The Spiritual Theology of St. John of the Cross

by John Drury

            St. John of the Cross describes the spiritual life as a loving courtship between God and the soul, wherein the soul must embark on a purgative ascent toward union with God­.  This loving activity is the key to unlocking the riches of his spiritual theology.  John is oft famed for his image of the “dark night of the soul.”  To understand the dark night it must be placed in the context of this loving courtship.  The dark night is not an end, but a means.  Its purpose is to purify the soul so it can be united with God in love.  The goal of loving union shapes John’s conception of the path, motivation, hindrances, aids, measurement, and fruit of the spiritual life.

            Just as John’s popular ideas ought to be put in conceptual context, so too ought his life be put in historical context.  John of the Cross (1542-1591) grew up in a Spanish town not far from Avila.  His father was disenfranchised for marrying a poor woman (8).[i]  His intellectual gifts were discovered early in his life.  John entered a Carmelite order in Medina, where he soon came under the influence of Teresa of Avila (10).  John became a major player in the spiritual reform movement of 16th Century Spain.  He was a theologian, poet, and an excellent spiritual director (15).  Unfortunately, the ethos of inquisition spelled imprisonment for John.  Although he escaped, this dark time increased his awareness of the dark purgation that leads to union. 

            John’s audience was predominately monastic.  A considerable level of commitment is presupposed of his readers.  His works are aimed for those who already have a desire to be like Christ and currently avoid shameful sensory satisfaction (77).  He does not limit, however, his call to embark on the path.  He declares his guidance to be “necessary to so many souls” (57).  Few ever reach the ultimate goal of perfect union.  Nevertheless, many can become proficient and therefore ought to seek it (179).

            In keeping with his profession, John’s works are highly didactic.  He seeks to instruct persons on the path to loving union.  However, there is a significant poetic component to his writing, which uniquely shapes his theology.  The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night are commentaries on his poem “The Dark Night.”  The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love are also commentaries on his poetry.  This format is indicative of his method: he places high regard on experience yet does not let it stand alone.  He explains the poems by means of doctrine and scripture.  He explicitly submits his teachings for review by the Church (221).  His experience may be crucial, but it is never the criterion of judgment.

            Before proceeding to the loci of John’s spiritual theology, a note regarding divine agency is in order.  Because of his focus on spiritual direction, John attends primarily to human action in the purgative path to loving union.  Nevertheless, God is in sovereign control of the process.  The dark night comes by God’s “sheer grace” (230) and its timing is ordained by God’s providential choice (292).  John typically presents Christ’s death as an example, but it is much more to him.  Christ’s death made reconciliation possible by opening the door between creatures and the creator (97).  Only by God’s work can the dark night be initiated and divine union effected.  Yet since “people should insofar as possible strive to do their part in purifying and perfecting themselves” (169), John offers his experience and learning as a guide for this human component.



I. Loving Union

            As with many spiritual theologians, the ultimate goal of the spiritual life for John is union of the soul with God.  How does John describe this union?  For sake of clarity, he distinguishes between three kinds of union.  There is union by essence, union by grace, and union by affection.  As the sustainer of life, God necessarily dwells substantially and essentially in all creatures (89).  By grace God dwells particularly in those souls who are being saved (231).  However, God is displeased even at this level, for he lives as a stranger in the house.  God desires a more pleasing presence.  He desires to be the sole dweller in the soul by means of spiritual affection (314).  This is the experience of “transformational union” (89) -- the ultimate goal of the spiritual life.

            This loving union actually transforms the soul, for “love effects a likeness between the lover and the loved” (65).  When one reaches perfect love the soul is “transfigured” so that it and God are “so alike” (235).  Love controls the appetites completely so that all action is love toward God (268).  A person shifts from her own operation to God’s operation (200).  The two wills become one divine will (74).  God “communicates supernatural being” to the soul (91).

            This unity of likeness is possible because the soul lovingly participates in God’s Trinitarian being (244).  God is all things to the soul (247) because it has become “deiform” (281).  There is an “interior communion with God” (250).  We can join in the love shared between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (296).

            John expresses this “total transformation” by means of bridal imagery (257).  The soul’s ascent to God is complete when the two become one.  Inspired by the Song of Songs, John writes his own poem about the final stages of this courtship.  The Spiritual Canticle recites the poem with his commentary.  Drawn by the sickness of love, the bride searches for her bridegroom, who appears only to be lost again.  The two are finally gloriously united (225). 

            As with an earthly marriage, in union there nevertheless remains a distinction. The window has been cleaned perfectly and the rays of light shine through it fully.  Yet no matter how conformed the window is to the rays, it is still a window (91; 264).  John insists that perfect union of likeness does not deify the creature.  The soul becomes divine in the manner of Adam before the fall (263).  Therefore, union is a restoration of the image of God within the creature.

            This marriage is a concealed experience.  The bride anticipates it, saying, “And then we will go on / To the high caverns in the rock / Which are so well concealed” (227).  It is a revelation of God’s “hidden presence” (232).  The secret communication between God and the soul is therefore “beyond words” (137).  John cites this ineffability as the cause of his use of metaphors and poetic language, which he finds weak (304).  He only tells of his experience so that others will be drawn to union with God.

            Not only is perfect union ineffable, it is impossible.  John repeatedly qualifies his description of union with the phrase “insofar as is possible in this life” (257).  It is impossible in this life for the soul to experience perfect loving union with permanence; however, one can have a “habit of union” (89).  John uses the analogy of burning wood to clarify this distinction.  When embers burst with flame, they share fully in the likeness of the fire.  This is actual union.  When the embers are merely glowing, they have a tame likeness and union with the fire.  This is habitual union.  Permanent actual union is impossible in this life.  It will always be transitory.  Yet permanent habitual union is possible (299).

            The different degrees of union reveal the worthiness John ascribes to the proximate goals of the spiritual life.  Although one must always pursue greater union, God is pleased with the process.  The purgation of the soul along the way is an act of worship.  We can “become an altar for the offering of a sacrifice of pure love and praise and reverence” (71).   Successful passage through the stages of purgation is a proximate goal along the way to ultimate union.  What are these stages?  How do they lead to goal?  What is the path?  To these questions we now turn.

II. Two Dark Nights and the Threefold Path

            John perpetuates the traditional threefold path of Christian spiritual theology.  He speaks of beginners, proficients, and the perfect (58; 163).  Beginners practice the active life.  They struggle against their appetites.  Their spiritual exercises are dominated by their faculties: intellect, memory, and will.  Beginners are to progress into the passive life of proficients.  Proficients contemplate simply without images or active means.  The imperfections are purged.  The senses are united to the spirit.  From this state of illumination, proficients are ready to journey toward ultimate goal of union with God.

            John contributes to this traditional path by explaining the passage between stages as dark nights.  The dark night of sense turns a beginner into a proficient.  The dark night of spirit takes the proficient on to perfection.  They are dark nights because of the purgation involved.  Through the dark night of sense, the beginner abandons discursive meditation.  The faculties are lost.  It is by this detachment from distractions that God can become present.  It is therefore a path of darkness.  The night of spirit is also dark, yet far more terrible and painful.

            Why must the path be a dark one?  Why does it cause so great an affliction?  Because of God’s greatness and our weakness, God’s touch feels as a hard weight (203).  It is like a blinding light (201).  The imperfect soul cannot see God.  The flesh, the world and the devil distract it.  Even spiritual exercises distract.  So, God must blind the soul so that it may see. 

            John affirms that God is light.  However, the light by which beginners see is tainted.  God is hidden from view.  We think we are seeing God when we are only seeing the dust in the air reflecting the rays of his light (115).  When the dust of imperfection settles, the light becomes harder to see.  Yet the light shining through is pure.  So there must be a loss of vision in order for true vision to be found.  John’s path is therefore both the via negativa and the via positiva.

            How does one pursue the dark night?  As we said before, God is the primary mover in the soul.  He ordains the timing of the night by his own sheer grace (184).  However, in The Ascent of Mount Carmel John offers a specific method for humans to prepare their soul to be united to God.  Since purity causes oblivion (116), the key is renunciation.  The path of the night is to darken the three faculties by means of the three theological virtues.  The intellect is darkened by faith (101).  The memory is darkened by hope (149).  The will is darkened by love (151).

            John gives a step-by-step account of the renunciation of the intellect.  Knowledge is divided into division and subdivisions.  The way to proficient contemplation is to darken each of the divisions and subdivisions one by one.  The active life is already darkening natural knowledge as it focuses on the created rather than the creator.  Supernatural knowledge can be divided into corporal and spiritual knowledge.  Although its object is supernatural, corporal knowledge is distracting.  So the beginner must darken the five senses and even interior imagination.  In time, the beginner uses only spiritual knowledge.  She is becoming a proficient.  The imperfection of sensual knowledge will no longer distract the soul from God. 

            However, the proficient must press on to the dark night of spirit.  One must darken clear, particular knowledge of God, such as visions, revelations, locutions, and feelings.  These forms of meditation are still discursive, and therefore block complete union with God (118).  The goal of the night of spirit is to rely only on general knowledge, which is vague, dark, and contemplated by faith alone.

            A similar course is charted for the memory and will.  The faculty of memory is harmful for it reflects on worldly evils and reminds the soul of emotions and appetites (144-146).  The theological virtue of hope leads to “unpossession” of these creaturely distractions (149).  The memory is to be fixed empty on God in hope that he will fill it.  The same goes for the will, which must be purified of inordinate appetites by love.  John mentions the four passions of joy, hope, sorrow, and fear.  These passions must be renounced in favor of passionate love for God (151).

            John’s methodical, step-by-step instructions do not necessarily imply a rapid ascent to union with God.  He continually reminds his readers of God’s ordained timing (184).  The nothingness of the dark night may give us the feeling that we have gone astray.  This worry will only prolong the wait.  Once we have done all that is instructed of us, we are to persevere with patience (185).  The soul must patiently attend to God, and he will attend to it according to his timing.

III. Loving Motivation

            Why might one embark on this difficult journey?  We know God desires higher love in his children (179).  However, what inclines the human toward God?  The ultimate motivation for the path of the dark night is love for God.  The soul desires union with God like a bride desires her bridegroom (219).  Love is the greatest motive.

            However, love is a gift from God that does not reach perfection until the goal is reached.  Therefore, lesser desires stimulate the soul’s journey to God.  John chides the beginner whose “motive is personal peace rather than God” (166).  The beginner wants the gift, not the giver.  This impure incentive must be purged by the dark night of sense.  Nevertheless, it motivates the first steps along the path.  It is legitimate to long for purity, freedom from evil, and creaturely distraction.  One must have a “habitual desire to imitate Christ” in order to begin the journey (77).

            The more effective motivation is dryness, wherein the soul develops distaste for spiritual exercises it once enjoyed (180).  The beginner wants to be directly united to God in love and not through feeble spiritual activities.  The night of sense purges the remaining desire for the active life.  As a proficient, the motive of dryness is replaced by the sickness of love (270).  The soul painfully longs for God.  Such a love draws the soul into the dark night of spirit toward perfect union.

IV. Hindrance to the Ascent

            The power of intense longing is in grave competition with the snares along the way.  What are these hindrances?  What is their source?  One of the basic problems is that “some spiritual directors are likely to be a hindrance and harm rather than a help to these souls that journey on this road” (58).  How will they get there if they do not know the way?  John’s proper instruction is intended to fix this problem.

            There is more to worry about, however, than unenlightened spiritual directors.  The primary hindrance to spiritual progress comes from the appetites.  These imperfect cravings blemish the soul.  They are like mud on the window, making it impossible for the rays to shine through.  Even when these cravings are directed away from earthly objects, their danger persists.  The problem is not just the object of desire, but the appetite itself.  In the Dark Night, John insightfully shows how each of the seven temptations hinders spiritual progress.

            The beginner suffers from spiritual pride.  The beginner is full of complacency and vanity, condemning others and praising himself (164).  He wants only compliments from his instructors (165).  The beginner also behaves with spiritual avarice.  He is discontent with his spiritual practices.  He always wants more and more.  He is possessive and attached to spiritual things (168).

            Furthermore, the beginner is tempted with spiritual lust.  The devil twists the pleasure of spiritual exercises (170).  The beginner dwells on her fear of impure thoughts so much that she will not be able to resist (171).  Also, she may experience affection for spiritual friends that does not increase love for God but rather distracts (172).  The beginner struggles with spiritual anger toward the let down that follows spiritual exercises.  She is also angry with herself in “unhumble impatience” (173).

            The beginner is a spiritual glutton.  He delights in the spiritual savor of exercises and not in purity and discretion.  He values penance over submission (174).  He serves his own will, not God’s (175).  The beginner has spiritual envy, too.  He is annoyed at other’s spiritual good (177).  Finally, the beginner treads in spiritual sloth.  He grows weary and bored from spiritual exercises.  “Many of these beginners want God to desire what they want, and they become sad if they have to desire God’s will” (177).

            A beginner who is cleansed of these imperfections becomes a proficient.  Yet a continual hindrance at each stage of the journey is fear.  So many souls want to be purified from imperfection and united to God, but are afraid of the path.  They do not want the dark night (57).  Just as the dawn comes, one becomes afraid of the next night to come (207).  Even as the soul is beginning to be filled with love and enters union with God, it is withdrawn in fear of the pain (241).  Fear is hindrance at every stage on the way to union.

V. Aids to the Ascent

            How can these hindrances be overcome?  How can these temptations be resisted?  John’s answer is the dark night.  God’s purgation is the solution.  There is no creaturely way to God (89).  Only God can help us.  So the discipline necessary is passivity.  The soul must learn to bear God’s purging fire, for it is the very flame of love (301).  This discipline is first cultivated by actively choosing the hard way in all things (77). 

            The three theological virtues are necessary aids to way of the dark night.  John offers a thorough treatment of faith as the “proximate means of ascent to union with God” (81).  Faith is the “secret ladder” of doctrine.  The rungs are the articles of belief -- hidden from the senses and intellect (81).  The soul ascends by secret knowledge of the God in his triunity and his works as revealed in the Church’s doctrine (140).  Faith protects the soul from the devil.  Intellectual and sensual knowledge are available to the devil (120).  Yet by faith -- “the secret ladder, disguised” -- the soul hides from the devil’s temptation (56).

            Love and hope also aid the ascent to God.  The longing of love provides not only motivation but also the means of communication between God and the soul.  Hope establishes the patience and fortitude needed to wait on God (198).  Perseverance is necessary because the path is so painful.  John says, “until a soul is placed by God in the passive purgation of that dark night ... it cannot purify itself completely of these imperfections” (169).  The temptations must be borne until the dark night comes (173).  Those who grow in patience will progress along the path to union.

VI. Measuring the Ascent

            How might one assess progress?  When is a soul ready for the dark night?  How does one discern genuine ascent?  John suggests three signs that a person is ready for the dark night of sense: dryness, wandering, and desire for general knowledge.  If all three are present, a soul is ready to terminate discursive meditation for the dark night has begun. 

Over time the beginner will experience dryness.  The soul has exhausted the use of the active life (111).  It has become such a habit that it no longer works (112).  Creatures no longer satisfy the longing for God (181).  Genuine dryness can be distinguished from that which is lukewarm.  One who is lukewarm is dissatisfied because of the loss of pleasure.  Genuine dryness desires God alone and finds current means ineffective. 

This distinction also helps to discern the legitimacy of the second sign: wandering (110).  Meditation that wanders to and fro without focus is merely lukewarm.  Such a soul is not ready for the dark night.  Yet if the soul begins to wander away from spiritual things in search of God himself, it is ready for the dark night.  It is a painful distaste, for the soul wishes its exercises were effective (181). 

            The third sign is a burning desire for general knowledge of God (110).  Particular, imaginative meditation is rendered powerless (183).  Beginners can discern this sign if “it is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when ... God darkens all this light and closes the door and spring of the sweet spiritual water they were tasting as often and as long as they desired” (179).  God initiates this genuine night by creating the need for simple contemplation.

            These three signs reveal the beginning of the dark night of sense.  What about the dark night of spirit?  How is true union distinguished from proximate union?  How is the legitimate discerned from the fraudulent?  The surest sign one has reached perfect union is that the soul is no longer afflicted (300).  The sickness of love is exchanged for pleasurable consummation.  Although the relationship remains dynamic, the motion is no longer painful (282).  In these last stages of union, the wounds of love may show outwardly (306).  This is not, however, a necessity.  What is necessary is a life change.  Although transitory in this life, perfect union transforms the soul.  It is not an ecstatic experience that merely forsakes the body (242), for the whole person is changed.

VII. Proximate and Ultimate Fruits

            What is the result of the spiritual life?  What are the fruits of purgation and union?

The two dark nights each offer unique sets of blessings.  The dark night of sense effects a purgation of many imperfections.  Those nagging appetites are finally controlled (188).

The soul overcomes avarice, lust, and gluttony (193).  Patience replaces anger.  Love replaces envy.  Satisfaction replaces sloth (195).  Since the soul is rendered incognito by the secret ladder of faith, it is liberated from three enemies: the flesh, the world, and the devil (196).

            The dark night of sense not only overcomes evil but also infuses good into the soul.  It gives knowledge of self and one’s misery (189).  This makes it possible for the proficient to have courteous communication with God (190).  The gift of knowledge extends beyond oneself to God’s grandeur and majesty (191).  Knowledge of human lowliness and divine greatness produces genuine spiritual humility, from which stems love of neighbor (192). 

            The proficient is submissive and obedient (193).  She has peace and tranquility (194).  With distractions out of the way, the soul can have a habitual remembrance of God (194).  The proficient no longer has to work on one virtue at a time, but rather passively “exercise all the virtues together” (194).  He also is given the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit (195).  The interior senses are in harmony with one another, as John’s poem declares, “My house being now all stilled” (196).

            These wonderful blessings of the night of sense are only proximate fruits to the ultimate fruits of the night of spirit.  In loving union the spirit is enflamed with love for God (208).  The goal is also the fruit.  Every action of the soul is love toward God (268).

Since the bridegroom gives understanding to the bride (219), the united soul has the deepest knowledge of God’s grandeur (240).  The intellect is given wisdom and the will is infused with goodness (311).  The united soul will have a “vision of God” (248).  When one who has reached perfect union dies, she will have a “gentle and sweet” death (301).  These are the fruits of love.

VIII. Evaluation and Conclusions

            In the face of these promises, who could raise an objection?  In light of John’s experience and wisdom, why offer a critique?  One would be hard pressed to stand over him in judgment.  Yet John put himself under the scrutiny of scripture, doctrine, and the church.  His experience may have been ineffable, but that does not make it infallible.  As his greatness demands respect, so his humility requires a critical response.

            Although he speaks of outward fruits and the importance of community (132), John primarily identifies spirituality with the inner life.  There is little mention of the mundane work of life.  He ascribes no value to outward diligence, seemingly regarding it as a distraction.  This inward focus explains why he makes limited use of the book of nature.  His commentaries are replete with anthropology, and humanity is certainly a part of the natural world.  Yet he never turns to the rest of creation as a source for illumination.  He presses so quickly and narrowly on to the inner contemplative life that this classical source is overlooked.  This is just one danger of so narrowly defining spirituality with the inner life.

            John’s limited definition is coupled with a limited path.  His exactitude seems to preclude divine detours.  His methodical instructions use a “one size fits all” approach. Despite his calls for patience, John's explicit purpose is to explain “how to reach divine union quickly” (55).  If the goal, the agent, and the means are so hidden, why is the path so clear?  One ought to be thankful for John’s concrete guidance.  Yet God’s providential plan for purification need not follow one single road.  John’s may be a good road, but there can be no guarantee that a different set of steps would not be more effective.  Is it not possible for God to work in mysteriously diverse ways?

            One more reservation is worthy of note: John hints that those at the highest levels of union are to desist exterior good works because they are distracting (270).  He may have been limiting this renunciation of good works to the time of actual union.  However, he dances on the edge of quietism with these remarks.  While it is necessary for the spiritual life to renounce even good things, it is dangerous to abandon the work of the kingdom.

            Despite these reservations, John of the Cross is an instructive and cohesive spiritual theologian.  His work offers particular insights to each facet of the discipline.  We can see the goal as a dynamic, loving union with God.  John reminds us that the path takes us through the dark night.  Loving God is the ultimate motivation.  He shows us that even spiritual cravings can hinder our journey.  Faith is the secret ladder of doctrine that aids our ascent.  He insightful recognizes that dryness, wandering and desire for general knowledge are the true measure that one is entering the dark night.  The fruits of this journey are humility, knowledge, virtue, and love for God and others.  These contributions allow us to confess with John of the Cross that the spiritual life is a loving courtship between God and the soul, wherein the soul must embark on a purgative ascent toward union with God.


Spring 2002


                [i] All citations are from John of the Cross: Selected Writings. Classics of Western Spirituality (Ed.: Kieran Kavanaugh; New York: Paulist Press, 1987).