Dynamism of the spiritual life–John’s integrated vision


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).


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).


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.


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.


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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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.