I am in love with John of the Cross and have been for a quite some time. Although I am married (in fact, I am a grandmother), there is no reason for worry about this love affair. My husband is fully aware of it, and my friend—St. John—has been dead for over four hundred years. So all is well!
I am also a professor. I teach spiritual theology at a theological college in Calgary, Canada. This is also a love.
These two loves lead me into a network of rich friendships with the spiritual sages of the past as I seek to communicate their wisdom to postmodern students.
01. The Challenge of Engaging the Saints
Numerous things make it hard for my students to come to know the spiritual giants to whom I introduce them. These saints lived within worlds that were dramatically different from ours. Often, they followed an austere lifestyle and practiced extreme forms of asceticism that are foreign to Western spiritual experience. They spoke and wrote in foreign tongues, their theological language differed from ours, and their writings on prayer and spirituality occasionally ruffle our theological feathers.
However, when we step beyond these obvious dissimilarities, we see that they confronted issues and concerns quite similar to those we face today. Just as we do, they faced personal conflicts, societal injustices, the effects of suffering, and the diseases of body and soul.
A blossoming interest in devotional literature has led to an increase in the availability of the spiritual classics. This has not always been the case. I graduated from a Bible college on the Canadian prairies in the mid-60s. I had never heard of John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, or Benedict of Nursia, to name a few. It was only in 1980, when I engaged in formal spiritual direction with a Catholic sister, that I discovered this broad host of spiritual friends.
When I first began to read these spiritual classics, I was surprised to encounter ordinary people attempting to live out God’s will in the midst of ordinary lives. What was extraordinary was their experience of the inner presence of God. And thankfully, they wrote about this experience, describing the process of formation and transformation of their souls through the work of the Spirit of God. In so doing, they gave us a most precious gift.
As I moved further into the world of these Christian mystics, I became aware that my approach to them had to change. In order for my soul to benefit from their wisdom, I had to recover the art of savoring—a skill lost in the culture of fast foods, fast pace, and high tech. As I learned to develop a slower pace of contemplation and reflective reading, I was drawn into the richness of their writings, the poetry and prose of John of the Cross in particular.
An even greater deterrent initially clouded my ability to appreciate John. I came to call it “evangelical gnosticism”—separation of body and soul. In my Christian tradition, this notion had been cleverly disguised as theological scrutiny: “Is this writer theologically sound?” or “Does this theologian believe in justification by faith?” These may be valid questions. But asking them in this way separates knowledge of God (theology) from the experience of God (spirituality). It leads one—as it initially led me—to view John’s mystical experience as completely foreign to ours, rendering him theologically suspect.
A closer scrutiny of John’s writings reveals, however, a theological mind clearly fixed upon the immense love of God as this love shapes and reshapes the soul to live well into the ordinary places of life. In the mind of this mystic and theologian, the secular and the sacred are inseparable.
02. John’s Journey
John’s human journey (1542–1591) was the context for his developing understanding of God’s transformation of the soul. It was here, also, that he learned about what he came to describe as the “dark night of the soul.” John’s contribution to Christian spirituality in describing the inner aridity of the soul on the journey toward God is unequalled. But, although he is famous for this dark spiritual night, he was nothing like the dour man he is often thought to be.
His parents, Gonzalo and Catalina, provided John and his brothers a stable and loving home. Although his mother was widowed shortly after John’s birth (John was the youngest of three sons), she determined to instill in her sons a desire to love and obey her Lord. This was no small feat in sixteenth-century Spain.
The shared experience of poverty and deprivation greatly influenced the spiritual formation of John. After the death of his father, the family moved to Medina. There they enjoyed relative financial stability, though never attaining great wealth. In a social stratum that was poor, urban, illiterate and untrained, violent and dangerous, God would shape the soul of a young man, implanting into him a deep compassion for the poor and oppressed.
Another significant formation moment occurred when John entered the College of Doctrine for young boys. A program designed to teach underprivileged boys a trade never fully benefited John. Where he did excel was in his ability to read and write. This landed him a job-training opportunity as an orderly in the hospital. This ministry required sensitivity and tenderness, given that he served patients suffering from ulcers and contagious (venereal) diseases. Highly impressed with John’s extraordinary care of patients, the superior encouraged John to seek the priesthood and add “care of souls” to his hospital ministry. John declined. Instead, at the age of twenty-one he entered the Carmelite order, studying at the Carmelite College of the University of Salamanca where he was exposed to the highest standard of academic excellence that sixteenth-century Europe had to offer.
Soon after this, he met Teresa of Avila, a leader in the Carmelite reform movement. She convinced the young friar to collaborate with her in the reform by reinstating the original rule of the order that emphasized simplicity and devotion to prayer and intercession. At the age of twenty-five, John and a Carmelite brother joined St. Teresa in her Discalced Reform—or barefoot Carmelites—so named because they wore the sandals of the poor or walked barefoot.
Teresa was thrilled with her recruitment of “Fray John” and his fellow friar, informing her sisters she had enlisted a friar and a half—the “half friar” referring to John’s stature. (He stood 4’10” in his sandalled feet, his height reflecting the effects of childhood malnutrition.) Fray John would become John of the Cross—“Juan de la Cruz.”
John’s involvement in the Counter-Reformation movement in the Carmelite order of Spain influenced his life enormously. He worked tirelessly with St. Teresa to establish houses of prayer and centers for spiritual nurturing. He became spiritual director to many brothers and nuns in the Carmelite houses. John highly valued solitude and silence for prayer, along with space and time to immerse himself in Holy Scriptures. The deepest longing of his soul was to achieve union with God—to be freed of all attachments and hindrances that blocked his soul’s union with God. Since he was a gifted preacher, he preached this possibility of union with God wherever he travelled—to city and country folk alike. However, the deepest work of the Holy Spirit in his soul would occur in a surprising environment.
To the old guard of the Carmelite order—the Carmelite CalcedCalced meant “shod.”—John was promoting greater reform than was comfortable or necessary. Though reform was widespread in the Spanish sector of the Carmelite order, John represented resistance and rebellion. Thus, he had to be curbed. Late one evening, John was captured and incarcerated in a monastery jail in Toledo. His incarceration was harsh even by sixteenth-century Spanish standards: he was flogged (the effects of his body never healed properly); he was humiliated before the brothers and confined to a small cell with little comfort. He was promised release if he disengaged himself from the Discalced reform. He refused.
In the loneliness of the dungeon, John discovered the opportunity to be stripped of his attachments. This was to play an important role in the complex process of formation, reformation, and transformation of his soul. He notes that the journey to God is understood only through the darkness of faith and recognizing the soul’s nakedness and emptiness before God. During his months in the dungeon, John composed some of the greatest poetry that has ever been produced in Spain and committed this work to memory. It told the story of both the “dark night of the soul” and God’s transformational work in the depths of one’s inner self.
Nine months later, in the middle of the night, John miraculously escaped, finding his way to the door of a Carmelite convent and freedom. The archbishops tolerated John for the remainder of his life, assigning him to positions where they assumed he would cause the least amount of annoyance. In December 1591, he died after a short illness. Eventually, John would be canonized and declared a doctor of the church, an honor well deserved!
Who was this man? He was mystic, poet, theologian, spiritual director, contemplative, confessor, lifelong student of Scriptures, reform leader, monastery director, friend of the poor and impoverished, artist, and man of God. He was also a remarkable athlete—walking no less than seventeen-thousand miles during his lifetime. In a statue portraying John in a hiking stance, the saint grips a walking stick in one hand and his Bible in the other. He never left home without his Bible! Nor was he ever without his keen sense of humor; stories abound concerning his one-liners that could bring the house down!
03. God’s Work of Soul Transformation
Initially, what captured my imagination in John’s writings was his detailed description of the transformational work of God in the soul. John initially expressed this through poetry, then, discovering that his poetry was difficult for some of his readers, in four extensive commentaries.The four works entitled The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night, Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love are located in the following text: The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodrigues (Washington: ICS Publications, 1979).
John informs the reader that the path to intimacy with God passes through three well-known stages: purgation, illumination, and union. This is not a linear process, but an ongoing cycle. Union with God occurs when the will of God and will of the soul are in conformity—where nothing is in opposition to the other. This is when everything that opposes God is removed, and the soul “rests transformed in God through love.”John of the Cross: Selected Writings in the Classics of Western Spirituality, Kieren Kavanaugh, ed. (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), (AMC, II, 5, ) 89. However, writes John, for the soul to achieve such union, it must be freed of inordinate attachments. This freedom is the purpose of the purgative state.
John characterizes the journey to spiritual freedom in God as “Nada”—or nothing. Spiritual freedom is the state of nothing between the soul and God. His route to this state of freedom is not attractive: the soul must be willing to divest itself of the cravings for all things it possesses.
Our possessions cannot enter the soul and are, therefore, not the problem. It is the appetite for these things that cause damage to the soul.
John does not advocate a life of poverty, nor consider the simple lifestyle as the vocation determined for everyone. However, he stresses that compared to our relationship with God, all else is nothing. Nada! To arrive at a place of inner harmony and freedom in God, we must desire nothing but God. “To come to possess all, desire the possession of nothing, for in coveting nothing, nothing raises it up and nothing weighs it down.”John of the Cross, AMC, I, 13 (11–12), 78–79. Whatever holds us down, be it a small rope or a large chain, must go if we are to experience union with God.
Though John is not the first theologian to reflect upon dry seasons of prayer, he is the first to coin the phrase—“dark night of the soul.” It is during this season in our relationship with God that we sense God has abandoned us. John assures us this is not the case, since it is God who orchestrates the aridity in prayer and who is undertaking the purifying and healing work deep in the soul. This is perfect love at work. Don’t resist God’s loving wisdom penetrating your soul; allow it to happen, he says.
Mindful that his message will be difficult to receive, John’s writings contain powerful symbols and metaphors to make it more understandable. He writes that inner loving knowledge of God has the same effect on the soul that fire will have on a log of wood. In order for the log to provide light, warmth, and comfort, it must be purged of the moisture it retains. As it burns and is being purged of its impurities, the wood turns black, and in so doing gives off light and warmth.John of the Cross, DN, II, 10 (1), 205.
You might ask where the mind is during this process and how much it understands of what is happening. John’s answer: not very much. He explains that while the soul is being “wounded by a strong divine love”John of the Cross, DN, II, 11 (1), 208.and experiences, in return, a kindling of its own love, the intellect understands almost nothing of what is occurring. In fact, he writes, the intellect is in darkness.John belongs to a Christian tradition of spirituality known as the “apophatic way.” This refers to a way of being with God through silence, without the use of words or thoughts. The apophatic way rejects experiencing God rationally and seeks to know God by not knowing. This means that apophatic faith is a matter of the heart and not the head. It judges the intellect to be simply incapable of understanding God’s deepest transformational work in the soul: the work of purgation, illumination and union.
John understands the path to spiritual maturity as resembling psychological growth. As a child grows older, a mother will withhold her tender caresses and rub aloes on her breast to wean her child.
While her withdrawal may appear harsh and cruel to the child, the mother is fostering maturity and healthy psychospiritual development.
Drawing on the seven deadly sins identified by medieval theologians (pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and slothfulness), John suggests that the purgative work of God involves cleansing and purifying the soul of these imperfections. Sin blocks the soul’s freedom to pursue God unencumbered. But it cannot be purged unless the soul experiences the way of inner aridity. This purging experience places all of our inordinate loves (sin) in reasonable order. The dark night strengthens the love of God within the soul and destroys the inordinate loves. However, he warns, in the beginning, the soul will lose sight of both these processes.
What is the final outcome? Lover and beloved are united, the journey leaving the soul desiring God more than anyone or anything else. Love now burns gently in the soul, empowering the soul to go out and tell the world of the love of Christ. Words cannot begin to express the mystery of the inner flame of love experienced in the soul.
04. Personal Reflections
St. John’s writings draw my attention toward inner hindrances and attachments blocking my growth toward deeper intimacy with God. John reminds me to submit my intellect, my memory, and my will to God’s continuous transformational work of grace. He offers guidance for the arduous journey of my soul. He encourages me to trust in divine grace for enlightenment as God infuses divine faith into the intellect, hope into the memory, and acts of love into the will. These are the ways God removes the impediments to my union with Jesus. I deeply value this process in my own spiritual life even though the spiritual surgery required to remove the blockages has never been pleasant.
St. John provides an immense amount of wise insight into spiritual transformation, sin, and aridity in prayer—the “dark night of the soul.” Many years ago, I lamented that my evangelical tradition did not have a paradigm to answer for the silence of God. Then I encountered John’s explanation of inner darkness—not a darkness of evil but a darkness where God has seemingly removed his presence. I realized the root issue of my lament: my tradition did not have an adequate spirituality of suffering. The two experiences (God’s silence and suffering) are often bedfellows! John’s commentaries meticulously outline the intentions of God in the dark night. John delivers a plausible argument for this season of the soul.
I am also deeply affected by St. John’s compassion for the human soul mirrored in the likeness of God. His respect for the sacredness and beauty of the human soul is woven throughout his writings. This respect is verified by the testimony of his peers and superiors. He was a man of love, integrity, and forgiveness, someone who experienced God’s inner work of soul transformation. He offers this transformational journey to the reader, drawing us on by describing the supernatural benefits that await the faithful sojourner. And he clearly plots the route for the journey, the way of “nakedness of spirit” into the mystery of God.
Amazingly, John’s passion for being wounded by the living flame of love transcends the centuries with remarkable ease. What is required, he writes, is detachment from whatever hinders this pursuit of love, be it our expertise, pet theology, affluence, or status. In addition, John teaches we are capable of penetrating the depths of God’s loving wisdom whatever our lifestyle or vocation. There is no excuse to veer from the path of possessing “nothing” to possess all in God. John’s message to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and bodies underpins his entire set of works (Matthew 22:34–40, Deuteronomy 6:4–5). This embracing love of God will strengthen us so that we will not grow weary, but will soar and be free (Isaiah 40:28–31).
To sit with John of the Cross is to sit with a dear friend. Come join me!
05. For Futher Reading
God Speaks in the Night: The Life, Times and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Frederico Ruiz, ed. Washington: ICS Publications, 2000.
Hardy, Richard P. Search for Nothing: The Life of John of the Cross. New York: Crossroad, 1987.
John of the Cross: Selected Writings in The Classics of Western Spirituality, Kieran Kavanaugh, ed. New York: Paulist Press, 1987.
John of the Cross for Today: The Dark Night. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1994.
Muto, Susan. John of the Cross for Today: The Ascent. Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1991.