St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung


Chapter 3: St. John and the Beginning of Contemplation

An introduction to St. John's doctrine, even when we limit ourselves to his less daunting discussions of the beginning of the mystical life, suffers from some of the same limitations that are found in reading Jung's works; we are dealing with formulations that are meant to be lived out and practiced, and not simply understood intellectually. For St. John mystical experience, which he also called infused contemplation, meant a real experience of union with God, and his writings stressed the way in which a person must conduct himself in order to attain to this union and the sufferings that he must undergo.


Juan de Yepes was born in Spain in the Castillian town of Fontiveros in 1542. Soon after his birth his father died, and his mother had to struggle to keep her three young sons alive. This poverty probably played a role in the death of one of John's brothers and the move of the family to Medina del Campo, where John was placed in an orphanage. Upon leaving the orphanage in his teens he served as a nurse in a hospital of incurables, and attended the Jesuit college.

At 21 he decided to enter the Carmelite monastery in Medina del Campo. After being ordained as a priest he was at the point of leaving the Order for a more rigorous and secluded one when he met Teresa of Avila who had already initiated a reform movement for the sisters, and was planning one for the friars as well. She convinced him to help her in this new work, and he started the first house of the new reform and went on to hold many positions in this growing movement.

In 1577, while in the midst of an extended stay as a confessor and spiritual director at St. Teresa's convent at Avila, he was kidnapped by the friars who opposed the reform and was imprisoned at Toledo. Buried in a dark cell and treated brutally, he began to fear for his life. Here he suffered a dark night out of which was born some of his most beautiful poetry. After more than eight months of torment he escaped and went south to Andalusia. Charged with the spiritual direction of St. Teresa's sisters, he began to teach and write maxims as aids to their devotion, and eventually undertake his prose works which were intended to be commentaries on his major poems. After many years, dividing his time in administering the growing reform and dedicating himself to the task of spiritual direction, he again fell afoul of some of his fellow friars. He was harassed and removed from all office, fell ill and died in 1591 at 49 years of age. The manuscripts of his writings circulated widely both inside and outside his order until they were printed in 1618.


Three of St. John's four major works concern us directly because they each contain a long passage devoted to the beginning of contemplation: the Ascent of Mount Carmel, its companion piece the Dark Night of the Soul, and the Living Flame of Love. The latter deals with the highest reaches of mysticism, and its treatment of the passage to contemplation is incidental to the main theme of the work. In the Ascent and Dark Night, however, this doctrine is found in the context of the development of the whole life of prayer.


The first reading of the Ascent or Dark Night can be disconcerting, for it is hard to find the proper perspective in which to view them. These two books, though conceived as parts of one over-all plan, form only a loose unity. The Ascent of Mount Carmel started as a commentary on the poem, "On a Dark Night", and was, as well, an exposition of a diagram that St. John had drawn illustrating how to ascend the mount of perfection which he used as an aid in spiritual direction. These original purposes were gradually submerged under the force of the logical flow of his explanations. Only the first stanzas of the poem were ever commented on, the diagram of the mount receded into the background, and the entire treatise of the Ascent was never finished. The book the Dark Night tends to complete the original undertaking, but it has the marks of being written separately with its own terminology and point of view. The Ascent-Dark Night is a disconcerting mixture of poetry and prose, psychological descriptions and scholastic doctrine that is saved from confusion by the unrelenting intent of the author which turns it into a masterpiece of the interior life. This intent is to actually guide the reader to the goal of union with God.

St. John was not primarily a writer, and he did not set out to create systematic treatises of mystical theology. In the prologue to the Ascent of Mount Carmel, after enumerating some of the problems that demand attention, he explains:

"Our goal will be, with God's help, to explain all these points, so that everyone who reads this book will in some way discover the road that he is walking along, and the one he ought to follow if he wants to reach the summit of this mount."(1)

The accent is on this practical work of how to actually climb the mountain, and St. John had little time for people who proposed to travel to God in pleasant and delectable ways. Since there was nothing that could compare with this goal, everything else must be left behind. St. John's writings have often been called negative and privative because of this thoroughgoing detachment. Yet when he wrote, he had already climbed high on the mountain and was trying to guide his penitents to the same height and did not want them to dawdle on the road distracted by non-essential things. The apparent complexity and the detailed landscape of the Ascent and the Dark Night resolves itself into a single-pointed vision once we take up St. John's perspective. The end is divine union, and all else must be laid aside. This union cannot be achieved by means of sense knowledge, nor even by spiritual ideas and feelings about God. The Ascent and Dark Night devote themselves to subtly and exhaustively analyzing how our attachment to worldly things and even spiritual goods can hinder the attainment of the highest good. In fact, it is the attachment to spiritual blessings in the form of the consolation of prayer, visions and revelations that pose the most dangerous obstacles because they are felt to be good and are clung to.

St. John, although he asks for a complete and penetrating detachment from all that is not God Himself, does not consider it a work of human effort alone. What is given up is replaced by something better. The giving up of temporal and worldly desires takes place under the advent of spiritual desires and experiences which more than make up for them, and later, the giving up of these spiritual desires is the prelude to the beginning of contemplation and is caused by the advent of this new experience.

This spiritual program leading to divine union is based on a number of premises which St. John derived from the scholastic philosophy he was trained in and applied to the life of prayer:

"The cause of this darkness is attributable to the fact that - as the scholastic philosophers say - the soul is like a tabula rasa (a clean slate) when God infuses it into the body, so that it would be ignorant without the knowledge it receives through its senses, because no knowledge is communicated to it from any other source. Accordingly, the presence of the soul in the body resembles the presence of a prisoner in a dark dungeon, who knows no more than what he manages to behold through the windows of his prison and has nowhere else to turn if he sees nothing through them. For the soul, naturally speaking, possesses no means other than the senses (the windows of its prison) of perceiving what is communicated to it."(2)

The conclusion to this line of reasoning is that if a man denies what comes through his senses, his soul would be in darkness and empty, and though a man must sense, if he desires not to do so, he attains the same effect as if he did not sense at all.

The reason why the mortification of desire is so important is that a disordered desire creates a likeness between the person and what he desires, "For love effects a likeness between the lover and the object loved."(3) If a person has inordinate desires for things other than God, he or she becomes made over in their likeness and cannot be made in the likeness of God. This dual affection cannot exist because two contraries cannot coexist in one person; darkness which is affection set upon creatures and light which is God are contrary to each other.

St. John's conclusion is that if a man becomes like the limited object of his desire, he cannot realize his potential to be transformed into the likeness of the infinite God, for such transformation demands that the will of man be completely in accord with the will of God, and any voluntary imperfection is enough to create an obstacle to this transformation. This doctrine forms the general context to the beginning of contemplation and the rationale underlying the "dark night (the mortification of the appetites and the denial of pleasure in all things) for the attainment of the divine union with God."(4)


St. John starts his description of the life of prayer with conversion and the state of beginners:

"It should be known, then, that God nurtures and caresses the soul, after it has been resolutely converted to His service, like a loving mother who warms her child with the heat of her bosom, nurses it with good milk and tender food, and carries and caresses it in her arms."(5)

Before this time the beginner had been attached to the things of the world, but now a dramatic change has taken place, for the soul which had been circumscribed by the world now becomes inflamed with love for spiritual things and the love for the world is replaced by the love for the things of God. Here there is no purely negative asceticism. Undoubtedly, the beginner must make strong efforts to break with his former habits, but these efforts are powerfully aided by the new yearnings of love that have sprung up within. The transition from the world to the beginning of the spiritual life is explained by St. John in the Ascent when he comments on the words "an enkindling with longings of love":

"The love of one's Spouse is not the only requisite for conquering the strength of the sensitive appetites; an enkindling with longings of love is also necessary. For the sensory appetites are moved and attracted toward sensory objects with such cravings that if the spiritual part of the soul is not fired with other more urgent longings for spiritual things, the soul will neither be able to overcome the yoke of nature nor enter the night of sense; nor will it have the courage to live in the darkness of all things by denying its appetites for them."(6)

The prayer of these beginners is what St. John calls meditation. Meditation today, when it is applied to spiritual practices, usually gives the impression of being a very orderly and rational analysis of a spiritual topic which gives rise to affective resolutions by way of conclusions to the reasoning process. For St. John, however, meditation is more generic and covers a great deal more ground.

Meditation as described in the Ascent centers around the faculty of imagination. But the imagination is not conceived of in isolation. It draws its raw material from the senses and then elaborates and develops these images through the use of the intellect, memory and will. Meditation embraces all the kinds of prayer that a person can make by his own efforts.

If meditation is the spiritual activity of the beginner, then the "longings of love" represent how the soul is acted upon. The two go together to form a harmonious unity which is best described as sensible spirituality or sensible religious experience. Before conversion the beginner was bound to the world, and his attention, affection, energy and faculties were devoted to worldly things by means of the senses; the beginner looked outward through the senses toward the world.

Conversion alters this picture 180,and now the new spiritual yearnings take the place of the attraction of the world. The beginner turns his attention, energy and faculties to spiritual things but, and here is the crucial point, he does it again by means of the senses, that is, by the natural faculties that work through the senses. The new attraction that arises in the spiritual part of the soul begins to counterbalance the sensible attraction for the world and soon overpowers it. The focus of attention and desire begins to rotate like a compass needle under a greater magnetic force. Attention and energy turn inward but it is attention, energy and natural operation of the faculties that only know how to operate through the senses. Therefore, the net effect of initial conversion is that the desire for temporal things becomes a sensible appreciation of spiritual things, the two being, in fact, opposite perspectives from the same vantage point.

Another way of explaining this process is by saying that grace must initially take man as he is. The phase of sensible spirituality is a necessary stage, and in St. John's mind it serves as a remote preparation for divine union:

"For though the apprehensions of these faculties are not a proximate means toward union for proficients, they are a remote means for beginners. By these sensitive means beginners dispose their spirit and habituate it to spiritual things and at the same time they void their senses of all other base, temporal, secular, and natural forms and images."(7)

But sensible spirituality is only a remote preparation, for it labors under inherent difficulties. Its most fundamental limitation springs from the fact that the senses can never adequately contain the spiritual, and therefore will always give a fragmentary and inadequate account of it. Furthermore, in regards to purity of intention, the soul is drawn to spiritual things not so much by what they are in themselves, for its understanding of their true nature is very limited, but more by the pleasure and consolation it finds in them. Sensible pleasure, then, is often a prime driving force. It is from this source of motivation that arises part of the fervor of beginners with their ability to spend hours in prayer and to devote themselves to penance and discipline, for all these things, as strange as it may seem, are sweet and enjoyable to them. St. John describes the faults and weaknesses of these beginners at great length in the first part of his Dark Night of the Soul. This sensible spirituality forms the point of departure from which the transition to contemplation begins.


Faith and divine union are the two key concepts that allow us to understand what St. John means by contemplation. In the Ascent, in order to illustrate the meaning of union, St. John uses the image of a pane of glass in the rays of the sun; the more the glass is purified the more it is transformed by the sunlight. It retains its own nature but becomes the sun by participation:

"And God will so communicate His supernatural being to it that it will appear to be God Himself and will possess all that God Himself has."(8)

This conception of divine union is far from any pantheism, for man's nature remains distinct, but it is also far removed from any simply moral union in which a man might be called God-like because he obeys the law of God. Divine union in St. John's mind is a real participation in God's life through knowledge and love. If divine union is the goal, faith is the means. But St. John's conception of faith is not easy to grasp even for the person pursuing the life of prayer. "Like a blind man he must lean on dark faith, accept it for his guide and light, and rest on nothing of what he understands, tastes, feels, or imagines."(9)

The reality of faith so transcends human nature that St. John disconcertingly likens trying to explain it to attempting to describe colors to a blind man. Faith:

"deprives and blinds a person of any other knowledge or science by which he may judge it. Other knowledge is acquired by the light of the intellect, but not the knowledge that faith gives. Faith nullifies the light of the intellect, and if this light is not darkened, the knowledge of faith is lost."(10)

Faith is seen as a supernatural way of knowing quite diverse in object and inner dynamism from all natural knowing. No knowledge coming to man through his senses or rational faculties can bring him in contact with God in order that he can know Him as He is. Only faith is the proximate and proportionate means of knowing God in this way. Its proximity is rooted in its divine origin in the gift of grace which transforms man and elevates his natural powers. Man must cling to faith even though this seems to quench his natural modes of knowing.

And it is the clinging of the old man to his limited way of perceiving and experiencing that hinder this necessary reliance on faith. It is especially the clinging to spiritual knowledge, which is good in itself, that creates an obstacle to divine union; the limited lights of spiritual knowledge coming through the natural faculties appear brighter to the soul than the light of faith. In reality the light of faith is much greater, but manifests itself in another way, so it initially appears as darkness to the soul.

Several words of clarification on this doctrine of St. John are in order. First of all, faith as a proximate means of union with God was always understood by him to be working in and through love and never apart from it.

Secondly, union with God, though it is beyond the natural capacity of man, is still a real experience, in fact, the most real experience according to St. John. Divine union, however, transcends man's natural power not only by the sublimity of its object but by the way it attains it. Ordinarily the intellect functions in a discriminatory way; it breaks down the reality to be known into small insights or concepts, and then unite these concepts to form a more or less adequate judgment about the reality. The discursive intellect sees things piecemeal, as it were, not as wholes, not as possessing a within. We know about things and about people; we do not know people directly in their subjectivity, which is a great limitation, for it is there that they are most themselves. Still less do we know God from within, only at a distance in the prism of creatures.

St. John implies that the experience of contemplation is an intersubjective experience. The person experiences God within him, not as an object or thing about which something is known, but simply as a whole, a subject. God is present to him in a way analogous to the way he is present to himself.

"At this time God does not communicate Himself through the senses as He did before, by means of the discursive analysis and synthesis of ideas, but begins to communicate Himself through pure spirit by an act of simple contemplation, in which there is no discursive succession of thought."(11)

It is love in informing and vivifying faith that allows faith to attain to this sort of knowledge. Love of its nature is geared to the subject, and divine love lifts the person to a subject- to-subject relationship to God. Contemplation "which is knowledge and love together, that is, loving knowledge"(12) is the beginning of the experience of this new relationship. In it love is strong enough that it draws knowledge with it, so there results an experience of the within, God present as a self in the heart of the limited human self.

In sharp contrast to ordinary prayer where God is thought and felt about, the chief note of contemplation is that God's presence is experienced; this presence is initially felt within as some sort of interior touch. This experiential knowledge of God brings with itself other characteristics. It is felt to be independent of the will of the person receiving it, varying in intensity, demanding less effort than meditation and impeding in some fashion the natural workings of the soul. This knowledge of God remains obscure, and the mode of its communication not comprehended.


As long as consolation and sweetness remain, the beginner is satisfied that God is approving of his life of prayer. However, for those called to contemplation this state cannot last. it is here, after the soul has become accustomed to the feelings and consolations of beginners, that St. John introduces the night of sense. Consolation and sweetness begin to diminish and aridity seizes the soul. The sense of value and accomplishment in praying evaporates. The night of sense is the beginning of contemplation; St. John calls it arid, purgative contemplation or dark fire. It is the herald of the more perceptible contemplation to come, and its purpose is to detach the soul from sensible knowledge and prepare it for this higher way of knowing.

The beginning of contemplation is often gradual and blends imperceptibly with the simplification of ordinary prayer. However, it can also take place in a sudden and disconcerting fashion. This latter case is instructive because it points to the underlying discontinuity of the two states. St. John has likened this transitional stage to the weaning from the breast of sensible consolations, and to the shutting out of the sun of divine favor.

"Consequently, it is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them, that 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." (13)

The heights of consolation for the beginner often have a mystical flavor to them; there is a certain savour and experience and sense of the presence of God which is best described as the sensible analogate of contemplative experience. Unfortunately, the limitations of this state are quite hidden from the person experiencing these consolations. For this reason the sudden cessation of consolation is experienced as a terrible trial. There is intense soul-searching for the reason why it has happened. There is a fruitless search for the unrepented sin which must underlie God's apparent anger. The resultant anxiety is more oppressive than the loss of consolation itself, for it centers on the apparent loss of God. The frantic attempts to recapture this lost sense of communion by a return to meditation and spiritual practices is doomed to failure, and only exacerbate the predominant mood of anxiety. Seen objectively, it is clear that the person is already learning the necessary distinction between sensible consolation and God Himself by means of this privation, but subjectively he is convinced that God has left him.

The onset of this process of weaning according to St. John, whether it is gradual or sudden, does not necessarily take a long time. He says that with people who wholeheartedly take up the spiritual life it can happen rather quickly. They have obtained the habit of meditation and derived substantially what they should have from its practice. The destination of the journey has been reached and the fruit has been peeled and is ready to be eaten. Meditation has served to accommodate sense to spirit, and now a mysterious new experience is beginning.

Unfortunately, the person undergoing this experience without any guidance tends to feel that it is, indeed, negative and privative rather than positive. He strives to go back to his former ways of praying with the result that he hinders this new experience from taking hold.

Even sadder than the misunderstanding of the beginner is the virtual absence of adequate direction. This grave lack of direction is what prompted St. John to return again and again to a detailed description of this predicament and the practical remedy for it. It also forced from him some of the most vehement denouncements to be found in all his writings. He likens the erring directors to blacksmiths who know only how to pound on the delicate workings of the soul, and to crude artisans who clumsily dab away at beautiful paintings, smearing them with strange colors, instead of leading them gently into the necessary detachment and simplicity.

The soul's lack of understanding and poor direction are compounded in St. John's mind by the work of the devil. The evil one takes his stand with great cunning on the road which leads from sense to spirit. He tries with all his wiles to prevent the soul from passing over into this higher state of prayer where he can meddle with much less effectiveness. He torments them, especially those called to greater perfection , with severe temptations in the form of scrupulosity, urges to blaspheme and sins against chastity.

Therefore, though many enter this night of sense which heralds the beginning of contemplation, few successfully emerge. Since contemplation is an essentially new experience, it is difficult to get used to. St. John, therefore, sets down three signs by which the beginner can make a judgment of whether he is really being led into the contemplative state.

The first sign is that he cannot meditate any longer or find that sweetness which used to come through the exercise of his faculties. The second sign is that he does not have a desire to fix his attention and thoughts on other things besides the spiritual.

"The third and surest sign is that a person likes to remain alone in loving awareness of God, without particular considerations, in interior peace and quiet and repose, and without the acts and exercises (at least discursive, those in which one progresses from point to point) of the intellect, memory and will; and that he prefers to remain only in the general, loving awareness and knowledge we mentioned, without any particular knowledge or understanding."(14)

Since the first sign might result from lukewarmness, neglect or sin, the second sign is used as a safeguard, and since the first and second signs might be the result of some illness or general weakness where the soul has no desire for anything, the third sign is brought forth. The third is the most vital sign, for it is that of contemplation itself. Since the recipient is still addicted to sense perception, this new knowledge is too different and subtle to be readily perceptible. However, it will soon become so:

"But the more habituated he becomes to this calm, the deeper his experience of the general, loving knowledge of God will grow. This knowledge is more enjoyable than all other things, because without the soul's labor it affords peace, rest, savor, and delight."(15)

The actual beginning of this infused contemplation is the crucial sign, for without it the soul would be leaving meditation without something better taking its place:

"If a man did not have this knowledge or attentiveness to God, he would, as a consequence, be neither doing anything nor receiving anything. Having left the discursive meditation of the sensitive faculties and still lacking contemplation (the general knowledge in which the spiritual faculties - memory, intellect, and will - are actuated and united in this passive, prepared knowledge), he would have no activity whatsoever relative to God."(16)

Contemplation does not come through the senses and thus to the rational faculties following the usual pattern of knowing, but rather it comes from behind, so to speak. It is infused directly into the rational faculties at their root, or center, so that the person receiving this knowledge does not understand how it got there except that it is the work of God and the presence of God. The basic human orientation of the rational faculties to knowledge which is sense-related plays havoc with the reception of contemplative knowledge; the whole tonality of the intellect looks towards the senses, and effectively blinds it to knowledge coming in any other way. It is literally looking in the wrong direction and does not know that there is another direction, and if it did know of this other direction, it would look at it with its conceptualizing and discriminating eyes and thus not see anything.

"So delicate is this refreshment that ordinarily, if a man have desire or care to experience it, he experiences it not; for, as I say, it does its work when the soul is most at ease and freest from care; it is like the air which, if one would close one's hand upon it, escapes."(17)

In order to perceive this new reality, the soul must abandon all its discursive activity and become like that which it is to receive.

"Since God, then, as the giver communes with him through a simple, loving knowledge, the individual also, as the receiver, communes with God, through a simple and loving knowledge or attention, so that knowledge is thus joined with knowledge and love with love. The receiver should act according to the mode of what is received, and not otherwise, in order to receive and keep it in the way it is given."(18)

The beginner must overcome his feelings of anxiety he is doing nothing because he is not working with the natural faculties. His work, rather, is receiving.

"They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God, and live without the concern, without the effort, and without the desire to taste or feet Him. All these desires disquiet the soul and distract it from the peaceful quiet and sweet idleness of the contemplation which is being communicated to it."(19)

St. John's teaching can be summarized as follows: the beginner experiences a growing difficulty in meditation through no conscious neglect or unknown illness. This decrease in the ability to meditate goes hand-in-hand with a desire to remain still and at peace, resting in a new contemplative knowledge of God that is being given to it. Though this knowledge is very faint and sometimes imperceptible at the beginning, it soon grows more and more conscious when the person learns what attitude to take up in regard to it; he then recognizes the presence of God within.

The dark night of sense, instead of being an abandonment by God, is in reality the beginning of a deeper communion with Him. The darkness is not the result of privation but unaccustomed brightness, and if the soul submits to it and takes up the proper attitude, it will soon perceive that this is so.




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Chapter 4