St. John of the Cross’s doctrine on union with God demonstrates that when we remove what is contrary to God in ourselves, God will unite to us closer and closer in love. The nature of this union is not one of essence; we do not become God. Rather, we are so close to God in this union that we, by participation, become like God. To understand how we retain our identities as human persons when we unite with God, we need to understand the distinction between essence and existence and its relationship to God’s primary mode of presence in all existents.

The Meaning of Essence

First, we need to understand the meaning of “essence.” Essence arises from conceptualization. Let’s say, for example, that we take our friend Bill, an apple, and a computer, and place them all next to each other. We point at our friend Bill and through abstraction possess the concept “Bill.” We point at the apple and through abstraction possess the concept “apple.” We point at the computer and through abstraction possess the concept “a device that uses logic gates to follow a set of instructions.”

We see here in these three examples the three terms of essence: quiddity, form, and nature. Quiddity signifies the thing in itself; in the example above, that would be our friend Bill as Bill. Form signifes what each thing is limited or determined to be; in the example above, the apple is an apple just as much as any person like Bill is a “human being.” Nature signifies the operation of a thing; in the example above, a device that uses logic gates to follow a set of instructions speaks to the operation of a computer.

In all three instances, we have a conceptualization in the process of intellection (the activity of “reading-into” something). Yet, we cannot read into anything if that something has no foundation for it to be what it is. That foundation is existence.

The Meaning of Existence

After understanding the meaning of essence, we need to understand the meaning of “existence” so we can compare the two terms and see the distinction.

Let’s return to the scenario used for understanding essence. The apple, the computer, and Bill, while being distinct things, share one thing in common: all three exist. We know that apples come from trees and computers come from a supply chain process of things such as chips, cases, and circuits. But we also know that when it comes to human persons, there is a chain of existence that traces back to before one’s parents. Bill, for example, came from his parents. But his parents also came from parents. And the chain goes on and on until we finally arrive at the source of existence and life. The same source of existence must hold true for apples and for the raw materials that are processed through human skill to make computers.

You might recall the joke about the scientist who confronted God and said that he, the scientist, could do a better job of creating life. God accepted the challenge, and the scientist immediately grabbed some dirt to start creating life. God then chided the scientist, saying, “Get your own dirt.” This was a call for the scientist to realize that God is the source of all that exists.

The Co-relationality of Existence and Essence

Existence retains priority over essence. If a thing’s existence were not prior to its essence, then existence would not be the principle of essence. The word “principle” in this sense signifies motion. This motion is not sequential in the real order of things, but rather co-relational.

Co-relationality occurs when the dynamism of a thing or its powers are put to work or energized by another thing in necessary relation to each other. In the case of the apple, the apple’s act of existence is co-relational with the apple’s quiddity (as this particular apple), the apple’s form (its species), and the apple’s nature (white fleshy fruit with a skin and sometimes seeds in the middle).

The existence of a thing seems external outside the context of co-relationality. When existence and essence are understood as co-relational, existence can be seen as energizing the dynamism of a thing and its qualities, thus allowing the thing to be what the thing ought to be.

Thus, if I say “the apple is red,” the subject “the apple” implicitly contains the existence of the apple as an apple. When I affirm that it is “red,” I speak of a quality of that apple, which is incidental, since there are green apples too. This quality has existence through the act of existence given to the apple.

Existence, as St. Thomas said, est actualitas omnium actuum, et propter hoc est perfectio omnium perfectionum1 (is the actuality of all acts, and on account of this the perfection of all perfections).2

God as Existence Itself

God is existence itself. As such, God does not need to be put to work. God is. Traditionally, we say God is pure act. In Exodus 3:14, God says,

ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ ὤν (I am who presently, actively, always is)3

God, ὁ ὤν (Who presently, actively, always, is), or as St. Thomas said, ipse esse subsistens (subsistent Being itself), is not a being, since all beings abide by the essence-existence distinction. All beings abide by this distinction because their being comes not from themselves but from God. God gives all beings his Being, and each being’s act of existence is the co-relational principle of that being’s essence. God, Being Itself, is and therefore has no dynamism to energize or potency to activate. God simply is pure act.

God as existence itself is what St. John of the Cross talks about when he discusses the first mode of presence of God. In other words, St. John of the Cross speaks about God giving us the act of existence.

St. John of the Cross and the First Mode of Presence of God

In his commentary on Stanza 11 of the Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross tells us how God’s presence has three modes:

The first is his presence by essence. In this way he is present not only in the holiest souls but also in sinners and all other creatures. With this presence he gives them life and being. Should this essential presence be lacking to them, they would be annihilated. Thus this presence is never wanting to the soul.4

Again, when discussing union with God, St. John of the Cross speaks about this mode of presence in The Ascent of Mount Carmel (Bk 2, ch. 5, §3):

This union between God and creatures always exists. By it he conserves their being so that if the union should end they would immediately be annihilated and cease to exist.5

St. John of the Cross is not saying that God exists naturally in our quiddity, form, or nature, since that is pantheism. God provides the act of existence to our substance (οὐσία). If God stopped giving us personally the act of existence, we would simply cease to exist. However, God can exist in the soul by grace supernaturally. St. John of the Cross states this later in the same section:

The union of likeness is supernatural; the other, natural. The supernatural union exists when God’s will and the soul’s are in conformity, so that nothing in the one is repugnant to the other. When the soul rids itself completely of what is repugnant and unconformed to the divine will, it rests transformed in God through love.6

Many human persons lack love and/or grace. St. John of the Cross explains that these two things are the cause of God’s presence to the soul in the supernatural order. Love causes a likeness. Without love, a person remains an image of God but may not be as much like God as the person should be. To become more like God, a person needs to love God more. And to love God at all, a person must first believe that God exists, as St. Paul affirms in Hebrews 11:6:

χωρὶς δὲ πίστεως ἀδύνατον εὐαρεστῆσαι πιστεῦσαι γὰρ δεῖ τὸν προσερχόμενον τῷ Θεῷ ὅτι ἔστιν καὶ τοῖς ἐκζητοῦσιν αὐτὸν μισθαποδότης γίνεται (Now, without faith, it is impossible to gratify God. It is necessary for the one drawing close to God to believe that he exists, and to those earnestly seeking Him out, he becomes a wage-payer giving what is due.)

The light of faith enables a person to believe that God exists. Consequently, a person who has faith can love God, and a person who has more faith can love God more. The way to union with God is not by knowing through abstraction, but through knowledge gained from love. Without Baptism, a soul is deprived of the second and third modes of God’s presence, but the soul still has the act of existence (i.e., the soul still has God’s first mode of presence). The second and third modes of God’s presence, which are also discussed by St. John of the Cross, presuppose this first mode of God’s presence.


The essence-existence distinction provides an important foundation for understanding St. John of the Cross’s three modes of God’s presence to us: first, by maintaining our act of existence; second, by grace; third, by loving union. God cannot dwell in us by quiddity, form, or nature, since that is pantheism. Rather, God maintains our act of existence through a substantial union without which we would cease to be. From this point and through Baptism, we receive God’s second mode of presence, and through love and grace, on a foundation of humility, we grow in ἀγάπη (total self-gift), becoming more and more like Christ, our God whom we love.

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  1. Thomas Aquinas, De potentia, q. 7, a. 2, ad. 9. ↩︎

  2. All translations of Thomas Aquinas in this post are my own. ↩︎

  3. All translations of Greek in this post are my own. ↩︎

  4. St. John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, stanza 11, §3, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2017), 511. ↩︎

  5. St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, 5, §3, in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 2017), 163. ↩︎

  6. St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, 5, §3, trans. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, 163. ↩︎