Notes on Three Mystical Classics

Dear CMA and SSCD faithful,

About 15 to 20 years ago, different spiritual advisors began telling me to read a few books repetitively overtime. What I mean is that multiple people told me about the same books and each of them said that I should read the books more than once. It took me a while to begin the journey. From 2006 to present (and hopefully for many years to come), I’ve been shaped by these and many others (as have you).  These books, as complements to the bible, have been extremely helpful to me, which is why I’ve taken some diligent notes to use in “keeping their message” close to my heart.  Below you will find my personal notes from these mystical classics, shared in the event that any of you read these same books or are interested in venturing into them in the future.

THE BOOKS: Fire Within, Interior Castle, Cloud of the Unknowing, and Dark Night of the Soul

The notes are organized according to the writings of the three mystics themselves, in this order: Saint Teresa of Avila, the anonymous monk author of Cloud of the Unknowing, and St. John of the Cross. They are not meant to be complete thoughts but rather excerpts to draw the mind into the main points to help with progress. The three authors each have their own way of offering us guidance to connect with God, yet between them there is incredible amount of complementary spiritual guidance. To me they fit together like a glove. At the end you will find a few thoughts entitled Synthesis, which in my mind bring together the points of Saint Teresa of Avila, the anonymous monk author of Cloud of the Unknowing, and St. John of the Cross.

Sincerely, Wes


Teresa Avila Mansions – Cloud of Unknowing – Dark Night 


Teresian Mansions of Prayer Life (notes 2008, after reading Fire Within by Dubay and Interior Castle by Teresa herself)

I. Teresa de Avila’s 7 Mansions of Prayer Life, c. 1550

Most people spend a long time (many years) in stages 1-3. Stages 1-3 are actively produced. Stages 4-7 are infused contemplation.

  1. Discursive or Meditation (first water) – regular written prayer, read, recited; sin and attachments are the big impediments at stages 1-3.
  2. Affective-Discursive – battleground.  Gospel living must be perfected.
  3. Active Simple Prayer – avoid even venial sins, practice charity, hours of recollection in prayer.
  4. Infused Prayer (second water) – God takes over, one doesn’t decide this transition.  This is infused into us: “gifted” to us.  Our will is taken up.  Divinely given. Mary and Martha work together.
  5. Third Water – Total and complete.  10-15 minutes.  Will, imagination, intellect, and memory are totally taken up.  Prayer of full union.  Rapture. One usually remembers years later even the time and place. Suspension of faculties. Pained that others don’t love Him this much.
  6. Fourth Water – Live on summit. Rapture.  The soul takes flight. Days.  Brings huge peace. Sublime. Severe trials bring peace and contentment. Cannot serve God well enough.
  7. Total Union – Rain on a pond and can not discern the difference as the dividing line is now gone. We become as malleable as wax by the sealing stamp – we become wax. Merged with God. Travel space and time (famous story of Benedict 6 days before his death).

II. Heroic Virtues

We are called through any trial to live these virtues in dealing with such a trial…




Regardless of difficulty


III. Three Ways to assure growth at the 4th Mansion

  1. Never give up prayer – one will whither if prayer is taken away
  2. More detachment – we must become more detached from earthly possessions and worldly/popular/contemporary concerns. This is the one that prevents most souls from becoming more intensely spiritual on Earth.
  3. Greater solitude – without neglecting the “Martha” of work and community

Biblical Fire Scriptures:

I Thes 5:6-11.  Luke 12:49. Eph 3:19 and Heb 1:1-3.


Addendum of my notes taken (2009) on reading Cloud of Unknowing, written by an anonymous English monk during the 14th century .

“…have Himself is your aim, not any of His goods…” Ch 3, Cloud of Unknowing

The author of this book (comprised of letters to a novice) is a contemplative.  His concern in writing these letters of advice for the novice is always a focus on the realities of a life of deep prayer.  It is precisely with hopes of furthering that knowledge that I picked up this book in the first place. I had read excerpts of “Cloud” from the Magnificat’s daily readings, which intrigued me immensely.

There are 3 levels of life of the Soul as viewed from a hierarchy of prayer attainment.

  1. Active life (good) – divided into Lower and Higher Active life. Corporeal work of charity and mercy.  Lots of “Martha.”
  2. Higher Active + Contemplative (better) – Spiritual meditation on Passion and Heaven. Still some “Martha” but moving far into the “Mary.”
  3. The Cloud of Unknowing (best) – Higher Contemplative, can be reached on Earth only rarely, and will be reached in Heaven once more purified perhaps through Purgatory.  Analogous to Teresian Mansions #6 and #7, Fourth Water and Total Union (rain on pond).

One can’t voluntarily “will” to go to the Cloud.  Rather, one can prepare the soil, get it ready, removing even venial sins from daily life as much as possible. Then when God wills it, we are “able” to have our soul experience the nothingness, the forgetting, the removing of all distance between us and God.  That is when we enter the Cloud of Unknowing and join in the Higher Contemplative life. It won’t likely happen down here on Earth in its complete form, but it can. It is definitely our main goal in life (e.g., Ignatius’s Principle Foundation) to strive for this level of unity with and service to God. Once passed on to the next life, Active life will be left behind, and then Contemplative life will continue towards perfect unity.


Addendum of my notes taken (2009) on reading Dark Night of the Soul, by Saint John of the Cross, who was a close friend of Saint Teresa of Avila.

I studied the translation of Noche Obscura del Alma (Dark Night of the Soul) by E. Allison Peers, notes from the critical edition of P. Silverio de Santa Teresa, C.D. Dover publications.

St. John of the Cross wrote the poem, and the famous mystical book Noche obscura del alma that accompanies it, to describe the soul’s journey to union with God.  It is apparently inspired by Song of Songs from the Old Testament.  The book is his own explanation of the poem.

It provides line by line explanations of the poem through the first 3 stanzas only.  We do not have any explanation of the five stanzas #4 through #8.  He probably never wrote them. If we did have them, they would describe the portions of the poem that take us from purgation (dark night) through the birth of light.

The first two stanzas of The Dark Night describe the effects of the two kinds of spiritual purification that take place in a person: one of the sensory; the other of the spiritual. The next 6 stanzas speak of some of the marvelous results obtained from spiritual illumination and union with God through love.  The soul is speaking in retrospect, now in union, having passed through the dark night into the Light and in total union with God. The soul must walk this path to reach mirth (7th Teresian Mansion or Cloud of Unknowing) with God. The soul recognizes the narrowness of the path and that very few walk it, as Jesus says in Mt. 7:14 (“how narrow is the gate, and how straight the way, which leads to life, and few there are who find it”). The narrow path is called a dark night, as we see in later verses of this stanza. The soul, happy to have been down this narrow road from which it was gifted the ultimate goodness of Union with the Lord, speaks in this poem:

“Noche Obscura del Alma” 

On a dark night,
kindled in love with yearnings,
oh, happy chance!
I went forth without being observed.
my house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
oh, happy chance!
in darkness and in concealment,
my house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This light guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he (well, I knew who!) was awaiting me
there in a place
where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
Lover transformed in the beloved.

Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
he wounded my neck
with his gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

Juan de la Cruz or Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591

His father was born of a wealthy Spanish family but was disowned when he married a poor weaver.  Juan’s (John’s) father died when he was only 7 in 1549, and the family had little to sustain them financially.  He studied with Jesuits and then became a Carmelite. He was instrumental with the reform of the Carmelites, working with Teresa of Avila.  When they revolted against the new ‘discalced’ (shoeless) Carmelite sect, he was imprisoned in a windowless cell, whipped, and allowed out of his cell just 3 times a week.  After 9 months, he escaped by scaling walls and sought refuge with the nearby nuns in 1576. Most of his writing occurred over the next decade and is still unfinished. St. John of the Cross died in 1591.

First Night:

Describes the sensual and spiritual part of the soul’s journey during the Active Night.

Second Night:

Describes the purification of the soul in both the sensual and spiritual Passive Night.  This is more obscure, a dark night, bitter, terrible, awful in description.

A major concept of the book is that the darkness of this Night is relative to the “Brightness” of the light of God (P.85). The soul travels, then, in this darkness (the soul’s tabernacle) secure and with God as it is cured…de-stained. It is made ready for transformation as the “burning log” eventually becomes glowing embers. At some point, the log has literally transformed from wood into burning embers, at which time it is no longer divisible as log/air/fire, but all one. In the same sense, the soul can become, must become, one with God to enter fully into God’s home, Heaven.  This is described in slightly different but remarkably similar terms by the other two mystics also reviewed in this packet, St Teresa (7th Mansion) and the unknown author of Cloud of the Unknowing.

Starting at the beginning, in Chapter 1, St. John tells how the novice has to work longer and harder because habits of perfection are so new, so imperfect. Feeble. Compare this to the apparent ease of avoiding even venial sins evidenced by those with advanced prayer lives.  Ironically, it is the beginner who, though feeble, has the highest risk of secret pride in thinking himself ‘good’ and advanced.  Vanity.  Spiritual pride.  The solution is that the beginner must progress towards perfection in overt HUMILITY.  The more we do this, the less satisfied we are with our state of ‘goodness.’  Spiritual pride takes its rightful departure from our soul.  It will all seem for naught and that no progress is being made because we will become more acutely aware and disappointed in committing even venial sins.

The four passions of the soul are Joy, Grief, Hope, and Fear.

The 7 capital sins are reviewed in depth as follows:

Pride, Avarice, Luxury, Wrath, Gluttony, Envy and Sloth

A few notes from his explanations:

Pride – We find ourselves secretly proud. As mentioned above, humility is the answer

Avarice – We must achieve detachment.  No attachment even to your ‘favorite’ rosary beads.

Luxury – Imperfections of this type can proceed from spiritual exercises (spiritual luxury) during even Penance or the Eucharist or in deep prayer. They are due to pleasure of the sensual part rather than the spiritual, or due to the devil or due to fear.  We must bring sensual love under control to have spiritual love grow.

Wrath – Spiritual wrath is exemplified by irritation at the sins of others.  Watching others with uneasy zeal. Setting oneself up as a master of virtue. All of this is contrary to spiritual meekness that is desired.

Gluttony – We must avoid working one’s own will. All extremes are vicious and lead to vice not virtue. Beware sensual satisfaction. Rather, it is precisely during the absence of any perceived or sought after satisfaction that we are given buckets of ‘invisible’ grace.  Deny oneself.

Envy and Sloth – We should rejoice in the goodness of others without envy. Sloth would be failing to return to a particular spiritual exercise just because it did not return sweetness.



The threshold point (in synthesizing these 3 Mystics’ insights) comes in knowing (‘fessing up) that what we perceive as PEACE is not peace at all. Indeed, the soul will learn in time that the greatness of His peace, attained through purgation, is unfathomable (p. 63).  In a sense, the process could be likened to how we in medicine use chemotherapy to totally break down the tumor/stain, but in so doing the entire body has to be rebuilt in order to come out on the other side ‘in the light’ of a cure. A description on page 57 was very similar to what we learned of the life of Mother Teresa from her posthumously published writings.

The temporal duration of this “Dark Night” varies greatly for those who go through it on Earth.  Sometime the dark night lasts for years for one soul, while for another it can be very short. The dark night should not be confused with depression, a very common misunderstanding and misnomer.  The dark night is an appropriate process of purgation, while depression is a psychiatric illness and often a chemical imbalance.  One never knows when the process is over, and it is obviously appropriate to resign oneself to “as much for as long as” God desires.

“Oh Happy Chance”: This line appears in the first 2 stanzas. The soul is happy to be going through purgation because it finally realizes the benefits of going from sensual lower self to the spiritual higher self (p.29). Finally losing spiritual pride (p.34), only now can the soul leave ‘sense’ and go to ‘spirit’ to have the “way of illumination and infused contemplation.”

Why is the “divine light” called a dark night? Imagine looking directly at the sun.  The human eye cannot tolerate this.  In fact, the more directly we look at the sun, the more darkness it causes us (literally as the retina burns or becomes temporarily dysfunctional).  Thus, the soul, once it is approaching God, the Divine Light, experiences an eclipse or darkness (the Cloud of Unknowing) for some time until the soul can itself tolerate the Light. This is why ‘infused contemplation’ is called a “Ray of Darkness.” (pp. 41-43, 77-78).  The Second Night is more intense than the First Night, but the soul is already freer. The Light overcomes the soul, which is thus in Darkness relative to the Light.

Annihilation is followed by Sweetness. (pp. 62-64).

“Log of Wood”: Chapter 10 of book is the famous “Log of Wood” analogy (starts p. 65).  Transforming first by drying, then lighting. The first change is one of becoming darker and more ugly.  Then brighter, hotter, of more use, and transforms the log into a fire.  The log though must be prepared (dried) first and then the fire will need to be kindled and the process over and over repeated until complete transformation.  Thus, the soul is enkindled with love, giving its consent to this process.

Purgatory (p. 66) chapter 12, page 71.  “Material fire.”

Steps of the Secret Ladder of Love: Escaping unseen is a big part of this process.  It is via a very secret ladder (faith) that the soul must discover to get to the place where all of this purgation can occur. Described in Ch 14, pp 79-80.  When he ‘goes out without being observed’ and ‘secure,’ he is doing so hidden in concealment from the devil and from ‘domestics’ such as sensual desires.  The domestics are now ‘at rest’ in that there is finally peace between the sensual and spiritual. The soul is now in the Cloud, the tabernacle, in which it can travel during the dark night towards (ultimately) the Light.

The steps of the secret ladder of love are outlined in pages 92-98.

Love, with the Beloved there calling the soul

Seek God without ceasing

Work to avoid failing

Suffering without weariness

Desire and long for God impatiently

Run to God without tiring

Boldness in seeking God (as in Moses and David)

Seize Him and hold Him (“I found him” says the soul)

Soul’s perfection burns with sweetness (indescribable union)

Total assimilation, not in this life. Union with God completed.

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