Mystical Theology: the delineation of its transformative dynamic from Origen to John of the Cross

In recent years there has been a renewal of interest in spiritual disciplines and practices which are seen to help with a person’s spiritual formation.  These ascetical exercises are made up of disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement, and are intended to form one’s work of cooperation with the Holy Spirit’s work of transformation.[1]  In other quarters of evangelicalism where charismatic renewal has visited, encounters with the Holy Spirit and manifestations of the Spirit are considered to be transformative.[2]  And there are the Pauline exhortations to walk and live by the Spirit.  Clearly transformation is a significant aspect of the spiritual life, but it is not clear what dynamics are involved.  Interestingly, the words of Jesus to the Pharisees provide the key:  “Give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you” (Luke 11:41).  To shed some light on this issue, this paper will mine from those passionate about transformation, about union with God.  What does the Christian mystical tradition have to say about the transformative dynamic in mystical theology?


Mystical Theology and its Scope

From Pseudo-Dionysius to modern times, such as John of the Cross, mystical theology referred to “experiential knowledge of God infused into the soul by God in/as contemplation.”[3]  In modern times spiritual theology (in the Western Church) was systematized into ascetical and mystical theology.  This contributed to the separation of mysticism from theology and a focus on individual inner experience.  The meaning of mystical theology came to be the study of mystical experience and extraordinary experiential states of individuals.  Today, however, there is recognition of the need for the reintegration of theology and spirituality; and mystical theology is to be distinguished from a theology of mysticism.  For Vladimir Lossky, mystical theology comprises those theological doctrines which can be treated in the most direct relation to union with God.[4]  Following Lossky, Mark McIntosh agrees that theories of prayer and such are of secondary interest; and the central truths of Christian doctrine are of principal interest.  McIntosh writes, “What is paramount are the central doctrinal truths of Christianity:  that there has been a true incarnation in true humanity of the true God, and that the church can only live as the true body of this incarnate Word by living ever more truthfully into Christ’s dying and rising – thus to participate in that self-giving love which is truly the life of the triune God.”[5]

Given above that mystical theology includes specific theological doctrines which directly relate or apply to ‘union’ with God, then the scope of mystical theology can be understood in terms of a set of particular aspects from within other fields of theology.  That is, mystical theology is comprised of aspects of those fields of theology which directly relate to union or participation.  For example, within theological anthropology is found mystical anthropology.  Mystical anthropology is that part of mystical theology which deals with “the possibility, the manner, or the means of our union with God”[6] as far as anthropology is concerned.  Likewise within each of trinitarian theology, Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and soteriology are aspects of theology which deal with the possibility, the manner, or the means of our union with God.  The scope of mystical theology, therefore, is contained within the parameters set by other disciplines of theological doctrine; and any mystical theology which goes beyond those parameters must either be found invalid or must positively contribute to the advancement of the particular theological field being stretched.  Therefore, mystical theology does not stand on its own as though it were theology derived from mystical experience; rather mystical theology interprets and applies a priori doctrine to the life-long deepening journey into union with God.  As McIntosh writes, “Doctrines are interpreted by mystical theology as a language for describing and participating in this encounter with God, as an itinerary giving an indication of the major landmarks along the journey.”[7]

This definition marks a clear distinction from infused experiential knowledge.  But it is an important distinction because, in my view, there are two possible responses to the mystical experience of God’s self-gift of love.  There are two possible principles and movements in one’s response to mystical experience:  a self-possessive response in which one moves away from God toward self-love; and a self-dispossessive response in which one moves toward God with reciprocal loving self-gift.  And these two possible principles and movements are not necessarily distinguishable from each other experientially; although one is a movement of desolation and one of consolation, the experiential aspect for both may be similar.  This is why it is so important to define union with God as something which is seen chiefly in obediential and loving action in the world; and also why mystical experience can not be viewed as the core of mysticism, and why it has potentially no or negative value.

The primary theme of mystical theology is that of the Christian’s union or participation with the triune God.  Other themes include contemplation, theologia and theoria, grace, love, affectus, kenosis, ekstasis, wound of love, experiential knowledge, spiritual senses, spiritual ascension, threefold way, image and likeness, spiritual birth, transformation, eros, and unknowing.  Transformation is central to mystical theology because the ascent/descent toward union with God involves the growing restoration of ‘likeness’ and a deepening participation in Christ’s dying and rising.  It is not an ontic transformation but a transformation of one’s way of existing or mode of being.  Genuine transformation is a nonnegotiable part of an authentic deepening union with God.

Genuine transformation a) involves a disposition and a transformed way of existing, b) is seen concretely in the world, and c) is participation in the ongoing incarnation activity of the Word.  Living genuinely into Christ’s dying and rising involves, not cycles of dying and then rising, but rather a continuous simultaneous event of dying and rising which both deepens self-surrender and incarnational living together at once.  Transformation involves participation by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit in the Word’s own dying and rising in human selfhood.  This union is deeper than the union of wills, it is a loving disposition.  Union itself is a loving disposition of ekstasis or self-dispossession and a faith-filled freely given consent and quest.  The work of dying and rising is not our work, rather it is Christ’s own dying and rising by the work of the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, participation is not a work of ours to do, but a willed response to God’s invitation and initiating activity.  It is a loving consent or permission given to be drawn, and a loving self-bestowal (as one’s dying) seen in the world as the ongoing incarnation (rising) of the Word.


The Delineation throughout History of a Transformative Dynamic

In the work of Mark McIntosh in Mystical Theology, his concern regarding the hypostatic union in Christ is not how human and divine “substances” are united ontologically speaking, but “how a particular divine pattern of activity … comes to be enacted in the details and struggles of an utterly human life.”[8]  By way of analogy for the Christian, his insight helps us think of union with God as a personal identifying activity; and its transformative dynamic reveals “what goes on as human life comes to be lived more and more according to a divine pattern of life,” which is “a sharing in Christ’s life at the deepest spiritual level.”[9]  In order to help determine this transformative dynamic, we will look at elements of the Christian mystical traditions from the third to sixteenth century seen in the works of Origen, Pseudo-Dionysius, Maximus Confessor, William of St. Thierry, Bernard of Clairvaux, Bonaventure, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross.

Origen (185-254).  The predominant transformative dynamic in Origen’s mystical theology involves realizing one’s divine image and regaining one’s original likeness to God in the soul’s ascent to and union with God (a theme similar to that of descent and ascent in Platonism.)  In Homily 27 on Numbers, the soul journeys from earth to heaven by the same stages by which Christ descended.  These stages are “the steps of faith and the virtues.”[10]  After death, the soul continues to gradually ascend to the heavens stage by stage.  Ascent is understood in terms of movement of the soul (by its own free choice)[11] towards spirit away from the body.  The “perishable” body is “the earthly tent that hinders us, weighs down the soul, and burdens the thoughtful mind (Wis. 9:15).”[12]  The soul may be united to the flesh or the spirit depending on its degree of participation in the spirit.  This transformative dynamic has an incarnation aspect:  union with God in one Spirit makes way for the Father’s will to be done on earth in the same way that Christ existed.  Origen writes, “Each member of the Church must pray that he may make way for the Father’s will in just the same way that Christ made way for it, when He came to do the Father’s will and perfected it completely.  For it is possible for the one united to Him to become one Spirit with Him, thereby making way for His will so that as it has been perfected in heaven it may so be perfected on earth.”[13]  Thus for Origen union with God is the key to the Christian life because if it were perfected, one would be perfectly obedient and virtuous, loving God with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength, and one would be a channel or medium between God the Word and the flesh and earth, letting God’s kingdom come and letting His will be done.

There is a transformative dynamic in contemplation.  For Origen, contemplation involves face to face beholding of “glory” where he interprets glory as an esoteric illuminating radiance.  The glory radiates from the Lord as it did from Moses – from his face.  The illumination received in contemplation “with unveiled face” contributes to one’s transformation into the likeness of God.  Here, the eyes of the mind “gaze at the glory of the Lord with unveiled face” and are being “changed into His likeness” because “they partake of some divine and intelligible radiance.”[14]  This way of praying, for Origen, also prepares one for union.  One who has profited from contemplation is “more ready to be mingled with the Spirit of the Lord.”[15]  There is another sense of contemplation in Homily 27 on Numbers, the “contemplation of amazement” involving the ekstasis of mind, where the mind is expanded beyond itself in amazement by a revelation of knowledge.[16]  Yet contemplation in this sense is not directly related to growth in the likeness of God, for Origen.

In Commentary on the Song of Songs, the ascent to God involves the transformation of eros in its redirection away from material things and back toward God.  For Origen the highest form of knowledge, loving communion, is taught in the Song of Songs.  Knowledge is love and is union.  The bride in the Song of Songs is interpreted allegorically as the church, and in addition to the church Origen adds the individual soul as bride.  Origen understands that the Song of Songs teaches inspective or contemplative knowledge; and it teaches “that communion with God must be attained by the paths of charity and love.”[17]  Bernard McGinn discusses Origen’s use of erotic symbolism (wound of love, the kiss of lovers, embrace) suggesting it is not disguising or sublimating hidden sexual urges, but rather transforming eros “by leading it back to its original form.”  And Origen was “the first Christian mystic to discuss the transformation of desire.”[18]  Desire is a moving force defining whether a person expresses the carnal or spiritual life depending on the type of desire by which one is moved:  “if anyone still bears the image of the earthly according to the outer man, then he is moved by earthly desire and love; but the desire and love of him who bears the image of the heavenly according to the inner man are heavenly.”[19]  Spiritual or heavenly love is, in fact, a response of longing from the wound remaining after the touch of God’s love given in grace and received from the Word in contemplation.  As Origen writes, “And the soul is moved by heavenly love and longing when, having clearly beheld the beauty and the fairness of the Word of God, it falls deeply in love with His loveliness and receives from the Word Himself a certain dart and wound of love.”[20]

Pseudo-Dionysius (c500).  The transformative dynamic in the mystical theology of Pseudo-Dionysius is delineated in terms of eros and unknowing, and union with God is thought of in terms of divinization, becoming like God.  For Pseudo-Dionysius “mind” is more than the intellectual faculty and it includes the deepest center of being.  Thus the mind’s eros of unknowing may include loving union.  Human eros is the reciprocal response to the a priori divine self-gift.  According to Rowan Williams, in the Divine Names Pseudo-Dionysius holds that, in the ekstasis of God, divine eros calls forth the ekstasis of human beings in response.[21]  The spiritual exercise of unknowing comprises the human response of ekstasis.  In the Mystical Theology, “the human ekstasis involves the abandonment not only of all sense-experience but also of all ‘religious’ experience and understanding, in order to enter the divine darkness,” writes Williams.[22]  For McGinn, union in Pseudo-Dionysius means that longing and knowing are moved beyond the created realm yet remain an ecstatic possession.  McGinn writes, “Dionysius’ conception of union is based on a transcendentalizing of knowing unto unknowing and of yearning eros into ecstatic possession.”[23]

In Mystical Theology, Pseudo-Dionysius prescribes an apophatic spiritual exercise of self-abandonment which is required in order to be well disposed for God’s gracious action: “By an undivided and absolute abandonment of yourself and everything, shedding all and freed from all, you will be lifted to the ray of the divine shadow which is above everything that is.”[24]  This self-abandonment is put in intellective terms: God is known in unknowing.  Since God per se is beyond all creation and creatures, the act of “renouncing all that the mind may conceive” is the way to belong “completely to him who is beyond everything.  Here, being neither oneself nor someone else, one is supremely united by a completely unknowing activity of all knowledge, and knows beyond the mind by knowing nothing.”[25]  Thus for Pseudo-Dionysius, unknowing is knowing beyond the created realm, knowing no-created-thing, and perfect unknowing is a required disposition for union of mind with God.

Denys Turner describes human eros in intellective terms:  one’s longing for knowing draws it up in the ascent of unknowing.  Thus for Turner, affectivity is not a part of Pseudo-Dionysius’s mystical theology.  He writes, “It is the ascent of the mind … where, led by its own eros of knowing, it passes through to the darkness of union with the light.  It is therefore the eros of knowing, the passion and yearning for the vision of the One, which projects the mind up the scale; it is the dialectics of ‘knowing and unknowing’ which governs that progress, and it is not in the traditional metaphors of affectivity … that progress is described.”[26]  McIntosh seems to indicate this in his read of Pseudo-Dionysius’s mystical theology:  “If God is ecstatic in love towards the creature, theology is an expression of the creature’s reciprocal ecstasy in discerning this love in all its manifestations, and in returning to God through interpretations of the theophany of God.”[27]  Therefore Pseudo-Dionysius’ transformative dynamics involve intellective rather than affective or active elements.

Maximus Confessor (580-662).  Maximus delineates the transformative dynamics of mystical theology in terms of participation in Christ’s dying and rising, and he “achieved the Christocentric reorientation of the Dionysian system.”[28]  McIntosh highlights Maximus’ understanding of deification as an actual sharing in Christ’s own dying and rising.  This sharing or participation is effected by the Word’s work as the gift of the Spirit making possible in the believer the same mode of existence by which Jesus lived.  McIntosh puts it this way:

When Maximus talks of the soul passing from death to life in Christ, he is not using the resurrection of Christ as a metaphorical aid in describing deification; rather, he is saying that what deifies the believer is precisely a sharing in Christ’s dying and rising.  The creative and deifying power of the Father’s Word is at work in the believer’s life; and this inner work, itself a gift of the Spirit, effects deification.  It does so by filling the believer with the salvation-historical mystery of Christ, thereby enabling human nature to live according to the mode of the Son.[29]

Thus the believer is initiated into a new way of living which at its root is analogous to the hypostatic union.  And just as the Word came into human fulfillment in the obedient life of Jesus, so also our lives may be reconfigured toward an incarnational life.  McIntosh writes, “Following the model of the hypostatic union (in the Incarnation), the Confessor sees human fulfilment coming about as human nature is lived out (and reconfigured) according to the divine pattern of the Son’s life.” [30]  Therefore there is a mode of existence possible in which the believer’s selfhood exists most essentially as relationship in God.  As McIntosh concludes:  “This means that the highest stages of mystical life consist in a participation in the triune relationality.”[31]

In Maximus’ anthropology, God gives divine attributes of being and eternal being to the “essence” of the rational nature, and goodness and wisdom to the volitive faculty.  God gives these “in order that what he is by essence the creature might become by participation.”[32]  The creature is made to the image of God’s being and eternal being by nature (although the creature has a beginning, but is without end); and it is made to the likeness of God’s goodness and wisdom by grace.  Thus for Maximus, “Every rational nature is made to the image of God; but only those who are good and wise are made to his likeness.”[33]  Transformation is therefore not related to ontology, but it is a transformation of one’s mode of existence enacted by the will.

Transformation involves the redirection of affective desire:  “The perfect soul is the one whose affective drive is wholly directed to God.”[34]  And, affective desire is redirected and “raised up” by divine love:  “nothing is more truly Godlike than divine love, nothing more mysterious, nothing more apt to raise up human beings to deification”[35] In Centuries on Love, a twofold transformative dynamic of desire and love is seen.  Maximus teaches that in this transformation epithumia expresses itself as divine desire and human eros becomes divine love under the influence of God’s grace.  He writes, “for the mind [nous] of the one who is continually with God even his concupiscence [epithumia] abounds beyond measure into a divine desire and whose entire irascible element is transformed into divine love.”[36]  Transformation as the development of the psuche depends upon the freely chosen order or direction of its love; and the act of loving either hardens or softens the soul.  Loving God engenders a receptive capacity for the Word in the Spirit.  As Maximus puts it in Centuries on Knowledge,

The soul [psuche] develops according to its free will into either wax because of its love for God or into mud because of its love of matter.  Thus just as by nature the mud is dried out by the sun and the wax is automatically softened, so also every soul which loves matter and the world and has fixed its mind far from God is hardened ….  However, every soul which loves God is softened as wax, and receiving divine impressions and characters it becomes ‘the dwelling place of God in the Spirit.’[37]

The threefold way is seen in Maximus’ teaching of Sabbath, Sabbaths, and the Sabbath of Sabbaths as growth in detachment, freedom, and spiritual peace.  The unitive way, as the Sabbath of Sabbaths, involves the ekstasis of mind into God where its immobility there is interpreted as spiritual peace.  Maximus writes,

Sabbath is the detachment of the rational soul which has by practice completely thrown off the marks of sin.  Sabbaths are the freedom of the rational soul which by natural contemplation in the Spirit has put down this natural activity oriented toward sensibility.  Sabbaths of Sabbaths are the spiritual peace of the rational soul which, having withdrawn the mind even from all the more divine principles which are in beings, dwells entirely in God alone in a loving ecstasy, and has rendered itself by mystical theology totally immobile in God.[38]

William of St. Thierry (1085-1148).  In William’s anthropology the image is dynamic, and a person grows from animal (anima) to rational (animus) to spiritual (spiritus).  The mystical theology of William relates to the transformation into spiritus.  Here, writes McGinn, “the Holy Spirit draws us up to the transformation of animus into spiritus by which we become the Love that he is.”[39]  And William uses the term unitas spiritus “as a description of love’s ultimate transformative goal.”[40]  The unity in union with God is the Holy Spirit who is also love; therefore for William, the transformative dynamic is essentially a dynamic of love in loving union.

The term unitas spiritus involves the unity and ordering of willing and loving.  On unitas spiritus William writes, “It is called unity of spirit not only because the Holy Spirit brings it about or inclines one’s spirit to it, but because it is the Holy Spirit himself, the God who is Charity.  He who is the Love of the Father and Son, their Unity.”[41]  A person’s love has a volitional aspect and human love itself is a form of willing:  “Love is nothing but an ardent and well-disposed will.”[42] A person’s love also builds one’s faith by willing love.  As William writes, “You will believe as much as you shall want to, that is, as much as you shall love.  For the will is the beginning of love.  Love then is a vehement will.  And love in the person who believes will furnish the faculty for believing.”[43]  Thus unitas spiritus can be seen as the unity of loving and willing.  When love is set in order, willing and desire are also set in order, which also strengthens faith preparing one with greater capacity for the apprehension of God.

In contemplation one gazes upon supreme Truth, supreme Good, and supreme Eternity; the soul “gazes up at them in desire or clings to them by love.”[44]  Occasionally an initial spiritual apprehension of God transforms desire into longing and then grace draws a person in ekstasis into a greater apprehension.  Grace does this by “touching the affections” evoking a response of loving ekstasis.  William writes that sometimes a person is allowed to glimpse a certain light of God’s countenance for a passing moment in order that the soul may be set on “fire with longing for full possession of eternal light, the inheritance of full vision of God.  To make him realize to some extent what he lacks, grace sometimes as if in passing touches the affections of the lover and takes him out of himself, drawing him into the light of true reality.”[45]  In the same way that light itself transforms darkness, the apprehension of God is itself transformation into the likeness of God:  “Clearer vision is always accompanied by a clearer likeness.”[46]

It is God’s own ekstasis as the Holy Spirit which both initiates and draws a person toward loving union, transforming desire by grace.  The Holy Spirit, writes William, “offers himself as a gift and blessing to all, while he draws all things to himself and brings God close to us, joining us in love to God.  He does this by pouring his grace into us, filling us with a heartfelt desire, warding off evil and temptation.”[47]  And the Holy Spirit herself is both the love and the union between human and divine, such that she is the essence of their relationship and the only possible way a human may truly love God.  As William writes while addressing the Father, “You love yourself in us just as you love us in yourself, when we love you by means of this great gift of yours [the Holy Spirit], and when our love joins us to you.  …  You love us to the degree in which you make us love you.  We love you to the degree in which we receive your Spirit.”[48]  In this dynamic, the human person is transformed by Love by being drawn deeper into Love and is transformed into Love by participation.  Love, being given at one’s deepest center, constitutes participation in divine life and loving union when it is returned in reciprocal response.  The act of loving God with Love is union, freedom and holiness.  William puts it this way:

When we love you, our souls are touched by the Holy Spirit and drawn into him.  Through him, as he lives in us, we have the charity of God poured out in our hearts.  This is none other than the mutual love of the Father and the Son, dwelling in our souls.  And as it turns back to God, even as it must, it turns the soul to God and makes it free and holy.  Then it is equally true to say that we love God, and that God is loving himself in us.  His love for us has the effect of uniting us to himself.[49]

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).  In Bernard’s mystical theology, transformation is viewed in terms of the re-ordering of love.  As McGinn notes about Bernard’s On Loving God, “The four degrees of love studied in Bernard’s treatise are nothing more than an extended discussion of how love is purged, reformed, and set in order after the fall.”[50]  An ordered love is one in which our affections and desires have all been put in proper priority; but it does not mean rejecting the body and the physical world so that we might choose God.[51]  In this transformative dynamic, God has all of the initiative as the one who is both the cause and the one who provides the occasion of loving God:  human longing for God is created by God, and God himself is its fulfillment.[52]  McIntosh considers that the initiating desire of God for the human is mirrored in the human:  “the most crucial experience of burning desire for God is a transcription in terms of the self of God’s prior desire for the soul, ‘it is a result of the soul being already sought and visited’.”[53]  In Bernard’s fourth degree of love, he writes of an experience of God’s love such that “the mind, drunk with divine love and forgetting itself, making itself like a broken vessel, throws itself wholly on God and, clinging to God, becomes one with him in spirit.”[54]  The effect of sensing God’s love to such extent in the mind, creates affection in selfless abandon; and infused Love effects a kenotic response and union.  This response in the human cannot be itself human love, but divine love, because the self is emptied:  “To lose yourself as though you did not exist and to have no sense of yourself, to be emptied out of yourself and almost annihilated, belongs to heavenly not to human love.”[55]  Thus for Bernard, experiential knowing and loving of God is deification: Sic affici deificari est (“To love God in this way is to become like God”).[56]

In Sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard continues in the tradition started by Origen of interpreting the Bride allegorically as the soul (as well as the church), and the Song of Songs is used as an allegory of private individual experiential knowledge of God.  In Sermon 83, the Bride, “rightly renouncing all other desires, she gives herself up wholly to Love, for it is in responding to Love that she is able to return love.”[57]  Here, in response to the priority of God’s loving initiative, one empties oneself of all desire except for the one true desire.  The embrace between Bride and Bridegroom signifies the union between the soul and God.  This embrace “is nothing other than holy and chaste love, love sweet and tender, love as tranquil as it is true, mutual, close, deep love, which is not in one flesh, but which joins two in one spirit, making two no longer two but one.”[58]  In Sermon 62 Bernard writes, “This union is for God and man a communion of wills and a consensus in love.”[59]  Thus, union involves both willing and loving.  Therefore authentic transformation, for Bernard, is always seen in increasing likeness to God and conforming to God.  As Williams notes, “The relation between God and self is always, in the mature life of grace, face-to-face.  …  For when His face has been uncovered, we who behold it are transformed into the same likeness, ‘from glory to glory’, by ‘the Lord Who is the Spirit’ (2 Cor 3.18).  We are transformed when we are conformed.”[60]

Bonaventure (1217-1274).  The transformative dynamic in the mystical theology of Bonaventure is foremost the reordering of the soul’s hierarchical structure in ecstatic response to the loving ekstasis of God.  In this way, Turner points out that Bonaventure successfully interiorizes Dionysius’ hierarchy.  Turner argues that the chief intellectual purposes of The Soul’s Journey into God (Itinerarium Mentis in Deum) is “to demonstrate the coincidence of the hierarchy of theological knowledge with that of the soul’s personal ascent into God.”[61]  The journey into God has transformation as its goal.  McGinn notes that Bonaventure’s spiritual writings are meant “to help others along this most important itinerarium, the path that leads to what he called transformation, ‘passing over’ (transitus) into God.”[62]  Like Maximus, Bonaventure provides a Christocentric understanding of Dionysius where transformation involves a sharing in Christ’s death:  “This transcendent ‘passing beyond’ (transitus) can be attained only in and through Christ’s transitus, or pascha, that is, his death on the cross,”[63] and this goal of the journey is characterized as “a divine donation given in darkness, one that brings death.”[64]  And so McIntosh points out, “What Bonaventure has done here is to set the apophatic ascent of Neoplatonism into the context of the paschal narrative.”[65]  The journey is participation in the dying and rising of Christ.  This participation is union in Christ, as McIntosh (following Hans Urs von Balthasar) highlights the kenotic character of Bonaventure’s mystical theology.  He writes, “For Bonaventure the highest form of mystical knowledge is not an apprehension of bare deity, but precisely the awareness of the eternal kenosis of deity by which the divine draws all creation into loving union in Christ.”[66]  And in the final chapter of the Itinerarium, “the ultimate state of encounter with God involves the soul in a reciprocal ecstasy, going out of self in response to the self-emptying love of God.”[67]

Bonaventure follows the long tradition since Origen of the threefold way of the spiritual life.  In The Triple Way, transformative dynamics are seen in his description of the unitive way.  He writes,

The steps of the unitive way are divided in this manner: watchfulness must arouse you, since the Spouse is at hand; trust must strengthen you, since He is faithful; desire [concupiscentia] must inflame you, since He is sweet; rapture [excedentia] must uplift you, since He is lofty; delight in Him must bring you peace, since He is beautiful; joy must inebriate you, since His love is full; close proximity [adhaerentia] must weld you to Him, since His love is strong.[68]

Notice that each human imperative is the response to a divine characteristic.  Divine love first inebriates with joy and affects a bond of union.  Thus union is put in terms of desire and love toward God.

In The Soul’s Journey into God, ‘rising’ can be thought of in terms of the coming to life of interior senses and affective love; and ‘dying’ in terms of purifying and reforming the image.  It is possible to reform the image, since it is changeable:  ipsa mens nostra sit commutabilis.[69]  The threefold dynamics of spiritual growth involve furnishing the image with faith, hope, and love: “The image of our soul [imago mentis], therefore, should be clothed with the three theological virtues, by which the soul is purified, illumined and perfected.”[70]  Along this itinerary, the mind arrives at the stage when the interior (spiritual) senses are restored (that is, the illuminative way); and in this stage the allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs (Bride = soul) applies to one’s contemplative prayer.  As Bonaventure writes, “Having recovered these senses, when it sees its Spouse and hears, smells, tastes and embraces him, the soul can sing like the bride the Canticle of Canticles, which was composed for the exercise of contemplation of this fourth stage.”[71] This prayer exercise involves affective receptivity, rather than discursive activity:  “No one grasps this except him who receives, since it is more a matter of affective experience than rational consideration.”[72]  When the interior senses are restored, “the soul is prepared for spiritual ecstasy through devotion, admiration and exultation.”[73]  In exultation, the mind overflows with “delights of the sweetest pleasure” and “leans wholly upon her beloved.”[74]  Thus in the mind’s ekstasis affective love is drawn out into a deeper intimacy with God.  This re-ordering, a rearrangement in the soul to raise the spirit into prominence as the dominant aspect of life, can be seen as an aspect of the coming of God’s reign or kingdom in the heart.  As Bonaventure writes, “When this is achieved, our spirit is made hierarchical [hierarchicus] in order to mount upward, according to its conformity to the heavenly Jerusalem which no man enters unless it first descend into his heart through grace.”[75]  The heavenly Jerusalem represents the kingdom of heaven:  “It descends into our heart when our spirit has been made hierarchical – that is, purified, illumined and perfected – through the reformation of the image, through the theological virtues, through the delights of the spiritual senses and through mystical ecstasies [suspensiones excessuum].”[76]  Thus imago mentis is reformed by grace through faith, hope, and love, through God’s self-gift and one’s response of ekstasis.

Transformation or transitus into God occurs in contemplationis excessum (excessive contemplation) where affective love, beyond rational thought, moves ecstatically into God.  This transitus is a response to the gift of the Holy Spirit’s vivifying work in one’s desire.  Thus Bonaventure’s transformative dynamic is a transformation of affection and desire by the grace of the Holy Spirit as gift.  He writes,

In this passing over, if it is to be perfect, all intellectual activities must be left behind and the height of our affection must be totally transferred and transformed into God.  This, however, is mystical and most secret, which no one knows except him who receives it, no one receives except him who desires it, and no one desires except him who is inflamed in his very marrow by the fire of the Holy Spirit whom Christ sent into the world.[77]

And it is the Holy Spirit who raises up affection; he is “the fire that totally inflames and carries us into God by ecstatic [excessivis] unctions and burning affections.  This fire is God.”[78]

Meister Eckhart (1260-1327).  The transformative dynamic in Eckhart’s mystical theology is grounded in the transformation of desire, and involves detachment and ‘letting go’.  The self is to receive God’s gracious self-gift and is to conform to the Word.  Transformation of desire is viewed in terms of human will and longing becoming ‘nothing’.  For Eckhart, true spiritual poverty is to be nothing in order that God may be all.  He writes in Sermon 52, “A poor man wants nothing, and knows nothing, and has nothing.”[79]  Turner describes this spiritual stance of poverty as one’s becoming “nothing” in desire, so that one’s desires are God’s own desires.  This does not mean desiring God or what God desires, but becoming in desire an indistinct unity with God’s desires.[80]  In Sermon 52, Eckhart makes clear that the truly poor person who “wants nothing” does not choose God’s will with one’s one will, but the person is free of their own “created” will which has come into existence distinct from God’s will.[81]

Eckhart’s apophatic spirituality includes an ascetical disposition of detachment (abegescheidenheit) and an ascetical practice of letting go (gelâzen).  Turner points out that human desire is not the problem, but the attachment created by it.  It is the possessiveness of human desire to which detachment is the solution.[82]  Desire is not eliminated but affirmed:  it becomes free of desire to possess objects, is restored to a place of objectivity, and becomes the basis of genuine love.  As Turner puts it, “Detachment, for Eckhart, is not the severing of desire’s relation with its object, but the restoration of desire to a proper relation of objectivity; as we might say, of reverence for its object.  Detachment is therefore the basis of the true possibility of love, which is why, for Eckhart, it is more fundamental than love, being the condition of its possibility.”[83]  Furthermore, Turner relates detachment to a way of living out of one’s true self.  The true self is not one’s own, actually, but all that is one’s own is a created false self.  The true self is one with God.  According to Turner, “That is why, for Eckhart, ‘my’ self is not in the last resort mine at all.  And any self which I call my own is a false self, a self of possessive imagination.  To be a self I must retain within myself the void and the desert of detachment.  To live by detachment is to live without an explanation, without rationale, namelessly one with the nameless God.”[84]

The Latin terms emanation and reditus and German terms ûzbruch and durchbruch respectively indicate the “flowing out” from the divine source and the “return” or “breakthrough” to the primal source in God.  Many have noted this theme as Neoplatonic, but Eckhart teaches something more like an ongoing kenotic event of God’s self-gift and the soul’s self-emptying and receiving.  Detachment and “letting go” belong to the activity of self-emptying, i.e. of becoming spiritually poor.  This very act of self-emptying is equivalent to one’s receiving the divine life, given that “detachment compels God to love me” and “God must of necessity give himself to a heart that has detachment.”[85]  The process of emptying oneself of the created and of receiving the divine life involves a growing union with God and transformation into one image with God.  As in The Book of Divine Consolation Eckhart writes, “As the soul becomes more pure and bare and poor, and possesses less of created things, and is emptier of all things that are not God, it receives God more purely, and is more totally in him, and truly becomes one with God, and it looks into God and God into it, face to face, as it were two images transformed into one.”[86]  McIntosh describes God’s emanation in terms of trinitarian speech and one’s return in terms of silence.  God’s self-gift comes as the Word of the Father speaking all creation into existence.  The soul’s response of silence (or not-speech) is a negation of one’s own activity of creating oneself so to receive one’s true existence as God’s very own speech – which is to become aware of oneself already as God’s speech.[87]  In contrast to Neoplatonism this is a trinitarian view of the soul’s emanation and return.  As McIntosh writes, “Just as God knows Godself by the outpouring of self-expression, so the soul must participate in this, its ground, by a reciprocal ecstasy of the self.  …  In this mutual ekstasis, a true standing outside of self, the created distinction between God and the soul is overcome and God is able to ‘speak’ the soul as God’s own Word.”[88]  Thus by becoming “nothing” in terms of self-created life, the soul’s true identity is unveiled as an expression of God and the soul is seen as indistinct from God, being an expression of his Word.

In The Book of Divine Consolation, Eckhart speaks of the birth (or speaking) of the Word in the soul as the emanation of God the Holy Spirit.  This “flowing out” of the Holy Spirit from God and “springing up” of the Holy Spirit in the soul is the means by which God’s Son is conceived in the soul.  The degree to which a person consents to this activity of the Holy Spirit, the greater a person is formed into Christ-likeness and the more a person enacts Christ.  Any created power of the soul, even the highest ones, “must lose their own image, and be transformed above themselves into the image of God alone, and be born in God and from God.  …  In this way they too are the sons of God and God’s Only-Begotten Son.  For I am the son of everything that forms and bears me to be like it and in its likeness.”[89]  A person’s true identity as a son of God is the flowing out of the Spirit and the conception and birth of the Son in the soul.[90]  The degree to which a person has become free of self-createdness in detachment and become spiritually poor is congruent with the proximity to God of one’s identity out of which one lives – the ‘who’ from which the ‘what’ of a person is actualized.[91] Thus a person’s return to God entails living life out of one’s true identity as “son and the Son” flowing from God.

The “break-through” to one’s primal source in God is the highest goal of these flowing movements; it is “nobler” than flowing out.  In the break-through, growth in union with God has its completion and one has become perfect poverty of spirit.  A person has returned to what eternally he/she is – a no-thing in terms of self-createdness in contradistinction with God.  As Eckhart puts it in Sermon 52,

A great authority says that his breaking through is nobler than his flowing out; and that is true.  When I flowed out from God, all things said:  “God is.”  And this cannot make me blessed, for with this I acknowledge that I am a creature.  But in the breaking-through, when I come to be free of will of myself and of God’s will and of all his works and of God himself, then I am above all created things, and I am neither God nor creature, but I am what I was and what I shall remain, now and eternally.  …  Here God finds no place in man, for with this poverty man achieves what he has been eternally and will evermore remain.  Here God is one with the spirit, and that is the most intimate poverty one can find.[92]

Thus in the break-though a person has achieved a radical freedom – freedom of God and God’s works and will – because the person no longer lives from outside of that place or sphere called grunt.  The integrity of union is such that the person no longer has a dialectical relationship with God.  This means that the person must no longer be living as creature; but this does not mean the person is God himself.  And it sounds as if Eckhart would have us not affirm the human being as creature, since the goal of union is to be free of the created.  But in fact, Eckhart is promoting the perfection of incarnational living.  It is only in the deepest acceptance and understanding of oneself as creature, and therefore as essentially nothing, that one sees the necessity of becoming empty of createdness so that God may be all and fill all in and through this creation as this creation has already existed and does still exist in Godself.  For Eckhart, Christ “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant” (Phil 2.7 ESV), so that human beings might become ‘the Son’.  As we too “go out of all things” we “will have put on Christ.”[93]  Simply put, we are to become what God has created us to be and what we already truly are in God by losing that into which we have falsely created ourselves.  God finds no “place” in this person just as God does not require finding a “place” in Godself.  This person is all “place” and no “place” – God and spirit are one.

Eckhart speaks of the primordial unity of knowing and loving in Sermon 52.  Here, Eckhart is expounding on the blessedness of the poor in spirit on the point about the person who knows nothing.  This person knows “nothing”[94] because the person’s life is lived out of the innermost part of the soul where neither faculties of knowing or loving are pre-eminent, and from which knowing and loving are derived.  He writes,

Everything that ever came from God is directed into pure activity.  Now the actions proper to a man are loving and knowing.  The question is:  In which of these does blessedness most consist?  Some authorities have said that it consists in knowing, others say that it consists in loving; others that it consists in knowing and loving, and what they say is better.  But I say that it does not consist in either knowing or loving, but that there is that in the soul from which knowing and loving flow; that something does not know or love as do the powers of the soul.[95]

Authentic union with God is an ongoing self-emptying disposition and an interior work of the innermost person which results in a life lived from that place called ground.  This primal root of knowledge and love, the innermost part or spirit, has a receptive capacity by which the image of God is received.  In receiving the divine image, the spirit also is that image by virtue of receiving it.  In Sermon 16b, Eckhart thinks of the spirit as a vessel that takes in and contains.  Whereas material vessels remain what they are materially when containing something, spiritual vessels do not:  “Thus the soul wears the divine image and is like God.”[96]

One of the noblest things the soul can do is to receive Godself.  This is the soul’s great work:  to receive in the act of self-emptying (where God “must” give Godself), and so to be transformed into God’s likeness.  This interior work is to receive the Son and the Holy Spirit and to be born Son.  As Eckhart puts it in The Book of Divine Consolation,

And there is an interior work, which cannot be confined or comprehended by time or place; and in this work is what is divine and like to God, whom neither time nor place confine, for he is everywhere and present in all time, and this work is also like to God in this, that no creature can perfectly receive him nor form God’s goodness in himself.  And so there must be something more inward, more exalted, uncreated, lacking all measure, lacking all manner, in which the heavenly Father can form and pour and manifest his whole self; and that is the Son and the Holy Spirit.  And no one can hinder this interior working of virtue, any more than anyone can hinder God.[97]


The interior work receives and creates its whole being out of nowhere else than from and in the heart of God.  It receives the Son, and is born Son in the bosom of the heavenly Father.[98]

It is not the activity of our creatureliness that may transform us to be like God with effectiveness; but this more inward part, the spirit, is capable of receiving Godself and becoming the image of God.

Teresa of Avila (1515-1582).  The subject of union between the soul and God is treated in the Interior Castle from the fifth to the seventh dwellings (moradas).  Teresa employs the metaphor of a silkworm transforming into a butterfly, the life of the butterfly, and the death of the butterfly, to describe the transformative dynamics of the soul’s deepening union with God.  As such, Teresa refers to three degrees of union which she calls the Prayer of Union (fifth dwelling), the Spiritual Betrothal (sixth dwelling), and Spiritual Marriage (seventh dwelling).  Teresa describes the different prayer experiences between fifth and sixth dwelling in terms of intensity and duration, and characterizes them as essentially a union of love.  In The Book of Her Life, Teresa uses the metaphor of watering a garden in four different ways to describe four degrees of prayer.  The fourth degree correlates to the Prayer of Union, within which “the elevation of the spirit, or joining with heavenly love” takes place.[99]  Regarding the “failure of the senses” during this prayer, the soul understands that “the sun’s brightness … melted away the soul” and “the soul remains in this suspension of all the faculties” for a very short time.[100]  Though the intellect and memory may be suspended for a while and return, the will remains quiet.  In contrast, the union described in the seventh dwelling is a continuous union of willing and loving not necessarily felt experientially, and all of the faculties are available to use in service for God and others.

In the “Prayer of Union” of Interior Castle, the union is transient, brief and transcends discursive thought;[101] and it is characteristic of amor:  “It is all a matter of love united with love [amor con amor].”[102]  Teresa compares the transformation in this fifth dwelling to a silkworm being transformed into a butterfly; and she compares the activity of a silkworm spinning a cocoon to the human disposition where spinning silk is representative of ekstasis.  The silkworm “spins the silk and builds the house wherein it will die.”[103]  God himself is the cocoon which we spin and within which we die to self, “He is the dwelling place and we ourselves can build it so as to place ourselves in it.”[104]  Thus, Teresa views the prayer of union as an act of ekstasis into God.  And this prayer goes hand in hand with active spiritual disciplines of the purgative way.  As she writes, “Let’s be quick to do this work and weave this little cocoon by getting rid of our self-love and self-will, our attachment to any earthly thing, and by performing deeds of penance, prayer, mortification, obedience. …  Let it die; let the silkworm die, as it does in completing what it was created to do.”[105]  Therefore for Teresa, prayer of union is a spiritual exercise of building self-surrender.  According to Evelyn Underhill’s read of Teresa, the secret of the prayer of union is intense, loving self-surrender.[106]

A disposition of self-surrender is the response to God’s gracious action in this prayer.  God brings the soul “into the inner wine cellar and puts charity in order within her.”[107]  In this wine cellar (which for Teresa is this union), God re-orders love within the soul, which too is grace for deeper surrender in love.  The soul’s love affects its surrender – a loving ekstasis – such that the intellect and will are receptive, only knowing and willing what is given:  “Since that soul now surrenders itself into His hands and its great love makes it so surrendered that it neither knows nor wants anything more than what He want with her.” [108]  Teresa describes what the soul does in this union with the analogy of wax receiving a seal.  Here, Teresa portrays open and receptive, trustful yielding to grace in freedom and with active consent.  As Teresa puts it, God desires that the soul “may go forth from this union impressed with His seal.  For indeed the soul does no more in this union than does the wax when another impresses a seal on it.  The wax doesn’t impress the seal upon itself; it is only disposed – I mean by being soft.  And even in order to be disposed, it doesn’t soften itself but remains still and gives its consent.”[109]  The knowing, willing, and loving of the person is formed and shaped by divine grace in this prayer so that one may go into the world in that image.

The Spiritual Betrothal or sixth dwelling deals with the ways God awakens the soul and awakens the will to love, preparing her for being fully united with God (the seventh dwelling).  The metaphor of the butterfly learning to fly, or also a little dove, expresses the ekstasis of the deepest part of the soul.  Ardent desire for God is a gift of God’s grace:  God “makes it [la palomica (little dove)] desire Him vehemently [se lo hace bien desear]” by impulses which proceed from “very deep within the interior part of the soul [muy interior del alma].”[110]  Teresa describes God’s initial loving action as an intense, exquisite and delightful pain; an action of love “so powerful that the soul dissolves with desire.”[111]  God wounds the deepest part (muy interior) of the soul with an arrow of love and then draws out the arrow, “drawing these very depths after Him.”  In response to the wound of love, the soul is brought by God’s grace to a passionate desire verging on rapture:  “Just as the fire is about to start, the spark goes out and the soul is left with the desire to suffer again that loving pain the spark causes.”[112]  In this dwelling, again, the union is characteristic of love, and Teresa describes God’s action as a loving embrace enabling her to respond in loving self-surrender.

In the seventh dwelling the soul perceives that the Persons of the Trinity are within her deepest center.  The previous unions discussed are transient, but for this union the soul remains united with God.  That is, for Teresa spiritual marriage is the full union between the triune God and the soul.  It is important to note however that spiritual marriage “does not come to its perfect fullness as long as we live; for if we were to withdraw from God, this remarkable blessing would be lost.”[113]  Teresa compares this spirit-to-Spirit union to the water of a stream flowing into the sea; they become one.  Teresa indicates that this unity involves a continuous radical self-surrender where human will remains free and distinct.  And in this union the butterfly has died.  By this Teresa indicates that flights of rapture are not a goal or important for the spiritual life; rather, it is to be drawn into Christ’s own life lived in the world.  Teresa writes,

Perhaps this is what St. Paul means in saying ‘He that is joined or united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him,’ and is referring to this sovereign marriage, presupposing that His Majesty has brought the soul to it through union.  And he also says: ‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’  The soul as well, I think, can say these words now because this state is the place where the little butterfly we mentioned dies, and with the greatest joy because its life is now Christ.[114]

In the death of the butterfly, Christ is now its life.  Thus in this transformative dynamic, the deepest part of the soul has been drawn out into prominence and has become one spirit with the Lord; and its own life is now Christ.  In this death, Teresa understands the following effects: a forgetfulness of self; a great desire to suffer and to serve God, and a deep interior joy in suffering; no desire for consolation or spiritual delight; a great detachment; a well-disposed and resolute will to do God’s will; interior quiet; and the cessation of raptures.[115]  The authentic result of transformative union is a truthful enacting of Christ’s life in the world.  For, as Teresa writes, the purpose of this spiritual marriage is “the birth always of good works;” and “it means becoming the slaves of God.”[116]

John of the Cross (1542-1591).  The transformative dynamic in the mystical theology of John of the Cross involves a growing detachment from the creaturely made possible by God’s own love.  This can be viewed in terms of becoming single in desire and love.  It is fundamentally the purification and liberation of desire from all other loves which is necessary in order that transformation and a union of love with God is possible.  In Ascent of Mount Carmel, human amor effects likeness; therefore in order for a person to be transformed into the likeness of God, amor must become deprived of the appetites in all things in the dark night of sense.  For union, it is necessary for amor to become single.  As John writes, “By the mere fact that a soul loves something, it becomes incapable of pure union and transformation in God.”[117]  For John, union is the dynamic, supernatural union of likeness where God’s will and the soul’s conform; not the static, natural, substantial union of God in the soul given to everyone.[118]

In union, the human will is transformed into God such that God’s will becomes its motivation:  the will “excludes everything contrary to God’s will, and in all and through all is motivated by the will of God.”[119]  Union is therefore perfection in freedom, where the will is free from all attachments.  For John, this detachment is more important than virtue, since a person with attachments will not reach the freedom of divine union no matter how much virtue the person has.[120]

Transformation of desire is seen in terms of superior desire freeing the will from lesser desire.  It is desire for God which is superior and God’s love frees the person to conquer other desires.  John puts it:  “A love of pleasure, and attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure. A more intense enkindling of another, better love (love of the soul’s Bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure. By finding satisfaction and strength in this love, it will have the courage and constancy to readily deny all other appetites.”[121]  The appetites are conquered with a better love: the Bridegroom’s love must enkindle human love with longing for the Bridegroom; therefore, God’s love is the possibility of detachment.

The ascent up Mount Carmel involves by grace putting off foreign affections and attachments, being cleansed from their effects on the soul, and putting on a new understanding and love of God from God.  Then God clothes the faculties (intellect, memory, will) with new supernatural ability (faith, hope, love) such that a person’s work is human-divine.  As John writes, “He attires all the faculties with new supernatural abilities. As a result, one’s activities, once human, now become divine.”[122]  In The Dark Night, the three theological virtues prepare the three faculties for union with God as follows:  faith causes natural understanding of the intellect to descend, and divine wisdom to ascend; hope causes memory to descend from creaturely possessions, and to ascend to hope in God; and love (caridad) causes the will to descend from “affections and appetites” and to ascend to God, and it unites the will with God through love (amor).[123]  Also in the Spiritual Canticle, to “drink of my Beloved” means to be substantially transformed in one’s spiritual faculties by receiving God’s self-communication: “With the intellect she drinks wisdom and knowledge; with the will, sweetest love; and with the memory she drinks refreshment and delight in the remembrance and the feeling of glory.”[124]  John’s transformation, therefore, can be seen as a hierarchical restructuring of the soul, elevating the soul to primarily exist above its natural parts.  The natural aspects of the soul become less prominent (“dark”) to the soul’s mode of existence, and grace becomes more prominent.  As John writes, “Attaining supernatural transformation manifestly demands a darkening of the soul and an elevation above all the sensory and rational parts of nature, for the word ‘supernatural’ indicates that which is above nature; nature, consequently, remains beneath.”[125]

In The Dark Night, experiential knowledge of God, or mystical theology called “dark contemplation”, is a means of the union of love and is characterized as both secret and as a ladder.  It is a communication of God’s love hidden to the faculties (intellect, memory, will) “insofar as these faculties do not acquire it but the Holy Spirit infuses it and puts it in order in the soul.”[126]  And these communications are used as an ascent and a descent, since “they simultaneously exalt and humble the soul.  For on this road, to descend is to ascend and to ascend is to descend.”[127]

In the Spiritual Canticle, spiritual marriage is total transformation in God in a kenotic union of love analogous to the perichoresis whereby the soul becomes divine through participation.  As John puts it, spiritual marriage is a total transformation “in which each surrenders the entire possession of self to the other with a certain consummation of the union of love. The soul thereby becomes divine, God through participation, insofar as is possible in this life.”[128]  As such, it is the Holy Spirit who is the love in union.  John writes,

The Holy Spirit elevates the soul sublimely and informs her and makes her capable of breathing in God the same spiration of love that the Father breathes in the Son and the Son in the Father. This spiration of love is the Holy Spirit himself, who in the Father and the Son breathes out to her in this transformation in order to unite her to himself. There would not be a true and total transformation if the soul were not transformed in the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity in an open and manifest degree.[129]

Thus for John love is union and is transformation.  In the Living Flame of Love, love is the “inclination, strength, and power” of the soul for uniting with God; and “the more degrees of love it has, the more deeply it enters into God and centers itself in him.”[130] Love’s transformative dynamic is that love may grow deeper in quality and grow more passionate to the degree of producing an outflowing love.  In this highest degree of love, the divine fire of the Holy Spirit transforms and elevates the soul so inwardly “that it is not merely united to this fire but produces within it a living flame”[131] and “from its depths flow rivers of living water.”[132]



It is clear that throughout history the dominant transformative dynamic in this selection of the mystical theology of the Christian tradition is the transformation of desire, as response to the gracious love of God as a priori self-gift, into a reciprocal ekstasis concretely and actively seen in the world as Christ-likeness.  Fundamentally, transforming union is the way in which a person is drawn into death where Christ himself is one’s life, as a way of participation in the dying and rising of Christ.  Such participation is a new mode of existence, a personal identifying activity in which life is lived by grace ever more deeply according to the divine pattern of life.  There have been differences regarding the dynamic or static nature of the image, yet all agree that the likeness is dynamic.  And there has not been unanimity concerning the nature of union, whether intellective, volitive, affective, or transcendental.  For most, transforming union is a union of willing and knowing and loving, where this love is the Holy Spirit who constitutes the union and the new personal identity.  Thus, true personhood hidden in God with Christ (Col 3:3) is constituted in relationship with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Transformation, then, is the ever-deepening enactment of Christ’s own life.





Primary Sources

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Bonaventure. Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God; the Tree of Life; the Life of St. Francis. Translated by Ewert H. Cousins. New York: Paulist Press, 1978.

__________. Collations on the six days. Vol. 5. of The Works of Bonaventure: Cardinal, seraphic doctor, and saint. Translated by José De Vinck. Paterson, N.J.: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1970.

__________. Mystical Opuscula. Vol. 1. of The Works of Bonaventure: Cardinal, seraphic doctor, and saint. Translated by José De Vinck. Paterson, N.J.: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1960.

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__________. Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense. Edited by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn. New York: Paulist Press, 1981.

John of the Cross. The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991.

Maximus. Maximus the Confessor. Translated by Andrew Louth. New York: Routledge, 1996.

__________. Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings. Translated by George C. Berthold. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

Origen. Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works. Translated by Rowan A. Greer. New York: Paulist Press, 1979.

__________. The Song of Songs: Commentary and Homilies. Translated by R. P. Lawson. Westminster, Md.; London: Newman Press; Longmans, Green, 1957.

Pseudo-Dionysius. Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works. Translated by Colm Luibhéid and Paul Rorem. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.

Teresa of Avila. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila: Volume One. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. 2nd ed. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1987.

__________. The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila: Volume Two. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1980.

William of St. Thierry. The Golden Epistle: A Letter to the Brethren at Mont Dieu. Translated by Theodore Berkeley.  Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1971.

__________.  The Mirror of Faith. Edited by Thomas X. Davis. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1979.

__________. Exposition on the Song of Songs. Shannon, Ireland: Irish University Press, 1970.

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__________. The Growth of Mysticism. New York: Crossroad, 1994.

__________. The Foundations of Mysticism. New York: Crossroad, 1991.

McIntosh, Mark A.  Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998.

Turner, Denys. The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism. New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Underhill, Evelyn. Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1930; 2002.

Williams, Rowan. Teresa of Avila. London: Contiuum, 2003.

__________. The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross. 2nd rev. ed. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1990.

[1] For one example see Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives (New York: HarperCollins, 1990).

[2] For one example see John Arnott, The Father’s Blessing (Orlando, FL: Creation House, 1995).

[3] Sandra M. Schneiders, “Approaches to the Study of Christian Spirituality,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Spirituality, ed. A. G. Holder (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005), 22.

[4] Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1957), 9.

[5] Mark A. McIntosh, Mystical Theology: The Integrity of Spirituality and Theology (Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1998), 40.

[6] Lossky, 10, cited in McIntosh, 40.

[7] McIntosh, 40.

[8] McIntosh, 190.

[9] McIntosh, 190.

[10] Origen, “Homily XXVII on Numbers” in Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works, trans. Rowan Greer (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1979), 250.

[11] Origen, “On Prayer” in Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works, trans. Rowan Greer (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1979), 157.  “The soul always preserves free choice; and on its own responsibility it either comes to be in nobler things, advancing step by step to the summit of goods, or descends from failing to pay attention in diverse motions to one flood or another of evil.”

[12] Origen, “An Exhortation to Martyrdom” in Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works, trans. Rowan Greer (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1979), 76.  Origen often references Wisdom 9.15.

[13] Origen, “On Prayer” in Origen: An Exhortation to Martyrdom, Prayer, and Selected Works, trans. Rowan Greer (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1979), 135.

[14] Origen, “On Prayer”, 99.  Cf. 2 Cor 3:18.

[15] Origen, “On Prayer”, 100.

[16] Origen, “Homily XXVII,” 264. “From there they come to Thara, which may be understood in our words as ‘contemplation of amazement’.  (We cannot express the Greek word ekstasis with a single word in Latin; ekstasis refers to the mind’s amazement when it admires some great thing.)  Thus, the contemplation of amazement means a time when the mind is struck with amazement by the knowledge of great and marvellous things.”

[17] Origen, “Commentary on the Song of Songs,” in The Song of Songs, Commentary and Homilies, trans. R. P. Lawson, Ancient Christian Writers 26 (Westminster MD: The Newman Press, 1957), 41.

[18] Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 119.

[19] Origen, “Song of Songs,” 29.

[20] Origen, “Song of Songs,” 29.

[21] Rowan Williams, The Wound of Knowledge: Christian Spirituality from the New Testament to St. John of the Cross, 2nd rev. ed. (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1990), 121.

[22] Williams, 122.

[23] McGinn, Foundations, 180.

[24] Pseudo-Dionysius, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, trans. Colm Luibhéid and Paul Rorem (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 135.

[25] Pseudo-Dionysius, 137.

[26] Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism (New York, NY, USA: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 47.

[27] McIntosh, 53.

[28] Jaroslav Pelikan, “The Place of Maximus Confessor in the History of Christian Thought” in Maximus Confessor: Actes du Suymposium sur Maxime le Confesseur. Fribourg 2-5 September 1980, ed. Felix Heinzer and Christoph Schönbon (Fribourg: Editions Universitaires, 1982), 397.  Cited by Bernard McGinn, The Growth of Mysticism (New York: Crossroad, 1994), 91.

[29] McIntosh, 58.

[30] McIntosh, 60.

[31] McIntosh, 60.

[32] Maximus Confessor, “The Four Hundred Chapters on Love” in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings, trans. George C. Berthold (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 64.

[33] Maximus, “Chapters on Love,” 64.

[34] Maximus, “Chapters on Love,” 75.

[35] Maximus, Maximus the Confessor, trans. Andrew Louth (New York: Routledge, 1996), 85.

[36] Maximus, “Chapters on Love”, 53.  (2.48.)

[37] Maximus, “Chapters on Knowledge” in Maximus Confessor: Selected Writings, trans. George C. Berthold (New York: Paulist Press, 1985), 130-31.

[38] Maximus, “Chapters on Knowledge,” 135.

[39] McGinn, Growth, 251.

[40] McGinn, Growth, 253.

[41] William of St. Thierry, The Golden Epistle: A Letter to the Brethren at Mont Dieu, trans. Theodore Berkeley (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1971), 95-6.

[42] William of St. Thierry, On Contemplating God (London: A. R. Mowbray, 1955), 31.

[43] William of St. Thierry, The Mirror of Faith, ed. Thomas X. Davis (Kalamazoo, Mich.: Cistercian Publications, 1979), 18.

[44] William, Golden Epistle, 99.

[45] William, Golden Epistle, 97.

[46] William, Golden Epistle, 98.

[47] William, Contemplating, 32.

[48] William, Contemplating, 32.

[49] William, Contemplating, 34.

[50] McGinn, Growth, 218.

[51] McGinn, Growth, 219.

[52] Bernard of Clairvaux, “On Loving God” in Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 191.  He writes, “God is the cause of loving God.  …  He himself provides the occasion.  He himself creates the longing.  He himself fulfills the desire.”

[53] McIntosh, 66.

[54] Bernard, “On Loving God,” 195.

[55] Bernard, “On Loving God,” 195.

[56] Bernard, “On Loving God,” 196.

[57] Bernard of Clairvaux, “Sermons on The Song of Songs” in Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), 273.

[58] Bernard, “Sermons,” 274.

[59] Williams, 114. Citation of Bernard from Sermons 62.

[60] Williams, 114.

[61] Turner, 115.

[62] McGinn, Flowering, 101.

[63] McGinn, Flowering, 109.

[64] McGinn, Flowering, 110.

[65] McIntosh, 78.

[66] McIntosh, 77.

[67] McIntosh, 77.

[68] Bonaventure, “The Triple Way” in Mystical Opuscula, vol. 1 of The Works of Bonaventure: Cardinal, seraphic doctor, and saint, trans. José De Vinck (Paterson, N.J.: St. Anthony Guild Press, 1960), 88.

[69] Bonaventure, Itinerarium Mentis in Deum, 3, 3.  “Our mind itself is changeable.”

[70] Bonaventure, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God; the Tree of Life; the Life of St. Francis , trans. Ewert H. Cousins (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), 89.

[71] Bonaventure, Soul’s Journey, 89.

[72] Bonaventure, Soul’s Journey, 89. quia magis est in experientia affectuali quam in consideratione rationali .

[73] Bonaventure, Soul’s Journey, 89.

[74] Bonaventure, Soul’s Journey, 90.

[75] Bonaventure, Soul’s Journey, 90.

[76] Bonaventure, Soul’s Journey, 90.  Tunc autem in cor descendit, quando per reformationem imaginis, per virtutes theologicas et per oblectationes spiritualium sensuum et suspensiones excessuum efficitur spiritus noster hierarchicus, scilicet purgatus, illuminatus et perfectus.

[77] Bonaventure, Soul’s Journey, 113.

[78] Bonaventure, Soul’s Journey, 115.

[79] Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense, trans. Edmund Colledge, O.S.A. and Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1981), 199.

[80] Turner, 181.

[81] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 200. Eckhart writes, “For if a person wants really to have poverty, he ought to be as free of his own created will as he was when he did not exist.  For I tell you by the truth that is eternal, so long as you have a will to fulfill God’s will, and a longing for God and for eternity, then you are not poor; for a poor man is one who has a will and longing for nothing.”

[82] Turner, 183.

[83] Turner, 183.

[84] Turner, 184.

[85] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 286.

[86] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 222.

[87] McIntosh, 127-8.

[88] McIntosh, 128.

[89] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 211.

[90] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 227. Eckhart writes, “Here [in the birth] is the flowing out and the springing up of the Holy Spirit, from whom alone, as he is God’s Spirit and himself Spirit, God the Son is conceived in us.  Here is the flowing out of all those who are the sons of God, to the measure, greater or less, in which they are purely born of God alone, formed in God’s likeness and in God.”

[91] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 227. Eckhart writes, “The further we are away from the One, the less we are sons and the Son, and the less perfectly does the Holy Spirit spring up in us and flow out from us.  And the closer we are to the One, the more truly are we God’s sons and his Son, and also the more truly does God the Holy Spirit flow from us,”

[92] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 203.

[93] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 293.

[94] That is to say, the faculty of knowing is in a receptive rather than an active capacity.

[95] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 201.

[96] Meister Eckhart, Meister Eckhart, Teacher and Preacher, ed. Bernard McGinn (New York: Paulist Press, 1986), 276.

[97] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 225.

[98] Eckhart, Essential Sermons, 226.

[99] Teresa of Avila, “The Book of Her Life” in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila: Volume One, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., 2nd ed. (Washington DC:  ICS Publications, 1987), 159.

[100] Teresa, “Life”, 162.  “Should it remain suspended for a half tour, this would be a very long time.”

[101] Teresa of Avila, “The Interior Castle” in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila: Volume Two, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh O.C.D. and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., (Washington DC:  ICS Publications, 1980), 336. “During the time that the union lasts the soul is left as though without its senses, for it has no power to think [se queda como sin sentido aquello poco que dura, que ni hay poder pensar].”

[102] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 354.

[103] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 342.

[104] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 343.

[105] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 343.

[106] Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness, (Mineola, NY:  Dover Publications, 2002), 356.

[107] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 346.

[108] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 346.

[109] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 346.

[110] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 366-7.

[111] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 368.

[112] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 368.

[113] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 432.

[114] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 434.

[115] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 438-43.

[116] Teresa, “Interior Castle”, 446.

[117] John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” in The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991), 124.

[118] John of the Cross, “Ascent”, 163. “In discussing union with God we are not discussing the substantial union that always exists, but the soul’s union with and transformation in God that does not always exist, except when there is likeness of love. We will call it the union of likeness; and the former, the essential or substantial union. 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.”

[119] John of the Cross, “Ascent”, 142.

[120] John of the Cross, “Ascent”, 143.

[121] John of the Cross, “Ascent”, 151.

[122] John of the Cross, “Ascent”, 129.  y vistiéndola de nueva habilidad sobrenatural según todas sus potencias. De manera, que ya su obrar de humano se haya vuelto en Divino, que es lo que se alcanza en el estado de union. The translation “one’s activities, once human, now become divine” may be also translated as “one’s actions have become human-divine”.

[123] John of the Cross, “The Dark Night” in The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991), 448-9.

[124] John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle” in The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991), 576.

[125] John of the Cross, “Ascent”, 159-60.

[126] John of the Cross, “Dark Night”, 436.

[127] John of the Cross, “Dark Night”, 439.

[128] John of the Cross, “Canticle”, 560.

[129] John of the Cross, “Canticle”, 623.

[130] John of the Cross, “The Living Flame of Love” in The Collected Works of Saint John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, rev. ed. (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991), 645.

[131] John of the Cross, “Living Flame”, 639.

[132] John of the Cross, “Living Flame”, 641.

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