"Does our conduct correspond with our Faith?"

The Cure D'Ars

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"As the flesh is nourished by food, so is man supported by prayers"

St Augustine

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"The one thing necessary which Jesus spoke of to Martha and Mary consists in hearing the word of God and living by it."

R. Garrigou-Lagrange, OP

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 St John of the Cross   (1542 - 1591)




by St John of the Cross


Book Two


Ch 17. [An explanation of the secrecy of this dark contemplation.]

1. We ought to explain three properties of this night indicated in the three terms of this verse. Two of them, "secret" and "ladder," pertain to the dark night of contemplation now under discussion; the third, "disguised," refers to the soul and the way it conducts itself in this night.

Relative to the first two, it should be known that in this verse the soul calls dark contemplation a "secret ladder." By dark contemplation it goes out to the union of love because of two properties found in this contem-plation: It is secret, and it is a ladder. We will discuss them separately.

2. First, it calls this dark contemplation "secret" since, as we mentioned,1 contemplation is mystical theology, which theologians call secret wisdom and which St. Thomas says is communicated and infused into the soul through love.2 This communication is secret and dark to the work of the intellect and the other faculties. Insofar as these faculties do not acquire it but the Holy Spirit infuses it and puts it in order in the soul, as the bride says in the Song of Songs [Sg. 2:4], the soul neither knows nor understands how this comes to pass and thus calls it secret. Indeed, not only does the soul fail to understand, but no one understands, not even the devil, since the Master who teaches the soul dwells within it substantially where neither the devil nor the natural senses nor the intellect can reach.

3. Contemplation is called "secret" not only because of one's inability to understand but also because of the effects it produces in the soul. The wisdom of love is not secret merely in the darknesses and straits of the soul's purgation (for the soul does not know how to describe it) but also afterward in the illumination, when it is communicated more clearly. Even then it is so secret that it is ineffable. Not only does a person feel unwilling to give expression to this wisdom, but one finds no adequate means or simile to signify so sublime an understanding and delicate a spiritual feeling. Even if the soul should desire to convey this experience in words and think up many similes the wisdom would always remain secret and still to be expressed. Since this interior wisdom is so simple, general, and spiritual that in entering the intellect it is not clothed in any sensory species or image, the imaginative faculty cannot form an idea or picture of it in order to speak of it. This wisdom did not enter through these faculties, nor did they behold any of its apparel or color. Yet the soul is clearly aware that it understands and tastes that delightful and wondrous wisdom. On beholding an object never before seen in itself or in its likeness, one would be unable to describe it or give it a name no matter how much one tried, even though understanding and satisfaction were found in it. And if people find it so difficult to describe what they perceive through the senses, how much more difficult is it to express what does not enter through the senses. The language of God has this trait: Since it is very spiritual and intimate to the soul, transcending everything sensory, it immediately silences the entire ability and harmonious composite of the exterior and interior senses.

4. We have examples of this ineffability of divine language in Sacred Scripture. Jeremiah manifested his incapacity to describe it when, after God had spoken to him, he knew of nothing more to say than ah, ah, ah! [Jer. 1:6]. Moses also declared before God, present in the burning bush, his interior inability (the inability of both his imagination and his exterior senses) [Ex. 4:10]. He asserted that not only was he unable to speak of this conversation but that he did not even dare consider it in his imagination, as is said in the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 7:32]. He believed that his imagination was not only unable to speak, as it were, in the matter of forming some image of what he understood in God, but also incapable of receiving this knowledge.

Since the wisdom of this contemplation is the language of God to the soul, of Pure Spirit to pure spirit, all that is less than spirit, such as the sensory, fails to perceive it. Consequently this wisdom is secret to the senses; they have neither the knowledge nor the ability to speak of it, nor do they even desire to do so because it is beyond words.

5. We understand, then, why some persons who tread this road and desire to give an account of this experience to their director - for they are good and God-fearing - are unable to describe it. They feel great repugnance in speaking about it, especially when the contemplation is so simple that they are hardly aware of it. All they can manage to say is they are satisfied, quiet and content, and aware of God, and in their opinion all goes well. But the experience is ineffable, and one will hear from the soul no more than these general terms. It is a different matter when the communications the soul receives are particular, such as visions, feelings, and so on. These communications are ordinarily received through some species in which the sense participates and are describable through that species or a similar one. Yet pure contemplation is indescribable, as we said, and on this account called "secret."

6. Not for this reason alone do we call mystical wisdom "secret" - and it is actually so - but also because it has the characteristic of hiding the soul within itself. Besides its usual effect, this mystical wisdom occasionally so engulfs souls in its secret abyss that they have the keen awareness of being brought into a place far removed from every creature. They accordingly feel that they have been led into a remarkably deep and vast wilderness unattainable by any human creature, into an immense, unbounded desert, the more delightful, savorous, and loving, the deeper, vaster, and more solitary it is. They are conscious of being so much more hidden, the more they are elevated above every temporal creature.

Souls are so elevated and exalted by this abyss of wisdom, which leads them into the heart of the science of love, that they realize that all the conditions of creatures in relation to this supreme knowing and divine experience are very base, and they perceive the lowliness, deficiency, and inadequacy of all the terms and words used in this life to deal with divine things. They also note the impossibility, without the illumination of this mystical theology, of a knowledge or experience of these divine things as they are in themselves, through any natural means, no matter how wisely or loftily one speaks of them. Beholding this truth - that it can neither grasp nor explain this wisdom - the soul rightly calls it secret.

7. This divine contemplation has the property of being secret and above one's natural capacity, not merely because it is supernatural but also because it is the way that guides the soul to the perfections of union with God, toward which one must advance humanly by not knowing and divinely by ignorance, since these perfections are not humanly knowable.

8. Speaking mystically, as we are here, the divine things and perfections are not known as they are in themselves while they are being sought and acquired, but when they are already found and acquired. Accordingly, the prophet Baruch speaks of this divine wisdom: There is no one able to know her ways or think of her paths [Bar. 3:31]. The Royal Prophet of this road also speaks of this kind of wisdom in his converse with God: And your illuminations enlightened and illumined the entire world; the earth shook and trembled. Your way is in the sea and your paths are in many waters, and your footsteps shall not be known [Ps. 77:18-19]. Spiritually speaking, this passage refers to our subject. The lightning of God illumining the whole earth signifies the illumination this divine contemplation produces in the faculties of the soul; the shaking and trembling of the earth applies to the painful purgation it causes in the soul; and to assert that the way and road of God, by which the soul travels toward him, is in the sea, and his footsteps in many waters, and thereby unknowable, is similar to stating that the way to God is as hidden and secret to the senses of the soul as are the footsteps of one walking on water imperceptible to the senses of the body. The traces and footsteps God leaves in those whom he desires to bring to himself, by making them great in the union with his wisdom, are unrecognizable. In the Book of Job this fact is stressed in these words: Do you perchance know the paths of the great clouds or the perfect sciences? [Jb. 37:16]. This passage refers to the ways and roads by which God exalts souls (here referred to by the clouds) and perfects them in his wisdom. Consequently, this contemplation that is guiding the soul to God is secret wisdom.