From The Ascent to Truth
Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Àvila have both left us detailed studies of the ways of contemplative prayer, and better than any other mystics they have described the practical details of our cooperation with the Spirit of God in the degree of prayer which most interests us here. They both agree that in the Night of Sense, and more still in the Prayer of Quiet, the faculties of the soul are in some measure passive. But they also agree that these faculties are still free to act of their own accord and that consequently they are capable of either helping of hindering the work of God. And they both agree that in order to help the action of grace our faculties must engage in some very simplified activity which, at the actual moment of passive prayer, consists in nothing more than the effort to keep themselves passive. Outside the time of prayer they must do more. But in any event, it takes mortification to maintain the soul in a state of alert receptivity during the first stages of passive prayer when grace acts almost unnoticeably on the soul and when the imagination is drawn away by many distractions.
Here is a summary of one important chapter in Saint Teresa’s life. It tells us what our soul can do and may do as well as what it must do and must not do in the Prayer of Quiet.
The saint first reminds us of the nature of the Prayer of Quiet. This “beginning of all blessings” and the “pledge of great things to come” is the first definite taste of mystical prayer. For, while it is possible that infused contemplation may begin during that arid part of the Night of Sense in which God’s presence is not felt, nevertheless the Prayer of Quiet very evidently absorbs the soul in a state of passive recollection and floods our whole being with an indescribable interior peace flowing from a profoundly intimate and actual sense of the Presence of God. The dark water of the soul has suddenly been touched with sunlight from Heaven. Suffused with the clarity of God, it awakens to a new life, discovers itself to be a different being, rests in an unknown joy. And yet this sense of God is not sharply defined, for the soul is still dazzled by his light. The spirit rests in deep tranquility, rocking gently like a ship anchored on a quiet harbor while the sun rises upon a new world through noiseless and translucent mist.
So much for the Prayer of Quiet. The business about the ship is mine, not Saint Teresa’s. Perhaps it has obscured the issue. The expressions she uses at the beginning of the particular chapter I am considering suffice to convey her meaning. They are: “quiet,” “recollection,” “satisfactions,” “peace,” “very great joy,” “repose of the faculties,” “sweet delight.” William Blake knew of the Prayer of Quiet and thought of it as a moonlit night.
Very well. In this prayer, the faculties are passive. Yet they can act.
They are passive. That is to say, they can do nothing either to acquire this blessing or to keep it. It is a pure gift of God. It is not produced by any deliberate technique. Our efforts can only dispose us to receive it as a gift. Hence the Prayer of Quiet must be sedulously distinguished from natural analogues of mystical experience which can be acquired by man’s efforts. The soul can become recollected by its own efforts. It can become “centered” in a deeply satisfying and fruitful experience of rest. Even human love can sometimes produce this effect, although human love is far more apt to produce restlessness than rest. The soul that has acquired a high degree of ascetic emptiness and recollection can, in this state, produce a willed intellectual reflection on the metaphysical being of God present within itself. This may sometimes be heightened by a natural inspiration of the kind we have referred to – a metaphysical intuition of being.
In the Prayer of Quiet, the experience is something more. The whole soul feels itself to be enlightened, vitalized, lifted up to a new plane of being, delivered to some extent from material limitations. It has an extraordinary sense of lightness and freedom, like a boy who has just been liberated from a classroom or a bird that has got out of its cage. But beyond and above all this is the Divine Realty in which this experience takes place. The soul has not arrived at God by thought or reflection. It does not perceive him in any image or concept. Yet it is “in him.” It is swimming in his light. He envelops it like a cloud of gold. And the most essential factor of this experience is the soul’s discovery of God in his immanence and his transcendence. Everything that the soul experiences flows from this central mystery that God is in all things and in the soul, and that he is nevertheless infinitely above the soul and above all things.
And now: more of Saint Teresa. She makes fun of people who have tasted this pleasure and try to recapture it by their own efforts. But she makes fun of them very tenderly because, after all, she has been through it all herself. Beginners in prayer get this wonderful interior feeling. they no longer dare to move. They stay transfixed, with closed eyes, scarcely daring to breathe, for fear it might go away. Or else, as soon as the spark of love is kindled in their souls, they start piling on wood – by useless reasoning and lofty considerations. This immediately smothers the fire. Saint Teresa sums up her opinion of the uselessness of our own efforts to acquire this degree of prayer:
What a strange kind of belief it is that when God has willed that a toad should fly, he should wait for it to do so by its own efforts. Our souls are weighed down by the Earth and by a thousand impediments and the fact that they want to fly is of no help to them; for, though flying comes more naturally to them than to a toad, they are so completely sunk in the mire that they have lost the ability.
And now: what do the faculties do in the Prayer of Quiet? We must make a distinction. When the soul is actually engaged in the Prayer of Quiet, the faculties have one kind of function; outside the time of prayer they have another. Furthermore, the grace of quietude has a different effect on different faculties.
First, let us look at the faculties of the soul when it is in the Prayer of Quiet. The exterior senses are recollected. This is generally the fruit of active recollection, but is intensified by the action of the Holy Spirit upon the depths of the soul. The interior senses – especially the imagination and memory – may be recollected or they may be quite distracted. When the soul is deeply absorbed in passive recollection, the imagination and memory are almost entirely inactive. Or if they act at all, their movement is no longer noticed in the depths of the soul.
Sometimes, however, these faculties may be distressingly busy. The same applies to the intelligence. Sometimes it rests in a reverent appreciation of the fact that the will is receiving news of God that is more direct than the understanding itself can yet attain to. But at other times reason and imagination can make a lot of noise. Our exterior soul preaches sermons, reforms monasteries, reproves heretics, passes in review the faults of other contemplatives, evolves complex theories of the interior life, undertakes the spiritual direction of whole convents of nuns, urges bishops to lead a more prayerful life, and finally itself becomes Pope to govern the whole church with universal acclaim. While all this is going on, the will, hiding in a bomb-proof shelter in the center of the soul, clings with extreme distress and desperation to the hope that God will not evade her entirely and leave her alone with the arguments of the fatuous monster outside the door. Under such conditions, it will be understood that there is very little of the Prayer of Quiet in the true sense, which implies sensible peace and rest in the presence of God. If we allow that the will is praying at all, and that it is passive, then it is suffering that arid quietude which belongs to the Night of Sense properly so-called. As quietude grows on us and takes fuller possession of the will, this faculty gains a fuller command over the others. But here is the interesting thing: it controls them passively. That is to say, in its direction of the rest of the soul the will itself is passively moved by God. This point is very important. It offers the only possible justification for the fact that the will, in this as well as in other degree of mystical prayer, holds sway over the reason. Naturally speaking, the intelligence of man is the noblest faculty in his soul because it is normally deputed to guide the will by the light of God.
Let us look more closely at the will in the state of quietude. The will is the faculty which is most completely passive in this state of prayer. It is by the will that God’s love lays hold on the soul here, and draws it to himself, without any of the other faculties quite realizing how all this is taking place. This explains two things: first, the fact that the soul can be at the same time united with God in passive recollection and still suffer distractions, and second, the fact that the soul cannot form for itself any clear or adequate idea of how this union takes place. Why? Because God has passively united the soul to himself, not through the intelligence but through a blind faculty: the will.
Here is what Saint Teresa has to say on the subject:
The soul has such satisfaction in God that although the other two faculties may be distracted, yet, since the will is in union with God for as long as the recollection lasts, its quiet and repose are not lost, but the will gradually brings the understanding and memory back to a state of recollection again. For although the will is not yet completely absorbed it is so well occupied, without knowing how, that, whatever the efforts made by the understanding and memory, they cannot deprive it of its contentment and rejoicing: indeed, without any labor on its part, it helps to prevent this little spark of love form being quenched.
Here is a paradox! The will which, being passive, is “doing nothing” is, in fact, doing everything in the Prayer of Quiet. The other faculties, which are still active, are in fact doing nothing and less than nothing because their activity is a nuisance and tends to impede the work of God. But, as the saint points out, thanks to the passive action of the will moved directly by the inspirations of God, the undesirable activity of these other faculties is kept under control and does not have too bad an effect. The solution of this apparent problem comes from the fact that the will, when passively moved by God, is in fact acting in a much higher and more perfect sense than when it is moved only by itself. Also, since God is infinitely beyond every limitation, when the will becomes the prisoner of his love and is, so to speak, withheld from doing anything but his will, it then at last becomes perfectly free with the freedom of God himself! Ubi Spiritus Domini, ibi libertas!
Nevertheless, we have seen that in Prayer of Quiet the will is not in fact completely captivated by God. It does not become completely powerless to act for itself. It retains its natural tendency to follow the guidance of the intelligence. if the reason and imagination, by force of persuasion, can convince the will that they own natural lights are somehow preferable to the obscure and tenuous consolations it is receiving in secret, they may win it over to their own side. Saint John of the Cross asserts without hesitation that, as soon as this happens, supernatural and passive prayer comes to an end, even though a strong sense of consolation and a specious feeling of passivity may persist in the will. We shall discuss some texts of Saint John of the Cross on this point, in a moment.
This brings us once more to the truth upon which I have been insisting for the last three chapters: that even in passive prayer, the progress of the soul and its cooperation with God depend to a great extent upon the supernatural discretion exercised by our intelligence. Here are proofs of that thesis from Saint Teresa.
When a contemplative has reached the Prayer of Quiet, what must he do with his understanding?
First: in general, that is to say, outside the time of actual absorption in passive prayer, the intelligence has the following important things to do. It must recognize says Saint Teresa, the great gift God has bestowed upon the soul. It must realize the importance of living up to the favor it has been granted. It must continue to exercise itself, very simply, in self-knowledge, that is to say, in humility, yet at the same time it must produce motives of confidence and stimulate the will to desire progress in this way of prayer. It will recognize, says the saint, that this grace is the “pledge of great things to come.” It must also humbly understand, as she says, that many other souls are not depending on it, for God does not give these graces to us for ourselves alone. He pours out his joy upon the whole world thorugh the chosen, though perhaps obscure, vessels he has seen fit to fill to overflowing with the wine of interior prayer. Above all, the intelligence must show the will the importance of persevering in prayer and self-denial and of not returning, as Saint Teresa says, in a time-honored ascetical cliché, to “the fleshpots.”
Much more important is the discretion and good behavior of our reason at the actual time of passive prayer. I quote Saint Teresa herself:
What the soul has to do at these seasons of quiet is merely to go softly and make no noise. By noise I mean going about with the understanding in search of many words and reflections with which to give thanks for this benefit and piling up its sins and imperfections so as to make oneself realize one does not deserve it.
The soul will lose a great deal if it is not careful about this, especially if it has a lively understanding, with the result that when it begins to hold discourse with itself and think out reflections it will soon begin to fancy that it is doing something worth while if its discourses and reflections are at all clever.
Pursuing the comparison of the “little spark” which she uses all through this chapter, Saint Teresa warns the reason against piling on too much wood. However, it can do something on its own part to help build up the fire:
A few little straws laid down with humility (and they will be less than straws if it is we who lay them down) are more to the point here and of more use in kindling the fire than any amount of wood – that is, of the most learned reasoning – which will put it out in a moment.
There is one consideration above all that the reason must use at the time of prayer: it must realize that this is a gift of God and recognize its own incapacity to add anything substantial to the work that is being done. This sentence of Saint Teresa is classic:
All that the reason has to do in this state is to understand that there is no reason, save his goodness alone, why God should grant us so great a favor, and to realize that we are very near to him.
Nevertheless, prayer of petition is not excluded even from the moments of passive absorption in God. These petitions remain wordless and simple, but they reach out to embrace the needs of souls in the world and of all who depend upon us for the grace of God. Finally, meditation is never abandoned entirely by the soul that has reached this state. He may sometimes have to return to formal discursive meditation, but only outside the time of passive prayer. Saint John of the Cross agrees. In any case, one will always have before his eyes the simple idea of Christ’s cross and remember that the only way to divine union is the narrow road that Jesus traveled before us.
A wrong idea of the function of reason in the beginnings of the mystical life would lead inevitably to spiritual stagnation. Under the pretext of remaining in a state of passive receptivity without directing any formal acts of love or understanding toward God, the contemplative would let himself be carried along by habit and routine. If he were to some extent a virtuous man, he would be able to go on for some time acting virtuously out of sheer force of habit. But soon these virtuous actions would become hollow. They would be merely external, without any interior fervor of will. The condition of our nature in its present state makes it obnoxious for any man formally to renounce the active pursuit of perfection at any time. Passive graces from God only modify the character of man’s activity, elevating it to a higher plane and giving more and more of the initiative to God himself. but God will not ordinarily grant these passive inspirations to souls that are not consumed with a constant and generous desire to cooperate actively with his ordinary grace.
It is true that spiritual inertia can bring, to certain souls, an illusory sense of peace. But this peace is just as unhealthy as the quiescence of a stagnant pond. The real rest to which man is called by God and to which the highest faculties of his nature urge him to aspire, is paradoxically found in the highest activity of those faculties. Man is said to “rest” in perfect union with the knowledge and love of God because here there no longer remains any obstacle to impede the action of his spirit in God, and there is no more weariness because labor is no more.
The Flemish mystic Blessed John Rüsbröck had some powerful things to say about the Behards and other precursors of the Quietist heresy. His statement, though in an entirely different context, makes one think of what John of Saint Thomas said about the impracticality of a contemplation that was not inspired by the Holy Ghost, but procured by what one might call “stalling” on an act of faith. Rüsbröck says:
It is true that as soon as a man empties himself and abstracts from all images in the sensible part of his soul, and becomes idle, remaining inactive in his superior faculties, he enters into a natural state of repose. But the man who really loves God cannot rest here, for charity and the inward action of the grace of God do not remain idle. The interior man cannot bear to stay for a long time closed up in himself in a state of merely natural repose. This kind of repose is not permitted. It brings man into a condition of complete blindness and to the ignorance of all knowledge, he collapses into himself and loses the power to act. It is a sterile idleness in which he forgets not only himself, but God, and everything else besides, especially when he is called upon to do a little work!
Rüsbröck goes on to show in the clearest language that this inertia quickly leads to the opposite pole of the spiritual life from contemplation and divine union because it makes a man incapable of receiving the light of truth by confirming him in stubborn self-will. Where the intelligence and will are completely stultified, the spiritual life ceases to be possible at all.
Without any inward and loving attention to God, this man will be capable of the worst errors, for he turns away from God in order to concentrate on himself with natural love. All he is looking for is consolation, sweetness, and satisfaction. Everything he does is done for his own personal interests, not for the honor of God. His life is guided by natural self-love and therefore he is entrenched in his own will and incapable of self-forgetfulness.
The only way a contemplative can avoid this disastrous mistake is to use the intelligence God has given him in the service of faith and love. He must possess the discretion and supernatural insight which come from humble and constant attention to the inspirations of divine grace in his soul. It is not always an easy task to distinguish the inspirations of grace from false natural inclinations that bear a man away from God. Since the Holy Spirit leads the contemplative soul into passivity, it does seem, in fact, that our faculties are sometimes tending to inactivity and inertia. Only a soul that has achieved maturity in contemplative prayer can quickly and easily tell the difference between stagnant inactivity of the faculties and the fruitful, passive motivation of the mind and will by the inspirations of the Holy Ghost.
A child who rides for the first time on a train by night sees nothing going by outside the windows and therefore complains that the train has stopped. Sometimes a train traveling through darkness, or in a tunnel, gives one the feeling of traveling backwards. The same thing happens to a soul that is visited by darkness and interior trial. So, too, when two trains are together in a station and one begins to move, the people in the other feel as if they were the ones who were moving. This applies to the spiritual life also. A contemplative who has come to a stand-still in the midst of a fervent community can imagine that he is moving and that the others are standing still. The basis of his error is the progress that is being made by his companions.
The function of discretion in the beginnings of mystical prayer is to discover the true way that lies between extremes. Reason guided by faith must be on the alert and give the will sufficient light to reject either impulses to overactivity or tendencies to sloth.
Now, in making such judgments as these, it is often fatal to apply broad general rules indiscriminately to all souls. Such rules are necessary: but in actual practice, the direction of contemplatives, while dominated before all else by the principles of sane and Catholic theology, is also an “art” even more than a science. This means that the director must possess a special flair for solving particular problems in the light of their own peculiar circumstances. He cannot do this unless he himself possesses some experience of contemplative prayer. Activity which would be useless and even harmful for one soul would be quite insufficient for another. And the same soul will need to work more with its faculties at one time than at another. In a word, what would be good in one set of circumstances would be evil in another, and each case must be judged, with great humility and circumspection, on its own proper merits. That is why it is so dangerous to let contemplative souls fall into the hands of directors who have pet theories about the spiritual life, who are passionately devoted to one side or another in some disputed speculative question, and who cop or stretch their penitents in order to make them fit, by violence, into the Procrustean bed of their own cherished opinion.
One of the most delicate questions to be decided in the contemplative life is, as a matter of fact, whether or not a soul may be considered as receiving graces of passive or infused contemplation. Many matters concerning the conduct of this soul will depend on the answer to this question. There is a general agreement among the best theological and ascetic authorities in this field., that when a soul reaches contemplation, its discursive activity, meditations, particular formal affective acts of will, and so on must all be greatly simplified and reduced. As a matter of cold fact, they also admit that when contemplation is clearly passive, or infused, the activity of the faculties is at least to some extent impeded by the action of God.
Unfortunately, this problem of the borderline between active and passive states of prayer, between what is “acquired” and “infused” is the subject of very hot theoretical debate. Those who are impatient with the opinion that says “infused” contemplation begins very soon and that therefore meditation ought to be dropped quite early in the spiritual life are apt to vent their wrath on their poor penitents and force some of them to go on meditating and producing much more activity than is good for them when they are fairly well advanced. Those, on the other hand, who hold that almost any kind of aridity at prayer is a sign of the infused action of God will risk letting some beginners waste their time in daydreaming and idleness and so jeopardize their chances of progress.
However, I would like to point out that even profound differences in doctrinal opinion do not necessarily imply an equally great divergence in the practical paths to be followed in forming souls. I am merely quoting the thoughts of an eminent Jesuit theologian of our time, Father J. de Guibert, and of one of his disciples. Father Lebreton says that, no matter what may be the views of the various schools regarding the proximate call to infused contemplation, they all recognize in practice that infused contemplation is a gift of God and the best way for a man to dispose himself for this gift is renunciation and humility. All equally agree that as long as the soul finds profit and peace in the ways of meditation and affective prayer, these should not be dropped. Therefore, in practice, no matter what theoretical views a director may hold, he will not encourage an interest in mysticism which produces a proud contempt for the “ordinary ways” of the spiritual life and weakens the soul in its mortification and devotion to prayer. But he will place no obstacle in the way of a soul who possesses deep humility and a fervent desire to reach union with God, and who is also strongly attracted to silence and solitude and to simple wordless forms of prayer.
In actual practice, the opinion of Saint John of the Cross, who is recognized as the greatest of the Catholic mystical theologians, is the most authoritative guide in deciding when a soul is ready to drop discursive meditation, for the time being at least, and hold itself in a state of receptivity in which it is largely passive under the secret guidance of divine grace. Saint John’s three signs of the soul called to contemplative prayer are well known. WE need only run through them quite briefly here.
Two of these signs are negative, one is positive.
First sign: the inability to meditate. Saint John is precise. He is not simply speaking of a soul that cannot meditate, but of one which was once able to make fruitful discursive meditations and now can no longer do so. The use of the mind and imagination at prayer used to be easy and pleasant. Now it has become intolerably hard and wearisome. THis sign by itself alone means nothing.
Second sign: lack of interest in particular objects of thought. The emphasis is on the word, particular. The soul is very keenly interested in something, or rather, “Some One,” who remains, nevertheless, undefined. The soul fails to satisfy this positive interest by directing its thoughts to particular things. The mind and will find no rest and no satisfaction in anything on Earth or even in Heaven. By this last remark, I mean that the soul is no longer satisfied with any idea of God or of Heaven that can be represented to it in the imagination. In other words, the soul has come face-to-face with the distinction between God in himself and God as he is contained in our concepts of him. This can be the source of great anxiety and distress, because we naturally tend to identify God with our ideas of him, and the fact that we are no longer able to feel any sensible affection for a mental image or idea of God persuades us that we have ceased to love God himself. People who do not understand this distinction often break down completely under the strain of forcing themselves to feel sensible devotion for some particular representation of God in their minds, or for some statue or holy picture that used to fill them with spiritual consolation.
The third sign is the most important of all. For without it we cannot decide that soul is called to passive prayer merely on the basis of the other two, which could arise, for instance, from tepidity or bad health.
The third sign is a positive attraction for solitary contemplative prayer. I will let Saint John of the Cross himself describe the attraction:
The third and surest sign is that the soul takes pleasure in being alone, and waits with loving attentiveness upon God, without making any particular meditation, in inward peace and quietness and rest, and without acts and exercises of the faculties – memory and understanding and will – at least without discursive acts, that is without passing from one thing to another; the soul is alone with an attentiveness and knowledge, general and loving as we said, but without any particular understanding, and adverting not to what it is contemplating.
This is almost the same condition that was described above by Saint Teresa. However, Saint John of the Cross observes the soul in an earlier and more arid stage of the same prayer in which there is almost no consciousness of pleasure and sweetness in this passive attention to God in the “cloud of unknowing.” Saint John of the Cross here only excludes a certain mode of activity: discursive acts. The soul is still engaged in something quite definite. Attention is a precise activity of the mind. It implies also activity of the will. Knowledge is an act of the intelligence. The difference is not between activity and inactivity, but between two kinds of action – between reasoning and intuition. The soul gazes with the desire of love into the darkness where God is hidden and gradually loses sight of every other object.
Everything that Saint John of the Cross has written about this state of prayer forces us to conclude that reason has an important function in it: that which we have described as the discernment of spirits. It would be useless for the Saint to tell contemplatives how to conduct themselves in this kind of prayer if they could not understand his instructions and use their minds and wills to put them into effect. And, as we have seen, the first thing the reason must do is resist an impulse to analyze its condition discursively and make long speeches about it. When this kind of prayer gets a stronger grip on the soul it becomes sweet, consoling, and even at times inebriating. Here too reason must be careful. For, as Saint John points out:
When such persons begin to be recollected the devil is accustomed to offer them ample material for distractions, forming conceptions and words by suggestion in their understanding, and then corrupting and deceiving it most subtly with things that have a great appearance of truth.
In another extremely interesting passage, the saint goes on to say:
In this way with hardly any trouble the devil works the most serious injuries, causing the soul to lose great riches and dragging it forth with the tiniest bait like a fish from the depths of the pure waters of the spirit where it had no support or foothold and was engulfed and immersed in God.
The Spirit of God acts quite differently in the soul he has called to contemplative prayer, inclining it to solitude, simplicity, and peace. Here are some of the passages in which Saint John of the Cross describes the inspirations of the Divine Spirit.
The Spirit of God has this characteristic in the soul in which he dwells, that he forthwith inclines it toward ignorance [i.e., of “particular things”] and unwillingness to know the business of other people, especially things that are not to its profit. For the Spirit of God is recollected within the soul itself and turns to it rather that he may draw it forth from extraneous things than in order to lead it among them. And thus the soul remains in complete unknowing with respect to the things that it knew formerly.
The saint is simply repeating what he has already told us in the “second sign” of the beginning of contemplation. The movement of divine inspiration inclines the mind away from particular and definite knowledge of God in concepts which seem to delimit his perfections. It creates a distaste for representations of him which are powerless to do justice to his infinite reality. But, still more than this, it makes the soul mortally weary of the thousand trifling curiosities and passing events which engage the minds of men. One might collect a large number of texts from the Carmelite mystics and string them together to form a sort of anthology on the first stages of contemplative prayer. But I will not do so, for beautiful as they are, they are all very much the same. Rather than quote them all word-for-word, I need only recall that the “three signs” of Saint John of the Cross contain all the essentials of this state of prayer. They are sufficient to indicate how the Holy Ghost “anoints” the soul with the unction of its special graces, “sending after it the fragrance of his ointments wherewith he draws the soul and causes it to run after him.” Saint John of the Cross goes on to remind us that mystical contemplation has no other end than to make us perfect in the theological virtues: especially in charity.
These ointments are his divine inspirations and touches which are ordered and ruled with respect to the perfection of the law of God and of faith, in which perfection the soul must ever draw nearer and nearer to God until it comes to such a delicate and pure preparation that it merits union with God and substantial transformation in all its faculties.
He repeats what he has told us, in substance, in the “three signs”: “God here secretly and quietly infuses into the soul loving knowledge and wisdom without any intervention of specific acts.” In a beautiful sentence, the saint describes how the soul responds to the delicate inspirations “of the Spirit of Divine Wisdom, the loving, tranquil, lonely, peaceful, sweet ravisher of the spirit.”
At times the soul will feel itself to be tenderly and serenely ravished and wounded, knowing not by whom, nor whence, nor how, since the Spirit communicates himself without any act on the part of the soul.
This contemplation is a paradise of peace, interior liberty, spiritual growth. The soul is at last clean not only in its substance, which is suffused with the light of sanctifying grace, but also in its faculties, which are now delivered from base absorption in all that is accidental and transient. It rediscovers its own essential dignity, and rises above its former slavery to desire. But what is much more than this, the soul is beginning to move in a new world, a “new creation,” something that transcends the level of its own nature, the hanging gardens of contemplation, suspended halfway between Earth and Heaven.
But notice: Saint John has said: “the Spirit communicates itself without any act on the part of the soul.” True. The touches of mystical grace which no begin to be experiences by the soul have no dependence on any activity of our faculties. Yet this, as we have clearly seen, does not mean that all work of the intelligence and will has suddenly come to an end. Saint John of the Cross is even more definite than Saint Teresa in stating exactly what must be done by our faculties in this “Prayer of Quiet.” Incidentally, he seems to demand much less of us than Saint Teresa, but remember that she was considering the whole life of the contemplative, in prayer or out. Saint John is chiefly talking about what is to be done at the time of prayer. The activity he requires of the soul must be elicited by the understanding and will together. It is very simple. It has three stages of “moments.”
First: a remote general disposition to receive the inspirations of passive or mystical prayer. The “chief care of the soul will be to see that it places no obstacles in the way of the guide, who is the Holy Ghost.” It must choose a good spiritual director. That is very important in the eyes of Saint John of the Cross. For the rest, this task of “removing obstacles” form the path of divine grace resolves itself into the “discretion” or “discernment of spirits” to which we have so often alluded. The soul will be careful not to mistake the impulses of self-love or the suggestions of the Devil for inspirations of the Holy Ghost.
Second step: as soon as the mind is recollected in prayer and the will is centered upon God and able to rest in him, there remains but one very simple activity to be performed. The soul keeps itself in an attitude of “simple knowledge or awareness,” so as to receive the infused knowledge and love which come to it from God. This is an activity, indeed. But it is so simple, and already so much dominated by the absorbing action of the Divine Spirit, that Saint John of the Cross does not hesitate to contrast it with the “natural activity” of the soul, which he forbids at this time. “Natural” activity is simply that discursive series of acts which are proper to our reasoning minds. The proper attitude of the soul is described by the saint in these terms:
In order to receive [these graces] the soul must be quite disencumbered and at ease, peaceful and serene, according to the manner of God; like the air which receives greater illumination and heat from the sun when it is pure and cleansed and at rest.
Finally, the third moment. As soon as there is a positive indication (which the soul must recognize by experience) that it is being passively drawn by God into deep interior silence and solitude and absorption, the faculties abandon all activity whatever. They no longer need to keep themselves in a state of simple awareness. They relinquish even this plainest of all acts and let themselves be drawn away in the sweet and powerful gravitation by which God quietly submerges them in the darkness of his love.
At that moment, the consciousness of our false, everyday self falls away from us like a soiled garment, heavy with moisture and with mire. The “deep self,” which lies too keep for reflection and analysis, falls free and plummets into the abyss of God’s freedom and of his peace. Now there is no more advertence to what goes on within us, still less to what happens around us. We are too far below the surfaces where reflection was once possible. Sunken in God, the soul knows him alone, and only knows him obscurely. No longer realizing what it knows, or what it loves, or even what it is, the spirit is carried away into eternity like a dead leaf in the November wind.
When this comes to pass, and the soul is conscious of being led into silence, and hearkens, it must forget even that loving awareness of which I have spoken, so that it may remain free for that which is desired of it; for it must exercise that awareness only when it is not conscious of being brought into solitude or rest or forgetfulness or attentiveness of the spirit which is always accompanied by a certain interior absorption.
I do not pause to comment on this extremely interesting passage, which enumerates several different ways in which the faculties are carried off into passive prayer. There is a great difference between “forgetfulness” and “attentiveness of the spirit”; also this passive “attentiveness” is something more intense and more pure than the “simple knowledge and awareness” which was actively elicited by the soul itself under the attraction of grace. In any case, the activity of reason has here ceased. The faculties have been taken over by God, though not completely absorbed by him. Mind and will have nothing to do but rest in forgetfulness of themselves and of all things.