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


Available at Amazon

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 2011-2018 by Geoffrey K. Mondello. All rights reserved


The Role of the WILL

in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross



We had briefly mentioned that in the state of negation the soul is emptied of all desires and pleasures according to the will 1 and that in such a state the soul contains nothing in the way of created nature which is contrary to God. But a good deal more needs to be said about the metaphysical nature of this contrariety before we can go further. Let us take, for example, the contrariety which St. John perceives to exist between the finite and the infinite. First of all, it is important to understand that while there appears to be logical polarity between the two, they are not, in a metaphysical sense, mutually contrary. It is not so much a matter of contrariety that is eventually seen to exist, as of an insuperable disproportion in magnitude; a disproportion which so closely approximates categorical opposition that it qualifies, in a practical sense, as contrariety. It is magnitude, then, that is the essence of the finite and the infinite, as duration is the essence of the temporal and the eternal. So understood, the finite not only can be, but as a matter of course is accommodated to the infinite without engendering any contradiction whatever. The infinite divisibility of matter is one example that readily comes to mind in the way of illustrating something finite incorporating the infinite within itself while losing nothing of the nature of its own finitude. Everyone, I think, will agree that we can, at least conceptually, continue dividing matter ad infinitum. It is simply a matter of applied mathematics. However tedious we should find this to be, it serves to demonstrate that the infinite so incorporated really turns out to be pseudo-infinite after all. Starting with a discrete whole, we are at least conceptually capable of subjecting it to infinite reduction. However, we should find that at any given point in the reductive process (which may continue indefinitely, that is to say, infinitely), a reversal toward integration will eventually go no further than the discrete whole from which we started. In other words, it is only a disintegratively infinite process. It is only infinite, so to speak, from the top down. And this, obviously, is equally true of time vis-a-vis eternity. While of itself infinitely reductive, divisible into days, hours, minutes, seconds, etc., an abrupt reversal of this process will never bring us beyond the present.

What is the point of this aside? In each instance we find that the finite, while unable to comprehend the infinite, is at least metaphysically susceptible to it. We have seen, through two rather pedestrian examples, that the infinite may, in principle, be accommodated to the finite without contradiction. But it does so dis-unitively, by division, reduction, disintegration. It is, paradoxically, a unilateral infinity coextensive with the finite: it is infinitely retrogressive, but only finitely progressive. It will always have its terminus in the unity from which it began. But the fact nevertheless remains that the matrix of the infinite is at least implicit in the finite. A latent, if limited correspondence does in fact exist, and it is in virtue of this fact alone that any correlation between the two becomes possible – and only on terms which abrogate the metaphysical nature of neither. It is only when we try to pass beyond the finite to the infinite that we encounter difficulties. Whereas the infinite is capable of instantiating itself within the finite by subsuming the finite under itself while yet remaining infinite, the finite on the other hand is incapable of extrapolating itself into the infinite, of passing beyond itself without at once ceasing to be finite. The bearing this has on our understanding of the metaphysics underlying mystical union should be fairly evident by now. It is simply this: In mystical union, it is not a matter of the finite being poured, as it were, into the infinite – the finite can never comprehend, fill, be coextensive with, the infinite; rather it is a matter of the infinite instantiating itself within, as it were, being poured into, the finite. And this is precisely why it is termed the divine infusion; an infusion that can only be effected through an approximation of the infinite through the negation of all that is finite in the soul. That is to say, the soul, created in imago Dei, is the approximation of the infinite in its fundamental ontological nature. The infinite, as we had said earlier, clearly cannot exhaust itself in the finite, but it can fill the finite – to the extent that the finite has abolished every limiting category possible to its being, leaving only the image, the ontic nucleus of its being – a being which, for St. John, together with a great many mystics within the Christian tradition – is being an image.

The Via Negativa:
   Notions of Contrariety and Co-existence

As we had begun to say in opening our discussion on the role of the will, in the state of negation occasioned by the via negativa the soul contains nothing in the way of created nature which is contrary to God. Inasmuch as God is ontologically other to created nature, he is essentially contrary to nature as Not-nature, and inasmuch as nature is ontologically other to God, it is essentially contrary to God as not-God–and this, fundamentally, is the basis for the categorical opposition found between the created order and God, a point upon which St. John is clear in a number of passages:

“All the affections which [the soul] has for creatures are pure darkness in the eyes of God 2  [and] all the being of creation compared with the infinite being of God, is nothing 3 How great a distance there is between all that the creatures are in themselves and that which God is in Himself  4 for there is the greatest possible distance between these things and that which comes to pass in this estate which is naught else than transformation in God 5 Thus, he that will love some other thing together with God of a certainty makes little account of God, for he weighs in the balance against God that which, as we have said, is at the greatest possible distance from God 6 the soul, then, must be stripped of all things created 7

The soul, then, aspiring to transformation in God through mystical union is only receptive to God insofar as it has succeeded in negating within itself all that is other to God in the way of created nature, until at last only that divine speculum remains in the form of the image of God which mirrors, reflects, only God, and is so utterly consonant with God as to effectively be in union with him. But even in stating this, we’ve anticipated a good deal too much, for our most elementary understanding is as yet far from complete. What are we to say, for example, of the following principle upon which the argument rests that St. John has just articulated above, and which is the sine qua non of every instance of the via negativa:

“Two contraries cannot co-exit in one person.” 8

Indeed, if one principle is held to summarize the most basic metaphysical contention of the mystic, of any mystic, in any tradition, it is this. But a clear understanding of this principle is particularly critical – indeed, it is indispensable, to an understanding not simply of the thought of St. John as a mystic, but of the entire metaphysics underlying the phenomenon of mysticism itself. How are we to understand this principle? Is St. John simply, merely, invoking the law of the excluded middle? And more importantly, precisely how are we to construe this principle relative to the mystical experience? For the moment it must suffice to say that the application of this principle to the mystical experience presupposes the entire mystical thesis that consciousness is unified in God thorough the direct and intuitive participation in the divine existence.

As it is formulated by St. John, the principle itself, that two contraries cannot coexist in one person, certainly admits of some very pedestrian exceptions. In our ordinary states of consciousness, for example, we regularly entertain, indeed, cannot dispense with, a wide variety of opposites in the routine exercise of the dialectic of reason. St. John, however, is not concerned with ordinary states of consciousness except insofar as they stand in need of remediation through the via negativa. This having been achieved (and here St. John is really anticipating the full development of his doctrine), we must advert to the mystical thesis itself, which we briefly touched upon above, and which, we suggested, is concerned with the exclusive and singular occupation of consciousness with God. And this is quite another thing. Ordinary consciousness is always diffuse, always engaging a multiplicity. In the state of mystical awareness, on the other hand, consciousness is actualized by, and unified in, its singular object, God, – or lacking that object, exists in a terrible night in abstraction from everything else. Clearly, then, the principle, as it stands, is in need of some qualification. Perhaps we can restate it more consistently in the following way:

The coexistence of two contraries within unified consciousness is impossible.

At first there appears to be something subreptive about this. A consciousness, after all, unified in being rigorously focused – either upon nothing (the dark night of the soul) in anticipation of the divine infusion, or upon God (in ecstatic union) – by definition would seem to exclude the notion of any coexistence whatever, contrary or otherwise. Consciousness totally unified in a single apprehension exclusive of all else, by definition precludes the possibility of coexistence relative to other apprehensions– but it does not, by definition, necessarily entail contrariety. The notion of contrariety, in other words, appears to be superfluous and the principle could as well be applied to any state of affairs. But a closer reading of the mystical thesis reveals otherwise. Since it is God who occupies (or would occupy) consciousness, everything else that could possibly coexist with God would be other to God – it would, in fact, be nature, and thus involve contrariety with God. In short, within the limitations of space and time, there is a mutual ontological tolerance, often a complementarity, in nature among things created. This rather congenial arrangement, however, does not extend to nature vis-à-vis God. As a sui generis, God is forever opaque to nature. Metaphysically, the being of God stands diametrically against nature, not in the way of opposition suggestive of antagonism but in the way of contrariety suggesting incompatibility. And it is this to which I think St. John alludes when he adverts to this Principle of Non-Contrariety – a principle which, in the logic of mysticism, is not simply equivalent to, but is identical with, the Principle of the Excluded Middle or the Law of Non-Contradiction within formal logic. But it is applied logic, a logic rigorously applied not to concepts but to existential categories through the agency of the via negativa. A clearly discernible connection, then, is seen to exist between the principle of non-contrariety (the coexistence of two contraries within unified consciousness is impossible ), and the mystical thesis (that consciousness is unified in God thorough the direct and intuitive participation in the divine existence).

But something more must be said about this pervasive principle of non-contrariety which figures so largely in the thought of St. John; a principle which, in the logic of mysticism, effectively constitutes the antecedent to nearly every subsequent premise. So far, we have merely succeeded in establishing the relation of this principle to the mystical thesis, and while this is clearly indispensable to the task we have put before us, the more important question to be asked, I think, is simply this: precisely what role does this principle play in the opposition that we find between God and created nature – in both articulating the opposition occasioned by the encounter between God and nature – and at once bridging that ontological gulf; translating that opposition into union? Well, to begin with, the principle of non-contrariety may in fact be seen as the nexus between the via negativa and the mystical thesis. It is presupposed by both: by the via negativa as the principle upon which it functions in negating all contrariety to God – and by the mystical thesis in rigorously defining the parameters around which alone the possibility of ecstatic union may occur. Moreover, it relates the one to the other: the via negativa as the means, and the mystical thesis as the end. The role, then, of the principle of non-contrariety is twofold: it functions in the via negativa to mediate the opposition between God and nature, and it is the conditional upon which the realization of the mystical thesis rests. That is to say, it acts through the via negativa to actualize the mystical thesis.

In the Ascent of Mount Carmel, we first see this principle at work in the relationship that obtains between what St. John calls the created will, and God – a relationship that, in turn, can only be understood in light of the opposition existing between the created order and the Absolute. And while it is an opposition primarily radicated in ontology (finite versus infinite, etc.), it inevitably reflects itself epistemologically in man’s inability to adequately comprehend God. And the mystic, of course, cannot hope to achieve union with that of which he knows nothing, or to perfect union with that of which his knowledge is defective. The mystic must first know God if he wishes to embrace him, and this knowledge must be relative to what is authentic, and not a mere fiction. The mystic who would aspire to union with God conceived of as golden calf would aspire toward a fiction, and all his misdirected efforts would bring him no closer to union with the calf than to the real God of whom he knows nothing. But in St. John’s epistemology there is an antecedent to knowledge, an indispensable faculty presupposed by knowledge and constituted as the will:

“Two contraries cannot coexist in one person and darkness, which is affection set upon the creatures, and light, which is God, are contrary to each other, and have no likeness or accord between one another” 9

It is through the will (affection), then, that contrariety is first acquired by the soul; the will as the affective faculty for appropriating anything within the created order.10 But, we are inclined to ask, is it not the case that we must first know what we will to possess? For St. John, I think, the answer must be, emphatically, no. First we must will to know – and then will to possess what we have willed to know. And this is to say that the Thomistic apothegm, “Deum tamquam ignotum cognoscimus”– “We know God as unknown”– essentially constitutes the first epistemological principle in mystical theology: that we know God paradoxically – as unknown. To wit, every category in human experience that we have appealed to in our quest to know God has left us empty-handed. Each category has either proven itself to be contrary to, or incommensurable with, the inexhaustible Absolute. Our epistemological approach to God has been, at its best, merely analogical. It is not that the mystic’s plight is so abysmal that he has no inkling whatever of God. Some acquaintance, however inadequate, however primordial clearly must exist: we do not seek what we utterly do not know. Rather, we seek what we know in part, or as St. Paul had eloquently put it, what we see “through a glass darkly.”11 And it is this impoverished perception, this only dim acquaintance with the Absolute perceived, experienced, as the Good and the Holy – this only marginal acquaintance with what is invincibly loving – so loving, in fact, that it compels our love – that appears to be the germ of mysticism. At its most fundamental level, it is the experience of love, then, that is the impetus to know. And because we desire what we will to acquire, St. John quite appropriately speaks of the will in terms of “affection”.

An understanding of the difference between knowledge and casual acquaintance – both empirical and rational – we must, regrettably, but of necessity, presume at this point in our account. It is a topic that simply cannot be adequately addressed without involving us in too lengthy an aside. Knowledge for St. John, we must simply say for now, constitutes a good deal more than casual acquaintance, and, relative to God, a good deal less than perfect understanding. The issue of interest to us here involves not so much the concept of knowledge as that of opposition. The matrix of contrariety – not a problematic of itself – we have said, is found in ontology. But it is the will which is the locus of contrariety: the will as the agency through which the soul then appropriates created things to itself – and in so doing engendering actual, if you will, existential, contrariety in its attempt to come to union with the Uncreated Absolute. The incompatibility is no longer merely conceptual – it becomes actual, concrete in terms of existential impediments to union. The soul, possessed of God’s contrary in nature through the appropriation of the will, is incapable of realizing union with God, inasmuch as two contraries are incapable of being reconciled without abrogating one. So let us look a little further into the nature of this opposition itself.

The will, St. John is clear, must be rendered passive through its subjection to the via negativa, desiring nothing and finding pleasure in nothing.12 It must remain empty and receptive to God alone, appropriating nothing to itself which may be antagonistic to union. The reason for this passivity on the part of the will should be relatively clear by now: any activity of the will entails that preoccupation of the will which precludes its being occupied by God. But, we are compelled to ask, does not the will, in willing nothing, still will? Yes. But willing nothing is quite different from willing anything – for literally nothing is appropriated through the will willing nothing. Nothing in the way of contrariety, and therefore nothing that constitutes an impediment to union.

Contrariety, then – while always metaphysically latent – is first introduced, acquired, through the will. How then, we ask, does the soul as the image of God in a fundamental metaphysical sense (as we shall later see) come to be characterized by that contrariety which we have found to be otherwise universal throughout nature. Before we can begin to answer this, however, I think it is extremely important for us to be clear about what St. John understands by the concept of nature. For St. John, nature quite simply constitutes all that exists outside of (and in this sense, other to) the Divine Simplicity – a universe created ex nihilo and characterized by multiplicity and finitude – that is to say, in a real metaphysical sense, entirely distinct from God. On the one hand, St. John seems to understand by nature simply the material universe, the universe of experience ordinarily understood, contributing, for example, data to the understanding, or things appropriable through the will, susceptible to the senses.13 But in a broader sense, St. John clearly includes in this understanding of nature, the non-material universe as well, generally spoken of in terms of spirit 14 : angelic and demonic agencies, the human soul. However understood, the outstanding feature of nature is its categorical contrariety to God. It is the finite, the temporal, conceived not simply as distinct from the infinite and the eternal but as metaphysically diametric to them.


   The Concept of Participation and the Notion of Mitigated Contrariety

But while all created natures exhibit contrariety to God, we shall later find that some measure of commensurability does in fact exist and is seen to obtain between creatures and God through a metaphysics essentially constructed around the central notion of participation. And this is to say that the contrariety, the opposition if you will, found in nature somehow falls short of being absolute – that there is, despite real opposition, a latent commensurability to be elicited from nature in varying degrees according to its participative relation to God – some more, some less. And this, we will find, is why the soul, albeit a created nature, is capable of realizing union with God. Ultimately, through the soul’s ontological status as the imago Dei, the categories of opposition are realized to be tentative, superficial aspects of a more fundamental participative being. But between this unique human nature, itself only intermediate between the highest hierarchies of being and the lowest 15 – a familiar medieval schema – that is to say, above human nature and below it on this ontological gradient, the entire spectrum of being ranges from that which exhibits the greatest contrariety to and the least commensurability with God, to the greatest commensurability and the least contrariety. All this, however, remains to be examined in greater detail later on.

Now that we have a clearer understanding of what St. John means whenever he invokes the concept of nature – broad as this articulation may be – we can return to our original question: how does the soul, as the image of God, come to acquire contrariety through nature? Perhaps we can put the question another way. How can the soul, which is essentially, that is to say, metaphysically, constituted as the image or reflection of God 16, be contrary to that of which it is constituted an image? This is a central paradox among the many that abound in the literature of mysticism. The soul is held to have been created as the image of the Absolute – and nevertheless assumes real metaphysical polarity to God. How does St. John answer this? As we already have seen, the opposition between God and nature poses no special problematic in and of itself. The two quite simply are categorically distinct. It only becomes problematic when the soul aspires not simply to a vis-à-vis encounter with God, that is to say, toward apposition with God – but to union with God. Some connection, therefore, must exist between the soul as the imago Dei, and nature as instantiating within itself opposition to God, such that the direct relation of the soul to God becomes problematic by virtue of nature. A sort of inverse participation must somehow occur by which the soul comes to share in that character of opposition to God which is fundamentally a hallmark of nature. We must then look to the will if we are to understand the provenance of this contrariety, for it is the will which had been found to be the faculty through which contrariety is first appropriated by the soul. But how, precisely, is this contrariety acquired? St. John’s answer ultimately is formulated around what must be regarded as one of the most important metaphysical principles he invokes throughout his four treatises relative to union, and which, for our purposes we will simply call the Principle of Similitude. Quite simply, for St. John, the will in its love for anything is, by virtue of that love, somehow rendered similar and equal to its object. This is the reason that the soul is placed in an attitude of opposition to God through the exercise of the will upon created objects of nature. The relation of the soul to God at once becomes problematic because it is a relation essentially characterized by opposition:

“... the affection and attachment which the soul has for creatures renders the soul like to these creatures; and the greater is its affection, the closer is the equality and likeness between them; for love creates likeness between that which loves and that which is loved he that loves a creature becomes as low as that creature, and in some ways lower, for love not only makes the lover equal to the object of his love, but even subjects him to it love makes equality and similitude” 17

This principle – in fact, this passage – adumbrates a significant feature about what, for St. John, constitutes man’s essentially reflective ontology, a topic which shall be the subject of some rather detailed discussion in Part II of our commentary. Here it is only important to note that man’s nature as such is closely connected with, and in an important sense, realized in, its relation to the universe of experience – even, as we have already seen, in the presuppositions of consciousness. Ultimately, we shall find that, for St. John, man is not a being-in-himself, or being autonomously considered, due precisely to his ontology as image of the Absolute.

The Principle of Similitude:
   Conformity and Contrariety

Much, unfortunately, is left unsaid by St. John about the Principle of Similitude that is so central to his thought and so crucial to our understanding of his discussion of mysticism. He does not, for example, extrapolate upon the mechanics of this principle, and while this is regrettable, it is also clearly understandable given the nature of the task he took to himself. We must bear in mind that virtually all his major works were, despite their exegetical format, written not as speculative treatises concerned with exploring theoretical principles in mystical theology, but rather, each of these works must be understood as eminently practical in both intention and scope; they were written more in the way of enchiridions for contemplatives in general – and the Reformed Discalced Carmelite Nuns in particular – not as a kind of “Summa Mystica Theologica” compiled for scholars, theologians, and philosophers. This in no way denigrates the meticulous, forceful and incisive reasoning that is evident in every page of his works – and for which, in large part, he would later be acclaimed Doctor of the Church Universal – rather, it serves only to delimit the scope of his work, which in turn enables us to understand why many speculative elements implicit within them are not subject to the otherwise rigorous examination that the more practical issues are.

Without an understanding of the metaphysics implied in the Principle of Similitude, however, we will be unable to arrive at an understanding of the epistemology involved. So what are we to make of this rather recondite principle? What basis has this principle in a coherent metaphysics? Indeed, is there one at all? It certainly sounds very mystical – in Lovejoy’s pejorative sense – that “love makes likeness.” But how? Since St. John does not elaborate upon this in any strictly analytical sense, we must look for the answer ourselves. And here, I think, our earlier discussion will prove helpful to us in avoiding an otherwise purely conjectural analysis, for the answer, I suggest, is at least implicit in metaphysics we have already briefly addressed. For St. John of the Cross, man’s fundamental ontological nature, we had found, is essentially reflective, consisting as it does in the imago Dei. We had further suggested earlier that consciousness cannot be understood apart from the data essentially constituting it a consciousness of. Consciousness and data, empirical or rational, are always understood copulatively. To speak of someone who is conscious, but is conscious of nothing, is to utter a contradiction. Consciousness always implies a consciousness of. And this is another way of saying that consciousness not simply presupposes data of which it can subsequently become conscious, but that consciousness is actualized by data. Apart from data, it remains only, merely, the possibility of consciousness. It has, as it were, no autonomous being, no actuality apart from the data in virtue of which it becomes actualized. And this is further to say that consciousness is essentially a reflective faculty, a faculty that becomes actualized only upon its imaging data in becoming a consciousness of that data. A union, we might say, is seen to exist between consciousness and its data in its becoming a consciousness of that data. The data, St. John’s argument would seem to suggest, become not merely the condition of our being conscious, but in fact an integral part of our being conscious. Man’s reflective ontology, then, is clearly evidenced, at least implicitly for St. John, in the way in which he is constituted epistemologically – indeed, in the most fundamental presuppositions of consciousness itself.

How is this related to the problem at hand? How does this bring us any closer to understanding how love makes likeness as St. John asserts? Well, first of all we have established something fundamental about man’s epistemology in general: that not merely a nexus, but a union obtains in the actualization of consciousness by data. But if consciousness is a consciousness of data, our consciousness is characterized by that data of which it is conscious – and this is to say that a likeness occurs or results between the data and our consciousness of that data. But we had also said earlier that consciousness characteristically engages a multiplicity. The intentionality of consciousness is typically diffuse among a manifold, whether this manifold is yielded through sensory experience or engaged in the manipulation of rational concepts– wherein no particular aspect of that manifold assumes a preponderance exclusive of the rest.

The Preliminary Role of the Will

But here the role of the will enters. Seizing upon several aspects of that multiplicity it focuses consciousness on the few to the exclusion of the many. That is to say, the scope of consciousness is correspondingly diminished as the will exercises increasing discrimination in its selection of the data which it in turn submits to consciousness. As the data diminishes, the focus increases. Consciousness becomes less and less diffuse among fewer and fewer data; data which are, we will remember, appropriated to consciousness through the will. This increasingly discriminatory process may conceivably continue until the will eventually appropriates only one datum to the exclusion of the rest. This one datum, then, as the sole object of the will, becomes the sole focus of consciousness – which reflects the datum as a consciousness of that datum. It is not at all inappropriate, then, to say that a likeness is engendered between the two, between data and consciousness of the data. Consciousness becomes, in effect, the image of the datum. So understood, St. John’s thesis suddenly begins to seem a good deal more creditable than we were initially disposed to view it. But we must carry our explanation one step further in order to synthesize the whole.

What, we must ask, first disposes the will to seize upon one aspect of the manifold of experience to the exclusion of the rest? St. John is quite unequivocal about this, and the answer lies in his understanding of the nature of love. It is love, which St. John variously renders in terms of “affection”, “attachment”, and “desire”, which first moves the will to appropriate the object desired.18 But just a moment. Did we not say earlier that the soul must first will to know and then will to possess what we have willed to know? Yes, but we also said that acquaintance ( which is quite different from knowledge ) of necessity preceded the movement of the will. St. John is very clear upon this:

“... although it is true that the soul cannot help hearing and seeing and smelling and tasting and touching, this is of no great import ... for we are not here treating of the lack of things, since this implies no detachment on the part of the soul if it has a desire for them; but we are treating of the detachment from them of the taste and desire, for it is this that leaves the soul free and void of them, although it may have them; for it is not the things of this world that either occupy the soul or cause it harm, since they enter it not, but rather the will and desire for them, for it is these that dwell within it.” 19

St. John is no pure theorist. He does not deal with man as though abstracted from the world of common experience. The mystic does not prescind from his surroundings. From the phenomena that constitute man’s environment – objects with which man has either empirical or rational acquaintance – the will, in virtue of this acquaintance, and through desire, that is to say, motivated by desire, appropriates the object to consciousness. We have already seen that a kind of union is engendered by the application of consciousness to data in general, as a consciousness of that data. When, however, the purely noetic apprehension of an object is augmented by the catalyst of desire, (attachment, affection), the will inaugurates a process of discrimination in what it tenders to consciousness, and the exclusionary process, the increased focus to the exclusion of other data, is directly proportional to the intensity of the desire. The result is consciousness more or less unified in the object appropriated by the will – according to the degree of its desire. A relatively common experience may suffice to illustrate the point: Our experience of romantic love is typically one characterized by a desire for, a preoccupation with, someone – in a real sense an intensified consciousness of someone that so completely occupies our awareness that we effectively become the beloved in the sense that the beloved is comprehensively within us, filling our thoughts, our awareness, our consciousness – even to the forgetfulness of ourselves in our preoccupation with the beloved. We identify with the beloved, see ourselves in the beloved just as surely as we see them within us. We may, in a sense, be said to participate in the beloved – precisely to the measure or degree of our affection or love for them. St. John therefore argues that any degree of affection that thus unites us with what we love in the created order makes us, according to the degree of our desire, affection, or attachment, more or less contrary to God in our assuming the created character of what we love in nature and have appropriated to ourselves through the will. We can now see more clearly why a relation of opposition is held by St. John to exist prior to the soul’s subjection to the rigors of the via negativa. The exercise of the will, motivated by desire, engenders contrariety through the Principle of Similitude: the soul is rendered equal and similar to the opposite of God in nature. In light of this, the problematic of participation becomes increasingly clear:

“... affection for God and affection for creatures are contraries, there cannot be contained within one will affection for creatures and affection for God. For what has the creature to do with the Creator? What has the sensual to do with the spiritual? Visible with invisible? Temporal with eternal? ... Wherefore ... no form can be introduced unless the preceding contrary form is first expelled from the subject, which form while present is an impediment to the other by reason of the contrariety which the two have between each other.” 20

Sensuous negation, or what St. John calls the “night of the senses”, is therefore absolutely necessary to that union in which the soul becomes one with God – not, as we shall see, through identity, but rather, through created participation. 21 Certainly a good deal more is involved in a adequate understanding of this concept than we are prepared to set forth and discuss at this point, but unless we have at the very least a basic understanding of what is directly involved in the notion of participation we will be unable to understand much of what will follow in our account. In a noteworthy break from the scholastic tradition to which St. John is otherwise and fundamentally faithful, he departs from the prevailing theology which saw the intellect or reason as the image of God in man. 22 Although he never explicitly formulates it as such, it is extremely clear from his arguments, especially relative to the Principle of Similitude, that for St. John the image of God in man lies not in his intellect, but in his love – even as the Apostle John tells us that “God is love.” 23 And since God created man in his image 24, love, for St. John, is the created participation of man in God. This is not to say that reason, or the intellect, does not in some measure reflect, as the scholastics had maintained, the mind of God and so constitute an aspect of that image in which man was created. As the image of God, it would seem that certain – by no means, all – aspects of the Absolute are reflected, however imperfectly, in the ontological composition of man. But only one, love, is capable of effecting a more than epistemological union of merely the knower to the Known – a union fundamentally ontological in the soul’s not merely knowing, but participating in God. And love, for St. John, is the only principle capable of attaining to this type of union which, embracing the soul in its entirety, is ecstatic.

A number of further implications remain to be drawn from St. John’s treatment of the will as the seat of love and all the affections, especially in its relation to the Mystical Thesis and the Principle of Similitude. We find, for example, that while the will, as the seat of love, is an active principle of union relative to the created order (as we have seen), it is on the other hand a passive principle of union in its relation to God. And it is rendered passive by its subjection to the via negativa according to the demands of the Mystical Thesis: that is to say, if consciousness is to be unified in God, the will must cease appropriating contrariety to itself through the exercise of the will – whose sole activity subsequent to its purgation through the via negativa is itself rendered entirely negative in willing not to will. The Principle of Similitude coupled with the Mystical Thesis, therefore, figures largely in the transition to union and serves to underscore the cooperative effort necessary to the realization of that union, for although it is ultimately God alone who both initiates and consummates this union, the soul nevertheless cooperates toward this “union of likeness” 25, as St. John sometimes calls it, by passing through the crucible of the via negativa and removing every impediment to union by eliminating every contrariety to God. Having done so, the soul remains passively disposed to the divine initiative and through the exclusive love which the it bears toward God alone – the love which is the image become explicit – the soul, St. John contends, will become equal and similar to God. This rather startling conclusion, however, remains to be properly explained later in our examination of the Night of the Spirit.

The Two-Edged WILL:
   Propadeutic or Impediment?

The contemplative, then, in his quest for union must first strive to empty his will relative to the created order. Exercised only in the love of God, and detached in the way of its love, desires, and affections from the order of nature, the created will is thus prepared to become transformed into the will of God 26 both through the absence of contrariety to God in the form of nature – that is, through transformation negatively considered – and through that similitude and equality generated through its singular love of God, or transformation positively considered. The created will, assimilated into the will of God in the state of infused contemplation, is then indistinguishable from God’s own will, for in and of itself it is totally passive, having become, as it were, a created expression of the uncreated will of the Absolute:

“ [the soul] must cast away all strange gods – namely, all strange affections and attachments it must purify itself of the remnants which the desires aforementioned have left in the soul in order to reach the summit of this high mount, it must have changed its garments which God will change for it, from old to new, by giving it a new love of God in God, the will being now stripped of all its old desires and human pleasures ... So that its operation, which before was human, has become divine, which is that is attained in the state of union ... “ 27  

Possessing nothing of itself in the way of desires and affections, the will remains passive and totally receptive to the will of God which, as other to the negated in nature – a nature no longer appropriated through the will – is that alone in which it is possible for the created will to be subsequently exercised.

  But does this mean, then, that the soul in ecstasy is incapable of sin? This would appear to be the logical conclusion if the will is rendered completely passive. Are we to understand, in other words, that, given no act directly attributable to the created will, the soul is therefore no longer liable to sin? Is any subsequent act, then, deserving of approbation? Indeed, is it still free, with all the moral and deontological considerations that the notion of a free will entails? In regard to the second question, – concerning the soul’s liability to sin – a careful reading of the text would reveal that St. John’s answer would most emphatically be, no. And for this reason: the soul in the state of infused contemplation becomes, as we have said, a created expression of the uncreated will of God. In its total passivity, every movement of the will is directly ascribable to God. And since God is incapable of peccancy, the soul so moved by God – and, it is important to emphasize, only in the state of ecstatic union– is, likewise, incapable of sin. This obviously does not mean that the mystic who has attained to sporadic union can no longer sin, for it is also the case that the state of ecstasy in this life is characteristically brief, and upon his return from ecstasy the contemplative, despite the obvious predilection of God, nevertheless remains in his created humanity liable to sin through the penalty that inescapably accrues to mankind at large through the sin of Adam; a penalty from which none, even the most holy, are held to be exempt. Only when that state of ecstasy – which the mystic now only intermittently realizes – becomes indefectible before the beatific vision acquired after death, will the soul no longer be susceptible to sin. Mystical union is, after all, as St. John repeatedly states, a foretaste of heaven, and not an indefectible state on earth.

Bi-Dimensionality, Free Will and Impeccancy: The Mystic as Man

In reply to the remaining questions – to wit, is the soul yet free in the state of ecstasy, and are its acts within that state deserving of approbation – St. John’s answer must be yes, and for the following reasons. In acceding to the will of God, which the soul recognizes as the sovereign good , and that in which the good universally consists, the soul freely consents to the exercise not only of that will but of every good in which that will consists. Among these are the good of the soul, which preeminently lies in its conformity to the will of God. But the notion of the good as it relates to the created will specifically, cannot prescind from the notion of freedom, both as a good in itself, and as a necessary condition of the moral soul. In choosing perfect conformity to the will of God, then, the soul simultaneously chooses that freedom apart from which the soul is neither good nor moral. The created will, then, being subsumed into the divine will, nevertheless remains distinct and free. Furthermore, it is not so much that the passive will ceases to will, as that it ceases to will what is contrary to God – its will is, in its created nature, both parallel to and identical with, the will of God. That is to say, it wills not merely that God should move it, but that its will should freely coincide with the will of God. The volition of the soul, then, remains intact – for the created will so exercised in choosing to coincide with the will of God is in itself a free act of ratification, appropriating as its own the will of God to which it perfectly corresponds through an act of free will. And this is simply another way of saying that the created will participates in the uncreated will of God. And since the appropriation of the divine will is a free act of the created will, it may indeed be recognized as meritorious, as is every act ascribable to the free will which wills the good.

The precise mechanics involved in this transition are, regrettably, left obscure by St. John – but not so obscure that some very clear inferences are not available to us. It is a basic Christian premise that man as essentially bidimensional. He is possessed of a body and a soul. He is composed of matter and spirit. By and large rational, he is also sensuous. As intrinsic a component to his being as natural, is the supernatural. His existence is enacted in time but consummated in eternity. Nature, in short, subsuming under itself body, matter, and time, constitutes only one dimension of bidimensional man. An inverse metaphysical relation exists between the natural and the supernatural such that the more attenuated the natural dimension of his being, the more amplified the supernatural dimension; as the one recedes the other becomes increasingly manifest. Any categorical negation of this nature, then, would effectively result in a unilateral suspension of the corresponding natural dimension of man. And this means that the soul in having been negated to the natural dimension of its being relative to the will, becomes, with respect to this particular faculty, necessarily supra-natural; that is to say, it is reduced exclusively to the remaining supernatural dimension of this bidimensional faculty in having passed beyond nature. But to pass beyond nature is also to pass into the other of nature – which, on the one hand is spirit. Thus we find that the will, as described by St. John, is transformed from what he calls the sensuous into the spiritual; this erstwhile suppressed dimension of man’s spiritual being now gradually emerging into existential relief. On the other hand, however, the other to nature, considered absolutely, was seen to be God. Thus in passing beyond nature the will, while yet remaining distinct from, is equally and simultaneously transformed into, the will of God. This admittedly requires some sorting out. The first level of negation we had seen to consist in the negation of nature according to the will in which the soul ceases to appropriate anything in the created order according to its desires and affections. We had already briefly touched upon this. The second level of negation, however, implicitly follows from the first, and this is the negation of the will according to nature in which the will in the state of negativity is effectively suspended relative to its natural function, thus becoming the functional expression of another in its subsequent activity – and that agency, St. John is clear, of which the will becomes the functional expression is God:

“... this Divine union consists in the soul’s total transformation, according to the will, in the will of God, so that there may be naught in the soul that is contrary to the will of God, but that in all and through all, its movement may be that of the will of God alone.” 28

We can now more clearly see that in negating the contrary to God in nature, the will becomes preeminently, if only passively, predisposed to the divine infusion. In being transformed from the sensuous into the spiritual, the will is rendered more proximate to God – and in the state of passivity (presuming, of course, that divine election that results in the actuality of union) subsequent movement of the will proceeds from God. As we shall later see, this entire process ultimately presupposes the transformation of the will into its corresponding theological virtue in the unified and integrated love of God. 29 In this state of transformation, the created will consummately participates in the uncreated will of God. This transition, however, is not accomplished without penalty. Very clearly, a transformation of this sort entails a privation of man’s being – which, in its divinely constituted nature, is a being bidimensional – and every privation of being, of that perfection connatural to any being, will, despite its divine provenance, and its movement to greater perfection still, be experienced as an evil, as surely the pain of this transition, often described at length by St. John, is experienced by the mystic. It is, however, a redemptive suffering in a darkness about to broach upon light. But this is only realized in the very last stages of mystical union and already presumes the complete integration of the faculties in the love of God, which we shall examine at length in subsequent chapters.

The Role of Understanding


1 AMC 1.5.2
2 AMC 1.4.1
3 AMC 1.4.4
4 AMC 1.5.1
5 AMC 1.5.2
6 AMC 1.5.4
7 AMC 2.5.4
8 AMC 1.4.2
9 AMC 1.4.2; cf. ST Ques. 48 Art.3, also St. Augustine, Enchiridion, 14 (Patrologiae Latinae, 32, 1347)
10 AMC 1.5.2
11 1 Cor. 13.12
12 AMC 1.5.2
13 cf. AMC 2.8.4-5; 1.4.1-4 etc.
14 cf. AMC 3.4.1-2; 2.12.3-4
15 AMC 2.12.3-4
16 AMC 1.9.1
17 AMC 1.4.3-4; also cf. 2.18.5; SC 15.4, 21.5, + 23.5. Emphasis added. This, of course, is essentially a reformulation of the doctrine articulated much earlier by the Pseudo-Dionysius that “it is of the nature of love to change a man into that which he loves.”
18 cf. ST Q.20 art.1
19 AMC 1.3.4
20 AMC 1.6.1-2
21 AMC 2.5.4+7; 2.20.5; SC 11.6+7; LFL 2.30
22 cf. ST Q.93 art.2 In this respect, St. John of the Cross is much more in line with St. Bernard than, say, the great mystical writers of the School of St. Victor.
23 1 Jn 4.8
24 Gen. 1.27
25 AMC 2.5.3
26 AMC 1.11.2+3; 2.5.3+4
27 AMC 1.5.7
28 AMC 1.11.2+3, also cf. 2.5.3+4
29 cf.


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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 2011-2018 by Geoffrey K. Mondello. All rights reserved