Drawn by a Vision (A reflection by Helen Doohan)

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Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

John’s early life was marked by transition from one place to another because of family circumstances. From Fontiveros, where he was born, to Arevalo and then Medina del Campo where he spent many years, travel, transitions and new encounters characterized his formative years. Catalina was rejected by her husband’s family after his death and so she made the arduous journeys in search of work, education for her sons and a better life. Although never far from extreme poverty, she instilled the values of love, compassion, generosity, and care for others within the family. John benefited from her emphases throughout his life.

 Both Catalina and John were drawn by a vision of something better for themselves and the family. Yet they had to embrace hardship, rejection and suffering, growing and maturing because of these experiences. A vision always draws us out of ourselves. A positive and compelling vision enables us to accept difficulties along the way because they lead to growth.

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A modern interpretation of John of the Cross on display in the museum in Ubeda where John died

 In our world today we see the extraordinary movement of people from Mexico, Central America, Syria, Afghanistan, northern Africa and other war torn countries. Poverty, lack or opportunity, destruction and death force people to make hard decisions and to travel to new places. Something draws them – a vision of a better life for family and friends, opportunities for work and education, safety and security. The vision I speak about is for basic human life and values. But we do not have these, how do we even begin to have a vision of the spiritual and the transcendent?

 Taking such steps to move into the unknown, as did so many of our ancestors, prepares us for the courage necessary to live a life open to radical transformation. John’s humble beginnings and his family’s search, drawn by a vision, prepared him for the outstanding life he lived in love and service to others. It also enabled him to see the possibilities for union with God and for a vital and reformed Carmel. We can only pray that today’s migrants will move to a greater vision. And we can hope that we too will be drawn by the light and love of the Christian message.

 

 

The Holy Spirit and Strong Love

The Holy Spirit fills the person with strong and unitive love in two ways: as a permanent presence, a habit of love, and as an enflaming of love in intense acts. As a person is thus transformed, all his or her actions cease to be his or her own for it is the Holy Spirit who now makes them and moves the person to union with God. These acts of love perfect a person in a short time, fortifying him or her in love (F. 1.33). John Welch explains this beautifully. “[W]hen the human spirit is transformed in a deep union of love with the Holy Spirit, motivation for our love shifts. The motivation for our love is no longer in us but now is in God. We now love but essentially do not have the reason for our love. The intention for our love has now moved, so to speak, into God. We love without knowing why; we simply love, and can do nothing but love. In our love, God is loving God and God’s world. ‘. . . The soul here loves God, not through itself but through Him’” (When Gods Die, p. 63).  John tells us that a person feels this love in the very substance of his or her soul, in the deepest center of the human spirit. It is this stronger love and more unitive love that leads the person to God. “[L]ove is the soul’s inclination, strength, and power in making its way to God, for love unites it with God. The more degrees of love it has, the more deeply it enters into God and centers itself in Him” (F. 1.13).

The Living Flame challenges us to think about human existence in a different way. Life and growth is what God is doing in us. God desires to share divine life with us, to communicate a new way of living and loving, and to establish an intimate relationship with each of us. We are called to live the life of God. If we can only remove obstacles to God’s actions within us, then God is free to transform us into who we are intended to be, created to be. The psalmist reminds us that this steadfast love of God is precious, it is better than any other aspect of life (Ps 63.3). This transforming love of the Holy Spirit in this living flame gladdens a person’s heart and allows him or her to enjoy “the glory of God’s glory in likeness and shadow” (F. 3.16). The person possesses God in love and is possessed by God’s love.

 

Four aspects of love

 

The Living Flame describes four aspects of the final stage in spiritual life, spiritual marriage, which John presented in the Spiritual Canticle (stanzas 22-35). To attain this fullness of union, John’s doctrine is clear—nada, nothing. The Ascent and the Dark Night purify in view of a union of love. They describe a transformation that takes place in contemplation when we become receptive to God’s activity within us, when God purifies our false desires, false loves, and false gods and fills us with an inflow of God’s love. One’s capacity for this love depends on the exclusive and integrated focus of every aspect of one’s life. Prior to spiritual marriage the bride already evidenced love and surrender to her Bridegroom (C. 22.5), “but a singular fortitude and a very sublime love are also needed for so strong and intimate embrace from God” (C. 20-21.1). The Spiritual Canticle describes how the bride makes a complete surrender of herself to love, how she is “dissolved” in “such supreme and generous love” (C. 27.2). This loving union transforms a person and unites his or her will to God. This is a time of mutual surrender, profound communication, and total dedicated devotion to God’s service (C. 28.3). The bride declares “All the ability of my soul and body . . . move in love and because of love. Everything I do I do with love, and everything I suffer I suffer with the delight of love” (C. 28.8). Towards the end of his description of spiritual marriage in the Spiritual Canticle John tells us how God values the bride’s love because it is strong, and he adds, “this is why he loved her so much, he saw that her love was strong. . . alone and without other loves” (C. 31.5). A major change has taken place in this communion of love, “God here is the principal lover, who in the omnipotence of his fathomless love absorbs the soul in himself” (C. 31.2). From now on the bride’s love will be God’s loving in her, “so firmly united with the strength of God’s will, with which he loves her, that her love for him is as strong and perfect as his love for her” (C. 38.3).

What the Living Flame makes clear is that this transformation in love in the very depths of a person is the work of the Holy Spirit, who wounds the soul with the tender love of God. John uses the term “wound of love” often, especially in the Spiritual Canticle. Generally, it describes the pain the bride experiences in her unfulfilled longings to be with her Lover. We all experience profound pain at the absence of someone we love intensely, a spouse, friend, parent, child, and so on. It is the empty space in our hearts that should be filled but is now empty. We feel the pain even more when we think about our loss. Sometimes this wound of love results from partial presence which instead of satisfying us leaves us in greater pain at a sense of absence and increases desire to be with someone. The more we experience and reflect on these partial presences the more we feel wounded with love.

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: KEY THEMES–SHARING IN GOD’S BEAUTY

 

Every page of the Spiritual Canticle celebrates beauty. The bride rejoices in all aspects of creation, the mountains, lonely wooded valleys, strange islands, and so on. John shares with the bride the prayer of St. Francis, “My God and all things,” for she feels that all things are God (C. 14-15.5). John also sees God’s beauty in people, “Oh, then, soul, most beautiful of all creatures” (C. 1.7). For John, sin is the absence of beauty, and he looks at it with sadness rather than being judgmental. The spiritual journey is God’s progressive revelation of divine life to the bride, and she immerses herself more and more in the knowledge of her Lover. John shares his knowledge of this journey with his readers, fully aware that “not even they who receive these communications” are able to “describe. . . the understanding [God] gives to loving souls in whom he dwells” (C. Prologue.1). He agrees with theologians and philosophers that we know God primarily through the divine attributes, and he lists them in both the Ascent and the Living Flame (A. 2. 26.3, F. 3.2). “God in his unique and simple being is all the powers and grandeurs of his attributes. He is almighty, wise, and good; and he is merciful, just, powerful and loving, etc.; and he is the other infinite attributes and powers of which we have no knowledge” (F. 3.2). In the journey the bride not only knows these qualities of God but experiences them vitally, penetrating their meaning for her life. Mystics rarely add to the traditional list of divine attributes, but John singles out one attribute that was very special to him—divine beauty. He uses this word to describe God, always using the noun form hermosura (beauty) rather than the adjective hermoso (beautiful). This unusual description is not used analogically from the beauty of nature, but rather is clearly intended to refer to the inner being of God. Thus, the bride asks God “to show her his beauty, his divine essence” (C. 11.2). So, for John beauty is a divine attribute equivalent to the divine essence.

John's monastery in Segovia

John’s monastery in Segovia

In two passages John seems swept off his feet when he thinks of God’s beauty. In one of them he uses the word “beauty” twenty-four times in a single paragraph (C. 36.5) and in the other six times in four lines (C. 11.10). Mother Francisca de la Madre de Dios testified that on one of his visits to Beas, sometime in 1582-1584, John was carried away by the thought of the beauty of God and wrote five additional stanzas of the Spiritual Canticle on the beauty of God (36-40). People who study the mystics refer to the constant repetition of a concept as “mystical obsession.” In this case, John seems so overwhelmed by the thought of God’s beauty that it could be part of his own original experience of God.

Even in the early illuminative phase of contemplation the bride seeks the presence of God and identifies it as beauty, longing “to see him in his divine being and beauty.” In response to her longings, “God communicates to her some semi-clear glimpses of his divine beauty” (C. 11.4). This intensifies her longing for more intimate presence, but with this comes the awareness that such a vision is not possible, for human nature cannot endure such a revelation in this life. Thus, the bride cries “may the vision of your beauty be my death” (C. 11.16); she is willing to die to have the vision of God’s beauty. In the meantime she affirms her faith “which contains and hides the image and the beauty of her Beloved” (C. 12.1), just a sketch of the reality. She experiences God’s beauty all around her (C. 24.6) and longs to see herself in the beauty of God (C. 37.1). Her lovesickness climaxes in the ecstatic cry for union in eternity: “Let us rejoice, Beloved, and let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty” (C. v.36).

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

KEY THEMES IN THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE 5: LOVE AND SELF-SURRENDER

One of the key themes in the Spiritual Canticle is the dedicated vision of love and surrender. John of the Cross gives a wonderful portrait of this as he develops the stages of spiritual betrothal and spiritual marriage. Let us look at some of his ideas and for those who have the time I have given some of his wonderful sayings from The Spiritual Canticle for extra reading.

Spiritual betrothal is a time of deeper love and mutual surrender; the two lovers feel each other’s pain, share ever deeper communications, appreciate each other’s longings, show mutual gratitude for graces and gifts, and yearn for union. The bride develops “a singular and intense love for God,” and “his absence is a singular and intense torment for her” (C. 17.1). In this growth of love and self-surrender “a singular fortitude and a very sublime love are also needed for so strong and intimate an embrace from God” (C. 20-21.1). Even before spiritual marriage she gives her love and surrender to her Bridegroom (C. 22.5).

Spiritual marriage is the time of mutual strong love and surrender. God shows the soul genuine love, the tenderness and truth of love, supreme and generous love. The bride is “dissolved in love” and “she makes a complete surrender of herself.” “[T]his mutual surrender of God and the soul is made in this union” (C. 27.2). “In this stanza the bride tells of the mutual surrender made in this spirit of espousal between the soul and God . . . joined by the communication he made of himself to her, . . . and by the complete surrender she made of herself to him, keeping nothing back for herself” (C. 27.3). The bride’s total surrender is caused by God, it is a gift to the bride of the necessary purity, perfection, and self dedication needed for total surrender (C. 27.6). Her surrender in loving union includes the surrender of her soul and its faculties so that they focus only on love of God and what pleases God. She surrenders to a consuming love and her every expression becomes an act of love. The bride puts it this way: “This is like saying that now all this work is directed to the practice of love of God, that is: All the ability of my soul and body . . . move in love and because of love. Everything I do I do with love, and everything I suffer I suffer with the delight of love” (C. 28.8).

The Bridegroom and bride now enjoy mutuality in love and in self-surrender, enjoying each other’s love. “God not only values this love of hers because he sees that it is alone, but also cherishes it because he sees that it is strong. . . . [T]his is why he loved her so much; he saw that her love was strong . . . alone and without other loves” (C. 31.5). Transformed in love, her love is now God’s love in her. She is united to God’s strong love for her, and “her love for him is as strong and perfect as his love for her” (C. 38.3). This is what she was searching for and what God wanted of her too.

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE–KEY THEMES 4: GOD VALUES STRONG LOVE

 

From the beginning of both poem and commentary for the Spiritual Canticle, the bride’s love is very strong, she is determined in her approach to her Beloved, and she is clearly willing to do and endure whatever it takes to find union in his love. She knows her obligations, appreciates the dynamics of salvation history, is well aware of her indebtedness to God, and saddened by the evil and harm she sees in the world (C. 1.1). During the experiences of this journey her love will mature as she learns to let go of false loves and to discover new ways of loving (C. 1.2). However, from the first step she does everything under the powerful motivation of strong love (C. 1.2) and with readiness to persevere in her love and sacrifice everything else to gain or receive it (C. 1.13). To her initial determined self-gift and self-forgetfulness she adds acceptance of the burning pain that her Lover’s treatment causes. “She loves him more than all things when nothing intimidates her in doing and suffering for love of him whatever is for his service” (C 2.5).

Soon after her relationship begins and she thinks loving union is close at hand, she discovers that “love seems unbearably rigorous with the soul” (C 1.18) and that true love includes purification of all appetites, focus of intellect, will, and memory, mortification and penance, spiritual exercises, and the reception of God’s gifts in contemplation. Intense love such as this requires freedom and fortitude, “Since seeking God demands a heart naked, strong, and free from all evils and goods that are not purely God” (C. 3.5). The soul finds some solace is feeling filled with love on seeing traces of her Beloved in the beauty of the world and cries out “If up to this time I could be content with [indirect knowledge], because I did not have much knowledge or love of you, now the intensity of my love cannot be satisfied with these messages; therefore: ‘Now wholly surrender yourself!’” (C. 6.6).

The soul continues to surrender herself to her Beloved, to love him in every way she can, and to continue to prepare herself to love more purely and intensely. She pleads for healing which can only come from love, and she continues her fight against temptations and disturbances caused by the world, the devil, and the flesh. In this period the soul needs steadfastness and courage, bravery against all fears, and strength to persevere. When the soul is in the midst of the darkness and voids of her struggles, the Bridegroom sends her signs of his love, “divine rays with such strong love and glory” (C. 13.1). Thus, he repays her surrender and strong love with his strong love, and he continues to do this, adapting his visits of intense love to the intensity of her love (C. 13.2). At this time of intense burning love, the Holy Spirit comes to her in contemplation as a refreshing breeze that both cools and inflames her love. “As a breeze cools and refreshes a person worn out by the heat, so this breeze of love refreshes and renews the one burning with the fire of love” (C. 13.12).

KEY THEMES IN SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: 2–THE NATURE OF DESIRE IN JOHN OF THE CROSS

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Desire is not easily satisfied. When John speaks of desire he is describing an attitude of the whole person, an existential yearning or longing to be who we are called to be, who we need to be in order to find peace and fulfillment in life. When John speaks of desire he is describing what is at the core of our humanity. The desire he describes is the cry of humanity for fulfillment in the union of love.

Desire’s original focus is on “your Beloved whom you desire and seek” (C. 1.8). Having fallen in love the desire is now for a deeper experience of something that has already happened. Since the soul has already been swept off her feet by her Lover her journey is always painful at her loss, but the pain is tolerable because of her confidence in her Lover’s fidelity. As the search develops, “It seems to the soul that its bodily and spiritual substance is drying up with thirst for this living spring of God.” She feels her desire can only end when “she could plunge into the unfathomable spring of love” (C. 12.9). Being with one’s Lover is the only thing that matters—to lose oneself for the Beloved and to lose interest in all creatures. “And this is to love herself purposely, which is to desire to be found” (C. 29.10).

We then respond to desire within our own hearts. The desire John presents is the human heart seeking meaning and fulfillment and finding them in love. It is no use seeking fulfillment in the accumulation of desires outside ourselves. “Do not go in pursuit of him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and wearied thereby, and you shall not find him, or enjoy him more securely, or sooner, or more intimately than by seeking him within you” (C. 1.8). So, desire is fulfilled in the interior recollection of our own hearts, for our Lover resides within. “Desire him there, adore him there” (C. 1.8) for he whom your soul loves is within you.

These visits of love intensify desire. While our desire seems at times to burn us up, we also quickly see it is God who desires the love relationship and he is the first Lover. So, God visits the soul frequently during her desire-filled search for her Lover. However, she experiences these visits of love with joy and excitement, but also with pain. In fact, her desire is not fulfilled nor even calmed by these visits. Rather, she experiences them as wounds in her heart—wounds of love that cause a longing for total love. So, these visits of love are not simply refreshing experiences offered by her Lover. “He bestows these to wound more than heal and afflict more than satisfy, since they serve to quicken knowledge and increase appetite (consequently the sorrow and longing) to see God” (C. 1.19)

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

The soul tries every means to satisfy desire. Desire by itself is not enough, we must do something about it, we must do all we can to satisfy it. “Since the desire in which she seeks him is authentic and her love intense, she does not want to leave any possible means untried. The soul that truly loves God is not slothful in doing all she can to find the Son of God, her Beloved” (C. 3.1). Among the primary means are the uprooting of false loves, the practice of virtues, and the spiritual exercise of active and contemplative life. Everything that is not focused on desire for God is a distraction. We must be careful for we become our desires and for the most of us our desires are too small. Fortunately, the night is the death of all false desires, all false gods. The search is filled with “a thousand displeasures and annoyances” (C. 10.3) that can easily distract the search and this demands constant effort. Desiring to reach God in spiritual marriage, “it is necessary for her to attain an adequate degree of purity, fortitude, and love” (C. 20-21.2).

Desire is for greater love and union, from early stages of love and excitement in pursuing her Lover, through periods of pain and loss at his absence, and on to spiritual betrothal and marriage. “The loving soul, however great her conformity to the Beloved, cannot cease longing for the wages of her love . . . the wages of love are nothing else . . . than more love, until perfect love is reached” (C. 9.7). The soul is filled with impatient love that allows no rest, no delays in the ongoing pursuit of greater love. Desire for deeper love and union is what propels and motivates the soul in her ceaseless pursuit of her Lover. This intense desire focuses on seeking the beauty and essence of God. “Reveal your presence, and may the vision of your beauty be my death” (C. 11. 1-2).

 

MOVE TO EMPHASIZE LIFE IN THE SPIRIT

Statue of John of the Cross in Avila

Statue of John of the Cross in Avila

Shift to life in the Spirit.

When we dedicate ourselves to pursue union with God, we must shift the focus of our lives from a life of sense—a self-centered, self-directed life to a focus on the life of the Spirit—a God directed life. This journey to God, with its purification of sense and its purification and redirection of the intellect, memory, and will (in faith, hope, and love, respectively) is a preparation for union, and is at the same time a discovery of our true and authentic selves. Again, God is the primary actor; however, we achieve this through a double process of interiorization which implies a move away from pursuing objects as ends in themselves, and a process of union in which we become our real selves and not a self made up of the accumulation of false values. Persons are inauthentic who merely accumulate goods—material or spiritual—believing that the more they have the better they are. Rather, people discover their authentic selves when they completely empty themselves so that they can be filled with God, and thus realize their greatest potential. “Now all the goodness of creatures in the world compared with the infinite goodness of God can be called evil, since nothing is good, save God only (Luke 18:19). A man then who sets his heart on the good things of the world becomes extremely evil in the sight of God” (A.1. 4.4). We must abandon the life of sense and give ourselves to life in the Spirit.

So, the move from a life of sense—a self-directed life, to a life of spirit—a God directed life is not something that will happen spontaneously or because we want it, rather it requires of us the deliberate redirecting to God of all dimensions of our personality—external, social conventions, instinctual tendencies, and all appetites that affect the root of who we are. We must leave aside all that is not God. Please keep in mind that John of the Cross was not opposed to things in themselves, for they all come from our loving God. What he did oppose was possessiveness of heart, whereby a person makes things ends in themselves. We will only find our authentic self when we dedicate ourselves to life in the spirit and pursue this goal with courageous single-mindedness. “To love is to labor to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God. When this is done the soul will be illumined by and transformed in God” (A.2. 5.7).

This shift to life in the spirit not only leads to deeper union with God, but we will uncover or rediscover our true selves at every level of life: sense, spirit, and religious. While the life of sense leads to slavery (C. 18.1), the life of spirit brings a sense of liberty and a heart that is free and open to the Lord (N.2. 14.3). If we focus on a life of sense we become prisoners to a sense-directed life. But interestingly enough, if we give yourselves to a life of the spirit we will actually gain a new sensitivity of sense, in which we can exercise the senses themselves with a new force under the guidance of the Spirit (A.2. 26.14; 15.4). Furthermore, the shift to a life of spirit enables us to discover our authentic self in depth, in that zone which is naturally divine. This discovery of God at the center of our being results from the work of purification. “As soon as natural things are driven out of the enamored soul, the divine are naturally and supernaturally infused” (A.2. 15.4). This shift to life in the Spirit will bring you peace and satisfaction in your spiritual journey (C. 17.8).

  1. Are you sense-directed still or spirit-God-directed?
  2. Is there something that is still an end in itself for you other than God?
  3. Do you think you have discovered your authentic self?

Dynamism of the spiritual life–John’s integrated vision

STAGES IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

When John of the Cross writes any of his works his system of spiritual development is already complete, at least in his own mind. He may write other works later, but these are explanations for others not for him. Everyone lives based on convictions that form a systematic way of approaching life—whether they realize it or not, whether they can articulate it or not. John has a very clear understanding of the systematic development of the spiritual life and how each part relates to others in a progressive development. Part of John’s genius is his ability to see the whole picture. Thus, he can refer to a dark night, a guiding night, and a night more lovely than the dawn. He can see suffering as an integral part of total transformation. He may start by saying “I went out unseen,” “I went out calling you,” and “tear through the veil,”—all first steps in the journey whose challenges, blessings, and end he already knows. So, when John writes to his directees he locates his advice within the context of the systematic development of the spiritual life (see L. 3 and 13, S. 19, 23, 25).

JOHN WRITES WITH AN AWARENESS OF ALL THE STAGES

There are other signs that John sees a specific purpose for each step in the whole development process; he appreciates the various stages in the spiritual life. He speaks of the benefits of the nights when he has already moved on to something better, and thus no longer feels the burden but the resulting joy. “One dark night, . . . ah, the sheer grace!” “This glad night and purgation causes many benefits, even though to the soul it seemingly deprives it of them” (N.1. 12.1). This ability to see the overall picture also gives rise to the sometimes contrasting reactions of John and his directees, real or literary. Beginners rejoice in their initial consolations, but John is saddened by their lowly state. Those in the passive night suffer, while John, knowing what is really happening, can rejoice. A further sign of the presence of a system in John’s works is his continual use of parenthetical remarks to clarify what is happening. Some asides refer to what lies ahead (A.2. 5.1), others to stages already passed (F. 1.18; C. Theme.1).

STAGES MODELED ON GOD’S JOURNEY TO US

While his major works refer to our return journey to God, John is also very clear about what precedes our journey to God, namely, God’s journey to us, brilliantly described in the “Romances.” Our journey to God is modeled on God’s journey to us. John is always aware of God’s strategy of love, both in coming to us and in drawing us to divine life. John is a wonderful guide; he knows the major steps in our journey even though they may not be entirely predictable, nor identical for all. But a prudent guide like John knows the key moments in our journey to God; he already knows possible pitfalls, challenges, moments of rest, and the ecstasy of the end.

VARIOUS INTERPREATIONS

Some disciples of John see his system as a modification of Pseudo-Denis the Areopagite’s division of the spiritual journey into three stages: beginners, proficient, and perfect, corresponding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive phases of spiritual growth. John accepts these stages, but stresses the transitions from one to the other in the night of sense and the night of spirit.

Others feel John’s system starts with individuals who have already made a decisive commitment to God and hence he excludes the preliminaries of spiritual preparation and focuses on the means to the end of union with God. The means are the nights seen in three steps: 1. the active night of sense, 2. the active night of spirit and the passive night of sense taken together as two aspects of the same experience, and 3. the passive night of spirit.

CHALLENGES OF JOHN

A simple way of understanding John’s thought which is the secret of his own life and his system is to view life as a dynamic development in three fundamental phases: the relentless pursuit of God, the willingness to endure the nights, and the discovery of union with God which is also the total renewal of self. In this view, the spiritual journey implies emptying ourselves of all that is not God, so that we can be filled with what is truly of God. For John the focus is not on the negative aspects of the means but on the enthusiasm for the end in transformative love. In fact, the whole system is nothing except decisions of choice-oriented love, always choosing what is the most loving thing to do; a great example of the challenges of John of the Cross.

Dr. Leonard Doohan is an author and workshop presenter
He focuses on issues of spiritual leadership. He also has a special interest  in John of the Cross
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The Dynamism of the Spiritual Life

Church of John of the Cross with modern art of his major works

Possible stages in spiritual life development.

In his presentation of the dynamic development of the spiritual life John was originally considered a disciple of Pseudo-Dyonisius the Areopagite, who divided the spiritual life into three main stages: beginners, proficients, and perfect, corresponding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive periods of life. Writers dependent on this insight generally considered the three stages to be important but rarely gave any importance to the transitions from one to the other.

John’s own experience together with extensive knowledge gained through spiritual direction gave him better insight into the stages than anyone prior to him. To the traditional three-fold division John highlights the two crucial transitions. John knew from his own experience of night that crises can be moments of grace and progress, and he called the two transitions the night of sense and the night of spirit. The former was the transition to contemplation, and the latter the decisive moment of life as the complete trusting abandonment to God. The three stages of prior understandings remain and the second becomes a plateau of rest between the nights.

Thus, the nights become so important that John describes the entire journey to God as a dark night. “The darkness and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo on their way to the high state of perfection are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately. Nor does experience of them equip one to explain them. Only those who suffer them will know what this experience is like, but they won’t be able to describe it” (A Prologue, 1). Dedicated people who have started the journey come to a point where they advance no more. The problem is clear to John; for one reason or another they do not abandon themselves to God’s guidance and enter the dark night. “[A] soul must ordinarily pass through two principal kinds of nights. . . . The first night or purgation . . . concerns the sensory part of the soul. The second night. . . concerns the spiritual part” (A.1. 1.1-2). The first night occurs when beginners transition to contemplation, the second night occurs when proficients move to union. The dark night is an experience of purification, but the motivation for entering it is love. There are three reasons for calling this journey a dark night. The point of departure is a commitment to the denial of one’s appetites and to a rejection of self-centeredness and gratification as motives in life which is a dark experience of privation for the senses. The means or way to union is faith which is a dark unknowing experience for the intellect. The point of arrival is God who is an incomprehensible mystery—a dark night to any individual in this life (see A.1. 2.1).

The two nights, of sense and of spirit, have two parts, one active and the other passive. The active is a time of ascetical preparation and a deliberate practice of the three theological virtues. The latter is the beginning of contemplation and the inflow of God’s transforming action by means of the three theological virtues. Some writers see the active night of sense to be first, followed by the passive night of sense which is the entry into contemplation. However, the active night of sense will continue through contemplation. In fact, the illumination of contemplation throws further light on more unconscious levels that need active purification. The active night of sense is the effort to remove faults and sins one can see, but there are lots of faults one cannot see without God’s illumination in contemplation. Some have periods of rest after which comes the active night of spirit, followed by the passive night of spirit.

Others see the active night of sense as first, followed by the active night of spirit along with the passive night of sense as two parts of the same experience. Then the passive night of spirit follows. However, the experiences of active night of spirit and passive night of  sense continue to surface and purify even during any respite or plateau periods.

Reflections: In our spiritual journey we enter the thick darkness where we encounter God (Ex 20:21) and God gradually turns our darkness into light (Is 42:16). The journey through the passive nights is entirely in the hands of God. “In the first place it should be known that if anyone is seeking God, the Beloved is seeking that person much more” (F. 3.28). The point of departure is not our efforts but a loving God who is drawing us through the darkness to the light (N.1. 1.1; N.2. 1.1).

This is a journey that consists in the pursuit of no thing, a new discipline that the soul imposes on itself or allows and undergoes in God. John speaks of the nothingness of all creation in comparison with God and of all created and spiritual things as means to union with God. It is not that he despises any of them but that he sees everything as nothing in relation to God (N.1. 4.4-7). This can be a disconcerting aspect of John’s teaching unless we constantly remember his goal of everything re-found in God; through poverty and nakedness in God we possess all (see “Prayer of a soul taken with love”).

Poverty and negation, or mortification of voluntary, habitual imperfections that move us away from God are means to liberate us from what is false in ourselves, in our world, and in our understanding of God (A.1. 11). This becomes a spiritual empowerment and gives us the freedom to choose the good, to eliminate all that is not of God, and to pursue eagerly only what is of God. Thus, we become dry and ready to be set on fire. “For to love is to labor to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God” (A.2. 5.7).


Seeing life in these categories can be helpful but there is generally overlap. The passive night of sense can be from the beginning provided an individual is open to receive and understand the challenges. Then again, there is a way in which the active night of spirit is also connected to sense in that it is about gratification concerning spiritual things of intellect, memory, and will that spills over into the senses. Furthermore, the passive night of sense can be about unconscious sins, attitudes, and gratifications that are discovered through contemplation.

Dr. Leonard Doohan is an author and workshop presenter
He focuses on issues of spiritual leadership. He also has a special interest  in John of the Cross
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