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


Chapter 5: Acquired Contemplation in the 17th Century

Jung, accompanied by a peasant, once arrived at a large manor house in a horse-drawn wagon, and as they drove into the courtyard the gates flew shut and the peasant exclaimed, "Now we are caught in the 17th century."(1)

This was, of course, a dream, and it was years until Jung realized that it referred to alchemy which reached its height at this time and played a crucial role in his attempts to objectively validate his psychology. In alchemy's obscure symbolism he saw acted out the same psychological processes that he had discovered in his own life and those of his patients. It rescued him from being a solitary voice, and verified the universal nature of modern psychological experiences.

The 17th century was home, as well, to a whole school of spirituality which developed in part as a response to the writings of St. Teresa and St. John. Like alchemy it is obscure, hidden in the dust of history, and potentially significant. The story lies buried in rare volumes, unedited manuscripts and heated controversies that have long since faded from public view. In it the fortuitous marriage of great experience, keen intellect and practical intent that made St. John's writings so exceptional were succeeded by works of theological elaboration. The academic theology of the time was deployed not only to defend St. John from his detractors, but to attempt to assimilate this new understanding of contemplation by creating a multitude of distinctions.

The history of spirituality is not immune from the temptation to assume that the spiritual writers of the 17th century would, by the very fact of following St. John in time, develop and clarify the rich and complex teachings that he left. It comes somewhat as a shock then, to discover that many of these treatises display a poor grasp of St. John, and far from completing and developing him, never attain his level. Further, as the fame of St. John grows greater and greater, it becomes harder to realize that during his life and immediately following his death there was no unanimous opinion about the value of his writings, even within the Carmelite Order.

The world of the practitioner of acquired contemplation makes a striking contrast to that of the Alchemists. They did not attempt to explore inner realities through the medium of matter, but tried to live and describe the most subtle and refined interior attitudes of prayer by which they could become contemplatives and attain divine union. These writers were not simply isolated specialists; standing on the brink of the 17th century we are met with a world that is slowly developing an enthusiasm for interior prayer which will grow to such dimensions that it will appear to the nervous authorities as a spiritual contagion that is sweeping everything else before it.

The writings of St. John of the Cross were a vital ingredient in creating a psychological climate in which people were forced to consider whether they, personally, were called to contemplation. If a person reads St. John and feels called both within and by the very religious community he lives in to a life of contemplation, yet does not actually experience infused contemplation, then the stage is set for him to discover another kind of contemplation which will allow him to be the contemplative be so much wants to be. The writings of St. John inadvertently become the tinder waiting for the spark of acquired contemplation. Once the spark was struck, it will seem an obvious solution, and set off a brush fire of interest in what became called not only acquired or active contemplation, but the prayer of simple regard, prayer of faith, etc. And this interest was to culminate in the exaggerations of Quietism, and when this conflagration burned down at the end of the century, buried in the ashes of false mysticism was also much of the practical interest in genuine mysticism. Even . though it was inevitable that someone would stumble on the idea of acquired contemplation, it is fascinating and instructive to attempt to discover who lit this fire.


In the year 1608 the first use of the words acquired contemplation appeared in a treatise called "A Brief Treatise of Affirmative and Negative Obscure Knowledge of God", which was included in a book by the Benedictine Antonio de Alvarado entitled, The Art of Living Well. This created a puzzle for scholars in the first half of this century who were debating the origin of acquired contemplation. Some held that it was a work that should be attributed to St. John himself, while others felt Alvarado might have been the original author. The attribution of the book to St. John was hindered by the fact that his literary style was very different, and if it was actually the work of Alvarado, the mystery only deepened, for what was a Benedictine doing echoing St. John and developing this doctrine ten years before the publication of the first edition of St. John's writings?

There were, however, two notable early Carmelite spiritual writers standing in the wings that had made use of this term several years after it appeared in Alvarado's book: Thomas of Jesus, and John of Jesus and Mary (Calahorra). The mystery was not solved until after World War II when the Carmelite scholar, Fr. Simeon of the Holy Family, was browsing among the manuscripts of the National Library in Madrid. There he came across a spiritual treatise entitled, The First Part of the Spiritual Path of Prayer and Contemplation which was attributed to the Portuguese Carmelite Joseph of the Holy Spirit, but it did not seem to match Fr. Joseph's other works and was, in fact, much more reminiscent of the writings of Thomas of Jesus, and so after careful consideration Fr. Simeon came to the conclusion that:

"The Brief Treatise of Obscure Knowledge of God (Alvarado's treatise) is taken, in its major part, from the Treatise of Contemplation of Fr. Thomas of Jesus, contained in Book 3 of his First Part of the Spiritual Path of Prayer and Contemplation." (2)

And he found that this treatise of contemplation which Thomas had included in his First Part of the Spiritual Path:

"had already existed in its primitive and independent form by the beginning of 1604, having been composed during the three or four first years that the founder (Thomas of Jesus himself) of the Carmelite Deserts passed in the glorious solitude of Las Batuecas."(3)

Who, then, was this Thomas of Jesus? E. Allison Peers, the noted English expert on the history of Spanish mysticism, considered him the most interesting of the Carmelite spiritual writers in the post-Teresan period.(4) He had been born at Baeza in 1568 and was apparently a precocious student, for he gained a doctorate in law and one in theology before he joined the Carmelites in 1587. His rise in the Order was rapid, and by 1597 he was the Provincial of Old Castile. Fr. Thomas was a man of many parts, not only quick of intellect, but full of new ideas. He conceived of a scheme to create desert monasteries which would function as hermitages to allow the friars to replenish their energies in these isolated and quiet settings, and it was in the Desert of Las Batuecas that he probably composed most of his major spiritual works, even though some were not printed until much later. It was also Thomas of Jesus, together with John of Jesus and Mary (Aravalles), who was appointed by the Chapter General of the Reform held in September, 1601, "to examine and approve" the works of John of the Cross so they could be printed.(5) Two years later the matter was left in the hands of Thomas of Jesus alone.

If Thomas was interested in hermitages, he was equally fascinated by the missions, and received an invitation to go to the Congo as Papal Ambassador. In 1607 he was secretly summoned by the Pope to Rome, and though his trip to the Congo never materialized, he soon immersed himself in schemes for the development of the missions. He tried to found a congregation of Carmelites that would be a completely missionary one. Though this scheme never reached fruition, he published an enormous work on the missions which included sections of the evangelization of Greeks, Jews, Moslems, pagans and heretics.(6) In 1610 he was sent by the Pope to the Low Countries where he founded a whole series of monasteries. He continued with this active and strenuous work until his health gave way and he died in Rome in 1627.

An air of mystery surrounds Thomas of Jesus' relationship with St. John. Here is a man who had joined the Carmelite Order before the death of St. John and who Might have known him earlier as a student in Baeza when John was the rector of the Carmelite House of Studies there, but cannot be classified as a simple disciple. For example, Thomas never cited St. John in his printed works, even when it was a question of his major treatises on contemplation where such citations would seem appropriate. Nor did he cite St. John in the First Part of the Spiritual Path and in his treatise on acquired contemplation, even when he is following St. John's thoughts. At the same time, he had to be aware of St. John's writings through his commission to prepare them for publication and there is in existence, as we will see a little later, proof that he carefully considered these writings.(7)

Further, if Thomas held the commission to prepare St. John's writings for publication, why wasn't this project ever brought to fruition? He certainly had time and opportunity, for during this period he composed much of his literary production. And in fact, he actually did do the preparatory work, as a manuscript annotated by him shows. When St. John's work finally appeared in 1618, it was under the direction of Diego de Jesus (Salablanca) and contained many changes. Salablanca at one point had a close relationship with Thomas of Jesus, and towards the end of his life tried to mitigate his responsibility for these changes by claiming he made them under the orders of his superiors. Did Thomas of Jesus, in fact, have a hand in how the first edition appeared?

Finally, St. John's Spiritual Canticle was absent from the first edition, and is absent from the manuscript of John's writings that Thomas annotated. Jean Krynen has claimed that not only did the Spiritual Canticle appear in various places only after Thomas had left them, but that he rewrote the Spiritual Canticle on the basis of John's first version, and the commentaries of Antolinez.(8) All these puzzles have the cumulative effect of showing how problematical our knowledge of Fr. Thomas is, and it is in this context we should look at the question of the origin of his doctrine of acquired contemplation.

Thomas as an ascetical and mystical writer produced a whole series of treatises that range from a brief summary of St. Teresa's ideas on prayer to large treatises on contemplation. Some of this production was published during his lifetime, while others remained in manuscript until the 20th century, and still others, like the First Part of the Spiritual Path, remain unedited.

In his attempts to understand the nature of contemplation, he divides it into three different kinds.(9) The first is acquired contemplation, which, though it needs the ordinary support of grace, operates in a human mode and depends on the virtues. The second is infused contemplation which works through the influence of the Holy Spirit by means of His gifts. The third, which he called supereminent contemplation, and which was higher than infused contemplation, came about in the form of an immediate movement or illumination of God by means of a transient act that acted in a superhuman mode, and this last form of contemplation was not the development of the virtues or gifts, but a charism, a special grace freely given by God. Thomas felt that even though acquired contemplation depended in some way on the whole organism of the spiritual life, both virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well, it differed from infused contemplation because in the latter there was some kind of experimental actuation of the gifts by which the soul felt a great facility in exercising prayer. Infused contemplation works above the ordinary course of grace to produce this facility in prayer under the experimental motion of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. In acquired prayer there is not this same experimental actuation. It remains latent, and the soul has to operate in the human mode. The highest form of contemplation, this supereminent one, consists of rapture, ecstasy and prophecy, as well as the experimental perception of God or mystical union, and this kind of prayer is rarely given, according to Thomas.

Thomas' principle treatments of acquired contemplation are to be found in the First Part of the Spiritual Path and in his De Contemplatione Acquisita. Fr. Simeon, considering Thomas' doctrine in the former, summarizes it as follows:

"To none of those who exercise themselves in prayer does Fr. Thomas exclude from being able to arrive at the contemplation of mystical theology... Some will enter in it passively and supernaturally lifted by God, others will enter with their industry and work, although supposing the ordinary divine concourse in the supernatural order."(10)

In addition to there being two classes, acquired and infused contemplation, Thomas finds two modes or manners of contemplation. One is affirmative and the other negative, and each of these can be either acquired or infused. (11) Affirmative contemplation goes from a knowledge of creatures to a knowledge of God. But it is negative contemplation which, according to Thomas, is a higher state that seems to capture most of his interest. He discovers various grades of it, active and infused, but again his attention is on the active, negative contemplation. In this kind of contemplation the soul raises itself above all that is sensible, imaginable or intelligible until its intelligence comes to rest in the incomprehensibility of God, and finding itself in such an abyss the intellect loses its way, so to speak, and the will is inflamed and loves that God which cannot be known with particular and distinct knowledge. This, Thomas calls one of the grades of mystical theology, or mysticism.

How does a person know that they should pass from meditation to contemplation, or from the clear and distinct knowledge of affirmative contemplation to negative contemplation? Thomas gives any number of signs which echo St. John. For entering into contemplation one should have practiced the purgative and illuminative ways, and though it is difficult to give an exact time to be spent in the way of meditation, Thomas mentions that after a year of novitiate a person could be ready to move to contemplation. In order to know the precise moment Thomas gives further signs: an inability to meditate like before, a distaste for meditation that doesn't proceed from lukewarmness or negligence, the fact that during meditation the person has stopped with admiration or delight upon seeing some truth, and finally, being unable to meditate, the person exercises himself in virtue and petition. (12)

Even more interesting are the signs that Thomas gives for entering into this negative contemplation, and it is important to keep in mind that this negative contemplation is Thomas' active, negative contemplation that does not exclude anyone given the normal help of grace. The first sign is that whatever the soul hears or understands by means of the senses, whether of God or of creatures, does not satisfy it, but rather is tedious to it. The second is that it doesn't take any pleasure in anything it knows of God or of creatures, and the third is that within itself it feels a growing desire, hunger and thirst of God.

Since this is an active, negative contemplation Thomas gives two means by which a person can actively enter into it. The first way is by means of the understanding in which a person goes from knowledge to knowledge until it comes to a negative knowledge by which it enters into the divine darkness, and then the will takes over, loving and enjoying God. The second way to enter into this contemplation is to close the eyes of the understanding, contenting ourselves with the knowledge we have by faith, and putting our effort into the acts of the will to which is granted what is not given to the understanding, and aspiring to God with lively desires to unite and join ourselves to Him. This, according to Thomas, the writers of mystical theology call traveling by faith.

After describing these ways to enter into contemplation, Thomas devotes himself to a discussion of the various means by which a person "is able to enter actively and progress in the exercise of the obscure contemplation". (13) Here the echoes of St. John grow louder and become almost a full-fledged paraphrasing of him. What is necessary is to denude oneself of all the vital operations of both the senses and the intellect, as well as the memory and the will. Every image and appetite of the creature must be eliminated because it cannot serve as a proportionate means of union with God. This emptying out of all the things that have entered the senses or the higher powers is to bring a person as close as possible to the purity in which they were created, and here Thomas evokes the image of the tabula rasa. All the sense impressions and distinct kinds of knowledge that come from the intellect, memory and will have to be emptied out, for they are not proportionate to God. This process of emptying starts with the senses and moves to the intellect, and Thomas goes on in the rest of the treatise describing the purification of the intellect, memory and will, which parallels St. John's Ascent.

All this shows a concentrated reading of St. John. Yet, if we penetrate beyond these surface similarities, we are confronted with a world of thought that has departed significantly from his doctrine. For St. John, the term "loving and general knowledge" always means, as we have seen, infused contemplation, but for Thomas it can mean a knowledge born of faith "which is no more than a knowledge of faith with which we know God as incomprehensible" and "contemplation is no other than a loving look at the truth..." and "the contemplation of mystical theology is ... a burning and loving look at the incomprehensibility of God, which, because it does not fall under any particular knowledge of the understanding, is called general and confused knowledge." This kind of contemplation is quiet and peaceful because it does not attach itself to anything particular, and therefore is "so subtle and delicate that it is almost imperceptible."(14) But this imperceptibility does not arise from the fact that the infused prayer is by-passing the faculties, but it is a result of the active process of negation that has left aside all particular perceptions.

In a similar way, if loving attentiveness is never separated by St. John from the actual reception of contemplation, for Thomas its meaning is transformed into an active exercise of particular acts which lead it to acquire a habit of contemplation, and each of these acts "is no more than a burning desire of love to join itself with this God which it knows by faith". In this kind of contemplation the soul recognized that God is beyond all the attributes that can be attributed to Him. It understands that God is incomprehensible and so it contemplates the incomprehensibility of God by faith, and exercises this faith "together with a burning desire to penetrate and unite itself with God in a manner that, when this general and confused knowledge, which by means of faith we have of God is exercised habitually, together with love, it comes to be the contemplation of mystical theology".(15)

It is important to realize that Thomas is not talking about an actual experience of infused contemplation. There is no perceptible experience, no loving infusion, but simply acts of faith and love. We recognize God transcends all our perceptions of Him, yet we take up an attitude of belief in Him and desire to be united with Him. Thus, logically, if we call this contemplation, it is a contemplation that can be exercised whenever we want to.

The themes that occupied Thomas in the Spiritual Path were of enduring interest to him. Towards the end of his life, sometime between the close of 1622 and 1627, he wrote his scholastic style treatise entitled, De Contemplatione Acquisita. In it Thomas defines acquired contemplation as: "An affectionate and sincere knowledge of God and His effects which is gained by our own industry".06) Acquired contemplation is rowing the boat, while infused contemplation is having the wind fill the sails and drive it along.

This small book contains substantially the same doctrine as the First Part of the Spiritual Path. Thomas spends two chapters enumerating the signs for the passage from meditation to contemplation. Again he mentions that novices, after their year of training, are often ready for contemplation, and again he develops the theme of acquired contemplation hand-in-hand with references to infused contemplation. Among his signs for the transition to contemplation the following is the most certain: if someone, after having exercised themselves in meditation to good effect, finds a difficulty in meditating despite their efforts, it is a manifest sign that God is granting some grace of contemplation, although it is hidden. He goes on to refine this sign by referring to St. John's comments on melancholy or other humors of the mind and body.(17) Unfortunately, since Thomas' vocabulary is so reminiscent of St. John's, there is a grave danger that we will begin to confuse these two very different views of contemplation. St. John speaks only of infused contemplation and it will do violence to his writings to find in them an acquired kind, still less a supereminent degree.

But if Thomas is the first to talk of an active contemplation which did not exist in the writings of St. John, how did he come to create such a doctrine? The best supposition is that it emerged out of the circumstances of his own interior life. Thomas had been attracted to join the Carmelites because he read St. Teresa, and he was especially moved by her description of an intellectual vision of the Trinity. We have seen that Thomas was not the kind of man who would shrink from any goal he saw in front of himself. When he thought about the missions, it was in the context of actually going. If he read St. Teresa's descriptions of the wonderful graces of the interior life, he would do everything in his power to attain them. He joined the Carmelites, he devoted himself to the study of St. Teresa's and St. John's writings, and he conceived the idea to found the Carmelite deserts. It is not unthinkable that this latter project came as the exterior effect of this attempt to do everything in his power to prepare himself for the contemplative life.

But Thomas' pursuit of these interior goals had a very strong intellectual coloring. He wanted to put the mystical sciences on a solid basis of theological scholarship. He felt that supernatural contemplation was rarely understood because of the obscure and symbolic language in which spiritual people spoke of it. If he could clarify it, it would be more accessible to everyone, and he leaves us a crucial fact about his own interior life. He tells us he had no experience of contemplation, but after twenty years of attempting to understand it God opened His hand and made him understand the nature of this union, and this gave him the hope that he could inspire his neighbor by describing these heavenly riches.

If we understand Thomas' twenty years loosely, and date them from his university studies in Baeza prior to his entrance into the Carmelites in 1587, then this burst of understanding coincides with his time in Las Batuecas when he composed most of his major spiritual treatises, including the First Part of the Spiritual Path. It also coincides with the time he was "examining and approving" the writings of St. John in order to prepare them for publication. Thus, at the very time he is attempting to live out the contemplative life in an especially intense way and, no doubt, dealing with the questions and problems of the friars living with him, he is also engaged in a study of John of the Cross, and out of this combination of circumstances emerged the doctrine of acquired contemplation.

Looking at it from the human point of view, if anyone ought to have been a contemplative, it was Thomas of Jesus, but since he never received any contemplative experience, this desire for contemplation expressed itself in a reinterpretation of St. John and the construction of another kind of contemplation open to everyone who is willing to labor for it. As Krynen put it, "The very notion of acquired contemplation translates on the doctrinal plane the sustained and unfruitful effort of Thomas of Jesus to arrive at living and understanding the mystical experience itself."(18)

This reconstruction of the events that surrounded Thomas of Jesus' creation of acquired contemplation is strengthened by another discovery of the industrious Fr. Simeon. This time, while sifting through the archives of the International Carmelite College in Rome, he discovered an early manuscript of St. John's writings that had been annotated by Thomas. The elaborate title that this manuscript bore led him to conclude that it might have been prepared by Thomas during his labors that were supposed to lead to the first edition of St. John's writings, and a careful examination of the manuscript made him place the various marks and marginal notes in it sometime between the year 1601 and 1603.(19)

What we possess, then, is a way in which to see into Thomas' mind and determine what aspects of St. John's writings preoccupied him at this time, and what immediately leaps out at us is his concern with the passages that have to do with the transition to contemplation. For example, he makes a line in the margin for the passage in the Dark Night where St. John is describing the second sign, which we have seen is equivalent to the third in the Ascent, which is the actual infusion of contemplation and reads:

" (the soul) feels that it is deriving strength and energy to act from the substance which this inward food gives it, the which food is the beginning of a contemplation that is dark and arid to the senses; which contemplation is secret and hidden from the very person that experiences it; and ordinarily, together with the aridity and emptiness which it causes in the senses, it gives the soul an inclination and desire to be alone and in quietness..." (20)

In this passage he also underlines the phrase starting from "from the substance" down to "together with", and thus is bracketing the very significant phrase, "which contemplation is secret and hidden from the very person that experiences it." He takes note of the three temptations on the road to contemplation which have already caught our attention, and via marginal signs, signals his interest in that troublesome passage in the Dark Night:

"They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God, and live without the anxiety, without the effort, and without the desire to taste or feel Him. All these desires disquiet the soul and distract it from the peaceful quiet and sweet idleness of the contemplation which is being communicated to it."(21)

This passage appears to have captured Thomas' attention more than any other. Opposite it in the large margin he places his longest note, unfortunately cut by the binder's knife, and he underlines "without the desire to", and he also apparently makes an addition to the text by adding between the lines the word "mucho" after "without" and on top of "anxiety".

These indications of interest on Thomas' part can be understood as a preoccupation about this critical moment of transition, and they represent the vast proportions of the annotations that Thomas made on this manuscript.

There is perhaps a more nuanced explanation for the emergence of acquired contemplation out of the life of Thomas of Jesus. Instead of Thomas simply lacking contemplative experience, and thus fashioning a parallel to infused contemplation out of the culmination of meditation, his actual experience of contemplation might have been of a reality that fell between these two poles. The life of prayer in such an energetic personality could have culminated in the development of the active gifts of the Holy Spirit, and as a consequence Thomas could have experienced contemplation in a masked form which would have lent a contemplative savor to affective prayer and the practice of the presence of God. In such a case the contemplation which is simply the fruit of meditation would be experienced as if it were actually the beginning of infused contemplation. Yet, his doctrine, when read and practiced without a similar activation of these gifts, would blossom with consequences that could have been held in check in Thomas' own case.(22)


It was not until 27 years after St. John's death that his works were finally printed. This was approximately 15 years after Thomas of Jesus' writings on acquired contemplation, and 10 years after part of that work had appeared under Antonio de Alvarado's name in 1608. The many changes that existed in the first edition, as well as the omission of the Spiritual Canticle, must be seen against the background of the greater editorial license exercised in those times, and the desire of the Carmelite authorities to protect these writings from charges of Illuminism. They attempted to soften the sharp distinctions that St. John made between active prayer and the passive infused nature of contemplation. And they do something else as well; they help smooth the way for the propagation of acquired contemplation.

Critical Edition

First Edition

Although, as we have said, the soul in this state of knowledge believes itself to be doing nothing, and to be entirely unoccupied, because it is working neither with the senses nor with the faculties, it should realize that it is not wasting time.(23)  


... it should realize that it is not wasting time, nor acting uselessly.

In order to reach this state, (contemplation) it will frequently need to make use of meditation, quietly and in moderation; but, when once the soul is brought into this other state, it acts not at all with its faculties.(24)  

but when once this is attained, the soul neither reflects nor labours with its faculties.

Wherefore in this state the soul must never have meditation imposed upon it, nor must it make any acts, nor strive after sweetness or fervor.(25) meditation imposed upon it, nor any acts produced by means of reflection, nor strive knowingly after sweetness or fervour.
Causing the natural acts of their faculties to fail. (26) Causing the discursive acts of their faculties to fail.
For not all those who walk of set purpose in the way of the spirit are brought by God to contemplation, nor even the half of them - why, He best knows.(27) are brought by God to perfect contemplation, - why He best knows.


Attempts of this sort, while trying to shield St. John from charges of Illuminism, have the unfortunate consequence of attenuating his thought and making the reader wonder whether there is, indeed, some kind of natural act that exists between meditation and infused contemplation. This problem becomes more acute when it is a question of loving attentiveness itself.


Critical Edition

First Edition

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.(28) loving advertence to God, without performing any other specific acts than those to which it feels that He is inclining it, but conducting itself, as it were, passively.
When this comes to pass, and the soul 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.(29)

and hearkens, even the loving awareness of which I have spoken must be most pure, without any anxiety or reflection, so that the soul almost forgets it through being wholly occupied in hearing, in order that it may remain free for that which is then desired of it.
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.(30)

and troubled not about performing any kind of action, which they strive with their labour and their reasoning to perform and had no anxiety to do anything save to allow themselves to be led by God, to receive and to listen with loving interior attentiveness, then they would delicately experience...
And thus, when the soul desires to remain in inward ease and peace, any operation and affection or attention wherein it may then seek to indulge will distract it and disquiet it ... (31) any operation and affection or anxious attention...
the faculties are at rest, and are working, not actively, but passively, by receiving that which God works in them; and, if they work at times, it is not with violence or with carefully elaborated meditation, but with the sweetness of love, loved less by the ability of the soul itself than by God.(32) the faculties are at rest and work not, save in that simple and sweet loving attentiveness; and if at times they work more it is not with violence


There is a tendency, then, in the first edition, to change the idea of loving attentiveness in the direction of making it a separate active operation. These amended texts could then become points of crystallization of a doctrine of acquired contemplation in an atmosphere that was already prone to interpret St. John in this way.

Acquired contemplation was not a development of St. John's teaching on the transition from meditation to contemplation, but rather it was a response to the challenge this teaching posed. If Thomas of Jesus was the first to formulate this kind of explanation, the very possibility of it was in the air he breathed. The problem of the transition to contemplation and the dark night had existed before him, for John carefully notes it and, no doubt, it had existed in various forms for a long time. This very real problem created the psychological climate in which a doctrine like acquired contemplation would become almost inevitable. Historical questions about its origin dwindle in significance as we realize that this whole inner atmosphere was urging men in this same direction and could have multiple points of development. Once the actual formulation of the doctrine of acquired contemplation was articulated, it would spread with great rapidity, and its very extensiveness, as well as its supposed relationship to St. John's writings, would become arguments in favor of its validity.


it is possible that Thomas was responsible for the spread of acquired contemplation within his order. This can be seen from the little we know about his relationships with John of Jesus and Mary (Calahorra) and José de Jesús María (Quiroga).

John of Jesus and Mary, although a Spaniard, lived his religious life among the Italian Carmelites and appeared to have no knowledge of St. John's work. He wrote a number of spiritual treatises, and his School of Prayer, first published in Rome in 1610, mentions the notion of acquired contemplation. This is the same place and date of Thomas' Suma, which also mentions acquired contemplation. Apparently they were both collaborating during these years on the idea of the Carmelite Missionary congregation, and they cite each other in their written works with approval. If John of Jesus and Mary did not know St. John's writings, and acquired contemplation was supposed to be a development of these writings, how could he have arrived at this notion? Could Thomas, arriving in Rome, having already worked out these ideas, communicated them to him?

Quiroga (1562-1628) is recognized as the other principle proponent and expounder of acquired contemplation in the early part of the 17th century. In his Don Que Tuvo, written between 1618 and 1628, he asserts that while God gave the Carmelite Order St. Teresa to teach them about infused contemplation, He gave them John of the Cross to instruct them in acquired contemplation.

What was the relationship between Thomas and Quiroga? Quiroga had become the historiographer general of the Carmelites in 1597. It would be surprising if they had not conferred during the years when Thomas was preparing St. John's writings for publication. Quiroga, in fact, had made a special effort to inform himself about St. John, and wrote a biography of him. But did Quiroga get the idea of acquired contemplation from Thomas and then clothe it in his own vocabulary? It is difficult to say.(33) There are apparent echoes of Thomas in the Don Que Tuvo when he describes an infused contemplation "of greater illumination than the gift of wisdom" which he contrasts to an acquired one exercised in the human mode "by a superintellectual concept" formed in the obscurity of faith.(34)

It is interesting to note that Quiroga gives us an example of how the changes in the first edition were immediately taken up in the formulation of the doctrine of acquired contemplation. Right after expounding these two kinds of contemplations Quiroga continues his apologia in order to defend St. John against the complaints that have arisen that in contemplation there is a cessation of particular acts. Here he quotes the first edition where it says, "the faculties are at rest and work not, save in that simple and sweet loving attentiveness". And thus he is equating this passage with his acquired contemplation, a task which would have been made much more difficult if he had had the original reading before him, which said: "The faculties are at rest, and are working, not actively, but passively, by receiving that which God works in them."

It would be an oversimplification to imagine that the doctrines on prayer that appeared in the 17th century could be understood simply as various reactions to St. John and St. Teresa. But this remains a valuable perspective not only for organizing the scattered information that is available, but for trying to make this information relevant to the practical problems that contemplation faces today. If various currents of what was labeled Illuminism existed in the time of St. Teresa and St. John, similar trends existed after them, and they could have played a role in the wide acceptance that acquired contemplation received and helped transform the way it had existed in the earliest Carmelite writers. In 1605, for example, Ana of Jesus, the talented spiritual daughter of St. Teresa, and the recipient of St. John's Spiritual Canticle, was in France working to establish the first Carmelite convent there. In a letter to an unknown person she writes: "I have care that the novices consider and imitate Our Lord Jesus Christ; because here He is often little remembered. Everything is a simple view of God; I don't know how this is able to be. Since the sojourn of the glorious St. Denis who wrote the mystical theology all the world has continued to apply itself to God by suspension rather than by imitation. That is a strange manner of proceeding; in truth, I don't understand it..."(35)

Such a tendency, which seems as if it could have had little to do with Thomas of Jesus' articulation of acquired contemplation, would not only have a predilection for the writings of pseudo-Dionysius, as Thomas did himself, but would tend to interpret St. John's passage to contemplation as a more explicit exposition of these same ideas. The Illuminists of Seville in the 1620s made use of St. John's writings,(36) while their French counterparts availed themselves of those of Benoit de Canfield(37) without totally neglecting St. John. Thus, St. John's explanations of contemplation stimulated already existing currents of thought.


A second stage in the development of acquired contemplation can be dated to the late 1620s in Madrid, and its principle proponents were Antonio de Rojas and Juan Falconi. In 1628 Rojas published his Life of the Spirit in Order to Know How to Have Prayer and Union With God. This book, while being popular as indicated by the frequency it was reprinted, had no pretensions of originality, and would have faded from the history of spirituality if not for two events. One was its appreciative use of Augustine Baker, whose writings were edited into a manual of the spiritual life entitled Holy Wisdom, and from there exerted an influence on the practice of prayer down to our own time. The other event was the condemnation of Rojas' book because one of the censures was written by John of St. Thomas, the noted Dominican theologian whose works are still read today. It was the Carmelite scholar Eulogio Pacho who not only unearthed John of St. Thomas' opinion, but provides the information about Rojas' now almost inaccessible volume.(38)

The Life of the Spirit recommends a prayer of faith which is a simple gaze at God and a resting in Him that leaves aside all discourse and images. In substance it appears the same as that recommended by Thomas of Jesus, but there is an insistence on the central role that this prayer should play in the spiritual life, and its efficacy that is characteristic of this later stage of development, as we will see when we look at the writings of Juan Falconi. The early Carmelite authors were too close to the writings of St. John and St. Teresa to avoid speaking at length about infused contemplation, but the implications of their doctrine of active contemplation now began to surface. Since St. John was made the father of acquired contemplation, then all the characteristics that he attributes to infused contemplation will gradually become attached to this prayer of faith. On the practical plane it will absorb infused contemplation and masquerade as the culmination of the spiritual life, and it will do all this while evoking the name of John of the Cross.

Rojas, for example, in all honesty could not understand the reasons for his condemnation. His book appeared with all sorts of recommendations and approvals by theologians and ecclesiastical authorities, and the "acquired supernatural contemplation" that he proposed was not only a way to exercise all the virtues, but this whole teaching was, as he states in the defense of the book he submitted to the Inquisition, "a compendium and a quintessence of what Padre Fray Juan de la Cruz wrote in the Dark Night." In this same defense, he cites numerous spiritual authors whom he supposes held the same doctrine, but St. John holds a special place. He is cited explicitly when it is a question of the three signs, he is cited without attribution, and his thoughts are summarized. Among the other authors Rojas called to his defense are Quiroga in his Life of St. John, Antonio Alvarado's The Art of Living Well, and John of Jesus and Mary whom he mistakenly calls Gracian, leaving us to wonder whether he meant Aravalles or Calahorra.

In fact, it was his extensive use of St. John's doctrine that caused some of his initial problems. A Discalced Carmelite from Granada, Fr. Augustine of St. Joseph, read it and denounced it to the Inquisition as damaging to St. John's memory. Among his accusations he strikes at its oversimplification of the spiritual life by calling it a "stair without steps, a destination without a road to it, and an end without means",(39) and feels that this effort to pray without thinking will succeed if only because the person attempting it will be sleeping and dreaming. He approaches the heart of the real difficulty by discussing St. John's teaching of how to go from "meditation to infused contemplation". And he insists that if the three signs are not present, then one must remain in meditation, for not all receive this contemplation, and he complains that Rojas is not teaching the same doctrine.

The opinions of the original examiners of the Inquisition were divided, and the definitive statement was made by John of St. Thomas whose principle objection was that "after making an act of faith", Rojas taught "all discourse, images and imaginations of all created things should be left aside, keeping the understanding without discourse, thought or knowledge, as a dead person in God".(40) This the learned Dominican considered impossible to human nature, and though there were high spiritual states which transcended these natural means, they did not have to do with the kind of contemplation which was possible on our own initiative and which this book described. In essence, he hammers away at the lack of psychological realism that exists when attitudes suitable for infused prayer are taken up without this gift.


Juan Falconi, 1596-1638, was active in Madrid with an extensive ministry of spiritual direction during the years Rojas' Life of the Spirit appeared and came to grief. He wrote a number of treatises and letters on the spiritual life, most of which were not published during his lifetime. It is his Letter to a Religious, dated July 25, 1629, though it now only exists in an Italian translation (1674), that is particularly interesting for understanding Falconi's interpretation of John of the Cross. This letter is a defense against the complaints Falconi had received from a Discalced Carmelite about the type of prayer he was teaching. It has been suggested that the Carmelite was Fr. Augustine of St. Joseph whom we saw earlier denouncing Rojas.(41)

Falconi takes a particular interest in St. John's transition from meditation to contemplation:

"When it is time to pass to contemplation, I tell them to do it after this manner. They are to place themselves in the presence of God, believing God to be present and imminent everywhere. They must have a general notice of living faith, and resign themselves into His hands ... And if, further, they are troubled by aridity and temptations, and think they are doing nothing, let them hold still to their faith and resignation without discourse or meditation soever. For this is contemplation, - that is to say, a simple and pure regard of the object."(42)

According to Falconi, it is time to exercise this contemplation when the savor of meditation has been lost, and this contemplation is "a general knowledge of lively faith in the presence of God"(43), and if anybody is to complain that this is doing nothing, Falconi refutes them by quoting St. John's remarks from the Dark Night.

With Falconi the reinterpretation of St. John's infused contemplation into an acquired one has reached its fullest development. As E. Allison Peers puts it,

"It is this contemplation which he (Falconi) substitutes for the whole extent of mystic experience higher than meditation, for all St. Teresa's Inner Mansions and the higher slopes of St. John of the Cross' Mount Carmel. And apparently it gives him perfect and complete satisfaction."(44)

And Falconi, drawing out the consequences implicit in this position, asserts that this contemplation is a suitable exercise for all Christians.

"If they mean that it is not for all to pass to contemplation after attaining to meditation, then are they greatly deceived...If a man has passed through meditation, he will be ripe for contemplation, and for so long as he is in that state he must know no other than the simple regard of living faith without reasoning or meditation or reflection."(45)

In other writings, Falconi takes up themes that were to become important during the Quietist controversies towards the end of the century. This act of faith in which contemplation consists will endure unless it is consciously revoked: "For the soul to be in true prayer all the time... there is no need for it to be all the time attentive to God nor to be ever thinking upon Him. It suffices that at the beginning of thy prayer thou have such at tent ion... "(46) And when this contemplation is pure, it is:

"so inward, and so spiritual, that it is scarcely noticed. It consists in placing oneself in the presence of God with a secret, intimate, and imperceptible intention and desire in the soul, to remain ever in His Hands and so to continue the loving surrender which it has made of itself to Him. And this it does by the very act of placing itself in His presence, without having any need of making any other sensible act, beyond that of placing itself before Him..." (47)

This passage echoes the Ascent of Mount Carmel, but gives a completely different meaning to it. Falconi's view of human nature would be just as objectionable to John of St. Thomas as Rojas' was. The normal human working of the faculties is suppressed with the hope that the distillation of this process of suppression and simplification will lead to a more spiritual act, and this supposed act is called contemplation and is endowed with all the qualities that St. John found in the experience of infused contemplation. It is even given qualities that transcend infused contemplation itself. It is a human fabrication of what contemplation ought to be like pushed to its ultimate limits. The very lack of experience is transformed into a guarantee of the sublime spiritual nature of what is transpiring even though it is neither conscious nor perceptible.


In the year 1605, while Thomas of Jesus was elaborating his ideas on acquired contemplation in solitude, Augustine Baker, an English convert to Catholicism, was attempting to struggle through his novitiate with the Benedictines in Padua. After three months of meditation, he found himself suffering from that difficult time of the decline of sensible fervor. He writes of himself:

"But at the end of that time, being now become ripe for a more pure and perfect prayer of the will, but neither in books nor by any instructions finding any directions thereunto, his recollection which had been formerly profound became much distracted, and his heart cold, dry and void of all good affections. Upon this change he endeavoured to stir up devotion by means of all the ways and means he could, seeking out the most moving books and pictures he could hear of; but all in vain. No working of the imagination or understanding could any longer produce any effect upon the will. Hereby it came to pass that his recollections were now so full of aridities and distractions and became so burdensome to him that he had not the courage or patience to continue them, but giving over mental prayer he contented himself with his vocal prayers and exterior observances, the virtue of which in a condition of so great solitude was so small (as to the working a good disposition in the soul) that he found a manifest decay in piety and all internal virtues, so that in a short time he became wholly tepid and extroverted." (48)

This state of spiritual perplexity was one of the factors that led him to leave the novitiate and return home to England. Baker eventually became a Benedictine priest, made what he called two other conversions to the spiritual life, and found books that held, he felt, the solution to the problem he had faced during his novitiate. One of these books was Antonio Rojas' Life of the Spirit, and Rojas' ideas on active contemplation were taken up by Baker and incorporated in the post-humus compilation of Baker's writings called Holy Wisdom.

Baker describes Rojas' method of prayer:

"as a prayer of internal silence, quietness, and repose. There is no meditation, nor even express direct acts of the will. It is a virtual, habitual loving attention to God rather than a formal direct tending to Him."(49)

And he goes on:

"Thus the soul with silent attention regards God alone; she rejects the images of all objects whatever; she frames no particular requests, nor makes express acts towards God; but remains in an absolute silence of tongue and thought with a sweet, tacit consent of love in the will, permitting God to take entire possession of her soul as of a temple wholly belonging and consecrated to Him."(50)

In Baker's mind this kind of prayer would grow more and more pure and spiritual, and the operations less perceptible until it brought the soul to the prayer of quiet, of which it was an imperfect imitation.(51)

Implicit in this kind of prayer is the same view of human nature that emerged in Rojas and Falconi. Taking up a thought that can be found in Falconi's Letter to a Religious, Baker says:

"Lastly, the soul has no fear that this respectful silence is mere idleness; she knows it is the effect of love and respect. Indeed, an intellectual soul is all activity, so that it cannot continue a moment without some desires. If, then, she rejects all desire for created objects, she cannot but tend inwardly in her affections towards God; it was for this purpose that she placed herself in a posture of prayer. Her tending to God is much like the flight of an eagle. After a few vigorous flaps of the wings, it extends them, and by virtue of its first efforts it continues its flight for some distance with great swiftness, yet with as much stillness and ease as if it were reposing in its nest."(52)

Baker's use of Rojas forms but one strand of his writings about contemplation, but it illustrates his tendency to devote a great deal of effort in describing the stages of the spiritual life that exist between meditation and infused contemplation, for example, what he called forced immediate acts, and a further stage called aspirations.

Though he had some knowledge of John of the Cross and St. Teresa, his understanding of infused contemplation was defective, and his own experience of it doubtful.(53) Though these various interior acts were supposed to lead to infused contemplation, this was more a hopeful theory than a reflection of personal experience. Baker describes himself lying in his bed for hours at a time exercising his will and feeling the working of this prayer in different parts of his body. "For half a year together his evening's exercise (not his morning's) had those motions, and the motions were very strong and violent ... our scholar living alone was and might be loud enough in his voice, uttering and venting forth his fore-said senseless aspirations, yet not so but that he was sometimes in peril to have been heard by others, and if he had been heard or seen, he would doubtless have been adjudged for a man who were out of his wits."(54)

This bit of autobiography is not produced to belittle a man who was not only sincere, but talented, and whose writings have been an aid for many people in the development of their spiritual life, yet as a doctrine of acquired contemplation became more explicit, and its practice more intense, its psychic repercussions became more visible. This process is especially evident in the life of Miguel Molinos.


Since Molinos has the reputation of being the most infamous of the Quietists, a natural reaction on first picking up his Spiritual Guide would be to expect it to be a compendium of the most glaring kind of spiritual errors. Instead we read:

"There are two ways of approaching God, the one by consideration and discursive thought, and the other by pure faith, and indistinct, general and confused knowledge. The first is called meditation, the second internal recollection, or acquired contemplation."(55)

And what is this acquired contemplation?

"When the soul already knows the truth (either by a habit acquired through reasoning, or because the Lord hath given her particular light) and fixes the eyes of the mind on the demonstrated truth, beholding it sincerely in quietness and silence, without requiring considerations, reasonings or other proofs in order to be convinced, and when the will loves the truth, admiring and delighting itself therein, then this properly is called the prayer of faith, and prayer of rest, internal recollection or contemplation."(56)

In short, we are still very much in the world of acquired contemplation that has become familiar to us through men like Rojas and Falconi. In fact, before Molinos arrived in Rome in 1664, one of Falconi's works had already been published in Italian, and if we credit an anonymous biography of Molinos, he constantly spoke of Juan Falconi and recommended the reading of his Letter to a Religious. There was, apparently, a more or less developed interest in these kinds of interior prayer that he tapped and later dominated. Molinos became the best known spiritual director of the Holy City, and when his Spiritual Guide was published in 1675, it appeared with numerous ecclesiastical recommendations. It was not until ten years later that Molinos was arrested as a consequence of the discovery of a private teaching, and imprudent and immoral conduct. All the propositions of his condemnation stemmed from this private teaching rather than his published writings.

If Molinos had a predilection for Falconi's Letter to a Religious, he was also acquainted with the writings of John of the Cross. Though he does not cite him explicitly in the Spiritual Guide, the rhythms of St. John's writings are clear enough.

"As often as the end is obtained, the means cease, and when the ship arrives in the harbour the voyage is over. So if the soul after she hath wearied herself by means of meditation, shall arrive at the stillness, tranquillity, and rest of contemplation, she ought then to put an end to all discursive thought, and repose in loving contemplation and simple vision of God, seeing and loving Him, gently rejecting all the images of Him that present themselves, calming the mind in that Divine Presence, collecting the memory, and fixing it wholly on God, contenting herself with the general and vague knowledge, which she has of God by means of faith, with all the force of the will loving Him in whom rests all fruition."(57)

But at the same time the misunderstandings of the nature of the contemplation described by St. John that existed in Falconi are taken up by Molinos. And when he comes to the question of the signs that indicate the proper time to pass to contemplation, he is naturally talking about acquired contemplation, and instead of three signs, he gives five:

1. An inability to meditate that does not come from natural disinclination, lack of preparation or melancholy. This is "the first and chief".

2. The soul seeks solitude and avoids conversation.

3. "that the reading of Godly books is usually tedious, because they speak not of the internal sweetness that rests in the heart, though it be not recognized."

4. "though the soul finds herself deprived of discursive thought yet does she firmly purpose to persevere in prayer."

5. "that she will experience a great knowledge of herself, abhorring her sins, and perceiving better the holiness of God."(58)

Unless we read a great deal into sign three, we will notice that St. John's chief sign, which is the actual experience of contemplation is missing, and the sign that seems to take predominance is the first. Given a failure of discursive thought, the soul should be taught by an experienced director how to take up this prayer of faith or this internal recollection. This inability to meditate "is a clear sign, that the Lord will have thee to walk by faith and silence in his Divine Presence, which is the most profitable and the easiest path; because with a simple vision of God, and with loving intentness on Him, the soul appears like a humble supplicant before her Lord..."(59)

The parallels between St. John and Molinos could be drawn out at great length,(60) and they seem to indicate more than an indirect knowledge of St. John's writings. This impression is confirmed by a manuscript that exists in the Vatican Library dating from 1680 called Defensa de la Contemplación which was Molinos' reply to the critics of the Spiritual Guide. In it, like Rojas before him, he asserts that he is teaching what St. John taught and cites the mystical doctor in detail. A comparison of this defense with the Spiritual Guide leads to the conclusion that Molinos knew St. John's works directly at the time he composed this work. But as in the case of Thomas of Jesus, we are left with the mystery of why he never publicly cited him.

Molinos also took up Falconi's doctrine of the duration of the contemplative act unless consciously revoked, and he points out in the Spiritual Guide that the soul that takes up the attitude of internal recollection will suffer all sorts of assaults from the enemy. During the proceedings of the Holy Office his ideas on non-resistance to diabolical temptations in the lower part of the soul while engaged in the prayer of contemplation weighed heavily against him. As Ronald Knox puts it:

"Curiously, the only condemned propositions which are textual are also the most damning ones. It appears that at some stage in his examination Molinos actually asked to have a memorandum of his own incorporated in the findings of the Inquisitors; and this is represented (possibly in full) by propositions 41-53, which deal with temptations of the devil, and the reasons for not resisting them in our times of prayer."(61)

In a twisted and distorted way Molinos attempted to integrate these temptations of sense which were probably accentuated by his inner attitude into the life of prayer and give them a positive meaning. They were still the work of the devil, but the superior part of the soul remained undisturbed and did not need to do anything about them or feel guilty even if the physical body committed some impure act, for God used these means to humble and purify it. Since the acquired contemplation of Molinos is modeled after infused contemplation, there is a tendency to insist on the duration of the act of faith as if this act had a perceptible object in a manner analogous to the actual experience of infused contemplation itself. If a person tried to maintain an attentiveness without it having a perceptible object, they produce a psychological vacuum in consciousness, which manifestations of psychic energy out of the unconscious attempt to fill. From a psychological point of view it is not surprising to find these extreme forms of acquired contemplation linked with what appear to be autonomous motions in the lower part of the soul, that is, the unconscious, a theme that will be examined more closely in Chapter 7.

With Molinos' condemnation in 1685 and the censure of Madame Guyon after the controversies of Fenelon and Bousset in the last years of the century, the curtain rang down on the Quietist controversies. The five men that have been considered here, that is, Thomas of Jesus, Rojas, Falconi, Baker and Molinos, represent only one thread in the complex tapestry of the wide-spread interest in interior prayer that ran its course in these 100 years, and there are significant differences between them. Yet, as a group they shared a number of common characteristics. They were sincere, they read St. John of the Cross, and they had no actual experience of infused contemplation.(62) Thus, the personal spiritual circumstances of Thomas of Jesus were shared by all of them, and they found a solution in acquired contemplation. They took St. John's loving attentiveness which was the response to the actual experience of contemplation and made of it a separate active exercise of the soul.

By the end of the 17th century anti-mystical tendencies that had co-existed and interacted with these interests in interior prayer since before St. John's time, finally and definitively gain an upper hand. Aided by the exaggerations of Quietism they suppressed both genuine and spurious mysticism and created a climate of distrust that has lasted into the 20th century. Unwittingly, St. John's writings played a role in this tragedy.(63)

I will leave the story of acquired contemplation for the moment, but it is important to return to it later, for it contains not only an important caution on how not to understand St. John, but a hidden lesson of great significance for the life of prayer.

In summary, St. John's finely nuanced doctrine of the transition from meditation to contemplation should be carefully distinguished from the later interpretations of the various schools of acquired contemplation. With a clearer understanding of what contemplation meant to St. John we can turn to the question of the interaction between contemplation and individuation.



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Chapter 6