Ladder of Perfection II.II.XI

A soul that desires to attain self-knowledge of spiritual things must first know itself, for it cannot acquire knowledge of a higher kind until it first knows itself. The soul does this when it is so recollected and detached from all earthly preoccupations and from the influence of the senses that it understands itself as it is in its own nature, taking no account of the body. So if you desire to know and see your soul as it is, do not look for it within your body as though it were hidden in your heart in the same way that the heart is hidden within the body. If you look for it in this way you will never find it. The more you search for it as for a material object, the further you are from it, for your soul is not tangible, but a living and invisible spirit. It is not hidden and enclosed in your body in the way that a lesser object is hidden and enclosed within a greater; on the contrary, it is the soul that sustains and gives life to the body, and is posessed of much greater strength and virtue.

Therefore if you desire to discover your soul, withdraw your thoughts from outward and material things, forgetting if possible your own body and its five senses, and consider the nature of a rational soul in the same way as you would consider any virtue, such as truth or humility. Similarly, consider how the soul is a living spirit, immortal and invisible, with power in itself to see and know supreme Truth and to love supreme Good, which is God. Once you have grasped this, you have some understanding of yourself. Do not seek this knowledge in any other way, for the more clearly and fully you can study the nature and dignity of a rational soul - what it is, and how it functions - the better you will understand yourself. It is very difficult for an untutored soul, pent in the body, to have a true knowledge of itself, or of an angel, or of God, because it pictures them all in a physical form, and expects in some way to see itself, and so God and spiritual things. But this is impossible, for all spiritual things are perceived and made known to the soul by reason, and not by imagination. And just as reason enables a soul to know that the virtue of justice requires that every man receive his due reward, it can in the same way enable the soul to understand itself.

I do not say, however, that the soul should rest content with this knowledge, but that it should employ it to seek a higher knowledge above itself, that is, of the nature of God. For your soul is a spiritual mirror in which you may see the likeness of God. First, then, find your mirror, and keep it bright and clean from the corruption of the flesh and worldly vanity. Hold it well up above the earth so that you can see it, and our Lord reflected in it. In this life all chosen souls direct their effort and intention to this end although they may not be fully conscious of it. It is for this reason, as I said earlier, that at the beginning and early stages of their spiritual life many souls enjoy great fervour and devotion, and seem all afire with love; but this is not the perfect love or spiritual knowledge of God. You can be certain that however intense the fervour felt by a soul - even if it is so intense that the body appears unable to bear it or melts into tears - as long as its conception and experience of God is largely or wholly dependent on imagination rather than on knowledge, it has not yet attained perfect love or contemplation.

Understand, then, that the love of God has three degrees, all of which are good, but each succeeding degree is better than the other. The first degree is reached by faith alone, when no knowledge of God is conveyed by grace through the imagination or understanding. This love is common to every soul that is reformed in faith, however small a degree of charity it has attained; and it is good, for it is sufficient for salvation. The second degree of love is attained when the soul knows God by faith and Jesus in His manhood through the imagination. This love, where imagination is stimulated by grace, is better than the first, because the spiritual perceptions are awakened to contemplate our Lord's human nature. In the third degree the soul, as far as it may in this life, contemplates the Godhead united to manhood in Christ. This is the best, highest, and most perfect degree of love, and it is not attained by the soul until it is reformed in feeling. Those at the beginning and early stages of the spiritual life do not possess this degree of love, for they cannot think of Jesus or love Him as God, but always think of Him as a man living under earthly conditions. All their thoughts and affections are shaped by this limitation. They honour Him as man, and they worship and love Him principally in His human aspect, and go no further. For instance, if they have done wrong and offended against God, they think that God is angry with them as a man would be had they offended him. So they fall down as it were at the feet of our Lord with heartfelt sorrow and ask for mercy, trusting that our Lord will mercifully pardon ther offence. And although this practice is commendable, it is not as spiritual as it might be. Similarly, when they wish to worship God they imagine our Lord in a bodily form aglow with wondrous light; then they proceed to honour, worship, and revere Him, throwing themselves on His mercy and begging Him to do with them what He wills. In the same way, when they wish to love God, they think of Him, worship Him, and reverence Him as man, recalling the Passion of Christ or some other event in His earthly life. Nevertheless, when they do this they are deeply stirred to the love of God.

Such devotion is good and inspired by grace, but it is much inferior to the exercise of the understanding, when grace moves the soul to contemplate God in Man. For there are two natures in our Lord, that of God and that of Man. And as the divine nature is higher and nobler than the human, so the soul's contemplation of the Godhead in the humanity of Jesus is more exalted, more spiritual, and more valuable than the contemplation of His humanity alone, whether the soul is thinking of His humanity as passible or glorified. For the same reason the love felt by a soul when grace enables it to contemplate God in man is more exalted, more spiritual, and more valuable than the fervour of devotion aroused by the contemplation of Jesus' humanity alone, however strong the outward signs of theis love. For this latter love is a natural love, and the former a spiritual love; and our Lord does not reveal Himself to the imagination as He is, for frailty of man's nature is such that the soul could not endure His glory.

Nevertheless, in order that the devotion of those souls that are incapable of such elevated contemplation of the Godhead should not be misdirected, but be comforted and strengthened by some form of interior contemplation of Jesus to forsake sin and the love of the world, God tempers the ineffable light of His divinity and cloaks it in the bodily form of Jesus's humanity. He reveals it in this way to the inward vision of the soul, and sustains it spiritually through the love of His precious humanity. This love is so potent that it destroys all love of evil in the soul, and gives it strength to endure bodily penance and other physical hardships whenever necessary for the love of Jesus. This is the way in which the Lord Jesus watches over a chosen soul and shields it from the flames of worldly love. For just as a shadow is formed by light falling on a solid object, so this spiritual shadow is cast over a devout soul by the blessed and ineffable light of God's Being and the human nature united to it. Of this shadow the prophet says:

Spiritus ante faciem nostram Christus Dominus: sub umbra eius vivemus inter gentes...

—Lam. 4:20

That is, our Lord Jesus in His divine nature is a spirit that cannot be seen by us while we live in the flesh; we must therefore live under the shadow of his human nature, as long as we are here. But although it is true that this love which depends upon the imagination is good, nevertheless a soul should desire to have a spiritual love and understanding of His divine nature, and all other bodily contemplations are but means of leading a soul to this. I do not say that we should separate the divine nature of Christ from the human, but that we should love Jesus both as God and man, for in Him God is united to man, and man to God; but this love must be spiritual, not carnal.

Our Lord taught this lesson to Mary Magdalen, who was called to be a contemplative, when He said:

Noli me tangere, nondum enim ascendi ad Patrem meum...Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.

—John 20:17

That is to say, Mary Magdalen had an ardent love for our Lord before His Passion, but her love was more carnal than spiritual. She truly believed that He was God, but she did not love him primarily as God, for she was not capable of doing so at that time, so that she allowed all her affection and thought to dwell on Him as man. And our Lord did not blame her for this at the time, but greatly commended her. But when he had risen from the dead and appeared to her, she would have honoured Him with the same kind of love as she did before, had not our Lord forbidden her, saying 'Do not touch me'. That is, do not allow the love of your heart to dwell only on my human nature which you see with your bodily eyes, for in that form I am not yet ascended to my Father. That is, I am not equal to the Father, for in my human nature I am less than he. Do not touch me in my present state, but set your mind and love on that state in which I am equal to the Father, that is, in my divinity. Love me, know me and worship me as God and man, and not as man only. In this way you shall touch me, for I am both God and man, and the whole reason why I am to be loved and worshipped is that I am God who took the nature of man. So adore me in your heart and give me your love as God. Let your mind worship me as Jesus, God in man, supreme Truth, supreme Goodness, and blessed Life, for so I am. This, I think is what our Lord taught her, and this is what he teaches all other souls that are disposed and ready for contemplation.