(NOTE: This transcription has been automatically generated through an AI program. Consequently, this transcript may not match everything you hear in the podcast episode, and it may contain errors such as spelling, grammar, word choice, etc., due to the limitations of current AI technology.)
Hi everyone, welcome to this week’s episode of Midnight Carmelite. This is episode 10. So today I want to talk about St. John of the Cross, sense realism, and then supernatural visions. Now you may hear this and think, ‘I don’t know what Andrew is talking about like how do these things relate?’ Stay with me on this. I think the reason I want to talk about this is because a lot of people forget that all knowledge starts in the senses; St. Thomas Aquinas says this, St. John of the Cross talks about this as you’ll see. Sense realism is paramount because if you don’t believe your senses or that the senses aren’t the starting point for the human person, then you’ve upended the order of the human person.
In fact, you’ve made the human person not human because the exterior senses are the starting point for us interacting with the world. This is actually a more important topic than it seems at first. Let’s just start and we’ll see we’re going. So when you think of spiritual perfection, do you ever consider where your journey toward perfection begins? You’re the human person, body and soul psychosomatic unity. Remember you don’t isolatedly experience things. So for example, knowing is the act of the whole person, feeling is an act of the whole person, despite the act being assigned to a faculty or power of the soul or the body.
So for example, your exterior senses. So where does this journey begin to spiritual perfection? Again, St. John of the Cross says that the journey starts with the senses. Why? Well the senses are the place where, like I said, all human persons begin their interaction with being, reality. So since the human person starts with the senses when interacting with the world, the senses are like a gate to the inner core of the person. Thus, the principle by which a person changes starts with the senses. If the senses serve as a gate, these are involved in the journey to spiritual perfection.
How do things like visions fit in? Visions are in the supernatural order. Senses are in the natural order. How does that work? Well, quick answer to this is, and we’ll go into this more this podcast: human beings are caught between heaven and earth. We’ve heard this before. We are, again, a psychosomatic unity where the one material/spiritual being with an intellect which is immaterial that allows us to abstract like we talked about in previous podcast, two ways of knowledge, you can conform to things in reality that are knowable, i.e., intelligible.
And you can know things like we talked about in the essence-existence distinction. You can know natures, you can quiddity and you can know form with the intellect. I mean that’s what we’re dealing with here, St. John of the Cross actually provides what I would call three fundamental principles for understanding this spiritual journey when writing about why God communicates through supernatural visions. These are the principles he identified.
The first comes from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans: Quae autem sunt, a Deo ordinata sunt. So don’t worry. The second comes from the Holy Spirit in the Book of Wisdom, in the Latin is Disponit omnia suaviter. And the third comes from what he says, the theologians where it’s Omnia movet secundum modum eorum. let’s go back to the one from St. Paul’s epistle first, the Latin translation, this is my translation and also the translation of St. john of the cross, and as usual, they’re all my translations.[^1] The first principle means however they are they are ordered by God. So what’s happening is however anything is it’s ordered by God to be what is supposed to be in fact were the only beings who can actually not do what God wants.
So for example, bees are always going to be bees, pigs are always going to be pigs, trees will always be trees, but human beings have liberty and I don’t mean that in a political sense. They have freedom at the core of us that is inviolable and we can not act according to our nature. We can say “no” to God. The second means he disposes everything gently. I think that one’s pretty self-evident. The third is all things move according to their mode. Okay so let’s start with the first principle.
So however they are, they’re ordered by God. For anything to move, so in any order to move the mover must know the extremes of the order. So in the case of the human person, God has to start with the extremes which is in our case you have the exterior senses all the way to the extreme of the interior center of the soul, spiritual faculties, etc. Each act then leading the person to spiritual perfection, meaning working your way up through the human person and, obviously I’m using the word “up” here analogously, is ordered to this completion of the person.
So working to spiritual completion, perfection is ordered to spiritual completion perfection. So God needs to start where the person being completed starts, which is the senses. Now the order of the human person involves both body and soul, sensory and spiritual parts as well as the order of grace bestowed by Baptism. So God needs to move through all these levels. That’s a good way to think about it. Think about levels and you go through the different levels to fill the gauge of the human person with perfection, with completion, and that will bring this person to union of love, which, as we know from previous podcasts, is the third mode of God’s presence.
So when considering the powers of the human person, this first principle which remember is however they are, they are ordered by God. Let’s start with the order of generation. You start with the principle that’s most imperfect in any order. So in our case it’s the senses and when we say imperfect it doesn’t mean they’re bad. I am using the word imperfect because it’s generally the lingo you’re going to hear if you talk to other Catholics about this, but so just don’t think of imperfect as bad.
It’s just a way of creating the hierarchy of things that the senses are a less noble power. Just keep that in mind. It’s not demeaning anything by saying that the senses aren’t perfect because that would contradict the whole sense realism thing. Okay, so anyway, so digestion supports the body which supports senses both exterior and interior. five exterior senses, touch, sight, sound, taste, smell, you have interior senses like, as we’ll discover later imagination and phantasy and these all support the intellect’s abilities. So you you’ve taken information from your senses.
You form the sense image in your interior senses. You know, the agent intellect abstracts, whatever is intelligible there. And your intellect conforms to the thing in reality and one whole human person acts. So I’m I’m dividing these acts into separate parts by saying “then, then, then” but it’s really one act. It’s the whole human post person is knowing in the knowing act and the composition of the knowing act is all these things, doing their job. That’s how I’d say it. So let’s talk about the order of perfection.
This is dealing with top down instead of bottom up. So in this case you start with the intellect and you say the intellect’s more perfect than digestion. Why is that? Well, you need to eat and digest food and that supports higher human actions like reading, running, knowing etc. Eating generates the potency for these higher actions, and since the higher action is being performed on a human being through God, communicating spiritually, God must generate the disposition for the person to receive that communication. So the point here is is just like you need digestion to support the senses and the senses support the intellect.
You’re going up the chain and you’re looking at the order of perfection. What’s more complete and less complete? We’d obviously say that union of love is more complete than union by existence. So the third mode union of love is more complete than simply just second mode union by baptism. So all those things need to be built up, kind of like a cake to put together to bring the human person to be able to be ordered to God and have a deeper spiritual life, which again is why the spiritual life is such hard work, you have to keep all these things in order to be able to generate that sort of activity.
Okay, so let’s move to the second principle. The second principle is he disposes everything gently. God wants to move gently rather than forcefully in order instruct the soul. So for example, let’s say if a person is used to low light conditions due to living in a cave, you know, you might think of Plato’s cave if you are a fan of Plato’s Republic and the person will become accustomed to a certain level of light if that person suddenly comes out of the cave into the noon sun, the person’s eyes will hurt due to the excess of light.
So in a similar manner, God wants to move in an orderly and gentle way with the sole towards spiritual perfection. So, let’s read this is from ascent of Mount Carmel Book two, chapter 17 My translation and this is kind of what john is talking about. He’s talking about this gentle movement here, he says. And so God goes, causes motion towards completing or perfecting man in the way of man from the lower and exterior, as far as the higher and interior. And so notice here that he’s saying that God perfects in the way of man were first, he perfects the bodily sense.
So here’s the sense realism thing St. John of the Cross is talking about here. St. John of the Cross is moving a person to use good perfect exterior natural objects such as hearing sermons, masses, seeing holy things, mortifying taste in food and macerating here means to make soft by steeping it in liquid or to cause it to become lean. In other words, you’re sense of touch, it’s obviously becoming simply a means, right? You know, if you’re so focused on it that you have to have tactile feedback, if that makes sense. (mild pun intended here)
So, again, it’s not diminishing touch, What it’s saying is, touch is simply a means to what we laid out earlier. So let’s continue with St. John of the Cross. And then he says, and when these meaning, the bodily sense are already somewhat prepared usually to complete them more. Doing some supernatural mercies or favors is another way to translate that and gifts to confirm them more than good, offering some supernatural communications as well as visions of saints or holy circumstances corporeally, very pleasant smells and locutions in very large delight in touch.
So, see here’s here’s what’s happening here. So at first you’re mastering the touch, but then he’s taking a very large delight in touch. So what does that mean? And what he’s saying is and continue here. He’s saying with that the senses much confirmed in virtue and alienates the appetite from bad objects. So, what it’s saying is the touches that are happening here are supernatural. These supernatural communications. And what’s happening is you’re focusing more towards a good. So, you notice what’s happening is God’s pulling you kind of like, you know, leading you gently and ordering you to him.
That’s what’s going on here being ordered to God slowly with all these little things happening. So let’s continue in Saint John of the Cross says and beyond that, the interior senses that here we are dealing with like the imagination and the phantasy together go completing and habituated towards the good with considerations, meditations, holy discourses and in all, instructing to the spirit. So what he’s saying here is that these move God’s moving through these exterior senses into your interior senses, like the imagination and phantasy and completing and habituated them towards the good.
Now with consideration. So, whatever proper objects will pull you towards the goods in this case will be considerations and meditation because meditation uses sense images. For example, you pray the rosary and you think of the scene that you’re dealing with in that current mystery. All those things go into this when you’re when you’re trying to make it happen for natural visions are not what people to have a fallen human nature are naturally disposed to. So God must work with them gradually until they are ready for these higher level movements.
This situation. Think of it this way. Think of it like exercise. Consider yourself in this situation if you want to naturally dispose yourself to something like regular exercise, you need to start gently. For example, if you want to start swimming regularly, you need to swim a small amount, maybe 500 yards twice a week to gently dispose your body to the exercise. After a period of time, you can increase the frequency of your swimming, so how many days you swim, and in the intensity, how far and how hard you swim.
So the third principle, all things move according to their mode concerning this. People are moved by the senses first since that’s where knowledge begins. As I said in the beginning of the podcast, the mode of knowing starts with the senses and moves to the intellect which terminates there knowing in the thing. Right? So again, the whole human person knows, and the termination of knowledge is not in an idea in the mind, it’s in the thing known, so to move beyond what can be known through the senses and the intellect.
God disposes people to their faith, which enables them to know him proximately in this life. And it’s faith that allows for the union of love to exist. So now you can see here through these three principles, you can see that you have to build up all these things to get to the point where you can start building your loving union. Now someone may object and say well we’ll wait like you have to wait all this time to build loving well in a way yes Saint Teresa and her Interior Castle, the first three mansions, you can go read them through if you’re interested.
It’s mainly dealing with building virtue, having humility and getting away from sin. Now that doesn’t mean that she does say that people can move pretty quickly in the mansions depending, you know, on what God wants them to do. The mansions are not necessarily linear. But the point is that the beginning of the spiritual life, you put in a lot of work as Saint Teresa of Avila says you you start bringing the water by a bucket and it’s a lot of work going back and forth, but then eventually you build an aqueduct which is your, like I was saying earlier, starting to perfect these things that weren’t perfect and they start getting pulled towards the good.
Remember you start these considerations, you know naturally good exterior objects, things like that, that pull towards the good so that now you’re building what she called the aqueduct, the water’s coming in, God’s helping you and then finally she says it rains where God’s just you know doing everything and you’re cooperating with God because your will has become so aligned with God that God can shine through you like a window. In sum, God needs to start with one extreme which is the senses to move through the order of the human person gently and move the soul with supernatural visions when he deigns to do so.
So this movement is gentle thanks to the mercy and love of God, which is exactly what St. John of the Cross said. Thanks for listening everybody. I hope you enjoyed it. Hopefully you got something out of it too.
That would be great and thank you for listening. We’ll see you next week.
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Note: All translations are my own