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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 37 : The Transluminous Obscurity

We have seen that the spiritual light of the gift of understanding, which is given to the soul in the passive purification of the spirit, enlightens it regarding the infinite majesty of God on the one hand, and, by contrast, regarding its own poverty and wretchedness.

Our problem now is why this infused purifying light manifests itself as darkness. Why does it give the impression of a great darkness and why does it at times cause great suffering?

There are three reasons for it, which are pointed out by St. John of the Cross and more readily understood with the help of the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. A great light gives the impression of darkness because of its very strength and of the elevation of its object. Moreover, it makes us suffer because of our impurity and weakness, which we feel more keenly under certain temptations of the devil that occur in this period.


First of all, St. John of the Cross, following Dionysius and the great theologians, says: "The divine wisdom is so high that it tran­scends the capacity of the soul, and therefore is, in that respect, darkness," 1 because we comprehend with increasing clarity that the divine Essence or the Deity surpasses all the ideas we can have of it, ideas of being, truth, goodness, intelligence, and love; it contains them all in an eminence inaccessible to us, which essentially is sovereignly luminous, but which seems dark to us because we cannot attain it.(2) This "inaccessible light" (3) in which God dwells is for us the great darkness. Thus the light of the sun seems dark to the eye of the owl, which can bear and attain only the dim light of twilight or dawn. Aristotle pointed this out,(4) and Dionysius the Mystic likewise says that contemplation is like "a ray of darkness."

Consequently what seems clear to us in God, as His existence and the existence of His providence, is what we grasp of it in the mirror of sensible things, in the dim light within our reach. But the intimate harmonization of infinite justice, infinite mercy, and supreme liberty in the mystery of predestination seems very obscure to us, although this intimate harmonization may be intrinsically very luminous. Souls passing through the dark night of the spirit are consequently often tempted on the subject of the mystery of predestination; and in this trial they cannot dwell on the excessively human and seemingly clearer conceptions of this mystery. (5) They would feel as if they were descending instead of ascending. They must rise above the temptation by turning, through a great act of faith, toward the superior obscurity of the intimate life of God, of the Deity, in which harmonize infinite justice, infinite mercy, and the supreme liberty of the Most High.

The Blessed Trinity also, which is Light itself, seems obscure to us because too luminous for the weak eyes of our spirit. For this reason St. Teresa says: "I have more devotion to the mysteries of faith in proportion as they are more obscure; because I know that this obscurity comes from a light too great for our weak understanding." Christ's passion, which was the darkest and most disconcerting period for the apostles, was that of Christ's greatest victory over sin and the devil.(6)


Furthermore, the divine light, given in the night of the spirit, causes suffering because of the impurity still existing in the soul. St. Augustine pointed this out, saying: "The light which so greatly pleases pure eyes is hateful to weak ones." This is so much truer when this divine light must overcome a special resistance of the soul, which is unwilling to be enlightened in regard to certain of its defects, wishing at times to see virtues in them: for example, in regard to a somewhat bitter zeal and a secret complacency, as a result of which it is deceived by its self-love and by the enemy of the good. "The light shineth in darkness," says St. John, "and the [inferior] darkness did not comprehend it." (7) This light seems painful when it must overcome resistance, especially a prolonged resistance.

It even happens often that the soul suffers greatly because it cannot understand why God tries it in this way, as if He were an implacable judge. As a result, it has difficulty in believing practically in His goodness; and when someone speaks of the goodness of God, it seems abstract and theoretical to the soul at a time when in its opinion it needs to experience this goodness by a little consolation.(8)


This interior suffering increases still more through the fear of consenting to temptations arising at this time against faith, hope, and the love of God and of neighbor. Holy Job experienced this fear, and so did the apostles during the Passion and after the Ascension, when Christ had departed from them and left them alone.

In this painful state, the soul sees clearly that at times it resists these temptations, but at others it fears that it consented. This fear causes it anguish, for in this state the soul already greatly loves the Lord and would not for anything in the world offend His majesty or slight His goodness.(9)

We have here the explanation of the fact that, whereas at the summit of the spirit there is an act of faith illumined by the gift of understanding, a direct and very simple, though unperceived, act of arid contemplation, at the same time the just man is inclined by his lower reason to conclude that he is abandoned by God. This was the case with St. Paul of the Cross when he exclaimed in the streets of Rome: "A via Pauli, libera nos Domine"; also with St. Alphonsus Liguori, who believed that the Order which he had founded was going to perish; with Father Surin in his desolations, from which he emerged occasionally to preach, out of charity, an admirable sermon springing from the depths of his tormented faith, which was daily growing in this struggle. At this stage there is in tried souls, as in those of purgatory, a flux and reflux; carried toward God by the impulse of their love, they feel themselves repulsed by all the wretchedness and pusillanimity which they see in themselves.

As a rule, the director can bring no consolation to the soul thus afflicted, says St. John of the Cross.(10) He speaks to it of the glorious end of this trial, of the soft light that will be met with again on leaving this tunnel, but the soul, immersed in suffering, cannot understand these words. It cannot receive consolation by this human and discursive way, but only through a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost and through very simple direct acts which He excites in it. For this reason Father de Caussade says with his usual charm: "Souls walking in the light sing hymns of light; those walking in the darkness sing canticles of darkness. We must let both classes sing even to the end the part and the motet that God assigns to them. We must put nothing into what He is filling; we must let all the drops of this gall of divine bitterness flow, though it should inebriate. Jeremias and Ezechiel acted in this manner. . . . The spirit which renders desolate, alone can console. These different waters flow from the same source." (11)

Scripture states several times: "The Lord. . . bringeth down to hell and bringeth back again. The Lord maketh poor and maketh rich, He humbleth and He exalteth." (12) This statement is verified especially in the night of the spirit, which is the mystical death; it prepares the soul for the intimacy of union with God. The soul empty of all self-love can reach absolute sincerity; every mask drops away. The soul no longer possesses anything of its own, but is ready to possess God, like the apostles, of whom it was said: "As having nothing, and possessing all things." (13) The emptiness that it experiences renders it still more eager for God.


The doctrine just set forth is confirmed in several ways. First of all, it is confirmed by the dogma of purgatory. Nothing unclean can enter heaven; therefore the purification of the spirit, which we are speaking of, must be undergone before or after death. However it is far better and more profitable to undergo it before death; for in the present life man merits while growing in charity, whereas in purgatory he no longer merits. It is far better to be purified by the spiritual fire of growing infused love than by another inferior fire. In this connection, it will be profitable to read what St. Catherine of Genoa says in her Treatise on Purgatory about the purification in the next world.

St. John of the Cross points out an additional confirmation: "For the light of God that illumines an angel enlightens him and sets him on fire with love, for he is a spirit already prepared for the infusion of that light; but man, being impure and weak, is ordinarily enlightened. . . in darkness, in distress, and pain - the sun's rays are painful in their light to weak eyes." (14)

When we receive this divine illumination, we are not as a rule conscious that God is enlightening us; nevertheless, some words of the Gospel on mercy or justice are illumined for us. This is a sign that we have received a grace of light.

We find a third confirmation of what we have said in the analogy of night in nature, a symbol that enables us to understand a little the state of purification, called the night of the spirit. In nature, when the sun goes down and night falls, we no longer see the objects surrounding us, but we do see distant objects not visible during the day, such as the stars, which are thousands of leagues away. And the sun must hide that we may see them, that we may be able to glimpse the depths of the firmament. Analogously, during the night of the spirit we see much farther than during the luminous period preceding it; these inferior lights must be taken away from us in order that we may begin to see the heights of the spiritual firmament.(15) This is why Christ said to His apostles: "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." (16) As a matter of fact, when the apostles could no longer see Christ's humanity, they began to glimpse the grandeur of His divinity. They were so well enlightened and fortified that on Pentecost the Apostle Peter preached to all who were in the temple at Jerusalem, saying: "But the Author of life you killed, whom God hath raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses." (17) "Neither is there salvation in any other. For there is no other name under heaven given to men, whereby We must be saved." (18) Peter's preaching sprang from the plenitude of the contemplation of the mystery of Christ. St. Thomas says it must be so in order that preaching may be living and profound,(19) a condition that is fully realized only after the purification of the spirit.

What St. John of the Cross says, Tauler has pointed out several times in his sermons, for example, in the sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent.(20) According to Tauler, the tried soul, which at first seems to pray in vain, like the woman of Canaan, is, however, as if pursued by God:

This divine pursuit provokes in the soul an appealing cry of immense force; . . . it is a sigh coming from a measureless depth. This desire of the soul far exceeds nature; it is the Holy Ghost Himself who must utter this sigh in us, as St. Paul says: "The Spirit Himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings." . . . But God acts then as if He heard absolutely nothing, . . . as Christ seemed at first not to wish to hear the prayer of the woman of Canaan, saying to her: "I was not sent but to the sheep that are lost of the house of Israel. . . . It is not good to take the bread of the children and to cast it to the dogs." . . . Humbling herself then she replied with great confidence: "Yea, Lord; for the whelps also eat of the crumbs that fall from the table of their master." . . . That 's why Jesus answered her: "O woman, great is thy faith: be it done to thee as thou wilt." In truth, this is the answer that will be made to all those who will be found in such dispositions (of profound humility and confidence) on this road. All that you wish will happen to you and in the way you wish it, for "in the measure in which you have gone forth from what is yours," says the Lord, "in this measure you are to share in what is Mine." . . . In proportion as a man renounces himself and goes out of himself, in the same proportion God enters into him in very truth. . . . Take the last place, as the Gospel says, and you will be lifted up. But those who exalt themselves will be put down. Desire only what God has willed from all eternity; accept the place which in His most amiable will He has decided should be yours. My children, it is by complete renunciation of self and of all that one possesses that one goes to God. One drop of this renunciation, one rill of it, would better prepare a man and lead him nearer to God than the most absolute exterior denudation. . . . A short moment lived in these dispositions would be more useful for us than forty years following practices of our own choice.

In this sermon Tauler speaks forcibly of the one thing necessary. The grace of denudation in question here fulfills profoundly the words of the Gospel: "Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." (21) Blessed is the death that is followed by such a spiritual resurrection.(22)



1. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 5.

2. In his Treatise on the Love of God (Bk. II, chap. I), St. Francis de Sales says on this subject: "When the rising sun is red. . . , or when the setting sun is wan, pale, gray, we say that it is a sign of rain. Theotime, the sun is neither red, nor black, nor pale, nor gray, nor green. This great luminary is not at all subject to these vicissitudes and changes of color, having for its sole color only its very clear and perpetual light. . . . But we speak in this way because it seems so to us, according to the variety of the vapors which are between it and our eyes, which make it appear in different manners. Now we discourse thus of God: not so much according to what He is in Himself, as according to His works by the mediation of which we contemplate Him. . . .. There is in God only one perfection, which comprises all the others in an infinitely excellent and eminent manner which our spirit cannot think of."

3. Cf. I Tim. 6: 16.

4. He said that divine things are so much the more obscure for us as they of themselves are more intelligible and luminous, because they are the farthest removed from the senses. Cf. Metaph., Bk. II, chap. I.
In reality, this affirmation, "the sun exists," is clearer for us than the statement, "God exists." Nevertheless, of Himself, God alone is subsistent Being, and alone is He who is, and the light of the sun is only a shadow compared with the divine light.

Time seems clearer to us than eternity, and yet the fleeting instant of itself is far less intelligible than the immutable instant, the single instant of immobile eternity.

5. For example, they can hardly dwell on Molina's conception.

6. The dark hours of Christ's passion enlighten the saints. Likewise, as St. John of the Cross points out (The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 8): "The ray of high contemplation, transcending as it does the natural powers, striking the soul with its divine light, makes it dark, and deprives it of all the natural affections and apprehensions which it previously entertained in its own natural light." Thus the lower part of the soul is darkened, while the higher part is gradually illumined and "the spiritual light, which beats on the soul is of itself neither visible nor perceptible because it is so clear; but when it beats upon anything that reflects it, that is, upon any matter of perfection which presents itself to the understanding or a decision to be made as to the truth or falsehood of anything, the soul sees it at once, and understands the matter more clearly than it ever did before it entered into this darkness(ibid).

We knew a contemplative lay sister who had no human culture whatsoever, but who was very spiritual as a result of interior trials; she was as if consumed. She had found two great friends among the saints: St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Albert the Great. She, who had absolutely no philosophical or theological training, loved to read how these great saints prayed and she often directed her prayers to them saying: "They are great doctors of the Church, they enlighten souls that ask them to do so." As a matter of fact, St. Thomas showed her where the dark tunnel through which she was passing was to lead her. We have frequently observed that St. Thomas has often thus enlightened tried souls that call upon him.

7. John 1: 5.

8. In The Dark Night (Bk. II, chap. 5), St. John of the Cross says on this
subject:. "The soul, by reason of its impurity, suffers exceedingly when the divine light shines upon it. And when the rays of this pure light strike upon the soul, in order to expel its impurities, the soul perceives itself to be so unclean and miserable that it seems as if God had set Himself against it, and itself were set against God."

9. Cf. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chaps. 5 f.

10. Ibid., chap. 7.

11. L'Abandon a la Providence divine, abridged ed., Bk. III, chap. 3; complete ed., Bk. II, chap. 4, par. 2.

12. Cf. I Kings 2:6 j; Deut. 32:39; Tob. 13:12; Wisd. 16:13.

13. Cf. II Cor. 6: 10.

14. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. 12.

15. Summa, IIa IIae, q. 180, a.6. In this article St. Thomas alludes to this matter when he explains how the spirit rises from the straight movement of contemplation (which starts with sensible things) to the oblique movement, then to the circular movement, similar to that of the eagle which, high up in the sky, describes a circle several times while contemplating the sun and the horizon. He says (ad 2um): "But on the part of the soul, ere it arrive at this uniformity (in which it contemplates with a single gaze God and the radiation of His goodness) its twofold lack of uniformity needs to be removed. First, that which arises from the variety of external things. . . . Another lack of uniformity requires to be removed from the soul, and this is owing to the discoursing of reason. This is done by directing all the soul's operations to the simple contemplation of the intelligible truth, to the simplex intuitus veritatis." This double sacrifice of the senses and discursive reasoning is only made slowly in prayer, and gradually the understanding reaches the point of judging spiritually of all things, according to St. Paul's words: "But the spiritual man judgeth all things. . . . For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct Him?" (I Cor. 2: 15 f.).

16. John 16:7.

17. Acts 3:15.

18. Acts 4: 12.

19. Summa, IIa IIae, q.188, a.6: "Teaching and preaching proceed from the fullness of contemplation."

20. Sermons (Trans. Hugueny), I, 241 ff.

21. John 12:24f.

22. Cf. St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory. See also Dict. de spiritualite, "Catherine de Genes," col. 304-308; "The Saint describes the state of the suffering souls by comparison with her own state, that of a soul which God causes to pass through the passive purifications. This explains why she insists so strongly on certain characteristics, especially on the laceration produced in the soul by the effect of two contrary forces: one force which draws it toward God, the object of beatitude; another force which repulses it: the opposition between the purity of God and its own imperfection.". She describes the insatiable hunger for the Divinity, and says that the souls purgatory suffer a pain so great that no intellect can, in the present life, comprehend it. She holds also that this suffering increases with the progress of the purification, for the desire for God grows; and yet there is a holy joy which also grows, for the soul makes more account of the divine will than of its own suffering. God removes every root of egoism by producing in the soul "the last act of love by which He completes its purification" (Purg., chap. 11 ). Purgatory ceases to be a prison imposed on the soul and becomes a prison desired, wished for, anxiously sought for (Purg., chap. 18). This entire article in the Dict. de spir. on St. Catherine of Genoa is of great interest. See also how she conceived of the purgative, the illuminative, and
the unitive ways.