The following quotes are from The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2, Chapters 28 through 31.
When I categorize my visions, I do so in a most informal way, coming up with umbrellas that I think might cover some of the most obvious characteristics. And then I give these groups really, really fancy and well thought names: names such as A, and B, and I even have a category that I call, weapons.
But that’s another story altogether.
But John of the Cross takes a whole lot deeper approach to categorizing communications from God. He is limiting himself in this work to those communications that involve words. And while emotions and even actions may result of these visions, for this effort, he is addressing how God communicates.
Now I would be the last person in the world to question another mystic’s “knowledge.” I understand thoroughly how fragile such intelligence is. I also know to my bones how as we age and grow in familiarity and trust in visions and the wisdom they impart, that their teachings can become increasingly abstract.
But, still, I will say that no matter how experienced I am, I find the writings of both John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila to be extraordinarily profound and, well, hard to understand.
I am such a “literalist” that I need to pull apart, touch, and explore every aspect of a vision. And I can’t do that with someone else’s visions.
I would like so very much to sit down with John and stretch my mind’s fingers into his assertions and reasonings, seeing how far I can open them up in order to see their underlying structure.
John classifies what he calls supernatural locutions into three very distinct groups: (1) successive locutions, (2) formal locutions, and (3) substantial locutions, with locutions meaning just what we think it to mean, a form of verbal communication.
It took me a while to understand what some of his terms referred to. Fine, it took me weeks. Successive locutions are those messages that we receive while we are praying meditatively. John describes them as words and reasonings that the spirit of itself usually forms and deduces while recollected.
Recollection is a John’s word for meditation.
Essentially, successive locutions are those messages of wisdom from God received during contemplative prayer, and they always have to do with the subject of one’s reflection.
You are praying about faith, say, and the enlightenment that can come to you about faith during this quiet time is what John is writing about.
However. And there are two big howevers in this form of vision. During mental prayer you can receive “knowledge” from three different sources: God, your own intellect, and something evil.
On the difference between received wisdom from one’s own intellect and the Holy Spirit, John writes:
Since intellect is recollected and united with the truth, which is the subject of their thought, and the Holy Spirit is also united with them in that truth — for he is in every truth — it results that, while their intellect is thus communing with the divine Spirit by means of that truth, it simultaneously forms interiorly and successively other truths about its subject while the Holy Spirit, the Teacher, leads the way and gives light.
Basically, the difference between the two is that while your intellect will not harm you with its information, it will not lead you to virtues such as humility, charity, mortification, holy simplicity, silence, etc. In fact, John explains, if you don’t find yourself lead to such virtues as a result of this kind of communication, then you can be sure that it’s not from God.
The devil, predictably, leads one who is particularly attached to these kind of communications to heretical thoughts, and to a sense of self-importance as a result of receiving such wisdom.
The trick, you see, is to not be attached.
People should learn to give importance to nothing other than sincere effort, the establishment of their wills in humble love, and suffering in imitation of the life and mortifications of the Son of God. This is the road to the attainment of every spiritual good, and not that other one of profuse interior discourse.
The significance is not in the message. The significance is in the way you live your life.
A formal locution in this context can be described as a kind of internal conversation that you have with God at any time and in any place. It is, as John writes, produced supernaturally in the spirit with the use of the senses.
It can be one word, or it can be a lengthy message. And it can be given by an intermediary, such as when the angel spoke to Daniel. The angel tells Daniel that he has come to teach him.
Ordinarily they are given merely for the purpose of teaching or shedding light upon some truth. Accordingly the efficacy of their effect need be no more than required to attain their purpose. When God is the cause of the locution this effect is always produced in the soul, for it gives the soul both readiness to accomplish the command and clarity in understanding it.
When material is received from the devil, however, it will happen that both ease and readiness will be given in matters involving prestige, whereas only repugnance will be felt for lowly tasks.
Increased pride and a fluffing of the ego are the sure signs that you haven’t been talking with one of the good guys.
Individuals should not do what these words tells them, nor should they pay attention to them — whether they be from a good or bad spirit.
Don’t even think about it, instead turn it all over to your confessor or spiritual director, John advises.
Substantial locutions are those communications that are both short and to the point. John gives the examples of, “Be good,” or “Love me,” or even, “Do not fear.”
They are, in essence, commands. Direct, bold, and powerful.
Just as when Jesus commanded the sick to rise and be healed.
Or when he commanded Lazarus to return to life.
In this type of communication, there is nothing for the person to reject. The soul receives them passively, so there is no fear of deception, either from your intellect or from the bad guys.
These substantial locutions are a great aid to union with God. And the more interior and substantial they are, the more advantageous for the soul. Happy the soul to whom God speaks these substantial words. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening. (1 Samuel 3:10)