Saint John of the Cross
Life, Poetry & Teachings of Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591)
Copyright © 2006 by Timothy Conway
San Juan de la Cruz / John of the Cross (1542-91) is one of the towering saints in Christian history and often considered, even by secular poets and scholars, to be the loftiest Spanish-language poet ever. He is also regarded as Catholicism’s “greatest mystical theologian” and an eminent Doctor of the Church as well. His prose works display a remarkably wise understanding of various extremely subtle nuances of psychological and spiritual development. It is said that “no other writer has had greater influence on Catholic spirituality.”
He was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, circa June, 1542, the youngest of three sons to a noble family of Fontiveros in old Castile (c100 miles northwest of Madrid). His father was a wealthy silk merchant, his mother a poor weaver girl. The family elders disowned John’s father for marrying beneath his station and he died shortly after Juan’s birth. At age 9, Juan joined his mother and siblings in moving northeast to Medina del Campo. He was boarded in an orphanage school from age 10. When he was 12, he fell into a deep well and was saved from sinking and drowning by finding a piece of wood to hold onto that came to him after he prayed to Mother Mary. She had earlier saved him when, as a tiny boy, he had fallen into a pond at Fontiveros. Rather inept in apprenticing as a carpenter, wood sculptor and then printer, from 1557 onward John worked compassionately as a hospital nurse among advanced, horrible cases of syphilis. Beginning in 1559, still working as a nurse, he made use of the chance to receive a higher education in Catholic lore and the humanities at the Jesuit college in Medina del Campo. In 1563, the quiet, shy, intensely pious young man entered the Carmelite Catholic religious monastic order. From 1564 to 1568 he studied theology at the famous university of Salamanca, with its 7,000 students and eminent professors. Juan de San Matías, as he was now known, was ordained a priest in 1567. He was 25.
In summer 1568 Fray Juan joined the illustrious and dynamic saint Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) at the Carmelite priory of Medina; the two set off with Teresa’s nuns northward for Valladolid, where she was to establish a convent of her new Discalced (“shoeless”) Carmelite reform movement. The Carmelites had originally been founded as a community of hermits in Palestine in 1185, but in the next century had transformed into one of the four orders of itinerant, mendicant friars (including, most notably, the Franciscans and Dominicans). In 1432 the Carmelites adopted a more lax way of life, which prevailed until Teresa’s reform, which based itself on an older, stricter “rule of St. Albert” from 1247. In addition to stressing poverty, strict enclosure, and reduced hours of sleep, one of the austerities introduced by Teresa and her nun-colleagues was a special kind of frequent if not total “fasting”: abstention from animal flesh—i.e., they ate only a spare vegetarian diet. Above all, these Discalced Carmelites put a special emphasis on the contemplative life of solitary, meditative “mental prayer” over communal vocal prayer.
That summer of 1568, 26-year-old John learned from his older mentor Teresa (then 53) all about her new movement. In a letter written in September she notes, “… though he is small of stature [not quite five feet tall], I believe he is great in the eyes of God…. He is sensible and well-fitted for our way of life… There is not a friar but speaks well of him for he leads a life of great penitence… We have never seen the least imperfection in him. He has courage, but, as he is quite alone [the solitary male member of Teresa’s reform movement at this point], he needs all that the Lord gives him.”
After that initial period of contact, John and two other friars who joined him set up the first male house of the Carmelite reform in a lonely, half-ruined cottage at Duruelo, a few miles from Juan’s birthplace at Fontiveros (halfway between Ávila and Salamanca), next to a willow-lined stream, meadows, and views of the Sierra de Gredos mountains. The three friars created out of the derelict space a tiny chapel, choir, a few hermit cells, and, as stated by one of Juan’s best modern-era biographers (upon whom I mainly rely), Gerald Brenan: “Here, with stones for pillows, their feet wrapped in hay, among … crosses and skulls, the friars remained praying from midnight to daybreak while the snow drifted through the tiles onto their clothes [a white serge cape over a coarse brown habit]. They ate from broken crockery and drank from gourds; their only other possessions were a few books, some scourges [for self-administered penance and sharing in Jesus’ suffering under the Romans—a common medieval practice for devout Christians] and bells and five hour-glasses [for precisely regulating their schedule].” (Brenan, p. 15)
The holy friars’ presence soon attracted many visitors, including John’s mother, brother and sister-in-law, who helped them in doing manual labor chores. John’s preaching in town on the holy life of joyous surrender to God and interior prayer drew a number of men to join the friars. So much so that after 18 months, the burgeoning band had to move to a larger building at Mancera, a nearby village.
Meanwhile the Discalced Carmelite reform was spreading, raising up many houses in Spain and beyond. At one point Fray Juan was sent by Teresa to bring sanity to a situation at the new priory at Pastrana, 40 miles east of Madrid, where friars and townsfolk had become too enamored of an unbalanced, overly-penitential woman of visions and miracles, Doña Catalina. In April 1571, John was appointed rector of a Discalced Carmelite college at the university of Alcalá near Madrid; but with John’s shy personality and preference for meditation over friend-making and fund-raising, it didn’t prosper.
In September 1572, John was brought by Teresa to serve for the next five years as a confessor and spiritual director, along with another friar, for the 130 nuns at the Convent of the Incarnation in Ávila. Teresa had spent over 20 years here before she launched her reform. The nuns violently, vehemently resisted her being appointed by a papal official as their new abbess. But Teresa’s loving warmth and natural humility won them over, and with John’s help, the spirituality of the majority of the women blossomed. Fray Juan took up residence with another friar in a small house adjoining the convent (on the grounds of an old Jewish cemetery where lay buried Moses de León, author of the foundational kabbalist work, the Zohar).
John, writes Brenan, “had had no contacts with women [outside of family] up to this time—now he was surrounded by them. As the last twelve years of his life were to show, he felt a sympathy for them that he did not so easily feel for men, unless they were much younger than himself [and open to learning]. Most of those he now saw in the confession box would have been very ordinary girls… while others would have had a genuine bent for the religious life. He seems to have treated the first gently, making allowances for their limitations [“the holier a man is,” John wrote, “the gentler he is and the less scandalized by the faults of others, because he knows the weak condition of man”], yet leading them gradually towards more serious views by stimulating their desire to be better, while the latter he directed along the thorny road of mental prayer. Another of his gifts was for casting out devils, by which was meant treating cases of possession and hysteria…. His success in this … gave him a great reputation in the city, while the nuns of the Encarnación, who were witnesses of his austerity, regarded him as a saint.” (p. 24)
As for his relationship with Teresa, they mutually benefited. She likely lent him books banned by the Inquisition as “Illuminist” (Alumbrado), e.g., treatises on mystical theology and contemplative prayer by Francisco de Osuna, Bernadino de Laredo and García de Cisneros, that had influenced her development. She was recording her own reflections on the Song of Songs and three years later began her famous work Interior Castle. He conversed with her every week in the convent parlor and heard her regular sacramental confession. A certain tension sat in those early years between them, for the gregarious Teresa needed and was deeply attracted to men like the young friar Gracián who could serve as a more dynamic and winning public face for the reform movement. John was a bit too contemplative for her at this time in her life. She once jokingly remarked, “If one tries to talk to Padre Fray Juan de la Cruz of God, he falls into a trance and you along with him.” The quip nevertheless reveals his spiritual power. Teresa, an expert judge of human character and holiness, soon came to regard Juan as an authentically God-realized saint. And “towards the end of her life we find her twice begging Gracián—in vain, for he was jealous—to send Fray Juan back to her in Castille [as her spiritual confessor and director].” (Brenan, p. 24)
Though their work went splendidly well at the Incarnation Convent, “the fame and success of Teresa’s reform had raised against her a host of enemies of whom the most bitter belonged to the unreformed body of her own order,” says Brenan. This included Fr. Rubeo, the Carmelite general superior, who reversed an earlier approval of the Discalced reform and put all their houses under Calced Carmelite rule, denouncing the reform friars and nuns as sinful rebels. Yet the papal nuncio and king still approved of the reform. Juan was kidnapped at one point by members of the anti-reform Calced Carmelites who didn’t want to see their lax, easy lives challenged; he was imprisoned at Medina del Campo for a few days until the nuncio’s order released him and some other captive friars. But then the nuncio died and was replaced by a man hostile to the reform. The reform friars were all to resign any offices held and turn them over to the Calced. None obeyed. John and his friar colleague at the Incarnation Convent were ordered to return to their own former houses. They refused and had the further audacity to support the candidacy of Teresa (then at Ávila) for re-election as prioress of the convent while the laxer group of nuns and male officials wanted someone else. On Dec. 2 or 3, 1577, John was captured by an armed posse and incarcerated in a 6x10 foot dungeon-like closet at the Carmelite monastery down in Toledo. Teresa wrote impassioned letters to the king and the archbishop to free him, declaring that John was and had always been a saint. But to no avail.
John was accused before a tribunal of rebellion and disobedience, terrible sins. He replied that he was only following the direction of the apostolic visitor, his immediate superior. He spent the next nine months in hellish conditions—damp frigid cold that winter, stifling heat in the summer, darkness which badly strained his eyes (the only opening was a two-inch horizontal slit near the ceiling), lice infestation, dysentery from the stale scraps of sardines and bread, and vomit-inducing stench due to the fact that his hateful jailer would only change his waste bucket every several days. Not least was the constant humiliation and frequent torture from fellow “Christian” friars, who took him out a few times each week into the rectory at mealtimes, where he was made to kneel like a dog and endure much verbal scorn and bodily flogging and caning for daring to help launch the reform with Teresa. Many of the younger friars revered him as a saint, but their strict vows of obedience rendered them powerless to alleviate his condition. The period was especially hard on Juan because his own great humility made him begin to seriously doubt himself—perhaps he was only a stubborn rebel, sinfully proud in helping Teresa. Such thinking only increased his anguished sense of isolation.
Yet it was during this Dark Night of the Soul (he apparently coined the phrase), this period of being stripped of all material and spiritual consolations, this being “totally undone and re-fashioned in God,” that Juan issued forth the early verses of some of his major poems. A new jailer had come in after six months, and given John a fresh tunic and a pen, ink and small notebook for “composing a few things profitable to devotion.” Juan fell into ecstasy one day contemplating the deeper spiritual significance of a love song he heard a young man singing in the city street: “I am dying of love, dearest. What shall I do? –Die.” The first part of his Spiritual Canticle poem and other verses soon followed, and more flowed out over the next several years. Poetry for Juan was not an art-form but a vehicle to express, using the typical medieval “bridal mysticism” themes, his intense realizations of the transpersonal God, his love for the personal Lord, and the blazing power of Spirit, which had stoked a profound fire in him, overcoming the interior and exterior darkness of his dire situation.
In August of 1578, a disconsolate and disabled Juan enjoyed a vision of Mother Mary, who had twice saved him as a boy from drowning, now “filling the cell with her beauty and brilliance, and [she] announced to him that his trials would soon be over and that he would leave the prison.” In mid-August, Juan was lucky to escape from his hell-hole in the wee hours of a full-moon night, dismantling at last the cell’s padlock with a needle and thread given by the jailer, and making use of a fabric rope he had fashioned with some scissors and carpet-strips also given by the jailer, to slide down over a balcony onto a high wall, narrowly avoiding fatal injury. In his terribly weak state, he found help again from Mother Mary to somehow scale a remaining wall and find himself on the street beyond. After taking cover, first at a tavern and then the front hall of a caballero’s mansion, John found shelter the next day at a Discalced Carmelite convent. The good nuns smuggled their gaunt, disfigured guest off for six weeks of recovery at the hospital and then private home of Don Pedro de Mendoza, a wealthy friend of the reform.
In early October 1578 Juan made the difficult, 100-mile donkey ride to Almodóvar for a chapter meeting of the Discalced Carmelites. All were shocked to see the emaciated appearance of the 36-year-old friar, “like a dead man, with nothing but skin on his bones, so drained and exhausted he could hardly speak.” For safety, he was made temporary head of a priory-hermitage off at remote Calvario. It lies at the eastern border of Andalusia in southern Spain on the upper flow of the Rio Guadalquivir, amidst rocky hills covered with pines and aromatic shrubs. At this simple religious house, a converted farmhouse with a few acres of orchard and farmland, and a tree-shaded spring, John spent the next eight months until June 1579, probably the happiest time of his life.
He would take the thirty friars out under the trees and, instead of giving them Bible passages upon which to meditate, speak to them of God’s wondrous glories manifest as nature and all creatures before sending off into the surrounding area for their solitary periods of long meditation on God. John sometimes took odd moments to weave willow baskets or carve small wooden images, or make religious drawings. The restful, contemplative hours, the fresh air, and the simple vegetarian diet of vegetables, salads and bread strengthened him enough that he could take up an added duty—confessor to the nuns at the convent of Beas de Segura, a few miles away. Teresa had written to its prioress, Ana de Jesús, about John, calling him “that divine and heavenly man. I assure you, my daughter, that since he left these parts, I have not found another like him in the whole of Castile, nor one who inspires souls with such fervor on their journey to Heaven. Only consider what a great treasure you have in that saint and let all the sisters in your house talk with him and confide in him about their souls. They will then see how much good it does them and advance rapidly in spirituality and perfection, for Our Lord has given him in this a special grace…. He is indeed the father of my soul and one of those with whom it does me most good to converse. … He is very spiritual and has great experience and learning.” (Quoted in Brenan, p. 44)
So every Saturday, John and a companion trudged the six-plus miles to the convent, where John heard private confessions all day into the next, and celebrated mass for them and, in the parlor with the assembled community of nuns, presented Gospel passages along with his lucid mystical commentaries before heading back to Calvario. He gave the nuns his schematic drawings of Mount Carmel, with a “map” of the virtues, and corresponding maxims of spiritual counsel. [See image below, with similar image giving the maxims in English translation.]Nuns made copies of his little book of poems, and he explained the verses with commentaries.
Brenan notes that “these visits to the nuns of Beas made a profound impact on Juan de la Cruz’s life and work. After his harsh sequestration in prison the tender and delicate intimacy that grew up between him and these sisters of his order supplied something that he was badly in need of, while their questions and demands gave him the stimulus to write his prose works in the form of explanations of his poems…. He continued to write to and visit these nuns of Beas for many years after he had left their neighborhood.” (pp. 45-6)
In 1580, the Vatican granted the Discalced Carmelites the right to erect their own province, though complete independence and recognition of the two groups, Calced and Discalced, would not come until 1593. Teresa’s reform had been spared destruction. In June 1579 Fray Juan, was appointed rector of the new Carmelite college at the thriving city of Baeza, 36 miles further down the Guadalquivir on a long spur of high land. “He at once found himself caught up in a life of great bustle and activity. Besides teaching and receiving visits, he was much sought after by devout persons of both sexes who were anxious to have him as their spiritual director.” (p. 47) The monks, priests, nuns and laity who had the good fortune to come under his spiritual direction at all these places over the years loved Fray Juan for his profoundly inspirational and clarifying wisdom and his gentle, shy kindness. John, in turn, loved them all, and tended their spiritual development with great attentiveness, a sensitivity combined with candor. He also lovingly tended their bodies, such as during the terrible influenza epidemic of 1580. Yet he craved for more time in silent, formless contemplation of God. He tended to fall into deep ecstatic raptures during this time, and was often concerned that this should happen while saying mass—which it did.
He still took time to visit the Beas nuns for several days every few weeks, intoning psalms or singing his own songs along the way. Sometimes he stopped en route to teach the monks at a Trinitarian monastery the art of inner contemplation, also retreating into their belfry to quietly contemplate the lovely countryside and the even greater beauty of God. He also liked to spend days at a time in nature with a brother friar at a small farm, donated to the college, overlooking the Rio Guadalimar. There he meditated, prayed and sometimes sang in the meadow beside a small stream, often long into the night. Such love of nature, notes Brenan, was rare for the city-dwelling Spaniards of that era.
Juan was made prior of Los Mártires down south in Granada. He first went to Ávila to pick up Ana de Jesús, who had been designated new prioress of a convent in Granada; here he saw and conversed with Teresa for the last time. Juan, Ana and their party arrived in Granada in early 1582 after a perilous journey and here he stayed continuously for the next three years and much of the next three years after that. He counseled the friars and novices, and, as at Calvario, took them out for long outings into nature, giving talks before each man would find a solitary spot for an hour or two of meditation. Sometimes they had to look for him and tug on his habit to bring him out of his deep contemplative raptures. On feast days he told them amusing stories to make them laugh, a balancing levity for the otherwise harsh life of poverty, deprivation, self-denial and inner focus. John was always on the lookout for any signs of depression in his students, and, though he was rather solemn, he wanted them to stay light and joyous in their Lord. For all his contemplative depth, he was not a quietist, and enacted along with his charges a good amount of manual labor to stay active and grounded—quarrying stone, masonry work, gardening, washing clothes, cleaning the priory, preparing food, etc. As for penances, a standard feature of medieval devotion, he led the way, taking the smallest cell, selecting the lowliest chores like cleaning the latrines, and commonly eating only bread and herbs, letting the friars eat more diversely and supplement this on non-fasting days with chickpeas, rice and a little fish. (The sick were allowed to eat even more to maintain strength.) On Fridays, Juan went around before meals to kiss the friars’ unwashed feet and then, after the meal, obliged them to strike him in the face as they left so he would not feel proud in being their prior.
One lighter element from this period is that Juan installed his brother Francisco as mason and gardener and loved to hear him sing the popular love songs that Juan then reframed with a deeper spiritual meaning, a lo divino. It was while taking in the gorgeous views from the spur on the Alhambra hill where the priory sat that John wrote the bulk of his long prose commentaries on his poems, clarifying the way of ego-death, transcendence and union, “participation in God.” These include the twin volumes Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul, on the poem of the latter name; The Spiritual Canticle; and a later poem and commentary, The Living Flame of Love.
John’s colleagues and disciples recall their mentor to be, in Brenan’s words, “unobtrusive, silent, with downcast eyes that hid the inner fire[;] he looked as if he had no other wish than to pass unnoticed and unconsidered through the world.” He had a round face, big brown eyes, a broad forehead, and aquiline nose, and had gone prematurely bald. Brenan notes how “the extreme introversion and love of being alone which had characterized his youth had been succeeded by a stage [noticed at Calvario, Beas and now Granada] in which he liked to be surrounded by those who were committed to the same road as himself.” At Granada, one of his disciples was Juan Evangelista (d.1638), who became his secretary and traveling companion and one of the better sources of information about John’s habits and character, as was Mother Ana de Jesús (d.1621), who lived with her nuns just a five-minute walk from Los Los Mártires, and whom John visited to hear confessions and give instruction every few days beyond the double grille segregating them for propiety. “The nuns worshipped him,” we hear. “When on one of his … visitations he was admitted to the enclosure, they would fall on their knees and kiss his hands or his feet.” He still traveled from time to time up to Beas and he presided over a new convent for nuns at Málagra. Nearly all these sisters were Castilian.
A new DC vicar-general, Nicholas Doria, an authoritarian man, began to vie with Gracián, who still held administrative power, in making certain changes to the Order after Teresa’s passing, changes John did not appreciate (like sending out missionaries to Africa instead of focusing on contemplation of God, and having officers and confessors be appointed instead of elected at the local level), and he argued as such at the chapter conferences at Almodóvar in 1583, and at Lisbon and Valladolid in 1585. At Lisbon, John also presciently went on record to state that one Sor María de la Visitación of Lisbon, a beautiful young visionary claimed by her followers—including high-ranking churchmen—to have powers of healing, bodily levitations, and displays of light during her raptures, and who later allegedly developed the stigmata wounds of Christ, was actually a fraud. John was later proven right about the stigmata. He had always warned his charges to be very careful about any consolations and powers that might dawn, since their source could be demonic.
In Oct. 1585, Juan, in addition to his duties in Granada, was appointed vicar-provincial of the order in Andalusia. “He now had nine priories to visit regularly, to which were soon added three more, the most notable being that of Córdoba… Besides these, he had some half a dozen convents of nuns to keep an eye on…. A rough calculation shows that in the curse of these two years he must have traveled over six thousand miles…. Except when his journey was short, he went on horseback.” He mortified himself wearing hair shirts and spiked chains that dug into his flesh, aggravated by travel. For inspiration, he read the Bible or sang from the Song of Songs. He also went into rapture states that sometimes knocked him off his horse.
After this grueling administrative post was finished, John returned as prior to Los Mártires, but was soon made deputy vicar-general, second in command to Nicholas Doria, and so he was brought up to Segovia (the Order’s administrative seat) for three years beginning in 1588, and made prior of a nearby Discalced Carmelite house. Juan spent long hours in contemplation here, either at the windows of his tiny cell overlooking the trees and river, or in a low grotto blocked by bushes and brambles on the side of a cliff, or in a garden hermitage, or, on summer nights, just laying under the trees all night long without sleep, listening to the river and songbirds. He shrank from business, sometimes saying, “For the love of God, let me be, for I am not fit to deal with people.” The inner focus on the formless God appears to have taken predominance once again in his life. “It always seemed that his soul was at prayer,” recalled one nun. He was often observed knocking his knuckles hard against the stone wall to bring back an awareness of the body so that he could better relate to the physical world and its human inhabitants.
He had much business to conduct—administrative matters, instructing the friars and the nuns at a nearby convent, and writing correspondence (most of his letters, including those to St. Teresa, were later burned by nuns under duress from his enemies). He was only averaging about two hours of sleep each night.
Disagreements with Doria and his consulta and others in his camp, who wanted more and more authoritarian power, led to Juan’s resisting them more and more, especially over the rights of the nuns to choose their own directors and keep their constitution so carefully written by Teresa. He saw it as a matter of social justice and did not mince words. He opened his address at the chapter general meeting in June 1591 with the words, “If at Chapters, assemblies and meetings men no longer have the courage to say what the laws of justice and charity oblige them to say, out of weakness, pusillanimity or fear of annoying their superior and consequently not obtaining office, the Order is utterly lost and ruined.” (Quoted in Brenan, p. 72)
But none would agree with him, all taking the side of the feared Doria, and John was thereupon stripped of being a deputy-general, a definitor, a consulta member, and even a prior, and banished as a simple friar to the poor hermitage of La Peñuela, the loneliest of all the houses, near Baeza in the Sierra Morena. The ultimate intention was to ship him across the ocean to Mexico. Juan was actually happy to be relieved of so many duties. While he waited for two months at a priory in Madrid, he was repeatedly reprimanded in public by its head, the new deputy general. John bore it all in silence. He had never shown any animosity to his enemies, even back in 1577-8, and had never raised his voice in annoyance or lost his calm composure. He wrote to Ana de Jesús, new prioress at Madrid, “Now that I am free and no longer have charge of souls, I can, if I so wish, enjoy peace, solitude and the delectable fruit of forgetfulness of self and of all things, while for others it is well that I should be out of the way….” To another prioress he equanimously wrote, “one must not blame men for these things since it was not they who caused them, but God, who knew what was best for us.”
The move to defame him and expel him altogether from the Reform he had founded with Teresa was gathering strength. After six weeks at La Peñuela, during which time he instructed the friars at the behest of the friendly prior, did some preaching at a church not far away, and immersed himself in raptures out on the heath under the trees, in September he fell quite ill with fever. His body was worn out after having long suffered the ill effects of his earlier imprisonment and now had little resistance. He was urged to seek medical attention at Ubeda, 35 miles away; he left on Sept. 28. The callous prior there put him in the worst cell. At one point, Juan’s whole leg broke out in ulcers, and a surgeon extensively cut and probed, causing intense pain, which he bravely bore without complaint. His health grew worse. Tumors broke out over his body—he would only mutter, “more patience, more love, more pain.”
John had long been linked with miracles, such as divine fragrances, occasional bodily levitations, clairvoyance, gift of prophecy, control over storms, etc., all of which he tried to dismiss. Now the Divine aromas were often perceived around him, and the friars and local people openly regarded him as a saint. But the prior’s heart remained closed; he repeatedly scorned Juan publicly, refused him visitors, and complained bitterly over the “expense” of caring for him. On the night of Dec. 14, 1591, John humbly begged forgiveness from the man for having caused so much trouble, and the prior, realizing John’s true holiness and his own terrible mistake, wept.
At 11:30 that night, Juan joyfully sat up in bed and declared, “How well I feel.” He asked that the 14 friars be called. “The hour is approaching.” They recited some hymns and, at his request, verses from the Song of Songs. “What exquisite pearls!” he declared. They left him alone save for an attendant. The church clock struck midnight, the hour for matins. “Tonight I shall sing matins in Heaven.” This amazing mystic poet, author and spiritual director then folded his hands and stopped breathing. He was dead at the age of 49.
Crowds, hearing of his death, came and tore off parts of his clothes and bandages—even some of his hair and nails and a toe—as holy relics, so obviously infused was he with the Spirit of God. The same behavior occurred the next day at his funeral, despite attempts by friars to protect his body. Dug up from the grave nine months later with the intent of sending the corpse to Segovia, his body was found to be undecayed (“incorrupt”) and wonderfully fragrant, like the remains of certain other saints in the Catholic and other traditions. His body was then split up, the relics sent to various Catholic sites for veneration, where they began to display miraculous healing properties.
Brenan and the other biographers note that it is actually well that John died early and still in Spain, not Mexico, otherwise his life would have ended in disgrace and both he and his lofty writings would have been almost completely forgotten, damned as heretical. But the collecting of affidavits from eye-witnesses to his saintly life began in 1614, 23 years after his passing, and continued until 1627.
The first biography on John was written by a priest in the Order of Discalced Carmelites, Fr. José de Jesús María (Quiroga), at Brussels in 1628, followed by the best of the early works, that by Fr. Jerónimo de San José, OCD, at Madrid in 1641. This priest had collected many of the depositions for John’s beatification. The more notable of the Spanish-language biographies since then are those by Carmelite fathers Bruno de Jesus Marie, OCD (Paris, 1929), Silverio de Santa Teresa, OCD (Burgos, 1936), and, especially, the one compiled by Fr. Crisógono de Jesús, OCD (Avila, 1940).
The first edition of John’s poetry and prose works, not quite complete, came out in 1618, followed by other editions over the next several decades, all part of the beatification process to expose and assess his views. His teachings were soon vehemently opposed by the Inquisition in Spain and by the Vatican as guilty of the “illuminist” heresy, but were vigorously, successfully defended in 1622 by an Augustinian friar, Basilio Ponce de León, professor of theology at University of Salamanca. (The first critical edition of Juan’s works was released in 1912-1914 at Toledo, since then superseded by an even more precise edition, the one made by Fr. Silverio de Santa Teresa, OCD [Discalced Carmelite vicar-general] in 1929-31.)
John was beatified in 1675 by Pope Clement X, at last silencing his detractors. He was fully canonized a saint by the Church in 1726, and two centuries later, in 1926, declared an eminent, authoritative Universal Doctor of the Church, as was St. Teresa herself in 1970.
These last 400 years, Juan’s poetry and prose teachings on the way of negation (via negativa), the art of formless contemplation, and the spiritual union or marriage of the soul in the Divine Beloved have been highly influential, for both orthodox Christian contemplatives and for those branded heretics (e.g., Illuminists and Quietists).
The voice of Juan de la Cruz still speaks to us today of the dazzling glory of God, beyond all forms, images and limits, the Living Flame of Love, the only beatitude and fulfillment for each and every soul.… Those with ears to hear, let them hear.
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Works of John of the Cross
Juan’s three most famous poems are The Spiritual Canticle (39 verses), The Dark Night (8 verses), and The Living Flame of Love (4 verses). John wrote other notable poems and, as mentioned, four books of prose commentary on his three major poems. He wrote a few shorter prose items including letters of spiritual counsel, and made some illustrations, too, such as his famous image of Jesus on the cross [see below], and his oft-copied schema on the Ascent of Mt. Carmel (an allegory for mystical spiritual life), composed of maxims for the dedicated aspirants—especially the nuns—under his direction. All his works were composed in the last 14 years of his life, and are filled with wisdom and psychological depth. Influences on John’s theology and mysticism include not just the Bible, on which he was an expert (both Hebrew Tanakh and Christian New Testament), but also Augustine, Aquinas, Bernard, Victor, the Rhineland Mystics who were so inspired by Meister Eckhart of Germany (Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck), and the aforementioned medieval Spanish mystic sources. The much earlier figure, pseudo-Dionysius Areopagite (c500), is clearly a major influence, too.
Scholar Luce Lopez-Baralt has posited that Juan’s unique poetic voice, so “foreign” compared to the mainstream of Hispanic poetry, was influenced indirectly by Muslim mystic Sûfî poetic themes and images, easily noticed in his verses if one knows the Sûfî antecedents. John lived in the century following the Christian capture of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula, so Muslim and Sûfî influence still persisted, especially with the Moriscos, the crypto-Muslims who had been forcibly converted to Christianity in 1492 and thereafter, and with lingering intellectual influence at a cosmopolitan place like Salamanca university. John’s canciones are comparable, writes Sûfî scholar Terry Graham, to the ghazals (odes) of the Arabic and Persian Sûfî poets, which are laced with a certain surrealism and a very sensual vocabulary “where wine and intoxication stand for ecstasy and high spiritual state, and the poet (or, in St. John’s case, the soul, as a feminine figure) is lover and God the Beloved, so that the poems can often be read romantically, even erotically, without this symbolism being taken into account.” (Graham, 1995, p. 5.)
Brenan is not impressed by an earlier argument positing Muslim Sûfî influences. Drawing on the work of the distinguished Spanish poet and critic, Don Dámaso Alonso, he thinks the poetic influences on Juan can be sufficiently accounted for by material in the biblical Song of Songs, an anthology of Hebrew folk songs for use at marriage festivals, very influential in the middle ages, and also in the incredibly popular, lyrical and sensual Italian-style Spanish lyrics of Garcilaso de la Vega (d. 1536) and his friend Juan Boscán (d. 1542), both published to great acclaim by the latter’s widow in 1543. In his major poems, Juan uses the same pastoral idioms and hendecasyllabic meter of Garcilaso. And we note that the strong “bridal mysticism” element in John’s poetry was a common religious literary motif in the medieval period for Christian, Muslim-Sûfî, and Jewish mystics (and Hindu mystics in the East)—male or female—going back to early works like Song of Songs and its many commentaries over the centuries, treating sensual-love themes as allegories for the soul’s love of God.
Yet the fact remains that the Italian renaissance that inspired Garcilaso and Boscán, and so much medieval commentary on Song of Songs, were in turn influenced by the chivalrous spirit brought back to Europe by the troubadours and minstrels traveling in the Muslim Middle East during the Crusades. And so much of this chivalrous spirit is based on Sûfî themes of sensual love as an allegory for Divine love.
As for the content of John’s prose and poetry, clearly his spiritual method is to leave all known methods, images and forms, and those occasional, unusual “consolations”—visions, locutions, perfumes, delights, etc.—and to allow that “detachment and poverty or selflessness or spiritual purity (which are all one)” (Ascent of Mt. Carmel, 2.vii.5). This is the “way of unknowing,” going beyond all the known faculties—including unusual psychic ones —into a pure faith and “imageless, pure and void” contemplative understanding or receptivity, a “substantial and loving quiet.” This is the fertile spiritual “darkness” or Dark Night. “No thing, created or imagined, can serve the understanding as a proper means of union with God…. If the soul in this life is to attain to union with God and commune directly with Him, it must unite itself with the darkness whereof Solomon spoke, wherein God promised to dwell…. Learn to abide attentively and wait lovingly upon God in that state of quiet, and to pay no heed either to imagination or to its working. For here, as we say, the faculties are at rest, and are working, not actively, but passively, by receiving that which God works in them.” (Ascent, 2.viii.1; 2.ix.4; 2.xii.8)
Elsewhere Juan states that this “contemplation is also termed mystical theology, meaning the secret or hidden knowledge of God. In contemplation God teaches the soul very quietly and secretly, without its knowing how, without the sound of words, and without the help of any bodily or spiritual faculty, in silence and quietude, in darkness to all sensory and natural things. Some spiritual persons call this contemplation knowing by unknowing. For this knowledge is not produced by the intellect … which works upon the forms, fantasies, and apprehensions of the corporal faculties; rather, it is produced in the possible or passive intellect. This possible intellect, without the reception of these forms, etc., receives passively only substantial knowledge, which is divested of images and given without any work or active function of the intellect. (Spiritual Canticle, xxxix.12)
The culmination of this radical via negativa is “becoming God by participation,” a phrase that recurs in several sections of Juan’s prose works when discussing the soul’s perfect union with God. Having been “simplified, purified, and cleansed,” one is unmade and remade in God, through the supernatural power of God’s Love, the Holy Spirit working in, taking over, and utterly transforming the soul. The soul—which we might call in more modern language, the basic individual consciousness—with its powers of understanding, will and memory, is always already infused by God naturally, but now, in authentic Divine union, the soul is supernaturally infused by Grace.
Hence we see why Juan de la Cruz insists that true spirituality is not “to seek oneself in God,… but to seek God in oneself,” which requires “death to the natural self, a death attained through the detachment and annihilation of that self.” (Ascent, 2.vii.5)
There are, of course, parallels to this ego-death and Divine consummation in the world’s sacred traditions—most notably the Muslim Sûfî fanâ “annihilation” and baqâ “remaining” in God, and the much more ancient Hindu Vedânta “neti, neti” (“not this, not this”) moksha or liberation from all that binds, and the unraveling of all “knots of the heart,” so that one spontaneously, egolessly abides as the true Divine Self/Reality, Âtman/Brahman, and all its splendid virtues. And this is none other than the Buddha’s nirvâna, extinction of the selfish self-sense so that only ego-free peace, bliss, compassion and freedom remain, the unborn, undying Awareness—Pure Spiritual Reality, the Absolute.
For Juan de la Cruz, this liberated freedom in pure Divine Being is utterly sweet with unspeakable love of God. Clearly, for Juan, God is utterly transpersonal (“God is vast and boundless”), while God is also the Divine persons—Father, Son and Spirit. Transpersonal and personal: a beautiful Divine mystery, unknowable but quite live-able for those who allow themselves to be undone and ecstatically merged in love for the Beloved….
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Excerpts from John of the Cross’ poetry, letters and prose works:
Here are stanzas from each of Juan de la Cruz’s three major poems, in English translation from the Spanish, mainly by Kavanaugh & Rodriguez [click here to buy their excellent 1-volume
Collected Works of St. John of the Cross
], with some changes suggested by the Nicholson and the Peers translations. Following these three works are excerpts from miscellaneous other poetic and prose writings by San Juan.
[In this poem, The Dark Night / Una Noche Oscura, John writes of the Lord from the viewpoint of the enchanted female lover:] One dark night, / fired with love’s urgent longings /—ah, the sheer grace! [“O blessed chance!”]— / I went out unseen, / my house being now all stilled. // In darkness, and secure, / by the secret ladder, disguised, —ah, the sheer grace!— / in darkness and concealment, / my house being now all stilled. // On that glad night, / in secret, for no one saw me, / nor did I look at anything, / with no other light or guide / than the one that burned in my heart; // this guided me / more surely than noon’s daylight / to where He waited for me /—Him I knew so well — / in a place where no one else appeared. // O guiding night! / O night more lovely than the dawn! / O night that has united / the [Divine] Lover with His beloved [Amado con amada], / Transforming the beloved in her Lover [“Beloved one in Beloved now transformed”]. // Upon my flowering breast / which I kept wholly for Him alone, / there He lay sleeping, / and I caressing Him / there in a breeze from the fanning cedars. // When the breeze blew from the turret / parting His hair, / He wounded [impassioned] my neck / with his gentle hand, / suspending all my senses. // I abandoned and forgot myself, / laying my face on my Beloved; / All ceased; I abandoned myself, / leaving my cares / forgotten among the lilies (1-8)
[Juan began this poem, The Spiritual Canticle, during his incarceration in 1578; its latter verses, some excerpted here, were composed during his happier times with the friars at Calvario and nuns at Beas.]
[The Bride sings:] My Beloved is the mountains, / and lonely wooded valleys, / strange islands, / and resounding rivers, / the whistling of love-stirring breezes, // the tranquil night / at the time of the rising dawn, / silent music, / sounding solitude, / the supper that refreshes, and deepens love. // … In the inner wine cellar / I drank of my Beloved, and, when I went abroad, / through all this valley / I no longer knew anything, / and lost the herd which I was following. // There He gave me His breast; / there He taught me a sweet and living knowledge; / and I gave myself to Him, / keeping nothing back; / there I promised to be His bride. // Now I occupy my soul / and all my energy in His service; / I no longer tend the herd, / nor have I any other work / now that my every act is love. // … With flowers and emeralds / chosen on cool mornings / we shall weave garlands / flowering in Your love, / and bound with one hair of mine. // … When You looked at me / Your eyes imprinted Your grace in me; / for this You loved me ardently; / and thus my eyes deserved / to adore what they beheld in You. //… Let us rejoice, Beloved, / and let us go forth to behold ourselves in Your beauty, / to the mountain and to the hill, / to where the pure water flows, / and further, deep into the thicket. // And then we will go on / to the high caverns in the rock / which are so well concealed; / there we shall enter / and taste the fresh juice of the pomegranates. // There You will show me / what my soul has been seeking, / and then You will give me, / You, my Life, will give me there / what You gave me on that other day: // The breathing of the air, / the song of the sweet nightingale, / the grove and its living beauty / in the serene night, / with a flame that is consuming and painless. (verses 14-15, 26-8, 30, 32, 36-9)
[Verses 1-4 from a later poem, The Living Flame of Love / Llama de Amor Viva:] O living flame of love / That tenderly wounds my soul / in its deepest center! ... / Now Consummate! if it be Your will: / Tear through the veil of this sweet encounter! // O sweet burning, / O delightful [consummating] wound! / O gentle [soothing] hand! / O delicate touch / that savors of eternity / and pays every debt! / In killing You changed death to life. [Jesus: “lose your life for everlasting life”] // O lamps of fire! / in whose splendors / the deep caverns of sense [feeling], / once obscured and blind, / now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely [with strange brightness], / both heat and light to their Beloved. // How gently and lovingly / You wake in my heart, / where in secret You dwell alone; / and by Your sweet breathing, / filled with good [blessing] and glory, / how tenderly You swell my heart [or “inspire” or “kindle” me] with love!
[Stanzas Concerning An Ecstasy Experienced in High Contemplation:] I entered into unknowing [or: I entered in, not knowing where], / and there I remained unknowing, / transcending all knowledge.... / Profound and subtle things I learned; / nor can I say what I discerned, / for I remained uncomprehending, / transcending all knowledge. // Of peace and holy truth / it was knowledge to perfection, / within the depths of solitude / the narrow path of wisdom. / It was something so secret / that I was left stammering, / transcending all knowledge.... / I was so whelmed [embebido, “caught up and rapt away”], / so absorbed and withdrawn [ajenado, in oblivion], / that my senses were left / deprived of all their sensing, / and my spirit was given / an understanding while not understanding, / transcending all knowledge. / He who truly arrives [reaches] there / cuts free from himself [no longer in himself remains]; / all that he knew before / now seems worthless... // The higher he ascends / the less he understands, / because the cloud is dark / which lit up the night… // This knowledge in unknowing / is so overwhelming [of such supreme dominion]... / no power of man or learning / can grasp it; / he who masters himself / will, with knowledge in unknowing [by a knowledge that unknows, con un no saber sabiendo], / always be transcending. / And if you wish to hear: / this highest knowledge lies in the loftiest sense [a sense sublime and clear] of the essence of God; / this is a work of His mercy, / to leave one without understanding, / transcending all knowledge. (1-8)
I died within myself for You / and for You I revived, / because the memory of You / gave life and took it away. (Verse 7 of A Romance on Psalm 136)
My soul is disentangled / From every created thing / and lifted above itself / In a life of delight / supported only in God. / ... My soul now sees itself / without support and with support. ... / Love works so in me / that whether things go well or badly / love turns all to one sweetness / transforming the soul in itself. / And so in its delighting flame / which I feel within me, / swiftly, with nothing spared, / I am wholly being consumed. (From the first and last verses of Commentary Applied to Spiritual Things.)
[“The sum of Perfection”:] Forgetfulness of creation [unattachment to worldly things], / Remembrance of the Creator, / Attention to what is within, / and to be loving the Beloved.
[On the trinity of Divine Persons:] As the lover in the beloved / each lived in the other, / and the Love that unites them / is one with them. // … One love in them all / makes of them one Lover, / and the Lover is the Beloved / in whom each one lives. // […] [On souls’ relation to God:] In perfect love, / this law holds: / that the lover becomes like the one he loves; / for the greater their likeness, / the greater their delight. (Romances, verses 6 and 8 of First Romance, and verses 4-5 of Seventh Romance.)
[Song of the soul that rejoices in knowing God through faith:]
I know well the spring that flows and runs. Although it is night. // That eternal spring is hidden, / for I know well where it has its rise, / although it is night. // I do not know its origin, for it hasn’t one, / but I know that every origin has come from it. / Although it is night. // I know that nothing else is so beautiful, / and that the heavens and the earth drink there … // I know well that it is bottomless / and that no one is able to fathom it … // Its clarity is never darkened, / and I know that every light has come from it / although it is night. // I know that its streams are so brimming / they water the lands of hell, the heavens, and earth, / although it is night. // I know well the stream that flows from this spring / is mighty in compass and power, / although it is night. // … This eternal spring is hidden / in this living bread [the Eucharist] for our life’s sake, / although it is night. // It is here to call to creatures; / and they are filled with this water, although in darkness, / because it is night…. (Verses 1-7, 9-10)
[From The Precautions:] The religious must practice the following instructions if he [she] wishes to attain in a short time holy recollection and spiritual silence, nakedness, and poverty, where one enjoys the peaceful comfort of the Holy Spirit, reaches union with God, is freed of all the obstacles incurred from the creatures of this world, defended against the wiles and deceits of the devil, and liberated from one’s own self…. Have an equal love for and an equal forgetfulness of all persons…. Humble yourself in word and in deed, rejoicing in the good of others as if it were your own, desiring that they be given precedence over you in all things…. Try to practice this more with those who least attract you. If you do not train yourself in this way, you will not attain real charity nor make any progress in it. Prefer to be taught by all than desire to teach even the least of all.
[Excerpts from Counsels to a Religious on How to Reach Perfection:] You have not come to the monastery for any other reason than to be worked and tried in virtue; you are like the stone which must be chiseled and fashioned before being used in the building. … Suffer mortifications and annoyances with inner patience, being silent for love of God…. Find genuine humility, inward quietude and joy in the Holy Spirit. … Trials will never be lacking in religious life, nor does God want them to be. Since He brings souls there to be proved and purified, like gold, with the hammer and the fire, it is fitting that they encounter trials and temptations from me and from devils, and the fire of anguish and affliction…. Be constant in your religious observance and in obedience, without any concern for the world, but only for God…. Undertake all things, agreeable or disagreeable, for the sole purpose of pleasing God through them…. Deem everything in the world as finished. Thus, when you have to deal with some matter, do so in as detached a way as you would if it did not exist…. Strive to be incessant in prayer… Whether you eat, or drink, or speak, or converse with lay people, or do anything else, you should always do so with the desire for God and with your heart fixed on Him.
[Sayings of Light and Love:] God desires the least degree of purity of conscience in you more than all the works you can perform. (12) God is more pleased by one [good] work, however small, done secretly and without desire that it be known, than a thousand done with desire that men know of them. The person who works for God with purest love not only cares nothing about whether men see him, but does not even seek that God Himself know of them. (20) Withdraw [inwardly] from creatures if you desire to preserve, clear and simple in your soul, the image of God. Empty your soul and withdraw far from them and you will walk in divine lights, for God is not like creatures. … The very pure spirit does not meddle with exterior attachments or human respect, but it communes inwardly with God, alone and in solitude as to all forms, and with delightful tranquility, for the knowledge of God is received in divine silence. (25-6) A soul enkindled with love is a gentle, meek, humble, and patient soul. (27) I didn’t know You, my Lord, because I still desired to know and relish things.” (30) Well and good if all things change, Lord God, provided we are rooted in You. (31) He has truly mastered all things who is not moved to joy by the satisfaction these things afford nor saddened by their insipidness. (40) See that you are not suddenly saddened by the adversities of this world, for you do not know the good they bring, being ordained in the judgments of God for the everlasting joy of the elect. (61) In tribulation, immediately draw near to God with confidence and you will receive strength, enlightenment, and instruction. In joys and pleasures, immediately draw near to God in awe and truth, and you will be neither deceived nor involved in vanity. (63-4) Consider that God reigns only in the peaceful and disinterested soul. (68) Cleanse your soul of every desire and attachment and ambition so that you have no concern about anything. (75)
[Excerpts from Maxims on Love:] What God seeks, He being Himself God by nature, is to make us gods through participation, just as fire converts all things into fire. (28) Preserve a loving attentiveness to God with no desire to feel or understand any particular thing concerning Him. (9) Enter within yourself and work in the presence of your Spouse Who is ever present loving you. (11) Be interiorly detached from all things and do not seek pleasure in any temporal thing, and your soul will concentrate on goods you do not know. (17) Any appetite causes five kinds of harm in the soul: disquiet, turbidity, defilement, weakness, obscurity. (34) The soul that has reached the union of Love does not even experience the first motions of [or tendencies toward] sin. (50) Love consists not in feeling great things but in having great detachment and in suffering for the Beloved. (36) There are souls that wallow in the mire like animals, and there are others that soar like birds, which purify and cleanse themselves in the air. (20) Detached from the exterior, dispossessed of the interior, disappropriated of the things of God—neither will prosperity detain you nor adversity hinder you. (46) Let all find compassion in you. (70) To lose always and let everyone else win is a trait of valiant souls, generous spirits, and unselfish hearts; it is their manner to give rather than receive, even to the extent of giving themselves. They consider it a heavy burden to possess themselves and it pleases them more to be possessed by others and withdrawn from themselves, since we belong more to that infinite Good than we do to ourselves. (58) An ecstasy is nothing else than going out of self and being caught up in God; and this is what he who obeys does: he leaves himself and his desire, and thus unburdened plunges himself in God. (80) Strive to preserve your heart in peace and let no event of this world disturb it. Reflect that all must come to an end. (75)
[From Degrees of Perfection:] Remember always that everything that happens to you, whether prosperous or adverse, comes from God, so that you neither become puffed up in prosperity nor discouraged in adversity. Remember always that you came here for no other reason than to be a saint; thus let nothing reign in your soul which does not lead you to sanctity. (15-16)
[From Other Counsels:] Whoever knows how to die in all will have life in all. (2) He is humble who hides in his own nothingness and knows how to abandon himself to God. (5) Anyone who does not love his neighbor abhors God. (9) Conquering the tongue is better than fasting on bread and water. (12) Suffering for God is better than working miracles. (13)
[From Letters to various friars and nuns:] “O happy nothingness, happy hiding place of the heart.” “The endurance of darkness leads to great light.” “You do not belong to yourself but to God.” “Let not the soul be attached to anything.” “Consider all the riches of the world and its delights as mud and vanity and weariness… and do not esteem anything, however signal and precious, except being in God’s grace. All that is best here below is ugly and bitter when compared to those eternal goods for which we were created…. May God grant you His Spirit.” “In binding and attaching itself to any creature by means of the appetite, the will does not rise above it to God, Who is inaccessible [not an object]. It is impossible for the will to reach the sweetness and delight of the divine union and receive and feel the sweet and loving embraces of God without the nakedness and void of its appetite regarding ever particular satisfaction, earthly and heavenly.” “To possess God in all, you should not possess anything at all.” “He who desires nothing else than God walks not in darkness, however poor and dark he is in his own sight.” “God … watches over you and will not forget you. Do not think that He leaves you alone.” “Think nothing else but that God ordains all [to happen].” “God deliver us from ourselves.”
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[From the E. Allison Peers’ translation of John’s longest and most substantial prose work, Ascent of Mount Carmel, a treatise taking off from Juan’s poem, The Dark Night. The first excerpt concerns the radical, no-compromise path of complete self-naughting/emptying, so that complete God-realization and total Divine transformation of the soul can genuinely occur.]
It is sad to see many souls to whom God gives both aptitude and favor with which to make progress … remaining in an elementary stage of communion with God, for want of will, or knowledge, or because there is none who will lead them in the right path. (Prologue, 3) Some confessors and spiritual fathers, having no light and experienced concerning these roads, are wont to hinder and harm such souls rather than to help them on the road. (Prologue, 4)
There may be some souls who will think, or whose confessors will think, that God is leading them along this road of the dark night of spiritual purgation, whereas they may possibly be suffering only from some of the imperfections… and again, there are many souls who think that they have no aptitude for [deep contemplative] prayer, when they have very much; and there are others who think that they have much when they have hardly any. (Prologue, 6)
It [is] a happy chance that God should lead it [the soul] into this night [of spiritual purgation], from which there [comes] to it so much good.... No man of himself can succeed in voiding himself of all of his desires in order to come to God. (1.i.5)
The Devil... has power over the soul only when it is attached to things corporeal and temporal. (1.ii.2)
When the soul is deprived of the pleasure of its desire in all things, it remains, as it were, unoccupied and in darkness.... The darkness of the night, which is nothing else than an emptiness within itself of all things. (1.iii.1-2)
It is not the things of this world that either occupy the soul or cause it harm, since they enter it not, but rather the will and desire for them… (1.iii.4)
The reason for which it is necessary for the soul, in order to attain Divine union with God, to pass through this dark night of mortification of the desires and denial of pleasures in all things, is because all the affections which it has for creatures are pure darkness in the eyes of God, and when the soul is clothed in these affections, it has no capacity for being enlightened and possessed by the pure and simple light of God, if it first not cast them from it. (1.iv.1)
The light of Divine union cannot dwell in the soul if these affections first flee not away from it…. The affection and attachment which the soul has for creatures renders the soul like to these creatures; and, the greater is its affection, the closer is the quality and likeness between them; for love creates a likeness between that which loves and that which is loved…. Thus, he that loves a creature becomes as low as that creature, and, in some ways, lower. For love not only makes the lover equal to the object of his love, but even subjects him to it. Hence in the same way it comes to pass that the soul that loves anything else becomes incapable of pure union with God and transformation in Him.... For all things of earth and heaven, compared with God, are nothing.... All the creatures are nothing; and their affections, we may say, are less than nothing, since they are an impediment to transformation in God…. the soul that sets its affection upon creatures will be unable to comprehend God; and that, until it be purged, it will neither be able to possess Him here below, through pure transformation of love, nor yonder in clear vision…. All the being of creation, then, compared with the infinite Being of God, is nothing.... and therefore the soul that sets its heart upon the good things of the world... cannot be united with God, Who is supreme goodness. All the wisdom of the world and all human ability, compared with the infinite wisdom of God, are pure and supreme ignorance.... Wherefore any soul that makes account of all its knowledge and ability in order to come to union with the wisdom of God is supremely ignorant in the eyes of God and will remain far removed from that wisdom.... In order to come to union with the wisdom of God, the soul has to proceed rather by unknowing than by knowing.... Wherefore the soul that is enamored of prelacy, or of any other such office, and longs for liberty of desire, is considered and treated, in the sight of God, not as a son, but as a base slave and captive.... Therefore such a soul will be unable to attain to that true liberty of spirit which is attained in His Divine union…. All the wealth and glory of all creation, in comparison with the wealth which is God, is supreme poverty and wretchedness. (1.iv.2-7)
As long as the soul rejects not all things, it has no capacity to receive the Spirit of God in pure transformation. (1.v.2)
Oh if spiritual persons only knew how much good and in what great abundance of spirit they lose through not seeking to raise up their desires above childish things, and how in this simple spiritual food [the Spirit] they would find the sweetness of all things, if they desired not to taste those other things! (1.v.4)
In the state of perfection every desire ceases…. This perfection consists in voiding and stripping and purifying the soul of every desire…. first, it must cast away all strange gods—namely, all strange affections and attachments; secondly it must purify itself of the remnants which the desires have left in the soul, by means of the dark night of sense whereof we are speaking…. (1.v.6-7)
There cannot be contained within one [single] will affection for creatures and affection for God. For what has the creature to do with the Creator? What has sensual to do with spiritual? Visible with invisible? Temporal with eternal?... Christlike poverty of spirit with attachment to whatever? … As long as the soul is subjected to the sensual spirit, the spirit which is pure and spiritual cannot enter it. (1.vi.1-2)
All created things are crumbs that have fallen from the table of God. Wherefore he that feeds ever upon the creatures is rightly called a dog.... Therefore, like dogs, they are ever hungering.... for this is the nature of one that has desires, that he is ever discontented and dissatisfied, like one that suffers hunger; for what has the hunger which all the creatures suffer to do with the fullness which is caused by the Spirit of God? Wherefore this fullness that is uncreated cannot enter the soul, if there be not first cast out that other, created hunger which belongs to the desire of the soul; for as we have said, two contraries cannot dwell in one person… hunger and fullness. (1.vi.3)
The desires weary the soul and torment and darken it, and defile it and weaken it…. The soul is wearied and fatigued by its desires, because it is wounded and moved and disturbed by them as is water by the winds. In just the same way they disturb it, allowing it not to rest in any place or in anything whatsoever. And of such a soul, says Isaias, “the heart of the wicked man is like the sea when it rages.” (1.vi.5-6)
Desire is like the fire, which increases as wood is thrown upon it. (1.vi.6)
Even as one who lies naked upon thorns and briars is tormented and afflicted, even so is the soul tormented and afflicted when it rests upon its desires. (1.vii.1) The creatures torment [the soul], but the Spirit of God refreshes. (1.vii.4)
The third evil that the desires cause in the soul [in addition to displacing the Spirit and tormenting the soul] is that they blind and darken it. Even as fog darkens the air and doesn’t allows the bright sun to shine; or as a mirror that is clouded over cannot receive within itself a clear image; or as water defiled by mud reflects not the appearance of one looking into it; even so the soul clouded by desires is darkened in the understanding and allows neither the sun of natural reason nor that of the supernatural Wisdom of God to shine upon it and illumine it clearly…. And, at the same time, when the soul is darkened in the understanding, it is confused also in the will, and the memory becomes dull and disordered in its proper operation.... It is clear that, when the understanding is impeded, the [will and memory] become disordered and troubled. (1.viii.1-2)
Oh, if men only knew how great is the blessing of the Divine light whereof they are deprived by this blindness which proceeds from their affections and desires, and into what great hurts and evils these desires make them fall day after day.…(1.viii.6)
The fourth evil which the desires cause in the soul is that they stain and defile it…. In the same way that traces of soot defile a face that is lovely and perfect, even in this way do disordered desires befoul and defile the soul that has them, the soul which is in itself a most lovely and perfect image of God. (1.ix.1)
The fifth way in which the desires harm the soul is by making it lukewarm and weak, so that it has no strength to follow after virtue and to persevere therein. (1.x.1)
It is true that all the desires are not equally hurtful, nor do they all equally embarrass the soul. I am speaking of those that are voluntary, for the natural desires hinder the soul little, if at all, from attaining to union [with God]…. but all the other voluntary desires, whether they be of mortal sin, which are the greatest, or of venial sin, which are less grave, or whether they be only of its imperfections, which are the least grave of all, must be driven away every one, and the soul must be free from them all, however slight they be, if the soul is to come to this complete union. And the reason is that the state of this Divine union consists in the soul’s total transformation, according to the will, in the will of God, so that there may be nothing in the soul that is contrary to the will of God, but that, in all and through all, its movement may be that of the will of God alone…. We say of this state that it is the making of two wills into one—namely, into the will of God.... (1.xi.2-3)
These habitual imperfections are, for example, a common custom of much speaking, or some slight attachment which we never quite wish to conquer—such as attachment to a person, the garment, a book, a [meditation] cell, a particular kind of food, tittle-tattle, or fancies for tasting, knowing or hearing certain things, and suchlike. Any one of these imperfections, if the soul has become attached and habituated to it, is of as great harm to its growth and progress in virtue as though it were to fall daily into many other imperfections and casual venial sins.... For it comes to the same thing whether a bird be held by a slender cord or by a stout one; it is true that the slender one is the easier to break; still, easy though it be, the bird will not fly away if the cord be not broken. And thus the soul that has attachment to anything, however much virtue it possess, will not attain to the liberty of Divine union.... It is sad to see certain souls in this plight; like rich vessels, they are laden with wealth and good works and spiritual exercises, and with the virtues and the favors that God grants them; and yet, because they have not the resolution to break with some whim or attachment or affection (which all come to the same thing), they never make progress or reach the port of perfection, though they would need to do no more than make one good flight and thus to snap the cord of desire right off…. It is greatly to be lamented that, when God has granted them strength to break other and stouter cords, namely, affections for sins and vanities, they should fail to attain to such a blessing because they have not shaken off some childish thing which God had bidden them conquer for love of him, and which is nothing more than a thread or a hair…. We have seen many persons to whom God has been granting the favor of leading them a long way, into a state of great detachment and liberty, yet who, merely through beginning to indulge some slight attachment, under the pretext of doing good, or in the guise of conversation and friendship, often lose their spirituality and desire for God and holy solitude, fall from the joy and wholehearted devotion which they had in their spiritual exercises, and cease not until they have lost everything. And all this because they did not break the beginning in sensual desire and pleasure and didn’t keep themselves in solitude for God. (1.xi.4-5)
Wherefore the principal care of spiritual masters is to mortify their disciples immediately with respect to any desire whatsoever, by causing them to remain without the objects of their desires, in order to free them from such great misery. (1.xii.6)
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 is disconsolateness; 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 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. (1.xiii.6)
In order to arrive at pleasure in everything, you must seek pleasure in nothing. / In order to arrive at possessing everything, you must seek to possess nothing. / In order to arrive at being everything, you must seek to be nothing. / In order to arrive at knowing everything, you must seek to know nothing. / In order to arrive at that in which you find no pleasure, you must go by a way in which there is no pleasure. / In order to arrive at that which you do not know, you must go by a way you do not know. / In order to arrive at that which you do not possess, you must go by a way of dispossession. / In order to arrive at what you are not, you must go by a way in which you are not. (1.xiii.11-12)
In this detachment the spiritual soul finds its quiet and repose; for, since it covets nothing, nothing wearies it when it is lifted up, and nothing oppresses it when it is cast down, because it is in the center of its humility.... (1.xiii.13)
Until the desires are lulled to sleep through the mortification of the sensual nature, and until at last the sensual nature itself is at rest from them, so that they make not war upon the spirit, the soul does not go forth to true liberty and to the fruition of union with its Beloved. (1.xv.2)
This interior darkness [when all attachments are stripped away]... is spiritual detachment from all things, whether sensual or spiritual, and a leaning on pure faith alone, and an ascent thereby to God. (2.i.1) The soul is united with the Beloved and a union of simplicity and purity and love and similitude. (2.i.2)
[The truly spiritual person] will find greater joy and recreation in creatures through his detachment from them, for he cannot rejoice in them if he look upon them with attachment to them as his own.… He will also acquire in his detachment from things a clear conception of them… He will therefore enjoy them very differently from one who is attached to them, and he will have a great advantage and superiority over such a one…. This man, then, rejoices in all things—since his joy is dependent upon none of them—as if he had them all. And this other [unspiritual person], through looking upon them with a particular sense of ownership, loses in a general sense all the pleasure of them all…. Rather, they have possessed his heart, and he is, as it were, a sorrowing captive. (3.xx.2-3)
[John at one point late in the Ascent elucidates the “six principal evils”:] The first is vainglory, presumption, pride and disesteem of our neighbour…. The second is the moving of the senses to complacency and sensual delight and lust. The third evil comes from falling into adulation and vain praise [of mere creatures], wherein is deception and vanity.… The fourth evil is of a general kind: a serious blunting of the reason and the spiritual sense, such as is effected by rejoicing in temporal good things…. The fifth evil is distraction of the mind by created things. And hence arise and follow lukewarmness and weakness of spirit, which is the sixth evil. (3.xxii.2)
I wish to propose a test whereby it may be seen when the delights of the senses… are profitable and when they are not. And it is that, whenever a person hears music and other things, and sees pleasant things, and is conscious of sweet perfumes, or tastes things that are delicious, or feels soft touches, if his thought and the affection of his will are at once centered upon God and if that thought of God gives him more pleasure than the movement of sense which causes it, and save for that he finds no pleasure in the said movement, this is a sign that he is receiving benefit therefrom, and that this thing of sense is a help to his spirit. In this way such things may be used, for then such things of sense subserve the end for which God created and gave them, which is that He should be the better loved and known because of them…. But someone that feels not this liberty of spirit in these things and pleasures of sense, but whose will rests in these pleasures and feeds upon them, is greatly harmed by them and should withdraw himself from the use of them. (3.xxiv.5-6)
Through the eye that is purged from the [worldly] joys of sight, there comes to the soul a spiritual joy, directed to God in all things that are seen, whether Divine or profane. Through the ear that is purged from the joy of hearing, there comes to the soul joy most spiritual in hundredfold, directed to God in all that it hears, whether Divine or profane. Even so is it with the other senses when they are purged…. But he that conquers not the joy of desire will not enjoy the serenity of habitual rejoicing in God through His creatures and works. In the man that lives no more according to sense, all the operations of the senses and faculties are directed to Divine contemplation…. Such a man, being pure in heart, finds in all things a knowledge of God which is joyful and pleasant, chaste, pure, spiritual, glad and loving. (3.xxvi.5-6)
[In the next sections excerpted from Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John speaks of the way and the goal of Divine union:]
He that would attain to being joined in a union with God must not walk by understanding, neither leaning upon experience or feeling or imagination, but he must believe in His Being, which is not perceptible to the understanding, neither to the desire nor to the imagination nor to any other sense, neither can it be known in this life at all. Truly, in this life, the highest thing that can be felt and experienced concerning God is infinitely remote from God and from the pure possession of him.... The soul is greatly impeded from reaching this high state of union with God when it clings to any understanding or feeling or imagination or appearance or will or manner of its own, or to any other act or do anything of its own, and cannot detach and strip itself of all these.... [The] soul must pass beyond everything to unknowing. Wherefore, upon this road, to enter upon the [spiritual] road is to leave the [worldly] road; or, to express it better, it is to pass on to the goal and to leave one’s own way, and to enter upon that which has no way, which is God. The soul that attains to this state has no longer any ways or methods, still less is it attached to ways and methods, or is capable of being attached to them…. Nevertheless, it has within itself all ways, after the way of one who possesses nothing, yet possess all things. (2.iv.4-5)
Leaving behind all that it experiences and feels, both temporally and spiritually, and all that it is able to experience and feel in this life, it [the soul] will desire with all desire to come to That which surpasses all feeling and experience. (2.iv.6) The more emphasis the soul lays upon what it understands, experiences and imagines, and the more it esteems this… the more it loses of the supreme goal…. The soul that is in darkness, and is blinded as regards all its natural and proper lights [i.e., its normal and even psychic faculties], will see supernaturally; and the soul that would depend upon any light of its own will become the blinder and will halt upon the road to union. (2.iv.6-7)
God dwells and is present substantially in every soul, even in that of the greatest sinner in the world. And this kind of union is ever wrought between God and all the creatures, for in it He is preserving their being: if union of this kind were to fail them, they would at once become annihilated and would cease to be. And so, when we speak of the union of the soul with God, we speak not of this substantial union which is continually being wrought, but of the union and transformation of the soul with God, which is not being wrought continually, but only when there is produced that likeness that comes from love. We shall therefore term this the union of likeness, even as that other union is called substantial or essential. The former is natural, the latter supernatural. And the latter comes to pass when the two wills—namely, that of the soul and that of God—are conformed together in one, and there is nothing in the one that is repugnant to the other. And thus, when the soul rids itself totally of that which is repugnant to the Divine will… it is transformed in God through love.... God communicates himself most to that soul who has progressed the farthest in love; namely, that has its will in closest conformity with the will of God. And the soul that has attained complete conformity and likeness of will is totally united and transformed in God supernaturally.... The more completely a soul is wrapped up in the creatures and in its own abilities, by habit and affection, the less preparation it has for such Divine union; for it doesn’t give God a complete opportunity to transform it supernaturally. The soul, then, needs only to strip itself of these natural dissimilarities and contrarities, so that God, who is communicating himself naturally to it, according to the course of nature, may communicate Himself to it supernaturally, by means of grace. (2.v.3-4)
In thus allowing God to work in it... the soul… is at once illumined and transformed in God and God communicates to it His supernatural Being, in such a way that it appears to be God himself, and has all that God himself has. And this union comes to pass when God grants the soul this supernatural favor, that all the things of God and the soul are one in participant transformation; and the soul seems to be God rather than a soul, and it is indeed God by participation.... (2.v.7)
Christ is the Way, and … this Way is death to our natural selves…. The more completely he [the soul] is annihilated for God’s sake …the sensual and the [egoically] spiritual, the more completely is he united to God and the greater is the work which he accomplishes. (2.vii.9,11)
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. (2.vii.12)
[Juan lays out the three signs and actual way of moving beyond discursive, imaginative meditation, the via positiva, into pure, formless contemplation in Spirit:] The first sign is his realization that he can no longer meditate or reason with his imagination, neither can take pleasure therein as he was wont to do before…. The second sign[:] … he has no desire to fix his meditation or his sense upon … particular objects, exterior or interior…. The third and surest sign is that the soul takes pleasure in being alone, and waits with loving attention upon God without making any particular meditation, in inward peace and quietness and rest, and without acts and exercises of the faculties—memory, understanding and will—at least, without discursive acts, that is, without passing from one thing to another. The soul is alone, with an attentiveness and a knowledge, general and loving, … but without any particular understanding, and adverting not to that which is contemplating. These three signs, at least, a spiritual person must observe in himself, all together, before he can venture safely to abandon the state of meditation and sense, and to enter that of contemplation and spirit. (Ascent, 2.xiii.2-5)
[John speaks of those on this way who aren’t content to rest in the “substantial and loving quiet,” but feel the need to go back to “imaginings and reasonings.” “Thus they neither enjoy the substance nor make progress in meditation.” They think they are “losing themselves.”] They are indeed losing themselves, though not in the way they think, for they are becoming lost to their own senses and to their first manner of perception; and this means gain in that spirituality which is being given them. The less they understand… the farther they penetrate into the night of the Spirit,... through which night they must pass in order to be united with God, in a union that transcends all knowledge. (Ascent, 2.xiv.4)
When the soul is completely purified and voided itself of all forms and images that can be apprehended, it will remain in this pure and simple light, being transformed therein into a state of perfection.... [The soul finds itself] in a condition of pure detachment and poverty of spirit, and, being simple and pure, [is] transformed into simple and pure wisdom, which is the Son of God…. It is then imbued with that which is Divine, both naturally and supernaturally. (2.xv.4) … Let him [the spiritual person] learn to be still in God, fixing his loving attention upon Him, in the calm of his understanding, although he may think himself to be doing nothing. For thus, little by little and very quickly, Divine calm and peace will be infused into his soul, together with a wondrous and sublime knowledge of God, enfolded in Divine love. And let him not meddle with forms, meditations and imaginings, or with any kind of reasoning, lest his soul be disturbed…. And if, as we said, such a person has scruples that he is doing nothing, let him note that he is doing no small thing by pacifying the soul and bringing it into calm and peace, unaccompanied by any act or desire, for it is this that Our Lord asks of us, through David, saying: Vacate, et videte quoniam ego sum Deus. (Psalms 44:11) As though he had said: Learn to be empty of all things (inwardly and outwardly) and you will see that I am God. (2.xv.5) [Note: the biblical line is usually translated: “Be still and know that I am God.”]
The soul must be pure and simple, neither bounded by, nor attached to, any particular kind of intelligence, nor modified by any limitation of form, species and image. As God comes not within any image or form, neither is contained within any particular kind of intelligence, so the soul, in order to reach God, must likewise come within no distinct form or kind of intelligence. And that there is no form or likeness in God is clearly declared by the Holy Spirit in Deuteronomy, where He says “...You saw in God no form whatsoever.” (4:12) [Juan also quotes Deut. 4:15 and Numbers 12:6-8 on the same point.]… God is not communicated to the soul by means of any disguise of imaginary vision or similitude or form, neither can He be so communicated; but... [only] in naked and pure essence of God…. (2.xvi.7-9) The spirit that has become perfect, therefore, pays no heed to sense... as it did before when it had not grown spiritually. (2.xvii.6) The soul must remain in darkness, in faith, which is the Spirit, and this cannot be comprehended by sense. (2.xix.5)
[Against those who would misinterpret certain Bible passages or inner revelations in the wrong way:] Although sayings and revelations may be of God, we cannot always be sure of their meaning; for we can very easily be greatly deceived by them because of our manner of understanding them.... It is impossible for a man, if he be not spiritual, to judge of the things of God or understand them in a reasonable way, and he is not spiritual when he judges them according to sense…. Therefore it is temerity to presume to have intercourse with God by way of a supernatural apprehension effected by sense, or to allow anyone else to do so.... The words and visions of God may be true and sure and yet we may be deceived by them, through being unable to interpret them [properly in Spirit]. And thus the best and surest course is to train souls in prudence so that they flee from these supernatural things, by accustoming themselves, as we have said, to purity of spirit in dark faith, which is the means of Union. (2.xix.10-11,14)
It is very easy for the soul to be deceived.... (2.xxi.7) I appalled at what happens in these days—namely, when some soul with the very smallest experience of meditation … [becomes] conscious of certain locutions [inner voices, and] … at once christens them all as coming from God, and assumes that this is the case, saying “God said to me…”; “God answered me…”; whereas it is not so at all, but… it is for the most part they who are saying these things to themselves. (2.xxix.4)
How much more precious in God’s sight is one work or act of the will performed in charity than are all the visions and communications that the soul may receive from Heaven.... (2.xxii.19) The purer and the more refined in faith is the soul, the more it has of the infused charity of God; and the more charity it has, the more is it illumined and the more gifts of the Holy Spirit are communicated to it, for charity is the cause and the means whereby they are communicated to it.... We must therefore not apply the understanding to that which is being supernaturally communicated to it, but simply and sincerely apply the will to God with love, for it is through love that these good things are communicated and through love they will be communicated in greater abundance than before. (2.xxix.6-7)
Since the soul must proceed in its growing knowledge of God by learning that which He is not rather than that which He is, in order to come to Him, it must proceed by renouncing and rejecting, to the very uttermost, everything in its apprehensions that it is possible to renounce, whether this be natural or supernatural…. Divine union voids its fancy and sweeps it clean of all forms and kinds of knowledge and raises it to the supernatural. (3.ii.3-4)
[John speaks of very high levels of the soul’s development, wherein its memory function can go into a kind of obliviousness…] forgetting to eat or drink, and being uncertain if it has done this or not, seen or said this or not, because of the absorption of the memory in God. But when once it attains to the habit of union, which is a supreme blessing, it no longer has these periods of oblivion…. The memory is transformed in God…. When at last God possesses the faculties [memory, understanding, will] and has become the entire master of them, through their transformation into Himself, it is He Himself Who moves and commands them divinely, according to His Divine Spirit and will. And the result of this is that the operations of the soul are not distinct, but all that it does is of God, and its operations are Divine, so that, even as St. Paul says, he that is joined unto God becomes one spirit with Him. (1 Cor. 6:17) Hence it comes to pass that the operations of the soul in union are of the Divine Spirit and are Divine. (3.ii.8-9) God alone moves the faculties of these souls to do those works which are appropriate, according to the will and ordinance of God, and they cannot be moved to do others; and thus the works and prayers of these souls are always effectual. (3.ii.10) St. Paul says the sons of God who are transformed and united in God, are moved by the Spirit of God (Rom. 8:14), that is, are moved to perform Divine work in their faculties. And it is no marvel that their operations should be Divine, since the union of the soul is Divine. (3.ii.16)
[St. John speaks here of the various] supernatural … gifts and graces given by God which transcend natural virtue and capacity and are called gratis datae. Such as these are the gifts of wisdom and knowledge, which God gave to Solomon, and the graces whereof St. Paul speak—namely, faith, gifts of healing, the working of miracles, prophecy, knowledge and discernment of spirits, interpretation of words, and likewise the gift of tongues…. The temporal benefits are the healing of infirmities, the receiving of sight by the blind, the raising of the dead, the casting out of devils, prophesying concerning the future so that men may take heed…. (3.xxx.1,3) He that has supernatural gifts and graces ought to refrain from desiring to practise them, and from rejoicing in so doing, nor ought he to care to exercise them. For God, Who gives Himself to such persons, by supernatural means, for the profit of His Church and of its members, will move them likewise supernaturally in such a manner and at such time as He desires…. A man should wait and allow God to work by moving his heart, since it is in the virtue of this working that there will be wrought all virtue. (3.xxxi.7)
See only to this: that your conscience is pure, and your will perfect with God, and your spirit set truly upon Him. (3.xl.2)
+ + + + + + +
[From the Kavanaugh and Rodriguez translation of Juan de la Cruz’s Spiritual Canticle prose work, a closely adhering commentary to his poem of the same name. Herein Juan gives an extended treatise on bridal mysticism. (The small-case Roman numeral in parenthesis refers to each of the 40 stanzas of the poem.)]
Many desire that God cost them no more than words, and even these they say badly. They scarcely desire to do anything for Him that might cost them something…. They will not even take one step to mortify themselves and lose some of their satisfactions, comforts and useless desires. Yet, unless they go in search for God, they will not find Him, no matter how much they cry for Him…. Seeking God demands a heart naked, strong, and free from all evils and goods which are not purely God… [Even] spiritual consolations, if possessed or sought with attachment, are an obstacle…. (iii.2,5)
From the viewpoint of contemplative experience, it should be known that in the living contemplation and knowledge of creatures, the soul sees such fullness of graces, powers, and beauty with which God has endowed them that seemingly all are arrayed in wonderful beauty and natural virtue. This beauty and virtue is derived from above and imparted by that infinite supernatural beauty of the Image of God. (vi.1)
Sometimes God favors advanced souls, through what they hear, see, or understand—and sometimes independently of this—with a sublime knowledge by which they receive an understanding or experience of the heights and grandeur of God. Their experience of God in this favor is so lofty that they understand clearly that everything remains to be understood… that the Divinity is so immense as to surpass complete understanding…. Those who understand God more, understand more distinctly the infinitude which remains to be understood…. Since the soul experiencing this is aware that what she has so sublimely experienced remains beyond her understanding, she calls it “I-don’t-know-what.” Since it is not understandable, it is indescribable, although… one may know what the experience of it is. (vii.9-10)
God sometimes grants these favors to the soul, His bride. He breathes through her flowering garden, opens all these buds of virtues, and uncovers these aromatic spices of gifts, perfections, and riches, and disclosing this interior treasure and wealth, He reveals all her beauty. And then it is something wonderful to behold and pleasant to feel: the richness from her gifts unveiled to the soul and the beauty of these flowers of virtues now in full bloom. And the fragrant scent each one with its own characteristics gives to her is inestimable. Sometimes the fragrance is so abundant that it seems to the soul she is clothed with delight and bathed in inestimable glory, to such an extent that the experience is not only within her but overflows and becomes manifest outside of her, and those capable of recognizing it are aware of her experience. It seems to them that she is in a pleasant garden filled with the delights and riches of God. And not only when these flowers are open can you see this in these holy souls, but they ordinarily bear in themselves an “I-don’t-know-what” of greatness and dignity. This causes awe and respect in others because of the supernatural effect diffused in such persons from their close and familiar conversation with God. (xvii.6-7)
The soul obtains not only a very lofty purity and beauty, but also an amazing strength because of the powerful and intimate bond effected between God and her by means of this union. (xx-xxi.1)
Insofar as is possible in this life, He perfects the three faculties (memory, intellect, and will) in regard to their objects. What is more, He conjures and commands the four passions (joy, hope, fear, and sorrow)… [and] makes these disturbing activities and movements cases by means of the immense delight and sweetness and strength received in the spiritual communication and surrender He makes of Himself at this time. Because God vitally transforms the soul into Himself, all these faculties, appetites, and movements lose their natural imperfection and are changed to divine. (xx-xxi.4)
[The soul in union is quite beyond the “affliction of hope,”] for being now satisfied in this union with God insofar as is possible in this life, she has nothing to hope for from the world, nor anything to desire spiritually, for she has the awareness and experience of the fullness of God’s riches. (xx-xxi.11)
This spiritual marriage, incomparably greater than the [earlier] spiritual espousal… is a total transformation in the Beloved in which each surrenders the entire possession of self to the other with a certain consummation of the union of love. The soul thereby becomes divine, becomes God through participation, insofar as is possible in this life…. When the spiritual marriage between God and the soul is consummated, there are two natures in one spirit and love, as St. Paul says in making this same comparison: He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. [1 Cor. 6:17] This union resembles the union of the light of a star or candle with the light of the sun, for what then sheds light is not the star or the candle, but the sun, which has absorbed the other lights into its own…. [The soul] finds in this state a much greater abundance and fullness of God, a more secure and stable peace, and an incomparably more perfect delight than in the spiritual espousal…. She lives the life of God. The words of St. Paul are verified in this soul: I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me. [Gal. 2:20] (xxii.3,5)
What God communicates to the soul in this intimate union is totally beyond words. One can say nothing about it just as one can say nothing about God Himself that resembles Him. For in the transformation of the soul in God, it is God who communicates Himself with admirable glory. In this transformation, the two become one…. (xxvi.4) That transformation in God makes her so consonant with the simplicity and purity of God, in which there is no form or imaginative figure, that it leaves her clean, pure, and empty of all forms and figures, purged, and radiant in simple contemplation…. Love inflamed and transformed her into love, it annihilated her and did away with all that was not love, as [David writes in Psalm 72:21-2:] Because my heart was inflamed, my reins were changed and I was brought to nothing and knew not. The change of the reins … is a change of the soul, according to her operations and appetites, into God, into a new kind of life in which she is undone and annihilated…. Not only is all her old knowing annihilated, seeming to her to be nothing, but her old life and imperfections are annihilated, and she is restored in “the new man” [St. Paul’s phrase]. (xxvi.17) Since He transforms her in Himself, He makes her entirely His own and empties her of all she possesses other than Him. Hence, not only in her will, but also in her works she is really and totally given to God.… The soul knows nothing else but love. (xxvii.6,8) … All her words, thoughts and works are of God and directed toward Him without any of the former imperfections…. All the ability of soul and body (memory, intellect, and will, interior and exterior senses, appetites of the sensory and spiritual part) move in love and because of love…. When the soul reaches this state, all the activity of he spiritual and sensory part (in what it does, or in what it suffers, and in whatever manner) always causes more love and delight in God.… Hence whether her work is temporal or spiritual, this soul can always say, “Now that my every act is love.” (xxviii.7-9) Having reached the intimate love of God, she considers everything else of little consequence. (xxix.5) “I lost myself, and was found.” … The soul … became lost to herself by paying no attention to herself in anything, by concentrating on her Beloved and surrendering herself to Him freely and disinterestedly, with no desire to gain anything for herself; secondly, she became lost to all creatures, paying no heed to all her own affairs, but only to those of her Beloved…. He who walks in the love of God seeks neither his own gain nor his reward, but only to lose all things and himself for God. (xxix.10-11) Everything is a gain for the soul whose gain is God, because all the strength of her faculties is converted into a spiritual communion with Him of exceedingly agreeable interior love. (xxx.1) This thread of love joins and binds God and the soul so strongly that it unites and transforms them. So great is this union that even though they differ in substance, in glory and appearance the soul seems to be God and God seems to be the soul…. God here is the principal lover, who, in the omnipotence of His fathomless love, absorbs the soul in Himself more efficaciously and forcibly than a torrent of fire would devour the drop of morning dew, which rises and dissolves in the air. (xxxi.1-2) It is a property of perfect love to be unwilling to take anything for self, nor does it attribute anything to self, but all to the Beloved. (xxxii.2)
He elevates her intellect to divine understanding, because it is alone and divested of other contrary and alien knowledge; He moves her will freely to the love of God, because it is alone and freed from other affections; and He fills her memory with divine knowledge, because it is now alone and empty of other images and fantasies. Once the soul disencumbers these faculties and empties them of everything inferior and of attachment to even superior things, leaving them alone without these things, God engages them in the invisible and divine…. It is He alone who works in her, without any means. This is a characteristic of the union of the soul with God in spiritual marriage: God works in and communicates Himself to her through Himself alone, without the intermediary of angels or natural ability. (xxxv.5-6)
Once the soul is placed at the peak of perfection and freedom of spirit in God… she no longer has any other activity to engage her than surrender to the delights and joys of intimate love of her Bridegroom[:]… to receive the joy and savor of love;… to become like the Beloved; … to look closely at and know the … secrets of the Beloved Himself…. This thicket of God’s wisdom and knowledge is so deep and immense that no matter how much the soul knows she can always enter it further; it is vast and its riches incomprehensible. … This thicket … also signifies … the multitude of trials and tribulations, for suffering [e.g., intense challenge] is very delightful and beneficial to her…. The gate entering into these riches of His wisdom is the cross, … and few desire to enter by it, but many desire the delights obtained from entering there. (xxxvi.1,3,10,12)
Since the soul and God are now united in this state of spiritual marriage, … the soul performs no work without God. (xxxvii.6) The soul’s will is not destroyed there, but it is so firmly united with the strength of God’s will … that there is only one will and love, which is God’s. (xxxviii.3)
[Five expressions of what God bestows on the soul:] (1) the breath or inspiration of the Holy Spirit from God to her and from her to God…. (2) rejoicing in the fruition of God…. (3) the knowledge of creatures and of their orderly arrangement…. (4) pure and clear contemplation of the Divine essence…. (5) a total transformation in the immense love of God.… She becomes deiform and God through participation. (xxxix.2,4) Accordingly, souls possess the same goods by participation that the Son [Christ] possesses by nature. As a result, they are truly gods by participation, equals and companions of God…. St. Peter [in 2nd Epistle, 1:2-5] … clearly indicates that the soul will participate in God Himself by performing in Him, in company with Him, the work of the Most Blessed Trinity, because of the substantial union between the soul and God. Although this participation will be perfectly accomplished in the next life, still in this life when the soul has reached the state of perfection, … she obtains a foretaste and noticeable trace of it in the way we are describing, although as we said it is indescribable. (xxxix.6) Having reached perfection, the soul possesses a love so comforting and conformed to God that, even though God is a consuming fire, as Moses says [Deut. 4:24], God is now a consummator and restorer. (xxxix.14)
O souls, created for these grandeurs and called to them! What are you doing? How are you spending your time? Your aims are base and your possessions miseries!… You are blind to so brilliant a light…. (xxxix.6)
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[Excerpts from the Kavanaugh and Rodriguez translation of the prose commentary, The Living Flame of Love, written by Juan chiefly in Granada in response to a request by Doña Ana de Peñalosa for a commentary on his four-stanza poem of the same name:]
The greater the purity [of the soul], the more abundantly, frequently, and generously God communicates Himself…. God is the doer of all without the soul’s doing anything…. Its sole occupation now is to receive from God, Who alone can move the soul and do His work in its depth. Thus all the movements of this soul are divine. … Being a spirit, the soul does not possess in its being the high or the low, the more profound or the less profound, as do quantitative bodies. Since it has no parts, there is no difference as to the inward and the outward; it is all of one kind and does not have degrees of quantitative depth. (i.9-10)
The soul’s center is God. When it has reached God with all the capacity of its being and the strength of its operation and inclination, it will have attained to its final and deepest center in God, it will know, love, and enjoy God with all its might…. Love is the soul’s inclination, strength, and power in making its way to God, for love unites it with God. (i.12-13)
While the soul is inflamed with the love of God… it will feel that a seraphim is assailing it by means of an arrow which is all afire with love. [Juan refers to the case of St. Francis of Assisi; a similar experience occurred for St. Teresa, and, we gather, for Juan himself.] Who can fittingly speak of this intimate point of the [Divine] wound [of love], which seems to be in the middle of the heart of the spirit, there where the soul experiences the excellence of the delight?… The soul feels its ardor strengthen and increase and its love become so refined in this ardor that seemingly there are seas of loving fire within it, reaching to the heights and depths of the earthly and heavenly spheres, imbuing all with love. It seems to it that the entire universe is a sea of love in which it is engulfed, for, conscious of the living point or center of love within itself, it is unable to catch sight of the boundaries of this love. (ii.10)
Sometimes the unction of the Holy Spirit overflows [the soul] into the body and all the sensory substance, all the members and bones and marrow rejoice… with the feeling of great delight and glory, even in the outermost joints of the hands and feet. The body experiences so much glory in that of the soul that in its own way it magnifies God. (ii.22)
It ought to be pointed out why there are so few who reach this high state of perfect union with God. It … is not because God wishes that there be only a few of these spirits so elevated; He would rather want all to be perfect, but He finds few vessels that will endure so lofty and sublime a work…. There are many who desire to advance and persistently beseech God to bring them to this state of perfection. Yet when God wills to conduct them through the initial trials and mortifications, as is necessary, they are unwilling to suffer them, and they shun them, flee from the narrow road of [spiritual] life, and seek the broad road of their own consolation, which is that of their own perdition; thus they do not allow God to begin to grant their petition. (ii.27) O souls, … if you but knew how much it behooves you to suffer in order to reach this [spiritual] security… you would consider it good fortune that, upon dying to this world and to yourselves, you would live to God in the delights of the spirit…. (ii.28) A person, then, should live with great patience and constancy in all the tribulations and trials God places upon him, whether they are exterior or interior, spiritual or bodily, great or small, and he should accept them all as from God’s hand as a good remedy and not flee from them, for they bring him [spiritual] health. [One can view all such trials and tribulations as “burning off karma.”] (ii.30) The soul is unable to live perfectly in the new life [of Spirit], if the old man [worldliness, attachments, etc.] does not die completely. (ii.33)
Finally, all the movements, operations, and inclinations the soul had previously from the principle and strength of its natural life are now in this union [with God] dead to what they formerly were, changed into divine movements, and alive to God. For the soul… is moved in all by the Spirit of God. Accordingly, the intellect of this soul is God’s intellect; its will is God’s will; its memory is the memory of God; and its delight is God’s delight, and although the substance of this soul is not the substance of God, since it cannot undergo a substantial conversion into Him [i.e., the creature is not the Creator, the soul is not the Spirit], it has become God through participation in God, being united to and absorbed in Him, as it is in this state. Such a union is wrought in this perfect state of the spiritual life, yet not as perfectly as in the next life. Consequently the soul is dead to all that it was in itself, which was death to it, and alive to what God is in Himself. (ii.34)
The spirit of God insofar as it is hidden in the veins of the soul is like soft refreshing water, which satisfies the thirst of the spirit, and insofar as it is exercised in the sacrifice of loving God, it is like living flames of fire.… All that can be said … is less than the reality, for the transformation of the soul in God is indescribable. Everything can be expressed in this statement: The soul becomes God from God through participation in Him and in His attributes…. (iii.8) [The idea that “the soul is somehow God through participation” is again expressed at iii.78, where Juan also says:] Having been made one with God, … the will of the two is one will, and thus God’s operation and the soul’s is one. Since God gives Himself with a free and gracious will, so the soul … gives to God, God Himself in God… Having Him for its own, it can give Him and communicate Him to whomever it wishes. Thus it gives Him to its Beloved, who is the very God who gave Himself to it…. A reciprocal love is thus actually formed between God and the soul, like the marriage union and surrender…. (iii.78) The soul here loves God, not through itself but through Him. This is a remarkable quality, for it loves through the Holy Spirit, as the Father and Son love each other…. (iii.82)
God, like the sun, stands above souls ready to communicate Himself. Let [spiritual] directors be content with disposing them for this according to evangelical perfection, which lies in nakedness and emptiness of sense and spirit; and let them not desire to go any further than this in building, since that function belongs only to the Father of lights from whom descends every good and perfect gift. (iii.47) Sometimes in this delicate communication, God … communicates Himself to one faculty more than to the other; sometimes more knowledge is experienced than love, and at other times, more love than knowledge, and likewise at times all knowledge is felt without any love, or all love without any knowledge. (iii.49)
God leads each one along different paths so that hardly one spirit [or soul] will be found like another in even half its method of procedure. (iii.59)
Since God is formless and figureless, the memory [or attention] walks safely when empty of form and figure…. [Many] spiritual directors, not understanding souls that tread the path of quiet and solitary contemplation [the via negativa], since they themselves have not reached it and do not know what it is to part with discursive meditation, think these souls are idle. They hinder them and hamper the peace of restful and quiet contemplation, which God of His own was according them, by making them walk along the path of [discursive] meditation and imaginative reflection and perform interior acts [i.e., all these are part of the via positiva]…. These directors do not know what spirit is. They do a great injury to God and show disrespect toward Him by intruding with a rough hand where He is working. (iii.53-4) Those who are not so spiritual as to be purged of appetites and satisfactions, but still keep in themselves something of the animal man, believe that things most vile and base to the spirit (those closest to the senses, according to which they are still living) are highly important; and those that are loftier and more precious to the spirit… they consider to be of little value and do not esteem them…. Even though some satisfaction overflows from the spirit into the senses [e.g., see ii.22, quoted above], a man has no more than natural appetites if he desires to become attached to it. It matters little that the object or cause is supernatural…. (iii.74)
The soul addresses its Bridegroom with deep love, esteeming Him and thanking Him for two admirable effects… The first effect is an awakening of God in the soul, effected in gentleness and love. The second is the breathing of God within it, and this is effected through the good and glory communicated to it…. There are many kinds of awakening which God effects in the soul, so many that we would never finish explaining them all…. As to how God effects this awakening… He removes some of the many veils and curtains hanging in front of it so that it might see Him as He is…. It seems to the soul that, in being itself moved and awakened, it was God Who moved and awakened…. Since everything in man comes from God, and man of himself can do nothing good, it is rightly asserted that our awakening is an awakening of God and our rising is God’s rising…. Everything in God is one. (iv.1,2,4,7,9) [As for God’s breathing in the soul:] I do not desire to speak of this spiration [breathing], … for I am aware of being incapable of so doing, and were I to try, it might seem less than it is. It is a spiration which God produces in the soul, in which … He breathes the Holy Spirit in it…. Since the breathing is filled with good and glory, the Holy Spirit, through this breathing, filled the soul with good and glory, in which He kindled it in love of Himself, indescribably and incomprehensibly, in the depths of God, to Whom be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (iv.17)
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Gerald Brenan, St. John of the Cross: His Life & Poetry, Cambridge Univ. Press, paper ed., 1975 (first publ. 1973, drawing on most of the early and later biographies written on Juan de la Cruz in Spanish, and translations of John’s poetry by Lynda Nicholson); Crisógono de Jesús, The Life of Saint John of the Cross (translated from the 1940 Spanish ed. by Kathlene Pond, NY, 1958); Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, & Otilio Rodriquez, OCD (Ed. & Tr.), The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, Washington, DC: ICS Publications / Institute of Carmelite Studies, 3rd ed., 1991 (single volume—excellent value); Kavanaugh, John of the Cross: Selected Writings, Paulist, 1987; and John of the Cross: Doctor of Light and Love, Crossroad, 2000; E. Allison Peers (Ed. & Tr. from the critical ed. of P. Silverio de Santa Teresa), The Complete Works of St. John of the Cross, 3 vols., London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1934-5 and Westminster, MD: Newman Press, 2nd ed., 1945 (with excellent introductions and historical contextualizing by Prof. Peers for each of Juan’s work); the major works in this series are available in separate later volumes, e.g., Ascent of Mount Carmel, Garden City, NY: Doubleday Image Books, 3rd rev. ed., 1958; Dark Night of the Soul, Image, 1959; Spiritual Canticle, Image, 1961; Living Flame of Love, Image, 1962; see also Peers’ several other works on St. John, including Spirit of Flame: A Study of St. John of the Cross, London: SCMP, 1943, The Poems of St. John of the Cross, The Character of St. John of the Cross, etc., in various editions and reprints. (Note that Peers and Kavanaugh & Rodriguez have each translated the collected works of St. Teresa of Ávila, too). A one-volume collection of excerpts from many of Juan’s works is by Emilie Griffin, John of the Cross: Selections from the Dark Night of the Soul and Other Writings, HarperCollins, 2004.
Of recent studies of St. John of the Cross in English, note how some authors want to interpret St. John in a narrower, strictly Catholic light, while others want to see his spirituality in the wider context of a cross-cultural, mystical spirituality. Perhaps the best recent study is Colin Thompson, St. John of the Cross: Songs in the Night, Catholic University of America Press, 2003; another fine study of John (and Teresa) is Keith Egan (Ed.), Carmelite Prayer: A Tradition for the 21st Century, Paulist, 2003 (by a distinguished Carmelite theologian); other studies include Richard P. Hardy, John of the Cross: Man & Mystic, Pauline, 2004 (straightforward, written for a Catholic audience); Thomas Dubay, Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, & the Gospel on Prayer, Ignatius Press, 1989 (by a longtime conservative Catholic spiritual director); Robert Herrera, Silent Music: The Life, Work & Thought of St. John of the Cross, Eerdmans, 2003 (academic work, a bit uneven); Antonio T. De Nicolas, St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz): His Life, His Poetry (Bilingual), His Prose, NY: Samuel Weiser, 1996 (a new, allegedly more accurate translation of his poetry by a Castilian Spaniard, with a more universalist approach to Juan; includes a foreword by Muslim Sufi scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr); Mirabai Starr, Dark Night of the Soul: St. John of the Cross (New Translation and Introduction), Riverhead, 2003 (by a teacher of religious studies at U of New Mexico, attempts to universalize John). Numerous other works by modern writers exist, endeavoring to explain the significance of John’s approach to mysticism. On the Muslim Sufi connection with John’s poetry, cited earlier, see Terry Graham, “The Sufi Origins of St. John of the Cross, Sufi, No. 25, Spring 1995, pp. 5-9 (based on work by Luce Lopez-Baralt, San Juan de la Cruz y al Islam, Mexico City: El Colegio de Mexico, 1985, and “The Legacy of Islam in Spanish Literature,” in S.K. Sayyusi [Ed.], The Legacy of Muslim Spain, Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994).