean this; whenever I say that the soul seems in security, I must be understood to imply for as long as His Majesty thus holds it in His care and it does not offend Him." (27)

This text shows that St. Teresa is less categorical than St. John of the Cross, who goes so far as to say in A Spiritual Canticle: "The soul has left on one side and forgotten all temptations, trials, sorrows, anxieties, and cares." (28) St. Teresa's manner of speaking seems more conformable to that of theology, which teaches that the grace of final perseverance cannot be merited, and that to be assured of salvation one would have to have a special revelation about one's own predestination. This last point was even defined by the Council of Trent. (29) Now we cannot affirm as certain that the transforming union implies in all its degrees and in every case the equivalent of such a revelation. Moreover, after receiving a revelation, one may, under certain temptations, doubt its divine origin.

We should not forget the unusually significant example of the great St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists, who passed through the purifying night of the spirit about the age of twenty-six, and received the grace of the transforming union at twenty-nine. Destined to reach the age of eighty-one and to found an order vowed to reparation, he lived from the time he was thirty-one until he was seventy-five in an almost continual reparatory night of the spirit, during which several times he questioned whether he would be saved.(30)

Perhaps with the reservation "under the actual grace of union," the following statement of St. John of the Cross should be understood: "Finally, all the motions and acts of the soul, proceeding from the principle of its natural and imperfect life, are now changed in this union with God into divine motions. For the soul, as the true child of God, is moved by the Spirit of God, as it is written: 'Whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God' (Rom.8:14)" (31)

We are not ignorant of the fact that in speaking of the transforming union Philip of the Blessed Trinity (32) and Scaramelli (33) consider that so sublime a state requires that God reveal to the soul the indissoluble friendship that exists between them. According to these authors, if the person thus favored does not receive a special revelation of his predestination, there is, as it were, an equivalent of this special revelation.

We believe that it suffices to affirm that the Holy Ghost then greatly confirms the certitude of hope. This certitude is, as St. Thomas says,(34) a certitude of tending toward salvation without being as yet the certitude of salvation itself. Now the Holy Ghost confirms this security of hope by the increasingly filial and strong affection which He excites in us. Then is fully verified St. Paul's statement: "The Spirit Himself giveth testimony to our spirit that we are the sons of God." (35)

In this state there are at times divine touches so profound that they are, the mystics say, "impressed on the substance of the soul." What is the meaning of this expression in the light of the principles of theology as St. Thomas understood them?

The divine touch is a most profound supernatural motion which acts on the very depth of the will and the intellect where these faculties take root in the substance of the soul, from which they emanate. God is closer to us than we are to ourselves, inasmuch as He immediately preserves the substance of our soul by a divine act which is the continuation of the creative act. Likewise He preserves sanctifying grace in the very essence of the soul, and at certain moments, by a special inspiration, He moves the very depths of our will and intellect from within in order to incline them toward Himself. Therein is a contact, not quantitative and spatial but supraspatial, spiritual, and absolutely immediate, of the divine essence with the substance of our soul, and from this contact proceed in the depths of our higher faculties direct acts to which God alone can move us and which we would never produce without this special inspiration. The soul can act only through its faculties, that is, it can know only by its intellect, love and will only by its will; but in this case, under the divine touch, it acts by the most intimate depth of its faculties, there where they take root in the essence of the soul.

In it there is a spiritual embrace of God, which at certain moments is extremely strong. There is also at times in the depths of the higher faculties a wound of love, a delicious spiritual wound, which is occasionally accompanied, as in the stigmatics, by a painful wound of the body, in particular in the region of the heart.(36) It is God who wounds the soul while drawing it strongly to Himself and giving it a very ardent desire to see Him immediately and never again to be separated from Him. This burning desire of the beatific vision is the normal disposition to receive it without delay. A similar desire also exists in its way in the souls in purgatory when they are approaching the end of their purification.

In the epilogue to The Interior Castle, St. Teresa invites her sisters humbly to desire this intimate union with God, but not to wish to force their entrance into this mansion: "Therefore I advise you to use no violence if you meet with any obstacle, for that would displease Him so much that He would never give you admission to them. He dearly loves humility: if you think yourselves unworthy to enter the third mansion, He will grant you all the sooner the favor of entering the fifth. Then, if you serve Him well there and often repair to it, He will draw you into the mansion where He dwells Himself." (37)

The saint's words make clear that the state of spiritual perfection of which we are speaking is on earth the summit of the normal development of the life of grace, considered not precisely in a given person, but in itself. This summit should, in fact, imply this aspiration, that is, this very ardent desire for the beatific vision, which up to this stage did not exist in this degree. It is inconceivable that God should reveal Himself to souls not yet keenly desirous of possessing Him forever, of seeing Him immediately and forever. He prepares them for the immediate vision by a divine touch which has a savor of eternal life. St. John of the Cross speaks admirably of this favor, saying that divine touches are attained only by the practice of complete detachment from everything created,(38) and that by one of these touches of love the soul is rewarded for all its labors.(39)

About the wound of love, St. John of the Cross writes in A Spiritual Canticle, which he explains in The Living Flame:

O Living Flame of Love,
That woundest tenderly
My soul in its inmost depth!
As thou art no longer grievous,
Perfect thy work, if it be thy will,
Break the web of this sweet encounter.(40)

In other words, complete the work of our union; break the thread of my earthly existence, which is the final obstacle to my meeting with the Well-Beloved. This veil allows me to see God imperfectly, but it is still an obstacle to immediate and definitive union.

The living flame is the Holy Ghost who excites in the soul acts of love which are more meritorious than all it has elicited before it reached this state, says the saint in the explanation of this first stanza. He adds: "O how wonderful the fire of God! though so vehement and so consuming, though it can destroy a thousand worlds with more ease than material fire can destroy a single straw, it consumes not the spirit wherein it burns. . . . Thus on the day of Pentecost the fire descended with great vehemence upon the Apostles, who . . . sweetly burned interiorly." (41)

In his explanation of verse five of the second stanza of The Living Flame, St. John of the Cross wrote this significant passage: "Why is it that so few ever attain to this state [of perfection and of union with God]? The reason is that in this marvelous work which God Himself begins, so many are weak, shrinking from trouble, and unwilling to endure the least discomfort or mortification, or to labor with constant patience. Hence it is that God, not finding them diligent in cultivating the graces He has given them when He began to try them, proceeds no further with their purification, neither does He lift them up out of the dust of the earth, because it required greater courage and resolution for this than they possessed. . . . They are few in number who deserve to be made perfect through sufferings so as to attain to so high a state as this." (42) The soul must pass through many tribulations to reach "the perfect spiritual life, which consists in the possession of God by the union of love." (43)

Truly spiritual delights come from the cross, from the spirit of sacrifice which puts to death all that is inordinate in us in order to assure the first place to the love of God and of souls in God.

When the heart thus burns with love for its God, the soul contemplates lamps of fire which illumine all things from above. These lamps are the divine perfections: wisdom, goodness, mercy, justice, providence, eternity, omnipotence. They are, so to speak, the colors of the divine rainbow, which are identical without destroying each other in the intimate life of God, in the Deity, as the seven colors of the earthly rainbow fuse in the white light from which they proceed. "God, therefore," says St. John of the Cross, "according to this knowledge of Him in unity, is to the soul as many lamps, because it has the knowledge of each of them [these attributes], and because they minister to it the warmth of love, each in its own way, and yet all of one subject, all one lamp." (44)

These souls are characterized by great forgetfulness of self, a great desire to suffer in imitation of the example of our Lord. The soul participates in the very strength of Christ, in His immense love for men; it succeeds in practicing simultaneously virtues that apparently are most contradictory: justice and mercy, fortitude and meekness, the simplicity of the dove and the prudence of the serpent. It unites the most sublime contemplation to the most circumspect common sense in matters of which it must judge. Thus these souls are definitively marked with the image of Christ. The apostolic life (manifest or hidden) or the life of reparation overflows from the plenitude of their contemplation and union with God.(45)

Such is manifestly the perfect disposition of the truly purified soul to pass immediately at the moment of death from earth to heaven without having to go through purgatory. The perfect order is to be purified before death with merit, in order not to have to be purified after death without merit. Only in the close union we have described does the soul have an ardent desire to see God. It is inconceivable that God should show Himself immediately and forever to a soul not ardently desirous of seeing Him.

This doctrine would be too lofty for us if in baptism we had not received the life of grace, which should develop in us also into eternal life, nor often received Holy Communion, which has as its principal purpose to increase the love of God in us. Let us remember that each of our Communions should be substantially more fervent and fruitful than the preceding one. We shall then see that, as St. John of the Cross says, interior souls would reach the close union which we have just discussed if they did not flee from the trials which God sends them for their purification.(46)

In the transforming union we see the full development of grace, which is eternal life begun, quaedam inchoatio vitae aeternae.(47)



1. Bk. II.

2. Sixth mansion, chap. I.

3. Ibid., chap. 6.

4. Ibid., chap. 9.

5. Ibid.

6. Seventh mansion, chap. 2.

7. Sixth mansion, chap. 7.

8. The Living Flame, st. 2; A Spiritual Canticle, Part III, st. 22 ff.

9. Seventh mansion, chap. 3.

10. The Living Flame, st. 2; A Spiritual Canticle, Part III, st. 22 ff.

11. The Living Flame, loco cit.

12. Seventh mansion, chap. 2.

13. The Living Flame, st. I, v. 3.

14. Ibid., v. 4.

15. Ibid., st. 2, v. 6. Cf. Father Gabriel of St. Magdalen, C.D., "L'union transformante selon saint Jean de la Croix," La Vie spirituelle, March, 1917, pp. 87 ff. G. L. Strena, "Les Sommets de la vie d'amour," Angelicum, January, 1937, pp. 264-80.

16. St. 16, par. 2, 3.

17. Cf. I Cor. 6: 17.

18. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q. 28, a. I, 2: Union is the effect of love, which itself consists in the union of affection, and desires real union by vision which is like the possession of the object loved. Mutual inherence is also an effect of love; for the loved one is in the lover, in his affection, and this affection inclines the lover toward the beloved.

19. Bk. II, chap. 29; A Spiritual Canticle, st. 30.

20. Summa, Ia IIae, q.68, a.5; q.66, a.2.

21. St. 14.

22. Life, chap. 18, par. 16.

23. St. 14.

24. John 17: 22 f.

25. A Spiritual Canticle, st. 22.

26. Cf. Salrnanticences, De gratia, q. 110, disp. III, dub. XI, no. 259.

27. The Interior Castle, seventh mansion, chap. 2.

28. St. 22.

29. Denzinger, no. 805.

30. Cf. Father Cajetan of the Holy Name of Mary, Oraison et ascension mystique de saint Paul de la Croix (Louvain, (930), pp. II5-177. Cf. infra, the appendix to chap. 49.

31. The Living Flame, st. 2, v. 6.

32. Theol. myst. Proaemium, a.8.

33. Direttorio mistico, tr. II, chap. 22, no. 258.

34. Summa, IIa IIae, q. 18, a.4.

35. Rom. 8: 16.

36. Cf. The Living Flame (st. 2, v. 2): "God confers no favors on the body which He does not confer in the first place chiefly on the soul. In that case, the greater the joy and violence of the love which is the cause of the interior wound, the greater will be the pain of the visible wound, and as the former grows so does the latter. The reason is this: such souls as these, being already purified and strong in God, their spirit, strong and sound, delights in the strong and sweet Spirit of God, who, however, causes pain and suffering in their weak and corruptible flesh." Cf. infra, chap. 56, "Stigmatization."

37. The Interior Castle, Epilogue.

38. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 23.

39. The Living Flame, st. 2, v. 5.

40. Ibid., st. I.

41. Ibid., st. 2, par. 4.

42. Ibid., st. 2. v. 5.

43. Ibid., st. 2. V. 6.

44. Ibid., st. 3. V. I.

45. Cf. St. Catherine of Siena, Dialogue (transl. E. Cartier, Paris, 1855), II,
chap. 145.

46. The Living Flame, st. 2, v. 5.

47. What St. John of the Cross says of the transforming union in The Living Flame should be compared with what Tauler wrote about it. Cf. Sermons de Tauler: Second sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity Sunday (transl. Hugueny, II, 222-26).