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

The Purification of the Soul in Beginners (cont)


Ch 25: The Active Purification of the Imagination and the Memory

"In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin." Ecclus. 7:40

What we have said of the active purification of the senses and of the sensible appetites has already demonstrated that exterior mortification is not the most important; yet he who neglects it will also neglect all interior mortification and end by losing completely the spirit of abnegation.

This loss would occur especially if a person deliberately wished no longer to trouble himself about mortification. He would thus fall, as frequently happens, into practical naturalism substituted for the spirit of faith, and finally he would no longer keep practically anything of Christ's precept: "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross." (1)

If anyone deliberately wishes to take as food all that is pleasing and always to be at his ease, without any spirit of Christian temperance, he no longer tends toward perfection and forgets the loftiness of the supreme precept: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and with thy whole soul and with all thy strength and with all thy mind." (2) A religious who acts in this manner loses sight of the special obligation of the religious life.

But the exterior mortification of the body and senses would be without great result if it were not accompanied by the interior mortification of the imagination and the memory, of which we are going to speak, and by the active purification of the intellect and will, which we shall treat of next.


The imagination is a faculty that is undeniably very useful to us, since the soul united to the body cannot think without images; B an image always accompanies the idea. This fact explains why Christ spoke to the multitudes in parables, that He might lift them gently from the sensible image to the spiritual idea of the kingdom of God; in like manner, to make the Samaritan woman understand the value of divine grace, He did not tell her about it in abstract terms, but used the figure of the "fountain of water, springing up into life everlasting. "

But, to be useful, the imagination must be directed by right reason illumined by faith; otherwise it may become, as someone has said "the mad woman in the house." It diverts us from the consideration of divine things and inclines us toward vain, inconsistent, and fantastic, or even forbidden things. At the very least, it leads us to daydreaming that gives rise to sentimentality, which is opposed to true piety.

It is not always in our power, especially in periods of fatigue, to dispel at once vain or dangerous images; but, with the help of grace, we can will not to grant them the attention of the mind, and we can gradually diminish their number and their attraction. Even perfect souls continue to suffer certain involuntary ramblings of the imagination aroused occasionally by the devil, as St. Teresa points out in the fifth mansion and even in the sixth.(4) But, as the interior soul advances, it gradually frees itself from these wanderings of the fancy and ends by contemplating God and His infinite goodness, scarcely paying any attention to the images which accompany this act of penetrating and sweet faith. Thus we write with a pen without noticing its form, and frequently we converse with a person without paying any attention to the shape or color of his garments, unless there is something strange or unusual about them.

Consequently the imagination ceases little by little to trouble the exercise of the intellect, and finally is placed positively at its service that it may occasionally express in beautiful images those things that pertain to the interior life, somewhat as Christ expressed them in parables or in His conversations with Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman. These images ought, therefore, to be unimpassioned and discreet in order to draw attention not to themselves, but to the superior idea which they express. Then, as a well-born person wears a garment that is simple and in good taste without according it any more attention than is necessary, so the thought makes use of the figure without dwelling on it. The image is there only for the thought, and the thought only for the expression of truth.

But such a harmony of our faculties is not realized without true discipline of the imagination in order that it may cease to be the mad woman in the house and may truly be placed at the service of the intellect illumined by faith. In this way alone can we gradually re-establish the order that existed in the state of original justice, in which the superior part of the soul retained the direction of the imagination and the different emotions of the sensibility as long as it obeyed God whom it contemplated and loved above all.

According to these principles, we must brush aside at once dangerous images and memories, put away also useless reading and vain reveries that would make us lose precious time and might expose us to all sorts of illusions in which the enemy would make sport of us in order to ruin us.

To effect this discipline, we must apply ourselves to the duty of the moment (age quod agis) with a healthy realism, directing the accomplishment of this duty to God, who should be loved above all. Thus will our intellect and will gradually dominate our imagination and sensibility; and our obedient imagination will find in the beauties of the liturgy food for our interior life.

St. John of the Cross points out that true devotion is concerned with the spiritual and invisible object, represented by sensible images, without pausing at these, and that the nearer a soul draws to divine union, the less it depends on images.(5)

However, it is important at this point to speak more particularly of the mortification of the memory, which exposes us to live in the unreal and which only too often recalls to us what ought to be forgotten.


St. John of the Cross discusses this subject at length.(6) Here we are concerned at the same time with the sensible memory, which exists in animals, and the intellectual memory that is common to men and angels.(7) The intellectual memory is not a faculty really distinct from the intellect; it is the intellect in so far as it retains ideas.(8)

Why does our memory need to be purified? Because, since original sin and as a result of our repeated personal sins, it is full of useless and sometimes dangerous memories. In particular, we often recall the wrongs our neighbor has done us, the harsh words for which we have not yet completely pardoned him, although he himself may have keenly regretted them. We remember less the favors we have received from our neighbor than what we have had to suffer from him, and a harsh word often makes us forget all the kindnesses that have come to us from him in the course of several years. But the chief defect of our memory is what Scripture calls the proneness to forget God. Our memory, which is made to recall to us what is most important, often forgets the one thing necessary, which is above time and does not pass.

What St. John of the Cross says (9) about the necessity of the purification of the memory may seem exaggerated at first reading; but our impression changes if we read first of all what the Scriptures say on the subject.

Scripture often speaks of man's proneness to forget God. Isaias writes: "Truth hath been forgotten: and he that departed from evil, lay open to be a prey. And the Lord saw, and it appeared evil in His eyes, because there is no judgment." (10)

Jeremias, speaking in the name of God, says: "Will a virgin forget her ornament? . . . But My people hath forgotten Me days without number." (11) Recalling the mercies of God in regard to the people of Israel saved by Him in their passage through the Red Sea, the Psalmist writes: "They forgot His works. . . . They forgot God, who saved them, who had done great things." (12) Several times Scripture adds that especially in tribulation we should recall the mercies of God and implore His aid.

If we forget God and do not appreciate His immense benefits, those of the redemptive Incarnation, the institution of the Holy Eucharist, daily Mass, we are guilty of ingratitude and lose the time of the present life which ought to tend toward eternal life.

Proneness to forget God causes our memory to be as if immersed in time, whose relation to eternity, to the benefits and promises of God, it no longer sees. This defect inclines our memory to see all things horizontally on the line of time that flees, of which the present alone is real, between the past that is gone and the future that is not yet. Forgetfulness of God prevents us from seeing that the present moment is also on a vertical line which attaches it to the single instant of immobile eternity, and that there is a divine manner of living the present moment in order that by merit it may enter into eternity. Whereas forgetfulness of God leaves us in this banal and horizontal view of things on the line of time which passes, the contemplation of God is like a vertical view of things which pass and of their bond with God who does not pass. To be immersed in time, is to forget the value of time, that is to say, its relation to eternity.

By what virtue must this great defect of forgetfulness of God be cured? St. John of the Cross (18) answers that the memory which forgets God must be healed by the hope of eternal beatitude, as the intellect must be purified by the progress of faith, and the will by the progress of charity.

This doctrine is based on numerous sayings of Holy Scripture relative to the remembrance of the benefits of God and His promises. The Psalmist often says: "In the day of my trouble I sought God. . . . I remembered the works of the Lord." (14) "I will be mindful of Thy justice alone." (15) "The proud did iniquitously altogether: but I declined not from Thy law. I remembered, 0 Lord, Thy judgments of old: and I was comforted." (16) We read in Ecclesiasticus also: "In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin." (17)

Holy Scripture often says also that we must ceaselessly remember the divine promises, which are the foundation of our hope. The patriarchs and prophets of the Old Testament lived by the promise of the Messias who was to come; and we should live daily more profoundly by the promise of eternal beatitude. It is one of the great recurrent themes in Holy Scripture.

On this point, as on so many others, The Imitation of Christ preserves admirably for us the spirit of St. Augustine, often using his very words. (18) This teaching helps us to understand clearly what St. John of the Cross wrote later. The author of The Imitation often treats of the purification of the memory in the passages where he speaks of the forgetfulness of all creatures in order to find the Creator,(19) of meditation on death,(20) of anxiety to be avoided about one's affairs,(21) of vain and worldly learning,(22) of the remembrance of the benefits of God,(23) of liberty of heart, which is acquired by prayer rather than by reading.(24)

We shall quote only the most characteristic passages which show how the purification of the memory prepares the soul for contemplation and union with God.

Of the contempt of everything created in order to find the Creator. For as long as any thing holds me back, I cannot freely fly to Thee. . . . And what can be more free than he who desires nothing upon earth? A man ought, therefore, to soar above everything created, and perfectly to forsake himself, and in ecstasy of mind to stand and see that Thou, the Creator of all, hast nothing like to Thee among creatures. And unless a man be disengaged from all things created (for their sake or for himself), he cannot freely attend to things divine. And this is the reason why there are found so few contemplative persons, because there are few that know how to sequester themselves entirely from perishable creatures. . . .(2)5

Of the thoughts of death. Oh, the dullness and the hardness of the human heart, that dwelleth only upon things present, instead rather of providing for those which are to come! Thou shouldst so order thyself in every deed and thought as if thou wert immediately to die. . . . Now is the time very precious, now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation. . . . And man's life passeth away suddenly like a shadow. . . . Whilst thou hast time, amass for thyself immortal riches. Think of nothing but thy salvation; care only for the things of God. Make to thyself friends now, by venerating the saints of God and imitating their actions, that when thou shalt fail in this life they may receive thee into everlasting dwellings. Keep thyself as a pilgrim and a stranger upon earth, that hath no concern with the business of the world. Keep thy heart free and lifted up to God, for thou hast not here a lasting city.(26)

We should not settle ourselves on earth; people do not settle themselves on the road, or go to sleep there, but rather use it as a means of advancing toward a given end.

That a man must not be too anxious about his affairs. Son, commit thy cause to Me always; I will dispose of it well in its due season. Await My appointment, and thence thou shalt experience success therefrom. . . .(27)

Against vain and worldly learning. Son, let not the beautiful and subtle sayings of men affect thee; for the kingdom of God consisteth not in speech, but in virtue, Attend to My words, which inflame hearts and enlighten minds, which excite to compunction and afford manifold consolations. . . . When thou shalt have read and shalt know many things, thou must always revert to the one beginning. I am He who teacheth men knowledge, arid who giveth a more clear understanding to little ones than can be taught by man. He to whom I speak will quickly be wise and will profit greatly in spirit. Woe to them that inquire after many curious things of men, and are little curious of the way to serve Me. The time will come when Christ, the Master of masters, the Lord of Angels, shall appear to hear the lessons of all men, that is, to examine the conscience of everyone. And then will He search Jerusalem with lamps, and the hidden things of darkness shall be brought to light, and the argument of tongues shall be silent. I am He that in an instant elevateth the humble mind to comprehend more reasons of the eternal truth than if anyone had studied ten years in the schools. I teach without noise of words, without confusion of opinions, without ambition of honor, without strife of arguments. I am He who teacheth to despise earthly things, to loathe things present, to seek the things eternal, to relish the things eternal, to fly honors, to endure scandals, to repose all hope in Me, to desire nothing out of Me, and above all things ardently to love Me. . . . I within am the Teacher of truth, the Searcher of the heart, the Understander of thoughts, the Mover of actions, distributing to everyone as I judge fitting. . . .(28)

Of the remembrance of the manifold benefits of God. Give me to understand Thy will, and to commemorate with great reverence and diligent consideration all Thy benefits, as well in general as in particular, that so henceforward I may be able worthily to return thanks for them. . . . All things that we have in soul and body. . . are Thy benefits. . . . He who hath received greater things, cannot glory of his own merit, nor extol himself above others, nor exult over the lesser. . . . For Thou, 0 God, hast chosen the poor and the humble, and those that are despised by this world, for Thy familiar friends and domestics. . . .(29)

Of liberty of heart. Lord, this is the work of a perfect man, never to let the mind slacken from attending to heavenly things, and amidst many cares to pass on as it were without care; not after the manner of an indolent person, but by a certain prerogative of a free mind, not cleaving with an inordinate affection to anything created.(30)

Here we have truly the purification of the memory, which prepares for the infused contemplation of the great mysteries of faith. On this contemplation of the purified and liberated soul, The Imitation says:

For this a great grace is required, such as may elevate the soul, and lift it up above itself. And unless a man be elevated in spirit and freed from attachment to all creatures and wholly united to God, whatever he knows and whatever he has is of no great importance.(31)

Is this not equivalent to saying that the infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith and the union with God resulting from it are in the normal way of sanctity? The Imitation adds:

Whatsoever is not God is nothing, and ought to be accounted as nothing. There is a great difference between the wisdom of an illuminated and devout man, and the knowledge of a learned and studious cleric. Far more noble is that learning which flows from above from the divine influence than that which is laboriously acquired by the industry of man. Many are found to desire contemplation, but they are not careful to practice those things which are required for its attainment. . . . From a pure heart proceedeth the fruit of a good life.(32)

This teaching on the purification of the memory was particularly developed by St. John of the Cross, especially in relation to the remembrance of exceptional and so to speak exterior graces on which we must not dwell too much. The memory of them, accompanied by vain complacency, would turn us away from union with God. Hope lifts us up more to the love of God than experience of extraordinary graces. "What we have to do, then," says the holy doctor, "in order to live in the simple and perfect hope of God, whenever these forms, knowledge, and distinct images occur, is not to fix our minds upon them but to turn immediately to God, emptying the memory of all such matters, in loving affection, without regarding or considering them more than suffices to enable us to understand and perform our obligations, if they have any reference thereto." (33)

Here we have truly the active purification of the memory which is too preoccupied with useless or dangerous memories. We should put this teaching into practice that our memory may no longer be, so to speak, immersed in ephemeral things, that it may no longer see them only on the horizontal line of fleeting time, but on the vertical line which attaches them to the single instant of immobile eternity.

Thus, little by little the soul rises often to the thought of God, recalling the great benefits of the redemptive Incarnation and the Holy Eucharist. Often, on the contrary, we enter a church to ask for some urgent grace, and we forget to thank God for the measureless blessing of the Eucharist. Its institution demands a special thanksgiving; this sacrament reminds us of the promises of eternal life.



1. Matt. 16:24; Luke 9:23.

2. Luke 10:27.

3. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia, q.78, a.4; q.84, a.7.

4. The Interior Castle, fifth mansion, chap. 4; sixth mansion, chap. I.

5. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. III, chaps. 12, 34. Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q. 180, a.5 ad 2um.

6. Ibid., Bk. III, chaps. 1-15. Chapter 15 sums up the preceding chapters.

7. St. Thomas, Ia, q.77, a.8; q.78, a.4; q.79, a.6 f.

8. St. Thomas (Ia, q.79, a. 7) explains it well, for he says that the faculties are specified by their formal object, and that there is no difference between the formal object of the intellect (specified by intelligible being or the true) and the intellectual memory which retains ideas and judgment.

In the first objection stated in this seventh article, St. Thomas notes that St. Augustine (De Trinitate, Bk. X, chaps. 10 f.) "assigns to the soul memory, understanding, and will" and thereby seems to distinguish between them. Then he replies that St. Augustine, as is indicated in De Trinitate, Bk. XIV, chap. 7, understood by memory the soul's habit of retention; by intelligence, the act of the intellect; and by will, the act of the will.

In other words, St. Augustine takes the descriptive point of view of experimental psychology, or of introspection (it is thus that St. John of the Cross speaks), whereas St. Thomas, as a metaphysician, takes the ontological point of view of the real distinction of the faculties according to their formal object. But such a distinction does not exist between the intellect and the intellectual memory.

9. Loc. cit.

10. Isa. 59: 15.

11. Jer. 2:32.

12. Ps. 105:13,21.

13. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. III, chaps. 6 f. Hope, he says, is so much the greater as the memory is empty of notions of created things.

14. Ps. 76:3, 12.

15. Ps. 70: 16.

16. Ps. 118: 51 f.

17. Ecclus. 7:40.

18. The Imitation seems to have been written by a holy religious who culled from the works of St. Augustine what is most applicable to the interior life. It matters little whether we know the name of its author; this book somewhat resembles Melchisedech, a type of the Messias, of whom it is said that "he had neither father nor mother" because he belonged, so to speak, to a supratemporal order. Likewise, many sublime hymns of the liturgy bear the name of no author; the same is true of many famous melodies. Among anonymous writings, some are debasing, others sublime. There are two classes of people who hide themselves: the criminal who flees punishment, and the saint who through humility wishes to remain unknown.

19. The Imitation of Christ, Bk. III, chap. 31.

20. Ibid., Bk. I, chap. 23.

21. Ibid., Bk. III, chap. 39.

22. Ibid., chap. 43.

23 Ibid., chap. 22.

24. Ibid., chap. 26.

25. Ibid., chap. 31.

26. Ibid., Bk. I, chap. 23.

27. Ibid., Bk. III, chap. 39.

28. Ibid., chap. 43.

29. Ibid., chap. 22.

30 Ibid., chap. 26.

81 Ibid., chap. 31.

32. Ibid.

33. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. III, chap. 14. On this subject we must recall what St. John of the Cross says in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. III, chap. I passim: "When the reader observes that I teach the annihilation of these powers in the matter of their operations, he will perhaps imagine that I am destroying and not building up the spiritual edifice. This objection would be valid if my purpose here were to instruct only beginners, who are to be led onwards by means of these discursive and tangible apprehensions. But as I am teaching how to advance by contemplation to the divine union, for which end all these means, and the sensible exertion of the powers of the soul must cease and be silent, in order that God in His own way may bring that union to pass - it is necessary to release the faculties and to empty them, and to make them renounce their natural jurisdiction and operations, that the supernatural may fill and enlighten them; seeing that their powers cannot compass so great a matter, but rather, unless suppressed, prove a difficulty in the way. . . . .

"You will, perhaps, object and say: All this is very well, but the principle involves the destruction of the natural use and course of our faculties. . . . Surely God does not destroy nature, but rather perfects it; but its destruction is the natural issue of this doctrine. . . .

"To this I reply: The more the memory is united to God the more it loses all distinct knowledge, and at last all such fades utterly away when the state of perfection is reached. In the beginning, when this is going on, great forgetfulness ensues, for these forms and knowledge fall into oblivion, men neglect themselves in outward things, forgetting to eat or drink; . . . and all this because the memory is lost in God. But he who has attained to the habit of union does not forget in this way that which relates to moral and natural reason; he performs in much greater perfection all necessary and befitting actions, though by the ministry of forms and knowledge in the memory, supplied in a special manner by God. . . . The operations of the memory, therefore, and of the other powers in this state are, as it were, divine. . . . Therefore the operations of the soul in the state of union are the operations of the Holy Ghost, and consequently, divine." The soul is then clearly under the regime of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, and the special inspirations of the Holy Ghost incline it to the superior acts of the infused virtues which the gifts accompany. "The actions and the prayers of such souls," says St. John of the Cross (ibid.), "always attain their end."