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Born: 1542, Fontiveros, near Avila, Spain

Died: 1591, Ubeda, Spain

Major Works: Ascent of Mount Carmel (1578-88), Dark Night of the Soul (1582-88), Spiritual Canticle (1578-88), Living Flame of Love (1585)

Major Ideas

Substantial union with God is that by which the soul exists.

The union of likeness, also called transforming or mystical union, is that by which the soul becomes like God.

God is darkness to the soul in that the divine is essentially other than the human.

Since the means must be proportionate to the end, the soul must travel in darkness to the Divine Darkness.

The journey in darkness is named the via negativa.

Night is the image for the dark journey of detachment as the soul actively purges herself of desires for that which is specific, concrete, and particular and as God purges her of desires and dependencies.

Detached in terms of her senses and higher faculties, the soul knows only the dark, confused, and general, which is God.

In the experience of being purged by God, suffering is epistemology

Love is both the mode and content of knowing.

Although Saint John of the Cross is one of the most celebrated poets in the Spanish language and revered as well for the depths of his love for God, which the Catholic church acknowledged by canonizing him in 1726, he also deserves mention as a thinker of the first order. Trained in theology at the renowned University of Salamanca, he combined the genius of the disciplined mind with the gifts of the poet to produce a corpus of mystical theology without equal. In his prose writings, he accomplished the extraordinary feat of subjecting mystical experience to intellectual analysis without deadening the spirit that informed all the activities of this gentle man.

The seeds of Saint John's vocation as a mystical theologian were sown early in life. His family's poverty might have prevented Juan de Yepes from receiving the, education that he deserved were it not for the generosity of a patron who recognized the youth's exceptional intelligence and spiritual sincerity. After attending the College of the Society of Jesus at Medina del Campo, the young man took the Carmelite habit in 1563 and in the following year entered the University of Salamanca to pursue a three-year course in arts, returning in November of 1567 for a year's course in theology.

Saint John's interest in intellectual matters continued throughout his life, as evidenced in the posts he held as rector of the College of the Reform at Alcala de Henares (1571) and of the Carmelite college in Baeza (1579-82). But the intellectual search for God was not the exclusive concern for Saint John; his greater vocation was to love God intimately and intensely. To further the spiritual vocation of which intellectual understanding' was only one aspect, Saint John joined the reform movement that the Carmelite Teresa of Avila was directing, taking the vow of the Reform in 1568 and giving himself over to the hermetic life for two years before assuming other responsibilities in the Discalced community.

Saint John's profound love for God overflowed into mystical poetry, which in turn occasioned prose commentaries that he wrote at the behest primarily of nuns who sought spiritual guidance through his poetry. His major works thus are explications of the poems "Dark Night of the Soul," "Spiritual Canticle," and "Living Flame of Love."

Saint John's life was not easy even though he was much loved by the nuns he confessed and by other associates, both religious and secular, who appreciated the beauty of his extraordinary soul. Imprisonment at the hands of the Calced brothers, public humiliation by the Discalced, and an agonizing death the result of an ill-treated infection that spread throughout his body, brought a full measure of suffering to this saintly man. His suffering is not without significance in considering Saint John of the Cross as a thinker. When he goes beyond the limits of Scholasticism, as he must, in his mystical theology the categories for understanding that he creates are experiential. Among these categories, suffering is a principal experience.

The Mystical Treatises

The mystical treatises form a progression. The Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul make up a treatise in two parts that presents the principles, of the via negativa, which are crucial to understanding the theology of the Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame of Love. The emphasis in the first treatise is on the process of detachment, or purgation up to the experience of union known as the spiritual betrothal and marriage. The Spiritual Canticle refers briefly to purgation, concentrating on the increasingly subtle consciousness of union, while the Living Flame of Love, repeating in part the understandings about purgation, also moves into the exceedingly difficult task of suggesting, if not analyzing, the higher reaches of union.

Because the point of exposition in the Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul is to elucidate the way of detachment, this treatise is the most speculative of the three and therefore the most accessible to the reader who, not necessarily engaged in the spiritual journey, is in search of intellectual understanding rather than spiritual guidance. The intellectual categories, however, do not preclude the experiential, as evidenced by the Dark Night of the Soul.

The first treatise particularly illustrates how Saint John combines Scholastic methodology on the one hand and the experiential-descriptive approach on the other. At a glance, the treatise reveals the Scholastic inclination to break up a text into smaller and yet smaller segments so as to analyze each one in turn and then reconstitute them into a whole. Thus Saint John provides an introductory exposition of the first stanza of the poem he is explicating, after which he proceeds phrase by phrase in analytical fashion. In addition to the Scholastic procedure, Saint John shows his indebtedness to the Salamancan training by employing categories to explicate the psychology of the soul and by detailing increasingly discrete experiences.

There are two major keys to understanding the mystical theology of the Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul. The first is to read the text in this order:

1. Active purgation of the senses: Ascent, book 1

2. Passive purgation of the senses: Dark Night, book 1

3. Active purgation of the spirit: Ascent, books 2 and 3

4. Passive purgation of the spirit: Dark Night, book 2

The second is to begin reading with chapter 5 of book 2 of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, in which Saint John makes the distinction between substantial union and mystical union, which also is called the "union of likeness" and "transforming union." The reason for the latter terms is that God transforms the soul so that her will is conformed to the will of God and there is effected a likeness of the divine and human in terms of the will. The image of human love--the bride and the bridegroom--elsewhere occurs in Saint John's writings, notably in his poem "Spiritual Canticle," where it expresses the unity of lovers who retain their individuality while in their intimacy they are "oned," that is, they become like one person.

The Journey of Detachment

Although all of Saint John's commentaries explicate to some degree the journey of detachment, the Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul provide its most detailed map. Tracing the way on the map of the two-part treatise thus provides the rationale for detachment that other treatises assume or merely sketch.

In the active night of the senses, the soul labors to know herself so as to purge the imperfections that make her unlike God. The work is to rid herself of the desires that come in a natural way through the five exterior senses and the interior senses of imagination and fancy. Saint John stresses that our desires for things, rather than the things themselves, are the obstacles on the journey. He makes the distinction between privative desires as those that deprive the soul of God and the positive ones that deposit in the soul the effects of wearying, tormenting, darkening, defiling, and weakening her.

Unable to complete the immense task of purging the senses on her own power, the soul may undergo a cleansing by God, thus entering into the passive night of the senses. As the soul is being cleansed of the spiritual imperfections of pride, avarice, luxury, wrath, gluttony, envy, and sloth, the soul experiences a disturbing absence of God in that the good feelings, or spiritual sweetnesses, that have accompanied her prayer and devotion up to this time dry up.

Saint John gives three signs by which to determine if the aridities originate in God or in the soul's own lukewarmness. If the soul derives no consolation in religious or worldly affairs; if she fears she is failing God; if she is unable to meditate or employ the imagination in prayer, devotion, or reading; and if these three signs are present together in the soul, they indicate the transition from the active to the passive, from the natural to the supernatural, from meditation to contemplation, which is infused loving. If the soul discerns these signs, she is to rest quietly, for God, rather than she, is taking the initiative in the relationship.

In the active night of the spirit, the soul labors to cleanse the faculties of memory, understanding, and will. With respect to understanding, she is to detach herself from knowledge that is specific and concrete, thus human, in nature; since memory is the repository of knowledge, it too must be cleansed, as must the affections of joy, hope, grief, and fear in the will.

The explanation of the purgation of understanding reveals Saint John's training in traditional epistemology; he explains the categories of natural and supernatural understanding on the basis of a process whereby we acquire information about exterior reality through the senses, retain the data as images in the imagination, and conceptualize the images. If the elements of exterior reality, senses, images, imagination, understanding, and concepts are present, the mode and content of knowing/understanding are natural, but if one or more of the elements are absent, the mode of understanding is supernatural, though the content is not necessarily supernatural. In natural corporeal understanding, all elements are present, but in supernatural corporeal understanding, exterior reality is absent. In supernatural imaginary understanding, both exterior reality and the senses are absent, while in supernatural spiritual understanding the imagination and images are also inactive. In supernatural corporeal and imaginary unde rstandings, the mode of understanding is supernatural, but the content is natural because the subject understood is specific, particular, and concrete. At the level of supernatural spiritual understanding, which always is supernatural in mode, there is a difference between the content that is specific and particular and that which is dark, confused, and general. Because spiritual understandings that are specific and particular can by their nature be conceptualized, they are not supernatural in content. Only understandings that exceed rational understanding and conceptualization can be classified as supernatural in both mode and content. Because these understandings present themselves to the soul as dark, confused, and general, no word or image can contain them. Dark, confused, and general understanding is understanding of God as God is. By the purgation of the faculty of understanding, the soul comes not to depend on specific, natural knowledge, which would be knowledge about God, but to receive understanding s that are God himself.

As Saint John moves into the discussion of the passive night of the spirit, his approach falters in analysis but gains in wisdom. There are no categories into which he can fit the soul's consciousness of being overwhelmed by that which she does not understand Saint Johns method here is to identify, describe and explain the primary experience of the spiritual night--suffering. Much of the Dark Night of the Soul is devoted to the suffering that the soul undergoes as the mediators of God are taken away, until the pain itself is the sole indicator of the divine presence. Saint John the mystic knows the impossibility of understanding the mind of God; Saint John the theologian does not give up on the task of explaining the many reasons for the pain that floods the soul's consciousness.

For Saint John, the mystic and theologian, suffering is epistemological in that the soul knows God by means of her pain. When understandings fail the mind and the soul feels herself suspended over the abyss of unknowing, her comfortable notions of God shattered stripped of illusions and supports, and her consciousness is flooded with suffering. Although Saint John explains several reasons for the soul s pain, from the perspective of knowing, the principal one is that her desire for God causes pain: In her longing to know and love God, she feels abandoned. But if she did not already desire God she would not suffer. Hence her pain-desire is her mode of knowing. Furthermore, since the pain-desire is to her dark, confused, and general, it is not only the mode but also the content of knowing.

With the faculty of understanding darkened, the soul moves freely and securely in faith. Her memory similarly purged she is freed from the specific hopes that were generated by experiences in the past so that she can move m an attitude of hoping. And with the will released from the bonds of particular desires, her desire for God bursts forth in boundless charity. Thus these chapters in the Dark Night of the Soul are a model of fidelity on the part of a man who loved God beyond all measure and yet, for the edification of those who sought his counsel, did his best to measure intellectually the source, the way, and the destiny of that love.

Spiritual Love

The darkness that overwhelms the soul as she is caught to God in unitive love cedes to images of erotic love and fire in the Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame of Love, respectively. Although the suffering of the dark night is not denied in these commentaries, its reality is given different expression, which reveals hidden recesses of meaning. For example, the imagery of the soul as bride and God as bridegroom provides a context in which to explore the deepening of love from the consciousness of spiritual betrothal to that of spiritual marriage. In marriage, the transformation of the soul is further transformed so that she is made divine and becomes God by participation. The experience of human lovers thus opens up a vista of loving wherein the soul feels herself being moved from transformation to transformation, as it were, reminiscent of the Pauline image of love as going from glory to glory.

Transformation as a process rather than a single act is suggested, moreover, in the exquisite imagery of fire and flames, as Saint John shows the soul being wounded and hollowed out by the living flame of the Holy Spirit. So emptied is the soul of particular desires, understandings, and memories that nothing whatsoever stands between her and God. Subject and object no longer are real for the soul who, once having known God through his creatures, now knows creatures through God. To suggest a consciousness without dualities--in which there is no inside or outside--Saint John portrays the higher faculties as being illumined from within rather than lit from without. As all contraries are resolved and dichotomies dismissed, suffering ceases; the soul sees the absolute oneness that was there all along. Thus the soul journeys by love to a loving that bears a unique, wondrous knowing.

Further Reading

Dicken, E. W. Trueman. The Crucible of Love. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1963. An excellent introduction to the mystical theology of Saint John of the Cross.

Stein, Edith. The Science of the Cross. Chicago: Regnery, 1960. A perceptive and inspired theology of the cross, which was for this martyred nun a lived reality.

Tavard, George H. Poetry and Contemplation in St. John of the Cross. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1988. A commendable endeavor to fuse the poetic and theological.
COPYRIGHT 1999 COPYRIGHT 1992 Ian P. McGreal
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999

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