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St. Paul of the Cross: Outstanding Example of the Reparative Character of the Night of the Spirit

by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P.


This article, which was published in the December 1948 issue of HPR, was translated from P. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange's The Three Ages of the Interior Life. The focus here is the reparative character of the night of the spirit — the apostolate of great interior suffering by the saints whose souls were already purified but continued making reparation for the souls of their neighbors. Garrigou-Lagrange uses the interior life of St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists, as an example of this hidden, but extremely fruitful apostolate.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review


182 - 188

Publisher & Date

Joseph F. Wagner, Inc., New York, NY, December 1948

The reading of the works of St. John of the Cross leads one to consider the night of the spirit as, above all else, a passive, personal purification which disposes the soul for the perfect union with God called the transforming union. This purification, which, considered as passive, is a mystical state and implies infused contemplation, thus appears necessary to take away the defects of the more advanced souls who are spoken of in the "Dark Night" (II, ii) — in particular, a secret, spiritual pride which is sometimes the cause of many illusions. It is a kind of purgatory before death, but a purgatory wherein the soul can merit and in which its love grows exceedingly. Finally, the obscurity and the anguish experienced therein yield to the superior light and joy of the transforming union, the immediate prelude to the life of heaven. The winter of the night of the spirit seems to be followed by a springtide and a perpetual summer, after which there is no autumn to follow.

Such is the impression given by the reading of the "Dark Night" and the "Living Flame of Love."1 One might say that for advanced souls the night of the spirit is but a tunnel to be gone through before entering into the transforming union, and that thereafter there is no more going through it anew.

Reparative Character of Sufferings of the Saints

However, a consideration of the lives of certain great servants of God who were particularly devoted to reparation, to immolation for the salvation of souls or to the apostolate of interior suffering, leads one to think of a prolongation of the night of the spirit even after entrance into transforming union. But in this case the trial would no longer be chiefly of a purifying character, but would be rather of a reparative character.

St. John of the Cross, without particularly insisting on this point, has alluded several times to interior trials endured by the Saints for the salvation of sinners.2 St. Teresa also speaks, from this viewpoint, of the great generosity of souls who have entered the Seventh Mansion.3

What is to be thought of a night of the spirit more reparative than purifying, which is prolonged even long after entrance into the transforming union, when the tried soul is already personally purified? This question has been briefly treated elsewhere;4 on this point, it is important to recall certain principles and some significant facts.

At the outset, the Christian soul must not forget that the great interior sufferings Our Saviour and His holy Mother experienced at the sight of sin while He was offering Himself as a Victim for us, were not for their own purification, but for our redemption; and also, that the more souls advance in spiritual perfection, the more their interior sufferings resemble those of Jesus and Mary. It is commonly stated that the servants of God undergo greater trials, whether because they stand in need of a more profound purification, or because they must, following the example of Our Lord, work by the same means as He did for a great spiritual cause, such as the foundation of a Religious Order or the salvation of many other souls. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa scarcely ever ceased to experience this. The facts show that this is so. One such fact, a particularly striking one, is here singled out; a brief comparison will then be made between the purifying night of the spirit and that night of the spirit which is chiefly reparative and which contains an apostolate of suffering as fruitful as it is hidden.

Without too much insistence on the point, note must first be taken of a sufficiently characteristic fact as it appeared towards the end of St. Alphonsus de Liguori's life. Alphonsus was 80 years old, and, if one were to study this period of his life only superficially, one would believe he was passing through the passive night of the senses, a state very often accompanied by strong temptations against the virtues which have their root in sensitive nature — chastity and patience. These temptations were so severe for this aged Saint that his attendant asked himself if the Saint would not lose his reason. But if one is attentive to the whole of the work already accomplished by grace in the soul of this great Saint, all leads to the conviction that this trial at the end of his life was not the passive purification of the senses in so far as this was endured precisely for himself (though it had all the appearances of that), but a consequence of afflictions he was constrained to endure more particularly for his neighbor and for the consolidation of the foundation for which he had already suffered so much.

Interior Life of St. Paul of the Cross

An example even more striking is given in the life of St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists. One can form a just idea of his interior life from his numerous letters,5 from the notes left by his confessor and director, Father John Mary, and from other documents of the period, cited in the process of canonization and in its preliminary investigations. The principal documents have been gathered together by the Passionist, Father Cajetan of the Holy Name of Mary, in his book "Oraison et ascension mystique de Saint Paul de la Croix" (Museum Lessianum, Louvain, 1930). The author of this work was quite desirous of communicating to us some other documents which he proposes to publish in the near future, and which confirm what is contained in those he has already made known.

Only the more significant facts are here cited. St. Paul of the Cross, born in 1694, was destined to become the founder of a Religious Congregation devoted to reparation. Furthermore, he was to live to be 81 years old (he died in 1775). What transpired during that long life dedicated entirely to the service of God from its infancy, and that in a manner most austere?

He was educated in the best Christian manner, and was accustomed from his youth to complete self-abnegation and to the practice of all the virtues. At a very early period in his life his prayer was the affective prayer of simple regard; at about his nineteenth year, his piety manifested a marked increase. He called that period "his conversion," and one can note the signs of the passive purification of the senses accompanied, as not infrequently happens, by a crisis of scruples (cfr. Father Cajetan, op. cit., p. 8).

Using this moment as a starting point, Father Cajetan rightly distinguishes three periods in the Saint's mystical life. In the first, which lasted for twelve years, the Saint was successively raised to the different degrees of prayer described by St. Teresa, and even to the transforming union. In the second period, which lasted for forty-five years, he experienced with singular insight the meaning of the life of reparation. In the third period, which comprised the last five years of his life, even though the trials continued, consolations increased in proportion as he approached the term of his earthly sojourn.

In the first period, after the passive purification of the senses and the very painful crisis of scruples, the servant of God, who received the grace of infused contemplation, remained three or four hours at a time in prayer (op. cit., p. 12). Each day, he devoted seven hours to prayer. According to the testimony of his confessor, Father John Mary, he was acquainted with ecstatic prayer at about his twenty-fourth year, and was often rapt out of his senses. He received great lights on the mysteries of faith, and was favored with visions which gave him to understand that he was to found a Congregation dedicated to the Passion (op. cit., p. 15). At this period, too, he was given a vision of the Blessed Trinity, a vision of heaven and another of hell; his faith "seemed for him to be changed to evidence" (op. cit., p. 19).

Passive Purification of the Spirit

It appears certain that St. Paul of the Cross personally experienced the passive purification of the spirit at the age of twenty-six, especially during a forty-day retreat made during the year 1720. Father Cajetan reports these trials at length (pp. 41-63). During this time, the Saint heard spoken against God "diabolical words, which, he said, pierced him, heart and soul" (op. cit., p. 55).

This passive purification of the spirit was brought to an end by a wonderful contemplation of the Passion of the Saviour (op. cit., pp. 57-73), a contemplation which made the Saint "appropriate to himself, through love, the most holy sufferings of Jesus." "The soul," said he, "quite immersed in pure love, without image, in very pure and naked faith, finds itself of a sudden, when it pleases the Sovereign Good, plunged into the sea of the Saviour's sufferings," and sees "that the Passion is a work entirely of love" (op. cit., p. 57). From this moment, the Saint's prayer consisted in the clothing of himself with the sufferings of Jesus and in letting himself be immersed in the Saviour's divinity (op. cit., p. 62).

Before he was thirty-one, St. Paul of the Cross received the grace of the transforming union. One can scarcely doubt it if, after having weighed well the sublimity of the purifying grace which preceded, one examines the testimonies gathered by Father Cajetan (op. cit., pp. 85-97). This wonderful grace was accompanied in this instance by a symbolism which sometimes manifests itself sensibly: the appearance of Our Saviour, of the Mother of God, of several Saints. Paul of the Cross further received a golden ring on which were represented the instruments of the Passion.

Subtraction of Consolations and Eclipse of Virtues

When one considers to what intimacy of union with Jesus Christ the servant of God had arrived before he was thirty-one and considers further that he was to live to be eighty-one and to found a Congregation devoted to reparation, one is less astonished to see him associated thereafter, during a period of forty-five years, with the sorrowful life of Jesus Christ. In fact, after having received the grace of transforming union, according to the testimony of his confessor (op. cit., pp. 2 and 115-177), he had to pass through forty-five years of interior desolations, of most painful abandonment, during which "only from time to time did the Saviour grant him a short respite" (ibid., p. 2).

This is truly the life of reparation in all its depth and exaltation — the apostolate of spiritual suffering in an exceptional degree. It was not only the subtraction of sensible consolations but, as it were, the eclipse of the virtues of faith, hope and charity. The Saint believed himself abandoned by God; he believed that God was angry with him. The temptations to despair and sadness were overwhelming. And yet, in that interminable trial the Saint manifested a great patience, a perfect resignation to the Divine Will and a great kindness towards all those who approached him, as Father Cajetan relates (p. 96). "One day he said to his director: 'If anyone asked me at any time whatsoever: Of what are you thinking?' it seems that I could answer: 'My spirit is occupied with God'" ("Summary," I, 317, 64). It was thus even in his great spiritual desolations, when it seemed to him that he no longer had faith, hope or charity (ibid., I, 324, 103). It was even his custom to say: "It seems to me impossible not to think of God, in view of the fact that our spirit is quite filled with God and that we are entirely in Him" (ibid., I, 324, 105). These testimonies are taken from the Summary of the ordinary processes for canonization.

In truth, when Paul of the Cross walked in the streets of Rome saying: "A via Pauli, libera nos, Domine," he no longer found the air suitable for breathing (to speak from a spiritual aspect) except when considered from God's viewpoint; and for forty-five years, often during the night as well as during the day, this was a sorrowful, heroic, unceasing prayer which sought for God with great eagerness, and this in order that God might be given to the souls for whom this great Saint was suffering. More fruitful than the years .of preaching inspired by a lesser love, these painful years were a realization, in an exceptional manner, of the word of the Master: "One ought always to pray and never to faint" (Luke, xviii. 1). Hence, one can understand the import of that reflection of St. John of the Cross: "A single act of pure love can do more good in the Church than many exterior works" (inspired by a lesser charity).

Association of Reparative Souls with Christ's Passion

Towards the end of these forty-five years of suffering there were more intervals of consolation, and St. Paul of the Cross felt himself drawn into the wounds of the Saviour. Jesus from His Cross said to him: "You are in My Heart" (ibid., p. 162). The Blessed Virgin appeared to him; he also had an apparition of a priestly soul condemned to Purgatory — for this soul he had to suffer. The Passion of the Saviour was as though impressed on his heart (ibid., p. 167).

After these forty-five years the trial abated, and spiritual consolations increased progressively during the last five years of his long life. In the sacristy of Sts. John and Paul in Rome, he had an apparition of Our Lady of Sorrows and other such favors; there were ecstasies with and without levitation. The last months of his life, when he had reached the age of eighty-one, were, so to speak, the immediate prelude to the beatitude of heaven.

The facts that we have just cited are certainly quite exceptional. However, one occasionally encounters, especially in contemplative Orders devoted to prayer and immolation, facts somewhat similar in souls who have a vocation to a life of reparation and who have made a vow which consecrates them to that apostolate of suffering. We have personally known three Carmelites, very generous with God, and a certain priest all of whom appeared to be in an interminable night of the spirit (thirty to forty years); it seems, however, their souls were already purified, but their oblation for the salvation of sinners had apparently been accepted.

After the examination of these facts, in the light of a few principles, we believe we can safely come to this conclusion. When the night of the spirit is more particularly of a purifying nature, the theological virtues and humility are purified of all human alloy, under the influence of grace which is exercised principally by the gift of intelligence. As we have shown elsewhere,6 the formal motive of these virtues is clearly disengaged from every accessory motive, and their primary object is put very boldly in relief above every secondary object. The soul thus purified can go beyond the formulas of the mysteries and enter into the deep things of God, as St. Paul says (I Cor, ii. 10). Then, in spite of all the temptations against faith and hope, the soul believes firmly by a direct act, in a very pure and very lofty fashion, and thereby rises above the temptation; it believes for this sole and very pure motive, supernaturally attained — the authority of God revealing; it hopes also for one, single motive — because God is infinite mercy always ready to help us; it loves God, even in the most complete aridity, because He is infinitely better in Himself than all the gifts He could give us. Primary Truth revealing (the formal motive of infused faith), Divine Mercy assisting (the formal motive of hope), the Infinite Goodness of God, sovereignly lovable in Himself — these appear in greater and greater degree, according to their transcendent supernaturality, like three stars of extreme brilliance in the night of the spirit.7

When that trial partakes more of the reparative character, when its purpose is to make the already purified soul work for the salvation of its neighbor, then it retains the same lofty characteristics we have just mentioned; but it takes on another character which reminds us more of the sufferings of Jesus and Mary who had no need themselves of being purified. The suffering in this case is like that of a lifesaver who, after shipwreck, struggles heroically to snatch from death those who are on the point of being drowned. These spiritual lifesavers, after the manner of Paul of the Cross, struggle not only for hours and months, but sometimes even for years, in order that souls might be snatched from eternal ruin; these lifesavers must, in some manner, resist the temptations of sinful souls in their stead, in order that assistance might be efficaciously given. Such reparative souls are intimately associated with Our Saviour in His sorrowful life; in them is fully realized the words of St. Paul (Rom., viii. 17): "Heirs indeed of God and joint heirs with Christ, provided, however, we suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with Him."8

Description of the Transforming Union

In conclusion, we quote from Tauler, a noted spiritual writer whom St. Paul of the Cross often read ("Sermon pour le lundi avant les Rameaux," translated by Hugueny, Vol. I, pp. 265-269). This is how he describes the divine union in the superior faculties:

"There the spirit is carried away beyond all its faculties into a desolate desert of which no one can speak, into the secret darknesses of the good without a determined mode. There, into the unity of the Unity, simple and without a determined mode, the spirit is introduced so profoundly that it loses all sense of distinction . . . But when these men return to themselves, they discern all things in joy and perfection, such as no one can do; this discernment is born in the simple Unity; it is thus that they discern, with clarity and truth, all the articles of pure faith . . . No one understands true discernment better than those who have attained to the Unity. This state is called — and is truly so — ineffiable darkness, although it is essential light; it is called a desert desolate beyond all description; one finds there neither a path nor anything determined; it is beyond all modality.

"One must understand such darkness in this wise; it is a light that no created intelligence can naturally attain or understand. And it is a wilderness, because there is no way (in the natural order) of access. When the spirit is brought hither, it is above itself . . . In great humility, then, one must hold oneself submissive to the will of God. At such a time God demands of man a greater detachment than ever before . . . a great purity and simplicity . . . a profound humility together with all the virtues which blossom in the inferior faculties. It is thus that man becomes the familiar of God and from thence is born a divine man."

St. Paul of the Cross, who frequently read Tauler, must have read this passage which seems to offer some explanation of the reparative night in which he lived for so long a time after he had been elevated to transforming union.

End Notes

  1. This article has been translated from the recent work of P. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., "Les Trois Ages de la Vie Intérieure prélude de celle du Ciel" (Les Editions du Cerf, Paris, Vol. II, pp. 662-670). The article appeared originally in Etudes Carmélitaines for October, 1938, which number was dedicated to the study of the "mystical night" — psychological description, theological explanation, examination of natural or morbid cases which have some resemblance to that state.
  2. Cfr "The Spiritual Canticle," part II, st. XX.
  3. "The Interior Castle," VIIth Mansion, chapter IV: "His Majesty can grant us nothing more precious than a life conformed to that of His well-beloved Son. And I am absolutely convinced that these graces (of transforming union) are intended to strengthen our weakness and to render us capable of supporting great sufferings after the example of this Divine Son. Do we not see that all those who have come nearest Our Lord, Jesus Christ are those who have endured the greatest tribulations? Let us consider those of His glorious Mother and His glorious Apostles."
  4. "L'Amour de Dieu et la Croix de Jésus" (1929, Vol. II, pp. 625-631, 814-823).
  5. "Lettere," edited by P. Amedeo (4 vols., Rome, 1924). See also the first biography of the Saint by Bl. Vincent Strambi (1786).
  6. "L'Amour de Dieu et la Croix de Jésus," Vol. II, pp. 549-656.
  7. We think that Fr. Surin, in so far as we are acquainted with his life, knew this passive purification and acquired great merit therein.
  8. For the rest, even when the night of the spirit is more markedly purifying and precedes the transforming union, it is not rare that the other characteristic of reparation for the neighbor is noticeable to some extent. One can remark this, for example, in the life of St. Vincent de Paul, written by Abelly (Book III, ch. XI, sect. 1; cfr. Revue d'ascétique et mystique, 1932, pp. 398 sq.), where it is stated that he was willing to suffer for a doctor of the Sorbonne who was much tormented by temptations against faith. St. Vincent de Paul thereupon had to resist for four years such strong temptations against this virtue that he must needs ask himself if he consented or not; it was at this time that he wrote the Credo on a sheet of paper and placed it over his heart. When the temptation was more violent, he pressed the Credo to his heart in order to give himself an external sign of his fidelity. At the end of these four years, the faith of St. Vincent de Paul was considerably increased by all the heroic acts he had to make in passing through this tunnel. We believe it is necessary to make the same remark in regard to the exceeding great interior trials of the holy Curé of Ars, and also in regard to the passive purification of the spirit which St. Therese of the Child Jesus underwent towards the end of her life (cfr. "Histoire d'une Âme," 1923, chapters IX and XII). The words she spoke, in this connection, should be read again and again — they are quite revealing. See also Etudes Carmélitaines (October, 1938); "La Nuit de l'esprit chez Ruusbroec," by L. Reypens, p. 78. Note what is said concerning the summit of the mystic life in desolation and abandon. The night of the spirit seems to have been prolonged after transforming union in the life of Venerable Marie de l'Incarnation, Ursuline of Tours and of Quebec. Cfr. "L'Itinéraire mystique de la Vénérable Mère Marie de l'Incarnation," by P. J. Klein, M.S.C. (Paris, 1937), a thesis whose conclusions, however, remain quite contestable on several points (cfr. Ami du Clergé, February 16, 1939, pp. 98-100).

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