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

The Illuminative Way of Proficients


Ch 33 : The Agreement and Differences Between St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross

Even after a single reading of the works of St. Teresa and of St. John of the Cross it is easy to note differences between them, which have often been pointed out. We shall indicate here espe­cially the origin of these differences.


The differences found in the works of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross are due to the diversity of their point of view. St. Teresa speaks a great deal from her personal experiences and describes the seven mansions of the interior castle by mentioning extraordinary graces which she herself had received (suspension of the senses, ecstasies, and visions), without taking particular care to distinguish these phenomena, which are in a way exterior and accidental, from what constitutes the basis of the mystical life, from the essential ele­ment in each of the seven mansions. St. Teresa is thus led to give more importance than other authors do to sensible phenomena, which sometimes accompany infused contemplation and mystical union. She also insists on the consideration of our Savior's humanity. In short, she is less attentive than others in distinguishing in the seven mansions what pertains to the normal way of sanctity, in par­ticular the passive purifications which this sanctity presupposes.

St. John of the Cross no doubt also speaks from personal experience and from that of the souls he directed, but without mentioning it, for he seeks especially what is essential in the progress of the soul toward close union with God. He made a theological study of these matters, which St. Teresa did not, and his study has unquestionably great importance in distinguishing what is normal from what is accessory or accidental. In relation to the interior life, he examined thoroughly what theology teaches about the three theological virtues and the gifts that accompany them. Consequently he endeavors to explain the states of prayer of contemplative souls by the causes which produce them, linking them to infused faith, vivified by charity and illumined by the gifts of wisdom and understanding, thereby discerning better what the progress of the love of God should ordinarily be in every truly generous contemplative soul. From this point of view, he is particularly attentive to what is in the normal way of sanctity, and he studies more profoundly than any of his predecessors the passive purifications of the senses and of the spirit, necessary for the perfect purity of the love of God. Hence he is led to insist less on the extraordinary graces which sometimes accompany infused contemplation and which, in his works, appear more like concomitant phenomena that are, so to speak, exterior and accidental. He also dwells less on the consideration of our Savior's humanity, that he may fix his attention on the primary object of infused contemplation, which proceeds from faith under, the special inspiration of the gifts of understanding and wisdom; this object is God Himself, present in us and attained in the obscurity of faith by a quasi-experiential knowledge, which He Himself excites in us.

We, as well as many others, have often pointed out these differences. They show that the author of The Dark Night does much to complete what we read in St. Teresa and they make the understanding of her works easier for the theologian who seeks to explain, by their proximate principle or their cause, the states described by the mystics.


In recent years a number of theologians (Father Arintero, O.P., Father Garate, S.J., Canon Saudrea, and several others) have shown that these differences have a common basis. We expressed the same opinion in Christian Perfection and Contemplation.(1) As a matter of fact, although St. Teresa speaks from personal experience, she is sufficiently well acquainted with that of her daughters to be able to set forth in the description of the seven mansions what ordinarily happens to souls passing through them. And, making use of the indications that she gives in various passages, we can discern more clearly what is essential to the mystical life, even in each of the seven mansions, and what is only a concomitant phenomenon, such as ecstasy or a beginning of ecstasy. As we have pointed out (2) several times,. St. Teresa says clearly that in the prayer of quiet first of all the will alone is seized, captivated by God, then the intellect and the imagination; finally, in ecstasy, the exercise of the exterior senses is suspended. But St. Teresa knows that the suspension of the imagination and the senses is only a concomitant and accessory phenomenon of infused contemplation. Speaking to her daughters she says: "In reality there are very few who never enter this mansion: some more and some less, but most of them may be said at least to gain admittance into these rooms. I think that certain graces I am about to describe are bestowed on only a few of the nuns, but if the rest only arrive at the portal, they receive a great boon from God, for 'many are called, but few are chosen.'" (3)

St. Teresa is well aware of the fact that ecstasy is not a certain sign of a greater intensity of knowledge and love of God, since she says that it generally ceases in the most perfect mystical state, the transforming union.(4) Father Lallemant, S.J., rightly insisted on this point.(5)

St. Teresa also notes that in the prayer of quiet, "where the will alone is captive," the other faculties are at times the auxiliaries of the will and engage in its service; at other times their contribution serves only to trouble it. "When the will enjoys this quiet," she says, "it should take no more notice of the understanding (or imagination) than it would of an idiot." (6) The saint also says that the consolation springing from the prayer of quiet is often interrupted by aridities, by temptations against patience and chastity, that is, by the trials which St. John of the Cross speaks of in the passive night of the senses.(7) This explains why, even for St. Teresa, over and above consoled quiet, there is arid quiet, which St. Jane de Chantal (8) described several times, and which is found in what the author of The Dark Night calls the passive purification of the senses.

St. Teresa also points out that the prayer of union, described in the fifth mansion, is often incomplete, without the suspension of the imagination and memory, which sometimes wage a veritable war on the understanding and the Will.(9) Then, as in the prayer of quiet, the soul should pay no more attention to the imagination than to an idiot,(10) St. Teresa is speaking of this incomplete mystical union when she says: "Is it necessary, in order to attain to this kind of divine union, for the powers of the soul to be suspended? No; God has many ways of enriching the soul and bringing it to these mansions besides what might be called a 'short cut.' " (11)

Some have believed this "short cut" and the delights found in it to be infused or mystical contemplation, whereas it is only the suspension of the imagination and the memory, or a beginning of ecstasy, which sometimes accompanies mystical union and greatly aids it. Father Arintero, O.P.,(12) Father Garate, S.J.,(13) and Canon Saudreau (14) have shown this to be so.

If St. Teresa were to say that a soul can reach the fifth mansion by a non-mystical way, or without infused contemplation, she would state the contrary of what she often affirms in The Way of Perfection (15) and also in the fourth mansion of The Interior Castle. Since, as a matter of fact, in the fourth mansion the prayers of supernatural or passive recollection and quiet are already infused (and this is the essential characteristic of this period of the interior life), with even greater reason those of the fifth mansion are infused.(16)

The prayer of passive union is, therefore, not extraordinary in its principle or in its very essence, although certain of its accidental, concomitant phenomena may be. St. John of the Cross certainly shows this more clearly, but even in The Interior Castle it is quite manifest.

Lastly, it should be noted that St. Teresa describes in the first chapter of the sixth mansion a very painful period of trial which manifestly corresponds to what St. John of the Cross calls the passive night of the spirit preceding perfect union. St. Teresa speaks of "the interior anguish of the soul at the sight of its own wretchedness. . . . For one of the severe trials of these souls. . . is their belief that God permits them to be deceived in punishment for their sins, . . . When. . . they discover any faults in themselves, these torturing thoughts return. . . . They become almost unbearable. Especially is this the case when such spiritual dryness ensues that the mind feels as if it never had thought of God, nor ever will be able to do so."

These observations permit us to recognize a common principle under the differences found between St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross. Moreover, how could it be otherwise, since both of them describe the way of perfect union and the different stages in this ascent?


Quite recently, however, in the Traduction nouvelle des oeuvres de saint Jean de la Croix, by Mother Mary of the Blessed Sacrament of the Carmel of Mangalore (Vol. III, appendix 5), the translator, to whom we owe a fluent and generally faithful version of the works of St. Teresa (known as the Edition of the Carmelites of Paris), insists almost solely on the differences between the two great saints of Carmel. This appendix recalls the general introduction of the same work, which seemed to reach the conclusion that there is disagreement between the two saints, especially in regard to the consideration of Christ's humanity. In the Etudes Carmelitaines (April, 1934), Father Eliseus of the Nativity insisted on rectifying immediately certain conclusions, which he declared to be contrary to the text of The Interior Castle and to the ensemble of the teaching of St. John of the Cross(17) He writes as follows: "In vain Reverend Mother eagerly repeats that it is not a question of 'contradiction'; we are surprised to learn suddenly from her that St. John of the Cross was-Heavens! it must be said - so roughly treated by the Foundress.(18)

In the fifth appendix, contained in the third volume of this translation, the translator insists on eleven differences relating to the way the two saints conceived of contemplation, its beginnings, infused character, the cooperation that the soul may bring to it, by disposing itself for it or failing to do so, relating also to the passive purifications, to the role of faith in contemplation, to extraordinary favors, to illusions, to the humanity of Christ, to death to the world. After these eleven differences, one would expect to see the points of agreement between these two great saints on the lofty subject of infused contemplation and the union with God resulting from it. However, we are told nothing about this subject. The translator seems even to believe that, to find this agreement, the profound knowledge which theology can give of the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Ghost is not of great use.

As a rule Thomistic theologians, those of Carmel as well as those of the Order of St. Dominic, especially Cajetan, O.P.,(19) Joseph of the Holy Ghost, CD.,(20) more recent writers,(21) Father Gardeil, O.P.,(22) and also Father de la Taille, S.J., and many others hold that infused contemplation proceeds from infused faith enlightened by the gifts (a fide infusa donis illustrata), or that it is "an act of the virtue of faith actuated by the Holy Ghost, whose touch causes the gifts to vibrate."

On this subject the translator tells us: "As for these subtle deductions, we are far from making them ours. It is certain that St. John of the Cross gives faith an extremely preponderant place in his mystical teaching. - Does St. Teresa make contemplation rest on the exercise of the virtue of faith? In no way." (23)

If this were really the case, there would be a serious disagreement. But she is obliged to recognize a few lines farther on that "the virtue of faith evidently exists in her contemplation [that of St. Teresa] like a substratum." Then how can she maintain that St. Teresa "does not make contemplation rest in any way whatsoever on the exercise of the infused virtue of faith"?

And how faintly comprehend "the extremely preponderant place" which she admits that St. John of the Cross gives to faith in his mystical teachings, if one does not go more deeply into what the theology of St. Thomas and his best commentators can tell us on this subject, if one dispenses oneself from examining it, and says: "As for these subtle deductions, we are far from making them ours"? Would St. Teresa, who willingly sought light from theologians, have spoken thus?

In the same appendix, apropos of what we wrote in Perfection chretienne et contemplation (24) on the subject of the passage from meditation, which has become impracticable, to initial infused contemplation (with the meaning given to it by St. John of the Cross), the translator reminds us that, "to advise St. Teresa's prayer of quiet for a soul which God does not gratify with it, would be entirely wasted effort." (25) We did not at all forget when writing that passage that the prayer of quiet is infused and not acquired, even in its essential element, abstraction being made of a given concomitant and consoling phenomenon which facilitates it. We said repeatedly in the same work that no one can acquire it, although one can prepare oneself to receive the special inspiration of the Holy Ghost which is its proximate principle. With this meaning, St. Teresa herself speaks of the noria (waterwheel) which symbolizes this work, which prepares the soul to receive the divine illumination. (26)

The translator also points out to us in the same appendix, apropos of the aforementioned passage, that we did not mention between "meditation, which has become impracticable" and "the prayer of quiet," the initial obscure contemplation which St. John of the Cross speaks of in the night of the senses (that contemplation later on occasionally called acquired or mixed contemplation, which prepares for infused), or that which St. Jane de Chantal speaks of. We are all the more surprised at this remark since, in the lines which precede the passage mentioned and in those which follow it, we speak precisely of the initial infused contemplation of St. John of the Cross, and of that of "simple surrender to God" of St. Jane de Chantal. (27)

We conclude by repeating that if between the two great mystics of Carmel there exist certain differences easy to see and often pointed out, which are clearly explained by the fact that St. John of the Cross is a theologian and St. Teresa is not, there is, nevertheless, in their works an undeniable common principle, a fundamental conception of infused contemplation, of the union with God which results from it, and of the passive purifications necessary to reach perfect union.

If it is fitting to point out their differences, it is even more important to indicate their fundamental agreement; and in order to see in what this harmony consists, one should not neglect the help which the profound study of theology can give in these difficult questions. It is highly important to distinguish in the mystical life, and even in each of the seven mansions, between what is essential and normal and what is an accessory and concomitant phenomenon.(28)



1. Cf. pp. 241 ff.; 250-60; 368 ff.; 379 fl.; 446.

2. Christian Perfection and Contemplation, pp. 250 f.

3. The Interior Castle, fifth mansion, chap. I.

4. Ibid., seventh mansion, chap. 3.

5. Cf. La Doctrine spirituelle, seventh principle, chap. 6, a.7.

6. The Way of Perfection, chap. 31; The Interior Castle, fourth mansion, chap. I.

7. The Way of Perfection, chaps. 24, 28; The Interior Castle, fourth mansion, chap. I.

8. Reponses de sainte Jeanne de Chantal (2nd ed.; Paris, 1665), p. 508;
(Oeuvres diverses (Paris, 1876), II, 268, the opuscule on l'Oraison de quietude.

9. Life, chap. 17.

10. Ibid.

11. The Interior Castle, fifth mansion, chap. 3.

12. Evolucion mistica (2nd ed.), pp. 667 fI.; Cuestiones misticas (2nd ed.), pp. 330 ff.

13. Razon Y Fe, July, 1908, pp. 325 ff.

14. Degres de la vie spirituelle (5th ed.), II, 101, no. 2; L'Etat mystique (2nd ed. , nos. 40, 116.

15. Cf. chaps. 18-21.

16. Cf. also her Life, chap. 17; The Foundations, chap. 4.

17. Cf. p. 191.

18. Ibid., p. 187.

19. On IIa IIae, q.45, a. I.

20. Cursus theol. scol. mysticae (old ed.), Vol. II, dist. 13, p. 395.

21. We treated this question in Christian Perfection and Contemplation, pp. 330 f.

22. La Structure de l'ame et l'experience mystique (1917), II, 171, on the
expression: "Faith enlightened by the gifts."

23. Traduction nouvelle des oeuvres de saint Jean de la Croix, Vol. III, appendix 5, p. 485.

24. Cf. Vol. II, append., p. [42].

25. Traduction nouvelle, Vol. III, appendix 5, p. 497.

26. Cf. Life, chap. 14.

27. Perfection chretienne et contemplation, Vol. II, pp. [4I]-[43J.

28. On what belongs to the normal way of sanctity according to St. John of the Cross, we are happy to point out the collection of four lectures given in Rome in March, 1936, by Father Gabriel of St. Magdalen, CD., under the title: San Giovanni della Croce, Dottore dell'Amore divino, Florence, 1936.