Saint John of the Cross is considered by many as the greatest Spiritual Doctor of the Church. This high honor elevates his spiritual writings and adds confidence to those relying upon his wisdom and teaching. He is a true master of the interior life and has left us a treasure of spiritual wisdom in his four main works: Ascent to Mount Carmel, Dark Night of the Soul, Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame of Love.
These four books combined make up one continuous exposition of mystical theology that peers into the journey each one of us is called to take toward the life of perfect union with God. In his teachings, Saint John especially focuses on two forms of “purgations,” or “dark nights,” through which every soul must pass in order to achieve perfection in life. What’s important to point out is that these purgations, though challenging to embrace, are necessary. They are not optional. For those who do not complete these purgations in this life, Purgatory awaits so as to free the person from everything they are attached to other than God. In the end, holiness is a matter of being attached to and desiring God and God alone.
Mastering Saint John of the Cross and his spiritual teachings could take years or even decades, so go slowly and try to understand one chapter at a time. If a section does not immediately make sense, reread it, ponder it, be open and listen to God. Each chapter will build upon the previous chapter, so it’s important to understand what you read before moving on. Let the Holy Spirit be your guide and let the wisdom of Saint John of the Cross lead you into deeper union with our divine Lord.
This book attempts to present the profound theology of Saint John of the Cross in a way that is understandable and accessible to most readers. Because Saint John of the Cross is perhaps the greatest spiritual theologian our Church has ever had, his insights, explanations and wisdom is beyond mere human abilities. Therefore, if you are able to penetrate to the heart of what Saint John has taught, you will be in awe of the depth and breadth of what he has given to the Church.
Juan de Yepes y Álvarez was born in 1542 (the exact date being unknown) in Fontiveros, Ávila, Spain. His family descended from Jewish converts who settled in Fontiveros. His father, Gonzalo, was an accountant who worked for relatives who were involved in the silk trade. In 1529, Gonzalo married Catalina who was poor and an orphan as a child. This was not well-received by Gonzalo’s wealthier family. As a result, he was shunned by his relatives and no longer able to work as their accountant. Therefore, Gonzalo joined his new bride in her trade of weaving to support his own family. Gonzalo and Catalina had three boys: Francisco, Luis and Juan.
In 1545, when John was only three years old, his father died, leaving Catalina to raise and provide for their boys on her own. This was a difficult responsibility for a widow at that time. She sought assistance from Gonzalo’s family but was rejected. Therefore, she and her boys lived in destitution. Two years after Gonzalo’s death, Luis died of malnutrition. Eventually, Catalina took Francisco and Juan and moved to Medina del Campo, a larger city, and resumed her work as a weaver.
In Medina, Juan was able to attend a boarding school for poor children. He received a basic education, housing and food. Juan proved to be a great student and in 1559 was invited to study at the nearby newly founded Jesuit school when he was 17 years old. With the Jesuits, Juan studied the humanities, grammar, rhetoric, Latin and Greek. Four years later, in 1563, he entered the Carmelite Order taking the name John of St. Matthias.
John made his profession as a Carmelite in 1564 and subsequently received special permission from his superiors to follow the ancient Carmelite rule to the letter rather than embrace the various changes that had taken place in the rule over the years. After his professions, he was sent to study theology and philosophy at the University in Salamanca, which was a very prestigious university. There he excelled in his studies and was known for his intelligence and insights. At the end of his studies, John had second thoughts about his vocation as a Carmelite, preferring instead to live a more contemplative life. As a result, he decided that he would enter the Carthusians once he was ordained. John was indeed ordained a priest in 1567.
Father John returned to Medina to offer his first Mass. However, his intention to join the Carthusians all changed after meeting the Carmelite nun Teresa of Ávila. Mother Teresa was a reformer of the Carmelite Order and was in Medina to found a new convent. While there, she heard of the newly ordained priest, Father John, and attended his first Mass. Later, she spoke to him about her ideas on reforming the Carmelites in hopes that he would become her first friar in the reform. Father John was intrigued and accepted her invitation to remain a Carmelite and assist her with the new reforms, reviving the ancient rule.
After returning with Mother Teresa to Valladolid, he participated in a period of formation under her guidance and founded the first house for friars along with two other Carmelite brothers. This first house began formally on November 28, 1568. Father John gave up his old name and took on the new name of Father John of the Cross. As more friars joined them, Father John, now the subprior and novice master, moved to a larger house in nearby Alcalá where he also became the rector of the university.
In May of 1572, Mother Teresa asked him to move to Ávila to become the spiritual director for the sisters at the Monastery of the Incarnation. He remained there for five years, working closely with the sisters and growing deep in his own spiritual life. He was especially blessed to act as spiritual director to Mother Teresa who, in many ways, acted as a spiritual guide to him. Shortly after his arrival in 1572, Mother Teresa entered into the spiritual transformation of the divine union while Father John acted as her spiritual director. At times, their conversations led both of them into ecstasy as the Holy Spirit worked powerfully in their lives and through their spiritual friendship.
Sadly, politics had its place in the Church at that time, and there were some who did not like the idea of reforming the Carmelite order. It was in January of 1576 when Father John was arrested for the first time by the more contemporary and well-established Carmelites of the Observance. They wanted to end the reforms of Father John and Mother Teresa and their order that came to be known as the Discalced Carmelites (meaning those who wore sandals rather than shoes). His arrest was quickly ended by the intervention of the papal nuncio, Nicolás Ormaneto, who was favorable toward the reforms of the Discalced Carmelites. However, the following year, in June of 1577, the nuncio died. A new nuncio was appointed who was not in favor of the reforms. Therefore, in December of that year, Father John was once again arrested by the Carmelites of the Observance and put in prison in their monastery in Toledo where he remained for nine months.
Once arrested, the Provincial ordered Father John to “repent” of his reforms and to return to the monastery in Medina. However, Father John refused to do so, arguing that he was not bound by the Provincial’s demands, since he had received permission for his work on the reform from the nuncio Ormaneo while he was alive. As a result, Father John was judged as being rebellious and willfully disobedient to their authority and was imprisoned in a small, six-by-ten foot dungeon cell.
During the nine months of his imprisonment, Father John was regularly abused by the friars in attempts to get him to “repent.” He was given no change of clothing, very little food, endured a severe case of lice, and was given only his breviary to read. He endured the severe cold of the winter and the heat of the summer in the small dark cell that had only one small window high up on the wall. However, it was during this time of abuse that some of the greatest spiritual treasures to fill our Church were born. Father John, in the darkness of this prison, composed numerous poems, including The Dark Night of the Soul and portions of the The Spiritual Canticle. God did not allow this abuse to go fruitless. Father John grew deep in the spiritual life and entered into interior freedom through his prayer and surrender to God.
In August of 1578, it is said that God miraculously enabled Father John to escape at night, “in the darkness” as his poem relates, and find refuge with Mother Teresa’s sisters in Toledo. Eventually, he escaped to Santa Cruz where he was cared for secretly and nursed back to full health. Over the coming years, his prison experience, the poems he composed, and his life of deep prayer and study prepared him to write four of the greatest works on mystical theology the Church has ever known.
During the year after Father John escaped imprisonment, the Discalced Carmelites did all they could to regularize their situation within the larger Carmelite order and within the Church. Though the new nuncio tried to stop them, the king intervened. In April of 1579, a new provincial was appointed to oversee the Discalced Carmelites and to assist them with their reforms. In 1580, the Holy See allowed the Discalced Carmelites to enjoy independence from the Carmelites of the Observance, and Father John was appointed prior of one of the new monasteries. Mother Teresa died in 1582. In 1585, the Discalced Carmelites were given even greater independence from the Carmelites of the Observance when they were established as an independent province. Father John was elected Vicar Provincial.
The charisms of this reform in which Father John and Mother Teresa were so instrumental included the following: 1) a strong Marian devotion, 2) a daily plan carefully set forth to maintain a life of continual prayer, and 3) a strict rule of enclosure focused on the asceticism of solitude, manual labor, perpetual abstinence, fasting, and fraternal charity. Many were attracted to this new strict Carmelite life. Therefore, monasteries of both nuns and friars continued to be founded.
Father John continued to found monasteries and oversee the reform until September of 1991, when he developed gangrene on his leg. He went to a monastery in Ubeda to receive care for his illness. Instead, the superior treated him coldly, arguing that Father John was a burden to the monastery. On December 13, just hours before his death, Father John called the prior to his cell and humbly begged his forgiveness for being a burden. This act of humility completely transformed the prior who was overwhelmed by Father John’s sanctity. At midnight, the saintly friar went home to Heaven to his Beloved to sing Matins with the angels, thus completing his mystical journey to divine union.
Outline of Saint John’s Teachings
It will be helpful to have a summary outline of the teachings of Saint John of the Cross as presented in his four books. As you read through the various chapters, return to this outline so that you can continually put what you are reading into context. The entire spiritual journey one goes through is presented here in six steps. The first step, “Initial Conversion,” is presumed by Saint John but is not covered by him. Therefore, the description is based more on general spiritual theology than on the writings of Saint John. The other five steps are covered in a comprehensive way in his writings.
- Initial conversion—Saint John does not cover this stage, because he presumes the Christian already has purposely entered into it. This is the stage where one turns from a life of sin, embraces Baptism and the effects of Baptism, and begins to walk with God.
- Active Night of the Senses—This process involves the intentional letting go of all worldly attachments to sin. The soul continues to refocus its desires in such a way that everything within its passions and appetites are turned toward God and His holy will.
- Passive Night of the Senses—This is a “purgative contemplation” wherein the person receives a special grace from God that completes the purgation of the sensory appetites begun in the previous step. The soul no longer finds earthly joy and satisfaction in the things of this world and finds its inordinate appetites drying up. This purgation is painful, but the pain helps the soul to focus on God alone. The soul also becomes aware of the presence of the Seven Capital Sins in a new spiritual form. As a result, God even begins to dry up spiritual desires so that the soul will no longer serve God because it “feels good,” but rather, because of love alone.
- Active Night of the Spirit—In this stage, the beginner is now a “proficient” in the spiritual life and enjoys an often lengthy period of stability, contemplative prayer and zeal for God. The soul grows in virtue and holiness but begins to sense that God wants more. As a result, the soul begins to allow God to infuse within it the pure gifts of faith, hope and charity. The soul begins to consciously “let go” of its former ideas of God, preferences for its future, and its selfish convictions about God’s will. It begins to choose a new level of oneness with God. The intellect begins to have faith in a more general and obscure way, as if it were staring at the Sun. The soul’s memory begins to be purified and “forgotten.” The will is left in a sort of limbo, waiting upon the moment-by-moment gentle guidance of God.
- Passive Night of the Spirit—This final stage of the final purgation is an action of God in which the spirit enters into what some have termed a “spiritual cocoon.” Within the darkness of this cocoon, the intellect, memory and will are completely transformed. The intellect comes to know God in a new way, through darkness and obscurity. The memory is freed from its many images of God and limited imaginations. And the will lets go of everything selfish, becoming attached only to the will of God. There are deep spiritual “piercings” of love experienced in the soul. This love of God not only darkens the soul, it also leaves it humbled, impoverished and empty of all things. But as this happens, the soul is hidden from all enemies—the world, the devil and the flesh. It becomes unhindered and completely free. As a result, it becomes filled with spiritual strength and fortitude, and clings to God with unshakable fervor. This hidden and secret depth of love and strength, in the most secret core of its spirit, prepares the soul for the glory of divine union.
- Divine Union—The soul has now reached earthly perfection. Every appetite and desire for sin is vanquished. Every desire for the things of this world have been removed. The intellect, memory and will are directed by God in a pure and infused way. The soul now is filled with the sweetest delight of God and, by God, delights in all things as God delights in them. Gratitude floods the soul and every virtue is alive and manifest within the soul. The soul and God are one. The only thing that remains to be gained by the soul is the Beatific Vision of God in Heaven.
Preparation for the Journey
If you were a medical researcher and one day you discovered the cure for cancer, you would not simply say to yourself, “Wow, isn’t that interesting. I’ll have to hold on to that discovery and perhaps in the future I may want to reveal it to the world.” No researcher in his or her right mind would put off the publication of such an incredible discovery. Instead, you would diligently and zealously devote every ounce of energy you had to this amazing discovery, and once it was presented to the world, you would enjoy the countless benefits.
Sadly, when most people discover the “cure” for their life of misery, they fail to embrace that cure with diligence and zeal. The cure is Christ and the pathway to Him is ongoing and deepening conversion. Becoming a Christian is an ongoing process, not only a one-time decision. Once you have come to believe in the Gospel, your journey is just beginning. And the end goal of this journey is not some worldly and passing honor, it’s not material wealth, it’s not anything the world can offer. The prize is what Saint John of the Cross calls “spiritual marriage” (also called divine union and transforming union). Each one of us is invited by God to embark on this journey toward the perfection of divine union. Hopefully the pages of this book will help to convince you that the discovery of this glorious gift is worth pursuing with your whole heart.
This book is written for those who want to begin the journey to perfection today. Not tomorrow, not next year, not some time in the future. Today. Furthermore, climbing to the summit of perfection is only for those who are willing to do whatever it takes in order to achieve their goal. No sacrifice is too great, no detail too small. No hesitation whatsoever can be present.
Perhaps that sounds uninviting, too radical, overwhelming and unreasonable. Well, God is a demanding God, and if you want to enter into divine union here and now, then being 99% committed is not enough. The 1% that is lacking will be like a thin string tied to a bird’s leg. No matter how thin the string, unless it is broken, the bird cannot fly away. As Saint John says:
For it comes to the same thing whether a bird be held by a slender cord or by a stout one; since, even if it be slender, the bird will be well held as though it were stout, for so long as it breaks it not and flies not away. It is true that the slender one is the easier to break; still, easy though it be, the bird will not fly away if it 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. (Ascent XI.4)
So it is with us. If there is the slightest hesitancy, the slightest lack of commitment, the slightest imperfection, we will not enter fully into divine union in this life.
Most people will not obtain the perfection of divine union until after death and after the purifying fires of Purgatory. In the end, they will be saints in Heaven. But why choose to wait until death to be purified in Purgatory when you can obtain the infinite blessings of God’s inner life while still walking this earth? Why wait? Why hesitate? Why not make the perfection of divine union the one and only goal in life?
You may say, “Well, perfection is one of my goals, but I have other goals also.” The problem with that answer is that God will not share you with other goals when it comes to the perfection of divine union. If you want to live perfectly united to God, then God can be your only goal. But don’t be confused by that statement. By choosing God and God alone, you are also choosing His perfect will. This means that when you are perfectly immersed in His will and living it as your will, you will find that the joys, satisfactions, fulfillments, relationships, acts of love, beauty, etc. that God wills for you are infinitely greater than any goals for your life that you could come up with on your own.
So why wait? Why hesitate? Why not make the perfection of divine union the exclusive goal of your life? The answer to that question is simple: We are sinners. Sin keeps us lazy, lukewarm, blind, confused, weary, oppressed, etc. In our minds, we often know what we want to do, but we still do not seem to be able to do it. Recall Saint Paul’s words:
What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I concur that the law is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that good does not dwell in me, that is, in my flesh. The willing is ready at hand, but doing the good is not. For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. (Romans 7:15-19)
Thus, we face the great paradox of the spiritual life. I do what I don’t want to do, and what I want to do I cannot seem to do. Though this is a common experience, when the truth of the Gospel is spoken to our hearts in a deep way, we know it’s true. Deep down we all crave the pure truth of Christ. We want Him to convict us, challenge us, change us and make us holy. But all too often that desire remains deep down and never rises to the surface.
By presenting a summary overview of Saint John’s wisdom and insights in this book, it is hoped that your desire for holiness will well up in you and come to the surface. John’s practical insights and unwavering spiritual principles will challenge you and also encourage you. For your part, you need to be open. You need to be serious about growing in holiness. In fact, you need to be serious about growing in perfection! So, if you only want to get just a “little” holier, don’t even waste your time. Being “half in” will actually do you more harm than good. The only good attitude is to choose to do whatever it takes to become perfect here and now. No matter what God asks of you, you must be certain that it is worth it. No hesitation, no doubts.
If you are still hesitant, then allow Saint John’s insights to challenge you and, hopefully, break you out of your uneasiness. Be open, wide open. Listen carefully, very carefully. Seek the truth, even in the tiniest detail. And be ready and willing to do whatever God leads you to do.
“Beginners” are Not Beginners
Saint John of the Cross begins his writings addressing the “beginner.” But before presenting the first stage of spiritual development for “beginners,” it’s important to note that a beginner for Saint John is not what most people may consider a beginner. Saint John does not even deal with the very first stage of spiritual development, which could properly be called “initial conversion.”
Initial conversion is what happens when a person encounters Christ in a real and transforming way and decides to turn away from all serious sin in life. Sadly, within the world today, there are many who have not even begun a process of conversion. Many. And they are all around us.
Initial conversion may happen at a very young age when a child is slowly introduced to Christ by the faith of his parents, siblings, teachers and others who act as instruments by which faith is imparted. In this case, the child is slowly converted until he or she is old enough to fully choose to follow Christ.
Initial conversion may also happen later in life for those who went astray during their younger years. But no matter the age, a person must encounter the living God, hear His voice calling, and respond generously with faith, turning away from all serious sin.
“This saying is too hard…”
In the Apostle John’s Gospel, Chapter 6, Jesus presents His discourse on the most holy Eucharist. People listened, and when Jesus was finished, some said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” (John 6:60b) Then we read six verses later, “As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (John 6:66).
The message of the Gospel is challenging. Many will not accept it. Many will get discouraged and walk away. Since Saint John of the Cross presents not his own theology but that of the Gospel, we can expect the same reaction. Many will begin to read the lessons of Saint John and say it is too hard, doesn’t make sense, is inaccurate, and so on. As a result, many will never finish trying to comprehend this incredible teaching and even fewer will strive to live it in this life, even though they will be bound to finish it in Purgatory.
As you delve into this presentation of the teaching of Saint John, it’s important to expect to be greatly challenged by what is taught. Do not expect to be able to accomplish total transformation in Christ quickly and easily. Saint John tells us that very few people in this life actually attain divine union. In fact, few people even make it through the first step that is covered in the first chapter. Keep reminding yourself it is worth it and persevere.
Additionally, it should be noted that the teachings of Saint John are written as an explanation of what happens in the spiritual life and what you will experience along the way of your spiritual journey to perfection. Understanding the process will assist in walking that path. Be open and use the wisdom of Saint John as your guide.
Where am I at?
One last thing to mention before we enter into the teaching of Saint John, is that many will find themselves pondering the question, “Where am I at?” Meaning, as you read through the various levels of spiritual development, you may find yourself constantly trying to figure out which stage you are currently at. Don’t do that. The better approach to reading this book is to simply read it and try to understand the overview of the entire process of spiritual development. Then, when it is understood, God will bring various lessons you have learned to mind at the right time. Therefore, pay attention to anything that jumps out at you and especially anything that strikes a nerve. When that happens, be it today or some time in the future, pay attention to that lesson.
This entire process is not always completely linear. In other words, you may find that some lessons from various chapters assist you here and now, while others will assist you later on. Thus, if the teachings on attachments and worldly desires speak to you, pay attention to those. If you find that the teachings on meditation are fruitful in your life, then work on meditation. If you can relate to the signs of the various levels of contemplation, then work on practicing that. And if you are experiencing the signs of darkness, aridity, dryness or spiritual annihilation, then that section is for you. Pay attention to that which speaks to you and you will certainly be helped along the way on your road to perfection!