Ascent 2

Ascent 1.6-2.4  Response 2

ch 6 …the harm, privative as well as positive, that appetites cause in the soul…

A person, by mere attachment to a created thing is less capable of God, and this in the measure that the appetite has entity in the soul.  In other words, the more I am attached or occupied with status, possessions, money, food, pleasure of any kind; the less time, energy, attention, focus, etc. I have for God.

John says …as a person is subject to a sensory spirit, an entirely spiritual one cannot enter.  When I say I want to be more spiritual I am actually saying I want to be subject more…or entirely…to God but this means I cannot allow the sensory “highs” of my life rule what I do, or when, for then I am subject to them.  How often do I stop to “grab a bite” or check my email, or watch TV or enjoy the  fragrance of some special lotion or perfume, etc.  None of these are necessarily bad but when I add up all the time I spend on things I enjoy that are not God compared to the time I am totally focused on God, I realize that all these other things so easily distract and deprive me of God.

But there’s more, according to John.  Not only do they deprive me of God, they also do “positive harm” or impairment to the soul.  The appetites weary, torment, darken, defile, and weaken the soul.  He goes on to describe how they weary the soul by making the soul restless and hard to please.  I am always looking for more to satisfy me.  I reach one goal or good and that is never enough; I want more.  I am the child riding in the shopping cart reaching, crying for anything that catches my eye.  The appetites never let the soul settle or rest.   …until they rest in Thee.

ch. 7.  deals with the second harm the appetites cause, torment and affliction.  The affliction they engender is similar to the torture of the rack, where a person has no relief untill freed from the torment of being bound by its cords…A soul is tormented and afflicted when it reclines on its appetites just as is someone lying naked on thorns and nails…thy wound and hurt…For among the appetites, which are the thorns, the fire of anguish and torment increases…Concupiscence,in order to attain the object of its longing, afflicts the one under the yoke of the appetites.  The appetite torments in the measure of its intensity…the more numerous the appetites that possess a soul, the greater in number are its torments (temptations).

God, in Isaiah says, Come to the waters, all who experience the thirst of your appetites…and you will have peace and spiritual sweetness…without paying with labor as you do for the satisfaction of your appetites.  This reminds me of what Jesus said to the woman at the well when he revealed her sins to her and then revealed himself as living water.  …and in Mt…you will find the rest for your souls that the desires take away from you.

ch 8  takes up the discussion of the third harm, blindness and darkness

A person’s intellect becomes clouded by the appetites.  So often I find myself right back where I said I did not want to be.  I made a resolution but I am blinded.  Because of the darkening of the intellect, the will becomes weak and the memory dull and disordered in its proper operation…the intellect becomes incapable of receiving God’s wisdom and the will is incapable of embracing God within itself in pure love.

John explains that the appetite blinds because it is blind since it has no intellect.  When the appetite leads instead of the intellect we have the blind leading and that makes me blind as well…in Mt–both fall into the ditch.  J says we become like the moth lured by the light into the fire.  The appetites enkindle concupiscence and overwhelm the intellect so that it cannot see the light.  When I experience temptation and do not immediately turn away, I lose sight, lose control, and am blindly led into the fire.

Then J laments that some are so ignorant that they engage in all sorts of penances and pious practices instead of doing what they must do to extinguish the source of temptation.  He says I cannot be successful until I diligently strive to deny my appetites.  Without this mortification, all that is done for the sake of advancement in perfection and in knowledge of God and of oneself…will not bear fruit…and the appetites will cause the soul to grow gradually worse.  (like Solomon)  All the graces and blessings and effort can be lost in the blindness.  Solomon, so blessed and close to God, failed to deny his desires and in his old age, abandoned God.  It is very frightening that this could happen to me.  I am sure Solomon never wanted such a thing to happen when he first had the wisdom and gifts of God.  A reminder that perseverance can never be taken for granted.

He concludes the description of this blindness…At every step we mistake evil for good and good for evil…we grope along the wall as if without eyes and we stumble along in broad daylight…those who are blinded by their appetites; when they are in the midst of the truth and what is suitable for them, they no more see than if they were in the dark.

ch 9  The fourth harm the appetites cause the soul is defiling or staining it.  (remember the milk bottle)  John compares them to pitch adhering to gold or diamond–the soul created by God in God’s image for God.  As the heat increases the pitch covers more surface.  So great is the harm that if we try to express how ugly and dirty is the imprint the appetites leave on the soul we can find nothing comparable to it.  One inordinate appetite suffices to make a soul so captive, dirty and unsightly that until it is purified, the soul is incapable of conformity with God in union.   This is sure even if there is no matter for sin in the appetite.  What then will be the ugliness of a soul entirely disordered in its passions and surrendered to its appetites .  Only one inordinate act can occasion numerous kinds and various degrees of filth.  Likewise, the well-ordered soul in a single  perfect act possesses countless rich gifts and beautiful virtues.

God said to Ezekiel, have you not seen indeed the abominations that each of these accomplishes in the secrecy of his chamber?  He saw unclean animals representing intellectual thoughts of abject earthly things.  He saw women weeping representing the will coveting what it is attached to.  He saw men turned away representing the memory which preserves and focuses on the objects of the affections.  The soul is wholly joined with an earthly object by embracing it with these three faculties.  We would never finish discussing the lesser degrees of ugliness causes by imperfections and venial sins.

ch 10  The fifth kind of harm is weakness and tepidity.  The appetites sap the strength needed for perseverance in virtue.  If the appetite of the will pours itself out on something other than virtue, it grows weak.  The appetites do not bring any good to a person.  Rather they rob the soul of the good one already has.  If one fails to mortify them they will eat away like the young vipers consuming the entrails and draining the life of their mother.  So the appetites will kill the soul in its relationship with God.

How unhappy this soul; how cold it is towards its neighbor; how sluggish and slothful it becomes in the things of God.   Ordinarily the reason people do not have diligence and eagerness for the acquisition of virtue is that their appetites and will are not fixed solely on God.

Ch 11  Is freedom from all the appetites, even the smallest, necessary to obtain divine union, or is it sufficient to mortify just some…for it seems an arduous task to obtain such purity and nakedness that they would have no attachment to anything.  It is true that the appetites are not all equally detrimental nor are they all equally a hindrance to the soul.  Only the voluntary appetites are a problem for the natural ones are little or no hindrance to union, provided they do not receive one’s consent or pass beyond the first movements, those stirrings in which the rational will does not take part either before or after.  To mortify them entirely is impossible in this life.  A soul can easily experience them in its sensitive nature and yet be free of them in the rational part of its being.   It can happen that while a person is experiencing an intense union of will in the prayer of quiet, these appetites will be actually dwelling in the sensory part (growling stomach).  The superior part, in prayer, will be paying no attention to them.

All the other voluntary appetites, whether they involve mortal sin or less grave venial sin, or even only imperfections must be mortified.  A person must be liberated of them all, however slight, in order to arrive at this complete union where the person’s will is transformed into God’s will that excludes everything contrary to God.  To reach this union of wills a soul must first be freed from every appetite, however slight.  It must not give consent of the will advertently and knowingly to an imperfection and one must have the power and freedom to be able to refuse this consent.

I say knowingly because one will fall into imperfections, venial sins and natural appetites without having advertance, or knowledge or control in the matter.  Into these the just man will fall seven times a day and rise up again.  But any one of the voluntary appetites that are advertent sins, even if trifling, if not conquered is sufficient to impede union.  I am referring here to habitual appetites.  Others are not such a hindrance when the habitual appetites are mortified.  However, the soul must be liberated from these too since they proceed from habitual imperfection.   Some voluntary imperfections that are never completely conquered are an impediment not only to divine union but to spiritual progress as well!  Some common habitual imperfections are: being too talkative or attached to a person or thing or practice or food etc.  Any of these to which there is an attachment is as harmful to the progress in virtue as the daily commission of many other imperfections and sporadic venial sins that do not spring out of bad habit.

John makes the comparison to a bird whose leg is attached by only a thread.  It still cannot fly away until the thread is removed.   It is regrettable to behold some souls laden with deeds, spiritual exercises, virtues, and favors from God, who never advance because they lack the courage to make a complete break with some little satisfaction, attachment or affection and never reach perfection.  Not only don’t they advance; they turn back.  To not go forward on this road is to turn back.  One imperfection leads to another.  You will scarcely find a person negligent in conquering one appetite who will not have many others flowing from the identical weakness and imperfection.  Some fall from happiness and stability all because they did not put a stop to their initial satisfaction and sensitive pleasure, and preserve themselves for God in solitude.

Our goal demands that we never stop on this road, which means we must continually get rid of our wants.  If we do not get rid of them all completely, then we will not reach our goal.  If a person’s will is encumbered or occupied by anything, it will not possess the freedom, solitude and purity requisite for divine transformation.  Because the enemy is not entirely destroyed, it will be an occasion of the soul’s fall and perdition.  All objects that live in the soul, whether many or few, large or small, must die in order that the soul enter divine union and it must bear no desire for them but remain detached as though they were nonexistent to it and it to them.

ch 12  The kinds of appetites that can bring this harm…So far we have seen how the mortification of the appetites can be called night and how important it is to enter this night to approach God.  A summary chapter…

Some final points about these appetites and the harms they cause:

  • Only the voluntary appetites involving mortal sin cause complete privation by depriving the soul of grace in this life and possession of God in the next.
  • All the positive harms are occasioned in the soul by each of these appetites whether they concern mortal sin or venial sin, or imperfection.
  • The privative harm is an aversion to God; the positive harms are conversion to creature.
  • The appetites for mortal sin cause complete blindness, torment, filth, etc. while the others cause damage to a lesser degree corresponding to the weakening of grace by them.
  • Each appetite causes all the kinds of positive harm but each will cause one kind principally and directly and the others indirectly.  For example gluttony chiefly produces lukewarmness in virtue.
  • Through the practice of one virtue all virtues grow and through an increase in one vice, all the vices and their effects grow.
  • These evils are not apparent at the moment the appetite is satisfied since the pleasure of the moment hides them.  Eventually the bitter effect is felt.  But some are so blind that they do not experience the bitterness since they do not walk in God and do not perceive what keeps them from him.
  • J is not speaking of the involuntary appetites or thoughts that do not pass beyond the first movements, or of temptations where there is no consent.  These do not give rise to any of these harms.  The disturbance they momentarily cause make it seem that one is being defiled and blinded but really they occasion strength, purity, comfort and many blessings in the measure that one resists them.
  • Since the voluntary appetites bring on all these evils, the immediate mortification of every appetite should be the chief concern so as to remain empty of what is desired and liberated from harm and misery.

ch 13  The manner and method of entering this night of sense. Counsels for knowing the way and how to do so.  A person ordinarily enters this night of sense in two ways, active and passive.  The active way which is the subject of the Ascent comprises what one can do by oneself to enter this night.  In the passive way one does nothing but God accomplishes the work and the soul is the recipient.  This will be the subject of The Dark Night.  J proceeds to give several lists of counsels or attitudes or behaviors that he hopes will guide the soul through this night.

These counsels are as profitable and efficacious as they are concise.  A person who sincerely wants to practice them will need no others:

1.  Have habitual desire to imitate Christ in all your deeds by bringing your life into conformity with his.  You must study his life in order to know how to imitate him.

2.  In order to imitate him, renounce and remain empty of any sensory satisfaction that is not purely for the honor and glory of God, out of love for Jesus Christ.  He had no other desire or gratification than the fulfillment of his Father’s will.  For example, when you have the opportunity for hearing things or looking upon objects that will not help you love God more, do not desire or seek this gratification.  And so on with all the senses insofar as you can duly avoid satisfaction.  Leave the senses as though in darkness, mortified and empty.

Many blessings flow when the four natural passions, joy, hope, fear and sorrow are in harmony and at peace.  The following maxims contain a complete method for mortifying and pacifying them and will give rise to abundant merit and great virtue:

Endeavor to be inclined always:

  • not to the easiest, but to the most difficult
  • not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful
  • not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant
  • not to what means rest for you, but to hard work
  • not to the consoling, but to the unconsoling
  • not to the most, but to the least
  • not to the highest and most precious, but to the lowest and most despised
  • not to wanting something, but to wanting nothing.

Do no go about looking for the best of temporal things but for the worst, and for Christ, desire to enter into complete nakedness, emptiness, and poverty.  Embrace these practices earnestly and try to overcome the repugnance of your will toward them.  If you sincerely put them into practice with order and discretion, you will discover in them great delight and consolation.  These counsels if truly carried out are sufficient for entry into the night of senses.  But here is another exercise that teaches mortification of concupiscence of the flesh, eyes, and pride of life which give rise to all the other appetites.

  1. Try to act with contempt for yourself and desire that all others do likewise.
  2. Endeavor to speak in contempt of yourself and desire that all others do likewise.
  3. Try to think lowly and contemptuously of yourself and desire that all others do the same.

From the drawing at the beginning of the book, these verses:

  • To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing.
  • To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing.
  • To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing.
  • To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing.
  • To come to enjoy what you have not, you must go by a way in which you enjoy not.
  • To come to the knowledge you have not, you must go by a way in which you know not.
  • To come to the possession you have not, you must go by the way in which you possess not.
  • To come to be what you are not, you must go by the way in which you are not.

A method to avoid impeding God’s grace:

  • When you delay in something, you cease to rush to the all.
  • For to go from the all to the all you must deny yourself of all in all.
  • And when you come to the possession of the all you must possess it without wanting anything.
  • Because if you desire to have anything in all your treasure in God is not purely your all.

In this nakedness, the spirit finds its quietude and rest.  For in coveting nothing…it is in the center of its humility.  When it covets something, it tires itself.

ch 14  Now that we have explained the first verse of this stanza, about the night of sense, and discussed the nature of this night…and the method of actively entering it, we continue with the admirable properties in the remaining verses before beginning Book2 on the spiritual part of this night.

The soul, fired with love’s urgent longings, passed through this night of sense to union with the Beloved.  A love of pleasure and attachment to it usually fires the will toward the source of pleasure but a more intense enkindling of another better love…is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure.  By finding satisfaction and strength in this love, it will have the courage and constancy to readily deny all other appetites.  If not fired with other more urgent longings for spiritual things, the soul will be able neither to overcome the yoke of nature nor to enter the night of sense, nor will it have the courage to live in the darkness of all things by denying its appetites for them.

John claims that this is not the place to describe the nature of these longings of love or the numerous ways they occur at the outset of the journey to union….Neither is it the place for a discussion of the diligence and ingenuity of persons departing from their house (self-will) into the night of the mortification of the senses, or of how easy, sweet, and delightful these longings for their Bridegroom make all the trials and dangers of this night seem.  It is better to experience this and meditate on it than to write of it.

So he leaves us hanging and wanting more, maybe because of  misunderstandings causing major political problems with the Inquisition.  Maybe he simply does not want to cause something to happen in the imagination before God finds the soul ready.  The soul should be able to identify how God has pursued the individual in a unique way and meditating on the delights this initial longing brought to the soul, when it fell in love with God, should give rise to and intensify the urgent longings of this better love that John says is necessary to provide the strength needed to mortify the appetites (sensual pleasure) that stand in the way of union with God

Ch 15.  on the remaining verses of the first stanza.  The soul uses as a metaphor the wretched state of captivity from which it is released by grace.  Through original sin the soul is captive to the body, subject to passions and natural appetites; when liberated (by mortification and grace) it considers its escape, in which it is unnoticed, unimpeded and unapprehended by its appetites.  To depart in the dark night, it realizes it was the privation of all satisfactions and the mortification of all appetites that lulled its desires to sleep so that the soul is now stilled.  Until the appetites no longer war against the spirit, the soul will not go out to genuine freedom; to the enjoyment of union with its Beloved.

End of the first Book

Book 2. ch 1

This book is a treatise on faith, the proximate means of ascent to union with God. Here we begin the second part, the night of spirit. The second stanza tells of the sheer grace of divesting the spirit of all imperfections and appetites for spiritual possessions.

–Wait a minute…didn’t the soul seek to be rid of all physical and sensual possessions to have spiritual possessions.  This is a source of confusion for many.  What John is trying to say here is that one can be just as attached and distracted by holy or spiritual things as by creatures or physical pleasure.  The very things that opened the heart to God and inspired it to seek purgation, the active night of the senses, can come to take over and dominate thoughts and emotions and become an obstacle to seeking God alone.  In fact there is greater hardship here in quieting one’s spiritual nature and entering this interior darkness, the spiritual nakedness of all sensory (e.g. statues, rosaries, etc.) and immaterial things (e.g. prayers, retreats, etc.)  The soul must lean on pure faith alone (the secret ladder).  All the rungs, articles of faith, are secret, hidden from the senses and the intellect.  The soul must climb this ladder of faith which leads to and penetrates the depths of God.  The soul departed in darkness and secure; departing from all natural phantasms and intellectual reasonings, the soul walks securely.

To enter the night of sense and denude itself of sensible things the soul needed the longings of sensitive love.  But what is required for complete pacification of the spiritual house is the negation through pure faith of all the spiritual faculties and gratifications and appetites.  Then the soul will be joined with the Beloved in a union of simplicity and purity and love and likeness.  John uses the term “in darkness” here rather than “dark night” to indicate a more intense obscurity.  In the night of sense there is yet some light since the intellect and reason remain, but this spiritual night, which is faith, removes everything in the intellect as well as the senses.  For the less a soul works with its own abilities the more securely it proceeds and progresses in faith.

2.2.   Why faith is darker than the first and third parts of this night.  Faith, the means for advancing to God is comparable to midnight; darker than the first night of the senses and darker than the third before daylight when the light of God is anticipated.  The first night pertains to the lower sensory part and is more external.  The second night of faith belongs to the rational superior part and is darker and more interior because it blinds the soul to rational light.  This second part is a night to the spirit just as the first is a night to the senses.  We will discuss later how a person prepares to enter this night.

2.3.  John uses scripture to show how faith is a dark night for the soul.  Faith is a certain and obscure habit of soul. (Thomas Aquinas)  It brings us to believe divinely revealed truths that transcend every natural light and infinitely exceed all human understanding. (e.g. Trinity)  Thus the excess light obscures all other light, like the sun to the stars.  The light of faith suppresses and overwhelms the intellect which extends only to natural knowledge unless God raises it to supernatural potency.

The intellect knows through the senses.  If a sense fails to provide the information, true understanding does not exist.  He gives the example of the person born blind trying to understand the color yellow.  In faith we are informed of things we have never experienced.  In believing what faith teaches we are blinding our natural light and bringing it into submission.  Faith nullifies the light of the intellect and if this light is not darkened, the knowledge of faith is lost.

Faith manifestly is a dark night for souls but in this way it gives them light.  The more darkness it brings, the more light it sheds.   The day, which is God, communicates and pronounces the Word, his Son, to the angels and blessed souls who are now day, and this he does so that they may have knowledge and enjoyment of him.  Faith, present in the Church, manifests this knowledge which is night because we do not yet have the beatific vision.  Ps. 139: The night of faith will be my guide in the delights of my pure contemplation and union with God.

2.4  This is a pivotal and important chapter.  This is often the beginning of understanding that all the good, holy, and grace-filled experiences, lessons, and activities in one’s life are good in that they brought you to this place but now you are asked to let go of them; to see them for what they are or actually for what they are not.  They are not God, nor do they reveal anything but a false God to the soul.  They must be let go of.  The soul must deny them any power or influence and enter the darkness of faith in order to have the freedom to be drawn by the very being of God which is totally other, nada, no-thing perceptible by the soul is this life, and be guided by faith to contemplation.

Here John tries to give an introduction to the nature of the darkness of faith.  A person must live in darkness in the sensory and lower part of their nature as discussed in Bk 1 but also darken and blind themselves in that part of their nature that relates to God and spiritual things; the rational and higher part of their nature.

Because transformation and union do not fall within the reach of the senses and of human capability, the soul must perfectly and voluntarily empty itself–I mean in its affections and will–of all the earthly and heavenly things it can grasp.  This is what this night is about.  However many supernatural communications the soul may receive, they must live as though denuded of them and in total darkness.  Like the blind they must lean on dark faith, accept it for their guide and light and rest on nothing they understand, hear, see, taste, feel, or imagine.  All these will lead the soul astray.  If they do not blind themselves in these things and abide in total darkness, they will not reach what is greater: faith.

Those who are not totally blind think the road they are on is the best.  If the soul travelling this road leans on any elements of its own knowledge of God, it will be detained.  However impressive may be one’s knowledge or experience of God, that knowledge or experience will have no resemblance to God and amount to very little.  Those who want to reach union with God should advance neither by understanding nor by the support of their own feeling or imagination, but by belief in God’s being, for God’s being cannot be grasped by the intellect, appetite, imagination, or any other sense; nor can it be known in this life   The most that can be felt and tasted of God in this life is infinitely distant from God and the pure possession of him.  (Eye has not seen…)

Souls in this life may seek to unite themselves perfectly through grace with what they will be united to in glory in the next life.  But, manifestly, the perfect union in this life through grace and love demands that they live in darkness to all the objects of sight (statues, cathedrals, nature), hearing (hymns, sermons, symphonies, thunder), imagination (visions, scenes from holy cards or scripture, locutions), and everything comprehensible to the heart, which signifies the soul (feelings of awe, reverence, adoration).  Those are decidedly hindered then from attainment of this high state of union with God who are attached to any understanding, feeling, imagining, opinion, desire or way of their own, or to any of their works or practices, and know not how to detach and denude themselves of these impediments (which would usually be considered by most as goods or graces).  Their goal, as we have said, transcends all of this, even the loftiest object that can be known or experienced   Consequently they must pass beyond all to complete unknowing.

Here I will simply copy paragraphs 5-7 of this chapter. They are filled with great wisdom and deserving of extensive consideration.  Warning: this whole chapter may make your world or your head explode.

5.  As regards this road to union, entering on the road means leaving one’s own road; or better, moving on to the goal.  And turning from one’s own mode implies entry into what has no mode, that is, God.  Individuals who reach this state no longer have any modes or methods, still less are they attached to them, nor can they be.  I am referring to modes of understanding, tasting, and feeling.  Within themselves, though, they possess all methods, like one who though having nothing yet possesses all things [2Cor.6:10].  By being courageous enough to pass beyond the interior and exterior limits of their own nature, they enter into supernatural bounds–bounds that have not mode, yet in substance possess all modes.   To reach these supernatural bounds souls must depart from their natural bounds–and leave self far off in respect to both bounds–in order to mount from a low state to the highest.

6.  Passing beyond all that is naturally and spiritually intelligible or comprehensible, souls ought to desire with all their might to attain what in this life could never be known or enter the human heart.  And parting company with all they can or do taste and feel, temporally and spiritually, they must ardently long to acquire what surpasses all taste and feeling.  To be empty and free for the achievement of this, they should by no means seize  on what they receive spiritually or sensitively (as we shall explain in our particular discussion of this matter), but consider it of little importance.  The higher the rank and esteem they give to all this knowledge, experience, and imagining (whether spiritual or not) the more they subtract from the Supreme Good and the more they delay in their journey toward him.  And the less they esteem what they can possess–however estimable it may be relative to the Supreme Good–the more they value and prize him, and, consequently, the closer they come to him.  In this way, in obscurity, the soul approaches union swiftly by means of faith, which is also dark.  And in this way faith gives them wondrous light.  Obviously, if they should desire to see, they should be in darkness as regards God more quickly than anyone who looks to see the blinding brightness of the sun.

7.  By blinding one’s faculties along this road, one will see light, as the Savior proclaims in the Gospel:  (I have come into this world for judgment, that they who see not, may see, and that they who see may become blind.) [Jn.9;39}  In reference to the spiritual road, these words should be understood literally, that is, Those who both live in darkness and blind themselves to all their natural lights will have supernatural vision, and those who want to lean on some light of their own will become blind and be held back on this road leading to union.

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