According to St. John of the Cross

by Father Laurian Zabalza, OCD


This topic touches a very sensitive aspect of spiritual development. It refers to a particular stretch of the prayer-life process, through which the person advances toward greater growth and maturity.

On the level of sanctifying union, which is the immediate effect and expression of God's indwelling, the theological virtues take over man's supernatural operations. By giving Himself, God has created in man the capability for receiving and responding to Him. Through these infused powers, called theological virtues, man enters into immediate contact with God and develops his communion with Him.

The theological virtues "are the means and dispositions for the soul's union with God;"(2) but they are not exercised in a purely vertical or disincarnate relationship with God. The purpose of theological virtues is to make a theological person; and the person lives and embodies such an attitude and potentialities in all his acts. The person's theological expressions are as numerous as his operations. In accordance with our topic we will see the underlying dynamism and expression of theological virtues in the development of a particular point of prayer-life, namely, the transition from meditation to contemplation. Meditation is inspired and sustained by the theological virtues, and contemplation is experienced in faith, or, even more, "is faith."(3)

To reflect on the transition from meditation to contemplation requires us to deal succinctly with both forms of prayer, meditation and contemplation, and with the crisis produced by the transition. The change is only detected by the signs which show forth the presence of contemplation since initial contemplation is not perceived in itself, but in the effect of passive purification it produces in the person. The person should be aware of the new situation in order to act in accord with the requirements of contemplation. Therefore, we shall touch the following points: 1) meditation, 2) contemplation, 3) crisis of transition, 4) signs of contemplation, 5) experience of initial contemplation 6) 'passive night of the sense' and 7) norms of conduct for the initial phase of 'passive night of the sense.'


Meditative prayer is one of the first and most basic expressions of theological life in the teaching of St. John of the Cross. God in his self-giving revelation to man has provided, besides his gratuitous presence, the interior dynamism and necessary stimulus to acknowledge, accept and develop their mutual relationship. God dwells within, but the person must look for Him, and this takes place in "discursive meditation, in which an individual begins his quest for God."(4) It is not enough to know that God is present. Faith requires mutual awareness and interaction. Man needs to reflect upon and deepen the knowledge of God's nature and words, to listen and interpret His Word Incarnate, to discover His will and put it into personal practice. To comply with these basic requirements the beginner in the spiritual life instinctively resorts to meditation.

In St. John's works the explanation of meditation is almost taken for granted. He does not write to explain its nature, role, method or techniques. There was enough written material about it. His main concern is to show that there are other and far more advanced forms of communication with God, toward which the person should be tending. Meditation is good, normal and beneficent, nevertheless to close himself in it would mean to resign himself to always remain a beginner and be condemned to stagnation. Meditation is neither the only one, nor the best form of prayer. It is only a preliminary and transitory form of dealing with God that must be superseded as soon as possible. Meditation is not the real thing, but the foretaste that announces and stimulates the desire for greater reality. The person should always remain open and striving for more.

St. John's teaching efforts are not centered on meditation, but rather in helping people to leave meditation behind and advance ahead toward union with God. He has found too many good people in his ministry who, for one reason or another, were unable to detach themselves from meditation and seriously impaired their spiritual growth. He describes the painful situation as he found it in those around him in these terms:

"Even though these souls have begun to walk along the road of virtues, and our God desires to place them in the dark night so they may move on to the divine union, they do not want to enter the dark night or allow themselves to be placed in it, and sometimes they misunderstand themselves and are without suitable and alert directors who will show the way to the summit."(5)

Keeping in mind this sad situation of confusion, stagnation and regression, John of the Cross decides to clarify the path of prayer and explain the internal laws of its development. He confesses that the task is difficult, but extremely important:

"I am not undertaking this arduous task because of any particular confidence in my abilities. Rather, I am confident that the Lord will help me explain this matter, because it is extremely necessary to so many souls."(6)

With this point in mind, St. John assumes the transition from meditation to higher forms of prayer as the converging point in which he centers his doctrinal preoccupation. This transitional phase can be considered as the intentional point of departure, according to his repeated assertions, But, of course, he cannot begin with the moment of transition without taking, at least succinctly, account of the precedent meditative period. In fact, without forgetting this intention, our author practically expands the angle of his study and makes the point of departure of his doctrine the grace of conversion, by which the person "has been resolutely converted to God's service."(7)


In St. John's teaching mental prayer or meditation is characterized by the preponderance of interior reflection and affection that is nourished and sustained by faith. He views meditation along the traditional lines. The person collects some truths or material with the cooperation of the exterior senses and imagination, upon which he applies his discursive reflection to draw some knowledge from it and stimulate his affection.

Many readers may be shocked by St. John's position, making meditation a 'sensory activity.' He affirms that meditation is "to work with the imagination,"(8) and qualifies such a prayerful activity as "imaginative way or sensory meditation."(9) The whole man is involved in meditative prayer, but St. John joins meditation with the interior senses of imagination and fantasy:

"Meditation is the work of these two faculties, since it is a discursive act built upon forms, figures, and images, imagined and fashioned by these senses. For example: the imagining of Christ crucified, or at the column, or in some other scene; or of God seated upon a throne with resplendent majesty; or the imagining and considering of glory as a beautiful light, etc.; or the picturing of any other human or divine object imaginable."(10)

The remark is important, not merely to appreciate the sensory participation in the mental and affective activity of the person, but to grasp the characterizing elements of meditation in contrast with the contemplative form of prayer. Meditation is carried out by man's spiritual faculties, intellect and will, but involves sensory activity, and its valuable contribution to the spiritual life is sustained and limited by the values and shortcomings of the senses. Meditation is activity of the 'sense,' it "is wholly sensible,"(11) while contemplation will be activity and life of the 'spirit.'(12)

The work of meditation is inspired and demanded by faith, but it is stimulated and sustained by the satisfactions it produces. The beginner in spiritual exercise is not strong enough to be totally motivated and guided by the teaching and demands of faith. This will come later at the advanced stages of the spiritual life; at present the individual is not so highly tuned and needs more sensible and tangible gratifications. To a great extent religious pleasure is what inspires and moves the person to act in the beginning of spiritual development. If before the person was drawn by sinful gratifications, the grace of conversion embodies deeper and more satisfying pleasure. Without religious pleasure the change of life would have been psychologically hindered, if not altogether impossible. Sinful pleasure is only supplanted by deeper and more gratifying pleasure. In St. John's words:

"A more intense enkindling of another, better love. . . is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure."(13)

God supplies this psychological need and motivation by pouring his tenderness and comforting favors on the feeble child that is the beginner in the spiritual life.

"The grace of God acts just as a loving mother by re-engendering in the soul new enthusiasm and fervor in the service of God. With no effort on the soul's part, this grace causes it to taste sweet and delectable milk and to experience intense satisfaction in the performance of spiritual exercises, because God is handing the breast of His tender love to the soul, just as if it were a delicate child."(14)

Sensible pleasure is God's kind response to the efforts, needs, and capabilities of the beginner.(15) Moved and sustained by the fervor generated by God's grace, the beginner undertakes his obligations and spiritual exercises with great enthusiasm, dedication and joy. Everything seems to be easy, marvelous and rewarding. The spiritual euphoria is so strong and delightful that holiness and perfect union with God don't look to be too far away. There is no spiritual enterprise too strenuous or arduous. St. John explains the religious experience of this period in these terms:

"The soul finds its joy in spending lengthy periods at prayer, perhaps even entire nights; its penances are pleasures; its fasts, happiness; and the sacraments and spiritual conversations are its consolations."(16)

Nowadays the embodiments are different, but the moral and psychological motivations are the same. Today's preferences are not commonly centered on fast and penances, but the self-gratifying impulse is identical. The one-sided emphasis in various and ever-changing liturgical celebrations, the constant search for emotionally self-fulfilling prayer groups and various religions are different variations and tonalities of the same melody; religious self-satisfaction. The forms change, but the underlying principles remain unchanged. The beginner searches for God, spiritual things and exercises because of the religious feelings and gratifying experiences he enjoys.

St. John at this moment registers the underlying self-seeking motivation and explains the benefits of the religious experiences. Self-seeking motivation in spiritual things is very selfish and sensible, but it becomes indispensable at the beginning. Later the self-seeking promptings will be put under control and supplanted, but at present it is the only inspiration and force of his actions.

Meditative prayer is the place and central generator of the sensible delights and fervors that animate and strengthen the beginner. Due to our rational and cold formation, or to the bias of excessive emotionalism, we tend to depreciate and neglect such fervors and sensory pleasures as mere emotional or psychological reflexes. But this is not the position of St. John of the Cross. Although it may appear to many paradoxical, or even contradictory, St. John not only mentions and describes the sensible pleasure, but also approves and appraises it in his system He values the sensible fervors and satisfactions as genuine graces come from God. He, better than anybody else, knows how superficial and sensory these feelings may be; nevertheless, he recognizes their divine origin and the important role they fulfill at this stage. Later on, at the opportune moment,(17) they must be left behind as useless and even harmful, but at the beginning they are necessary and extremely beneficent;(18) without them the normal and gradual progress would be dangerously impaired.


The person seriously dedicated to God's service must apply himself, with the help of grace, to the twofold aspect of his conversion; to increase the knowledge and love, and therefore, his attachment to God, and to eradicate his attachments and inclinations to sinful or worldly things. Meditation, with the mental reflection and sensible affection it generates, contributes to the attainment of such an important goal. In fact, we can summarize the purpose assigned to meditation in the juanistic system in the following points:

1. To get a loving knowledge and affection for God.(19)

2. To get some disposition to deal with spiritual things through the senses.(20)

3. To get some detachment from worldly things.(21)

4. To acquire some virtues.(22)

5. To get ready for contemplation.(23)

The period of meditation could be more or less protracted. There is no uniform abstract pattern to be followed. Every person has different needs and capabilities, and God's grace follows the rhythm of personal growth. God does not easily dispense with the psychological and spiritual laws of growth and maturity; and these require, beside God's grace and man's dedication, time to be developed. In abstract terms we may say that meditation will last as long as the above-mentioned goals are not satisfactorily attained.


Meditation requires time, but in time meditation must be given up and supplanted by other forms of prayer. St. John has a very positive and sympathetic approach to the beginners and their meditative prayer; but he strongly criticizes the mentality and attitudes of all those who, misled by their own selfishness, tepidity and ignorance, or by the wrong advice given by daring and unexperienced spiritual directors,(24) would like to stay, or would force others to remain in this stage. Meditative prayer is a normal, useful and necessary form of prayer, but initial and transitory as well. Prayer to grow and mature must transcend the structure and mechanism of meditation and assume new, higher and more refined and interior forms of communion with God.

Meditative payer, being so profitable and indispensable at the beginning, is not applicable to the entire spiritual road. Its efficiency is sharply limited. The purpose assigned to meditation by St. John is not to effect union with God - that transcends the possibilities of meditation - but to reorientate the person toward God and dispose him for contemplation through the knowledge and love it produces and the virtues it generates. In view of the union with God meditation stands as a mediate and remote means.(25)

In the practice of prayer a moment arrives when the person has developed all the potentialities of meditation. The meditative technique does not allow any further development. By means of it the person can obtain neither greater knowledge nor deeper love for God; his meditative power of assimilation is saturated. To grow is necessary to change; but this change cannot be induced by man. The person is neither able to clearly evaluate his spiritual level to see if the goal of meditation has been reached, nor has any power to fix the moment of change. Any gradual change in man's relation with God has to come from God, since progress is only achieved when God, in his loving self giving, expands man's receptivity. When the person "has acquired the substantial and habitual spirit of meditation"(26) and the benefits of meditation have sufficiently conditioned and fortified the endurance of the beginner to undertake greater and more important enterprise,(27) God weans him of meditative prayer and introduces him into a new and loftier form of prayer, called contemplation.


The grace of contemplation not only effects a different and higher form of prayer, it also marks the presence of new factors, new mechanism, new methods, new results. By means of meditation man searches for God; in contemplation it is God who searches for man. Contemplation produces new mutual relationship, new interior place, new experiences, and new encounter. Meditation was a remote and superficial way of dealing with God; contemplation is the proper and adequate means of relating to God and the place wherein the perfect union and transformation will take place. In contemplation the most sublime moments of God's self giving to man will be celebrated. The transition from meditation to contemplation opens the door and foretells promising spiritual realizations.


Numerous are St. John's descriptions of contemplation. For our purpose let us register a few of them:

"Contemplation is nothing else than a secret and peaceful and loving inflow of God, which, if not hampered, fires the soul in spirit of love."(28)

"This dark night is an inflow of God into the soul, which purges it of its habitual ignorances and imperfections, natural and spiritual, and which the contemplatives call infused contemplation or mystical theology. Through this contemplation, God teaches the soul secretly and instructs it in the perfection of love without its doing anything nor understanding how this happens."

"Insofar as infused contemplation is loving wisdom of God, it produces two principal effects in the soul: it prepares the soul for the union with God through love by both purging and illumining it. Hence the same loving wisdom that purges and illumines the blessed spirits, purges and illumines the soul here on earth."(29)

"Contemplation is a high place where God in this life begins to communicate and show Himself to the soul, but not completely. However sublime may be the knowledge God gives the soul in this life, it is but like a glimpse of Him from a great distance."(30)


The theological and psychological structure of contemplation includes,. in one way or another, the following elements: the giver and agent of contemplation (God through his Holy Spirit), the recipient of contemplation (the person in his passive powers of the intellect and will), the content of contemplation (its divine inflow of dark knowledge and love), and the purpose of effects of it (the person's purification and communion with God).

In the meditative phase the person was searching for God, extracting some knowledge and love from his discursive and affective activity. Meditation has been the result of man's work and commitment. God rewards and crowns such a persevering and faithful dedication by making himself present and active. "God is now the worker"(31) and takes over the initiative and the plan to be carried out. Undoubtedly God has always been the main worker and promoter of spiritual progress. In fact, "it cost God a great deal to bring these souls to this stage and He highly values his work of having introduced them into this solitude and emptiness."(32) But it is now when His presence and activity becomes clearer and more efficient, since the person does not know how or where to move.

"The soul should advert that God is the principal agent in this matter, and that He acts as the blind man's guide who must lead it by the hand to the place it does not know how to reach: to supernatural things of which neither its intellect, will, nor memory can know the nature."(33)

"Since He is the supernatural artificer, He will construct supernaturally in each soul the edifice He desires."(34)

"God in this state is the agent and the soul is the receiver."(35)

"But God acts through the hidden and powerful unctions of the Holy Spirit,(36) who is the chief agent, guide and mover of the soul."(37)


The object or content of contemplation is an inflow of dark and general knowledge and love. Contemplation can be more or less pure;(38) in its pure act God does not grant some grace or favor, as separated from Himself. Contemplation is not the infusion of dark knowledge and love about God. It is not a means by whose power or extension the person could reach out to God. It is God self giving to the person. God is not only the giver of contemplation, He is also the gift and the given. Knowledge and love are the only means in which or by which He can be adequately received and enjoyed by man; and such perception is dark or general because it transcends the connatural(39) and clear knowledge of human experience. Dark knowledge and love are the proper effect and awareness produced by God's immediately self giving to the person.

St. John repeatedly teaches that contemplation is nothing else than God giving Himself. The content of contemplation is described, among other, in the following juanistic terms:

"In this loving awareness God communicates Himself."(40)

"He revealed some deep glimpses of his Divinity and beauty."(41)

"A strong and overflowing communication and glimpse of what God is in Himself."(42)

"By means of this loving and obscure knowledge, God joins Himself to the soul in a high and divine degree."(43)

"For in the transformation of the soul in God, it is God who communicates Himself with admirable glory."(44)

"God is divine light and love in His communication of Himself to the soul."(45)

"God infuses Himself to the soul."(46)

"The shadow that the lamp of God's beauty casts over the soul will be another beauty according to the measure and property of God's beauty; and the shadow that fortitude casts over it will amount to another fortitude commensurate with God's; and the shadow of God's wisdom upon it will be another wisdom corresponding to God's wisdom; and so with the other lamps. To express it better, it will be the very wisdom, and the very beauty, and the very fortitude of God in shadow, because the soul here cannot comprehend God perfectly. Since the shadow is so formed by God's size and properties that it is God Himself in shadow, the soul clearly knows God's excellence."(47)

"The Beloved revealed to her some rays of his grandeur and divinity."(48)

"In this high state of spiritual marriage the Bridegroom reveals His wonderful secrets to the soul, as to His faithful consort, with remarkable ease and frequency, for true and perfect love knows not how to keep anything hidden from the beloved. He communicates to her, mainly, sweet mysteries of His incarnation and of the ways of redemption of mankind, which is one of the loftiest of His works, and thus more delightful to the soul."(49)

This sublime perspective is open to the favored person who enters into contemplative prayer. The real depth of it will be reached only in the last and higher communications, but every pure contemplative act, even the initial ones, shares the quality and sublimity of God's infusion.


Our natural way of knowing and relating to things and people is through images, forms and ideas. Through them we are able to understand, love, communicate and interact. But God can neither be grasped by the senses,(50) nor by our minds.(51) He is absolutely transcendent and ineffable, and cannot be formulated in clear understandings or ideas. He can only be received and perceived in the dark and loving knowledge of contemplation, that is according to the mode of faith; and faith transcends every clear idea and understanding. The contemplative experience is immediately given to man, without passing through the senses or the active and knowledge-producing mind, and is received in the passive powers of the soul.

The individual, to welcome God's self giving through contemplation, must detach himself from his active connatural ways of knowing and loving because there is no proportion between human, clear ideas and representations and the divine nature. God is greater than our mind and heart. He can only be grasped and enjoyed in general and dark knowledge and love. Contemplative activity, by essence, is supernatural, infused, passively received, dark and ineffable.

The divine infusion of contemplation affects man's psychological receptivity and perception, and, consequently, it changes and innovates his way of communicating with God. Until now the way of searching for and relating to God has been based on the mechanism of meditative prayer, where man is in control of his natural activity and produces new ideas, understandings and love; now God makes Himself present, and there is no need of looking after His footprints. As a result, meditation is surpassed and ceases. Theoretically it should be a very happy occasion: a great and decisive improvement has taken place; the poor, sensory, natural and superficial meditative mechanism disappears to be succeeded by the supernatural, infused contemplative activity. Experientially, nevertheless, it does not look so enjoyable a situation. Meditative prayer is over, but with it all its spiritual securities and consolations are also gone. Contemplation is present, but unnoticed. This creates a new, but delicate psychological and spiritual position. The transition from meditation to contemplation is wonderful and invaluable, but it does not happen without anxieties and pain. Since one does not leave the meditative practice until he enters into the habit of supernatural contemplation, there is a long stretch marked by special crisis and mixed experiences. Let us see the main feelings that accompany the transition.


The differences between meditation and contemplation are deep and many. With the grace of contemplation a new state in spiritual life begins. The transition from meditation to contemplation has the role of a bridge or ladder that, taking leave of the natural ground and operation of his own efforts and activity, connects and joins at the other extreme with divine and supernatural operation. The transition or bridge is God's work. The person has labored hard to reach that point of spiritual growth, but left alone, cannot pass over to the other side. Man cannot reach out, gain or merit God. God cannot be overcome or reached by man's struggle and efforts. He only gives himself freely and lovingly to those whom He has previously disposed and given the desire, hunger and longing for Him. The invitation to contemplation is God's wonderful gift, but the person must receive it and cooperate or comply with it. And this is not too easy. God's way of being and acting with man is always mysterious and surprising for the human mind. Through meditation man has been able to deal with God in a connatural and human manner; in contemplation God deals with man in a divine and supernatural way. The change is radical, and it does not happen without confusion and pain. Everything new surprises and disconcerts, especially when it is not clearly identified or understood. The transition from meditative prayer to contemplation causes a serious and painful crisis.

The confusion is originated around the new situation of the person and the values of his religious experiences. Since the moment of conversion the person has been able to know where he stands in regard to God, to human relations and the practice of Christian virtues. It has not been easy, but he has managed to remain faithful in his commitment to God, in his spiritual or religious exercises and in the practice of Christian living. Everything was well coordinated and compact. Meditation was the converging and animating focus of his life and the source of his strength. Because he has prayed well, he has been able to advance and gain good results. He finds deeper and better harmony in the self, greater control of his passions, lesser sins, greater spontaneity in the practice of virtues, and especially easier communication with God. He has been able to taste the goodness of the Lord. Although he is not self-complacent, he is really satisfied and grateful for the success obtained, and is ready to continue in the same way, thinking that "such procedure is a permanent requirement" for his future progress.(52)

The good past experiences prove to him that the path of future spiritual development will be similar to the past, with the advantageous difference that the more he advances the better his communion with God and the easier the practice of virtues will be. The spiritual satisfaction he has experienced and the good works performed assure him that he is in the right path. To go ahead - he thinks - only requires dedication and perseverance. But the spiritual journey is not so simple, homogeneous and lineal. Too often to go ahead means to go deeper, and to work harder and more efficiently, which means not to hinder God's plan and activity. The interior journeys are not defined by length and quantity, but by quality and simplicity. To go ahead does not correspond to being happy and satisfied, but to become more obedient and submissive to God's will. To take for granted that the future progress will follow the same meditative pattern could be natural, but surprisingly mistaken.


In the meditative exercise a moment arrives when the person in spite of his best dispositions cannot go on, and begins feeling fears and anxieties. He gradually becomes aware that he is unable to recollect his intellect and imagination any longer, and that he cannot draw the spiritual joy and strength from the things he used to consider with so great affection. Little by little he realizes that it is not a bad moment or a temporary indisposition. The experience is prolonged and this makes it more alarming. The person is, as never before, interested in loving God, performing good works and faithfully fulfilling his duties, but everything seems to be ineffectual. The more he works, the less he is able to concentrate his powers and put himself in communication with God.

A short time ago he thought that everything was fine and reassuring; he was enjoying everything and his plans were as good as ever. Suddenly, without previous warning, everything has been changed and he is frightened. In this term, St. John describes the change:

"It is at this time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them that God darkens all this light and closes the door and spring of the sweet spiritual water they were tasting as often and as long as they desired. For since they were weak and tender, no door was closed to them. God now leaves them in such darkness that they do not know which way to turn in their discursive imaginings; they cannot advance a step in meditation, as they used to, now that the interior sensory faculties are engulfed in this night."(53)

The divine graces, as well as the beginner's fervors and consolations, so clearly felt in the past, are now either faded away or wrapped in darkness. What is happening? In man's perception it is something frightful and alarming, although, in fact, something extremely good and decisive: the transition from meditation to contemplation, the transition from the human, sensory and inadequate way of dealing with God, to a new, supernatural and divine way of communication. God is coming to man. But the person involved does not recognize such a progress and benefit; quite the contrary, on the level of psychological perception, what is happening is disconcerting and alarming. He is not aware of getting anything, while becoming more keenly aware that the good and comforting graces of the past are lost. Through dedication and constancy the person has been able to acquire the habit of prayer; and now, when he is so solicitous about God's matters, finds himself empty-handed.

Looking at his past, he realizes that he has been persevering and faithful; what he does not recognize is the fact that he has attained everything that could be reached through these means, and that he is meditatively saturated and cannot proceed ahead in the same way. A change is required, but not the one planned by the person. He wants to go back to his sensible fervors and satisfactions, to his past experiences and consolations; but surprisingly the more he tries to go back to his known method of prayer, the less he is able to pray and find peace and serenity of mind. With it the hope of going ahead and fastening his march toward God seems to vanish.


At this moment a serious temptation could present itself: to view the past under the impression of the present crisis. Has the past been something real, positive, constructive, or a mere emotion and self-illusion that is de-masqueraded by the reality of the present dryness, doubts and confusions? If God were present, where is He now, when He is so badly needed? Is it worthwhile to go on this way? Which are the alternatives?

If the person rejects the idea of going back to his past fervors and sensible consolations and the serious temptation of giving up the practice of prayer and searching for worldly satisfactions, he will be gradually introduced into contemplative prayer. But to gain that he must remain faithful in prayer and endure the crisis.

The crisis that accompanies the transition from meditation to contemplation is so difficult and strenuous that St. John is moved to write about it, to clarify the situation and help those people enduring it. With this preoccupation in mind he explains the factors involved in this critical situation and the attitude that the person is supposed to keep to endure the trial securely and profitably. He is convinced that his doctrine is "extremely necessary to many souls;"(54) and the reason is because too many are confused and disorientated.

"God gives many souls the talent and grace for advancing, and should they desire to make the effort they would arrive at this high state. And so it is sad to see them continue in their lowly method of communion with God because they do not want to know how to advance, or because they receive no direction on breaking away from methods of beginners. Even if our Lord finally comes to their aid to the extent of making them advance without these helps, they reach the summit much later, expend more effort, and gain less merit, because they do not willingly adapt themselves to God's work of placing them on the pure and reliable road leading to union. Although God does lead them - since He can do so without their cooperation - they do not accept his guidance. In resisting God who is conducting them, they make little progress, and their merit is lessened, because they do not apply their wills, and as a result they must endure greater suffering. Some souls instead of abandoning themselves to God and cooperating with Him, hamper Him by their indiscreet activity or resistance. They resemble children who kick and cry, and struggle to walk by themselves when their mothers want to carry them; in walking by themselves they make no headway, or if they do, it is at child's pace."(55)

The person is put in a new, higher and unknown situation, and he feels lost, disoriented, confused, without knowing where he stands or where he is going. God is inviting and introducing him into the new form of contemplative prayer, but he does not recognize such divine action; he only feels his own darkness and anguish, since he has lost what he possessed and been substituted by aridity arid confusion. On the level of man's perception everything seems to be bad. It is the nature of transition to love the past and confront something different and new. There is fear at being divested of the well known and secure past experiences and being unable to identify and quietly accept the new situation. This critical moment marks the beginning of the passive purification that will be developed under the presence of contemplation and that we will study later on. The crisis is basically due to the fact that the person is unable to recognize the contemplation and comply with its demands.

The inability to identify the contemplation proceeds from the psychological disposition of the person. Objectively there are recognizable symptoms of the presence of contemplation, but for the person it is something so new, different and unexpected that it is not immediately identified. It requires time and peace of mind; some times it will only be recognized with the help and assurance of spiritual directors, who will explain the laws of spiritual development and point out the new and positive factors that accompany the crisis. Little by little he will be able to quiet down and find some sort of peace and consolation, realizing that what he is experiencing is neither his deviation from the right path of prayer, nor God's abandonment, but the normal crisis that accompanies the transition from meditation to contemplation, the change from the life of the sense to the life of the spirit.(56)

How can the person discern the positive values of the new situation and discern the symptoms of spiritual progress? Which are the signs through which it is possible to recognize the crisis and identify the presence of contemplation?


At this delicate and crucial moment of spiritual growth to identify the factors involved and to assume an appropriate attitude is vital, since it means to advance or to retrogress. St. John, deeply concerned with this critical moment, has repeatedly touched the point and given the main characteristics or signs that prove that contemplation is present. This piece of teaching is really vital and decisive. To neglect or dismiss it could be tragic, as St. John complains; and to precipitate or to delay it could mean serious damage.(57) To make the right diagnosis at the right time guarantees the right treatment.

Although the doctrine is explicitly expounded in Living Flame of Love, the more direct and orderly explanation is found in Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night.(58) In these places St. John gives us three signs by which the presence of contemplation can be recognized and proved.

Dark Night 1. 9

1. Lack of satisfaction either in God's things or in creatures.

"The first is that as these souls do not get satisfaction or consolation from the things of God, they do not get any from creatures either."

2. Solicitous care about not serving God.

"The second sign . . . is that the memory ordinarily turns to God solicitously and with painful care, and the soul thinks it is not serving God but turning back, because it is aware of this distaste for the things of God."

3. Impossibility to meditate.

"The third sign . . . is that the powerlessness, in spite of one's efforts, to meditate and make use of the imagination . . . as was one's previous custom."

Ascent 2, 13

1. Impossibility to meditate.

"The first is the realization that one cannot make discursive meditation nor receive satisfaction from it as before. Dryness is now the outcome of fixing the senses upon subjects which formerly provided satis-faction."

2. Disinclination and dissatisfaction of the imagina-tion to be fixed on particular objects.

"The second sign is an awareness of a disinclination to fix the imagination or sense faculties upon other particular objects, exterior of interior."

3. Loving awareness of God.

"The third and surest sign is that a person likes to remain alone in loving awareness of God, without particular considerations, in interior peace and quiet and repose, and without the acts and exercises . . . of the intellect, memory and will . . ."

The signs in the Ascent and in the Dark Night are essentially the same. The only difference is in the third sign of Ascent (loving awareness of God), in relation to the second of Dark Night (solicitous care about not serving God). While in the Ascent the emphasis is put in the 'loving attention' and peaceful awareness, in the Dark Night the analysis stresses the dissatisfaction and lack of consolation that the person feels under God's action (first sign) and the care and painful solicitude of not serving God.

In the Ascent the immediate effect of contemplation, which appears as loving, tranquil, peaceful and joyful, is 'loving awareness' or peaceful attentiveness to God, while in the Dark Night contemplation, which appears as dry, purgative and painful, produces, as its first effect, solicitous and painful care for God. The different characteristics denote different chronological moments of contemplation, that must not be opposed, but complemented, as it is clearly stated by St. John:

"This loving knowledge is communicated in the beginning through the exercise of interior purgation, in which the individual suffers, as we said, and afterwards in the delight of love."(59)

The explanation given by St. John in those places is easy to understand. The probative force lies in the conjunction of the three signs. The mere lack of satisfaction, whether in God's things or in creatures, could be explained either by negligence or natural indisposition. The decisive and surest sign is the loving awareness and solicitude about not serving God. This can be explained neither by personal indifference - "the lukewarm person does not care much for the things of God, nor is he inwardly solicitous about them"(60) - nor by natural indisposition or sickness. This sensibility and anxiety about God is the first formal effect of contemplation, and it means that God, given in loving knowledge(61) is drawing the person to Himself. The effects of contemplation are greater union with God and purification, and consequently disinterest and dissatisfaction from worldly things.

If one would like to reflect on the signs and see their mutual interrelation, he should previously study the nature of contemplation and derive from it all the effects caused in the psychological perception. The signs are not mutually caused or interacting; they are explained in virtue of the deeper cause, that is contemplation, and from which the three manifestative symptoms come.

Contemplation, being God giving Himself to the person, necessarily produces and intensifies the solicitude, diligence, longings and communication with God. When the person, in the midst of dryness, remains faithful and committed to the search of God, to the practice of virtues and the fulfillment of his duties, we may say that he is under God's special and contemplative influence;(62) he is unable to meditate because God is leading him into a more interior logical prayer or prayer of faith. Not to experience anything of this sort would mean lack of authentic contemplation. If there is, and while there is, authentic contemplation, meditation, as discursive reflection, becomes impossible. The subject is deeply engaged and immersed in passively receiving God's self giving in knowledge and love, and there is neither possibility nor any convenience in actively engaging in anything else. Any active effort along the line of mental discourse and particular loving acts would hinder or seriously impair God's operation in the person.

The same fact explains the dissatisfaction in fixing the imagination on particular objects. Neither good nor bad things are able to grasp the interest and greediness of the imagination. If the will is interested in other objects, the imagination is abandoned to itself and is a lost vagabond.

There are other concomitant symptoms and feelings at this time, but the registered ones are the more relevant and indicative of the new situation. The person who, after being persevering and faithful to the practice of prayer and Christian virtues, finds himself at this juncture, may take for granted that he is not regressing in the spiritual road or being abandoned by God, but that he is in the right track and doing well; even more, that he is experiencing the first and valuable fruits of contemplation.


It is one thing to have received the grace of contemplation, and another and different thing to be aware of it. The three signs, already registered in St. John's teaching, are indicative of the presence of contemplation, but they don't say anything about the conscious experience of it. Since we tend to equate one thing with the other, it may be useful to distinguish both aspects and evaluate both of them separately. Our point responds to the question: does the person consciously experience (the presence of) initial contemplation? The person may possess real infused contemplation without being aware of it.

Contemplation essentially is God giving Himself to the person in the form of dark, general knowledge and love; but the person entering into contemplation does not perceive the divine communication, but his own sentiments and reactions of confusion and anxiety. Up until now the person has been involved in the active work of discursive meditation, "which is wholly sensible,"(63) and has been able to notice his own active involvement, the sensible graces and fervors, and the good results obtained. With the grace of contemplation, something unusual happens that disconcerts the person. First of all, he notices that he cannot meditate any longer. At the same time he realizes that he is not interested in worldly things; in their regard he only feels disgust. His only concern is God and spiritual things, but he feels helpless relating to Him, in spite of his increased efforts. The person becomes aware of a new situation wherein he has lost his well-known road and cannot figure out where he is or what he is doing.

God has not abandoned him, but He acts in such a lofty and delicate way that the person, accustomed to perceptible and sensible things and fervors, cannot notice either God's presence or His action. St. John explains the reason of such unawareness:

"At the beginning of this state the loving knowledge is almost unnoticeable. There are two reasons for this: first, ordinarily the incipient loving knowledge is extremely subtle and delicate, and almost imperceptible; second, a person who is habituated to the exercise of meditation, which is wholly sensible, hardly perceives or feels this new, insensible, purely spiritual experience. This is especially so when through failure to understand it he does not permit himself any quietude, but strives after the other more sensory experience."(64)

The failure to understand can be aggravated by the painful mental confusion that affects the person at this moment.(65) There are only indirect signs or indications, no direct awareness of contemplation.(66) The person does not perceive the initial contemplation in itself, but only in the effects it produces. These can be summarized in the following points:

1. Experience of dryness and void.(67)

2. Experience of withdrawal into solitude.(68)

3. Experience of habitual care and solicitude for God.(69)

4. Experience of interior strength and energy.(70)

All these sentiments are contained in the following quote:

"The reason for this dryness is that God transfers His goods and strength from sense to spirit. Since the sensory part of the soul is incapable of the goods of spirit, it remains deprived, dry, and empty, and thus, while the spirit is tasting, the flesh tastes nothing at all and becomes weak in its work."

"But the spirit through this nourishment grows stronger and more alert, and becomes more solicitous than before about not failing God. If in the beginning the soul does not experience this spiritual savor and delight, but dryness and distaste, it is because of the novelty involved in this exchange."(71)


God is present and active, drawing the person to Himself and detaching him from sinful or vain affections, but He can only be noticed by the effects He produced. The exterior and superficial surface of life continues the same way, with the same schedule, with the same occupations; but the interior dispositions and feelings begin somehow to change. God is especially intervening and putting the foundation for further and deeper reform and better natural communication. This obviously disturbs the weak securities of the person; but it is necessary to shake false securities and illusions to establish the communion with God on firm ground, and accommodate the human way of being and acting to the supernatural requirements of God's presence and action.

To experience the presence of God the person needs to be "gradually prepared by means of this dark and obscure night"(72) of uncertainties, fears and confusion caused by contemplation. Contemplation's first task is not to reveal God's presence, but to reform and change the person, so that he will be sensitive, open, and free enough to communicate with God in a spiritual way. Contemplation, before producing conscious presence, union and enjoyment, causes darkness and pain. God is too great and deep and light-filled to be perceived by rough sensitivity. God is too sublime and the person needs to be more conditioned to His nature and communicability. And it is God Himself who carries out this special preparatory work in the receptivity of the person through contemplation. In other words, God through contemplation disposes the place of his indwelling and predisposes the spiritual sensibility of the person to perceive and respond to God's communication and interaction. St. John's words are clear:

"Since its palate is accustomed to these other sensory tastes, the soul still sets its eyes on them. And since, also, its spiritual palate is neither purged nor accommodated for so subtle a taste, it is unable to experience the spiritual savor and good until gradually prepared by means of this dark and obscure night, the soul rather experiences dryness and distaste because of a lack of the gratification it formerly enjoyed so readily."(73)

In other words, we can say that the immediate perceived effect of God's acting through contemplation is void, darkness, night. It may seem paradoxical that God, who is light and love, produces darkness and night in the person, but that is the case until the receiver is conditioned and well prepared to notice and enjoy God's mysterious communication.

At the beginning he might notice some interior attraction into solitude and quiet, but his fears and confusion rendered him unable to understand the nature of such feelings and follow them.

St. John's experience and wisdom prepared him to illustrate this stretch of spiritual journey as no one had done before. He not only identified the causes and analyzed the factors involved, but also, and with great sensitivity and compassion, grasped the person's anguish and trial, that he baptized with his own term, 'night, passive night of the sense.'


Night, in St. John's doctrinal context, is the general atmosphere that wraps up the entire religious experience, and, even more, the entire human existence. Man cannot clearly understand the mystery of his own life and nature. Man's ground and destiny cannot be grasped with clarity. Man is greater than his own mind, and the few things that man is able to grasp are wrapped in darkness and grounded in mystery. Darkness seems to be as close and familiar as light. Night, with its mystery of darkness that creates privation and nothingness for the eye, impressed the sensitive and keen perception of St. John; but he did not stop in the sensible and mysterious spectacle of the natural night. He knew that there are other levels of being wherein the night symbol is equally applicable and more realistically realized. Darkness falls on the physical eyes but also on the mind and will, and when it happens, the interior faculties, and therefore the whole person, remain in darkness, deprived of the security of his own plans and ideas and divested of his affection and attachments. Man carries his night outside and inside. The exterior night with its impressive spectacle is only an invitation to enter and observe the night, the multiple nights, that man carries in his life.

St. John has assumed this rich term, night, to describe and explain the darkness that falls upon human existence. Taken from the natural experience, the symbolism of night in St. John stands for darkness, and for what darkness produces: privation, lack of vision, confinement, detachment, renunciation, mortification, etc. Night is the attitude of a person who renounces or puts away things, affections or forms of being. Its essential concept is obscurity, but obscurity stands for privation, detachment, mortification or control. In this meaning night embraces the entire spiritual journey, in its point of departure (giving up sinful affections), in its path and guide, that is faith (supernatural light that blinds man's rational light), and in its term or goal, who is God (and God cannot be enjoyed but in darkness in this life). Darkness is man's inseparable companion from the beginning to the end of life.

Man can only enter into himself by giving up exterior concerns, and can reach God only by doing away with everything else. The initiative can come either from the person who, helped with God's normal grace, endeavors to advance and get closer to God, or from God Himself who backs the person's efforts with the powerful means of contemplation. According to the predominance of one of these forms, purification or night is active or passive. On the latter case, the power of God's action is so deep and lofty, and so distant from the experience of personal endeavor that the person seems to do nothing but to endure it. "The faculties are at rest, and do not work actively but passively, by receiving what God is effecting in them."(74)

Our theme places us at the conjunction of the active and passive purification, or in other words, in the transition from active to passive night. (The transition from meditation to contemplation marks, properly speaking, not the transition from active to passive purification, since the active work must continue until the end, but rather the beginning of the passive night.) The person has been faithful and persevering in carrying out the purifying task; he has done as much as possible, but not enough. God comes to his aid, with much better and efficient means. Purification does not merely consist in giving up affections or things. A healthy detachment is caused by a proportional attachment to God. It is only possible to give up something, after something else has been previously acquired. The will is only moved by affection. When God gives Himself in knowledge and love, the receiving person cannot but feel attached to God. Consequently other affections lose interest and cease.

God, by giving Himself in contemplation, produces in the receiver a new night, the 'passive night of the sense.'


This passive night or purification is made up of several elements: infused contemplation, unplanned and painful situations, natural passivities, human conflicts, and so on. The main cause is God giving Himself in dark knowledge and love in the passive intellect and will. The person receives Him in a passive way without involving either his active power of reflecting and loving or his imagination and exterior senses. Now the activity of these spiritual (intellect and will) and sensory (imagination and exterior senses) faculties produced the meditative prayer that was called 'life of the sense' or sensory activity. With the arrival of the infused and supernatural contemplation the 'sense's' natural meditative activity is stopped and transcended. The 'sense' (exterior and interior sensible powers, plus the natural activity of the intellect and will) stays inhabilitated, bound, like in a void, or in darkness. This ligature of the activity of the 'sense' is called 'passive night of the sense.'(75)

Unable to use his spiritual powers and imagination, the person realizes that he cannot meditate, and that the more he tries, the more unsuccessful he becomes. His efforts only produce dryness, disgust and disquiet. The result is, on one hand, an increased solicitude and anxiety for God, since he cannot resign himself to this situation, and on the other hand, disappointments and pain, because he can do nothing and fears the worst. St. John characterizes this situation with strong and dreadful adjectives:

"Dark and dry purgation"(76)

"This dry and dark night of contemplation. . ."(77)

"The soul is clothed in these other garments of labor, dryness and desolation. . ."(78)

"Bitter and terrible to the senses."(79)

"Arid and obscure night. . ."(80)


In the first instance what perturbs and alarms the prayerful person is to verify that he cannot continue meditating any longer. Until now meditation has been the expression of his religious practice and commitment to God. In it he has enjoyed the deepest and most consoling experiences. God has generously poured his divine graces upon the soul, and with them the knowledge and love for God has been increased. As in any living and human exercise, there have been ups and downs in the meditative experience, but the general impression has been good, consoling and comforting. Now the source of his sensible graces and spiritual strength is closed down; in its place he finds dryness, darkness and pain.(81)

The most painful verification comes from discovering that after so much dedication, efforts, time and apparently good results, he has to admit now that he cannot meditate any longer. By itself it should not be too upsetting; but since unconsciously he identifies prayer with meditation, to recognize that he can no longer meditate means for him to be unable to pray; and this is very frightening. The more he tries to concentrate his faculties the less he succeeds. And the greater becomes his subsequent pain and frustration.

But he does not stop there, resigned to his fate. Anxious about the frustrating experience, he attempts to remedy it. Unaware of the factors involved, he blames himself for the fact of living in darkness, dryness and difficulties. If in the past he was able to pray so well and taste God's words and enjoy His presence and graces, and now finds himself powerless, it must be due to some negligence and infidelity on his part.

Knowing from his own past experiences and from others that previous aridities and distractions were caused by worldly interest, tepidity and lukewarmness, he thinks that the present situation cannot be different; and consequently he applies the same criteria of the past, such as greater solicitude for God, greater detachment from worldly things and more assiduous dedication to prayer. But without good results; quite the contrary, the more he tries to meditate, the less he is able to concentrate his powers to prayer. The old method (cure) does not fit the new situation. Meanwhile his anxieties for God increase.


The inability to meditate originates a new and more serious preoccupation: the conviction that he is gone astray from the right path and cannot return to God, since all his efforts to recollect his faculties and enter into communion with God in prayer seem to fail. The thought that he may be abandoned by God and lost becomes more alarming and painful. He wants to meditate and cannot; he loves and searches for God, and God is not felt in any way. The result is greater frustration and disappointment.

When the person is confused and frustrated because he is unable to solve the problem, he then has recourse to spiritual directors but may not be greatly helped. Often enough, if they are not wise and experienced, they will become a "hindrance and harm rather than a help."(82) St. John's words have particular application at the beginning of the trial:

"It will happen that while an individual is being conducted by God along a sublime path of dark contemplation and aridity, in which he feels lost, he will encounter in the midst of the fullness of his darknesses, trial, conflicts and temptations someone who, in the style of Job's comforters, will proclaim that all of this is due to melancholia, or depression, or temperament, or to some hidden wickedness, and that as a result God has forsaken him. Therefore the usual verdict is that since trials afflict this person, he must have lived an evil life."(83)

Still others may tell him:

"That he is falling back, since he finds no satisfaction or consolation as he previously did in the things of God. Such talk only doubles the trial of the poor soul, because its greatest suffering is caused by the knowledge of its own miseries; that it is full of evil and sin is as clear as day, and even clearer, for . . . God is the author of this enlightenment in the night of contemplation. And when this soul finds someone who agrees with what it feels (that these trials are all its own fault), its suffering and distress grow without bounds. And this suffering usually becomes worse than death. Such a confessor is not satisfied with this but, in judging these trials to be the result of sin, he urges souls to endure them to go over their past and make many general confessions which is another crucifixion."(84)

At this point the dreadful thought of being abandoned and rejected by God(85) becomes frequent and terrifying. If the content of this fear is true, whatever has been done until now in the spiritual field is illusory and meaningless. God has been, and still is, his only goal, but He seems so remote and unapproachable. Accustomed to dealing with Him through sensible ways, the person does not recognize his new and higher presence. The inability to meditate is interpreted as failure in prayer, and the lack of sensible enjoyment or satisfaction as God's absence, abandonment and rejection.

The reader, who looks from the outside, as a spectator and recognizes the factors involved, welcomes this crisis as something new, rewarding and promising; and in fact it is so; but the person involved perceives it as something painful, alarming and frightening. The reader keeps in mind the moral and spiritual situation of beginners,(86) their attachments to their selves and to their sensible prayer, the unnoticed weakness and defects that are their lot, and see the transition to a new state in which the situation will be corrected and improved. He knows that it is a crisis of spiritual growth and development because God has come to help and is acting through contemplation. For the person involved - we can say without exaggeration - it is the first and most serious crisis faced in the spiritual life up until now. It is something new, unknown, unexpected and unidentifiable, which he does not know how to handle.

The misunderstanding and distortion of reality darkens and blocks the perspective of future advancement. The inability to meditate has apparently convulsed and shaken the entire life of the person. It shows how much attached and identified with this sensible form of relating to God and sensible appetites the person is. The lack of spiritual gratification calls into serious question the entire religious set up and perturbs the most basic values. A quote from the Dark Night vividly pictures the sufferings that the person endures at this moment:

"Spiritual persons suffer considerable affliction in this night owing not so much to the aridities they undergo as to their fear of having gone astray. Since they do not find any support or satisfaction in good things, they believe there will be no more spiritual blessings for them and that God has abandoned them."(87)

The fear of having been abandoned by God and of having lost the spiritual consolations is the most enduring tribulation, since God is the most important preoccupation and the goal of his life. Now, in fact, is when God has taken full relevance and real dimension in the scale of values. Everything else is viewed in relation to God, and without Him everything appears as empty and meaningless.


The feelings of God's estrangement and dereliction can be exaggerated by the keener discovery and reaction to his defects. When the person is most anxious about being unworthy and despicable, he painfully discovers the shortcomings, limitations and failures in his moral life.

Often mere psychological reactions will be interpreted as disturbing moral faults, and involuntary and purely natural responses will be considered infidelities and rebellions. The person will be acting in a particular way because of his physical condition or nervous pressure, but this involuntary way of behavior under the self-recriminatory and self-punishing judgment appears as sinful and offensive to God. All these moral impressions, distorted by the darkness and fears of the interior night provide a new and corroborating proof for his pessimism and helplessness, since he thinks God has abandoned him because of his sins.

This keen perception of sinfulness is the effect of God's special enlightenment,(88) but the person views it as a sign of his unworthiness and God's oblivion. Here the person falls into the natural temptation of thinking that God is more present and pleased when everything goes fine and satisfies the subject, and that God is displeased and offended when the individual experiences discomforts and trials. But the contrary is the truth.(89) God's thoughts are not our thoughts and God's ways are not our ways. The sensory and meditative form of relating to God through ideas, images and feelings is in principle already excelled and superseded by a more spiritual way. God is giving Himself to the substance or deepest interiority of the person without the wrapping of human ideas or forms. Sensible criteria, as experienced in meditation, are not adequate means for recognizing God's presence or action. The more God is present, the less perceptible He becomes to sensible perceptions and He is thought of as absent; In fact He is absent and removed, but only to the sensible perception. The inexperienced man reacts "like the many foolish ones who, in their lowly understanding of God, think that when they do not understand, taste, or experience Him He is far away and utterly concealed. The contrary belief would be truer. The less distinct their understanding of Him, the closer they approach Him."(90)

The person thinks of himself as lost when, in fact, he is being found, and thinks of himself as rejected by God when, in fact, he is entering into a deeper communion with Him. The deeper knowledge of his moral situation and the awareness of his powerlessness is the unrecognized effect of God's special presence and action.


To acknowledge the moral situation and powerlessness is necessary to shake false securities and confront his own weakness, helplessness and fears. This dreadful, but basic realization, conditions a new awareness and prompts different and truer attitudes.

"As a result," St. John explains, "the soul recognizes the truth about its misery, of which it was formerly ignorant."(91)

"Self-knowledge flows first from this dry night, and . . . from this knowledge as from its source proceeds the other knowledge of God."(92)

Convinced that by himself he is doomed to anxieties, fears, helplessness and despair, the individual shall lean more on God's mercy and assistance, and will pass from self-complacent and self-satisfying positions to an attitude of humility, emptiness, self-mistrust and openness that becomes the prerequisite for the theological openness and communication with God. With the beginning of the passive night of the sense the person begins acquiring the benefits that will be so remarkable for the end of the passive night.(93) Although in its embryonic state the personal effort, helped by contemplation, begins getting some basic and virtuous attitudes like self-knowledge, humility, obedience, poverty of spirit, fortitude, theological virtues, and so on. For at the end of the passive night of the sense these, and many other virtues, will be obtained with certain maturity.

The juanistic night is not artificially reduced to the schedule or framework of prayer. It is not a crisis of prayer, but a personal crisis, a crisis of life; and life overflows prayer. Man's relation to God, to others, to the world, is changing because he is changing. The night affects and touches, not prayer, but the person who lives, relates, prays, works, recreates, and so on. Prayer, being the most sensitive sphere of religious experience, registers with greater accuracy the meaning and facets of the night; but the passive night overflows the experience of prayer to fill the dimensions of one's life.

The supernatural infusion of contemplation originates the most painful feelings that accompany the "bitter and terrible" night of the sense; but it is not the only source of suffering and distress. There are many other factors that accompany the dreadful trial. The juanistic night is made up of "temptations, aridities and other trials, which are all a part of the dark night."(94) The ordinary human events become purgative factors, that on the basis of the trial the person is undergoing, increase the confusion and corroborate the assumed wrong interpretation. Ordinary contradictions, incompatibilities, conflicts, sickness, etc. become new and heavy burdens that aggravate the situation and intensify the awareness of personal weakness and unworthiness.

The crisis of the passive night of the sense is not an abstract idea applicable to all in the same measure, but it is personalized in each individual. The transition from meditation to contemplation, with the feelings of dryness and anxiety, of novelty and solicitude for God, is a common experience; but the materiality of the trial, the concrete terms of the passive night, is different in each person. The single person, the married, the priest, the religious feel the crisis in his or her own and exclusive terms. The common elements of life become apt material for the night. Nothing needs to be specially invented; everything is there; the loneliness of the single, the trials of the married, the aridities and doubts of the priest, the conflicts of the religious; or without specifying for whom, loneliness, trials, aridities, doubts, conflicts, frustrations, sickness, slanders, etc., since these experiences are, one way or another, part of everybody's life.

These things and situations are either means of spiritual progress or the occasion of sin, depending on the power and application of faith, which sees God's mysterious hand hidden behind human events.

But in order to make them moments of grace and progress, it is imperative to watch the person's behavior and to adopt an attitude in accordance with the nature of contemplation, through which the progress in spiritual life will be now achieved.


This is the practical aspect of St. John's teaching. Confusion, anguish and fears assail the person who does not recognize the new state into which he has entered. This unawareness may occasion meaningless struggle, spiritual stagnation, or even regression. To avoid this deplorable situation, St. John clarifies the nature of contemplation and gives the signs to identify it; but he does so in order to draw from it the proper norms of conduct. Contemplation involves new agents, new factors, new mechanisms in man's prayer-life, and therefore demands new and apt attitudes and cooperation.

The crisis of the night is aggravated because the person takes for granted that the meditative method of prayer must be continued,(95) but this method has already become obsolete and ineffectual, and it must be left behind. Having arrived at this point, the soul, in order to advance in the spiritual road, must give up its meditative form and "change its style and mode of prayer,"(96) and the reason is because:

"The person at this time should be guided in a manner entirely contrary to the former."(97)

Since God is now "the chief agent, guide and mover of souls,"(98) the person must keep in mind God's nature and way of acting in order to assume a proper attitude and prevent impairing God's work.

"The receiver should act according to the mode of what is received, and not otherwise, in order to receive and keep it in the way it is given. For as the philosophers say: Whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver."(99)

In this regard St. John underlines his teaching, convinced that the success of the crisis depends on the attitude taken and maintained by the person. Dealing with the moment of transition, the attitude to be taken refers to the beginning of contemplation, although proportionately is applicable to the entire passive night of the sense. The norms of conduct suggested by St. John can be summarized in the following points:

1. Freedom and detachment from discursive meditation.(100)

2. Patient perseverance in prayer.(101)

3. Fortitude to undergo the trial.(102)

4. Attitude of loving and peaceful attentiveness to God.(103)

5. Readiness to use meditation when it may be necessary.(104)

6. Readiness to give up the loving attentiveness.(105)

7. Trust in God's solicitude.(106)

8. Theological attitude.

The whole doctrinal explanation of St. John converges to this practical application. With the idea of helping those entering into the state of contemplation St. John began to write, and with the practical norms advanced, he completes the task by letting and inviting the persons to surrender themselves to God's direction.

"With God's help, we shall propose doctrine and counsel for beginners and proficients that they may understand or, at least, know how to practice abandonment to God's guidance when He wants them to advance."(107)


1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of Life, Decree, Foreword, and Articles 2, 4, 5     and 8.
2. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, by K. Kavanaugh and O.     Rodriquez, Washington, 1973. Use of the more recent 1991 version by the     same authors is encouraged, but the footnote validity of this document may be     somewhat compromised. ICS Publications, 2131 Lincoln Road NE,     Washington, DC 20002-1199.


1. The following abreviations of St. John's works will be used: A: Ascent of Mount Carmel, followed by book, chapter and number, e. g., A 2, 13, 1. N: The Dark Night, followed by book, chapter and number, e. g., N 1, 10, 2. C: The Spiritual Canticle, followed by stanza and number, e. g., C 12, 4. F: The Living Flame of Love, followed by stanza and number, e. g., F 3, 30. In our quotes we follow the translation of St. John's works by K. Kavanaugh and 0. Rodriguez, Washington, 1973.
2. A 2, 6, 6
3. A 2, 24, 4
4. A 2, 17, 7
5. A prol. 3
6. A prol. 3
7. N 1, 1, l
8. A 2, 12, 6
9. A 2, 14, 1
10. A 2, 12, 3
11. A 2, 13, 7
12. N 1, 10, l
13. A 1, 14, 2
14. N 1, 1, 2
15. C 25, 10; A 2, 17
16. N 1, 1, 3
17. A 2, 12, 9; 14, 6
18. A 3, 39, 1
19. A 2, 14, 2
20. A 2, 13, 1; 12, 5; 17, 4
21. F 3, 32
22. N 1, 8, 3; A 3, 39, 1; 2, 13, 1
23. A 2, 14, 1; F 3, 57
24. A prol. 3
25. A 2, 13, 1; 12, 5
26. A 2, 14, 2
27. N 1, l, 2
28. N 1, 10, 6
29. N 2, 5, 1
30. C 13, 10
31. F 3, 65
32. F3, 54
33. F 3, 29
34. F 3, 47
35. F 3, 32
36. F 1, 2-4; 3, 40-42
37. F 3, 46
38. A 2, 14, 8
39. con·nat·u·ral (ka-nátch´ur-al) (kó-) —adj. 1. Innate; inborn. 2. Related or similar in nature; cognate. [Med. Lat. connaturalis : Lat. com-, together + Lat. naturalis, by birth. —see natural .] con·nat'u·ral´i·ty n. con·nat´u·ral·ly adv. con·nat´u·ral·ness n.
40. A 2, 14, 2
41. C 11, 1
42. C 14-15, 5
43. A 2, 24, 4
44. C 26, 4
45. F 3, 49
46. F 3, 49
47. F 3, 14
48. C 13, 2
49. C 23, 1
50. F 3, 73
51. A 2, 6-8
52. A 2, 12, 6
53. N 1, 8, 3
54. A prol. 3
55. A prol. 3
56. N 1, 10, 1
57. A 2, 14, 6
58. The Spiritual Canticle obviously deals too with the transition from meditation to contemplation, since its "stanzas begin with a person's initial steps in the service of God and continue until he reaches spiritual marriage, the ultimate state of perfection" (C theme, l); but because of the peculiarity of its doctrinal perspective and its literary style, it is impossible to mark the moment of transition with precision. Stanzas 2 to 6 seem to deal with meditative prayer, while stanza 7 certainly includes contemplative experiences.
59. F 3, 34
60. N 1, 9, 3
61. A 2, 13, 7
62. N 1, 8, 4; F 3, 32
63. A 2, 13, 7
64. A 2, 1 3 , 7
65. N 1, 11, 1
66. A 2, 13, 4
67. N 1, 11, 2
68. N 1, 9, 6
69. N 1, 11, 2; 9, 3
70. N 1, 9, 6. 3
71. N 1, 9, 4
72. N 1, 9, 4
73. N 1, 9, 4
74. A 2, 12, 8
75. The ligature of the 'sense' characterizes and gives name to the present crisis: 'passive night of the sense'; but it does not mean that the heart of the passive night of the sense lies in the ligature of meditative powers. The root of the crisis and the ultimate reason of the purifying pain that accompanies the passive night of the sense lies beyond the 'sense' and is grounded in the tension stirred up by contemplation in the theological virtues. The study of the ultimate reason of the passive night of the sense is too vast to be included in this brief presentation and commentary of the factors involved in the crisis.
76. N 1, 11, 2
77. N 1, 12, 2
78. N 1, 12, 2
79. N 1, 8, 2
80. N 1, 13, 1
81. N I, 8, 2
82. A prol. 4
83. A prol. 4
84. A prol. 5
85. N 1, 10, 1
86. N 1, 1-7
87. N 1, 10, 1
88. A prol. 5
89. C 1, 4
90. C 1, 12
91. N 1, 12
92. N 1 , 12, 5
93. N 1, ch. 11-14
94. N 1, 6, 8
95. A 2, 12, 6
96. F 3, 57
97. F 3, 33
98. F 3, 46
99. F 3, 34
100. F 3, 33, 36; N 1, 10, 4; A 2, 12, 8; 14, 3
101. N 1, 10, 4
102. A prol. 5
103. F 3, 33; A 2, 12, 8
104. A 2, 15, 1-2
105. F 3, 35, 65
106. N 1, 10, 3; F 3, 67
107. A prol. 4 3