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

Chapter 7:

Psychic Energy and Contemplation


If Jung's typology represents one aspect of the process of individuation, his theory of compensation and psychic energy describes another, and is a valuable way in which to explore the psychological dimension of St. John's teaching on the passage to contemplation.


Jung summarized his ideas on psychic compensation in a long but important passage in Psychological Types:

"Psychologists often compare consciousness to the eye: we speak of a visual field and a focal point of consciousness. The nature of consciousness is aptly characterized by this simile: only a limited number of contents can be held in the conscious field at the same time, and of these only a few can attain the highest grade of consciousness. The activity of consciousness is selective. Selection demands direction. But direction requires the exclusion of everything irrelevant. This is bound to make the conscious orientation one-sided. The contents that are excluded and inhibited by the chosen direction sink into the unconscious, where they form a counter-weight to the conscious orientation. The strengthening of this counter-position keeps pace with the increase of conscious one-sidedness until finally a noticeable tension is produced. This tension inhibits the activity of consciousness to a certain extent, and though at first the inhibition can be broken down by increased conscious effort, in the end the tension becomes so acute that the repressed unconscious contents break through in the form of dreams and spontaneous images. The more one-sided the conscious attitude, the more antagonistic are the contents arising from the unconscious, so that we may speak of a real opposition between the two. In this case the compensation appears in the form of a counter-function, but this case is extreme. As a rule, the unconscious compensation does not run counter to consciousness, but is rather a balancing or supplementing of the conscious orientation."(1)

Underlying this psychological principle of compensation is a view of the psyche in terms of psychic energy. The psyche is conceived as a bipolar system which embraces a series of pairs of opposites: conscious and unconscious, thinking and feeling, introversion and extraversion, spirit and matter, etc. These opposites create a tension which is the source of psychic energy. Jung surmised that the psyche could be conceived as a relatively closed system in which basic laws of energy following the model of physical energy hold sway. The chief of these laws is the principle of equivalence:

"The principle of equivalence states that for a given quantity of energy expended or consumed in bringing about a certain condition, an equal quantity of the same or another form of energy will appear elsewhere."(2)

In this connection psychic energy is not intrinsically one particular kind of energy; it is not qualitative, but quantitative. Each psychic content has a certain amount of energy which can increase or decrease. How much psychic energy a particular content has is a value judgment. We like something more or less, or feel something is better for us than something else. In consciousness we are aware of these transformations of energy. We lose interest in one thing and begin to value something else more highly. But how is it possible to estimate the energetic values of unconscious contents? Here "the constellating power of the nuclear element corresponds to its value intensity, i.e., to its energy." (3) This constellating or attractive power can be measured in various ways. Early in his career, for example, Jung carried out a series of word association experiments in which he physically measured the hesitations that surrounded particular words. These hesitations were caused by the energy that had accumulated around various unconscious contents.

When there is an adequate adaptation to reality, the flow of psychic energy is smooth and the opposites contained in the psyche are united in working towards the same goal, and this produces a feeling of vitality and a sense of balance. However, under the pressure of new demands, the opposites tend to work in different directions, the flow of energy is impeded, often one of the opposing forces is repressed and an unresolved tension grows in the psyche. In St. John's writings there exist descriptions that exemplify Jung's principle of equivalence and the dynamics of psychic energy.


In his discussion of the faults of beginners in the first book of the Dark Night he speaks about spiritual lust:

"It happens frequently that in one's very spiritual exercises, without one's being able to avoid it, impure movements will be experienced in the sensory part of the soul, and even sometimes when the spirit is deep in prayer or when receiving the sacrament of Penance or of the Eucharist."(4)

St. John found three reasons for these feelings, and all of them are "outside one's power"(5). The first cause is due to the fact that the sensual and spiritual parts of man form one personality, and "each one usually shares according to its mode in what the other receives"(6). Thus, when the spirit experiences satisfaction in God, the senses experience gratification.

The second cause is the devil who "excites these feelings while souls are at prayer, instead of when they are engaged in other works, so that they might abandon prayer"(7). The third cause of these impure feelings is the fear the person has of them. "Something that they see or say or think brings them to their mind, and this makes them afraid, so that they suffer from them through no fault of their own"(8).

With this third reason St. John comes close to framing a psychological explanation. He is also aware of how difficult this state of impure thoughts can be to melancholics: "The devil, they think, definitely has access to them without their having the freedom to prevent it ... If these impure thoughts and feelings arise from melancholia, a person is not ordinarily freed from them until he is cured of that humor, unless the dark night close in upon the soul and deprives it successively of all things"(9). He also suggests that some people are more susceptible to these movements than others, for their natures are "delicate and tender, their humors and blood are stirred up by any change"(10).

St. John's explanations can be complemented by viewing these same phenomena according to Jung's hypothesis on psychic energy. The sensory movements happen frequently "in one's very spiritual exercises and in the reception of the Eucharist"(11). This timing is significant, and St. John emphasizes it in his descriptions: "...For they think these feelings come while they are engaged in prayer rather than at any other time. And this is true..."(12)

Consciousness forces its attention to spiritual things, and this process of selection necessarily tends to force the consideration of sensible things into the unconscious. If this process is continued for any length of time, as it is in someone who habitually cultivates a life of prayer, it is easy for these neglected contents to begin to build a counter-force to consciousness. Precisely when the consciousness is reaching towards the most pure spirituality, it is furthest removed from that which is sensual, and therefore, the tension between the two opposites is greatest, and from an energetic point of view, the energy that the neglected contents have is highest. Therefore, at the very moment of spiritual seeking the devil "succeeds in portraying to them very vividly things that are most foul and impure"(13).

What energy the sensual contents lose in consciousness by neglect, they pick up in the unconscious. This means that the sensual content in the unconscious should increase in constellating power because its energy charge is higher. This constellation is not only manifested by the emergence of the impure contents, which we have just seen, but also by the emotional affects connected with these contents which now emerge. The constellated content tends to gather around it a growing number of associative satellites held in its orbit by its new energetic intensity. The result is "that those who are affected by this dare not even look at anything or meditate upon anything because they immediately encounter this temptation" (14). This, as I have said, is a result of the high energy level of the neglected content which can immediately capture and transform innocent objects.

"And upon those who are inclined to melancholy this acts with such effect that they become greatly to be pitied since they are suffering so sadly; for this trial reaches such a point in certain persons, when they have this evil humour, that they believe it to be clear that the devil is ever present with them and that they have no power to prevent this." (15)

Melancholy in this context can be understood as a lack of energy available to consciousness for the pursuit of its activities; therefore, this class of person would fall prey more easily to the energized contents in the unconscious. Melancholy remains a generic classification which does not indicate the origins of this lack of conscious libido. The ultimate phase of opposition, the continual presence of the devil, can be equated with the emergence of the counter-function. The unconscious is in open opposition to the conscious attitude and gives it no peace. Consciousness is on the defensive, and its very fear and exertions to free itself from these temptations only render them more intensive, for it increases their energy, and so St. John very aptly describes the fear these people have as one of the sources for these impure motions.


It is possible to view the beginning of contemplation from the energetic standpoint as well. The prayer of beginners that was summed up under the headings of meditation and sensible spirituality is characterized by a certain harmony. The beginner has turned from the world which denied outlet to his spiritual aspiration and has found a new situation in which he experiences a vital feeling of satisfaction by attaining a viewpoint that comprises both God and the things of sense. This conversion stage is not simply the denial of the world and an embracing of the spiritual; in a very real way it is a harmony of the spiritual and sensible where God feels close and the spiritual world yields sensible satisfaction. The beginner experiences sensible delights in the pursuit of his spiritual goals. The tension between God and the world has been overcome and the two opposites, both sense and spirit, are working together.

Unfortunately, as pleasant as this state is, it cannot last. St. John is adamant in asserting that since God transcends what can be attained by any of the human faculties, then spiritual progress demands leaving the knowledge that can come through these faculties and proceeding by faith. The glorious wholeness that was experienced in the sensible analogate of mystical experience begins to fade. Both St. John and St. Teresa describe this transformation in terms of water imagery, which also played a role in Jung's description of psychic energy.

St. John likens the period of sensible spirituality to the flowing of sweet spiritual water which the beginner tastes "wheresoever and for as long as they desire"(16). However, there are essential limitations to how much water can come through the natural faculties which are conduits and pipes that bring it from afar. Contemplation, on the other hand, remedies this situation by making the water spring up in the very midst of the soul without the need of the efforts of meditation.

The transition, though, can be very difficult and traumatic:

"When they are going about these spiritual exercises with the greatest delight and pleasure, and when they believe that the sun of Divine favour is shining most brightly upon them, God turns all this light of theirs into darkness, and shuts against them the door and the source of the sweet spiritual water which they were tasting in God whensoever and for as long as they desired."(17)

It is as though the maximum water is being transported by the system of meditation, and when even greater demands are put upon it, it fails. If it did not fail, all the energy and effort that is bound up with it would not be released and made available in preparing the soul for what is to come, and the beginner would not realize his radical inability in achieving contemplation. Adaptation has broken down and a creative tension arises, hopefully out of which a new balance will come. This tension marks the whole period of the night of sense which is the period of initiation into contemplation.

In the night of sense, instead of being fed, the natural faculties must be mortified. From an energetic point of view the night of sense is the passification of the sensible man by aridity. This aridity and privation which empties the natural faculties is the hidden onslaught of contemplation, which is a different and higher light which blinds the soul to its ordinary ways of praying. Its purpose is to strip it of its limitations that come to it in virtue of its senses. The soul "loses the strength of its passion and concupiscence and it becomes sterile because it no longer consults its likings ... the desires of the soul are dried up." (18)*,,This phenomenon St. John describes in his commentary on the verse "my house being now at rest". "The four passions of the soul - which are joy, grief, hope and fear - are calmed through continual mortification"(19); the night of sense quenches natural energy and concupiscence.

But if the natural energy which works through consciousness is quenched, what happens to it? In accordance with the principle of equivalence, we should expect to see it emerging elsewhere. In actual fact, there is extensive phenomena which surrounds the night of sense and the transition to contemplation which were carefully described by St. John, which can be attributed to this reappearance of energy in different forms.

For example, in the Living Flame St. John describes how:

"with hardly any trouble, the devil works the greatest injuries, causing the soul to lose great riches, and dragging it forth like a fish, with the tiniest bait, from the depths of the pure waters of the spirit, where it had no support or foothold but was engulfed and immersed in God."(20)

But how is it that the smallest bait can have such an attraction for the soul precisely when it is beginning to enjoy this higher spiritual experience?

In the Ascent of Mount Carmel John is describing "the fight against the beast of the Apocalypse and its seven heads, which are in opposition to these seven degrees of love"(21). It is unfortunate that those who have conquered the first heads of the beast and are "passing out of the state of meditation" should find themselves conquered by this beast "at the moment of their entrance into purity of spirit"(22). And even the attraction to sense objects which they had overcome early in the struggle is revived. Why is it that the beast arises precisely at this moment and even his first head, attachment to sense, comes to life?

St. John's stress on the role of the devil underlines the autonomous quality of these temptations. His explanation, however, could not at that time go another step and recognize the compensatory relationship between the spiritual attitude of consciousness and the movements of sensuality in the unconscious. A distinct pattern is now emerging. Precisely at the moment when the soul is to pass over into a more spiritual way, it is attacked by a resurgence of sense; the heads of the dragon come alive again. The tiny bait of sense becomes irresistible, and foul and impure images can flood the mind. There are other phenomena which round out this picture and give us another view of the devil at work.

"For the evil one takes his stand, with great cunning, on the road which leads from sense to spirit, deceiving and luring the soul by means of sense, and giving it sensual things ... And if perchance any soul enters into recollection, he labours to bring about its ruin by means of horrors, fears or pains of the body, or by outward sounds and noises, causing it to be distracted by sense, in order to bring it out and distract it from the interior spirit, until he can do no more and so leaves it."(23)

As the beginner nears contemplation, the things of sense become more attractive, and if he eludes these sirens and enters into recollection, all hell breaks loose and attempts to drag him out. It is significant that these horrors, fears, pains and noises are meant to distract it by means of sense. Here again it is a case of high spirituality being accompanied by low sensuality.

Finally, if the person is being called by God to a high degree of spirituality, he or she can be subjected to the most extreme temptations of all, a kind of final outburst of sensuality.

"For to some the angel of Satan presents himself namely, the spirit of fornication - that he may buffet their senses with abominable and violent temptations, and trouble their spirits with vile considerations and representations which are most visible to the imagination, which things at times are a greater affliction to them than death."(24)

The form of this first temptation parallels St. John's discussion of the sin of spiritual lust. Acute purity of spiritual intent is matched by gross sensuality.

"At other times in this night there is added to these things the spirit of blasphemy, which roams abroad, setting in the path of all the conceptions and thoughts of the soul intolerable blasphemies. These it sometimes suggests to the imagination with such violence that the soul almost utters them, which is a grave torment to it."(25)

Here, again, the structure of this phenomenon is similar to the first temptation; the dwelling of consciousness on the infinite purity and goodness of God again has the impact of calling into being a counter-movement which attempts to balance it.

"At other times another abominable spirit, which Isaias calls Spiritus vertiginis, is allowed to molest them not in order that they may fall, but that it may try them. This spirit darkens their senses in such a way that it fills them with numerous scruples and perplexities, so confusing that, as they judge, they can never, by any means, be satisfied concerning them, neither can they find any help for their judgment in counsel or thought."(26)

The introduction of temptations to scrupulosity recalls St. John's trials in prison and presents a new facet in the phenomena that accompany the transition to contemplation. The root of scrupulosity lies in the inability to make a judgment about the value of certain conscious contents, whether they be good, bad or indifferent. The sufferers of this torment, as St. John says, cannot find any help for their judgment in counsel or thought, which is an indication that the problem does not lie in the realm of conscious decision. Therefore, we should look to the unconscious and its highly energized contents which are attempting to manifest themselves by way of scrupulosity. Those neglected contents, since they have no ordinary avenues of expression, emerge by way of various states of guilt and anxiety, and fasten themselves to conscious contents. The affect which then accompanies these conscious contents is out of proportion to the actual contents themselves, though in many cases these states of affect are selective in their choice of what they fasten onto. Scrupulous people are often scrupulous about a particular kind of thing, and this class of contents is related to the repressed and unassimilated contents in the unconscious.


In all these temptations the imagination plays a vital role. It is the imagination that holds up the images from the senses to the transforming forces from the unconscious. It becomes the arena in which conscious and unconscious struggle to achieve a new relationship.

The beginner is puffed up by his spiritual experiences. He attributes them to himself. From the psychological point of view, this is a state of inflation where the ego attributes to itself realities that are not its own proper possessions. St. John's description of the imperfection of beginners is a whole catalogue of these inflationary phenomena.(27) These beginners develop a vain desire to speak of spiritual things, to instruct rather than be instructed, to condemn others. They want no one except themselves to appear holy, and even make manifestations of this holiness in outward signs. They want their spiritual director to think good of them and to do what they want. They are not content with the spirit God gives them, and are distressed when their consolation diminishes. They measure the things of the spirit by their own sensible satisfactions. They want to be praised, and are envious of those who seem to be making progress.

The inflation of the beginners is quenched by the trials and temptations they undergo. The balance of energy has shifted to the unconscious. They are subjected to autonomous powers that buffet them and threaten to overwhelm them. Deflation follows inflation.


There are two important questions that arise from exploring the dynamics of psychic energy in St. John's descriptions of the trials of the spiritual life. The first is a practical one. How should a person act in this state? Here, in the past, the priest and the psychologist had different perspectives. If the priest viewed these temptations simply as such, that is, as the work of the devil or the weakness of the flesh, then he would logically advise the person to resist and fight these temptations as evil. The psychologist, for his part, because he is aware that there can be a direct relationship between the person's spiritual aspirations and these outbursts of sensuality, and that the two from a psychological point of view are elements that go to make up the whole psyche, realizes that these unpleasant contents cannot simply be repressed. For him this evil is as real as the good, and is a constitutive part, with the good aspirations, of the human psyche. We have returned, then, on the practical plane, to the epistemological problems that came up in Chapter Two.

There are, then, two kinds of interacting ethical systems that run through all these considerations and should be clarified further. The first is the psychological ethic where the accent is on the striving for human wholeness; consciousness must be suitably enlarged and the shadow or regressive and unpleasant aspects of the personality integrated. Without the undertaking of this painful effort not only will man not reach his full psychic stature, but he will become a social menace who finds his own worst weaknesses in others. Within this system the ethical goal is to be found in finding the midpoint of the total personality around which consciousness and the unconscious will balance. Overemphasis of either dimension of the personality will be a psychological ill that must be redressed. The law of ethical compensation is paramount because without its recognition, ethical efforts become one-sided and produce the effect opposite to what was originally intended. The underlying foundation of ethical compensation is a view of the full extent of the psyche which extends beyond consciousness.

Traditional morality, on the other hand, stands in contrast to this psychological ethic, for it is concerned primarily with conscious intent and free choice; and it is holiness that is sought above all else rather than wholeness; the will of man must be in accord with the will of God. Each of these systems has its own purpose and validity, but since they are operative within the same concrete individual they can appear at odds with each other because both often make use of the same material and vocabulary, but for contrasting ends. These differences will appear again in the context of spiritual direction, as they already have in relationship to the doctrine of the Quietists.


James Kirsch, a noted Jungian analyst, once asked Jung whether St. John's dark night of the soul was a process of individuation, and he replied, "John of the Cross' "Dark Night of the Soul" has nothing to do with this. Rather, integration is a conscious confrontation, a dialectical process..."(28) This brings us to the second question. Though there is a substratum of psychic dynamics underlying St. John's descriptions of the passage to contemplation, it would be precipitous to conclude either contemplation represents some kind of individuation or it is the result of the resolution of these tensions of psychic energy, At the same time it would be a valuable undertaking if the contemplative life would be examined from the point of view of Jung's psychology. In this way a description that would be tangential to that of the theologians could be developed which would highlight the transformations of psychic energy that take place on this inner spiritual journey. The theologian must assert the transcendent nature of contemplation in itself, but he can no longer do this without any reference to the nature of the psyche in which this contemplation is experienced. If contemplation demands a thoroughgoing program of mortification and a definite attitude of passivity when it is present, and thus could occasion the outbursts of sensuality that St. John describes, then it is crucial to arrive at a solution to these difficulties. The struggling contemplative needs both spiritual and psychological guidance. St. John provides the spiritual advice by pointing out the danger of ignoring this dawning contemplation because it is not as palpable as the natural working of the faculties. But from a psychological point of view the degree of psychic tension will be a result not only of the depth of the contemplative gift, as St. John implies in discussing the three temptations of those called to the heights of contemplation, but it will also be a function of the person's own degree of psychological integration. Any psychic weakness or lack of integration will accentuate the tensions occasioned by the impact of contemplation on the psyche. If a program of individuation could be tailored for the contemplative that would still allow him to maintain the contemplative goal as his central focus, it would, no doubt, ameliorate the trials that he must undergo. St. John, discussing spiritual lust, says: "if these impure thoughts and feelings arise from melancholia, a person is not ordinarily freed from them until he is cured of that humor, unless the dark night flows in upon the soul and deprives it successively of all things."(29)

As St. John indicates, there can be both a psychological as well as a spiritual approach to the same question, and in the darkness of his cell in Toledo he underwent a process that transformed him both spiritually and psychologically. In summary, we can trace the interaction of contemplation and individuation in St. John's life, poetry and doctrine about the beginning of mystical experience. Next this dual perspective will be focused on these questions about the life of prayer.



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