St. John of the Cross

by Nancy Pope Mayorga | The Spiritual Athlete

ONE OF THE greatest bhaktas (lovers of God) the Christian faith has ever known was that luminous Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century, St. John of the Cross. He was first and always a lover, and God his Beloved. But these are pale words. He was a living ember blown upon by the breath of God, an ember glowing ever brighter on account of that breath. All he ever spoke of, all he ever admitted was the love of God, and the events of his life, grim and painful as they sometimes were, seemed only to quicken this constant act of love.

St. John is rare, if not unique, among Christian saints, for although the Church claims him, and his daily work was in and for the Church, he cannot be encompassed by a church, nor even by Christianity in its broadest sense. He was purely and simply, widely and deeply, a man of God. But if this makes him sound unapproachable, it should be mentioned that he was greatly loved when he lived. He was a very small man, less than five feet tall, thin-faced, with dark, compelling eyes. His manner was unobtrusive. Whatever came to him, honors or humiliations, he accepted, with more than serenity, with joy. The love of God kept him joyful under all conditions. His greatest poems, passionate poems of love for God, on which he later based his whole teaching, were actually written while he was a prisoner in a very small cell, subject to indignities and cruelty.

His early life was unremittingly hard. His mother was widowed shortly after he was born, and he was educated at an institute for children of the poor, where he was also fed and clothed. At seventeen he enrolled in a Jesuit college and received a first-class education in the humanities. In 1563, at twenty-one, he took vows as a Carmelite.

At this time the strictness of the Carmelite Order had relaxed considerably, the monks and nuns dressing and living in comfort and luxury. Brother John was unhappy about this and was considering transferring to a more austere order. But then he met Teresa of Avila, who had felt the same dissatisfaction as a Carmelite nun. It was her hope to reform the Order, to restore the Carmelite Primitive Rule for friars and nuns for a life more restricted and more given to solitude and contemplation. She persuaded John that this was where his call was, to work within the Order to reform it. So John agreed to join with Brother Antonio de Heredia, a man of fifty-seven, who had willingly given up a comfortable and important position as a prior to work with Teresa for establishing a monastery according to the strict Primitive Rule.

We have Teresa’s humorous and affectionate description of Brother John at this time. She was surprised to find him so small, and she called her two monks “a friar and a half.” But she was impressed by John, by the depth of his dark eyes, by his composure, also by his common sense and his courage. And she was to say much later, “I never came across any imperfection in him.”

For her new monastery Teresa had been made a gift of a tumble-down house in an isolated village called Duruelo. She was dismayed at her first sight of the place, nothing more than a pigsty, she said, but her “friar and a half” took it over with joy, and Brother John felt “free at last from the fetters of material things.” The places in the garret where the two men slept were so close under the roof they could only sit or lie, and at first in such bad repair that often while they meditated, the snow sifted in on their habits. They considered it a time of great rejoicing. At a later visit Teresa reported that she found the prior, Brother Antonio, “in front of the monastery, this little stable of Bethlehem, busy sweeping like a simple lay brother, his face alight with happiness. I was amazed at the spirit which God had infused into the place. The two merchants who traveled with me did nothing but weep.”

IT seemed that there was a need in the Carmelite Order for just such a reform, because once it was started, it grew rapidly. The friars and nuns of the reform wore the plainest of clothes and rope sandals instead of fine Moroccan leather shoes. They became known as the Discalced, or unshod, Carmelites. At first they were ignored by the Caked members, but inevitably, as they drew new enthusiasts to their lists, jealousy arose. There began a struggle over jurisdiction. Though he never wished it so, the influence of Brother John grew until he stood, with Teresa, almost as a symbol of what came to be thought of as a rebellion. Certain factions of the established order decided to stop the expansion. They kidnapped John, took him to Toledo, and put him in a cell six feet by ten feet with the only light from a slit high up in the wall. He was there for nine months during which time he was treated with harshness and even punishments such as might be given to a criminal. Yet it was during this time that he composed most of his great poems. It is said that at night his cell glowed, but that when the prison guards would come to investigate the source of the light, it would disappear. His escape from that prison was extraordinary, if not miraculous. He said the Virgin released him. The guards seemed to be deaf and blind, locks and walls no obstacle to him.

By the time Teresa died in 1582, the reform had become well established. Brother John had presided over several new foundations and was now consultant on the new administrative council. But again problems and jealousies arose, this time within the organization. The original Discalced Carmelites were being eliminated one by one, and, after five years as a consultor, Brother John was suddenly ordered out of the country to a post in Mexico. He never reached it. Before he could leave, he fell mortally ill at a convent in Ubeda, southern Spain, where the prior disapproved of him and made things as uncomfortable for him as he could. However, his sanctity became known by the people of that district, and his funeral was the occasion of a great outburst of love and appreciation. He was only forty-nine when he died.

It had never been Brother John’s intention to be a teacher. As a matter of fact, in his writing he deferred to what he considered the superior wisdom of Teresa. His poems of love for God, however, he allowed to pour out of him without restraint. He could not help it. The most exquisite poetry, perfect in form, flowed from his heart with joyous spontaneity. When he visited Teresa’s con­ vents, he found his verses on the lips of all the nuns. They were constantly asking him for interpretations of certain lines. Finally, Teresa’s companion, the saintly Ana de Jesus, persuaded him that he should write commentaries on his poems, and so he began the work of his lifetime, four great books – The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Dark Night of the Soul, The Spiritual Canticle of the Soul, and The Living Flame of Love.

St. John is not easy to read. His poems are a delight, but his prose is wordy, diffusive, and repetitive. As a teacher, he is a religious psychologist, analyzing in astonishingly minute detail the religious process. But he is not like Teresa who talked endlessly about herself, her sufferings, and her ecstasies. Unselfconsciously, almost accidentally, he reveals the sublimity of his own experiences. At any unexpected moment, his difficult prose will burst forth, lofty, poetic, ardent, joyful, and soul­ stirring. It is a glimpse of the fire that is burning within.

The essence of his own experience is in his three greatest poems – The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Living Flame of Love, and the Spiritual Canticle. These he used like sutras, or threads to which his commentaries were to be strung. If he is diffuse, he is not disorderly. His commentaries make up four, carefully planned, progressive books.

THE first: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, based on the poem of that name, describes the task of a spiritual aspirant taking his first steps in the upward path to union with God.

In a dark night,
With anxious love inflamed, 0 happy lot!
Forth unobserved I went, My house being now at rest.

The going forth is the decision to find God. The house at rest is the first step on the journey, and detachment is the key to setting the house at rest. In his commentary, St. John makes it very plain what he means by detachment. “It is not the things of this world that occupy or injure the soul, for they do not enter within, but rather the wish for and desire of them … Oh would that spiritual persons knew how they are losing the good things of the spirit because they will not raise up their desires above trifles!” [The Ascent]

The first dark night is the purgation of these sense desires, and St. John takes up the job with vigor and thoroughness. He himself has struggled from the bottom of the path to the heights and knows every pitfall and stumbling block. The disciple who is willing to surrender himself to this basic book, to this determined teacher, will be made over, will be finally and wholly convinced that the only purpose in life, the only thing that matters at all, is to unite mind, heart and soul with God. This is St. John’s constant message, this is his purpose in writing, to impress upon us the absolute necessity, as well as the ways and means, for stripping ourselves of all hindrances to the knowledge of and ultimate union with God. It is simple really. The whole of religion is love, and the whole of spiritual exercise is to free the soul from worldly entanglements which prevent it from loving God completely.

THE second: The Dark Night of’ the Soul, the second of the four books, is also based on the poem, The Ascent. Once the apprentice soul sets out on this path of purification, God begins to draw it very quickly to Himself. After the strenuous gaining of a measure of self-control, after learning to “abide with attention in loving waiting upon God” [The Ascent], then the aspirant’s duty is to allow God to work. All his activity now should be bent toward submitting his will to God’s will. This St. John calls “the passive night,” and he is very careful to give all the signs that show when an aspirant is ready for passivity, lest the disciple fall into laziness or complacency. When all attachments and ties are broken, when all worldly pleasures have become tasteless, then is the time to resign oneself utterly to God. What is required for this is faith. “The soul, when it least uses its own proper ability, travels most surely, because it walks most by faith. Who shall hinder God from doing His will in a soul that is resigned, detached, self-annihilated?” [The Dark Night]

 THE third: The Living Flame of Love. Then after much practice, there comes a blessed state in which the soul communes easily with God and exercises itself in love. The description of this state is the substance of St. John’s third book. “The soul already transformed and glowing interiorly with the fire of love, is not only united with the divine fire, but becomes a loving flame. Hence then we may say of the soul which is transformed in love, that its ordinary state is that of the fuel in the midst of the fire; that the acts of such a soul are the flames which rise up out of the fire of love.” “When the soul is on fire with love, it will feel as if a seraph with a burning brand had struck it . . . and when the burning brand has thus touched it, the soul feels that the wound it has received is delicious beyond imagination.” [The Living Flame]

At this point then there is nothing to do but wait for God’s grace. But there need be no anxiety about this waiting, for St. John assures us, “It is impossible, according to the divine goodness and mercy, that God will not perform His own work. Yes, more impossible than that the sun should not shine in a clear and cloudless sky.” And he adds, “If we are seeking the Beloved, He is seeking us much more.” [Living Flame]

Now the soul has to acknowledge that all is the grace of God and there is nothing else. The sooner we surrender, the better for us. The Beloved is waiting.

THE fourth: The Spiritual Canticle. In this beautiful book comes the moment for which we have long been preparing, toward which we have been struggling, the moment which alone gives life its meaning. “When the soul has lived for some time in this perfect and sweet love, God calls it and leads it into His flourishing garden for the celebration of the spiritual marriage. Then the two natures are so united, what is divine is so communicated to what is human, that, without undergoing any essential change, each seems to be God.” This is the “flame that consumes and gives no pain. The love of God is now perfect in the soul, has changed it into God, wherein its movements and actions are now divine. The soul in this estate of the Spiritual Betrothal walks habitually in union with the love of God.” [Spiritual Canticle]

My soul is occupied,
And all my substance in His service; Now I guard no flock,
Nor have I any other employment; My sole occupation is love.

Nancy Pope Mayorga


O Living Flame of Love, That woundest tenderly

My soul in its inmost depth!

As Thou art no longer grievous, Perfect Thy work if it be Thy will, Break the web of this sweet encounter.


0 sweet bum!

A delicious wound!

0 tender hand!0 gentle touch! Savouring of everlasting life, And paying the whole debt,

By slaying Thou hast changed death into life.


0 lamps of fire,

In the splendors of which The deep caverns of sense, Dim and dark,

With unwonted brightness

Give light and warmth together to their Beloved!


How gently and how lovingly Thou wakest in my bosom,

Where alone Thou secretly dwellest; And in Thy sweet breathing

Full of grace and glory,

How tenderly thou fillest me with thy love.



In a dark night,

With anxious love inflamed,

0 happy lot!

Forth unobserved I went, My house being now at rest.

In darkness and in safety,

By the secret ladder, disguised,

0 happy lot!

In darkness and concealment, My house being now at rest.


In that happy night

In secret, seen of none, Seeing nought myself, Without other light or guide

Save that which in my heart was burning.


That light guided me

More surely than the noonday sun

To the place where He was waiting for me, Whom I knew so well,

And where none appeared.


0 guiding night;

0 night more lovely than the dawn;

0 night that hast united

The lover with His beloved, And changed her into her love.

On my flowery bosom, Kept whole for Him alone, There He reposed and slept;

And I caressed Him, and the waving Of the cedars fanned Him.

As I scattered His hair in the breeze That blew from the turret,

He struck me on the neck With His gentle hand, And all sensation left me.


I continued in oblivion lost,

My head was resting on my love; Lost to all things and myself, And amid the lilies forgotten, Threw all my cares away.



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