Summer 1984, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 109-122.

Mary Ann Fatula:
      The Holy Spirit Hidden in the Experience of Human Weakness

Augustine found the Holy Spirit in his struggle with a weak will, Catherine of Siena discovered the Spirit in the pains of friendship, and John of the Cross met the Spirit in desolation of soul.

Sr. Fatula, O.P. (Columbus), holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Catholic University of America and chairs the Religious Studies Department of Ohio Dominican College.

SOME experiences of life seem without promise. Yet at the heart of life's least promising experiences, three saints learned to recognize, and yield to, the elusive Lord hidden there -- the Holy Spirit, in whom the Christian community professes its faith in the creed. For St. Augustine, St. Catherine of Siena, and St. John of the Cross, their very weaknesses led them to the discovery of the inseparable truth of two Pauline insights: "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:9) and "suffering . . . produces hope, and this hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom. 5:2,5).

The Confessions of Augustine, fifth-century bishop of Hippo, has continued to provide a mirror in which readers find illumined with mercy their own life's experience in its fragility and ambiguity:

I loved the happy life, but I feared to find it in your abode, and I fled from it, even as I sought it. I believed that continence lay within a man's own powers, and such powers I was not conscious of within myself. I was so foolish that I did not know that, as it is written, no man can be continent unless you grant it to him. This you would surely have given, if with inward groanings I had knocked at your ears and with a firm faith had cast all my cares upon you .... Caught fast in a disease of the flesh with its deadly sweetness, I dragged along my chains and was fearful of being loosed from them . . . . O tortuous ways! Woe to my proud soul, which hoped that if it fell away from you, it would have something better! It turned and turned again upon its back and sides and belly, but all places were hard to it, for you alone are rest. Behold, you are present, and you deliver us from all wretched errors, and you put us on your way, and you console us, and you say to us, "Run forward! I will bear you up, and I will bring you to the end, and there also will I bear you up!"(1)
Augustine's tortured struggle became both death and birth for him. What had before proved sweet began to fail in its power to satisfy him. This collapse he would later recognize as the secret healing work of the Spirit:
I looked with longing at honors, wealth, and marriage, and you laughed at me. Amidst such desires I suffered most bitter troubles, but your mercy was so much the greater as you let nothing prove sweet to me that was apart from yourself . . . . How wretched, then, was I, and how wonderfully did you deal with me, so that I might feel my own misery .... By inner goads you aroused me, so that I did not rest until you stood plain before my inner sight. By the secret hand of your Physician my swelling wound subsided, and day by day my mind's afflicted and darkened eyes grew sounder under the healing salve of sorrow.(2)

The Pentecost sequence invokes the Holy Spirit in these words: "Heal our wounds, our strength renew, on our dryness pour thy dew, wash the guilt of sins away." Augustine began to experience that his helplessness was a wound for which there was a physician. As the Holy Spirit, "healer of souls," worked within Augustine's heart, he was drawn to beg for the gift he both wanted and feared:

Lead us, O Lord, and work within us: arouse us, and call us back; enkindle us, and draw us to you; grow fragrant and sweet to us. Let us love you, and let us run to you .... Too narrow is the house of my soul for you to enter into it: let it be enlarged by you. It lies in ruins; build it up again . . . . Grant this, so that you may grow sweet to me above all the allurements that I followed after.(3)


Augustine's experience had taught him that the human heart cannot live without delight. As he began to know the living God, he came to realize a central truth of the human identity: it is for delight that God created human beings. But Augustine's experience also taught him that it does matter where that delight is found. There are deceptive delights which allure and then enslave -- and this is the deceit of sin. It is the God of all good gifts who alone can satisfy the ache of the human heart for the delight that frees. Augustine began to learn that it is not simply the power to be good that human persons need. What is needed also is a delight and sweetness in cleaving to God that is stronger than the delight of sin. No one will be weaned away from sin's deceptive sweetness who does not experience a greater delight in God. It is thus both power for good and delight in good which the human heart most needs and craves. It was precisely as both power and delight that Augustine discovered the Holy Spirit hidden within his experience of weakness:

Through the Holy Spirit whom we receive there wells up in our hearts a delight and love of the highest good who is God . . . that by this pledge and gift we may yearn to cling to God, to be on fire . . . so that from the one from whom we receive our being we may also receive our delight and happiness. For even if we know what we should do, even then, unless we feel love and delight in doing it, we do not do it. But so that we may feel this delight, "the love of God is poured out into our heart" -- not through the free choice that comes from ourselves -- "but through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us."(4)
What the Spirit is within God, he does within creation. The one who is subsistent love uniting Father and Son is the same one who unites what is separated in creation. The Spirit is the power of love attracting and drawing a person within his or her weakness to cleave to God. In the Spirit is revealed the divine paradox hidden at the heart of human experience. The weakness which tempts the heart to run away from God is, in reality, meant to draw it into God's arms. What benefit lies in being freed from struggle if that liberation gives birth to a proud and self-sufficient spirit? What is finally of consequence is not human weakness but how totally one cleaves to the power which can heal that weakness. For those who will recognize and receive it, what is being offered and given in the struggle with weakness is the gift of cleaving to God. This is why the place inside which one is most tempted to hate must not cause a person to run away from God. For there is within a person something, rather Someone, who is more final than even one's own weakness. To see this gift contained at the heart of one's struggle with weakness is to find there, as Augustine did, the face of the Holy Spirit as delight giving power to cleave in love to the living God:
O Christ Jesus .... How sweet did it suddenly become to me to be free of the sweets of folly: things that I once feared to lose it was now joy to put away. You cast them forth from me, you the true and highest sweetness, you cast them forth, and in their stead you entered in, sweeter than every pleasure .... since I had now been ransomed by you, [I resolved] not to put myself up for sale again .... O Love, who are forever aflame and are never extinguished, O Charity, my God, set me aflame! You enjoin continence: give what you command, and command what you will .... When I shall cleave to you with all my being . . . my life will be life indeed .... (5)


As Augustine encountered the power of the Holy Spirit in his experience of weakness, the fourteenth-century Dominican Catherine of Siena discovered the face of the Holy Spirit in another life struggle: the pain of relationship. Preacher and counselor of civil and church leaders at a time when women were hardly public figures, Catherine's warmth and affection invited the friendship of those to whom she ministered. But the commitment of her love seldom found a response equal to hers. At the heart of the experience of her own and her friends' imperfect loving, Catherine encountered an infinite love providing and caring for her: "Fall in love, daughter, with my providence," the Father tells her in the Dialogue, for "I always pluck the rose from your thorns."(6) In her Dialogue Catherine recounts the insights she received from the Father about the human heart and his own tenderness for her:

I even make use of a holy trick, just to raise her up from imperfections: I make her conceive a special love for certain people . . . . Whenever the soul loves someone with a special love, she feels pain when the pleasure or comfort or companionship she has become accustomed to, and which gave her great consolation, is lessened. Or she suffers if she sees that person keeping more company with someone else than with her. This pain makes her enter into knowledge of herself. And if she is willing to walk wisely in the light as she ought, she will come to love that special person more perfectly, for with self-knowledge and the contempt she had conceived for her selfish feelings, she will cast off imperfection and come to perfection. Once she is more perfect, a greater and more perfect love for others in general will follow, as well as for the special person my goodness has given her.(7)

The special love for another which God gives is meant as a "gentle trick" to draw into the light the places of inner resistance and selfishness which otherwise would have remained unfaced and unhealed. The pain suffered in a relationship is often symptomatic of an inner woundedness and unfreedom which God wants to heal. Catherine's request to know why people must suffer so much pain invites the Lord's response to her in the Dialogue:

And why do I keep this soul, surrounded by so many enemies, in such pain and distress? Not for her to be captured and lose the wealth of grace, but to show her my providence, so that she will trust not in herself but in me .... I want her to be humble, to see that of herself she is nothing and to recognize that her existence and every gift beyond that comes from me, that I am her life. She will recognize this life and my providence when she is liberated through these struggles, for I do not let these things last forever. They come and go as I see necessary for her. Sometimes she will think she is in hell, and then, through no effort of her own, she will be relieved and will have a taste of eternal life. The soul is left serene . . . . For she sees that she has come safely out of this great flood not by any effort of her own. The light came unforeseen. It was not her effort but my immeasurable charity, which wanted to provide for her in time of need when she could scarcely take any more.

Why, when she was faithful to prayer and other necessary things, did I not relieve her with light and take away the darkness? Since she was still imperfect, I did not want her taking credit for what was not hers.

So you see how the imperfect soul comes to perfection by fighting these battles, because there she experiences my divine providence, whereas before this she only believed in it.(8)

In the struggle of growing in a relationship, Catherine came to realize the places in her that needed to be healed and freed. Her helplessness to accomplish her own freedom was the means of her discovering that someone was caring for her by letting her experience that pain. Catherine's difficulties caused her to reflect on the human condition. There is no created power which can will away the tears and helplessness that are the fruit of perhaps years of interior struggle because of a relationship. Yet the day arrives when one wakes to find oneself free inside and full of peace. Is this not the experience of utter gift? When one begins to recognize God's care through these painful times, a change slowly occurs by his grace. The desire to control the response of others yields gradually to a dependence on God's love to provide what is needed. The Lord tells Catherine that those who let go of their own plans and abandon to him concern for their interests are those who enlarge their hearts in the abyss of his love. That love itself then becomes their servant: "I become their provider, and in material and spiritual matters I employ a special providence beyond the general: My Mercy, the Holy Spirit, becomes their servant."(9)


"Mercy" and "servant' -- these ordinary images, drawn from Catherine's own experience, yield with reflection the richness of insight contained in them for her. Catherine calls God "the loving Madman," the one who is "insane with love." His love has stooped down to what is weak and fragile in order to become what is weak and fragile. Mercy is love so excessive, so prodigal, so lavish, that it has gone mad. In the words of the Exultet, it has given a Son in order to ransom a slave, and has become a slave in order to make those who were slaves sons and daughters.

When Catherine calls the Holy Spirit God's "mercy" given as a "servant," she knew from her own experience the abyss between the two images. A servants purpose is to attend to another's every need. Love itself is given as the believer's servant:

This servant, the Holy Spirit, whom I in my providence have given her, clothes her, nurtures her, inebriates her with tenderness and the greatest wealth . . . . I wanted her to experience that with or without the help of another person, in any situation or at any time whatever, in any fashion she knew how to desire and even more in any fashion she could not know how to desire, I know how to and can and will satisfy her in wonderful ways.(10)

The Holy Spirit is also the "gentle waiter" who comes to the table of the human heart:

The Holy Spirit, my loving charity, is the waiter who serves them my gifts and graces .... This gentle waiter carries to me their tender loving desires, and carries back to them the reward for their labors, the sweetness of my charity for their enjoyment and nourishment. So you see, I am their table, my Son is their food, and the Holy Spirit who proceeds from me the Father and from the Son, waits on them.(11)

Because transcendent Lord, the Holy Spirit can stoop down to what is fragile and become its servant. Catherine's image of the Holy Spirit as a lord setting free a slave captures her sense of the transcendent power given to humanity in the ministering of the Mercy of God as its servant. The human race is tied and shackled by a slavery it is powerless to overcome. To this slavery the Mercy of God comes to unbind and give the freedom only the transcendent Lord has the power to give: "The Holy Spirit sets the soul free, as her Lord, from the slavery of selfish love."(12) For Catherine, the only Lord who can heal a person from the unfreedom contained in a painful relationship is Mercy itself. The Lord who is "The Mercy of God" enters into the depths of the human heart and there provides the excess of love for which it aches.

It is not enough that the Holy Spirit, the Mercy of God, is given as waiter and servant caring for one's every need. Even more, the Holy Spirit is, according to Catherine, the "mother who nurses us at the breast of divine charity."(13) The image of a mother nursing her child, so much a part of Catherine's experience, surely caused her to ponder Isaiah 66 to find reflected there the hidden face of the Holy Spirit whom she began to experience as the one feeding and freeing her:

Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her,
    all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
    all you that mourn over her;
that you may nurse and be satisfied
    with her consoling breasts;
that you may drink deeply with delight
    from the abundance of her glory ....
and you shall nurse, you shall be carried
        upon her hip,
    and dandled upon her knees.
As one whom his mother comforts,
    so I will comfort you . . . . (Isa. 66:10-13)
The Holy Spirit nurses believers at the heart of God; by the sweetness and abundance of this food they are weaned away from the slavery of selfish love. Catherine's image of being fed at the breast of God by the Holy Spirit as her mother captured the truth which her own experience had taught her: it is infinite love on which alone one can grow strong, secure, and able to love with a heart that is generous and free. In feeling uncared for, Catherine found that the exact opposite is given in the experience which seems least likely to contain what is needed. In the pain of learning how to love, she discovered the Holy Spirit, the Mercy of God, caring for her every need, as servant, lord, and mother.


Within yet another intimate human struggle, the sixteenth-century Carmelite John of the Cross came to know the Holy Spirit. Teresa of Avila, a quarter of a century older than John, prevailed upon the young priest to lead her intended renewal of the Carmelite order. Imprisoned by friars of the unreformed houses for nine months in a monastery cell no larger than a closet, John developed ulcerations from beatings which caused him suffering for years afterward. At the end of his life the friars of the reform he had founded turned against him and attempted to expel him from the order of Carmel altogether. Few persons know the pain of this kind of torture, but many may know the content which was John's inner experience during that time: to live in dryness and emptiness, oppressed by a weight that engulfs, feeling not the presence but the absence of God and the futility of a prayer whose fruit seems to be nothingness.

Of this pain in the face of the silence of God, John writes in a poem composed during his imprisonment. Paradoxically, it was the darkness occasioned by this experience which unfolded to him the light of the "living Flame of love" who is the Holy Spirit. Composing his poem for those who know by experience the absence of God, John wrote a commentary whose promise is that in this very blackness is given the mercy and nearness of God:

O living flame of love .... This flame of love is the Spirit of its Bridegroom, which is the Holy Spirit .... Before the divine fire is introduced into and united to the substance of the soul through a person's perfect and complete purgation and purity, its flame, which is the Holy Spirit, wounds it by destroying and consuming the imperfections of its bad habits. And this is the work of the Holy Spirit, in which He disposes it for the divine union and transformation in God through love . . . . In this preparatory purgation, the flame is not bright for a person, but dark . . . . It is not gentle, but afflictive . . . . And it is not delightful, but dry . . . . Neither is the flame refreshing and peaceful, but it is consuming and contentious, making a person faint and suffer with self-knowledge . . . . At this stage a person suffers from sharp trials in his intellect, severe dryness and distress in his will, and from the burdensome knowledge of his own miseries in his memory, for his spiritual eye gives him a very clear picture of himself. In the substance of his soul he suffers abandonment, supreme poverty, dryness, cold, and sometimes heat. He finds relief in nothing, nor is there a thought that consoles him, nor can he even raise his heart to God, so oppressed is he by this flame .... in this fashion God mediates and heals the soul of its many infirmities, bringing it to health . . . .(14)

The image which John uses for the process of being brought to health by first being wounded is a familiar one. He compares the human heart to a piece of damp wood which long resists the fire's penetration:

The very fire of love which afterwards is united with the soul, glorifying it, is that which previously assails it by purging it, just as the fire that penetrates a log of wood is the same that first makes an assault upon it, wounding it with its flame, drying it out, and stripping it of its unsightly qualities until it is so disposed that it can be penetrated and transformed into the fire.(15)
The wood, it might be said, experiences the fire as assaulting, destroying it, not because the fire is unfriendly, but because the wood is resistant. In the same way the human spirit feels attacked and destroyed in its very substance, feeling nothing but its miseries and defects. It is this experience, John of the Cross writes, which is cause not for despair but for joy. The Flame, the Holy Spirit, wounds with so much torment and pain, not because God is ungentle, but because the hardness of the human heart is being worn down. The miseries felt within are meant to lead not to despair but to bring one to yield to the Fire. This Flame is meant to bring health, not death: "We suffer from sickness but this sickness is our health"; this purging is our cure. In the experience of inner turmoil, darkness, and emptiness, hidden not somewhere else, but precisely here, is the face of the Holy Spirit.

Teresa of Avila confessed that she often experienced such an urge to run away from prayer that she resolved to nail herself to her chair, if need be, in order not to escape the pain of prayer. John of the Cross adds the counsel learned from his own experience: if the wood persists in resisting the flame, it will never catch fire. This is the time, above all, not to become discouraged. There is only one thing to be done: stay peacefully in the darkness and emptiness; do not fight it and do not run away. Let the fire do its work. Let there be the kind of prayer welling up from within which begs the Holy Spirit not to let us resist him in the emptiness. The counsel of John of the Cross is echoed by the words of a noted retreat director: "How long will you fight with God? Someone is going to win in the end, and it will not be you. God will have his way. The question is: How long will you fight against your own life?"

For the one who waits patiently in the darkness and does not resist, John of the Cross offers this hope: the flame which was so oppressive at first will with time do its work and begin to wound with the tenderness of God. The fire flaming within, which before had caused a chasm of emptiness, will become a "sweet cautery," a "delightful wound":

Oh, then, wound, so much the more delightful the higher and more sublime is the fire of love which causes it! The Holy Spirit produces it only for the sake of giving delight, and since His will to delight the soul is great, this wound will be great, for it will be extremely delightful.(16)


What is the intended effect of this wound? John of the Cross answers that the whole purpose of the Spirit's wounding is to give to human persons the power to love God and one another with God's own love. The limited and self-centered human heart cannot receive the inexhaustible love which God is, nor love God as God desires. The kind of love which God has for, and desires from, human persons is the love of friendship, of reciprocity, of mutuality, as Aquinas and John of the Cross after him never tired of repeating. The property of the love of friendship is to make equals of the friends. The paradox of God's heart is that God wants to make human persons his equals:

God makes use of nothing other than love .... The reason is that all our works and all our trials, even though they are the greatest possible, are nothing in the sight of God. For through them we cannot give Him anything nor fulfill His only desire, which is the exaltation of the soul. Of these other things He desires nothing for Himself, since He has no need of them. If anything pleases Him, it is the exaltation of the soul. Since there is no way by which He can exalt her more than by making her equal to Himself, He is pleased only with her love. For the property of love is to make the lover equal to the object loved . . . . In this equality of friendship the possessions of both are held in common . . .(17)

The love of friendship, of mutuality and union, is not only God's desire for humanity, but the deepest desire of the human heart as well. But it has no capability of itself to love God in this way. It is the Holy Spirit who gives human persons the capacity to love with God's own love. To feel the pain of the Spirit's healing work through darkness and emptiness is often to feel as if one's heart is "breaking." And so it is. The Holy Spirit, subsistent love outpoured into the human heart, is rending asunder narrowness and selfishness, expanding its capacity, giving a new heart which is God's own. To cry out with the pain which this process costs is most often the human response. But in this very pain is given salvation, cause for joy and not weeping. In and through this suffering, the living Flame of love is creating a human heart able to love God with God's own love, and fulfilling its most deep and intimate longings:

The soul's aim is a love equal to God's. She always desired this equality, naturally and supernaturally, for a lover cannot be satisfied if he fails to feel that he loves as much as he is loved. Since the soul sees that through her transformation in God in this life she cannot, even though her love is immense, equal the perfection of God's love for her, she desires the clear transformation of glory in which she will reach this equality . . . . just as the soul, according to St. Paul, will know then as she is known by God, so she will also love God as she is loved by Him. As her intellect will be the intellect of God, her will then will be God's will, and thus her love will be God's love. The soul's will is not destroyed there, but it is so firmly united with the strength of God's will, with which He loves her, that her love for Him is as strong and perfect as His love for her, for the two wills are so united that there is only one will and love, which is God's. This strength lies in the Holy Spirit, in whom the soul is there transformed, for by this transformation of glory He supplies what is lacking in her, since He is given to the soul for the sake of the strength of this love .... [the soul] loves in some way through the Holy Spirit who is given in this transformation of love.(18)

Finally, the work of the Holy Spirit's wounding is so to renew the human heart that death itself will be sweet. In one of his most poignant passages, John of the Cross pictures the death of one whom this love has transformed: ". . . with ardent desire the soul tells the flame, the Holy Spirit, to tear now the veil of mortal life by that sweet encounter in which He truly communicates entirely what He is seemingly about to give each time He encounters it, that is, complete and perfect glory."(19)

Those whom the Holy Spirit wounded by purifying them in darkness and emptiness become the ones whom the Spirit wounds with the gentleness of a death that gives life:

. . . the death of persons who have reached this state is far different in its cause and mode than the death of others, even through it is similar in natural circumstances. If the death of other people is caused by sickness or old age, the death of these persons is not so induced, in spite of their being sick or old; their soul is not wrested from them unless by some impetus and encounter of love, far more sublime than previous ones, of greater power, and more valiant, since it tears through this veil and carries off the jewel, which is the soul.

The death of such persons is very gentle and very sweet, sweeter and more gentle than was their whole spiritual life on earth .... The soul's riches gather together here, and its rivers of love move on to enter the sea . . .(20)

At the heart of the weakness which most humbled him and before which he stood most helpless, Augustine found the Holy Spirit as power and delight drawing him to cleave to God. In the pain and struggle of relationship, Catherine of Siena discovered the Holy Spirit as the mercy of God caring for her every need. In the experience which began as darkness and emptiness, John of the Cross found the Holy Spirit as wound of love, transforming human resistance into the capacity to love with God's own love. The witness of these saints invites us to yield ourselves to the same mystery of love hidden in the fiber of our own life's struggles, and to find in life's least promising experiences the same mystery of which Paul spoke: "We rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings . . . . and this hope does not disappoint us, for God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Rom. 5:2-3, 5).

  1. Confessions 6. 11. 20; 6. 12. 21; 6. 16. 26; in The Confessions of St. Augustine, translation, introduction, and notes by John K. Ryan (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Image Book, 1960), pp. 150, 151, 155.
  2. Ibid., 6. 6. 9; 7. 8. 12; pp. 140, 168.
  3. Ibid., 8. 4. 9; 1. 5. 6; 1. 15. 24; pp. 187, 46, 58.
  4. Augustine De Spiritu et littera 5.
  5. Confessions 9. 1. 1; 9. 2. 2; 10. 29. 40; 10. 28. 39; pp. 205, 206, 256, 255.
  6. The Dialogue 143, in Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue, translation and introduction by Suzanne Nofke, O.P. (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), pp. 297-98.
  7. Ibid., 144; pp. 302-3.
  8. Ibid., 144; pp. 301-2.
  9. Ibid., 141; p. 291.
  10. Ibid., 141, 142; pp. 292, 296.
  11. Ibid.; 78; p. 146.
  12. Ibid., 141; p. 292.
  13. Ibid.
  14. The Living Flame of Love 1. 3, 19, 20, 21; in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanagh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D., with introductions by Kieran Kavanagh (Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies Publications, 1973), pp. 580, 586, 587.
  15. Ibid., 1. 19; p. 586.
  16. Ibid., 2. 7; p. 598.
  17. The Spiritual Canticle 28. 1; in Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, p. 520.
  18. 18 Ibid., 38. 3; pp. 553-54.
  19. 19 The Living Flame of Love 1. 1; p. 580.
  20. 20 Ibid., 30. 1; pp. 591-92.