1. The second characteristic has yet to be discussed, that is, how this secret
wisdom is also a ladder. It should be known that there are many reasons for
calling this secret contemplation a ladder.
First, as one ascends a ladder to
pillage the fortresses containing goods and treasures, so too, by this secret
contemplation, the soul ascends in order to plunder, know, and possess the goods
and treasures of heaven. The Royal Prophet points this out clearly in saying:
Blessed are those who receive your favor and help. In their heart they have
prepared their ascent, in the vale of tears, in the place which they set. For in
this way the Lord of the Law will give a blessing, and they will go from virtue
to virtue (as from step to step) and the God of gods will be seen on Zion [Ps.
84:6-8]. He is the treasure of the fortress of Zion, and this treasure is
2. We can also call this secret wisdom a "ladder" because as the same steps of a
ladder are used for both ascent and descent, so also the same communications
produced by this secret contemplation extol the soul in God and humiliate it
within itself. Communications that are truly from God have this trait: They
simultaneously exalt and humble the soul. For on this road, to descend is to
ascend and to ascend is to descend, since those who humble themselves are
exalted and those who exalt themselves are humbled [Lk. 14:11]. Besides this
(that the virtue of humility exalts), God, in order to exercise the soul in
humility, usually makes it ascend by this ladder so that it might descend, and
he makes it descend that it might ascend. Accordingly, the Wise Man's words are
fulfilled: Before the soul is exalted, it is humbled, and before it is humbled,
it is exalted [Prv. 18:12].
3. Naturally speaking, and disregarding the spiritual, which it does not feel,
the soul, if it desires to pay close attention, will clearly recognize how on
this road it suffers many ups and downs, and how immediately after prosperity
some tempest and trial follows, so much so that seemingly the calm was given to
forewarn and strengthen it against the future penury. It sees, too, how
abundance and tranquility succeed misery and torment, and in such a way that it
thinks it was made to fast before celebrating that feast.
This is the ordinary
procedure in the state of contemplation until one arrives at the quiet state:
The soul never remains in one state, but everything is ascent and descent.
4. The reason is that since the state of perfection, which consists in perfect
love of God and contempt of self, cannot exist without knowledge of God and of
self, the soul necessarily must first be exercised in both. It is now given the
one, in which it finds satisfaction and exaltation, and now made to experience
the other, humbled until the ascent and descent cease through the acquiring of
the perfect habits. For the soul will then have reached God and united itself
with him. He is at the end of the ladder and it is in him that the ladder rests.
This ladder of contemplation, derived as we have said from God, is prefigured in
that ladder Jacob saw in his sleep and by which the angels were ascending and
descending from God to human beings and from human beings to God, while God
leaned on the top [Gn. 28:12-13]. The divine Scriptures say that all this
happened at night, while Jacob was sleeping, to disclose how secret is the way
and ascent to God and how it differs from human knowledge. The secrecy of this
ascent is evident, since ordinarily the losing and annihilation of self, which
bring the most profit to individuals, are considered the worst for them, whereas
consolation and satisfaction (which are of less value and in which one
ordinarily loses rather than gains if attachment is present) are considered the
5. Speaking now somewhat more particularly of this ladder of secret
contemplation, we declare that the principal property involved in calling
contemplation a "ladder" is its being a science of love, which as we said is an
infused loving knowledge that both illumines and enamors the soul, elevating it
step by step to God, its Creator. For it is only love that unites and joins the
soul to God.
For greater clarity we will note the steps of this divine ladder and
briefly point out the signs and effects of each so that one may surmise which of
these steps one is on. We will distinguish them by their effects, as do St.
Bernard and St. Thomas.1 Knowing these steps in themselves is impossible
naturally, because this ladder of love is, as we said, so secret that God alone
measures and weighs it.