Key concepts–the hiddenness of God

Where is God hidden?     

Night over Toledo where John discovered God's love.

Night over Toledo where John discovered God’s love.


John says that “The good contemplative must seek God with love’ (C 1.6). But where does one find God. In the Spiritual Canticle John gives several indications.

We find God in the revelation of the Son. “The Son is the only delight of the Father, who rests nowhere else nor is present in any other than in his beloved Son” (C. 1.5).We are all like the lover of the poem who seeks God but finds God always seems distant when we want to be close. God is hidden but we can find God as long as we understand that even when we find God it will still be in hiddenness.

In addition to the Son’s revelations, the primary experience in which the Trinity is discoverable is in the depths of our own hearts. “It should be known that the Word, the Son of God, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is hidden by his essence and his presence in the innermost being of the soul” (C. 1.6). God is within everyone by divine essence. God is never absent from us, for in each of us there is a center which is naturally divine.

God is even hidden in the divine gifts of presence, whether by essence, grace, or spiritual affection. Even these are hidden, for “God does not reveal himself as he is, since the conditions of this life will not allow such a manifestation” (C. 11.3). God’s hiding place is within us not outside us; “you yourself are his dwelling and his secret inner room and hiding place” (C. 1.7). So, we should not go searching for God elsewhere, outside of ourselves, but find God within. Nearness to God inflames greater love, reveals the Beloved, but reminds one he is more hidden than revealed (see C. 13.1). Even when the soul gets close she is told she is not ready for union and receives glimpses and intense longings, but is still told to go back (C. 13.2). No matter our own efforts, God remains hidden, and we need to appreciate the need for purification, emptiness, and receptivity.

God is sometimes hidden in the communications we receive and in the concepts we have. We must cultivate an absolute conviction of divine transcendence and let God be who God wishes to be for us. While the full revelation of God only comes in the next life, God is within our hearts but hidden. To find God we must leave aside every other interest, thus uncovering both God and our true selves. Often this means we must be aware that spiritual communications can be more our own images than God’s. We must go beyond the normal objects of the faculties—intellectual knowledge, memories, and limited desires (C. 1. 12-13).

We find God still hidden in faith and we continue to seek God in faith, love, and unknowing, leaving aside all former knowledge, understanding, activities of faculties, and satisfactions (C. 1. 10-11). Often we can see better in darkness. “Only by means of faith, in divine light exceeding all understanding, does God manifest Himself to the soul” (A.2. 9.1).

God is hidden even in the touches of love given to the soul; they communicate, reveal, and wound, but they hide, too. “The soul experiencing this love exclaims: ‘Why do you leave it so,’ that is, empty, hungry, alone, sorely wounded and sick with love” (C. 9.6). In verse ten she goes on to insist, “Extinguish these miseries, since no one else can stamp them out.” In the resulting love-sickness God both reveals and remains hidden. “The reason for this is that the love of God is the soul’s health, and the soul does not have full health until love is complete” (C. 11.11).

Sometimes God is hidden because we continue to look at our own false images of God. We must remove these false gods in the dark night. Clinging to our own knowledge, memories, and loves blocks a genuine revelation of God. Even religion’s certainty does not lead us to truth, and a healthy insecurity and doubt concerning contemporary religion’s many declarations can open us to the unseen world that can lead us to God. Our knowledge impedes God’s self-revelation.

We can also see that the depressing misery of our world can hide our appreciation of God, but God’s future, our hope, overwhelms and overcomes the misery and even gives meaning to what seems increasingly meaningless. Part of our contemporary misery is that we have become skilled at concealing truth, hiding from our own consciences, and blocking God’s communication.



John of the Cross’ continuing challenge

The Cathedral of Segovia which was being built during John’s life

My wife and I have just returned from a visit to the places of John of the Cross in northernSpain. It was a wonderful trip that gave us chance to appreciate John a little more. It was particularly encouraging to see many lay people for whom John is a significant challenge in their spiritual lives.

John insists that we are people transformed by faith, and the most immediate consequence of faith is our conviction that there is more in life than meets the eye; there is a world that is not immediately apparent. Our experience of faith teaches us that there are two horizons to life, and they are intimately linked. We discover in ourselves a zone that naturally yearns for transcendent reality, and we live at this level of mystery, where we are enthralled by enduring truths. Everything we think and do is transformed by this awareness of a relationship between our everyday life and a realm of life that gives meaning to this one. John speaks about this true life. “I no longer live within myself and I cannot live without God, for having neither him nor myself what will life be? It will be a thousand deaths, longing for my true life and dying because I do not die” (Stanzas of the soul that suffers with longing to see God, v. 1). Again, here, life is judged and given a new meaning by a horizon of life beyond this one.

Through the dark nights that John describes we are longing to find our true lives, and John teaches us that as people of faith we should naturally identify with the transcendent. John gives the impression of being someone totally dedicated to all that he is doing here in this world while at the same time being elsewhere, enjoying life on another horizon. This requires a spirit of reflection and a hunger for silence. When we emerge from tranformative silence we have an ability to view the world through a different lens that can change everything for us. Deep within each of us there is a yearning for union with God. John insists that this process of discovering the potential for growth that lies within us includes distancing ourselves from the accumulation of religious devotions and entering with simplicity into our own hearts. We seek the richness of life not by adding on more religious practices but by touching ultimate goodness and love that lie within us. Appreciating God’s gift of love (see “Romances”) and encountering the everlasting call of God in our own hearts, we then see that our faith experience guides the course of life. We need to pay attention to the connections between our own yearnings for fulfillment and the call of another realm of life. As we journey through life we catch a glimpse of a horizon of life beyond this one. This is one of the foundational experiences of our spirituality. The world in which we live only has meaning because of a realm of life of which we catch sight from time to time. We are not journeying in the unknown, even when we journey through the dark nights, for we can still feel a certain companionship of our God who draws us to divine life (II DN 11, 7).

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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Seeing things in a new way

Yesterday, I had cataract surgery on a second eye. The first time I went because the Optician said I needed to have it done. This time I went because I became aware that I couldn’t see things clearly anymore, they weren’t in focus, and there seemed to be a film over my eye that distorted my vision. I was aware throughout these weeks that this is an image of the spiritual journey and I was reminded that in Mark’s gospel the central section which is a journey to Jerusalem begins and ends with the healing of a man who is blind. This biblical technique, inclusion, is a way the author emphasizes that the central journey is nothing else except a healing of the blindness of those who accompany Jesus. You might remember that Jesus healed a man in two phases; first, the man could see a little — men look like trees to me — and then Jesus healed him  completely. Likewise Peter insist that Jesus is the Son of the Living God, but refuses to accept Jesus as Suffering Servant. In other words he sees Jesus only partially and needs to be healed a second time so that he can see completely who Jesus is for us. It’s as if Peter has a cataract!

The first time I had cataract surgery I didn’t appreciate that it was possible to see things much more clearly than I did. We all tend to think that the little we see is all there is to see, especially from a religious point of view. You might remember the story John tells of the blind old man who constantly tells his clearly seeing young guide where to go; the old man thinks that the little he sees is all there is to see, whereas the young guide who sees clearly is pushed around and ignored. That’s where John of the Cross comes in and challenges us to journey through the dark night and discover a new way of seeing ourselves, our relationship to others, and our understanding of God. We must learn to see what others do not see and to also see what we have always seen but to see it in a new way. This implies removing false values and letting God remove them from blocking our vision. “The appetities are like a cataract on the eye or specks of dust in it; until removed they obstruct vision” (I A 9, 4). False desires appear as new and attractive ideas. “The reason is that a new light set directly  in front of the visual faculty blinds this faculty so that it fails to see the light farther away” (I A 9, 3). “The blindness of the rational and superior feeling is the appetite that, like a cataract and cloud, interferes with and hangs over the eye of reason so things present cannot be seen” (LF 3, 72). “Since the cataract and cloud shrouds the eye of judgment, only the cataract is seen, sometimes of one color, sometimes another, according to the way the cataract appears to the eye. People judge that the cataract is God because, as I say, they see only the cataract that covers the faculty, and God cannot be grasped by the senses” (LF 3, 73).

So, I take my own experience of this week as a reminder that the spiritual journey is partly made of our own efforts to look at things in a different way, and that requires training and new priorities, but it also requires the surgery of the dark night when God is in charge, removing the cataracts that block the vision God intends us to see.

Visiting Castille, especially Segovia

The tomb of John of the Cross in Segovia

The year I finished a manuscript for a book on John’s Dark Night, my wife and I decided to visit the places in Castile connected with the life of John of the Cross. On a previous occasion, after finishing my first book on John, The Contemporary Challenge of John of the Cross, we had visited many of the places frequented by John in the south of Spain, particularly in Andalusia. We were excited about our new trip; I had been to Castile on a previous occasion when I taught English one summer to a group of students in Logrono, and then took the opportunity to move south to Avila, Segovia, and some of the surrounding places. My wife and I decided to drive from Italy where we lived at the time, and we ended up driving about 3500 miles, over a period of eighteen days. We drove through varied and wonderful country in Spain—mountains, valleys, badlands, and Montana like areas, fertile farming areas, orchards. We had left Manresa and decided to stop at El Pilar in Zaragoza, a major marian shrine—what a wonderful place, as was the beautiful San Seo. We arrived in Segovia from Soria on April 22nd. We had stopped in Ciudad de Osma with its wonderful cathedral, public areas, and walking places. Then we moved on to Segovia with its magnificent buildings.

As we approached the city, the weather was beautiful and Segovia was at its best, exciting, wonderful, and truly magnificent. Our hotel was just outside the city, but we went in immediately, and like all visitors to Segovia were awestruck at its Roman aqueduct—a truly brilliant work of human creativity. Then we walked through the main streets, focusing on the places that existed in John’s time, trying to think how he felt surrounded by such beauty and wealth—the Cathedral, churches, plazas, and buildings of wealthy families and nobility.

The Cathedral of Segovia was destroyed in 1521 during the Comuneros War and the new one constructed under the inspiration of Charles V and dedicated to the Assumption of Mary and to St Frutos, the patron of Segovia. The work began in June 1525, seventeen years before John’s birth, and it was not completed until many years after his death. John would have seen the early progress of what became the last great Gothic Cathedral in Spain. From the Cathedral it is a short and easy walk to the great Alcazar of Segovia, dating back to the twelfth century.

This magnificent castle looks like something you would see in a children’s book, and in fact was one of several that Walt Disney visited as the basis for his castle in Disneyland. This was one of the favorite residences of the monarchs of Castile, and it was from this place that Isabella the Catholic left to be proclaimed Queen in the main square of Segovia in 1474. From the walls of this splendid palace and fortress we could look down on the river Eresma in the valley below and immediately see the Monastery of Discalced Carmelites where John had been prior. In the late afternoon we made our first visit to John’s former community and spent time in reflection at his tomb. It was a simple but wonderful space. We also saw the tomb of Dona Ana of Penalosa, one of John’s disciples and the person to whom he dedicated both the poem and commentary, the Living Flame of Love.

The next day we returned to Segovia, stopping first at the church of San Lorenzo, built in the twelfth to the thirteenth centuries and known to John. We then went on to the splendid fifteenth century monastery of Santa Maria del Parral and the community of Hieronymite monks. Not far from the monastery we entered the Church of the True Cross, originally constructed by the Templars in 1208, it is now under the patronage of the Knights of Malta. We passed the Carmelite Monastery and moved on to the sanctuary of Nuestra Senora de la Fuencisla, built in the sixteenth century on an original shrine of the thirteenth century, known to John, to honor the patron of the city and surrounding lands. We then returned to spend time at John’s tomb and reflect on some of the central reasons for our visit. After lunch in the old Jewish quarter we wandered around the city again visiting some of the churches that John must have known. Later that evening we returned to view John’s monastery from the city walls and then to go outside the monastery to look up at the illuminated Alcazar, truly picturesque and magnificent. You feel a different spirit in this city, reflective, artistic, and historical.