The Ascent of Mt Carmel

We are discussing the union and transformation of the soul in God.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel is a treatise on the way to this end by a man of profound experience, St John of the Cross.

There is great practical benefit and great beauty in St John’s writing, although, like gold, it is often well buried. The treatise comprises considerable analysis and doctrine, divisions and distinctions that can seem dense and dry. From amidst all this some nuggets that elucidate his vision and capture the essence of his method have been unearthed and presented on this page. These nuggets are from the translation by Kieren Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD.

The Ascent of Mt Carmel has recently become more accessible with the addition of an audio presentation. The translation by Professor E. Allison Peers, originally published by Burns Oats: London, is now available in a number of formats. A narration of this translation has been made  available as an audio book by christianaudio.com. The narration is synchronized with a Kindle publication of this translation by Start Publishing LLC. 

The essence of the practise is set out below.

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As regards this road to union, entering on the road means leaving one’s own road; and turning from one’s own mode implies entry into what has no mode, that is, God.

A man, then, is decidedly hindered from the attainment of this high state of union with God when he is attached to any understanding, feeling, imagining, opinion, desire, or way of his own and knows not how to detach and denude himself of these impediments. His goal transcends all of this (4:4-5).

When the soul is freed from what is not conformed to the divine will, it rests transformed in God through love.

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He gives power for being transformed in God only to those who are born of God: those who, in their rebirth through grace and death to everything of the old man, rise above themselves to the supernatural and receive from God this rebirth and sonship which transcends everything imaginable.  To be reborn in the Holy Spirit during this life is to become most like God in purity. Pure transformation is effected through the participation of union (5.5).

Here is an example that will provide better understanding.

A ray of sunlight shining upon a smudgy window is unable to illumine that window completely and transform it into its own light. It could do this if the window were cleaned and polished. The less the film and stain are wiped away, the less the window will be illumined; and the cleaner the window is, the brighter will be its illumination. The extent of illumination is not dependent upon the ray of sunlight but upon the window. If the window is totally clean and pure, the sunlight will so transform and illumine it that to all appearances the window will be identical with the ray of sunlight and shine just as the sun’s ray. Although obviously the nature of the window is distinct from that of the sun’s ray, we can assert that the window is the ray or light of the sun by participation.

The soul upon which the divine light of God’s being is ever shining, or better, in which it is always dwelling, is like this window.

A man makes room for God by wiping away all the smudges and smears; for to love is to labour to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God. When this is done the soul will be illumined by and transformed in God. And God will so communicate His supernatural being to it that it will appear to be God Himself.

When God grants this supernatural favour to the soul, so great a union is caused that all things of both God and the soul become one in participant transformation and the soul appears to be God more than the soul. Indeed, it is God by participation.

Consequently, we understand with greater clarity that the preparation for this union is not an understanding by the soul, nor the taste, feeling, or imagining of God or any other object, but purity and love, which is the stripping off and perfect renunciation of all these experiences for God alone. Also we see clearly how perfect transformation is impossible without perfect purity, and how the illumination of the soul and it’s union with God corresponds to the measure of its purity (5:6-8).

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The faculties must undergo a purification of their respective apprehensions in order to reach union with God.

Observing how we annihilate the faculties in their operations, it will perhaps seem that we are tearing down rather than building up the way of spiritual exercise.

But we are imparting instructions here for advancing in contemplation to union with God. All these sensory means and exercises of the faculties must consequently be left behind and in silence so that God himself may effect divine union in the soul. As a result one has to follow this method of  disencumbering, emptying and depriving the faculties of their natural occupations to make room for the inflow and illumination of the supernatural.

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As we have always insisted, souls must go to God by not comprehending rather than by comprehending, and they must exchange the mutable and comprehensible for the Immutable and Incomprehensible.

Creatures, earthly or heavenly, and all distinct ideas and images, natural and supernatural, that can be the object of a person’s faculties, are inadequate to God’s being.

Therefore anyone encumbering the memory and other faculties of the soul with what is comprehensible cannot have a proper esteem of God.

For whoever does not renounce all possessions cannot be Christ’s disciple.

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Doctrine on the nakedness of spirit.

We are presenting a substantial and solid doctrine for all those who desire to reach this nakedness of spirit.

People are incapable of reaching this sublime knowledge through any reasoning or imagining of their own, because it transcends what is naturally attainable. Thus God effects in the soul what it is incapable of acquiring.

This divine knowledge of God never deals with particular things, since its object is the Supreme Principle. Consequently one cannot express it in particular terms.

 Accordingly, to reach union with the wisdom of God a person must advance by unknowing rather than by knowing.

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This sublime knowledge can be received only by a person who has arrived at union with God, for it is itself that very union. It consists in a certain touch of the divinity produced in the soul, and thus it is God himself who is experienced and tasted there. This knowledge tastes of the divine essence and eternal life.

Manifestly, in this high state of union God does not communicate himself to the soul through the disguise of any image or likeness, but directly: the pure and naked essence of God with the pure and naked essence of the soul.

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A person likes to remain alone in a loving awareness, without particular considerations, in interior peace and quiet and repose, and without the acts and exercises of the faculties. Such a one prefers to remain only in general loving awareness, without any particular knowledge or understanding.

The more habituated persons become to this calm, the more their experience of this general loving knowledge of God will increase. This knowledge is more enjoyable than all other things because without the soul’s labour it affords peace, rest, savour and delight.

What the soul was gradually acquiring through the labour of meditation on particular ideas has now been converted into habitual and substantial, general loving knowledge. This knowledge is neither distinct nor particular, as was the previous knowledge. The moment it recollects itself in the presence of God it enters into an act of general, loving, peaceful, and tranquil knowledge, drinking wisdom and love and delight.

It is noteworthy that this general knowledge is at times so recondite and delicate, spiritual and interior, that the soul does not perceive or feel it even though the soul is employed with it.

This supernatural general knowledge and light shines so purely and simply in the intellect and is so divested and freed of all intelligible forms (the objects of the intellect) that it is imperceptible to the soul. This knowledge is even at times the cause of darkness because it dispossesses the intellect of its customary lights, forms and fantasies and effects a noticeable darkness.

When this divine light does not strike so forcibly, individuals apprehend neither darkness, nor light, nor anything at all from heavenly or earthly sources. Thus they sometimes remain in deep oblivion and afterward will not realize where they were, or what occurred, or how the time passed. As a result it can and does happen that a person will spend many hours in this oblivion, yet on returning to self think that only a moment or no time at all has passed.

The purity and simplicity of the knowledge is the cause of this oblivion. While occupying a person’s soul it renders that soul simple, pure and clear of all the apprehensions and forms through which the senses and memory were acting when conscious of time. And thus it leaves the soul in oblivion and unaware of time.

Although the prayer might last a long while, it seems of short duration to these souls since they have been united with pure knowledge, which is independent of time. This is the short prayer that pierces the heavens. It is short because it is not in time, and it pierces the heavens because the soul is united with heavenly knowledge. When these persons return to themselves they observe the effects this knowledge produced in them without their having been aware of it. These effects are: an elevation of mind to heavenly knowledge and a withdrawal and abstraction from all objects, forms and figures and the remembrance of them.

The soul remains, in consequence, as though ignorant of all things since it only knows God without knowing how it knows him.

In the beginning of this state the habit of contemplation is not so perfect that one can enter at will into this act, neither is one so remote from discursive meditation as to be always incapable of it.

One will often find oneself in this loving or peaceful awareness without having first engaged in any active work with the faculties. But on the other hand one will frequently find it necessary to aid oneself gently and moderately with meditation in order to enter this state.

But once placed in it, we do not work with the faculties. In this loving awareness the soul receives God’s self-communication passively, just as people receive light passively without doing anything else but keeping their eyes open. This reception of the light infused supernaturally into the soul is passive knowing. It is affirmed that these individuals do nothing, not because they fail to understand but because they understand with no effort other than receiving what is bestowed. The person freely receives this general obscure knowledge.

One should not commingle other, more palpable lights of forms, concepts or figures of meditative discourse if one wants to receive this divine light in greater simplicity and abundance, for none of these tangible lights are like that serene, limpid light. If individuals were to desire to consider and understand particular things, however spiritual these things may be, they would hinder the general, limpid and simple light of the spirit.

What clearly follows is that when individuals have finished purifying and voiding themselves of all forms and apprehensible images, they will abide in this pure and simple light and be perfectly transformed in it. This light is never lacking to the soul, but because of creature forms and veils that weigh on it and cover it, the light is never infused. If individuals would eliminate these impediments and live in pure nakedness and poverty of spirit, their soul in its simplicity and purity would then be immediately transformed into simple and pure Wisdom, the Son of God.. (13-15).

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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 a way in which you possess not.
To come to be what you are not
you must go by a way in which you are not.

  • St John Of The Cross.   Extracts : Ascent of Mt Carmel II
  • The Complete Works of St John of the Cross. Kavanaugh, OCD.  Rodriguez, OCD. ( ICS Publications)