St John Of The Cross


of prophecy or discernment of spirits.1

The place of judgment in spiritual direction may be seen in determining the readiness of a person for contemplative prayer. Beginners in the practice of prayer usually concentrate on discursive meditation, employing the senses, imagination, and intellect to form mental images of God, Jesus Christ, or other holy objects. These images in turn lead to the formulation of spiritual thoughts and incite the will to feelings of love for God. However, in themselves, these images are remote rather than proximate means of the intellect's union with God. The Transcendent God can never be adequately portrayed by mental images drawn from sensible experiences nor contained in the accompanying thoughts and feelings. Eventually, the psychological activities of discursive meditation are replaced by one general act of loving attentiveness to God, the soul's sensible and spiritual faculties at rest allowing God to infuse a loving knowledge of Himself immmediately into the soul without the operation of the human faculties.2

To determine when the transition from discursive meditation to simple contemplation is taking place, a person must recognize three signs occuring simultaneously in his prayer


lA2,24,9; 26,11-14; 29,12.

2A2,12,3-6; 15,2. See also the doctrinal section above for an explantion of contemplative prayer, pp. 116-18.


life. These are: inability to meditate (no puede meditar) and find satisfaction in meditation; disinclination (da niguna gana) to employ one's sense faculties and imagination upon particular devotional objects; and a desire (el alma gusta) to remain alone in loving awareness of God, without employing the faculties of intellect, will, and memory in active meditation.1 John writes:

All three signs must be present before a person is ready to move from meditation to contemplation. The first sign without the second may indicate dissipation or lack of diligence rather than readiness for contemplation. The first two signs without the third may indicate a mental or emotional disturbance that leaves one unable or disinclined to meditate. Consequently, one must experience these three phenomena together before the judgment can be made that one is ready to give up meditation for contemplation.3 This practical judgment about a person's readiness for



2A2,13,5. For a discussion of these three signs in the writings of St. John of the Cross, see Gabriel of BB. Dionysio et Redempto, "The Three Signs of Initial Contemplation: A Comparative Study," Ephemerides Carmeliticae 3 (1949): 97-129



contemplative prayer is critical for his growth in faith. To judge, on the one hand, that one should force himself to continue discursive meditation when all three signs are present is to hinder the work of God who is leading the person to deeper faith through infused contemplation.1 On the other hand, to give up meditation only because one finds it distasteful is to misjudge one's readiness for contemplation and to run the risk of giving up altogether the prayer which is necessary for faith to grow.2 In both cases, the mistaken judgment retards the person's growth in faith.

Human reason and practical judgment are thus indispensable tools for evaluating the experience of a person and therefore are important in spiritual direction even though the master-disciple relationship is essentially a faith process which demands approaching God through unknowing rather than knowing. The unknowing of faith refers to the inability of the human intellect to know God as He is through normal cognitive processes. The only adequate knowledge of God in this life occurs through faith when God bestows a general, loving knowledge of himself directly upon the soul without the activity of the cognitive faculties. However, reason and iudgment play a prominent role in cultivating that faith wherein the human intellect is united with God.



2A2, chap. 14.


In conjunction with his emphasis upon reason and judgment in spiritual direction, John also stresses the human relationship between the director and directee. God prefers to guide persons to divine union through the help of other persons. Even when one receives divine inspirations or supernatural communications, John advises that they first be discussed with one's spiritual director.

In this quotation we note that a special communication from God brings with it the desire to manifest it to another. Indeed, the communication is confirmed in sharing it with another person. One remains doubtful, cold, and cowardly about divine inspirations if he keeps them to himself, However, the natural process of revealing these inspirations to another human being helps to clarify and confirm their content. John states:




It is important to note that the clarification and confirmation of the divine inspirations is a function of the human communication process. Commenting upon Moses' consultation with his brother Aaron in the Book of Exodus, John believes that God is in the mouth of both the director and directee as they discuss the directee's experience, each giving certitude to the other.2 Commenting further upon a passage from the New Testament (Mt.18:20), John maintains that when two or three come together to consider what is for Jesus' greater honor and glory, Jesus Himself is present in their midst "clarifying and confirming divine truths in their hearts (aclarando y confirmando en sus corazones las verdades de Dios)."3 Thus, John visualizes spiritual direction as more than a master advising his disciple (although giving advice is definitely involved):4 John believes that God Himself is present in the direction process enlightening both master and disciple in truth.5




3A2,22 11.

4For example, see A2,22,17.

5It would take us too far afield to examine the modern


But John is also acutely aware of subtle dynamics present in the interpersonal communication which can adversely affect the progress of spiritual direction as a faith process. In chapter eighteen of Book Two, John points out that the director's unconscious communication of his personal attitudes to the directee can retard growth in faith. If, for example, the director highly esteems extraordinary phenomena such as visions in the directee and devotes considerable attention to those phenomena in his conversations with the directee, he will unconsciously communicate this attitude of esteem to the directee. As the directee perceives1 the attitude of the director, he too may develop an attachment for the phenomena, thus departing from the spirit of humility and faith.2


communication theory which helps explain John's insight that expressing one's religious experience to another brings a confirmation and clarification of that experience. However, one writer has examined communication theory in modern thinkers like Cassirer, Lanqer, G.H. Mead, and Duncan and concludes that there is with a person "the need to verbalize or share with others our experiences of God precisely because we need to talk about what God is doing within us to know that experience, and, indeed, to know God. This communication is intimately related to what God is doing within the person and not something that is an after-thought or option for the more pious among us." Thomas J. Mickey, "Religious Language: Why Talk About God?" in Carith Papers, ed. Adrian J. Cooney (Brookline, Mass.: Carith House, 1976), p. 24.

1In this context, I use the English word "to perceive" because of its psychological connotations to translate the Spanish verb verb ver: e.g., ". . . el alma ve en su maestro," and "basta ver en su confesor... a1guna estima y aprecio de ellas." A2,18,2-3.



Although he finds it difficult to explain, John is aware that "the spirit of the disciple is secretly fashioned after that of his spiritual father (el espíritu del discípulo conforme al de su padre espiritual oculta y secretamente)."l He realizes that this takes place unconsciously and can have harmful effects in the spiritual journey to God. John writes:

If the spiritual father has such a bent toward revelations that they produce in his soul some effect, pleasure or complete satisfaction, he cannot avoid --even thouqh unaware--affecting his disciple with this attitude and pleasure (no podra dejar [aunque él no lo entienda] de imprimir en el espiritu del discípulo aquel jugo y termino), if the disciple is not more advanced than he. And even if the penitent is more advanced, the director can bring serious harm to him by continuing to give him direction. From the inclination and gratification the spiritual father discovers in these visions there rises a certain esteem for them, and unless he is on his guard he will manifest indications of this to his penitent (si no es con qran cuidado dél, no puede dejar de dar muestras o sentimiento de ello a la otra persona). And if his penitent has the same inclination, there cannot be between them, as far as I can see, anything but a communication of esteem for these matters (no podrá dejar de communicarse mucha aprehensión y estimación destas cosas de una parte a otra).2

A further danger to growth in faith comes from a subtle collusion that can be formed between master and disciple in which both tacitly agree to focus their discussions upon inessential experiences such as extraordinary phenomena in the disciple. The usual way to handle extraordinary phenomena in





spiritual direction is for the directee to manifest these openly to the director who, in turn, guides the directee through them to a deepened faith.1 However, a careless confessor might devote considerable attention to these phenomena--discussing them with the penitent, giving instructions on discerning good visions from bad ones, requesting the penitent to ask God for more private revelations--leaving the impression that it is permissible to deal with God by means of these phenomena. The interests of the confessor thus combines with the natural inclinations of the penitent to make these phenomena the subject matter of their relationship. This dangerous collusion leaves both the master and disciple open to misinterpretation of God's revelations and locutions and, what is worse, causes them both to depart from purity of spirit in dark faith.2

We can see, therefore, that while John believes God to be present in the master-discipline relationship, he is also acutely aware that His action can be impeded by the failure


lA2,22,16-19; 26,18.

2A2,18,7-9; A2, chapters 19-22. John's experience in spiritual direction allowed him to observe the phenomena of unconscious communication of attitudes and collusion between director and directee. These topics have been discussed widely in contemporary literature on psychotherapy. Here we have an instance in which John's insights into the helping relationship have been verified by subsequent experience and research of modern psychotherapy. In turn this literature can deepen our appreciation of the dynamics involved in the relationship between director and directee.


of the director and directee to realize that faith is the purpose of their relationship and how the dynamics of a human relationship can work to undermine that faith.

So far, we have seen in Book Two of the Ascent of Mount Carmel that God is a person's primary spiritual director in the spiritual journey to divine union. We have seen further that a person theoretically can follow God's guidance alone, but practically finds great help in spiritual direction, a highly sensitive master-disciple relationship which aims to deepen a person in faith, the proximate means of union with God in this life. To amplify these conclusions, let us see what Book Two has to say, both explicitly and implicitly, about the requirements for a good spiritual director.

The spiritual director must first of all understand his role. He must realize that God, not the human director, is a person's primary Guide to divine union. The spiritual director is a human instrument in God's guidance of the person. To cooperate with God's work in a person's life and to fulfill his role as an instrument, the spiritual director must understand the manner in which God guides persons so that he may complement this divine guidance. He must appreciate that God leads persons to divine union according to the laws of human nature, in a developmental fashion proceeding step-by-step from the sensible to the spiritual, from the exterior to the interior; according to human reason and practical judgment;


and according to the unique capacities of each person. The director must accommodate himself to these principles of guidance, working harmoniously with God's manner and timing in dealing with an individual. For example, a director cannot know in advance the meaning of certain experiences in a person's life until God reveals that meaning to both the person and his director. Aware of the gradual way in which the significance of special divine revelation or inspiration becomes clear, John reminds his readers that "many particular works of God can come to pass in a soul, which neither the soul nor its director can understand until the opportune time."l

Because God also leads persons to divine union in accordance with His own divine revelation, the spiritual director must accommodate his work with persons to this revelation, particularly the supreme revelation of Jesus Christ. God has revealed Himself so completely in Jesus Christ that it is unnecessary for persons to request further guidance of God through extraordinary means like private revelations, locutions, or visions. Jesus Christ is the Way to union with the Father. The director's task is to help persons look increasingly to the teachings and example of Jesus Christ as their road to divine union.2 A spiritual director must also recognize a person's


1A2,20,3. See also A2,32,2.

2A2,7,5-12; 22,5-8.

pp 200-210

Return To Index