Title: The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross,
Third Edition, edited by Keiran Kavanaugh O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D.
Publisher: ICS Publications; Revised edition (January 1, 1991)
Paperback: 814 pages
Among mystical writings, the most important are those of St. John of the Cross, especially the Ascent of Mount Carmel and the Dark Night. Even if we had read all the works of the other saints, these two treatises would still have to be read and carefully studied. They contain teaching of the highest importance which is not to be found anywhere else. Father Ludovic de Besse, O.F.M. Cap.
One could spend a lifetime reading the collected works of St. John of the Cross and not fully plumb their significance, beauty, and meaning. In this sense, his works may be compared to the Bible. Their literary depth, variety, and the mysterious unction poured into the soul make their study similar to that of reading Scripture – perhaps because the Holy Spirit is the principal author. Declared a Doctor of the Church in 1926, St. John has served as an eminent guide to many saints of later centuries, such as St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Elizabeth of the Trinity. He is, nonetheless, a trustworthy guide for persons at every spiritual level.
Overview of His Writings
Saints and scholars alike hail John as a superb poet. In addition, his prose commentaries on his poetry reveal the depth of his understanding in the spiritual life. Besides his poems, numbering fifteen, there are four major prose works, thirty-three letters, a collection of spiritual maxims and counsels to religious. While specialists highly regard his poetry, his prose style has occasionally been criticized as repetitious and unnecessarily complicated, particularly in the Ascent of Mt Carmel.
In my opinion, his prose works are truly unctuous. The literary devices and illustrations he employs are often based on the Bible and are creatively explained to illustrate his point. For instance, he compares the obscurity of faith to the light hidden in the jars of Gideon’s army (Jgs. 7:16-20) …Faith, represented by those clay jars, contains the divine light. When faith reaches its end and is shattered by the ending and breaking of this mortal life, the glory and light of the divinity, the content of faith, will at once appear. (Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book II, 9:3) That his writings are scriptural comes as no surprise as witnesses affirm that he had the Bible mostly memorized.
St. John is Spain’s national poet. He has won universal acclaim for not only the superb craftsmanship of his poetry, but also for its heavenly and creative qualities. Poetry was a means for him to suggest the marvels of divine union through metaphor. He explains in the prologue of the Spiritual Canticle, that mystical understanding cannot be fully articulated through straightforward prose.
He says, …Who can describe in writing the understanding He gives to loving souls in whom He dwells? And who can express with words the experience He imparts to them? Who, finally, can explain the desires He gives them? Certainly, no one can! Not even they who receive these communications. As a result, these persons let something of their experience overflow in figures, comparisons, and similitudes, and from the abundance of their spirit pour out secrets and mysteries rather than rational explanations. (The Spiritual Canticle, Prologue)
As an integral member of the Teresian Discalced reform, St. John had limited leisure time. Most of his prose writing he accomplished at night when his duties were done. The bulk of his poetry emerged in difficult circumstances. He spent nine months imprisoned unjustly by the Calced Carmelites. In his hours of solitary confinement and without the help of light, pen, or paper, St. John composed his most important poems, such as The Spiritual Canticle.
Sample: One dark night, En una noche oscura,
fired by love’s urgent longings con ansias, en amoras inflamada
-Ah, the sheer grace! – ¡Oh dichosa ventura!,
I went out unseen, salí sin ser notada
My house now being all stilled. estando ya mi casa sosegada.
Sayings of Light and Love
St. John’s first writings are spiritual maxims that he jotted down for the benefit of his penitents, such as when he was the confessor at the Incarnation convent in Avila. In the form of apothegms, they were meant as a reminder and source of inspiration for those who asked his guidance. The sayings were eventually collected and given the title, Sayings of Light and Love by St. John himself.
Sample: What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language He hears best is silent love. (#132)
The Ascent of Mount Carmel
It is not infrequent that persons of good will attempt to read the collected writings of Fray Juan, only to lose heart while laboriously treading up the steep Ascent of Mt. Carmel. The doctrine appears hard and the style heavy. However, several factors help soften this first impression. It is well to answer some basic questions: for whom did he write? Why did he adopt an apparently arduous style? What is the overall plan of the treatise?
In the first place, St. John wrote this work at the request of his fellow Carmelites, friars and nuns – persons who were already well-acquainted with the spiritual life. Likewise, as he was trained in the scholasticism of the University of Salamanca, he naturally presented his thoughts in the mode and language that he was familiar. This involved the use of Aristotelian concepts, as well as Scholastic divisions and subdivisions which seem complicated at first glance.
In addition, he wrote in the style of his era, which involved repetition as a means to fully articulate his concepts. Nonetheless, his gift for metaphor makes for enjoyment, for instance when he compares divine union to a moist log that is gradually transformed into fire (his favorite image), or a room whose particles of dust become apparent only through the penetration of sunlight.
Finally, his purpose was to comment on his eight-stanza poem, The Dark Night, and through the commentary, to reveal the necessary steps toward divine union. These steps being the active and passive purification of the senses and spirit.
In fact, only two stanzas were commented upon as he concentrated on the asceticism of personal effort, known as active purifications, under the influence of grace. The passive purifications, those wrought by God in the senses and spirit, are elucidated in a later commentary known as The Dark Night. Neither of these two commentaries were completed but they are understood as one by St. John himself and later scholars.
Basic concepts: The correction of inordinate sense appetites in favor of stillness; the cleansing of the understanding in favor of faith; the purgation of the memory in favor of hope; and the emptying of the will of all desires in favor of loving God completely.
Sample: Perfect transformation is impossible without perfect purity…the illumination of the soul and its union with God correspond to the measure of its purity. The illumination will not be perfect until the soul is entirely cleansed, clear, and perfect. (Bk II, Ch. 5 §8)
The Dark Night
In The Ascent of Mt Carmel, St. John indicates the way of active purification, or that which is achieved by personal effort aided by God’s grace. However, this is insufficient to attain the degree of purgation necessary for Divine union. God needs to step in to assist the soul with purifying communications that are beyond the realm of human effort. New wine requires new wine skins, which only God can provide. Hence, the soul’s task is to be open and properly disposed in order to receive God’s divine life. This is St. John’s chief point in the commentary known as The Dark Night.
Nevertheless, it is not a commentary in the strict sense as is The Spiritual Canticle. St. John comments on the first two stanzas of the Dark Night, explaining the first stanza twice. What he promised to treat in the fourth book of the Ascent, he addresses in this new treatise, namely, the passive purifications of sense and spirit. Thus, the two works are integrally joined yet differ in style and the methods proposed. The theological life of faith, hope and charity are essential elements that unite the two treatises. These three powers of the soul, under the influence of grace, enable one to transcend the trials incumbent to the work of purgation.
Basic concepts: God greatly humbles the soul in order that He may afterwards greatly exalt it. (Bk II, Ch. 6 §6) The purification in the faculties of the soul through darkness experienced in the intellect, dryness encountered in the will through the exercise of love, and hope purified through emptiness experienced in the memory of created goods.
Sample: All natural ability is insufficient to produce the supernatural good that God alone infuses in the soul passively, secretly, and in silence. All the faculties must receive this infusion, and in order to do so they must be passive and not interfere through their own lowly activity and vile inclinations. (Bk II, Ch.14 §1)
The Spiritual Canticle
St. John composed most of the poem, The Spiritual Canticle, while suffering extreme privations in a Toledo prison. Despite the physical darkness and misery imposed on him, his words breathe of the Spanish countryside – with fragrances, mountains, and flowing springs. The Song of Songs also served as a major source of inspiration as the bride and Bridegroom express their love through imagery. Scholars have long understood the poem as a mini-autobiography of St. John’s own experience of spiritual betrothal.
The basic outline thus uses the allegory of the soul seeking the Bridegroom (God). “Where have you hidden, O my Beloved, and left me moaning?” The bride searches for the Bridegroom, who is for her, as the mountains, lonely wooded valleys, silent music, and the tranquil night.
Later, when Fray Juan managed to escape from prison, and take refuge with the Carmelite nuns of Toledo, he shared with them his poems. The beauty and subtlety of his poems deeply impressed them. The nun entrusted with making copies of the poems, asked Fray Juan if God gave him the words. He responded, Daughter, sometimes God gave them to me, and at other times I sought them myself. As his poetic utterances were mysterious, the nuns asked him to write a commentary to help unveil their hidden meaning. Fray Juan reluctantly conceded to their request, not through pusillanimity, but through understanding that the fire of poetic utterances could not be fully explained in human language.
Basic concepts: The first part of the poem reveals the longing of the bride for the Beloved. She experiences ineffable joy when she finds him. As the poem progresses, the bride’s perspective varies – at times she looks backwards, sometimes forwards, or at times remains in the present. Under this allegory, St. John of the Cross explains the mystical process whereby the soul reaches union with Christ the Bridegroom.
Sample: Once the soul is placed at the peak of perfection and freedom of spirit in God, and all the repugnances and contradictions of sensuality have ceased, she no longer has any activity to engage her than surrender to the delights and joys of intimate love with her Bridegroom. (Stanza 36, §1)
The Living Flame of Love
St. John wrote the commentary on the poem, The Living Flame of Love, at the request of one of his devout penitents, Dona Ana de Penalosa. He did so reluctantly, …since they deal with matters so interior and spiritual, for which words are usually lacking – in that the spiritual surpasses the sense – I find it difficult to say something of their content. (Prologue) As St. John was very distracted with his duties as vicar provincial of Andalusia, he waited until he received help from on high, that is, a spirit of deep recollection and fervor. He took advantage of this heavenly help by composing his commentary at lightning speed, a span of two weeks, according to an eyewitness.
He begins this commentary where he left off in The Spiritual Canticle – at the highest degree of union attainable in this mortal life, the transforming union, also called the spiritual marriage. He focuses primarily on the working of the Holy Spirit, who assists the soul to attain a love of white-hot intensity. Whereas earlier works concentrated on the work of purification, this work deals with the glorification of the soul by God, through an embrace of love.
Basic concepts: God unites Himself to the fully prepared soul by means of various communications, described symbolically as living flames, delightful wounds, splendors from the lamps of fire, and awakenings of the Beloved.
Sample: This flame previously oppressed the soul in an indescribable way, since contraries were battling contraries: God, who is all perfect, against all the imperfections of the soul. God does this so, by transforming the soul into Himself, He might soften, pacify, and illumine it, as does fire when it penetrates the log of wood. (Stanza I, § 23)
Once again, at the request of the friars and nuns whom he directed spiritually, St. John wrote the Precautions, Counsels to a Religious, and The Degrees of Perfection. These are brief works but highly imbued with wisdom. They deal principally with the means to avoid spiritual pitfalls and the tactics to advance to the goal of perfection.
Sample: Never give up prayer, and should you find dryness and difficulty, persevere in it for this very reason. God often desires to see what love your soul has, and love is not tried by ease and satisfaction. (Degrees of Perfection, #9)
The scarcity of St. John’s letters is due to the unjust investigation of his life in his final years. His disciples burned most of his letters as a measure of protection. The letters that survive reveal the heart of a father – warm, compassionate, and wise. He reiterates what he wrote in his major works – the need for self-emptying so as to be filled with heavenly treasure.
Sample: …Do not let what is happening to me, daughter, cause you any grief, for it does not cause me any. What greatly grieves me is that the one who is not at fault is blamed. Men do not do these things, but God, who knows what is suitable for us and arranges things for our good. Think nothing else but that God ordains all, and where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love… (Letter 26)
St. John of the Cross brings many talents together in his writings – the fire of a deep love for God, the gift for poetry, the ability to teach, his personal mystical experiences, and a keen mind educated at the height of Spain’s golden age. His works are especially imbued with Biblical imagery and modes of expression but are also uniquely his own creation. His writings came to birth in the last fourteen years of his life, after he was fully matured, and thus bear the stamp of authenticity and synthetic unity.
Because the doctrine he elucidates can be challenging, a reading schedule helps to absorb it in small quantities. Here is a recommended schedule.