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


The Metaphysics Part II:

The Night of the Spirit

The Twilight of Reason

The soul, we have seen, has stood at the twilight of reason; it has been brought to the brink of being, beyond which lies the bourne between the Uncreated Absolute and the absolute contingency of all creation. It is filled with a light quenched in darkness, the darkness ex nihilo from which all creation sprang and from which all creation shrinks. The last, most certain guide, experience, blenches before the abyss and, like reason before it, defaults entirely to faith in whose certitude alone remains the unwavering pledge to transition, to transfiguration in the unquenchable light beyond. Night, then, is the chrysalis once burst from which the soul will emerge in unspeakable splendor, in the unutterable beauty of the image of God. This is the plight of the mystic upon the inauguration of the Night of the Spirit. But this crucial transition, as we had pointed out earlier, is not experienced by the mystic as a sudden breach in continuity as our narrative might suggest. Still less is it understood to follow causally from, that is to say, as a necessary and immediate consequence to, the negation of sensibility. It is really the culmination of a gradual, often subtle transformation which God alone providentially effects in the soul; a point about which St. John is extremely clear:

“The soul which God is about to lead onward is not led by His Majesty into this night of the spirit as soon as it goes forth from the
aridities and trials of the first purgation and night of sense; rather, it is wont to pass a long time, even years, after leaving the state of
beginners in exercising itself in that of proficients ...”

These two entirely distinct moments, then, although methodologically related, are not logically mediated or causally conjoined. Nothing in the way of necessity determines their relation outside of the chronological order in which they must occur according to the metaphysical logic of the via negativa. St. John, in this respect, is clearly aligned with that tradition in Western mysticism, the broad consensus of which holds that the mystical experience results from the beneficence of extraordinary grace alone 2 and is, as we had already seen, and as St. John repeatedly points out, entirely dependent upon God’s initiative. But what is of particular interest to us here is what follows once this initiative is exercised on the part of God. And here, once again, as in every transition, we find the via negativa inexorably implementing the logic of mysticism, for this night of the spirit to which the soul is invited is in fact the negation of spirit – the negative moment in which God, according to St. John:

“... strips [the soul’s] faculties ... leaving the understanding dark, the will dry, the memory empty, and the affections in the deepest
affliction, taking from the soul the pleasure and experience of spiritual blessings which it had aforetime, in order to make of this privation
one of the principles which are requisite in the spirit so that there may be introduced to it and united with it the spiritual form which is the
union of love.”

The Via Negativa, Annihilation,
and Pre-Noetic Transition to Union

The principle of which St. John speaks in the above passage is unquestionably that of the via negativa of which we have had ample illustration in the Ascent. But while the role of the via negativa in the Ascent was purely predispositional to the possibility of union and rendered the soul merely proximate to God, this multifarious principle of negativity now assumes a significance inseparable from, and in fact coterminous with, the mystical experience itself. It is no longer a factor merely contributing to predisposition and proximity, but is finally seen to be contemporaneous with, and the occasion of, the divine infusion itself:

“When the faculties had been perfectly annihilated ... together with the passions, desires, and affections of my soul ... I went forth from
my own human dealings and operations to the operations and dealings of God. That is to say, my understanding went forth from itself,
turning from the human and natural to the divine ... And my will went forth from itself, becoming divine; for being united with divine love
... it loves ... with purity and strength from the Holy Spirit ... and the memory has become transformed into eternal apprehensions of glory …”

But how, we must ask, is this accomplished through the via negativa? Why is it now seen to be invested with the extraordinary significance of being the occasion (albeit not the cause) of mystical experience, such that St. John would be able to state that when the faculties have been perfectly annihilated it becomes one with God to such an extent that its operations may be said to the operations of God? For our answer, we must look closely once again to the text itself – but only after posing a more fundamental question still, a question relative to an earlier statement made by St. John which, I think, carefully considered, will provide us the means around which to formulate the answer to our present question. To wit, how are we to understand St. John’s contention that:

“... [the via negativa] is one of the principles which are requisite in  the spirit so that there may be introduced to it and united with it the spiritual form of the spirit which is the union of love.” 5

The principal role of the via negativa as an existential application of the logical law of non-contradiction to metaphysically incommensurable categories had, of course, consisted in removing, or more properly, negating, all those elements antagonistic to the soul’s union with God. In this role, however, the via negativa had functioned merely propadeutically: in rendering the soul proximate to God through eliminating all contrariety with God, it merely predisposed the soul, made it receptive, to the possibility of union. However, we had equally seen that an ontological gap, one interpretable in terms of experience and opposition, nevertheless remained which the via negativa of itself could not negotiate. The transition, we had found, implied nothing in the way of necessity such that union with God followed as a consequence – rather, we had understood it to be solely dependent upon the free will of God. If this, then, is the case – as indeed it is – our next question really ought to be this: how, in fact, does God accomplish this transition? That is to say, given the divine will, by what means is this transition effected?

While it is undeniably within the province of God to summarily bring the soul to the fullness of union by a simple fiat, this has been neither the experience nor the testimony of the mystics in general – nor is it that of St. John. Like every other movement that we have observed along the mystical continuum, the transition is not sudden, abrupt, or immediate, but gradual; so gradual in fact as to be at first imperceptible – a phenomena to which St. John has already alluded.6 So what is the means, what is this secret corridor through which the contemplative is conducted to God across that great ontological divide to which the soul was brought by the via negativa, but beyond which, of itself, it could not pass? It is quite simply this: annihilation. Annihilation is at once the end of the souls journey beyond contrariety, and the beginning of the soul’s union in likeness. It is the beginning of the end of the one that is the ending of the beginning of the other. In other words, the perfect annihilation of which St. John speaks is at once the pre-noetic transition to union – already! Annihilation for the mystic is the first and darkest moment of union. The last and final vestige of mediation that precluded union – which we had seen to exist in the notion of experience – vanishes in this perfect annihilation; an annihilation that leaves the existence-only of the soul and God as the condition of that existence.

The soul, in effect, is annihilated in every aspect of its being except its being-only, which necessarily is – and implicitly had always been – in union with God as the condition of its existence, a union shortly to become noetically explicit. So understood, annihilation is not a necessary consequence to the via negativa. The farthest, in fact, that the via negativa can bring the soul is to the sheer immediacy of experience-only which had always implied a distinction – and therefore could not produce union – between the experiencer and the experienced. And this distinction can only be expunged through the annihilation of every aspect of the soul’s being with the sole exception, as we had said, of its being-only – which being derives from God, and which then to extinguish is to utterly nullify. If, therefore, annihilation is not a consequence of the via negativa – then it can only be effected by the divine will alone, which is to say, by God.

But if the via negativa can only carry the mystic so far, to advert to our earlier question, how are we to understand it as concurrent with and the occasion of the mystical experience? Clearly, as we have seen it to function thus far, it cannot, as a principle and without modification, remain in the soul through, and accompany it beyond, annihilation: its function, as we have repeatedly seen, presumes contrariety and therefore distinction – distinction which we had just argued to have been abolished through annihilation. And while this is completely true, it also appears to be true that the via negativa itself undergoes a functional transformation. The principle, at least as we had understood it to function previously, is no longer viable – and yet St. John is clear that this principle is nevertheless “requisite in the spirit so that there may be introduced to it and united with it the spiritual form of the spirit which is the union of love.” And this is to say that St. John is arguing it to be an integral part of union with God. How can this be?

Well, let us approach our answer this way. St. John effectively argues that the via negativa is a principle in the soul. What does he mean by this? Essentially that the via negativa itself constitutes a unique aspect of the soul’s participation in God; a participation in that nature of God which is the necessary self-separating of God from his creation. In other words, the via negativa, we find, is implicit in God’s otherness to his creation. It is a divine principle intrinsic to and eternally enacted in God – and as such, it is, eo ipso, in the soul as the image of God; the image that is fully and authentically reappropriated through participation. It is the occasion of union because it is already a union with God in his otherness to nature. What was the separation of nature relative to God, is now the separation of God relative to nature. In exercising itself in the via negativa prior to participation, the soul, in fact, was enacting a process intended not simply to remove contrariety to God – but at once to reveal its authentic nature as the image of God.

The Prologue to Ecstatic Union

The night of spirit, then, is in fact the prologue to ecstatic union, a union already marginally effected – but as yet ante-noetic in the negativity of spirit. In other words, it is the celebrated “unknowing” that immediately precedes consciously realized participation:

“the beginning of ... contemplation ... is secret from the very person that experiences it. 7 ...[for of] this spiritual night... very little is known ... even by experience.” 8

And it is precisely because this night of the spirit is pre-noetic that the via negativa is held by St. John to be not only requisite to, but contemporaneous with, and in fact the occasion of, not simply union – which, as we had seen, may be “secretly” effected apart from any awareness whatever – but the unfolding of conscious mystical union. That is to say, given this final transition from proximity to participation the via negativa assumes an altogether different task even while its function remains the same: it is no longer a principle of absolute negativity – a negating that results in sheer negation – as it was prior to the soul’s induction into spirit. Rather, it paradoxically assumes distinct positive characteristics. It is now a negating that is a positing: a negating of the superficies of being that simultaneously reveals the being-essential, the being-fundamental underlying the superficial strata of being that has no ontological consonance with that fundamental being which is being the image of God. In other words, in negating, it discloses– and as such, its movement is in fact contemporaneous with, and the occasion of, fully-realized union with God. What is more, this further means that even prior to conscious participation there is already an effective ontological participation which then, and only then, becomes consciously noetic upon the completion of the work of the via negativa. We now can see that it is not the case that the via negativa caused this union, but rather, that it made this union conscious, noetic, explicit. It is God, rather, who is the cause of this union through his creation of the soul in his image, an image whose being is ontologically radicated in the Being Imaged.

Preempting the Problem of “Spiritual Forms”

In our eagerness to pursue this point, however, we have neglected to address an equally interesting and relevant concept that St. John brings up in a passage recently cited concerning the notion of a “spiritual form.” In order to avoid any subsequent confusion from a misunderstanding of this notion, it is very much worth reviewing:

“... [to be] united ... with ... the spiritual form of the spirit is the union of love.” 9

This spiritual form of which St. John speaks is more clearly and intimately connected with the notion of ecstatic union than would immediately appear, and it is not entirely, or at least immediately clear why St. John chooses to render it with an abstraction that is typically absent elsewhere. We may be inclined to think it entirely likely that he chose to do so simply to emphasize a sense of contextuality in dealing with this increasingly recondite Night of the Spirit. In any event, the term unquestionably lends itself to being construed as synonymous with “God”, and our question is, is that in fact the case? In a word, yes. It is really a locus classicus in scholastic philosophy with which St. John was entirely familiar since Thomism was the dominant philosophy taught at the University of Salamanca at which St. John matriculated in 1564. For example, in refuting the objection that God is composed of matter and form, Aquinas argues the following:

“... every agent acts by its form, and so the manner it which it has its form is the manner in which it is an agent. Therefore, whatever is primarily and essentially an agent must be primarily and essentially a form. Now God is the first agent, since He is the first efficient cause ... He is therefore of His essence a form ...” 10

It is not, therefore, merely highly probable, but virtually certain, that St. John’s use of the term “spiritual form” in fact derives from Aquinas’s own analysis of divine agency in terms of form – and in fact is identifiable with God who is both form and spirit. 11 This entire development, however, suggests something more than the sense of mere contextuality to which we were inclined to attribute this nominal transition. It is, I think, much more likely – especially in light of what we have recently discussed – that at this stage of the development of his mystical doctrine St. John wishes to emphasize that it is God alone who is the sole agency in the mystical experience, and that this union of pure agency 12 with the passive (the negated) soul is essentially that in which the mystical experience – the state of apotheosized being – consists. We may even go so far as to say that the being of the soul immediately prior to union is essentially a not-being (which is not to say a non-being): it is being negatively considered, or perhaps better yet, being reduced to the primal activity of being-only, to which no other (positive) predicates attach. It is being extensively negated of every other attribute, the actus essendi 13 whose activity is merely that of being and not of being thus (or being such and such). As such it is a passive state, for nothing more than being is predicated of its activity, or perhaps better yet, nothing more may be predicated of its activity than this primal act of being-only.

At first appearance this might strike us as somewhat problematic given the sense of ordeal to which the contemplative is subjected in this state, for St. John is very graphic in his description of the suffering of the soul at this point, a suffering which would imply something more than the soul’s apperceptive relation to its being-only, but it must be remembered that the unique personal residuum which constitutes the souls being qua persona – that is, a personal being qua image of the divine persona – is preserved in the theological virtues as their existential presupposition. But these virtues themselves, we will equally remember, are functions of negativity. And what this means is that the sufferings which St. John describes, far from amplifying the being persona beyond being-only, result in fact from a privation of that being – they are in fact the result of being extensively negated of the persona. And this further means that the being thus left is not being abstractly considered; it is being instantiated in personal being, a being that is a being-suffering–that is to say, being uniquely experienced in the enactment of the dark night of the soul.

Now, St. John, as we have seen, has already argued that this being is passive being. And this is to say that only through participation in union will the soul reacquire active being, and it can do so only insofar as it participates in agency. But we have equally seen that the soul already participates in God ontologically prior to this threshold of transformation in ecstatic union. This participation, however, we had understood to be merely a participation in being-as-such, and not, as we have argued, in being-thus. While it no longer possesses contrariety to God, in its mere being-as-such neither does it possess any similitude with God beyond being as the mere supposition of anything whatever. And this could as well apply to a stone as to a soul. In other words, this type of participation is of the most fundamental sort and really tells us nothing whatever of that of which being-only is predicated, for it is largely being considered negatively. It is the condition, but not the possibility of discourse. Subsequent to the soul’s transformation in union, on the other hand, it acquires a being-thus, being positively considered which heteronomously derives from the being of another to which positive predicates beyond being-only not only are ascribable, but in the very concept of which these predicates are implied by definition. Seen from this perspective, the mystical experience is totally dependent upon God as agency: both as the agency alone through which the soul is brought to the state of union, and as that agency in which the soul subsequently participates once union has been effected.

The Empty Vestibule:
an Analogical Tangent to Understanding

Some further considerations follow upon our understanding that an ontological participation has, at this point, already been effected, a participation, we have seen, that has not yet culminated in a clear realization that we might otherwise characterize as noetic. The soul has just entered into the first stage of mystical union but curiously its passive awareness remains incognizant of God. Why is this? How are we to understand the soul to be in mystical union with God, while at the same time unaware of it? The answer to this perplexing question is suggested in the text itself, for relative to this inceptive state of contemplation St. John argues the following:

“The clearer and more manifest are divine things in themselves, the darker and more hidden are they to the soul naturally ... 14 [for] this divine and dark spiritual light of contemplation ... [is like] a ray of sunlight [which] enters through the window which is the less clearly visible according as it is purer and freer from specks, and the more of such specks and motes there are in the air, the brighter is the light to the eye. The reason is that it is not the light itself that is seen; the light is but the means whereby the other things
that it strikes are seen, and then it is also seen itself, through its reflection in them; were it not for this, neither it nor they would have been seen. Thus, if the ray of sunlight entered through the window of one room and passed out through another on the other side ... if met nothing on way, or if there were no specks in the air for it to strike, the room would have no more light than before, neither would the ray of light be visible. Now this is precisely what this divine ray of contemplation does in the soul ... it transcends the natural power of the soul ... and darkens ... and deprives it of all natural affections and apprehensions ... and leaves it ... dark ...
[and] empty. The soul thinks not that it has this light, but believes itself to be in darkness ... 15
in this state ... it is fully prepared to embrace everything ...” 16

This passage is remarkable for several reasons. To be sure, there is a clear continuity with an entire tradition in mysticism that is immediately evident not merely in the metaphorical structure of his argument, but in the metaphor itself that he adopts. And while this point warrants pursuit in another context, it is entirely aside from our present purposes. What is particularly noteworthy about this passage is that it essentially constitutes an epistemological summary that properly marks the beginning of St. John’s mystical epistemology. It is the first time that St. John explicitly, if only analogically, treats of the noetic element in mystical union.

Before going on to examine the details involved in this cognitive analogy, however, a closer examination of some of the statements he makes will prove helpful in clarifying the critical distinction which St. John maintains between the natural apprehension of God prior to the state of negation, and that intuitive noesis which follows upon the soul’s union with God. For St. John – as indeed it had been for the Apostle Paul, who is widely acknowledged as the first mystic in the Christian tradition 17 – all created objects and concepts point to God, or at least in some manner imply the existence of God.18 Consider the following abstract:

“... a ray of sunlight [i.e. God: “ this divine ray of contemplation ...”] ... is the less clearly visible according as it is purer and freer from specks, and the more of such specks and motes [objects and concepts] there are in the air, the brighter is the light to the eye ...” 19

In other words, the manifold of cognition is, for St. John, evidential: it somehow implicates or communicates the existence of God. But it does so indirectly; it merely reflects God, communicates God mediately:

 “The reason is that it is not the light itself that is seen; the light is but the means whereby the other things that it strikes are seen, and then it is also seen itself, through its reflection in them ...” 20

This mediate knowledge of God, however, has been abolished in the via negativa through which the mediating objects – percepts and concepts variously – had been systematically eliminated, and with them, the ordinary mode of cognition which had subsequently ceased altogether. The soul indeed is no longer aware of God, for the objects variously mediating God to the soul – in however inadequate or impoverished a manner – and apart from which the soul has no natural apprehension of God whatever, have vanished, such that:

“The soul thinks not that it has this light, but believes itself to be in darkness.” 21

 It is this absence of mediation, then, which ultimately constitutes this “terrible and dark night” of which St. John so often poignantly speaks. It is night from the frames of ordinary reference, from mediation – and hence from cognition. And this would explain why, contrary to what we may otherwise anticipate, this inceptive state of union is not characterized by a sense of the numinous, an awareness of God. It is the empty vestibule of which we had spoken earlier; the room which, to use St. John’s analogy, despite its being suffused with light, remains dark – not only because the things with which it was formerly appointed are now absent through the purgative and unsparing apophatic process of the via negativa– but because the very walls defining it can no longer be perceived.

While it is certainly true that St. John’s analogy affords us little in the way of the close, concise, analytical reasoning that we might in another context expect to accompany a discourse on the first principles of a theory of knowledge, it no less remains that this sort of purely academic inquiry is entirely subsidiary, if not totally irrelevant, to St. John’s principle goal which is altogether practical, and consequent to which his task becomes not analytical, but descriptive, illustrative. And while this inchoate epistemological doctrine is only analogically constructed, it is nevertheless sufficient for us to begin a closer analysis of the cognitive elements we find in St. John’s description of the actual mystical experience itself. First of all, it has previously been shown at length that the state of mystical union presumes the absence of mediation. And what follows from this absence has particular bearing on our understanding the intuitional noesis in which ecstatic union consists. Take, for example, St. John’s statement that:

“... in this state [of negation, the soul] is fully prepared to embrace everything... “ 22

To begin with, how should we understand this very broad but clear epistemological assertion? Initially, I think, we are reluctant to accept it at face value, for the soul of itself – and therefore, of course, its cognitive faculty – we have consistently understood to be finite in nature. It is therefore difficult to understand the sense in which St. John asserts that it is epistemologically capable of comprehending “everything”. We are inclined to see such precipitate statements really as endemic to a class of literature only broadly understood as “mystical” and which, regrettably, tend to put the entire mystical tradition into a disrepute of which it is not worthy. Exaggerated statements of this sort – which regrettably but typically abound in the writings of other and less capable authors than St. John – when subjected to even the most superficial examination are likely to result in what may politely be called inexactitudes as likely to derive from faulty reasoning as from poetic excess.

Our question, then, which begs to be generalized but which of necessity we confine to our present inquiry is this: Given the indisputably finite nature of the soul, should we then understand the above statement made by St. John as an instance of this type of hyperbole which even the most scrupulous reasoners occasionally indulge? In other words, is St. John’s statement that the soul is “prepared to embrace everything” really meaningful at all in a way accessible to those of us standing outside this closed circle of light? In a word, does this statement coherently follow from the premises that we have understood thus far? And this is really to ask a larger question still, and one which conceivably implicates the credibility of St. John’s entire account: how much significance are we to attribute to such utterances – even if isolated – and to what criteria do we appeal in distinguishing between the prima facie value of meaningful statements and their merely hyperbolized counterparts? And this, I suggest, can only be answered in terms of the internal consistency of the text – which is to say in terms of the coherence of the metaphysics underlying it. If this is not forthcoming, if these metaphysical assumptions remain essentially indemonstrable, then the entire enterprise to which we have set ourselves is worthless, or what is worse yet, entirely factitious. So let us look very carefully at this statement which is really paradigmatic of the reasoning of St. John.

I think it is very clear that, for St. John, the soul in this pre-noetic state exists as the sheer potential of no longer limited, but universal cognition inasmuch as the soul in fact is already seen to be participating in the divine essence. And what this means is that when this participation is no longer merely ontological, but is rendered noetic, the soul will equally participate in the divine mind since every attribute of God coincides with his essence – and as such, the soul will share in that knowledge of God which is universal and unlimited. Moreover, and what is of vastly greater significance still, the consequence of this epistemic union has a direct and crucial bearing not only on the soul’s cognitive capacity as such, but on the very manner in which this capacity is now exercised.

Hitherto, the soul’s acquaintance with things in general was mediated to it through sense experience in the case of percepts, or through discursive reason in the case of concepts. In either event, the souls knowledge was always mediate, it was an acquaintance with things through sense or reason; in other words, they were acquired mediatively, and more importantly still, acquired as modified by sense, as accommodated to reason. But now, in virtue of this noetic union with the Absolute, it knows them in and of themselves as purely objective and unmodified realities. Its knowledge is, to adopt Kant’s terminology, an acquaintance with noumenal reality, with the thing in itself, and no longer as phenomenal, as the thing modified by, to be accommodated to, reason or the senses. And this further means that the soul’s perception in the state of ecstatic union will no longer be an indirect cognition of natural objects and created concepts through the medium of experience – which always posited a distinction between the thing experienced and the one experiencing – rather, it will be a cognition of things directly through God. Fully participating in the divine perspective, it will see through the eyes of God, in other words, as God Himself sees. And this, I think, is what St. John understands by the statement that the soul is prepared to embrace everything, for consciousness at this point is no longer the possibility of anything, as it had been prior to union, but of everything, for it is consciousness which has completely transcended all finitude and limitation through its apotheosis in God. The discursive dialectic of reason which discovers the relation among objects and ideas is supplanted by an intuitional noesis in which the distinctions characteristic in perceptions of finite entities are sublated into a type of epistemological monism – not one in which these distinctions evanesce, or are ultimately seen to be illusory, but in which each discrete entity is not dogmatically individuated or existentially isolated, but rather is seen to contribute to, to be constitutive of, the coherent whole of creation which itself not only ontologically subsists through, but is teleologically ordered toward, God. The soul, then, has arrived at this deific knowledge which is both intuitive and monistic because it has transcended the four individuating frames of nature – space, time, reason, and matter – and in having participated in the divine mind it necessarily shares in that single, comprehensive, and universal knowledge which is properly predicated of God alone.

The Vertical and the Veridical:
the Problem of Knowing

From a purely epistemological point of view, two distinct vertical moments are therefore observable in the mystical doctrine of St. John: the movement up to God (and consequently to a veridical knowledge of God) in union, and the movement back down to nature (and consequently to a veridical knowledge of nature) in participation. And this last is indeed a surprising consequence, for it is tantamount to asserting that the only veridical knowledge of anything is to be found in God alone. Moreover, it is equally to assert that the authenticity of man’s knowledge is, in the most fundamental sense, directly dependent upon the possibility of his participating in the knowledge of God through mystical union with God. And it is precisely a misunderstanding of this contention that piques the critics of mysticism, skeptics and faithful alike, who embrace a more conventional, if democratic approach to knowledge, for the notion of the authenticity of knowledge has, at this point in St. John’s account, taken an apparent, if decidedly esoteric turn. Not only is God not veridically cognized outside the state of union 23, but neither is nature – our knowledge under the best of circumstances remains necessarily truncated by our finite nature. That monistic whole, alone in which veridical knowledge may obtain, is, for the mystic, available only through participation in the infinite and uncreated knowledge of God. And where the skeptic would maintain that while such knowledge is clearly conceivable, no such knowledge is possible, the mystic would retort that not only is it conceivable, but it is, through divine dispensation, actually available. The contention really revolves around, not so much a lack of consensus concerning the definition of knowledge, but its possible scope, and this question – very much an indispensable part of our own epistemological analysis – would require a generalized summary that is clearly apart the modest purview of our present inquiry – although we shall attempt to address some of the more pertinent objections arising out of this question a bit later on in our commentary.

It nevertheless remains extremely relevant to our own purposes to explore this question further within our own present context. While it is very clearly arguable that the knowledge we acquire in ordinary states of affairs is a matter of the most practical importance and therefore demonstrates some genuine correspondence with the phenomenal world at large, to the extent that we conceive our claims to knowledge to be confirmed within and therefore validated by experience – a point which, I hasten to add, the mystic does not contend – and even if incomplete, inasmuch as it is nevertheless partial, it is at least partially true, or in some at least limited aspect authentic, the implicit mystical indictment of purely human knowledge – knowledge acquired either solely by empirical acquaintance through the senses or as conclusions drawn from syllogistic reasoning– remains no less valid. Human reason in and of itself cannot discover, perceive, penetrate to causes, for it cannot perceive the first, the uncaused Cause, which is God; it perceives an orderly concatenation of events despite the remonstrance of reason that no nexus is discoverable between them; it perceives in part what is essentially a whole, and what it perceives, moreover, it modifies in acquiring, it subjectively invests with qualities essentially extrinsic to the object; it never escapes itself so it never achieves, attains to, objectivity. At best, man’s knowledge is incomplete, and nature, while not sharing that same degree of opacity with God, is nevertheless and at the very least recalcitrant to human knowledge given man’s inherently finite approach to every conceivable datum. But this cognitive recalcitrance, both to nature to a lesser degree, and God to a greater, is, St. John argues, overcome in mystical union – and it is overcome precisely because the soul is enabled to participate in the infinitude of God.

Certainly one of St. John’s premises is a philosophic commonplace, for it is widely agreed, by skeptic and mystic alike, that man’s knowledge, however extensive, is necessarily incomplete. The very notion of complete knowledge implies exhaustive cognition, universal in scope, and of infinite intension; and while we hold ourselves, or the object, or both, either incapable of, or unsusceptible to, this type of exhaustive scrutiny relative to a single item in experience, still less do we presume it possible of that organic unity constituting the world at large. But where the skeptic on his own resources has merely stumbled upon the threshold and has pitched forward into what he finds absurdity, the mystic has abandoned his resources altogether, and along with them the contradictions and absurdities they entail, and has stepped across the threshold; he has then turned and looked back and has reacquired in toto what he erstwhile had only been able to appropriate in part. It is very suggestive, in fact, of certain elements in Hegel’s Logic where all the contradictions have been aufgehoben, the quarreling and competing absurdities sublated into a unity greater than their disparity, a harmony perceived in apparent discordance. But it is much more than this superficial summary conveys. The point of the matter is that for St. John such knowledge is only available in mystical states, and this knowledge alone qualifies as totally veridical, for this type of knowledge alone is singularly complete. And what this further means is that the knowledge, the entire truth, of a single item in experience ultimately implicates the entire universe of experience, and that until these latent implications are fully borne out, entirely realized, our knowledge concerning any one item will always be in some way, and necessarily, deficient.

But let us look to the text one again relative to our interpretation of this intuitional noesis which appears to be characteristic of the mystical experience. St. John describes this cognitive transition in the following way:

“... the soul is to attain to the possession of ... a Divine knowledge... with respect to things divine and human which fall not within the common experience and natural knowledge of the soul (because it looks on them with eyes as different from those of the past as spirit is different from sense and the divine from human) ... this night is gradually drawing the spirit away from its ordinary and common experience of things, and bringing it nearer the divine sense which is a stranger and alien to all human ways ... it goes about marveling at the things that it sees and hears, which seem to it very strange and rare though they are the same that it was accustomed to experience aforetime.” 24

The problem we confront, I think, is very evident from the text itself: what in fact constitutes not just adequate, but veridical knowledge? If on the one hand we define knowledge in terms of the limitations inherent in human cognition, what we really have arrived at is a definition of the scope of what is knowable and not a definition of veridical knowledge. And much as we might desiderate otherwise, in the ordinary state of human affairs we can hope to achieve no more. But at the same time, these limitations are, after all, only temporal or spatial or both: it is not the case that the type of exhaustive knowledge that we have denominated as veridical is not at all possible, that is to say, in and of itself, intrinsically impossible; rather, it is the case that it is not possible given specific circumstances, in other words, in a temporal sense – either given human longevity, for we shall never live long enough to acquire that type of exhaustive knowledge – or, for that matter, in the more significant temporal sense in which we find ourselves incapable of excogitating an infinite number of complex concepts simultaneously, and in so doing grasping the relations that obtain between them, relations which essentially contribute to a comprehensive understanding of them, for this we do discursively, as we have already argued.

Nor indeed is it possible, inasmuch as we are constrained by spatial limitations to which we are perceptually subject, to grasp any given object of experience in its totality, together with all its dimensions simultaneously; in other words, to perceive or to grasp anything at all in the totality of its being in which alone we may be said to know it, and not merely to know it in part, or aspectually. The problem, then, is this, if we accept the human perspective not merely as phenomenologically descriptive, but as normative, there is no place for the epistemological assertions of the mystics and their utterances. The scope of knowledge has been dogmatically defined a priori – and despite the testimony of disconfirming instances to the contrary. The threshold the mystic has crossed, in short, has brought him not so much beyond the bounds of reason as beyond the limits of accepted experience, and the transition becomes not a transformation in truth but a descent into a preposterous, if elaborate, fiction. The skeptic, in other words, in light of the perceived impossibility, holds the type of knowledge to which the mystic testifies as really no knowledge at all, let alone veridical knowledge of reality. On the other hand, if we take the divine perspective as normative it becomes increasingly untenable to maintain that what we call human knowledge really qualifies as knowledge at all; indeed, given the subjective impedimenta we bring to our perceptions, it is very difficult to assert that our knowledge is at all veridically related to its object beyond its most superficial aspect. If we maintain both, we are unable to account for the apparent disparity which exists between them. Let us put it plainly. If indeed things are cognized as different in the mystical state, and if moreover, it is only in the mystical state that unqualifiedly veridical knowledge is at all available to man – then what are we to say of the epistemological condition of man humanly considered? That the so-called knowledge of man is in fact no more than the mere apprehension of appearances to which realities beneath the appearances do not correspond? Shall we then argue, as indeed Kant has before us, that given the kind of constitution we possess we are condemned to appearances only, appearances beyond which we cannot conceivably pass to das ding an sich, the thing in itself secreted behind our own subjective projections? Ironically, these competing perspectives, I think, both have a place in the thought of St. John, especially in light of his own basically Thomistic natural epistemology which is thoroughly empirical. But I would find the point of divergence between the objections outlined above, and St. John’s own view on the subject, in two essentially dissimilar interpretations of the nature of man inherent in each account.

Empirical Considerations

The first objection we encountered essentially interprets man solely, that is to say, exclusively, in terms of his natural being, and indeed, from the point of view of those who hold this position there is no other provable, empirically available, and scientifically verifiable, dimension to his being – man is neither more nor less than an aesthetic (aisthetikos) being, a sensible organism endowed with the faculty of reason and circumscribed by the limitations inherent in the exercise of each. Any other purported dimension of man’s being that falls outside the province of either is conjectural at best, or fictitious at worst – in any event it would be beyond the pale, and therefore outside the competence, of the empirical sciences.

To a large degree St. John would undoubtedly have endorsed at least the empirical assumptions in this objection. But he would also have carried the issue further. Recognizing the supernatural dimension of man, a dimension with which he had first hand acquaintance, direct experience, experience as forceful as any delivered by the senses – and even more compelling, more cogent still – he sees man’s essential nature to consist in something more than the merely natural and the sensible. And for the Christian mystic this recognition, it is important to understand, in no way implies a denigration of nature and the senses which are simultaneously perceived as indispensable components of man’s total epistemological make up. It is a recognition, rather, of an ultimate and irreducible ontological reflexivity underlying the mere superficies of man’s being, the superficies beyond which sense and reason alone cannot penetrate, and which, for St. John constitutes the very hypostasis of man’s being – a being that is being the image of God, a being-in-itself only possible through its unique ontological status as a being-of-another. Given this metaphysical realization a unique epistemology evolves from this experience, the logic of which is every bit as coherent as that emerging from natural epistemology in the context of its own phenomenological environment – and this is to say that the entire universe of experience, both natural and supernatural, is fundamentally and profoundly rational from an epistemological perspective. The distinctive epistemological contribution of mysticism derives from, and consists in, its relation to the very categories before which natural epistemology defaults, despite the corroboration of experiences it finds itself unable to accommodate. The principles have not changed, but the environment in which these principles now operate has: as a consequence they no longer function in relation to natural, but to supernatural realities. In short, just as the supernatural dimension of man is suppressed in the development of a natural epistemology treating of man in his relation to the natural order, so now the natural dimension of man is suppressed – explicitly through the via negativa – in the development of a mystical epistemology treating of man in his relation to the supernatural order.

While St. John’s metaphysical assumptions about the essential nature of man have been discussed here and elsewhere largely as logical conclusions drawn from his own descriptive analysis of the activity of the via negativa, the question nevertheless remains to be asked: are these assumptions in fact, not just dissimilar, but radically different from those encountered in natural epistemologies of the type previously examined? In short, does St. John have an explicit doctrine to this effect? If we anticipate an answer in the form of an abstract epistemological excursus, we shall be disappointed, for this type of philosophical introrsion is entirely aside from the purposes of St. John. However, it nevertheless becomes unmistakably clear that such a doctrine is not merely implied in, but is essential to, the coherence of St. John’s account. Consider the following:

“This purgative and loving knowledge or divine light acts upon the soul in the same way as fire acts upon a log of wood in order to transform it into itself ... [for the wood] has in itself the properties and activities of fire... 25 [This] divine fire of contemplative love, [then,] ... before it unites and transforms the soul into itself, first purges it of all its contrary accidents.” 26

Now, these “accidents” of which St. John speaks are unquestionably those very elements within man exhibiting contrariety to God and which we had seen to have been removed by the via negativa prior to union. We needn’t enumerate these contrarieties, merely to note that among them discursive reason and sensibility – among the chief factors in a natural epistemological account – are seen by St. John to be merely “accidental” to man’s essential nature qua image of God. 27 Beyond these mere accidental qualities, and inaccessible to reason and sensibility alike, lies a likeness (“it has in itself the properties and activities of fire [God] ”) to God, an image or reflection capable of being elicited and made explicit which we have seen to constitute man’s created ontology. As we have said, for St. John, man’s ontic being is being-image, and it is this most fundamental metaphysical assumption that distinguishes St. John’s account from all others. In fact, strictly speaking, given the several attributes St. John holds to be merely accidental to man’s being, his account, otherwise substantially in agreement with, nevertheless in certain aspects differs significantly from, the theological tradition out of which his own epistemology arises and to which both Augustine and Aquinas belong, a tradition in which the imago Dei is perceived in terms of the intellect and reason. 28

A Parenthetical Problem of Accommodation

We hasten to add, however, that this unique metaphysical perspective does not exempt St. John from a clearly defined tradition to which he himself belongs, a tradition that is both mystical and scholastic. His vivid analogy of light entering a dark room 29 for example, has its locus classicus in the Pseudo-Areopagite’s opening chapter of De Mystica Theologica, while his natural epistemology, as we have already mentioned, derives from St. Thomas Aquinas’s own analysis some three centuries earlier, an analysis which in turn borrowed heavily from Aristotle sixteen centuries before that. This is in no way to diminish St. John’s unquestionable originality; it merely serves to indicate, as E. Allison Peers has pointed out, 30 that a tremendous philosophic and mystical tradition has been brought into focus in the creative mind of St. John.

On the other hand, this is not to gloss over some very real difficulties which arise when St. John attempts to align his own mystical doctrine with the tradition out of which his own theology arises and to which he otherwise so tenaciously holds. There are several passages within the text which leave us with an ineluctable feeling of incongruity, the sense that a hiatus has abruptly occurred in the treatment. It is as though some factitious element that does not readily accord with the whole has been inserted into the metaphysical framework and has corrupted the text. Moreover, when these, what can only be called interpolations, do occur, they are brief and clearly parenthetical to the account. It is as though St. John is giving voice to some alternative perspective to which he himself is not wholly committed. The most notable example of this in dealing with his epistemology occurs in the second book of the Dark Night. After providing a brief summary of his own epistemological account of mystical union, St. John quite suddenly – and, we must add, very problematically – inserts a passage which appears to generate nearly irreconcilable tension between what are essentially two distinct and competing interpretations: the one dealing with the immediate and veridical cognition of God which we understand to be the central mystical thesis, and the other an illumination theory constructed around a widely accepted model of the hierarchy of being. 31 In this problematic passage St. John states the following:

“... this dark contemplation infuses into the soul love and wisdom ... [and] the very wisdom of God which purges the souls and illumines them, purges the angels from their ignorances, giving them knowledge, enlightening them as to that which they knew not, and flowing down from God through the first hierarchies even to the last, and thence to men. ... each one passes it on and infuses it into the next in a modified form according to [its] nature ... 32 Hence it follows that, the nearer to God are the higher spirits and the lower, the more completely are they purged and enlightened ... and that the lowest of them will receive this illumination very much less powerfully and more remotely. Hence it follows that man, who is the lowest of all those to whom this loving contemplation flows down continually from God, will ... receive it perforce after his own manner in a very limited way” 33

The problems, of course, resulting from St. John’s attempt to simultaneously accommodate both theories are obvious at once: the mystic either has direct and immediate access to God through ecstatic union – a point which until now, St. John has vigorously argued – or he does not: his union with the Absolute is, in the end, accommodated through an ascending hierarchy of intermediate beings.34 In any event, it cannot be both. And yet both conceptions figure largely in medieval thought, the former most prevalently among the Schoolmen, and the latter among the mystics, although as we see, this division is by no means exclusive. How can this be?

  To answer this, we must look briefly to the historical context in which St. John writes and attempt to grasp something of the long-standing theological tradition from which this hierarchical conception derives; a conception which, as we shall later see, beginning with Ammonius Saccas of Alexandria, first found its most systematic expression in Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus in the anti-Christian tradition, and which subsequently came to be adopted – with obvious revisions – by Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, Maximus Confessor, John Scotus Erigena and St. Thomas Aquinas within the Christian tradition itself – to say nothing of the emphasis placed upon this theory in the extremely influential philosophies of Avicenna (Abu Ibn-Sina) and Avicebron (Salamo Ben Jehuda Ben Gebirol) outside the tradition of both. For the moment it suffices to simply note the broad historical matrix from which this doctrine emerges in the way of establishing the sense of continuity to be found within widely disparate traditions; traditions which in sum form the basis for this metaphysical conception of hierarchy to which St. John now almost parenthetically adverts. Our immediate interest at this point, however, is not the historical development of this doctrine as such, but, as we have said, lies in what appears to be its blatant incongruity with the mystical thesis St. John had been so painstakingly careful to establish and which, as a result, has become quite suddenly problematic.

Here, for the first time – and for reasons that we shall soon discuss – we find a statement made by St. John which I do not believe to be an authentic aspect of his real agendum, or at least authentically descriptive of his actual thought. To begin with, it is very difficult to understand how an epistemology which until now has dealt expressly with the unmediated, unmodified, and therefore veridical cognition of God as the most central thesis of the mystical doctrine, can abruptly incorporate into itself elements no less expressly mediative and modificatory. Indeed, the most casual examination of the epistemological implications involved in this hierarchical doctrine of being relative to mystical union reveals a divergence so great between the two apparently competing interpretations as to preclude altogether the possibility of an immediate and veridical apprehension of God – consequently, the mystical conception of God, together with the entire mystical thesis itself, is seen to break down under the contradiction of conflicting metaphysics. It is, moreover, equally troubling and extremely difficult to understand how so manifest a contradiction could go utterly unobserved, or at least unresolved, in so careful a thinker as St. John has proven himself to be. Is it really the case that he is guilty of so egregious an oversight?

The evidence available would seem to suggest otherwise. To begin with, we have already noted that a kind of thematic incongruity is clearly observable within the account; a precipitate, obvious, and awkward incompatibility which would seem to suggest something in the way of a perfunctory gesture toward prevailing trends in theological thought on epistemological issues to which St. John remains uncommitted in light of the conclusions drawn from his own epistemological analysis; conclusions, we will remember, which were not speculatively derived, but based upon his own first hand experiences. Within these passages, moreover, the logical coherence that consistently obtains between, and is always observable within, the mystical dialectic that culminates in union – a coherence which otherwise characterizes the writings of St. John in general – is signally absent. Unlike every other significant concept which St. John invokes in developing his mystical doctrine, the most central of which are characteristically treated at great length and in much detail, this one doctrine concerning the hierarchy of being is only accorded an elliptical treatment which is essentially isolated from the overall mystical context, a context, we have said, into which it appears to have been parenthetically inserted. This, I think, is particularly noteworthy and deserving of further consideration. So marked is this deviation, and so uncharacteristic of St. John that, except for the mutual corroboration of even the earliest extant manuscripts, coupled with St. John’s own distinctive style, we might too readily be persuaded that this passage was in fact an interpolation insinuated into the text in an effort to make it more closely accord with orthodox theological thought on this subject which, at least within the tradition of Christianized Neoplatonism, extended as far back as the unknown 5th century author of the Areopagitica.

Given the internecine and sometimes rancorous opposition to the reform of the Discalced Carmelites which had been initiated by St. Teresa of Avila – herself a mystic and contemporary of St. John who had closely collaborated in her efforts – together with the greater historical context in which St. John wrote his treatises and of which the Reformation was the most significant feature, 35 to say nothing of the characteristic suspicion with which the writings of the mystics in general were regarded (and quite often with good warrant), it would appear to be virtually certain that the citation in question is, in fact, a conciliatory, if perfunctory gesture to orthodoxy – an orthodoxy, ironically, which St. John never repudiates, even implicitly in his most abstract metaphysical statements. This contention, I think, is further borne out by the fact that the Holy Office – more popularly known as the Inquisition – sat in tribunal to formally condemn some forty propositions taken from the 1618 Alcala edition (editio princeps) of St. John’s works – only some 27 years after his death. The condemnation, however, was never effected due in large part to the vigorous defense of his works by the noted Augustinian scholar Basilio Ponce de Leon who systematically demonstrated the orthodoxy of each of these forty propositions against the charges of the Office, most of which stemmed from a confusion of St. John’s doctrines with those of the Illuminists who held that due to the soul’s passivity in the state of contemplation, it was incapable of sin regardless of any act or omission. It is then all the more likely in this theological climate fraught with suspicion that, despite St. John’s unwavering adherence to orthodox doctrine, he would find it necessary to reaffirm his alignment with orthodoxy.

While this, of course, would explain the apparent lack of contextuality that we find in this and some other statements of the sort, it does not resolve the metaphysical conflict the statement generates. One cannot have the immediate intuition of God mediately rendered through a descending hierarchy of being. And while I am not suggesting that St. John was intentionally disingenuous in formulating this contradiction, the apparent interpretation would be equivocal enough to conveniently mollify the suspicious temperament of the age while at once allowing an alternative interpretation more in line with his own reasoning on the subject. To put it more plainly, I do not think that St. John consciously contrived this contradiction out of expedience, still less out of duplicity. But as a matter of interpretation it conveniently served both purposes. It was in fact an accurate description, and it completely aligned with traditional doctrine – and it was, in fact, St. John’s own epistemological position! But how can this be? Simply in this: what St. John describes in this problematic passage is not the extraordinary illumination accompanying mystical union 36, but rather, the ordinary illumination accorded man in the state of nature 37, for St. John is clear that:

“... this dark contemplation infuses into the soul love and wisdom jointly ... 38 [and that] From this we shall also infer that the very wisdom of God which purges these souls and illumines them, purges the angels from their ignorances ... flowing down from God through the first hierarchies even to the last, and thence to men ... for ordinarily [this illumination] comes[s] through the angels ... “ 39

That is to say, this wisdom that accompanies union, a wisdom co-infused with love, is in fact the self-identical source of that wisdom with which God illuminates men, through the angels, in the unnegated state of nature. What St. John is saying, in effect, is that the knowledge of God ordinarily given to man through the agency of the angels according to the accepted scholastic epistemological schema, does in fact constitute knowledge of God – but only as it is acquired mediately in nature, and not intuitively in union. By permitting this type of equivocal interpretation, St. John is able to accommodate both without compromising the integrity of either. It is extremely important, however, not to be misled by this passage. We must clearly understand that this mediating and modifying series of intermediary agents – to which St. John adverts out of expedience and in a manner sufficiently equivocal for the purpose at hand – is by-passed in mystical union through the soul’s direct and immediate apprehension of God, unimpeded by any hierarchy whatsoever.

This confusing and clearly parenthetical treatment occurs nowhere else in the text and contributes nothing essential to our understanding; on the contrary, it serves only to obscure that pervasive theme to which St. John immediately returns in concluding his treatment on the dark night of the soul, the dark night which has finally receded through the soul’s noetic participation on God, for in these final stages of infusion,

“... the soul become[s] wholly assimilated into God by reason of the clear and immediate vision of God ... when it goes forth from the flesh ... this vision is the cause of the perfect likeness of the soul to God, for as St. John says, we know that we shall be like Him 40 ... not because the soul will come to have the capacity of God, for that is impossible; but because all that it is will become like to God, for which cause it will be called, and will be, God by participation... 41 In this last step ... there is naught that is hidden from the soul, by reason of its complete assimilation.” 42

The Divine Reflexivity

In these last stages of mystical union, that relation of divine reflexivity, the intimations of which we had seen to occur earlier and elsewhere, is at last finally explicit. The mystical deduction becomes complete. It is clear that there is an ontological connection between the soul and God which is more comprehensive, more fundamental still than the being-only of the soul that derives from the Only-Being of the Absolute; a connection in virtue of which alone a relation of reflexive identity is possible such that “ the soul becomes wholly assimilated into God by reason of the clear and immediate vision of God “ the nature of which is such that  “this vision is the cause of the perfect likeness “ subsequently generated. And this remarkable statement, I suggest, can only be understood in light of a metaphysics constructed around man’s fundamentally reflexive ontology – his being the imago Dei, the reflection of God who is now clearly seen to be not simply the ontic condition of the mere being of man – but the exemplary cause of his apotheosized identity.

This unique mystical conception is not, as we had seen, merely constructed ex hypothesi; it is fundamentally radicated in, emerges from, experience; an experience, moreover, that is seen to accord not only with reason, but with the most incontrovertible theological canon of all – Holy Scripture – for the conclusion drawn by St. John of the Cross is essentially no different from that drawn by St. John the Evangelist when he states that  "when he [God] appears we shall be like him, for [because, in virtue of the fact that] we shall see him as he is.” 43 Apart from this mystical conception it is, I suggest, impossible to understand how a “vision”, a seeing, a standing-before, can produce, result in, “perfect likeness”, “assimilation”. This vision appears to be the exemplary cause inasmuch as it presupposes a unique ontological matrix in which the perfect likeness to be elicited already exists in posse, as fundamental to, as essentially constitutive of, man’s irreducible ontological being as the being-image-of. In other words, a vision, a standing-before, which generates reflection already presupposes a reflective ontological nature in virtue of which this vision is transformative. And this is to say that the soul is already the possibility of this reflection as the unarticulated image of the Absolute. In the state of union, then– which consists in this divine reflexivity – this vision necessarily, inexorably, results in a transformation in the essential ontology of the soul – the soul qua image, qua reflexive – into the explicit reflection of God, and to such a degree and so completely, that the soul in seeing God sees itself, and similarly, God in seeing the soul, in effect, sees himself. St. John describes this resonating dialectic in the following way:

“such a manner of likeness does love [union] make in the transformation of the two ... that it made be said that each is the other and that both are one.” 44

Otherness, then, conceived as a dogmatic distinction, is totally abolished in this state of reflexive identity; it is sublated in that participative union that essentially consists in the reflection of God into God. And this is the paradigm of the mystical paradox. Through transcendence the soul has arrived at immanence. In having gone utterly outside itself, the soul has discovered God within itself. In having relinquished all, it has acquired the All; not in the way of some vague poetic desideration, but as a distinct existential realization. The resulting “oneness”, or the becoming one with God, which is a characteristic feature of virtually all mystical phenomenologies, is, in the mystical philosophy of St. John, quite different from every other competing system essentially in this: not that it attains to oneness, but the oneness to which it attains preserves even as it abolishes – and in so doing apotheosizes, and not abrogates. In that it derives, not from the mystical impulse itself in which we discover only synapses of random intuitions that evidence little agreement either among themselves or with reason at large; still less is it capable of being indexed among the theosophical systems which, syncretistically formulated in imitation of reason or imposturing as logic, conclude to a whole that is inevitably opaque to logic, and dissonant with reason. Rather, the oneness to which St. John adverts is the logical terminus to which reason deductively attains through clearly defined and discernible copulas within the logic of the mystical account. And this is to say in a broader sense that it derives from a coherent metaphysics; a metaphysics out of which it arises much as the conclusion to a sorites that has brought us through the via negativa to the night of sense, the night of spirit, and finally to the light of union – to the face of God.

We thus find the mystical epistemology of St. John to have culminated in that ontological resonance between being-contingent-upon-the-Absolute and Being-Absolute, between the Imaged and the image, the soul and God. Our understanding of this mystical state, despite the consonance with reason that we have discerned within it, remains abstract, remote, and at best only proximate. Discerning the internal logic, we are, withal, unable to penetrate to the substance. We hold it to accord with reason, but it only affords reason perspective, and not understanding, for, in the words of St. John, not only is:

“... this dark contemplation secret... 45 not only does the soul not understand it, but ... the soul is unable to speak of it ... the soul cannot speak of it ... it can find no suitable way or manner to describe it ... and thus, even though the soul might find many ways in which to describe it, it would still be secret and remain undescribed ... it is like one who sees something never seen before, whereof he has not even seen the like ...” 46

The intelligibility of the mystical experience, then, presupposes as a condition of that intelligibility – the very experience itself. It is, in the last analysis, a circle into which one cannot break, but to which one must be admitted; hence we find the relatively esoteric nature of mysticism to derive essentially from the inherent limitations of language, language which, as we had discussed earlier, presupposes shared experiences to its intelligibility.

The Perennial Problem of Induction

We must insist, however, that although our understanding of this mystical state is only remote and proximate, the external rationality of the experience is nevertheless available to us; and this accessibility to, this consonance with, reason is a compelling testimony in itself to what is at the very least the probable authenticity of the mystical account. Let us look into this further. It has been seen, by way of illustration, that given certain statements made by St. John concerning the mystical thesis, certain other statements that he subsequently makes about specific types of experience, not just follow, but necessarily– which is to say, deductively – follow. For example, that such states are consistently experienced in abstraction from time is both a universal and uniform feature of the mystical experience. But unlike ordinary facts or features of experience, it is necessary consequence of, and is therefore deducible from, certain existential premises antecedent to the experience – in other words, this experience of abstraction from time is seen not just to follow, but to necessarily follow – to follow as a consequence, as the logical outcome, of certain premises embodied in the via negativa. That such experiences are characteristically atemporal in nature follows of necessity from the fact that the suppression of time is the condition of such experiences. Whatever the ensuing experience may be, positively considered, we cannot say – we cannot say that such experiences will be of such and such a nature, for necessity – as Hume has vigorously, and I think correctly argued – cannot be logically ascribed to such assertions. The experience, in effect, may always be otherwise than anticipated, for there is no inherent, that is to say, no logical contradiction engendered in assuming so.47

  At this vital point we now find that our account has culminated in what is essentially a convergence, an extremely critical juncture between epistemology and metaphysics. Before we can so much as begin to presume to say anything more coherent about the mystical experience described by St. John of the Cross – that is to say, if we presume to pass beyond what is more than merely speculative – we must examine the mystical doctrine of St. John in light of the very serious Problem of Induction. If the mystical philosophy of St. John of the Cross can offer us nothing more than what contemporary philosophy to date has been able to proffer in response to this enigma then our own account has ended on terms no less satisfactory than its secular counterparts, and our own epistemological endeavor has resulted in the same dismal conclusion, which is to say, that we can have no certainty whatever concerning states of human affairs. It is my contention, however, as I had stated at the beginning, that the philosophy of St. John of Cross offers a unique and substantial contribution to the resolution of this recurrent problem. Let us examine this further and very carefully, for in the mystical experience alone, I suggest, we find the one disqualifying instance of the problematic.

The Problem of Induction


1 DNS 2.1.1
2 Which, by no coincidence, is held to denote an extraordinary sharing in the life of God.
3 DNS 2.3.3 emphasis added
4 DNS 2.4.2
5 cf. footnote 140 (DNS 2.3.3) emphasis added
6 DNS 1.9.6-7
7 DNS 1.9.6
8 DNS 1.8.2
9 DNS 2.3.3, also AMC 3.14.1+2
10 ST I Q.3 art. 2, also cf. art.7
11 cf. Jn. 4.24
12 ST I Q.44; art.4; De Potentia Dei Q.3 art.15 + ad.1, ad.2
13 the act of being
14 DNS 2.5.3
15 DNS 2.8.2-4
16 DNS 2.8.3
17 2 Cor 12.2-4
18 Rom. 1.20
19 DNS 2.8.3
20 ibid.
21 DNS 2.8.4
22 DNS 2.8.5
23 cf. SC 6.4 ff.
24 DNS 2.9.5
25 DNS 2.10.1
26 DNS 2.10.2 emphasis added
27 This, incidentally, is not to say that the soul does not reflect that consummate reason which is to be found in the Divine intellect, much less that God is not rational. This reason exhibited in God which the soul reflects participatorily is the ratio of St. Augustine ( cf. Solil. 1.12-13; De Immort. Anim. 6.11; 7.12; also cf. De Trin. 15.14 [Patrologiae Latinae 42 1077] and St. Thomas Aquinas (ST I Ques. 14 art. 7). It is intuitively exercised, and is not, therefore, to be confused with its discursive counterpart in man which, while a function of that same reason, is only finitely applied.
28 cf. Aquinas, ST I Ques. 3 art.1 rep. obj. 2; Ques. 45 art.7; Ques. 93 art.1-9; and Augustine, De. Genes. Ad Lit. 6.12; De Trin. 14.16; De Civit. Dei 11.26
29 also cf. DNS 2.5.3 and SC 13/14.16
30 E. Allison Peers, Ascent of Mount Carmel (Garden City, New York: Image Books, Doubleday & Co., 1958), 48, Intro.
31 The passage which follows. incidentally, derives from Aquinas (cf. ST I Ques. 106 art. 1 ad.1) who adopted it from the Pseudo-Areopagite (De Hierarchia Caelesti), who in turn borrowed it from Plotinus (Enneads 5.1-11).
32 DNS 2.12.3 emphasis added
33 DNS 2.12.4
34 Specifically, the choir of angels.
35 That St. John was acutely aware of this burgeoning conflict is clearly reflected in certain other passages, for example AMC 3.15.2
36 cf. AMC 2.24.2
37 cf. AMC 2.24.1
38 DNS 2.12.2
39 DNS 2.12.3 emphasis added
40 1 Jn. 3.2
41 DNS 2.20.5 (also cf. AMC 2.5.4+7; SC 11.6+7, 17.3, 27.2+3; LFL 2.30) emphasis added.
42 DNS 2.20.6
43 1 Jn. 3.2 emphasis added
44 SC 11.6, also cf. 18.4
45 DNS 2.17.2
46 DNS 2.17.3 ( cf. 2.17.6; AMC 1.3.3, 2.3.2-3.) This doctrine, incidentally, closely corresponds to the Pauline conception that “Eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man what God has prepared for those who love him.” (1 Cor.2.9)
This forceful line of reasoning has some rather interesting corollaries, not the least of which concerns the phenomenon of miracles. If the reason for the uniformity of the events we observe is not discoverable; that is, if we can perceive nothing in the way of necessity linking putative causes to supposed effects – and if, therefore, the succession of observed events can always be otherwise than we observe without implying contradiction, then while we have not answered why miracles occur, we have nevertheless arrived at an explanation of how miracles are able to occur. Miracles, by this reasoning, are not understood to occur in violation of laws inherent in nature – for there are in effect no laws to be violated; only observed uniform events. From this perspective, what we call miracles are no more than a reordering of an anticipated sequence of events that were never necessary to begin with. And this is simply another way of saying that in effecting a miracle God merely suspends – but does not violate – what we construe to be laws at work in the universe. If, moreover, the suspension of “laws” is attributable to God in the occurrence of miracles – and such miraculous events are (insofar as reason can discover) at least as likely to occur as the effect we have come to anticipate – then what is to prevent us from ascribing the uniform events that very clearly occur to God as well, and simply because God wills them? It is, I suggest, at least as cogent to argue that God is the cause of this uniformity as to argue that there is no cause at all.     

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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

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