"Shun too great a desire for knowledge, for in it there is much fretting and delusion. Intellectuals like to appear learned and to be called wise. Yet there are many things the knowledge of which does little or no good to the soul, and he who concerns himself about other things than those which lead to salvation is very unwise. "

Thomas á Kempis

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"A single act of uniformity with the divine will suffices to make a saint."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"God speaks to us without ceasing by his good inspirations."

The Cure D'Ars

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 St John of the Cross   (1542 - 1591)




by St John of the Cross


Book Two


Ch 21. [An explanation of the term "disguised" and a description of the colors of the disguise the soul wears in this night.]

1. Now then, after having explained why the soul calls this contemplation a secret ladder, we have still to comment on the third word of this verse, "disguised," and tell why it also says that it departed by this "secret ladder, disguised."

2. It should be known for the sake of understanding this verse that people disguise themselves by simply dissembling their identity under a garb and appearance different from their own. And they do this either to show exteriorly by means of that garment their will and aspiration toward gaining the favor and good pleasure of their beloved, or also to hide from rivals and better execute their plan. They then choose the garments and livery that most represent and signify their heart's affections and with which they can better dissemble themselves from their enemies.

3. The soul, then, touched with love for Christ, her Spouse, and aspiring to win his favor and friendship, departs in the disguise that more vividly represents the affections of her spirit.1 Her advance in this disguise makes her more secure against her adversaries: the devil, the world, and the flesh. The livery she thus wears is of three principal colors: white, green, and red. These three colors stand for the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and charity, by which she not only gains the favor and good will of her Beloved but also advances very safely, fortified against her three enemies.

4. Faith is an inner tunic of such pure whiteness that it blinds the sight of every intellect. When the soul is clothed in faith the devil is ignorant of how to hinder her, neither is he successful in his efforts, for faith gives her strong protection - more than do all the other virtues - against the devil, who is the mightiest and most astute enemy. As a result, St. Peter found no greater safeguard than faith in freeing himself from the devil, when he advised: Cui resistite fortes in fide [1 Pt. 5:9].2 To obtain the favor of the Beloved and union with him, the soul can have no better inner tunic than this white garment of faith, the foundation and beginning of the other garments or virtues. Without faith, as the Apostle says, it is impossible to please God [Heb. 11:6]; and with faith it is impossible not to please him, since he himself declares through the prophet Hosea, Desponsabo te mihi in fide [Hos. 2:20], which is similar to saying: If you desire, soul, union and espousal with me, you must come interiorly clothed in faith.

5. The soul wore her white tunic of faith when she departed on this dark night and walked, as we said, in the midst of interior darknesses and straits, without the comfort of any intellectual light - neither from above, because heaven seemed closed and God hidden, nor from below, because she derived no satisfaction from her spiritual teachers, and suffered with constancy and perseverance, passing through these trials without growing discouraged or failing the Beloved. The Beloved so proves the faith of his bride in tribulations that she can afterward truthfully declare what David says: Because of the words of your lips I have kept hard ways [Ps. 17:4].

6. Over this white tunic of faith the soul puts on a second colored garment, a green coat of mail. Green, as we said, signifies the virtue of hope, by which one in the first place is defended and freed from the second enemy, the world. This greenness of living hope in God imparts such courage and valor and so elevates the soul to the things of eternal life that in comparison with these heavenly hopes all earthly things seem, as they truly are, dry, withered, dead, and worthless. The soul is thus divested of all worldly garments and does not set her heart on anything there is, or will be, in the world; she lives clothed only in the hope of eternal life. Having her heart so lifted up above the things of the world, she is not only unable to touch or take hold of worldly things, but she cannot even see them.

7. By this green livery and disguise, the soul is therefore protected against its second enemy, the world. St. Paul calls hope the helmet of salvation [1 Thes. 5:8]. A helmet is a piece of armor that protects the entire head and covers it so there is no opening except for a visor through which to see. Hope has this characteristic: It covers all the senses of a person's head so they do not become absorbed in any worldly thing, nor is there any way some arrow from the world might wound them. Hope allows the soul only a visor that it may look toward heavenly things, and no more. This is the ordinary task of hope in the soul; it raises the eyes to look only at God, as David asserts it did with him: Oculi mei semper ad Dominum3 [Ps. 25:15]. David hoped for nothing from anyone else, as he says in another psalm: Just as the eyes of the handmaid are fixed on the hands of her mistress, so are our eyes on the Lord our God until he has mercy on us who hope in him [Ps. 123:2].

8. As a result, this green livery, by which one always gazes on God, looks at nothing else, and is not content save with him alone, so pleases the Beloved that it is true to say the soul obtains from God all that she hopes for from him. The Bridegroom of the Canticle consequently says of his bride that she wounded his heart by merely the look of her eyes [Sg. 4:9]. Without this green livery of hope in God alone, it would not behoove anyone to go out toward this goal of love; a person would obtain nothing, since what moves and conquers is unrelenting hope.

9. The soul advances through this dark and secret night in the disguise of the green livery of hope, for she walks along so empty of all possessions and support that neither her eyes nor her care are taken up with anything but God. She places her mouth in the dust that there might be hope [Lam. 3:29], as we previously quoted from Jeremiah.4

10. Over the white and green, as the finishing touch and perfection of this disguise, the soul puts on a third color, a precious red toga. This color denotes charity, the third virtue, which not only adds elegance to the other two colors but so elevates the soul as to place her near God. Charity makes her so beautiful and pleasing to God that she dares to say: Although I am black, O daughters of Jerusalem, I am beautiful, and for this reason the king has loved me and brought me into his chamber [Sg. 1:5].5

With this livery of charity, a livery that by manifesting love increases love in the Beloved, the soul receives protection and concealment from the flesh, her third enemy. For where there is true love of God, love of self and of one's own things finds no entry. Not only does charity protect her, but it even makes the other virtues genuine, strengthens and invigorates them in order to fortify the soul, and bestows on them loveliness and charm so as to please the Beloved thereby. For without charity no virtue is pleasing to God. This is the seat draped in purple on which God rests, as is said in the Song of Songs [Sg. 3:10].

The soul is clothed in this red livery when, as explained in the first stanza, she departs in the dark night from herself and from all creatures, fired with love's urgent longings, and advances by the secret ladder of contemplation to perfect union with God, who is her Beloved salvation.

11. This, then, is the disguise the soul says she wore on this secret ladder in the night of faith, and these are its colors. These colors are a most suitable preparation for union of the three faculties (intellect, memory, and will) with God.

Faith darkens and empties the intellect of all its natural understanding and thereby prepares it for union with the divine wisdom.

Hope empties and withdraws the memory from all creature possessions, for as St. Paul says, hope is for that which is not possessed [Rom. 8:24]. It withdraws the memory from what can be possessed and fixes it on what it hopes for. Hence only hope in God prepares the memory perfectly for union with him.

Charity also empties and annihilates the affections and appetites of the will of whatever is not God and centers them on him alone. Thus charity prepares the will and unites it with God through love.

Because these virtues have the function of withdrawing the soul from all that is less than God, they consequently have the mission of joining it with God.

12. Without walking sincerely in the garb of these three virtues, it is impossible to reach perfect union with God through love. This garb and disguise worn by the soul was very necessary for her to reach her goal, which was this loving and delightful union with her Beloved. It was a great grace for the soul to have put on this vesture, and to have persevered in it until attaining her end or goal, the union of love, which she so desired. Consequently she proclaims in the next verse:

- ah, the sheer grace! -