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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 36 : The Cause of the Passive Purification of the Spirit

Having described in the preceding chapter the passive purification of the spirit as it appears especially in the interior lives of the great servants of God, we shall now explain this spiritual state theologically by determining its cause. We have seen that it consists chiefly in a profound experiential knowledge of our indigence and wretchedness and, by contrast, of the infinite majesty of God, a knowledge which is accompanied by great spiritual aridity and a lively desire for perfection. What can be the cause of this obscure and painful contemplation?

St. John of the Cross (1) answers, as theology must do, by invoking Holy Scripture, which speaks to us in a number of passages of a purifying light, a spiritual fire that rids the soul of its stains.


The Book of Wisdom says of the just: "As gold in the furnace He hath proved them, and as a victim of a holocaust He hath received them." (2) Gold in the crucible is purified by material fire; a still more intense fire is needed to transform coal into a diamond; likewise, in tribulation the soul of the just man is purified by a spiritual fire. Scripture often insists on this thought, telling us that God is a fire which gradually consumes whatever hinders His reign in souls.(3)

Jeremias writes in his Lamentations: "From above He hath sent fire into my bones. . . . He hath made me desolate, wasted with sorrow all the day long." (4) In the light of this spiritual fire, which in him, the prophet sees far more clearly the sins of Israel, the justice and goodness of God, and he prays earnestly to Him for the salvation of sinners.

The Psalmist says likewise: "Who can understand sins? From my secret ones cleanse me, O Lord." (5) "My substance is as nothing before Thee." (6) "O my God, enlighten my darkness." (7) "Create a clean heart in me, O God." (8) Thus, like a flash of lightning, the Holy Ghost illumines the soul He wishes to purify. He says at times to the soul: "Do you wish to be purified?" And if the reply is what it ought to be, a profound work begins in it; divine truth is given to the soul to deliver it from the depth of self-love that still so often deludes it. "If you continue in My word," says Christ, "you shall be My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (9) If anyone lives seriously by the words of Christ, correcting himself, the first Truth will gradually penetrate into his soul and deliver it from that most pernicious of lies, the lie that a person tells himself while cherishing his illusions.

We can never too strongly desire this purifying light which Scripture speaks of. Unfortunately we often flee from it, because we are afraid we may be told the truth about ourselves, when we so greatly love to tell others the truth about themselves.

St. John of the Cross simply explains the nature of the purifying light spoken of in Scripture, when he writes: "The dark night is a certain inflowing of God into the soul which cleanses it of its ignorances and imperfections, habitual, natural, and spiritual. Contemplatives call it infused contemplation, or mystical theology, whereby God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in the perfection of love, without efforts on its own part beyond a loving attention to God, listening to His voice and admitting the light He sends, but without understanding how this is infused contemplation." (10) In the life of the holy Cure of Ars we have a striking example of this state. Comprehending better every day the loftiness of the priestly ideal and judging himself to be farther than ever from it, he certainly did not think then that he was a contemplative, and yet it was God Himself who was enlightening him and instructing him in this way.

Among the comparisons used to explain more clearly the spiritual state we are speaking of is one by Hugh of St. Victor,(11) which St. John of the Cross reproduces as follows: "This purgative and loving knowledge, or divine light, . . . is to the soul which it is purifying in order to unite it perfectly to itself,(12) as fire is to fuel which it is transforming into itself. The first action of material fire on fuel is to dry it, to expel from it all water and all moisture. It blackens it at once and soils it, and drying it little by little, makes it light and consumes all its foulness and blackness which are contrary to itself. Finally, having heated and set on fire its outward surface, it transforms the whole into itself, and makes it beautiful as itself. . . . It is in this way we have to reason about the divine fire of contemplative love which, before it unites with, and transforms the soul into itself, purges away all its contrary qualities. It expels its impurities, blackens it and obscures it, and thus its condition is apparently worse than it was before. For while the divine purgation is removing all the evil and vicious humors, . . . the soul - though not worse in itself, nor in the sight of God - seeing at last what it never saw before, looks upon itself not only as unworthy of His regard, but even as a loathsome object and that God does loathe it." (13)

This salutary crisis is a purgatory before death, in which the soul is purified under the influence, not of a sensible fire, but of the spiritual fire of contemplation and love. "And thus," says St: John of the Cross, "the soul which passes through this state in the present life, and is perfectly purified, either enters not into purgatory, or is detained there but a moment, for one hour here is of greater moment than many there." (14) The reason is that on earth man is purified while meriting and growing greatly at times in charity, whereas after death he is purified without meriting. And as purgatory is a penalty and every penalty presupposes a sin that could have been avoided, the normal way of sanctity is to undergo the passive purifications of which we are speaking before death and not after death. In reality, however, rare are they who go immediately from earth to heaven, without passing through purgatory. The true order of Christian life is fully realized only in the saints.

Is the purifying light, which we have just spoken of, only that of living faith, or also that of one of the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, present in all the Just? If we consider the characteristics of the gift of understanding, we see that it is chiefly this gift which intervenes in this state.


St. John of the Cross offers the following explanation: "Because the soul is to attain to the possession of a certain sense and divine knowledge, most generous and full of sweetness, of all human and divine things which do not fall within the common-sense and natural perceptions of the soul, it views them with different eyes now; as the light and grace of the Holy Ghost differ from those of sense, the divine from the human. . . . For this night is drawing the spirit away from its ordinary and common sense of things, that it may draw it toward the divine sense, which is a stranger and an alien to all human ways; so much so that the soul seems to be carried out of itself." (15)

This teaching of St. John of the Cross receives additional light from what St. Thomas says about the gift of understanding and the new penetration and purification of which it is the principle. According to St. Thomas: "The stronger the light of the understanding, the further can it penetrate into the heart of things. Now the natural light of our understanding (even in the greatest geniuses) is of finite power; wherefore it can reach to a certain fixed point. Consequently man needs a supernatural light in order to penetrate further still (into God or into the depths of the life of the soul) so as to know what it cannot know by its natural light: and this supernatural light which is bestowed on man is called the gift of understanding." (16) "Wherefore this addition is not called reason but understanding, since the additional light is in comparison with what know supernaturally, what the natural light is in regard to those things we know from the first."(17)

This gift presupposes faith united to charity and perfects it. Living faith makes us firmly adhere to the divine mysteries because God has revealed them, but of itself alone it does not yet make us penetrate the profound meaning of the mysteries, of the majesty of God, the Incarnation, the redemption, the humiliations of Christ dying for love of us. The penetration that we are here speaking of is not that which comes from study, from theological labor; it proceeds from a special illumination of the Holy Ghost, which, not abstractly and theoretically, but vitally, concretely, and practically, goes farther, higher, and deeper than study. Through the gift of understanding we receive this penetrating illumination with docility. It prevents us, first of all, from confusing the true meaning of the word of God with the erroneous interpretations sometimes given of it. This gift shows us in an instant the inanity of the objections raised by an evil spirit, so wholly different from the spirit of God. Error then creates the impression of a false discordant note in a symphony; though unable to refute it theologically, we see that it is an error. Likewise the gift of understanding emphasizes the immense distance separating spiritual realities from sensible symbols, or the spirit from the flesh.(18) Similarly it dispels the confusion between sensible consolations and spiritual tastes, which are far more elevated and more sure, as St. Teresa pointed out.(19)

Not only does the gift of understanding remove error, but it positively makes man penetrate vitally the truths of religion which are accessible to reason, such as the existence of God, the sovereign freedom of the Creator, and His providence; (20) but principally it makes him penetrate the meaning of the supernatural mysteries inaccessible to reason, what St. Paul calls "the deep things of God." (21) It cannot give us here on earth the evidence of these mysteries, but, in the obscurity of faith, it manifests to us their deep meaning, so difficult to express in human speech. It thus shows us the majesty of God, of His wisdom, justice, power, and paternity in relation the Word and to us. It gives us, for example, a more profound understanding of the mystery of the redemption by making us understand St. Paul's words: "Christ Jesus. . . emptied Himself. . .  He humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the cross." (22)

The gift of understanding is thus both speculative and practical as St. Thomas says.(23) It reminds us of the sovereign importance of the precept of love. In times of strong temptation, for example, to discouragement or even despair, it shows us as it were in a lightning flash the value of eternal life, the loftiness of our last end.(24) Thus by the penetration it brings, this gift removes dullness of mind; (25) it shows us our culpability far better than the most attentive examination of conscience; it reveals to us our indigence, our poverty, our wretchedness, and by contrast the eminence of God.

Therefore we see how, as St. Augustine and St. Thomas say, it corresponds to the beatitude: "Blessed are the clean of heart." In fact, it purifies our intellect of speculative and practical errors, of attachment to sensible images; it makes us perceive, though indistinctly, that God is infinitely superior to all created goods, that the Deity or divine essence, which the blessed contemplate immediately, is superior to all the analogical ideas that we can form of it.(26) We thus perceive that the Deity, which will appear unveiled only in heaven, is to our ideas of the divine perfections somewhat as white light is to the seven colors of the rainbow which come from it. A man who has never seen whiteness, but only the colors which come from it, cannot say positively what white is. Just so, we cannot say what the inner life of God is. "Nescimus de Deo quid est," St. Thomas often says. The Deity as such, in which we share only by grace, is superior to all the naturally knowable and participable perfections which it contains formally and eminently; it is superior to being, to unity, to truth, to goodness, to understanding, to love.(27) It is the Deity, which we cannot know in its essence as long as we are on earth; that is why great mystics, like Angela of Foligno, have called it "the great darkness." (28) But this great darkness is nothing else than the transluminous obscurity, or, as St. Paul says, "the light inaccessible" (29) in which God dwells.

Thus we see why the purifying light of the gift of understanding gives the impression of darkness; it makes us enter on a higher plane into the obscurity of the supernatural, the divine mystery, which is the direct opposite of the obscurity on the lower plane on which we are affected by the condition of material things, by inordinate passions, by sin and error.

We can also understand why St. Thomas tells us that the gift of understanding confirms the supernatural certitude of faith by making us penetrate mysteries and by dispelling error.(30) Thus contemplation, which exists in the state of darkness we are speaking of, proceeds from living faith as from its radical principle, and from the gift of understanding as from its proximate principle. The gift of knowledge also often concurs in it by revealing to us more in detail our poverty, culpability, and wretchedness.(31)

The spiritual aridity found in this state shows that the gift of wisdom does not exert a notable influence in it, for this gift makes us relish divine things and thus brings us great spiritual consolation and profound peace.(32)

The penetration, which, in this state, comes from the gift of understanding, differs from this relish of the divine mysteries. The proof of it is that he who in this way penetrates or comprehends increasingly the majesty of God, feels that he is alienated from Him because of the contrast between God's majesty and his own indigence.(33) Later, at the end of the purification of the spirit, he will taste profoundly the presence of the Blessed Trinity in his soul, he will have a quasi-experimental knowledge of it, which was, as it were, sketched before the night of the spirit, and which, after this night, will appear in its plenitude in the transforming union.

St. John of the Cross describes the passive purification of the spirit as it is realized in great saints, but, all proportion being kept it should exist in every servant of God that his higher faculties may be truly purified to their depths, either on earth or after death in purgatory, since nothing unclean can enter heaven. Moreover, the proximate principle of this purification, the penetrating light of the gift of understanding, exists in all the just. For this reason Christ says to all: "Blessed are your eyes, because they see, and your ears, because they hear," that you may grasp the spirit under the letter, the divine reality under figures, symbols, or parables. Blessed are they who thus distinguish between the spirit of God and a human wisdom that would lead them astray.

It remains for us to explain more fully the reasons why the purifying light of the gift of understanding creates the impression of darkness during the passive purification of the spirit. We shall thus see more clearly how this higher obscurity differs from the lower. In many supernatural facts more or less disconcerting to human reason, such as the passion of Christ, there is an enigma in which some are inclined to see darkness from the lower level of their illusions and pride; others discover the darkness from the higher level, that of God's inner life and of the mysteries of His grace. We need only recall the first controversies over the apparitions of Our Lady of Lourdes to Bernadette. The confusion of these two darknesses is that of two extremes infinitely distant one from the other, between which we have to walk. More than that, we must continually lift ourselves out of the darkness of the lower plane to penetrate more and more into the darkness of that higher plane, which is the inaccessible light in which God dwells. The night of the Spirit thus appears as the normal prelude of eternal life and as its painful germination in us.



1. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 5.

2. Wisd. 3:6.

3. Deut. 4: 24.

4. Lam. 1:13.

5. Ps.18:13.

6. Ps. 38:6.

7. Ps.17:29.

8. Ps. 50: 12.

9. John 8:31 f.

10. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 5.

11. In Eccli., Hom. 1.

12.  It is clearly a question here, as we see, of what prepares the soul to enter the unitive way.

13. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 10.

14. Ibid., chap. 6.

15. Ibid., chap. 9.

16. Summa, IIa IIae, q.8, a.I.

17. Ibid., ad 2um.

18. Summa, IIa IIae, q.8, a.2: "We know that whatever be the outward appearances, they do not contradict the truth." Cf. ibid., a.8.

19. The Interior Castle, fourth mansion, chap. 2.

20. Summa, IIa IIae, q.8, a.2.

21. Cf. I Cor. 2: 10: "The Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of God".

22. Phil. 2:7 f.

23. Summa, IIa IIae, q.8, a.3.

24. Ibid., ad 2um.

25. Ibid., a.8 ad 1um.

26. Ibid., a.8.

27. Summa, Ia, q.13, a.1: "God can be named by us from creatures, nevertheless not so as to express by the name what belongs to the divine Essence in Itself." Cf. Cajetan, on Ia, q. 39, a. I, no. 7: "The Deity is before all in its being and in all its attributes, for it is above being and above unity, etc." Being and unity, like understanding and love, are naturally capable of being shared; it is thus that we can naturally know these divine perfections. The Deity as such can only be shared in supernaturally by sanctifying grace, which is defined as
a participation in the Deity or the divine nature."

28. Le Livre des visions et des instructions, chap. 26: "I see nothing and I see all; the more this infinite good is seen in the darkness, the more certain it is that it exceeds all."

29. Cf. I Tim. 6:16.

30. Summa, IIa IIae, q.8, a.8.

31. Ibid., q.9, a.4 ad 1um: "To the gift of knowledge there corresponds sorrow for past errors." The gift of knowledge, says St. Augustine, corresponds to the beatitude of the tears of contrition, for it shows the emptiness of creatures and the gravity of sin which turns us away from God.

32. Summa, IIa IIae, q.45, a.2, 6.

33. There is here a painful presence of God.

34. On the description and explanation of the night of the spirit, cf. Etudes carmelitaines, October, 1938: Louis of the Trinity, C.D., "L'obscure nuit du feu d'amour," pp. 7-32; H. C. Puech, "La tenebre mystique chez le Pseudo­Denys et dans la tradition patristique," pp. 33-53; G. Thery, O.P., "Denys au Moyen-Age, l'aube de la Nuit obscure," pp. 68-74; L. Reypens, S.J., "La nuit de l'esprit chez Ruysbroec," pp. 75-81; B. M. Lavaud, O.P., "L'angoisse spirituelle selon Jean Tauler," pp. 82-91; Father Debongnie, C.SS.R., "Le Purgatoire de Catherine de Genes," pp. 91-10.1; J. Maritain, "L'experience mystique naturelle et le vide, pp. 116-39; Lucian Mary of St. Joseph, CD., "A la recherche d'une structure essentielle de la Nuit de l'esprit," pp. 254-81.