The Role of the Memory
The last faculty remaining to be discussed is memory. It is the subject of the third and final book of the Ascent and with it we will effectively conclude our examination of the fundamental principles presupposed in our analysis of St. John's metaphysics in Part II of our commentary. Our approach, to be sure, in dealing with memory, will be much the same as in our treatment of the will and understanding, and for this reason we shall be spared much unnecessary detail. But first, let us be clear about what St. John understands by memory, and in answering this, we shall at once discover the reason for the brevity of our account. For St. John, memory is simply the repository of forms received through the five senses 1 and in its subordinate capacity as imagination, it is capable of variously synthesizing these forms and producing still other forms with which the soul had hitherto been unacquainted, at least in their synthetic unity. In effect, then, memory is the subsumption of nature under the synthetic activity of imagination. All the imperatives, then, that apply to nature, and all the principles involved in its negation prior to union, equally apply to nature as internalized in memory and synthesized in imagination. Very briefly, then, since the memory is principally occupied with retaining and synthesizing various sensuous forms ultimately deriving from nature, we can succinctly state that, as Spirit, God is contrary to nature, and conversely, as subsumed under nature, form – delimited and finite – is contrary to God.2 The soul, then, is once again constrained to subject itself – this time relative to the faculty of memory – to the rigors of the via negativa. just as it had done relative to the will and understanding, in order to eliminate within itself that contrariety to God which is preclusive of union. It must become transformed, together with the will and the understanding, into that otherness of God to nature, and as a consequence, rendered other to its own natural economy.
Once more we find that two levels of negation are discernible in this transformation: the negation of nature according to memory, in which the soul ceases to appropriate and synthesize forms variously derived from the senses, thus negating nature. And, implicitly following from this first order of negation, the negation of memory according to nature in which the memory, having ceased from appropriating and synthesizing these sensuously derived forms, has effectively ceased in its natural function qua mnemonic. This resulting state of absolute negativity – the categorical negation of nature and memory – is, for St. John, simultaneously the transformation of the memory into the negativity of hope, its corresponding theological virtue which is understood by St. John to essentially constitute a state of radical dispossession. 3
There is, interestingly enough, one notable exception – and this only occurs in the Alcalà edition of 1618 – to the rule which requires the memory to be completely emptied of all forms and images: and this is the Sacred Humanity of Christ who, as both True God and True Man, remains, for St. John, the most proper object of both meditation and contemplation.4 However true this may be, to leave our answer simply at this is to gloss over some very real difficulties that arise as a result of this exception, for a good deal more than the simple humanity of Christ is insinuated into our account through it; indeed, through a broader consideration, it implicitly involves elements which have been found to be antagonistic to union elsewhere in the account. This type of incongruity occurs once again in the Dark Night of the Soul, and while I think these are significant features that must be dealt with, the broader issues from which they arise must be addressed more in terms of St. John’s own historical context than from any strictly epistemological consideration. Our discussion of this apparent inconsistency, inviting though it may be at the present, must wait until our examination of the Dark Night of the Soul where the opportunity will better present itself within another context altogether.
We have already found, much in line with our previous analyses, that the memory must be negated of all knowledge, form, and figure in order to be transformed into its corresponding theological virtue of hope which is explicitly negative:
“For all possession is contrary to hope, which, as St. Paul says, belongs to that which is not possessed. 5 Wherefore, the more
the memory dispossesses itself, the greater is its hope, and the more it has of hope, the more it has of union with God ... and it
hopes most when it is most completely dispossessed, and when it shall be perfectly dispossessed, it will remain with the perfect
possession of God in Divine union.” 6
This is a somewhat misleading passage, for one gets the impression that when the negative moment is actualized in perfect hope, this alone is sufficient to effect union with God. But we have clearly seen that this is not the case. There is no ‘causal’ connection between attaining the state of negation and the realization of union, still less a necessary transition logically implied, as we shall later see. For the moment let us simply say that in achieving the state of perfect dispossession which St. John calls hope, the soul is not for that reason, and at once, brought to union with God. Rather, as we had seen in the case of love (will) and faith (understanding), it is only brought into a state of proximity to God – the state of absolute negativity not only relative to nature, but to itself as well.
This persistent emphasis on the negative dimensions of experience within the several ‘nights’ that we have examined is, in this concluding chapter of the Ascent, clearly explained as ultimately having one purpose:
... all means must be proportioned to the end; that is to say, they must have some connection and resemblance with the end, such as
is enough and sufficient for the desired end to be attained through them.” 7
Now, we have seen that no positive commensurability is capable of being established between metaphysically incommensurable categories, between the means and the end – how then, we must ask, is this statement to be understood? This passage, I think, is extremely interesting in several respects, and before passing on to a consideration of our own immediate question, I think it would be worthwhile for us to consider another issue, not entirely tangential from our present purpose; an issue that really ought to be addressed, if only briefly, in light of what St. John has said above. Understanding this first will provide us with a broader perspective of the constant dialectic that occurs throughout the text. And it is this: a kind of teleology is suggested in the account which, positively considered, ultimately finds its ground in what, for St. John, is man’s essentially reflective ontology in relation to the Absolute, as image of the Absolute – an Absolute itself understood in terms of love. We had addressed this point briefly earlier. While some degree of commensurability is capable of being established between man and God through love, love itself – through which alone this commensurability is possible – is not an inherent metaphysical feature of man’s essential ontology independent of the Absolute. Love in fact is the essential ontological feature of man qua image of God, but for St. John, as we shall later see, man’s essential ontology is of itself the mere possibility of reflection – given the Reflected. And this is to say that the soul is, substantivally considered, not in itself an autonomous being, but rather, being-contingent-upon-the-Absolute – that is to say, being heteronymously derived, and not self-subsistent apart from the Absolute. And this, of course, is not merely entirely consistent with a traditional theological understanding of the nature of the soul – but in fact is an expression of it. In other words, it is not the case that the soul of itself is understood to be commensurable with God, but that the soul as the image actively reflecting God is, and it is seen to be commensurable only insofar as it does in fact reflect the Absolute. And this, in turn, is essentially to say that man’s being, fundamentally considered, cannot, for St. John, be established independently of God. Consequently, the authentic nature of man’s being is only teleologically actualized through his participation in God – and this direct participation is what St. John ultimately understands in the notion of union. We will discuss this in much greater detail the second part of our commentary.
Means and Ends
Returning once again to the point from which we departed, we had said that since no positive commensurability can be established between metaphysically incommensurable categories, between the means and the end, how are we to understand St. John when he insists that the “means must be proportioned to the end”, and sufficient for the desired end to be attained through them? It would appear that the ‘means’ of which St. John is speaking are, after careful examination, the three theological virtues that we have been addressing in one form or another all along. And St. John has been unequivocally clear about the negative nature of these virtues. The sort of proportion, then, that St. John appears to be calling for might well be more appositely described as negative commensurability; a commensurability achieved through abolishing all contrariety to God in the via negativa, and simultaneously positing at each successive moment in the account a theological virtue, explicitly negative in nature, through which alone, he has repeatedly insisted, the soul attains to a state of proximity to God. And this is further to say that what we confront here, in effect, is a kind of teleological negativity; a movement toward establishing commensurability negatively; not so much, as St. John inadvertently misleads us here, in the form of resemblance, as in the absence of contrariety.
Let us take a different tack. Through these various negative moments, or ‘nights’, the soul only becomes commensurable with the Absolute inasmuch as it is no longer incommensurable with it. It is not so much commensurability understood as rendering the soul to be what God is – this is not possible, for God is infinitely inexhaustible – but not to be what God is not. In other words, the soul achieves proximity to God negatively. It proximates, is commensurable with God, not in that it possesses characteristics in common with God, but in that it does not possess certain characteristics that God also does not possess – and this essentially is the concept of negative commensurability. Implicit, of course, in the concept of negative commensurability is the logic of negative predication. According to this logic, we are unable to derive logical warrant for ascribing a community of properties or attributes, positively considered, to intrinsically different things simply because they share identical predicates negatively considered. Not-red can be yellow or blue. Given something characterized as Not-red, we have no logical warrant whatever to understand this as indicating blue rather than yellow, or any other color in the spectrum for that matter. In fact, we have no warrant whatever of predicating anything at all of it, outside of the fact that it is Not-Red. Negative predicates, in other words, provide us with no information whatever about being positively considered.
Perhaps we can shed more light on this fundamental feature of mysticism by considering another dimension to the problem. It is very difficult to see how hope as a virtual state of negativity on the one hand, can be proportioned to God who, on the other, is the plenitude of being. To attempt to answer this in terms of negative commensurability is not to establish proportion or resemblance, as we have just seen, but merely, and at best, non-contrariety. How then is ‘proportion’ or ‘resemblance’ effected? To answer this we must return for a moment to our previous understanding of the virtue of hope. As the opposite of possession – which for the memory consists in the retention of created (natural) knowledge, form, and figure – hope may equally be seen to be the implicit opposite of nature. And as we had seen earlier, the opposite of nature in the metaphysical understanding of St. John is spirit – which is both proximate and similar, and therefore, proportioned to God. This very clearly follows if by spirit we understand not-nature as synonymous with spirit – and this synonymy is unmistakably implied throughout the account. Whatever not-nature understood as spirit is, it is something positively predicated of God. St. John, then, argues consistently when he maintains that the three theological virtues are in fact proportionate to God, and therefore the only proximate means to mystical union with him.
A Matter of Form
At this point, the memory has been negated of all created knowledge, form, and figure; it no longer archives, reproduces, or synthesizes the store of data it initially acquired through the senses, but rather assumes an attitude of totally passive receptivity. But what, precisely, is the memory receptive to in this state of negation? On the one hand it cannot be phenomena delivered by reason or sense, both having been antecedently abolished. And yet, on the other hand, what are we left with if all figure and form have been categorically abolished along with reason and sense? But, St. John argues, they have not been so – except relative to matter and reason.. It is not the case that the concept of form itself has been abolished – indeed, it is a fundamental principle of the scholastic reasoning with which St. John was so well acquainted that God himself is, in the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “of His essence a form, and not composed of matter and form.” 8 What has been abolished, rather, is form as limitation – a limitation specific to nature and coterminous with matter or co-conceptual within reason. It is, to extrapolate upon Aquinas’s own argument, form that is not self-subsisting, but dependent upon matter as the individuating principle of the form.
But the notion itself of form, as preeminently exemplified in God, is not limited to matter and reason. And it is this type of form which, St. John argues, is passively received either as purely spiritual intuitions, or, in the case of those mediated by sensuous form and figure, received not according to their various sensuous configurations, but rather, according to the spiritual form 9 latent in these impressions. The soul, St. John tells us, remains indifferent to the accidents, or accidental qualities if you will, that attend these essentially spiritual perceptions, for the memory has been effectively negated to all capacity for (natural) form and figure. Regrettably, St. John does not – perhaps by the very nature of the experience, cannot – elaborate on the nature of these spiritual forms. I think that the latter case is most likely, for in themselves they appear to be, from the general drift of his argument, absolutely pure intuitions, immediate experiences that, as such, are essentially recalcitrant to language – which, we had said earlier, presumes shared experiences to its intelligibility. I also think it unlikely that the term form relative to spirit, in the way St. John conjoins the two, denotes the type of specificity and distinctness we ordinarily associate with our sensible apprehension of material compositions. It is, I think, much more likely that the term form, at least in the present context, denotes something a good deal more ambiguous, something more in the way of a ‘distinct spiritual impression’ or a distinct intuition entailing nothing more in the way of perceptible phenomena.
This interpretation seems to be borne out by St. John’s insistence that the memory in the state of negation is nevertheless capable of recollecting these spiritual forms of uncreated knowledge as simple noetic intuitions:
“Now, after the soul has experienced one of these apprehensions, it can recall it whenever it will; and this not by the effigy and
image that the apprehension has left in the bodily sense, for, since this is of bodily form, as we say, it has no capacity for spiritual
forms; but because it recalls it intellectually and spiritually, by means of that form which it has left impressed upon the soul which is
likewise a formal or spiritual form ...” 10
These forms, then, of which St. John speaks, appear to be sheer noetic intuitions containing nothing analogous to the clear, distinct, and determinate phenomena apprehended by the senses and which we characteristically understand as instantiating form. The intuitive character of these specialized forms is most clearly expressed in the element of experience necessary to their being recollected:
“... by no form, image, or figure which can be impressed upon the soul does the memory recall these [spiritual forms], for these touches and impressions of union with the Creator have no form, but only by the effects which they have produced upon it of light, love, joy, and spiritual renewal, and so forth ...” 11
That St. John has, in this passage, encountered some terminological difficulties as a consequence of his attempt to inflect the rigorous and basically inflexible limitations in language, is obvious, for in attempting to describe these essentially indescribable (intuitive) spiritual forms – that is to say, in an effort to accommodate them, to make them accessible, to reason – he simultaneously and paradoxically describes them as having no form at all. This apparent contradiction seems to result from his having failed to clearly articulate the meaning of “spiritual form” in and of itself; especially as it is to be distinguished from our understanding of the word “form” in ordinary discourse. In fact, the term form in the second sense (“... have no form ...”) refers to our understanding of the word as it applies to distinct, clear, and sensuously embodied apprehensions – and not to the noetic intuitions themselves. This contention, I think, is particularly borne out by St. John’s insistence that the memory recalls these spiritual forms “only by the effects which they have produced upon it”, which he then goes on to enumerate them as light, love, joy, renewal, etc.
Now, implied in all this is a latent connection between recollection, or memory, and knowledge – and not just knowledge, but a particular kind of knowledge: uncreated knowledge. And this connection clearly implicates the element of experience. This uncreated knowledge communicated to the soul and subsequently archived in memory is not retrieved abstractly in the way that, say, geometric theorems are, nor in the remote way that empirically acquired knowledge (which is no longer concurrent with the experience through which it was initially acquired) is. While the form of each of these types remains, in a manner of speaking, resident in memory, the matter to which the form corresponds clearly does not: neither the line which in essence we spatially conceptualize, and from which we extrapolate a purely rational geometric definition, nor yet impressions of sensible objects with which we once had immediate, empirical acquaintance and now retrieve as remote from the material objects themselves. What we recall is the form of the object, and not, obviously, the object itself which is no longer concurrent with the form.
This, however, is not to say that the form and the object can no longer coincide. Clearly they can – but only upon a renewed experience of the object. And this coincidence, or concurrence remains only as long as the experience itself remains. For St. John, however, the recollection of these forms is independent of a concurrent experience of the matter from which these mere forms are derived. In other words, the object is only formally retained in the soul.
On the other hand, the spiritual forms of which St. John speaks appear to essentially produce an effect on the soul, the matter of which is the experience of the effect, which to recall, in turn, is to renew the experience in which the effect consists. And this – a recollection concurrent with the experience from which it evolved – is only possible because it is neither abstractly, nor remotely retrieved from memory; rather, the recollection entails an immediate experience because it is essentially the soul’s experience of itself, or more precisely, the self modified by the effects of grace introduced by these spiritual forms which now inhere subsistently in the soul and as such are always concurrent with it as intuitions of itself.
As we now clearly see, it is not the case that will, understanding, and memory are categorically abolished: that the soul no longer wills, or has cognitive activity, or has remembrance (as much of the language we have used thus far appears to imply). The soul in fact is annihilated – but not unto itself; rather it is annihilated relative to the natural exercise of these faculties; faculties which, in the end, are not categorically abolished in and of themselves. Rather, the annihilation of which St. John speaks consists in the transformation of these natural faculties into their corresponding theological virtues which, utilizing the epistemological structures framed by nature,12 supplants the natural activity (unable to accommodate supernatural phenomena) with supernatural activity which alone is sufficient to it.
An Explication of the Notion of the “Faculties”
Now that we have arrived at a rudimentary understanding of the faculties involved, it is equally important to examine the relation between them. To begin with, understanding and memory, as St. John points out, both in their natural capacities, and in the state of negation, are not of themselves autonomous; rather, he seems to imply, they appear to be unified in their subordination to the will.13 Here, in this last division of the Ascent, St. John finally concludes his treatment of the soul in its sensuous economy with some closing remarks on that faculty through which the soul, as an organic unity, attains to the consummate state of perfection, or beatitude in God. It remains only to be demonstrated that the three faculties of the soul – will, understanding, and memory – are in fact integrated, unified, in the will’s transformation into the cardinal theological virtue of love. In treating of the relation of the four passions – joy, hope, grief, and fear – to the three theological virtues, St. John argues the following:
“... these four passions of the soul are so closely and intimately united to one another that the actual direction of one is the virtual
direction of the others; and if one be actually recollected the other three will virtually and proportionately be recollected likewise.
For if the will rejoice in anything, it will as a result hope for the same thing ... Wherefore ... wheresoever one of these passions is,
thither will go likewise the whole soul and the will and the other faculties ...” 14
Although at this point he is arguably dealing only with the passions, a broader understanding of the dialectic involved is clearly warranted, for according to the gist of this argument, the nature of the will is such that the remaining faculties are unified through the intentionality of the will, and it is precisely this facultative union through intentionality which we must now attempt to grasp before venturing any further. What St. John appears to be implying at this point is simply this: in the state of negation into which the contemplative has entered, we are unable to understand either the aspirations of hope or the convictions of faith apart from the object of intention first appropriated through the will. Through an irreducible act of will (love), an act divinely inspired, the soul appropriates to the understanding the articles of faith relating to the object of its love, and these articles of faith, in turn, are archived in memory to inform hope. And this is simply to say that understanding and memory, faith and hope, acquire a facultative union through the intentionality of the will, relative both to the exercise of each faculty in accordance with the intentionality of the will, and in the object respectively acquired by each faculty subsequent to this exercise. In other words, the soul hopes only for what it loves, and the object of hope is only accessible through faith which is fundamentally appropriated through an act of will. Delete any element and the dialectic is incomplete, the intelligibility of each virtue vanishes. In short, we cannot understand hope apart from love, nor faith apart from hope.
But let us carry this a step further; in fact, to its logical conclusion. God, as we have seen, has clearly been equated with love by St. John throughout the account: man is made in the image of God, and this image of God in man is love. These faculties, then, so unified in love, are at least implicitly unified in God. But there are, in fact, two levels of unity corresponding, respectively, to the unity in God only implicit in the state of nature, and the unity in God rendered explicit in what St. John calls supernatural transformation.
Perhaps we can best summarize his line of reasoning this way: As latent in the state of nature, any love is an implicit unity in God through the created participation of the soul in God as the imago Dei. The soul’s ability to love derives from, is radicated in, its created nature as the image of God who is love; consequently the unity of the faculties in any love implicitly owes this unity to God. In other words, the unifying nature of love is only latently discernible within and remotely ascribable to, God. The soul, in fact, is unified in its love for anything. That this unifying agency of love derives essentially from the soul’s ontological status as the image of God, is only implicit in its nature.
As explicit in transformation, however, love is that reflective resonance become explicit between the Imaged and the image – the unifying nature of love is seen to derive immediately, essentially, from God in the soul’s noetic realization of itself as image of the Absolute. In this state of transformation, the soul’s unifying capacity qua image, and that in which it is unified, are explicitly one and the same – and this sameness is nothing less than union in God. The soul is no longer unified in its love for the other of God in nature, a love metaphysically constrained from union by the ontological disparity between the lover and the loved, in the absence of that reflection in which the lover realizes his being to be one with the Beloved, a reflective existence inseparably bound to the Reflected. Rather, it has realized itself as the reflection-of-God into God, and it is in dealing with this divine reflexivity to which St. John, on increasingly explicit levels, devotes the rest of his treatises, all of which fundamentally derive from the mystical doctrines and presuppositions which we have examined in the Ascent of Mount Carmel. It is, in effect, the soul’s ascent to the mount of the transfiguration; the realization of the reflection of divinity lying deeply, profoundly, in the soul of every man and woman. The nature of this union, this reflexivity or resonance that is the apotheosis of the soul in God, now remains to be examined in Part II.
The Metaphysics Part I: DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL
1 AMC 3.2.4
2 We must not conclude, however, that the notion of form does not apply to God. Indeed, it does not apply to God as limitative. But as Self-subsisting and unindividuated by matter, form is, for St. John, as well as for his predecessors in the Scholastic tradition, clearly ascribable to God. Cf. ST Q.3 art.2
3 AMC 3.7.2 & 3.11.2
4 AMC 3.2.14 (Editio Princeps, Alcala, 1618)
5 Heb. 11.1
6 AMC 3.7.2
7 AMC 2.8.2
8 cf. ST Q.3 art.2
9 AMC 3.14.1 & 2. This rather perplexing notion reappears in Part II where it becomes somewhat clearer.
10 AMC 3.14.1
11 AMC 3.14.2, emphasis added
12 Which is simply another way of saying that grace builds upon nature.
13 AMC 3.16.2
14 AMC 3.16.5 & 6