St. John of the Cross and the Hidden God
Rev. Donald F. Haggerty
Where have You hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag
After wounding me;
I went out calling You, and You were gone.
These agonized, opening lines of the bride in of St. John of the Cross do far more than set the poem
firmly in the tradition of lyrical love poetry. Clearly the voice we
hear bursting forth from silence, unleashing pent-up emotion,
identifies a lover tormented by her own solitude. The complaint she
makes is not so much a rebuke of her Beloved, but an overflow of
unrelieved frustration. Yet even more fundamentally, this piercing
lament of the bride presupposes a former period of joy in the
presence of her Bridegroom, some prior experience with Him that left
her once ravished, wounded, and suffering for His return. A mood of
anguished tension is thus exposed, and the reader can rightly expect
some subsequent resolution of the bride's self-conscious loneliness
caused by her lover's absence.
But this is the first stanza of a poem whose lyric beauty has become
inseparably bound to a systematic commentary by the same author,
written some six years after the poem at the request of Madre Ana de
Jesus, Prioress of the Discalced Carmelite nuns of St. Joseph in
Grenada _ and at least in part upon the author's knees _ to unveil
hidden meanings of a mystical import. It is a poem, moreover, of
which the first thirty-one of forty stanzas were composed in the mind
of the poet in a windowless six-by-ten foot converted closet that
served as his prison cell for eight months in the Calced Carmelite
monastery of Toledo. There, reduced to the verge of starvation and
periodically humiliated by public lashings before the assembled
monks, the man who would later be called the Mystical Doctor of the
Church endured his dark night of the soul. Doubtless he was unaware
when he finally escaped before dawn on an August day in 1578 that the
stanzas he carried in his memory would fructify into perhaps the
richest writings the Church possesses on the mystical path.
Turning from the poem to the commentary of St. John of the Cross on
this first stanza of , the reader encounters
not a prosaic interpretation inferior in emotional power to the
verses, but spiritual teaching as evocative as the poetry itself.
Examined with a view in mind of St. John of the Cross' entire
spiritual theology, this commentary on the first stanza possesses a
remarkable synthetic power and can serve as a kind of beacon of
theological light for the orientation of the would-be seeker of the
path to union with God. The pivotal principle enunciated in these
few short pages is the relation of the soul to God's divine presence.
It is here we see how tightly linked are the poem and its commentary.
In point of fact, the interplay of absence and presence, of thirst
and satiation, of frustration and fulfillment in the bride's
relations with her Bridegroom will prove the poetic correlative to
the dynamic tension of spirit driving the soul onward to deepening
union with God.
As a kind of miniature tapestry of St. John of the Cross' spiritual
theology, this first stanza commentary depends on a particular
dogmatic truth. This dogma we call the indwelling presence of the
Blessed Trinity in the souls of the just. The importance of this
commentary on the first stanza of for the
entire commentary is directly connected to the centrality of this
dogma in spiritual theology. Indeed Father Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.
went so far as to say that "the great mystical doctors, St. John of
the Cross particularly, have built their works on the dogma of the
indwelling of the Blessed Trinity."1 It should be no surprise, then,
when we see St. John of the Cross speaking precisely of this dogma in
section six of this opening commentary:
It should be known that the Word, the Son of God, together with the
Father and the Holy Ghost, is hidden by His essence and His presence
in the innermost being of the soul. A person who wants to find Him
should leave all things through affection and will, enter within
himself in deepest recollection, and regard things as though they
were nonexistent. St. Augustine, addressing God in the Soliloquies,
said: I did not find You without, Lord, because I wrongly sought You
without, Who were within . . .
God, then, is hidden in the soul and there the good contemplative
must seek Him with love, exclaiming: "Where have you hidden?"2
St. John of the Cross' statement of the doctrine here is revealing
because of the words he has chosen to express it. Rather than simply
saying that the Trinity is present in, dwells in, or inhabits the
souls of the just, that is, by an ontological formulation, St. John
of the Cross has nuanced his description by adding an experiential
dimension to the reality of the divine indwelling in the just soul.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not simply present in the soul, but
hidden in the innermost being of the soul. The significance for St.
John of the Cross of this quality of hiddenness in God's presence
within the soul cannot be overstressed.
Before we begin speaking of the nature of God's presence to the soul,
and the quality of hiddenness in that presence, certain precise
distinctions are in order. We need initially to prescind from our
usual sense of the meaning of presence when applied to created
objects. We think ordinarily of a finite object as occupying a
circumscribed space, existing in a defined set of 'geographical'
parameters that identify it as separate from other created objects.
This sense of localized place which constitutes the reality of
presence for material creation becomes completely unacceptable when
referring, on the one hand, to God's omnipresence, that is, His so-
called presence by immensity. The reason is that God is an infinite,
self-subsistent being who cannot be confined, restricted, or
localized to some spatial position relative to other created beings.
Such a notion of localized spatial restriction would place an
impossible limitation on God's essential attribute of infinite being.
God is absolute Spirit,3 the transcendent Other, and when we speak of
His presence, we do so always from a conception of the infinite being
who overwhelms all modes of the relative, the limited, and the
divisible. "In Him we live and move and have our being." (Acts 4:13)
But God's being, present everywhere, filling all things, and nowhere
absent, must be distinguished from the particularity of God's
actions. However penetrating, diffusive, and all-encompassing the
presence of God's immensity is, it is necessary to affirm a special
presence of the Trinity indwelling the soul in the state of grace
above and beyond, so to speak, the presence by immensity. In actual
fact, it is the same God present everywhere by His immensity who in a
special manner 'comes' to the soul in the state of grace, thereby
acting upon it and communicating Himself to it. The doctrine of the
indwelling presence thus presupposes the presence of God's immensity.
But this notion of God's coming to the soul when He is already
present there needs some explanation, and we find it in our
understanding of grace. Indeed, any consideration of the doctrine of
the divine indwelling is always connected to the Church's teaching on
Through sanctifying grace, received ordinarily at baptism, God comes
to dwell in a new manner within a soul, which becomes, as it were,
the temple or abode of the Blessed Trinity. Such a gracious gift on
God's part is essentially a personal communication by which He gives
Himself to the soul in order that a more intimate bond may exist
between the soul and Himself. God's communication through grace,
then, never takes place, however incomprehensively, without God
imparting His own divine Self to the soul. With grace the soul
receives the sublime privilege of an intimacy of friendship with the
three divine Persons, an enjoyment of them through knowledge and
love. In truth the soul can be said to participate through grace in
the divine nature without, needless to say, losing its own
creatureliness and distinction from God.
Why is the doctrine of the indwelling presence so vital to spiritual
theology? Strictly from a consideration of ontological truth, the
special presence of God in the depths of the soul in grace is ordered
to a transformation of the soul. God inhabiting the soul can now
become the intimate object of a knowledge and love that unites the
soul with God in the bond of grace. The divine Persons give
themselves to the soul so that it might possess them in a real and
substantial manner. But a real possession requires a real
ontological presence of the divinity. Grace and the indwelling
presence are thus inseparable ontological foundations for the soul's
deepening knowledge and love of God.
There is, however, a psychological factor at work, and especially
prominent in the writings of St. John of the Cross, by which this
doctrine of the indwelling presence is intuited as the nexus for a
singular intimacy between the soul and God. Any notion of a distant
or impersonal God dissolves when He is understood to be the Guest of
one's own flesh. Yet such a realization does not represent, at least
for St. John of the Cross, a shift philosophically to an emphasis on
the divine immanence in creation. Paradoxically it would seem, the
more God is experienced as the source of one's own life of the
spirit, the more powerfully transcendent, incomprehensible, and
inaccessible His divinity becomes. For St. John of the Cross, the
indwelling God, the God vivifying the soul with divine life,
communicating Himself most certainly, nevertheless is, somewhat
surprisingly, the quintessentially hidden God.
In the very beginning of his commentary on the first stanza of , St. John of the Cross alerts his reader to the
allegorical nature of the bride's initial outburst of loving protest.
On the one hand, St. John of the Cross identifies Christ as the real
'Beloved' of the poem. He is the true source of the bride's
longings, and the vehemence of her passion now becomes perfectly
understandable. Any less intensity would be crudely disproportionate
to the perfection of love she must possess for union with the divine
Son. The Christological locus of all the soul's strivings is thus
early and unambiguously established.4
On the other hand, St. John of the Cross defines the terminus of the
soul's quest: "The soul, enamoured of the Word, her Bridegroom, the
Son of God, longs for union with Him through clear and essential
vision."5 This latter phrase _ "union with Him through clear and
essential vision" _ serves a dual purpose. While clarifying exactly
the end of her desire, these words likewise betray the inevitability
of her suffering. Clear and essential vision of Christ contrasts
with the evident blindness of earthly eyes unable to attain the
invisible reality of the divine Person. For to gaze upon God, to see
Him face to face, is a privilege reserved to the soul only upon
entrance into heaven.
Consciousness of an incapacity for the beatific vision in this life
necessarily causes a frustration in the soul seeking union with God.
St. John of the Cross translates that frustration of a soul bound to
life in the flesh as a distressing sense of the divine absence. "She
must suffer her Beloved's absence, for she is not freed from mortal
flesh as the enjoyment of Him in eternity requires."6 The reader
would be remiss not to recognize an essential point here. The
spiritual quest for union with God will culminate definitively only
in the next life. As such, it is preconditioned by the soul's basic
inability in the present life to see the face of God. Always some
element of incompletion, perhaps of obscurity or of tenuousness, some
unabated hunger or gnawing dissatisfaction, will mark even the
highest states of holiness. The fact that St. John of the Cross has
introduced mention of the state of beatitude at the outset of his
commentary is no insignificant matter. Only when we realize that the
glory of eternity in heaven will consist of a direct, unhindered
vision of the divine essence does the actual deprivation of our
limited perception of God in this present life dawn on us.
If we turn for a moment to hear what St. John of the Cross has to say
of the soul in heaven near the end of , we
are privy to more than simply a pious speculation on an unknown
reality. In actual fact, the goal conditions the nature of the path
Just as the soul, according to St. Paul, will know then as she is
known by God (1Cor. 13:12), so she will also love God as she is loved
by Him. As her intellect will be the intellect of God, her will then
will be God's will, and thus her love will be God's love. The soul's
will is not destroyed there, but it is so firmly united with the
strength of God's will, with which He loves her, that her love for
Him is as strong and perfect as His love for her, for the two wills
are so united that there is only one will and love, which is God's .
. . it is precisely by giving her His love there, that He shows her
how to love as He loves her. Besides teaching her to love purely,
freely, and disinterestedly, as He loves her, God makes her love Him
with the very strength with which He loves her. Transforming her
into His love, as we said, He gives her His own strength by which she
can love Him . . .
Until attaining this equality of love the soul is dissatisfied.7
The root of this unavailing dissatisfaction in the soul will be
discovered, then, in the unrealizable nature of its present desire.
However relentless its pursuit of the divine Lover, what the soul
seeks is hopelessly beyond its reach in this life. "She seeks the
manifestation of His divine essence, because the hiding place of the
Word of God is, as St. John asserts (Jn. 1:18), the bosom of the
Father, that is, the divine essence, which is alien to every mortal
eye and hidden from every human intellect."8 It should be no
surprise that this verse from the Gospel of John begins by saying
that "no one has ever seen God," for the sentence quoted initiates
St. John of the Cross' discussion on the first line of his poem _
"Where have You hidden?" The significance of this phrase, as we
suggested earlier, is at the crux of his teaching. The soul's path
to union with God will be above all a dynamic movement of personal
relations with a God unseen, yet known in the Son, carried out
quietly, unobtrusively, and secretly, within the heart of the soul.
St. John of the Cross' own understanding of God's apparent
impenetrable hiddenness in His relation to the soul's experience of
Him is a fundamental spiritual truth. However far advanced a soul
may proceed toward union with God, one reality remains unchanged:
the struggle for union with God will involve a deepening
confrontation with the incomprehensibility and inaccessibility of the
One loved and longed for. From beginning to end in its pursuit of
holiness, the soul will be driven by its very blindness to seek the
hidden One whom it cannot see.9 St. John of the Cross states this
truth quite explicitly in section eleven of this first stanza
commentary: "Even though the soul reaches union in this life (the
highest state attainable here below), she always exclaims: 'Where
have You hidden?' For even in the state of union He is still hidden
from her in the bosom of the Father, which is how she wants to enjoy
Him in the next life."10
It is important to realize that when St. John of the Cross states
that God is hidden and the soul must necessarily seek Him as hidden
if it is to remain in truth, he is neither denying a real and
singular relationship between a unique soul and God, nor implying
that the soul has no personal experience of that relationship. But
for St. John of the Cross it is only by the soul's own plunge into
the heart of God's mystery that the ontological truth of God dwelling
in the innermost being of the soul is guarded from distortion.11 And
yet that mystery, of an infinite depth, impedes the very aim of the
soul for clear experience and knowledge of God. What St. John of the
Cross is doing, in effect, when he lays a primary accent on the
hiddenness of God, is to modify immediately any discussion of the
soul's direct experiential knowledge of God with a fundamental truth
about the being of God. The following words from the first stanza
commentary are particularly impressive in this regard:
However elevated God's communications and the experience of His
presence are, and however sublime a person's knowledge of Him may be,
these are not God essentially, nor are they comparable to Him,
because, indeed, He is still hidden to the soul. Hence, regardless
of all these lofty experiences, a person should think of Him as
hidden and seek Him as one who is hidden, saying: 'Where have You
Neither is the sublime communication or the sensible awareness of His
nearness a sure testimony of His gracious presence, nor is dryness
and the lack of these a reflection of His absence. As a result, the
prophet Job exclaims: If He comes to me I shall not see Him, and if
He goes away I shall not understand. (Jb. 9:11)12
The emphasis in the first paragraph is upon the insufficiency of the
soul's personal knowledge and experience to do more than intimate,
hint at, or apprehend distantly and tentatively the reality of God,
who remains always "still hidden to the soul." Because God is
infinitely transcendent to His creatures, His communications to the
soul can never be equivalent to possession of the fullness of His
being.13 Yet for St. John of the Cross it is not so much in the
creature's conceptual knowledge of God but in a person's affective
experience of God that the divine transcendence subdues the human
effort to penetrate it. Thus we see in the second paragraph above
that he completely discounts the experiences of sensible consolation
or aridity as valid criteria for God's real presence or absence to
the soul. It seems that the inaccessibility of the divine nature to
human affectivity plays a weightier role than the incomprehensibility
of the divine nature to human intelligence. St. John of the Cross is
not unconcerned with the soul's knowledge of God, but the cognition
he aims at is the mystical knowledge of undeniable contact with the
being of God. The question he will address, then, is not whether
metaphysics can lay hold of the essential truth of God but whether
our soul can be grasped by definitive experience of the divine truth.
One of the most powerful passages in St. John of the Cross' entire
corpus occurs in section twelve of this first commentary. It
illustrates well his concentration on the subjective consequences for
the soul which an awareness of God's transcendence provokes. Notice
in particular how the hiddenness of God acquires a positive aspect.
God's hiddenness to the soul, His inaccessibility and concealment,
though a cause of pain for the soul, is not an obstacle that the soul
must seek to overcome as though it were stripping veils away to
uncover the underlying divine reality. No, the sense of God's
hiddenness plays a dynamically positive role and is meant to
intensify for the soul as it draws nearer to divine Love. By a
magnificent paradox the transcendence of God becomes more
transcendent for the soul as God becomes more immanently the absolute
focal point of the soul's interior life. And the experience of
darkness and obscurity increases in proportion as the 'distance'
between God and the soul diminishes.14
Seek Him ever as one hidden, for you exalt God immensely and approach
very near Him when you consider Him higher and deeper than anything
you can reach. Hence, pay no attention, neither partially nor
entirely, to anything which your faculties can grasp. I mean that
you should never desire satisfaction in what you understand about
Him. Never stop with loving and delighting in your understanding and
experience of God, but love and delight in what is neither
understandable nor perceptible of Him. Such is the way, as we said,
of seeking Him in faith. However surely it may seem that you find,
experience, and understand God, you must, because He is inaccessible
and concealed, always regard Him as hidden, and serve Him who is
hidden in a secret way. Do not be 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 concealed.
The contrary belief would be truer. The less distinct is their
understanding of Him, the closer they approach Him, since in the
words of the prophet David, He made darkness His hiding place. (Ps.
17:12) Thus in drawing near Him, you will experience darkness
because of the weakness of your eye.15
Although St. John of the Cross' perspective here is clearly to
enlighten the soul's subjective experience, the paragraph resonates
with the objective truth of an absolute ontological demarcation
between creatureliness and the infinitely transcendent God.16 This
description of the profound distinction between God and creature,
however, should not be offputting, discouraging, or uninviting. To
speak of God as hidden and concealed is far different than to say He
is distant, or absent, or to proclaim His death.17 Concealment
presumes presence, and in fact, prior to this quotation St. John of
the Cross explicitly recalls the dogma of the indwelling presence,
and draws out the consequences of the doctrine with an almost
admonitory tone of voice.
Oh, then, soul . . . so anxious to know the dwelling place of your
Beloved that you may go in quest of Him and be united with Him, now
we are telling you that you yourself are His dwelling and His secret
chamber and hiding place . . . so close to you as to be within you .
. . What more do you want, O soul! And what else do you search for
outside, when within yourself you possess . . . your Beloved whom you
desire and seek? . . . There is but one difficulty, even though He
does abide within you, He is hidden.18
The consolation of the ontological truth of the indwelling of the
Trinity within the soul is thus offset by dissatisfaction on the
experiential level of the soul's subjectivity. St. John of the Cross
acknowledges that conflict and counters with his own provocative
answer to the dilemma: "Since He Whom my soul loves is within me,
why don't I find Him or experience Him? The reason is that He
remains concealed and you do not also conceal yourself in order to
encounter and experience Him."19
Thus far our primary effort has been to expose the prominence St.
John of the Cross grants to the quality of impenetrable hiddenness
which God never fully relinquishes while the soul remains in this
life. Are we facing somewhat clashing truths, or is not a
reconciliation in order, such that the reality of the Trinity's
substantial presence dwelling within the soul profoundly affects the
soul's experience of God? Are we confounded by St. John of the Cross
himself and forced to relegate all questions of the soul's experience
of God to the category of hiddenness and the unknown? Or can it
rather be said that once we have embraced the fact of God's
concealment to the soul's experience of Him, the definitive path to
union with God is openly in view?
"Mystical wisdom, which comes through love and is the object of these
stanzas, need not be understood distinctly in order to cause love and
affection in the soul, for it is given according to the mode of
faith, through which we love God without understanding Him."20 This
concise statement from the prologue to is as
potent with implication as it is brief. St. John of the Cross is
clearly distinguishing the soul's love for God from its understanding
of God. As the soul's love deepens, there is no necessary
correlation to an expanded knowledge of the God of mystery. For the
soul knows God through faith, a virtue which, as St. John of the
Cross tirelessly repeats throughout his works, "causes darkness and a
void of understanding in the intellect."21 Though the increase of
love implies no enlargement of understanding, greater love does
indeed transform the soul's mode of knowing God by vivifying the
virtue of faith. Through the increase of love the soul knows God
with a more intense certainty, but without a corresponding
diminishment of obscurity in the intellect.22
There is no contradiction between the soul's certitude in knowing God
and the lack of clarity in that knowledge. According to St. John of
the Cross, an unfailing obscurity of intellect characterizes the
soul's experience of faith. Indeed, he is very exacting and forceful
in stating that the virtue of faith causes a darkness in the
intellect, but a necessary darkness if the soul is to draw nearer to
Faith is darkness to the intellect. Since the intellect cannot
understand the nature of God, it must journey in submission to Him
rather than by understanding, and thus it advances by not
The reason for the darkness is simply the unattainable nature of the
divine truth for human intellect. Through the assent of faith the
intellect adheres with certitude to divinely revealed truths beyond
its natural capacity for knowledge.24 These revealed truths known in
faith constitute invisible realities outside any apparent natural
evidence. No proof by sense exists to support their affirmation.
Yet the intellect in its natural mode of understanding acquires
knowledge precisely through the senses. Every object of natural
understanding ultimately depends on knowledge derived from the
senses. Even conceptual knowledge is bound to symbols and analogies
culled from sense experience.
Because the supernatural truths of divine revelation transcend the
intellect's natural capacity for knowledge, the intellect engages
them to the frustration of its natural powers. The clarity of
knowledge which the intellect seeks by its very nature gives way to a
painful obscurity. For the divine truths of faith as objects of
knowledge are unproportioned to knowledge acquired through the
senses. There is a great abyss separating knowledge of supernatural
realities and knowledge of the natural world.
Everything the intellect can understand, the will experience, and the
imagination picture is most unlike and disproportioned to God.25
As such, faith conveys a light of knowledge to the intellect, but
this is a supernatural knowledge that blinds the natural powers while
illuminating the soul with excessive light.
St. John of the Cross' pointed, almost ruthless stress on the soul's
need to disregard all apparent communications and experiences of the
presence of God begins to make greater sense now. The
incomprehensibility of God's infinite existence to the human
intellect conditions the entire path to union with Him. That path to
union with God does not entail ever more sublime communications from
a God slowly chiseling for view the contours of His true face. No,
the real path proceeds as an advancement through darkness, with the
certitude of faith as support and guide, toward the God always beyond
the reach of a definitive experience or of comprehensive knowledge.
For God's being cannot be grasped by the intellect, appetite,
imagination, or any other sense, nor can it be known in this life.
The most that can be felt and tasted of God in this life is
infinitely distant from God and the pure possession of Him.26
Only by abiding in the blindness of faith, that is, in a certitude of
belief in God's being, does the soul proceed deeper into the
boundlessness of God's truth.27
A more intense certainty in the mode of knowing God bears a fitting
relation to the persistent hiddenness of God for the soul. It is the
soul's increasing sensitivity to the hidden presence of God that
elicits from it an ever greater surrender of faith. Indeed the very
nature of faith requires belief in a reality that cannot be seen.
Faith nullifies the light of the intellect, and if this light is not
darkened, the knowledge of faith is lost. Accordingly, Isaias said:
(If you do not believe, you
will not understand.)"28
A deeper certitude in knowing God through faith, then, does not
procure a knowledge of God less veiled in mystery. Even as a more
certain faith grows, the divine mystery abides intact, and God
remains the perennial hidden One, cloaked in shadow and enigma. But
the soul becomes more and more aware of this truth. It is the living
God unfathomable to the intellect who is known more truly in the
increase of faith. This God whom a deeper faith embraces more
certainly is precisely the God more resistant to all semblance of
conceptual limitation. It is the personal God of hidden mystery,
transcending distinct ideas, who seizes the very lifeblood of the
soul and transforms the soul's attraction for the divine truth into
an absolute longing for union with the infinite Godhead Himself. As
the soul's certainty of belief deepens, the God neatly encapsulated
in dogmatic definition and known distantly no longer satisfies. The
soul now seeks to slake its thirst at the living Source.
We have been emphasizing the soul's lack of distinct understanding
concerning the God concealed from view of the intellect. For St.
John of the Cross, this continuing absence of particular knowledge of
God is necessary if the soul is to advance in faith toward deeper
union with God. "The less distinct is their understanding of Him,
the closer they approach Him."29 The pertinent matter now becomes
the question of an immediate encounter, despite the darkness of
faith, with the God who transcends the conceptual knowledge
enunciated by the propositions of faith. Is the soul capable of
experiencing God in some direct manner? Can the soul experience a
new and deeper mode of knowing God as it approaches nearer to God _
despite the obscurity of faith?
St. John of the Cross indicates as much in his first stanza
commentary of :
Since you know now that your desired Beloved lies hidden within your
heart, strive to be really hidden with Him, and you will embrace Him
within you and experience Him with loving affection.30
These words affirm the possibility of enriching the knowledge of
faith through contemplation, which, for St. John of the Cross, is a
secret or hidden knowledge, a wisdom "which is known through love and
by which one not only knows but at the same time experiences."31
Although it is "a knowledge belonging to the intellect,"32 says St.
John of the Cross, contemplation is ineffable and uncomprehended as
knowledge. The paradox of a knowledge that is incomprehensible is
due to the fact that God is infusing Himself into the soul through
this knowledge, and as we have seen, the intellect is incapable of
grasping through any particular knowledge the fullness of divine
truth. Contemplation nevertheless brings the intellect into
experiential contact with God as long as it does not occupy itself
with particular knowledge of God and remains empty of everything
comprehensible to it. Only then can the loving supernatural
knowledge of contemplation be infused by God into the soul.
But this knowledge is nonetheless dark, general, and unintelligible
to the intellect because "God in one act is communicating light and
love together."33 The divine light that penetrates the intellect
transmits a "knowledge through love"34 that exceeds the intellect's
capacity for particular understanding. The element of knowledge in
contemplation is thus described paradoxically as a "knowing by
unknowing."35 Rooted in love, but communicated in the dark certitude
of faith, contemplative knowledge is, in a sense, an inspired
knowing, an infused knowing dependent on God's gracious initiative.
"God communicates this knowledge and understanding in the love with
which He communicates Himself to the soul."36 But the absolute
requirement for these direct communications of God through an
infusion of love into the soul rests upon an act of surrender by the
intellect of all distinct knowledge of God.
While the intellect is understanding, it is not approaching God but
withdrawing from Him. It must withdraw from itself and from its
knowledge so as to journey to God in faith, by believing and not
understanding . . . It thereby empties itself of everything
comprehensible to it, because none of that is God; as we have said:
God does not fit in an occupied heart.37
Since contemplation leaves the incomprehensible divine nature still
uncomprehended, the question becomes how the intellect can enjoy a
'secret knowledge of God' that remains hidden and beyond its human
mode of grasping. In his first stanza commentary St. John of the
Cross states that if the soul desires to find the Bridegroom who
dwells in the hiding place of its own soul, it must:
Seek Him in faith and love, without the desire for the satisfaction,
taste, or understanding of any other thing than what you ought to
know. Faith and love are like the blind man's guides. They will
lead you along a path unknown to you to the place where God is hidden
. . . The soul will merit through love the discovery of the content
of faith, that is, the
Bridegroom Whom she desires to possess in this life through the
special grace of divine union with God.38
It is the action of love, then, that somehow transforms the
conceptual knowledge of faith into the possibility of direct
experiential contact with God, that is, discovery of the Bridegroom
who is the content of faith.
The emphasis here on love as a catalyst to the experiential discovery
of the divine Bridegroom is consistent with the properties of
supernatural love. The activity of love carries the will out from
itself so that the lover is united to the object of love and
experiences the object of love as joined to his will. St. John of
the Cross says later in that the soul "lives
through love in the object of her love."39 As such, love is superior
to knowledge, which always stands, so to speak, outside the object of
knowledge. As St. Thomas Aquinas says:
Knowledge is perfected by the thing known being united, through its
likeness, to the knower. But the effect of love is that the thing
itself which is loved, is, in a way, united to the lover . . .
Consequently, the union caused by love is closer than that which is
caused by knowledge.40
The power of love is grounded in this unifying effect. Love of God,
by its very nature, possesses an active dynamic character that unites
the soul and God. "Love makes the beloved to be in the lover, and
vice versa," says St. Thomas.41 The soul thus rests in God in a
quite real manner and through love penetrates Him as He is in
Love, then, includes a quality of experiential knowing in the union
it produces. It transforms the lover by establishing a certain
connaturality between a lover and the object of his love. Indeed, a
primary effect of the love of God is that God Himself is touched in
an immediate though obscure manner by reason of the love which unites
the soul and God. Through love the soul can attain to God
immediately as He is in Himself, intimately united to Him by a union
of wills, even while he remains hidden to the grasp of intellect in
the obscurity of faith. This transformative power of love in
concentrating the will outside itself is described vividly by St.
John of the Cross in
Where there is union of love . . . the Beloved lives in the lover and
the lover in the Beloved. Love produces such likeness in this
transformation of lovers that one can say each is the other and both
are one. The reason is, that in the union and transformation of love
each gives possession of self to the other, and each leaves and
exchanges self for the other. Thus each one lives in the other and
is the other, and both are one in the transformation of love.42
As the passion of love informs the knowledge of faith, it transforms
the dominant mode of faith from obscurity in the intellect to an
affective experience that touches and tastes with immediacy the
inaccessible object of its knowledge. In this immediate loving
contact between the soul and God, the intellect penetrates and knows
that there is more hidden in the truths of faith than the obscurity
of faith manifested. The object of faith _ God Himself infinitely
transcendent in His intimate proximity to the soul _ is now united to
the intellect by an immediate experience. God makes of Himself, in
effect, a gift of Himself through a taste of love uniting the soul
with God. "Remaining hidden with Him, you will experience Him in
hiding, that is, in a way transcending all language and feeling."43
While the hidden reality of God remains still absolutely beyond the
cognitive grasp of the intellect, the affective union with God
through love elevates the soul's knowledge of God grasped in the
certitude of faith.
Thus love transforms the obscure knowledge of faith by penetrating
the intellect with the immediacy of an intimate possession of God.
No longer reducible simply to an obscure knowledge, this loving
contemplative knowledge of God renounces the mode of clarity in favor
of an ignorance that joins the intellect in the certitude of faith to
the hidden God beyond all limiting particular knowledge. By freeing
the intellect from the natural mode by which it knows through the
signs of concept and analogy, the infusion of love overcomes the
distance between the soul's intellect and the God it knows in the
absolute certitude of faith. Jacques Maritain in used a striking quote from John of St. Thomas precisely to
illuminate this dynamic relationship of faith and love in
In its darkness faith attains God yet as He remains at a distance,
inasmuch as faith is of things not seen. But charity attains God in
Himself immediately, intimately uniting us to that which is hidden in
faith. And so, even though faith rules love and the union with God,
inasmuch as it is faith that proposes their object, yet, in virtue of
this union in which love clings to God immediately, the intellect is,
through a certain affective experience, so elevated as to judge of
divine things in a way higher than the darkness of faith would
permit. This is so because the intellect penetrates, and knows that
more lies hidden in things of faith than faith itself reveals, ever
finding there more to love and taste of in love. From this more,
which love makes the intellect feel is hidden there, it judges more
highly of things divine under a special instinct of the Holy Ghost.44
In his first stanza commentary St. John of the Cross offers a
metaphor for such undeniable action of God upon the soul when he
speaks of the Bridegroom wounding His bride. These wounds pierce the
soul with a transitory visit from the Bridegroom, "leaving it," as
St. John of the Cross vividly describes, "wholly cauterized with the
fire of love."45 The effect of these spiritual wounds of love
inflicted upon the soul by the touch of experiential contact with God
is to "make her go out of herself and enter into God."46 But there
is more here than merely a descriptive image of mystical experience.
The inflammation of the heart, the intense burning of the affections,
and the engagement of the will in the heat of the divine flame are
not without a higher purpose beyond the experience itself. Each of
these transitory piercings of the soul by the fire of divine love
arouses a seething desire in the soul, or more specifically in the
affections of the will, for absolute possession of the Beloved.
Every contact with divine love likewise begets an increase in the
soul's love. Its desire and yearning to love will determine the
extent of that increase. "God does not place His grace and love in
the soul except according to its desire and love."47 As much as the
will in its passion and affection for God is consumed in the flame of
these divine visits, to that extent does the soul suffer afterward a
sense of the divine absence and "the impossibility of possessing Him
here as she wants."48 The subsequent pain from these wounds of love
thus extends beyond the experience of contact with God, which is
delightful and desirable in itself to the soul, to affect the soul's
passion for union with God. As St. John of the Cross says in this
commentary on the first stanza, God:
bestows these to wound more than heal, and afflict more than satisfy,
since they serve to stimulate knowledge and increase the appetite
(consequently the sorrow and longing) to see God.49
Though the intense piercing of the wounds of love is a passing
experience delightful in itself, the aftereffects linger in the soul
as a kind of dying-to-itself. This gradual and progressive death by
love, a source of immense torment to the soul, is precisely the
soul's path of transformation in God. "She lives by dying until
love, in killing her, makes her live the life of love, transforming
her in love."50 Moreover, this painful transformation is directly
connected, interestingly enough, with an abiding element of ignorance
in the experience of the soul. "The death of love is caused in the
soul by means of a touch of supreme knowledge of the divinity, the
'I-don't-know-what'."51 Lest we imagine that St. John of the Cross
is speaking of a knowledge of God in some manner complete and
unsurpassed, he explains further on that he is referring to a source
of extreme discontentment for the soul.
There is a certain "I-don't-know-what" which one feels is yet to be
said, something unknown still to be spoken, and a sublime trace of
God, as yet uninvestigated, revealed to the soul, a lofty
understanding of God which cannot be put into words . . . this which
I do not understand completely, yet have sublime experience of, is
death to me.52
Once again we hear the recurrent note of God's inaccessibility
provoking the soul to plunge deeper into the hidden mystery of God's
The passionate longing of the soul for union with God clearly becomes
the driving thrust of the spiritual path to God. The soul's torment
in not possessing her Beloved, despite terrible yearnings and the
periodic visitations of the divine touches that wound her, is the
cause of a constant suffering. Even as the soul draws nearer the
actual consummation of union with God in the so-called spiritual
marriage, it experiences intently its own emptiness of God, the
absence of His former visits, undergoing a very heavy and purifying
This is the reason the soul's suffering for God at this time is so
intense: she is drawing nearer to Him, and so she has greater
experience within herself of the void of God, of very heavy darkness,
and of spiritual fire which dries up and purges her, so that thus
purified she may be united with Him. Inasmuch as God does not
communicate some supernatural ray of light from Himself, He is
intolerable darkness to her when He is spiritually near her, for the
supernatural light darkens with its excess the natural light.53
This description of purifying darkness within the soul on the verge
of union with God resounds strikingly with our former statements on
the necessary role of faith for the soul's progress. The only
recourse for such a soul, seemingly desolate of all divine support,
is to cling wholly to the certitude of faith.
We should better understand, then, why St. John of the Cross ascribes
the greatest importance to a radical purification of the soul by a
two-fold process: the soul's own voluntary self-emptying by
detachment from all sensual and spiritual self-satisfactions and the
interior voiding of soul effected progressively by experience of the
divine absences. Such a process of dispossession of self through
purification cannot help but forge a concentrated intensity in the
soul intrinsically related to the degree of its love. Only the
unremitting work of love emptying the soul of all attachments other
than God is able to ensure the advance toward union with God.
When the soul frees itself of all things and attains to emptiness and
dispossession concerning them, which is equivalent to what it can do
of itself, it is impossible that God fail to do His part by
communicating Himself to it, at least silently and secretly.54
St. John of the Cross' description of the nature of perfected love is
without ambiguity. It consists in a total, undivided, and intense
cleaving of all the soul's passions and appetites to the Beloved.
"He who truly walks in love lets himself lose all things immediately
in order to be found more attached to what he loves."55 A detachment
stripped of all self-seeking is the keynote. Nothing other than God
is to gain the semblance of a dominating note upon the passions:
thus the necessity to annihilate the relentless obstinacy of the
natural appetites.56 All one's concentrated strength of passion,
implying the frightful sacrifices of the saintly life, must be
centered exclusively upon the divine Lover who alone is worthy of the
soul's surrender in love. "It is the property of perfect love to be
unwilling to take anything for self, nor does it attribute anything
to self, but all to the Beloved."57 Only the soul dispossessed,
empty of attachment, and full of selfless love is capable of this
degree of heroic virtue.
The crucial note in the description of the exclusivity required for
authentic love of God is the pain of absence, the lack of
contentment, the frustration of soul which the true lover of God must
endure as purification. The loving soul hungers always to love more
vehemently and cannot be satisfied until it attains to full
possession of the Beloved. "Everything else not only fails to
satisfy it but . . . increases the hunger and appetite to see Him as
He is."58 Thirst of soul thus presupposes an interior desert of
soul. The heart must be willing to become an empty vessel of painful
craving and expectation.
Since she loves nothing outside of Him, she finds no rest or relief
in anything. This is how we recognize the person who truly loves
God: if he is content with nothing less than God.59
An absolute self-abnegation thus requires from the soul a conscious
annihilation of all the subtle traces of self-absorption that linger
in the soul as inclinations toward spiritual consolation,
complacency, or self-aggrandizement. To whatever extent the soul
refuses the martyrdom of an unrelenting interior and exterior self-
denial, it undermines its own progress. St. John of the Cross'
statements on the demands of love in his first stanza commentary can
be poignant and biting.
A person can truthfully call God Beloved when he is wholly with Him,
does not allow his heart attachment to anything outside of Him, and
thereby ordinarily centers his mind on Him . . . Some call the
Bridegroom beloved, whereas He is not really their beloved because
their heart is not wholly set on Him.60
Yet freely embraced, absolute self-abnegation, while exacting a
terrifying price, carves into the depths of the soul the supreme
mystery of divine love emptying itself in human blood upon the cross.
The soul, too, must shed its blood if it is to resemble the Beloved
in His perfect love. No other likeness but that forged in the
imitation of crucified love carries the fullness of meaning. The
promised rewards, however, are formidable and deserving of a closing
note. "In the real imitation of the perfect life of the Son of God,
her Bridegroom," says St. John of the Cross at the end of this first
stanza commentary, "she will merit the high perfection of union with
the Son of God, her Spouse, and transformation in Him through
1 Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., , 2 vols., trans. Sister Jeanne Marie, O.P. (St. Louis: B.
Herder Book Co., 1947 and 1951), vol. II, 208.
2 The Spiritual Canticle, i, 6.
3 Cf. Joseph Ratzinger, , trans. J. R.
Foster (New York: Herder and Herder, 1970), 101: "The boundless
spirit who bears in himself the totality of Being reaches beyond
'greatest', so that to him it is small, and he reaches into the
smallest, because to him nothing is small. Precisely this
overstepping of the greatest and reaching down into the smallest is
the true nature of absolute spirit."
4 Cf. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, xxii, 5-6: "Fasten your eyes
on Him alone, because in Him I have spoken and revealed all, and in
Him you shall discover even more than you ask for and desire . . .
You will discern hidden in Him the most secret mysteries, and wisdom,
and wonders of God."
5 The Spiritual Canticle, i, 2.
7 Ibid., xxxviii, 3-4.
8 Ibid., i, 3.
9 Cf. Henri de Lubac, S.J., , trans. Alexander
Dru (New York: P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1960), 159: "God is only found
by always seeking him. He is always 'the one sought'."
10 The Spiritual Canticle, i, 11.
11 Cf. Henri de Lubac, , 96: "The hidden God,
the mysterious God, is not distant and absent: he is always the God
who is near."
12 The Spiritual Canticle, i, 3. Cf. St. Augustine in (Epist. 147 as Paulinam), vi, n. 18: "When he is thought to be
absent, he is seen _ when he is present he is not seen." Quoted by
Henri de Lubac in , 158.
13 Cf. de Lubac, , 130: "God would not be God
unless he were _ not unknowable but _ beyond our grasp. He is always
above and beyond all that we can say and think of him."
14 Ibid., 96: "If God conceals himself, it is in his very presence.
His transcendence does not mean that he is exiled from the world; it
is the exact opposite of an absence."
15 The Spiritual Canticle, i, 12.
16 "For between Creator and creature no similitude can be expressed
without implying a greater dissimilitude." The Fourth Lateran
General Council (1215) DS 806.
17 Cf. The Spiritual Canticle, vii, 9: "One of the outstanding
favors God grants briefly in this life is an understanding and
experience of Himself so lucid and lofty as to make one know clearly
that He cannot be completely understood or experienced . . . Those
who understand God more, understand more distinctly the infinitude
which remains to be understood; whereas those who see less of Him do
not realize so clearly what remains to be seen."
18 Ibid., i, 7-8.
19 Ibid., i, 9.
20 Ibid., prol., 2.
21 The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, vi, 2.
22 Cf. ibid., II, vi, 2: "Faith, we know, affirms what cannot be
understood by the intellect . . . For though faith brings certitude
to the intellect, it does not produce clarity, but only darkness."
23 The Living Flame of Love, iii, 48.
24 Cf. The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, iii, 3: "Such is faith to the
soul _ it informs us of matters we have never seen or known, whether
in themselves or in their likenesses; in fact, nothing like them
25 Ibid., II, viii, 5.
26 Ibid., II, iv, 4.
27 Ibid., II, iv, 3: "If the soul traveling this road leans upon any
elements of its own knowledge or experience of God, it will easily go
astray or be detained for not having desired to abide in complete
blindness, in faith which is its guide. For, however impressive may
be one's knowledge or feeling of God, that knowledge or feeling will
have no resemblance to God and amount to very little."
28 Ibid., II, iii, 4.
29 The Spiritual Canticle, i, 12.
30 Ibid., i, 10.
31 Ibid., prol., 3.
32 Ibid., xxvii, 5.
33 The Living Flame of Love, iii, 49.
34 The Spiritual Canticle, xxvii, 5.
35 Ibid., xxxix, 12.
36 Ibid., xxvii, 5.
37 The Living Flame of Love, iii, 48.
38 The Spiritual Canticle, i, 11.
39 Ibid., viii, 3.
40 I-II, q. 28, a. 1, ad 3.
41 Ibid., q. 28, a. 2.
42 The Spiritual Canticle, xii, 7.
43 Ibid., i, 9.
44 John of St. Thomas, ., I-II, q. 68-70, disp. 18, a.
4, n. 14. Quoted by Jacques Maritain, ,
trans. Gerald B. Phelan (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1959),
45 The Spiritual Canticle, i, 17.
46 Ibid., i, 19.
47 Ibid., xiii, 12.
48 Ibid., i, 19.
50 Ibid., vii, 4.
52 Ibid., vii, 9.
53 Ibid., xiii, 1.
54 The Living Flame of Love, ii, 46.
55 The Spiritual Canticle, xxix, 10.
56 The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, v, 7: "To Love is to labor to
divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God."
57 The Spiritual Canticle, xxxii, 2.
58 Ibid., vi, 4.
59 Ibid., i, 14.
60 Ibid., i, 13.
61 Ibid., i, 10.
Rev. Donald F. Haggerty is a parish priest at Holy Spirit Church in
the Archdiocese of New York. He received a Masters of Divinity and a
Masters of Theology at St. Joseph's Seminary in Yonkers, New York.
Fr. Haggerty is currently studying in Rome for a doctorate in Moral
This article was taken from the Fall 1991 issue of "Faith & Reason".
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