St John Of The Cross


In the Prologue of the Ascent, John also stressed the necessity of experience in the director.1 The importance of this quality may be seen in Book One. Through mortifying his own disordered affectivity, the director frees himself from the damage done to his own soul by inordinate appetites, enabling him to serve his directees more effectively. This is well-illustrated by John's contention that denial of disordered appetites produces intellectual clarity and volitional strength. Without this clarity and strength, the director may become for his directee as much of a blind guide as the person's own disordered appetites. In effect, the director's disordered affectivity rather than the clear light of reason and faith then guides the directee.2 Instead of identifying and pointing out the person's rationalizations, for example, an unmortified director may actually support these rationalizations, causing the person to delay the necessary denial of his disordered desires.3

Finally, in addition to the terms "spiritual father," "guide," and "confessor" used in the Prologue, John in Book One refers to spiritual direction as a master-disciple relationship, thus linking it with a significant religious


1A, Prologue, 1&4.

2Al,8,1-3. John considers reason (razón) as a little boy that guides (mozo . . . quiar) the blind appetites.

3Al,8,7; 11,5. See also p. 160 above.


phenomenon that is older and wiser than Christianity itself.1


In Book One of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Saint John of the Cross discusses the active night of sense or the ways in which a person purifies his sensory self in order to be united with God in love. The main theme of Book One is the mortification of disordered appetites, one of the main reasons John gives for calling the journey to divine union a journey through a dark night. John's teaching on the mortification of appetities in Book One, though not limited to beginners in the spiritual life, is particularly applicable to them, for turning one's desires away from creatures and centering them in God represents the major challenge of the first stage of the journey to God.

Because habitual, inordinate attachments of the human will to created objects both impede a person's transformation in God--the goal of the spiritual journey--and psychologically damage the person, the major concern of the spiritual director in the active night of sense is the mortification of the directee's disordered appetites. To accomplish this, the spiritual director must be prepared: to identify, assess, and handle the various psychological phenomena (such as feelings of distress and the defense mechanisms of resistance: ration-


lSee above, pp. 1-2.


alization, and denial) present in a person due to disordered affectivity; to recommend practical exercises for overcoming disordered appetites (e.g, the imitation of Jesus Christ as the Model of one living in union with the will of God or exercises of the will aimed at desiring God alone); to strengthen the person for mortification and self-denial by helping him to increase his love for God through prayer. In addition, the director's mortification of his own disordered affectivity enables him to guide others more skillfully in disciplining their disordered appetites.

John continues and elaborates in Book One several of the themes already stated in the Prologue. He affirms again that God is the person's principal spiritual director in the spiritual life. He views spiritual direction as a master-disciple relationship, thus not limiting the process of direction to the sacramental setting. And he extends the notion of guide (guía) to include reason (razón), the intellectual faculty which guides and directs the appetitive functions.

The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Book Two

In Books Two and Three of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, John explains the active night of spirit. Here he argues that transforming union with God through love demands not only the purification of the sensual part of the soul (already discussed in Book One), but also the spiritual


part.1 Continuing the metaphor of night to describe this purification, John demonstrates in these two books that through acquiring the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love a person frees his spiritual faculties--intellect, memory, and will--from inordinate attachment to their natural objects and prepares them for union with the Transcendent God. This purification is called the active night of spirit2 because it involves the soul's spiritual faculties and requires an active effort of the person to acquire these virtues.3

John also describes in these two books a person's transition from the beginning stage of the spiritual life to the stage of proficients. This transition occurs as one's prayer progresses from discursive meditation, which depends upon the exterior and interior sense faculties, to contemplation, which involves a greater role of the spiritual faculties and is intimately linked with their purification through the theological virtues.4

Addressing those who are thus entering the state of contemplation,5 John wishes to guide them through the spiritual


1For a discussion of Saint John's division of the human soul, see the doctrinal section, pp. 110-14.

2See diagram of the Ascent-Dark Night, p. 139.

3A2,4,2; 6,1-6. Collected Works, pp. 51-54.

4A2,6,8; 12,1-15,5. See also pp. 135-36 above for the discussion of the stages on the spiritual life in John of the Cross.

5A2,6,8; 7,13; A3,2,1-2.


night that leads to divine union. The Model for this night, as for the night of sense, is Jesus Christ.1 Jesus's counsel to those who desire transforming union with God through love is that already recorded in the New Testament:

John interprets this passage as implying that all who seek divine union must die in their sensual and spiritual faculties to everything not ordained to the glory of God. The Model for this death to self is Jesus dying on the cross. There, in response to the will of His Father, Jesus was annihilated in body and spirit. And yet it was through His death on the cross that Jesus achieved his greatest work, "the reconciliation and union of the human race with God through grace."3 John instructs his reader to consider Christ on the cross that






death of the cross.1

In Book Two, John concentrates on the intellect's purification through faith. The book is, in fact, a treatise on faith.2 Because God is transcendent, He cannot be grasped through man's natural powers of knowing. Only through faith can one acquire any adequate understanding of God in this life. In faith, man knows God, not through images or ideas of the Divine Essence formed by natural cognitive processes, but by receiving and assenting to God's revelation of Himself. According to John, man receives the communication of God by assenting to the divine mysteries contained in Scripture and proposed by the Church and by infused contemplation. And the human intellect is free to receive God's self-revelation when it is unattached to its own ideas and conceptions of the divine essence. From the point of view of normal human cognition, faith is thus a process of unknowing rather than knowing, a journey made in darkness rather than light.3 Drawing heavily upon his own experience in spiritual direction4 John wishes to guide persons and their



2A2, Title; A2,1,1-3. For discussions of faith in St. John, see Amatus van de Heilige Familie, "Foi et Contemplation chez Saint Jean de la Croix," Ephemerides Carmeliticae 13 (1962):224-56; Joseph Ferraro, "Sanjuanist Doctrine of the Human Mode of Operation of the Theological Virtue of Faith," Ephemerides Carmeliticae 22 (1971):250-94.


4A2,22,16;26,17; 29,2&4&8; 31,2.


directors1 through the obstacles arising from the intellect's attachment to particular knowledge of God derived from either natural or supernatural sources to the purity of faith in which one receives God's revelation of Himself.2 John thus gives us in Book Two a theoretical exposition of the nature of Christian faith and practical guidance for growing in this faith. The practical advice appears in almost every chapter of the book, making it a valuable source book for John's theory of spiritual direction. He refers specifically to spiritual direction most frequently when discussing the various forms of supernatural knowledge, a topic of considerable importance in the spirituality of his day.3 However, these passages contain insights into the nature of spiritual direction which apply far beyond the particular interests of his contemporaries.4

As we have already seen in the Prologue and Book One of The Ascent, John regards God as the person's primary guide in in the spiritual life. John continues this teaching in Book


lA2,16,14; 18,1-9; 32-5.

2A2,7 13; 10,4; 11,8; 23,1; 24,4; 26,1; 28,1; A3, 1,1.

3For a discussion of the spirituality in sixteenth century Spain, see Kavanaugh and Rodriguez' introduction to their translation of the Life of Saint Teresa of Avila in The Collected Works of St. Theresa of Avila, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1976), pp. 6-16.

4The major references to spiritual direction in Book Two occur in chapters 16,18,19,20,21,22,26,29,31,and 32 where John deals with various forms of supernatural intellectual apprehensions.


Two,l maintaining that God leads persons gradually to faith, the road to divine union, through human nature and divine revelation.

God guides persons through the ordinary workings of human nature, "with order, gently, and according to the mode of the soul" (ordenadamente y suavamente y al modo de la misma alma).2 He makes divine union possible for man by endowing him with the faculties of sense and spirit and then drawing him to union through these faculties. For example, in ordinary human knowledge, the higher, spiritual act of cognition depends upon the activity of the lower, exterior and interior senses.3 Similarly, God communicates Himself to a person "according to the individual's own manner of acquiring knowledge (a su modo de entender)."4 He required that one first become disposed in prayer through use of the sense faculties to form images of Him in discursive meditation before he communicates the higher, spiritual knowledge of Himself to the spiritual faculties in infused contemplation.5 In this manner, "God perfects man gradually according to his human nature (así va Dios perfeccionando al hombre al modo del hombre), and pro-


lA2,12,6-8; 16,4; 17,1; 19,3; 29,6.


3See doctrinal section above, for a discussion of John's psychology of knowledge, pp. 112-18.


5A2,13,1; 17,3-4.


ceeds from the lowest and most exterior to the highest and most interior."1

As one's life becomes more interior, John attributes its divine guidance specifically to the Holy Spirit. God begins by giving His Spirit to the soul through forms, figures, and particularly knowledge.2 But with greater interiority, as one relies less upon particular knowledge derived from the senses and more upon faith, the Holy Spirit acts more directly upon the human spirit,3 communicating to it not only particular forms of knowledge but also all of God's wisdom in general which is the Son of God who is imparted to the soul in faith.4 Thus, as one leaves behind the stage of beginners with its dependency upon particular knowledge derived from the senses and progresses through increasing faith to the higher stages of the spiritual life (or more inwardly toward the depths of own's own soul), he is increasingly guided by the Holy Spirit, who becomes his Teacher (Enseñador . . . Maestro)5 leading him to transforming union with God.6

God also adapts His guidance to the capacity of each indi-


lA2,17,4. See also A2,11,9.


3A2,29,11; 30,4.





vidual. He endows each person with different capacities for knowing and loving Him and He respects these differences in His guidance. Referring to God's regard for the different capacities of individuals, John writes:

God also guides persons through divine revelation. This revelation is contained in Sacred Scripture and in the Person of Jesus Christ. God's direction of His people Israel is a prototype of His guidance of individuals in the spiritual life. And as the Bible records God's direction of Israel, so is the Bible a guidebook for those who seek union with God. That John used Sacred Scripture in this way can be seen in his frequent use of old Testament passages to confirm his spiritual teaching.2

But God's guidance of souls is embodied most perfectly in the Person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, God gives to all men the Way to divine union.3 Because God has spoken so com-


1A2,5,10. Cf. also A2,5,4&11; 17,5; 21,2-3; 24,6; 27,6.

2For examples of John's use of the Old Testament to illustrate and confirm his spiritual doctrine, see A2,3,4-6; 9, 1-4; 16,3; and 21,3, as well as chapters 19 to 22.


pp 180-190

Return To Index