St John of the Cross

Two saints applying

A second and more important reason for their (St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross) preeminence today is that their method of approach to spiritual theology is already very much the modern scientific method as we know it. Both writers take as their starting point an immense quantity of carefully assembled empirical data. They lived at a time and in a place where there was an immense religious zeal, and when innumerable people applied themselves to the business of the spiritual life. Many more, spurred on by fashion rather than piety to study, and in the course of guiding, directing, and praying for them St Teresa and St John of the Cross, observed them and learnt from them, filling out the wealth of their own personal experience from the temptation and the blessings, the successes and the failings of their fellow countrymen and women. Like the true scientists they were, they collated, classified, and examined in detail the information at their disposal, and wrote their conclusions in treaties which deliberately give a conspectus of the whole field of spiritual theology. Thiers is no haphazard, piecemeal work. They aimed to produce a complete and systemized body of doctrine. It was of the genius of St Teresa to pioneer the method, the crowning glory of St John of the Cross to relate the material to the whole background of dogmatic and moral theology of the Church.

…this was no academic exercise. The saints were surrounded by those who wished to make their way to God. The task before them was that of evolving a practical method of guiding them. –E.W. Trueman Dicken ‘The Crucible of Love: A Study of the Mysticism of St Teresa of Jesus and St John of the Cross’



During the last twenty years there has been a quite astonishing demand among English speaking people for the classics of the spiritual life. It would be rash to draw from that fact any general conclusions as to the state of religion at the present day, for a not too serious curiosity on the part of the reading public concerning all that appears mysterious or occult may easily account for the sales of many ‘mystic’ works. But if this is so, it is a pity. It is true that the spiritual masters can open for us ‘deep caverns of the sense which were dark and blind,’ but they make no offer of a sight-seeing trip at the price in cash of a paper-backed translation. The road where they would lead us is one of self-discipline and self-abnegation, and there is no easy way round. “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”E.W. Trueman Dicken ‘The Crucible of Love: A Study of the Mysticism of St Teresa of Jesus and St John of the Cross’ copyright 1963.

Crucible: noun 1. a container of metal or refractory material employed for heating substances to high temperatures. 2.
Metallurgy. a hollow area at the bottom of a furnace in which the metal collects. 3. a severe, searching test or trial.


Stricken with night fever in Spain

That night I became ill with a fever. It was an attack of no great consequence, but alarming while it lasted. I tossed on my bed hour after hour in a state between waking and sleeping. The room seemed to be filled with saints looking down at me with supercilious expressions. Saint Ignatius stood by my pillow, wearing black velvet embroidered with gold. Saint Isidro wore a leather jerkin and high boots; a yoke of oxen were at his side. John the Baptist kept changing his appearance with chameleon rapidity, becoming each time more formidable. Then, I seemed to be out of doors, standing under a colonnade in the Plaza Mayor into which a mob was surging from the neighboring streets. There were more people on balconies and at windows. On a platform, raised above the crowd, I saw Philip, the king, in a black doublet and hose. His face had a secretive expression and his hair was pale under his feathered cap. There was a savage roar of voices, then a silence more horrible than the shouting. Those condemned by the Iquisitiors were filing past. They wore the yellow sanbenito painted with tongues of flame, and carried candles in their hands and green crosses. Presently, I was back in my room. Saint John of the Cross was there. He was wearing the white cloak of a Carmelite, and his face bore an expression at once ecstatic and compassionate. I heard over and over again the words:

Oh noche amable mas que el alborada.
O night more lovely than the dawn.

I did not know whether it was he or myself who was saying them. Then, I knew it was myself, and that what I had thought to be his cloak, was the curtain. Through the window I saw the sky streaked with daylight. –‘A Journey in Spain: Saint Teresa’ Elizabeth Hamilton

St John of the Cross. Euclid, Ohio.


Profound renunciation

But there is another renunciation which St John of the Cross requires. This is so subtle as to elude anything like an adequate explanation. Yet it is founded on the simple truth that the Infinite and Eternal God bears no proportion to what we imagine, think, or taste of Him. No image of God—not even that sweetness which represents Him to the will—is, after the soul has climbed a certain way, anymore of value, but must be discarded. Here is the second “night,” a midnight compared to gloaming; an emptying no more of the “senses” only, even in their most spiritual value, but of the memory, intellect, and will. To the activity of the soul in this midnight John gives (legitimately since he warns us) the name of faith. Doubtless the senses, even the imagination, even the intellect and will, continue (normally) to operate, but they are unattended to. They may be inhibited by ecstasies, which he rather contemptuously mentions along with: “dislocations of the bones”; and are assuredly left behind by the soul when it has achieved a direct union. But, meanwhile, they must be either unattended to or rejected. “Visions,” even if supernaturally induced, must be acknowledged, and put behind one; not as false, but as inadequate to that kind of contemplation I am called to: exterior or interior, all these apprehensions must be said “No” to! –“Upon God’s Holy Hills” C.C. Martindale

Capuchin Crypt of bones, underneath the church Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini on the Via Veneto near Piazza Barberini in Rome, Italy.


Sayings of Light and Love

O my God and my delight, for your love I have also desired to give my soul to composing these sayings of light and love concerning you. Since, although I can express them in words, I do not have the works and virtues they imply (which is what pleases you, O my Lord, more than the words and wisdom they contain), may others, perhaps stirred by them, go forward in your service and love — in which I am wanting. I will thereby find consolation, that these sayings be an occasion for your finding in others the things that I lack. Lord, you love discretion, you love light, you love love; these three you love above the other operations of the soul. Hence these will be sayings of discretion for the wayfarer, of light for the way, and of love in the wayfaring. May there be nothing of worldly rhetoric in them or the long-winded and dry eloquence of weak and artificial human wisdom, which never pleases you. Let us speak to the heart words bathed in sweetness and love that do indeed please you, removing obstacles and stumbling blocks from the paths of many souls who unknowingly trip and unconsciously walk in the path of error — poor souls who think they are right in what concerns the following of your beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in becoming like him, imitating his life, actions, and virtues, and the form of his nakedness and purity of spirit. Father of mercies, come to our aid, for without you, Lord, we can do nothing.


The traits of the solitary bird are five: first, it seeks the highest place; second, it withstands no company; third, it holds its beak in the air; fourth, it has no definite color; fifth, it sings sweetly. These traits must be possessed by the contemplative soul. It must rise above passing things, paying no more heed to them than if they did not exist. It must likewise be so fond of silence and solitude that it does not tolerate the company of another creature. It must hold its beak in the air of the Holy Spirit, responding to his inspirations, that by so doing it may become worthy of his company. It must have no definite color, desiring to do nothing definite other than the will of God. It must sing sweetly in the contemplation and love of its Bridegroom.


Perfection does not lie in the virtues that the soul knows it has, but in the virtues that our Lord sees in it. This is a closed book; hence one has no reason for presumption, but must remain prostrate on the ground with respect to self.

St John of the Cross


A master’s nudge

The communications of knowledge of the Creator are touches and spiritual feelings of union with God, the goal to which we are guiding the soul. The memory does not recall these through any form, image or figure that may have been impressed on the soul, for those touches and feelings of union with the Creator do not have any; it remembers them through the effect of light, love, delight and spiritual renewal, etc., produced in it.


The heart and the joy of will is withdrawn from all that is not God and concentrated on Him alone. In this elevation of joy in Him, God gives testimony of Who He is. “In a desert way, dry and pathless, I appeared before You to see Your power and glory.” (Ps. 62:3). The soul is exalted in purest faith, which God then infuses and augments much more abundantly. As a result the soul enjoys divine and lofty knowledge by means of the dark and naked habit of faith.


“Because wisdom pleased you more than any other thing…” I give you everything. Pray in our secret chamber, or in the solitary wilderness, and at the best and most quiet time of night.

St John of the Cross ‘Ascent of Mount Carmel’

José García Hidalgo, Levitation of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross at the Monastery of San Juan de la Cruz. Discalced Carmelite Fathers


Living Flame of Love

The feast of the Holy Ghost is celebrated in the substance of the soul, which is inaccessible to the devil, the world, and the flesh; and therefore the more interior the feast, the more secure, substantial, and delicious. For the more interior it is, the purer it is; and the greater the purity, the greater the abundance, frequency, and universality of God s communication of Himself; and thus the joy of the soul and spirit is so much the greater, for it is God Himself Who is the author of all this, and the soul doeth nothing of itself…  –St John of the Cross ‘Living Flame of Love’