Yes, I am on a St. John of the Cross buzz these days.
Below is something I wrote in 2006 after spending 5 days and nights reading and re-reading St. John’s Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night at a Trappist monastery. I was working on preparing my dissertation thesis, and wanted to come as close to memorizing the structure of his work as possible. I wrote this summary for a friend who had been closely following my research.
Disclaimer: It’s a very dense, somewhat lengthy, grossly oversimplified, a somewhat opaque summary, and is not for the faint of heart. It’s also not carefully edited, I don’t have time to edit, and so, I am sure, has careless mistakes in it. How appealing this sounds! Doesn’t my description make you think of those TV ads for prescription meds that end with dire warnings? “Tramadol, which is otherwise wonderful for you and can change your life by making you pain free, may cause life-threatening addiction, withdrawal symptoms in a newborn, hives, tremors, seizures, more hives, severe vomiting. Inhaling this medicine can cause life-threatening side effects or death. Call your doctor today and get Tramadol!” (Disclaimer: this description is exaggerated for the sake of effect)
Sorry, back to my summary. So, it’s not easy reading but, for those who so desire, at least it offers a general sense of the Ascent-Night’s trajectory if you have a specific interest in going deeper into St. John’s mystical doctrine.
However, so you won’t go away with nothing today: If you’re not interested in wading through it, here are four sanjuanist pearls for you to meditate on:
Do nothing nor say any notable word that Christ would not have done or said were He in the state I am, as old as I, and with the same kind of health.
Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction.
Anyone who trusts in himself is worse than the devil. Anyone who does not love his neighbor abhors God. Anyone who is lukewarm in his work is close to falling. Whoever flees prayer flees all that is good.
Conquering the tongue is better than fasting on bread and water. Suffering for God is better than working miracles.
The Précis: my summary of sjc
Nota bene: Though John would argue that the journey to God he sketches out has universal elements that apply to all those who desire holiness, he does qualify its application. He states clearly in his prologue to the Ascent that he is writing only for “some” members of his monastic Order, “those to whom God is granting the favor of setting them on the road to this Mount,” which is the path of “naked faith” leading to union with God. Those called to traverse this way journey along a path of radical death-to-self and enter into union with Christ precisely in the moment of His “supreme dereliction,” i.e. His cry of abandonment. Those called this way are “in Christ” precisely at the moment of Mark 15:43:
Eloi Eloi lama sabachthani? which is translated, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Those who consent to this path, John says, become living sacrifices that are consumed in the heart of the Church for the life of the world. These souls chosen by God see themselves in St. Paul’s mysterious words to his Corinthian flock:
We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. — 2 Cor. 4:8-12
Note also that John was responding to the “mystical reformation” encouraged by the Spanish Crown in the late 1400’s, a kind of charismatic movement of laity and Religious who claimed to experience visions, locutions, ecstasies, raptures and other phenomena. The Inquisition referred to them as the “dejados” or “alumbrados.” There is no doubt in my mind that one of the reasons Teresa invited John to join her reform was because she recognized his discretion and skill in discernment, and hoped he would write spiritual treatises specifically geared to her reform. Many of those involved in this 16th century charismatic movement were attracted by Teresa’s own visionary mysticism, but Teresa was concerned about the inexperience and immaturity of many of these women. She wanted John to serve as a theologian-confessor who could train Discalced Carmelite priest-confessors, to ably help these women attracted to her reform movement to develop better discernment and ground their pursuit of perfection in the Cross. The Ascent-Night seems to have been be written not for the nuns themselves, but for the priest-confessors — which would also explain its very scholastic tone and the untranslated Latin texts. I will not treat his detailed examination of how to handle the question of visions, locutions and such, which are treated in Book II.
For John the most basic distinction in the person is sense-spirit, which is different from soul-body, or even than the trichotomous body-soul-spirit. One can say in general that when John says “soul” he means the whole complex of the person, including the body informed by the soul.
In the human person there are two fundamental modes of knowing and desiring: sensual and spiritual. The sensual mode of knowing is grounded in the exterior five senses, in the interior five senses (which John calls “imagination and phantasy”), and its knowledge and desires are centered on “creatures,” i.e. any created good that is not God. The spiritual mode of knowing is grounded in the three spiritual “faculties” (which means something like “capacities” or “powers”): intellect, will and memory. These three are themselves grounded in what John calls the “substance” or “depth” of the soul where the center of the self is (what he calls the suppositum, or unifying center of the whole complex of the person). These three spiritual faculties possess a dual capacity for knowing and desiring: they can know created reality and the uncreated God.
For John, the person comes to know and desire God first mediately, through the senses, and then, after a long and hard purgative road, immediately through the spirit which alone has un-mediated access to the naked essence of God. As knowledge slowly transforms from sense to spirit, God-talk language shifts from logical prose into paradoxical/mystical poetry into stammering and finally into silence.
Because we are ravaged by sin, which above all else turns the soul away from God and toward creation in an idolatrous way, the process of untangling the sinful soul from its dysfunctional created attachments and turning toward God is exceptionally arduous and painful.
The Ascent of Mount Carmel is the narrative of the beginning of this journey to detachment. John counsels on how one actively cooperates with God in this process, and focuses on cultivating inner attitudes of self-renunciation that facilitate the subversion of disordered desire rooted in the senses, and not just on modifying outer behaviors. For example, he counsels:
Strive always to prefer, not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult;
Not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing;
Not that which gives most pleasure, but rather that which gives least;
Not that which is restful, but that which is wearisome;
Not that which is consolation, but rather that which makes you disconsolate;
Not that which is greatest, but that which is least;
Not that which is loftiest and most precious, but that which is lowest and most despised;
Not that which is a desire for anything, but that which is a desire for nothing;
Strive to go about seeking not the best of temporal things, but the worst.
Strive thus to desire to enter into complete detachment and emptiness and poverty, with respect to everything that is in the world, for Christ’s sake. – Ascent 1.13.6
Then, in books 2 and 3 of the Ascent, John continues describing strategies for surrendering disordered detachments, but now turns his focus to the three spiritual faculties. The intellect is submitted to faith’s darkness, which alone is capable of accessing God as he is. The memory is given over to hope’s abandoning trust in God alone. The will is made subject to charity’s selfless purification, overcoming the ego’s twisted incurvature and the crippling effects of sin.
Throughout the Ascent, this struggle to detach and surrender to the action of grace is mostly focused on human effort (all under ordinary grace, of course). But honestly, John holds little regard for the deep progress that can be made by such a struggle – though he unambiguously affirms that this ascetical struggle is absolutely requisite. “The way of the death to self and the cross is the only way to salvation.” He highlights the disparity that exists between active ascetical effort and passively infused purgative grace in the first 8 chapters of the Dark Night. There he begins his treatment of the passive nights of sense and spirit – where God’s purifying action predominates – by carefully examining how the seven deadly sins still thrive in the “spiritual” person. These “proficients” have already made great progress in the work of mortifying their disordered appetites, but John’s diagnosis is that without the coming passive nights, the person’s carefully constructed virtues remain fragile and narcissistic. Virtue remains, for the most part, still centered on the self and its (now spiritual) pleasures.
The Dark Night, John’s most unique contribution to the spiritual tradition, treats the manner in which God, first in the senses and then in the spirit, begins to dismantle the natural agency of the soul so as to purify, reform and remake it in the freedom of the sons of God. This freedom prepares the soul for the supreme goal of human life, divinization, which creates at the center of the person a new center of agency: God himself. Transforming union effects perfect synergy between the divinized person and God. In effect, the person becomes by grace all that Christ is by nature.
In the passive night of the senses, all the pleasure of the spiritual life once had in the interior and exterior senses is taken away and bitterness reigns. But this loss of the machinery of the incurved ego means a gain of inner freedom, and God is set free to commence the communication if his divine life to the spirit, even as the ravenous appetite of the senses for pleasure is temporarily disabled. After this first passive night is completed, and the senses, having been turned from slavery to freedom, are accustomed to communing with God through the spirit, there is a period of great refreshment and peace and consolation – though it is still occasionally interrupted by trials and darkness, which are, he says, like “omens and harbingers” of the terrifying night of the spirit still yet to come.
Then, “of sudden,” John says, the consolations and peace come to an end and the spiritual faculties (intellect, memory, will) are plunged into darkness and bitterness: the intellect sees nothing but darkness, the memory can find no consoling recollection, and the will finds no pleasure in anything, but only distaste and bitterness. He gives distinguishing signs to determine whether or not one has truly entered passive nights, or is just suffering from depression, a disordered spiritual life or some other “bodily humor,” as he calls it. The signs confirming entry into the passive nights include (and all must be concurrently present): The loss of pleasure in everything (divine and worldly), inability to meditate on any particular thing, a desire to be alone with God, the fear that one is displeasing God, the desire to be faithful in even the smallest matters, and the desire to embrace the cross.
As the soul goes through the final passive night of the spirit, which is the worst suffering possible in this life (akin to Purgatory, and even Hell), the spiritual faculties in their deepest roots are despoiled of their former disordered attachments to creatures through the senses, and are re-accommodated to receiving the infusion of divine life in an immediate way. This accommodation to God, which stretches the intellect, memory and will to “infinite” capacity, is also accompanied by an ever increasing hunger and thirst for God as the “void” being formed in the ever-expanding faculties begs/cries out like an incarnate epiclesis to be filled with God – “an infinite thirst awaiting slake.”
Finally, after this final passive night of the spirit passes, the soul is readied for union. But, John says with an awful gravity, God alone decides the moment of union.
Now the soul has been returned to the innocence of Adam, and more, has been made like the New Adam, Christ, in whom God and man are one. In union, the soul becomes the center of the redeemed cosmos, and the priestly character of the soul, sharing in that of Christ, effects the mediation and reconciliation between God and man: the whole universe “moves,” John says, with the soul as God himself moves the soul. Or, in another captivating image of John, the whole cosmos quakes – as it did on the day of Resurrection – when God “awakens” in the soul in a “spiritual resurrection.”
In this dramatic narrative of the person that is the Ascent-Night, the paschal mystery of the God-Man, Jesus Christ, is enacted in the soul. Let me leave you with a selection from Book II of the Ascent that I find, in many ways, to be the white-hot core of his spiritual doctrine:
…it is certain that, at the moment of His death, Christ was likewise annihilated in His soul, and was deprived of any relief and consolation, since His Father left Him in the most intense aridity, according to the lower part of His nature. Wherefore He had perforce to cry out, saying: ‘My God! My God! ‘Why hast Thou forsaken Me?’ This was the greatest desolation, with respect to sense, that He had suffered in His life. And thus He wrought herein the greatest work that He had ever wrought, whether in miracles or in mighty works, during the whole of His life, either upon earth or in Heaven, which was the reconciliation and union of mankind, through grace, with God. And this, as I say, was at the moment and the time when this Lord was most completely annihilated in everything. Annihilated, that is to say, with respect to human reputation; since, when men saw Him die, they mocked Him rather than esteemed Him; and also with respect to nature, since His nature was annihilated when He died; and further with respect to the spiritual consolation and protection of the Father, since at that time He forsook Him, that He might pay the whole of man’s debt and unite him with God, being thus annihilated and reduced as it were to nothing. Wherefore David says concerning Him: Ad nihilum redactus sum, et nescivi.
This he said that the truly spiritual man may understand the mystery of the gate and of the way of Christ, and so become united with God, and may know that, the more completely he is annihilated for God’s sake, according to these two parts, the sensual and the spiritual, the more completely is he united to God and the greater is the work which he accomplishes. And when at last he is reduced to nothing, which will be the greatest extreme of humility, spiritual union will be wrought between the soul and God, which in this life is the greatest and the highest state attainable. This consists not, then, in refreshment and in consolations and spiritual feelings, but in a living death of the Cross, both as to sense and as to spirit — that is, both inwardly and outwardly.
I will not pursue this subject farther, although I have no desire to finish speaking of it, for I see that Christ is known very little by those who consider themselves His friends: we see them seeking in Him their own pleasures and consolations because of their great love for themselves, but not loving His bitter trials and His death because of their great love for Him. I am speaking now of those who consider themselves His friends; for such as live far away, withdrawn from Him, men of great learning and influence, and all others who live yonder, with the world, and are eager about their ambitions and their prelacies, may be said not to know Christ; and their end, however good, will be very bitter. Of such I make no mention in these lines; but mention will be made of them on the Day of Judgment, for to them it was fitting to speak first this word of God, as to those whom God set up as a target for it, by reason of their learning and their high position.
But let us now address the understanding of the spiritual man, and particularly that of the man to whom God has granted the favour of leading him into the state of contemplation (for, as I have said, I am now speaking to these in particular), and let us say how such a man must direct himself toward God in faith, and purify himself from contrary things, constraining himself that he may enter upon this narrow path of obscure contemplation.