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


in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross

The Via Negativa


ook The Second of the Ascent of Mount Carmel is of particular importance to us in our exploring the possibilities of developing a coherent mystical epistemology. While, until now, we have tried to avoid some of the tedium inevitably involved in a commentary of this sort, the demand for accountability – within the greater demand for coherence – will sometimes require a somewhat detailed analysis of certain features of mystical doctrine. But this type of patient analysis will, in the long run, serve to illuminate a sometimes obscure and often abstruse metaphysics, enabling us to answer some very fundamental objections which we are likely to encounter further on. It is the fundamentals of St. John’s metaphysics which we seek after here. And these in turn will lead us on to examine some of the more explicit epistemological features of St. John’s account.

The profound disparity between created nature and God which was seen to characterize the relation between the unnegated will – the will prior to its subjection to the via negativa – and God, is brought to critical relief in St. John’s extensive treatment of the second faculty of the soul, understanding. This is not to say that the same imperatives do not apply equally to each faculty, for the via negativa is a universal feature throughout the various movements toward mystical union. In St. John’s analysis of the understanding, however, we have much clearer insight into some of the metaphysical difficulties to be overcome in a coherent account of mysticism. As the extraordinary object of ordinary understanding, God is essentially opaque to the natural intellect for reasons which by now may already be anticipated: God and the created intellect inform radically different and incommensurable categories – the nature, if you will, of the one is antipodal to the other. All, then, which the understanding can think, all that it is capable of conceiving in its natural capacity, is categorically, diametrically, opposed to the reality of God as He is in himself apart from the mediating and modifying categories of understanding:

“... all that the imagination can imagine and the understanding can receive and understand in this life is not, nor can it be, a proximate means of union with God. For if we speak of natural things, since understanding can understand naught save that which is contained within, and comes under the category of, forms and imaginings of things that are received through the senses, the which things, we have said, cannot serve as means, it can make no use of natural intelligence 1 ... all that can be understood by the understanding, that can be tasted by the will, and that can be invented by the imagination is most unlike to God and bears no proportion to Him ... 2  And thus a soul is greatly impeded from reaching this high estate of union with God, when it clings to any understanding or feeling or imagination or appearance or will or manner of its own ... For as we say, the goal which it seeks lies beyond all this, yea, even beyond the highest thing that can be known or experienced, and thus a soul must pass beyond everything to unknowing.” 3

Since all that the faculty of understanding can conceivably think, or through its purely synthetic activity possibly imagine, is, eo ipso, not God, the soul aspiring to knowledge of the Absolute must proceed paradoxically – through a process of unknowing – a process, we shall find, that will ultimately translate the natural faculty of understanding into its corresponding theological virtue of faith. The epistemological doctrine of unknowing is, of course, but one of the many iridescent aspects of the via negativa which finds its clearest expression in Book One of the Ascent:

“In order to arrive at pleasure in everything
Desire to have pleasure in nothing.
In order to arrive at possessing everything,
Desire to possess nothing.
In order to arrive at being everything
Desire to be nothing.
In order to arrive at knowing everything,
Desire to know nothing.
In order to arrive at that wherein thou hast no pleasure,
Thou must go by a way wherein thou hast no pleasure.
In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not
Thou must go by a way thou knowest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou possest not,
Thou must go by a way that thou possesst not.
In order to arrive at that which thou art not,
Thou must go through that which thou art not.
When thy mind dwells upon anything,
Thou art ceasing to cast thyself upon the All.
For in order to pass from the all to the All,
Thou hast to deny thyself wholly in all.
And when thou comest to possess it wholly,
Thou must possess it without desiring anything.
For, if thou wilt have anything in having all,
Thou hast not thy treasure purely in God.”

Despite its largely negative format, clearly illustrated above, the via negativa nevertheless remains not only a viable, but indeed the only, “way” of arriving at the Absolute. And if it is a difficult way for the contemplative to travel, it is no less a difficult route for the epistemologist to map, for all its signs, every cue, each marker, is negative. It is not unlike a series of signs that might say, not “Paris this way”, but rather, “Paris not this way.” That is well and good, but the traveler will most assuredly at once ask, “Well, then, if not this way, which way?” To which every sign he subsequently encounters simply answers, “not this way”. The via negativa is much like this. It may be seen as a kind of epistemological compass that indicates not where to go, but where not to go; it is the negative of a map outlining the mystical terrain that tells you not so much how to get to the Absolute azimuth, but, rather, how not to get there. In essence, it is a cartographical paradox. It is clear, then, and most expedient that some other principle of direction must be invoked. Some principle that will provide us with a measure of certitude, not necessarily apart from the negative prescripts we have acquired thus far – which of themselves are extremely useful to us in disabusing us of error in finding our way – but which, while according with them, is more precise, or perhaps better yet, affirmative in direction.

A brief glance in retrospect may prove helpful. In the opening sequences of Book One of the Ascent, St. John discussed the night of the senses relative to the will. There we found that the disparity between God and created nature emphasized the lack of proportion, of commensurability, between God and the soul in its relation to God through created nature, and in so doing demonstrated the inherent impossibility of a sensuous apprehension of God. And the conclusion, of course, was that if God is to be apprehended at all, he must be apprehended extra-naturally; not through a sensuous manifold accessible to the will – nor, as St. John will now argue, through any conceptualization available through ordinary understanding. And much as we had found in the case of the will, a transition is required which will inevitably result in the positing of a theological correlate in which the function of understanding is explicitly suppressed through what St. John sees as the epistemological negativity of faith. Negativity, as we had seen, implies the absence of contrariety; so in stating that the three theological virtues – faith, hope, and love – render the soul “proximate” to God, St. John is actually saying that each of these virtues are essentially characterized by negativity – a negativity essentially signifying the absence of contrariety to God. Proximity and non-contrariety, then, are interchangeable terms in the mystical vocabulary of St. John.

For St. John, faith explicitly transcends the limitations of sense and understanding, and in so doing simultaneously transcends the inherent limitations of nature and reason. 5 The limitations implicit in nature are, by now, quite obvious: in every respect it is finite. As such, not only is nature ontologically distinct from God, but in its very finitude and limitation it can never yield veridical knowledge of God who is infinite and unlimited. But the limitations of reason are less clear. In our introduction we suggested that God, and indeed the universe of experience itself, is not exhaustively considered in its intelligible dimensions alone; that any given item in experience affords something more in the amplitude of its being than the merely rational dimensions to be elicited from it. Within reason itself, however, we discern even more fundamental limitations, and it is these that are of particular interest to us. For the most part, the mechanics involved in the limitations of reason are left unaddressed by St. John. Certainly is not the case that he was unable to articulate these limitations in greater detail, for St. John was, we had noted earlier, extremely well versed in scholastic philosophy. Still less warrant do we have to believe that he presumed them known in the mind of his readers who were, by and large, professed religious, and not necessarily scholars. In reading St. John, and I shall emphasize this point time and again, it is essential to bear in mind that he did not understand himself to be writing a philosophic treatise, still less a systematic organon in speculative mysticism, but rather an enchiridion for contemplatives, a fact we had pointed out earlier and will, no doubt, find it necessary to point out again. One goal, and one goal only, lay incessantly before St. John and everything else palled in significance before it: union with God. His own, and that of others. His readers did not need to know the law of the excluded middle in order to make a practical choice between mutually exclusive moral or spiritual ends. Less abstruse and far more effective means were available to them. These mechanics are, however, of interest to us – indeed, vital to us if we are to understand the epistemological dimensions of the mystical experience.

So what can we infer from St. John’s discussion of the faculty of understanding, especially as it pertains to reason? It is, first of all, I think, fairly clear from his own exposition, that reason essentially functions upon, is limited to, and therefore requires a manifold – a manifold which is ontologically possible only in the universe of created nature, 6 for God of himself is one and simple. In requiring a manifold, reason is limited in three ways: first, and most obviously, by its limitation to a manifold itself – that is to say, by its inability to function apart from a matrix of sheer multiplicity. The second limitation discernible in reason, concerns its scope. The manifold which reason addresses is comprised of the universe of finite entities broadly called nature, and both objects and concepts (the mind no less than matter) finite in nature, can never yield infinite, that is to say, unlimited information. Simply put, the synthetic and analytic activities of reason are incapable of eliciting more than is ontologically available in the finite data of experience. Reason, then, unable to transcend, is therefore limited to, an inherently exhaustible (finite) dimension of being. The last, but not the least, limitation of reason lies in the fact that it is ineluctably temporal – the discursions of reason are thoroughly conditioned by time which is presupposed and implicit in all its functions and activities. Time is the underlying medium through which the successive movements of discursive reason are enabled, enacted; and it is time which constrains reason from apprehending the simple simultaneity of existence. However comprehensive its purview, reason is limited by time to discrete and successive moments in all its analytic and synthetic activity.

We have established, then, that reason requires a manifold which by definition consists of a plurality – plurality of necessarily finite entities, each limited and distinguishable one from another. Without plurality and differentiation, then, reason could not be discursive, that is, passing from one aspect under rational consideration to another in the dialectic we understand to be reason – it would, in fact, altogether and at once cease to be discursive. Which is to say that reason in its discursive capabilities would effectively be not so much abolished, as suspended. And this, in St. John’s account, is precisely what occurs to reason in relation to God in the mystical experience. It remains inoperative, suspended, as it were, blindly staring into the Absolute, simply for the fact that God is One and simple, unchanging and eternal. Not reason, but the utility of reason, then, is, for St. John, forever abolished in the transcendence of plurality.

The Notion of “Proximate” Union   

In transcending the limitations of nature and reason, St. John further argues, the soul then enters the state of what he calls proximate union with God 7 through having negated within itself the other to God in nature and reason. Considered carefully, this state of proximate union may be seen to follow for two reasons, although St. John only adverts to one. First of all, in passing beyond the finite, the soul quite logically – that is to say, necessarily – passes into the not-finite, or the infinite, and, according to the same logic, in passing beyond limitation, the soul passes into the unlimited. And in so doing – in passing into the infinite and the unlimited – the soul enters a state that is proximate to God inasmuch as God in himself is infinite and unlimited. This is not to say that the soul itself becomes infinite and unlimited in this transition – in a Christian metaphysics it can never become so: it’s created nature remains unviolated and unchanged despite the transition. What has changed, however, is the nature of the experience encountered by the mystic, one now characterized not by the familiar plurality, finitude, limitation and differentiation that are typical components in the experience of the created order. The mystic now, for the first time, encounters, experiences the infinite and the unlimited. Let us look at this more closely, and for the sake of clarity segregate the following line of reasoning for a more detailed examination:

We had said that in passing beyond the finite, the soul necessarily passes into the not-finite. Now that which is not-finite is either nothing or infinite. It is nothing if it is not-finite and not-infinite. It is infinite if it is not-finite and not-nothing. But the soul is not-infinite and not-nothing–which is to say that the soul is finite. Moreover, that which is not-limited is either nothing or unlimited. It is nothing if it is not-limited and not-unlimited. It is unlimited if it is not-limited and not-nothing. But the soul is not-unlimited and not-nothing – which is to say the soul is limited. We have, then, the created soul which is finite and limited. In passing beyond the finite and the limited in created nature, the soul must encounter either nothing or the infinite. In either event, it will be the not-finite.

Further elaboration will, I think, make this rather concise formulation more readily understood. Whatever is, is either finite or infinite. If it is neither, it is nothing, for everything that is, or can conceivably be, is either finite or infinite. There is no conceivable third alternative. Obviously, then, the concept “nothing” pertains neither to the finite or the infinite. Were nothing infinite then there would be absolutely nothing, either finite or infinite – for the term infinite would be predicated of nothing. Conversely, were we to say that the infinite is nothing, we would involve ourselves in a hopeless tautology. We cannot, therefore, coherently speak of nothing as infinite. Our difficulty in apprehending this stems, I suggest, from our inclination to render the concept nothing spatially: we tend to conceptualize it not as nothing, but as empty space, a kind of amorphous negative configuration coterminous with and indefinitely configured by something, relative to which it is nothing; we are inclined to see it as the possible place of something else; in effect, something devoid of something else, when in fact it remains the absence of everything – which is another way of saying nothing. If, on the other hand, what we are considering is infinite, it clearly is not finite, for we mean by the infinite that which is not finite; nor can it be nothing, as we have just seen. The soul, on the other hand, is something, and not nothing, and it very clearly is finite in every aspect, and not infinite.

Now, if what we have argued in fact is the case, then a good deal more about the nature of the contemplative’s experience prior to union becomes somewhat clearer. The natural or created soul is, as we have seen, finite and limited; and as we had further seen, no commensurability obtains between the finite and the infinite, the limited and the unlimited. The natural or created soul, then, has no epistemological capacity for the infinite as the not-finite that is not-nothing; it is incapable – qua created – of experiencing the infinite, (except under the species of the pseudo-infinite in number, etc., which we addressed earlier). But the created soul does have a capacity for experiencing the infinite as the not-finite that is not-infinite, that is to say, of experiencing the infinite as nothing – and it is this experience which, for the mystic, constitutes the dark night of the soul: not only is the soul in utterly unfamiliar metaphysical terrain, but the topography itself has metamorphosed into utter nothingness. Moreover, even were the natural soul capable of experiencing or epistemologically addressing the infinite, the experience of the oneness of the infinite, the unlimited, the undifferentiated – is no less effectively the experience of nothingness. The senses coupled with reason would falter and ultimately fail in their inability to grasp what cannot, by virtue of infinite magnitude, be grasped, apprehended, understood. The very mechanisms of reason and sense, relying upon limitation, finitude, and differentiation as the very tangents to comprehension – individuating characteristics now no longer available – would default into suspension. Natural faculties no longer suffice, for nature finds itself at the bourne between created and Uncreated being, at the outermost margin, the ontological periphery of creation where the gulf between man and God is sheer infinity, and as such, an ontic chasm, the primeval nothingness out of which man and the cosmos was created ex nihilo. St. John speaks of this experience as a terrible one, unparalleled by any other. We might say that in some small measure it may be likened to the experience of a man who, awaking from a dream filled with familiar images, finds himself not only in total darkness, but amidst incomprehensible emptiness, possessing no frame of reference whatever, nothing to see, nothing to touch, no sound, no smell, no sense of direction, no orientation. His experience is essentially one of complete sensory abstraction and total noetic suspension, of absolute undifferentiation. The extreme consternation, even terror, that such an experience is likely to provoke may, to some degree, resemble the plight of the mystic who has entered the antechamber of the Absolute. In this sense, darkness is a metaphor for infinity; and the awakening, the inauguration of the dark night of the soul.

Proximity versus Union   

Up to this point we had seen that the soul, as a consequence of having transcended the limitations of nature and reason, occupies a state proximate to God inasmuch as God in himself is infinite and unlimited. While the soul in this state of proximity possesses no contrariety to God, this state of itself, St. John is clear, does not suffice to bring it to union. Rather, it makes the soul merely receptive to the divine infusion; metaphysically disposed to the possibility of infused contemplation. At this stage, the soul is brought to the extremity of its being, to the irreducible, the most fundamental dimension of its ontology – beyond which lies only extinction. While it is indefectibly the image of God, at this point it neither reflects God whom it only anticipates, nor created nature which it has transcended. It is the possibility of both and the actuality of neither. In its sheer reflective ontology, it is like the image in a mirror possessing no actuality in itself apart from being the possibility of the reflection of something else; a mirror before which no image passes except the infinite toward which it is poised and which it apprehends as nothing. In this state, in reflecting nothing, it has no contrariety whatever to God, and inasmuch as it possesses nothing in the way of contrariety, it is understood as being proximate to God. So much is clear from our previous discussion.

The ontological implications of this argument, however, are two-fold and reciprocal: on the purely metaphysical level, the soul, St. John has argued, upon transcending the finite and the limited becomes proximate to God. So much is clear. In this moment of transcendence, however, it appears that something doxastic emerges, not simply concomitantly, but logically, which is to say, necessarily, from this metaphysical transition.

St. John, we have seen, very clearly maintains that the soul achieves proximate union with God following the negation of nature and reason. He does not state why it follows, merely that it does in fact follow. A closer examination, however, suggests that the utility of reason and sense – relative to objects of created nature apprehensible through the will and understanding – have already been abolished through transcendence, or negation, and appear to be, as a consequence of this transition, now supplanted by the theological virtue of faith – which St. John argues, is also the state of proximate union with God.

The problem we now confront, however, is that if we hold faith to be contingent upon this essentially metaphysical transition – as the argument might appear to suggest – we divest faith of its supernatural character: it loses its provenance in God and becomes immediately subsumed under nature. It is a logical, and therefore necessary moment in a concatenation of events occurring within a clearly defined and purely metaphysical matrix. Faith, so understood, is not concomitant with transition, but is the terminus of the transition itself. It is not concurrent with the negation of nature and reason, it is indistinguishable from it; it is, in fact, synonymous with it. It becomes, in a word, metaphysically legislated – apart from any divine and free dispensation. As an erstwhile theological virtue, it immediately ceases as both theological and a virtue.

How can this be? The line of reasoning strikes us as sound, but is nevertheless deeply disconsonant with the most profound theological principles from which the impetus to ecstatic union emerges. Compelling as this argument may appear, it is nonetheless subreptive as we will soon see. It is, however, also extremely instructive, for it serves to underscore the complexities, as well as the tensions, that have often subverted many efforts to articulate a coherent mystical doctrine that is both consistent with the canons of reason and consonant with accepted theological tenets. The question, no less, still stands. Let us examine it more closely.

Transition or Translation?   

We had stated earlier that we have observed something of the nature of reciprocity in this moment of transition, two distinct levels of proximity that, I will now suggest, converge –  rather than conflate. The distinction is critical, for it is precisely at this juncture that much of the confusion and misconception surrounding so many attempts at explicating the notion of mystical union occurs. The metaphysical momentum that has culminated at this crucial ontological point subreptively lends itself to a spurious interpretation of what is a transition in being as a translation of being; as a continuum of something metaphysically legislated, and not as a breach in that continuum through an autonomous leap of faith. Even while concurrent with it, faith entirely prescinds from this metaphysical momentum as a leap from the natural to the supernatural, from what is inherent in nature to what is inherent in faith.

At this point we stand, as it were, before the ontological chasm to which metaphysics has brought us and past which it can offer us nothing more legitimate, and we instinctively blench before what metaphysics legislates as the terminus of being. Metaphysics, we recognize, cannot make the transition to nothing, it has reached a point in extremis  from which alone the soul cannot leap off to extinction. But in offering us translation, the translation of being, instead of its transition, it is offering us something counterfeit: it is offering us the nothing from which it shrinks, the nothing in which the translation of being is no more than the termination of being, the very point beyond which it cannot pass without abandoning the ontological infrastructure upon which it stands. Only faith can make that leap. And the supreme irony is that each essentially ratifies the other and  both equally culminate in what appears to be the terminus of being: The Dark Night.

So what, precisely is occurring here? On the one hand, the state of proximity to God is achieved through transcendence (of the finite) on a purely metaphysical level. On the other hand, it is, as we have said, equally attained through the theological virtue of faith. Something more than mere congruity, or even concomitance, appears to occur; something deeply implicative of both mutuality and complementarity. It would appear that either faith corroborates the metaphysics, or that the metaphysics corroborates faith. The answer, I suggest, is both, inasmuch as faith implicitly accords with what metaphysics explicitly states.

It is not merely of the nature of faith, but of the essence of faith to assent to the very same propositions we find emerging from the metaphysics, not, however, as demanded by metaphysics, but as demanded by faith. In other words, this is not to understand faith as proceeding from metaphysics, any more than it is to understand the metaphysics proceeding from faith. At the point of convergence, however, it is imperative to understand that the deliverances of each are indistinguishable, for both arrive at the same impenetrable epicenter that is infinite, unlimited, and absolute. Nor is it simply coincidental that at precisely this point of convergence we arrive at the opacity of reason.

We are now, I think, in a position to understand that this reciprocity which we observe does not in any way abrogate or violate the unique integrity of what is either ontological or doxastic – a superficial bifurcation to the mystic at this point– but rather, is axiomatic of the traditional concept of nature cooperating with grace. What we find, in the end, is not the one through the abrogation of the other, but instead, a mutual corroboration of each at that critical point of convergence that St. John understands as the state of proximity to the Absolute, To God.    

The Role of Faith and Reason in the Transition to Proximity and Union 

But how do we understand faith to be an implicit consequence of this transition? To answer this, let us look for a moment more carefully at the nature of faith. By faith we generally understand that theological virtue, divinely infused, which is cognitive in nature, and which expresses itself in the terms of clearly defined articles of belief – not knowledge – independent of any empirical acquaintance with the object in which belief is invested – specifically, God. The cognitive dimension of faith, in other words, is doxastic rather than noetic. Faith makes no appeal to reason. The object, or articles of faith may be entirely consonant with reason. On the other hand, they may completely transcend, not simply the canons, but the very capabilities of reason – and yet do so without abrogating them, since grace either perfects or exceeds, but never violates nature. While faith is essentially cognitive in nature relative to these articles of belief, the articles themselves are supernatural in character. And the legitimate province of reason, we had argued earlier, lies not in the supernatural, but in the matrix of nature, specifically created nature experienced in terms of plurality and finitude. The faculty of reason, then, has only limited access to the articles of faith, and only inasmuch as these articles, among themselves – prescinding entirely from the question of their authenticity, that is to say, considered formally, and not materially– demonstrate a coherence that accords with the canons of logic, of reason. Insofar as logical coherence is discernible among the relation of ideas that constitute the articles of belief around which the notion of faith revolves, reason formally ratifies faith, finds the relation of the ideas of faith to be consistent with reason, although it makes no pronouncement on the authenticity of the articles themselves. And to this limited extent, faith is found to be consonant with reason, or perhaps better yet, reason is found to be consonant with faith.

But faith also transcends reason, as we had said. In passing from that realm of finitude and plurality in which alone reason is capable of being discursively exercised, the only cognitive capacity remaining to the soul – with no data available to sense or reason – pertains to these articles of belief – in other words, faith – which the soul maintains despite empirical evidence to the contrary: the nothingness which the soul encounters on the brink of infinity. That some form of cognition remains is indisputable, otherwise we should hold the soul to be incognitive, which is to say unconscious, and this very clearly is not the case with the mystic. If anything, what we find is an intensified state of consciousness. It is, moreover, equally clear from our previous discussion that this form of cognition cannot be reason. So what alternative remains? Confronted with that before which reason defaults into suspension, faith – independent of reason and uninformed by the senses – remains cognitive in the form of articles of belief which, themselves supernatural in character, were never dependent upon reason or sense to begin with – and thus remains fully as cognitive as it was prior to the transcendence of nature and reason. In this sense, then, faith is seen to follow the negation of nature and reason. But that faith transcends nature, as St. John further implies, seems at first a rather odd notion, and yet it nevertheless follows from and is consistent with the overall logic of St. John’s account. Faith, we might say, transcends nature through reason as that plurality of finite entities which the exercise of discursive reason requires and therefore presumes. In transcending reason, then, faith has already transcended nature as implicit within reason.

As we may anticipate, the imperative of faith will continue to be not only a significant, but a multifaceted feature of the mystical doctrine which meticulously unfolds before us in the opening chapters of the Ascent. Nor can we prescind entirely from all the concomitant issues which faith touches upon if our epistemological account is to be complete. For example, St. John argues that the soul not only transcends time, finitude, and reason through its subjection to the via negativa and the subsequent positing of faith; but through this same faith the soul equally circumvents diabolical impediments to union as well.8 While this issue may at first appear to be only incidental to any strictly epistemological analysis, a closer examination reveals otherwise, for we find that St. John’s treatment of diabolical deception effectively serves to underscore a very fundamental epistemological issue concerning the notion of error – which is by no means incidental to any examination of the notion of understanding.

Let us pursue the point. Through faith, St. John has argued, the soul has passed beyond understanding. So much at least is immediately clear from St. John’s account. However, as a consequence of this transition, that is to say, in passing beyond understanding, the soul has simultaneously, and for two reasons, passed beyond – is no longer subject to – the possibility of error. And for the following reasons: first of all, the notion of error exclusively, if obviously, pertains to the faculty of understanding: it is, fundamentally, a consequence of misunderstanding, consisting in the intellectual assent to defective propositions delivered by, or illegitimate conclusions drawn from, discursive reasoning. But reason has been transcended – and along with it, the errors to which defective reasoning is liable. That is to say, the possibility of error as a consequence of misunderstanding has been abolished as implicit within the utility of understanding itself which has already been negated.

Inerrancy and Impedimence   

It is important to further understand that the second reason that faith, for St. John, is not held to be liable to error rests upon the source itself of the infused theological virtue of faith, which is God. The articles of belief constituting the virtue of faith have, for the mystic, no less a guarantor than God who, as both object and author of the articles of faith, is understood to be not simply the source of truth, but Truth itself. 9 So much, I think, is immediately clear from a cursory rendering of St. John’s understanding of faith. But the question nevertheless remains, why in fact is it so pressing, so vitally important for the mystic to be free of error? Or more precisely, how is error to be understood as constituting an impediment to union? The answer for St. John, of course, is already implicit in an adequate understanding of the Divine nature itself. Aside from the simple misdirection – which is of no small consequence to the mystic – which liability to error affords, error is, quite simply, a form of contrariety to God who is Truth. While the mystic clearly has, in the form of the infused virtues, the assistance of God who invites the soul to the ecstatic state of union as a foretaste of the eternal felicity awaiting the faithful in heaven – it is also the case that the contemplative confronts an ancient antagonist who wishes to frustrate, confuse, and deceive the soul in its efforts to achieve union with God. And this, of course, is the devil who, within the Christian tradition, is preeminently understood as a liar and the father of lies.10 St. John argues, however – and this is the critical issue – that diabolical artifice can only be exercised over the soul through its attachment to created things.11 In transcending created nature, in having extinguished all attachment to the created order, the soul is then effectively brought beyond the pale of diabolical influence – and is therefore no longer subject to error instigated by the devil.

If this concern strikes the contemporary mind as quaint, it is, I suggest, only symptomatic of a more prevailing contemporary defection from the supernatural at large, and apart from which not only mysticism, but Christianity itself remains, in its most fundamental essence, incomprehensible. The two components of every error, then, either defective reasoning or diabolical malice, cease to be impediments to union in the soul’s having transcended created nature and reason. Quite practically, moreover, any journey – especially the journey of the soul to God – whose course and direction, compass and map, are not free of error, will not, cannot, bring the traveler home. However he would that his bearings were correct, without truth as the declination to compass and map, the mystical terrain remains unrecognizable, and the wayfarer remains lost and without hope of achieving his end.    

Truth, Faith, and Dogma:
   Triad or Trilogy?   

Truth for the mystic, however, is inseparable from, and inextricably bound up with, faith – and faith, in turn, is ultimately informed by dogmatics. The point is worth pursuing. Despite the negation of sense and understanding, the soul nevertheless remains cognitive through the infused theological virtue of faith which, at least from an epistemological point of view, constitutes a cognitive function, albeit an obscure one. 12 Faith, in other words, is at least implicitly cognitive of its object – and it is here that the doctrinal and mystical elements in St. John’s philosophy converge. As we had noted earlier, the mystic of necessity adverts to certain clearly defined dogmatic tenets as propadeutic to his quest for union with God. Reason alone, as we had seen, defaults into suspension in the face of the Absolute. To a certain limited extent, reason may retrospectively ratify the dictates of faith – but never inform them. When we speak of faith as an infused theological virtue, however, we certainly do not mean that the articles of faith are supernaturally articulated in the soul independent of the avenues of nature. On the contrary, no less an authority than St. Paul tells us that faith originates in the hearing. 13 But hearing alone, quite obviously, does not necessarily translate into faith; it does not involve that consent implicit in faith which not simply understands these articles, but understands them to be true; holds these articles to communicate factual information about certain aspects of reality, supernatural in character, which are unavailable to, and therefore cannot be authenticated by, sense and reason. This ability to posit what reason cannot corroborate, what sense cannot confirm, comes from God. In this sense it is understood as being divinely infused.

This a rather roundabout way of saying that the mystic’s faith, if it is to be inerrant, must coincide precisely with the articles of faith tendered him by dogmatic theology which affirms certain things about God through the indefeasible guarantee of God’s self revelation in Sacred Scripture in general, and in the person of Jesus Christ in particular. These, together with that deposit of faith which the Church understands as Sacred Tradition, form for the mystic the repository of, while by no means exhaustive, nevertheless inviolable truth; they effectively define his objective, provide him with the compass, the map, and the lay of the metaphysical terrain, and detail the perils to which he will be exposed in the dark night of the soul – all indispensable elements to the soul’s journey to that Absolute which is Truth and admits of no error. These dogmatic canons, in fact, logically precede faith in determining the object of faith. And while faith as such is ultimately abolished in the moment of ecstatic union when what has only been implicit in faith yields to the actuality of the Absolute, it nevertheless is indispensable not merely toward proximating, but in fact identifying the Absolute. Hence, St. John argues that faith induces our assent to divinely revealed truths which, though not necessarily in conflict with understanding and reason, nevertheless inexorably transcend them:

“... faith ... makes us believe truths revealed by God Himself, which transcend all natural light, and exceed all human understanding, beyond all proportion  ... Hence it follows that, for the soul, this excessive light of faith blinds it and deprives it of the sight that has been given to it, inasmuch as its light is great beyond all proportion and transcends the faculty of vision ... The light of faith, by its excessive greatness oppresses and disables that of the understanding, for the latter of its own power, extends only to natural knowledge ... ” 14

The disproportion between faith and knowledge, St. John argues, becomes somewhat clearer by way of analogy. The analogy, I think, is particularly interesting, for it is frequently surprising to contemporary but ill-informed critics of medieval thought that the natural epistemology articulated in scholasticism – an epistemology by and large derived from Aristotle – is thoroughly empirical in nature as the following excerpt demonstrates relative to the inquiry at hand:

“... the soul, as soon as God infuses it into the body, is like a smooth, blank board upon which nothing is painted; and, save for that which it experiences through the senses, nothing is communicated to it, in the course of nature, from any other source ... 15 Wherefore, if one should speak to a man of things which he has never been able to understand, and whose likeness he has never seen, he would have no more illumination from them whatever than if aught had been said of them to him ... If one should describe to a man that was born blind, and has never  seen any color, what is meant by a white color or by a yellow, he would understand it but indifferently, however fully one might describe it to him, as he has never seen such colors or anything like them by which he may judge of them, only their names would remain to him ... Even so is this faith with respect to the soul; it tells us of things which we have never seen or understood, nor have we seen or understood aught that resembles them at all. And thus we have no light of natural knowledge concerning them, since that which we are told of them bears no relation to any sense of ours; we know it by ear alone, believing that which we are taught” 16

Common categories, St. John argues, are essential to the transmission, the communication, of knowledge – and any description, however exhaustive, however carefully nuanced, that cannot appeal to categories commonly shared, will avail nothing to understanding. And this, of course, is precisely the difficulty the mystic encounters in any effort to convey his experience of the Absolute. Since knowledge necessarily appeals to experience to meaningfully inform understanding, and the experience of the Absolute in the person of God is unavailable outside of ecstatic union, the cognitive faculty of understanding is not merely inadequate to, but is altogether incapable of addressing the Absolute. Understanding, then, must be not merely suppressed, but entirely superseded by a cognitive faculty that does not rely upon, derive its information from, the reports of the senses gathered through the medium of experience. And this cognitive faculty, of course, is the infused theological virtue of faith. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews summarizes it this way: “… faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” 17 It is faith, then, that informs us, albeit obscurely, of things of which we have had no experience whatever; things so radically dissimilar to all other experiences that no adequate parallels, no analogies, will descriptively suffice. It is, in fact, very much along the lines of what St. Paul attempted to describe to the Corinthians:

“... no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”.18

Faith, then, is quite different from understanding. Each addresses entirely different spheres, and each are informed by radically different categories. Understanding is determinate, clearly articulating and comprehending its object and verifying the data submitted to it by reports of the senses. Faith has far less specificity. While apodictically certain, it is indeterminate. It verges upon but does not clearly comprehend its object; it requires no corroboration, no authentication by sense, deferring instead to the veracity of the Author from whom it holds its articles to have been delivered. And it is only implicitly cognitive of these revealed articles as inarticulate expressions of the Absolute which itself is incapable of being exhausted by any and every expression of its being. Indispensable as they are, these articles of faith are only impoverished media of a true understanding which abolishes itself in the experience of, the immediate confrontation with, the Absolute. And this means that for St. John, faith, in transcending the canons of ordinary understanding, remains necessarily and eternally unavailable to it. The elements of dogma, the articles of faith – these self-expressions of the Absolute – ultimately involve, for St. John, the post-rational assent to the very doctrines held to be infallibly taught through the Magisterium of the Church concerning the revelation of God through Scripture and sacred tradition.19 Unlike understanding which is proactive in acquiring knowledge, the object of faith, St. John insists, is passively received – either through revelation preceding union, or through the divine infusion in the state of ecstasy.

The Three Theological Virtues
and the Impetus to Union   

Our understanding of faith relative to the mystical experience now becomes somewhat clearer. Faith, to recapitulate, is the ill-defined and tenuous apprehension of something only implicitly understood. In transcending what is explicitly, determinately cognitive, faith passes from all the limiting frames of ordinary reference into that state of unknowing which is the explicit negation of all the contradictions to, and the contrarieties of, God in the created and finite spheres of understanding and sensibility. The soul, St. John argues, is then rendered more proximate to God in having been negated to the other – the contraries – of God in nature and reason. Although in this state of simple proximity the soul is not yet what God is, it is not what God is not. And for this reason it is preeminently disposed to receiving God in mystical union.

By now it is probably clear, although somewhat prematurely, that the union of the soul with God is not, cannot be, achieved through the three natural faculties of the soul: will, understanding, and memory.20 While much remains to be addressed especially in regard to the faculty of understanding, it is perhaps best that we pause at this point to better gain perspective of the whole. Mystical union, as we may already anticipate, is rather to be achieved through the three theological virtues corresponding to these three faculties:

“... the soul is not united with God in this life through the understanding, nor through enjoyment, nor through imagination, nor through any sense whatsoever; but only through faith, according to the understanding; and through hope according to the memory; and through love according to the will. These three virtues ... all cause emptiness in the faculties: faith in the understanding, causes emptiness and darkness with respect to the understanding; hope, in the memory, causes emptiness of all possessions; and charity causes emptiness in the will and detachment from all affection and from rejoicing in all that is not God.” 21

Each infused theological virtue, we can see, is the negation of its corresponding natural faculty, and insofar as these virtues succeed in their negative functions, just so is the soul disposed, or receptive, to the state of infused contemplation. These virtues, like many elements of the mystical experience that are steeped in polarity, are in fact double-sided. On the one hand they are seen to be negative, disabling the faculties which they supersede even as they are enacted within them. On the other hand, they are seen to be positive, informing the soul even as they displace the natural faculties they have negated. At this point, however, St. John considers them largely in their negative aspect. Faith is the explicit negation of understanding: it abolishes the mediatory function of reason in apprehending its object intuitively. The object of faith is transcendent, and therefore inaccessible, to the rigorously defined and therefore limited architectonics of the categories of understanding. While these are sufficient to addressing finite objects in the created order, they do not, cannot, suffice in addressing the Absolute. Consequently, they are abolished in the enactment of faith.

Hope, on the other hand, is equally the negation of its own corresponding faculty in the memory which, for St. John, is really a kind of residual faculty of understanding. Unlike understanding itself which is actively engaged in acquiring, coordinating, and, through the dialectic of reason, synthesizing the data delivered it by the senses, memory – strictly speaking – is a passive repository of either the synthetic fabrications of reason or of impressions acquired through the senses. And I say strictly speaking for this reason: memory of itself essentially consists in mere recollection; the recollection of things and concepts no longer contemporaneous with that exercise of reason or the immediate sense experience by which they were initially acquired. Once acquired, of course, these initial acquaintances – until repeated, in the case of sense experience – immediately devolve to memory. There they passively form the repository of acquired knowledge to which reason or understanding subsequently appeals, and consequently amplifies, when synthesizing or analyzing new data submitted by the senses or acquired through the activity of reason. Imagination, however, which for St. John is a sub-faculty of memory – that in turn is subsumed beneath understanding – acts to creatively synthesize and manipulate the data deposited in memory in much the same way that understanding does – with two important exceptions. The exercise of the imagination, while not antithetical to, or even necessarily exclusive of, reason, is nevertheless unconstrained by the canons of syllogistic reasoning that apply to understanding. It quite freely, and quite often prescinds entirely from the protocols of logic. Both analytic and synthetic, imagination systematically analyzes the part from the coherent whole and is quite capable of synthesizing incongruent and illogical fictions from essentially unrelated data. No laws, in other words, are discoverable in the exercise of the imagination apart from the route the data take to inform it. But more importantly, imagination is remote from immediacy: while initially informed by the senses, it subsequently acts independently of them. It may take its clues from the senses, but the products of the imagination have no correlate in reality. In short, they are not factual reports, but elaborate fictions. Fictions which, in the end, are composites of created things initially derived from the senses and ultimately sharing, with all other things in memory whose provenance lays in sense, in that contrariety to God which is preclusive of union. As faith was seen to abolish understanding, so now hope in supplanting memory abolishes it, for the theological virtue of hope, St. John tells us, is by definition, directed to that which is not yet possessed. 22

But, we are likely to object, are not faith, hope, and love resident in memory as well? In that state of negativity preparatory to union, may not the contemplative be said to recollect, to remember the articles of faith, which in turn inform hope and articulate the object loved? After all, these were, St. John had argued earlier – and prior to being assented to – first learned, acquired through the hearing, and, we presume, deposited into memory. Is not the mystic, then, appealing to elements within the very deposit of data (memory) which we had understood to have been abolished by hope? St. John, unfortunately, is not at all clear on this point. But there is, I think, a semantic issue involved here concerning the notion of recollection which does not readily lend itself to the categorical opposition St. John seems to place between memory as a natural faculty and hope as an implicitly mnemonic virtue. We are, however, clear on one point, and that is that the memory as a natural faculty is in fact negated – effectively abolished – relative to things created. In being supplanted by hope, it is expropriated of every datum corresponding to the created order.23 But the soul does not then possess no at least implicitly mnemonic faculty whatever. Hope, which has replaced memory, materially possesses nothing, but rather, formally anticipates the possession of something. Of what? It anticipates the possession of the object which the articles of faith address, the object of which faith is cognizant, God – which the soul does not yet possess, but only hopes to possess. That is to say, hope anticipates, since it does not possess, what faith recognizes but does not clearly know. Faith is the reservoir of hope which appeals to things uncreated, and unlike memory, unpossessed. Hope then is seen as the antithesis of memory in possessing nothing, and as the supernatural counterpart to memory in anticipating what it does not possess, but what it nevertheless latently recognizes through faith.

There are, moreover, distinct differences discernible between the way in which data are preserved in memory, and the way that the articles of faith are preserved in the latently mnemonic theological virtue of hope. To begin with, we do not possess the articles of faith in the way we possess the impressions of the senses, or, say, the theorems of Euclidean geometry. Geometric theorems, for example, are rationally, and even empirically demonstrable; they are characterized by a deductive certainty deriving from analytical principles so clearly defined, so self-evident as to be unequivocal and incontrovertible. The inherent specificity of geometry as the paradigm of purely deductive reasoning, and therefore the paradigm of deductive certainty– of incontestable knowledge for philosophers from Plato onward – stands in stark contrast to the obscure and indeterminate articles of faith which very clearly are not the conclusions of syllogistic reasoning, possess nothing in the way of deductive certainty, and are by nature not susceptible to being demonstrated either rationally or empirically – although, as we have said, they may not of themselves necessarily be in conflict with reason. In short, the articles of faith do not qualify as knowledge – certainly not along the lines that would fit a purely rational paradigm. And knowledge, either derived analytically from the exercise of reason, or acquired through the reports of the senses, or indeed as the synthesis of both, is, after all, what we understand to be passively archived in memory.

But we might further object that this deposit of data in which memory consists typically comprehends a vast number of concepts which do not share, are not characterized by, the rigorous deductive certainty of the geometric model we have invoked. In fact, much of that deposit of knowledge that we call memory is really inchoate, and quite nearly as vague as the articles of faith themselves. However this may be, it nevertheless remains that they are also susceptible of being fully articulated by subsequent reasoning; or, more apropos of our argument, since we understand these incompletely articulated concepts to be merely deficient in formation, it is entirely possible for them to be fully informed by subsequent experience. Such concepts deriving from, and constructed around, empirical acquaintance, or the impressions of the senses, are, therefore, verifiable through, and capable of being augmented by, further experience. And this is to say that the object of faith implicit in hope does not constitute data in precisely the same way that rational concepts or sense impressions do.

To summarize, then, our understanding of the differences that obtain between hope and memory, we may say that memory, unlike hope, is characterized by specificity, and the data resident in memory are susceptible of further elaboration subsequent to further investigation. The corresponding faculty of hope, on the other hand, is radicated in faith – not reason or sense – and its object, unlike memory, only vaguely, indeterminately, imprecisely, corresponds to a reality that was not empirically acquired, is not empirically available, and is, therefore, not verifiable. Memory and hope, then, while yet sharing parallel mnemonic functions, effectively qualify as contrarieties in the epistemological account of St. John.

This regrettably involuted account, necessary to distinguishing memory from hope, finally puts us in a position to understand why St. John will later argue that the soul is unified through the three theological virtues 24, why this unity results in the soul’s singular intentionality in God (its being exclusively, absolutely centered upon God), and how this facilitates the soul in its movement toward God in the soul’s possessing within itself no contrary to God. Let us look at this more closely. Since the soul’s faculties are no longer diffused among a multiplicity of objects, but are, rather, in a common state of negativity (or proximity) – each characterized by its respective theological virtue – the soul is unified both in this negativity, or night of the soul, common to each faculty, and by intentionality, in that each of these virtues are theological in nature, or exclusively directed to the one, singular object in God. Simply put, all the faculties have entered the one same night: negation. And all the theological virtues address the one same object: God. This translation of the natural faculties into their corresponding theological virtues constitutes what St. John will henceforth refer to as spiritual negation, or the spiritual night of the soul 25 which is a pivotal point in the movement to mystical union as we shall later find in Part 2.

Whereas we had found the night of the senses to consist in the detachment from the created external order in nature according to each faculty, so now the night of the spirit will be found to consist in a similar detachment from the created internal order of spirit. And once spiritual negation has been achieved, the soul will have entered into a state of absolute negativity, for it is the bilateral, absolute, and unqualified negation of the two created aspects of bidimensional man: the natural dimension relative to nature, and the spiritual dimension relative to spirit. This state of absolute negativity, in fact, corresponds to what St. John otherwise calls “annihilation” 26, for it is, as it were, the annihilation of the soul’s natural existence:

“... the soul must not only be disencumbered from that which belongs to creatures, but likewise, as it travels, must be annihilated and detached from all that belongs to its spirit ... This ... is death to the natural self, a death attained through the detachment and annihilation of that self, in order that the soul may travel by this narrow path, with respect to all its connections with sense, as we have said, and according to the spirit as we shall now say ...” 27

Epistemology or Heterodoxy?
The Annihilation of the Soul   

This is the inauguration of that “terrible night” of which St. John so often speaks, the night which must be traversed in faith alone. 28 Here every other standard of reference to the world of experience ordinarily understood, fails, evanesces, before the negativity of night. And here it becomes absolutely critical to the purpose of our commentary that we correctly understand what St. John refers to in speaking of the concept of “annihilation”. The various phenomenologies that have historically evolved around the concept of mysticism are almost universal in incorporating this mercurial and extremely fragile term, and there is far from unanimity among them concerning its significance. This is particularly true for the Christian mystic. First of all, it is not, we must hasten to add, a type of nirvanic annihilation of the self much as we understand in certain Vedantic phenomenologies broadly construed as mystical, for in St. John’s account the self, however attenuated through the process of negation, is nevertheless understood to be preserved in super-natural existence. Not, to be sure, in the exercise of its natural faculties ordinarily understood – but rather through the theological virtues which at once annihilate (negate) the self relative to the natural faculties, and preserve the self as the presupposition of that personal and residual consciousness within which the theological virtues are enacted, exercised.

Annihilation, because it is so easily misconstrued, is one of those volatile concepts within Christian mysticism that readily lends itself to charges of heterodoxy, the sanctions against which, at the height of the Counter-Reformation (1560-1648), were stringently applied. Despite this fact, it is not the case that St. John, as a contemporary figure in this tumultuous period, simply deferred to orthodoxy out of expedience as some may suppose, or worse yet, deliberately couched his terms in equivocal language to conceal a covert agendum antagonistic to accepted doctrine or ecclesiastical authority. There is not a shred of evidence to support this contention. St. John was unwavering in orthodoxy, and would undoubtedly have answered that, if his mystical doctrine was entirely consonant with the deposit of faith articulated by the Magisterium of the Church, it was not, for that reason, a procrustean accomplishment; a matter of merely accommodating his doctrine to the formal requirements of faith – but rather that the articles of faith must be seen as having informed his doctrine – as indeed they had – which in turn was a vindication of that dogma whose elements were subsequently authenticated in the mystical experience itself.

Identity and Individuation:
Noesis or Nuance?   

But to return to our point, the annihilation of which St. John speaks appears to be essentially the radical reduction of the self to an irreducible state of consciousness. This consciousness, we have already said, necessarily presupposes something of which it is conscious. To restate our point succinctly, our consciousness is always a consciousness of. Of what? Well, certainly of something. And this something, of course, can no longer be the deliverance of sense and reason already transcended. It is, rather, an anticipatory consciousness informed by the articles of faith alone, and exclusively directed toward God apart from any other object of intention. In essence, it is a state of pure intentionality. The self has completely receded from all relativity to everything outside itself: it is perfectly receded from, and therefore utterly without reference to, the non-self, both in nature, as negated, and in God, as yet revealed. In this state of absolute recession, the soul has only the dim, merely formal cognition of God – unaccompanied as yet by any empirical acquaintance – provided it through the three theological virtues which are at once, paradoxically, the very principles behind this annihilation, and simultaneously the means of the preservation of the self subsequent to it. While much of this remains to be discussed in greater depth in Part II, it is nevertheless important to an understanding of St. John’s thought at this point to recognize that the self – that is to say, personal consciousness – in fact survives the annihilation of which St. John speaks in his account. And it is precisely this residual self-consciousness, this implicit but nevertheless distinguishable apperception in the face of the Absolute which preserves a distinction in identity even as this union abolishes contrariety in nature.

The implications that evolve from this are worth considering further. We had, for example, spoken of the self earlier as having been brought to an irreducible state of consciousness epistemologically poised in an act of pure intentionality. But what, we must now ask, is the self so understood? Our very notion of identity, of our self, would seem to be bound up with a great many material and historical antecedents which must then necessarily be borne along with our identity beyond negativity. Our individual identity – who we are – defined, by and large, by our unique historical antecedents would appear to be a necessary component of a coherent conception of the self. But let us look at this anew from the phenomenological perspective of the mystic. We are accustomed to being individuated by precisely those elements which, through the via negativa, have been negated and transcended: namely finitude and temporality. We perceive ourselves to be such and such an individual apart from other individuals by virtue of certain clearly defined material limits – our bodies, for example, describe a finite area that is discrete from the bodies of others; our minds, while similar to others in their cognitive faculties, are unlike others in that our thoughts are not identical to the thoughts of others; my experiences in all their subtleties, and the arrangement and chronological order of these experiences, are not identical with those of others, having been acquired, enacted, if not in different frames of time then in different locations in space; still yet, my parents are not your parents, or if they are, my birth was not precisely coincidental with yours, and I never had myself as my brother. In short, there are a thousand ways in which we individuate ourselves from others and acquire a sense of identity that is essentially composed differentially.

And so our question is: Can we in fact possess an identity apart from these individuating elements or circumstances? And if so, in what does that identity consist? Indeed, does one lose one’s individual identity altogether in mystical experience, and does this consequently entail some absurd and essentially meaningless form of cosmic consciousness? These, and other questions like them, some rather frivolous, others quite serious, enable us to see why mysticism is often the breeding ground of redoubtable epistemological difficulties – as well as a good deal of nonsense. Within each of these instances or circumstances we find time or finitude or both as the individuating principle behind the conception of identity. But it is equally clear that the radically reduced notion of the self consequent to the mystic’s subjection to the via negativa entirely prescinds from the self as historically articulated. The mystic in essence acquires a new identity, not that of the self reflexively identified – that is to say the self historically identified with the utterly personal existential enactment of its own being chronologically considered at a different, elapsed, point in time – rather, the mystic’s identity now refers, not back to himself, reflexively – but to God. And this new identity, in fact, is merely the re-appropriation of the soul’s primal identity as the imago Dei, the image of God. This notion of identity, which is always and essentially reciprocal in nature with an other relative to which it is the same, remains to be discussed more fully later on. We only touch upon it here to further illustrate the point that the annihilation of the soul in no way compromises, but rather attenuates the identity of the soul which nevertheless remains intact beyond absolute negation.

Faith as Negativity:
The Knower and the Unknown God

Returning once again to our discussion of the relation that obtains between faith and understanding, we had found that no proportion, or as St. John puts it, similitude, exists between the understanding and God for reasons already discussed and principally involving the notion of incommensurability:

“... all that the imagination can imagine and the understanding can receive and understand in this life is not, nor can it be, a proximate means of union with God ... [ for ] all that can be understood by the understanding, that can be tasted by the will, and that can be invented by the imagination is most unlike God and bears no proportion to Him ...” 29

 In the face of this incommensurability, a requisite to union must consist in a transformation that will bridge this gap which is infinite; that will, in effect, restore a measure of commensurability between the means and the end, cognition and God. This transformation, however, cannot be effected by, since it is clearly beyond the natural ability of, the created and finite soul. It can only, therefore, be divinely initiated. And this, we have seen, occurs when God leads the soul, through faith, into the state of negation. But how are we to understand faith – which up to this point has largely been a negative factor in St. John’s account in the way of abolishing understanding – as now capable of restoring this commensurability? Well, to begin with we had already seen that, for all its obscurity, faith nevertheless entails certain positive elements in the form of implicitly understood articles ultimately derived from the self-revelation of God to man; articles which, for St. John, are to be received in that simplicity which is consonant with faith:

“ ... the understanding, profoundly hushed and put to silence ... leans upon faith which alone is the proximate means whereby the soul is united with God; for such is the likeness between itself and God that there is no other difference, save that which exists between seeing God and believing in Him. For even as God is infinite, so faith sets Him before us as infinite; and as he is Three and One, it sets Him before us as Three and One; and as God is darkness to our understanding, even so does faith likewise blind and dazzle our understanding. And thus, by this means alone, God manifests Himself to the soul in Divine light, which passes all understanding.” 30

Faith, in other words, transcends the limitations of understanding in affirming of God those attributes which the understanding in its limitations, and without involving itself in contradiction, could not possibly affirm. And so in transcending understanding, faith simultaneously transcends limitation implicit within understanding – and in doing so simultaneously establishes commensurability with the infinite and the unlimited. Such a transcendence will inevitably entail a cognitive transformation as well. Determinate understanding with all its limitations is no longer sufficient. In fact, it has already been abolished in the negativity of faith. Abolished – but also superseded, as we had already seen, by a faculty quite different, a faculty which, as the negative of understanding with its distinct concepts and determinate categories, will necessarily be indistinct and indeterminate.31 And this type of cognition, not radicated in an acquaintance with its object either empirically acquired through sense or rationally acquired through the analytic or synthetic activity of reason – that is to say, which does not acquire its object mediatively – is essentially intuitive in nature.    

“Natural” and “Supernatural” Modes of Understanding 

So we find that, despite the negativity of faith, it is, after all, not the case that all understanding categorically ceases, but merely a particular kind of understanding, for within the comprehensive faculty of understanding itself, St. John distinguishes two quite different modes: the natural and the supernatural. The former refers to the distinct and determinate mode of ordinary cognition both appropriate and sufficient to addressing the world of ordinary experience, and consisting in finite concepts actively applied to finite data. The latter corresponds to that intuitive mode of cognition subsequent to the state of negation in which faith has superseded natural understanding. The former we have already examined. It is the latter with which we are now concerned. This supernatural knowledge, as St. John calls it, is, to additionally complicate matters, then further subdivided into corporeal and spiritual modes through which knowledge is communicated to, and passively received by, the soul. 32 Understanding at this point becomes, as it were, rarefied in that epistemological margin between nature and spirit. It is at the outermost extremity of both, while completely sharing in the unique character of neither. Let us, then, look at each mode as it informs understanding and see what further conclusions remain to be drawn.

The “Corporeal” Mode of Understanding   

The corporeal mode of supernatural understanding, St. John tells us, consists in those communications to the soul which proceed either through the external sensuous by way of the bodily senses, or through the internal sensuous according to the imagination. At this point we can safely say that St. John has already demonstrated 33 that the imagination is dependent upon empirical data acquired through experience, and that, therefore, no proportion whatever can possibly exist between God and the synthetic constructs of imagination. Incapable of proximating God, imagination is summarily disqualified as a proximate means to union with God. The very specific and determinate nature common to every product of the imagination is profoundly incommensurable with the infinite reality of God. Consequently, the internal sensuous according to the imagination must be negated of all the various forms and images which are either the products of its own synthetic activity, or which derive from a supernatural agency communicating these forms and images to it, 34 for without exception they entail contrariety to God. That this applies with equal and greater force to those supernatural phenomena sensuously embodied in the external order is already clear. Our treatment, then, of imagination, in an effort to leave no element unaddressed in our account, is really parenthetical to our articulating an epistemology of mysticism. By and large the constituent elements of imagination may be subsumed under the broader category of sense, and stand merely to be abolished in the movement toward contemplation.

The “Supernatural” Mode of Understanding   

On the other hand, St. John’s discussion of the supernatural mode of understanding is a good deal more illuminating. Even a casual reading of St. John reveals that, in an effort to be as precise as possible, his systematic treatment, especially in regard to the faculty understanding, becomes increasingly schematized. The category of understanding, for example, is further divided into sub-categories of natural and supernatural modes of understanding. The supernatural mode, to take just one element in this bifurcation, is then further analyzed into corporeal and spiritual modes, and the spiritual mode, in turn, further subdivided into distinct and special and confused and general modes. 35 This is no gratuitous exercise in speculative analysis. St. John’s objective, we must remember, is always practical. In taking such a rigorous and systematic inventory of understanding, St. John effectively attempts to address an issue involving the single greatest liability to which not only the mystic, but the entire mystical enterprise itself, is exposed: the problem of error. Although we had briefly examined this problem earlier, let us look at it once again in light of the present context. Supernatural understanding, as St. John calls it, is either communicated distinctly and specially through visions, revelations, locutions, and the like – or generally and obscurely, that is to say, in a manner lacking both in specificity and clarity. In essence, however, St. John’s entire discussion of knowledge supernaturally communicated to – not actively acquired by – the soul, is at least implicitly his treatment of the impediment of error, both here and elsewhere.

Consequently it is, at one and the same time, an ad hoc critique of human understanding confronted with the supernatural – to the end of establishing a canon of authenticity to which the mystic may ultimately appeal with unquestionable certainty. And it is precisely this type of critical analysis – to which the Christian tradition of mysticism owes a great debt to St. John – that is central to our accreditation of the mystical experience as in fact veridical. For unless quite definite criteria are established concerning the authenticity of the contemplatives mystical experience – that it is a unique experience corresponding to, not simply a solipsistic or reflexively interpreted reality , but to a reality independent of the mind of the mystic – Christian mysticism will fail to exempt itself from the most remarkable and bizarre array of pseudo-mystical states, including delusional psychoses, which are often otherwise broadly, and erroneously, characterized as “mystical” .This problem, worthy of a chapter in itself, will be examined more extensively later on. For the moment it is sufficient to note that St. John is acutely aware of some of the problems created by this type of confusion. For example, he insists that,

“... he that esteems such things errs greatly and exposes himself to the peril of being deceived 36 ... [for] a readiness to accept them opens the door to the devil that he may deceive the soul by other things like to them, which he very well knows how to dissimulate and disguise, so that they may appear to be good; for, as the Apostle says, he can transform himself into an angel of light.” 37

This premature and clearly parenthetical treatment of the problem of error equally serves to underscore the imperative of faith in the soul’s journey to union with God, for it is faith, as we will come to understand, which constitutes the one epistemological constant to which the several modes of understanding are subordinated throughout.

Dealing first with the distinct and special mode of supernatural understanding, St. John tells us that these very specialized apprehensions are, to begin with, sensuously communicated to the soul – understanding does not play an active, or intentional role in acquiring them much in the way that it does in its interpretive interaction with data delivered by the senses subsequent to being actively addressed by understanding. The notion of intentionality relative to the understanding is entirely absent in the case of these apprehensions as they come to the soul – which at this point, we will remember, is passive – through the five bodily senses. It is most urgent, St. John argues, that the soul maintain an attitude completely skeptical to these apprehensions; in fact, if at all possible, to entirely disregard them.38   

A Dark Impedimence:
   Diabolical Deception

Given the disproportion and contrariety which we have seen to exist between God and the created order (all that is not God), St. John further argues that the greater the apparent corporeity and exteriority of the apprehension, the less warrant we have to presume its origin to be in God. The possibility, if not the likelihood, both of human error and diabolical deception relative to these sensuously embodied communications is, for St. John, far greater than in communications to the spirit; and for this principal reason: our judgment, accustomed as it is to defer to the superficial reports of the senses – not just as an ordinarily reliable index of a reality, but characteristically of a reality presumed to in fact correspond to its appearance – is accurate only to the extent to which appearances actually coincide with the reality they ostensibly signify. And this is simply another way of saying that we characteristically, even necessarily, judge only on the basis of appearances. And while, on the one hand, real correspondence often exists – our interaction with the world around us would be impossible or chaotic otherwise – on the other hand disqualifying instances clearly abound: most often as a matter of mistaking appearances to authentically represent realities to which they actually do not conform, or less often but equally real, by subreption through diabolical malice – in either case the resulting misjudgment is what we call error. And what this effectively means is that sense experience does not necessarily constitute a confirmation of reality. And this is St. John’s whole point. This is why the contemplative must not defer to the senses, however credible their reports may appear.

Moreover, St. John argues, in their tangible dimensions, these sensuous communications cannot in reality bear any proportion to, and are in fact the ontological opposite of, the spiritual reality which they purport to convey. 39 Even were such communications divine in origin, these supernatural reports would serve merely as the vehicle, the character of which invariably, ineluctably, colors our interpretation of the actual significance. Invested as they are with clarity and distinctness, the forms of these apprehensions further tend to overshadow the implicit spiritual significance they are intended to communicate independent of their sensuous expedient. It is, then, crucial for the mystic to act in utter disregard of any such communications, and in so doing avoiding the occasion of the two principle possibilities of error. However, it now becomes problematic as to how one thing (the sensuous) contrary to another (the spiritual) – as clearly they have been throughout our account so far – can be the vehicle of its antithesis, that is to say, how the spiritual can be sensuously embodied at all. St. John provides us with no clear answer to the problem. In a sense it stands clearly aside from his practical intent. But not from ours. I think, however, that one solution is suggested by the logic of the argument itself.

Any supernatural manifestation of necessity introduces itself within the natural order. This having occurred, a radical duality is subsequently generated, the two distinct components of which are nature and spirit On the one hand we have what we might call unqualified nature in the simple material sense, and for lack of a better term, qualified spirit. What we have called qualified spirit, we might say, is super-existent in nature. Although subsisting independently of the material order, it is nevertheless capable of assuming additional, if fundamentally extraneous, ontological characteristics essential to its introduction to, or appearance within, the material order. But it does so only under some clearly defined conditions ontologically dictated by the nature it assumes. Being in nature and assuming quasi-natural dimensions, it must conform to the two ultimate constituents of nature as the very ontological frames – the very matrices of finitude – presupposed in every conception of nature as such, namely, time and space. Simply put, any supernatural manifestations must occur somewhere and sometime. However these manifestations may be able to contravene every other protocol of nature through their yet undiminished supernatural character, as manifestations in nature, they are necessarily subject to these two laws governing all appearances in nature whatever. In other words, they must share definite characteristics common to, if in fact they are to occur as appearances within, the material order.

Despite this incorporation, however, this spirit-in-nature–which every supernatural manifestation essentially is – yet remains other to nature as spirit. That is to say, it nevertheless remains unqualified spirit, spirit unmodified or unconditioned by nature; spirit merely introduced within and only physically – not essentially – constrained by the laws of appearance, the two laws alone which it cannot contravene, but to which, as we have said, it must submit as a condition of any appearance whatever. Assuming physical specificity as a condition of its appearance – not as essential to its nature – it becomes qualified, subject to laws from which it is characteristically, essentially immune, and to which it submits itself merely as an expedient to its appearance in nature. But if this, in fact, is how spirit is capable of being sensuously embodied, it does not answer why they are embodied at all. This question is answered by St. John.

More on “Spiritual Communications”   

Before going further we must point out that at this stage in the Ascent, St. John is treating of the mystical experience as it pertains to the beginner who is just being brought into the first stages of mystical union and who is not yet completely withdrawn from the senses.40 As a result, these spiritual communications are given sensuous form in order to be rendered proximate to ordinary, sensuous understanding. In fact, as we have already seen, they are merely an expedient – addressed as it were to the determinate mode of ordinary understanding in order to lead it the further on in its desire for union with God.41 The form which this communication takes is, to sensuous understanding, merely the necessary vehicle of the spiritual reality behind it which transcends the sensuous form, even as this reality is eclipsed by it in the immediacy of sense. But the nature of this super-existent reality concealed beneath the superficies of form is nevertheless such that it succeeds withal in producing its effect independently of the form. The noetic realization is obscured by, because the soul at this point is merely attentive to, the form of the communication. In the words of St. John, it is “secretly” communicated to the soul.

Now we must admit that this strikes us as rather odd. If these communications are capable of producing their effects independently of the sensuous form in which they are embodied; and if, furthermore, the phenomenal features which such communications assume by way of mere expediency are to be ignored altogether as a likely source of error – then why are these communications not effected in the soul without the appearance of the sensuous form that is both unnecessary to their producing their effects and, at the very least, the likely occasion of misjudgment and error? I think that this is a serious question that requires an answer. And the answer, I suggest, is offered within the context out of which the problem arises. It is unquestionably within the power of God to produce effects within the soul of which the soul is not cognizant. Or even to produce effects within the soul which the soul acknowledges but does not apprehend in either an experiential or noetic sense. A few instances which immediately come to mind concern the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy Orders, each of which are held to impress certain indelible characters upon the soul – as well as supernatural capabilities – only the external significance of which is recognized and acknowledged. The actual character, seal, or impress of God upon the soul is neither cognitively accessible nor subject to empirical verification. In the case of Baptism, it is entirely possible for a child to be baptized and subsequently mature in complete ignorance of his faith and his own baptism – all the while possessing the baptismal seal, and all that it signifies, without recognizing it.

The power conferred in these instances, as well as the effect itself – not, of course, the ritual signifying the effect – may be said to have been secretly communicated to the soul. Now this analogy that we have chosen is not at all inappropriate to our purpose. We must recall, once again, that the present discussion revolves around the contemplative who is not yet totally withdrawn from the senses. While the effect of the communication is in fact wrought independently of the form, the sensuous form serves to signify the reality being enacted completely supernaturally, secretly, invisibly, within the soul. It is a sign to the soul – which is still sensuously oriented – of something being enacted supernaturally. And as a sign, it points to, signifies, something beyond itself of which the sign constitutes no material element. Moreover, as a sign, it is an indication of the proximity and presence of something else of which it is merely a sign. And this is precisely the manner in which God first moves the soul to greater desire for union with Himself. So in answer to our question, can God produce effects within the soul without adverting to sensuous phenomena, we must unequivocally state, yes. But his doing so with a soul still primarily oriented to the senses would effectively move the soul no closer to God, and so be apart from his purpose.

... And More on the Notion of the Impedimence of Error   

Let us look a little closer now at the nature of the error to which the soul is liable in adverting to the sensuous form of the these supernatural communications. First of all, St. John argues, the soul errs in judging these apprehensions to be as they sensuously appear. In pronouncing judgments that appeal to the sheer phenomenal features of such occurrences, the soul illegitimately insinuates a spurious commensurability between nature and spirit which does not, and cannot, metaphysically obtain. And it is precisely because of the disproportion that exists between spirit and nature that any such embodiments of spirit are pure contingencies, exigencies in which no necessary connection is discernible between the appearances and the realties ostensibly signified by them. The soul, in order to avoid error then, must not only prescind from the sheer phenomenal dimensions of such appearances, but suspend its judgment concerning them altogether. 42

There is, moreover, a second and potentially greater danger involved in giving credence to these communications and what they purport to convey, and this, for St. John, lies in the very real possibility of diabolical deception. The dysteleological presence of personified evil on the ontological fringe of spirit toward which the contemplative moves is of genuine concern to St. John. It is the perfectly disvaluable presence whom, as we had seen earlier, Jesus describes in no unclear terms as “... a liar and the father of lies.” 43 and whom St. Peter calls “[the] adversary, the devil, [who] as a roaring lion, walks about seeking whom he may devour.” 44 The mystic, then, in addition to the liability to error connatural with judgment, confronts the possibility of supernatural error foisted upon the soul by no less than an agency metaphysically diabolical in nature and historically inimical to the ultimate interests of man – which, not simply for the mystic but for every Christian as well, preeminently lies in union with God. Confronted with so redoubtable a foe, far more powerful, tremendously more resourceful, vastly more intelligent, and invincibly evil, the soul, for St. John, has but one recourse – and that is to advert once again to the methodological suspension of judgment. St. John maintains that since God is more disposed to communicate with the soul through the spirit, rather than through sense, all such sensuous communications should be least methodologically – to proceed, not from God, but rather, from the devil. St. John is clear on this point: the realm of matter and sense is particularly susceptible to the artifice of the devil who, through exercising his influence over the sensuous and material, actively endeavors to deceive the soul and to frustrate it in its efforts to achieve union with God.45 All judgment, then, must be categorically suspended and the ordinary canons of interpretation which the mystic invokes before the world of appearances must be entirely relinquished as inadequate before such extraordinary occurrences if the soul is at all to succeed in avoiding the impediment constituted by error, and so achieve union with God.

For St. John the chief danger, however, in submitting to such communications – and ultimately, the diabolical stratagem is directed to this end – lies in the soul’s subsequently abandoning the principal means of union with God which we have found to be faith. In failing to disregard these communications, the soul consequently abandons that faith which takes for its object the unrevealed – and in so doing proceeds, not according to the only proximate means of union with God – which is faith – but according to the understanding in relation to its proper object which is revealed, and which St. John has already demonstrated at length to have no proportion whatever to God. But what if this supernatural communication does in fact proceed from God – as very well it may? Does the soul not err in withholding its assent? This would appear to be a very cogent objection, for it would seem that by withholding its consent, the soul would then be subjecting itself to the very liability it is expressly committed to avoiding: error.

But this is not the case, St. John answers. If a given communication does in fact proceed from God, then it produces its effect on the soul independently of the soul’s judgment and assent:

“... if [any communication] be of God, [it] produces its effect upon the soul at the very moment when it appears or is felt, without giving the soul time or opportunity to deliberate whether it will accept or reject it. For, even as God gives these things supernaturally, without effort on the part of the soul, and independently of its capacity, even so, likewise, without respect to its effort or capacity, God produces within it the effect that He desires by means of such things, for this is a thing that is wrought and brought to pass in the spirit passively ...” 46

But why, we must now ask, would God continue in such supernatural communications if they are likely to be the occasion of error, or worse yet, a defection from faith? Considered more carefully, however, there is something subreptive in this objection that makes it spurious, for if we look closely we find that it is really anachronistic. We must answer that, essentially, God does not so continue. Through these communications, we have seen, God is leading the beginner into the state of contemplation, and in so doing, God initially cooperates with the limited nature of the soul by introducing sensuous forms and images to the understanding – principally, St. John tells us, in the act of meditation. Gradually, however, God leads the soul from the active state of meditation together with its various forms and images, into the passive state of contemplation in which the limited nature of sense in transcended through, and in fact supplanted by, the simple assent of faith.

To further emphasize the point, St. John uses an interesting analogy to demonstrate the necessity of the soul’s remaining passive and exercising no judgment whatever relative to such apprehensions. We have, St. John argues, no less a paradigm than Scripture itself:

“... although sayings and revelations may be of God, we cannot always be sure of their meaning; for we can very easily be greatly deceived by them because of our manner of understanding them. For they are an abyss and a depth of the spirit, and to try to limit them to what we can understand [would be in vain] 47 ... let it be realized, therefore, that there is no complete understanding of the sayings and things of God ... 48 [whereas in themselves they] are always certain, they are not always so with respect to ourselves ... One reason is the defective way in which we understand them ... To many of the ancients many of the prophesies and locutions from God came not to pass as they expected because they understood them after their own manner ... “ 49

These communications, he continues, are equally capable of being apprehended by the understanding without the active mediation of either inner or outer sense, without corresponding phenomena in the external order, and, moreover, without the active engagement of the imagination:

“[These] four apprehensions of the understanding ... we call purely spiritual, for they do not (as do those that are corporeal and imaginary) communicate themselves to the understanding by way of the corporeal sense; but, without the intervention of any inward or outward corporeal sense, they present themselves to the understanding, clearly and distinctly, by supernatural means, passively – that is to say, without the performance of any act or operation on the part of the soul itself ... “ 50

Those apprehensions, then, that were previously invested with qualities distinctly accessible to the senses, are now received by the understanding with an intelligible clarity and distinctness which parallels in the intellect the definition with which these apprehensions were invested in order to be first accommodated to the senses. It is, however, an intelligible definition, a definition no longer concealed, as it were inchoate, within distinctly sensuous perimeters. In a word, it is completely unconditioned by corporeity and exteriority. But how can visions, locutions and the like can be rendered non-sensuous at all? Not only non-sensuous, but purely intelligible? It would seem, at first glance, as though St. John had inadvertently overstepped every criteria of meaning in his pursuit of ultimate realities – but a closer look reveals otherwise. The solution to this enigma, we find, is suggested in certain terminological transitions that occur within the text. To wit, at one point St. John describes these four apprehensions – including locutions and spiritual feelings – as “visions of the soul”, and “intellectual visions” respectively. 51 It would appear, then, that the terms “revelations, “locutions”, etc., as we find them variously applied to these supernatural apprehensions, are essentially employed analogically. 52 While some correlation, however attenuated, undeniably obtains between the terms in the analogy – otherwise it would be altogether useless –the complete amplitude of what is signified characteristically, even essentially, exceeds an inflexible criterion of meaning. And this, after all, is the whole purpose of adopting an analogy – to verge upon an amplitude of meaning accessible through no other means; by approximating – not by achieving – a satisfactory meaning. And, to enunciate the obvious, a totally satisfactory meaning would not require the use of analogy. So understood, the terms “visions”, “locutions”, etc., to which St. John adverts, are intended to approximate by way of analogy an aspect of reality that only remotely corresponds to the meanings imbedded in a language that is not, and cannot be, sufficient to the descriptive task. Language, predicated as it is upon shared experiences, is simply too impoverished to accommodate the amplitude, the infinite amplitude of the Absolute. Even the peripheral, the most marginal and obscure experience of the Absolute, in some sense, for St. John, analogically approximates a vision, or a locution, in its intelligible clarity:

“... all these four apprehensions may be called visions of the soul; for we term the understanding of the soul also its sight. And since all these apprehensions are intelligible to the understanding, they are described, in a spiritual sense, as ‘visible’. And thus the kinds of intelligence that are formed in the understanding may be called intellectual visions. 53 From all these the soul derives spiritual vision or intelligence without any kind of apprehension concerning form, image, or figure.” 54

But something more remains to be said about the nature of these four apprehensions that figure so largely and are treated so extensively in Book II of the Ascent. All of them, we have found, are equally subsumed under the comprehensive term “vision”, and this would seem to effectively attenuate any radical distinction between them. There must, then, be a single characteristic universally shared among them such that either the mode of reception or the mode of communication is the same in all relative cases. And since a distinction, however tenuous, nevertheless remains between these several communications – in that they are clearly and consistently differentiated within the schema St. John has developed – this unitary characteristic cannot be in the mode of communication; it must therefore be found in a certain mode of reception. And this receptive mode, we have seen, is described as a “vision” by St. John; a vision which may more properly be designated an intuition since it is explicitly unmediated in nature. As an intuition, then, this communication is non-sensuous; it is merely intuited without mediation of any type, rational or sensory. Moreover, the clarity and distinctness with which it is invested must not be mistaken as referring to the content of the communication – this still remains concealed from the understanding – rather, it is to be understood as referring to the experience itself which is clearly and distinctly perceived, not clearly and distinctly understood. This interpretation, I think, is clearly borne out in the following passages:

“... although these visions ... cannot be unveiled and be clearly seen in this life by the understanding, they can nevertheless be felt in the substance of the soul ... 55 And although at times, when such knowledge is given to the soul, words are used, the soul is well aware that it has expressed no part of what it has felt; for it knows that there is no fit name by which it can name it ...” 56

This very complex notion of intelligible apprehensions or visions, then, is more readily understood as, in clearly evidencing the characteristics of, an intuition: they are immediately apprehended, perceived as pure experiences communicated to the soul spiritually, and without any mediation whatever.

The Spurious and the Counterfeit:
   The Imperative of Faith

But it is no less clear, as St. John once again points out, that these four apprehensions are equally susceptible to being contrived, or perhaps better yet, counterfeited, diabolically. It is of the first order of importance, then, that some very clear criteria be established to distinguish between the diabolical and the divine relative to these apprehensions. Although St. John fails to provide us with a clear answer on this subject, our most immediate question, I think, will inevitably be – why? Why indeed go to the trouble of establishing criteria to distinguish between what is authentically divine, and what is spuriously diabolical in origin? After all, St. John has forcefully argued that when confronted with such supernatural apprehensions, the contemplative must disregard them totally, both as inimical to faith which alone is the proximate means to union, and as the possible occasion of error. If in fact, then, the disregard is to be total, the source, or origin of such communications would seem to be entirely irrelevant. One and all they are to be dismissed. The mystic, in any event, is to act in disregard of them; however, St. John proceeds to argue, the subjective effects of these apprehensions – independent of the resolute disregard of the mystic – are to the soul who is not yet totally withdrawn from the senses, that is to say, to the soul who is just being brought into the preliminary stages of mystical union, indications of the predilection of God who, through the accidental qualities of these subjective effects, stirs the soul to a greater desire for union. In a sense, then, God is understood as permitting these accidental qualities, ex mero motu, to attend the effects being secretly wrought in the soul. They are essentially signs to which invisible realities, in the way of actual effects occurring in the soul, correspond. On the other hand, those apprehensions effected diabolically, St. John contends, are in every sense entirely fraudulent. That is to say, there is no authentic correspondence between the sign and the reality it spuriously signifies: no effect whatever is wrought in the soul – no effect, that is, apart from the soul’s subjective response to the sign. And this is worth examining further.

For St. John, the only criteria to which the contemplative can appeal in attempting to discern the authenticity of what is perceived to be the divine invitation to mystical union consists, at this early stage – a stage, we will remember, in which the mystic is yet susceptible to the senses – largely in the subjective effects produced in the soul by the respective apprehensions. Diabolical communications, St. John argues, typically render the soul apathetic toward God; they characteristically foster inordinate pride, a pride in which the soul sees these communications as signal tokens of God’s unique predilection for it, and consequently dispose the soul to be inclined toward precisely these types of phenomena which, in effect, are so many inducements to abandon pure faith. The soul must, then, and for this crucial reason, proceed in absolute detachment from them, irrespective of its judgment concerning their source, and continue in the darkness of faith alone. 57  But does this really answer our question? In other words, if the soul is to prescind entirely from, not only the apprehension, but its accidental and subjective effects as well, how are we to reconcile this with the soul’s acceptance of God’s invitation through the very effects he is committed to disregarding? The answer, I suggest, is to be found in the very detachment that the soul is consistently exhorted to exercise. Perhaps we can put it another way. The mystic, through the accidental qualities that attend these phenomena, is, despite his intentional disregard, nevertheless perceptibly influenced by them – because they actually and simultaneously produce a real effect in his soul. They are, after all, and as we had said, authentic signs of invisible realities. On the other hand, there are no realities whatsoever effected in the soul by the merely fraudulent signs contrived by a diabolical agency. Both signs, then, may in fact be safely ignored – but only one produces an autonomous effect independent of the of the assent of the will.

But what of the criterion itself? Just how reliable can criteria be that appeal to what are fundamentally subjective impressions? Indeed, it is a commonplace in ordinary discourse there is hardly a less stringent or less qualified standard of discrimination to which we can appeal than the simplicity of feeling, nothing more naive than the subjectivity of sense. But the problem at hand is really quite an extraordinary one, and while this objection may indeed hold true in ordinary states of affairs, I think we are compelled to look at it more closely, certainly more critically, relative to the mystic’s own unique predicament, for upon further consideration, it turns out that what appears to be, on St. John’s part, an unsophisticated model of judgment, inevitably emerges as the only possible criterion available through the logic of the account. Our difficulty in accepting this criterion, I suggest, vanishes when, by simple substitution, we understand by the ambiguous term “feeling”, the more accurate term “intuition”. We must bear in mind, even as we had argued earlier, that what we are in fact dealing with in this type of supernatural apprehension is ultimately a pure, unmediated experience. Not, of course, relative to the actual effects being produced in the soul – since these are accomplished “secretly”– but rather, relative to the accidental qualities attending these undisclosed effects. These accidents, concurrent with, but unessential to, the effects being actually achieved, are a matter of experience – and experience remains the only criteria available to judgment. All the canons of rational discrimination, we will remember, including every judgment inflected by reason, have been sublated according to the uncompromising demands of the via negativa. Reason, then, antecedently abolished, can pronounce no judgment, for it can apply no logic to elements of experience to which it has no access.

For the soul reduced to the passive simplicity of experience-only, there remains merely the intuition, or in the words of St. John, the feeling, in which this experience consists – and it is this simple subjective perception which alone can possibly constitute a criterion by which the soul is capable of evaluating the several types of experiences or apprehensions to which it is subject in this obscure night of the spirit. The distinct and special mode of supernatural understanding which we have discussed above is, as we had suggested earlier, really a parenthetical treatment of error which St. John addresses to emphasize the imperative of pure faith in the soul’s journey to union. In a sense it is propadeutic to better understanding the general and obscure mode of supernatural understanding which is really the aspect that is of particular interest to us in developing a mystical epistemology, for here we are dealing with the direct, if confused, intuition of God. Unlike its distinct and special counterpart, this general and obscure mode begins, surprisingly enough, in the soul’s active practice of meditation prior to its being brought into the advanced state of contemplation. And it is here that the relation between meditation and contemplation first becomes clear.

The “General” and the “Obscure” Modes of Understanding

Where the distinct and special mode of supernatural communication had its origin solely in the divine or diabolical initiative independent of the dispositional attitude of the soul – which was, in fact, exhorted to be entirely passive to these communications – the general and obscure mode, on the other hand, begins in the discursive act of meditation. Here the mystic endeavors to achieve, through increasingly articulated acts of reflection, a greater knowledge, and therefore a greater love of God (the two are clearly equated by St. John throughout the text). This knowledge and concomitant love of God, increasingly attending each particular discursive act, and amplified in the totality of these acts, through repetition ultimately generates what St. John calls a continuous and habitual knowledge and love of God as its familiar object:

“... the end of reasoning and meditation on the things of God is the gaining of some knowledge and love of God, and each time that the soul gains this through meditation, it is an act; and just as many acts, of whatever kind, end by forming a habit in the soul, just so, many of these acts of loving knowledge which the soul has been making one after another from time to time come through repetition to be so continuous in it that they become habitual ... And thus that which aforetime the soul was gaining gradually through its labor of meditation upon particular facts has now through practice ... become converted and changed into a habit and substance of loving knowledge, of a general kind, and not distinct and particular as before.” 58  

What St. John appears to be saying is that the various discrete acts of meditation, by virtue of repetition, coalesce into a general sense of the numinous. Although generated collectively by these individual and discrete repetitive acts, this comprehensive sense of the numinous appears to transcend each of them in their particularity. The soul thus comes, through practice and habit, to what St. John calls a confused and general knowledge of God which may better be described as an intensely focused attentiveness to – and consequently a receptivity towards – that of which it has yet only obscure knowledge. 59

Once again, and typically, the precise mechanics involved in this psychological transition remain unaddressed by – because in a real sense they are unnecessary to – St. John, and remain merely to speculated upon. By now, however, St. John has provided us with the necessary heuristic concepts to assist us in understanding this transition more completely. Having transcended the discrete and particular acts characteristic of meditation, the soul must be understood as having effectively transcended meditation itself, together with the specific and determinate forms apprehended within it. In transcending these distinct forms, then, the soul has transcended the activity itself by which they were acquired – and as a result has simultaneously entered into the passive state of contemplation. In other words, the general and numinous sense that resulted from a continuous and habitual knowledge and love of God has itself resulted in an epistemological transformation in which not only is the particularity of form transcended, but the activity that produced that form as well. The result, whatever it may be, cannot be an epistemological state characterized by a type of activity that has already been transcended. It must, then, as a result of this transition, be passive. And not simply passive, but as a consequence of the transcendence of distinct and clear form, it must of necessity be general and confused relative to God. In other words, in transcending this clearly discursive function which passes from one particular to another, the soul at once and necessarily undergoes a cognitive transformation resulting in, and characterized by, indeterminate generality – a generality in which the penumbra of hitherto distinct particulars merge into, effectively become continuous with, others in a way that a discursive faculty is no longer able to accommodate. And it is precisely this indeterminate type of cognition, this indistinct epistemological state precursive to contemplation, which St. John understands as the general and obscure mode.

But that this mode of understanding is supernaturally communicated to the soul – and St. John maintains that it is – is not entirely clear in the text, for we have seen it to essentially result from a process of repetition, practice, and habit, in all of which the soul itself appears to be the principal agent. But by the same token it is no less clear that in having transcended meditation the soul has simultaneously transcended what is fundamentally a formal manifold – a matrix of distinct forms – the features of which, however embellished by the imagination with supernatural qualities, remain natural objects addressed in the discursive activity of meditation. That is to say, the object taken in meditation, however meticulously constructed to represent our conception of a supernatural reality, is always invested with distinct formal features deriving from, and only occurring within, nature. They are, one and all, distinct, finite, temporal, and invariably represented as material. And necessarily so, otherwise they would be incapable of being apprehended by sensuous imagination as the synthetic faculty operant in every meditation. Consequently, in transcending, in going beyond, natural objects properly addressed in the discursive act of meditation – regardless of the manner in which this is accomplished – the cognitive soul has already, and necessarily, passed on to supernatural objects of contemplation. Nor can the soul be the author of these supernatural objects, still less the agent behind this transition, for as a natural agent it cannot produce supernatural effects, that is to say, effects which are categorically disproportionate to its nature. This kind of transition simply does not lie within the natural province of the soul. It must, therefore, be divinely initiated. And this is precisely the point argued by St. John who maintains that it is God alone who, from beginning to end, moves the soul – which, through the prompting of grace, cooperates with God – to union with him through infused contemplation. 60

This is not to say, paradoxically, that the epistemological transition from meditation to contemplation is immediately recognized by, even as it is enacted within, the mystic. It is not, as we may suppose, a sudden quantum leap between utterly incommensurable categories, but rather a gradual transition from distinct and clear, to confused and general knowledge:

“... when this condition first begins, the soul is hardly aware of this knowledge, and that for two reasons. First, this loving knowledge is apt at the beginning to be very subtle and delicate, and almost imperceptible to the senses. Secondly, when the soul has been accustomed to that other exercise of meditation, which is wholly perceptible, it is unaware, and hardly conscious, of this other new and imperceptible condition, which is purely spiritual ... 61 This general knowledge is at times so subtle and delicate, particularly when it is most pure and simple and perfect, most spiritual and most interior, that although the soul is occupied therein, it can neither realize it nor perceive it ... [in fact] when this knowledge is purest and simplest and most perfect, the understanding is least conscious of it and thinks of it as most obscure.” 62

Apparently, then, in the transition from mediation to contemplation, this general and obscure knowledge is so subtly introduced, so insusceptible to determinate understanding, that it often escapes not so much a conscious realization, as understanding altogether. The soul only implicitly, tentatively, experiences God, understanding neither that which it only perceptibly experiences, nor how it experiences this obscure intuition of the Absolute. When this “knowledge”, as St. John calls this intuitive apprehension, is “purest”, or entirely imperceptible to sense, the transition from meditation to contemplation is effectively complete. Cognition transcends the perimeters that circumscribe – and in so defining, limit – the forms, figures and conceptions of natural understanding to which the experiences in contemplation remain forever and necessarily opaque. It is the “fleeting touch of union” of which St. John speaks, the pre-noetic confrontation with the Absolute before which understanding is abolished to nature.


  The Role of the Memory


1 AMC 2.8.4
2 AMC 2.8.5 cf. 1.4.4-7
3 AMC 2.4.4 also cf. 2.26.18
4 AMC 1.13.11+12 also cf. 1 Cor. 2.9 & 2 Cor. 6.10
5 AMC 2.1.1
6 Understood as encompassing the world of men and matter, as well as the celestial hierarchy of created spirits ( cf. AMC 2.12.3+4 ).
7 see page ___ of this commentary
8 AMC 2.1.1 , DNS 2.23.2
9 Jn. 14.6
10 Jn. 8.44, Gen 3.1-15
11 AMC 2.11.3
12 AMC 2.10.4
13 Rom. 10.14-17
14 AMC 2.3.1 also cf. 2.9.1
15 This surprisingly modern epistemological analysis, by the way, precedes the great 17th century empiricists by more than a century, and is treated in much greater detail by Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 AD) some four hundred years prior to Locke and Hume. Cf. S.T. I Q.84 Art. 1-8, Q.85 Art. 1-3 and in passim. Also, De Potent. Dei Q.3 Art. 5.
16 AMC 2.3.2+3
17 Heb.11.1
18 1 Cor. 2.9
19 cf. AMC 2.22.11, 2.27.1+4, 2.29.12
20 Books I, II, & III of AMC respectively
21 AMC 2.6.1+2; cf. DNS 2.21.11
22 AMC 2.6.1-4
23 AMC 3.2.4
24 AMC 3.16.2
25 AMC 2.6.6
26 AMC 2.7.4,7,+11; cf. DNS 2.4.2 & SC 17.11+12
27 AMC 2.7.4+7
28 AMC 2.2.1
29 AMC 2.8.4-5
30 AMC 2.9.1
31 AMC 2.10.2-4
32 AMC 2.10.2
33 e.g. AMC 2.8.4-5, 1.3.3, & 2.3.2+3
34 AMC 2.12.2-3
35 AMC 2.10.4
36 AMC 2.11.3 emphasis added
37 AMC 2.11.7 cf. 2 Cor. 11.14
38 AMC 2.11.2,5,7 & ff.
39 AMC 2.11.2 & 2.19.5+11
40 AMC 2.12.5 & 2.17.3
41 AMC 2.11.9
42 AMC 2.11.2 & 2.26.18
43 Jn. 8.44
44 1 Pet. 5.8
45 AMC 2.11.3
46 AMC 2.11.6
47 AMC 2.19.10
48 AMC 2.20.6
49 AMC 2.19.1
50 AMC 2.23.1
51 AMC 2.23.2&3
52 AMC 2.23.3
53 AMC 2.23.2
54 AMC 2.23.3
55 AMC 2.24.4
56 AMC 2.26.4 emphases added
57 AMC 2.24.8
58 AMC 2.14.2
59 AMC 2.15.2-5
60 AMC 1.1.5 etc.
61 AMC 2.14.7
62 AMC 2.14.8

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