“But does the soul see nothing in this dark night? In the natural order when the sun has set and completely disappeared… we can see stars and constellations which are thousands of leagues from the earth. When the soul enters the spiritual darkness we are speaking of, it no longer sees what is near it, but it has an increasingly better anticipatory apprehension of the infinite majesty and purity of God….” (Father Garrigou-Lagrange on the passive purification of the spirit)

“For we walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7)

INTRODUCTION: This note attempts to shed light on the great purifying value of “spiritual darkness” for growth in holiness by way of a summary of some of the insights of the Church’s greatest mystical theologian, Saint John of the Cross. However inadequate this note may be, I nevertheless hope it will be of some value to you, and that it will at least increase your interest in this great mystical theologian and Saint of whom Saint John Paul II said: [The spiritual journey is] totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union”. How can we forget here, among the many shining examples, the teachings of Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila?” (Novo Millenio Inuente)

KEY PRELIMINARY POINT # 1: Saint John of the Cross states, “All the goodness [of the things created by God], in comparison with the infinite goodness of God, may be described as wickedness. For there is naught good, save only God,” and, “All the wealth and glory of all creation, in comparison with the wealth which is God, is supreme poverty and wretchedness” (Saint John of the Cross, Book I, Ascent of Mount Carmel). The underlying starting point of John of the Cross is thus: God is All in AllTherefore, we were created to set our hearts on God.

KEY PRELIMINARY POINT # 2: Saint John of the Cross emphasizes the nearness of God, who is “nearer to us than we are to ourselves.” In The Spiritual Canticle he makes this point in a strikingly beautiful way: “Oh, then, soul, most beautiful among all creatures, so anxious to know the dwelling place of your Beloved so you may go in search of him and be united with him, now we are telling you that you yourself are his dwelling and his secret inner room and hiding place. There is reason for you to be elated and joyful in seeing that all your good and hope is so close as to be within you, or better, that you cannot be without him. Behold, exclaims the Bridegroom, the kingdom of God is within you [Lk. 17:21]. And his servant, the apostle St. Paul, declares: You are the temple of God [2 Cor. 6:16].  It brings special happiness to a person to understand that God is never absent….” (Stanza 1; emphasis added). Therefore, the desire for union with God is greatly aided by the discovery that God dwells within my baptized soul!


1. We are made for union with God, a process which begins with baptism (where the great gift of sanctifying grace concurrently prepares our soul for the indwelling of the Blessed Trinity) and which is meant to grow in intimacy and love by the increase of this grace throughout our lives. Please call to mind that the gift of sanctifying grace includes the three theological ( God-directed) virtues of faith, hope and love, along with the infused moral virtues and the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. The purpose for the soul’s journey through the “dark night” of purification and contemplation is to arrive at an “experimental” or true mystical knowledge of the indwelling of the Triune  God, the highest degree of which is the transforming union.

2. This process of growing ever closer to God is in direct response to the great commandment: to love God with our whole heart, mind and soul and with all our strength (see Matt 22: 37-40).

3. This journey to greater intimacy with God is hindered by false loves and inordinate attachments. In this sense, we become like what we love.Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21). I repeat, since this is a key point of the saint, you will grow in likeness to what you love. Consequently, when we set our affections on God, we are reformed more and more, through grace, into His image and likeness. Thus, as Saint John of the Cross says, “What prepares the soul to be united with God is the desire for God.” 

4. These false loves and inordinate attachments, although not necessarily sinful, nevertheless need to be purged and purified, so as to set our “house” in right order. This purification, then, involves not only the avoidance of sin but also the readjustment of our appetites and desires (it could be called an “un-possessing” of all the affections that capture our heart but impede our union with God). Saint John of the Cross says:

“[The] soul went forth (being led by God) for love of Him alone, enkindled in love of Him, upon a dark night, which is the privation and purgation of all its sensual desires, with respect to all outward things of the world and to those which were delectable to its flesh, and likewise with respect to the desires of its will. This all comes to pass in this purgation of sense; for which cause the soul says that it went forth while its house was still at rest; which house is its sensual part, the desires being at rest and asleep in it, as it is to them. For there is no going forth from the pains and afflictions of the secret places of the desires until these be mortified and put to sleep. And this, the soul says, was a happy chance for it — namely, its going forth without being observed: that is, without any desire of its flesh or any other thing being able to hinder it. And likewise, because it went out by night — which signifies the privation of all these things wrought in it by God, which privation was night for it” (from Chapter 1 of Ascent of Mount Carmel, pertaining, in particular, to the night of the senses discussed below).

The purpose of entering into the dark night, then, is to effect the purification needed in order to draw closer to God.

5. This process of purification or mortification, which John of the Cross calls a “dark night,” involves a four step process:

   1) The Active Night of the Senses (Book I, Ascent of Mount Carmel)
   2) The Passive Night of the Senses (Book I, Dark Night of the Soul)
   3) The Active Night of the Spirit (Books II and III, Ascent of Mount Carmel)
   4) The Passive Night of the Spirit (Book II, Dark Night of the Soul)

MORTIFICATION OF THE SENSES (Lower Faculties) Night of the Senses

6. The active night of the senses involves our own effort, supported by grace, to mortify the inordinate desires of the senses (St John of the Cross often uses the phrase, “mortification of the appetites”). All the things we outwardly or secretly love and desire, which prevent us from setting our hearts on God, like creature wealth and selfish sensual pleasures, need to be put to rest, as if entering a dark night where they are no longer seen, so that the soul can advance unhindered towards the love of God. In this process there is a transformation of desire from the love of things and a disordered sensuality, to the LOVE OF GOD. This process involves self-denial, detachment, prayer, growth in virtue and the readjustment of our affections. What is crucial is to enkindle in our hearts a strong love of God. Again, what you love is what you will become.

EXAMPLES: If God could take the zeal and love we have for the passing and perishable things of this world, and apply that zeal and love to Himself (God being the one, true good), the result would be hearts on fire in the service of the LordJohn of the Cross refers to this change of heart as a “transformation” or “reformation of desire”. In this transformation, we begin to love God with our whole heart and soul (thus fulfilling the great commandment), whereas our love for the passing things of this world wanes (and we use them primarily in the service of God). This readjustment of our affections is something God is attempting to carry out in our lives whenever our love for some object or pleasure impedes our love for Him. “He who has God has everything.” “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul” (Mark 8:36). One example: the amazing transformation of desire that took place in Saint Ignatius of Loyola. He took all the zeal, energy and love he had in being a soldier and nobleman and transferred it to the service of God.

St. Paul had the same type of zeal and determination for life displayed by Ignatius. God saw what a good job Saul was doing going after new Christians, and He must of thought, “I need that guy on my side.” So He knocked Saul off his horse and set Paul’s heart on the love of Christ. Paul’s return to the Lord was prodigious. No one worked harder, and suffered more, to advance the church. Is there anything in our lives that we potentially love more than God (or prevent us from growing closer to God)? Is there anything in our lives that provides more security to us than God? Do we have idols that impede our worship of God? Do we understand that the only retirement account of any value is Heaven? These disordered affections need to be uprooted, for they ultimately impede us from loving God and growing closer to Him.

A QUOTE FROM SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS: “Hence, we call this nakedness [this mortification of appetites] a night for the soul, for we are not discussing the mere lack of things; this lack will not divest the soul if it craves for all these objects. We are dealing with the denudation [emptying] of the soul’s appetites and gratifications. This is what leaves it free and empty of all things, even though it possesses them. Since the things of the world cannot enter the soul, they are not in themselves an encumbrance or harm to it; rather, it is the will and appetite dwelling within that causes the damage when set on these things” (Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book One, Chapter 3). Saint John of the Cross mentions that even a small, seemingly harmless attachment to some pleasure or novelty can impede the soul’s advancement if not mortified. In short, this purification is comprehensive: you are scrubbing clean all your inordinate desires and attachments – all of them! (and St. John of the Cross provides some rather strong guidelines to accomplish this goal; see Book One, Chapter 13). A simple example: you are attached to late night news shows which prevent you from praying the rosary and from examination of conscience. How many amusements and trivial pursuits keep us from meditation, deep prayer and adoration, thus impeding our union with God?

The beautiful senses God has given us should help us to grow in holiness. In our electronic media society we often run the risk of getting entrapped in a world of sensory addiction that is almost a type of bondage. Moreover, our consumer society can keep our senses so inflamed with the desire for “petty, peripheral things,” that we we run the risk of despiritualization. The remedy to this very real and serious problem involves the great Catholic spiritual principle of detachment, where we begin to control our desire for things that are stunting or limiting our true moral and spiritual development, eliminating anything which is immoral, and strictly limiting things which are harmful because they keep us away from other activities which are far more humanizing and God-directed. In the order of the human being, God is the greatest good to which all other goods must be subordinated. Growth in prayer, in fact, is a fundamental antidote to despiritualization. So we see that John of the Cross’ recommendation that we set our senses at rest in the purifying darkness is highly relevant to our own times.

“Strive,” says St. John of the Cross in the counsels he gives in Chapter 13, “thus to desire to enter into complete detachment and emptiness and poverty, with respect to everything that is in the world, for Christ’s sake.” And, “Desire to possess nothing, in order to arrive at being everything.” How can we walk in “liberty of spirit,” towards union with God, our true good, if we are so weighed down by our things, our desires, and our inordinate sensual appetites? Thus, the necessity for the active purification of the senses.

7.  The active night of the senses prepares us for the passive night of the senses. The passive night of the senses involves God’s own action upon the soul in question. As the person begins to strip away his inordinate sensual attraction to the things of this world, thus getting rid of the “old-self,” especially through prayer, meditation and self-denial, God then allows a profound period of spiritual aridity to beset the believer, the ultimate purpose of which is to effectuate an even more powerful purification of our inordinate passions and desires, especially as these vices begin to manifest themselves on a spiritual level (as in craving for spiritual delights and pleasures). As the believer perseveres through this “dark night,” where no consolation of God is experienced, but not wanting to turn back to the futility of his old ways, a breakthrough ultimately occurs whereby, through sheer grace, the believer begins to experience the interior presence of God and makes the transition from meditative (discursive) prayer to contemplative (supernatural) prayer, thus moving from the purgative stage of the journey to the illuminative stage (from beginner to proficient). Regarding this transition, Saint John of the Cross states:

“Since the conduct of these beginners in the way of God is lowly and not too distant from love of pleasure and of self, as we explained, God desires to withdraw them from this base manner of loving and lead them on to a higher degree of divine love. And he desires to liberate them from the lowly exercise of the senses and of discursive meditation, by which they go in search of him so inadequately and with so many difficulties, and lead them into the exercise of spirit, in which they become capable of a communion with God that is more abundant and more free of imperfections” (Dark Night of the Soul, Book I, Chapter 8).

This process may take several months or many years.

NOTEThis deeper purification of the passive night of the senses is needed because, as the soul begins to experience sweetness and consolation in spiritual things, resulting from progress made and graces given during the active night of the senses, it “stumbles into many imperfections” like spiritual pride, spiritual avarice and spiritual gluttony (a manifestation of the seven capital sins on a deeper, more spiritual level). The soul thus needs to be greatly humbled, and thus to walk the path of pure faith without groping incessantly  for spiritual delights and consolations, so as to draw closer to God Himself. Consolations are good, but they are not meant to be an end in themselves. John of the Cross discusses three signs that demonstrate that the soul has genuinely entered into this passive night of the senses (1. no consolation in the things of God, or in created things; 2. the memory dwells ordinarily upon God with a painful anxiety; and 3. an inability to meditate with an attraction simply to gaze inwardly at God), and then discusses the amazing benefits derived from this night( see Book I, Chapters 9-12 of Dark Night of the Soul; and pages 43-53 of The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol. II, for a detailed discussion of the “three signs” summarized above by Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange). 

A QUOTE FROM SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS: “At the time of the aridities of this sensory night, God makes the exchange we mentioned by withdrawing the soul from the life of the senses and placing it in that of spirit — that is, he brings it from meditation to contemplation — where the soul no longer has the power to work or meditate with its faculties on the things of God. Spiritual persons suffer considerable affliction in this night, owing not so much to the aridities they undergo as to their fear of having gone astray….The attitude necessary in this night of the senses is to pay no attention to discursive meditation since this is not the time for it. They should allow the soul to remain in rest and quietude even though it may seem obvious to them that they are doing nothing  and wasting time….Through patience and perseverance in prayer, they will be doing a great deal without activity on their part….They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God, and live without the concern, without the effort, and without the desire to taste or feel him. All these desires disquiet the soul and distract it from the peaceful, quiet, and sweet idleness of the contemplation that is being communicated to it” (The Dark Night, Book I, Chapter 10).

It might be beneficial to look at this passive night of the senses from the point of view of addition and subtraction. With the subtraction of sensible consolations in the lower faculties (the sensual part of the soul), comes the addition of a dry, nascent, infused, mystical contemplation in the spiritual part of the soul – a contemplation perhaps not even fully perceived by the soul, but which will increase as the soul becomes more receptive to it. In essence, the soul is being weaned of sensible consolations and called to a higher spiritual life of contemplative prayer through these special operations and inspirations of the Holy Spirit. If the soul perceives that the three signs mentioned above have been met, the soul can safely conclude that God is calling it to a deeper conversion marked by an experimental knowledge of God made present to the soul through an infused, loving contemplation (Ref. chapter 4, Volume II, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, concerning the passive purification of the senses).

Among the effects of the passive night of the senses on the soul, Saint John of the Cross mentions the following: “The love of God is practiced, because the soul is no longer attracted by sweetness and consolation, but by God only. . . . In the midst of these aridities and hardships, God communicates to the soul, when it least expects it, spiritual sweetness, most pure love, and spiritual knowledge of the most exalted kind, of greater worth and profit than any of which it had previous experience, though at first the soul may not think so, for the spiritual influence now communicated is most delicate and imperceptible by sense” (Dark Night of the Soul, Book I, Chapter 13, cited by Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange).

Another great benefit derived by the soul from this purgation of sense is a profound knowledge of self. Father Garrigou-LaGrange explains:  “Among the effects of the passive purification of the senses, must be numbered a profound and experimental knowledge of God and self. St. John of the Cross points out: ‘These aridities and the emptiness of the faculties as to their former abounding, and the difficulty which good works present, bring the soul to a knowledge of its own vileness and misery.’ This knowledge is the effect of nascent infused contemplation…. St. John of the Cross says: ‘The soul possesses and retains more truly that excellent and necessary virtue of self-knowledge, counting itself for nothing, and having no satisfaction in itself, because it sees that of itself it does and can do nothing. This diminished satisfaction with self, and the affliction it feels because it thinks that it is not serving God, God esteems more highly than all its former delights and all its good works.’ With this knowledge of its indigence, its poverty, the soul comprehends better the majesty of God, His infinite goodness toward us, the value also of Christ’s merits, of His precious blood, the infinite value of the Mass, and the value of Communion. ‘God [says St. John of the Cross] enlightens the soul, making it see not only its own misery and meanness, . . . but also His grandeur and majesty’ ” (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol. II, pages 61-62).

Other benefits of this passive night of the senses include “the soul bears a habitual remembrance of God,” it “exercises all the virtues together,” a “spiritual humility” manifested by “love of neighbor,” “freedom of spirit” accompanied with the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit, and the soul longs and yearns to serve God (The Dark Night, Book I, Chapter 13).

The night of the senses has turned out to be an extraordinary blessing, and the soul is now prepared for a deeper, more comprehensive purification in the night of the spirit, a purification where the soul will experience profound privations and desolation in the dark night of the valley of the shadow of death, in order to reach the ultimate goal of this journey in spiritual darkness – union with God, for which the purification of the senses was the necessary first stage. We proceed, therefore, to the night of the spirit.


      “We are now going to treat of the second part of this night, which is faith; this
        is the wondrous means which, as we said, leads to the goal, which is God.”
        (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Chapter II)

8. The crucial importance of FAITH, HOPE AND LOVE! Saint John wants us to thoroughly cleanse the faculties which sense, know, desire, understand, remember, imagine and will. In short, John of the Cross wants to completely clean house! And when our spiritual house has been set in order, and swept clean of all the encumbrances that so impede union with God, we will begin to walk by faith, hope and love (the theological virtues). And so a deeper purification is still needed, which brings us to the active and then passive night of the spirit. The active purification of the spirit, of the understanding, memory and will, is discussed in great detail, and with great importance, in Books II and III of The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, with numerous examples and explanations given of the detachment needed to avoid pitfalls or dangers associated with our natural knowing, remembering and willing: these examples demonstrate how the misguided or even wounded human intellectual faculties lead souls off the path which leads to contemplation.

Saint John of the Cross provides practical suggestions for the proficient’s practice of contemplative prayer in Book II of The Ascent of Mount Carmel(Chapter 12), and then readdresses the signs which show that the proficient is truly called to leave meditation and pass on to the state of contemplation (AMC, Book II, Chapter 13). It is useful to understand that there is normally a gap of “many years” between the night of the senses and the passive night of the spirit (TDN, Book II, Chapter 1). It is the passive night of the spirit which marks the soul’s transition from proficient to perfect, from the illuminative stage of the journey to the unitive stage. The unitive stage of the journey is entered upon and completed by the passive night of the spirit, of which the active night of the spirit (addressed in Books II and III of The Ascent of Mount Carmel) is the preparation. The passive night of the spirit is discussed in Book II of The Dark Night Of The Soul (TDN).

Our natural knowledge and human ingenuity are completely insufficient to effectuate union with God; rather, only the supernatural knowledge accessible by the super-discursive virtues of faith, hope and love can effectuate a likeness to God which is the basis of such a union. “As a result, a man has nothing more to do than strip his soul of these natural contrarieties and dissimilarities so that God…may [communicate] Himself to it…supernaturally through grace” (AMC, Book II, Chapter 5). Supernatural faith therefore purifies human understanding, and since memory is our storage facility for human knowledge, it too needs to be purified by supernatural hope; and since the will derives its affections from human intellectual perceptions it needs to be purified by supernatural charity. Even if you were the beneficiary of a supernatural vision, you would still need to process it through your human intellectual faculties, which is, per se, an obstacle to union with God. “[V]isions will be an obstacle to…advancement if [a person] fails to practice this denial, since they impede spiritual nudity, poverty, and emptiness in faith – the requisite for union with God” (AMC, Book II, Chapter 24). Only when the human intellect is placed in darkness (in “un-knowing”) can faith make progress towards its exceptional goal – union with God.

Saint John of the Cross states:“The reason [for this purification of the spirit] is that all the imperfections and disorders of the sensory part are rooted in the spirit and from it receive their strength. All good and evil habits reside in the spirit and until these habits are purged the senses cannot be completely purified of their rebellions and vices” (The Dark Night  Book II, Chapter 3).

Saint John of the Cross points out that the imperfections of the lower faculties, namely, the senses, although now purged, cannot be completely purged unless the higher, spiritual faculties of the understandingmemory and will are also purged. “The stains of the old man still remain in their spirit like rust that will disappear only under the action of a purifying fire” (Father Garrigou LaGrange). Although Saint John of the cross spends a lot of time discussing the defects still present in proficients, one might summarize by saying that egoism and pride are deeply embedded in the human spirit. “They must be purified from every human attachment to their judgment, to their excessively personal manner of seeing, willing, acting, from every human attachment to the good works to which they devote themselves. This purification, if well borne in the midst of temptations against the three theological virtues, will increase tenfold their faith, their confidence in God, and their love of God and neighbor” (Father Garrigou-LaGrange). This purgation or purification of the spirit, of the understanding, memory and will, is accomplished in the following manner:

Understanding is to be replaced by faith

Memory is to be emptied and forgotten and replaced by hope 

The will is to be emptied of all desires save that of loving God with all our heart, mind and strength

A QUOTE FROM SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS: “But we are imparting instructions here for advancing in contemplation to union with God. All these sensory means and exercises of the faculties must consequently be left behind and in silence, so that God himself may effect divine union in the soul. As a result one has to follow the method of disencumbering, emptying, and depriving the faculties of their natural authority and operations to make room for the inflow and illumination of the supernatural. Those who do not turn their eyes from their natural capacity will not attain to so lofty a communication; rather they will hinder it” (The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book Three, Chapter II, my emphasis).

Concerning the purification of memory, Saint John of the Cross states: “We must draw it away from its natural props and capacities and raise it above itself to supreme hope in the incomprehensible God” (AMC, Book III, Chapter 2, as cited by S. Muto in The Ascent, p.124). And concerning the purification of the will, Saint John says this: “[T]he will must…be emptied of and detached from all disordered appetite and satisfaction in every particular thing in which it can rejoice whether earthly or heavenly, temporal or spiritual, so that purged and cleansed of all inordinate satisfactions , joys and appetites it might be wholly occupied in loving God with its affections. For if in any way the will can comprehend God and be united with Him, it is through love….” (Minor Works, Letter 12, as cited by S. Muto in The Ascent, p.145). Biblically, Saint Paul says in Ephesians 3:19: “…and to know this love that surpasses knowledge–that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

In essence, we are going to let the Holy Spirit lead us. In Saint John’s own words, the understanding is purged in “the darkness of faith, the memory in the emptiness of hope, and the will in the nakedness and absence of every affection.” This sort of transformation is necessary, John maintains, for those seeking mystical union with God. And even though we may not reach that high degree of union in this lifetime (“the unitive stage”), the principles laid down by Saint John are still of tremendous value in that we should learn to be very distrustful of our limited, human knowledge (and walk by faith); and we need to escape being bogged down in our past memories (some which harm and distract us) and look forward with hope to one day being in the presence of God; and, finally, we need to redirect our will to loving God with all our heart, mind and strength. The theological virtues were placed in our souls at baptism, and they function to allow the Holy Spirit to direct our lives. This active process of “letting go of all that is not God,” as stored in our understanding, memory and will, prepares us for the passive night of the spirit, ultimately leading to betrothal and union with God, but not before trials and sufferings of a most profound nature (during the passive night of the spirit) as described in the following paragraph.

The entrance into this profound night of suffering and passive purification, which might be likened to entering an obscure, dark tunnel, is necessary for the comprehensive purgation God intends to work in the soul. For it is in this darkness that God can work secretly through an obscure and penetrating light – a “dark contemplation,” a “transluminous obscurity” – to bring forth the profound reign of supernatural life in the soul He is essentially transforming into a saint. The annihilation of the soul’s natural faculties is so profound, so painful, so awful that St. John of the Cross calls it a “terrible anguish” and a “terrible undoing,” which normally lasts several years (with varying intensities). This transformative suffering of a purgatorial-like quality is caused by a dark, penetrating contemplation that annihilates and supernaturalizes. What can the soul entering into this “frightful” night of the passive purification of the spirit expect to encounter? Here is a partial list of some of the formidable and daunting challenges the soul will face as God essentially takes over control of the soul’s deep purification of the spirit (here I am relying on the helpful insights of Dr. Susan Muto in John of the Cross for Today: The Dark Night, pages 166-195, as edited):
A. Divestment. The stripping of the soul’s faculties, especially intellect, memory and will.
B. Apparent Abandonment. As God secretly empties human understanding, the soul in its affliction feels abandoned by God.
C. Privation. “The experience of being deprived of knowledge, good memories, and warm feelings….”
D. Dark Contemplation/Trans-luminous Obscurity. “The divine wisdom is so high that it transcends the capacity of the soul, and therefore it is, in that respect, darkness” (TDN, Book II, Chapter 5). This “infused purifying light manifests itself as darkness” and “at times causes great suffering” (Fr. Garrigou-LaGrange). “The rays of high contemplation…striking the soul with its divine light, makes it dark, and deprives it of all the natural affections and apprehensions which it previously entertained in its own natural light” (TDN, Book II, Chapter 8).
E. Secret Contemplation. “As divine wisdom darkens human reason,” the soul becomes painfully aware of its utter wretchedness and weakness in contrast to the divine operation. This experience causes the soul profound agony as it sees itself in its true condition.
F. Loneliness and Isolation. “One feels utterly alone, cast out of the shelter of God’s favor like an unwanted stranger.”
G. Feeling Undone. Saint John of the Cross quotes Psalm 18:5: “The breakers of death surged round about me, the destroying floods overwhelmed me.”
H. Feeling Rejection. This “purgative contemplation” causes the soul to feel like an outcast, “of enduring a kind of living hell,” of being the object of God’s chastisement and anger.
I. Feeling Forsaken. “It is as if one has become a lost soul, enveloped in an abyss, forsaken by God and despised by other people, even one’s friends.”
J. Feeling Utterly Dependent on God. This “dark contemplation” leads the soul to the profound realization that he is nothing and God is everything. The soul experiences its profound emptiness and poverty apart from God. 
K.The Testing of Faith. “The struggle to remain faithful under the duress of darkness stretches our will to the breaking point.” Father Garrigou-LaGrange states that temptations against faith, hope and love are present during this night of the spirit.
L. Great Trials.  Saint John of the Cross states: “For when a person feels safest and least expects it, the purgation returns to engulf the soul in another degree more severe, dark, and piteous than the former….”
M. Afflictions of the Darkest Hour. The soul feels affliction in not being able to pray. St. John of the Cross says “…this is not the time to speak with God, but the time to put one’s mouth in the dust….” (TDN, Book II, Chapter 8).  We “must suffer through this purgation with patience” and “learn to be still.”
N. Incipient Transformation. The denudation or emptying of the intellect, will and memory takes place, which prepares the soul to receive the divine influx of supernatural light that will unite it to the divine wisdom.
O. Knowing by Faith, Not by Sight. “The soul with universality and great facility perceives and penetrates anything earthly or heavenly that is presented to it” (TDN, Book II, Chapter 8). This might be considered a manifestation of the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Counsel, for it certainly is a divine operation.
P. The Soul is Wounded with Love. During these difficult and dark trials, the soul begins to experience touches of God’s love, and the soul is therefore wounded with love. Saint John of the Cross says: “[T]he 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….” (TDN, Book II, Chapter 11). In the very next chapter St. John of the Cross adds: “This enkindling of love…is something immensely rich…because it is a certain touch of the divinity and already the beginning of the perfection of the union of love which the soul hopes.” The manifestation of the Divine Wisdom as love to the soul is now, with this profound and painful purification of its faculties, becoming more accessible. The purification is accomplishing its goal of uniting the soul to God.
Q. The Soul is Taken to a Secret Place. “…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….” (TDN, Book II, Chapter 17)
R. The Soul Experiences Profound Peace and Joy. “Yet when the communication of such contemplation shines in the spirit alone and produces strength in it, the devil’s diligence in disturbing the soul is often of no avail. It receives instead new benefits and a deeper, more secure peace. For what a wonderful thing it is! In experiencing the troublesome presence of the enemy, the soul enters more deeply into its inner depths without knowing how and without any efforts of its own, and it is sharply aware of being placed in a certain refuge where it is more hidden and withdrawn from the enemy. There the peace and joy that the devil planned to undo increase. All that fear remains outside; and the soul exults in a very clear consciousness of secure joy, in the quiet peace and delight of the hidden Spouse that neither the world nor the devil can either give or take away” (TDN, Book II, Chapter 23).
S. The Soul Experiences Substantial Touches of Union with God. “The reason for this concealment is that since His Majesty dwells substantially in that part of the soul to which neither the angel nor the devil can gain access and thereby see what is happening, the enemy cannot learn of the intimate and secret communications there between the soul and God. Since the Lord grants these communications directly, they are wholly divine and sovereign. They are all substantial touches of divine union between God and the soul. In one of these touches, since this is the highest degree of prayer, the soul receives greater good than in all else….A person in this way becomes wholly spiritual, and in these hiding places of unitive contemplation…my house being now all stilled” (TDN, Book II, Chapter 23).
(see note on the cause of the passive purification of the spirit, below)

THE SOUL WALKS SAFELY AND SECURELY THROUGH THIS PURIFYING DARK NIGHT: Saint John of the Cross states: “In the measure that the soul walks in darkness and emptiness in its natural operations, it walks securely….Since the soul’s evils are thus impeded, only the goods of union with God are imparted to the appetites and faculties; these appetites and faculties become divine and heavenly in this union. If they observe closely at the time of these darknesses, individuals will see clearly how little the appetites and faculties are distracted with useless and harmful things and how secure they are from vainglory, from pride and presumption, from an empty and false joy, and from many other evils…. Another more basic reason the soul walks securely in darkness is that this light, or obscure wisdom, so absorbs and engulfs the soul in the dark night of contemplation and brings it so near God that it is protected and freed from all that is not God. Since the soul, as it were, is undergoing a cure to regain its health, which is God himself, His Majesty restricts it to a diet, to abstinence from all things, and causes it to lose its appetite for them all….Because dark contemplation brings the soul closer to God, it has all these characteristics; it safeguards and cares for the soul” (TDN, Book II, Chapter 16).

This passive night of the spirit we have just briefly discussed is an experience of “utter desolation,” where only the “light of pure faith” is able to safely and securely preserve the believer from despair, until finally, and in stages described by mystical theologians (Saint John of the Cross uses the image of ascending ten steps on a mystical ladder), an overwhelming experience of union with God takes place. Saint John of the Cross describes it in the following manner:

“Poor, abandoned, and unsupported by any of the apprehensions of my soul (in the darkness of my intellect, in the distress of my will, and the affliction and anguish of my memory), left to darkness in pure faith, which is a dark night for all these natural faculties, and with my will touched only by sorrows, afflictions, and longings of love of God, I went out from myself.

… My intellect departed from itself, changing from human and natural to divine. For united with God through this purgation, it no longer understands by means of its natural vigor and light, but by means of the divine wisdom to which it was united.  And my will departed from itself and became divine.  United with divine love, it no longer loves in a lowly manner, with its natural strength, but with the strength and purity of the Holy Spirit; and thus the will does not operate humanly in relation to God. The memory, too, was changed into eternal apprehensions of glory. And finally, all the strength and affections of the soul, by means of this night and purgation of the old self, are renewed with divine qualities and delights.” (The Dark Night, Book II, Chapter IV, as cited by Larry Cooley in The Way to Ultimate Meaning in the Mystical Theology of Saint John of the Cross).

9. In a very simplified manner (relying on Father Garrigou-LaGrange), we may say that these higher intellectual and spiritual faculties have been purified “in their depths” by this dark night of trial and suffering which elevates to an extraordinary degree the infused, loving contemplation of God, and all the amazing benefits which flow from such an elevation of union with God. The highest level of union with God the soul can attain to by the purification of this dark night is called the transforming union, of which Father Garrigou-LaGrange states: “St. John of the Cross describes the transforming union as the state of spiritual perfection, the full development of the grace of the virtues and the gifts: ‘The perfect spiritual life,’ he says, ‘consists in the possession of God by the union of love.’ The transforming union is, therefore, most intimate; it brings with it great, inalterable peace, at least to the summit of the higher faculties.” Overall, these successive purifications place “our house in order”, the ultimate effect of which is profound union with God and, as Ralph Martin points out, a proper and much richer use and appreciation of the things of this world for the love of neighbor and the greater glory of God

THE CAUSE OF THE PASSIVE PURIFICATION OF THE SPIRIT: As Father Garrigou-LaGrange demonstrates, the theological virtues of faith, hope and love, and the intellectual gifts of the Holy Spirit (Knowledge, Wisdom and Understanding) are operating at a high level at these higher levels of the spiritual journey, as God, in essence, is now leading the soul. The “purifying infused light” of the dark night, which St. John of the Cross calls “a certain inflowing of God into the soul which cleanses…whereby God secretly teaches the soul and instructs it in the perfection of love,” Father Garrigou-LaGrange relates specifically to the Gift of Understanding. Father Garrigou-LaGrange quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, who said: “The stronger the light of the understanding, the further it can penetrate into the heart of things….Consequently man needs a supernatural light in order to penetrate further so as to know what it cannot know by its natural light: and this supernatural light which is bestowed on man is called the gift of understanding.” The gift of understanding, according to Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange’s critique of Saint Thomas, “confirms the supernatural certitude of faith by making us penetrate mysteries and by dispelling errors.” Thus, says Father Garrigou-LaGrange, relying on Saint Thomas, “Contemplation, which exists in the state of darkness [in the dark night], proceeds from living faith as from its radical principle, and from the gift of understanding as from its proximate principle. The gift of knowledge also often concurs in it by revealing to us more in detail our poverty, culpability, and wretchedness” (The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol. II, Chapter 36).

A QUOTE FROM SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS: At the end of Dark Night of the Soul, Saint John of the Cross leaves us with these final thoughts: “By means of the acts of substantial touches of divine union, the soul obtains habitually and perfectly (insofar as the condition of this life allows) the rest and quietude of her spiritual house. In concealment and hiding from the disturbance of both the devil and the senses and passions, she receives these touches from the divinity. By their means the soul is purified, quieted, strengthened, and made stable so she may receive permanently this divine union, which is the divine espousal between the soul and the Son of God….One cannot reach this union without remarkable purity, and this purity is unattainable without vigorous mortification and nakedness regarding all creatures….Persons who refuse to go out at night in search for the Beloved and to divest and mortify their will, but rather seek the Beloved in their own bed and comfort, as did the bride [Sg. 3:1], will not succeed in finding him. As this soul declares, she found him when she departed in darkness and with longings of love”(Chapter 24).

10. Saint John of the Cross describes the active night of the senses and spirit in Ascent of Mt. Carmel. He describes the passive night of the senses and spirit in Dark Night of the SoulPractical point: Not everyone enters into the dark night voluntarily. Sometimes God brings us into the darkness against our wills in order to purify us. God wants us to learn to walk by faith, hope and love. Thus, as Ralph Martin says, we need to keep in mind that “the purification is our friend.” Dr. Martin further points out that if we persevere during this painful purification, God will take us where we need to go. “Be faithful and it will happen.”

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Image: Stock.

Personal note: There is a lot more to the spiritual theology of Saint John of the Cross than the bare-bones outline presented here (entire topics, like the difficulties presented to the soul by purported supernatural phenomena, and many other topics, are not even touched upon). This post provides, at best, a bird’s eye view of his spirituality (and, as a summary, no doubt has defects and deficiencies). Saint John of the Cross is not easy to read. For a more detailed explanation of his spirituality, see Dr. Susan Muto’s two books, John of the Cross for Today: The Ascent and John of the Cross for Today: The Dark Night.

Note on Active Purification: With respect both to the active purification of the senses and spirit, see Father Garrigou-LaGrange’s essays in Volume I of The Three Ages of the Interior Life (where he relies on a number of great spiritual writers). These essays are entitled as follows: “The Active Purification of the Senses or of the Sensible Appetites; The Active Purification of the Imagination and Memory; The Active Purification of the Intellect; The Active Purification of the Will.” All the faculties of a human being, then, are actively placed under observation for active purification (a prelude to the passive purifications carried out by God as sheer grace, which cannot be merited but only prepared for).

The Degrees of Contemplative Prayer: Saint John of the Cross does not map out the degrees of contemplative prayer as precisely as Saint Teresa of Avila (also a Carmelite). Therefore, please refer to my note on St. Teresa of Avila (St. John of the Cross’ contemporary), at the link below:


Sources: Ascent of Mount Carmel, translated by E. Allison Peers (Triumph Books); Dark Night of the Soul, translated by E. Allison Peers (Doubleday);The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (ICS Publications); an essay on John of the Cross by Mary E. Giles in Great Thinkers of the Western World (HarperCollins); an internet essay, “The Way to Ultimate Meaning in the Mystical Theology of Saint John of the Cross,” by Larry Cooley; Christian Perfection and Contemplation by Father Reginald Garrigou-LaGrange (TAN Books); and Ralph Martin’s audio presentation on Saint John of the Cross available at

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  “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)

If you took Philosophy 101, you probably still remember a little about epistemology – enough to remember that human knowledge proceeds at first primarily from images and sounds seen and heard in the external world, which pass through the senses (sense perception) and are then processed by the mind and memory into abstract or symbolic knowledge, which is then stored in the memory and in deeper realms called the subconscious. For this reason, our Lord no doubt used very powerful and poignant images of hell in order to awaken in our hearts and minds a healthy fear of that dreadful place.

There are in the external world many powerful images – both natural and human crafted – that have a capacity to turn our hearts toward God, but perhaps none so powerful as the image of Madonna and Child. When we see the image of the Virgin Mary with her Divine Child in the stable at Bethlehem our hearts are naturally filled with love and a sense of God’s amazing goodness. The one who opposes God knows well that this image of Madonna and Child has a peculiar power to attract souls, and so he works diligently to suppress it and replace it with images that harm souls. The devil knows a little about epistemology himself. He knows that the image of our Lord as a baby being loved and cared for by the Blessed Virgin Mary is magnificently powerful, patently touching and deeply felt – a germ of powerful truth, transformative in scope, “touching upon eternal possibilities.” The purity, simplicity and beauty of the image is akin to a theological treatise that can be read “as in a heart beat.”

“In the subordination of the causes that transmit divine grace,” says a great theologian of the twentieth century, “Mary exercises, in fact, a salutary influence on our sensibility; she calms it, rules it, to enable the elevated part of our soul to receive the influence of our Lord more fruitfully. In addition, [the image of] Mary herself is to our sensible faculties a most pure and holy object, which lifts our soul toward union with God” (Father Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Chapter 26).

Our Lord is mindful of the power of holy images. He commissioned a saint to have a picture of the Divine Mercy Image painted, and he attached great promises to those who would venerate the image (Diary of Saint Faustina, 47-48, 327). Devotion to our Lord’s Sacred Heart was given by Jesus to Saint Margaret Mary. Bethlehem is a seedbed of evangelization: the image of God incarnate as a helpless baby (to be seen!), resting in the arms of the Immaculate Virgin, has a remarkable power to open hearts, change lives, and imprint Jesus and Mary in the deepest recesses of the human spirit. Let the image of the Madonna and Child shine forth this Christmas seasonOur country will be the better for it!

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Image: Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c. 1490 (Public Domain, U.S.A.)

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“And the angel … said… : ‘Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women’.” (Luke 1:28)

1. Mary’s Immaculate Conception is an infallible doctrine of the Catholic Church promulgated by Pope Pius IX , ex cathedra  (from the chair of St. Peter) on December 8, 1854. The Papal Bull reads:

“We declare, pronounce and define that the doctrine which asserts that the Blessed Virgin Mary, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God, and in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, was preserved free from every stain of original sin is a doctrine revealed by God and, for this reason, must be firmly and constantly believed by all the faithful.” 

“With these words in 1854, Pope Pius IX in the Papal Bull Ineffabilis Deus, declared Mary’s Immaculate Conception to be dogma. Pius was simply affirming a long-held belief of many Christians East and West before him, that Mary was conceived free of the stain of original sin, on account of Christ’s work, in order to bear God-made-flesh.”  (From Saint John Cantius Parish web-site)

2The dogma is confirmed four years later (in 1858) by the Blessed Virgin Mary herself in the most famous of her apparitions at Lourdes. At Lourdes, when asked her name by St. Bernadette, Mary responded in an extraordinary fashion, saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” Since then, Lourdes has been the situs of countless miracles.

3. Some of the early Reformers, such as Martin Luther, at least initially stood firmly behind this doctrine in that they saw that Mary would have to be a pure and sinless vessel in order to communicate to Jesus his sacred and holy body. The following quote from Martin Luther is illustrative:
“It is a sweet and pious belief that the infusion of Mary’s soul was effected without original sin; so that in the very infusion of her soul she was also purified from original sin and adorned with God’s gifts, receiving a pure soul infused by God; thus from the first moment she began to live she was free from all sin.”
Martin Luther, (Sermon: “On the Day of the Conception of the 
Mother of God,” 1527).

4. Contrary to popular belief, the doctrine has strong scriptural support in that:

A. Gabriel announces that Mary is “full of grace” (Luke 1:28). If Mary is full of grace it follows that she is without sin (note how the angel does not call Mary by her name, but rather by a title, saying:“Hail, full of grace”  – and the angel is God’s messenger). The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible defends the traditional translation, “Hail, full of grace,” as against some modern translations, stating: “[The Greek word used by Luke], kecharitomene, indicates that God has already graced Mary previous to this point, making her a vessel who ‘has been’ and ‘is now’ filled with divine life. Alternative translations like ‘favored one’… are possible but inadequate.”   

B. Saint Luke (in his Gospel) and Saint John (in the Book of Revelation) identify Mary as the  Ark of the New Covenant, thus comparing her to the all-holy Ark of the Covenant in the Old Testament. See “Topical Essay: Mary Ark of the Covenant” in The Ignatius Catholic Bible Study or click the following on-line article from Catholic Answers: Mary, the Ark of the New Covenant | Catholic Answers

C.  Mary’s Immaculate Conception is internally consistent with the doctrine of Original Sin (which flows from a number of Old and New Testament passages, especially at Romans 5:12-21). Since original sin is transmitted by physical generation, it follows logically that Jesus, who was born without sin, would have to be born from a spotless womb. Mary is that pure and spotless vessel: the woman who overflows with God’s grace; and

D. John the Baptist was sanctified in his mother’s womb. At Luke 1:15 it states that John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. The passage, in context, reads as follows:

Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”(Luke 1:11-17)

The angel then identifies himself as Gabriel, the same angel of Mary’s annunciation a few lines later at Luke 1:26, who addresses Mary, not by a name, but by a title, “Hail, Full of grace.”  The point is obvious (I think its obvious): if John was filled with the Holy Spirit from birth, what was done in God’s providence to prepare Mary to be the mother of God? Luke then, as you know, makes a direct comparison between Mary and the Ark of the Covenant, implying the incredible magnitude of her sanctity and holiness. All of this fits in very nicely with the Church’s proclamation of her Immaculate Conception.

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Image: The lead image, Madonna and Child 2, by Bartolomeo Montagna.  According to Wikipedia,  “This image (or other media file) is in the Public Domain [U.S.A.] because its copyright has expired. However – you may not use this image for commercial purposes and you may not alter the image or remove the WikiGallery watermark.”

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                              “HAIL [MARY], FULL OF GRACE” (Luke 1: 28)

If one reflects for a moment on the fact that Mary truly merited to become the Mother of God (“The Blessed Virgin is said to have merited to bear the Lord of all: not that she merited his Incarnation, but that she merited, by the graces she had received, such a degree of purity and sanctity, that she was fit to be the Mother of God” – St. Thomas Aquinas), then one begins to better understand the magnitude of her spiritual motherhood for all who believe (“She is mother wherever [Jesus] is Savior and head of the Mystical Body” – CCC 973).

When we consider the immense assistance Mary can provide to us in the spiritual life, it is helpful to see that the Catechism of the Catholic Church expressly says that her merits are “unfathomable,” which would seem to suggest that they are available to all of us in surplus quantity. The Catechism states:

We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury, which is “not the sum total of the material goods which have accumulated during the course of the centuries. On the contrary the ‘treasury of the Church’ is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their efficacy.This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God” (from nos. 1476-77).

In his invaluable book, True Devotion to Mary, Saint Louis De Montfort writes earnestly about the “necessity” of devotion to Mary (Chapter 1), and of the importance of developing a “great union” (1.36) with her. He attests in his book to the increase in spiritual life that comes from consecration to Mary. Of this “true devotion” to Mary, Father Faber says:

“I cannot think of a higher work or a broader vocation  for anyone than the simple spreading of this peculiar devotion [to Mary] of Saint [Louis] De Montfort. Let a man but try if for himself, and his surprise at the graces it brings with it, and the transformation it causes in his soul, will soon convince him of its otherwise almost incredible efficacy as a means for the salvation of men, and for the coming of the kingdom of Christ” (Preface to True Devotion to Mary, p. xxii).

Of the power of Mary’s mediation, Saint Pope John Paul II once said:

“In Mary’s case we have a special and exceptional mediation…Jesus Christ prepared her ever more completely to become for all people their ‘mother in the order of grace’ ” (Saint Pope John Paul II, Mother of the Redeemer, 39)

“In the communion of saints,” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “a perennial link of charity exists between the faithful who have already reached their heavenly home, those who are expiating their sins in purgatory and those who are still pilgrims on earth. Between them there is, too, an abundant exchange of all good things” (no. 1475).

This exchange of “all good things” is illustrated by Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. We clearly see from Luke’s Gospel that Mary’s visit had an extraordinary effect on Elizabeth, for Luke tells us that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, “the babe in Elizabeth’s womb leaped  for joy and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit”, praised Mary, exclaiming: 

“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1: 42-45).

These are tremendous words uttered by Elizabeth. Let us see exactly what happened when Elizabeth first heard Mary’s greeting. The sequence of events is breathtaking: 1. The babe in Elizabeth’s womb (John the Baptist) leaped for joy; 2. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit; 3. Elizabeth proclaims that Mary is blessed above all other women; and 4. Elizabeth proclaims Mary’s Divine Maternity, calling Mary “the mother of my Lord.” What is further, and is quite extraordinary, is that John the Baptist has been sanctified in Elizabeth’s womb, just as prophesied earlier in the same Gospel at Luke 1: 15 (these thoughts about Mary’s visitation are gathered from Mary in the Redemption by Adrienne Von Speyr).

This profound relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit (as clearly seen by Mary’s visit to Elizabeth) was also noted by Saint Louis De Montfort, who said: “The more the Holy Ghost finds Mary, His dear and inseparable spouse, in any soul, the more active and mighty He becomes in producing Jesus Christ in that soul, and that soul in Jesus Christ” (True Devotion to Mary, 1.20).

Mary, by way of her union with the Holy Spirit, holds a very special place in the mystical body of Christ and has been granted a unique maternal office to draw us closer to Jesus. She proclaims: “My soul doth magnify the Lord” (Luke 1:46). Each of us must say, like Elizabeth, “Who am I that the mother of Jesus Christ should come to me with such amazing spiritual assistance?” And yet Jesus wills it so, and it was he who merited Mary’s maternal intercession for us and the “unfathomable” merits she possesses. Why? – because, as Father Faber says, Jesus knew how much we would love Mary.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

Image: The Virgin of the Lillies (Public Domain, U.S.A.)

Refrences: The quote from Saint Thomas Aquinas appears in The Glories of Mary by Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri, p.253. On the Catholic understanding of merit, see CCC 208, which states: “The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man’s merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.” See also CCC 2010.

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“When all things were in deepest silence and night was in the midst of her swift course, your almighty word, O Lord, leapt down from your royal throne….” (Wisdom 18: 14-15)

In this note I will discuss very briefly the spiritual value of silence, acknowledging that it would be hard to overemphasize the value and importance placed on silence by the great spiritual writers. My main conclusion will be that the deep awareness of God’s own magnificent presence in our souls is nurtured by silence.

If we meditate for a moment on the silence that existed between Jesus and Mary during the time she carried Him in her womb, and what transpired between her and Jesus during those nine months, our hearts are filled with awe and wonder, and we see anew that silence is not an emptiness but a condition for greater fullness, for greater life, for greater love.

There can be no doubt that exterior silence greatly aids in promoting an interior awareness of God’s presence. It says in the Gospel of Luke, for example, that Jesus “withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed” (Luke 5:16).  And Saint John of the Cross – a great master of interior prayer –  loved to pray in the mountains. But it is not always possible to be in the wilderness or in the mountains, and we are advised that “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” ( Matt. 6:6).

Saint Faustina says that “in order to hear the voice of God, one has to have silence in one’s soul and to keep silence; not a gloomy silence, but an interior silence; that is to say, recollection in God. One can speak a great deal without breaking silence and, on the contrary, one can speak little and be constantly breaking silence” (118). “In silence I tell you everything, Lord, because the language of love is without words” (1489).

Dr. Susan Muto, a contemporary Catholic writer who has written extensively on the spiritual life, discusses how essential growth in inner silence is. She says: “Silence is not only an essential component of the spiritual life we must preserve if we want to welcome God’s word; it is that which preserves us. What is silence? To be silent is not merely to be mute. Spiritual silence is an emptying of self to make room for God. Ultimately it is only silence that can open us to a deeper experience of God….Each time we retreat to a corner of silence in our project-oriented world, we put ourselves in a state of peaceful readiness. We become docile” (Am I Living A Spiritual Life?, pp. 29-30).

Muto adds in another book, “In silence the scattered pieces of my life fall into place, and I see again where I am going. Silence puts me in touch not only with the human spirit in all its richness, but also with the Holy Spirit. It opens me to the dimension of transcendence….Silence becomes a sanctuary in which faith, hope and love are restored. It readies me to listen to words that ring with eternal truths. Silence is almost like a psychic force that produces a heightened capacity for meditation, prayer, and contemplation” (Pathways of Spiritual Living, pp. 56-57).

“Contemplative prayer is silence, the ‘symbol of the world to come’ or ‘silent love.’ Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. In this silence, unbearable to the ‘outer’ man, the Father speaks to us His incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2717).

Saint Pope John Paul II adds the following about the importance of silence while praying: “Listening and meditation are nourished by silence….  A discovery of the importance of silence is one of the secrets of practicing contemplation and meditation. One drawback of a society dominated by technology and the mass media is the fact that silence becomes increasingly difficult to achieve.”

To be aware of God’s presence within your soul is a great help in the spiritual journey. The Benedictine monk and well known spiritual writer, Dom Hubert van Zellar, makes this point in a wonderful way in How to Find God:

“The discovery of God present in the soul is one of the most momentous in the soul’s spiritual career…Once the soul has grasped the significance of this doctrine [that God indwells a baptized soul that is in sanctifying grace], the whole horizon changes; the implications are limitless…More and more, the soul of prayer should come to realize that it is the Holy Spirit who is acting….” (edited from pages 119-121).

This great discovery of God present in your soul is nurtured by silent prayer. I therefore close with these challenging but also encouraging words from one of the great Masters of prayer in the Catholic tradition, Father Jean Nicolas Grou, who writes:

“Do not tell me you can pray with your heart only when you are praying with your mouth….The heart when it prays often invites and even forces the mouth to be silent: and if this silence is unknown to you…how greatly you are to be pitied if you know nothing of this interior prayer and never practice it. My intention is not by any means to disturb and alarm Christian souls [but] to convince them that there is a more excellent way than praying aloud…to beg the Holy Spirit to teach us…to try again and again to keep silence in God’s presence for a few moments; to refuse to be discouraged; to keep our imagination from taking fright; to accustom our minds to it little by little. [T]hose who follow this road with discretion will find it profitable, and will be glad that they made the effort….” (How to Pray, pp.63-67, as edited).

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A.

P.S. In nature God is present in his creation by His immensity, similar to how an artist is present in his work, but in a more radical or powerful way. But by way of sanctifying grace, God truly indwells a baptized soul, not secondarily but as truly and really present. The title for this note comes from a colorized FB post which said: “Some relationships are nurtured in silence.”

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“I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves.” (Pope Francis)

From the beginning the controversy regarding Amoris Laetitia has been portrayed as being limited to whether a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic might be permitted, in certain circumstances, to receive Holy Communion. The purpose of this note is to demonstrate that the reach of Amoris Laetiti goes well beyond just the divorced and remarried, at least for those who do not intend to interpret the exhortation through the previous teachings of the Church regarding the impermissibility of exceptions for intrinsically evil acts.

In fact, in the controversial Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis states that the type of mercy being advocated is not just for the divorced and remarried but for everyone “in whatever situation.” He states:

297. It is a matter of reaching out to everyone, of needing to help each person find his or her proper way of participating in the ecclesial community and thus to experience being touched by an “unmerited, unconditional and gratuitous” mercy. No one can be condemned for ever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel! Here I am not speaking only of the divorced and remarried, but of everyone, in whatever situation they find themselves. 

In a 2016 letter to Pope Francis, distinguished professors Germain Grisez and John Finnis pointed out just how easy it would be for those not committed to Catholic orthodoxy to interpret Paragraph 297 of Amoris Laetitia in a way that runs profoundly afoul of Catholic morality, and they petitioned the Pope to correct such a misunderstanding (see, “The Misuse of Amoris Laetitia to Support Errors Against the Catholic Faith,” available online). These professors provided numerous examples in their letter as to how no. 297 could be used to support immoral behavior.

Even within the parameters of a more restrictive interpretation, AL 297 specifically mentions couples “living together,” and by the time you get to paragraph 301 the generalized use of the term “irregular situations” begins to appear. No precise definition of what “irregular situations” means is given, but one presumes the more generalized language is purposeful.

Here is the very troubling passage from Amoris Laetitia (no. 301) which clearly suggests that a person can be in a “concrete situation” where he has no choice but to live in mortal sin (and is thus justified in remaining in his objectively sinful condition even though he knows the rule):

301.  For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the Gospel are in any way being compromised.  The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations. Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.  More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule.  A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values”, or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin.  

Amoris Laetitia, no. 303, contains another very controversial statement made by Pope Francis, stating that a person can come to the realization that God wills him to stay in his sinful condition. It reads, in pertinent part:

“Yet conscience can do more than recognize that a given situation does not correspond objectively to the overall demands of the Gospel. It can also recognize with sincerity and honesty what for now is the most generous response which can be given to God, and come to see with a certain moral security that it is what God himself is asking amid the concrete complexity of one’s limits, while yet not fully the objective ideal. In any event, let us recall that this discernment is dynamic; it must remain ever open to new stages of growth and to new decisions which can enable the ideal to be more fully realized.”

In his great encyclical on Catholic morality, Veritatis Splendor, Saint Pope John Paul II specifically foresaw and rejected the type of argument put forth in Amoris Laetia (303) quoted above. He stated very clearly that

“It would be a very serious error … to conclude that the Church’s teaching is essentially only an “ideal” which must then be adapted, proportioned, graduated to the so-called concrete possibilities of man.” (VS 103) 

Still further, Saint John Paul II stated:

“circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act “subjectively” good or defensible as a choice.” (VS 81)

Pope John Paul II explained in Veritatis Splendor the clear Catholic teaching that an intrinsically evil act cannot be creatively transformed into something willed by God under concrete circumstances (the suggestion put forth in AL 303 and 301).

“The negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever.” (Veritatis Splendor 67)

“The negative precepts of the natural law are universally valid. They oblige each and every individual, always and in every circumstance. It is a matter of prohibitions which forbid a given action semper et pro semper, without exception.” (VS 52)

By trying to claim that an intrinsically evil act like adultery, fornication or other “irregular situation” may be the most generous response a person can give to God at a certain moment in his life, Pope Francis has embraced situation ethics and has strayed far from the firm and authentic foundations of Catholic morality. Pope John Paul II had already warned that such an argument is clearly erroneous.

CONCLUSION: Amoris Laetitia potentially opens the door to the justification of practically any type of mortal sin, not only because it is arguably for “everyone” in “all situations,” but also because “no area of Christian morality can remain unscathed” if the general statements about moral acts in the document are considered valid, to quote the great Dominican scholar, Father Aidan Nichols. For example, why would a married gay couple not be able to claim under the rationale of Amoris that their union is the best response they can make given their concrete situation. Thus, when Dr. Joseph Seifert referred to Amoris Laetitia as a “theological atomic bomb” which in essence would blow up Catholic morality, making all Catholic morality essentially optional, his opinion was not mere hyperbole.

Amoris Laetitia has created quite a mess for those who teach moral theology. One could forcefully argue it is the greatest threat to Catholic morality the Church has ever encountered.

Thomas L. Mulcahy, M.A., J.D.

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(Saint Catherine of Siena)

“Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Corinthians 6:2)

There is a reason why the feast of All Saints is, in essence, the culmination of all other Feasts! This is because each new saint is a manifestation of the triumph of the Gospel. Thus, the great spiritual writer, Father Olier, says:

“In a certain sense the feast of All Saints seems to me to be greater than that of Easter or the Ascension because this mystery perfects our Lord. But Jesus as Head is not perfect except in union with all His members, who are the saints….This feast is very glorious because it is an external manifestation of the life hidden in Jesus Christ, for all the excellency of the perfection of the saints is nothing more than an emanation of His Spirit poured forth on them” (The Mystical Evolution, Volume 2, p.501).

It would therefore be a mistake to think that the saints have merely an ornamental presence in Heaven. As Saint Paul says rather boldly at 1 Corinthians 6:2, “Do you not know that the saints shall judge the world.” Commenting on this verse, The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible says: “Only here in the Bible do we learn that Christians will condemn both unbelievers (6:2) and fallen spirits (6:3) at the final judgment” (see also Revelation 20:4).

In a profound text entitled, “How the Saints Save and Judge the World”, the great Dominican, Father Albert L. Weiss, says:

“In His merciful Providence God sent each saint to remind the world of its duties and to save it from its corrupt life. The saints, whose lives are a flagrant contradiction to the worldly spirit in general and to that of their own age in particular, are selected as instruments of salvation by the compassionate Doctor to the nations. But he who does not accept them as mediators, must accept them as judges, just as he must accept Jesus Christ, who did not come to judge the world but to save it (John 3:17)…. For those who receive the saints, they are a great means of salvation. A people will never fall hopelessly into corruption as long as they have a single saint” (The Mystical Evolution, Vol. II, p. 373, as edited).

“The witnesses who have preceded us into the kingdom, especially those whom the Church recognizes as saints, share in the living tradition of prayer by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today. They contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth. When they entered into the joy of their Master, they were ‘put in charge of many things.’ Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2683).

And on this subject of the importance of the saints, Father Faber warns us to not underestimate the dignity and power they hold:

The honor of God …is deeply implicated in the worship paid to the saint. In some sense [God] is more jealous of it than of His own; less patient of levity with [His saints] than with Himself, and frequently punishes persons for this [levity]. The saints themselves have entered into the dispositions of God, and, with a sort of vindictive holiness, hard for us in our present state to understand, resent familiarities and impertinences….  Faith is the chief ingredient in a true devotion to the saints; faith is the reality of their power, and of their relationship towards us. It is a great sign of a man being supernatural when he fears to offend a saint. The favors of the saints form a great department of the Divine Mercies, and play an important part in the sanctification of holy men….” (from: Notes on Doctrinal and Spiritual Subjects, Volume I, pages 381-82.).

Father Weiss explains that “the saints have always been the most faithful sons of the Church….The more united anyone is to the Church, the more certain he is of union with her Founder and Lord, the author of all graces and the model and end of all sanctity. The more tightly one is bound with the mystical body of Jesus Christ, the more he adheres to this divine Head….” (Id at 485).

“All the good we do,” says a great spiritual writer, “Jesus Christ does in us.” Accordingly, “we may say that [Jesus] has done, in a manner, all the good works of the Saints….” Thus, “when we keep the feast of some Saint, we keep the feast of Jesus Christ, who is the author of all the sanctity of the Saints” (Father L. Lallemant, The Spiritual Doctine, p.262).

What could give Jesus more glory than the success of the Gospel verified by the saints? The saints, then, are the fruit of the redemptive Incarnation, and are coheirs with Jesus Christ, sharing in His glory (Romans 8:17). “God is glorified in His saints” ( 2 Thes. 1:10).

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Image: Saint Catherine of Siena by an anonymous painter, 19th century (Public Domain, U.S.A.)

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“…we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses….”  (Hebrews 12:1)



(Father Solanus Casey who will be beatified on Nov. 18, 2017)

                           “[God] is Glorified in His Saints” (2 Thes. 1:10)

We are all looking for evidence and knowledge that points to the ultimate meaning of life. And the purpose of this note is to suggest that the Catholic Saints hold the key (or should I say a key) to unlocking and discovering the meaning of life. Indeed, the more we study the lives of the saints, the more we will discover the meaning of life.

This interest in the saints “is not an interest of mere pious curiosity. It is inspired by the growing realization that the saints, and the saints alone, have found what all other men are vainly seeking – a real life. It is beginning to dawn on the intelligence of those who are sincerely searching for the truth and who, with unprejudiced minds, are seeking for a solution to the problem of existence that the real men and women are the saints and it is only they who know what life is” (The Holy Spirit, p. 11, Father Edward Leen).

Father Leen. a great spiritual writer who died in 1956, adds: “Earnest souls are beginning to regard the saints…as men and women who have received a deep initiation into the secret of living and who are, in consequence, apt to initiate others. It is felt that they alone know while all others are but groping in a state of more or less blindness. The saint is recognized to be the one who really succeeds in finding life and is, therefore, studied chiefly as an ‘essayist on living’. They considered their highest knowledge to be…persevering contact with God.”

Take, as one example, Father Solanus Casey, who lived and worked for many years in Detroit as the door-keeper at Saint Bonaventure’s (not very far from where I am writing this note). Although he is presently only “Venerable,” this Capuchin priest who died in 1957, and will be beatified on November 18 of this year, was deeply initiated into the true meaning of life. As a consequence of this initiation he had great confidence in God and a profound love for the poor and sick. A number of books have been written about his ministry to the sick (who would come to see him at St. Bonaventure’s where he was a simple porter) and the many healing miracles attributed to him (from which he got the reputation as a miracle worker). His simple life touched the lives of so many people seeking hope, healing and encouragement, and continues to do so. I have personally sought his intercession at the site of his tomb in the Solanus Casey Center in Detroit, and I know many other people who have done likewise (see Father Solanus, pictured above, is one example of how a “Saint” shows to us the true meaning of life.

Take, as another example, the renowned and holy priest of Ars, Saint John Vianney. He died in 1859 and was canonized in 1925. He labored incessantly to restore the faith and vitality of the villagers in Ars, sometimes spending up to 18 hours a day in the confessional. He lived a very austere and mortified life. One thing we can learn from his life, in contrast to the cynicism and anti-supernaturalism of our age, is that miracles actually do occur. This saintly priest tells us in his own written words of a miracle he personally witnessed. He tells a story  about a parishioner of his who was having trouble believing the host really becomes the body of Jesus Christ at Mass. The parishioner said a sincere prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary asking her to help him believe. St. John Vianney then relates what happened as he was distributing communion:

“I do not say this happened to someone else, but that it happened to myself. At the moment this man came up to receive Holy Communion, the Sacred Host detached Itself from my fingers while I was still a good way off, and went off Itself and placed Itself upon the tongue of that man.”

And in more recent times we have the Eucharistic prodigy involving Blessed Alexandrina da Costa. Her life was one of expiatory suffering and was intimately tied to the Passion of Jesus. She lived exclusively on the Eucharist for 13 years and was beatified by Pope John Paul II on April 26, 2004, now himself a Saint! To understand the incredible magnitude of this Eucharistic miracle, consider for a moment that a human being would be lucky to survive even one week without water.

There is a beautiful book about her by Francis Johnston in which is revealed the revelation she received that many people would become “ardently Eucharistic” through devotion to her. Please note that she was placed in a hospital for forty days and under intense observation was observed to keep her Eucharistic fast, living only on the Bread of Life, which was her sustenance (the official report of Dr. Araujo “confirmed the prodigy as ‘scientifically inexplicable,’ [and stated] it is absolutely certain that during forty days of being bedridden in hospital [Alexandrina] did not eat or drink….”).

She died in 1955. The manner in which she predicted the supernatural decomposition of her body was observed to have occurred, and no doubt this sped up the process of her rapid beatification. If you are looking for truth, the life of Blessed Alexandrina da Costa says look to the Eucharist!

A great spiritual writer, Father John G. Arintero, tells us that “one saint is sufficient to illumine a century.” And in our present times how many of us were greatly influenced – and even returned to the Catholic faith – because of the illuminating life of Saint Pope John Paul “the Great.” It is not possible in this short note to relate how this priest, pastor, philosopher and Pope, not to mention mystic and theologian, profoundly influenced the course of the Church and world events for the better. But his impact and holiness were so huge that he has already been canonized a Saint, and there is little doubt that his encyclicals and other papal writings will greatly guide the church for years and decades to come. And what does this saint tell us?: he tells us that a major turning point in his life, in his growth in holiness, was the consecration of his life to the Virgin Mary.

And Saint Mother Teresa, canonized by Pope Francis on September 4, 2016, also had a huge impact on the world through her devotion to the poor. And, like Saint Pope John Paul II, she made and greatly valued the DeMontfort consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Additionally, she placed a high priority on the Eucharist and Eucharistic adoration. She was always seen carrying a rosary. An excellent book which sets forth the nature of her mystical life, and the communications she received from Jesus and Mary, is Come Be My Light by Father Brian Kolodiejcchuk.


The great spiritual writer, Father Albert M. Weiss, says that those who “receive the saints” find a “great means of salvation.” He adds: “A people will never fall hopelessly into corruption as long as they have a single saint.”

Can we not see that the lives of the saints, with all their supernatural manifestations of grace, show us what truth really is and WHO truth really is?

The Saints are so many mirrors reflecting the life of Jesus Christ. And Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6).

Tom Mulcahy, M.A.

Photo Attribution: The photo of Mother Teresa is by Turelio, July 13, 1986 under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Germany license (found at Wikipedia). The photo or drawing of Father Solanus Casey is by photographer Mohatma Gandhi under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license (at Wikipedia).

ReferencesThe Holy Spirit by Father Edward Leen; Saint John Paul the Great by Jason Evert (see quote by Cardinal George on back cover); Nothing Short of a Miracle by Patricia Treece; Alexandrina: The Agony and the Glory by Francis Johnston; The Mystical Evolution by Father John G. Arintero; The Little Catechism of the Cure of Ars (TAN); and Dictionary of Saints by John Delaney.

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                       “For our God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:29)

In his encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI does a wonderful job of demonstrating how 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 clearly supports the doctrine of Purgatory. It is interesting to note, as well, that Dr. Scott Hahn, a Protestant convert, mentioned this New Testament passage in 1 Corinthians as being decisive for him in accepting the Church’s teaching on Purgatory (he says, “I must admit that theologically and psychologically 1st Corinthians 3 basically sealed it up. It was all sewn up for me when I worked through this, praying, studying, pondering. I think it’s strong and clear.”).