Four Questions Part I--What is meant by Union with God?

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Before I have even started, I discover four questions or clarifications necessary--an ample demonstration of the drawbacks of the blog for something of this nature. Neverhteless, the questions asked are both intriguing and important. Because I have time to answer only one, and because Neil's comment in the post below goes a long way toward answering it (even though the quotes are about contemplation, they also seem to speak of Union) --I will start with Rob's question about "What do I mean when I say Union with God."

This is an incredibly complex and difficult question. I may only get to start to answer it. If so, I'll start with the succinct version of the most persuasive definition I know: when we reach Divine Union, we "become God by participation."

Now let me extend the explanation by a quote of some length from St. John of the Cross who explains far better what is meant by this. Please forgive the rather difficult E. Allison Peers translation (the only one presently available on the web) and pay particular attention to paragraph six. I reproduce the entire chapter in the extended entry to avoid long scrolling for those who are just looking for an overview.

(I know the text is long, but it is worth your attention. If too much, just focus on paragraph six.)

from The Ascent of Mount Carmel Book II, Chapter 5
St. John of the Cross


Wherein is described what is meant by union of the soul with God. A comparison is given.[231]

FROM what has been said above it becomes clear to some extent what we mean by union of the soul with God; what we now say about it, therefore, will be the better understood. It is not my intention here to treat of the divisions of this union, nor of its parts, for I should never end if I were to begin now to explain what is the nature of union of the understanding, and what is that of union according to the will, and likewise according to the memory; and likewise what is transitory and what permanent in the union of the said faculties; and then what is meant by total union, transitory and permanent, with regard to the said faculties all together. All this we shall treat gradually in our discourse -- speaking first of one and then of another. But here this is not to the point in order to describe what we have to say concerning them; it will be explained much more fittingly in its place, when we shall again be treating the same matter, and shall have a striking illustration to add to the present explanation, so that everything will then be considered and explained and we shall judge of it better.

2. Here I treat only of this permanent and total union according to the substance of the soul and its faculties with respect to the obscure habit of union: for with respect to the act, we shall explain later, with the Divine favour, how there can be no permanent union in the faculties, in this life, but a transitory union only.

3. In order, then, to understand what is meant by this union whereof we are treating, it must be known that God dwells and is present substantially in every soul, even in that of the greatest sinner in the world. And this kind of union is ever wrought between God and all the creatures, for in it He is preserving their being: if union of this kind were to fail them, they would at once become annihilated and would cease to be. And so, when we speak of union of the soul with God, we speak not of this substantial union which is continually being wrought, but of the union and transformation of the soul with God, which is not being wrought continually, but only when there is produced that likeness that comes from love; we shall therefore term this the union of likeness, even as that other union is called substantial or essential. The former is natural, the latter supernatural. And the latter comes to pass when the two wills -- namely that of the soul and that of God -- are conformed together in one, and there is naught in the one that repugnant to the other. And thus, when the soul rids itself totally of that which is repugnant to the Divine will and conforms not with it, it is transformed in God through love.

4. This is to be understood of that which is repugnant, not only in action, but likewise in habit, so that not only must the voluntary acts of imperfection cease, but the habits of any such imperfections must be annihilated. And since no creature whatsoever, and none of its actions or abilities, can conform or can attain to that which is God, therefore must the soul be stripped of all things created, and of its own actions and abilities -- namely, of its understanding, perception and feeling -- so that, when all that is unlike God and unconformed to Him is cast out, the soul may receive the likeness of God; and nothing will then remain in it that is not the will of God and it will thus be transformed in God. Wherefore, although it is true that, as we have said, God is ever in the soul, giving it, and through His presence conserving within it, its natural being, yet He does not always communicate supernatural being to it. For this is communicated only by love and grace, which not all souls possess; and all those that possess it have it not in the same degree; for some have attained more degrees of love and others fewer. Wherefore God communicates Himself most to that soul that has progressed farthest in love; namely, that has its will in closest conformity with the will of God. And the soul that has attained complete conformity and likeness of will is totally united and transformed in God supernaturally. Wherefore, as has already been explained, the more completely a soul is wrapped up in[232] the creatures and in its own abilities, by habit and affection, the less preparation it has for such union; for it gives not God a complete opportunity to transform it supernaturally. The soul, then, needs only to strip itself of these natural dissimilarities and contrarieties, so that God, Who is communicating Himself naturally to it, according to the course of nature, may communicate Himself to it supernaturally, by means of grace.

5. And it is this that Saint John desired to explain when he said: Qui non ex sanguinibus, neque ex voluntate carnis, neque ex voluntate viri, sed ex Deo nati sunt.233 As though he had said: He gave power to be sons of God -- that is, to be transformed in God -- only to those who are born, not of blood -- that is, not of natural constitution and temperament -- neither of the will of the flesh -- that is, of the free will of natural capacity and ability -- still less of the will of man -- wherein is included every way and manner of judging and comprehending with the understanding. He gave power to none of these to become sons of God, but only to those that are born of God -- that is, to those who, being born again through grace, and dying first of all to everything that is of the old man, are raised above themselves to the supernatural, and receive from God this rebirth and adoption, which transcends all that can be imagined. For, as Saint John himself says elsewhere: Nisi quis renatus fuerit ex aqua, et Spiritu Sancto, non potest videre regnum Dei.234 This signifies: He that is not born again in the Holy Spirit will not be able to see this kingdom of God, which is the state of perfection; and to be born again in the Holy Spirit in this life is to have a soul most like to God in purity, having in itself no admixture of imperfection, so that pure transformation can be wrought in it through participation of union, albeit not essentially.

6. In order that both these things may be the better understood, let us make a comparison. A ray of sunlight is striking a window. If the window is in any way stained or misty, the sun's ray will be unable to illumine it and transform it into its own light, totally, as it would if it were clean of all these things, and pure; but it will illumine it to a lesser degree, in proportion as it is less free from those mists and stains; and will do so to a greater degree, in proportion as it is cleaner from them, and this will not be because of the sun's ray, but because of itself; so much so that, if it be wholly pure and clean, the ray of sunlight will transform it and illumine it in such wise that it will itself seem to be a ray and will give the same light as the ray. Although in reality the window has a nature distinct from that of the ray itself, however much it may resemble it, yet we may say that that window is a ray of the sun or is light by participation. And the soul is like this window, whereupon is ever beating (or, to express it better, wherein is ever dwelling) this Divine light of the Being of God according to nature, which we have described.

7. In thus allowing God to work in it, the soul (having rid itself of every mist and stain of the creatures, which consists in having its will perfectly united with that of God, for to love is to labour to detach and strip itself for God's sake of all that is not God) is at once illumined and transformed in God, and God communicates to it His supernatural Being, in such wise that it appears to be God Himself, and has all that God Himself has. And this union comes to pass when God grants the soul this supernatural favour, that all the things of God and the soul are one in participant transformation; and the soul seems to be God rather than a soul, and is indeed God by participation; although it is true that its natural being, though thus transformed, is as distinct from the Being of God as it was before, even as the window has likewise a nature distinct from that of the ray, though the ray gives it brightness.

8. This makes it clearer that the preparation of the soul for this union, as we said, is not that it should understand or perceive or feel or imagine anything, concerning either God or aught else, but that it should have purity and love -- that is, perfect resignation and detachment from everything for God's sake alone; and, as there can be no perfect transformation if there be not perfect purity, and as the enlightenment, illumination and union of the soul with God will be according to the proportion of its purity, in greater or in less degree; yet the soul will not be perfect, as I say, if it be not wholly and perfectly[235] bright and clean.

9. This will likewise be understood by the following comparison. A picture is truly perfect, with many and most sublime beauties and delicate and subtle illuminations, and some of its beauties are so fine and subtle that they cannot be completely realized, because of their delicacy and excellence. Fewer beauties and less delicacy will be seen in this picture by one whose vision is less clear and refined; and he whose vision is somewhat more refined will be able to see in it more beauties and perfections; and, if another person has a vision still more refined, he will see still more perfection; and, finally, he who has the clearest and purest faculties will see the most beauties and perfections of all; for there is so much to see in the picture that, however far one may attain, there will ever remain higher degrees of attainment.

10. After the same manner we may describe the condition of the soul with relation to God in this enlightenment or transformation. For, although it is true that a soul, according to its greater or lesser capacity, may have attained to union, yet not all do so in an equal degree, for this depends upon what the Lord is pleased to grant to each one. It is in this way that souls see God in Heaven; some more, some less; but all see Him, and all are content, for their capacity is satisfied.

11. Wherefore, although in this life here below we find certain souls enjoying equal peace and tranquillity in the state of perfection, and each one of them satisfied, yet some of them may be many degrees higher than others. All, however, will be equally satisfied, because the capacity of each one is satisfied. But the soul that attains not to such a measure of purity as is in conformity with its capacity never attains true peace and satisfaction, since it has not attained to the possession of that detachment and emptiness in its faculties which is required for simple union.

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Thank you, Steven:
As you point out, Neil's contributions yesterday had already pointed in the direction of a response to my request; the selection from The Ascent of Mount Carmel provided additional clarification. I guess that I'm not a visual learner, though, since I actually found item 6 to be the less helpful to my understanding than the verbal concept of the "union of likeness" of "the two wills...conformed together in one" where "there is naught in the one that is repugnant to the other."
Thank you again, Steven.

Dear Rob,

You make an excellent point. I am a strongly metaphorical or "visual" writer and reader. I am more persuaded by image and analogy--it speaks to me more loudly. But the reason for including the entire excerpt was precisely because what speaks to me (poet to poet as it were) might not be that which speaks to others.

I think you raise some excellent points. Points that squarely get at my constant harping on "duple and simple," and the very Thomistic principle that what is not simple cannot be conjoined to what is. Expressed in other terms by St. John of the Cross.

Thanks again.



Dear Steven,

Thanks again; I'm following this with much interest and even more gratitude. I worry, however, that your excerpt, though lengthy, can be easily misunderstood. And, although neither you nor St John would be in any way responsible for the misunderstanding, I do want to contribute a couple paragraphs from Denys Turner's very good The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism that might help clear things up (and nicely introduce a Dominican into the discussion):

"It is, of course, hard to imagine 'the extinction of appetite' sounding attractive to any ears, and one has to say that there is a problem with John's mode of expression in the Ascent which parallels that of Eckhart's language of detachment. For like Eckhart, John appears to say that any desire for anything other than God is a desire opposed to God. At the very least there is an ambiguity in such asseverations as: 'If anyone is to reach perfect union with God through his will and love, he must obviously be freed from every appetite, however slight.' For though John goes on to explain his meaning to be that 'he must not give the consent of his will knowingly to an imperfection, and he must have the power and freedom to be able, upon advertence, to refuse this consent,' it remains unclear whether he means that any desire for something created is an 'imperfection' or whether, more moderately, he means that the will should not knowingly consent to any such desire as would be an imperfection. At any rate, it is not so easy to be sure that the moderate interpretation is the correct one in view of statements as blunt and unqualified as: 'By the mere fact that a man loves something, his soul becomes incapable of pure union and transformation in God.'

"Nonetheless it seems reasonable to take such unqualified statements as a form of ellipsis and, as in Eckhart, to read John's 'appetite' and 'desire' as referring to possessive appetite; for 'possessive' desire is in an 'imperfect' relation with creation and must be an obstacle to 'pure union and transformation in God.' Hence, bearing in mind John's pessimism about the chances of any of our desires being free of possessiveness, his demand for the elimination of that possessiveness will have to be unremitting and extend across the whole range of our desires. Ultimately, in any case, the perfectly detached person is not the one in whom desire has been 'extinguished,' but is the person who can freely desire 'all.' For, in language and thought which could be mistaken for Eckhart's, John says: 'To reach satisfaction in all, desire its possession in nothing.' (1.13.12-13)."

So, the moral of the story is that we might need to be a little cautious of the Doctor's "unqualified statements" and "ellipses."




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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on April 23, 2004 7:02 AM.

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