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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 34 : The necessity of the Passive Purification of the Spirit, and the Prelude of the Unitive Way

Christ said: "I am the true vine; and My Father is the husbandman. Every branch in Me that beareth not fruit, He will take away: and everyone that beareth fruit, He will purge it, that it may bring forth more fruit. . . . He that abideth in Me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit. . . . If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you will; and it shall be done unto you." (1) But to reach this state, the good branch must be pruned. In his commentary on St. John's Gospel, St. Thomas says: "In the natural vine, the branch which has many shoots yields less fruit, because the sap loses its efficacy by excessive diffusion in these superfluous shoots; therefore the vine-dresser prunes them. Something similar occurs in a man who is well disposed and united to God, but whose affection and life are excessively exteriorized in various ways; the strength of his interior life is then diminished and less efficacious in regard to the good to be accomplished. For this reason the Lord, who in this respect is like the vine-dresser, prunes His good servants and frequently cuts away what is useless in them so that they may bear more fruit. He purifies them for a long time, sending them tribulations, permitting temptations that oblige them to a holy and meritorious resistance, which renders them stronger in regard to the good. The Lord inures to war and thus purifies those who are already pure, for no one is ever sufficiently so on earth, according to St. John's statement: 'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us' (I John 1:8). Thus the Lord purifies His servants so that they may bear more fruit, that they may grow in virtue and be proportionately richer in good works as they are more pure.

This text from St. Thomas' commentary on St. John refers properly to the passive purifications, which the just man does not impose upon himself like mortification, but which he receives from God. Thus was purified holy Job, who declared: "The life of man upon earth is a warfare." (2) It is a time of laborious and painful service, a time of trial, like the life of a soldier. Such it was for the apostles after Christ left them on Ascension Day, and they assembled in the upper room to pray and prepare themselves for the struggles which Christ had announced to them, and which were to be crowned by their martyrdom.

The fathers of the Church and spiritual writers have often spoken in this intimate sense of the cross we must bear daily, the cross of the sensibility and that of the spirit, that the lower and the higher parts of the soul may gradually be purified, that the sensitive part may be perfectly subjected to the spirit, and the spirit to God.

The fathers have often commented on these words of Scripture: "As when one sifteth with a sieve, the dust will remain: so will the perplexity of a man in his thoughts. The furnace trieth the potter's vessels, and the trial of affliction just men." (3) "For gold and silver are tried in the fire, but acceptable men in the furnace of humiliation." (4) "From above He hath sent fire into my bones," (5) said Jeremias in his Lamentations. Christ likewise said to Peter before the Passion: "Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat." (6) Now this is realized especially in the passive purification of the spirit, which prepares the soul for the life of close union with God. St. Augustine,(7) St. Gregory the Great,(8) St. Maxim,(9) Hugh of St. Victor,(10) Ruysbroeck,(11) Tauler, (12) and more profoundly St. John of the Cross,(13) have shown that this purification is necessary because of the defects that remain in the proficients or advanced.


Consideration of this subject is advantageous to interior souls, especially for three reasons: that they may see more clearly the necessity and the value of the daily cross that each must carry; that they may also better discern the unreasonable troubles which they foolishly create for themselves from those which have a true purifying value; lastly, that they may get a more exact idea of purgatory, which will be necessary for them if they do not profit sufficiently by the crosses sent to them in this life.

There are still many defects in proficients who have made considerable progress, the inferior or sensible part of whose souls is already in large part purified, and who have begun to live the life of the spirit through the initial infused contemplation of the mysteries of faith. The stains of the old man still remain in their spirit like rust that will disappear only under the action of a purifying fire.

St. John of the Cross points out (14) that these advanced souls are still often subject to indirectly voluntary distractions in prayer, to dullness, to useless dissipation, to excessively human sympathy for certain persons, leading to a lack of esteem for others, which is more or less contrary to justice and charity. They have moments of natural rudeness, the result of the sin of impatience. Some fall into illusion by being too much attached to certain spiritual communications; they expose themselves to the devil, who takes pleasure in deceiving them by false prophecies. Others, under the same influence, fall into bitter zeal, which leads them to sermonize their neighbor and to deliver untimely remonstrances. Thereby, though unaware of it, these advanced souls are puffed up with spiritual pride and presumption and thus deviate from the simplicity, humility, and purity required for close union with God. St. John of the Cross says: "Some of them become so entangled in manifold falsehoods and delusions, and so persist in them that their return to the pure road of virtue and real spirituality is exceedingly doubtful" (15) Evidently there are greater dangers than those at the beginning.

According to the holy doctor, this matter is inexhaustible; and so far he has considered only the defects relative to the purely interior life, to relations with God. What would it be if one were to consider the defects that advanced souls still have in their relations with superiors, equals, and inferiors; if one were to consider all that, in this period of the spiritual life, still injures charity and justice; all that, in those who have to teach, govern or direct souls, stains their apostolate, teaching, government, and direction?

Spiritual or intellectual pride, which still subsists, inspires excessive attachment to personal judgment, to one's own way of seeing, feeling, sympathizing, willing. From it are born jealousy, secret ambition, or again great authoritarianism, unless one is by temperament inclined to the contrary defect, that is, to excessive indulgence and to weakness toward those who oppress others. Here too, may often be remarked a lack of promptness and generosity in obedience, or, on the contrary, a servility inspired by self-love. Frequent also are faults against charity through jealousy, envy, slander, discord, contention.

At this stage may reappear many deviations, which seriously trouble the life of the soul. The root of the higher faculties of intellect and will is still deeply tainted with pride, personal judgment, and self-will. The divine light and the will of God do not yet reign there uncontested; far from it. These stains, which are in the root of the higher faculties, have, in some cases, been there for a long time; they may become encrusted as they grow old and may profoundly alter the character by turning it away from true intimacy with God. Thence are born many defamations and at times most grievous divisions among those who should work together for the good of souls.

St. John of the Cross says that this state of things shows that, "if they be not removed by the strong soap and lye of the purgation of this night, the spirit cannot attain to the pureness of the divine Union." (16) "The intercourse of proficients with God is, however, still most mean, because the gold of the spirit is not purified and refined. They think, therefore, and speak of Him as children (they have little understanding of the ways of Providence, which humiliates them in order to exalt them), and their feelings are those of children, as described by the Apostle: 'When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child,' (17) because they have not reached perfection, which is union with God in love. But in the state of union, having grown to manhood, they do great things in spirit - all their actions and all their faculties being now rather divine than human. (18) This is a clear way of stating that the full perfection of Christian life belongs normally to the mystical order, since it presupposes the passive purifications of the senses and of the spirit, which are sharply characterized passive or mystical states easily distinguished from melancholy and other fruitless spells of dejection of the same kind, as we shall see farther on. It is a question here of fruitful spiritual suffering and of a spiritual winter that prepares the germination of a new spring. Winter is indispensable in nature; there is also one which may be very useful in the life of the soul.

This is why St. Augustine used to say the prayer, often repeated centuries later by St. Louis Bertrand: "Lord, burn, cut, do not spare on this earth, that Thou mayest spare in eternity." It is important to be purified on earth with merit rather than after death without merit. Nothing soiled enters heaven; consequently, to enter there the soul must, sooner or later, undergo a profound purification. The beatific vision of the divine essence cannot, it is evident, be granted to a soul that is still impure.


Before St. John of the Cross, Tauler greatly insisted on the depths of our will, which need to be purified from the often unconscious egoism that has for long subsisted in it, leading us to disturbing and fruitless conversation with ourselves and not to tranquilizing and vivifying conversation with God.

Tauler (19) often speaks of the unconscious egoism that still inclines us to seek ourselves in everything and at times to judge our neighbor with severity while treating ourselves with great indulgence. This same egoism which makes us seek ourselves in many things is especially evident when trial strikes us; we are then completely upset and seek help, consolation, and counsel from without, where God is not to be found. We have not built our house sufficiently on Christ the rock, with the result that it lacks solidity. We have built on self, on self-will, which is equivalent to building on sand; thus at times there is great weakness underlying harshness of judgment.

Tauler declares: "There is only one way to triumph over these obstacles: God would have to take complete possession of the interior of the soul and occupy it, which happens only to His true friends. He sent us His only Son in order that the holy life of the God-Man, His great and perfect virtue, examples, teachings, and multiple sufferings might lift us above ourselves, make us leave ourselves completely (draw us from this depth of egoism), and that we might let our own pallid light disappear in the true and essential light." (20)

"This light [of the Word made flesh] shines in the darkness, but the darkness did not comprehend it (John 1:5). None but the poor in spirit and those who are completely stripped of self, of self-love, and of their individual wills, receive this light. There are many who have been materially poor for forty years and who have never received the slightest [interior] ray of it. Through their senses and reason, they know thoroughly what is said of this light, but, in its essence, they have never tasted it; it is foreign to them and remains far from them." (21)

Again Tauler says: "It is thus that, whereas simple common folk followed our Lord, the Pharisees, the princes of the priests and the scribes, every class that had the appearance of sanctity, harshly opposed Him and ended by putting Him to death." (22) God is the grandeur of humble souls, and His very lofty ways remain hidden to our pride.

We see, consequently, to what extremities we may be led by this depth of egoism and pride which blinds us and hinders us from recognizing our sins. Therefore it is important that the light of life of living faith and of the gifts of the Holy Ghost should penetrate the depths of our intellect and, as it were, the root of our will.

That we may receive this light and these gifts, it is not sufficient to know the letter of the Gospel and adhere to it; we must assimilate its spirit profoundly. Otherwise, appearing as Christians and using the language of Christians, we would preserve in the depths of our being something which is not Christian and which resists the light of life. There would be in the depths of our intellect and will as it were a citadel which would serve as a refuge for self-love, which is unwilling to surrender and to allow the reign of God to be profoundly and eternally established in us. Thereby certain souls, that think themselves quite advanced but that do not recognize their defects, are in greater peril than the common run of men who admit that they are sinners and who preserve the fear of God.

Consequently we should meditate on Tauler's conclusion: "Therefore, well-beloved children, employ all your activity, both of soul and body, to obtain that this true light may shine in you in such a way that you may taste it. In this way you will be able to return to your origin, where the true light shines. Desire, ask, with nature and without nature,(23) that this grace may be granted to you. Employ all your energy to this end, pray to the friends of God that they may help you in this work; attach yourself to those who are attached to God in order that they may lead you to God with them. May this grace be granted to all of us, and may the all loving God help us! Amen." (24)

As a note in the translation which we have just quoted points out, Tauler draws a distinction here between the ordinary knowledge of faith, common to all the faithful, and mystical knowledge, the loving experience of God felt in the depths of the soul, which is reserved to the friends of God. Tauler invites all his hearers and readers to desire this intimate knowledge that transforms the center of the soul by illumining it, and that liberates it from this prison of egoism in which the soul had shut itself up. In this way alone can it be deified, divinized, by participating profoundly through grace in the inner life of God. All these defects, which still subsist in a measure in the depths of the intellect and will, even in the advanced, demand, therefore, a purification that God alone can effect. "God alone can deify, as fire alone can ignite," St. Thomas says in substance.(25)

This passive purification will certainly not be without suffering, and, as St. John of the Cross teaches, it will even be a mystical death, the death to self, the disintegration of self-love, which until then has resisted grace, at times with great obstinacy. Here pride must receive the deathblow that it may give place to genuine humility, a virtue which has been compared to the deepest root of a tree, a root which buries itself so much the more deeply in the soil as the loftiest branch, the symbol of charity, rises higher toward the sky.

This center of the soul, the refuge of personal judgment and self­love that is often very subtle, must be illumined by the divine light and filled by God, rendered completely healthy, and vivified. On the feast of the Purification, at Mass and in the procession each person carries a lighted candle, the symbol of the light of life that each should bear in the innermost depths of his soul. This light of life was given to man on the first day of creation; extinguished by sin, it was rekindled by the grace of conversion and by the hope of the promised Redeemer. This light grew in the souls of the patriarchs and the prophets until the coming of Christ, "a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of . . . Israel," as the aged Simeon said in his beautiful canticle, Nunc dimittis, on the occasion of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple.

This same light of life, which grew in humanity until the advent of the Messias, should also grow in each of our souls from baptism until our entrance into heaven. It should gradually illumine and vivify the very center of our intellect and our heart that this depth may be not an obscure depth of egoism, personal judgment, and resistance to grace, but a depth of light and goodness where the Holy Ghost, the source of living water springing up into eternal life, may reign increasingly.

From what we have just said it is evident that the passive purification of the spirit, made necessary by the defects of proficients, is the decisive struggle between two spirits: the spirit of pride, which may grow even to blasphemy, to hatred of God, and despair, and that of humility and charity, which is eternal life begun in us. These two conflicting spirits may be symbolized by two trees, one of which illustrates the teaching of St. Gregory the Great and St. Thomas on the roots and results of the seven capital sins (see image 1 below), while the other explains their doctrine on humility and charity, and the connection of these virtues with the other virtues and the seven gifts.

We showed earlier in this work,(26) following these two great doctors, that from egoism or inordinate self-love is born, - together with the concupiscence of the flesh and that of the eyes, - pride, from which proceed especially four capital sins: vanity, acedia, envy, and anger. We have also seen that from the capital sins spring other defects and sins that are often still more serious; among them should be noted particularly blindness of spirit, discord, rancor, hardness of heart, blasphemy, hatred of God, and despair. The tree of evil with its accursed flowers and poisonous fruits symbolizes these sins.

In contradistinction, the tree of the virtues and of the gifts has for its root humility, a root which penetrates more and more deeply into the earth in order to draw nourishing secretions from it. The lower branches of this tree are the cardinal virtues with the connected virtues and the corresponding gifts; its higher branches are faith, hope, and charity, the last being the loftiest and most fruitful. To faith is attached the gift of understanding, and also that of knowledge, which greatly perfects hope by showing us the vanity of created things, the inefficacy of human helps for a divine end, and by leading us consequently to desire eternal life and to place our trust in God. To charity corresponds the gift of wisdom. From it principally proceeds contemplation; and from contemplation, actual union with God, which should become almost continuous, and also perfect abandonment.

That this tree of the virtues and of the gifts may reach its full development, there must be a definitive victory over the remains of intellectual and spiritual pride which subsist in proficients. Whence the necessity of the passive purification of the spirit in which, with an eminent help from the Holy Ghost, the soul makes heroic acts of the theological virtues to resist temptations contrary to these virtues.



1. John 15:1,5,7.

2. Job 7: 1.

3. Ecclus.27:5f.

4. Ecclus. 2:5.

5. Lam. I: 13.

6. Luke 22:31.

7. De quantitate animae, chap. 33.

8. Morales, Bk. XXIV, chap. 6, no. 11; Bk. X, chap. 10, no. 17.

9. PG, XC, 1215.

10. Hom.I in Eccli., I.

11. Le Livre de la plus haute verite, chap. 7; Les Sept degres, chaps. 11, 13 f.

12. Sermon pour le lundi avant les Rameaux; ler Sermon pour la Pentecote, trad. Hugueny, 1, 257-69; II, 28, 209, 211, 245,

13. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chaps. 7 f. Cf. also St. Teresa, The Interior Castle, sixth mansion, chap. I; Blessed Angela of Foligno, Livre des visions et instructions, chaps. 6, 7, 9, 26.

14. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 2.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Cf. I Cor. 13:11.

18. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 3.

19. Cf. Sermon pour le samedi avant la vigile des Rameaux (trans. Hugueny) I, 249.

20. Ibid., pp. 249 f.

21. Ibid., p. 253.

22. Ibid., p. 252.

23. That is, as the translator points out, with or without the desire of your lower nature, which does not always thirst for God.

24. Ibid., p.254.

25. Summa, Ia IIae, q. 112, a. I: "For it is as necessary that God alone should deify, bestowing a partaking of the divine nature by a participated likeness, as it is impossible that anything save fire should enkindle."

26. Cf. supra, I, 299-322.