John of the Cross, St. (1542–1591)

views updated


St. John of the Cross, or Juan de la Cruz, the Spanish mystic and poet, was born at Fontiveros, near Ávila. His family was poor, and as a child he worked in a hospital at Medina del Campo in return for training at the Jesuit school. In 1563 he entered the Carmelite order in Medina, and in the following years he studied at the University of Salamanca. In 1567, the year he was ordained priest, he met St. Teresa of Ávila and planned to start a monastic community in line with the kind of reform she had effected among nuns. Such a community was started in 1568, under the original Carmelite rule and in conditions of great poverty and austerity. This was a prelude to energetic reforming work by St. John and growing opposition on the part of his superiors. In 1577 he was imprisoned at Toledo for eight months and was maltreated. In 1591 he was banished to a lonely monastic house at Úbeda, where he died near the end of that year. His chief prose writings were The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. His poems have given him a secure place in the history of Spanish literature.

The best-known feature of St. John's mystical writings is his description of the dark night of the soul (or spiritnoche oscura del espíritu ). The imagery of night is indeed very prominent in his works and was used by him in a variety of senses. By "the dark night" he principally meant the extreme sense of desolation and despair that overcomes the soul after its first illumination by God. This illumination is not the highest state, for eventually the soul will achieve a perfect, lasting union with Godthe Spiritual Marriage. The earlier illumination, which St. John called the Spiritual Betrothal, is a "high state of union and love." It thus appears that the dark night is brought on by the deprivation felt when the mystical state of illumination ceases.

St. John saw this dark night in relation to what he called the dark night of sense. This is the purgation of the body and of sense experience, in which the contemplative turns inward from the world. This self-discipline, which involves great asceticism and which constitutes the preliminary training needed for contemplation, culminates in the emptying of the mind of discursive thought and mental images. It is in this state that the Spiritual Betrothal can take place. The dark night of the soul that follows this was explained by St. John as follows.

The soul, despite the Betrothal, still has to endure further purgation, which is psychologically rather than physically painful. This is not due to a change of attitude on the part of God but results from the continued impurity of the soul, which is not able to withstand the glory of the divine illumination. In this situation the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love are essential. Faith enables the contemplative to continue undismayed through the "night"; hope turns the soul toward the future rather than to the memory of deprivation; love turns the soul toward God and men. Ultimately, then, the soul will gain the full union of the Spiritual Marriage. This is described as a complete transformation of the soul in God; and St. John tended to use language identifying the soul with God at this stage, which is contrary to theistic orthodoxy. It is interesting that in his commentary on the poem The Living Flame of Love he expressed great unwillingness to write about this, the loftiest state he had experienced. He also said, like other mystics, that the communication of God to the soul is ineffable. However, his use of the imagery of marriage and love indicated that he affirmed the essential distinction between the soul and its Lover.

The attainment of the highest state, according to St. John, is limited to very few persons. Such mystics long for death, after which they may enjoy the Beatific Vision in perpetuity in the next life.

St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa influenced each other, and they are the two most important figures in the history of Christian mysticism in Spain.

See also Asceticism; Illumination; Mysticism, History of; Teresa of Ávila, St.


St. John's works may be found in Obras de San Juan de la Cruz, edited with notes by Padre Silverio de Santa Teresa (Burgos: Tip de "El Monte Carmelo," 1929). The works are translated from the above edition by E. Allison Peers as The Complete Works of St. John of the Cross, 3 vols. (London: Burns and Oates, 19341935; reprinted 1953).

Also see E. Allison Peers, Studies of the Spanish Mystics (London: Sheldon Press, 1927), Vol. I.

other recommended works

Herrera, Robert A. Silent Music: The Life, Work, and Thought of St. John of the Cross. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2004.

Nieto, José C. Mystic, Rebel, Saint: A Study of St. John of the Cross. Genève: Droz, 1979.

Pax, Clyde. "Companion Thinkers: Martin Heidegger and Saint John of the Cross." Philosophy Today 29 (1985): 230244.

Payne, Steven. John of the Cross and the Cognitive Value of Mysticism. Boston: Kluwer, 1990.

Pike, Nelson. "John of the Cross: Epistemic Value of Mystic Visions." In Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment, edited by Robert Audi. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986.

Pike, Nelson. "St. John of the Cross on Mystic Apprehensions." In Religious Experience and Religious Belief, edited by Joseph Runzo. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1986.

Sanderlin, David. "Faith and Ethical Reasoning in the Mystical Theology of St. John of the Cross." Religious Studies 25 (3) (1989): 317333.

Tillyer, Desmond B. Union with God: The Teaching of St. John of the Cross. London: Mowbray, 1984.

Ninian Smart (1967)

Bibliography updated by Tamra Frei (2005)