Immerse yourself in the captivating depths of the soul's purification and elevation to sanctity in "Dark Night of the Soul." Unveiling the ten degrees of the mystic ladder, this literary masterpiece by St. Bernard and St. Thomas is a profound exploration of the interior life.

10 Steps Of The Mystic Ladder

Dark Night of the Soul is one of the greatest literary masterpieces on the interior life ever written. In it, he presents the process by which a soul is purified and lifted to sanctity by God. The following excerpt is an explanation of the ten degrees of the mystic ladder according to St. Bernard and St. Thomas.

THE steps of the ladder of love, by which the soul, ascending from one to another, rises upwards to God, we say are ten. 

1st Step
Languishing Of Love

As a sick man loses the desire for, and the taste of, all food, and the color vanishes from his face, so the soul in this degree of love loses all pleasure in earthly things, and all desire of them, and, like one in love, changes its color, that is, the conditions of the past life. The soul does not fall into this languishing state if the vehement heat descends not into it from above, which is the mystic fever, according to the words of the Psalmist, “Voluntary rain shalt Thou separate, O God, to thine inheritance, and it was weakened, but Thou hast perfected it.” This languishing and fainting away as to all things—it is the first and earliest step to God—I have already explained, when I spoke of that annihilation to which the soul is brought when it begins to stand upon the ladder of contemplative purgation, when it finds no comfort, pleasure, nor support anywhere. In consequence of which it begins immediately to climb the second step of the ladder.

2nd Step
The Search For God

On the second step the soul is unremitting in its search after God. Thus the bride speaks of her seeking Him in her bed by night—she had fainted away when on the first step of the ladder—and not having found Him, says: “I will rise; I will seek Him whom my soul loveth.” This is now the unceasing occupation of the soul. “Seek ye the Lord, seek His face evermore,” is the counsel of the Psalmist, and never rest until He be found; like the bride who, when she had questioned the watchmen, passed on in her search, and left them. Mary Magdalene did not remain even with the angels at the sepulcher. So anxious is the soul now that it seeks the Beloved in all things; all its thoughts, words, and works are referred to Him; in eating, sleeping, and waking, all its anxieties are about Him, as I have already described it when speaking of the anxieties of love. As love becomes strong, regaining health, it commences the ascent to the third step by a new purgation in the night—as I shall hereafter explain—and which issues in the effects that follow.

3rd Step
Good Works

The third step of the ladder of love renders the soul active and fervent, so that it faints not. Of this step the royal prophet says, “Blessed is the man that feareth the Lord, he shall delight exceedingly in His commandments.” If then fear, being the fruit of love, produces this delight, what will be the effect of love itself? On this step the soul looks on great things as little, on many as few, its long service as short, by reason of the fire of love which is burning.

Here the soul, because of the great love it has for God, is in great pain and suffering because of the scantiness of its service; if it could lawfully die for Him a thousand times it would be comforted. It looks upon itself therefore as unprofitable in all it does, and on its life as worthless. 

4th Step
Suffering Without Weariness

When the soul is on the fourth step of the ladder of love, it falls into a state of suffering, but without weariness, on account of the Beloved; for, as St. Augustine says, love makes all that is grievous and heavy to be light as nothing. It was on this step that the bride stood when, longing for the last, she said: “Put me as a seal upon Thy heart, as a seal upon Thy arm; for love”—that is, the acts and operations of love—“is strong as death; jealousy is hard as hell.”

This degree of love is exceedingly high, for now as the soul, earnest in its love, always follows after God in the spirit of suffering for His sake, God frequently and, as it were, continually gives it joy, visiting it sweetly in spirit, for the boundless love of Christ, the Word, cannot look on the sufferings of the souls that love without coming to their relief. 

5th Step
The Soul Longs After God

On the fifth step of the ladder the soul longs after God, and desires Him with impatience. So great is the eagerness of the soul on this step to embrace, and be united to, the Beloved, that all delay, howsoever slight, seems to it long, tedious, and oppressive, and it is ever thinking that it has found its love; but when it sees that its desires are disappointed—which is almost continually the case—it faints away through its longing, as the Psalmist says, speaking of this step: “My soul longeth and fainteth for the courts of our Lord.” On this step the soul must either obtain its desires or die, as Rachel, because of her great longing for children, says to Jacob, her husband, “Give me children, otherwise I shall die.” “They suffer hunger like dogs and go round about the city.” In this degree of hunger the soul is now nourished by love, for as was its hunger so is its abundance, and so it ascends to the sixth step, the effects of which are as follows.

6th Step
Running In The Way Of God’s Commandments

WHEN the soul has ascended to the sixth step, it runs swiftly to God from Whom it receives many touches; and hope too runs without fainting, for love that has made it strong makes it fly rapidly. Of this step also Isaiah speaks, saying: “They that hope in our Lord shall change their strength, they shall take wings as eagles, they shall run and not labor, they shall walk and not faint.” To this step also the Psalmist refers: “As the hart panteth after the fountains of waters, so my soul panteth after Thee, O God.” The hart when thirsty runs very swiftly to the water. The cause of this swiftness which the soul experiences on this step is that charity is enlarged, and the soul is now almost wholly purified, as it is written in the psalm: “without iniquity have I

7th Step
Holy Boldness In Prayer

On the seventh step the soul becomes vehemently bold, in this intense and loving exaltation, no prudence can withhold it, no counsel control it, no shame restrain it; for the favor which God hath shown it has made it vehemently bold. This explains to us those words of the Apostle, that charity “believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.” It was on this step that Moses spoke, when he said unto God: “Either forgive them this trespass, or if Thou do not, strike me out of the book that Thou hast written.” Men of this spirit obtain from God what they so lovingly pray for. Hence the words of David: “Delight in the Lord, and He will give thee the requests of thy heart.”

8th Step
The Possession Of God

On the eighth step the soul embraces the Beloved and holds Him fast, according to the words of the bride: “I found Him Whom my soul loveth; I held Him; and I will not let Him go.” On this step of union the desires of the soul are satisfied, but not without interruption.

9th Step
Sweet Fire Of Divine Love

On the ninth step the soul is on fire sweetly. This step is that of the perfect who burn away sweetly in God, for this sweet and delicious burning is the work of the Holy Ghost because of the union of the soul with God. St. Gregory says of the Apostles, that they burned interiorly with love sweetly, when the Holy Ghost descended upon them.

10th Step
The Beatific Vision

On the tenth step of the ladder the soul becomes wholly assimilated unto God in the beatific vision which it then immediately enjoys; for having ascended in this life to the ninth, it goes forth out of the body. For these—they are few—being perfectly purified by love, do not pass through purgatory. For according to St. Matthew, “Blessed are the clean in heart, for they shall see God.” As I have said, the vision is the cause of the soul’s perfect likeness unto God. “We know,” says St. John, “that, when He shall appear, we shall be like to Him, because we shall see Him as He is.”

This article is taken from a chapter in Dark Night of the Soul by Saint John of the Cross which is available from TAN Books



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