The Priest in Union with Christ by Garrigou-Lagrange - Part 3, Section 2, Chapter 4

The Direction of Proficients

Chapter Four


We will first consider the passage of the soul from discursive meditation to contemplation, then the direction of souls at that period, and finally, the faults of such advanced souls.

The soul's second conversion

According to St. John of the Cross (The Dark Night, I, c. 9) the spiritual director should attend to three signs which indicate the transition of the soul from discursive meditation to the beginning of infused contemplation. This higher form of prayer is not to be attributed to the soul's own efforts aided by sanctifying grace but to the virtue of faith perfected by the gifts of the Holy Ghost: that is to say, it results from a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost, a special grace under the influence of which the soul does not move itself but is moved by the third Divine Person (cf. St. Thomas, la Ilae, q. 111, a. 2).

The three signs are the following. In the first place, the soul is experiencing sensible aridity and finds no consolation either in divine things or in any thing created. Taken by itself this sign would be insufficient, since it might proceed from a fit of depression. But when considered in conjunction with other signs it indicates to some extent the influence of the gift of knowledge, which enables the soul to recognize the vanity of all created things.

The second sign which marks the entrance of the soul into the illuminative way is that in spite of this aridity it never forgets God; it retains a keen desire for perfection and fears that it is falling back in its service of God. Here is evident proof that the present state of the soul is not caused by depression or tepidity, and it reveals the influence of the gifts of fear and piety.

And the third sign of the soul's readiness for the beginning of infused contemplation is that it can no longer practise discursive meditation but finds pleasure in a simple loving attention directed towards God. This is a sign that God is beginning to enlighten the soul with a special inspiration of the Holy Ghost. This simple regard, which is centred on God, proceeds from the virtue of faith illumined by the gifts of knowledge and understanding and—at least in a hidden way—wisdom.

Souls which manifest these three signs are undergoing the passive purification of the senses, a second conversion, during which they are weaned from all attachment to sensible consolations in order to come to a more spiritual and generous love of God. This is the crisis of<the soul's spiritual transformation.

There are some who show themselves most generous in passing through this crisis and thus they enter the illuminative way of proficients, which is called by St. John of the Cross "the way of infused contemplation" (The Dark Night of the Soul, bk. i, c. 14). Others are less generous and are never completely successful in reaching the illuminative way, but remain to some extent retarded souls. As a result they will sometimes return to discursive meditation when they do not accept the gift of initial infused contemplation: at other times they happily accept this gift for a brief period.

Spiritual direction during the passive purification of the senses2

During this time of aridity spiritual persons are not to long for the return of those sense consolations of which they are being deprived. On the contrary, they must be freed from this spiritual gluttony, from this excessive desire for consolation. Neither must they devote themselves to methodical and discursive meditation when this has become a well-nigh impossible task. This would be like running to the spring when the soul has already arrived at that spring of water "that flows continually to bring him everlasting life" (John iv, 14). Or as if when reading we were to behave like children who count the letters in each word, when in fact we can take in several words together at a single glance and read without difficulty.

The soul must continue to trust in God and not despair, neither must it cease from prayer as though its effort were of no avail. On the contrary, prayer is never more fruitful than during this period of trial, so long as the soul perseveres in a spirit of humility, self-denial, and trust in God. True, this is a "narrow road" but it leads to a higher form of life. The soul is then in the fortunate position of having to make intense acts of humility, faith, hope, and charity. It should never forget that this passive purification of the senses has to be endured either here on earth while there is the opportunity of merit or after death in Purgatory, when merit is no longer possible. Hence this trial of aridity in prayer is nothing unusual in the development of the soul towards sanctity, and it must simply place all its trust in God.

During this period the soul should rest content in a confused and general knowledge of God and in affective love, making acts of confidence and love of God. For it is now at the end of discursive meditation and on the threshold of contemplation. However, should this general and confused awareness of God disappear, the soul should once again take up its former practice of meditation—especially on the life and Passion of Christ —or else return to a slow affective meditation on the "Our Father," as outlined by St. Teresa.

Finally, proficients must be prepared to bear patiently all the accompanying trials of this state, such as temptations against purity, the loss of sensible comforts, ill-health, opposition from one's fellow men.

The faults of proficients

Spiritual directors must take note of certain faults which are proper to the soul in the illuminative way: these may be either habitual or actual.3

Habitual failings which affect the intellect are distractions, a constant wandering of the mind away from God to creatures, unwillingness to forgo one's own opinion, an authoritative attitude in ruling others, or the opposite failing of extreme leniency towards those who oppress the weak.

Faults to be found in the will are an innate love of self and an unbridled attachment to spiritual consolations.

Actual or occasional faults of the intellect are the mistakes made in matters relating to the spiritual life; for example, erroneous judgments about visions and revelations. Actual faults affecting the will are presumption, ambition, pride or arrogance.

These defects are all the more insidious as they may be mistaken for acts of virtue and not recognized for what they really are.

Because of these faults and imperfections proficients must undergo a second purification—the passive purification of the spirit. The inner recesses of their soul have to be finally purified by the light of the gift of understanding.4

1Cf. my previous work, The Three Ages of the Interior Life, English tr., I, p. 260; St. Alphonsus, Praxis confessarii, c. 9, par. II, IV.

2Cf. St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, bk. I, c. 10. Also, The Three Ages of the Interior life, vol. II, p. 54.

3St. John of the Cross speaks of these failings and afflictions in The Dark Night of the Soul, bk. II, c. 7 and 8. Cf. op. cit., The Three Ages of the Interior Life, English tr., II, p. 356.

4St. John of the Cross discusses this need in the opening chapters of the second book of The Dark Night of the Soul.