For St. John of the Cross, the mystical path meant living with an all-consuming desire to know and love God, completely and fully, abandoning everything that didn’t move him toward that goal.
He believed that God illuminates the individual—who, because of that illumination, then has the desire and power to shed the illusions of this world. These illusions include the messages of the senses, which distort the reality of union with God.
In his poem Dark Night, St. John of the Cross extolled the value of extinguishing everything but the desire for God:
One dark night, fired with love's urgent longings—ah, the sheer grace!—
I went out unseen, my house being now all stilled.
In darkness, and secure, by the secret ladder, disguised—ah, the sheer grace!—
in darkness and concealment, my house being now all stilled.
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
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
O 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.
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.
When the breeze blew from the turret, as I parted his hair,
It wounded my neck with its gentle hand, suspending all my senses.
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.
In this poem, the first step is called purification: the speaker slips away from their passionate flesh (the “silenced house”). The second stage, illumination, is a blissful state characterized by a heightened awareness of the presence of God and an enjoyment of his gifts.
To get closer to God requires another purification, a purification of the spirit. This is the process known as the “Dark Night of the Soul.” The mystic feels an absolute loss of God, a sense that the sun has been completely obliterated. Desolation and despair are the usual emotions. Yet no matter how long the emptiness continues, the soul clings to God, because we have to seek God for God’s sake, not because of any happiness we experience because of God.
In 1577 church authorities, resentful of John, had him kidnapped, and he was imprisoned for nine months in a windowless six-by-ten-foot cell, with a ceiling so low he couldn't stand up. The stone cell was unheated in winter, unventilated in summer. Malnourished and flogged weekly, John was constantly ill.
Yet it was during this dark time that, by the light of a three-inch hole high in the wall, John wrote his two greatest poems, "Cantico Espiritual" (Spiritual Canticle, 1578) and "Noche Oscura del Alma" (Dark Night of the Soul). These two extraordinary pieces illumined both his own darkness and the mystery of his path, which thousands of people since have followed.
by Jeannette de Beauvoir
Pauline Books and Media is delighted to offer John of the Cross, available today, as part of the Saints by Our Side series of biographies. Read about this Spanish priest who, while in prison, began writing poetry, some of his finest work outlining the steps of mystical ascent that are also known as the soul's journey to Christ!