The Metaphysics of Mysticsm

a Commentary on the Mystical Philosophy of St. John of the Cross


Geoffrey K. Mondello

Dedicated to Mary, Mother of God


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Preface to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
Foreword to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
An Introduction to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Mystical Tradition and St. John of the Cross
The Presuppositions of the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of the Will in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Understanding in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Memory in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Metaphysics of the Dark Night of the Soul
The Metaphysics of the Night of the Spirit
The Problem of Induction as Pseudo-Problematic
Prolepsis: Objections to the Mystical Experience
Being, Becoming, and Eternity
A Biography of St. John of the Cross
Epilogue to the Metaphysics of Mysticism

© Copyright 2011-2017 by Geoffrey K. Mondello. All rights reserved


Part I

Dark Night of the Soul

An Enchiridion to Reality

t should be reasonably clear by now that the Ascent of Mount Carmel – and, for that matter, a significant part of the Dark Night of the Soul – is not, nor was it intended to be, a theoretical treatise in speculative mysticism. It is, as we had insisted from the beginning, first and foremost an enchiridion, a practical guide for the contemplative. Each of these complimentary treatises were, in fact, written largely upon the insistence of St. John’s notable contemporary, St. Teresa of Avila, and were primarily intended for the use of the contemplative nuns of the newly reformed Order of Discalced Carmelites. Hence, St. John’s almost inordinate preoccupation with the relevance of such practical issues as the via negativa, the relation of the theological virtues to mystical experience, natural and supernatural modes of understanding, diabolical deception, and the notions of judgment and error. I think it is very clearly the case that St. John could have written otherwise and dealt cogently with issues of speculative interest to theologians and philosophers alike, but in a greater sense I think he would have viewed this as an altogether gratuitous exercise. The speculative aspects of mysticism – while of the greatest interest to the epistemologist – are entirely aside from the point. They are, in a very real sense, superfluous to the mystic who has not merely speculated upon, but experienced the Absolute and who, in light of this experience, has consequently been completely reoriented to the priorities articulating his existence. Speculation is well and fine inasmuch as reason is held – among the tenets of Christian doctrine – to pervade the universe. This type of speculative enterprise may indeed result in a legitimate, if limited and remote, understanding of the correspondence between constituent aspects of the Absolute – but this type of speculation is essentially pointless,  in a larger sense even meaningless, before the actual experience itself. A simple analogy may suffice. To wit: it may be of the greatest interest to me to endeavor to explore and synthesize physics, chromatics, and ophthalmology in order to arrive at an understanding of the experience of the color purple which – being color-deficient – I have never seen, and am unable to see. But were I suddenly to acquire adequate color perception, I would, I think, dispense with this exercise altogether in favor of the experience itself beside which the analysis is only, merely, academic to my purpose, and in any event would yield nothing of that unique chromatic perception to me. Nothing, in other words, short of the experience itself, would suffice. Now, while my sudden experience of the color purple will not radically reorient my life, the direct experience of God, I suggest, will. For it involves a good deal more than the characteristically brief experience itself described by the mystics. It effectively serves to validate, to authenticate, everything which faith binds to the existence of God. And this in turn will decisively reorient my priorities subsequent to this experience – a reorientation that will result in an entirely new and different perspective corresponding to no longer a perceived, but an experienced Reality. To the mystic, then, the emphasis is inexorably practical, for it is not merely theory, but reality – in fact the ens realissimum that he has encountered vis-à-vis God. Does this, then, abrogate faith? Not in the least. Indeed, for St. John faith has been the indispensable means to this realization.

But St. John’s treatise, we must equally insist, is not simply a practical guide to mystical union – although it was written as such. For us, as we had stated in the beginning, it is also a propadeutic to the possibility of articulating a mystical epistemology. And while St. John clearly did not understand himself to be formulating an epistemological doctrine in the writing of his several treatises, there are, nevertheless – and quite necessarily – clear epistemological elements, assumptions, and presuppositions implicit within the texts which lend themselves to the development a coherent mystical epistemology. That they do so at all is no small tribute to the profound insight, the keen intellect and precise reasoning of their author. In fairness we must say that St. John clearly understood his task as being descriptive, and not primarily analytical. He was concerned with describing – as much as inherently is possible – the mystical experience in all its myriad and luminous facets; and when, periodically, he does undertake to analyze the concepts involved, it is done of expedience, and only to supplement the account, to substantiate the description, and to demonstrate both its logical nature and its clear correspondence with orthodox doctrine. And this is to say that since the epistemological elements in St. John’s doctrine are implicit only, it is the task of the reader to elicit form from – indeed, occasionally to impose form upon – the various arguments as they occur throughout the treatises if he hopes to arrive at that implicit synthesis which binds the whole of his account into a coherent epistemological doctrine.

The Spiritual Night of Negation

The Ascent of Mount Carmel, it will be remembered, dealt principally with the ‘night of sense’ or sensuous negation, and this was seen to necessarily precede the possibility of mystical union – once again, we say ‘possibility’ because sensuous negation of itself, as we had found earlier, is no guarantee that mystical union will then follow, in the sense that it should causally necessitate it – and this theme is not immediately abandoned in the Dark Night of the Soul. In fact, it necessarily precedes the ‘night of the spirit’ or spiritual negation as one of the antecedents or premises in the logic of mysticism. Nevertheless it is only addressed transitionally as that residual sensibility prior to the negation of spirit which itself is the complete subjection of sense. As a stage of transition, however, the eradication of sense is not something abruptly achieved; it is more a gradual and centripetal movement away from the superficies of sensibility – toward the metaphysical subsistence of spirit. Moreover, very definite subjective indications accompany this transition: for example, meditation and sensible imagination – which hitherto provided the soul with a framework of orientation relative to God – no longer serve as reliable criteria of the soul’s spiritual progress to union.1 In other words, that residual sensibility to both subjective and objective phenomena, both of which are other to God – and this shall be extremely important later on – which formerly provided the soul with a frame of reference in its relation to God, suddenly and inexplicable fails:

“When they are going about these spiritual exercises with the greatest delight and pleasure, and when they believe that the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly upon them, God turns all this light of theirs into darkness ... and leaves them ... completely in the dark.” 2

This failure of sensibility to orient the soul to God effectively brings to completion the night of sense and inaugurates the night of the spirit. Sensibility, as an epistemological factor, is thus abolished relative to God.

This may strike us, at first, as a rather dramatic conclusion; one which we are initially inclined to see as essentially both radical and readily contestable. After all, we well may argue, the very notion of mystical union essentially – indeed, by definition –consists in the experience of God. And does not the very notion of experience itself presuppose sensibility? This is quite a paradox. How shall we answer it? To what can we appeal that will not at once involve us in a contradiction? If mystical union is essentially an experience, and if, furthermore, the very notion of experience is radicated in sensibility, how are we to understand the experience, not simply as subsequent to, but as necessarily preceded by, the abolishing of the very sensibility which the experience itself appears to presume? We must, I suggest, look for our answer in a more comprehensive understanding of the key notion of participation, and while we had addressed this notion briefly within the context of several previous discussions, it now becomes critical to examine this concept more closely. To begin with, in the state of infused contemplation, were the soul’s relation to God characterized by a rigorously explicit individuation– that is to say, one in a which a clearly perceived and reciprocal relation of disparity existed – then the notion of union would be meaningless. There would be, not merely an implied, but an explicit distinction between that which experienced, and that which was experienced; in fact, the type of relationship generally understood in terms of the distinction between a subject and an object – that is to say, the subject which experiences, and the object experienced. But it is precisely this type of distinction which the mystic’s notion of union cannot admit of. We are faced, then, with an apparent dilemma: on the one hand there can be no union, and on the other, no experience. No union because of the inherent bifurcation of subject and object; and, in the abrogation of sensibility, no experience possible of the one by the other. To further complicate matters, were the notion of union unqualified and absolute – presuming, of course, the possibility of union at all, given this dilemma – it would appear to involve, at the very least, the annihilation of the distinct identity of the one or, subsequent to what amounts to a substantival union, a modification in the identity of the other.

  Both alternatives are equally unacceptable to St. John. And not merely because they are alien to the mind of the Church, but simply because they are not consonant with the metaphysics underlying his mystical doctrine. In fact, the apparent dilemma is, upon a closer examination of this metaphysics, found to be essentially spurious, resulting not so much from defective, as from incomplete reasoning, for yet a third concept remains to be addressed; a concept in virtue of which issues involving our dilemma, together with the problem of identity, are ultimately seen to be unrelated to our account – and this is the notion of participatory union. St. John had argued the point earlier, and we will restate it once again: Sensibility can, and must, be abolished in a notion of union through participation. As long as sensibility is retained, then the inherent subject/object distinction is retained as well.

The Central Notion of Participation

As we have suggested, however, an examination of the notion of mystical union as it evolves in the account of St. John reveals that this union is not characterized by the subject/object distinction at all – which is an external distinction, one to which the notion of sensibility applies. Rather, we find, it is characterized by the participant / participated-in distinction – which is an internal distinction, one to which an attenuated notion of identity applies. Subject is eternally other to object in their purely external relation. However, the distinction that obtains between the participant and that-participated-in cannot so readily be rendered into terms that lend themselves to this type of complementary antithesis. It is not a relation characterized by inherent and reciprocal otherness, but rather, by inherent sameness – by an attenuated notion of identity implicit within the concept of participation itself. Let us put this more clearly to our purpose. The very notion of participation itself implies a logical antecedent in the form of an existential proposition in virtue of which alone the notion becomes meaningful: the logically prior element – the participated-in, or unparticipated being – is that in virtue of which the latter – the participating-in, or participated being – assumes certain definite predicates deriving from, and in fact identical with, the former.3 We find, however, that the notion of participation is generally spoken of in reference not to some form of being, but to some form of activity. We do not participate in “beings” ordinarily understood as discrete ontic existents, but rather, in activities predicated of being. But if this in fact is the case, it is not so much a relation of identity which obtains between the two things to which the predicate activity is attached, as a sharing in identical activities, and this is quite another thing. “Activity” clearly is not in itself a substantival existent; there is nothing apart from the activity which itself is merely a predicate of being, and not in itself a being. Activity, then, is not a being, but something predicated of being. What, then, can the nature of this logically prior element be, such that it admits of the notion of identity – especially inasmuch as it may possibly apply through the concept of participation? In the logic of mysticism there must be an essence which coincides with activity, otherwise participation in this activity would never result in an identity between the two elements involved, merely a sharing in identical activities. In God, however – and here is the crux of the matter – being and activity are held to coincide.4

In the Book of Exodus – which is really the locus classicus of the conception itself within mystical theology at large – God reveals himself to Moses as the “Ego sum qui sum”, or “He who is” .God is a being who is active being, that is to say, being understood not simply as static ontology, but as dynamic activity. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, he is the “quod est esse simpliciter”, or that which is absolutely. In other words, God is an activity whose essence coincides with his activity – or conversely, God is an essence whose activity coincides with his essence.5 However one looks at it, since God is the esse ipsum, the Being-in-Itself, his activity is, as such, quintessentially substantival, identical and coincidental with his being. So understood, it is not merely the case that we achieve a more adequate ontological perspective of God, but at one and the same time we finally arrive at a coherent understanding of the dynamics of union itself. We had stated earlier that our understanding of the notion of participation was invariably tied up with a conception of activity; that we do not characteristically understand ourselves as able to participate in beings as such, but rather, in activities predicated of being, in which case we may be said to share in identical activities, and not in the being itself in which these activities are enacted. But since God is a Being whose essence is activity – to participate in this activity is to participate in a Being, to participate in God; in fact, it is to assume, participatorily, those very predicates which attach to this Activity which is God – and as a participatory relation, to assume, not the identity of God, but an identity with God. In this state of consummate or perfect participation which we call ecstatic union, the notion of otherness, then, does not, indeed, cannot, coherently apply. It is fundamentally, if only temporarily, abolished in what has become effectively an apotheosized identity.

Participation and the Problem of Identity

Paradoxically, however, this is not to say that a distinction does not yet persist, or is no longer discernible between the soul and God. Unlike the Neoplatonists and other pre-Christian, and for that matter, post-Christian, and Vedantic phenomenologies in which the distinct identity of the soul is held to be categorically annihilated in its union with the Absolute – leaving no vestige of personal identity and, subsequently, no latent notion of individuation – the Christian mystic understands himself to be, even in the most sublime, the most intimate moment of ecstatic union, at least implicitly cognizant of his unique ontological status as a participant in the being of God, and not as constituting the Unparticipated Being Itself. The distinction which remains, however – unlike that which preceded union, and which, we will remember, was characterized by an irreconcilable ontological polarity – is now an internal distinction; it is a distinction ultimately sublated in what is essentially a notion of participated identity. What we mean is this: the soul in the state of ecstatic union essentially possesses an identity that is ultimately seen to be at once both inherent and acquired: it is inherent in that the soul is implicitly constituted as the imago Dei, and this fundamentally reflective ontology presumes the Absolute as reflected. In other words, the Absolute as the imaged is presumed in the identity of the image. On the other hand, it is no less acquired in that this image becomes explicit – informed, actual – only through, and subsequent to – in other words, in virtue of – union with the Absolute; it is acquired in that its identity as image can only perfectly coincide with the Absolute – and so be totally, authentically, enacted, realized – given the Absolute in that unobstructed encounter we call mystical union in which the Imaged is brought perfectly to bear upon the image. Its identity as the imago Dei is no longer implicit in the state of union, and that identity, reflecting the Absolute, now of necessity perfectly coincides with it.

If the distinction between the soul and God so understood, however, still strikes us as tentative, it does so because it is essentially incomplete. Indeed, a casual analysis of this metaphysically nuanced distinction in and of itself is likely to precipitate several problems involving semantic issues that must be clarified first if the distinction we have made is not to be found ultimately spurious. Our most important question, then, is this: Has an adequate notion of distinction really been achieved after all? And while we should find it tiresome to ferret out every possible point of contention – and I am certain there are many in this commentary that I have not begun to anticipate – this particular issue at hand cannot be turned aside without our account suffering needlessly, so let us look at our argument once again. In effect we have said that the soul is the image of God and that its identity as such is most authentically acquired and subsequently enacted when it encounters, in that unobstructed moment of union, God whom it then faithfully images. But here is the problem. If the identity of the soul is exclusively defined by, and is essentially coterminous with, the identity of God, it is very difficult to distinguish any individuating factor through which the unique personality of the soul is preserved subsequent to this union of identities. The ontological distinction we have examined so far yields only an abstract notion of differentiation; one which does not seem to culminate in a preservation of unique and separate identities. The image still appears undifferentiated from the Imaged. It is well to say the two in fact are distinct, but upon what is this notion of distinction predicated if the one is held to be indiscernible from the other; if the identity of the one is equally ascribable to the other? How are we to respond to this? Are we then, by the logic of our own argument constrained to say that the soul, in virtue of the ontological parameters defining its being solely in terms of its reflective nature qua image, loses its unique identity in its union with the Absolute? If so, then we have arrived at a conclusion essentially no different from that of the Neoplatonists. And this is clearly not what St. John intends to argue, nor, in fact, do his metaphysics lend themselves to this essentially abbreviated conclusion. For our answer, I suggest, we must look closely at what St. John says relative to the identity of the soul in this state of union.

In an extremely important passage previously cited, St. John tells us that the soul in the state of ecstatic union “appears” to be God Himself  6, and I think that a closer look at what is actually involved in this notion will prove useful. This apparent identity authentically corresponds to the identity of God inasmuch as it is God’s image; it is the perfect, unblemished reflection of God much in the way that a flawless mirror perfectly reflects the object held up before it. The resulting correspondence, we might say, is such that the one is indistinguishable from the other. But while there is no perceived difference, the actual distinction between the two is of the greatest importance – for it is precisely upon this distinction that the difference rests between St. John’s account and non-Christian or heterodox interpretations. But let us carry this analogy – which is fairly common in the literature of mysticism – one step further. The mirror – or the soul as the Divine speculum – is essentially incapable of reflecting the totality of the imaged, and while this holds true of a material mirror reflecting finite matter, it is truer still of the finite soul reflecting the infinite God. The frame, if you will, of the image can only to a finite extent circumscribe the infinite aspects of God. This does not make the correspondence in which the reflection consists less authentic, only incomplete. And this is to say that, despite actual union, there is nevertheless an ontological discontinuity inherent in that union – a discontinuity deriving from, and radicated in, the metaphysical inability of the finite to exhaustively comprehend, and therefore to comprehensively reflect, the totality of the infinite – even as it participates within it. And this is to say that the distinction which obtains between the two – between the finite soul, albeit participating in God, and the infinite God – is already ontologically explicit.

Let us now return to our earlier question, our problem, really: if the two in fact are distinct, to what, in our attempt to establish unique identities, can we appeal in distinguishing between them if the one is effectively the undistorted image of the other? Well, to begin with, I think it is clearly arguable that the unique constitutional characteristics of the soul are no more abolished in union with God than the constituent elements entering into the composition of a mirror are abolished in the mirror’s being actualized before an object. Nothing in the way of the unique nature of the soul or, for that matter, the mirror, is abrogated as a result of its actualization before its proper object. The soul remains no less a particular soul, and the mirror no less a particular mirror. In acquiring an identity with God, nothing in the way of the unique constitutional identity of the soul is lost – quite to the contrary, it is enhanced in the actualization of its created nature, a nature that was created to be the image of God. It is, in other words, essentially a restatement of the axiom that grace does not destroy, but perfects nature. And this is to say that the unique identity of the soul, however modified subsequent to union, is nevertheless preserved within it. It is not the case that the nature of the soul is transformed – still less abolished – but rather, that the identity of the soul is enhanced; in a manner of speaking, transformed, in that apotheosized realization of its nature as image of the Absolute. The complementary notions of reflection and participation are, then, mutually implicated in the moment of union: the soul’s essentially reflective ontology constitutes its inherent identity, an identity that is subsequently enhanced and therefore acquired through participation in God in the state of mystical union.

Participated and Un-Participated Being

Something more, however, remains to said about the notion of participation which figures so largely in St. John’s account. The concept itself is found to embody an implicit ontological distinction that is not simply central, but crucial to the metaphysics of mysticism. Participation is essentially a concept applied to two very different types of being relatively considered: participated being, or that which participates, and, by implication, unparticipated being, or that-participated-in. And I think that we must be clear at the outset that while the relationship between these two types of being, considered as such, is necessarily mutual, it is not ontologically reciprocal, and what I mean is this: participated being necessarily implies unparticipated being as that in which it is said to participate, and unparticipated being, as a being that is participated-in but itself unparticipating in any other being, necessarily implies participated being – given a participated being – as that which participates in itself. Perhaps a different tack will illustrate the point better. Participated being cannot be said to participate in another participated being. This would be tantamount to saying that it participates in participation, which is absurd. It can only participate in being that itself is unparticipated. But this is not to say that this relationship is ontologically reciprocal. Unparticipated being in and of itself subsists independently of participated being as that through which, that in virtue of which, the being of the latter is derived through participation. Of itself it does not presuppose as a condition to its existence, the existence of participated being. Participated being, in other words, is derived being, while unparticipated being, as totally underived, is totally self-subsistent. Participated being, on the other hand, is not of itself independently subsistent, that is to say, separable, from the being in which it participates and through which its own being derives. And this is simply a rather complex way of saying that the soul presupposes God to its own existence, and that God is under no such ontological constraint relative to the soul.

Being, Becoming, and the Paradox of Participation

Deeper implications of a profound ontological nature, however, soon emerge from this reflexive relation between participated-being and unparticipated-being, between  the created soul and the Uncreated Absolute, for upon closer examination we find that the indispensable notion of participation itself cannot be abstracted from, because in some way it is fundamentally radicated in, the notion of becoming. Our focus up to this point has been upon Being and the aspectual negation of being through the via negativa. Notably absent has been a discussion of the role of becoming in the translation of being. Contemplative union (unio mystica) is, if nothing else, a becoming – a becoming one with God, however attenuate the union. Through participation the mystic becomes one with the Absolute conceived as God. All this is well and good … until we are prompted to question two subtle, but deeply profound, ontological assumptions in earnest. What, we must now ask, precisely is the nature of this relationship which so rigorously obtains between the mutually implicative notions of participation in being, and becoming. Is not the inception of the first the cessation of the second?  In attaining to being, albeit participatorily, do we not eo ipso relinquish becoming? If we have arrived, has not all that was itinerant ceased? In short, is becoming abolished in being?  

If this is so, however, it is fraught with perilous implications, not the least of which is profoundly inimical to the doctrine of St. John who is quite clear that despite the soul’s union with God, its being is nevertheless distinguishable from the Being of God in the way that the most perfect reflection in a mirror is ontologically distinct from that which is reflected in it. In other words, were the soul to transcend becoming and attain to unqualified being, it would be indistinguishable from God … it would be God. It would also be contra fide. How, then, do we respond to this enigma? How do we reconcile becoming with being without conflating the two in an ecstatic subreption? St. John regrettably, does not provide us with this answer … but his metaphysical infrastructure, I suggest, does. Let us look more carefully, then, into the notion of becoming in its relation to participatory being in God. Vital issues are at stake here, issues of such metaphysical proportion that our answer will either repudiate or substantiate the metaphysical doctrine of St. John.

To wit: is becoming an inflection of being, other than an inflection of being, or is it coterminous with being? Unless we can cogently respond to this question, the metaphysics of participation itself – a notion central to understanding the phenomenon of ecstatic union – is deeply compromised, and what we have arrived at is merely a metaphysical synthesis on purely speculative ontological grounds. Fortunately, the general metaphysical schema to which St. John adverts elsewhere in passim provides us with an answer I deem to be at least implicit within the text and standing simply in need of further articulation. We must, then, speculate further upon the notion of becoming within the general context St. John has provided – becoming verging on being. The bourne at the edge of the Dark Night.  

The most summary purview of the Western Mystical Tradition reveals, at least implicitly and with few exceptions, that for the mystic becoming is the created articulation of the uncreated eternal. There is no terminus to becoming vis-à-vis the Absolute, the Infinite, the Eternal, and in this sense it is perpetually parallel to it and only in virtue of it. Even while we may speculate that at any given point of becoming, the soul in conspectu aeternitatis subsumes as present all the permutations of its being, in all that has been, and to this extent incorporates being even in the indesinence of becoming; that is to say, if we presume that the soul incorporates as present all that has been up to any given point in the continuum of becoming, we still have not arrived at the soul as being – only as a being-such-that-is-perpetually-a-becoming-of. From this perspective, the soul is indeed the imago Dei inasmuch as it embraces as eternally present all that it has been … up to this point in its becoming; however, what lies before it is not yet present, nor can the soul incorporate what it is not yet, into what it has been, into what it is has enacted, up to this point of its becoming. The soul may in fact be understood to exist in a quasi-eternal present – but it is a present that has not yet, and never will, culminate in a terminus of its becoming such that it is a being whose being has been totally and completely enacted and can become no more than it is. But to attain to nothing more, to culminate in nothing more, to become no more than what the soul is, is to understand the soul not simply as having attained to being, but having become distinguishable from it. It would be a being whose essence has culminated in being. But only God’s Being is His essence, and only God’s Essence is His Being.

Rather than having understood the soul as having spuriously assumed unqualified being, we see the soul as the speculum of this Esse Ipsum, this Being Itself, as the finite image of what is absolute – understanding at the same time that the Infinite and Absolute as imaged eternally exceed the boundaries of the finite image. However clear and authentic  the image, it is only an image in part, an incomplete instantiation – not only of the Absolute, but of its very own being which is perpetually becoming, and is not yet what it will be, and when it is what it will be, it will still not yet be what it will be, for it remains to be more … to become more than it is, to perpetually verge on the Infinite and the Absolute … but never embrace it in its totality. Since human nature can never attain to the ontological status of Being Itself inasmuch as it can never assume the divine nature (even while participating in it), the perpetuity of its becoming-that-always-verges-on-being remains an indefeasible aspect of its created nature (or its nature qua created) – and therefore remains unchanged – even in eternity. What is more, that is the splendor and the happiness, the felicity enjoyed by the soul in what we understand to be the beatific vision. In a word, Becoming is inexhaustiblebecause Being Itself is inexhaustible in God; becoming, as such, is a tangent to, because it is enacted in, eternity.

The souls’s participatory being in God does not, then, abolish its becoming. The ramifications of this understanding are many, not the least of which is a clarification of the state of the soul before the beatific vision. It is no more static than the vision it beholds; even as God is understood as a Being whose essence coincides with his activity, or alternately, as a Being whose activity coincides with his essence (as we had stated earlier), just so the state of the soul in conspectu Dei is dynamic, perpetually becoming in perpetually verging on inexhaustible being; perpetually reflecting, participating in, the consummate being of God which is quintessentially a perpetual enactment.

Abrogation or Heteronymy?

This further underscores the fact that the relationship of identity which obtains between God and the soul is not one in which all explicit distinction is sublated in the dialectic of participation: a residual distinction nevertheless clearly remains which is fundamentally an ontological distinction. It is, in fact, a distinction between Being-Absolute, and being- contingent-upon-the-Absolute. And this is precisely the distinction between the Imaged and the image, the latter being understood as heteronymously deriving its being from the former. This distinction, however, does not diminish the fact that the inherent identity of the soul as the imago Dei is, subsequent to union, radically enhanced to such a degree that what can only be called a transformation occurs within it in which the soul explicitly acquires through participation what it only latently possessed through nature. It is, in fact, very much along the lines of what the Apostle St. John wrote concerning the identity of the soul before the beatific vision of God:

“Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” 7

In other words, as a consequence of seeing God, the soul shall be rendered like unto him. And this is the metaphysics of participation.

As is often the case in a critical analysis of any aspect of St. John’s account, just when we think that we have succeeded in putting a particular issue to rest, another facet of that same issue emerges later on in another and entirely different context, and this is particularly true of St. John’s treatment of the notion of sensibility which recurs in the opening Book of the Dark Night of the Soul. In a larger sense, this is due, I think, once again to the kind of treatise he writes, the protocols and limitations of which are less clearly defined than had he taken to his purpose the type of examination we have presumed to undertake. And yet we ourselves are constrained to follow the itinerary of this development in his account if our commentary hopes to achieve the coherence toward which we have endeavored from the outset. We had stated earlier that St. John had ascribed the gradual failure of sensibility, which he describes as “... this blessed night of sense ...”,8 to the inexorable transition from the sensuous to the spiritual, a transition in which the soul cooperates but which is, withal and principally, effected by God:

“... the cause of this aridity [that accompanies the inception of this dark night] is that God transfers to the spirit the good things and the strength of the senses ... [but] the sensual part of man has no capacity for that which is pure spirit, and thus, when it is the spirit that receives the pleasure, the flesh is left without savor ... but the spirit, which all the time is being fed, goes forward in strength ... [although] it is not immediately conscious of spiritual sweetness and delight ... 9

Here, as we can see, we are once again thrown back on the problem of sensibility. It can hardly be disputed that the terms “pleasure”, “sweetness”, and “delight” which occur in the above excerpt are explicitly sensuous terms, and it appears to be an unpardonable solecism on the part of St. John to have adopted terminology fraught with the very contradictions they appear to engender. But what can be disputed, however, is the interpretation, the meaning which we assign to these terms in light of the gradually unfolding logic of mysticism. In effect, to accept these terms at face value, and not as analogical equivalents, is to accuse St. John of violating the very principles from which he argues, a position very difficult to maintain given the type of close reasoning that we have seen and have come to expect throughout his works. So what in fact does St. John mean by admitting of the possibility of what appear to be sensuous experiences in the state of sensuous negation?

Perhaps this question can be answered by way of analogy and in terms that lend themselves less readily to a sensuous interpretation of the type St. John appears to imply. Clearly there are different kinds of pleasures subsequent to different kinds of activities. The delight, for example, which a mathematician might experience in resolving a complicated differential equation is clearly of another kind to that experienced by a child savoring sweets. The one pleasure derives from the abstract contemplation of an intellectual good, the other from the sensory experience of a perceived physical good. These pleasures are clearly of a different kind; that is to say, the difference is not one susceptible to being quantified – it is not the case that the mathematician derives greater pleasure than the child, but a different type of pleasure altogether. What is more – and apropos of the issue at hand – in not having been initiated into those goods which we have characterized as intellectual, the child is unable to recognize the good otherwise implicit within certain other types of activity. In effect, his inability to participate within activities to which certain goods are intrinsic that are non-sensuous in nature, precludes the possibility of his deriving pleasure from any good not sensuously derived, which alone is the good to which he has been accustomed and to which alone he remains receptive. He is, in a manner of speaking, conditioned to the good (for the moment, the pleasurable) as deriving from the senses, and in order for him to experience the good as intellectual, the physical senses must be held in abeyance as the sole criterion of the good or the pleasurable. And this is very much like saying that the experience of this latter type of good requires a kind of negation of the sensuous. In fact, this understanding of the problem very closely corresponds to St. John’s subsequent account of this transitional phase:

“If [the soul in this state of transition] is not conscious of spiritual sweetness and delight, but only of aridity, or lack of sweetness, the reason for this is the strangeness of the exchange, for its palate has been accustomed to those other sensual pleasures upon which its eyes are still fixed. Since the spiritual palate is not made ready or purged from such subtle pleasure, until it finds itself becoming prepared for it by means of this arid and dark night, it cannot experience spiritual pleasure and good, but only aridity and lack of sweetness.” 10

Sensibility vis-a-vis Experience:
The Problematic

More importantly, what may be said of these pleasures and goods that the soul is capable of experiencing and which St. John briefly describes above? In what, precisely, do these pleasures consist, and why are they experienced? In short, what are they? St. John is very clear in the passage above that such pleasures may be legitimately anticipated subsequent to, though not necessarily as a consequence of, a clearly defined preparatory process – and what is particularly noteworthy is that the requisite preparation consists, paradoxically, in sensuous negation. In other words, the pleasures that the mystic may anticipate are not merely inaccessible, but essentially unavailable until the manifold of sensibility has been effectively abolished. And unless we are able to make a distinction between sensibility and experience, the notion of pleasure abstracted from sensibility will be a very odd notion indeed. After all, sensibility – or the ability to be sensibly affected – is, by and large, not simply a component, but a presupposition, of experience. It goes without saying that the notion of sensation presupposes the notion of sensibility. And the notion of sensation, in turn, while not strictly tautological with, is more often than not defined in terms of, experience; to such an extent, in fact, that we should find it very difficult to understand an individual, for example, who claims to have had the sensation of “hot” apart from any experience of it. Our question then is, while we cannot understand the notion of sensibility apart from experience, can we understand the notion of experience apart from the notion of sensibility? This, however, is not to say, as I suggested a moment ago, that the two notions are therefore effectively tautologous, or interchangeable. We can be said to experience the sensation of heat, but we cannot be said to have a sensation of the experience of heat. We do not sense experiences. We experience the senses, or more accurately, reports of phenomena delivered by the senses.

  There is, then, a very clear distinction to be made between sensibility and experience. Moreover, despite the relationship between sensibility and experience that is, by and large, perceived as being mutual, even this mutuality itself can only be predicated of certain kinds of experience that are explicitly sensuous in nature to begin with. What is more, there are many other types of experiences to which nothing physically sensible corresponds. For example, our experience of delight in being given, say, a relic – is a type of experience that is independent of the tactile, sensible phenomena associated with the relic. It may be said to derive from the relic, but the experience itself is not one of the relic; rather, it is one that arises from our possession of the relic in a sense that is not strictly tactile. That is to say, our experience of the delight of possession is different from our experience of the tactile quality of the relic. Nor is the experience of the one, simply because it is tactile, more real or specific than the experience of the other. And the upshot of our entire argument is simply this: the apparent contradiction engendered by St. John’s use of the terms delight, sweetness, and pleasure – terms typically understood in a context of sensibility – subsequent to the soul’s induction into sensuous negation, is now seen to be no contradiction at all. But more importantly it means that the notion of experience extricated from a rigorous association with sensibility is in fact a coherent notion relative to the purely spiritual intuition of God subsequent to the abolishing of sensibility.

But let us say something more of the nature of these experiences themselves. It might be argued that these experiences, in and of themselves, appear to be extrinsic to that direct experience of God in which union consists; indeed, that such experiences are fundamentally subjective in nature and as such are merely accidental in a causal way to God’s presence. That, in fact, as purely subjective experiences they do not essentially pertain to that direct experience of union which is the participatory assimilation of the soul into God in which nothing explicitly other to God remains. In light of all this, are we really prepared to argue that these experiences, experiences that are apparently radicated in the subjectivity of the soul, constitute an essential feature of the mystical experience, and not, after all, one merely accidental to it? For unless we can come to terms with this objection, it becomes extremely unclear why St. John would advert to these experiences at all – and in so doing occasion this apparent contradiction.

When we consider this objection closely, however, we find that it fails either to discern or to adequately explore two indispensable factors entering into any coherent understanding of the mystical experience: the notion of participation and the nature of God. It is indeed arguable, in fact I shall proceed to argue as much, that these experiences are, in the logic of mysticism, not merely accidental to God’s presence, as we might have mistakenly supposed, but rather are logically consequent to a fully articulated understanding of participation – in which the soul’s experiences are in fact the experiences of God. Moreover, they are fully experiences of God in a twofold sense: they are the experience of God himself – which is at one and the same time a participation in God’s experience of Himself. Now, we hasten to add that this is not to deny the subjectivity of such experiences, for such a denial is clearly impossible – there is no such thing as an “objective” experience, of an experience not related to a subject. But it is a shared subjectivity implicit within, and deriving from, the soul’s mystical and participative union with God in which the experience of joy, sweetness, etc., is that felicity which God experiences within himself, and which – as essential to the nature of God – is that in which the soul is understood to be participating through its union with him. The soul, in other words, experiences the felicity of God by virtue of its participating in God – and because it is participatory, this experience is also subjective.

While such an understanding goes a long way in clarifying this particular, if only apparent inconsistency in St. John’s doctrine, it hardly serves to exhaust our understanding of this transitional phase to which St. John devotes fully one half of the Dark Night of the Soul. It is extremely important to understand that, as phase of transition in an otherwise dynamic development, it is bound to suffer from that characteristic indeterminacy that is always latent in any notion of becoming. Anything on the verge of becoming is neither totally what is was, nor what it shall be. And it is precisely this intermediate penumbra, vacillating between the superficies of sense and spirit in which the soul is at once both and neither, which poses perhaps the single greatest challenge to an understanding of mysticism. Not infrequently, problems encountered in an approach from one of the two perspectives result from suppressed theses answerable only in terms of their alternatives, much as we had found to be the case with the apparently inconsistent notion of the pleasurable relative to union. These apparent inconsistencies – and there are many – demand a place in our account. Some of them, like beads of mercury, may at first elude our grasp until in frustration we hammer them with analysis against the anvil of the text and find, after sorting out the pieces, that when brought together once again the whole is coherent in a way we had not first fully understood. And very much like the bead of mercury, in the end we shall find that reason, after all, may merely touch upon, but never enter into that divine circle penetrable only through faith.

The Imperative of Passivity

St. John, we will remember, has been unmistakably clear that this transition from the sensuous to the spiritual presupposes; indeed, requires, a disposition of total passivity on the part of the soul. In fact, that cooperation with the Divine initiative which throughout has characterized the soul’s movement toward union is, from the very beginning, directed precisely toward attaining this state of passivity that is both consequent to, and is now seen to have been the principal goal of, the via negativa in each of its multifaceted aspects. And what this essentially means is that all the contradiction and contrariety which has been an impediment to the soul in its quest for union is, in one form or another, ultimately seen to be occasioned by activity on the part of the soul, activity that effectively precludes the activity of God within it:

“... the beginning of contemplation ... is secret and hidden from the very person that experiences it; ... [and] the souls to whom this comes to pass [must be] troubled not about performing any kind of action, whether inward or outward ... It does its work when the soul is most at ease and freest from care ... For in such a way does God bring the soul into this state, and by so different a path does He lead it that, if it desires to work with its faculties, it hinders the work which God is doing in it ...” 11

But let us at once clear up what is really a non-issue before it culminates in absurdity, and allow St. John the author a certain latitude that would permit the type of inexactitude that we should find inexcusable in St. John the theologian. He clearly is both, and for the most part integrates the two admirably. An exegesis, however, of the type we have undertaken must be as flexible as the text itself and where it must be unsparing in the criticism of concepts, it must equally submit to the occasional ambiguity in literary form. And all this, of course, is apropos of the opening lines in the passage quoted above. In effect, St. John appears to be saying that we can have experiences of which we are unaware – and since every experience presumes cognition of some sort, this strikes us as patently absurd. And so understood it is. But to succumb to this overly rigorous interpretation is really a failure to come to terms with the limitations of the text which had already been set out beforehand. Yes, we can press the point and accuse St. John of carelessness, but I really think it is unnecessarily punitive, and in the end, quite trivial. St. John simply means that the beginning of contemplation occurs in the soul “secretly”, as he would say, or in such a way that the soul is unaware of what God is effecting within it; a point we had addressed earlier in another context. This small matter having been clarified, we can now pass on to what is actually significant in the text.

While it is true that the soul cooperates with God in order to arrive at the passive state of negativity, it is equally and paradoxically true that its achieving this state is not the result of the efforts of its own will – except negatively considered. Were it in fact the case that the soul attained this passive state by its own efforts, then in effect the soul would be subject to no limitations that had not been voluntarily appropriated in the first place, and the subsequent exercise of its will would alone determine the extent to which these limitations were in fact actual constraints. Rather simply put, limitations not independent of volition are really no constraining limitations at all. And it is clearly St. John’s argument that it is ultimately God who is leading the soul into these various nights, the conditions of which, once entered into, are no longer subject to the soul’s volition. And this is further to say that the notion of volition apparently extends no further than the soul’s implicit accession to be subject to new limitations, an assent – already presumed in the soul’s ascetical activity described in the Ascent of Mount Carmel – to limitations imposed no longer by nature, but by spirit.

Let us sort this out a bit more. In having left the limitations – generally construed in terms of physical laws – imposed on the will by the order of nature (our will, for example, is constrained by laws which prevent us from passing through walls, should we will to do so), the soul has, upon the inauguration of the night of the spirit, simultaneously subjected itself to other limitations constraining the will in the order of the spirit. We have seen, by way of illustration, that the will is unable to engage discursive reason – it is effectively constrained from doing so by the principles of the via negativa through which alone the soul gained access to the spiritual order in the first place. It is not the case, then, that limitation is abolished. In one form or another it is metaphysically inherent in the very ontological structure of the soul. But while it is not abolished, the parameters defining the concept of limitation are translated, redefined, to accord with a different metaphysical environment into which the concept itself has been brought. It is a limitation of mind or spirit analogous to the former physical limitations experienced in the order of nature. This seems to be clearly maintained by St. John when he makes such statements as the following:

“The soul can no longer meditate or reflect in the imaginative sphere of sense ...12... its inability to reflect with the faculties grows ever greater ... and brings the ... and brings the workings of the sense to an end …” 13

But we must be careful, on the other hand, not to construe this development as depriving the will of its freedom. In every event, in every movement, the soul remains free by an act of will to spurn the divine embrace and to disengage itself from these new constraints simply by rejecting the via negativa – and all the limitations subsequent to it – by the same formal act of the will through which it first submitted to them. It is not that freedom of the will has been relinquished, but rather, that freedom has been redefined in light of newly acquired limitations.

Consent, Constraint, and the Paradox of Freedom

But what precisely are these limitations to which the soul has consented, and by what is it constrained? St. John, regrettably, is not clear on this point, but then again, neither should we expect him to be. It is undoubtedly and unavoidably a shortcoming in any type of exegesis that attempts to extrapolate concepts only latent in a text, that the systematic schema toward which it strives as an end, and around which the coherence of its own account evolves, tends to unfairly indict its source as defaulting in a systematic obligation that was never its intended purpose to begin with. In very deed, were this the case our own present study would be altogether superfluous. While it is true that St. John does not elucidate on the nature of these limitations, they nevertheless compel our interest as vital components to our understanding the complexity of the transition in which they occur and the effect on the will as a consequence of it. These limitations, let us say, first of all appear to be relative to the order of nature. From the entire line of argument that St. John has pursued up to this point we may say that these limitations are subsumed under a more comprehensive relation of opposition existing between spirit and nature which we had earlier discussed at length. These limitations, in fact, are readily translated into functions of opposition in which the corresponding and diametrical attributes of each order (finite/ infinite, temporal/eternal, etc.) delimit the possible functions of the soul within each respective order. That is to say, the limitations which the soul experiences in either sphere function in accordance with the broader ontological demands of each order. Once introduced into the spiritual order – the demands of which, it will be remembered, required the negation of nature – the soul has necessarily been inducted into that otherness of spirit to nature – an otherness to which the order of nature, apart from divine intervention, effectively forms the limitation to the order of spirit. As such, a phenomenal inversion occurs relative to the will; for in the order of nature the soul was constrained by inherent limitations in the exercise of its will over the order of spirit – limitations clearly defined by, and coterminous with, supernatural realities which were typically unavailable and therefore inaccessible to the exercise of the will. In other words, the spiritual, broadly understood, did not constitute the immediate context in which the will was characteristically exercised; rather the will was seen to have been limited, confined, in its activity to the natural order – and as such to have shared in that otherness of nature to spirit.

This situation, however, is inverted through sensuous negation, or the negation of nature. First of all, we have seen that the spiritual order is achieved explicitly, solely, through the negation of nature. This in itself would suffice to explain new limitations on the will. But what is more, as other to nature through its subsumption under spirit, the will no longer functions in that context which would admit of its exercise over nature. And what this means is that nature forms the will’s absolute limitation once the will is subsumed under spirit. This, however, is not to say that the will shall be exercised, merely that such exercise must be subject to implied limitations; limitations which, in this period of transition, the soul experiences relative to meditations, reasoning, and the like. And yet ultimately, as we shall see, the exercise of the will subsequent to negation is understood in terms of the will’s identification with the will of God, and the limitations which it presently experiences relative to nature are in the end overcome, St. John argues, when the soul becomes God-by-participation. 1

Transcendence through Negativity

As we had seen in other and earlier contexts, the notion of the bidimensionality of man figures largely throughout the works of St. John. But we must be extremely clear from the outset that this notion in no way implies a dualism of the type we find, for example, in the Zend-Avesta of Zoroaster or in the eclectic and largely Gnostic doctrines of Manichaeism. It is, I think, necessary to emphasize this point simply because St. John’s often graphic illustrations, not so much of the incommensurability, but of the contrariety that exists between God and nature, and nature and spirit, at least superficially lend themselves to this sort of misunderstanding. But to misunderstand St. John in this regard is to misunderstand him completely. It is to fail to grasp an entire tradition that coherently spans from early patristic thought to late Scholastic reasoning; a tradition out of which his own philosophy emerges and to which St. John is intensely faithful. The polarity we find alternately between God and nature, and nature and spirit is, in the philosophy of St. John, a metaphysical distinction rooted in ontology, not a dualistic antithesis radicated in cosmology. It is not that matter, the body, finitude, space and time are evil. Quite to the contrary, it is a basic tenet of Christian theology that God – ex nihilo – created matter, and the phenomenal framework in which it exists, as good. We do indeed discern metaphysical incommensurability, perceive ontological contrariety, but within the theological tradition to which St. John vigorously ascribes neither is extrapolated to signify an inherent distinction interpretable in terms of a perceived antagonism between the intrinsically good and the irremediably evil. This is entirely outside the perspective from which St. John writes, for in the end, the distinction to be made is fundamentally one not between good and evil, but between Being-Absolute, and every other kind of being, which is being-contingent-upon-the-Absolute.

Since the bidimensional nature of man which figures so largely in the thought of St. John is central to the development of our epistemological account, let us look at it a little more closely in the present context. It should be reasonably clear to us by now that the transitional phase that we are currently examining constitutes both a negating and a positing – in fact, it is a negating of the sensuous which is simultaneously a positing of the spiritual; or, conversely, a positing of the spiritual which is a negating of the sensuous. In other words, to transcend the senses is eo ipso to enter spirit as the other of sense, an implied other, latent in that very bidimensional conception of man around which the entire phenomenology of Western mysticism is essentially constructed. But what is important for us to note here is that such a transition relative to a bidimensional nature effectively results in a unilateral negation – a negation of only one of the two dimensions in which the being of man is simultaneously enacted.15 And while the positing of the one is the negating of the other, it is, for this reason, not the case that the personality of the soul in either event is extinguished in the transition; rather, it is very clearly understood to be preserved within it. Were this transition, on the other hand, understood to entail a bilateral negation, the result, very obviously, would be quite otherwise – it would not be a transition at all, but annihilation. And this is really another way of restating one of the obvious and irreconcilable differences that exists between competing traditions of mysticism: to the Christian mystic, the soul, or the personality, is preserved through what is understood to be essentially a transition; it attains to union with the Absolute, where other and conflicting interpretations see this not so much as a transition, but as an existential terminus in which the soul is effectively annihilated in its absorption into the Absolute. What is of vital interest to us, however, is the fact that the dimension negated subsequent to this transition is precisely the dimension inextricably bound up with time, space, and matter – such that, to pass into its other, is consequently to pass into a dimension that is necessarily atemporal, non-spatial, and immaterial. And it is precisely these categories which are critically important, in fact absolutely indispensable, to the intelligibility of the mystical experience. They form, as it were, the complementary keys to a mystical epistemology.

Of themselves these negative categories merely serve to underscore, to emphasize, those overwhelming aspects of a perceived reality that cannot be comprehended under the positive and limiting categories of space, time, and matter. But what is really of the greatest interest to us is what follows from this negative positing relative to the inherent possibilities of experience. As transcendent to time (atemporal), such experiences are necessarily transcendent to reason 16 inasmuch as a temporal element is implicit within, in being presupposed by, that passing from one concept to another which cognitively characterizes the exercise of discursive reason. Simply put, reason addresses concepts one or a few at a time and moves sequentially, syllogistically through premises to conclusions, the conclusions always being posterior to the premises – all of which, of course, presumes time. Exscind the notion of time from the notion of reason and reason at once and necessarily ceases being discursive – and cognition simultaneously defaults to simple sensibility, or the sheer, intuitive, immediacy of experience; experience from which reason can no longer syllogize nor upon which reason may subsequently comment.

This, I suggest, holds equally true of space. As transcendent to space (non-spatial), such experiences are altogether transcendent to mediation, for mediation is implicitly a spatial conception, inasmuch as it presumes space as the matrix within which the subject is mediated to its experiences – and this, of course, simultaneously and equally implies the notion of otherness and externality. Subsequent to the negation of space, then, any experience whatever will be necessarily divested of otherness, of externality, of distance; which is another way of saying that the experience will be immediate, as it were, perfectly subjectivized through having transcended the medium of otherness in the form of space. And finally, though no less significantly, as transcendent to space, such experiences are necessarily transcendent to matter (immaterial) which itself presupposes space as that in which alone matter is susceptible to configuration. Given this overwhelming transcendence through negativity, all subsequent experience is, in a sense, translated into self-experience since there is no longer an explicit other to the self beyond the post-negative transition.

Epistemological Monism?

Thus the logic of St. John’s mysticism inexorably moves toward a kind of epistemological monism characterized by sheer immediacy and self-experience. But does this mean that the negation of sense results in what must then be interpreted as mere solipsism? It would seem, after all, that to pass beyond space, time, and matter is to pass at once and altogether beyond the phenomenal frames of individuation, and therefore beyond plurality into an inevitable monism. For St. John, however, this is not the case, for just as we had found that the soul’s induction into the spiritual order entailed a reorientation of the will given the new limitations to which it is was then subject – imitations radically dissimilar from the former – just so, now the previous frames of individuation – space, time, and matter – are abolished in the inauguration of the spiritual order, and new frames in turn are established which are radically and necessarily different from those previously defined in terms of space, time, and matter – to which the soul can no longer appeal in having subsequently transcended them.

Moreover, given what we have called the mystical thesis – that consciousness is unified in God thorough the direct and intuitive participation in the divine existence – this individuation must occur in the context of a unity more comprehensive than the individuation is distinct. In other words, the principle of individuation must in fact be seen to be a function of a more comprehensive ontological unity; a unity in ontology in which the notion of individuation is modalized into terms of the Absolute and the contingent. And these, in turn, are precisely the elements involved in the recurrent notion of participation. The participant qua image (the image which becomes explicit in union) contingently derives his ontological status from the participated-in as Absolute. His being as participant, in other words, derives from the Absolute, and is identical – qua image – with the Absolute – but only contingently, and not absolutely or essentially. And this is why, in participation, we find that experience metamorphoses into an immediacy of identity conceived in terms of the immediacy of self-experience. Ultimately, the one who experiences, and the experienced are one, for the experience itself explicitly becomes self-experience through the notion of participation. It is fundamentally a realization of the self in its primal essence as image of God – and yet not God, for a residual distinction nevertheless and ineluctably remains in ontology. As image and participant, the soul is not other to God, no more so than the reflection in a mirror is other than the reflected – and yet an implicit distinction persists and individuation as latent-only is nevertheless retained. Much of this, as we shall see, is borne out by St. John in later passages.

But turning once again to the text itself, St. John argues that certain subjective experiences invariably accompany the initial stages of this transition to the night of the spirit:

“... contemplation is naught else than a secret, peaceful, and loving infusion from God which ... enkindles the soul with the spirit of love ... 17 This enkindling of love is not, as a rule, felt at first ... nevertheless there soon begins to make itself felt, a certain yearning toward God, and the more this increases, the more is the soul ... enkindled in love toward God, without knowing or understanding how and whence this love and affection come to it ...” 18

What are we to make of this? How are these, and other such paradoxical statements, to be understood in the context of mystical epistemology? If we look at them once more, but this time in light of the metaphysics that we have examined so far, a good deal more is suggested than would superficially appear. First of all, the absence of certain cognitive elements in the experience that St. John adverts to above are seen to both logically and necessarily follow from the soul’s prior submission to the protocols of the via negativa, the demands of which, we must remember, required a total suspension of the faculties, a suspension so complete, in fact, that it resulted in a state of cognitive negativity. Following closely upon this is a realization that the notion of knowing or understanding any subsequent experience becomes not so much superfluous as essentially irrelevant to the account; indeed, the elements constituting any subsequent experience as such are no longer synthesized through reason to be accommodated to understanding – both of which presume definition in the reports submitted to them; a definition (and delimitation) no longer available consequent to the soul’s subjection to the via negativa. And this is really an unnecessarily complex way of stating that what St. John really endeavors to verge upon is a conception of the simple, immediate, unarticulated experience in which alone the possibility of ecstatic union consists. And this is further to say that, in essence, the attempt to know, to understand, the experience is to subvert it. It is to introduce the very elements of contradiction to which the via negativa was vigorously applied in an explicit effort to expunge them.

The Imperative of Experience ...
and the Post-Experiential

But how, precisely, does this contribute to our understanding of mystical epistemology? Profoundly, and in two ways, for the consequences of the immediacy of experience are themselves twofold. First of all, that characteristic hallmark of all mystical experience – ineffability – derives in fact from the irreducible immediacy of experience itself which, however exhaustively described, however carefully nuanced, remains not just primarily, but essentially, an incommunicable experience. Comprehending within itself no mediate elements, the sheer immediacy of experience can no sooner be rendered intelligible, than the sheer intelligibility of pure mathematics can be rendered experiential. Much as we are unable to existentially instantiate the purely rational geometric “point” which merely has position but no extension because it is a purely rational concept – and as such cannot be instantiated however infinitesimal the material definition; just so the irreducible nature of experience does not, indeed cannot, lend itself to intelligibility given the most exhaustively nuanced description. We now see that as a consequence of having relinquished reason – and therefore intelligibility – in order to be susceptible to the mystical experience, such experience is, by this very fact, forever disqualified from the descriptive utterances of reason. It is, in a real sense, sheer experience at the cost of reason as mediate, such that the pronouncements of reason will not, cannot, descriptively suffice. Intelligibility, then, is summarily abolished, both by the demands of the via negativa in suspending reason, and in the more rigorous demand for immediacy by experience itself.

But this is not all. The second consequence to follow from this imperative of experience concerns the contingency of such experiences. These “fleeting touches of union” as St. John often calls them are occasioned solely by God and depend totally upon the divine will. The mystic of himself cannot produce or reproduce these experiences that are independently and actively conveyed to it by the agency of God that itself is perfectly free and unconstrained by any necessity not self-legislated. In other words, the extraordinary nature of this experience derives from the fact that it is not experience abstractly conceived as pure immediacy as such, a state of mere immediacy to which the soul is necessarily related as to the condition of the most minimal experience – but the experience of God who is not necessarily related to the soul as a condition to its experience – and this is to say that the experience is entirely contingent – contingent upon the will of God – who, moreover, within himself comprehends perfect freedom such that no constraint conceived as external to God necessitates this extraordinary experience independent of the self-legislating will of God. So understood, such experiences are not properly caused, but willed, and as such are not characterized by necessity, but by contingency.

These pure, non-cognitive experiences appear to mark the inception of the Night of the Spirit, which St. John calls:

“... this night from all created things ... when the soul journeys to eternal things …” 19

The realm of mediation – sensible and intelligible – gradually recedes until the imperative of pure experience paradoxically asserts itself as the only residual medium between the soul and God, between ordinary cognition and mitigated epistemological monism. And this is a rather surprising result, for the sheer immediacy of experience would seem, by that very fact, to preclude any notion of mediation whatever. Indeed, we had consistently argued all along to experience as in itself irreducible. And so it is – but it is an irreducible medium between that which experiences and the experienced. For upon closely examining the concept we find that it is neither the one, nor the other, but presupposes each as a product of both in mediating the relation of the one to the other. As the last vestige of mediation prior to union, it is, in fact, that proximate relation to God prior to participation which St. John addresses in the Ascent of Mount Carmel relative to the theological virtues. 20 It is clear, for example, that the non-cognitive nature of pure experience is very much consonant with that notion of faith which St. John construes as a type of epistemological negation, 21 and both, we have seen, are in turn abolished in the dialectic of participation. We must not for this reason, however, confuse the two: faith is an attitude toward God given the perceived absence of God – experience is the realization of God. And yet we have equally seen that faith is presupposed by the experience as the condition of the very possibility of the mystical experience. There is, then, a certain reciprocity between faith and experience, inasmuch as there is no approaching God, no hope of attaining to this transformative union, in the absence of faith.

Still, at this point in the movement toward mystical union, the soul’s relation to God remains, withal, one of proximity – not participation. A proximity in which a distinction is yet implied and evident between the things rendered proximate. And yet the distinction itself, we find, is often attenuate, for the relation that obtains between the two elements entering into experience is often conflated into an apparent identity in which, for example, the distinction between the experience of cold and being cold, or the experience of heat and being hot, is not at all that clear or critical. Now this would equally account for those experiences of sweetness and joy spoken of earlier which, though not properly deriving from participation in any explicit or noetic sense, nevertheless exemplify the typical obscurity of the distinction existing between certain penumbral types of experience. In other words, the nature of experience is such that it is not always possible to draw a hard and fast distinction between that which experiences and that which is experienced – although in fact such a distinction unmistakably exists – especially in this state of proximity which St. John describes, and which must not be confused with participation.

A distinction, then, is always implied in experience; a distinction, as we saw earlier, capable of being rendered in terms of the subject/object bifurcation. So as yet, no kind of monism is seen to result from this transition to the night of spirit: any experience of God so understood is still defined by an explicitly apprehended distinction between the soul and God, the experiencer and the experienced. But the question nevertheless remains to be asked: must the notion of experience always and necessarily apply to the soul’s relation to God? And our answer – St. John’s answer – must unequivocally be, no. For while our examination of the notion of experience revealed that, at least implicitly, it presupposes the otherness of God to the soul, we had on the other hand equally seen that the soul as the image of God demonstrates an essential sameness deriving from a fundamentally shared ontology. Our confusion, I think, results from an incomplete analysis of the soul’s ontological relation to God in the dynamic movement of the soul to the state of apotheosis in union: the distinction between the soul and God (as other) in the notion of proximity relative to experience, is an external ontological distinction, a distinction between subject and object that is, we had found, inherent in the notion of experience itself. But the distinction between the soul and God (as same) in the notion of participation relative to union is an internal ontological distinction implicit in the notion of the union of Absolute with contingent being as we have already seen, and as such becomes, not an absolute, but a relative distinction.

Proximity versus Participation:
   an Epistemological Vestibule

Proximity and Participation are therefore two distinct moments in the movement to mystical union, to which two quite different modes of relation to God apply. This distinction, I think, becomes somewhat clearer when addressed in a more focused context dealing with the notion of the self – the notion of identity – relative to God as it occurs within these two moments. In the experience of God as necessarily other in proximity, the self is experienced as radically distinct from God. It is essentially a relation between God and the soul mediated by experience in which the soul defines its identity qua subject in opposition to God qua object – hence the identity of the self is derived apart from God; in fact, we may say that it is derived essentially in opposition to God. But this distinction immediately breaks down in the second moment when experience is transformed into participation wherein no radical distinction is discernible, apprehensible, between the soul as participant, as image, as being-contingent, and God as the Participated-in, the Imaged, the Being-Absolute. As a consequence, the very concept of experience that we invoke, especially relative to the notion of apperception, becomes at once and necessarily analogical. The experience of the self is the experience of God – it is the experience of the self as image-of-the-Absolute, and therefore of the Absolute. And the experience of God is the experience of the self – the experience of that in which the self fundamentally consists qua image. Participation, then, generates a relation of divine reflexivity: it is, in fact, the reflection of God into God – either as the Absolute reflected into the contingent, or as the contingent reflecting the Absolute. In other words, there is only God and God’s image – and it is self-reflexive from either perspective.

Several very important consequences are seen to follow from this metaphysics. First of all, it is clear in light of previous arguments that the dogmatic opposition of erstwhile diametric categories – finite versus infinite, etc. – essentially breaks down in mystical union, for the realization of God in the self is at once a realization of the infinite-in-the-finite, and conversely the realization of the self in God is in fact a realization of the finite-in-the-infinite. 22 The two categories are not, after all, mutually exclusive in any absolute sense. The infinite as the imaged is found to reside in the finite soul as the ontological condition of the soul’s being (image). It is, in fact, the ontological presupposition of contingent being. The unfolding of this absolutely unique relationship reveals it to be characterized not by opposition – still less is it defined by a dialectic arising out of opposition – but it is one which is seen to demonstrate essential relation. The perceived opposition (not, we hasten to add, the actual ontological distinction) between the finite and the infinite breaks down, is abolished in an ontological analysis that demonstrates God’s essential relation to the soul as its presupposition in being, as the infinite-in-the-finite. But what is more, this dogmatic opposition is not only abolished – revealing not opposition, but essential relation – but transcended by the identity of the finite soul with the infinite God in the moment of participation. And this is the divine paradox at the heart of the metaphysics of mysticism. Finitude participates in infinitude. In fact, it is seen to be merely quasi-finite, for it is no longer dogmatically finite in opposition to the infinite. However, it nevertheless only remains infinite by participation, and that is to say, it is heteronymously infinite – not in itself autonomously infinite. It is, in a word, contingently infinite, and as such incorporates a residual distinction within itself; a distinction deriving from what is essentially a heteronymous identity of the finite with the infinite.

Our argument, so far, appears to consistently follow from principles to which St. John often tacitly adverts without a good deal of elaboration – but inevitably we must come to honest terms with the text. This is not to imply disingenuity. The broad extrapolation often required of a commentary of this sort is, I think, always at least susceptible to forfeiting something of the authentic thought embodied in the text itself in pursuit of a sometimes elusive coherence that was never present to begin with. In an attempt to constrain this speculative impulse, especially at this critical junction in our account, we must now candidly ask, is it in fact the case that St. John himself explicitly equates the experience of the self in mystical union with the experience of God? It is extremely important to be clear upon this point, for no other doctrine in the mystical tradition has been historically more susceptible to confusion and more liable to error than the notion of personal identity as it obtains between the soul and God subsequent to mystical union. So does St. John indeed make the equation toward which we argue? Unquestionably. Consider the following:

“... from this arid night [of the senses] there first of all comes self-knowledge, whence as from a foundation rises this other knowledge of God. For this cause, St. Augustine said to God 23 : ‘let me know myself, Lord, and I shall know thee ...’ ”  24

Now, this knowledge of God that derives from and proceeds through introspective self-knowledge, St. John effectively argues, would be impossible were there not, first, some essential ontological connection between the soul and God. Second, an abrogation of the perceived dogmatic opposition between the categories involved. Third, the abolishing of mediation. Fourth, and closely connected with the first, a coherent notion of participation to overcome the subject/object bifurcation if this knowledge is in fact to be veridical. And fifth and last, a relation of reflexivity. Unless these criteria are met, the mystical doctrine that knowledge of God is in fact available through self-knowledge is at best an untenable, and at worst, a meaningless statement. Having uniquely established this notion central to, but not always coherent within, the Western mystical tradition at large, St. John effectively concludes his treatment of the night of the senses – the transition is now complete, and the way is prepared for the Night of the Spirit.    


The Metaphysics Part II: THE NIGHT OF THE SPIRIT


1 DNS 1.8.3
2 DNS 1.8.3
3 This is essentially a variation of the doctrine of exemplary causation used earlier by the Scholastics.
4 cf. Ex. 3.14, 6.3; Ps. 90.2; Is. 43.13; Jn. 8.58; Rev. 1.4+8, 11.7 Also cf. ST1 Ques.13 art.11, Ques. 3 art.2+8; De Ente. c.4; Comm. Sent. 2 d.3 ques. 1 art. 1; De Verit. 9.21 a.2,c.
5 Aquinas puts it in a slightly different way: “The Divine nature or essence is itself its own act of being, but the nature or essence of any created thing is not its own act of being but participates in being from another ... In the creature, the act of being is received or participated .... To possess being is not be being itself ... it  [ merely ] participates in the act of being.” De Ente et Essentia, c.4
6 AMC 2.5.7
7 I Jn. 3.2
8 DNS 1.8.4
9 DNS 1.9.4
10 DNS 1.9.4
11 DNS 1.9.6-7
12 DNS 1.9.8, emphasis added
13 DNS 1.9.9, emphasis added
14 cf. DNS 2.20.5
15 The one, of course, is held to have a direct bearing upon the other. A reciprocal relation is understood to obtain not only between the soul and the body, but between the natural and the supernatural realities simultaneously embraced and enacted in the being of man. And while reciprocal, it is not held to be ontologically equal. The existential principle enacted in man and understood as his being is not equally predicated of the soul and the body. The being of the soul, while largely enacted within the body, is nevertheless understood as independent of the body. But the being of the body is understood to have no such independence from the soul. The being of the soul is held to continue after the body has ceased to be conjoined to the soul. But the being of the body is not held to continue after the soul has ceased to be conjoined to the body. Despite the organic unity of body and soul that is understood to constitute the total created being of man, their existential disjunction entails the death and eventual nonexistence of the body – but is held to result in the perpetuity of the soul. In a like manner, the consciousness coterminous with identity is acknowledged not to diminish with a progressive dismemberment of the body, but is, in fact, held to remain intact even as the physical locus of that consciousness diminishes. And this is simply another way of acknowledging that the being possessed of the mind – if you will, the soul – is of another and greater magnitude than that possessed by the body. It is essentially, or at least implicitly, a recognition of the subordination of matter to mind, of body to soul, of nature to spirit. Man’s being, then – at least from the Christian perspective – is understood to be preeminently radicated in the soul, even as his divinely constituted nature consists in that union of body and soul before which alone the doctrine of the Resurrection is coherent. In fact, and paradoxically, for the Christian, the possibility of union at all presupposes first the Incarnation as we shall later see.
16 cf. DNS 1.9.8
17 DNS 1.10.6
18 DNS 1.11.1 emphasis added
19 DNS 1.11.4
20 AMC 2.I-III, 2.6.1-6ff.
21 AMC 2.1.1, 2.3.1-3, 2.61-2, 2.8.4-5, 2.9.1, 2.10.4, etc.
22 LFL 3.17
23 Soliloquiorum 2
DNS 1.12.5

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Preface to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
Foreword to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
An Introduction to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Mystical Tradition and St. John of the Cross
The Presuppositions of the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of the Will in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Understanding in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Memory in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Metaphysics of the Dark Night of the Soul
The Metaphysics of the Night of the Spirit
The Problem of Induction as Pseudo-Problematic
Prolepsis: Objections to the Mystical Experience
Being, Becoming, and Eternity
A Biography of St. John of the Cross
Epilogue to the Metaphysics of Mysticism

© Copyright 2011-2017 by Geoffrey K. Mondello. All rights reserved