For Saint Catherine of Siena, the Scriptural images and realities of the Ascension and Pentecost are closely linked to the transitions between the three “steps” on her bridge across violent waters. Like many other Doctors of the Church and spiritual teachers, she divides the spiritual life into what are essentially (1) beginners, (2) proficient (“perfected”), and (3) perfect (“fully perfect”). There are three stages for those in a state of grace, three steps, two transitions. For Catherine, the Ascension and Pentecost are linked to the transition between Step Two and Step Three.
Early in her Dialogue with God the Father, Catherine says that
It was with this imperfect love that Saint Peter loved the sweet and good Jesus… enjoying most pleasantly His sweet conversation, but, when the time of trouble came, he failed…
Thus, he was only a beginner in the spiritual life at the time, still primarily struggling with his sensuality. When Christ looked at him, after the cock had crowed, Saint Peter was fortified and passed through the first, sensual purification. But he was still in need of a deeper purification, touching further into the roots of a soul-body person. The perfection needed to go deeper. Saint Catherine uses this as an image for all Christians: in the Dialogue, God the Father says,
I, in order to develop perfection in the soul, after the forty days, that is after these two states [of imperfection] withdraw Myself from time to time, not in grace but in feeling.
Jesus disappeared in bodily form. Spiritual consolations disappear. We all need this in order to, in the dryness, turn more fully towards God rather than towards his consolations.
What is the soul to do when Jesus “disappears”? Catherine has God the Father say,
Now the soul who wishes to rise above imperfection should await My Providence in the House of Self-Knowledge, with the light of faith, as did the disciples, who remained in the house in perseverance and in watching, and in humble and continual prayer, awaiting the coming of the Holy Spirit. She should remain fasting and watching, the eye of the intellect fastened on the doctrine of My Truth, and she will become humble because she will know herself in humble and continual prayer and true desire.
When Pentecost came for the disciples, they were taken into the way of perfection, made “perfect” (though still capable of indeliberate venial sins), strengthened, fortified, turned into true Apostles.
But first they had to wait. They had to endure the dryness, the deprivation of sense consolations. After all, Jesus had been taken away! His Humanity had been taken away. Sure, God was to come again. But they didn’t know when, and it wasn’t their place to know. If they had known, they would have had no benefit of being made more perfect and more able to love.
That is what, in the terms of Saint John of the Cross, is the dark night. The clear message is: the end is a Pentecost! It’s worth it! Hold on, and grow in love.
Some related posts:
- The Three Conversions in the Spiritual Life
- The Necessary Logic of Dark Nights According to Saint Alphonsus
- Perfect Love Casts Our Fear