Saint John of the Cross
The Spanish Spiritual Master
(The article was published on INDICA, Vol. no. 39/2; by Heras Institute of
Indian History and Culture, St. Xavier's College, Bombay, 400 001,
Septermber, 2002; pp. 163-172)
A Brief Historical Context
Modern Spain was originally composed of a number of independent kingdoms
and it was not united until 1479 when both Queen Isabella and King
Ferdinand ascended to their thrones. Their marriage in 1469 joined
together the royal houses of the Kingdom of Castile and the Kingdom of
Aragon. Although Isabella was crowned queen of Castile in 1474 she had to
fight a civil war to secure her throne. The entire kingdom finally came
under her control in 1479. That same year, Ferdinand's father King John II
of Aragon died and the couple became the joint sovereigns of Aragon and
Castile. Imperial Spain was born from this "Union of the Crowns." This
union was regarded as a union of equals although each kingdom preserved
its own social, political, and economic realities according to its own
unique history. Aragon was an empire in decline while Castile's star was
just beginning to rise under its energetic young queen. Isabella was a
devout Christian and this religious conviction motivated her to expel the
Moors and Jews from Iberian kingdom and spread Christianity to the rest of
the world. Ferdinand, on the other hand, focused on Aragon's Italian
possessions and on a series of royal marriages with the other royal houses
of Europe. Through Isabella and Ferdinand these two kingdoms would share
the same foreign policy and become partners instead of rivals.
The Political, Social and
The monarchy's authority eventually focused its entire attention on the
completion of the reconquista from Moors. Ferdinand led the united forces
of Aragon and Castile to triumph over moors thanks to his military and
diplomatic prowess. He and Isabella walked together in victory through the
gates of Granada, the last Muslim stronghold in Iberian Peninsula in 1492.
To Isabella this was a very important demonstration of her very strict
Catholic faith and this strongly inspired the beginning of the Spanish
Inquisition. That same year, 1492, Isabella sponsored an expedition by
Christopher Columbus that located America and signaled the beginning of a
series of conquests and extension of Spanish territories round the globe.
This was the beginning of the golden era for Imperial Spain.
In the late 15th and at the beginning of 16th century Spain saw its climax
and decline of its golden age after being the most powerful nation in the
world until "Spanish Armada " was defeated by English in 1588. It was a
time of extreme religious orthodoxy. Spanish Inquisition banned the
reading of the Spanish Bible in 1545; condemned the disobedient Luther and
Calvin in 1559; and demonstrated herself as the leader of Catholic world.
Tight intellectual controls were imposed and a ban on studying in
non-king-approved European universities was introduced. The religious
authorities approved a Spanish Index of Prohibited Books. There was
obsession with racial purity, and a deep sense of social caste system like
hidalgos (nobles) and percheros (commoners) was speedily creeping in that
It was against this back drop that Juan de Yepez (John of the Cross) is
born in 1542 at Fontiveros, between the cities of Avila and Madrid. This
was the time when Spain had been increasingly becoming a religiously
orthodox nation due to certain radical changes and schisms in the Roman
Catholic Church. The revolt of Martin Luther against the Catholic Church
brought out details of her religious malpractices and hypocrisy. He
criticized the Church's over emphasis on certain religious superstitious
practices and corrupt involvements. This protestant reformation in Europe
was felt particularly in Spain since she was conscious of her fidelity to
the Roman Catholic Church.
Inquisition was already present in Europe and became a part of Spanish
religious history under the powerful rule of the Catholic kings who wanted
to make Spain a purely Catholic nation subject to Roman religious
authorities. The Sixteenth Century is marked for Spanish inquisition was
fully monitored by Vatican appointed delegates who were severe on those
suspected of betraying and leaving the Church. The ordinary people were
hysterical for mystical experiences and any dream and paranormal
experience was attributed to extraordinary interventions of God. There was
a craze for popular devotions and practices. In addition to this a
convinced ambition for a purely Catholic Spain was central in the minds of
the people. Consequently any type of experience was considered to be
having a supernatural flavor to it.
John's life was short. The chronological events of his life fall into
three stages: i) Childhood; ii) Calced Carmelite; iii) Reformer and
- The First Stage (1542-1563) : John was born at Fontiveros, Spain, in
1542 . Hunger, depriva¬tion and suffering led him to Medina del Campo, a
commercial centre of the time. He made a series of attempts to obtain a
job as carpenter, artist, sculptor, tailor, to secure a future that was
uncertain. Failure to secure any job led him to the Colegio de la Doctrina
founded for orphans and poor children. Working in this institute he
regularly served Mass at the Convento de la Magdalena of the Augustin¬ian
nuns. Later he moved to offer his assis¬tance to the Hospital de la
Concepción, and at the same time took care of the sick. Here he utilised
his free time to study. John's brother confirms that "in a short period he
showed remarkable skill in learning". During this period he discovered
that God called him to his service, so he decided to join the Carmelites
- The Second Stage (1563-1568): He entered the novitiate at Medina del
Campo in 1563. Later at Salamanca he had a period of intense academic and
intellec¬tual preparation. He was ordained in 1567, at the age of
twenty-five. When he went to Medina del Campo for his first Mass, his
companion, Fray Pedro de Orozco, arranged a meeting with Teresa of Avila.
A Carmelite prior, Fray Antonio De Heredia, had decided to join the
Car¬thusians. John too had the same inclination. Teresa, who had already
reformed the Carmelite order of the nuns encouraged Fray Antonio to assist
the reform of the friars. The occasion permitted her to speak also to John
on this issue and obtain his consent.
Having secured the guarantee of the reform work of Carmelite friars, John
returned to Salamanca to complete his studies. In 1568, on the comple¬tion
of his studies he embarked on the task of implementing the reform work
under the guidance of Teresa. Having assisted Teresa in the new
foundations at Valla¬dolid, John went to Duruelo to begin the first
foundation of the reformed Car¬melites.
- The Third Stage (1568-1591): The last twenty-three years of John in the
Teresian Carmel were of intense experience and activities. He filled many
offices as formator par exellence, writer, superior. From 1572 to 1577 he
offered his valuable services to the Carmelite nuns of the Incarna¬tion
Convent at Avila.
In 1577 he was arrested in his small house adjacent to the Convent of the
Incarnation by the Calced friars, and was taken captive to Toledo. There
he spent his time in utter solitude and in miserable conditions without
proper nutrition and hygiene. It was in this abandoned and isolated
condition that he composed his most precious poems. Escaping from the
prison on a dark still night, he carried these poems with him.
In 1578 he seemed to have finished writing his classical, dense, rich
spiritual poems, which were later commented on at the request of his
disciples. The genius of John as poet and writer is reflected in his
remarkable capacity to create such precious mystical poems and spiritual
literature in less than 9 years.
After his escape from prison, John filled with credit several offices in
the Order. Towards the end of his life he was deprived of office and again
treated with great harshness, this time by some of his own brethren of the
reform. Many even decided to expel him from the Order. When John was
seriously he went to Ubeda. His sickness grew worse. His leg was already
ulcerated, and the disease spread to his back where a new fist-sized tumor
formed. On December 13, Fray John of the Cross died at midnight, without
agony, without struggle, repeating the words of the psalmist: "Into your
hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit." The favors he had asked for in his
last years he had now received: "not to die as a superior, to die in a
place where he was unknown, and to die after having suffered much".
We do not possess a large dossier of his external activi¬ties. His
writings are perhaps the most striking records ever written of an intense
interior life experi¬enced and lived totally for God.
The Spiritual Writings
John wrote little less than a thousand pages in prose and composed less
than a thousand poetic verses. His random writing resulted in quality and
rich content, but at times it left some of the works incom¬plete. The
output of his spiritual literature was not the result of his intention to
publish. He wrote out of the abundance of spiritual experience and to
satisfy the needy and thirsty souls he encountered on his personal
spiritual journey towards God. He intended to guide souls that were often
misled by the emotionally charged popular devotions, uncontrolled heresies
and deviations by inexperienced theologians and spiritual directors.
His Major Works
The Ascent of Mount Carmel (Subida del Monte Carmelo): 3 books . The
Ascent is composed of two central themes i.e., the goal - Union with
God, and the effort to reach this Union . Three components constitute
the Ascent: i) the poem The Dark Night (En una noche oscura); ii) the
sketch of the mount of perfection; iii) the commented treatise itself.
The treatise consists of 3 books with 15-32-45 chapters respectively.
This is the most extensive work.
- The Dark Night (Noche oscura): 2 books with 8 stan¬zas. The Night
forms the second and complementary part of the Ascent and is the
prolongation of its doctrine. The commentary of the Night is based on
the first two stanzas of the poem En una noche oscura. The two parts of
the Night have 14 and 25 chapters which deal with the night of the
senses and the night of the spirit respec¬tively. The theme and the
dynamism of the Night are similar to those of the Ascent with a special
emphasis on the intensifica¬tion of purification in its passive
- The Spiritual Canticle (Cántico espiritual): 39/40 stanzas and
commentary . The Canticle is a systematic work, a commentary on each
verse of the poem The Spiritual Canticle. It "contains the most
beautiful verses of John". The Canticle develops in the perspec¬tive of
the exercise of love between the soul and the Spouse Christ. The
prologue of this treatise gives the kernel of the whole doctrine. The
whole dynamics of the Canticle falls under four sections:
- The anxious search (stanzas nn. 1-12);
- Encounter (nn. 13-21);
- The plenitude of Union (nn. 22-35);
- Aspiring glory (nn. 36-40).
The treatise also presents the development of the traditional three ways
: the via purgativa (principian¬tes) in stanzas 1-5; the via
illuminativa (aprovechados) in stanzas 6-12; and the via unitiva
(perfectos) in stanzas 13-40. The Canticle narrates the story of a soul
wounded with love, anxiously seeking the beloved. This anxious search
takes place in a pastoral setting where the lover journeys to mountains
and waterside. The commentary on the Canticle is John's genial creation
of an inner landscape for the spiritual journey. It also considers the
effects of divinisation in a humanity trans¬formed by God's love.
- The Living Flame of Love (Llama de Amor Viva): 4 stanzas with
commentary. The treatise Flame was written at the request of Doña Ana de
Peña¬losa. It consists of 4 stanzas, with a commentary on all the 24
verses. The treatise is available in two redactions Flame A and Flame B.
The differ¬ences between these two redactions are not too obvious and
therefore are of lesser importance to us. In both redactions there is no
change in the order of the stanzas and commentary. The only difference
that can be noted in the Flame B is its improved linguis¬tic style and
grammatical renovation. Nevertheless, a slight elabora¬tion on some
concrete doctrinal points can be noted.
His Minor Works
- Poetry: 2 Romances (Romances), 5 poems (poemas), 5 gloss¬es (glosas).
- The Sayings of Light and Love (Dichos de luz y amor), and other short
sayings (avisos): nearly 200.
- The Precautions (Cautelas) and Counsels to a Religious (Cuatro avisos
a un religioso).
- The Letters (Epistolario): 33.
An Analysis of his Doctrine
- A Response to Socio Religious Condition
St. John of the Cross systematically presents his spiritual doctrine step
by step to those who would seriously venture into experiencing God. He is
well versed in the Christian Scriptures and grounds his teaching on solid
philosophical principles. He quotes St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and
makes references to the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato. He is very
close to our age expressing his views and convictions in an idiom of
thought and language which is not completely foreign to us. Reading
through his commentaries one can easily discover that he was an expert
psychologist who is able to understand the mind, the unconscious and the
various dynamic of man's spirit.
The religious and spiritual condition of the people of the time of St.
John of the Cross was very complex. The popular devotions ranged from
regular pilgrimages to St. James of Compostela (Northern Spain) to
frequent and touching manifestations of popular processions to honor the
Blessed Virgin Mary. It was the time were religious extremist movements
like "alumbrados"; recogidos, etc. sprouted and infected the minds of the
people. Practically there were religious movements and counter movements
at every nuke and corner of Spanish territory. St. John of the Cross
through his well balanced and solidly grounded spiritual writings silently
combats against all these popular, superstitious and emotionally charged
devotions and pilgrimages, and offers those who wanted a authentic life
with God as a challenge to delve deeper into the mystery of God and of
The writings of St. John of the Cross witness a strong reaction to what
was going on in Spanish religious history. His writings do away with all
popular devotions, even though he admits that they are a help to the
beginners. The spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola also were a help to
people to exercise themselves in spirituality, side by side with the
writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.
His main spiritual principle is that the soul must "empty" itself of self
in order to be "filled" with God, that it must be "purified" of the last
traces of earthly dross before it is fit to become united with God. In the
application of this simple maxim he shows the most uncompromising logic.
Supposing the soul with which he deals to be habitually in the state of
grace and pushing forward to better things, he overtakes it on the very
road leading it, in its option for God, and lays open before its eyes a
number of sores of which it was altogether ignorant, viz. what he terms
the spiritual capital sins. Not until these are removed (a most formidable
task) is it fit to be admitted to what he calls the "Dark Night", which
consists in the passive purgation, where God by heavy trials, particularly
interior ones, perfects and completes what the soul had begun of its own
accord. It is now passive, but not inert, for by submitting to the Divine
operation it co-operates in the measure of its power. Here lies one of the
essential differences between St. John's mysticism and a false quietism.
The perfect purgation of the soul in the present life leaves it free to
act with wonderful energy: in fact it might almost be said to obtain a
share in God's omnipotence, as is shown in the marvelous deeds of so many
saints. As the soul emerges from the Dark Night it enters into the full
noonlight described in the "Spiritual Canticle" and the "Living Flame of
Love". St. John leads it to the highest heights, in fact to the point
where it becomes a "partaker of the Divine Nature".
St. John has often been represented as a grim character; nothing could be
more untrue. He was indeed austere with himself, and, to some extent, also
with others, but both from his writings and from the reports of those who
knew him, we see in him a man overflowing with charity and kindness, a
poetical mind deeply influenced by all that is beautiful and attractive.
His writings are a direct indication to the people that the way to God
does not mean "a multiplicity of considerations, methods, manners, and
experiences - though in their own way these may be a requirement for
beginners - but demands only the one thing necessary: true self denial,
exterior and interior" (Ascent II,7,viii). He corrects certain of people's
wrong understanding of religion when they were blindly carried away by
certain extraordinary phenomena like experiencing visions, revelations,
locutions and messages from saints and holy people. He corrects their
understanding concerning their attachments to statues, relics, paintings,
processions, pilgrimages etc. When spiritual pursuit is limited to certain
external acts like penance, mortification, detachment without any noble
and interior thrust it does not lead a person anywhere than to satisfy his
own egoism. Through his writings John presents systematically the way one
has to journey towards God with pure love and total self-surrender. God
experience and union with God is not the result of self efforts, rather it
is to be merited through one's utter resignation to God's will.
The Active Night of the
This stage of spiritual life starts when one realizes deep love for God
and seriously engages oneself in taming the external senses. The
following poem speaks for itself.
One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.
The poem presents the spiritual life as an initial experience of a
journey. The spiritual journey in reality commences from the moment when
one seriously turns towards God. The first stanza of the poem En Una
Noche Oscura forms the principal theme of the Ascent and the Night. The
author begins to comment on the poem in the Ascent, but the imagery of
the Mount and other themes of spiritual life dominate in the treatise
and therefore the poetic symbol night is given less importance in the
rest of the treatise Ascent. The author begins again to comment on the
poem in both the books of the Night.
The poem indicates the primary activity of the soul towards God; i.e.,
going out. The Spanish word in the poem is salí. It is the first person
singular of the past tense of the verb salir. This verb salir which
signifies "I went out" occurs 287 times in his doctrine.
The act of salir initiates at "the point from which the soul goes forth"
(Ascent I,2,i) from what is worldly, sensual, material, to spiritual,
i.e., to be filled with the love of God. This word salir refers to the
activity of the soul mainly in relationship with the 5 external senses:
sight, smell, hearing, touch and taste. This activity consists in
purification of the external senses through its own initiative, in
denying, rejecting, thrusting away from itself the pleasures of the
senses which are not purely for the Glory of God (Ascent I,3,ii).
The Active Night of the
At this stage a thorough purification of the imagination, fantasy and
the functions of the three interior faculties, memory, intellect in
relationship with images, fantasies about God, angels and saints takes
place through the active role on the part of the soul. This purification
is necessary to allow God's action in the soul. All the images and
imaginations are purified and the interior faculties are held in control
through the help of the three theological virtues: Faith, Hope and Love.
Passive Night of the
The soul through the passive night of the senses enters the next stage
of God experience. This stage indicates the direct and active influence
of God in the soul and obtains "obscure knowledge" of God not marked by
concepts and images. John writes:
This dark night is an inflow of God into the soul, which purges it of
its habitual ignorance and imperfections, natural and spiritual and
which the contemplatives call infused contemplation or mystical
theology. Through this contemplation, God teaches the soul secretly and
instructs it in the perfection of love without its doing anything or
understanding how this happens. Insofar as infused contemplation is
loving wisdom of God, it produces two principal effects in the soul: by
both purging and illumining, this contemplation prepares the soul for
union with God through love (Night II,5,i).
The text indicates that it is God who purifies the soul of its natural
and spiritual imperfections by purging and illumining it through His
Passive Night of the
In this stage the interior faculties, the memory, intellect and the will
are purified by pure hope, faith and love. This purification is the work
of God and therefore the soul must abandon itself passively into the
hands of God like a seriously ill patient abandoning himself in the
hands of a good doctor. The "Inflow of God" (influencia de Dios) into
the soul provokes in it a new spiritual dynamism, which is the
intensification of the "passivity" already introduced in the soul during
the passive night of the senses . The verb corresponding to "inflow" (influencia)
is intransitive, and occurs only 7 times in the doctrine of John of
which 6 times it occurs in the Night. Inflow is the dynamic activity of
God called "pure and dark contemplation" (Night II,3,iii). The "inflow
of God" is "darker and more hidden" to the soul due to its "baseness and
impurity" (Night II,5,iii). St. John silently combats against the
heresies and deviations of religion during his time through this
particular emphasis on passive role of the practitioner of spiritual
The "inflow of God" is also called "infused contemplation" or "mystical
theology" (Night II,5,i; cf. Ascent II,8,vi; Night II,12,v) . John
suggests that there is nothing in contemplation or in the divine
"inflow" that of itself can give pain; contemplation rather bestows
"sweetness and delight" (Night II,9,xi). Moreover, in its dynamic nature
the divine "inflow" makes the soul "go out" of itself to the union of
love (por la contemplación va saliendo a la unión) (cfr. Night II,17,i)
. In the activity of divine "inflow" there begins also a process of
joining the "two extremes, divine and human" (Night II,6,i).
The soul at this point is totally passive. Here the dynamic activity
through the inflow of God paralyses the activity of the soul so that
neither "the natural senses nor the intellect can reach" (Night II,17,i)
it or obtain any taste of it.
The Spiritual Betrothal
Love (amor ) is the axis and motor of the whole process of John's
spiritual doctrine. Love is "never idle, but in continual motion" (Flame
1,viii). "Love is the inclination, strength, and power for the soul in
making its way to God, for love unites it with God" (Flame 1,xiii).
Moreover, it is the only language God hears and understands, and through
this language at the evening of life one will be examined . In the
spiritual journey God and the soul search for each other (cfr. Flame
3,xxviii) because "the ultimate reason for everything is love" (Canticle
38,v) . John affirms that "the power and tenacity of love is great, for
love captures and blinds God Himself" (Canticle 32,i). Thus we note that
John's whole doctrinal momentum is directed to the finality of union of
love (cf. Ascent prologue,i; Ascent II,24,iv; III,2,i-ii; Flame
1,xxviii; 3,lxiv; 1,xiii; Canticle 40,ii; 22,iv). The linguistic
expressions of John in this final phase of the spiritual life are so
vehement that the soul seems to be in continual movement and it cannot
rest (no descansa) (Canticle 22,vi), and will never be satisfied (ni
está satisfecho) until it reaches God (cf. Canticle 38,iii). It is just
like a stone that tends towards the centre of its gravitation with all
its inclination and force (cf. Canticle 12,i).
In the unitive way the soul through the spiritual betrothal reaches
union with God in spiritual marriage and is transformed, that is,
becomes God through participation.
Union and Transformation
The word union (unión) occurs 475 times. The dominant texts that speak
of union and transformation are found in the Canticle and Flame. In the
process of spiritual growth the purgative and illuminative ways became
the narrow passage (puerta estrecha) through which the soul ascended
actively in the first phase and was made to ascend in the second phase,
and thus climbed the secret ladder (escala secreta) to enter the unitive
way (vía unitiva). In the unitive way the soul will go further ascending
to greater heights of union and transformation.
The stanzas of the Flame speak of a flame of love burning the soul as
fire burning a log of wood. The various characteristics of divine love
are brought out successfully by the author with the similes like: light
(luz), heat (calor), flame (llama), lance (lance). Above all, the
comparison of a log of wood with fire penetrating its core and
transforming it has helped the author to bring out clearly the process
of union and transformation:
...just as the fire that penetrates a log of wood is the same that first
makes an assault on the wood, wounding it with the flame, drying it out,
and stripping it of its unsightly qualities until it is so disposed that
it can be penetrated and transformed into the fire.
So ... the divine fire is introduced into the substance of the soul and
united with it through perfect and complete purgation and purity. Its
flame, which is the Holy Spirit, wounds the soul by destroying and
consuming the imperfections of its bad habits. And this is the work of
the Holy Spirit, in which he disposes it for the divine union and
transformation in God through love (Flame 1,xix).
In this stage the soul is on its way to total integration. It is a
process of integration that leads it to the goal, i.e., God. The spark
of love introduced in the soul in the passive purification of the spirit
capacitates it to receive the flame of God: "this flame is immense and
far reaching, and the will is narrow and restricted; the will feels its
confinement and narrowness in the measure that the flame attacks it. It
feels this until the flame, penetrating within it, enlarges, widens, and
makes it capable of receiving the flame itself" (Flame 1,xxiii; italics
ours). John confesses his inability to explain the poem The Living Flame
of Love with all its vigour because of the rich properties of the
"intense moments" of union. The divine movement felt within the soul
through the flame makes it passively dynamic. Hence there is no more
chance for the soul to be static at any moment. Therefore it goes forth
from itself to be reborn:
the soul finds itself burning in the fire and flame of love, so much so
that it appears to be consumed in the flame which causes it to go forth
from itself and be wholly renewed and enter upon another mode of being;
like the phoenix, that is burned up and reborn anew (Canticle 1,xvii
Here the reference to going from itself is made in connection with the
expression enter upon another mode of being. The soul goes out of itself
to enter a higher level of experience, because "this feeling that is so
intense commonly occurs toward the end of the illumination and
purification, just before the attainment of total union" (Flame 3,xviii)
The three degrees of love St. John mentions in his doctrine are i)
Spiritual betrothal > ii) Spiritual marriage - Union (God by
participation) > iii) Union - Transformation. Thus the soul through
these ascending stages reaches the totality of integration, which can be
interpreted as attaining Eternal life here on earth where the soul
"appears to be God" (Flame 1,xiii).
Lasting Influence of the
The Doctrine of St. John of the Cross has a universal appeal because his
thinking is solidly grounded on philosophical principles. He does not
insists on certain external manifestation of religion, rather lays
emphasis on the true change of heart and true God experience as peace,
love, kindness, goodness, generosity and humility - the universal values.
In his sketch of Mount Carmel he graphically presents the path towards God
and mentions that on the top of this mount there will be nothing but the
fruits of the Holy Spirit of God. In my comparative study on St. John of
the Cross and the Bhagavadgita I have brought out the elements of the
doctrine of St. John of the Cross which have a striking similarity to the
three yoga margas: Karma Marga, Jñana Marga and the Bhakti Marga . His
doctrine has been studied in the context of religious, political and
ecological, social and spiritual milieu of all the nations. His doctrine
has been compared with world religious traditions and this has enriched
the world religious understanding for a common ground for dialogue. A
number of studies have been done comparing the doctrine of St. John with
Buddhism, Hinduism, Pathanjali Yoga, Rabindranath Tagore, Karl Rogers etc.
His inexhaustible spiritual treasures can inspire all times and ages.
In Christian Spirituality, John of the Cross has indeed spoken lucidly and
succinctly on the interior life of the soul, the experiential knowledge of
God, and the way of the rational creature toward God. Few have equaled him
in the beautiful simplicity of his language. His significance as a
Christian thinker and saint far transcends the boundaries of his country
and his age. He is today recognized as one the great Masters of Christian
theology and mysticism.