"Spiritual persons ought to be equally ready to experience sweetness and consolation in the things of God, or to suffer and keep their ground in drynesses of spirit and devotion, and for as long as God pleases, without their making any complaint about it."

St Philip Neri

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"Obedience is the true holocaust which we sacrifice to God on the altar of our hearts."

St Philip Neri

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"Let persons in the world sanctify themselves in their own houses, for neither the court, professions, or labour, are any hindrance to the service of God."

St Philip Neri

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 St John of the Cross   (1542 - 1591)




by St John of the Cross


Book Two


Ch 19. [An explanation of the first five of the ten steps on the mystical ladder of divine love.]

1. We mentioned that there are ten successive steps on this ladder of love by which the soul ascends to God.

The first step of love makes the soul sick in an advantageous way. The bride speaks of this step of love when she says: I conjure you, daughters of Jerusalem, if you encounter my Beloved, to tell him that I am lovesick [Sg. 5:8].

Yet this sickness is not unto death but for the glory of God [Jn. 11:4], because in this sickness the soul's languor pertains to sin and to all the things that are not God. It languishes for the sake of God himself, as David testifies: My soul has languished (in regard to all things) for Your salvation [Ps. 119:81]. As a sick person changes color and loses appetite for all foods, so on this step of love the soul changes the color of its past life and loses its appetite for all things. The soul does not get this sickness unless an excess of heat is sent to it from above, as is brought out in this verse of David: Pluviam voluntariam segregabis, Deus, haereditati tuae, et infirmata est, and so on [Ps. 68:9].1

We clearly explained this sickness and languor in respect to all things when we mentioned the annihilation of which the soul becomes aware when it begins to climb this ladder of contemplation.2 It becomes unable then to find satisfaction, support, consolation, or a resting place in anything.

The soul therefore begins immediately to ascend from this step to the next.

2. The second step causes a person to search for God unceasingly. When the bride said that seeking him by night in her bed (when in accord with the first step of love she was languishing), she did not find him, she added: I will rise up and seek him whom my soul loves [Sg. 3:1-2], which as we said the soul does unceasingly, as David counsels: Seek the face of God always [Ps. 105:4]. Searching for him in all things, it pays heed to nothing until it finds him. It resembles the bride who, after asking the guards for him, immediately passed by and left them behind [Sg. 3:3-4]. Mary Magdalene did not even pay attention to the angels at the sepulcher [Jn. 20:14].

The soul goes about so solicitously on this step that it looks for its Beloved in all things. In all its thoughts it turns immediately to the Beloved; in all converse and business it at once speaks about the Beloved; when eating, sleeping, keeping vigil, or doing anything else, it centers all its care on the Beloved, as we pointed out in speaking of the anxious longings of love.3

Since the soul is here convalescing and gaining strength in the love found in this second step, it immediately begins to ascend to the third through a certain degree of new purgation in the night, as we will point out, which produces the following effects.

3. The third step of this loving ladder prompts the soul to the performance of works and gives it fervor that it might not fail. The Royal Prophet exclaims: Blessed are they who fear the Lord, because in his commandments they long to work [Ps. 112:1]. If fear, a child of love, produces this eagerness in the soul, what will love itself do? On this step the soul thinks the great works it does for the Beloved are small; its many works, few; the long time spent in his service, short. It believes all of this because of the fire of love in which it is now burning. Thus because of the intensity of his love, Jacob, obliged to serve seven more years in addition to the seven years he had already served, did not think these were many [Gn. 29:20, 30]. If Jacob's love for a creature could do so much, what will love of the Creator do when it takes hold of the soul on this third step?

Because of such intense love for God, individuals at this stage feel deep sorrow and pain about the little they do for him, and if it were licit they would destroy themselves a thousand times for God and be greatly consoled. They consequently consider themselves useless in all their works and think their lives worthless.

Another admirable effect produced here is that such persons think inwardly that they are really worse than all others. One reason for this effect is that love is teaching them what God deserves; another is that because the works they perform for God are many and they know them to be wanting and imperfect, they are confused and pained by them all, conscious that their work is so lowly for so high a Lord. On this third step the soul is far removed from vainglory, presumption, and the practice of condemning others.

This third step causes these effects of solicitude and many other similar ones in the soul. And thus one acquires the courage and strength to ascend to the fourth step.

4. On the fourth step of this ladder of love a habitual yet unwearisome suffering is engendered on account of the Beloved. As St. Augustine says: Love makes all burdensome and heavy things nearly nothing.4 The bride spoke of this step when, desiring to reach the last step, she said to her Spouse: Put me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm, for love (the act and work of love) is as strong as death, and emulation and importunity endure as long as hell [Sg. 8:6].

The spirit possesses so much energy on this step that it brings the flesh under control and takes as little account of it as would a tree of one of its leaves. The soul in no way seeks consolation or satisfaction either in God or in anything else; neither does it desire or ask favors of God, for it is clearly aware that it has already received many from him. All its care is directed toward how it might give some pleasure to God and render him some service because of what he deserves and the favors he has bestowed, even though the cost might be high. These persons proclaim in their heart and spirit: "Ah, my Lord and my God! How many go to you looking for their own consolation and gratification and desiring that you grant them favors and gifts, but those wanting to give you pleasure and something at a cost to themselves, setting aside their own interests, are few. What is lacking is not that you, O my God, desire to grant us favors again, but that we make use of them for your service alone and thus oblige you to grant them to us continually."

This degree of love is a very elevated step. For as the soul at this stage through so genuine a love pursues God in the spirit of suffering for his sake, His Majesty frequently gives it joy by paying it visits of spiritual delight. For this immense love that Christ, the Word, has cannot long endure the sufferings of his beloved without responding. God affirms this through Jeremiah: I have remembered you, pitying your youth and tenderness when you followed me in the desert [Jer. 2:2]. Spiritually speaking, the desert is an interior detachment from every creature in which the soul neither pauses nor rests in anything.

This fourth step so inflames and enkindles individuals with desire for God that it enables them to ascend to the fifth step.

5. The fifth step of this ladder of love imparts an impatient desire and longing for God. On this step the desire of the lover to apprehend and be united with the Beloved is so ardent that any delay, no matter how slight, is long, annoying, and tiresome. The soul is ever believing that it is finding its Beloved; and when it sees its desire frustrated, which is at almost every step, it faints in its longing, as the Psalmist declares: My soul longs and faints for the dwelling places of the Lord [Ps. 84:2]. On this step the lover must either see its love or die. With such love Rachel in her immense longing for children declared to Jacob, her spouse: Give me children or I will die [Gn. 30:1]. On this step, they suffer hunger like dogs and encircle the city of God [Ps. 58:6].

On this step of hunger, the soul so feeds on love - for in accord with its hunger is its satisfaction - that it can ascend to the sixth step, which produces the following effects.