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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 5 : Conduct to be Observed in the Night of the Senses

In The Dark Night, St. John of the Cross treats of the conduct to be observed in the night of the senses.(1) He gives there, first of all, rules for direction, then he speaks of the trials which ordinarily accompany this state. We shall set forth here the essential part of his teaching on this point. This teaching may, moreover, be useful not only for those who are in this period of obscurity and prolonged aridity, but also for those who observe that in their interior life day and night alternate somewhat as they do in nature. The author of The Imitation frequently points out this alternation. As in nature it is good that night succeed day, so also is it suitable in the life of the soul. Furthermore, one must know how to conduct oneself in these two phases that differ so greatly; especially is this knowledge necessary when the obscure phase is prolonged, as it is in the period we are considering.


The mystical doctor points out first of all in regard to those who are in this period of transition: "If they meet with no one who understands the matter, these persons fall away and abandon the right road; or they become weak, or at least put hindrances in the way of their further advancement, because of the great efforts they make to proceed in their former way of meditation, fatiguing their natural powers beyond measure." At this time, it is advisable for them to seek counsel from an enlightened director because of the difficulties which arise in the interior life by reason of the subtraction of sensible graces, the growing difficulty in meditating, and also by reason of the concomitant temptations against chastity and patience which the devil then awakens rather frequently in order to turn the soul away from prayer.

In the second place, says St. John of the Cross: "It behooves those who find themselves in this condition to take courage and persevere in patience. Let them not afflict themselves but put their confidence in God, who never forsakes those who seek Him with a pure and upright heart. Neither will He withhold from them all that is necessary for them on this road until He brings them to the clear and pure light of love, which He will show them in that other dark night of the spirit, if they shall merit an entrance into it." Consequently, in this aridity and powerlessness one must not become discouraged or abandon prayer as if it were useless. On the contrary, it becomes much more fruitful if the soul perseveres in humility, abnegation, and trust in God. Prolonged sensible aridity and growing inability to meditate are the sign of a new, higher life. Instead of grieving over this condition, a learned and experienced director rejoices; it is the generous entrance into "the narrow way" which ascends as it broadens, and which will become increasingly wide, immense as God Himself to whom it leads. At this stage the soul is under the happy necessity of not being content with weak acts of faith, hope, and love. Imperfect acts (actus remissi) of these virtues no longer suffice here; more lofty and more meritorious acts are necessary. According to St. Thomas, it is characteristic of these acts to obtain immediately the increase of grace and charity which they merit.(2)

The spiritual man who has reached this stage is like a man who in climbing a mountain comes to a difficult spot where, to make progress, he must have a keener desire for the goal to be attained. We are here at the aurora of the illuminative life; it richly deserves that we show generosity in our passage through the dark night which precedes it. Here it is a question of being purified from the remains of the seven capital sins that stain the spiritual life; if one is not purified from them on earth while meriting, one must be cleansed in purgatory without meriting.

The passive purification which we are speaking of is in the normal way of sanctity, which may be defined as union with God and sufficient purity to enter heaven immediately. This degree of purity is certainly in the normal way of heaven, whether a person obtains it on earth, or only at the end of his purgatory. Purgatory, which is a penalty, presupposes sins that could have been avoided. Therefore the soul should trust in God while this painful work of purification is being accomplished.

In the third place, as St. John of the Cross points out here,(3) when persons can no longer meditate discursively: "All they have to do is to keep their soul free, . . . contenting themselves simply with directing their attention lovingly and calmly toward God." To wish to return at any cost to discursive meditation, would be to wish to run counter to the current of grace instead of following it, and to give ourselves great trouble without profit. It would be like running toward the spring of living water when we have already reached its brim; continuing to run, we withdraw from it. It would be like continuing to spell when we already know how to read several words at a glance. It would be to fall back instead of allowing ourselves to be drawn, to be lifted up by God. However, if the difficulty in meditating does not increase and makes itself felt only from time to time, it is well to return to simplified, affective meditation whenever possible: for example, to the very slow meditation of the Our Father.

St. John gives a fourth rule of direction for those who, having reached this state of prolonged aridity, wish, not to return to reasoned meditation, but to feel some consolation. St. John of the Cross says on this subject: "All they have to do is to keep their soul free, . . . and all this without anxiety or effort, or immoderate desire to feel and taste His presence. For all such efforts disquiet the soul, and distract it from the peaceful quiet and sweet tranquillity of contemplation to which they are now admitted.(4) . . . If they were now to exert their interior faculties, they would simply hinder and ruin the good which, in that repose, God is working in the soul; for if a man while sitting for his portrait cannot be still, but moves about, the painter will never depict his face, and even the work already done will be spoiled. . . . The more it strives to find help in affections and knowledge, the more will it feel the deficiency which cannot now be supplied in that way." (5) In other words, natural activity exercising itself counter to the gifts of the Holy Ghost, through self-seeking opposes an obstacle to their most delicate inspirations. In prayer, we should not seek to feel the gift of God, but should receive it with docility and disinterestedness in the obscurity of faith. Spiritual joy will be added later on to the act of contemplation and love of God; but it is not joy that should be sought, it is God Himself, who is greatly superior to His gifts.

If the soul that has reached this period of transition is faithful to what has been said, then will be realized what St. John of the Cross affirms: "By not hindering the operation of infused contemplation, to which God is now admitting it, the soul is refreshed in peaceful abundance, and set on fire with the spirit of love, which this con­templation, dim and secret, induces and establishes within it." (6)

As the mystical doctor says: "The soul should content itself simply with directing its attention lovingly and calmly toward God," with the general knowledge of His infinite goodness, as when after months of absence, a loving son again meets his good mother who has been expecting him. He does not analyze his sentiments and his mother's as a psychologist would; he is content with an affectionate, tranquil, and profound gaze which in its simplicity is far more penetrating than all psychological analyses.

This beginning of infused contemplation united to love is already the eminent exercise of the theological virtues and of the gifts of the Holy Ghost which accompany them. In it there is an infused act of penetrating faith; (7) therein the soul discovers increasingly the spirit of the Gospel, the spirit which vivifies the letter. Thus are verified Christ's words: "The Paraclete, the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring all things to your mind, whatsoever I shall have said to you." (8) St. John also wrote to the faithful to whom he directed his first epistle: "And as for you, let the unction, which you have received from Him, abide in you.(9) And you have no need that any man teach you; . . . His unction teacheth you of all things." (10) In the silence of prayer, the soul receives here the profound meaning of what it has often read and meditated on in the Gospel: for example, the intrinsic meaning of the evangelical beatitudes: blessed are the poor, the meek, those who weep for their sins, those who hunger and thirst for justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, those who suffer persecution for justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

In this way, as a rule, begins infused prayer, the spiritual elevation of the soul toward God, above the senses, the imagination, and reasoning; it is adoration "in spirit and in truth," which goes beyond the formulas of faith to penetrate the mysteries which they express and to live by them. The formulas are no longer a term, but a point of departure.

Nevertheless we should remember here what St. John of the Cross says in The Ascent of Mount Carmel: "The beginning contemplative is not yet so far removed from discursive meditation that he cannot return occasionally to its practice," (11) when he is no longer under the special influence of the Holy Ghost, which facilitates recollection. St. Teresa, in her Life (chap. 14), also speaks of the necessity at the beginning of the prayer of quiet of having recourse to a simplified meditation, symbolized by the hydraulic machine called a noria. This passage from St. Teresa's life corresponds to what St. John of the Cross has just said about the work of the understanding, which prepares the soul to receive a more profound recollection from God. Thus it is fitting at the beginning of prayer to meditate slowly on the petitions of the Our Father, or to converse in a childlike manner with Mary Mediatrix that she may lead us to close union with her Son. It is well for us to recall how He Himself gave His life for us and how He does not cease to offer Himself for us in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. If we follow this way faithfully, we shall receive, at least from time to time, an interior light that will give us the profound meaning of the Passion, and also of the infinite riches contained in the Holy Eucharist. Thus our interior life will grow more simple while becoming more lofty, which is essential if it is to radiate and to bear fruit.

We may sum up the conduct to be observed in the passive purification of the senses, called also the night of the senses, as follows: docility to the director, trust in God, a simple and loving gaze on Him, abstention from seeking to feel consolation. To complete this chapter, we must also speak of the trials which frequently accompany this period of transition.


To this painful purification in which, under the influence of the gift of knowledge, we experience the emptiness of created things, are customarily added temptations against chastity and patience. These temptations are permitted by God to provoke a strong reaction of these virtues, which have their seat in the sensible appetites. This reaction should strengthen these virtues, root them more deeply, and thereby purify more profoundly the sensibility in which they are located, and subject it increasingly to right reason illumined by faith. For a like reason, there will be in the night of the spirit temptations of the same kind against the virtues which are in the highest part of the soul, especially against the theological virtues.

These concomitant trials have an attenuated form in many souls; in others they are more accentuated and then they announce that God wishes to lead these souls to the full perfection of Christian life if they are faithful.(12)

The struggle against the temptations of which we are speaking necessitates energetic acts of the virtues of chastity and patience; as a result these virtues then take deeper root in the sensibility that has been tilled and upturned. They become in it like very fertile seeds of a higher life. The acquired moral virtues cause the direction of right reason to descend, in fact, into the sensibility, and the infused moral virtues cause the divine life of grace to penetrate into it. Thus conceived, this struggle against temptation has a great and beautiful character. Without it we would often be content with a lesser effort, with weak, less intense, virtuous acts, actus remissi, as theologians call them, that is, acts inferior to the degree of virtue that we possess. Having three talents, we act as if we had only two. These weak virtuous acts, as St. Thomas points out,(13) do not immediately obtain the increase of charity which they merit, whereas intense or perfect acts obtain it immediately.

Temptation places us in the necessity of producing these very meritorious acts, occasionally heroic, which root the acquired virtues and obtain immediately for us a proportionate increase of the infused virtues. For this reason, the angel Raphael said to Tobias: "Because thou wast acceptable to God, it was necessary that temptation should prove thee." (14) St. Paul also says: "God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that which you are able; but will make also with temptation issue, that you may be able to bear it." (15) Isaias speaks in like manner: "It is He that giveth strength to the weary, and increaseth force and might to them that are not. . . . But they that hope in the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall take wings as eagles." (16)

Temptation reveals to us our misery and our need of the grace of God: "What doth he know, that hath not been tried?" 17 Tempta­tion obliges us to pray, to beg God to come to our aid, to place our confidence in Him and not in ourselves. Because of this trust in God which the man who is tried should have, St. Paul writes: "For when I am weak, then am I powerfuL" (18) The apostle St. James also says: "My brethren, count it all joy when you shall fall into divers temptations; knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience. And patience hath a perfect work; that you may be perfect." (19)

To these temptations against chastity and patience is also added at times in this period of the interior life the loss of certain temporal goods, of fortune, honors, friendships on which we dwelt too much. God comes at this time to ask us to give Him the lively affection which we have not thought of giving to Him. Sometimes He also permits illnesses, that we may learn to suffer, and also that we may be reminded that of ourselves we can do nothing and that we need the divine favors for the life of the body and that of the soul.


If we bear these trials well, they produce precious effects in us. It is said that "patience produces roses." Among the effects of the passive purification of the senses, must be numbered a profound and experimental knowledge of God and self.

St. John of the Cross points out: "These aridities and the emptiness of the faculties as to their former abounding, and the difficulty which good works present, bring the soul to a knowledge of its own vileness and misery." (20)

This knowledge is the effect of nascent infused contemplation, which shows that infused contemplation is in the normal way of sanctity. St. John of the Cross says: "The soul possesses and retains more truly that excellent and necessary virtue of self-knowledge, counting itself for nothing, and having no satisfaction in itself, because it sees that of itself it does and can do nothing. This diminished satisfaction with self, and the affliction it feels because it thinks that it is not serving God, God esteems more highly than all its former delights and all its good works." (21)

With this knowledge of its indigence, its poverty, the soul comprehends better the majesty of God, His infinite goodness toward us, the value also of Christ's merits, of His precious blood, the infinite value of the Mass, and the value of Communion. "God enlightens the soul, making it see not only its own misery and meanness, . . . but also His grandeur and majesty." (22)

St. Teresa speaks in like manner: "For instance, they read that we must not be troubled when men speak ill of us, that we are to be then more pleased than when they speak well of us, . . . with many other things of the same kind. The disposition to practice this must be, in my opinion, the gift of God, for it seems to me a supernatural good." (23) "People may desire honors or possessions in monasteries as well as outside them (yet the sin is greater as the temptation is less), but such souls, although they may have spent years in prayer, or rather in speculations (for perfect prayer eventually destroys these vices), will never make great progress nor enjoy the real fruit of prayer." (24)

St. Catherine of Siena, too, taught the same doctrine: that the knowledge of God and that of our indigence are like the highest and the lowest points of a circle which could grow forever.(25) This infused knowledge of our misery is the source of true humility of heart, of the humility which leads one to desire to be nothing that God may be all, amare nesciri et pro nihilo reputari. Infused knowledge of the infinite goodness of God gives birth in us to a much more lively charity, a more generous and disinterested love of God and of souls in Him, a greater confidence in prayer.

As St. John of the Cross says: "The love of God is practiced, because the soul is no longer attracted by sweetness and consolation, but by God only. . . . In the midst of these aridities and hardships, God communicates to the soul, when it least expects it, spiritual sweetness, most pure love, and spiritual knowledge of the most exalted kind, of greater worth and profit than any of which it had previous experience, though at first the soul may not think so, for the spiritual influence now communicated is most delicate and imperceptible by sense." (26)

The soul travels here in a spiritual light and shade; it rises above the inferior obscurity which comes from matter, error, and sin; it enters the higher obscurity which comes from a light that is too great for our weak eyes. It is the obscurity of the divine life, the light of which is inaccessible to the senses and to natural reason. But between these two obscurities, the lower and the higher, there is a ray of illumination from the Holy Ghost; it is the illuminative life which truly begins. Then are realized the Savior's words: "He that followeth Me walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life," (27) and he already has it.

Under this light, affective charity becomes effective and generous. Through the spirit of sacrifice it more and more takes first place in the soul; it establishes peace in us and gives it to others. Such are the principal effects of the passive purification of the senses, which subjects our sensibility to the spirit and spiritualizes that sensibility. Thus this purification appears in the normal way of sanctity. Later the passive purification of the spirit will have as its purpose to supernaturalize our spirit, to subject it fully to God in view of perfect divine union, which is the normal prelude to that of eternity. These are the superior laws of the life of grace, or of its full development, in its relation to the two parts of the soul. The senses should, in the end, be fully subjected to the spirit, and the spirit to God.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the passive purification of the senses, even for those who enter it, is more or less manifest and also more or less well borne. St. John of the Cross points out this fact when he speaks of those who show less generosity: "The night of aridities is not continuous with them, they are sometimes in it, and sometimes not; they are at one time unable to meditate, and at another able as before. . . . These persons are never wholly weaned from the breasts of meditations and reflections, but only, as I have said, at intervals and at certain seasons." (28) In The Living Flame, the mystical doctor, explaining why this is so, says: "Because these souls flee purifying suffering, God does not continue to purify them; they wish to be perfect without allowing themselves to be led by the way of trial which forms the perfect." (29)

Such is the more or less generous transition to a form of higher life. We see the logical and vital succession of phases through which the soul should pass to reach the perfect purity that would permit it to enter heaven immediately. It is not a mechanical juxtaposition of successive states: it is the organic development of life. In his discussion of this point St. John of the Cross caused spiritual theology to advance notably, by showing the necessity and the intimate nature of these purifications, which are an anticipated purgatory in which one merits and advances, whereas in that after death, one no longer merits. May the Lord grant us the grace thus to suffer our purgatory before death rather than after our last sigh. In the evening of life we shall be judged on the purity of our love of God and of souls in God.



1. Cf. Bk. I, chap. 10.

2. Cf. IIa IIae, q.24, a.6.

3. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 10.

4. The word "quiet" used in this connection on several occasions by St. John of the Cross, shows that the state to which he refers corresponds to the fourth mansion of St. Teresa, that of passive recollection and quiet, in which the will is captivated and rests in God under a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost. During this time a certain involuntary wandering of the imagination may be produced, since the imagination, which is not yet lulled, cannot become interested in a purely spiritual object.

5. The Dark Night, loco cit.

6. Ibid. At the beginning of this same chapter, St. John declares that it is thus "God makes the soul pass from meditation to contemplation," that is, to infused contemplation, as has been affirmed. He is not concerned here with acquired contemplation, but with the infusion of the sweet light of life.

7. This act is called infused because it would not be produced without a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, an inspiration which the gifts dispose us to receive. In it there is an influence of the gifts of knowledge and of understanding, which render faith more penetrating and certain. It is one
and the same act, which is an act of faith and an act of penetrating faith; there are in it the two subordinated formal motives of the virtue of faith (the authority of God revealing) and of the gift of understanding (the special illumination of the Holy Ghost, as an objective regulation).

We have here something analogous to what is produced in a real musician who, in an artistic rendition of a symphony of Beethoven, receives at a given moment a musical inspiration that makes him penetrate more deeply into the soul of this symphony. Similarly the act of living faith has a meritorious modality which comes to it from charity, a modality which is not in the act of infused faith of a Christian in the state of mortal sin.

8. John 14:26.

9. The unction received remains in effect permanently even during our sleep, under the form of sanctifying grace and of the habitus infusi, which spring from it, that is, the infused virtues and the seven gifts: the sacrum septenarium which the liturgy speaks of, and which is always in all the just.

10. Cf. I John 2:27.

11. Bk. II, chap. 13.

12. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 14.

13. Cf. Ia IIae, q.52, a.3; IIa IIae, q.24, a.6 ad Ium.

14. Tob.12:13.

15. Cf. I Cor. 10: 13.

16. Isa. 40:29,31.

17. Ecclus. 34:9.

18. Cf. II Cor. 12: 10.

19. Jas. 1:2-4.

20. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 12.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Life, by herself, chap. 31.

24. The Way of Perfection, chap. I2, par. 5.

25. The Dialogue, chap. 4: "In self-knowledge, then, thou wilt humble thyself, seeing that, in thyself, thou dost not even exist; for thy very being, as thou wilt learn, is derived from Me, since I have loved both thee and others before you were in existence." Ibid., chaps. 7,9, and 18: "I am who am; you are not in yourselves."

26. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap. 13.

27. John 8: 12.

28. The Dark Night, Bk. I, chap, 9.

29. The Living Flame, st. 2, v. 5. It is clear that in the opinion of St. John of the Cross these souls show a lack of generosity, which does not appear in those predestined from all eternity to a high degree of perfection, the requisite condition for the special degree of glory which God willed for them. St. John of the Cross speaks of predestination in the same terms as St. Thomas, when he says: "Every soul, according to its measure, great or little, may attain to this union, yet all do not in an equal degree, but only as our Lord shall give unto each, as it is with the blessed in heaven" (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. 2, chap. 5).

On this point see what we have said elsewhere, Perfection chretienne et contemplation, 7th ed., II, 472-76; appendix pp. [121J-[125J.