St John Of The Cross





Saint John of the Cross' major doctrinal writings are an expression of his ministry of spiritual direction. He wrote in response to his directees who requested a fuller explanation of the Christian spiritual life. To discover his theory of spiritual direction, we must examine these writings. First, however, it will be helpful to review the three key concepts which are the foundation of his understanding of the spiritual life. These are: God, the human person, and the relationship between God and the human person. John's theory of spiritual direction flows directly from his ideas of God, the human person, and their relationship.

In reading John of the Cross, recall that he wrote the substance of his major prose works in Andalusia after he attained a high degree of spiritual maturity and when his own synthesis of the spiritual life was complete. Thus, we do not find in his treatises a development in his understanding of Christian spirituality expressed through writing on the


subject over a period of years. His synthesis of the spiritual life was complete in his own mind before he put it on paper; thus, his major prose works present a mature and comprehensive understanding of the spiritual life.1

Nonetheless, there are differences in John's major treatises which arise, not from the chronological development of his thought, but rather from the purpose of each individual work and the different aspect of his own personality expressed in the work. The Ascent-Dark Night, an extensive explanation of the entire road that leads to union with God, shows a logical and analytical mind at work, setting down premises and rigorously drawing conclusions from them. The Spiritual Canticle, a commentary upon a highly imaginative love poem about the ineffable union between Christ and the soul, shows the influence of John's poetic imagination upon his treatment of doctrinal matters. The Living Flame of Love, a commentary upon a poem describing a soul's transformation in God through love, reflects the affective side of his personality. Each treatise thus reveals a different aspect of John: The Ascent-Dark Night, his intellectual abilities of logical analysis; The Spiritual Canticle, his imaginative powers; The Living Flame of Love, his affectivity.2 These differences, in turn, influence his doctrinal treatment of subjects. For example, the


lCollected Works, p. 33.

2Vida y Obras, pp. 354-55; Life, pp. 312-13.


God who emerges from the logical analysis of the Ascent-Dark Night appears far more strict and demanding than the Lover of the soul found in the Canticle and the Flame. To evaluate the writings of John of the Cross, one must recognize that the various facets of his personality affect his expression of doctrine and spirituality. Otherwise, one is often faced with apparently irreconcilable statements drawn from his different writings.

The effect of John's personality upon his writings leads to a consideration of the sources for his work. John lists those sources in the prologues of his major treatises: personal experience, human science, Sacred Scripture, and scholastic theology.1 Of these, the personal experience derived from his own spiritual life and his pastoral ministry is the primary source.2 His major prose works are didactic commentaries upon several of his poems which express his own personal journey to God and union with Him. These commentaries attempt to expound the meanings embodied in the poems which, in turn, are based on his own religious experience. As he develops his explanations, John often alludes to particular religious and pastoral experiences which illustrate his explanations.3


1A, Prologue, 1-2; C, Prologue, 3-4; F, Prologue, 1.

2Vida y Obras, pp. 253-55; Life, pp. 225-27. See, for example, A2, 29, 1-4.

3A1,12,5; A2,22,16; 26,17; 31,2; A3,13,9; 36,2; Nl,8,5; 13,3; 14,6.


To explain his experiences, John draws heavily upon the Bible, Christian and non-Christian writers, and the human sciences of his day. The Bible is his primary reference work. Although he does not attempt a biblical spirituality based upon an analysis and synthesis of biblical texts relevant to the spiritual life, he does use the sacred passages to explain his own meaning. In this way, he considers his explanations solidly established because they are supported by the Holy Spirit who speaks through Sacred Scripture.1 John explains his methodology in the following manner:

And that my explanations--which I desire to submit to anyone with better judgment than mine and entirely to Holy Mother the Church--may be worthy of belief, I do not intend to affirm anything of myself nor trust in any of my own experiences nor in those of other spiritual persons whom I have known or heard of. Although I plan to make use of these experiences, I want to explain and confirm at least the more difficult matters through passages from Sacred Scripture.2

The above passage also indicates that John did not consider his own experience the ultimate authority in his exposition of the spiritual life, but saw this authority to be the Church. In this matter, however, he did not appeal directly to ecclesiastical documents to support his teachings: he simply acknowledged the Church to be the final


1A, Prologue, 2.

2C, Prologue, 4. A good example of John's use of Sacred Scripture can be seen in A2,22,12 in which he uses a passage from Ecclesiates (Eccl. 4:9-12) to emphasize the value of spiritual direction. Clearly, John is not interpreting the literal or spiritual sense of the scriptural passage, but


judge of his writings.1

Saint John's writings, therefore, contain a complete and mature synthesis of Christian spirituality, emphasizing the road leading to union with God and the nature of the divine union. John articulates this synthesis in various ways depending upon the purpose of each of his major treatises and the aspect of his personality expressed in the treatise. His own religious and pastoral experience is the primary source for his explanations of the spiritual life. He draws upon Sacred Scripture, scholastic theology, and human science to formulate his experiences into his own synthesis of Christian spirituality and then submits his entire teaching to the Church as the ultimate judge of its truth. We now turn specifically to his teachings about God, the human person, and their relationship which are the doctrinal foundations of his


rather accommodating it to support his own meaning. At other times, John interprets biblical passages in a more literal and spiritual sense (e.g., A2,7,1-13; A3,18,1-6). Frederick Gast, "The Use of Sacred Scripture by Saint John of the Cross," paper presented at the Institute of Carmelite Studies seminar on Saint John of the Cross, Washington, D.C., 30 September 1974. See also Ahern, "Scripture in St. John of the Cross," Vilnet, Bible et Mystique.

1See also A, Prologue, 2; F, Prologue, 1. The Church's evaluation of John's writings is an interesting story in itself. After his death, his writings were twice denounced to the Spanish Inquisition (between 1622 and 1633) and once to the Roman (1668) before eventually gaining the fullest approbation of the Church which was expressed through his being proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1926. See Bruno, St. John of the Cross, p. 421, n. 42.


theory of spiritual direction.l


Saint John of the Cross speaks of God in many ways. Most basic is God as eternal, infinite Being. Present in the simplicity of God's unique, changeless being are innumerable attributes such as infinite beauty, infinite wisdom, infinite goodness, and infinite light. By contrast with the infinite being of God, creatures are nothing. In His own divine essence, God is incomprehensible and inaccessible, insusceptible of being limited or measured by human experience, totally beyond the powers of human understanding and imagination. Although he uses anthropomorphisms when speaking of God (e.g., He is angry with some persons and pleased with others), he sees God as incomprehensible, indescribable, and ultimately unknowable except to Himself.2

God is also Creator of the universe with all its order and beauty. Consequently, everything is related to God and bears a trace of the divine essence. Although God is trans-


1A considerable body of literature is available on the meaning of God, the human person, and their relationship in the writings of Saint John of the Cross. See Ottonello, Bibliografia, pp. 85-156, and Bibliographia Internationalis Spiritualitatis, vols. 1-10, under the heading "Hagiographia --Joannes a Cruce, St." In the pages that follow, I present only an outline of his teachings on these subjects with references to some of the pertinent literature.

2A1, 4, 3-8; A2, 8, 1-6; 4,4; 9, 1; 20, 5; 26, 3; A3, 38,3; 43, 2-3; Nl, 12, 6; Cl, 3-4 & 12; 7,9; 26,4; F2,20; F3, 2&6&11 &17& 48-52 & 79; F4, 6; Sayings of Light and


cendent, His infinite perfection is reflected in His creation, allowing one to attain an idea of God through his creatures. Saint John writes in The Spiritual Canticle:

God created all things with remarkable ease and brevity and in them He left some trace of Who He is, not only in giving all things being from nothing, but even by endowing them with innumerable graces and qualities, making them beautiful in a wonderful order and unfailing dependence on one another ....
... creatures are like a trace of God's passing. Through them one can track down his grandeur, might, wisdom, and other divine attributes.1

John sees important implications for human persons in God the Creator. As their Creator, God is present in persons, giving them life and being, preserving them in existence. Without this divine presence, they would be annihilated. The Creator's presence in the creature, far from being passive or impersonal, is the basis for a potentially dynamic relationship between the person and God. God may be found in the depths of one's own being, thus becoming part of human experience.2

God may also be present in the human person in other ways that heighten the possibility of a personal relationship between Himself and the person. God is present by grace in one who avoids sin and by affectivity in one who makes God the object of his knowledge and love. Aware that God has


Love, Nos. 25,52; Letters, nos. 2,12. Ruiz Salvador, Introduccion a San Juan de la Cruz, pp. 335-343.

1C5, 1-3: cf., C4, 1-3; 39, 11; Poem Romance, 3-6.

2N2,23,3-4; Cl,6;11,3-4; F4,14.


created humanity for Himself, an individual may consciously direct his thought and affection to the love of God. John visualizes an intense interpersonal relationship between Creator and creature and dramatizes this relationship in The Spiritual Canticle as a loving dialogue which expresses a powerful bond between God and the human soul involving shared life and mutual self-surrender.1

John thus understands God as the beginning and end of human existence. Using an analogy from the physics of his century, he describes God as man's true center. Just as the natural center of a rock is the middle of the earth toward which it moves with all the power of its being, so God is the center of the human soul toward which it is naturally drawn. Because love is the natural force in human life which moves the person toward its true center, John counsels his readers to direct all their human activity toward loving and serving God, for He is the ultimate center of human life.2

God in the writings of Saint John of the Cross is also the God of Christian faith. In addition to the revelation of Himself in His creation, God reveals the mysteries of His inner life to His creatures. Among these is the Trinity --


1A1,9,2; Cl,l; 11,3-4; 16,1-7; 20 & 21, 1&4. Ruiz Salvador, Introduction a San Juan de la Cruz, pp. 389-395.

2F1,9-14; Sayings of Light and Love, no. 32; Counsels to a Religious, 5; Letters, no. 11.


three Persons in one God.

John understands the Triune God according to traditional Catholic theology. Though the three Persons are equal to one another, special characteristics are attributed to Each. The First Person, God the Father, is eternal and omnipotent, the Creator and Governor of the universe. The Second Person, Jesus Christ, is the Son of God, the Eternal Word through whom the Father created the world. In becoming man, Jesus is Mediator between God and the human race. Through Him, union between God and the human person is possible.1 He is the divine Bridegroom; the human soul is the bride. In The Spiritual Canticle, John envisions the perfect union of man with God as a union of love between Jesus Christ and the human soul, a love which grows through the stages of spiritual betrothal and spiritual marriage. The Third Person, the Holy Spirit, proceeds eternally from the Father and the Son as the Living Flame of their mutual love and is given by them to the human person to abide within the soul as an interior guide directing the soul to union with its Beloved. Ultimately, the achievement of this union of the Christian with God is the work of the One God, a Trinity of Persons, present in the depth of the


1Ruiz Salvador, Introduccion a San Juan de la Cruz, pp. 355-382; Pál Varga, "Christus bei Johannes vom Kreuz," Ephemerides Carmeliticae, 18 (1967): 197-225; Giovanna della Croce, "Jesus Christus in der Lehre des Hl. Johannes vom Kreuz," Christliche Innerlichkeit, 3 (Juli-August 1967-68): 42-47.


soul.1 God in the writings of Saint John of the Cross is thus a transcendent Creator totally present in His creation, a Trinity of persons continually drawing human persons into the interpersonal intimacy of the divine life. This conception of God informs John's understanding of the spiritual life.2 Because God is transcendent, He must be sought in faith. Because God is immanent, He must be sought in interior prayer. Because God is Triune, divine union must be sought with an awareness of how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit work in the human soul. Faith, prayer, divine union, dependence upon the Father, imitation of Jesus Christ, and guidance by the Holy Spirit are essential facets of the spiritual life which must be understood in the ministry of spiritual direction because they derive from the nature of God.

We must now investigate more deeply John's understanding of the human person.

The Human Person3

The goal of human life--perfect union with God through


lAl,5,2-3; Al,6,1-4; A2,7,8-11; 9,1; 29,1; A3,2,9-12; Cl,6;5,1-3; 17,2-10; 20&21, 1-2; F1,1-3; 14-15; 18-19; F2, 1-3; 16-17; 20; 34; F3,46; 82; Poem, Romance, 1-2.

2Lucien-Marie de Saint Joseph, "Transcendance et Immanence d'après Saint Jean de la Croix," Etudes Carmélitaines, 26 (1947):265-89; Adolfo Muñoz Alonso, "El Dios de San Juan de la Cruz," Revista de Espiritualidad 27 (Julio-Diciembre 1968):461-49.

3Discussions of John's anthropology may be found in the

pp 110-120

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