The Metaphysics of Mysticsm

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

By

Geoffrey K. Mondello

Dedicated to Mary, Mother of God

 

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Home
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
author@johnofthecross.com

 

PART 1

ASCENT of MOUNT CARMEL

The Presuppositions

Beyond Innocence


 

One of the fundamental principles of mystical theology, briefly touched upon in our introduction, is that the relation between the contemplative and God is marked by profound incommensurability in every category. Ontologically, this incommensurability derives from the relationship between two radically distinct natures: God, on the one hand, considered ontologically, is uncreated, infinite, eternal, immutable, autonomous, and self-sufficient. The ontological attributes of man, on the other hand, are diametrically opposite. While procreative, his nature itself remains created. He is finite in knowledge and power. His being exists, is enacted, radicated within, the distinct and limited physical locus circumscribed by his body. He is temporal, having historical antecedents in time: a beginning before which he was not, and an end toward which he ineluctably moves. He is mutable, inconstant, changing, evolving, maturing – not only physically, but intellectually and spiritually. He is altogether heteronymous. Subject to circumstances, forces, and occurrences quite often beyond his control – despite the most assiduous application of his will – he lacks complete self-determination. Finally, he is utterly contingent. His being, in every way, relies, depends, upon, requires, re sources beyond itself. Ultimately, the ontic reality of man is understood to be conditioned by the divine existence itself: his being, metaphysically considered, is ultimately dependent upon the being of God. The divine existence, however, is absolutely unconditioned, being completely sufficient unto itself.

Furthermore, this incommensurability between God and man in the realm of the ontological, is compounded by moral alienation in the universe of ethics. Prior to Adamic sin, or the fall, the gulf between God and man is held to have been mediated by grace which, according to Christian doctrine, is understood to be the created participation in the life of God – a life which, significantly, consisted in familiar commune with God. By some primordial act of sin, however, man fell from this state of grace; his communion with God was sundered and his nature, once consonant and harmonious with God, became corrupt, divided, disordered. He is yet possessed of an immortal soul in essential communication with God inasmuch as God continues to communicate being to the soul, but as a result of the fall and his subsequent alienation from God, his cognition of this fundamental source of his being – in a very real sense, his vision of God – has become inadequate and obscure. He is essentially communicated with, but noetically excommunicated from, God. In the state of innocence, the noetic apprehension of God is held to have been connatural to man – but this is no longer the case. In his fallen state, man is deprived of this simple, immediate apprehension of God in which his original felicity consisted.

Thus divided, man, once empirically acquainted with the eternal – and now in isolation from it – is a being whose cognitive acquaintance is now limited to one dimension only, the temporal: and this really is the beginning of the mystical problematic, for it is precisely temporal categories that are incompatible with the eternal, and incommensurable with the infinite. It is the task of the contemplative, then, to somehow reintegrate these bifurcated dimensions, in fact, to pass beyond them by gathering the temporal into the eternal, and in so doing strive to attain that epistemological integrity which existed in the state of innocence – indeed, to go beyond innocence by achieving not simply communion with God, as Adam enjoyed prior to the fall – but union with God. To do so, the mystic must first abstract himself from that manifold of temporal categories which are metaphysically irreconcilable with the two basic ontological attributes of the Absolute: infinity and eternity. His quest for union with God must be negatively achieved through a series of purgations which will first attenuate, and then effectively abolish his metaphysical contrariety to God.

It is within this context that we first discern the first epistemological principle of the via negativa: in order to achieve that union with God which constitutes the soul’s consummate perfection, it is necessary to undergo two distinct negative processes, or purgations, corresponding to what St. John calls the sensuous and spiritual parts of the soul.1 The purgation of each part, moreover, is to proceed according to the three faculties of the soul – will, understanding, and memory – each in relation to its sensuous and spiritual parts. In a sense, St. John states his methodology early on and rather clearly in the Ascent and we are tempted to extrapolate prematurely if not hastily in light of it. This would be to err seriously. And perhaps we ourselves have begun too abruptly, for it is not only the method, but also the means with which we must first come to terms if we are to avoid confusion at the outset. It is extremely important for us to understand that the movement to mystical union is a cooperative enterprise throughout. The soul responds to, and passively cooperates with, that initiative which rests with God alone 2.

Perhaps we can render this in other terms nevertheless compatible with the thought of St. John; terms that may more clearly establish the dialectical relationship that exists between the soul of the contemplative and God. The activity of the soul of which St. John speaks in his opening discourse in the Ascent, while not of itself capable of inaugurating the union sought after, may nevertheless be regarded as predispositional to that union which God alone effects, and to which the soul is entirely passive. In an epistemological context, this state of negativity that the soul strives to achieve may be viewed as the condition of the possibility of a direct intuition of God. Understood in this sense, the dialectic between the soul and God becomes somewhat clearer. As the mere condition of the possibility of the direct apprehension of God, this negation at once presupposes passivity on the part of the soul, and activity on the part of God – an activity capable of actualizing this possibility through what St. John terms the divine infusion.

This, however, must be achieved systematically, or perhaps better yet, methodologically, and in keeping with the empirical foundations of knowledge articulated by his Scholastic predecessors, St. John begins this redoubtable task on the purely human level of sensibility. The first step, then, that we encounter in the Ascent of Mount Carmel (or the step toward the epistemological predisposition to mystical union) is the negativity of sense. And this, St. John maintains, consists in depriving the soul of distinct conceptions according to the understanding, alien desires and affections according to the will, and various images and representations according to the memory. 3 In other words, it calls for a centripetal movement toward the axis of the soul’s being – a rigorous integrating and coordinating of the faculties in the intensely focused love of God alone, as the first prerequisite to infused contemplation. And so we find St. John stating in Book I of the Ascent that:

“… the soul [in this state of negation] is, as it were, in the darkness of night, which is naught else than an emptiness within itself of all things.” 4

The emptiness of which he speaks in fact constitutes the state of sheer passive receptivity; a receptivity toward which the soul is constrained to move preparatory to its union with God. In this night of sense the pleasures and desires of the soul preeminently involving the will are not so much systematically abolished, as rigorously suspended, so that the soul contains nothing appropriated through the will, in the way of created nature that would engender contrariety with the Uncreated God. The precise metaphysical nature of this opposition between the created order and God, which figures so largely in the philosophy of St. John, remains to be addressed in greater detail later; for the moment, let us examine some of the more salient implications involved in what we have considered so far.
 

The Problem of Union vs. Identity

We have already touched upon several notions that are indispensable to a clear understanding of mysticism, and our discussion up to this point has briefly focused upon predisposition, passivity, activity, and receptivity as central in the movement toward mystical union. But even at this early point in our account a closer examination of these central features brings us into an arena of considerably greater complexity than any clarity it has afforded us thus far. Ineluctably, even a preliminary analysis brings us, in fact, face to face with perhaps the single greatest problem confronted in mystical phenomenologies in general, and St. John’s works in particular, and this is the problem of union versus identity. It is an unavoidable problem that becomes at times critical in some later passages that we will examine in which St. John appears to equate personal annihilation 5 with the virtual assimilation of the soul into the identity of God 6 To St. John’s credit, however, it is equally important to note that in other passages he is quite careful in keeping the two natures distinct. 7

What then is this problem? And no less importantly, what is the provenance of this confusion? In effect, the problem has always been latent in the account, for that attitude which is conducive, or better yet, predispositional, to union, consists precisely in the absolute passivity which follows the sensuous night of the soul. In every faculty, according to St. John, the soul is rendered empty, unoccupied. It is the sheer possibility of conscious actualization, but is not of itself in any epistemological sense actual – for its ordinary consciousness, we have seen, consisted in precisely those elements which had been systematically purged through the via negativa. In this state of epistemological suspension – completely void relative to nature broadly understood as the sum of all possible natural conditions of conscious actualization – the soul is then receptive only to God as outside nature, and who, as such, alone is capable of actualizing this mere possibility through the divine infusion. Consciousness is thus contingent upon God, is actualized by God, and is a consciousness of God. In other words, it is an apotheosized state of consciousness, a unitary and exclusive awareness of God. However, it is crucial for us to remember that prior to this infusion, the soul of itself possessed nothing but the possibility of conscious actualization, and that subsequent to union its sole epistemological datum – that in virtue of which alone it has been actualized – is God. And this is to say that only insofar as God communicates himself the soul – is the soul actual, in any consciously noetic sense. And this, rather succinctly, is the problem of identity. It appears to be not so much a union of distinct natures, as an identity resulting from the apotheosizing of the one through its noetic assimilation into the other.

But we also mentioned that St. John was careful in keeping the two natures distinct, for he quite clearly states that:

“In thus allowing God to work in it, the soul is at once illumined and transformed in God, and God communicates to it His supernatural Being, in such wise that it appears to be God Himself, and has all that God has. And this union comes to pass when God grants the soul this supernatural favor, that all the things of God and the soul are one in participant transformation; and the soul seems to be God rather than a soul, and is indeed God by participation; although it is true that its natural being, though thus transformed, is as distinct from the Being of God as it was before” 8

What, then, in St. John’s account may be invoked as the distinguishing feature between the notion of union on the one hand, and that of identity on the other – when the two quite often appear to be conflated? Until we arrive at a concept that will enable us to discriminate between the two, we can penetrate no further into St. John’s mystical account, or, for that matter, effectively differentiate it from other competing accounts entirely outside the Christian tradition. This crucial concept – the sine qua non to the very intelligibility of Christian Mysticism – is to be found in the notion of participation; a notion that, while not prescinding entirely from a conception of identity, more clearly implies the idea of union. Perhaps it can better be explained this way: we understand by that which participates, something clearly distinct from that in which it participates. That is to say, while the notion of participation clearly implies unity between the participant and that in which it participates, we at once understand that it is a unity into which disparate elements enter. In a similar manner, we understand by the notion of union, a conjunction of two in which the individual natures entering into the union are preserved, rather than abolished; we should otherwise find it very difficult to understand the sense in which we speak of it as a union, rather than as a unity. Unlike identity which implies the reduction of a merely apparent plurality to an ultimate unity, the notion of participation is understood to involve the preservation of two authentically distinct elements entering into – while not simultaneously being abolished by – a union.

We should, moreover, find it largely problematic, and entirely incompatible with the doctrines that St. John later develops to view the type of infused contemplation that St. John describes as resulting in an identity, rather than a union. It is, I think, extremely important to the integrity of St. John’s thought to emphasize this point, so let us take our previous discussion just a little further. The two elements entering into identity, we had said, are in fact seen to be one. We do not speak of one participating in the other, for there is no other, strictly speaking: the merely-apparent two are in fact identical, understood to be one and the same. We discover nothing of the sense of subordination or contingency implied in the idea of identity, for the very simple reason that the one is the other. The distinction, in other words, is essentially spurious. Most often it is rendered in purely temporal, although sometimes spatial, terms: it is, in fact, the one thing understood at different points in time or space, or both.

Something quite different emerges, however in our understanding of union through participation; something which clearly suggests the contingent character of the participant relative to that in which it is understood to participate. The latter, it becomes clear, is presupposed as the condition of the possibility of a participant. Simply put, what participates already presupposes that in which it is participating. And this, needless to say, very clearly accords with St. John’s understanding of the soul’s relationship to God subsequent to the state of negation; a primarily noetic, but also an ontological relationship in which the soul is contingent upon, presupposes, that divine initiative in which alone it is actualized. While it is undeniably an apotheosized state of consciousness, it is nevertheless a consciousness contingent upon, subordinate to, and metaphysically distinct from, the divine agency through which alone it becomes actualized. So vital is an understanding of this crucial distinction to an understanding of St. John’s works at large, that unless we now grasp it fully, any further attempt at understanding his sometimes involuted expositories will be either entirely remiss or completely in vain. The notion of participation is, as it were, the first premise in a mystico-logical sorites upon which the coherency of the epistemology of mysticism rests. Once we have succeeded in understanding this, we can begin to address the role that the faculties play in the movement toward mystical union.

__________________________________

1 AMC 1.1.1-2
2 AMC 1.1.5; 2.5.4
3 AMC 1.4.1-5; 1.9.6; 2.6.1-6
4 AMC 1.3.2
5 AMC 2.7.1
6 AMC 2.5.4
7 AMC 2.5.6-7 + 2.21.1 Also cf. ST I 3 Q.2 art.1
8 AMC 2.5.7 also cf. STQ.3 art.4

 

The Role of the Will

 

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Home
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
author@johnofthecross.com