“Darkness and Seeming Abandonment by God Yet Sublime Bliss: Bl. Angela of Foligno’s Experience of Mystical Union”
Rev. Br. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
OUTLINE (of essay below):
1st Problematic: The mystic’s experience of abandonment by God?
from Mother Teresa to Angela
Historical development of this mode of expression
2nd Problematic: Christ’s utter desolation and his Beatific Vision?
from Galot and von Balthasar to Angela
A Thomistic approach
Angela’s experience of sublime joy and desolation, simultaneously
Excursus: The relevance of mystical experience to this particular question of systematic theology
Foundation for her Desolation: The metaphysical and moral gulf between God and the mystic
The Double Abyss: God’s plenitude and Angela’s nothingness
Darkness, from an excess of light—not a lack of light
The intersection of God’s exalted transcendence and Incarnation
Supplementary Step 6 and seeming abandonment by God
Solidarity with Christ in his cry from the Cross
The purification of sin from Angela’s soul
Joyous Union: Darkness recast as delightful
Supplementary Step 7 and union with God
Flashes of light
The Appropriate Attitude: Angela’s Suspicion of her own love, yet confidence in God’s love
God’s love is no hoax
Transformed and made ready for union with the Blessed Trinity
Bl Angela of Foligno, a Beguine and Franciscan tertiary, lived from about 1248 to 1309. Her account of the spiritual life is given in her Memorial. It contains 20 steps and 7 Supplementary Steps. She also has a book of Instructions, containing her teachings to her followers. We’ll draw from both works tonight, but especially focus on the 6th and 7th Supplementary Steps of the Memorial. For, they reveal Angela’s experience of the heights of mystical union with God and this seems to be the focus of this course. Although much of this concerns the upper stratosphere of the spiritual life, there will be plenty for us to benefit from here below. The master who has climbed to the top of Mount Everest still has something to say to the weekend hiker, down among the hills.
Last month, Br Michael focused on first 20 steps of the Memorial and gave us an overview of Angela’s life. So I feel no need to go through this again. I would, however, like to get into Angela’s teaching in a way that shows her relevance today. Not that I care about being relevant for the sake of relevance. I’m wearing a habit after all? But Angela offers some insights into certain concerns of our age that I think are inherently meaningful.
So to get us into Angela, I’ll first run through 2 sets of problematics. They are different but related. By “problematic,” I mean an issue that brings together a web of related questions and concerns that various thinkers have wrestled with over time. We might think of the problematic of grace and free-will, for instance. The two problematics we will look at tonight will give us a particular angle by which we can enter into and appreciate Angela’s thought. And as I describe each problematic, I’ll show Angela’s contribution.
The first problematic will be the issue of certain mystics’ experience of being abandoned by God—moreover, of finding in this very desolation, a point of union with Christ as he dies on the Cross. The second related problematic, will be the issue of Christ’s own desolation and how this is compatible with his Beatific Vision, or not. How can the sublime bliss of the beatific vision co-exist with the feeling—note, the feeling—of being abandoned by God, or cannot it not be reconciled? // Just so no one prematurely condemns me and burns me at the stake, it’s a group of Dominicans after all, I’ll spoil the dramatic tension here and say upfront that I’m going to defend the Thomistic approach.
These problematics then will give us the particular perspective by which we’ll continue to look at Angela’s experience in the second part of the lecture. We’ll see why such desolation is necessary or at least how it turns out to be beneficial for certain souls. Then we’ll look more closely at the 6th Supplementary Step and Angela’s experience of feeling abandoned by God. Then we’ll consider her experience of the 7th and final Supplementary Step, where the emphasis will be on the joyous bliss of union with God. Then finally we’ll consider the spiritual attitude that carried her through the 26 steps to this mystical union, namely a steadfast confidence in God’s love. So that’s the plan of the lecture.
1st Problematic: The Mystic’s Experience of Abandonment by God
First problematic: certain mystics’ experience of being abandoned by God. We’ll start with a recent example and work backwards into the past. We read in a prayer from Mother Teresa of Calcutta these startling words. “Lord, my God, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love—and now become as the most hated one—the one You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved…The darkness is so dark—and I am alone.—Unwanted, forsaken…Where is my faith?—even deep down, there is nothing but emptiness and darkness…I have no faith.—I dare not utter the words and thoughts that crowd in my heart” (186-7). Today, we can read such words with sympathy. We have the sense that Mother Teresa’s faith, hope, and charity are, in fact, all the more intense as she feels as if she has no faith and is forsaken by God. We can appreciate the mode of her speech. Yet it’s helpful to recognize, I think, that in past centuries of the Church, such words might have been taken as blasphemy or as words of a woman who has in fact lost her faith. I don’t think we’d find such words, for instance, in the age of the Church Fathers.
So some development has taken place that allows Mother Teresa to use such words. When we hear such words, we know she’s speaking of the feeling of being abandoned God and not the actual fact of it. Judging by the context and from other letters, I would venture to say that, even as she cries out about her experience of having no faith, Mother Teresa still believes she actually has faith. I’m not saying she’s being dishonest about her experience, I’m just saying she must have recognized that her feeling as if she had no faith was different from actually not having faith.
There is some Scriptural basis for speaking of such abandonment, such as in Psalms 22 and 88, but Mother’s language goes even beyond this in exposing the depth of these feelings of abandonment and lack of faith. What I think is interesting for the history of Christian spirituality is how Mother Teresa felt free to use such startling language. She obviously wanted to remain a faithful daughter of the Church so how did she dare to speak of not having faith in God, of being empty of love, and of being forsaken by God?
Well, it seems to me that she feels free to use such startling language only because St Therese of Lisieux had gone before her. Mother Teresa is named after little Therese, after all, and she had assimilated her teaching. She had adopted Therese’s own perspective on such desolation and was just pushing it a little further. As Mother experienced difficulties, she interprets them in light of Therese’s own account of her darkness and struggles with unbelief. Therese had established that it’s fine to speak about such experiences of abandonment.
So this brings us to the next question. How did St Therese come to use such daring language? Well, Sts. John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila had gone before her. Therese had adopted the perspective of John of the Cross on the dark night of the soul. So she filtered her experience through the lens of John’s teaching on the Dark Night of the Soul and his experience of seeming to be abandoned by God and God being absent. Teresa of Avila, by the way, also has such teachings in the sixth mansion of the Interior Castle.
So all this is straightforward enough and is probably no surprise to you. But here’s the next question. How did John of the Cross come to use such daring language? Again such a way of expressing things isn’t so prevalent in the early tradition. So how did John of the Cross feel free to speak of his seeming abandonment by God?
Well, we might say the modern turn to the self played an important role. And I think it did. Modernity puts an emphasis on the subject and personal experience. This encourages people like John to reflect more on personal experience and so express his feelings of abandonment and darkness. The pre-modern mystics, then, we may say are simply more focused solely on God and not so much on their personal experience. This seems to be true in many cases. Yet there are exceptions. I think of St Augustine’s Confessions, for instance, and his descriptions of his personal experience there. And, more to the point, I think of some of the medieval women mystics that we’re studying in this course. Many of them too have rich descriptions of personal experience. So the modern turn to the self, doesn’t entirely account for John of the Cross speaking of his seeming abandonment by God.
As the history of the spiritual tradition unfolded, another big moment in this language of feeling abandoned by God comes in the Middle Ages, with the mystics we’ve been discussing in this course. So John of the Cross was not the first mystic who spoke about it. Bernard McGinn makes some helpful suggestions in his treatment of John Tauler in “The Presence of God Series.” Tauler himself has strong statements about feeling abandoned by God. They rival what you find in John of the Cross’ own treatment of the dark night of the spirit. In fact, John of the Cross read Tauler and was influenced by him.
We could say something about Bl Henry Suso too. At one point, in midst of agony, Suso makes Christ’s cry from the Cross his own: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? So these 14th century men are important in this development of speaking about feeling abandoned by God and seeing in this a way to identify with Jesus’ own cry from the cross.
McGinn, however, brings us a century earlier to the Beguine women of the 13th century. He mentions two specifically. He mentions Mechthild of Magdeburg, who has a beautiful chapter on what she describes as a “Blessed Estrangement” from God. And McGinn also notes the Beguine mystic we are concerned with today, Bl Angela of Foligno. And you saw in the readings, her experience of seeming to be abandoned by God. She made Christ’s cry from the Cross her own, with a slight variation as she addressed it to Christ: “My Son, my son, do not abandon me, my son!” McGinn comments, “Many thirteenth-century female mystics…experienced estrangement, suffering, and a sense of desolation in their mystical journey, even to the extent of feeling totally abandoned by God in the pains of hell. [Some of their accounts] are among the most powerful in mystical literature.”
McGinn doesn’t say much more on the matter. But it seems to me that the writings of these 13th century Beguines are the beginnings of this language of feeling abandoned by God and of finding in this desolation a certain solidarity with Christ on the Cross. To be clear, I’m not saying others did not speak of desolation before this. The Cistercians, for instance, had already spoken of the oscillation of God’s presence and absence. But I’m specifically focusing on this language of being abandoned by God and finding in this desolation a point of contact with Christ on the Cross. I think the Beguines were the first to do this. I’ve never seen anything written on this historical development. So this is my own theory, which I submit to you for correction and refinement in our discussion period.
It’s worth noting that Paul Lachance asserts that Teresa of Avila was familiar with Angela’s writings. Moreover, the same passages and themes in which Lachance sees a dependence, we can also find in John of the Cross. So I think there is a chain of influence beginning with Beguines like Angela and Mechtild to Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, perhaps through John Tauler. And then from Teresa and John to Therese of Lisieux and finally Mother Teresa. So I think this is the genealogy of this idea of feeling abandoned by God and finding in this desolation, solidarity with Christ on the Cross. Earlier spiritual writers might pick up on various Scriptural themes concerning spiritual desolation, but I think it attains a new expression in the 13th century Beguines on through today. So this would be an important contribution of the Beguines like Angela.
I’ll just mention here, while we’re on the 13th century beguines, something about Hadewijch of Antwerp. In one poem, she describes the highest spiritual state, strangely enough as “hell.” She seems to use the word in a similar sense we would when we describe an experience as a “living hell.” This would seem to involve some kind of feeling abandoned by God as well. I should note too that this is the only place in her vast corpus where this notion of hell is used, so don’t let it dissuade you from reading her.
Elsewhere in a few places, Hadewijch speaks of the experience of “non-faith.” It’s not entirely clear what she means by it. But it is clear that this non-faith is good, it’s a level beyond faith as it is commonly experienced. This non-faith of Hadewijch is interesting with respect to Mother Teresa words about not having faith. Hadewijch had something of a similar experience and tried to describe it in similar terms, but 700 years earlier.
Now I’m not suggesting there is a dependence in the development of ideas between Hadwijch and Mother Teresa here. But I’m just bringing in another Beguine to show that, among this movement, there was a broader wrestling with these ideas of feeling abandoned by God. And it seems fair to say that the Beguines in general had an influence on the tradition as it unfolded in the latter middle ages into the modern age. So here ends my footnote on Hadewijch.
This development in the spiritual tradition raises a theological question. There are two ways to explain this development. First, God may be leading certain later mystics to experiences of being abandoned by God that he did not lead early ones to. In support of this, we might look to Therese of Lisieux and her desire to be in solidarity with the atheists of her day. Perhaps the new problem of modern atheism calls forth a new mystical solidarity with unbelievers.
Second, another possible explanation is that certain mystics of every age experienced a similar thing, but they just described it in different ways. What develops, then, is applying to this experience the idea and language of being abandoned by God. The desert fathers, for instance, don’t speak about being abandoned by God in the same way, but they do speak about the extreme difficulties of the life of prayer and the need to persevere. So perhaps some of them too felt abandoned by God and experienced similar trials against their faith as say Therese did, but they just described it differently. Personally, I tend to favor the second explanation. But maybe this is something we could discuss in the last hour, as well as what it might be about the period of the Beguines that initiates this language of abandonment.
2nd Problematic: Christ’s utter desolation and his Beatific Vision
So now we can move on to our second problematic and this will get us directly into Angela’s writings. The second problematic concerns Christ’s utter desolation on the Cross and what this implies about any supposed beatific vision of God. Can he really have both? So this is the problematic we’ll consider.
We have seen how the Beguines seem to be at the origins of this talk of the mystic being abandoned by God and finding in this desolation, solidarity with Christ on the Cross. This connects them to a very contemporary concern among many people today. Many today want to find in Christ’s own trials a point of solidarity with us, even in our trials of faith. Especially in an age where atheism has a stronghold, there is a desire to find in Jesus a companion in our trials of faith. For many Christian thinkers today, Jesus’ cry from the Cross is a special expression of this solidarity: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Jesus himself seems to experience the same feelings of abandonment that many others face. So Jesus’ solidarity with us, even to this extent, is a source of comfort for us in our own trials.
Although the core of this concern is valid, there are obviously wrong ways to think about it. There are wrong ways to think about Jesus’ solidarity with us in his cry from the Cross, and his communion with us in our trials of faith. We might think of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theology of the Son’s abandonment. Or we might think of someone like Jean Galot. He’s a good representative of a more widespread view that the God-man, as he dies on the cross, is not really much different from any believer in his trials of faith.
The concern of a Thomist in all this will be upholding Christ’s possession of the beatific vision even in the midst of this desolation. And actually this is not just a Thomistic concern, but much broader. Pope John Paul II, for instance, also defended such a position, as well as Saints like John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena and others. The claim of all these thinkers is that, on the Cross, the effects of Christ’s beatific vision are confined to the apex of his soul, the highest parts. By the divine economy, the beatifying effects do not overflow into the rest of Christ’s psychology and sensibility. So Christ really suffers in solidarity with us, but this does not undermine his Beatific Vision. For an account of this one can look to the Dominican Francis Dreyfus in “Did Jesus Know He was God?” Fr Thomas Joseph White too has written on this as well.
Those who object to this account wonder how such contrary states of soul can coexist at the same time. For instance Jean Galot concludes, “The cry of Jesus on the cross makes manifest the depths of a suffering that is incompatible with the beatitude of vision.” In other words we might ask, How can Christ really suffer the feelings of abandonment while at the same time enjoying the beatific vision? This is where the experience of Christian mystics can help. And Bl Angela of Foligno is one such instance.
The 6th Supplemental Step focuses on desolation while the final seventh step focuses on the bliss of union. Yet Br Arnaldo, her scribe, insists that a certain times Angela experienced both the sixth and seventh steps simultaneously. She experienced the bliss of union and the pain of desolation at the same time. Bernard McGinn comments that this simultaneity is “a fact not easy to understand because these stages represent such differing forms of consciousness.” Yet Paul Lachance, I think, provides a way forward, as he suggests interpreting this concurrence of suffering and bliss with what Angela says in her Book of Instructions, number 4 (66). He rightly say, “the cross is the key to understanding why the two final steps, so contrary in nature, seem to occur simultaneously” (86).
In it, Angela explains how it was that she experienced both states at the same time. Angela does so, by connecting her experience with Christ’s own experience on the Cross. Her experience of simultaneous bliss and desolation is like Christ’s own. She speaks of the double state of Christ’s own soul. She doesn’t use the language of the beatific vision, but it’s clear that this is the reality in Christ that she is describing in her own way. Consider Angela’s words here:
“She was in a daze, because on the one hand, the uncreated God was refreshing and restoring her soul with the ineffable radiance of his most sweet divinity’s fathomless splendor, but on the other hand, the same blessed crucified God and man, Jesus, pierced her whole being with his compassionate crucifixion and his cruel death pins which he showed her. Thus the blessed and glorious Jesus, by an invisible act, had fittingly bestowed upon her soul, in a perfect manner, the double state of his own life…
“While she was thus both totally absorbed in the experience of the sweetness of God and also crucified as a result of the vision of Christ crucified; while she was filled with joy and sorrow, sated with myrrh and honey, quasi-deified and crucified” (Paulist Press, pp 245-46).
So we see in Angela’s mystical experience this simultaneous mixture of bliss and intense suffering that also characterized Christ’s death on the Cross. In fact, this mingling of bliss and suffering is described as a sharing in the crucified-Christ’s own double state of soul. In the very least, her experience shows that such a double-state of soul is possible. As a result, this is one area in which the experience and language of the mystics should influence the systematic theologian. Considering this further, now takes us into a small excursus.
To show how Christ’s beatific vision and desolation coexist on the Cross, systematic theologians like St Thomas or Pope John Paul II appeal to the distinction between the higher and lower parts of the soul. There are bare acts of intellect and will, the higher part, and then there are the passions, the lower part. In most experience the three are mingled together. Yet as the higher acts of intellect and will can be nearly unfelt and very subtle, Christ can enjoy the Beatific Vision on this level of his soul while still feeling intense desolation in the lower, more sensible part of the soul. So the systematic theologian points to the structure of human anthropology to account for the double-state of Christ’s soul.
Yet people like Galot find this unconvincing, not on the theoretical level, but on the level of experience. They don’t object to this account of the soul’s constitution. Rather they object on the grounds of experience. Experience to them seems to have a unity that makes such contrary states incompatible. As the objection is on the level of experience, it seems the systematic theologian needs to appeal to experience to respond to the objection. So the mystical experience of a mystic like Angela can help, although it can give us only a small glimpse into the experience of the God-man. Yet Angela shows how the experience of a joyous bliss in the heights of the soul can co-exist with even the most terrible feeling of abandonment by God. The systematic theologian appeals to more of an abstract anthropology, while the mystic fills in this structure with vivid descriptions of experience.
And for something more down-to-earth than Angela’s mystical experience, here’s a short example just for our own understanding. It’s given by Fr Thomas Joseph. Consider someone who is very sick in the hospital. He’s suffering greatly in body and soul. But then a close friend comes for a visit. The sick man still suffers, yet at the same time he experiences consolation and refreshment at the presence of his friend. The two experiences of suffering and consolation are present. He experiences consolation in the heights of the soul while still suffering.
So this concludes our second problematic. We are now in the position to consider more closely Angela’s experience in its own right.
Foundation for her Desolation
We will now turn to Angela and the foundation of her experience of mystical desolation. What is the underlying reason for this desolation? In short, we can say it’s because God is so beyond her, both metaphysically and morally. Angela is sometimes called the Saint of the double abyss. On the one hand, there is the abyss of God’s plenitude, and on the other hand, the abyss of her own nothingness.
Angela takes the Franciscan ideal of poverty and pushes it to the maximum, in what we could call a poverty of being, or a poverty of spirit. The creature, considered in and of itself and apart from God, is literally nothing. The creature has nothing except what God gives it. Being aware of this utter dependence on God is grounds for humility. So for instance, Angela says that “the purpose of prayer is nothing other than to manifest God and self…and this leads to a state of perfect and true humility” (236). For Angela, prayer, by manifesting the truth of God and self, leads one to this greater awareness of the abyss of one’s own poverty. And it also sheds light on the other side of the double abyss, namely God’s superabundance.
God’s utter transcendence is a primary theme for Angela. This has won for her the titles, “the superabundant one” and “the queen of the explorers of the Beyond.” It is the superabundant abyss of God’s plenitude and the corresponding abyss of the creature’s poverty that sets the agenda for Angela’s understanding of spiritual progress. And this is where the notion of darkness enters.
God is so beyond us that our encounter with him is often an experience of darkness—not because of a lack of light, but because of an excess of light. Like a bat blinded by the sun. While human concepts can point us in the right direction, they ultimately waver. To come into real contact with God in this life, man’s faculties need to be elevated through the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Yet this real contact with God is experienced with the dark obscurity of faith and hope. God is so beyond us that our human faculties naturally waver. In Angela’s writings, we see this tension of real contact yet obscurity because of who God is and who we are in comparison:
“Let the soul consider, first of all, who and what God is in himself. Then, elevated out of itself into God, it can see him who is invisible, know him who is unknowable, feel him who is imperceptible, comprehend him who is incomprehensible. And this is because the soul sees, knows, feels, and comprehends God as invisible light, incomprehensible and unknown good” (294).
We’ll return to this passage, but I wish to offer a comment here. Angela’s language about knowing him who is unknowable, feeling him who is imperceptible, and comprehending him who is incomprehensible, can sound a little contradictory at first. But the work of Dominicans like Garrigou-Lagrange can help here.
Following St Thomas, Garrigou-Lagrange notes that the gifts of the Holy Spirit operate in a divine mode. This distinguishes them from the theological virtues which are supernatural but operate according to a human mode. So for instance, when we cooperate with grace and make an act of faith in saying the words of the Creed we operate in a human mode. However, with the gifts the Holy Spirit, God activates them in us in a divine mode. They hence provide the highest encounter with God in this life. Yet because it’s a mode that is so beyond our human nature, our natural faculties are often left in an obscure darkness.
So as the gift of wisdom provides an experience of tasting and savoring God, this occurs in a mode beyond the normal operation of the intellect and will. As a result, we can appreciate Angela’s experience about knowing him who is unknowable, feeling him who is imperceptible, and comprehending him who is incomprehensible. We can now return to the passage again: “Comprehending, seeing, knowing, and feeling God, the soul, according to its capacity, expands in him and becomes filled with him through love. It finds its delight in God and God finds his delight in it and with it. The soul, then, experiences and possesses God’s sweetness more from what it does not comprehend than from what it comprehends, more from what it does not see than from what it sees, more from what it does not feel than from what it feels, more, finally, from what it does not know than from what it knows” (294).
We find this same idea in John of the Cross, but he’s a little clearer and explicitly links this to the theological virtues. In the 1st chapter of the Spiritual Canticle, he says, “you exalt God and approach very near him when you consider him higher and deeper than anything you can reach…Never pause to love and delight in your understanding and experience of God, but love and delight in what you cannot understand or experience of him. Such is the way, as we said, of seeking him in faith.”
Now, in John and Angela, we need not see this as the via negativa. In fact, I think it’s more adequate to see this in terms of the via eminentia, the way of super-eminence. In other words, whatever we understand about God’s goodness, his majesty, his perfection, he in fact is beyond all this. But faith, hope, and charity can take us into this Beyond. They bring us into contact with God as he is in himself and not only as we perceive him to be.
So we might apply our intellect to meditating on God’s goodness using question 6 of the Prima Pars of the Summa Theologiae. We might also meditate on God’s goodness in creation, and his goodness in the work of redemption. But the final step after this meditation, should be exalting God beyond what we just considered—that is acknowledging that God’s actual goodness, far surpasses what we just considered. As John of the Cross said, “you exalt God and approach very near him when you consider him higher and deeper than anything you can reach…Love and delight in what you cannot understand or experience of him.” We could say, in other words, love and delight in the actual goodness of God which is beyond what you understand of him.
The way of supereminence, then, distinguishes John and Angela’s Christian mysticism from, say, Buddhism, which seeks the Absolute in the void. For, as we reflect on the Faith, our human concepts point us in the right direction toward the one true God, but in themselves these concepts are not adequate for bringing us into contact with God. The theological virtues and gifts of the Holy Spirit are needed for this. And they bring us into real contact with this God, but with a tinge of obscurity and darkness since God is so beyond our natural capacities.
Here’s an image that might help. Think of an archer with an arrow. The arrow is in the archer’s reach as he holds the arrow back and takes aim. He takes aim at his target. But then he releases the arrow which goes beyond him and is no longer in his grasp. Our reflection on the truths of the faith are like our taking aim. It directs us toward the true God. And the prayer of aspiration, or this reaching out into the Beyond, takes us into God’s superabundance, like sending the arrow into the distant target. In other words, it takes us not into the “beyond” of an empty void, but into the “beyond” of the mystery of God, our target. For Angela, the heights of mystical union will involve darkness, yet not the darkness of an empty void, but of the mystery of God.
Much of the spiritual progress for Angela, then, will involve her faculties adjusting to living more completely by the theological virtues and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Her own capacities will have to adjust to depending on a light outside of her self—the light and grace given her by God. Much of her trials can be seen in these terms. We could also say that God is bringing her into a greater moral conformity with himself, but this transformation still involves God expanding her capacities of knowing and loving. This is what God is accomplishing in her.
God is stretching the whole spiritual organism over time to realms of development beyond its natural capacities. This seems to be a major cause of the experience of desolation, dryness, and even forsakenness. God draws Angela to himself so much that the human faculties are maxed out, so to speak. As a result, they are often left in dryness and darkness. But in all this, God is expanding her capacities of knowing and loving for their perfect fulfillment in mystical union. Grace perfects nature, but sometimes it takes time to see the fruits.
God’s Transcendence and Incarnation
A word about Christ now. Angela ascends to the sublime heights only through Christ. Although God is the Transcendent One for Angela, he is also the Incarnate One. In an almost paradoxical way she is just as captivated by God’s Incarnation as by his transcendence. On second thought, however, this paradox is but the center of Christianity. In one place Angela marvels, “O incomprehensible one, made comprehensible! O uncreated one, made creature! O inconceivable one, made conceivable! O impalpable one, become palpable!” (308)
Angela focuses on the Incarnation especially with respect to the trials associated with spiritual growth. Christ’s Sacred humanity and Passion will be the path to perfection. A theme that appears frequently is that she must be conformed to Christ in three main ways: conformed to his poverty, his being held in contempt by others, and his suffering. This fits with the common medieval theme of imitating Christ’s passion. But there is a way that her experience of Christ’s Passion is unique for her time. Christina Mazzoni notes that “unlike other women mystics who were her contemporaries, Angela does not experience the cross as the content of a vision but rather as a physical as well as a spiritual part of herself, as belonging therefore to her very substance.” We have seen this with her experience of the double state of Jesus soul. She experienced the Passion from within as she lived her external life in conformity with Christ.
Angela’s emphasis on Christ and participating in his life and death is important. This so-called “queen of the explorers of the Beyond” did not try to get beyond the Savior’s humanity. Her emphasis on God’s superabundance and the Beyond is not about trying to move beyond Christ or the truths of the faith, rather it’s about going deeper into these mysteries.
In one striking passage from the packet, Angela recounts how she encountered the transcendent God in darkness, but then encounters the same exalted God in Jesus. She says, “I see, then, those eyes and that face so gracious and attractive as he leans to embrace me. In short, what proceeds from those eyes and that face is what I said that I saw in that previous darkness which comes from within” (205). This is striking. The utter transcendence Angela encountered in darkness, she now encounters in the holy face of Jesus. The abyss of God’s plenitude confronts her as she gazes into the eyes of Jesus. In this mystical experience, God’s transcendence and Incarnation intersect.
This bringing together of God’s transcendence and Incarnation is important. Through it, there need not be any disjunction between meditating on the life of Christ and mounting the heights of God’s transcendence. Moreover, the way to intimate communion with the Most High God will be by way of imitating the life of Christ and his virtues. She’ll be brought to the heights of contemplation through her union with Christ and his way of life. Her mystic flights into God’s utter mystery are not separated from her union with the man Jesus.
Angela’s Experience of Desolation
Now we will speak of Angela’s desolation and her experience of feeling abandoned by God. In the 4th Supplementary Step, Angela describes this experience. She does so in a way that we can make sense of from what we have already laid out concerning God’s superabundance. Angela says, “During this period I was in a state of great stress, for it seemed to me that I felt nothing of God, and I also had the impression that I was abandoned by him.” Yet after this period, God tells hear that she is very much loved by him. Angela says in response, “How can I believe this when I am assailed by so many trials, and it seems to me as if I am abandoned by God?” To this God responds, “It is when it seems to you that you are most abandoned by God that you are most loved by him, and he is the closest to you” (171-2). What we have already said about Angela’s experience of God in darkness explains how this is so. When God is closest to Angela, his superabundance most overwhelms her so she is left in darkness and with no sensible consolation.
We see something else about this seeming abandonment in Angela’s experience during the Assisi pilgrimage. Br. Michael spoke about this a few weeks ago in step 20. God tells her that he is about to leave her in the form of this consolation, but he himself will never leave her if she loves him. The loss of this consolation causes her to cry out, “Love still unknown, why do you leave me?” This leads to the fit of screaming and crying that so embarrassed her Franciscan relative.
As she left the church and was returning home God says this, “I give you this sign that I am the one who is speaking and who has spoken to you. You will experience the cross and the love of God within you.” We see here the promise that she will simultaneously experience suffering and joy, the cross and the love of God within her. Angela says, “immediately I felt that cross and that love in the depths of my soul, and even the bodily repercussions of the presence of the cross; and feeling all this, my soul melted in the love of God” (142). Angela experiences the pain of the cross, yet at the same time she melts in the love of God. We already saw how this simultaneous suffering and joy reaches its culmination in Supplementary Steps 6 and 7.
Finally, in her own desolation and sense of abandonment, Angela finds a companion in Christ. In one place, she says “Jesus had to pass through such indescribably acute suffering, which had to include feeling abandoned” (291). In this, she finds Christ to be in solidarity with her.
In another place, Angela gives three reasons why Jesus cried out: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (233) She says, first, it shows that Christ was truly human. For God certainly cannot be abandoned by God. It’s only because Jesus is truly a man that he can make such a cry.
Second, it shows the most acute and unspeakable suffering he endured for us. She highlights the pro nobis, the “for us” of Christ’s suffering. She makes an interesting comment in this section with regard to the beatific vision of Christ. Again she does not use the term but what she says implies it. Speaking of Christ’s hypostatic union she says, “By virtue of this most wonderful union, the soul of Christ was filled with the highest and most ineffable wisdom and was thus able to make everything infallibly present to itself in a totally unspeakable way.” In other words, we could say, with the vision of God, comes the knowledge of all things in God so that everything is present in a totally unspeakable way. Moreover, the highest and most ineffable wisdom of God, as she says, too is present to Christ’s soul. Again this is a result of the beatific vision.
Third, the last reason she gives is this. She says, “Christ cried out ‘my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ in order to give us hope and comfort, so that if we are afflicted, if we undergo tribulation, or even feel abandoned in our sufferings, we shall not be overwhelmed by despair, but see clearly by his example that he ultimately profited from temptation; and that he, as God, is ready to come quickly to our aid.” For Angela, then, the cry from the cross shows Christ’s ultimate solidarity with the trials of man and even in the feeling of abandonment. Yet she finds no contradiction between this and Christ’s beatific vision. She herself experienced a mingling of suffering with supreme joy, and this was nothing but a share in the double state of Christ’s own soul as he died on the cross.
But of course, the state of Angela’s soul did differ from Christ’s in this: she was a sinner, he was not. In the 6th Supplementary Step a lot of Angela’s suffering has to do with being plagued by the effects of her sin. She insists that she doesn’t consent to these first movements of sin, yet she feels the lasting effects of sin within her. Evelyn Underhill notes that Angela’s experience is not uncommon in the dark night of the spirit, where “all the unpurified part of man’s inheritance, the lower impulses and unworthy ideas which have long been imprisoned below the threshold, force their way into the field of consciousness” (392). As a result, Angela grows in self-knowledge of the deep roots of sin still within her.
In addition to this, Angela no longer experiences the support of her virtues or any other earthly support, yet neither does God seem to be of any help. There’s no help from above or below. She feels, as she says like “that of a man hanged by the neck who, with his hands tied behind him and his eyes blindfolded, remains dangling on the gallows yet lives, with no help, no support, no remedy, swinging in the empty air” (197).
In Angela’s suspension between heaven and earth, she is powerless to effect any change. This is a work God must do. She can only consent to and cooperate with. The dependence of all Christians on the grace of God is brought to a new level of intensity in these higher stages. It especially becomes more and more felt on the level of experience. God must be the one who brings the Christian to mystical union, and we read how he does so with Angela in the 7th Supplementary Step.
When we move on to the seventh and final Supplementary Step, we see that the darkness is not surpassed. Rather darkness is recast as a positive thing, as the result of an excess of light and not a lack of light. Angela says, “Afterward, I saw him in a darkness, and in a darkness precisely because the good that he is, is far too great to be conceived or understood. Indeed, anything conceivable or understandable does not attain this good or even come near it. My soul was then granted a most certain faith, a secure and most firm hope, a continual security about God which took away all my fear. In this good, which is seen in the darkness, I recollected myself totally” (202).
Whereas in the previous step, Angela described a darkness that was terrible and a reason for despair, here she speaks of a darkness of superabundance: God’s goodness is just too great to be understood. In this darkness she is made secure in a sure faith and hope. Again this is a darkness of the way of super-eminence. She says a little later, “The All Good was all the more certain and superior to everything the more it was seen in darkness and most secret. This is why I see the All Good accompanied with darkness: because it surpasses every good” (203).
So even the highest stage of mystical union in this life is accompanied with darkness for Angela. This is but the consequence of God being so beyond her capacities. Yet about 10 pages later, Angela speaks about occasions when God draws her out of this darkness and gives her an awareness of him that she did not think was possible. She says, “This awareness is of such clarity, certitude, and abysmal profundity that there is not a heart in the world that can ever in any way understand it or even conceive it.” In Angela’s description, we see that a certain obscurity still exists even when she is drawn forth from darkness, as no one can understand or conceive it. She continues, “This state occurs only when God, as a gift, elevates the soul to himself, for no heart by itself can in any way expand itself to attain it.” This is something only God can work in the soul.
God has so transformed Angela throughout her spiritual journey that she is now capable of enjoying a higher experience of God. A little later, she says, “In that state I see myself as alone with God, totally cleansed, totally sanctified, totally true, totally upright, totally certain, totally celestial in him” (215). She still sees herself as a sinner, but in these periods of transport, she sees only her union and conformity with God. Through God’s work of grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, Angela is brought into such a union and conformity with God that she’s given periodic glimpses of the blessed life she’ll enjoy in heaven. There, all experience of darkness will give way to the flood of light. But here in this life, apart from these momentary flashes of light, the obscurity of faith and hope will always characterize union with God.
To summarize, we entered into Angela’s thought through two problematics. We considered certain mystics’ experience of being abandoned by God and then looked at how this sheds some light on Christ’s own desolation on the Cross, especially as he still possessed the Beatific Vision. We looked at Angela’s contribution in the early development of the language of seeming abandonment by God and finding in this desolation a point of contact with Christ’s own suffering. We looked at Angela’s mystical experience of simultaneous feelings of abandonment, yet also sublime bliss, as a share in the double-state of the soul of Christ-crucified.
The foundation for mystical desolation we placed in the metaphysical and moral gulf between God and the mystic, the double abyss of God’s plenitude and the creature’s nothingness. God so overwhelms our human capacities that often in this life he is experienced only in darkness. Yet through God’s grace and transformation, Angela was brought to the threshold of heaven. In heaven the Saints are so elevated by grace and conformed to God’s likeness that they enjoy God in the light of glory. Angela perhaps had a small foretaste of this in the 7th step. Normally, however, she enjoyed even the heights of mystical union as through a mirror darkly. Yet this darkness, and even seeming abandonment, did not totally obscure the sublime bliss of mystical union.
So to close, I wish to take a few minutes to describe the attitude that characterized Angela throughout the various stages of transformation. In the dramatic episode in the church of St Francis, of step 20, one of the things God tells Angela is this, “My daughter, my dear and sweet daughter, my delight, my temple, my beloved daughter, love me, because you are very much loved by me; much more than you could love me.” In other words, what is primary is not our love for God, but his love for us. And Angela always tended to be suspicious of her own love for God.
In the Book of Instructions, her teachings for her disciples, she first confesses that she’s a great sinner. But then in the 2nd instruction, she immediately spends ten pages showing how questionable is the love that we often think we have for God. This establishes an attitude that recognizes that our love, shaky as it is, will have to be built up, tested, and proven over time. This helps to ready one for the challenges to come. Moreover, Angela notes that it’s the uncreated, divine love that will have to be given to the soul, in other words, an increase in the theological virtue of charity—a gift of grace assimilated by the soul more and more.
While Angela finds her own love suspect, she comes to have great confidence in God’s love. This confidence in God’s love enables her to persevere even through seeming abandonment. We read in the packet, one way she grew in such confidence. As she was mediating on the death of the incarnate Son of God, God tells her, “My love for you has not been a hoax.” What she sees on the Cross, she needs to take to heart. God is not playing games, but really loves her to this extent. However, Angela sees quite the opposite in herself, her supposed love has done nothing but played games with God. She says, “After he had said, ‘My love for you has not been a hoax’—and I had perceived that this was true on his part but quite the contrary on mine, and I had felt such pain that I thought I would die—he added: ‘I have not served you only in appearance’ and then ‘I have not kept myself at a distance, but have always felt you close to me.’”
For Angela, then, it’s this closeness of the Incarnate Son—we could add, even in her seeming abandonment and darkness—that enables her to push forward. It’s the Incarnate Son serving her at each moment that brings her to mystical union. As Pope Benedict XVI said of Bl Angela just last week in his Wednesday audience, “the move from conversion to mystical experience, from that which can be expressed to that which is inexpressible, came about [for Angela] through the crucified Christ.”