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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 38 : Conduct to Be Observed during the Purification of the Spirit

After describing the period of passive purification that should introduce the soul into the unitive way of the perfect, we explained this purification by the purifying light, which is chiefly that of the gift of understanding, in which we contemplate the majesty of God and our poverty, not to mention our wretchedness. We shall now give rules of direction for souls in this state of prolonged aridity, which is sometimes so painful.


There is, first of all, a general rule. These afflicted souls should be treated with kindness and helped that they may be led to full conformity to the divine will. The first rule of direction is that these souls should accept this trial generously for as long a time as, according to the good pleasure of God, it may last, and they should live in abandonment to the divine will. Moreover, as a general rule, the more generously they accept this purification, the quicker it will end, since the effect for which God wills it, will be more promptly accomplished. If it is more intense, it will generally be shorter (like the purification of purgatory) unless the soul is to suffer specially for sinners, over and above its personal purification.

Excellent books have been written on abandonment to Providence in this period of the spiritual life. Besides The Dark Night (Bk. II) of St. John of the Cross, there is the Treatise on The Love of God (Bk. IX) of St. Francis de Sales on the love of submission and of holy indifference in spiritual afflictions.(1) In the seventeenth century, Father A. Piny, O.P., wrote Le plus parfait, or the way of abandonment to the will of God, and also L'Etat du pur amour. In the same period we find Les saintes voies de la croix by the Venerable Henry Mary Boudon; in the eighteenth century, Abandonment to Divine Providence by Father de Caussade, S.J.; and recently (1919), Le saint abandon by Dom Vitalis Lehodey, O.C.R.

In this question of abandonment, two dangers must be avoided: quietism and the opposing error. Quietism or semi-quietism denies the necessity of our cooperation and goes so far as to demand in these trials the sacrifice of our hope or desire of salvation.(2) On the contrary, we must in this case, as St. Paul says: "Against hope believe in hope." (3)

The contrary error would consist in exaggerating the necessity of our cooperation while diminishing that of prayer and disregarding the efficacy of our petitions and the conduct of Providence which directs all. It would amount to a sort of practical naturalism. Tried souls should, on the contrary, pray particularly, ask the help of God to persevere in faith, trust, and love. They must be told that, if they continue to pray in this severe trial, it is a sign that, in spite of appearances, their prayer is granted; for no one can continue to pray without a new actual grace. And God who, from all eternity, has foreseen and willed our prayers, excites them in us.

To this general rule of the generous acceptance of the trial in conformity with the divine will, must be added three special rules relating to the three theological virtues, by which especially one must live during the night of the spirit. Here more particularly is verified the expression: "The just man liveth by faith." (4) The night of the spirit is that of faith whose object is obscure mysteries which appear so much the more obscure in proportion as they are higher above the senses. St. Thomas often says: "Fides est de non visis," the object of faith is things not seen. One does not believe on testimony what one sees.


In the trial of which we are speaking, the soul must, therefore firmly believe in what God has told of the great efficacy of the purifying cross in the life of the Church and in its own personal spiritual life. That this faith may be practical, it must tell itself that the cross is necessary and good for it. St. Louis Bertrand, during this period of his life, used often to repeat the words of St. Augustine: "Lord, burn, cut, do not spare now, that in eternity Thou mayest spare." The soul must believe that it is good for it to be thus painfully purified, that this purification is one of the distinctive signs of the children of God, and that this profound and painful purification glorifies the Lord. It must be penetrated with St. Paul's words: "We have this treasure [of divine grace] in earthen vessels, that the excellency [of the Gospel] may be of the power of God, and not of us. In all things we suffer tribulation, but are not distressed; we are straitened, but are not destitute; we suffer persecution, but are not forsaken; we are cast down, but we perish not: always bearing about in our body the mortification of Jesus, that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies." (5) "Power is made perfect in infirmity. Gladly therefore will I glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may dwell in me." (6) "Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter into His glory?" (7) "We are the sons of God. And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified with Him." (8)

As sanctifying grace is a participation in the divine nature and makes us like to God, habitual grace, as Christian and as coming from Christ crucified, configures us to Him and prepares us to carry our cross in imitation of Him. In this sense it adds a special modality to sanctifying grace as it was on the first day of creation in the angels and in Adam in the state of innocence. St. Thomas points this out in treating of baptismal grace.(9)

Thus we know the mystery of the redemption in a more living, profound, and quasi-experiential manner. We then comprehend how greatly deceived were the Jews who said to our Lord: "If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross." (10) They should have said, on the contrary, as did the centurion on witnessing the death of our Savior: "Indeed this man was the Son of God." (11) Christ never appeared greater than during His passion, when He said: "My kingdom is not of this world." (12) "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." (13) "It is consummated." (14) Christ's victory over sin and the devil on Good Friday is far greater than the victory He won over death by His resurrection. The resurrection of His body is only a sign of the power He has to restore life to souls, to forgive them their sins.

The cross is thus a distinctive sign of the Christian who is configured to his Savior. Therefore, as a rule, among the signs of predestination are named: patience in adversity for the love of God, love of enemies in spite of their insults and calumnies, love of the poor, especially when personal affliction supernaturally inclines us to help them. "Because I am not unacquainted with evil things. I know how to commiserate the wretched."

The soul that is in the night of the spirit should, therefore, often contemplate the passion of Christ, following the example of the saints, and ask for light to have a more profound understanding of the holy humiliations of our Savior and of their infinite redemptive value.


During this painful purification, the soul should also, the quietists to the contrary notwithstanding, hope against all human hope, asking unceasingly for the help of God. Abraham acted thus when God tried him by asking for the immolation of his son. (15) It may seem to it at first that God does not hear it, as was the case with the woman of Canaan; but He wishes in this way to try the confidence of the soul and at the same time, if it asks Him, He gives it the grace to continue to pray. This grace is itself a sign that He grants the prayer of the soul.

The soul must also recommend itself to the saints that they may intercede for it, especially those who were particularly tried in this manner, such as St. John of the Cross, St. Paul of the Cross, St. Benedict Joseph Labre, and the holy Cure of Ars.

It should pray in the manner used in the liturgy, the elevation of which then appears increasingly clear to those who bear this trial well. "O Lord, deliver my soul. The Lord is merciful and just, and our God showeth mercy." (16) "The Lord ruleth me: and I shall want nothing. . . . He hath led me on the paths of justice, for His own name's sake. For though I should walk in the midst of the shadow of death, I will fear no evils, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff, they have comforted me." (17) "Deliver me, O Lord, and set me beside Thee, and let any man's hand fight against me." (18) Christ said: "He that followeth Me, walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life." (19)

That hope may be strengthened in the soul, it is also well in this state to meditate on the canticle in Compline for Lent, which used to make St. Thomas Aquinas weep: "In the midst of life, we are in death. Whom seek we as a protector, except Thou, O Lord, who art justly angered by our sins. Holy God, holy Strong One, holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not up to the bitterness of death. Abandon us not in our old age, nor when our strength will fall us, holy God; holy and strong, holy and merciful" Such is the prayer the soul should make in the night of the spirit; it enables the soul to glimpse all the mystical grandeur of the liturgy.

When we pray in this manner, hope is purified and strengthened in the soul; far from sacrificing the desire for its salvation, as the quietists advised, the soul should desire God more and more purely and strongly. True, this desire should not subordinate God to the soul like a fruit necessary to its subsistence, but it should desire to possess God, its supreme Good, in order to glorify Him eternally.(20)


Lastly, in this state of trial, the soul should, as St. Francis de Sales well shows,(21) be penetrated with Christ's words: "My meat is to do the will of Him that sent Me." (22) In spiritual tribulations and afflictions, the soul should nourish itself with the will of God so that self-love may die definitively in it, that the soul may be truly stripped of self-love, and that the reign of the divine will may be established in the depths of its will. The soul will obtain this grace if it accepts, for love of God, to do and suffer all that He wishes, as obedience, circumstances, and the interior light of the Holy Ghost may indicate.

Consequently the soul should be penetrated with the evangelical beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, those who shed the tears of contrition; those who hunger and thirst after justice and preserve this zeal in spite of all difficulties; blessed, too, are the merciful, the clean of heart, the peacemakers; blessed are they who suffer persecution for justice, when they are insulted and persecuted because of the Savior. Their reward is great in heaven, and even on earth they will receive the hundredfold of all that has been taken from them; they will receive it especially in close union with God and in working for the salvation of their neighbor.

Souls that pass through this denudation and are calumniated ought often to reread what St. Paul says to the Romans: "If God be for us, who is against us? . . . Christ Jesus. . . maketh intercession for us.. Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or persecution, or the sword? . . . But in all these things we overcome, because of Him that hath loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life nor angels nor principalities nor powers nor things present nor things to come nor might nor height nor depth nor any other creature shall be able to separate us from the love of God," (23) nor be able to make God abandon the just, if they do not abandon Him first.

In this period of purification, one should ask our Lord for the love of the cross, for the desire to share in His holy humiliations in the measure willed by Providence. The soul should ask Him also to let it find in this desire the strength to bear whatever may come, the peace, and sometimes the joy, to restore its courage and that of souls that come to it.(24) Then this trial, hard as it may be at times, will seem good to it; at least the soul will believe that it is salutary and sanctifying for it.

Then it will more readily grasp the great meaning of the words of The Imitation on the royal road of the cross: "In the cross is salvation; in the cross is life; in the cross is protection from enemies. In the cross is infusion of heavenly sweetness; in the cross is strength of mind; in the cross is joy of spirit; in the cross is height of virtue; in the cross is perfection of sanctity. . . . No man hath so heartfelt a sense of the Passion of Christ as he whose lot it hath been to suffer like things. . . . If thou carry the cross willingly, it will carry thee. . . . If thou carry it unwillingly, thou makest it a burden to thee, and loadest thyself the more. . . . For the sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come." (25)

The painful purification we are speaking of creates a great void in the soul by driving out self-love and pride, and gives it an increasingly eager desire for God. St. Francis de Sales explains this effect, saying:

As man can be perfected only by the divine goodness, so the divine goodness can scarcely so well exercise its perfection outside itself as upon our humanity. The one has great need and capacity to receive good, the other great abundance and inclination to bestow it. Nothing is so suitable to indigence as a liberal abundance; nothing so agreeable to a liberal abundance as extreme indigence. . . . The more needy the indigent man is, the more eager he is to receive, as a vacuum is to be filled. Therefore the meeting of abundance and indigence is sweet and desirable; and if our Lord had not said that it is better to give than to receive, one could hardly say which has greater contentment, abundant good in diffusing and communicating itself or failing and indigent good in receiving. . . . Divine goodness has, therefore, more pleasure in giving its graces than we in receiving them.(28)

The void created in the soul that is stripped of self-love and pride causes it to become, therefore, increasingly capable of receiving divine grace, the abundance of charity. In this sense the Apostle says: "God. . . giveth grace to the humble," and He makes them humble in order to fill them to overflowing.

All we have just said shows the profound truth of St. Thomas' words: "The love of God is unitive (congregativus), inasmuch as it draws man's affections from the many to the one; so that the virtues, which flow from the love of God, are connected together. But self-love disunites (disgregat) man's affections among different things, so far as man loves himself, by desiring for himself temporal goods, which are various and of many kinds." (27) The love of God causes the light of reason and that of grace to shine increasingly in us, whereas sin stains the soul, taking away from it the brilliance of the divine light.(28) The purification of the spirit removes these stains, which are in our higher faculties, that they may be resplendent with the true light, which is the prelude of that of eternity.



1. Cf. chaps. 3-6, 11-16.

2. Denzinger, Enchiridion, Errors of Fenelon, nos. 1333 ff.: "Deus aemulator vult purgare amorem, nullum ei ostendendo perfugium neque ullam spem quoad suum interesse proprium etiam aeternum." "In uno extremarum probationum casu sacrificium aeternae beatitudinis fit aliquo modo absolutum." "In extremis probationibus rarest animae invincibiliter persuasum esse peruasione reflexa, et quae non est intimus conscientiae fundus, se juste reprobatam esse a Deo." "In hac involuntaria impressione desperationis conficit sacrificium absolutum sui interesse proprii quoad aeternitatem."

3. Rom. 4: 18.

4. Rom. 1:17.

5. Cf II Cor. 4:7-10.

6. Ibid., 12:9.

7. Luke 24:26.

8. Rom. 8: 16f.

9. Summa, IIIa, q. 62, a. 2: "Sacramental grace confers something in addition to the grace of the virtues and gifts. . . ; thus man becomes a member of Christ.

10. Matt. 27:40.

11. Mark 15:39.

12. John 18: 36.

13. Luke 23:34.

14. John 19: 30.

15. Rom. 4: 18.

16. Ps. 114:4 f.

17. Ps. 21: 1-4.

18. Job 17:3.

19. John 8: 12.

20. Cajetan says in his commentary on IIa IIae, q. 17, a.5: "By hope I desire God not for my own sake, but for myself for the sake of God Himself." God remains the ultimate end of the act of hope, and when this act is that of living hope, vivified by charity, we desire God, our supreme Good, in order to glorify Him eternally. The motive of charity elevates that of hope, but it does not suppress it.

21. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. IX, chaps. 2-6, 15 f.

22. John 4:34.

23. Rom. 8: 3 1-39.

24. In Retraite de dix jours a l'usage des Carmelites (p. 72), Reverend Mother Mary of the Conception, Carmelite of Aix (1877), says on this subject: "To understand and practice annihilation of self and to give oneself up to grace in such a way as to accept humiliation, we need a model whose faithful copy we may become; in our repugnances and weaknesses, We need the strength of Jesus Christ Himself. His life must be so imprinted on us that, with Him and like Him, we can say: 'Behold I come,' and at the same time give ourselves up entirely to grace. . . .

"As long as our will does not embrace humiliations and sacrifices of every kind, the work of God will not be done in our souls, or will be done only imperfectly. Patience in trials is indeed something, but it is not all. One can be sanctified by resignation, but one rises above self only by union and participation in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Therein is our strength and the principle of this divine life which is founded on the ruins of our self-love . . . . The strengthening of one's will against all the repugnances of nature is obtained only by constant and persevering prayer, great distrust of self, and trust in God which has no other limit than His omnipotence."

25. Bk. II, chap. 12, passim.

26. Treatise on the Love of God, Bk. I, chap. 15.

27. Summa, Ia IIae, q. 73, a. I ad 3um.

28. Ibid., q.86, a.1.