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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 35 : Description of the Passive Purification of the Spirit

In the preceding chapter we discussed the defects of proficients or the advanced, the remains of spiritual or intellectual pride found in them, and the absolute need of purification for the depth of the soul impregnated with self-love and subtle egoism. The Lord alone can effect this profound purification.

We purpose here to describe this purification so that it may not be confused either with sufferings springing only from melancholy or neurasthenia, or with the sensible aridity of beginners. Such a con­fusion would evidently be an unpardonable error.(1)


As the passive purification of the sensible parr of the soul is manifested by the loss of the sensible consolations to which it was excessively attached, the passive purification of the spirit seems at first to consist in the deprivation of the lights previously received of the mysteries of faith. Having become too familiar, as it were, with them, the facility with which the soul considered them in prayer caused it to forget their infinite elevation; it thought of them in a manner somewhat too human. It dwelt, for example, a little too much on Christ's humanity, without living sufficiently by faith in His divinity; it attained as yet only the exterior aspects of the great mysteries of Providence, of the Incarnation, of the redemption, of the Mass, and of the life of the indefectible Church in the midst of continually recurring trials. The soul had still only a very superficial knowledge of these spiritual realities; its view of these mysteries was like that of a stained-glass window seen from without.

Then, what occurs? To lift the soul above this excessively inferior and superficial knowledge of divine things, the Lord detaches it from this way of thinking and praying and seems to strip it of its lights. In the words of St. John of the Cross: "God now denudes the faculties, the affections, and feelings, spiritual and sensual, interior and exterior, leaving the understanding in darkness, the will dry, the memory empty, the affections of the soul in the deepest affliction, bitterness, and distress; withholding from it the former sweetness it had in spiritual things." (2)

The sadness then experienced is very different from that which has its origin in neurasthenia, disillusions, or the contradictions of life. The chief difference is that the sadness of the passive purification of the spirit is accompanied by an ardent desire for God and perfection, by a persistent seeking after Him who alone can nourish the soul and vivify it. No longer only a sensible aridity, it is a dryness of the spiritual order, which springs, not from the deprivation of sensible consolations, but from the loss of the lights to which the soul was accustomed.

The soul should then walk "in the dark, in pure .faith, which is the dark night of the natural faculties." (3) It can no longer easily apply itself to the consideration of our Savior's humanity; on the contrary, it is deprived of such consideration, as were the apostles immediately after Christ's ascension into heaven. During the months preceding the Ascension, their intimacy with Him had grown daily; it had become their life, and then one day He took final leave of them on this earth, thus depriving them of the sight of Him and of His encouraging words. They must have felt very much alone, as it were, isolated, especially while thinking of the difficulties of the mission our Savior had entrusted to them: the evangelization of an impious world, plunged in all the errors of paganism. On the evening of Ascension Day, the apostles must have experienced the impression of profound solitude, similar to that of the desert and of death. We can get a slight idea of this solitude, when, after living in a higher plane during a fervent retreat under the direction of a priest who is closely united to God, we return to ordinary everyday life, which seems suddenly to deprive us of this plenitude. The same thing is true, and indeed much more so, after the death of a father, of a founder of an order, for those whom he leaves and who must continue his work. Thus after Christ's ascension, the apostles remained gazing toward heaven; their beloved Master had been taken from their gaze, and they felt alone in the face of all the sufferings to come.

They must then have recalled Christ's words: "I tell you the truth: it is expedient to you that I go. For if I go not, the Paraclete will not come to you; but if I go, I will send Him to you." (4) "It is expedient to you that I go," that I deprive you of My sensible presence. In his commentary on St. John (loc. cit.), St. Thomas says: "The apostles were attached to the humanity of Christ, they did not rise sufficiently to the spiritual love of His divinity, and were not yet prepared to receive the Holy Ghost. . . who was to be given to them to console them and strengthen them in the midst of their tribulations."

This deprivation of the sensible presence of Christ's humanity which preceded the transformation of the apostles, effected on Pentecost, throws light on the state of darkness and desolation that we are discussing. It seems to the soul in this state that it enters a spiritual night, for it is deprived of the lights which hitherto illumined it; darkness descends as when the sun goes down.


But does the soul see nothing in this dark night? In the natural order when the sun has set and completely disappeared, at least some stars are visible, which convey an idea of the depth of the firmament. Hence at night we can see much farther than during the day; true, hills or mountains, fifty or a hundred miles away, are no longer visible, but we can see stars and constellations which are thousands of leagues from the earth. The nearest star requires four and a half years to send us its light. The sun seems larger than the stars, although those of the first six magnitudes are far greater than it.

In this natural fact we have a sensible symbol of a lofty truth. When the soul enters the spiritual darkness we are speaking of, it no longer sees what is near it, but it has an increasingly better anticipatory apprehension of the infinite majesty ana purity of God, although it does not see it, an apprehension superior to all the ideas that we of ourselves can have of Him; and, by contrast, it perceives much more clearly its own indigence and wretchedness.

Thus after the Ascension, the apostles, deprived of the presence of Christ's humanity, began to glimpse all the majesty of the Son of God. On Pentecost, Peter preached to the Jews with unshakable faith: "But the Author of life you killed, whom God hath raised from the dead." (5) "This [Jesus] is the stone which was rejected by you the builders, which is become the head of the corner. Neither is there salvation in any other." (6)

Such is the lofty contemplation born in the darkness of which we are speaking. When the sun has set, we see the stars in the depths of the firmament. But before enjoying the contemplation of the starry sky, we must become used to walking fearlessly in the night and triumphing over powerful temptations against faith and hope, just as, during the night of the senses, it was necessary to overcome many temptations against chastity and patience that have their seat in the sensible part of the soul.

We may profit by recalling the case of the holy Cure of Ars. His principal suffering sprang from the fact that he felt himself far from the ideal of the priesthood, whose grandeur appeared increasingly to him in the obscurity of faith, at the same time that he had an ever clearer understanding of the needs of the innumerable souls coming to him. The more he saw all the good that remained to be done, the less he saw what had already been accomplished; consequently he could not be complacent about it. His great suffering, which approached that of Jesus, Priest and Victim, and of Mary at the foot of the cross, was that which comes from the sight of sinand from the loss of souls. This suffering presupposes a penetrating view which is nothing else than the contemplation of the infinite goodness of God, who is disregarded and outraged, and of the value of eternal life. This contemplation grows more and more in the dark night of faith which we are discussing.

St. Catherine of Siena pointed out in her Dialogue that the contemplation of our indigence and wretchedness and that of the infinite majesty and goodness of God are like the lowest and highest points of a circle that could grow forever. In reality, in this contemplation there is a contrast, a clear-cut opposition between two things which in an admirable manner mutually illumine each other.

In the life of Blessed Angela of Foligno we find a striking example of this fact, which she recounts as follows: "I see myself deprived of every good, of every virtue, filled with a multitude of vices; . . . in my soul I see only defects. . . false humility, pride, hypocrisy. . . . I would wish to cry out my iniquities to others. . . . God is hidden for me. . . . How can I hope in Him? . . . Though all the wise men of the world and all the saints of paradise were to overwhelm me with their consolations, they would bring me no relief, if God does not change me in the depths of my soul. This interior torment is far worse than martyrdom." (7) Then, recalling that God Himself was afflicted in Gethsemane, that during His passion He was scorned, buffeted, and tortured, she wished that her suffering might be increased still more, for it seemed to her a purifying suffering, which revealed to her the depths of the Passion. Some days later, on a road near Assisi, she heard these interior words: "O My daughter! I love thee more than any other person in this valley. . . . Thou hast prayed to My servant Francis, hoping to obtain with him and through him. Francis loved Me greatly, I did much in him; but if anyone loved Me more than Francis, I would do more for him. . . . I love with an immense love the soul that loves Me without falsehood. . . . Now, no one has any excuse, for all the world can love; God asks only love from the soul; for He Himself loves without falsehood, and is Himself the love of the soul." (8) Causing her to glimpse His passion, Jesus crucified added: "Look closely: dost thou find anything in Me which is not love?" (9)

Another striking example of the spiritual night which we are speaking of is found in St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists. We read in his Letters:

Little corporal or spiritual tribulations are the first steps of this lofty and holy ladder which great and generous souls climb. They ascend step by step until they reach the last rung. There, at the summit, they find the purest suffering, without the slightest admixture of consolation coming from heaven or earth (the suffering which comes from offense offered to God). And if these souls are faithful in not seeking consolations, they will pass from this pure suffering to the pure love of God, without anything else being mingled with it. But rare are the souls which reach such a degree. . . .

It seems to them that they are abandoned by God, that He no longer loves them, that He is irritated against them. . . . This is almost the pain of damnation, if I may express myself in this manner, a suffering, whose bitterness is comparable to no other. But if the soul is faithful, what treasures it amasses! The storms pass and go, the soul approaches true, very sweet, and very close union with Jesus crucified, who transforms it in Himself and reproduces His own features in it.(10)

These excerpts show that St. John of the Cross is not the only one who spoke profoundly of the night of the spirit because he had experienced it. Before him, Hugh of St. Victor had compared the passive purification of the soul by grace and the love of God to the transformation which green wood undergoes when attacked by fire: "The dampness is consumed, the smoke diminishes, the victorious flame shows itself; . . . finally it communicates its own nature to the wood, which is set completely on fire. Likewise the love of God gradually grows in the soul, the passions of the heart at first resist, which causes many sufferings and troubles; this thick smoke must be dissipated. Then the love of God becomes more ardent, its flame more lively. . . and finally it penetrates the entire soul. The divine truth is found and assimilated by contemplation; the soul, detached from self, no longer seeks anything but God. He is for it all in all; it rests in His love and finds therein joy and peace. (11)

Speaking in like terms, Tauler says that the Holy Ghost creates a void in the depth of our souls where egoism and pride still dwell. He creates the void that He may heal us, and then He fills it to overflowing while continually increasing our capacity to receive.(12)

St. Teresa speaks of the passive purification of the spirit in the first chapter of the sixth mansion of The Interior Castle.

We read also in the life of St. Vincent de Paul that for four years he endured a trial of this type, which was marked by a persistent temptation against faith. The temptation was so strong that he wrote the Credo on a sheet of paper, which he carried over his heart and pressed from time to time to assure himself that he did not consent to the temptation.(13)

We should also keep in mind that St. John of the Cross, after Tauler, describes this state as it is in the saints in all its amplitude and intensity, such as he himself must have undergone it. But the purification is found in lesser degrees and under less purely contemplative forms, united, for example, to the great trials met with in the apostolate.

If the passive purification of the spirit seems extraordinary to us outside the normal way of sanctity, this is because we do not give enough thought to what a profound purification of the soul is necessary to receive immediately eternal life, the beatific vision of the divine essence, without having to pass through purgatory or after having done so. And when we read the exposition of this doctrine in the great masters, we read it perhaps through a certain curiosity about divine things, but without a sufficiently sincere desire for our own sanctification. If we had this desire, we would find in these pages what is suitable for us, we would see there the one thing necessary.

We must in one way or another pass through this crucible in order to have a concept of our Savior's passion, of the humility of Jesus and His love for us, that will not be only a confused concept, or only a theoretically distinct concept, but an experimental concept, without which there is no love of the cross or true sanctity.

We must tell ourselves that the world is full of crosses that have unfortunately been lost like that of the bad thief. God grant that our sufferings may not be fruitless and that our crosses may resemble that of the good thief, which served as a reparation for his sins. May our crosses resemble even more closely the cross of Jesus and configure us to Him. Sanctifying grace, as it grows, makes us more and more like to God; inasmuch as it is Christian grace, it assimilates us to Christ crucified, and should make us grow more like Him until our entrance into heaven. It should mark us with the likeness of our Savior who died for love of us.

We must also take into account the inequality between souls and between their means. We must ask of souls only what they can give: of some, a continuous upward surge of heroism; of others, little steps, which bring them ever nearer the end to be attained. But, to be configured to Christ, every soul must sacrifice itself under some form or other.



1. The progress of the knowledge and love of God, which characterizes this purification, is precisely what distinguishes it from sufferings that, in certain respects, resemble it, like those of neurasthenia. These latter may have nothing purifying about them, but they may also be borne for love of God and in a spirit of abandonment.

Likewise sufferings which are the result of a person's lack of virtue, of an undisciplined and at times exasperated sensibility, are not of themselves purifying, although a person may also accept them as a salutary humiliation, the result of his sins, and as a means of making reparation for them.

2. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 3.

3. Ibid., chap. 4.

4. John 16:7.

5. Acts 3: 15.

6. Acts 4: 11 f.

7. Le Livre de ses visions et instructions, chap. 19.

8. Ibid., chap. 20.

9. Ibid.

10. Lettres, I, 153. Cf. also Father Cajetan of the Holy Name of Mary, Oraison et ascension mystique de saint Paul de la Croix (Louvain, 1930) chap, 3, pp. 115, 175. "Forty-five years of desolation: apparent disappearance of the virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The saint believes himself abandoned by God. Patience and resignation to the will of God. The saint is drawn into the wounds of Jesus. Jesus on the cross says to him: 'You are in My heart.' The Passion is imprinted on his heart, and he is held for three hours in the side of Jesus."

St. Paul of the Cross not only traversed a tunnel, but he dug it in order to cause the religious of his Order to pass through it in their turn.

11. In Eccli., Hom. I.

12. Cf. Tauler, Second Sermon for Pentecost. See also the Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity Sunday, where he says: "Then there opens up a very deserted road, which is wholly somber and solitary. On this road God takes back all that He has given. Man is then so completely abandoned to himself that he no longer knows anything of God. He reaches a state of such anguish that he no longer knows whether he is on the right road. . . and this becomes so painful to him that this vast world seems too narrow to him. He has no longer any feeling of his God, he no longer knows anything about Him, and everything else displeases him. It is as if he were fastened between two walls, with a sword behind him and a sharp lance in front of him. Let him then sit down and say: 'Hail, O God, bitter bitterness full of all graces.' To love to excess and to be deprived of the good that one loves seems to him more painful trial than hell, if hell were possible on earth. All that one can then say to this man consoles him as much as would a stone. Less than anything else, he does not wish anyone to talk to him about creatures. . . . Take courage! The Lord is surely very near. Rest on the trunk of a very living true faith: soon all will go exceedingly well." This is the night and the profound emptiness which prepare the true deification of the soul. Elsewhere Tauler compares this state to that of a ship which has lost its sails and masts in a storm.

13. Cf. Abelly, Vie de saint Vincent de Paul, Bk. III, chap. 11, sect. I, pp. 164-68. Cf. Revue d'ascetique et de mystique, 1931, pp. 398 ff.