St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross and Buddhism

Non-attachment is a fundamental concept in virtually all contemplative traditions.  You could even say that the only difference between a St. John of the Cross and the Buddha's presentation of the Four Noble Truths in the Pali Canon is that St. John commends non-attachment from all things so that one can be ultimately and completely attached to God. 

Union with God and Nibbana could also, almost, be equated depending on how much similarity you want to see in the traditions.  

You could also draw comparisons between the final stages of Jhana meditation, which, supposedly, Buddha was practicing on the day of his Enlightenment, with the Christian concept of contemplation.  In the final stages of Jhana meditation, one is absorbed into "the base of boundless consciousness," "the base of nothingness," "the base of neither perception nor non-perception," while the Christian contemplative is "absorbed into God."

Although St. John of the Cross and Siddhartha Gautama come from different theoretical viewpoints, one could argue that they are experiencing virtually the same thing.  

Of course this depends on how much similarity you want to emphasize between the traditions.  But the parallels stand out to me. 


The Dark Night: Book 2 The Passive Night of the Spirit


So far, in St. John's progression, the soul has actively tried to mortify its attachments to the things of the world and also the pleasures that come from various spiritual exercises.  It has also allowed itself to be passively purged of its attachments to these spiritual delights in the Passive Night of the Senses.  

Through the aridity of Passive Night of the Senses, God has led the soul away from and beyond discursive meditation (i.e. the use of words, concepts, images, or any "content" in prayer), towards what St. John will call contemplation.  

"At the time of the aridities of this sensory night, God makes the exchange we mentioned by withdrawing the soul from the life of the senses and placing it in that of the spirit – that is, he brings it from meditation to contemplation – where the soul no longer has the power to work or meditate with its faculties on the things of God."

Now, absorbed in the work of contemplation, the soul is completely passive, and can do nothing but be acted upon by God:

"When this house of the senses was stilled (that is, mortified), its passions quenched, and its appetites calmed and put to sleep through this happy night of the purgation of the senses, the soul went out in order to begin its journey along the road of the spirit, which is that of proficients and which by another terminology is referred to as the illuminative way of infused contemplation.  On this road God himself pastures and refreshes the soul without any of its own discursive meditation or active help."

Passing through the Passive Night of the Senses and entering into the contemplative work is a great joy and the soul is again at peace in God, although this time no longer attached to specific discursive exercises.  The soul is content to rest in loving awareness of God:

"The soul readily finds in its spirit, without the work of meditation, a very serene, loving contemplation and spiritual delight."

This state, according to St. John, may last for years and this is, in fact, where the journey ends for some, maybe even most, contemplatives.  But for others there is one final purgation to undergo – the Passive Night of the Spirit.  

This is the deepest, longest, and darkest night.  Just when the soul feels that it has abandoned all that is not God for God's sake, it then, in this night, feels rejected by the very God it has given all for.  St. John describes this Night in several ways.

"Since the divine extreme strikes in order to renew the soul and divinize it, it so disentangles and dissolved the spiritual substance – absorbing it in a profound darkness – that the soul at the sight of its miseries feels that it is melting away and being undone by a cruel spiritual death.  It feels as if it were swallowed by a beast and being digested in the dark belly, and it suffers and anguish comparable to Jonah's in the belly of the whale."
"But what the sorrowing soul feels most is the conviction that God has rejected it, and with abhorrence cast it into darkness."
"The afflictions and straights of the will are also immense.  Sometimes these afflictions pierce the soul when it suddenly remembers the evils in which it sees itself immersed, and it becomes uncertain of any remedy.  To this pain is added the remembrance of past prosperity, because usually persons who enter this night have previously had many consolations in God and rendered him many services.  They are now sorrowful in knowing that they are far from such good and can no longer enjoy it."
"They resemble one who is imprisoned in a dark dungeon, bound hands and feet, and able neither to move nor see nor feel any favor from heaven or earth."

Bellies of whales, dungeons, spiritual death, anguish, abhorrence, darkness.  Not a happy place.

But at the end of this long and dark night lies the unitive state, one in which the soul proclaims:

"I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies."

The blessedness of final Union allows the soul to look back on the various Nights and say, with St. John, "Ah, the sheer grace!"

The Dark Night ends abruptly and unexpectedly, as we may come to expect with St. John.

Final Thoughts on St. John of the Cross

This will end the series on St. John of the Cross' Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night.  One major takeaway for me after reading St. John is the tentative nature of any structured, sequential spiritual path.  Not only does St. John not stick to one scheme to describe the spiritual journey, he himself believes that some experience these stages in different ways than others.  He also sometimes speaks of the stages being simultaneous or overlapping.  Everyone's experience is going to be unique.  It is insightful to read about the paths of others, for instance the one St. John presents in these works, but to make any one sequence normative is probably a mistake.  

Another, related, takeaway is the continued understanding from the Christian contemplative tradition that the path is winding.  There are times of aridity, of doubt, of pain, of the feeling of absence, and these are normal, even necessary for progression.  Meditation teachers from any tradition that don't speak about this reality set practitioners up for disappointment.  I continue to believe that this is a relative strength of the Christian tradition as compared to others which speak only of peak experiences or a road that leads straight to the top without major trials along the way.  

St. John is one of the harshest of the Catholic mystics.  He insists on nothing less than complete mortification and non-attachment.  An interesting contrast would be reading him next to The Cloud of Unknowing, whose author is gentler and, perhaps, more suited to modern, non-monastic audiences.  

As an additional resource about the life of St. John, here is a introductory lecture from the Boston College School of Theology:

The Dark Night: Aside – God as a Transforming Fire


"For the sake of further clarity in this matter, we ought to note that this purgative and loving knowledge, or divine light we are speaking of, has the same effect on a soul that fire has on a log of wood.  The soul is purged and prepared for union with the divine light just as the wood is prepared for transformation into the fire.  Fire, when applied to wood, first dehumidifies it, dispelling all moisture and making it give off any water it contains.  Then it gradually turns the wood black, makes it dark and ugly, and even causes it to emit a bad odor  By drying out the wood, the fire brings to light and expels all those ugly and dark accidents that are contrary to fire.  Finally, by heating and enkindling it from without, the fire transforms the wood into itself and makes it beautiful as it is itself."

The Dark Night, Book 2, Chapter 10


The Dark Night: Book One The Passive Night of the Senses


It is an understatement to say that St. John is a frustrating writer to follow.  Not only does he outline his own work in several distinct and competing ways, he also often fails to follow through with his own writing plan!  On top of that, the images and vocabulary he uses are often interpreted in different ways even within the same work.  

I do believe there is a lot of value in St. John, but trying to read him in a systematic fashion is extremely difficult.  It is almost better to read small selections and take what you can from them.  The outline I gave in The Ascent of Mount Carmel Book 1 seems to me the most natural, but it is not the only possible outline of his thought.  If you really want to dig into St. John, be warned.  

Alright, that digression aside, The Dark Night is a natural sequel to The Ascent of Mount Caramel as it continues the train of thought from that work.  But it is not certain that St. John meant for them to be joined.  That said, they are very difficult to interpret apart from one another.  

Book 1 of The Dark Night concerns the Passive Night of the Senses, which John promised to address in The Ascent.  While in The Ascent, St. John talks about "the senses" as the pleasure we get from things in the world, in The Dark Night, "the senses" are spoken of as the pleasures we get from discursive spiritual exercises.  

The Passive Night of the Senses, then, is when God removes the consolations one gets through discursive spiritual exercises in order to bring the soul closer to the unitive state.  

Perhaps St. John's most straightforward description of the Passive Night of the Senses comes in Book 1, Chapter 8:

"Since the conduct of these beginners in the way of God is lowly and not too distant from love of pleasure and of self, as we explained, God desires to withdraw them from this base manner of loving and lead them on to a higher degree of divine live.  And he desires to liberate them from the lowly exercise of the senses and of discursive meditation, by which they go in search of him so inadequately and with so many difficulties, and lead them into the exercise of spirit, in which they become capable of a communion with God that is more abundant and more free of imperfections.  God does this after beginners have exercised themselves for a time in the way of virtue and have persevered in meditation and prayer. For it is through the delight and satisfaction they experience in prayer that they have become detached from worldly things and have gained some spiritual strength in God.  This strength has helped them somewhat to restrain their appetites for creatures, and through it they will be able to suffer a little oppression and dryness without turning back.  Consequently, it is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them, that God darkens all this light and closes the door and the spring of sweet spiritual water they were tasting as often and as long as they desired...

God now leaves them is such darkness that they do not know which way to turn in their discursive imaginings.  They cannot advance a step in meditation, as they used to, now that the interior sense faculties are engulfed in this night.  He leaves them in such dryness that they not only fail to receive satisfaction and pleasure from their spiritual exercises and works, as they formerly did, but also find these exercises distasteful and bitter.  As I said, when God sees that they have grown a little, he weans them from the sweet breast so that they might be strengthened, lays aside their swaddling bands, and puts them down from his arms that they may grow accustomed to walking by themselves."

As we can see, on St. John's path, spiritual consolations (i.e. feelings of inner peace and joy in God, etc.) are necessary for beginners.  They are of great benefit to help the novice remain on the spiritual path.  But eventually, as with the things of the world, attachments to these feelings must also be rejected.  And the soul is not strong enough to do this on its own.  Ultimately, the soul must be passive, and allow God to do this work. 

"...until a soul is placed by God in the passive purgation of that dark cannot purify itself completely of these imperfections or others.  But people should insofar as possible strive to do their part in purifying and perfecting themselves and thereby merit God's divine cure.  In this cure God will heal them of what through their own efforts they were unable to remedy.  No matter how much individuals do through their own efforts, they cannot purify themselves enough to be disposed in the least degree for the divine union of the perfection of love.  God must take over and purge them in that fire that is dark for them..."

And yet the Passive Night of the Senses is not the end of the journey, nor the last struggle that the soul will encounter.  The final, most intense, night is still to come. 


The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Aside – St. John's Description of Union with God

In Book 2, Chapter 5 of The Ascent, St. John describes both the nature of union with God, and his overarching method for achieving it – depriving oneself of all that is not God.   

"To understand the nature of this union, one should first know that God sustains every soul and dwells in it substantially, even though it may be that of the greatest sinner in the world.  This union between God and creatures always exists.  By it he conserves their being so that if the union should end they would immediately be annihilated and cease to exist.  Consequently, in discussing union with God we are not discussing the substantial union that always exists, but the soul's union with and transformation in God that does not always exist, except where there is likeness of love.  We call it the union of likeness; and the former, the essential or substantial union.  The union of likeness is supernatural; the other, natural.  The supernatural union exists when God's will and the soul's are in conformity, so that nothing in the one is repugnant to the other.  When the soul rids itself completely of what is repugnant and unconformed to the divine will, it rests transformed in God through love... a soul must strip itself of everything pertaining to creatures and of its actions and abilities (of its understanding, satisfaction, and feeling), so that when everything unlike and unconformed to God is cast out, it may receive the likeness of God.  And the soul will receive this likeness because nothing contrary to the will of God will be left in it.  Thus it will be transformed in God."

Especially in this second quotation, St. John describes what in the Eastern Orthodox tradition would be called theois, or divinization – the soul becoming like (or even becoming) God.  

"A soul makes room for God by wiping away all the smudges and smears of creatures, by uniting its will perfectly to God's; for 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.  And God will so communicate his supernatural being to the soul that it will appear to be God himself and will posses what God himself possesses.  When God grants this supernatural favor to the soul, so great a union is caused that all the things of both God and the soul become one in participant transformation and the soul appears to be God more than a soul.  Indeed it is God by participation."


The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Books Two and Three The Active Night of the Spirit


In Books 2 and 3 of The Ascent of Mount Carmel St. John discuses the Active Night of the Spirit.

At this point (although the path isn't exclusively portrayed as a straightforward, step-by-step progression, but sometimes as an ongoing journey with each element intertwined), the soul has already mortified its attachments to the things of the world.  Now it is time, in the Active Night of the Spirit, to purposefully mortify the attachments of the spirit.

This night, according to St. John, is darker and more painful than what has come before:

"The first night pertains to the lower, sensory part of human nature and is consequently more external.  As a result the second night is darker.  The second, darker night of faith belongs to the rational, superior part; it is darker and more interior because it deprives this part of its rational light, or better, blinds it.  Accordingly, it is indeed comparable to midnight, the innermost and darkest period of night."

Just as the soul becomes attached to the exterior pleasures it gets from the things of the world, it also becomes attached to the interior pleasures it gets from its relationship with God.  According to St. John, these must also be rejected because the soul is still not seeking God in purity, but only the consolations it gets from spiritual exercises. To overcome these attachments, the soul must again perform a strict self-denial. 

"...all that is required for complete pacification of the spiritual house is the negation through pure faith of all the spiritual faculties and gratifications and appetites.  This achieved, the soul will be joined with the Beloved in a union of simplicity and purity and likeness." 

For those who disagree, and believe they can reach their goal without denying themselves in the spiritual realm, St. John offers the following assessment:

"For they still feed and clothe their natural selves with spiritual feelings and consolations instead of divesting and denying themselves of these for God's sake.  They think denial of self in worldly matters is sufficient without annihilation and purification in the spiritual domain.  It happens that, when some of this solid, perfect food (the annihilation of all sweetness in God – the pure spiritual cross and nakedness of Christ's poverty of spirit) is offered them in dryness, distaste, and trial, they run from it as from death and wander about in search only of sweetness and delightful communications from God.  Such an attitude is not the hallmark of self-denial and nakedness of spirit but the indication of a spiritual sweet tooth."

Throughout Books 2 and 3, St. John discusses how the soul must mortify three distinct faculties – its intellect, memory, and will.  The things the soul must reject, or at least be indifferent to, include: visions, locutions ("messages"), revelations, spiritual feelings, storing objects in the memory(!), and the experience of joys that come from temporal goods, natural goods (beauty, intelligence, etc.), sensory goods, (some of these overlap with what he has discussed as the goods of "the senses"), moral goods, supernatural goods, and spiritual goods.

Of all these, St. John counsels:

"...they should be the object of neither our aims nor our desires."


"...nothing but what belongs to the service of God should be the object of our joy."


As with the externals of the world, it is not that spiritual consolations are bad (in fact, he believes they are needed for beginners on the path), or even that they aren't from God (although St. John is unsure if they always are), but that the soul's attachment to them ultimately becomes an obstacle to pure Union with God.

As throughout much of his work, St. John seems overly harsh, especially to non-monastic ears.  In his mind, without the most strict self-denial, the soul's journey to God will be forever stunted.  His overarching method remains:

" divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God.  When this is done the soul will be illumined by and transformed by God."

The Ascent of Mount Carmel is unfinished, but seems to be picked up in The Dark Night.  St. John has described the active nights (active referring to the fact the the soul is actively doing the work of mortification), and will describe the passive nights – in which the soul can do nothing but allow itself to be passively acted upon by God – in The Dark Night



The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Book One The Active Night of the Senses


According to St. John, to truly advance toward union with God the soul must pass through several "dark nights."  He often speaks of the whole spiritual journey, the path from ordinary selfhood to union with God, as one long dark night.  And yet there are nights within that Night. 

Although he seems to flip back and forth between several different outlines/progressions, in general terms, St. John's schema involves the progression through the Active Night of the Senses, the Active Night of the Spirit, the Passive Night of the Senses, and the Passive Night of the Spirit.  A broad outline of The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Nights is as follows:

Ascent Book 1: The Active Night of the Senses
Ascent Books 2 and 3: The Active Night of the Spirit
Dark Night Book 1: The Passive Night of the Senses
Dark Night Book 2: The Passive Night of the Spirit

Book One of The Ascent concerns the first night – the Active Night of the Senses.

In the Active Night of the Senses, the soul must purposefully deny itself of all attachments to the "things of the world" or its "appetites."  Whether it is a desire for sensory pleasure, or attachment to a certain person, object, conception of ourselves, or way of living, the things we normally look to for satisfaction in the world must be denied.  This mortification must take place not because the things themselves are bad, but because our attachment to them, according to St. John, hinders our journey toward union with God.  

"Hence, we call this nakedness a night for the soul, for we are not discussing the mere lack of things; this lack will not divest the soul if it craves for all these objects.  We are dealing with the denudation of the soul's appetites and gratifications.  This is what leaves it free and empty of all things, even though it possesses them.  Since the things of the world cannot enter the soul, they are not in themselves an encumbrance or harm to it; rather, it is the will and appetite dwelling within that cause the damage when set on these things."

For St. John, this absolute denial of all our appetites is a prerequisite to union with God.  There is no way around it.

"...for in God, or in the state of perfection, all appetites cease.  The road and ascent to God, then, necessarily demands a habitual effort to renounce and mortify the appetites; the sooner this mortification is achieved, the sooner the soul reaches the top.  But until the appetites are eliminated, one will not arrive no matter how much virtue is practiced.


"The attainment of our goal demands that we never stop on this road, which means we must continually get rid of our wants rather than indulging them.  For if we do not get rid of them all completely, we will not wholly reach our goal."

Reminiscent of the teachings of Buddhism, desire/attachment/craving for things is ultimately seen as counterproductive, for the things we crave don't ultimately satisfy.  

" is plain that the appetites are wearisome and tiring.  They resemble little children, restless and hard to please, always whining to their mother for this thing or that, and never satisfied.  Just as anyone who digs covetously for a treasure grows tired and exhausted, so does anyone who strives to satisfy the appetites' demands become wearied and fatigued.  And even if a soul does finally fill them, it is always weary because it is never satisfied.  For, after all, one digs leaking cisterns that cannot contain the water that slakes thirst."

To enter into this Active Night of the Senses and conquer the appetites, St. John gives several counsels including:

"1. Have the habitual desire to imitate Christ in all your deeds by brining your life into conformity with his. 

2. In order to be successful in this imitation, renounce and remain empty of any sensory satisfaction that is not purely for the honor and glory of God."


"3. Endeavor to be inclined always:
not to the easiest, but the most difficult;
not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful;
not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant;
not to what means rest to you, but to hard work;
not to the consoling, but to the unconsoling;
not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious, but to the lowest and most despised;
not to wanting something, but to wanting nothing."

Finally, to end Book One, St. John returns to his poem and concludes that it ultimately takes a love of God, a stronger love than our love for our attachments in the world, in order to carry us through this first night.

"The soul, then, states that 'fired with love's urgent longings' it passed through this night of sense to union with the Beloved.  A love of pleasure, and attachment to it, usually fires the will toward the enjoyment of things that give pleasure.  A more intense enkindling of another, better love (love of the soul's Bridegroom) is necessary for the vanquishing of the appetites and the denial of this pleasure.  By finding satisfaction and strength in this love, it will have the courage and constancy to readily deny all other appetites."

I struggle with this, especially as a non-monk who regularly interacts with family, friends...a significant other.  It makes sense to me that attachment to our own pleasure keeps us bound to the things that give us that pleasure.  We then remain chained, slaves to those things.  We need them.  In Hindu terms, we remain in Samsara.  So, I see the logic.

What I still can't wrap my mind around is not being "attached" to people.  It seems wrong to me to be "unattached" to my family, or my girlfriend, or my friends.  Perhaps it means simply not turning people into things that I use to fill a need.  I need companionship, so I find a friend.  I need affection, I find a girlfriend.  I need affirmation, I go home for a family dinner.  Perhaps our attachment to people is simply attachment to self in disguise.  Maybe to truly love another, we need to come to them without a need.  Maybe the ideal for a contemplative relationship or marriage is two people who come to each other, each completely fulfilled in themselves, in God, and then freely choose to love one another.  I wonder what St. John of the Cross would say to that.  Maybe he would just tell me to become a monk :)

Regardless, in St. John's system, and in most contemplative paths, complete non-attachment from our appetites is necessary for total union with God.  And this is the concern of Book One in The Ascent of Mount Carmel.


Ascent of Mount Carmel: Fired With Love's Urgent Longings

Saint John of the Cross (born Juan de Yerpes) was a mystic from the Catholic Carmelite order in 16th Century Spain.  He was a contemporary of Saint Teresa of Avila, and the two are probably the most well known mystics from Catholicism in the Middle Ages.  

Saint John produced several works, the most substantial of which were The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night.  In this series, I will take a look at both of these major works.  

Although he attempts to outline his own work several times, St. John is not necessarily a systematic writer.  He does eventually touch on all the themes he promises to, but perhaps not in as sequential a way as we would like.  This is not uncommon among the Catholic mystics as their theological reflections sometimes take their writings on paths they didn't originally intend.

St. John opens The Ascent with a poem which underlies his writing.  He introduces the stanzas and then records the poem as follows:

"This treatise explains how to reach divine union quickly. It presents instruction and doctrine valuable for beginners and proficients alike that they may learn to unburden themselves of all earthly things, avoid spiritual obstacles, and live in that complete nakedness and freedom of spirit necessary for divine union. It was composed by Padre Fray John of the Cross, Discalced Carmelite.

The following stanzas include all the doctrine I intend to discuss in this book, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. They describe the way that leads to the summit of the mount – that high state of perfection we here call union of a soul with God. Since these stanzas will serve as a basis for all I shall say, I want to cite them here in full that the reader may see in them a summary of the doctrine to be expounded. Yet I will quote each stanza again before its explanation and give the verses separately if the subject so requires.

A song of the soul's happiness in having passed through the dark night of faith, in nakedness and purgation, to union with its Beloved.

1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
– ah the sheer grace! –
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
– ah the sheer grace! –
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
– him I knew so well –
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. Oh guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies."

– St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel

Although St. John will deviate from his original structural plan of citing each verse and commenting on it, this poem provides the backdrop for both The Ascent of Mount Carmel and, later, The Dark Night.