From St. John of the Cross to Us


CHAPTER 14: Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Theologians of Mysticism
CHAPTER 15: Contemplation and the Spiritual Unconscious
A Research Balance Sheet


It is time to make a transition from the past and the current attempts to renew the contemplative life to the future, and from the history of mysticism to its theology. Jacques (1882-1973) and Raissa (1883-1960) Maritain can help us do this. They were firmly rooted in the revival of mystical theology that took place in the first half of the 20th century – so we can look to their works to give us a summary of its basic principles – but they also made some important, yet often overlooked breakthroughs that could shape the mystical theology of the future.

The Maritains were both converts to Catholicism in the first years of the century, and Leon Bloy, the man who was instrumental in their conversion, never argued with them about the truths of the Catholic faith, but rather, gave them the writings of the mystics to read. Thus, with this kind of formation, it was entirely in character for Raissa, immediately after Baptism, to go off to rest, taking the writings with her of Teresa of Avila. After their conversion the Maritains soon moved to Heidelberg where they were joined by Raissa’s sister, Vera. Jacques pursued his scientific and philosophical studies, while the three of them turned their home into a novitiate in which they tried to cultivate the interior life.

Soon Raissa began to receive contemplative graces that she and Jacques later described under the headings of oraison or silent prayer, and recueillement or quiet absorption. Silent prayer meant, "...not meditation in which the soul is occupied in considering ideas, con-cepts and images, but a wordless, intuitive, and quite simple prayer, a loving attention to God in which the soul is primarily occupied in letting God having His way with it and which, as St. Thomas ex-presses it, it suffers divine things in a silence void of words, concepts and images." And recueillement meant "an inner state which, far from being ‘concentration’ due to voluntary effort, is rather a gift received, a quiet absorption of the soul which, far from being inertia, is a secret and unifying activity too deep to be perceived." (1)

Nor could they help wondering about their own conversions and those of some of their close friends like Ernest Psichari who had come to the faith as he wandered in the Sahara as a French soldier. By the early 1920s when the great debates about contemplation began to reach their climax, the Maritains were ready to take part. They created a Thomist study circle which embraced not only the study of Thomas Aquinas, but the life of prayer, as well, and they wrote a guidebook for their members called De la vie d’oraison. Their description of contemplation there shows how deeply immersed they had become in the best of the Christian mystical tradition. "Christian contemplation is the fruit of the gift of Wisdom; and this gift, although a habitus of the intelligence… depends essentially on charity, and consequently on sanctifying grace, and causes us to know God by a sort of connatur-ality – in an affective, experimental and obscure manner, because superior to every concept and image." (2)

Then they cite their favorite commentator on mystical matters, John of St. Thomas whose treatise on the gifts of the Holy Spirit Raissa was to later translate into French: "It is in virtue of the gift which God makes of himself and of the experimental union of love that mystical wisdom attains the knowledge of divine things, which are united more closely to us, more immediately felt and tasted by us by means of love, and make us perceive that what is thus felt in the affection is higher and more excellent than all considerations based on the knowing faculties alone." (3)

On January 23, 1923, Jacques wrote an open letter to the Vie Spirituelle, which was probably his first original piece of work in the field of mystical theology, and he later called "Sur l’appelle a la vie mystique et a la contemplation." In this study on the call to the mystical life and to contemplation he commented on a thesis by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange whom the Maritains had been consulting on spiritual matters and whom they had asked to be the spiritual director of the Thomist Circle.

Père Garrigou-Lagrange had stated that all Christians are called to mystical contemplation in a remote sense, as a natural flowering of the virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. And Maritain, along with others, had accepted this thesis as a good summary of the tradition, but he wanted to bring to it certain qualifications and refinements, and these refinements allow us to begin to clarify some of the issues surrounding the intractable debate on acquired contemplation. It would be wrong, Maritain felt, to draw from this statement the conclusion that the perfection of charity is "reserved to only those souls who enjoy infused contemplation under its typical and normal form." (4) And it is wrong to say that if someone does not arrive at this manifest contemplation, it is always due to his or her faults.

To say that infused contemplation is the normal outcome of the life of prayer can take two distinct meanings depending on how we understand the word normal. If by normal we mean that it is of the nature of the virtues and the gifts to find their fullness in contemplation, then we can say that contemplation is the normal outcome of the life of prayer. But if by normal we mean that most people are generally observed to live lives of infused contemplation, then this statement is false. If the very organism of the spiritual life is geared to contemplation, why do so few arrive at it? When we look at contemplation no longer according to the essence or nature of the spiritual life but according to the concrete subject who receives it, our whole perspective is transformed. Then contemplation is not normal, but exceptional, and there are many reasons why someone might not arrive at contemplation, or more precisely, as Maritain puts it, "infused contemplation in its typical and normal form." It may, indeed, be due to our personal faults, but it could also be due to a variety of other factors which we have little or no control over: temperament, the calling to an active ministry, absorbing studies, poor spiritual direction, a slow ascent to contemplation, which is simply longer than our life span, and so forth. In this fashion Maritain understands the famous passage in the Dark Night where St. John says that not even half of those who exercise themselves in the way of the spirit arrive at contemplation. "God alone knows why."

But Maritain is not done. The mystical order, which is a life in which a person acts habitually under the influence of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, should not be identified with contemplation in its typical and manifest form as experienced in John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila. While the activation of the gifts of wisdom, understanding and knowledge leads to this kind of contemplation, it is possible to imagine another situation in which the more active gifts like counsel, fortitude, piety and fear are activated. Then, even though all the gifts are interconnected and rooted in charity, two distinct cases emerge. The first is a typical and manifest contemplation coming through the gifts of wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and the second is a masked contemplation brought about by the other gifts. In the second case, the gifts of wisdom, understanding and knowledge only manifest themselves in a tempered way. Contemplation remains immersed and hidden in the activities of the active life.

This kind of reasoning allows Maritain to distinguish three meanings that can be given to the word contemplation. In the first, meditation can lead to a contemplation which is the term of this exercise of the faculties, and this kind of contemplation, in turn, should lead to the exercise of the will in affective aspirations. This kind of contemplation, or recollection, even when it takes place in the context of grace, is the result of the natural exercise of the faculties. While it is supernatural as far as its object is concerned, and even, for that matter, because the faculties of intellect, memory and will have been elevated by the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity, it is natural in its way of proceeding and does not demand that we have entered into the mystical order that comes about by the habitual activation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. It is a distant predisposition for infused contemplation. We can call this an acquired contemplation, for it is truly acquired, but it is not the kind of contemplation that St. John is talking about.

In the second case, it is the active gifts of the Holy Spirit which predominate, and the other gifts like wisdom are activated only in a tempered way. Then the first kind of contemplation which is the result of our own acts can take on a certain savor. It will be suffused with the warmth of this masked contemplation, as will its affective responses. This kind of contemplation Maritain called a proximate disposition for infused contemplation. We have a contemplation which is properly acquired as the term of the exercise of the faculties, but which is secretly being aided by the active gifts of the Holy Spirit.

If the gifts of wisdom, understanding and knowledge now begin to become active, and spread their effects throughout this contemplation acquired in a natural way, then we have a third and final case, which is an ultimate disposition for infused contemplation, and indeed, already an anticipation or beginning of it. Clearly, it is this last case that we see in St. John’s descriptions from the transition from meditation to contemplation, and it is how we ought to understand the often quoted passage in the Ascent that many acts of loving knowledge lead to a habit of loving knowledge.

With these three distinct meanings of contemplation firmly in mind, it becomes clear that St. John’s advice about how to respond in the dark night fits only the third case. We cannot take on an attitude of passivity in the first case because it is the fruit of the natural working of the faculties, and when that active working ceases this contemplation will disappear, and so if we try to take up a passive attitude towards it, we would be left in a void because there is no infusion nor activation of the gifts.

But even in the second case St. John’s loving attentiveness is not the proper response because a general loving knowledge is not being given, for that loving knowledge is infused contemplation that comes through the activation of the gifts of wisdom, understanding and knowledge. But this second case could easily lead to St. John’s loving attentiveness being understood as acquired contemplation. Let us imagine that the first sort of contemplation, which is the momentary fruit of discursive activity, has become very simplified, and now, when it is aided by the activation of the active gifts of the Holy Spirit, it takes on a depth and savor that goes beyond how it is experienced in this first case. The contemplation of the first case, which is truly acquired, could seem to call for an attitude of passivity, for that contemplation is now being secretly aided by the gifts. In such a situation it would be very easy to misunderstand what St. John is saying and create an acquired contemplation that would mimic his infused contemplation, and this may well have been the case for Tomás de Jesús. But without the full activation of the gifts of wisdom, understanding and knowledge this contemplation will not lead to infused contemplation, but rather, to a false passivity that would be even more acute and detrimental if it were to be imitated by those who have not even received the activation of the active gifts of the Holy Spirit and try to be passive in regard to a contemplation which is simply the fruit of the faculties. This is an issue we will have to return to later.

Jacques and Raissa don’t seem to have gotten caught up in the increasingly partisan and bitter controversies over acquired contemplation, nor do they return to this theme except for a footnote in Jacques’ Degrees of Knowledge:

"From the practical, descriptive, concrete point of view, we might call "acquired" contemplation that which is gained progressively by the development and growth of the grace of the virtues and gifts, and "infused" contemplation that which is received by means of extraordinary graces. But from the speculative and ontological point of view, it is evident that the first type is no less "infused" than the second since, after a transitional period which is the fruit of all preceding activity (in which the soul induces recollection by its own initiative but in which the gifts begin to exert their influence predominantly – a period which corresponds to Bossuet’s "prayer of simplicity" and the "habit" engendered by meditation of which St. John of the Cross speaks in the Ascent of Mount Carmel, Bk. II, Ch. XIV (xii)..., this contemplation is "acquired" only at the moment when the Holy Spirit acts in the soul as principal agent and when the soul, far from acting by itself, has only to receive the supernatural knowledge of love thus infused within it. Cf. the Question cited in the preceding note (Vie Spirituelle, March 1923, pp. 641-642). As for admitting with some that the three signs of the Ascent of Mount Carmel (Bk. II, Ch. XIII (xi)..., and the Dark Night (Bk. I, Ch. IX...) mark the passing either to infused contemplation or to a so-called acquired contemplation developing parallel to infused contemplation – this to our mind would be to dismember the whole doctrinal synthesis and thought of the Saint." (5)

In the mid 1940s Jacques wrote an essay called, "The Immanent Dialectic of the First Act of Freedom" which opened the way for understanding how mystical theology might develop in the future. In this essay he imagines a child who makes his first free act in choosing something inasmuch as it is good. Even though the content of this act may be of small moment, the act, itself, has far-reaching repercussions. This act chooses not only the particular good that the child desires to choose, but in and through that good the Good, itself. And because we are all called to a supernatural end, this Good is not different from God who is calling all of us to himself. In short, the first simple act of choosing the good is a supernatural act of faith in which we choose God who is our final end.

But how can this be? How can a child make this kind of act of faith when he or she might not even know about God? Obviously, it cannot be a question of making a decision through explicit and articulated knowledge, but rather, through another kind of knowledge that "reaches its object within the unconscious recesses of the spirit’s activity." Somehow the will, in choosing the good, " "passes in conditionem objecti" (into the sphere of objective actualization) and becomes in the stead of any concept the means of a knowledge which is speculative though escaping formulation and reflective consciousness… It is the movement of the will which, reaching beyond this good to the mysterious Existent it implies, makes this Existent become an object of the speculative intellect." (6)

This knowledge coming through the first act of freedom "remains preconscious, or else hardly reaches the most obscure limits of consciousness, because, for one thing, it possesses no conceptual sign, and, for another, the movement of the will which brings it about is itself neither felt nor experienced, nor illumined and highly conscious as is love in the exercise of the gift of wisdom." (7)

Maritain, as the conclusion of this quotation indicates, was aware that his reflections on this knowledge in what he is calling the preconscious can be applied to the gift of wisdom, and thus to the mystical experience. In this case, however, knowledge through connaturality finds a much fuller expression and overflows into consciousness in the general loving knowledge or infused contemplation that St. John talks about. Jacques has opened up a road that is slowly going to lead both him and Raissa to explore the nature of contemplation in the light of the preconscious of the spirit, or what he was to later call the spiritual unconscious. (8)

The Spiritual Unconscious

The 20th century has been the century of depth psychology and the unconscious, and the Maritains could not help but be influenced by that fact. It wasn’t that they were big fans of Freud or Jung. Far from it. But the discovery of the psychological unconscious inspired them to look at certain topics like the creative intuition that operates in the arts and the idea of connatural knowledge in the contemplative life in a new way. The Christian spiritual tradition has long made a distinction between consciousness and the depths of the soul, or its center, or the heart, in which God dwells. But it was an implicit distinction. There was no clear comparison made between the ego and the unconscious. The Maritains, however, under the impetus of the discovery of the psychological unconscious and their researches into the nature of faith and mystical experience began, as we have just seen, to see that the various kinds of knowledge by connaturality are rooted in the unconscious. This unconscious, however, was no longer the psychological unconscious, but what could be called a spiritual, or even a metaphysical unconscious, that is, the natural spiritual depths of the soul which become transformed by grace into what could be called a supernatural unconscious. The spiritual unconscious in this sense is not less spiritual than ego consciousness, but more. It is the depths of the soul out of which are born insights and intuitions that give rise to the creative processes in art, as well as in metaphysics, and where, when transformed by grace, contemplation is born.

In 1960 Jacques and Raissa wrote a book called Liturgy and Contemplation which, for the most part, dealt with the topic indicated by its title. But it also contained some interesting remarks on the masked and typical forms of contemplation found in Jacques’ 1923 essay. Speaking of masked contemplation they write: "We have just insisted on the diffuse or disguised forms of infused contemplation. There is nothing more secret – nor more important – than what Father Osende, in a remarkable page of his book Contemplata, calls the prayer of the heart. It is through this sort of prayer or contemplation, so silent and so rooted in the depths of the spirit that he describes it as "unconscious," that we can truly put into practice the precept to pray always. And is it not to it that Saint Anthony the hermit alluded when he said that "there is no perfect prayer if the religious perceives that he is praying?" " (9)

There is a deeper significance to this passage than first appears. The Maritains are telling us that the prayer of the heart, which they understand as a kind of masked contemplation, takes place in the unconscious. But the deeper meaning of the passage resides in the fact that for the first time the Maritains have begun to bring together two important aspects of their thought: their ideas on contemplation and their reflections on the spiritual unconscious. But because they have just begun to do this, the full implications of what they are doing does not strike them.

In 1966 Jacques, in The Peasant of the Garonne – Raissa having died in 1960 – writes: "I would like to point out here that the pages in Liturgy and Contemplation that deal with the prayer of the heart and with Father Osende stand in need of correction. In writing these pages I inadvertently spoke (probably because of the "unconscious" character of this prayer) of "atypical" or "masked" contemplation, which we will discuss later. This was a serious error. The prayer of the heart springs from the supra-conscious of the spirit, but it is not at all "masked" contemplation; it is a typical form of contemplation, and one of the most precious." (10)

Now Jacques has taken another step, and wants to see that the prayer of the heart is a typical form of contemplation, and as such is rooted in the spiritual unconscious. Just what he means by the prayer of the heart he indicates in the following footnote:

"The idea of perpetual or uninterrupted prayer which is carried on even in sleep by a mental activity inaccessible to the consciousness, plays a central role with Cassian. (Cf. Dict. de Spiritualité, art. Contemplation, col. 1924 and 1926.) Père Grou in the eighteenth century also notes (Manuel, p. 224 ff.) that uninterrupted prayer is a prayer that escapes the consciousness. Cf. Arintero, The Mystical Evolution in the Development and Vitality of the Church (St. Louis, Mo.: Herder, 1951), p. 45." (11)

The Christian mystical tradition was, in some way more implicit than explicit, aware that contemplation was rooted in the depths, or as we could say now, in the spiritual unconscious, as we saw, but it is the task of mystical theology to articulate what that means following the path that Jacques and Raissa have opened up in these passages.

Jacques tries to do this in the Peasant of the Garonne. He sees that the entry into the life of the spirit, or crossing the threshold of the mystical life by entering under the habitual regime of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, takes place "in a manner inaccessible to consciousness (in the depths of the supra-unconscious of the spirit)." (12) And this leads to contemplation in its typical form, whether arid or consoling, or in its masked form. But even in people who do not experience contemplation in its typical form, are in some way, Jacques tells us, contemplatives.

"It is not, however, that they are deprived of contemplation, of the loving experience of things divine; for according to the teaching of St. Thomas, all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are linked to one another; they cannot, therefore, exist in the soul without the gift of Wisdom, which, in the case we are discussing, is at work, though in a less apparent way. These souls whose style of life is an active one will have the grace of contemplation, but of a masked, not apparent contemplation. Perhaps they will only be able to recite rosaries, and wordless oraison will give them a headache or make them sleepy. Mysterious contemplation will not be in their conscious prayer, but perhaps in the glance with which they will look at a poor man, or will look at suffering." (13)

Now we have returned to our question of what response should be made to this masked contemplation. Does it demand an attitude of passivity to the contemplation that is already being given? How could it if the contemplation is hidden in the depths of the unconscious? What sense can we make out of Jacques saying that those who experience masked contemplation are not "deprived of contemplation or the loving experience of things divine?" How can we talk about a contemplation that is truly masked, for isn’t that equivalent to trying to talk about a contemplation we do not experience?

This problem becomes even more acute as Jacques continues:

"Unlike souls dedicated to action, who, if they advance in the ways of God as is demanded of them, partake in the "masked" contemplation I discussed earlier, the souls I am now referring to partake in "open" contemplation. But their path is a very humble one; it demands nothing but charity and humility, and contemplative prayer without apparent graces. This is the path of simple people, it is the "little way" (La petite voie) that St. Therese of Lisieux was in charge of teaching us: a kind of short-cut – singularly abrupt, to tell the truth – where all the great things described by St. John of the Cross can be found divinely simplified and reduced to the pure essentials, but without loving any of their exigence. The soul is laid bare, and its very love-prayer as well – so arid at times that it seems to fly into distractions and emptiness." (14)

Later, he will amplify this last sentence by saying: "But it is an arid love-prayer, almost too pure for our feeble heart, because, being much more unconscious than conscious, it comes about in the tiredness of our members and of our conscious faculties, rather than in the repose where we can taste "how sweet the Lord is." (15)

Jacques goes on to quote Raissa in Liturgy and Contemplation:

"Indeed contemplation is not given only to the Carthusians, the Poor Clares, the Carmelites… It is frequently the treasure of persons hidden to the world – known only to some few – to their directors, to a few friends. Sometimes, in a certain manner, this treasure is hidden from the souls themselves that possess it – souls who live by it in all simplicity, without visions, without miracles…

"Saint Therese of Lisieux has shown that the soul can tend to the perfection of charity by a way in which the great signs that Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Avila have described do not appear… By the same token, I believe, Saint Therese in her Carmel prepared in an eminent way that diffusion wider than ever, of the life of union with God which the world requires if it is not to perish.

"Let us add that in this contemplation on the roads whose development the future will doubtless see, it seems that constant attention to the presence of Jesus and fraternal charity are called to play a major role, as regards even the way of infused contemplative prayer." (16)

There is a problem in all this. Jacques is not talking about masked contemplation, but what he is calling now open contemplation which is the same as typical or manifest contemplation. But if we do this we seem to be back to the paradoxical situation we saw so many times in the history of acquired contemplation of a manifest contemplation which is not manifest, an open contemplation which is, in fact, hidden, and the way of John of the Cross that is not, in fact, his way, in short, a contemplation that is not experienced. Raissa’s remarks on St. Therese pose no difficulty if we understand them as saying that someone can reach the perfection of charity without manifest contemplation. We might even say that someone could be on the way to the perfection of charity and be receiving masked contemplation, that is, the activation of the active gifts of the Holy Spirit. But even here we begin to tend into dangerous territory. Is it really proper to call masked contemplation contemplation if it does not become manifest? And when we come to Jacques’ open contemplation, it appears as another attempt to describe a path of contemplation that is neither typical nor masked, a contemplation, as I said, without the experience of contemplation.

The underlying movement of Jacques and Raissa’s thought, which is to bring contemplation into relationship with the spiritual unconscious is of the greatest importance, but it remained undeveloped, and this lack of development led to the problems we are now seeing. What could have led Jacques and Raissa to speak in this way? We imagine a variety of reasons: the lack of development of this line of thought and the late stage in their lives when they came to this issue, the fact that Raissa’s remarks are taken from Liturgy and Contemplation where they might have been formulated in view of masked contemplation and now have been transferred to a new context, the practical issues surrounding Raissa’s contemplative life and whether she experienced manifest contemplation in her later years, and finally, the fundamental problem of the spiritual life which is what should we do if we can no longer pray with the faculties like we did before, or even if we have received manifest contemplation in the past, but now no longer do so? But whatever the mitigating factors, we need to carefully distinguish the fundamental thrust of their thought which is to root contemplation in the spiritual unconscious from their ideas on masked contemplation and the hidden nature of open contemplation.

Still and all, Jacques and Raissa have put us firmly on the path that mystical theology in the future should follow. We need to understand how contemplation is rooted in the spiritual unconscious, and how it makes its way into consciousness if it is truly to be given the name of contemplation. And finally, on the practical order, what does it mean when we are not given the grace of contemplation? It is to these issues we will turn in the next chapter.




  1. Raissa Maritain, Raissa’s Journal, p. 31.
  2. Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Prayer and Intelligence, p. 22.
  3. Ibid., p. 23.
  4. Jacques Maritain, "Sur l’appelle..." p. 73.
  5. Jacques Maritain, The Degrees... pp. 346-347.
  6. Jacques Maritain, "The Immanent..." p. 77.
  7. Ibid., p. 78.
  8. For the evolution of Maritain’s thought that led to his formulation of the spiritual unconscious see my Mysticism, Metaphysics and Maritain: On the Road to the Spiritual Unconscious.
  9. Jacques and Raissa Maritain, Liturgy and Contemplation, p. 37.
  10. Jacques Maritain, The Peasant... p. 228.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., p. 230.
  13. Ibid., p. 231.
  14. Ibid., p. 234.
  15. Ibid., p. 238.
  16. Ibid., pp. 234-235.





Our goal was straightforward. We wanted to read what John of the Cross had to say about the transition from meditation to contemplation and see what light it could shed on our contemporary attempts to renew the mystical life. But reaching that goal has been difficult, and the difficulty did not lie with St. John. This matter had such weight with him that he treated it three times in great detail. It is one of the foundations of his whole work; we could even say that a proper understanding of this beginning of the mystical life opens the way to understanding his description of the higher reaches of contemplation.

But the witness of history has been constant and impressive. His teaching about this transition has been distorted again and again. We just saw it in the post-Vatican II spiritual writers, and this in a context where the history of spirituality in the first part of this century was largely ignored so they could hardly be said to be continuing the polemics of earlier years.

And we saw in the first fifty years of this century when, no sooner had mystical studies had revived after a long night, an acrimonious debate broke out about this very teaching of St. John on the beginning of contemplation. This debate continued not to a resolution, but to the exhaustion of its combatants, and produced a distaste on the part of its spectators, which is part of the reason why the writers of the second half of this century wanted little to do with the issue.

Before this revival of mystical study we saw that a long dark night had stretched from at least the middle of the 18th century to the close of the 19th century. Yet even this gathering night did not prevent someone like José del Espíritu Santo or Andrés de la Encarnación from upholding with vigor the Order’s teaching on acquired contemplation.

Finally we saw that the whole idea of acquired contemplation was a misunderstanding of St. John’s ideas on the beginning of the contemplative life, and had its roots in the years just before and after John’s writings were published and colored a wide slice of the history of contemplation in the 17th century. As we followed its many twists and turns, the conclusion was slowly forced upon us that this misunderstanding was intimately connected to the birth and growth of Quietism, and thus, to the decline of the practical interest in mysticism that darkened these last centuries and from which we are still trying to recover.

Thus, when we look back at St. John’s writings through the centuries, it is as if the air is distorted by the heat waves given off by this history which tend to distort what is really there. This distortion arose for two interconnected reasons. The first was the weight of the history of acquired contemplation that rapidly accumulated from the time of Tomás de Jesús, and quickly insinuated and diffused itself in the early years of the 17th century. It became more and more unthinkable for Carmelite authors and others that the whole idea of acquired contemplation could be misdirected.

The second reason is more important. There is something that makes the problem of the transition from meditation to contemplation come back again and again and to pressure people to find an answer in the direction of acquired contemplation. This problem is the real and perennial issue of what to do when we can no longer pray like we did before, and it has always had the strength to distort how St. John was read. The problem is very real and very important, but it should read: What should we do when we cannot meditate like we did before and yet are not called in a proximate way to infused contemplation? This is not an issue that captured St. John’s attention, and it has been disastrous to make him the father of acquired contemplation, for then the qualities that he gives to infused contemplation begin to migrate to this acquired contemplation with the unfortunate results that we have seen.

What, then, do we have to show for our 400-year-long journey from St. John of the Cross to us? First and foremost, we can see the importance of clearing away the underbrush that has grown up during that time around his profound doctrine of infused contemplation. We need to inspire ourselves with that doctrine if we are to renew the Christian mystical tradition. It is much better to admit the misunderstandings that have obscured his writings than to run the risk of repeating these mistakes over and over again.

But even more, we need a new framework for the theology of mysticism in order to try to understand the nature of infused contemplation, and what to do or not do with our natural faculties when we find ourselves entering the dark night of sense in the wide sense of the term. The idea of the spiritual unconscious promises to provide that framework, and it is to that we now turn.

Contemplation and the Spiritual Unconscious

Let’s review for a moment some of the foundations for mystical theology that were developed during the first half of this century. We can do that in a very brief form by seeing what Jacques Maritain had to say about them in his masterpiece The Degrees of Knowledge.

What is mystical experience? It is "an experimental knowledge of the deep things of God," a knowledge of God "in his inwardness." (1) As such it should be distinguished from the natural knowledge we can have of God on the one hand, and the beatific vision of God on the other, which is reserved for the life to come. The knowledge of mystical experience is a knowledge that comes through faith.

What is the foundation of this mystical knowledge? It rests on the indwelling of God in our souls by grace by which we are called to live the very life of God. But how can this be? We certainly can’t become God by nature as if our creaturely being would become divine. Rather, we participate in the divine nature by knowledge and love.

What is the special character of mystical experience? It is a knowledge that comes from that loving union, itself. Thus, it is called a knowledge through love, or a knowledge by connaturality, i.e., we share in the divine nature by love, and this gives rise to a special knowledge and experience of God’s presence within us. "Contemplation is the very experience of union." (2)

But where do the gifts of the Holy Spirit come in? The gifts are the proximate disposition for mystical experience. They "make the soul thoroughly mobile under divine inspiration." (3) They are "sails set to receive the wind of heaven." (4) Loving union must reach a certain level of intensity in order that it can begin to overflow into contemplative knowledge. It is the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially the gift of wisdom, that give us the supernatural dispositions for receiving this kind of knowledge.

Contemplation is rooted in the heart, in the center of the soul, in the depths of the spiritual unconscious. The human spirit is much more than ego-consciousness and our everyday awareness. It has ontological depths that are like a deep sea underlying the wave-tossed thoughts and feelings that make up our reflexive self-awareness. It is in these depths, at the very root of the spirit, that we receive and continue to receive moment by moment our existence from God, which creative act remains unknown to our ego-awareness. This gift of existence is intimately connected with the enlightenment found in Eastern religions like Advaitan Hinduism and Zen Buddhism, but infused contemplation is not that mysterious and beautiful experience. Within those depths exists the possibility of a deeper experience of God in which the limits of human nature are transcended, and by a free gift of God we share in God’s nature through the humanity of Jesus. This gift transcends the deepest natural ontological density of the soul and appears in those depths as the indwelling presence of the Holy Trinity. The very One who gives us existence and sustains us in existence moment by moment wishes to give us a superexistence, which is a share in God’s own life. This gift of the divine presence deepens the soul at its metaphysical center and gives it a new goal. Now it is not only oriented to God by the weight of its whole being, but in virtue of this gift the inner life of God is the inmost life of the soul. We are called to divine union.

This orientation to union, which is now the ultimate center of the human spirit, exerts a powerful gravity over all the dimensions of the soul. Our natural faculties are remote means by which we try to draw near and embrace more fully that union which has already begun. Why are they remote? It is because, even though they have been altered by the fact of that union so that they no longer have purely natural goals, they still operate in a natural piecemeal way, which is the normal way of ego-consciousness. The intellect, for example, in its very root has been transformed by the virtue of faith so that its highest goal is no longer God as the author of being, but God as the Trinity. But it still operates in a discursive fashion in which it has insights and composes and divides the ideas these insights have given birth to in order to come to further insights, and so forth. But its whole way of proceeding which is entirely natural and normal to human nature is inadequate to grasp the nature of God. This is why St. John talks so emphatically about faith being the only proximate means of divine union. It is only faith animated by charity and illuminated by the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and thus transforming the intellect and will, that can lead us to divine union. But this transformation of the ego often appears to us as suffering and death. Ego-consciousness wants to proceed as it did before, which is to use its natural activities to proceed on its way to divine union. It can understand leaving the things of the world for the things of God, but it cannot understand leaving its own connatural way of knowing and working.

The dark night of sense is not ultimately about working with the faculties in ever more refined ways in exercising intuition and affect. It is about the faculties, themselves, radically failing in regard to the things of God when it is a case of the call to infused contemplation. Particular acts and particular kinds of knowledge are no longer adequate means of union with God as the spirit is drawn ever deeper. Once we take the perspective that divine union is rooted in the depths of the spiritual unconscious, this failure of the faculties appears inevitable, and the conduct that St. John urges us to adopt much more reasonable. If we are being drawn into the depths by the gravity of God’s presence, we must allow this to happen and meet this loving presence with our own loving attentiveness and receptivity. If we are not being drawn into those depths, we cannot abandon the working of the faculties. What is at stake is not whether we believe that God dwells in the depths of our hearts, and not even our desire to open ourselves as much as possible to union with God. What St. John is talking about is the experience of actually being drawn into those depths by God’s action. Or put in another way, it is the experience of divine union, and not only our belief in it. This experience, because of its divine nature and its location in the depths, cannot be accessed by anything we can do with the faculties. We can only prepare ourselves for it, receive it if it comes, and go on loving God as much as possible if it doesn’t.

It is love that makes our union with God grow deeper, and love is something we can always do. Contemplation experience, or wisdom, is quite another matter. It is born out of that loving union, in that moment in which our wills become transformed by love and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and communicate to consciousness in some mysterious fashion a general and loving knowledge of that experience of union, itself. God has given us the ability to love. That is enough. We cannot coerce or compel the Holy Spirit into giving us the experience of that union, which is infused contemplation. And it is beyond our competence to answer the question why one person receives contemplation and another does not. Still less can we judge a person’s holiness by their contemplative experiences.

But this does not mean that infused contemplation is some sort of accidental grace on the road to divine union. It is not. It is an integral part of that union which is a loving knowledge which radiates out from the center of the soul and should touch the natural faculties, themselves, and let them share in some way in that union which is the highest good of the whole soul. If we have not been given that gift, all well and good. We have been given the essentials, and we can hope in the vision of God of which contemplation is a foretaste. We can’t demand infused contemplation, but neither should we downgrade its beauty and value as an integral aspect of divine union, itself. Still less should we give in to the understandable impulse to replace infused contemplation with a host of active or acquired contemplations so that in some way we can call ourselves contemplatives.

We often can, and should, lessen the activity of our faculties and give ourselves over to loving God and being in God’s presence by faith. But that process of simplification should be carefully distinguished from imagining that we can bridge the gap between the active working of the faculties and their passive reception of infused contemplation. Active loving attentiveness and receptivity to God whom we believe to be present is still an active working of the faculties. A deliberate lessening of this active working, if carried too far, can leave us in a nothingness which has no guarantee that it is the nothing that is the prelude to infused contemplation. Even the assiduous practice of Eastern forms of meditation, which hold out the possibility of helping us enter into the depths of the spiritual unconscious cannot guarantee us that we are in some way closer to the gift of contemplation.

From the perspective of infused contemplation taking place in the depths of the spiritual unconscious, let’s look one final time at St. John’s beginning of contemplation. The life of grace which is meant to lead to divine union has been growing in intensity as a person turns from the things of the world to the things of God and exercises him or herself in the life of prayer by the ordinary use of the faculties. As this loving union increases by love, this love begins to radiate out from this innermost center and strike the natural faculties in their root. The will is transformed by this loving union, and the tremors of this transformation, with its warmth and attractive power, begin to make themselves felt in consciousness. Initially, as St. John said, they can scarcely be noticed amidst the noise and the natural working of the faculties, especially if, as the faculties begin to feel a diminishment of their normal energy, they have intensified their activities. But as the faculties lose energy, and this energy drains into the unconscious, and the warmth of the will increases under the impact of this loving union with God, and the soul lets itself be quiet and be drawn into the depths to try to embrace this mystery of divine love, then a general, loving knowledge begins to express itself in some mysterious way in consciousness.

This happens through the intellect, for the intellect is intimately bound to the will, and it, too, begins to share in the will’s transformation. The love in the will begins to become a means of knowledge, not in the form of particular acts of knowledge, but as a general, loving knowledge. This knowledge, as I just said, can easily be lost in the noise of the faculties hammering out their particular kinds of knowledge, and can tend to blend into the background of consciousness, the horizon of consciousness in which the normal working of the faculties takes place. But it can also become conscious as a general, loving knowledge.

If for some reason this knowledge, which is both knowledge and love, recedes back into the depths of the spiritual unconscious, what are we to do? This is a delicate question. Certainly we can say that the divine union continues. But if its repercussions in the sphere of knowledge and love are no longer perceptible even to a receptive consciousness, St. John recommends that we return to the working of the faculties.

Let’s take, finally, the situation of acquired contemplation. Here the ego tries to take up an attitude of loving attentiveness, not in response to the presence of this loving knowledge, but with the hope that this receptivity will make this loving knowledge visible. In short, it believes God to be present and is receptive to God’s manifestation in some new way. In acquired contemplation the use of the faculties to make particular acts of loving attentiveness take the place of being receptive to an experience of loving knowledge. But acts of the faculties, no matter how refined, don’t lead to contemplation. Neither do attempts at stopping the faculties.

Divine union can be present in the depths of the soul without it being perceptible to consciousness. This is the normal state of affairs. This does not mean that it in no way effects consciousness. The very possibility of making an act of faith, for example, rests on a drawing of the heart. (5) But this act of faith is not the same as faith illuminated by charity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

Contemplation, itself, should not be thought of as imperceptible to consciousness by nature however difficult it may be to experience it in its delicate beginnings. This would make it incomprehensible. It is difficult to experience because of its origin in the depths of the spiritual unconscious and because of the way it makes its way up from these depths from inside the faculties, as it were. But it is not imperceptible by nature, for then it would not be any kind of knowledge at all.



  1. Jacques Maritain, The Degrees of Knowledge, p. 249.
  2. Ibid., p. 338.
  3. Ibid., p. 260.
  4. Ibid., p. 259.
  5. See my The Inner Nature of Faith.



A Research Balance Sheet


This book can be complemented by my books St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung which, while it has some historical material, deals more directly with John of the Cross and the psychological aspects of his doctrine on contemplation, Mysticism, Metaphy-sics and Maritain which examines the origin and development of Maritain’s ideas on mystical theology and the spiritual unconscious, and The Inner Nature of Faith, which explores knowledge by connaturality.

It would take a whole volume to examine the modern literature on John of the Cross. In North America, for example, there are the works of Kieran Kavanaugh, Ernest Larkin, Francis Kelly Nemeck, David Perrin, John Welch, and many others. But what I would like to do here is to give some brief indications about the current state of the history we have been looking at.

We have managed to piece together our puzzle in order to see the picture of the long history of interpretation that surrounds St. John’s writings on the beginning of contemplation. But this history, perhaps like most history, is a history assembled out of the fragments of the past.

Where, for example, are St. John’s major writings in his own hand? Gone. Did he destroy them himself after he had copies made so that his followers would not become attached to them? Perhaps. Were they destroyed during the persecution he underwent at the end of his life? Perhaps, again. And how many manuscript copies of his writings that circulated in the days before 1618 have survived?

But despite those losses and the abrupt breaking off of the Ascent, and even the possible disappearance of some of St. John’s writings, the substance of what he had to say has come down and is widely available to us. In English we have been blessed with the still durable translation of E.A. Peers and the more modern work of Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez.

It is a judgment of history that the writings of Tomás de Jesús are no longer read and have not seen any new editions. But it is regrettable that Simeón de la Sagrada Familia’s critical edition of the Camino espiritual was never published, a victim, perhaps, of the loss of interest in the 1950s over the debate about acquired contemplation. This is a loss that should be repaired. It is Padre Simeón, along with José de Jesús Crucificado, Miguel Ángel Díez, and others who have opened the way for a deeper appreciation of the role Tomás de Jesús played in the history of modern Christian mysticism. History has been rather kind to Tomás’ manuscripts, given the ones that exist in the Biblioteca Nacional and in the Roman Archives of the Discalced Carmelites. However, some of them are well protected from curious eyes by their often difficult handwriting. But what we do need is a theological study of Tomás’ doctrine on contemplation, its sources, and his relationships with people like el Calagurritano and Gracián. The same could be said of the need for a similar work on Quiroga.

Modern scholarship has provided us with good editions of Molinos’ Guide (Tellechea) and his Defense (Pacho), as well as Falconi’s Camino derecho (Gómez) and Ezquerra’s Escuela de oración (López-Melús). We also have sound studies on Rojas (Pacho and López Santidran). But we could use them on Antonio Sobrino, Gabriel López Navarro, Antonio Panes, Juan Bretón, and others.

Andrés de la Encarnación leaves us an extensive list of the manuscripts and books he found in the General Archive and the houses of the Order. This can be complemented by the Inventory Book of the General Archive, modern lists of manuscripts in the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, the University of Barcelona, the collection of the Roman Archive of the Discalced Carmelites, and so forth. But there seems to be no general index to the holdings of individual Carmelite houses, still less a Carmelite master index that would embrace this far-flung Carmelite literature.

This rich treasure of Carmelite books and manuscripts starting at the time of John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila has suffered the insults and injuries of history. Andrés de la Encarnación, for example, leaves some reports of these losses: at the convent of the Discalced Sisters in Toledo, those religious affirm that the Archive burned and many important manuscripts perished (Memorias historiales, Vol. II, p. 295); at the convent of the Discalced Sisters of Lueches, perished by a lack of consideration various originals of our father Fray José de Jesús María (p. 297). But the worst blows that this treasure trove ever took were the losses of both the General Archive of San Hermenegildo and the Roman Archive of the Spanish congregation. But if these losses had not occurred, would that have altered the picture of the development of Carmelite mysticism that we have been assembling? In details, certainly. In substance, probably not. Some 400 Carmelite related manuscripts finally made their way to the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, and the overall impression, when looking at this list and others is that enough of the vital material has come down to us in order to arrive at some well-founded historical positions. What is more difficult is to reach some sort of consensus in terms of a theological evaluation of these events. I have tried to show how the judgment of history indicates that John of the Cross’ writings on the beginning of contemplation were misinterpreted both within the Order and then outside it, starting from before the publication of his writings and continuing over the centuries until today. This, of course, is not a judgment that will be universally shared, to say the least.

Is it possible that there will be new finds of books and manuscripts? I hope so. But the material that appears most often in the world of rare books and manuscripts is quite peripheral to our concerns, and quite expensive, as well. The days are long gone when Juan de la Anunciación’s Consultorio et responsio could be found in a Spanish marketplace, or the books and manuscripts of the Carmelite monasteries of Mexico were sold on the sidewalks of Mexico City. In 1971, however, in a bookstore in Toledo I found a copy of Antonio Panes’ Escala mística which at that time I had no idea was part of this story, and which I bought for $2.

The bibliography that follows is quite selective, despite its length. It took considerable good will on the part of many librarians to allow me to assemble this material at my mountaintop home in a forest in Oregon. A special thank you goes to the long-suffering interlibrary loan librarians of Klamath County, Oregon, and librarians in Madrid, Barcelona, Burgos, Rome, Washington D.C., New York and elsewhere who either sent material, or else made us welcome to see their collections.


Back to Christian Mysticism