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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch I : The Object of the Third Part and the language of Spiritual Writers Compared with That of Theologians

In Part One of this work, we discussed the principles or the sources of the interior life, the organism of the virtues and the gifts, the nature of Christian perfection, its elevation, and the general obligation of every Christian and the special obligation of priests and religious to tend to perfection.

In Part Two we treated of the purification of the soul in beginners, of sins to be avoided, of the predominant fault, of the active purification of the senses and the spirit, especially of the active purification of the memory, the understanding, the will, and finally of I the mental prayer of beginners.

We shall now, logically, proceed to the consideration of the illuminative way of proficients, which is the continuation of the purgative way under another name. It is given a new name, just as one and the same road is called, progressively, different names according to the cities through which it passes: the railway from Turin to Rome is called, first of all, the Turin-Genoa Railroad, then the Genoa-Pisa, and lastly the Pisa-Rome Railroad.

Great variety may be found on the same road; one part crosses the plain, another climbs more or less steep slopes; part of the road can be covered in daylight, part at night, and that in fair or stormy weather. The same is true from the spiritual point of view. Further more, on a railroad connecting two cities, speed must not be excessive, or stops eliminated, or the wait at stations too much prolonged. Likewise on God's highway, progress would be compromised by a desire to travel too fast, whereas too great a delay in one place would put one behind schedule; in this sense, "Not to advance is to retrogress." The illuminative way is, therefore, the continuation of the purgative way, but in the former, progress should be more marked.

To discuss the illuminative way in a methodical manner, we shall treat of it in the following order:

(I) the entrance to this way; several writers have called it a second conversion and, more precisely, speaking, the passive purification of the senses;

(2) the principal characteristics of the spiritual age of proficients;

(3) the progress of the Christian moral virtues, especially of humility, a fundamental virtue, and of meekness in its relations with charity;

(4) the progress of the theological virtues, of the spirit of faith and confidence in God, of conformity to the signified divine will, of fraternal charity, the great sign of progress in the love of God;

(5) the gifts of the Holy Ghost in proficients, their docility to the Holy Ghost, their more continual recollection in the course of the day;

(6) the progressive illumination of the soul by the Sacrifice of the Mass and Communion; why each Communion should be substantially more fervent than the preceding one; devotion to the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus and to Mary Mediatrix, in this period of the interior life;

(7) the contemplative prayer of proficients and its degrees; the error of the quietists on this subject; the passage from acquired prayer to infused prayer. Is infused prayer in the normal way of sanctity, or is it, on the contrary, an extraordinary grace, like visions, revelations, the stigmata? Is infused prayer ordinarily granted to generous, interior souls, who persevere in prayer and docility to the Holy Ghost, and who daily bear the cross with patience and love?

(8) the defects of proficients; the pride which mingles in their acts; the discernment of spirits; retarded proficients; the necessity of a passive purification of the spirit which, according to St. John of the Cross, marks the entrance into the unitive way.

Why do we propose to follow this order? Because it is fitting to consider the growth of the virtues and of the gifts before the progress of their acts, in order to show more clearly to what already elevated acts this growth of the virtues and of the gifts, which is a trustworthy sign of progress, is ordained. We are, in fact, already certain through faith and theology that the acquired virtues and the infused virtues, as well as the seven gifts, should always grow in us here on earth, particularly in the illuminative way or that of proficients. In this stage there should even be an acceleration in this progress, for the soul ought to advance more rapidly toward God as it approaches Him more closely and is more drawn by Him, just as the stone falls more rapidly as it draws near the earth which attracts it.(1) The traveler toward eternity should advance more rapidly as he approaches the end which captivates him more. We have already shown these principles to be certain; there should, consequently, be a very notable increase in the virtues and the gifts in the illuminative way of proficients. Profound consideration of this fact will make us understand better what the elevation of the acts of these virtues and gifts should normally be in this period of the spiritual life.

Moreover, that we may proceed with order, it is fitting that we follow an ascending course, considering first of all the increase of the Christian moral virtues, next that of the theological virtues, then that of the gifts which perfect the virtues, and finally the graces of light, love, and strength which are given us daily by Mass and Communion. If we follow this plan, we shall see more clearly that the prayer of proficients is normally a contemplative prayer. If, on the contrary, we discuss this prayer at the very beginning, we might describe it as it actually is in those who appear to be proficients without perhaps really being so, and not such as it should normally be in this already advanced age of the spiritual life. These are the reasons for the order we shall follow.

Before beginning our study, however, we shall here examine an important preliminary question, that of the essential character of the language of the great spiritual writers who have discussed these matters, language having terms that are somewhat different from those used by theologians. A comparison of these two terminologies or ways of speaking is necessary here.


It has often been remarked that great spiritual writers, especially when they discuss mysticism properly so called, use terms that differ notably from those used by theologians. For a clear grasp of the meaning and import of each set of terms, a comparison of the two is necessary.

The language of the great Catholic mystics has its basis in Scripture, in the Psalms, the Canticle of Canticles, the Gospel of St. John, and the Epistles of St. Paul. It takes shape increasingly with St. Augustine in his commentaries on the Psalms and on St. John; with Dionysius; St. Gregory the Great in his commentary on Job; St. Bernard; Hugh and Richard of St. Victor; St. Bonaventure; the author of The Imitation; Tauler; Blessed Henry Suso; St. Teresa; St. John of the Cross; and St. Francis de Sales.

Their terminology, the expression of their mystical experience, gradually passed into doctrinal, spiritual theology, which should compare it with the scholastic terminology of theologians in order to avoid certain errors or confusions into which Master Eckart occasionally fell.


At first glance, the vocabulary of great spiritual writers seems to a number of exclusively scholastic theologians too metaphorical and also exaggerated, either in what relates to the abnegation necessary for perfection or in regard to the separation from the sensible and from reasoning or discourse in contemplation. For this reason, certain great mystics, such as Tauler and Ruysbroeck, seemed suspect; and, for the same reason, after the death of St. John of the Cross, some theologians felt they should correct his works and cover them over, as it were, with scholastic whitewash in order the better to explain their meaning and remove all exaggeration. Thus talent sometimes wishes to correct genius, as if the eaglet wished to teach the eagle to fly. It was then necessary to defend the mystics against their enemies and their injudicious friends. With this purpose Louis Blosius wrote a defense of Tauler, and Father Nicholas of Jesus Mary composed his book, Elucidatio phrasium mysticorum operum Joannis a Cruce.(2)

An example of the difference between the language of spiritual writers and that of theologians may be illustrated by the meaning they give to the word "nature." The speculative meaning of this word is abstract and has nothing unfavorable about it; its ascetical meaning is concrete and recalls original sin. We read in The Imitation in regard to the different movements of nature and grace: "Nature is crafty and draweth away many, . . . and always proposes self as her end. But grace walketh in simplicity, turneth aside from all appearance of evil, offereth no deceits, and doth all things purely for God, in whom also it resteth as its last end. . . . Nature willingly receiveth honor and respect. But grace faithfully attributeth honor and glory to God." (3) These words at first seem contrary to the principles often formulated by St. Thomas: "Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it"; "Nature inclines us to love God, its Author, more than ourselves; otherwise the natural inclination would be perverse, and it would not be perfected, but destroyed, by charity." (4)

Considering the matter with greater attention, we see that no contradiction exists between the author of The Imitation and St. Thomas, but they employ the word nature with two different meanings. St. Thomas takes it in the philosophical and abstract sense, which corresponds to the definition of man (a rational animal), to his nature, the radical principle of his operations, such as it comes from God, abstraction being made of every grace superior to it and also of original sin and its results. Human nature thus conceived corresponds to a divine idea. When spiritual writers, like the author of The Imitation, contrast nature and grace, they take the word nature in its ascetical and concrete meaning. They speak of nature such as it is concretely since the sin of the first man; in other words, turned away from God by original sin, or still wounded although regenerated by baptism. They wish to recall the fact that, even in baptized persons, the wounds, the results of original sin, are not completely healed, but are in the process of healing. These wounds are four in number: weakness, ignorance, malice, and concupiscence. They affect the different faculties,(5) and often manifest themselves in a gross egoism, at times only slightly conscious, which personal sins can greatly augment. St. Thomas also insists on this point when he speaks of inordinate self-love, from which spring pride, the concupiscence of the flesh, that of the eyes; (6) and then when he speaks of the seven capital sins,(7) from which come other sins that are still more serious.

Careful thought on the matter shows that here there is not a contradiction in doctrine between speculative theologians and spiritual writers, but a difference of terminology which the context explains. One is more abstract, the other more concrete, for it aims at the application of principles for the conduct of life in conditions in which man actually finds himself since original sin.

For a clearer understanding of this difference, we shall speak of the theological bases of the terminology of spiritual writers, of the principal terms of their language, and we shall compare the expressive value of their language with the value of that of theologians.


Each science or discipline has its special terms, the meaning of which cannot be clearly understood by those who do not know the subject. If mathematics, physics, and physiology have their particular set of terms, why should mysticism not have its terminology? Terms express ideas, as ideas express the nature of things, and the idea which at first was confused subsequently becomes distinct. Scientific concepts are thus more distinct than the notions of common sense, and sometimes new names are needed to express them; otherwise it would be necessary to have recourse to circumlocutions or excessively lengthy paraphrases.

Theology furnishes the basis of the terminology of spiritual writers when it teaches that, to speak of God and our supernatural life, we have two classes of terms, one set of which has a literal meaning, and the other a metaphorical meaning. Thus we say, using the literal meaning: "God is good and wise; He is goodness itself, wisdom itself." These are, in fact, perfections which imply no imperfection, and they are found analogically in God and in creatures according to their literal meaning. On the contrary, it is only metaphorically that we speak of the wrath of God; wrath is, in fact, a passion, a movement of the sensible appetite, which cannot, properly speaking, be found in God, who is pure spirit; but the expression "wrath of God" is a metaphor to denominate His justice.

On this subject we must make the following observations: among the analogical terms which denominate God literally, negative terms, like "immaterial" and "immobile," express Him more exactly than positive terms, inasmuch as we know rather what God is not than what He is.(8) We know very well that in Him there is neither matter, movement, progress, nor limit; whereas we cannot know positively the essential mode according to which the divine perfections are in God and are identified in the eminence of the Deity, in which they exist formally and eminently. We know this essential mode of he divine perfections in a negative and relative manner, saying: it is an uncreated, incomprehensible, supreme mode. But in itself it remains hidden, like the Deity, which is manifest only to the blessed who see it immediately.

Consequently, when the mystics speak of God, they use many negative terms, such as "incomprehensible," "ineffable," "incommunicable." They say that negative contemplation, which expresses itself in this manner, is superior to affirmative contemplation. In fact, negative contemplation attains in its way what is most lofty: the eminence of the Deity, or the inner life of God, which cannot be shared by nature, but only by sanctifying grace, which is a participation in the divine nature.

Moreover, among the positive names that are properly applied to God, the least definite and the more absolute and common denominate Him better than the others, says St. Thomas.(9) Thus the name, "He who is," is more properly applied to God than the others, for by its indetermination it better expresses the infinite ocean of the spiritual substance of God. On the contrary, more definite names, such as "intelligent," "free," fall short of this infinite mode. Therefore the mystics say that superior contemplation, which proceeds from faith illumined by the gifts, is confused, indistinct, ineffable; they place it above distinct contemplation which would come from a special revelation.

Metaphorical terms are necessary, says St. Thomas,(10) where there are no suitable terms, especially to express the particular relations of God with interior souls. Thus the mystics speak metaphorically of spiritual espousals and of spiritual marriage in order to designate as it were a transforming union of the soul with God. Likewise by metaphor they speak of the depth of the soul to designate the depth of the intellect and the will, where these faculties spring from the very substance of the soul. These metaphors are explained by the fact that we know spiritual things only in the mirror of sensible things, and that it is often difficult to find fitting terms to express them.


The ordinary terms of Scripture and those of theology would suffice for mysticism; but to avoid excessively long circumlocutions, spiritual writers have had recourse to special terms, or they have given a more particular meaning to expressions already in use. Thus several terms have become essentially mystical, to such an extent that if one took them in their scholastic meaning, they would no longer be true. All spiritual writers speak, for example, of the nothingness of the creature and say: the creature is nothing. A theologian, to render this proposition acceptable to his point of view, would add this precision: the creature by itself is nothing. Master Eckart's error consisted in affirming in the scholastic meaning of the word what is true only in a mystical sense. Consequently several of his propositions were condemned, among them the following: "All creatures are pure nothingness; I do not say that they are little, or something, but that they are pure nothingness." (11) If this were true, God would have created nothing outside of Himself, or rather the being of creatures would not be distinct from that of God.

Likewise the mystics have often called infused contemplation simply "contemplation," when, as a matter of fact, they mean infused contemplation. Thus a special terminology has gradually grown up. Its special character comes from the fact that the secrets of the inner life of God and of the union of the soul with Him are ineffable, or from the fact that the terms of human language have no proportion with the sublimity of divine things. To remedy this lack of proportion, spiritual writers have found three categories of terms which are essentially mystical. They may be classed as hyperbolical, antithetical or contrary, and symbolical terms.

Hyperbolical terms seek to express the infinite elevation of God, as for example, "the superessence or the supergoodness of God," (12) or again the inferiority of the creature in relation to God, as "the nothingness of the creature."

Antithetical terms express something lofty by a sort of contrary effect which they produce on us. Thus the terms "dark night" and "great darkness" express "the inaccessible light in which God dwells," a light that dazzles us and affects us like a superior and transluminous obscurity, which is the direct opposite of the inferior obscurity which comes from matter, error, or evil. Likewise, by irony, the word of God is called foolishness, since it produces this  effect on senseless people. With this meaning St. Paul writes: "For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world, by wisdom, knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe. . . . For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men." (13)

Symbolical terms are metaphors such as: the Spouse of souls (to designate God), the spiritual marriage, the depth of the soul, the spiritual senses, the sleep of the faculties, the wound of love, liquefaction and spiritual fusion.

It should be pointed out that certain mystics, such as Dionysius, have a preference for hyperbolical terms (for example, superessence, supergoodness); others, like St. John of the Cross, for antithetical terms (the dark night); others, as St. Teresa, for symbolical terms (spiritual espousals and marriage).

In these terms we have the principle that enables us to reconcile the degrees of prayer described by St. Teresa and those described by St. John of the Cross; the difference is to be found more in the terms than in the spiritual states indicated. Thus under the title of the dark night of the senses, St. John of the Cross speaks of the prayer of arid quiet, which precedes consoled quiet of which St. Teresa speaks in the fourth mansion. With regard to the dark night of the spirit St. John discusses graces of which St. Teresa treats in the sixth mansion in connection with the spiritual espousals, which, like the night of the spirit, proximately prepare the soul for the perfect transforming union, also called the spiritual marriage.

The terminology preferred by St. John of the Cross contributes to giving him a more austere tone than that of St. Teresa; but when he speaks of the summit of the interior life in The Living Flame of Love, he does so in terms that show a plenitude of most striking spiritual joy.

The meaning of mystical terms is well comprehended, with respect to what is at one and the same time disproportionate and suitable, only by those who have experience in these matters, and they observe a fitting sobriety in this regard. Others have, at times, ridiculously abused these terms, even to speaking of superseraphic superelevation, of "confricatio deifica," of the abyss of cordial exinanition, and so on, and using other terms which remind one of vain sentimentality and sometimes of mystical sensualism


In a study of the hyperbolical terms used by the great mystics, it should be pointed out that they did not use these terms with the meaning given them by agnostics. For example, when the mystics say, as Dionysius does, that God in His Deity or His inner life is above being, unity, the true, the good, intelligence, and love, they do not mean that God is unknowable, but that His Deity or His intimate life contains in an eminent manner the divine perfections according to an ineffable, superior mode, which permits these perfections to be mutually identified without destroying each other.

The mystics mean that the Deity, which can be participated in only supernaturally by sanctifying grace, is superior to the absolute perfections that it contains formally and eminently. These perfections, such as being, life, intelligence, can be shared in naturally and are, in fact, participated in by stones, plants, and the human soul. The Deity thus appears as the inaccessible light superior to every name.

Likewise when the mystics speak hyperbolically of the nothingness of the creature, they mean only that the creature of itself is nothing, and that, although it actually exists through the creative act, it is, in comparison with God, lower and poorer than words can express. All these excessively lengthy circumlocutions are summed up in the more expressive term: the nothingness of the creature.

This legitimate hyperbole is already found in Scripture, as St. Thomas points out in reference to the expression of Isaias: "Therefore is the wrath of God kindled against His people, and He hath stretched out His hand upon them and struck them: and the mountains were troubled." (14) In Scripture, says St. Thomas, hyperbole exceeds not the truth, but the judgment of men, in this sense that God is greater than one can believe, and the punishments that He announces to the wicked transcend what one can imagine. In profane writings, hyperbole is a rhetorical figure which augments excessively the measure of things in order to produce a more vivid impression on the mind of the reader: for example, to indicate a very tall man, the word giant is used. Thus human poetry uses hyperbole because of the smallness of human things which it wishes to magnify, whereas the divine poetry of the prophets, of the Psalmist, and that of the great mystics makes use of metaphor and hyperbole because of the infinite elevation of divine things, which it could not otherwise express.(15) Hence there is neither error nor formal exaggeration in scriptural hyperbole, nor in that of the great mystics. The exaggeration is only material, for example, when one speaks of the nothingness of the creature, for thereby the author wishes to convey something that is very true, namely, that in comparison with God, the creature is more poor and deficient than can be expressed; and by contrast God is far more perfect than words can tell.

Hyperbole of the same type is found in these words of Christ: "If thy right eye scandalize thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee. . . . If thy right hand scandalize thee, cut it off." (16) It is not a question here of mutilation; Christ uses a vivid expression to point out the gravity of the danger He is speaking of and the urgent necessity of defending oneself against it. Likewise St. Paul, in speaking of the advantages of Judaism, says: "I count all things to be but loss for the excellent knowledge of Jesus Christ, my Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ." (17)

Blessed Angela of Foligno is fond of mystical hyperbole and antithesis when she speaks of the great darkness and of the inner life of God, which is above the perfections of intelligence and love, which are identified in it without disappearing. She writes: "I see nothing and I see all; certitude is obtained in the darkness;" (18) that is, I see nothing determinate, but I see all the divine perfections united, fused in an ineffable manner in the eminence of the Deity. What she says in this mystical outburst, Cajetan says in abstract form in the loftiest parts of his commentary on St. Thomas' Treatise on the Trinity.(19)

St. John of the Cross likes to use mystical hyperbole also in explaining his doctrine, for example, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel: "All things in heaven and earth are nothing in comparison with God. 'I beheld the earth,' saith He, 'and lo, it was void and a thing of nothing, and the heavens, and there was no light in them' (Jer. 4: 23)' The earth, 'void and nothing,' signifies that the earth and all it contains are nothing, and the heavens without light, that all the lights of heaven, in comparison with God, are perfect darkness.
Thus all created things, with the affections bestowed upon them, are nothing, because they are a hindrance, and the privation of our transformation in God." (20)

To judge by the engraving which serves as a frontispiece to The Ascent of Mount Carmel, the author seems to demand excessive abnegation. On the narrow path of perfection, he wrote: "Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing"; but if he demands so much, it is because he wishes to lead souls to great heights by the most direct route. Above, he wrote: "Since I wish nothing through self-love, all is given to me, without my going in search of it." He explains this statement in the following manner in The Ascent: "He has greater joy and comfort in creatures if he detaches himself from them; and he can have no joy in them if he considers them as his own. He acquires also in this detachment from creatures a clear comprehension of them, so as to understand perfectly the truths that relate to them, both naturally and supernaturally. For this reason his joy in them is widely different from his who is attached to them, and far nobler. The former rejoices in their truth, the latter in their deceptiveness; the former in their best, and the latter in their worst, conditions; the former in their substantial worth, and the latter in their seeming and accidental nature, through his senses only. For sense cannot grasp or comprehend more than the accidents, but the mind, purified from the clouds and species of the accidents, penetrates to the interior truth of things, for that is its proper object. . . . The negation and purgation of this joy leaves the judgment clear as the sky when the mists are scattered. The former, therefore, has joy in all things, but his joy is not dependent upon them, neither does it arise from their being his own; and the latter, in so far as he regards them as his own, loses in general all joy whatever." (21) This is indeed what St. Paul says: "Having nothing, and possessing all things." (22) St. Francis of Assisi enjoyed the landscapes of Umbria incomparably more than the proprietors of those lands, who were busy making them materially fructify to the greatest possible extent.

The mystics themselves, it is evident, explain the hyperbole and antithesis to which they have recourse in order to draw us from our somnolence and to try to make us glimpse the elevation of divine things and the value of the one thing necessary.

A comparison of their language with that of theologians will be profitable that we may see how they clarify each other.


Each of these two terminologies has its merits. For the theologian's study, his more abstract and precise language, which is limited to essential terms, is preferable. But to lead souls effectively to generous abnegation and union with God, the terminology of the mystics is more appropriate because it is more vivid, more alluring, and also more brief, and, in a concrete manner, more comprehensive. These qualities spring from the fact that it expresses not only abstract concepts, but concepts that have been lived, and an ardent
love of God; consequently it avoids many circumlocutions and speculative distinctions which would arrest the impulse of the love of God. It leads the soul to seek God Himself beyond the formulas of faith and through them. It reminds us that, if the truth of our judgments is in our mind, the good toward which the will tends is outside our mind, in God Himself.(23) It leads also to the thought that what is unknowable and ineffable in God is sovereignly good and can be ardently loved without being really known. It is inspired by the thought which St. Thomas formulates as follows: "(In this life) the love of God is better than the knowledge of God," (24) for by knowledge we in a way draw God to ourselves by imposing on Him, so to speak, the limit of our ideas, whereas love draws us and lifts us toward God.

The distinction between these two terminologies appears, for example, in a comparison of our Savior's words with a theological commentary on them. In verse twenty-five, chapter twelve of St. John's Gospel, Christ says briefly, vividly, and concretely: 'He that loveth his life shall lose It; and he that hateth his life in this world, keepeth it unto life eternal" That is: he who loves his life in an inordinate manner, for example, by refusing to undergo martyrdom rather than to deny his faith, will lose his soul; whereas he who in this world has a holy hatred of his life, for example, by undergoing martyrdom for the Gospel's sake, will save his soul for eternal life.

But if we attempt a theological explanation of these highly vivid words of Christ, we will construe them in the following abstract manner: he who loves his life with a love contrary to charity will lose it. He will not lose it, however, because he loves his life with a natural love, which is distinct from charity without being contrary to it; and with even greater reason, if he loves it with a love which is included in charity itself. It is St. Thomas (25) who thus distinguishes these three very different ways of loving one's life: the first, contrary to charity; the second, distinct from charity; the third, included in charity, when we wish the life of grace and that of heaven in order to glorify God. These distinctions are indispensable to the theologian; they are those of the speculative intellect which analyzes, whereas Christ's words lead immediately to love and to the generosity of love.

Likewise, the mystics speak briefly of the nothingness of the creature in order to express what theologians would state in the five following propositions: (I) the creature of itself is nothing, for it was created ex nihilo; (2) compared to God, the already existing creature is nothing, for there is no more perfection after creation, no more being than before, although there are now more beings; (3) by its essential defectibility the creature tends to nothingness and sin; (4) sin is less than nothingness itself, for it is not only the negation, but the privation of a good; it is a disorder and an offense against God; (5) the creature is nothing in our affection if we love it without subordinating it to God, for thus it turns us away from Him.

These five propositions, which are necessary for the abstract study of truth, are summed up in the vivid expression of spiritual writers: the nothingness of the creature. This hyperbolical expression is not false; it would be so only if the word "nothingness" were taken in its literal meaning. Then it would signify that God created nothing outside of Himself and, consequently, one could not speak at all of creatures. All that we have said is clear, and does not greatly need explanation.

We may exemplify the distinction between the two terminologies by comparing the theological treatise on charity with its multiple questions; articles, objections, answers, and distinctions, with what The Imitation says about the marvelous effects of divine love: "Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing stronger, nothing higher, nothing wider, nothing more pleasant, nothing fuller or better in heaven or in earth: for love is born of God, and cannot rest but in God, above all created things. The lover flieth, runneth, and rejoiceth; he is free and cannot be restrained. . . . Love watcheth, and sleeping slumbereth not. When weary it is not tired; when straightened is not constrained; when frightened is not disturbed; but like a vivid flame and a burning torch, it mounteth upwards and securely passeth through all. . . . He that loveth must willingly embrace all that is hard and bitter for the sake of his Beloved, and never suffer himself to be turned-away from Him by any contrary occurrences whatsoever." (26)


Which of these two terminologies is the loftier depends on the principle formulated by Aristotle and often recalled by St. Thomas: "The terms of language are the signs of our ideas, and our ideas are the similitude of realities." (27) The more elevated terminology is, therefore, the one that expresses a loftier thought. Now infused contemplation, in spite of its obscurity and lack of precision, is loftier than theological speculation. Therefore the language of the mystics, which expresses this contemplation, is more elevated than that of theologians. Moreover, that great mystics may acquaint us with their intimate experiences, it is fitting that they should be great poets, like St. John of the Cross or Ruysbroeck; it is not necessary for the theologian to be a poet.

However, if the language of the mystics is in itself more lofty, because it expresses a higher knowledge, it translates this knowledge less exactly than the language of theologians expresses their thought. But we see that this point of view is secondary, if we remember what St. Thomas, following Aristotle, says in the Contra Gentes: "Although we know very little about the loftiest things, the little that we do know about them is more loved and desired than the most exact knowledge that can be had of inferior things." (28) Thus a probable or congruous argument on the mystery of the Trinity is, by reason of the dignity of its object, worth more than all the geometric demonstrations of Euclid.(29)

What we have just said is confirmed by the fact that Christ's manner of speaking in Scripture is most lofty; now, the language of spiritual writers more closely resembles it than does scholastic terminology. For example, without feeling that they need to explain them, spiritual writers repeat Christ's words: "If thou didst know the gift of God, . . . thou perhaps wouldst have asked of Him, and He would have given thee living water. . . springing up into life everlasting." (30) "If any man thirst, let him come to Me, and drink. . . . Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." (31) Theologians, on the other hand, would offer the following explanation of these words: sanctifying grace, metaphorically expressed by the living water, is an infused habit, received in the essence of the soul, from which spring in our faculties the infused virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost, all ordered to eternal life. This theological commentary is in relation to the words of our Savior what the polygon inscribed within a circumference is in relation to it. The commentary shows the multiple wealth of the divine utterance, but in its simplicity this saying is superior to the commentary.

Consequently these two terminologies clarify each other, like the doctrine of St. Thomas and that of St. John of the Cross, like acquired wisdom, according to the perfect use of reason enlightened by faith, and infused wisdom or the gift of wisdom.(32)

The terminology of the Gospel, such as it is kept by spiritual writers, preserves the spirit of faith and love of God, that is, the very spirit of the theological doctrine relative to the majesty of God and the inferiority of the creature. From this point of view, an antimystical scholastic theologian would be a bad theologian.

On the other hand, scholastic terminology is necessary, if not for the individual interior life of the faithful, at least for the doctrinal exposition of revealed truth in opposition to the inexact statements that disfigure it. Without the suitability and precision of theological terms, it is easy to fall into these errors; for example, one exaggerates the congruous reasons for the mysteries of faith and proposes them as if they were demonstrative, or indeed one exaggerates the natural desire to see God to such an extent as to make of it, with Baius, an efficacious natural desire, with the result that grace would not be a gratuitous gift, but a favor due to our nature. For this reason the great mystics, like St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, highly esteemed great theologians, whereas false mystics, like Molinos, gave them no importance whatever.

Therefore the priest who directs souls should know these two terminologies and be able to explain the one by the other. No one can know the true meaning of the language of spiritual writers if he is unable to explain it theologically; and, on the other hand, no one can know the sublimity of theology if he is ignorant of its relations to mysticism.



1. Cf . St. Thomas, In Epist. ad Hebr., 10:25: "A natural movement (e.g., of a falling stone) increases in proportion as it draws near its goal. The opposite is true of a violent movement (e.g., of a stone hurled into the air). Grace, moreover, inclines by a sort of analogy with what nature does; therefore those who are in the state of grace ought to grow so much the more as they more nearly approach the end." The word "more" is used and not "equally."

2. Recently Jacques Maritain, in Les Degres du savoir (1932, pp. 647 ff.), dealt exceedingly well with the "practicality" of the vocabulary of St. John of the Cross. According to Maritain, the speculative sciences analyze the real into its ontological (or empiriological) elements; in the practical sciences it is a question of composing the means, the dynamic moments by which action should come into existence. Thus concepts bearing the same name will relate to the real in different fashion. Moreover, he rightly says: "As far as mystical language is concerned, it is necessarily different from that of philosophy: in the former, hyperbole is not an ornament of rhetoric, but a means of expression rigorously required to signify things with exactitude, for, in fact, it is an attempt to render intelligible experience itself-and what experience, the most ineffable of all! Philosophical language seeks especially to tell of reality without touching it; mystical language to make it known as if by touching it though not seeing it. . . . The intellect passes from one conceptual vocabulary to another, just as it passes from Latin to Chinese or Arabic. But it cannot apply the syntax of one to the other."

Thus St. John of the Cross describes contemplation as a non-activity, whereas St. Thomas defines it as the highest possible activity. . . . The latter looks at the matter from the ontological point of view; the former from the point of view of mystical experience, in which the suspension of all activity of a human mode must seem to the soul like a non-activity.

3. The Imitation of Christ, Bk. III, chap. 54.

4. Cf. Ia, q.60, a.5; IIa IIae, q.26, a.3.

5. Cf. St. Thomas, Ia IIae, q.85, a. 3; q. 109, a.2f.; IIIa, q.69, a.3.

6. Cf. Ia IIae, q.77, a.4f.

7. Ibid., q.84

8. St Thomas, Ia, q.2, Prologue: Ia, q.1,a.10 ad 3um.

9. Cf. Ia, q.13, a.11.

10. Cft. Ila, q.1, a.9 ad 3um.

11 'Omnes creaturae stint unum purum nihil, non dico quod sint quid modicum, vel aliquid, sed quod sint unum purum nihil" (Denzinger, no. p6).

12. Sometimes even in order to say that the Deity is above being, above unity, the true, and the good, mystics have said: God is non-being, or superbeing. The reader will recognize here Dionysius' manner of speaking.

13. Cf. I Cor. 1:21, 25.

14. In Isaiam, 5, in fine.

15. See Ia IIae, q. 102, a.2 ad 2um.

16. Matt. 5: 29 f.

17. Phil. 3:8.

18. Cf. Livre des visions et des instructions de la Bse Angele de Foligno, chap. 26.

19. Cf. Cajetan on la, q.39, a. I, no. 7: "The Deity is superior to all in its being and in all its attributes; it is, therefore, above being and above unity, etc." All this part of the commentary should be read and meditated upon.

20. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. I, chap. 4.

21. Ibid., Bk. III, chap. 19.

22. Cf. II Cor. 6: 10.

23. Cf. Ia, q.82, a.3: "The action of the intellect consists in this - that the idea of the thing understood is in the one who understands; while the act of the will consists in this - that the will is inclined to the thing itself as existing in itself. And therefore the Philosopher says (Metaph., VI) that good and evil, which are objects of the will, are in things, but truth and error, which are objects of the intellect, are in the mind."

24. Ibid.

25. See IIa IIae, q.19, a.6: "Whether servile fear remains with charity?"

26. The Imitation of Christ, Bk. III, chap. 5.

27. Perihermeneias, Bk. I, chap. I.

28. Contra gentes, Bk. I, chap. 5.

29. In scholastic language one would say: "The terminology of spiritUal writers is thus simply higher than scholastic terminology, but secundum quid is less perfect; just as the knowledge of a more worthy object is simply higher, although it may be at times secundum quid less perfect with respect to the mode of knowing (thus faith with respect to metaphysics); in reality knowledge is specified by its object and not by the mode of knowing, so its dignity simply springs from the dignity of the object." Cf. St. Thomas, IIa IIae, q.4, a.8 (Infused faith, although obscure, is simply more certain than all natural knowledge, even the most evident). The formal object of infused contemplation is superior to that of theological speculation; there is a difference not only of the mode of knowledge, but of the specifying formal object: the divine presence that is experienced.

30. John 4: 10, 14.

31. Ibid., 7:37 f.

32. Cf. IIa IIae, q.45, a.1f.