Jordan Aumann, O.P.


To understand rightly the ascetical teaching of St. John of the Cross, it is necessary to understand that although he is called the "Doctor of the Dark Nights," he has also written about the highest state of the mystical life---the transforming union---in The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love. In fact, in the Prologue to his first work, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, he states that he wants to "relieve the great necessity which is experienced by many souls who, when they set out upon the road of virtue, and our Lord desires to bring them into this dark night that they may pass through it to divine union, make no progress."

It is evident from the foregoing statement that St. John does not consider asceticism and detachment as ends in themselves. They are simply the means--- but important means--- to the attainment of the transforming union in which the soul experiences to the fullest the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, the proponents of a purely negative spirituality do a disservice to St. John of the Cross. They define Christian holiness in terms of the rejection of all created goods, and then they interpret the teaching of St. John according to their own preconceived notions. In doing so, they ignore one of the fundamental principles of ascetical theology, namely, that grace does not destroy nature but works through it to perfect it. St. John describes those persons in the Prologue to The Ascent:

It is sad to see many souls to whom God gives both aptitude and favor with which to make progress (and who, if they would take courage, could attain to this high state) remaining in an elementary stage of communion with God, for want of will or knowledge, or because there is no one who will lead them in the right path or teach them how to get beyond these beginnings. . . . For there are souls who, instead of committing themselves to God and making use of his help, rather hinder God by the indiscretion of their actions or by their resistance; like children who, when their mothers desire to carry them in their arms, start stamping and crying, and insist on being allowed to walk, with the result that they can make no progress; and, if they advance at all, it is only at the pace of a child.

Theology of asceticism

There are two aspects of the Christian life: the positive and the negative. They are not mutually exclusive but they interact with one another. The positive aspect comprises the cultivation and development of the virtues, the worthy reception of the sacraments, and the practice of prayer. The negative aspect is covered by such terms as detachment, self-denial, purgation and mortification. It is usually these latter practices that come to mind when one hears the word "asceticism," and perhaps there is an historical basis for such thinking.

The early Christians were called ascetics because they were exemplary in the practice of the Christian virtues. But a person who wants to be proficient in the practice of virtue must achieve self-mastery by subjecting the lower faculties---especially the passions and instinctual desires---to the control of reason enlightened by Christian faith. This, in turn, requires a regime of self-denial and detachment from sensate satisfaction. In due time, therefore, the word "asceticism" connoted the practices of self-denial rather than the practice of virtue, although both the negative and the positive aspects are included in the word. They are two sides of the same coin.

Jesus himself gave his disciples a series of admonitions regarding asceticism, the most general of which is: "If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and follow in my steps. Whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will preserve it (Mk 8:34-35).

A fundamental principle in the theology of St. John of the Cross is that God is all and, by comparison, we creatures are nothing. This is the well-known Todo and Nada of the Carmelite Doctor of the Dark Nights. Consequently, if there is to be a union of friendship between God and the soul, the soul must be elevated through sanctifying grace and charity so that it can relate to God on the supernatural plane. The bond of union with God is the theological virtue of charity, which is made possible only through sanctifying grace.

With sanctifying grace, however, the individual becomes a new creation, a child and friend of God, endowed with all the potentialities it needs to attain to the transforming union and the perfection of charity. But to reach that goal the soul must travel through the active and passive dark nights of the senses and the spirit, either in this life or in Purgatory.

St. John of the Cross is adamant in insisting that the soul desirous of making spiritual progress must reject everything that does not lead to union with God. Anything that would be an impediment to growth in the love that is charity ---love of God and of neighbor---must be relinquished. In explaining why this is so, St. John gives evidence of the training in Thomistic theology that he received at the University of Salamanca.

The reason is that two contraries (even as philosophy teaches us) cannot coexist in one person; and that darkness, which is affection set upon the creatures, and light, which is God, are contrary to each other, and have no likeness or accord between one another. . . . In order that we may the better prove what has been said, it must be known that the affection and attachment which the soul has for creatures renders the soul like to these creatures; and the greater is its affection, the closer is the equality and likeness between them; for love creates a likeness between that which loves and that which is loved.. . . . Love not only makes the lover equal to the object of his love, but even subjects him to it (Ascent, Bk. I, chap. 4).

Christ taught the same doctrine in his Sermon on the Mount when he said: "Remember, where your treasure is, there your heart is also. . . . No man can serve two masters. . . . You cannot give yourself to God and to money" (Mt 6:21-24).

Curbing one's desires and attachments.

At first reading, the teaching of St. John of the Cross may seem to be too demanding and, in fact, impossible to put into practice. In Chapter 13 of Book I of The Ascent he goes so far as to say: "Every pleasure that presents itself to the senses, if it be not purely for the honor and glory of God, must be renounced and completely rejected for the love of Jesus Christ."

As if anticipating an objection from the reader, St. John had already stated in Chapter 3 of Book I that "it is true that the soul cannot help hearing and seeing and smelling and tasting and touching," but "we are not treating here of the lack of things, since this implies no detachment on the part of the soul if it has a desire for them; but we are treating of the detachment from them of the taste and desire, for it is this that leaves the soul free and void of them, although it may have them; for it is not the things of this world that either occupy the soul or cause it harm, since they enter it not, but rather the will and desire for them."

Up to this point St. John has established the fact that the use and enjoyment of created goods do not in themselves pose an obstacle to progress in the spiritual life. Do we not call God's blessing on the meal that we are about to enjoy? Is not the love between a husband and wife compared to the love of Christ for his Church ? Hence, whether or not we use and enjoy created goods is not the point at issue; it is our desire for them and our attachment to them that do great harm to our spiritual life. It is necessary to resist and renounce any and all desires and attachments that are incompatible with the love of God and of neighbor. But here also St. John makes some important distinctions.

I expect that for a long time the reader has been wanting to ask whether it is necessary, in order to attain this high estate of perfection, to undergo first of all mortification in all the desires, great and small, or whether it will suffice to mortify some of them and to leave others, those at least which seem of little moment. For it seems to be a severe and most difficult thing for the soul to be able to attain to such purity and detachment that it has no will and affection for anything.

To this I reply: first, that it is true that all the desires are not equally harmful, nor do they all equally embarrass the soul. I am speaking of those that are voluntary, for the natural desires hinder the soul little, if at all, from attaining to union, when they are not consented to or do not pass beyond the first movements. . . ; and to take away these---that is, to mortify them completely in this life---is impossible. . . .

But all the other voluntary desires, whether they be of mortal sin. . .or of venial sin, . . .must be driven away every one. . .; and the reason is that the state of this divine union consists in the soul's total transformation, according to the will, in the will of God so that there may be nothing in the soul that is contrary to the will of God, but that, in all and through all, its movement may be that of the will of God alone (Ascent, Bk. I, chap. 11).

St. John uses a striking example to illustrate the need for the mortification of all voluntary desires. "It comes to the same thing whether a bird be held by a slender cord or by a stout one; since, even if it be slender, the bird will be as well held as though it were stout. . . . And thus the soul that has attachment to anything, however much virtue it possess, will not attain to the liberty of divine union" (Loc. cit.).

Two things should be noted at this point. First, in Chapter 12, Book I of The Ascent, St. John repeats that he is not talking about other natural desires that are not voluntary, of thoughts that do not go beyond the first movements, or of temptations. "For, although a person who suffers from them may think that the passion and disturbance which they then produce in him are defiling and blinding him, this is not the case; rather, they are bringing him the opposite advantages. For, insofar as he resists them, he gains fortitude, purity, light and consolation, and many blessings."

Secondly, as stated in Chapter 11 of Book I, the greatest harm comes to the soul from habitual uncontrolled desires and attachment to created things. The occasional sin or imperfection should also be avoided, of course, but as long as one has not cultivated the habit of a particular sin or imperfection, it will be much easier to resist temptation. Hence, St. Augustine warned that we should not think lightly of venial sins and imperfections because they are light and easily forgiven; but we should be concerned that they are so frequent in our life. More harm may be done by a habit of venial sin than by a mortal sin that was immediately repented and never repeated.

It does not suffice, however, simply to stop sinning; it is also incumbent on the devout Christian to cultivate and practice the virtues. But an occasional act of virtue does little or nothing to foster one's growth in holiness. St. Thomas Aquinas rightly taught that the essence of virtue does not consist in the external act but in the interior strength of character that comes from the repetition of morally good acts. Indeed, the goal of any virtue is to become, as it were, second nature to the person who practices it. Without this interiorization of virtuous activity, the external performance of good works may be simply a mask to hide one's vices.

Spiritual maxims.

At the end of Book I of The Ascent, St. John gives a list of maxims or counsels so that the devout soul may know how to enter the dark night of the senses, which is the first stage of purgation. What he is giving is Gospel teaching pure and simple, but if one exaggerates the negative aspect there is danger of misinterpreting his teaching. Christians have always been urged to renounce sin, avoid occasions of sin and resist temptation. For many persons the struggle to keep one's lower faculties obedient to reason enlightened by faith is difficult indeed, and especially in the early stages of the spiritual life. But before listing the various admonitions, St. John states a general principle of spiritual theology:

First, let him have an habitual desire to imitate Christ in everything that he does, conforming himself to his life, upon which life he must meditate so that he may know how to imitate it, and to behave in all things as Christ would behave (chap. 13).

St. John then provides two sets of counsels, the first of which has to do with the control of the passions, which by their very nature are self-centered. These maxims challenge the individual to exert ever greater effort in the ascetical struggle to control the demands of selfish love. Greater perfection always calls for greater effort; progress is made by moving onward and upward. Hence, if the counsels are put into practice, they can contribute to the formation of an integrated personality and an authentically Christian character.

In this context St. John urges the Christian to try not to prefer that which is easiest but that which is most difficult; not that which gives the most pleasure but that which gives least; not that which is restful but that which is laborious; not that which is the greatest but that which is the least; and so forth. In a word, one should strive to cultivate a spirit of holy indifference, a perfect obedience to the divine will.

In the second set of counsels St. John returns to his basic teaching that "we are not treating here of the lack of things, since this implies no detachment on the part of the soul if it has a desire for them; but we are treating of the detachment from them of the taste and desire, for it is this that leaves the soul free and void of them, although it may have them" (chap. 3).

These counsels are reminiscent of the manner in which Christ spoke when he said: "Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it" (Mt 16:25); "There is no one who has left home or wife or brothers, parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God who will not receive a plentiful return in this age and life everlasting in the age to come" (Lk 18:29-30).

Similarly, St. John teaches that in order to receive the "plentiful return" promised by Christ, one must not desire to take pleasure in anything, to possess anything, to be anything, to want anything. He maintains that we can never be at peace until we control our selfish desires which keep us in a state of restless agitation and often activate one or another of the capital sins. It is necessary to hold oneself in a state of holy indifference, satisfied with whatever God wills for us. These are the sentiments expressed by St. John in his poem, Glosa a lo Divino:

From creatures now my soul is free,
Detached from all created things;
Now she at last has taken wings
And lives her life delectably.
To God, and God alone, she clings.