by Father Jerome Lantry, OCD


Chapter Six of Book I of The Ascent of Mount Carmel deals with "the harm, privitive, as well as positive, that the appetites engender in the soul." The scope of this paper is to share with you some reflections on St. John's illustrations of the ways in which those pesky appetites manage to do this. Before getting to those reflections I would like, by way of introduction, to speak briefly about four things: St. John of the Cross himself, his basic notion of the psychology of the human being, the original meaning of the word "appetite" and the meaning that word has in Book I of The Ascent.


St. John of the Cross was Saint, Poet, Spiritual Director and Author. Although the personality of saints can vary like that of other human beings, they were all very close to Jesus Christ and very like him in themselves and in their dealing with other people. We know enough about St. John of the Cross to understand that he was a very gentle person. He was a kind and compassionate novice master and an expert spiritual director. In fact his writings are all centered in spiritual direction and it was on the basis of the wisdom contained in them that he was made a Doctor of the Church. A spiritual director can be compared to a gardener, who looks at an empty piece of ground and says: "That piece of ground has the potential to be a beautiful rose garden." So, he tills the piece of ground, plants the flowers and the ground does the rest. The spiritual director sees in another human being a dwelling place for God and knows God wants to enter there. He is sure of this because of his own experience. So he shares in God's love for this person. We can be certain that when St. John of the Cross entered into a spiritual relationship with another person as spiritual director, his relationship was one of deep love rooted in the love of God. It is necessary to bear this in mind when we read St. John of the Cross and bear in mind that it was his longing to bring the other person to a deep loving relationship with God that was at the root of everything he has to say about purification. He was able to inspire a great longing for union with God, was able to discern the measure of response that each one could give to God's love and taper his direction to the needs and strengths of the individual. Some people say we should not read The Ascent of Mount Carmel until we have read The Spiritual Canticle. That is good advice but wherever we begin it is necessary to bear in mind that St. John was a very gentle and discerning teacher with no other purpose than to lead us to some taste of what he had found in his own relationship with God. I like to compare him with Christ on the road to Emmaus. He took those doubting disciples and patiently instructed them until their hearts were on fire and then disappeared and let them live and share the mystery of his hidden presence. So, when we read St. John of the Cross, we must always remember who it is that is saying these things and keep listening to the love of God that inspired everything he wrote.


So much for the man himself. Now for some things in his vocabulary. When he speaks about "the soul" he is talking about the human person. The human being is one single entity made up of soul and body. The soul can exist without the body but it is incomplete without it. Christ rose from the dead and we believe that we too will rise again so our final condition will be like his after the resurrection. The human person, then, is not just spiritual; it is emotional and also physical. Our physical life, health, pain, our senses, and our emotional experiences are all closely intertwined with our spiritual life because they are the experience of one person. We are superior to the animals in that we can think out and do things that were not done before; we can build houses and fly planes and go to the moon. We also can make free choices. This ability to think enables us to distinguish right from wrong and to direct our lives according to God's way. It was to us and not to the animals that he gave the commandments. We have been given the stewardship of the earth; we plant and harvest, we build bridges and open canals; we are concerned about environment. Also we have stewardship of our own bodies and its senses and our emotions, to that we are able to direct our lives to what is good and away from what is wrong. Through faith we receive a greater clarity of vision, higher ideals and an elevated standard of conduct. We become more conscious of our relationship with God and are challenged by it. We see this quite clearly in the Bible. It is in the area, the piloting of our lives to right conduct and to response to God's love that we need and appreciate the spiritual director. It is here that the spiritual can come into conflict with what we call the sense appetite.


Appetite is a word we associate with hunger, but it has a deeper meaning. When we speak of an appetite for work we are getting closer to this deeper meaning. Webster speaks of it as "one of the instinctive desires necessary to keep up organic life." When St. John of the Cross was doing his studies he would have come across this word in philosophy and there is meant the ability in a person (or thing) to seek what is good for the person. In a wider sense it included the search for what is good. So, if we think of an appetite as our ability to seek what is good for us and think of that ability as already activated in a concrete search for what is good, we have something like what we call drive or even motivation. It is good, at this point, to distinguish between the natural appetites that we have just by being human and healthy (the appetite for food, for enjoyment, for rest) and the appetites that we arouse in ourselves through thinking (appetite for education, for wealth, etc.) The first type are called "natural" and the second "elicited."

Now, St. John would have learned another distinction: since we come to know things through our senses and then through our intellect, we can distinguish two kinds of appetite, the one that goes after the good presented to us by our senses and the other which goes after the good presented by our intellect. We call the first group the sense appetites and the second is simply called the will. Since these belong to one and the same person, you can see that ideally they should work in harmony. But experience shows that it does not always work that way. I can go into a store and see a beautiful diamond and can enjoy watching it. Then the sense appetite wants to own it. I want to take it. My reason says this is wrong and my spiritual appetite says it is good not to take it. This is the way in which civilized people are brought up; not to do what is morally wrong in order to satisfy a sense appetite.

A new dimension is added. In faith God is present and we are dedicated to pleasing him so that the good that the sense appetite reaches out to possess has to be weighed against the greater good of pleasing God; so that the good sought by the spiritual appetite is to please God, a good that is achieved by denying the opposite "good" which the sense appetite sought. The diamond is still a beautiful diamond, the urge to take hold of it is still a normal sense urge. But the spiritual appetite must reject that urge or it will lose a greater good, its friendship with God; or at least an opportunity to let that friendship prove itself and grow deeper.


This finally brings us to St. John of the Cross and Book I of The Ascent of Mount Carmel. In Chapter 5, #8 he says: "The only appetite God permits and wants in His dwelling place is the desire for the perfect fulfillment of His law and the carrying of His cross." So, there is at least one good appetite. What are the ones that do the damage? In Chapter II we find that the ones that harm us are voluntary, inordinate and habitual. By "inordinate" he means that the object they seek is either a mortal sin, a venial sin or and imperfection. "Habitual" means we have integrated it into our way of life. "Voluntary" means that the spiritual appetite, the will, is involved. Everything hinges on this. Let us go back to that diamond in the store. A child could take that diamond and not know it was wrong. An adult, on the other hand, would know it was wrong, but because of his great longing to have it, could give in to temptation and steal it. This would be wrong and voluntary, and unless there were immediate repentance and restitution, the willful taking and keeping of the diamond would remain an obstacle to union with God. So, in St. John of the Cross the appetites are not just the natural inclinations that we have and always will have while we live, but the willing decision to follow those inclinations when they are leading us to do wrong or to leave undone the good we feel called to do. So, the diamond is not evil, nor is our initial inclination to take it, but only our voluntary decision to steal. St. John of the Cross, the great spiritual director, wants one thing for us and that is union with God and he sees the inordinate, voluntary appetites as evil because they prevent that from happening: they either break off the relationship with God or slow down its development.


So, St. John of the Cross is not condemning appetites in themselves; they are a necessary part of the human condition and as such are good. We can say that when God made appetites he looked on them and saw they were good. Nor is St. John condemning the external objects that the appetites seek to enjoy; God made them and he is to be praised for them. Nor is he saying that we should not enjoy and thank God for the blessings life brings; he is all in favor of people loving creation and loving one another so long as that is done in conjunction with loving God and not in a way that militates against loving God. His concern is with appetites-gone-wrong, the criminals in society. What he is advocating is not the eradication of appetites but their control and direction to what is good in the eyes of God. The voluntary inordinate habitual appetite needs to be redirected into channels that are well ordered and this is done through the directions given to us by reason and faith and the deliberate, grace-assisted choosing of what is pleasing to God. In this we are guided by the teachings of the Church, based on reason and revelation, and by our own honest application of this teaching to our particular situation.

Now let us look at what St. John says in Chapter 6 of Book I of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, keeping in mind that he is talking about appetites that are inordinate and voluntary. He says that such appetites deprive us of God's Spirit, and they weary, torment, darken, defile and weaken us. He goes on to say that they deprive us of the Spirit of God because they are contrary to it and two contraries cannot co-exist in the same subject. "Since love of God and attachment to creatures are contraries, they cannot co-exist in the same will." You can see from that sentence that the whole area of conflict is the human will, not just our senses and not the objects, like that diamond, that we seek. Now we can see that the whole matter of the purification of the senses is a matter of the purification of our will in its free choices in directing the sense appetites in their reaction to the external objects presented to us by our senses. Where free choice is not involved there can be no growth in the love of God, no loss of His love. This should help us to see what St. John is saying: that the choosing of the wrong in the area of sense harms our spiritual life. He says: "(the appetites) weary, torment, darken, defile and weaken" us. In Chapter 12 he says that each inordinate appetite causes all five effects, but that it causes one as its principal effect and the others because they are so closely associated. He also says that mortal sin causes these effects in full measure, venial sin to a lesser degree and imperfections still less. He also says: "The reason any act of voluntary appetite gives rise to all these evils together is that it directly opposes the acts of virtue, which generate the contrary effects. An act of virtue produces in a man mildness, peace, comfort, light, purity and strength, just as an inordinate appetite brings about torment, fatigue, weariness, blindness and weakness." You will notice there that he gives six effects of virtue and five effects of vice. Nor does he give the five in the same order as he does in two places in Chapter 6. In Chapter 6 he treats of the effect of vice which he calls weariness. By way of explanation he compares this case to a woman trying to please children who are never satisfied, to a miner who finds no treasure or does find some but wants more, to leaking cisterns that will not remain full, to a fever with a thirst that cannot be satisfied until the fever is cured, to a hungry man who opens his mouth for food and gets only air, to a lover rejected, to fire running out of wood. Then he says the case of the inordinate appetite is worse than any of them; they, when disappointed, can grow weak, but the inordinate appetite, unpurified, grows stronger. If we look ahead to Chapter 12 and the virtues that are lost through indulgence in inordinate appetites, the one corresponding to this weariness could very well by mildness and peace. St. John does not spell it out that clearly, but weariness is the first harm mentioned in Chapter 6 and mildness and peace are the first virtues he mentions in Chapter 12. It may be the right time now to bring in the two counsels given in Chapter 13: to have a habitual desire to imitate Christ and behave as he would, and for love of Jesus Christ to renounce all sense satisfaction that is not for the glory of God. These counsels are the sure means to effect a change from the indulgence of inordinate appetites to the peace of being in God's presence. The first step in the shift from vice to virtue is always a confrontation with Christ, an admission of our self-centered grasping at what does not satisfy and an appeal for His help to enable us to change that.

Chapter 7 deals with the harm whereby the appetites torment the person. He compares this to a person being tortured or in prison. This seems to be a worse form of suffering than the previous one, a situation in which one is left helpless and should call out to God for help. St. John says that God calls to such ones to come and experience the joy of the Spirit of God who refreshes. This would seem to go with the virtue of comfort mentioned in Chapter 12. An interesting question arises here. The condition of torment seems to be that of one seeking escape and unable to attain it, so that it is a condition in which one would be most likely to call out to God for help and to hear the call of God which is never silent even when we do not hear it. St. John does not mention here the Agony in the Garden. Jesus was not tortured by inordinate appetites and yet we are told an angel came to comfort him. The comfort he received was not just sympathy but courage and strength to continue.

Chapter 8 speaks of darkness and the next virtue mentioned in Chapter 12 is light. This harm he compares to vapor in the air, a clouded mirror and muddy water. He speaks clearly about the harm done to the intellect: "because of the darkening of the intellect, the will becomes weak and the memory dull and disordered in its operation. Since these faculties depend upon the intellect in their operations, they are manifestly disordered and troubled when the intellect is hindered." We recall here that the whole question of the purification of the senses in St. John of the Cross is the purification of the free choices of the will in the area of knowledge presented by the senses. So, habitual failure in this area darkens the intellect and dulls the conscience and so reduces the chances of changing our ways. I see this as a further emphasis on the importance of humility and clear admission of wrong before God and even before a director. The first step towards light has to be the clearing of the mind of all rationalizations, and an endeavor to come to the light and a sincere prayer to God to let us see us as He sees us. The examples of this harm given by St. John, such as excessive penances, show that he is not speaking of our "IQ" but of our ability to discern right from wrong. He says very clearly that we lose this ability unless we deny our inordinate appetites and restore our ability to choose what we believe is pleasing to God. This is what St. John is striving for all the time: to restore this ability to do God's will, to carry our cross and to find our joy in that.


Chapter 9 says the appetites defile the soul. He compares this to pitch on gold, to mud in clear water, to soot on a portrait and so on. In #4 he says: "the well-ordered soul of the just man in a single perfect act possesses countless right gifts and beautiful virtues. Each of these gifts and virtues is different and pleasing in its own way according to the multitude and diversity of the affections the soul has had for God. Similarly, in an inordinate soul there is a deposit of as miserable a variety of filth and degradation as is the variety of its appetites for creatures." This chapter reminded me of the reptiles that Teresa spoke of in the moat outside the castle. The impression I get is that bad habits can be very sticky and require real sincerity of mind and determination of will coupled with God's grace if they are to be undone. In Chapter 12 the virtue corresponding to this seems to be purity. Certainly purity of heart, or pure intentions in the will would seem to be the exact opposite to the spiritual condition described as pitch, mud, etc. So, putting union with God as the only worthwhile goal, the treasure of great price would seem to be the meditation here.

In Chapter 10 the fifth and final harm we come to is weakness. He calls it "weakness and tepidity." If not synonymous they go hand in hand. His explanation of this particular effect is worth quoting: "The appetites sap the strength needed for perseverance in the practice of virtue. Because the force of the desire is divided it becomes weaker than if it were completely fixed on one object, the more objects there are dividing an appetite, the weaker becomes the appetite for each. This is why the philosophers say that virtue when united is stronger than when scattered. It is therefore clear that if the desire of the will extends to something other than virtue, it grows weaker in the practice of virtue...." I hope you are noticing the new meaning for the word appetite or desire. Here appetite signifies just one thing, a good thing that can be weakened by seeking diverse objects. It is and can be good if the object it seeks is good, but it can be vitiated if the object it seeks is inordinate or the circumstances in which it is sought. It is obvious from this passage there is really only one appetite which concerns St. John of the Cross and that is the human will, the spiritual appetite. It must be directed to seek union with God and must not be weakened in its search by becoming involved in the quest for other objects or objectives that militate against this search. He speaks, by comparison, of hot water losing its heat when uncovered, spices losing their aroma if uncovered. He goes on to use some texts from Scripture. The corresponding virtue mentioned in Chapter 12 is strength or fortitude. We know that saints are canonized for heroic virtue, fortitude practiced in a heroic way. One of the ways, obviously, is martyrdom. Another is perseverance under very difficult circumstances. It is interesting to note that St. John said at the beginning of Chapter 10 that the appetites sap the strength needed for perseverance in the practice of virtue. I think it could be a key to the whole teaching on appetites. The word "virtue" means strength and St. John's whole interest is in the practice of virtue. In the end of Chapter 10 he says this: "Ordinarily, the reason many people do not have diligence and eagerness in the acquisition of virtue is that their appetites and affections are not fixed purely on God."

That statement comes like a summary of much of what he said on appetites. In the Way of Perfection, St. Teresa sets about teaching her community to pray, but before she gets to talking about recollection and giving her commentary on the Our Father, she spends quite a while talking about virtue. First she advocates a firm determination to persevere and comes back to that at the end of the book. Then she deals with three virtues that she says are necessary if we are to dispose ourselves for the gift of contemplation; love of one another, self-denial and humility. We know that Jesus made each of these personal to himself so that he would be the main motive for practicing them. If we keep that in mind in reading St. John of the Cross we can put together a plan for using his teaching. First, we must study and meditate on the life of Christ with an habitual desire (St. Teresa's determinada determinacion) to imitate him and to bring our life into conformity with his by behaving in all events as he would behave. You can see here that St. John's primary interest in Book I of The Ascent in not what we call progress in prayer but a changing of our way of life to bring it into conformity with that of Christ. This, of course, is the very beginning of the Gospel: change your way of life, the kingdom of God is at hand. St. John knew from his own experience of living and directing others that this is a most difficult task. He knew that we have inherited what we call original sin, which has been traditionally described as darkening our understanding, weakening our will and leaving in us a strong inclination to wrongdoing. St. John calls these inordinate, habitual, voluntary appetites and finds them to be very deep-rooted. So, he wants us to turn our affections to Jesus Christ and draw on the strength of this relationship to change our lives. He directs us to gear the satisfaction we get from things of sense to the honor and glory of God and to do this out of love for Jesus Christ. Advancement in virtue, self-sanctification or being holier-than-thou is not his way. He would have us direct all things towards God and do that out of a personal love of Jesus Christ. Great examples are Teresa and Therese. Further on in Chapter 13 he speaks with customary brevity of the four natural passions: joy, hope, fear and sorrow. We may prefer to call them feelings or moods, but we know them well and we know how easily we can change from one to the other. Now, we ourselves can relate to these moods and we admire people who have learned to moderate them, to give expression to them in a way the occasion calls for and yet to steer them to what is good in life. St. John directs, rather invites, us to try to be inclined to a courageous handling of these moods and to nudge ourselves away from what is easy and gratifying to what is less pleasant and more challenging. He says that if we can overcome our unwillingness to do this we will find that our efforts bring delight and consolation. Then he gives some guidelines for the practice of humility. Compare Ascent Book I with the Way of Perfection. St. Teresa emphasizes: a great determination to persevere, love of one another, self-denial - out of love for Jesus, and humility. St. John has: a basic element - love and imitation of Jesus, negation of inordinate appetites, and humility. He does not stress love of neighbor here, but we know that with him love of God includes that. If we allow for the fact that she was an extrovert and he an introvert the ground work that they both present for spiritual growth is very similar.

Following this St. John gives us those cryptic verses which deal with possession, be it of things or of knowledge. It is clear to everyone that the less we possess the more confidence we have in God, that this instruction is geared to hoping and trusting in God. This is not just a speculative instruction on the value of hope but a practical guide to steering our desires in the right direction. St. John of the Cross was very interested in the teaching of Holy Scriptures and of the Church magisterium because these are our guides on our way to God, but he knew from experience that we can study and study and not put what we study into practice. For him then the practical key is how we handle our desires. We are very much aware today of what the Supreme Court decides and we know that decisions on certain issues will depend on the thinking of the majority on these issues. We, too, have our court for deciding what we are doing about union with God. Are things that run contrary to that going to be ruled out or do we compromise a little... or a lot?


For St. John of the Cross then, the whole purpose of life is to come to union with God. He has traveled that route and he knows very well that any sidetracking is a waste of time and can lead to a waste of life. So there is an urgency about him. While he knows that we are a little too sophisticated today to start building altars to false gods we have in us a tendency to do something similar by seeking our satisfaction and fulfillment along routs that lead way from God. We use our free will to imprison ourselves and our liberty to become enslaved to masters that have nothing to offer. He wants to save us from that. In his effort to clarify the issue he is very incisive with the skilled precision of a surgeon who has removed a thousand tumors. As a director he is gently persuasive and persistent in his many faceted directives to control our desires and not let them control us; to use them for the proper goal of union with God because they must be busy and if not directed rightly will go after what is easy and close at hand. I once went to visit a patient who was recovering from an operation for cancer. After some preliminary conversation I asked how she was dealing with it and she said: "A whole lot of things have suddenly become unimportant." Perhaps we need somehow to shock ourselves into realizing with St. Paul that the time is short and too precious to waste on things irrelevant, to see with St. Teresa that all things pass away and the person who has God lacks nothing; that I am made to enjoy the great gift of life and God is the only lasting joy there is. Without him there is no heaven.

If we are faithful to prayer and reading we provide the soul with light and this gives us the courage to change our ways in the direction of God's way. At first we do a little according to our courage motivated by the love of God. Once we discover the ability to change we gain new courage and God helps us to be more generous. Little by little, if we persevere, we discover the value, reward and indeed joy of the Cross. We see it as the greatest revelation of God's love for us and we learn to respond in kind. This can lead to the infused virtue of fortitude and an understanding of St. John of the Cross that would make him our favorite reader. At least this is what seems to have happened to Therese. This is what the whole doctrine about the appetites is leading up to. All his teaching is an effort to open our hearts to the love God is offering to us. In St. John of the Cross union with God is to the Todo and the Nada opens the door to it.

Everything then in St. John is rooted in love. Immediately after the 13th Chapter of Book I of The Ascent of Mount Carmel he goes on to comment on the line of the poem that says: Fired with love's urgent longings. Here he says this: "A love of pleasure, and an attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure. A more intense enkindling of another, better, love (love of one's heavenly Bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of pleasure. By finding his satisfaction and strength in this love, a man will have the courage and constancy to deny readily all other appetites. The love of one's Spouse is not the only requisite for conquering the strength of the sensitive appetites; an enkindling with longings of love is also necessary.... For the sensory appetites are moved and attracted toward sensory objects with such cravings that if the spiritual part of the soul is not fired with more urgent longings for spiritual things, the soul will be able neither to overcome the yoke of nature nor enter the night of sense; nor will it have the courage to live in the darkness of all things by denying its appetites for them." I had thought of using that quotation at the beginning but decided to use it here as it is the passage that best interprets St. John's teaching on those pesky appetites. You may well ask why did he not make these statements at the beginning? The obvious answer is that the poem he was commenting on did not call for them. There may be a further reason: to state clearly the difficulty of the task so that we can see the need for strong longings and an enkindling of love for God if we are to succeed. He is as good as saying that without the enkindling of the fire of God's love in us we will not have the fortitude necessary to enter into the dark night of sense. And he goes on to say that if we have that enkindling of love, these longings of love, they will make all the trials and dangers of the night seem easy, sweet and delightful. At this stage St. John's emphasis is on striving, longing, desires that are active in virtue and ultimately the desire for union with God, a desire stemming from the love of God for us, known through faith and reflected upon.


So, what do I get from reading St. John of the Cross? First he reminds me that I already have a relationship with God because He began it and He does not change His way. With my free will, my spiritual appetite, I can choose with God's grace to respond wholeheartedly to that or ignore it. I can fill my nets in the sea of his love or refuse to fish. It takes courage to change my ways, but if I use the little courage I have, more will be given to me and if I repeat that process I may even be given infused courage and be a strong influence in the lives of others. I believe that the key to this is to develop a personal love of Jesus Christ and to maintain an habitual effort to change my ways, correct my faults, and make my life conform more and more to his and so be pleasing to the Father, His Father and mine.

Up to date I have succeeded in imitating St. John of the Cross in one thing, I have given a long discourse on a beautiful, simple verse of poetry which says:

En una Noche oscura Con ansias en amores inflamada - Oh dichosa ventura! - Sali sin ser notada, Estando ya mi casa sosegada.


1. Please refer to the Rule of Life, Foreword, para 11; Article 2, as pertinent to     the Order's Founders.
2. Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, ICS Publications.
3. Carmelite Studies VI: John of the Cross, ICS Publications.
4. The Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross, Latitudes Press, with an     Introduction by Fr. Pascal Pierini, OCD. Photos by Fr. George Curtsinger,     OCDS.