THE WRITINGS OF ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS
by Father Gabriel Barry, OCD
Let me begin by quoting two well-known writers, neither of them Carmelites. The first is a Capuchin, Father Ludovic de Besse, the author of some widely read spiritual books. He writes as follows: "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. On the other hand, once we understand the doctrine contained here, we know all that is essential."(1)
The next is Frank Sheed, writer and publisher: "So much has Pius XI accomplished that few remember that it was he who declared St. John of the Cross a doctor of the Universal Church (1926); yet it is doubtful if anything else he has done will equal this in far-reaching effect."(2)
These are weighty statements, even startling ones. Let us look at them more closely and see how much truth they contain.
Saint John's doctrine is unique, not in the sense that it is outside and beyond anything that the Church teaches, but rather that he and Saint Teresa, alone, among the many learned saints of the Church, were raised to the rank of Doctor precisely on account of the mystical teaching which they offer. His writings contain nothing else. He was raised up by God, it would seem, for the purpose of elucidating the higher strata of spiritual doctrine which are to be found in Sacred Scripture and the dogmatic teaching of the Church. This body of doctrine has always been appreciated; it is in fact the practical culmination of revealed truth. Down through the ages, it has grown in clarity and richness and St. John of the Cross has been proclaimed the Church's specialist in this domain. It was a bold step to take on the part of Pius XI. In some sort, it sets up a definite standard for what in the future will be the Church's approach to this section of her teaching; but, as yet, we cannot take in all that is implied.
II. OPENING THE WORKS OF ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS
When we open St. John's Collected Works, what do we find? We notice first of all that there are four major treatises of which two, namely the Ascent of Mount Carmel and the Dark Night of the Soul, are incomplete. The Ascent in fact ends with an unfinished sentence. The other two treatises are called respectively the Spiritual Canticle and the Living Flame of Love. They exist in two versions or redactions; in the case of the Spiritual Canticle, there are notable differences between the two, but the best authorities assure us that both are authentic.
All four treatises are written in the form of a commentary on poems of surpassing beauty, poems which place St. John in the front rank of the worlds lyric writers. In addition to the longer treatises, there are a few short works, a small body of poems, a collection of maxims and spiritual sayings, and 29 letters. Though inferior to the bigger writings, they are all of remarkably high quality both spiritually and literally. The total output is relatively small, probably the smallest for any doctor of the Church. All that St. John wrote can be fitted comfortably into 800 printed pages. But brevity is more than compensated for by the uniformly high level of doctrine.
The history of these writings is full of interest, but would take too long to be recounted in detail here. The following points must suffice:
1. The poems which form the basis of the longer treatises were written while St. John was in prison in Toledo. At first he did not intend to comment on them, preferring to leave the interpretation to the ingenuity and capacity of each reader. Later, however, he was prevailed on to explain their content.
2. We possess no autographs of St. John's major writings, but copies are abundant. The autographs were probably destroyed by some of St. John's friends, at the time when he was being persecuted by certain ungrateful members of his own order, to prevent them from being distorted into false evidence against him. But this is only conjecture.
3. St. John did not write for publications; he seems indeed to have taken little care for the fate of his MSS. This explains in part some of the minor inconsistencies and inaccuracies that we find even in the best versions.
4. We have had to wait until the 20th century for a satisfactory edition of St. John's writings. The difficulty arose from the large number of variants in the extant copies and the efforts of early editors to clarify the saint's meaning. However, it is not correct to describe St. John's writings as "a field of ruins."(3) It can be taken for certain that the carefully edited texts which we have today, thanks to the efforts of Fathers Gerardo, Silverio, Crisogono, Kavanaugh, Rodriguez and others, represent the best that can be done in the task of restoring what St. John himself wrote. And there is little doubt but that we possess not only the substance of his doctrine but also the very words in which he expressed it.
III. TO WHOM THE WRITINGS WERE ADDRESSED
We can distinguish two classes for whom St. John wrote: (1) those to whom God has given the grace to be detached from the world; (2) those who are earnestly trying to live up to their calling as Christians. By the word "detachment," St. John does not mean some kind of unnatural indifference, less still, contempt; it is simply the attitude that makes us value things in their true light before God and use them as He intended. This is easier said than done, and St. John's big concern was to instruct souls how they were to cooperate with grace in bringing it about. He has in mind especially those to whom God has given both the grace and the capacity to make progress; but who, for want of knowledge or faulty direction, have never got beyond the elementary stages of the spiritual life. It is true that in the Prologue to the Ascent St. John limits his readers to friars and nuns of his own order; that is not surprising, seeing he never intended to have his writings published and wished, as Father Crisogono shows, to supplement the written word by oral explanation. By implication, however, all others who are equally favored or who possess the same spiritual qualifications can profit from his writings. Furthermore, by conferring on him the rank of Doctor, the Church has declared that his writings have universal value. It does not require a prolonged acquaintance with them to realize that this is true.
However, when reading St. John, it is necessary to keep in mind that, like St. Augustine and St. Thomas before him, he thinks in terms of an "ideal," in this case the ideal contemplative. What he describes is the highest and most perfect that can happen, but he does not maintain that every detail of his theoretical model will be verified in each spiritual life. Indeed, once only in history was the ideal realized; in Mary, the Mother of the Incarnate Word; who in St. John's own words, "was raised to this high estate from the beginning, and had never the form of any creature imprinted on her soul; neither was she moved by such but was invariably guided by the Holy Spirit."(4) But, even if it is true that there are few who are moved by God in all things, every soul that earnestly tries to serve God will find herself described in St. John's comprehensive scheme.
This however does not mean that his doctrine can be applied indiscriminately to all. In fact, this is one of the really delicate points in the interpretation of St. John's teaching. He himself makes it clear that many features of it can be put into practice only when God calls and at the moment He indicates.(5) It is not difficult to see that the application of his teaching to the individual soul requires much discernment. It would be dangerous to apply his principles indiscriminately and it is precisely because some have not grasped this that results have been unfortunate. To counsel heroic passivity to one who as yet is in the ordinary mode of acting can have disastrous consequences, both spiritual and psychological. This supreme renouncement can be made only by those in whom the three signs of the Dark Night are clearly visible. These signs show that God is upholding them by a special grace, and they are ready for most of the demands of the spiritual life. But if a soul starts too soon depending on its own strength, it will end by doing nothing and having nothing.(6) Several times, St. John himself turns aside to warn his readers that what he has said in some particular context applies only to those who are "grown up" in the spiritual life. He is well aware that unless this is understood, it will appear that he is destroying the path of spiritual practice rather than building it up.(7) But withal, he wants to convince souls that they should not stop halfway but should press forward with courage to find the goal that God has set for them.
IV. WHAT WE FIND IN ST. JOHN'S WRITINGS
It may be said straight off that we find in St. John's writings the undiluted teaching of Sacred Scripture. In the prologue to the Ascent, he indicates his principal sources: the Bible as interpreted by the Catholic Church; universal experience and general learning. Of these three, the most obvious is Sacred Scripture. His writings contain some 1300 quotations from almost every book, but more especially from the New Testament. These are intimately intertwined with the text; they nourish his thought and even influence his style. St. John looks on Scripture in the same light as St. Thomas: "Its purpose is the knitting of man's soul to God."(8) What St. John studied in Scripture was the action of the Holy Spirit on souls; he found in the Bible a veritable treasure house of spiritual doctrine and psychology.
It does not follow that every single one of St. John's interpretations of Scripture is acceptable to present-day scholars. He is partial to the allegorical sense, but has made it to yield rich spiritual results. Moreover, it is obvious that he is alive to the dangers that are inherent in a purely mystical interpretation of Scripture.(9) Very few indeed have had such a deep insight into the true meaning of the Sacred Text as he, and he uses it with great skill.
St. John is likewise a theologian; one of the most profound that ever lived. But he is not quite the same kind as St. Thomas Aquinas. He addresses himself both to the mind and heart, and does it largely without the need of technical terminology. Although a convinced scholastic, he does not reproduce their teaching slavishly; he has his own practical way of utilizing the great truths which they formulated so accurately. The whole of St. John's doctrine is based upon well established dogmatic facts: (1) the nature of God; (2) the nature of man; (3) the purpose for which man has been made and (4) the means by which he is to arrive at this end. From these he derives certain conclusions as to the relationship of the soul to God and the means which it must use in order to be united to God. These means are twofold: the remote means, which consists in knowing the truths of faith, utilizing the practices of religion, frequenting the sacraments, etc. and the proximate means, which are the theological virtues, faith, hope and charity. Both of these must be used by every Christian, and are mutually interdependent. It is St. John's special merit to have perceived that the fuller development of the theological is known to comparatively few, and he set himself the task of showing souls how to walk more profitably on that road. In doing so, however, he did not consider it necessary to write a Summa, after the manner of St. Thomas Aquinas, though indeed his writings are a splendid condensation of the doctrine of spiritual guides who had lived previous to his time. But in general, he takes it as granted that the basic teaching of the Church is known and his role was to bring into relief and to explain the implications hidden in revealed truth. But in order to understand him properly, we need to place his doctrine in the theological setting from which it springs; a setting which indeed it is easy to recognize though his explicit references to it are comparatively few.
In this connection, it is well perhaps to refer to a charge sometimes brought against St. John, namely that he is anti-intellectual.(10) One could however quote several statements to the contrary from St. John's own writings. Probably the origin of the error is the fact that he sometimes speaks of the inferiority of human reason as a means of knowing God, but it is abundantly clear that he recognizes the superiority of reason within its own sphere. "The whole world is not worth a man's thought."(11) He knew very well that if society ceases to respect the validity of reason, it is heading for chaos and despair. That is what has happened in the present century, and the result is on the one hand a cult of materialism, on the other an illuministic kind of religion drained of doctrine and tending to superstition or narrow moralism. "Once religion dissociates itself from the genuine explanation of revealed truth which we get in theology, it starts to hurtle downwards headlong. It is a fatal error for the mystic to come to the point of view that scholarship in theology is an enemy to the life of the spirit.(12) "If theology is an essential condition of Catholic life, especially is it so for the mystic."(13) St. John recognized that fact; he knew that on account of its great potentialities, mysticism needed a zone of clear cold reason to keep it under control. If objective theology does not flourish side by side with mystical aspirations, the result will very soon be self-illusion.
Of the dogmatic truths expounded by St. John of the Cross, the most outstanding is his treatment of the theological virtues, in their role as the means by which the soul is united with God. The second and third books of the Ascent are taken up with this, and have no equal in spiritual literature. More especially does St. John dwell on the significance and purpose of faith. This is the centerpiece of his teaching; without it, the rest has little meaning and if sometimes, his critics have distorted his doctrine, it was because they failed to understand the vital role of faith in consecrating the intellect. St. John is concerned with the practical problem of perfecting faith in conjunction with the Gifts of the Holy Spirit; he indicates that considerable growth is possible here. In the ordinary course of events, the full operation of faith is hemmed in and confined, as it were, by the human ideas and notions through which it functions in man. If it is to be set at liberty, if it is to have full scope, it must in some way be made independent of these limitations; that is to say, it must be purified of its imperfections. This purification is something which God alone can bring about; all the goodwill in the world or anything else that a soul can of itself do is unavailing; though it can prepare itself, and at all times its cooperation is essential. But to anticipate this entirely gratuitous action of God can end in the stultifying of human nature. Up to the moment that God takes it into closer communion with Himself, He gives certain well-defined signs, listed by St. John in Ascent II, chapter 13. As soon as it becomes apparent that God is calling, the soul must respond. In effect, the change over amounts to this; from now on, God Himself does the work that hitherto the soul has had to do and being God, He does it far more perfectly. Two points must be stressed however. The first is that this "new knowledge" has to do with God alone and outside of it, the faculties continue to function in the normal way in relation to natural things. Secondly, the "new knowledge" does not mean that faith is being superceded, or that the soul is now the recipient of some kind of beatific knowledge or special revelations. Far from it, as St. John insists over and over again. Nothing is made known which is not already contained in the deposit of faith, and neither the Church nor the Sacred Humanity is by-passed. But from now on, the soul's capacity to receive the divine life and light and its response to them is perfected beyond all recognition.
Another service which St. John of the Cross has rendered is to distinguish authoritatively between the essentials and the accidentals of the spiritual life. For a long time, it had been taken for granted even by spiritual writers that extraordinary experiences marked the culmination of the soul's growth in grace. Even St. Teresa, at least in her early writings, was not quite free from this idea, though in practice she qualified it strictly. St. John however rejected it out of hand. It was not that he doubted the objective reality of these manifestations of God's power, nor did he deny that they could be utilized to increase virtue. But he is adamant in stating that, of themselves, they do not contribute to increase the virtue of faith, and consequently do not unite the soul to God. Neither are they a necessary concomitant of virtue; some of them proceed from the weakness of human nature confronted by the majesty of God; others are fabricated, even in good faith, by the mysterious powers of the human subconscious; others still are due to the intervention of the devil, disguised as an angel of light. It is not at all easy to distinguish those which come from God. St. John wished his disciples to concentrate their principal efforts on that perfection of soul which comes from fulfilling the spirit of the Gospels: faith, love, confidence, humility, gentleness. Souls of this caliber have often little about them that is spectacular; indeed they may be very ordinary as far as appearances go, just as the Holy Family seemed very ordinary to the people of Nazareth. Inwardly, however, they possess a strength of character, a richness of mind and an uprightness of will that proves them to be truly under the influence of the Spirit of God. That for St. John is true holiness; it means transformation into Christ.
The obverse of this teaching is St. John's doctrine concerning the Nights. Perhaps the best way to approach it is to study it in conjunction with the apatheia which figures so prominently in the writings of the ancient Greek Fathers. It was an ideal state, brought about by cooperation with grace, in which man ceased to be the plaything of his natural instincts, and became capable of arranging his whole life and conduct in accordance with the mind of Christ. He ceased to be a child of this world and was on the way to become a "son of the Kingdom."(14) The Greek Fathers held that by means of correspondence with grace and suitable self-denial, the soul could be made more stable, more simple and purer, so as to become capable of forming a higher and purer notion of God. With this in view, they advocated a program of severe but sensible privations. There was no question of injuring the body or stifling feelings; the aim was to bring the body under control and make the soul ready for what God wished to work in it. This teaching has been taken up by St. John of the Cross and elaborated into doctrine of the Nights, one of his most significant contributions to Catholic spirituality. For him, the Nights are a liberating and cleansing process; the consequences of original sin are gradually removed, and human nature is restored to a state of spiritual health similar to what our first parents enjoyed in the beginning. St. John himself expressly refers to this return, "after a spiritual manner to the uprightness of the estate of original justice."(15)
When reading St. John's writings, then, one must resist the temptation to divide his doctrine into watertight sections, as if one part had no connection with what followed. His teaching is one unit, logical and living. Its essential message is to show souls how to perfect faith in order to arrive at union with God. The negations demanded in the Ascent, if divorced from supernatural prudence, are not merely useless but positively harmful.
What does he suggest to fill the emptiness left by withdrawal from the things of sense? The answer is prayer. St. John brings us back to a truly Scriptural notion of prayer, as contained in our Lord's own teaching and practice. Prayer, of course, is a spiritual exercise; but, it is much more. It is not isolated from the rest of life; it is not measured by a multiplicity of practices or by length of time. "We ought always to pray." It is a permanent state culminating in union with God, and the apostolate is its overflow. This is the view which we find expounded in the writings of St. John. Beginning with the point when the soul first seeks to rise above earthly things and ending with the heights of transforming union, St. John presents a truly remarkable outline of Christian prayer.
V. WHY DID ST. JOHN WRITE?
He himself sets out the reason in the very subtitle of the Ascent. "It treats of how the soul may prepare itself in order to attain in a short time to Divine Union. It gives very profitable counsels and instructions, both to beginners and to proficients, that they may know how to disencumber themselves of all that is temporal and not to encumber themselves with the spiritual; and to remain in detachment and liberty of spirit." And he adds: "I have been moved not by any possibility that I see in myself of accomplishing so arduous a task, but by the confidence which I have in the Lord that He will help me to say something to relieve the great necessity which is experienced by many souls who when they set out on the road of virtue . . . make no progress."(16)
As he explains in the Prologue to the Ascent, he is particularly interested in that stage of the spiritual life when the ordinary ways of grace give way to a special intervention from God. In the life of many sincere souls, there comes a stage when meditation is no longer fruitful; it may not be even possible. In this case, the predominant attitude of the soul becomes one of peaceful waiting for God. The images and symbols which are used in meditation can no longer supply the soul with the food it needs. No matter how sublime or beautiful they may be, they are not God Himself; in their own place, they were right and good, but now they must give way to something more nearly proportioned to the nature of God. This is the stage when souls must learn the deeper meaning of two familiar lessons: self-surrender in faith and detachment in hope. This is the time when faith comes to its fullest exercise, no longer dependent on anything except the Incarnate Word alone. Thus, as well as being detached from creatures, the soul now learns the need to be detached also from ideas and concepts drawn from creatures insofar as they are used to represent God. They are not God, and if clung to, would hinder progress towards Him. At this juncture too, the soul must learn to abandon itself to the guidance and activity of God, and it is thus brought to a more elevated knowledge and love of Him than it had hitherto dreamed of.
In spite of the excellence of St. John's writings, there is no doubt that the initial impression made by them is sometimes disconcerting. He offers strong meat and not all can digest it. Only when his doctrine is grasped as a whole do we begin to see its sheer loveliness and solidity; all its glory is from within. Let us however indicate some of the more usual objections.
Some allege that they find it almost impossible to follow his line of thought, or at least, they cannot discern the goal which he has in view. There is so much talk about self-denial, "nothingness" and other negative aspects of the spiritual life that they ask how it can be squared with the process of "building up into Christ." St. John himself foresaw this charge of obscurity. "Since this introduction relates to the dark night through which the soul must go to God, let not the reader marvel if it seem to him somewhat dark also. This, I believe will be so at the beginning, when he begins to read."(17) The main reason for this obscurity is that he is describing things which transcend the experience of the vast majority of men. He is trying to convey something which in great measure cannot be conveyed by human words. The best he can do, as he himself says, is to use symbols, comparisons and similitudes. It is like describing color to one who has been born blind. When "that which is not" seeks to be united with "Him Who is," the transformation involves experiences which are entirely new to the sense and spirit of man.
Others say, "He asks too much; God Himself does not demand all that; it takes all the joy out of life." And certainly, if we read in a superficial manner, a chapter like Ascent I, chapter XIII, we may be tempted to agree. Some can see in it nothing except "uncompromising world-denial," "the voluntary annihilation of the whole notional self;" "vertiginous naughting."(18) No wonder that even brave souls have faltered! However, a few facts should be borne in mind.
St. John, in order to drive home his teaching, makes use of a device which we find frequently in the Scriptures, namely vivid paradoxes. The same rules of interpretation apply in both cases. This method, always forceful, was particularly appealing for the ardent temperament of the 16th century Spaniard, but it needs to be interpreted appropriately.
St. John's doctrine of the Nights, when properly understood, is nothing more than the teaching of our Lord expressed in other terms. No more profound commentary has ever been written on the words, "If any man come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
St. John does not say that desires in themselves are evil. It is rather the inordinate indulging of desires that injures the soul, and it is this which St. John wants to rectify. He aims at restoring good order to nature and restoring nature to God. He is not concerned with mere natural goodness but with supernatural goodness.(19) We have but to read him through as a whole to see that he is not trying to make the soul insensible, but to make it strong. In connection with this negation, it is important to keep in mind that it should always be undertaken in a peaceful way, because in reality it is the soul's response to our Lord's invitation to "go up higher." There are many imperfections that have to be tolerated until God gives the grace to correct them. Sometimes He leaves them in a soul for many years; if properly reacted to, they help to keep it humble and virtuous. "Insofar as the soul resists them," writes St. John, "it gains fortitude, purity, light and consolation."(20)
Father Crisogono has the following important comment to make: "The nadas (negations) are in the mind of the saint not an end but a means, to be used in the beginnings of the spiritual life, to avoid the dangers of inordinate affections in a heart which is still imperfect. Once the purification has been effected, however, the need for this attitude ceases to exist, for the heart, now purified and under control, will draw good from it all. Then it not only can but must love all things, and the predilections imposed by the difference of persons and the nature of the heart itself will come to the fore. Through this purification, the disfigurements of passion will have disappeared, while the energies for good that are in the passions will have become confirmed and strengthened."(21)
St. John's manner of presenting his teaching has come under fire as being unnecessarily involved. Let it be said at once that there is no need to defend him on this score, no more than we need to defend the method and layout of the Summa Theologica. But one of the best rejoinders is: "What alternative do you suggest?" It will be found that it is by no means easy to think of one. Moreover, a certain number of difficulties vanish once a real familiarity with him has been established; problems in terminology, for example. It is well to remember that we who live four centuries after his time are at something of a disadvantage. The writings contain the pith and marrow of his oral teaching, and while he lived, he was able to elucidate it and supplement it by word of mouth. We have to supply this amplification for ourselves as best we may. In any event, we must not exaggerate. Two of his major works, the Spiritual Canticle and the Living Flame, were written for women who, though unquestionably intelligent, were not experts in theology. Many another soul has been able to read and relish St. John's writings with no other introduction than the grace of the Holy Spirit. The principal qualifications for understanding St. John are undoubtedly interior ones, a spiritual kinship with the writer being the most important. Those who know St. John soon find themselves fascinated by his personality and doctrine, above all by that wonderful sense of contact with reality. No wonder that very soon he becomes a true friend.
VII. THE PRACTICAL CHARACTER OF ST. JOHN'S WRITINGS
It is tempting to dwell on this side of St. John's writings because it is so true and yet has been so misunderstood. He wrote from an eminently practical point of view; he has been well described by Maritain as "the practician of the contemplative life," in contradistinction to St. Thomas Aquinas who is "the perfect theorist." St. John's one aim is to bring souls to a proper understanding and appreciation of God our Creator; he wants to convince them that the greatest thing here below is union with God. For that we were made, and in it human nature finds its fulfillment and perfection. But this is so little understood that, for the majority, it is a terra incognita. When St. John begins to speak of it and the conditions that make it possible, he sounds like a scientist describing a discovery in the unfamiliar language of his profession. That this should be so is due to our ignorance of the true meaning of Christianity. In actual fact, St. John's message is but a commentary on the Gospels. It means that he shows us the best way of spending our lives here on earth. It applies to the life of the soul the notions of efficiency, thoroughness and success which the secular world so esteems in respect of material gain. St. John's purpose in writing is to show men and women how to get the best out of themselves, and since this can be done only through making God the be-all and the end-all of their existence, it is just logical that the first step is to know God. Like all genuine mystics, St. John sees that the Church itself and everything in it was instituted by Christ to bring us to our Heavenly Father, and to give Him the glory that is His due. The Incarnation itself had that end in view: "ut dum visibiliter Deum cognoscimus, per hunc in invisibilium amorem rapiamur." St. John shows us how to find Christ and to follow Him on the way He has mapped out. It is impossible to miss the Christocentric quality of the Spiritual Canticle and its constant reference to Christ as the Spouse of the soul. There can be no true union with God unless we make use of the mediation of our Lord Who is our only mediator. And so one feature of this high union is the revelation to the soul of the place which the Incarnation holds in God's designs.(22)
St. John brings us too to an appreciation of the Church and the liturgy,(23) and shows how each one is to build himself into the great spiritual temple which is the Mystical Body of Christ. In the Spiritual Canticle XXIX, he draws attention to the value of "pure love" within the Church, as distinct from the works of the apostolate. All this of course depends on God's will, according as He wants some souls to dedicate themselves to literal solitude for His sake, whereas others work in the harvest-fields. But apostolic work too, if it is to be effective, must be inspired and animated by the same "pure and solitary love" of which St. John speaks. The time comes when the soul begins to realize that the ultimate perfection of her transformation in the Son of God depends as much on her loving identification with the work of Redemption as on the power of the consolations which she receives from Him.(24) Thus begins a new phase of work, in union with our Lord, on behalf of His Church. These works of the apostolate, whatever form they may take, are of value with God only insofar as He Himself wills them, insofar as they proceed from a soul animated by faith and trust and love. It is this which draws down spiritual benefits for the enrichment of the Church, because it is through these virtues that God can dwell in a soul and make her His instrument to do good works. It is not, says St. John of the Cross, "a question of making great display and attracting the eye, but of the hidden root and source whence the water springs and whence comes all fruit."(25)
This brief lesson does not pretend to do justice to St. John of the Cross; it only skims the surface. There is far more in his writings than can be referred to in the course of a few pages. The only way to know him is to read him again and again. It is not necessary that we approve of everything he wrote, nor is it surprising that an understanding of him does not come all at once. "Fewer beauties and less delicacy will be seen in a picture by one whose vision is less clear and refined; and he whose vision is somewhat more refined will be able to see in it more beauties and perfections . . . there is so much to see in it that however far one may attain, there will ever remain higher degrees of attainment."(26) This comparison, which he applies to the relation of a soul with God, may aptly enough be used of his own writings too. And yet, there is, as it were, a key to these writings, a hidden key which each one must find. Once it is found, he readily yields up his treasures. And how abundant they are! Father Crisogono, who has done so much to interpret St. John to the 20th century reader writes as follows: "St. John of the Cross has everything. He is philosopher and poet; theologian and man of letters; a mystic both in experience and in doctrine. Sometimes his writings are somber, as in the Dark Night in which he treats of deep and heavy darknesses. At other times he is joyous and full of light, as in the Canticle, the pages of which reflect the brightness and fragrance of Spring. At one moment, he follows the strict method of the scholastics, and then he is inflexibly logical and speaks as a master. Thus we find him in the Ascent. At other times he moves with liberty, and breaks through the ancient molds of a language incapable of expressing the high things of the spirit. At such times he is borne aloft on the wings of genius and creates a medium, beautiful and sublime, to convey his ideas. He is thus in the Living Flame. Notwithstanding the practical character of his works, they contain also subtle argumentations. More especially when speaking about faith, St. John of the Cross rises above other theologians, and even those who know the Summa Theologica well, find that on this point he has much to teach them."(27)
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Articles 2 and 4.
2. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, ICS Publications.
3. Other texts, as listed in the footnote references.
1. The Science of Prayer, Chapter XXXI.
2. Sidelights on the Catholic Revival, pp. 22-23.
3. Cognet: Post-Reformation Spirituality, p. 46.
4. Ascent III, chapter 2, par. 10.
5. cf. Ascent III, chapter 2, par. 1-9.
6. Ascent II, chapter XIV, par. 6.
7. Ascent II, chapter VII, par. 13.
8. Proem. in Psalterium.
9. cf. Ascent II, chapter XIX.
10. cf. Cognet; Post-Reformation Spirituality, p. 47.
11. Points of Love, 37.
12. cf. Imitation of Christ I, chapter I.
13. Mgr. Philip Hughes.
14. Matth. VIII,12.
15. In Spititual Canticle (A) stanza XXXVII, par. 1.
16. Prologue 3.
17. Ascent Prologue.
18. Cognet op. citat. pp. 48-49.
19. Ascent I, chapt. V.
20. Ascent I, chapt. XII, par. 6.
21. Crisogono: St. John of the Cross, p. 311.
22. Spiritual Canticle XXIII, 2nd Redaction.
23. cf. Ascent III, chapter XXXIV foll.
24. Spiritual Canticle XXXVI.
25. Spiritual Canticle XXIX, par. 4.
26. Ascent I, chapter V, par. 9.
27. San Juan de la Cruz: su obra cientifica; pp. 71-72.
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