St John Of The Cross





In the preceding chapters, I have shown that spiritual direction was Saint John of the Cross' primary apostolic ministry and that his understanding of God, the human person, and their relationship is the doctrinal foundation for his theory of spiritual direction. I shall now analyze that theory in some detail as it is found in his The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night.

The Ascent-Dark Night forms one major work which, although never completed in its entirety,1 describes the entire journey of a person to union with God. Using the image of a dark night to explain this journey, John organizes his presentation around three central themes--the mortification of appetites, the journey in faith, and the communication of God--which are the reasons for calling the journey to God dark. Thus, Book One of the Ascent treats of the mortifica-


1The Ascent of Mount Carmel ends abruptly in chapter forty-five of Book Three and The Dark Night ends in the middle of chapter twenty-five of Book Two.


tion of the appetites, Books Two and Three of the Ascent discuss the journey in faith, and the entire The Dark Night is devoted to the communication of God. In addition, John divides the five books of the Ascent-Dark Night into the active and passive dark nights of sense and spirit to indicate the complimentary activity of both God and the human person in purifying the person for divine union. As one major work, the Ascent-Dark Night is organized in the following manner:1

The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night



Manner of Purification

Reason for calling Journey Dark

The Ascent

One Active Night of Sense Mortification of Appetites

of Mount Carmel



Active Night of Spirit Journey in Faith

The Dark





Passive Night Of Sense


Passive Night Of Spirit

Communication of God

The Ascent-Dark Night, more than his other two major treatises, shows John fulfilling his ministry as a spiritual director. Drawing upon his own experience as a director to il-


lSee pp. 134-137 above for explanation of the spiritual journey as a journey in darkness. For John's arrangement of material in the Ascent-Dark Night, see Juan de Jesús María,"El Diptico Subida-Noche," pp. 70-83; Collected Works, pp. 43- 44, 47-59; Vida y Obras, pp. 447-54. Vida y Obras divides the five books of the Ascent-Dark Night according to the active and passive nights of sense and spirit.


lustrate his teachings,l John explains the road one must walk to reach union with God through love and how persons and directors are to recognize and handle problems that arise along the way.2 Beginning with the Prologue to the Ascent (which serves as a prologue for The Dark Night as well) and continuing through each of the five books of the Ascent- Dark Night, I shall examine the content of this treatise for its teaching on spiritual direction. In the Prologue and each of the five books, I shall first give the general argument or context of the book, then analyze its explicit and implicit teaching on the nature of spiritual direction, and finally summarize its theory of spiritual direction.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Preliminaries and Prologue

John explains in the introductory sections to the Ascent --the sketch of Mount Carmel, the title of the work, the theme, the poem The Dark Night, and the Prologue--that he is writing to help persons arrive quickly at the summit of Mount Carmel, his symbol for Christian perfection or the union of a person with God through love. He teaches that the necessary path to union with God is ordinarily through the dark night of faith, a night of purification and contemplation, in which a person finds the freedom and nakedness of spirit required for loving


lSee, for example, A2,22,16; A3,2,4; 5,2; 13,9; N1,13, 3; 14,6.

2A, Prologue.


union with God.1 The Ascent of Mount Carmel contains both theological doctrine and practical advice (avisos y doctrina). Drawing upon Sacred Scripture, human science, and his own experience, John lays the theological groundwork for his theory of the Christian's ascent to divine union and offers practical advice for dealing with difficulties encountered along the way.2

He intends his treatise primarily for beginners and proficients (asi a los principiantes como a los aprovechados) in in the spiritual life,3 especially

But in expounding the spiritual ascent for these persons, John also speaks indirectly to spiritual directors who play a crucial role in assisting persons along the road to perfection. He recognizes that directors often hinder rather than help persons to advance along the dark road to perfection (suelen impedir y dañar a semejantes almas más que ayudallas al camino) and his


lSketch of Mount Carmel; Title; Introduction to Poem; Prologue, 1&8-9.

2Title; Prologue, 1-2&4&6-8.

3See doctrinal section above, p. 136, for an explanation of the three stages of the spiritual life and the meaning of beginners and proficients.

4Title; Prologue, 3-7 & 9.


book is intended precisely to counterbalance the harm they cause.1 Thus, the doctrine and advice contained in The Ascent of Mount Carmel is equally valuable for persons desirous for union with God and for their spiritual directors, since the harm done by incompetent direction in part occasioned the treatise.

The Prologue contains quite definite teachings about the nature of spiritual direction and the qualifications of a spiritual director. A first principle of spiritual direction is simply the recognition that God is the One who primarily leads a person through the dark night of purification to union with Himself. The major impediment to progress toward divine union is the failure of persons to abandon themselves to the guidance God gives them. Many persons to whom God gives the talent and grace for advancing along the road of perfection (muchas almas a quien Dios da talento y favor para pasar adelante) and whom He desires to place in the dark night so that they may arrive at divine union (queriéndolas nuestro Señor poner in esta noche oscura para que por ella pasen a la divina unión), resist the action of God and fail to make progress beyond the state of beginners either because of lack of will or ignorance or because they lack suitable direction (por no querer, o no saber, o no las encaminar y enseñar a desasirse de aquellos principios).


lprologue, 3-7.


Thus, spiritual direction emerges in the Prologue as a ministry by which beginners and proficients in the spiritual life are assisted to overcome their resistance to God and to abandon themselves to His help (dejarse a Dios y adyudarse).2 Persons who provide this assistance are called guides (guías), spiritual fathers (padres espirituales), and confessors (confesores).3 To facilitate rather than impede one's abandonment to God's guidance, the spiritual director must possess experience and understanding (luz y experiencia). John acknowledges that experience is necessary in order to explain the spiritual life to others and to guide them in it.4 But in the Prologue he places greater emphasis upon understanding.

To help persons abandon themselves to God's guidance, a spiritual director must understand how God leads persons to divine union and the psychological phenomena manifested by


lPrologue, 3.


3Prologue, 3&4&6.

4Prologue, 1&4.


those in whom He works. For example, when God leads a person from the stage of beginners into that of proficients, He ordinarily withdraws the consolations of meditative prayer and introduces the person into the darkness of contemplation. At this time, one feels lost (le parece que va perdida) and experiences interior darkness, trials, conflicts and temptations. The loss of consolation and satisfaction which the person formerly felt in the things of God also creates a distressing sense of unworthiness.1

If spiritual directors do not understand this stage of spiritual development and the meaning of its associated psychological phenomena, they are likely to misinterpret the experience of the person. John writes:

Or a director might view the loss of spiritual consolation with its resulting feeling of unworthiness as symptomatic of sin and backsliding. He therefore urges the person to review his past and make many general confessions. John comments on this practice:


lPrologue, 4-5; see also A2,13; N1,9: F3,43.

2Prologue, 4.


The director must therefore understand how God leads persons along the path of perfection and how to interpret the psychological phenomena associated with this path. John compares those directors who lack this understanding to the builders of the tower of Babel who, for want of knowledge, accomplished nothing.

John also recognizes that a person's feelings of being lost and of worthlessness are not always signs that God has placed one in the darkness of contemplation: they may indeed be symptoms of backsliding, or depression, or some other causes. Thus, in addition to knowledge of the spiritual life and its associated psychological phenomena, spiritual directors must also know enough about morality, personality, and psychopathology to discern the true meaning of the phenomena observed in persons they guide along the road to perfection.


1Prologue, 5.

2Prologue, 4.


The spiritual director should also have a discerning knowledge of the nature of prayer, religious exercises, and spiritual consolations. He must also be able to recognize the significance of the emotions of joy, hope, sorrow, and fear; for, as we have indicated, the emotions and other observable psychological phenomena like feelings of being lost and worthlessness are inextricably associated with a person's journey to union with God.

In addition to possessing experience and understanding, the spiritual director performs certain activities for the directee. Recognizing that John is writing The Ascent of Mount Carmel as a spiritual director himself as well as offering advice to other directors, we discern from the Prologue that a


lPrologue, 6,

2Prologue, 6-7.


director must be both a teacher and a helper.

The teaching function is revealed in the terminology of the Prologue--to give doctrine and advice (dar aviso y doctrina), to explain (declarar y dar a entender), to teach (enseñar), etc.1 The subject matter of this teaching is primarily "the dark night through which a soul journeys toward that divine light of perfect union with God"2 or, as this is expressed in the title of the treatise, how beginners and proficients are "to unburden themselves of all earthly things, avoid spiritual obstacles, and live in that complete nakedness and freedom of spirit necessary for divine union."3

John directs his teaching to beginners and proficients in the spiritual life, aware that the solid and substantial nature of this doctrine (doctrina sustancial y sólida) will make it unappealing to many.4 Yet, it is necessary to teach this doctrine so that beginners and proficients "may understand or at least know how to practice abandonment to God's guidance when He wants them to advance" (para este saberse dejar Ilevar de Dios cuando Su Majestad los quiere pasar adelante ... para que sepan entender o a lo menos dejarse llevar de


lTitle; Prologue, 1,3-4,6-8.

2Prologue, 1.


4Prologue, 8.


Dios) .1

The director's helping function is expressed in the Prologue through such words as to help (ayudar) and to guide (guiar and encaminar).2 This help includes understanding persons who, during difficult periods of the spiritual life, are unable to understand themselves (no entenderse una alma ni hallar quien la entienda) and withholding interpretation and advice from those in the dark night in favor of "leaving these persons alone in the purgation God is working in them," supporting and encouraging them for as long as God wants them to endure this suffering (dejarlas así en la purgación que Dios las tiene, consolándolas y animándolas a que quieran aquello hasta que Dios quiera).3

Thus, in addition to possessing understanding and experience, the spiritual director must be a teacher and a helper. And the goal of the director's teaching and helping functions is to assist persons in breaking away from the methods of beginners in the spiritual life (encaminar y ensenar a desasirse de aguellos principios) and to "willingly adapt themselves to God's work of placing them on the pure and reliable road to union" (haber acomodádose ellas a Dios, dejándose poner libremente en el puro y cierto camino de la


lPrologue, 4.

2Prologue, 3-4.

3Prologue, 4-5.



As noted earlier, the three terms used in the Prologue to describe those who fulfill these teaching and helping functions are "spiritual fathers," "guides," and "confessor." John's use of spiritual father (padre espiritual)2 suggests that he regarded spiritual direction as an expression of spiritual paternity as found in the Pauline Epistles and the history of spiritual direction.3

Although John calls the spiritual director a guide, he evidently does not regard a director as a person's only guide in the spiritual life. The term guide (guía or guiar) is not applied to God in the Prologue,4 but the context reveals that John considers God to be the person's primary guide to divine union.5 The human director follows and supports God's action in a person. This secondary role is seen in John's counsel that directors support and console persons for as long as God chooses to purify them, "for until then, no remedy--whatever the soul does, or the confessor says--is adequate."6


lPrologue, 3.

2Prologue, 4.

3See above, pp. 79-80.

4The term John uses in the Prologue to describe God's guidance of a soul is, "llevar," to carry from one place to another. See Sebastián de Covarrubias, Tesoro de la Lengua Castellana o Española, p. 774.

5See Prologue, 3-5.

6Prologue, 5.

pp 150-160

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