The Soul Experiences Substantial Touches of Union with God


“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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