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

The Unitive Way of the Perfect


Ch 39 : The Effects of the Passive Purification of the Spirit in Relation Especially to the Three Theological Virtues (cont)


At this stage particularly, the passive purifications of the present life resemble those of purgatory, although they differ greatly from it, since in purgatory there is no longer any merit or increase of charity.

This theological virtue, the highest of the infused virtues, is that which makes us love God for Himself, because He is infinitely lovable in Himself, infinitely better than every creature and than all His gifts. It makes us love Him also because He first loved us, by communicating to us a participation in His intimate life. Charity is thus a holy friendship by which we give back to God the love He has for us, and by which also we love our neighbor inasmuch as he is loved by God, inasmuch as he is a child of God or called to become one.

Every good Christian undoubtedly has this virtue. By it we love God for Himself; but we also love Him for the consolations He gives us, because He makes Himself felt by us, because what we undertake for Him succeeds and gives us contentment. Likewise, we love our neighbor for the love of God, because he is loved by our common Father; but we also love him because he responds to our charity, our courtesies, our devotion, because he gives evidence of gratitude. And at times when, instead of gratitude, we see ingratitude, we do not love the soul of our seemingly ungrateful neighbor as we should, for, as a matter of fact, we should love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, that they may return to the road of salvation. Consequently there is some alloy in our charity. This base element is evident occasionally when our charity fails to overcome some bitterness or ill-temper, following on a want of consideration.

Therefore, when the Lord wishes to lead a soul, already possessed of great hope, to a more pure, more disinterested love of God for Himself, above all His gifts, He deprives it of all spiritual consolation, of His sensible presence, for months and years, though He becomes more intimately present in the soul and acts more profoundly in it. He seems to withdraw from it, as God the Father seemed to withdraw from the soul of Jesus on the cross when in His agony He cried out: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (27) This exclamation, taken from a Messianic psalm,(28) is immediately followed in the same psalm, as it was in the heart of Christ, by sentiments of perfect trust, abandonment, and love.

When in this spiritual night the soul seems to be abandoned by God, it makes a great act of love for this sole and most pure motive: God is infinitely good in Himself, infinitely better than every created gift, and it is He who first loved us. Following the example of His crucified Son, I must return Him love for love.

St. Teresa of the Child Jesus was well acquainted with these very painful hours, and what we learn about them in her life helps us to a clearer understanding of the doctrine of St. John of the Cross on the purification of love, and of St. Thomas' teaching on the formal motive of charity. At this stage of the spiritual life, this motive ap­pears in all its elevation, like a star of first magnitude in the night of the spirit, together with the motive of faith and that of hope.

We read, in fact, toward the end of the life of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus:

My soul has known many kinds of trials. I have suffered greatly here on earth. In my childhood, I suffered with sadness; today, in peace and joy I taste all bitter fruits. . . . During the luminous days of the paschal season last year, Jesus made me understand that there are really impious souls without faith and hope (which I found it hard to believe). He then allowed my soul to be invaded by the thickest darkness, and the thought of heaven, which had been so sweet to me since my early childhood, to become for me a subject for struggle and torment. The duration of this trial was not limited to a few days, a few weeks; I have been suffering for months and I am still waiting for the hour of my deliverance. I wish I could express what I feel, but it is impossible. One must have passed through this dark tunnel to understand its obscurity. . . .

Lord, Thy child has understood Thy divine light which shines in the darkness. She begs Thee to pardon her unbelieving brethren, and is willing to eat the bread of suffering as long as Thou mayest wish. For love of Thee she takes her place at this table filled with bitterness where poor sinners take their food, and she does not wish to rise from it before receiving a sign from Thy hand. But may she not say in her own name and in the name of her guilty brethren: "O God, be merciful to us sinners"? (29) Send us away justified. May all those who are not enlightened by the torch of faith at last see it shine. . . . When, weary of the surrounding darkness, I wish to rest my heart by the fortifying memory of a future and eternal life, my torment redoubles. It seems to me that the shadows, borrowing the voice of the impious mockingly say to me: "You dream of light, of a sweet-scented country, you dream of the eternal possession of the Creator of these marvels; you believe that you will one day emerge from the mists in which you languish. Forward! Forward! Rejoice in death, which will give you, not what you hope for, but a still darker night, the night of nothingness. . . ."

Knowing that it is cowardly to fight a duel, I turn my back on my adversary without ever looking him in the face; then I run to Jesus and tell Him that I am ready to shed every drop of my blood to acknowledge that there is a heaven. I tell Him that I am happy not to be able to contemplate here on earth with the eyes of my soul the beautiful heaven which awaits me, in order that He may deign to open it for eternity to poor unbelievers.

Consequently, in spite of this trial which takes from me every feeling of enjoyment, I can still cry out: "Thou hast given me, O Lord, a delight in Thy doings." (30) For what joy can be greater than that of suffering for Thy love? The more intense the suffering is and the less it appears to men, the more it causes Thee to smile, O my God. . . . May I prevent or make reparation for a single sin committed against faith. . . .

When I sing of the happiness of heaven, of the eternal possession of God, I do not experience any joy, for I sing simply what I will to believe. At times, I admit, a very tiny ray of light illumines my dark night, then the trial ceases for a moment; but afterward, the memory of this ray, instead of consoling me, makes my darkness thicker still.

I have never felt so fully that the Lord is sweet and merciful. He did not send me this heavy cross until I was able to bear it; formerly, I believe that it would have cast me into discouragement. Now it produces only one effect: it takes from me every feeling of natural satisfaction in my longing for heaven.(31)

Such is the simultaneous passive purification of faith, hope, and love of God and of souls in God, a purification which, in the case of St. Teresa of the Child Jesus, is united to reparatory suffering for sinners.

Then the most pure motive of this love of charity appears in all its elevation: namely, that God is sovereignly lovable in Himself, infinitely more so than all the gifts which He has given us and which we expect from Him. Here the acts of faith, hope, and charity fuse, so to speak, in an act of perfect abandonment to the divine will, while the soul repeats the words of Christ on the cross: "Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit." (32)

Then the soul understands what St. John of the Cross says: "For this is a certain fire of love in the spirit whereby the soul, amidst these dark trials, feels itself wounded to the quick by this strong love divine. . . . And inasmuch as this love is infused in a special way, the soul corresponds only passively with it, and thus a strong passion of love is begotten within it. . . . The soul is itself touched, wounded, and set on fire with love. . . . The soul, however, amidst these gloomy and loving pains, is conscious of a certain companionship and inward strength which attends upon it and invigorates it." (33)

St. Teresa speaks in like manner of this last purification which precedes the transforming union: "She sees herself still far away from God, yet with her increased knowledge of His attributes, her longing and her love for Him grow ever stronger as she learns more fully how this great God and Sovereign deserves to be loved. . . . She is like one suspended in mid-air, who can neither touch the earth nor mount to heaven; she is unable to reach the water while parched with thirst, and this is not a thirst that can be borne, but one which nothing will quench." (34)

At the end of this trial, charity toward God and one's neighbor is purified of all alloy, as gold in the crucible is freed from its dross. And not only is the love of charity thus purified, but notably increased. The soul now makes intense and heroic acts of charity, which obtain immediately the increase of grace which they merit, and with sanctifying grace increase greatly at the same time all the infused virtues and the seven gifts of the Holy Ghost, which are connected with charity.

The love of God and of souls then becomes increasingly disinterested, ever more ardent and forgetful of self. We admire the purity of the conjugal love of the sailor's wife who does not cease to think of her absent husband, who may be dead, since for several months she has had no word that he is still alive. She loves him as if he were present, and brings up her children in the love of their father who has disappeared. How can we fail to admire the purity of love in these spouses of Jesus Christ who, like St. Teresa of Lisieux, remain for a long time, for months and months, deprived of His presence, in the greatest darkness and aridity, and who do not cease to love Him with a love as strong as it is pure, for the sole motive that He is infinitely good in Himself and incomparably more so than all His gifts! In this state the tenderness of love is transformed into the strength of union, according to the expression of the Canticle of Canticles: "Love is strong as death," (35) and even stronger, for no trial can overthrow love. The soul then remembers that in our Lord, who fashions souls to His image, love on the cross was stronger than spiritual death, that it was the conqueror of sin and the devil, and by the resurrection the victor over death which is the result of sin. In the passive purifications, described by St. John of the Cross, the Christian and Catholic mystic relives these great truths of faith; thereby the soul is configured to Christ in His sorrowful life, before being configured to Him in His glorious life for eternity.


St. Teresa (36) speaks of this purification, but does not distinguish as clearly as St. John of the Cross does, what essentially constitutes it from the sufferings which quite often accompany it, and which she herself experienced, as we see from her autobiography.(37)

In The Interior Castle she writes:

O my God, how many troubles both interior and exterior must one suffer before entering the seventh mansion! Sometimes, while pondering over this I fear that, were they known beforehand, human infirmity could scarcely bear the thought nor resolve to encounter them, however great might appear the gain. . . . They really seem to have lost everything.

I shall not enumerate these trials in their proper order, but will describe them as they come to my memory, beginning with the least severe. This is an outcry raised against such a person by those amongst whom she lives. . . . They say she wants to pass for a saint, that she goes to extremes in piety to deceive the world. . . . Persons she thought were her friends desert her, making the most bitter remarks of all. They take it much to heart that her soul is ruined - she is manifestly deluded - it is all the devil's work - she will share the fate of so-and-so who was lost through him. . . . They make a thousand scoffing remarks of the same sort.

I know someone who feared she would be unable to find any priest who would hear her confession,(38) to such a pass did things come. . . . The worst of it is, these troubles do not blow over but last all her life. . . . How few think well of her in comparison with the many who hate her! . . . Experience has shown the mind that men are as ready to speak well as ill of others, so it attaches no more importance to the one than to the other. . . . [Later] the soul is rather strengthened than depressed by its trials, experience having taught it the great advantages derived from them. It does not think men offend God by persecuting it, but that He permits them to do so for its greater gain. . . .

Our Lord now usually sends severe bodily infirmity. . . . Yet, oh! the rest would seem trifling in comparison could I relate the interior torments met with here, but they are impossible to describe. Let us first speak of the trial of meeting with so timorous and inexperienced a confessor that nothing seems safe to him; he dreads and suspects everything but the commonplace, especially in a soul in which he detects any imperfection, for he thinks people on whom God bestows such favors must be angels, which is impossible while we live in our bodies. He at once ascribes everything to the devil or melancholy. . . .

One of the severe trials of these souls, especially if they have lived wicked lives, is their belief that God permits them to be deceived in punishment for their sins. While actually receiving these graces they feel secure and cannot but suppose that these favors proceed from the Spirit of God; but this state lasts a very short time, while the remembrance of their misdeeds is ever before them, so that when, as is sure to happen, they discover any faults in themselves, these torturing thoughts return. The soul is quieted for a time when the confessor reassures it, although it returns later on to its former apprehensions; but when he augments its fears they become almost unbearable: Especially is this the case when such spiritual dryness ensues that the mind feels as if it never had thought of God nor ever will be able to do so. When men speak of Him, they seem to be talking of some person heard of long ago.

All this is nothing without the further pain of thinking we cannot make our confessors understand the case and are deceiving them. . . She believes all that the imagination, which now has the upper hand, puts before her mind, besides crediting the falsehoods suggested to her by the devil, whom doubtless our Lord gives leave to tempt her. . . .

In short, there is no other remedy in such a tempest except to wait for the mercy of God who, unexpectedly, by some casual word or unforeseen circumstance, suddenly dispels all these sorrows. . . . It praises our Lord God like one who has come out victorious from a dangerous battle, for it was He who won the victory. The soul is fully conscious that the conquest was not its own as all weapons of self-defence appeared to be in the enemies' hands. Thus it realizes its weakness and how little man can help himself if God forsake him.(39)

Tauler speaks in like strain, as we noted earlier. His teaching on this subject, which should be read, will be found in his sermons for the Monday before Palm Sunday (nos. 7, 8), for Easter Sunday, for the Monday before Ascension Thursday, and in the third sermon for the Ascension.(40)

It would be easy to show by quotations from other masters that the teaching of St. John of the Cross is entirely conformable to the tradition of the great spiritual writers, to what they have said of the royal way of the cross, ad lucem per crucem, and of the progressive configuration of the soul to Christ crucified. We read in St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: (41) "Heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with Him, that we may be also glorified with Him."



27. Mark 15:34.

28. Ps. 21: 2.

29. Cf. Luke 18: 13.

30. Ps.91:5.

31. Une Rose effeuillee, chap. 9.

32. Luke 23:46.

33. The Dark Night, Bk. II, chap. II.

34. The Interior Castle, sixth mansion, chap. II.

35. Cant. 8:6.

36. The Interior Castle, sixth mansion, chap. I.

37. Life, chaps. 28-30.

38. Life, chap. 28.

39. The Interior Castle, sixth mansion, chap. I.

40. Cf. Sermons de Tauler (trans. Hugueny, Thery), 1, 251, 263, 301, 311 ff., 345.

41. Rom. 8: 17. Blessed Angela of Foligno wrote some magnificent pages of incomparable realism on the night of the spirit. Cf. especially Le Livre des visions et instructions (trans. E. Hello), chap. 7: The sight of the cross; chap. 9: The way of the cross: chap. 16: The great darkness: "One day my soul was ravished and I saw God in a light superior to every known light. . . .I saw God in a darkness, and necessarily in a darkness, because He is too far above the spirit, and no proportion exists between Him and anything that can become the object of a thought. . . . I see nothing, I see all. Certitude is obtained in the darkness. The more profound the darkness, so much more does the good exceed all. This is the reserved mystery. . . . The divine power, wisdom, and will, which I saw marvelously elsewhere seems less than this. This is a whole; the others could be called parts." Blessed Angela had then through eminent infused contemplation, the experimental knowledge of what speculative theology expresses in the following terms: the Deity, or the intimate life of God, contains formally and eminently absolute perfections: being, intelligence, wisdom, love, and so forth, which are naturally sharable and naturally knowable. The Deity as such surpasses every concept, it can be participated in only through sanctifying grace, which is not naturally knowable. Cf. Cajetan on Ia, q. 39, a. I, no. 7: "The formal reason of the Deity is especially in its being and in all its attributes, for it is above being and above unity, etc."

See also Blessed Angela of Foligno, op. cit., chap. 33: True love and false love; chap. 46: The embrace; chap. 55: Poverty of spirit; chap. 56: Ecstasy; chap. 61: The third companion of Jesus Christ: Suffering; chap. 65: The ways of love.

Over a period of about thirty years, in our ministry we have found at least twenty times in contemplative communities the night of the spirit quite clearly characterized, and, in several cases, without any malady, in very rational subjects whose duty it was to direct a community or a congregation, and who did it very well.