HOW TO READ ST. JOHN OF THE CROSS
by Thomas Moore, OCDS
I. MISQUOTES AND DISTORTIONS
If you haven't, as yet, read any of the writings of St. John of the Cross, this article is meant to be especially for you. If the very mention of the saint's name usually gives rise to feelings in you that are a cause to flee, and yet you have lingered to read this far, I hope this article will be equally as much for you.
One of my Pastors once remarked to me, with a grimace that bordered on pain, "St. John of the Cross? I cannot get anything out of him. Even at the Seminary we said 'What is it that he is saying?' Is he saying anything at all to us?" Sadly, I must admit that I often meet people who display similar reactions about St. John of the Cross. Why? What causes people to be so turned off by this saint, while others become so turned on?
A Carmelite Friar, well studied and versed as a scholar of the saint and his writings, related a conversation he had with an older Irish nun acquaintance of his.(1) He told her that he was going off to Spain for special studies. She said "Oh how wonderful" and asked "What are you going to study?" When he replied "St. John of the Cross" she grimaced and remarked "Oh that horrible man!" When the Friar searchingly inquired further, she related that as a young novice, some forty or so years earlier, she had been crying at the news of her mother's death. Her novice mistress had told her that she shouldn't by crying, that there was no need for such an emotional display. That St. John of the Cross says that "We should have an equal forgetfulness for everyone!" How terrible a distortion of his real message for us!
The Friar later told her "Sister, your novice mistress lied to you. She used the words, but didn't use all the words." He told her that the saint had said to have equal love and forgetfulness for all persons. He continued, "As a matter of fact to have an equal forgetfulness for everyone is the easiest thing in the world to do. Just be the most selfish person you can think of and you will have an equal forgetfulness for everyone. To be a good Christian, however, having an equal love for all, that is where the cross is."
The passage being quoted from by the novice mistress, completely out of context, was written for the counsel of Carmelite Nuns.(2) It speaks of equal love and equal forgetfulness of persons in precautions for the use of anyone desiring to be a true religious and reach perfection quickly. What sort of perfection? Spiritual perfection. A good English language translation of the entire passage, a precaution against the harms the world can cause, reads:
The first is that you should have an equal love for and an equal forgetfulness of all persons, whether relatives or not, and withdraw your heart from relatives as much as from others, and in some ways even more for fear that flesh and blood might be quickened by the natural love which is ever alive among kin and which must always be mortified for the sake of spiritual perfection.(3)
Simply put, without a competent guide or instructor, St. John of the Cross, most unfortunately, is very easily distorted and misquoted, or even worse, quoted out of context. We have the text of the saint's writings. It is the context that is not always clear. The harm the inexperienced or incompetent can cause is obvious.
Not everyone has access to a gifted and experienced guide. In fact, many do not have the treasure of such a grace. So how can one read and reliably begin to interpret for themselves St. John of the Cross' writings? What follows, will, I pray, give you some insights, recommendations and guidelines for your own study of the works of this Doctor of the Church.
II. A PROPER BEGINNING
Two noted and accomplished Carmelite author chroniclers of St. John of the Cross, Fr. Silverio de Santa Teresa, OCD, and Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD, both have said words to the effect that they never met a person troubled by St. John of the Cross who didn't start with The Ascent of Mount Carmel (hereinafter as Ascent, while never meeting an untroubled person who didn't start with The Spiritual Canticle (hereinafter as Canticle.) The present author might be an exception, were it a rule, having started with The Living Flame of Love (hereinafter as Flame.) The point is, do not begin with the Ascent. It is not a good place for one who is unfamiliar with St. John of the Cross' writings to start. If you are one who tends normally to avoid having anything to do with St. John of the Cross, and you are still with me, I would be willing to bet that you commenced your reading of this saint with the Ascent.
It is important which of his works you select as a beginning point; and, because he wrote in Spanish, the translation you choose can impose a critical dimension on how you should begin. If you are fluent in Spanish, then by all means, acquire Spanish editions of his writings. There is no better way to come to an understanding of the saint than through his own language and words. No translation, no matter how carefully conceived, can ever transmit with total fidelity what the saint intended and wrote. All English language translations suffer an inability to truly convey the context of St. John of the Cross to some extent.
Professor E. Allison Peers, an eminent Teresian Carmelite scholar, has given us very readable English language translations of all the saint's known writings. However, Americans and many other English language readers are well advised to acquire and utilize the more recent ICS collected works version.(4)
The place to really to begin with St. John of the Cross is the saint himself. It would have been nice had the novice mistress known that the saint loved his older brother Francisco more than any person in the world; and, on occasions, would himself introduce him to visiting nobles with: "Sir, this is my brother whom I love most of all in the world."(5) The saint actually had both his mother, whom he also loved dearly, and brother with him at some of the monasteries of which he had charge. To understand St. John of the Cross' writings one needs to come to an understanding of the saint as a person.
This is not an easy task for the beginner. Unlike St. Teresa of Jesus, we have been left with no autobiography by St. John of the Cross. Most biographies are quite old publications, and are out of print. This makes them difficult to acquire, inasmuch as most libraries are not likely to hold such books. Even worse, when published, they, like most Carmelite books, had only a very small circulation. The number of such books in print are therefore limited.
Begin with the General Introduction by Fr. Kavanaugh in the ICS version. Don't just read it. Study it, and absorb it! If you have Carmelite friends, or other access to a Carmelite library, try to borrow either (of both) of two excellent biographies:
Fr. Bruno of Jesus and Mary, OCD, St. John of the Cross (Saint Jean de la Croix, Paris, 1929), Sheed & Ward, New York, 1936. Fr. Crisógono de Jesús Sacramentado, OCD, The Life of St. John of the Cross (Vida y obras de San Juan de la Cruz, Avila, 1929), tr. K. Pond, New York, 1958.
Fr. Bruno refers frequently to three earlier biographies which were published as result of the saint's Beatification process.(6) These three, which probably have never been translated into the English language, are:
Fr. Joseph of Jesus Mary (Quiroga), Historia de la Vida y Virtudes del V.P.F. Juan de la Cruz, Brussels, 1628, Fr.Jeronimo of St. Joseph, Historia del V.P.F. Juan de la Cruz, Madrid, 1641. Fr. Gerado of St. John of the Cross, Ed., Obras del mistico Doctor San Juan de la Cruz, 3 vols., Toledo, 1912-14.
III. THE SCENARIO AND THE MINOR WORKS
You should know and understand, at a minimum, that St. John of the Cross, as a child and youth, grew up in circumstances of extreme poverty. As an adult and priest he radiated compassion and love to all who came into contact with him. While he could be quite demanding in teaching a religious to comply with the Rule, there was not the slightest shred of a selfish or intractable side in his nature. For his time he was highly educated in what we would call today philosophy and theology; yet, in no way could he be considered a theoretician. His writings are not of theory, rather they reflect his lived experience, Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he was a poet. Even today, nearly four hundred years after his death, he is considered to be the National Poet of Spain. He is a master of the written word and communication with words, especially in a poetic sense. If you are completely on your own, with no resource to an experienced guide, after reading and studying all the introductory material you can get your hands on, start with St. John of the Cross' poems. Read his poems to get a taste of his personality. Read them gently and repeatedly. Chew on them after the fashion of lectio divina, if you are familiar with that process. Fortunately, the ICS version of his collected works has both an English language and a Spanish language translation of his poems.(7) Pay considerable attention to his poems known as the Romances. The nine Romances On The Gospels are classics that he composed(8) while incarcerated under abusive physical and emotional circumstances that we would view as intolerable and unbearable today.
Following his poetry, one should read the letters.(9) Thirty-five are published in the ICS version. Again, one should read them to obtain a sense of the flavor of St. John of the Cross. They are personal. In some cases they are his spiritual direction to others by mail. As before, ruminate reflectively on these writings.
IV. THE MAJOR WORKS
Now, one has become prepared to begin the saint's major works. Begin by reading and "studying" all three of the Prologues for the Ascent/Dark Night, Canticle and Flame. By doing this you will be able to get a sense of St. John of the Cross' purpose in writing these treatises.
After reading the Prologues, read the Canticle or the Flame. Most authorities recommend that the Canticle be read first. In either case you should be reading to learn of the goal that St. John of the Cross sets before us. Read both the Flame and Canticle before beginning the Ascent and its diptych The Dark Night.
When you begin to read the Ascent, start with chapter 14 of book I. Chapter 14 contains the key for the whole of the Ascent book I. See especially section 2., the second paragraph.(10) Read it first, then go back and begin at the beginning. To leave out chapter 14, or fail to read it by perhaps never continuing until it is read, causes the utmost of grief. It causes what St. John of the Cross wrote in front of it to be taken out of context. Without it, what the saint wrote in the first 13 chapters can be understood so as to even undermine Christianity.
Book I of the Ascent is about the Active Night of the Senses. The Active Night of the Senses is about learning how to love. It is about "A more intense enkindling of another, better love (love of one's heavenly Bridegroom)...necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of....pleasure." "A love of pleasure, and attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure." "The love of one's Spouse is not only requisite for conquering the strength of the sensitive appetites; an enkindling(11) with longings of love is also necessary."(12)
After obtaining some familiarity with St. John of the Cross, and his ascetical-mystical message of God's love for us, one can spend some time looking into his other minor works such as The Precautions, Counsels To A Religious On How To Reach Perfection, Sayings Of Light And Love and Maxims And Counsels. I find it convenient to read these in rotation reading one element or unit as "manna" to be reflected on during the course of each day. Prayed over in this fashion, as one would pray the daily scriptures, can bring one into an even closer relationship with St. John of the Cross and his messages of spiritual direction for us.
One final word of advice: spend a few moments in prayer before opening the book each time you pick it up. Pray that the Holy Spirit will guide and help you to understand that which you are about to read. With such an approach, don't be surprised if you find yourself becoming an "aficionado" of St. John of the Cross.
While some might call him the Doctor of Nothings - Nada in Spanish - this is out of context. He actually wrote Todo y Nada - all and nothing. He is the Doctor of Everything, or better, the Doctor of Love. Anyone who only wants something misses out on everything! Desire all! Everything is what St. John of the Cross urges us to seek after!
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Foreword, para. 11; Article 2.
2. Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ICS Publications.
3. Carmelite Studies VI: John of the Cross, ICS Publications.
1. I am indebted to lectures and talks of Fr. Aloysisus Deeney, OCD
for the story, and for much of the context within this article.
2. This assertion is contested. See Introduction to the Minor Works, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriquez, OCD, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington DC, 1979 (ICS Collected Works); cf. p. 653.
3. This assertion is contested. See Introduction to the Minor Works, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriquez, OCD, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington DC, 1979 (ICS Collected Works); cf. p. 656.
4. ICS Collected Works.
5. Fr. Bruno, OCD, St. John of the Cross, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1936, p. 240 and n. 39 for earlier sources.
6. Clement X Beatified John of the Cross on January 25th, 1675. The process of Beatification was begun in 1614, and results of the process were never published. Benedict XIII canonized him on December 26th, 1726. Pius XI declared him Doctor of the Universal Church on August 24th, 1926.
7. ICS Collected Works, pp. 711-37.
8. They were written from his memory subsequent to being jailed for a period of about nine months.
9. ICS Collected Works, pp. 685-706.
10. ICS Collected Works, p. 105.
11. The emphasis is mine. The Spanish word used is enflamado. Rather than an enkindling, as it is translated here, it means to be on fire with love.
12. Ibid, p. 105.
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