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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 3 : The Second Conversion According to Several Spiritual Writers

We discussed in the preceding chapter the second conversion according to the teaching of Father Louis Lallemant, S.J., one of the best spiritual writers of the seventeenth century. In the fourteenth century, we find the same teaching under another form in the writings of St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380), Tauler (d. 1361 ), and Blessed Henry Suso (d. 1366), all of whom belong to the family of St. Dominic.


St. Catherine of Siena discusses the second conversion in chapters 60 and 63 of her Dialogue, in reference to imperfect love of God and neighbor, and cites as an example the second conversion of Peter during the Passion. We read in chapter 60: "Some there are who have become faithful servants, serving Me with fidelity without servile fear of punishment, but rather with love. This very love, however, if they serve Me with a view to their own profit, or the delight and pleasure which they find in Me, is imperfect. Dost thou know what proves the imperfection of this love? The withdrawal of the consolations which they found in Me, and the insufficiency and short duration of their love for their neighbor, which grows weak by degrees, and ofttimes disappears. Toward Me their love grows weak when, on occasion, in order to exercise them in virtue and raise them above their imperfection, I withdraw from their minds My consolation and allow them to fall into battles and perplexities. This I do so that, coming to perfect self-knowledge, they may know that of themselves they are nothing and have no grace, and, accordingly in time of battle fly to Me as their benefactor, seeking Me alone, with true humility, for which purpose I treat them thus, withdrawing from them consolation indeed, but not grace. At such a time these weak ones of whom I speak relax their energy, impatiently turning backward, and so sometimes abandon, under color of virtue, many of their exercises, saying to themselves: This labor does not profit me. All this they do, because they feel themselves deprived of mental consolation. Such a soul acts imperfectly, for she has not yet unwound the bandage of spiritual self-love, for had she unwound it, she would see that, in truth, everything proceeds from Me, that no leaf of a tree falls to the ground without My providence, and that what I give and promise to My creatures, I give and promise to them for their sanctification, which is the good and the end for which I created them."

In imperfect or mercenary love of God and neighbor, the soul, therefore, almost unconsciously seeks itself. It must "tear out the root of spiritual self-love." As The Dialogue states: "It was with this imperfect love that St. Peter loved the sweet and good Jesus, My only-begotten Son, enjoying most pleasantly His sweet conversation, but, when the time of trouble came, he failed, and so disgraceful was his fall, that not only could he not bear any pain him self, but his terror of the very approach of pain caused him to fall, and deny the Lord, with the words, 'I have never known Him.' "

In chapter 63 of The Dialogue, the saint says, in speaking of the passage from mercenary to filial love: "Every perfection and every virtue proceeds from charity, and charity is nourished by humility, which results from the knowledge and holy hatred of self, that is, sensuality. . . . To arrive thereat. . . a man must exercise himself in the extirpation of his perverse self-will, both spiritual and temporal, hiding himself in his own house, as did Peter, who, after the sin of denying My Son, began to weep. Yet his lamentations were imperfect, and remained so until after the forty days, that is, until after the Ascension. But when My Truth returned, to Me in His humanity, Peter and the others concealed themselves in the house awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit, which My Truth had promised them. They remained barred in from fear, because the soul always fears until she arrives at true love. But when they had persevered in fasting and in humble and continual prayer, until they had received the abundance of the Holy Spirit, they lost their fear, and followed and preached Christ crucified."

St. Catherine of Siena shows in this passage that the imperfect soul which loves the Lord with a love that is still mercenary, ought to follow Peter's example after his denial of Christ. Not infrequently at this time Providence permits us also to fall into some visible fault to humiliate us and oblige us to enter into ourselves, as Peter did, when immediately after his fall, seeing that Jesus looked at him, he "wept bitterly." (1)

In connection with Peter's second conversion, we should recall that St. Thomas teaches (2) that even after a serious sin, if a man has a truly fervent contrition proportionate to the degree of grace lost, he recovers this degree of grace; he may even receive a higher degree if he has a still more fervent contrition. He is, therefore, not obliged to recommence his ascent from the very beginning, but continues it, taking it up again at the point he had reached when he fell. A mountain climber who stumbles halfway up, rises immediately, and continues the ascent. The same is true in the spiritual order. Everything leads us to think that by the fervor of his repentance Peter not only recovered the degree of grace that he had lost, but was raised to a higher degree of the supernatural life. The Lord permitted this fall only to cure him of his presumption so that he might become more humble and thereafter place his confidence, not in himself, but in God. Thus, the humiliated Peter on his knees weeping over his sin is greater than the Peter on Thabor, who did not as yet sufficiently know his frailty.

The second conversion may also take place, though we have no grave sin to expiate, for example, at a time when we are suffering from an injustice, or a calumny, which, under divine grace, awakens in us not sentiments of vengeance, but hunger and thirst for the justice of God. In such a case, the generous forgiving of a grave injury sometimes draws down on the soul of the one who pardons, a great grace, which makes him enter a higher region of the spiritual life. The soul then receives a new insight into divine things and an impulse which it did not know before. David received such a grace when he pardoned Semei who had outraged and cursed him, while throwing stones at him.(3)

A more profound insight into the life of the soul may originate also on the occasion of the death of a dear one, or of a disaster, or of a great rebuff, when anything occurs which is of a nature to reveal the vanity of earthly things and by contrast the importance of the one thing necessary, union with God, the prelude of the life of heaven.

In her Dialogue St. Catherine also speaks often of the necessity of leaving the imperfect state in which a person serves God more or less through interest and for his own satisfaction, and in which he wishes to go to God the Father without passing through Jesus crucified.(4) To leave this imperfect state, the soul which still seeks itself must be converted that it may cease to seek itself and may truly go in search of God by the way of abnegation, which is that of profound peace.


The works of Blessed Henry Suso contain a number of instructions relative to the second conversion. He himself experienced this conversion after a few years of religious life, during which he had slipped into some negligences. Particular attention ought to be given to what he says about the necessity of a more interior and deep Christian life in religious who give themselves most exclusively to study, and in others who are chiefly attentive to exterior observances and austerities. In the divine light he saw "these two classes of persons circling about the Savior's cross, without being able to reach Him," (5) because both groups sought themselves, either in study or in exterior observances, and because they judged each other without charity. He understood then that he should remain in complete self-abnegation, ready to accept all that God might will, and to accept it with love, at the same time practicing great fraternal charity. (6)

Tauler, who, as Bossuet says, is "one of the most solid and most correct of the mystics," (7) speaks of the second conversion especially in two of his sermons, that for the second Sunday of Lent, and the one for the Monday before Palm Sunday.(8)

In the sermon for the second Sunday of Lent, Tauler points out those who need the second conversion; they are those who still more or less resemble the scribes and Pharisees. We may summarize his teaching as follows:

The scribes, he says, were wise men who made much of their learning, whereas the Pharisees, who were strongly attached to their practices and observances, highly esteemed their own piety.(9) We recognize in these two classes the two most harmful evil inclinations that can be found among pious people. . . . Nothing good comes from either of these dispositions. Nevertheless, rare are they who are not somewhat retained in one or the other of these evil inclinations or even in both of them at the same time; but some are much more held than others.

By the scribes we must understand intellectual men who value everything according to the standard of their reason or sensibility. They pass on to their reason what their senses have furnished them, and thus they come to understand great things. They glory in this knowledge and speak eloquently, but the depths of their souls, whence the truth should come, remain empty and desolate.

The Pharisees, on the other hand, are pious people who have a good opinion of themselves, think they amount to something, hold firmly to their observances and their practices, believe there is nothing beyond these, and aspire to esteem and consideration because of these practices. They condemn those who do not see things as they do (even if their lives are in no way seriously reprehensible).

(Tauler certainly does not believe that these last are in the illuminative way.)

Let everyone, he adds, guard against these Pharisaical ways in the depths of his soul, and be watchful that no false sanctity hide there.

In this connection we should recall what the Gospel tells us about the prayer of the Pharisee and the publican, a parable which shows the necessity of a more profound conversion.

What occurs at the beginning of the second conversion? God begins to pursue the soul, and it likewise seeks God, not, however, without a struggle against the inclinations of the exterior man and without anxiety. This state is manifested by a keen desire for God and for perfection, and also by what St. Paul calls the struggle of the spirit against the flesh or the inferior part of man.(10) From this struggle originates anxiety or even a certain anguish; the soul asks itself if it will reach the end so keenly desired.

Tauler gives a good description of this state, which St. John of the Cross later on calls the passive purification of the senses, in which there is a beginning of infused contemplation. In the sermon for the second Sunday of Lent, the old Dominican master declares: "From this pursuit of God (and of the soul who seek each other) keen anguish results. When a man is plunged into this anxiety and becomes aware of this pursuit of God in his soul, it is then without doubt that Jesus comes and enters into him. But when one does not feel this pursuit or experience this anguish, Jesus does not come.

"Of all those who do not let themselves be caught by this pursuit and this anguish, none ever turns out well; they remain what they are, they do not enter into themselves, and consequently they know nothing of what is taking place in them."

These last words show that in Tauler's opinion this passive purification is indeed in the normal way of sanctity and not an essentially extraordinary grace like revelations, visions, and the stigmata. It is a purification that must be undergone on earth while meriting, or in purgatory without meriting, in order to reach perfect purity of soul, without which one cannot enter heaven. If a man must labor to obtain a doctor's degree in theology or law, he must also toil to reach true perfection.

Though some people stricken with neurasthenia erroneously believe they are in this state, it often happens that interior souls who are truly in this anxiety and who seek light from a confessor, obtain only this answer: "Do not trouble yourself; those are only scruples. Remain in peace; the passive purifications that certain books speak of are very rare and extraordinary." After this answer, the soul is no more illuminated than before and has the impression of not having been understood.

What Tauler speaks of in the above passage is truly in the normal way of sanctity or of the full perfection of Christian life. God appears here as the Hunter in pursuit of souls for their greatest good.

What should the soul do that is thus pursued by the Savior? Tauler answers: "In truth, it should do what the woman of Canaan did: go to Jesus and cry in a loud voice, that is, with an ardent desire: 'Lord, Son of David, have pity on me!'

"Ah! my children, this divine pursuit, this hunt provokes (in some souls) an appealing cry of immense force; the supplication of the spirit carries thousands of leagues and more (that is, even to the Most High); it is a sigh which comes from a measureless depth. This desire of the soul reaches far beyond nature; it is the Holy Ghost Himself who must utter this sigh in us, as St. Paul says: 'The Spirit Himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings.'" (11)

These words of Tauler show that in his opinion and, as we shall see, later on in that of St. John of the Cross, the soul in this struggle enters on the mystical life through a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost and a beginning of contemplation, in spite of the aridity in which it remains. The Holy Ghost, who dwells in all the just, begins to render His influence manifest.

Tauler points out here that, after this cry of the soul, God treats it at times as Jesus did the woman of Canaan; He acts as if He did not hear or were not willing to grant its prayer. This is the time to insist, as the woman of Canaan did so admirably, under the divine inspiration which pursued her in the midst of obvious rebuffs.

"Ah! my children," says Tauler, "how greatly then should the desire in the depths of the soul become more keen and more urgent. . . . Even if God refused to give bread, even if He disowned one as His child. . . , one should answer Him as did the Canaanite: 'Yea Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their masters.'

"Ah! my children," adds Tauler, "if one could succeed in thus penetrating the depths of the truth (of our consciences) not by learned commentaries, words, or indeed with the senses, but into the true depth! Then neither God nor any creature could tread on you, crush you, bury you so deeply that you would not plunge yourselves truly much deeper still. Though you should be subjected to affronts, scorn, and rebuffs, you would remain firm in perseverance, you would plunge still deeper, animated by a complete confidence, and you would ever increase your zeal.(12) Ah! yes, my children, everything depends on this; a man who reached this point, would be really successful. These roads, and these alone, lead, in truth, without any intermediary station to God. But to some it seems impossible to reach this degree of limitless annihilation and to remain thus in this depth with perseverance, with entire and veritable assurance, as this poor Canaanite woman did. Consequently Christ answered her: 'O woman! great is thy faith. Be it done to thee as thou wilt.' In truth, this is the answer that will be made to all those who will be found in such dispositions and on this road."

Tauler relates at this point what happened to a young girl who, believing herself far from God, nevertheless abandoned herself entirely to His holy will, no matter what it might bring, and gave herself up wholly for eternity; then, he says, "she was carried very far above every intermediary and completely drawn into the divine abyss."

To show the fruits of the second conversion, the old master adds: "Take the last place, as the Gospel teaches, and you shall be lifted up. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Desire only what God has willed from all eternity; accept the place which in His most amiable will He has decided should be yours.(13)

"My children, it is by a person's complete renunciation of self and of all that he possesses that he goes to God. One drop of this renunciation, one rill of it,(14) would better prepare a man and lead him nearer to God than if he had stripped himself of all his garments and given them away, than if he had eaten thorns and stones, supposing that nature could bear it. A short moment lived in these dispositions would be more useful for us than forty years following practices of our own choice. . . .

"For long years you go your own little way and you do not advance, . . . a deplorable condition. Let us, therefore, pray our Lord that we may plunge ourselves so profoundly in God that we may be found in Him. Amen." (15)

Such is Tauler's description of the second conversion in which the soul is far more profoundly "turned toward God", like the soil, for example, which, on second plowing, is more deeply turned up that it may become really fruitful.

Tauler treats the same subject in the sermon for the Monday before Palm Sunday (16) while explaining the text: "If any man thirst, let him come to Me, and drink. . . . Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water." (17) In this sermon he describes (18) the soul's thirst for God which arises under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, at the same time as a sort of disgust for everything created, for everything in it that is inordinate, untrue, and vain. This lively desire for God and this distaste for creatures are accompanied by a struggle against the inordinate inclinations of the sensibility and impatience. This is in reality the state that St. John of the Cross later calls the passive purification of the senses. Tauler describes it with an abundance of metaphors that today seem excessive. He notes that after this trial there is a period of repose and enjoyment.(19) Then he describes the second series of trials by which the unitive way of the perfect begins; (20) these trials are those which St. John of the Cross calls the passive night of the spirit.

This teaching, which is approximately the same under varied forms in the works of St. Catherine of Siena, Blessed Henry Suso, and Venerable Tauler, shows that to enter the illuminative way of proficients a person needs what Father Lallemant and several others have rightly called a second conversion. Then the soul begins to understand Christ's words to the apostles, who were arguing to find out who was the first among them: "Amen I say to you, unless you be converted and become as little children [by simplicity and consciousness of your weakness], you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven." (21) The apostles were already in the state of grace, but they needed a second conversion to enter the intimacy of the kingdom, to penetrate deeply into it, that "the depths of the soul," which Tauler speaks of so frequently, might no longer contain any egoism or self-love, but belong wholly to God so that God might truly reign in it. Until His reign is established in the generous soul, the Lord pursues it; and, under the divine inspiration, it will also seek Him by an increasingly pure and strong desire, at the same time that it ceases to seek itself. Then its eyes will be opened and it will see that a number of those whom it judged severely are better than it. This work is the divine work par excellence, that of the profound purification of the soul; first of the sensitive part; then of the spiritual part to the end that it may be established in the intimacy of the divine union, the normal prelude of the life of heaven.



1. Luke 22:62.

2. Cf. IIIa,q.89, a.2.

3. Cf. II Kings 16:5-11.

4. Cf. Dialogue, chaps. 75, 144, 149.

5. Le Livre de la sagesse eternelle, Part III. chap. 5. from the (OEuvres mystiques du Bx Henri Suso (French translation by Father Thiriot), 1899, II, 233 ff. Cf. ibid., pp. 224, 269, 274, 280, 284.

6. Ibid., p. 235.

7. Instruction sur les etats d'oraison, Traite I, livre I, nos. 2-3.

8. Sermons de Tauler (trad. Hugueny et Thery), I, 236-46, 257-69.

9. The two classes of persons of whom Blessed Henry Suso spoke, as we have seen, resemble these two groups.

10. Gal. 5:17: "The flesh lusteth against the spirit".

11. Rom 8:26.

12. David acted thus under the insults of Semei (II Kings 16: 5-II); thus the saints. conducted themselves, as we see in the lives of St. Francis of Assisi, St. Dominic, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, and many others.

13.  The Lord may wish that we should be in our milieu like a little root hidden in the earth, and not like a flower visible to all. The role of the little root which draws secretions from the earth for the sap of the tree, is highly useful; happy they who fulfill it well.

14. These words indicate that this is the fruit of a great grace, a true conversion.

15. We remark with Xaverius Hornstein (Les grands mystiques allemands du XIVe siecle, 1922, p. 288) that "Master Eckart grasped mysticism from the aspect of the intellect, Blessed Henry Suso from the aspect of the heart, John Tauler from that of the will," from the depth of the will, whence his holy austerity, the requisite for very close union with God.

16. Cf. OEuvres (Hugueny, Thery), I, 257-69.

17. John 7: 37 f.

18. (OEuvres, I, 257-69, nos. 2-4.

19. Ibid., nos. 5 f.

20. Ibid., nos. 7 f.

21. Matt. 18:3.