St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung

Chapter 4: A Revolution of Mystical Consciousness


I have presented St. John's beginning of contemplation as a straightforward transition from meditation to infused contemplation. But before we go on to examine the interplay between individuation and contemplation in his life and doctrine, we have to make an important detour.

Soon after St. John wrote, another interpretation of his teaching on this time of transition developed. It went by the name of acquired or active contemplation and gave many of the passages cited in the last chapter a very different meaning. In essence, the promoters of acquired contemplation saw another alternative to the transition from meditation to infused contemplation. They felt meditation could lead to a contemplation based on our own efforts in the form of a simple, loving gaze at God, and they interpreted St. John's writings in this way. Both interpretations have co-existed and intermingled down to our own time, and if we do not sort them out we might well end up trying to renew the life of prayer not on the basis of St. John's authentic thoughts but, unwittingly, on a subsequent interpretation of him. In order to discriminate between the two I will examine St. John's teaching in more detail in this chapter and attempt to untangle some of the history of acquired contemplation in the next.

When St. Teresa and St. John wrote, they drew on the age-old mystical traditions of Western Christianity.(1) At the same time they transcended their sources and inaugurated a revolution of mystical consciousness. It was one of those privileged moments in the history of thought where things that had been formerly joined and intermixed in a lived unity, and thus lived out but not differentiated, now became articulated in their own right. When St. John carefully distinguished contemplation from ordinary prayer and all accidental phenomena whether natural or supernatural, he posed the issue of contemplation with a sharpness and decisiveness it never had before. Those who came after him could ask, were even compelled to ask, "Am I a contemplative?" "Do I find in myself the three signs that St. John gives?" Since the two great Carmelite saints depicted contemplation as the full flowering of the interior life, the spiritual writers who came after them tried to reconcile this perspective with their own inner experiences. They had to say to themselves, "Since I am devoting myself to the interior life, in what way am I a contemplative?"

The 17th century became a veritable spiritual laboratory in which men and women tried to assimilate this new awareness of the centrality of contemplation in the life of prayer. People then, just like people today, faced the dilemma of the dark night of sense in the wider meaning of the term. They had embraced the life of prayer, seriously devoted themselves to spiritual exercises, experienced satisfaction and consolation in this new way of life and, in short, fulfilled St. John's description of fervent beginners. Then, either gradually or suddenly, they lost this sense of well-being and inner spiritual progress. They found within themselves St. John's first two signs. They could not meditate like they did before, nor did they have a new interest in worldly things. Were they not, they asked themselves, in the dark night that St. John described, and therefore on their way to contemplation?

Unfortunately, the dark night seemed to go on and on without ending in the perception of this new experience of contemplation, and in the light of this experience of darkness they began to reread St. John's writings. Since they found within themselves these two signs, they were encouraged by this confirmation to unwittingly reinterpret his third and most vital sign, which was the presence of contemplation itself. The relatively brief time of transition that St. John had envisioned became extended to cover months, or even years, and to form a distinct state or stage of the spiritual life. The loving attentiveness that in St. John's mind was an amalgamation of infused contemplation itself and the attitude of receptivity on the part of the contemplative in the face of the actual experience became reduced to an active exercise of faith by which someone believed God to be present and tried to be attentive to this presence by faith, not by experience. St. John's challenge to contemplation and the heights of the mystical life was reduced to a much more lowly human scale. His view of the spiritual life which found infused contemplation as the natural flowering of the life of prayer was met by attempts to change his doctrine into one of active or acquired contemplation. These changes do not appear to have been deliberate. The men who created the various schools of acquired contemplation sincerely believed they were faithfully following in St. John's footsteps. For St. John the ideal solution to the problem of the dark night was the beginning of infused contemplation, but for these men of the 17th century who never arrived at this gift, their own predicament dictated new answers, and these new answers resonated with the times and echoed down the generations and effect the way we view contemplation today. Thus, the answer to the challenge of contemplation of the 17th century is important not only because it is still being lived out today, but it had a profound influence on the way contemplation is understood and viewed as a viable activity.


Soon after a strong current of interest in things mystical appeared in Spain at the beginning of the 16th century and found certain affinities with the humanism of Erasmus and the reform of Luther, it came to the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. This mystical current made up of many parts both sober and fantastic, orthodox and dubious, was counter-balanced by a growing thoroughness of the inquisitorial process. Along with a genuine awakening and development of the contemplative spirit there existed a whole spectrum of exaggeration and parody. Wandering holy women abounded with trances and swoons, and miraculous happenings were discerned in the most trivial events. It was a time of excess and credulity. One strand of this complex tapestry was given the label Illuminism. In theory, the Illuminists believed in the primacy of interior prayer carried to the extreme of the suppression of mental acts and the fulfillment of all obligations by this prayer to the detriment of vocal prayer and other external acts of worship. They are said to have believed in personal inspiration which freed the inspired from outward observances and led to a belief in impeccability and consequent immoral behavior. In practice it is difficult to tell who the Illuminists actually were and what they held. The inquisitorial practices of unnamed accusers and confessions produced by torture make the evidence and the convictions based upon it suspect.

With the revolt of Luther the organized church of Spain felt the need to impose its authority and crush any hint that seemed to suggest its external practices were in need of reform. This authoritarian temper distrusted mysticism in general and began to look upon these people as if they were at least potential heretics, if not actual ones. The rigidity of the Inquisition militated against its possession of a sensitivity by which it could distinguish the true from the false mystics. Its brutal methods created an atmosphere of poisonous mistrust that surrounded the aspirations of those seeking inner experience.

The Inquisition hovered in the background around such notable figures as John of Avila, Luis of Granada, and Ignatius Loyola. St. Teresa and St. John themselves had their writings scrutinized by it, and there is the strong possibility that this climate of suspicion prevented many perfectly orthodox spiritual writers from expressing themselves clearly about the mystical path. St. John, therefore, had to resist two very different kinds of pressures: the first came from a popular taste for visions, revelations and extravagant penances, and at times his confreres could not understand his lack of interest in such things. The second came from the Inquisition and the inquisitorial mentality that grew up in his own order with the ascendancy of Nicholas Doria as Provincial. John, who upheld the primacy of contemplation, the independence of the Carmelite sisters from central control, who had a distaste for permanent office-holding, and who wrote extensively on the passivity of the faculties in contemplation, must have appeared all too close to dangerous ground to this type of authoritarian mind.

It is not surprising, then, that there was not any rush to publish St. John's writings in the years immediately following his death in 1591. It was not until 1601 that the matter was brought up, and it was not successfully concluded until 1618.


The heart of the question of acquired or active contemplation is whether St. John actually taught such a doctrine. Ironically, it is partially because of the great care he took in describing the transition to contemplative prayer and the subtle descriptions he gave of it precisely because he did not want it misunderstood, that have occasioned its misunderstanding. The very intricate structure of this doctrine and its psychological acuity make it liable to be misinterpreted in a lesser and more human manner.

There are a number of points that govern the interpretation of St. John's writings on this crucial time of transformation, which can be summed up under the following headings: meditation, contemplation, activity and passivity, perceptibility, difficult texts and loving attentiveness.

What does he mean by meditation? Does he limit it to the use of the imagination and thus distinguish it from other kinds of working of the faculties? For example, is there a purely intellectual kind of intuition so that someone could stop meditating and still be doing something?

What is contemplation? Can we find in St. John any grounds for distinguishing two kinds of contemplation?

Meditation and contemplation are the beginning and the end of the process that St. John is describing, but what of the activity of the person during these changes? Can they be said to be active, or are they passively receiving this new experience?

Perceptibility. Is contemplation a real experience that is actually perceived, or can it remain hidden?

There are several problem texts which seem to point to the existence of an active contemplation and have been construed often in that sense.

Loving attentiveness. Is loving attentiveness a particular act by which a person takes up an attitude of attention to God Whom he believes present, or is it part and parcel of infused contemplation itself?

What is at stake here is not some fine points of scholastic theology but two very different conceptions of St. John which have many important practical ramifications for living out the interior life.


St. John was aware, as a well-trained scholastic philosopher, of the distinctions between the natural faculties of the soul, and he makes use of these distinctions between sense, imagination, intellect and will in the Ascent of Mount Carmel when he analyzes their limitations as proximate means of union with God. But in the practical order, when it is a question of attaining to union with God through contemplation, he groups all these faculties together under the heading of the natural working of the faculties and he equates this natural working with meditation. He clearly points out that meditation is directly dependent on the imagination and is "a discursive action wrought by means of images, forms and figures that are fashioned and imagined."(2) But imagination in its turn is dependent on the sense, for "the imagination cannot fashion or imagine anything whatsoever beyond that which it has experienced through its exterior senses."(3) But the imagination is also linked with the process of reasoning. St. John strings together "meditations, forms, and ideas", (4) and talks of "the path of meditation and reasoning".(5) He contrasts the knowledge of the soul in contemplation with the knowledge that comes through "certain intelligible forms which understanding or sense may seize upon"(6), making it clear that the soul has left the use of "particular kinds of knowledge and intelligence"(7) which is the food of the understanding and not simply just leaving images. It is "detached and removed from all intelligible forms which are objects of the understanding"(8). In speaking of contemplation he says, "For God now begins to communicate Himself to it, no longer through sense, as He did aforetime, by means of reflections which joined and sundered its knowledge, but by pure spirit, into which consecutive reflections enter not"(9).


If meditation is the active working of the faculties, contemplation for St. John, which he describes under a variety of terms, means infused contemplation which is received without the natural use of the faculties. Some of the many terms that St. John uses are: "one act that is general and pure"(10); "this peace and rest of interior quiet"(11); "loving general knowledge of God"(12); "substantial and loving quiet"(13); "confused and general knowledge"(14); "general and loving attentiveness or knowledge of God"(15); "general and supernatural knowledge and light"(16); "pure and serene light"(17); '1pure and simple general light"(18); "quietness and ease"(19); "contemplation is naught else than a secret peaceful and loving infusion from God"(20); "this food is the infused contemplation whereof we have spoken"(21); "the way of illumination or of infused contemplation"(22); "contemplation, which is Divine love and knowledge in one - that is, a loving knowledge"(23); "infused with the spirit of Divine wisdom"(24); "this knowledge is general and dark"(25).


Often these phrases describing contemplation are directly linked to the cessation of the active working of the faculties. "For, the farther the soul progresses in spirituality, the more it ceases from the operation of the faculties in particular acts, since it becomes more and more occupied in one act that is general and pure ... the faculties... cease to work."(26) "...their soul, which was taking pleasure in being in that quietness and ease, instead of working with its faculties."(27) "...the way of illumination or of infused contemplation, wherein God Himself feeds and refreshes the soul, without meditation, or the soul's active help."(28) "For God secretly and quietly infuses into the soul loving knowledge and wisdom without any intervention of specific acts".(29) "Divine love and knowledge in one -that is, a loving knowledge, wherein the soul has not to use its natural acts and meditations."(30) " necessity for distinct knowledge nor for the soul to perform any acts, for God, in one act, is communicating to the soul loving knowledge. "(31)

It follows if this contemplation does not depend on the natural work of the faculties and is an infused gift of God, then these faculties are passive in regard to it. 11 ... the faculties are at rest, and are working, not actively, but passively, by receiving that which God works in them."(32) This passage goes on to say, "and, if they work at times, it is not with violence or with carefully elaborated meditation, but with sweetness of love, moved less by the ability of the soul itself than by God."(33)


The question of perceptible experience is at the heart of the problem of acquired contemplation. The later proponents of this doctrine would agree that St. John was talking about infused contemplation, but they would assert that this contemplation remained hidden, even for months or years. St. John does say, "It is true, however, that, when this condition first begins, the soul is hardly aware of this loving knowledge". (34) And this is because it is turned towards meditation and sense, and particular perceptions, and therefore not disposed to this new kind of experience. Thus, John calls the new experience imperceptible in relationship to the soul which is bound up in sense perceptions, but it is not imperceptible in itself, so he concludes the passage by saying, "But the more accustomed the soul grows to this, by allowing itself to rest, the more it will grow therein and the more conscious it will become of that loving general knowledge of God, in which it has greater enjoyment than in ought else, since this knowledge causes it peace, rest, pleasure and delight without labor." (35)

And when St. John says, "When the spiritual person cannot meditate, let him learn to be still in God, fixing his loving attention upon Him in the calm of his understanding, although he may think himself to be doing nothing" (36), it is foreign to his mind to be thinking that this loving attention is some kind of activity of the soul by which it gazes at God, even though it has no experience of Him, but simply is believing Him present. St. John in the next sentence states, "For thus, little by little and very quickly, Divine calm and peace will be infused into his soul, together with a wondrous and sublime knowledge of God, unfolded in Divine love."(37) This is a beautiful definition of infused contemplation, but it also clearly shows the experimental character of the knowledge that St. John expects to quickly become apparent once the soul ceases working with the faculties.

In the Dark Night when St. John is describing the second sign which is "that the memory is ordinarily centered upon God, with painful care and solicitude than before, in its anxiety not to fail God; and if it is not immediately conscious of spiritual sweetness and delight", this is because it is still too used to the operations of sense.(39) The soul is deriving strength and energy from the beginning of contemplation, and if this contemplation "is secret and hidden from the very person that experiences it"(40), yet far from this being a habitual state in which they will remain, St. John states in the very same number, "If those souls to whom this comes to pass knew how to be quiet at this time, and troubled not about performing any kind of action, whether inward or outward, neither had any anxiety about doing anything, then they would delicately experience this inward refreshment in that ease and freedom from care."(41) Thus, he again links up the hidden nature of the contemplation with its actual experience. It is hidden not because it should remain imperceptible, but because the soul is at the precise moment of transition where it is receiving the contemplative experience without realizing it must cease its discursive activities.

Finally, it is in the same way that we should understand John's subtle analysis of the very pure soul who receives a lofty and pure contemplation, and thus an experience that seems obscure and imperceptible in relationship to the working of the natural faculties.(42) It falls into a kind of forgetfulness, even for hours at a time, "and, when the soul returns to itself, it believes that less than a moment has passed, or no time at all."(43) Here St. John is working on a much more lofty plane than the common experience of someone who cannot meditate and yet hopes that something somehow is happening. Even in the kind of imperceptibility he is describing, there is some kind of powerful absorption taking place. And this forgetfulness happens only very seldom. "Only when God suspends in the soul the exercise of all its faculties."(44) Then even for this special case St. John concludes, "For, when it (the contemplative knowledge) is communicated to the will also, which happens almost invariably, the soul does not cease to understand in the very least degree, if it will reflect hereon, that it is employed and occupied in this knowledge, inasmuch as it is conscious of a sweetness of love therein, without particular knowledge or understanding of that which it loves."(45)


There are three passages that at first glance seem to imply that St. John recognized an acquired contemplation. The first in the Dark Night deals with the way people are to conduct themselves in the dark night of sense and remain peaceful, even though it seems to them they are doing nothing:

"What they must do is merely to leave the soul free and disencumbered and at rest from all knowledge and thought, troubling not themselves, in that state, about what they shall think or meditate upon, but contenting themselves with merely a peaceful and loving attentiveness toward God, and in being without anxiety, without the ability and without desire to have experience of Him or to perceive Him."(46)

Isn't this an excellent summary of a state of prayer in which there is no experience, and the person praying takes up an attitude of loving attentiveness towards God9 First of all, the phrase "to have experience of Him or to perceive Him" translates the original "sin gana de gustarle o de sentirle", which is literally "without the desire to taste or feel Him", which is how the Kavanaugh and Rodriguez translation puts it. What is at stake is not having no desire for any sort of perception or experience, but rather, St. John's often repeated advice that the particular kind of knowledge coming through the faculties hinder the reception of infused contemplation, and it is a question of the actual reception of contemplation, for St. John concludes this passage by saying,

"All these desires disquiet the soul and distract it from the peaceful quiet and sweet idleness of the contemplation which is being communicated to it."(47)

The second difficult passage is to be found in the Ascent of Mount Carmel where St. John is discussing the fittingness of leaving meditation for contemplation:

"For it must be known that the end of reasoning and meditation on the things of God is the gaining of some knowledge and love of God, and each time that the soul gains this through meditation, it is an act; and just as many acts, of whatever kind, end by forming a habit in the soul, just so, many of these acts of loving knowledge which the soul has been making one after another from time to time come through repetition to be so continuous in it that they become habitual."(48)

At first glance this text seems like it can be construed in the sense that the acts of loving knowledge appropriate to meditation form a habit of loving knowledge, which the soul exercises without the previous discursive acts as a kind of active contemplation. This interpretation is unfounded. The passage from acts of loving knowledge to the habit is not continuous in an ontological sense, but only in a chronological sense inasmuch as meditation provides the remote preparation for contemplation, not an intrinsic and essential one. St. John immediately points up this discontinuity by adding to the passage: "This end God is wont also to effect in many souls without the intervention of these acts (or at least without many such acts having preceded it), by setting them at once in contemplation." And he goes on to say that what was gained by meditation becomes "converted and changed into habit and substance of loving knowledge, of a general kind, and not distinct or particular as before", making it clear that the continuity between meditation and contemplation is not of an essential kind. The contemplation is infused contemplation and not an active kind that has grown out of the working of the faculties. This becomes abundantly clear when St. John continues this same passage:

"Wherefore, when it gives itself to prayer, the soul is now like one to whom water has been brought, so that he drinks peacefully, without labour, and is no longer forced to draw water through the aqueducts of past meditations and forms and figures. So that, as soon as the soul comes before God, it makes an act of knowledge, confused, loving, passive and tranquil, wherein it drinks of wisdom and love and delight."(49)

The reference here to St. Teresa is unmistakable and refers to what she called the prayer of quiet, and clearly indicates the infused nature of the contemplation.

The sense of this passage is further clarified when a few numbers further on St. John emphatically states, "when the contemplative has to turn aside from the way of meditation and reasoning, he needs this general and loving attentiveness or knowledge of God. The reason is that if the soul at this time had not this knowledge of God or this realization of His presence, the result would be that it would do nothing and have nothing."(50)

The third and, final text comes from the Living Flame of Love:

"Since God, then, as giver, is communing with the soul by means of loving and simple knowledge, the soul must likewise commune with Him by receiving with a loving and simple knowledge or advertence, so that knowledge may be united with knowledge and love with love."(51)

When "the deep and delicate voice of God" is heard and "is conscious of being led into silence, and hearkens, it must forget even that loving advertence of which I have spoken, so that it may remain free for that which is then desired of it; for it must practice that advertence 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." (52)

The proper interpretation of this passage demands an examination of the context that it is imbedded in, as well as an appreciation of the nuances of what St. John means by loving attentiveness. In the number that precedes this passage he writes:

"For God secretly and quietly infuses into the soul loving knowledge and wisdom without any intervention of specific acts, although sometimes He specifically produces them in the soul for some length of time. And the soul has then to walk with loving advertence to God, without making specific acts, but conducting itself, as we have said, passively, and making no efforts of its own, but preserving this simple, pure and loving advertence, like one that opens his eyes with the advertence of love."(53)


Loving attentiveness is a complex reality that consists of two interpenetrating dimensions. The primary dimension is the contemplative experience itself, or loving knowledge, as when St. John states:

"The soul is alone, with an attentiveness and a knowledge, general and loving, as we said, but without any particular understanding, and adverting not to that which it is contemplating."(54)

Loving knowledge as the designation for contemplation also appears in the two passages from the Living Flame that have just been cited.

The other dimension of loving attentiveness is the human response to the contemplative experience. This response has two modalities. The first is a loving advertence which occurs at the very beginning of contemplation when the contemplative is learning to turn from his discursive activity and tries to be receptive to the new experience that is welling up in him. This is a more conscious and deliberate attentiveness. The second aspect of this loving attentiveness is when the contemplation has succeeded in making itself felt, and then it should become more passive and unreflective, and thus St. John says in the Living Flame that loving advertence in the first sense must be forgotten when the contemplative experience makes itself more strongly felt. This advertence, however, cannot be separated from the actual beginning of contemplation. It is not a way to make a long journey to contemplation, but rather, to become aware of the contemplation that is already present. The more contemplation becomes manifest, the more the recipient has to be on guard against interposing its own specific acts between himself and the contemplative experience, and even against trying to maintain a distinct awareness of his own receptivity. With these points clearly in mind we are in a much better position to understand the changes that were introduced by the developers of acquired contemplation.




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