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




If we could assume that St. John's journey to contemplation and Jung's process of individuation were virtually identical and differed only in vocabulary, and because of the development of consciousness over the last 400 years, then we could simply discover in St. John another example of this universal psychic process. But if, as our discussion of Jung's empirical science and description of St. John's doctrine of contemplation seem to indicate, the issue is not so straightforward, then we face a much more difficult task.

There are many similarities between St. John and Jung, even profound affinities. Both men were engaged in the care of souls, and this preoccupation shaped their writings, and for both, an experience of God was at the root of their inner lives.

Yet the discontinuities are striking as well. Not only do they use different conceptual languages, and have different epistemological foundations, but the experiences of God they are talking about appear quite diverse. We do not have to attempt to reduce the contemplative life to an instance or example of the process of individuation. Nor do we have to decree a rather arbitrary solution to the question in which these two inner experiences would inhabit separate parts of the psyche, or one would begin where the other left off.

The approach that seems to do the least violence to both Jung and St. John is one in which these two processes are seen as essentially distinct in themselves, but intimately connected and vitally influencing each other in one, concrete, psyche. If we adopt this perspective, it does not mean that in actual fact, that is, in lived existence, the process of individuation is foreign to mystical experience, or vice versa. It is entirely possible that someone who is undergoing the process of individuation, especially when it is under the guise of a search for religious meaning, could experience aspects of St. John's journey to contemplation. Further, someone called to contemplation will almost inevitably be experiencing things that can best be explained in terms of Jung's psychology. It is this second possibility that we will explore in this chapter and the following one. The present chapter looks at St. John's life from the point of view of typology and the process of individuation, while the next looks at the transition to contemplation in the light of the dynamics of psychic energy.


If we could understand both St. John's inner psychological development and the growth of his mystical life, we would be in a position on the practical level to understand something about the relationship between individuation and the contemplative life. Unfortunately, such a task is partially thwarted by St. John's passion for privacy, the lack of a distinctive psychological point of view in those days, and the demands of hagiography that turned his first biographers away from describing many of the human details that would be revelatory of his personality.

The basic biographical facts that do exist have been carefully sifted and presented by his modern biographers. (1) What is necessary are some basic principles of interpretation by which these facts can be woven into both psychological and spiritual portraits of his inner life. When it is a question of St. John's spiritual development, his writings, which depict the basic stages of the contemplative life, can serve as a general guide for arranging the few facts we possess, while for the psychological portrait Jung's work on psychological types is the most helpful norm. Psychological types represent the outer visibility of the process of individuation. In them this inner universal process is concretized in typical patterns. People of the same type, while maintaining their individuality, exhibit many common characteristics and have similar ways of thinking and behaving. Thus, if St. John's psychological type could be determined, the knowledge that exists about this type could help organize the facts we possess about his life, and lead to insights about the inner psychological states which gave rise to them. This is a risky business, especially when applied to a person in another time and culture. There is the danger of making an incorrect choice of type, or forcing the biographical material to fit preconceived notions. The only means of verifying the accuracy of the interpretation is its power to create a coherent psychological portrait that links the scattered facts together and sheds new light on them. What I would like to attempt, with these limitations in mind, is a psychological and spiritual portrait of St. John.

The estimation of a person's psychological type involves four interrelated judgments. The first three are decisions about whether the person is more extraverted or introverted, uses the function of sensation more or less than intuition, and uses the function of feeling more or less than thinking. The final judgment is often the most difficult, for it involves deciding which function is the most used or dominant, and as a consequence, that its alternative is the least developed, and which function acts as an aid or auxiliary to this dominant function, and as a consequence, its alternative is less developed. For example, someone whose predominant function is intuition would have as their least developed function sensation, and if they use their feeling function as the more developed aid' to their intuition, their thinking function would be less developed.(2)

Three out of the four judgments about St. John's psychological type are relatively easy to make. St. John had a highly introverted personality, that is, his energy and attention were more focused on the world within rather than on the external world around him. His thinking function was more developed than his feeling function; (Jung considered thinking a way by which we come to a judgment of truth or falsity by the use of reason, and feeling a way of judgment by which we determine whether we like or dislike something) and finally, St. John's intuition, that is, the way he perceived the hidden implications or inner possibilities, was more developed than his power of sensation.

The fourth judgment is more difficult and more debatable. Is St. John an introverted intuition type with thinking as the auxiliary function, or is he an introverted thinking type with intuition as the auxiliary function? The evidence appears to favor the first interpretation, even though in practice these two types can often be difficult to distinguish. Not only is it important to see the evidence for St. John's type, but also to see his typological development, for that, as I have said, is an outer manifestation of the process of individuation. (3)


Soon after John was born his father died from a long illness that had exhausted the material resources of the family. The poverty that had been kept at bay by the constant work of the mother and father as piecework weavers now became life- threatening. Apparently John's mother, Catalina, had nowhere to turn for help. Both the mother and father appear to have been orphans and, like St. Teresa, they might have been descendants from Jewish converts.(4) For some reason his father's family had vehemently opposed his marriage, yet after his death John's mother made a long and difficult journey to seek their help; she must not have had any other alternative. Most of these relatives rejected her pleas out of hand, though one of the uncles took the oldest son Francisco for a time. But this did not work out. Catalina, in her struggle to support her children, moved several times and ended up in Medina del Campo. Her middle son Luis died, and though Francisco began to work at the loom with her, she placed John in an orphanage. John was around nine years old at the time. It would be a mistake to view St. John's family life as one of unrelieved bleakness. His brother Francisco, 12 years older than John, appears as an engaging and congenial person who played an instrument, sang, and wandered through the streets of the town with his friends looking for diversion. His simple nature carried him along into some of their more destructive pranks, but his gentleness recoiled from these things and he began to lead a religious life, praying after work at the local churches and bringing homeless people back to their humble house. Francisco could well have been John's first example of joy amid trials and a serious dedication to the spiritual life. Yet Francisco's engaging simplicity precluded the drive and power of organization that would have allowed him to take over the family and better its economic condition. There may have been something more than sheer poverty that made John's mother place him in the orphanage. This could have been a growing realization that not only did John not have an aptitude for learning how to weave, but he had a lively intelligence that would benefit from schooling.

The introverted intuitive child can possess the pervasive feeling of not being at home in the world. By nature his intuitive gaze goes elsewhere, while his extraverted feeling and sensation functions which would help root him in the here-and-now remain undeveloped. He can possess an other-worldly nostalgia, and this conviction that his true homeland ties elsewhere can be reinforced by the misfortunes of his early years, which are seen as confirmations that this earthly life does, indeed, have not much to offer. Since St. John's earliest years were marked by genuine tragedies, dire poverty and the lack of any supportive extended family, it would not be surprising if these events resonated in his psychological type and later formed a background to the way he viewed the relationship between the mystical life and daily human existence.

There is one event from John's early years that allows us a glimpse at what might have been the beginning of his spiritual vocation. John was among a group of boys who were playing around a marshy pond on the outskirts of Fontiveros. They were throwing sticks into the water, and catching them as they popped up to the surface. When John reached to get his stick he lost his balance and fell into the pond and sank to the bottom, where his hands touched the mud. He momentarily came to the surface, and as he told his fellow Carmelites many years later, he saw within the pond area a beautiful lady who stretched out her hand to him, but he didn't want to give his hand to her because he didn't want to get her dirty. fortunately, a laborer arrived who was carrying a board and drew him out.

Brenan gives another interpretation of this incident: "As he struggled in the mud and water he had seen a well-dressed lady on the bank whom he had taken to be the Virgin. He had stretched out his arms to her, but with the fists closed because his hands were too dirty to take hers."(5)

From a religious point of view St. John would be inclined to identify this beautiful lady with the Blessed Virgin, and given the traumatic circumstances of her appearance he would feel that he literally owed his life to her. His inward-turning consciousness now had a definite focal point, and perhaps his religious vocation began to crystallize. How could he accept the outstretched hand of the beautiful lady? What did it mean in terms of his own need to be worthy, and where would she lead him if he accepted?

This incident can be given a psychological interpretation as well. The beautiful lady appears when John has fallen from his everyday world into the dangers of another. She is within the circumference of the pond and invisible to all his companions. She is the bridge between consciousness and the unconscious, an anima figure which from a typological point of view embodies the feeling function which, in John, linked his ego consciousness of introverted intuition and thinking to the extraverted character of the unconscious manifested by extraverted feeling and sensation. An ambivalence often surrounds the figure of the anima. She was at once the way and the gate to an inner journey, and yet there is a reluctance to associate her in her spiritualized form with the less developed, cruder and materialistic aspects of the unconscious. John is unwilling to take her hand because his own is dirty. There is a cleavage between the inferior function of the extraverted sensation and this spiritualized anima. If we credit Brenan's account, the clenched fists symbolize the same reluctance. They can appear as a characteristic gesture of introverted intuition types, and are seen in an extreme form among schizophrenics in whom this type might well predominate.(6)


If John's mother had actually perceived that her son's gifts did not embrace the weaver's loom, but were more intellectual in nature, then both of her judgments were vindicated by John's performance in the Colegio de la Doctrina. He turned out, in fact, to be an excellent student, but at the same time we are told that he was apprenticed in turn to a carpenter, tailor, wood carver and painter, but "he was soon returned as useless by all of them".(7)

The introverted intuition type often excels in academic work, while the inferior function of extraverted sensation can express itself in the kinds of failures that St. John experienced. This is not the result of a lack of manual dexterity or artistic ability in itself, but rather, the inability to focus the attention for any considerable length of time on the external physical work to be completed, especially if it is repetitive.

The tragedy of John's home life could have accentuated his already predominant introversion, his placement in this institutional setting would have only increased this process. He would not be the kind of boy who made friends readily, or could hold his own in a group where the more outspoken and aggressive personalities tend to dominate. His feelings would become submerged. The nuns found him suitable for taking care of the Chapel, but this is the kind of occupation that would tend to isolate him from his companions and the outside world, though it reinforced his religious inclinations.


John, as a teenager, entered the adult world by working in the Hospital of the Tumors which treated poor people in the last stages of syphilis. In the large halls filled with the sick and dying patients he saw another face of the misery of the world, yet strangely enough he was probably freer here and more expressive of his feelings, for throughout his life he showed a remarkable devotion to the sick. It was in their care that he would unbend and try to comfort them and obtain delicacies for them, and it is reasonable enough to assume that these feelings started with his work in the hospital. Perhaps the patients by the very fact and finality of their illnesses had been removed from the world, and John, who in his own way had no place in this world, saw them as in transit to the next. This made them his fellow travelers, and if he expressed himself about spiritual matters, the dying are often the most receptive audience.

The director of the hospital gave John permission to continue his studies at the recently formed college of the Jesuits. Here he received an excellent grounding in the classics and Spanish literature which equipped him not only for his studies for the priesthood, but was part of his poetic formation as well. The director, no doubt, was aware of St. John's academic abilities, and might have had one eye on the future even then. Here was a quiet and pious boy who was an excellent student and cared about the sick. What better choice for a chaplain for the hospital? This was an eminently reasonable suggestion, for it fit the outer facts about St. John, and it would have put him in a position to aid his mother and his brother who, by this time, was married and had children of his own.

The chaplaincy of the hospital was one logical move, and following in the footsteps of his young Jesuit professors would have been another, but John did the unexpected. To forestall any opposition he secretly went to the monastery of the Carmelites and took the habit. Whether this was the result of a slow inner development or was precipitated by some catalytic event is unknown. It is likely that St. John's devotion to the Blessed Virgin played a strong role in his selection of the Carmelites, for he wrote a poem in heroic verse about being received into the order of Our Lady. It is possible, as well, that the image of a life of prayer that he associated with the Order attracted him. Where can the fervor of beginners that St. John describes in his writings be found in his own life? The last months of his life at the hospital and the first of the novitiate are the most likely choices, but there is no evidence.

The new religious, now known as John of St. Mathias, after his novitiate was sent to the University of Salamanca. The Carmelite House of Studies there was small and consisted only of a handful of students who attended courses at home, as well as in the University proper. Fray Juan's interests were already centered on the mystical life, for he wrote a study about the authentic mystical tradition in the Church, which unfortunately was not preserved. When he was not attending lectures or studying or praying, he devoted himself to penance or fasting. He had no time for light conversations, and if he saw anyone breaking the rule he would reprimand them, as Brenan puts it", "with all the ardor and lack of tact of the neophyte". (8) The reaction of his fellow students, if not commendable, was understandable: "Let's be off - that devil is coming". He made only one friend. This is hardly a flattering portrait. St. John was an excellent student and a meticulous observer of the rule, both qualities that are often associated with his type, but he was also someone who had very definite ideas about his inner vocation. In some way, at some point, he had discovered his contemplative vocation, and having discovered it, was exerting all the energy of the powerful faculties of intuition and thinking that he was gifted with to pursue it. He had no time for anything else, and no inclination, and finally, no way of seeing the exterior effect of this single-mindedness. His selection of the Carmelites had been a selection based on spiritual motives rather than any realistic idea of how the Carmelites actually lived, and what their actual interest in the spiritual life was. It would not be conceivable to someone of St. John's temperament in this early phase of spiritual development that levity and a failure to observe every detail of the rule could co-exist with genuine spiritual aspirations. His conduct in reprimanding his fellow students is strikingly different from his habitual reserve and quiet, and the most probable answer for it lies in his understanding of the nature of religious life. While many things did not matter to St. John, one thing was of supreme importance: the will of God must be followed in all things great and small, and the rule was seen by him as a concrete embodiment of God's will for the present moment, and thus had an intrinsic connection with his search for holiness. Therefore, he felt compelled, despite his desire to efface himself, to speak out when it was a matter of his inner convictions. His fellow students, no doubt, took a less serious and weighty view of the matter. St. John's strict spiritual interpretation of the rule had a psychological dimension as well. The introverted intuition type often exhibits a meticulous and careful fulfillment of their obligations that can become tinged with scrupulosity. They are far removed from the everyday, normal ways of judging human situations. They can interpret the rule and the wishes of the people in authority in a much stricter fashion than others, and often stricter than the authorities themselves intended.

While St. John was in the novitiate where silence and devotion to the spiritual life predominates, he would have had less opportunity to see that the spiritual aspirations which motivated him to join the order were not shared in the same way by his fellow novices. In the small house of studies, however, with its relative relaxation of discipline, it became clear to him that he was among people who did not share his deepest aspirations. This conviction grew to the point where he decided to leave the order and seek a stricter and more solitary life among the Carthusians.

It is only his providential meeting with St. Teresa that prevented him from carrying out his plan. She convinced him that he could live out his spiritual quest within the new Reform, and thus remain in Our Lady's order. He could have an opportunity to whole-heartedly pursue the contemplative life under the banner, as it were, of the Blessed Virgin. St. John accepted, with only one condition, which highlights his intuitive nature; he did not want to wait long to begin.


One indication that St. John, in his mid-twenties, by now had already passed through the first stage of the interior life and was an experienced contemplative was the relationship he had with St. Teresa. Teresa was 52 years old, and well advanced in the life of prayer, and actively engaged in establishing new monasteries. She was an impressive and attractive personality, yet John was never her disciple or protégé. At the same time Teresa showed no emotional attraction to him. She admired his devotion to the spiritual life, and saw him as an excellent instrument for the Reform of both the friars and sisters, yet she did not warm to him.(9) From a psychological point of view this small, muddy-complexioned, deeply reserved man did not fit her image of the kind of man that would lead the reform movement to success. He never went out of his way to give in to her wishes. Further, they had disagreements about business matters concerning the founding of the houses, and St. John was not above doing things which he thought would be for her spiritual growth, even though he knew she would not like them. The most famous incident was when, knowing her desire for large Communion wafers, he gave her a small one. Brenan carefully draws out these temperamental differences and the difficulties that existed in their relationship, and while St. John and St. Teresa are in fundamental agreement about the nature of the mystical life, a simple reading of their works is enough to convince us that their basic personalities were highly diverse. What is the relationship, for example, between the visions and revelations that St. Teresa received and her own personality type? At the same time, the relationship between these two saints is a powerful argument for the way in which spiritual maturity overcame natural psychological inclinations. St. Teresa not only deeply admired St. John's devotion to the interior life, but she made use of him extensively in dealing with her sisters, taking advantage, on occasion, of his spiritual guidance for herself. When John was thrown in prison, hers was the only voice that was consistently and persistently raised in order to try to mobilize a rescue. In short, if she did not feet an emotional attraction to him, she did not let this cloud her spiritual perception.

St. John in these early years as an ordained priest behaved in exemplary fashion, yet the very intentness of his pursuit of his spiritual goal mingled with his temperamental introversion, produced the appearance of narrowness and reserve which St. Teresa obliquely remarked upon on several occasions. "God deliver us from people who are so spiritual that they want to turn everything into perfect contemplation", she once playfully wrote about him.(10)

If John at Salamanca, despite his life of prayer and penance, was chafing at the bit for an even more austere environment, then the first Carmelite house at Duruelo was perfectly suited to him. He shared it with just two or three people at the beginning, and he could wholeheartedly give himself over to the life of prayer. It was a decrepit building in which snow filtered through the boards and whose chief decorations were skulls and crucifixes. All was prayer and penance. Yet even here he engaged in some ministry. John never leaves the impression that working with and helping people bothered him in itself, but he had no interest in the social dimension of it. When, after celebrating Mass at a local parish, he was invited to dine with the parish priest, he would decline and sit on the edge of a field, munching his bread and cheese. Perhaps the very ramshackled nature of this house at Duruelo appealed to John's nature. The accent was wholly on the spiritual, and the inhabitants were more or less oblivious to the material or sensation dimension. Soon his mother and brother and brother's family came to stay with him and handle many of the daily chores, which is a striking testimony to his affection for them and a counterbalance to an overly severe interpretation of his sayings on detachment. This idyllic beginning was not destined to last. Within eighteen months the reputation for holiness of this little house had drawn so many recruits that they were forced to move to larger quarters, and John was caught up in helping to manage the growing population and affairs of the Reform.

St. John's next assignment is significant for the light it sheds on his own austerity and St. Teresa's view of it. The novice-master of the Reform house at Pastrana had taken to afflicting his new recruits with harsh and humiliating penances. This was an ever-present temptation in a spiritual environment like Spain of those days, which abounded with wandering holy people with visions and bloody mortifications. To correct this situation, St. Teresa sends St. John. As severe as St. John appears to us today, he was seen by her as a moderating influence. It was not in his nature to make penance an extravagant spectacle, and he hid his own as best he could. He saw it only as a tool to serve the ends of divine union.

From Pastrana he was appointed the rector of the Carmelite house at the University of Alcala, but he was not successful in this position:

"Although Juan's quiet, modest bearing created a favorable impression, he lacked the dynamism and the gift for making friends that were required for such an undertaking. His whole bent was towards interior prayers and contemplation and although he could be firm and clear-sighted where questions of principle or discipline were involved, he was so averse to all practical affairs that he shrank even from the office of prior."(11)

St. John's next position was much better suited to his gifts. St. Teresa had been appointed prioress of her old Convent of the Incarnation, and she selected St. John to be one of its confessors. His time, therefore, was taken up in a spiritual ministry to the one hundred and thirty women. This was not a house of the Reform, but included a wide range of factions, from sisters with a deep devotion and attraction to the interior life to, no doubt, girls who by force of circumstances found themselves in the convent with no particular vocation to it. John was 30 years old when he took up this task, and this is his first extensive contact with women and the beginning of a ministry of spiritual direction to the sisters that was going to last throughout the rest of his life. If he seemed austere and forbidding from a distance, he made a much better impression the closer he was approached. While he could be terribly demanding when it was a question of the means best suited for a person to advance on the road to divine union, he was kind and gentle, especially to those who were afflicted. A proof of his success was the length of time St. Teresa kept him there. It stretched out over five and a half years, and was only ended by his kidnapping and imprisonment. We know very little about the effect of this stay on St. John himself. Certainly it was an opportunity to deepen his own spiritual life. Teresa reached her spiritual maturity during this time, and St. John had close contact with her. At the same time, a process of psychological maturation must have been going on as well. He could not spend hours every day listening to and advising these women without drawing on and developing his own feeling function, especially in its extraverted qualities. A move, however, to an increased use of extraverted feeling could also begin to constellate the question of the inferior function. Some of his first poetry and his habit of writing spiritual maxims, as well as a singular picture, can be dated from this time. Defying normal perspective, it shows a crucified Christ from above. It is an impressive forerunner of the artistic creations that were soon to emerge from the depth of St. John's soul in strange but beautiful images. St. John was moving towards a definitive transformation of both soul and psyche, and the very air around him was filled with the growing tension between the Reform movement and the rest of the Carmelite order.


In early December of 1577, the Carmelite authorities broke into the little house next to the convent in Avila where St. John and his companion were staying, and carried them off. The Carmelite superiors had been growing increasingly frustrated and angry as they watched the Reform movement prosper and spread out and, in their minds, blatantly disregard their authority. They wasted no time in venting these feelings on the little upstart friar; as soon as they captured him they whipped him twice, and then secretly brought him to the Carmelite convent in Toledo. Soon word arrived of the escape of the other captured friar. The reaction of his own captors was swift. They threw him in a tiny cell that was lit only by a narrow aperture high on the wall, fed him on scraps of food, did not allow him to say Mass, and gave him no contact with the members of the house. Routinely they would drag him out before the whole community and make him kneel in their midst during mealtime, verbally abuse him, and then demand that each member strike him.

With John in their hands they gave way to vindictiveness. Not only was St. John intimately associated with the beginning of the Reform movement and close to St. Teresa whom they could not directly harm, but St. John's personality itself provoked them. He had a reputation from his earliest day in the order for austerity and perfection of life. At the same time, he possessed none of the extraverted masculinity that would have made him popular in the communities he lived in. He was the antithesis for any desire for authority and power, while he was maddeningly self-directed and motivated. Once he set a goal for himself he was not easily deflected. All these factors combined to make him the ideal victim of their projections. They saw him as a hypocrite who clothed in pious conduct his inward disobedience and self-willedness; they berated him as a "lima sorda", literally, a deaf lime. Any doubts they possessed about the legitimacy of their conduct towards him and the Reform they attempted to eradicate by brutalizing him and proving that he was really as bad as they made him out to be. Among men who rise to administrative power there is often a large percentage of extraverted thinking types with strongly developed sensation. St. John would represent for them the other side of their personalities, and be a convenient scapegoat upon which to project their own inferiorities and lack of development. As St. Teresa wrote to the King, "I would rather see him in the hands of the Moors."

What was the effect on John of such treatment? He was fresh from an atmosphere of quasi-veneration. The sisters and townspeople had held him in high regard, which had the effect of developing the extraverted dimension of his feeling function, and at least the posing of the difficult question of the inferior extraverted sensation. His imprisonment and his tormentors strike with an unerring evil instinct at this newly emerging dimension. John had a special preoccupation about being clean. He became covered with filth and vermin. The latrine bucket was left in his cell for days at a time. The light was so poor he had to attempt to read his breviary during the middle of the day, holding it up to the narrow slit in the wall. He was forbidden pen and paper until late in his imprisonment. He suffered from the cold of the Toledo winter that penetrated into his little stone room. His diet was so wretched he began to suffer from extreme diarrhea. He had no contact with his fellow friars except when he was brought out to be abused.

From a psychological point of view he was plunged into extreme introversion and cut off from the feeling and sensating dimensions, or rather, they became negative realities opposed to his conscious personality. It was as if a nightmare of the introverted intuition type had come true. This type loves freedom and movement, even though it is often expressed interiorly rather than in outer actions. The outer imprisonment would have been much more bearable if it were simply a care of exterior confinement. But St. John's torments went deeper. These were not strangers who were tormenting him, but people from his own religious family. He knew some of them personally, and the superior of the house had been his superior at the University of Salamanca. This superior hammered away at him, telling him that he was disobedient, for he was refusing to obey lawful commands. These tormentors actively played out the role of the negative aspects of his own extraverted feeling and sensation. John had always been concerned with an exact observance of the rule, motivated, as we have seen, by the belief that the rule embodied the will of God here and now. He began to wonder whether he was, indeed, disobedient.

His attacks of dysentery became so severe that he began to fear that his captors were poisoning him. He saw that it was a real possibility that he would die in prison. He began to worry that St. Teresa and his confreres in the Reform would think that he had given up and abandoned them. Cutting even deeper was the most painful torment; what if he were wrong and really was disobedient and obstinate? He would die in his sin and be eternally damned.

The tension that had always existed in him between conscious and unconscious, between the introverted intuition and the extraverted sensation, was now greatly increased. The unconscious began to manifest itself in opposition to the conscious viewpoint. The Calced authorities, if they had wanted to poison him, could have done so before without the effort of capturing him. Aside from St. Teresa, there is little evidence of anyone in the Reform devoting a great deal of energy and attention to his disappearance. He was certainly not scandalizing them by being captured and tormented. Further, St. John had a carefully worked-out conscious position concerning under whose authority his job as confessor to the convent in Avila fell, and he had steadfastly maintained the legitimacy of this position in the face of all sorts of opposition and even bribes. In short, his anxiety went beyond the rational grounds for it. St. John was suffering from the torments of scrupulosity that he would later describe in the Dark Night of the Soul. These scrupulous ideas were the result of the constellation of the unconscious whose contents were seeking expression by fastening themselves to some suitable conscious difficulty. The abusive superior became associated with the inferior function, and St. John began to see God distorted through these twisted emotions. Despite his conscious knowledge and experience to the contrary, he conceives the possibility that God would act in a petty and materialistic manner. God will not look at the inner intent, but the outer material violation.

St. John was deep in his own night sea journey, having been swallowed by the whale, as he put it. Working through his physical and psychological sufferings was a terrible spiritual agony that accentuated them. The beginning of a deeper, fuller union with God was assailing his soul, and the pitiless light exposing the deep recesses of human weakness and inclination to evil. This burning light was transmuting John's weak human capacity for knowledge and love to fit him for the heights of mystical union upon which he would walk in the future. The description of these spiritual torments and delights of this deeper life in God are best to be found in his Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame of Love.

While the torments predominated, he began to have moments of sublime mystical experiences as well:

"One evening, when he was in very low spirits, he heard a young man's voice singing a villancico or love song in the street outside ... I am dying of love, dearest. What shall I do? - Die."(12)

An incident like this could have triggered the outpouring of his poetry, as well as his entrance to the heights of contemplation, for he wrote part of the poem the "Spiritual Canticle" in prison.

in the midst of his pain he was being transformed psychologically, as well as spiritually, a fact which will become clearer as we look at his life after Toledo. Within a few years after leaving prison most of his major poetry had been composed, and three of his four prose works initiated. He had reached a maturity out of which he could begin to definitively set down his ideas on the spiritual life. His poetry also played a pivotal role in uniting psychological and spiritual experience.

As summer with its stifling heat came to Toledo, John became weaker and weaker. He had been enduring his sufferings, and now he saw that further passivity would lead to his death. He could expect no mercy from the authorities, and there was no hint of imminent rescue. Slowly a series of events conspired to transform this passivity into action, yet action did not come easily or naturally to him. His nature was inclined to passivity, especially when it was a question of his own fate. He was assigned a new jailer who gave him more freedom, treated him with kindness, and provided him with a pen and paper. St. John started to write the poems that had been forming in his mind, and perhaps committing these poems to paper helped him see that this gift that had been given to him and that he had paid for with great pain could be a gift for others, but would never be of any use if he died in his miserable little cell.

The friars of the house who deliberately came close to St. John's cell to torment him with their conversations hit upon a strategy that undoubtedly had a great effect on him. They said, "Let's throw him in a well and no one will ever see him again." While this, no doubt, had an initial depressive effect upon him, for it confirmed his fears about their wishes for his death, it also might have helped stimulate his desire for escape. He could not help but remember the incident in his childhood in which he had fallen into the pool and would have drowned save for the appearance of the beautiful lady. As the summer wore on, he received interior impulses urging him to escape. His first biographer states that this came in the form of a vision of the Blessed Virgin. Will the beautiful lady again play a role in extracting him from an impossible situation? On the Vespers of the feast of the Assumption he was praying in his cell with his head to the ground, and his back to the door, when the superior unexpectedly entered and kicked him since he had not immediately arisen. The prior asked what he had been thinking about, and John told him how much he would like to celebrate Mass on the Feast of the Assumption. The prior brusquely refused, and left. John was going to have to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption in his own way. After making careful preparations, one night during the octave of the Feast, he forced his door, carefully crept from his cell and lowered himself on a rope he had made from his torn-up blanket, and dropped into a courtyard. He had acted and made a definitive move, but his problems were not automatically solved. He discovered that the courtyard belonged to a neighboring convent of nuns, and he was filled with despair because he was afraid of the scandal that would be given to people if he were discovered there in the morning. He almost gave up and called to his captors to come and get him, but somehow he overrode this scrupulosity and hypersensitivity and managed to scramble up one of the walls. Ragged and dirty, he wandered through the streets of Toledo "at an hour when the life of all cities is mysterious and strange."(13) The vegetable women saw him passing through the plaza as they arranged their wares for the market, and thinking he was coming back from some revel, shouted out dirty words to him. Finally, he found refuge for the remainder of the night in the vestibule of a house, emerged in the morning and made his way to the Discalced Convent of sisters, and they hid him within the cloistered walls.

Finally his ordeal was over, and he made his way back to his own world. Almost literally the first thing he did, despite his weakness and the aftereffects of his physical and psychological trials was to recite his poems to the sisters. We have a moving picture of him barely able to stand, softly uttering for the first time to other human beings the essence of his prison experience.


Soon after his escape St. John made his way south to avoid the vengeance of the Calced authorities. He had been made prior of El Calvario deep in Andalusia. On the way to take up his new post he paused at the Discalced convent of Beas de Segura which was under the leadership of one of St. Teresa's most capable sisters, Ana de Jesús.

There was no transformation immediately evident in St. John in the first days of his new life in the south. His initial impression on Ana de Jesús was such that soon after she wrote St. Teresa lamenting the fact that she had no one to entrust the spiritual direction of the sisters to. St. Teresa immediately extolled the value of St. John for such a position. Soon John was making his way through the hills on periodic visits to the sisters. Perhaps the beauty and solitude of this countryside was slowly restoring his energy, and this energy, freer now because of his prison experience, began to express itself in a more overt fashion.

Without losing his reserved introverted nature, incidents began to appear that indicate he had become more expressive to the people around him and more enamored with the beauties of creation. He wrote another section of the poem "Spiritual Canticle", and the poem "On a Dark Night", which echoes his months of confinement and dramatic liberation. This poetic production overflowed in conferences to the sisters and in short maxims he gave to them, and finally the diagram of Mount Carmel and the way to ascend to its summit. Slowly these beginnings coalesced in the form of a commentary on his poem "On a Dark Night". Under the gentle interest and enthusiasm of the sisters, he also began to explain and comment on the "Spiritual Canticle". The sisters can be seen as visible, tangible, flesh-and-blood stimuli to St. John's extraverted feeling. Only now are the conditions ripe for St. John to express himself. He is among his sisters. The depth of this upwelling of feelings can be seen in the incident that occurred when he first arrived at Beas de Seguros from the north. The sisters were gathered in recreation, and one young girl began to sing of pains that are the garments of lovers. St. John was so overcome that he clung to the grill for an hour before he could recover himself.

it is during these months at El Calvario that we first begin to hear about St. John's love of nature as well. He would take the friars out into the fields and speak to them about the beauties of creation, and then they would disperse and find a spot by a stream or a rock to meditate. Often they would come back and find him absorbed to such a degree they had to tug on his habit to get his attention.

No doubt to his regret he was soon appointed the rector of a Carmelite House at Baeza, yet in contrast to his earlier appointment at the University of Alcala, he proved effective and popular, and much in demand as a spiritual director and for his scriptural and theological insights. But this activity, successful though it was, did not appeal to him. His own spiritual life was deepening and maturing, and calling him to solitude far away from the bustle of human affairs. He maintained his contact with the sisters at Beas and he would retire for days at a time to a little farm in the country that had been given to the friars. There he could give himself to prayer, and he would be inspired to speak to his companions about the wonders of the streams and stars. He maintained his feeling of being in exile that, as I have conjectured, was a constant element of his interior make-up. Now he projected it on the Andalusians whose more extraverted and vivacious nature was so at odds with his own, and he felt he had been exiled from his homeland of Castille. At the same time, never before in his life had he been surrounded by such a receptive audience. Slowly his reputation among the sisters and young friars had been growing. The young men who faced an appointment to his house with trepidation were greatly relieved to find how gentle he was at close quarters. just as he had a passion for caring for the sick, he had an instinct for seeking out the troubled friar, speaking privately with him and staying with him until his mood lightened. John remained austere and given to penance, especially for himself. He did not let escape any opportunity to do the most menial jobs, and far from clinging to his role as prior, he employed it to give himself the freedom to humble himself before the whole community. Yet this is the same man who went out of his way to bring his brother Francisco south to live with him, and began to have some young men who acted as his assistants and follow him from house to house.

The Reform movement had finally won its autonomy, and this, together with its rapid expansion, led to a greater burden of administrative duties and the creation of a group of friars who preferred positions of leadership and the liveliness of the affairs of the order to the quiet and solitude of their cells. True to his type, St. John was against the expansion of the friars in the direction of more outside apostolic activity and foreign missions. He also thought it was inadvisable that men succeed themselves in office, for this would lead to their preoccupation with office-holding and winning elections to the detriment of the true interior goals of the order. As Brenan puts it, "to his contemporaries in the order he appeared negative and unimpressive because he displayed none of those active qualities which the rapid expansion of the Discalced seemed to require".(14) However, due to his role in the founding of the community and his spiritual reputation, he was constantly being elected to some position of authority.

John was appointed to the provincial council, and it was in this setting that he argued in favor of the contemplative character of the friars; so excited did he become, the chroniclers tell us, that he actually moved one or two steps from his place while he was speaking. Certainly this is a commentary both on his habitual reserve and the strength of his convictions on this matter. These convictions were rooted in his own spiritual perceptions, as well as his psychological nature, and as such he had ability to hold to them despite severe opposition. When the new leader of the Reform, Nicolas Doria, wanted to change and centralize the rule of the friars and transform the rule that St. Teresa had left to her sisters and drive out of the order his predecessor Graci5n, St. John's voice was the only one raised in clear-cut, direct opposition. Even among his own friars, when it was a question of the observance of the rule, St. John could be severe in his discipline of any lapse.

John had come out of prison, not only into the beauty of Andalusia, but into what Jung called the second-half of life. He shouldered effectively a heavy load of leadership responsibility that went against his natural, conscious inclinations. Some of the narrowness had disappeared and he was much freer to speak of the things that mattered most to him. The old personality did not go away, but was broadened and deepened. St. John loved to find small, hidden places, but ones which had peep-holes looking out on wide vistas. Some of these views were from his tiny cell into the Chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was, but other views were out over the sweep of hills and fields to distant mountains. The physical beauty of the earth had become a symbol of the spiritual journey. During recreation he busied himself carving out what his contemporaries called "curious images", bringing to mind his famous picture from his time at Avila.

The possibility exists that St. John's personality was such that it helped provoke the harsh treatment that he received in Toledo. It is a certainty that in these later years his fearless denunciation of the policies of Doria brought upon him persecution and an attempt to oust him from the very order he had helped to found.

From a spiritual point of view St. John's increased ability to cope with positions of leadership went with a growing disinclination to do so. The more his inner life deepened, the more he found it difficult to deal with the affairs of men. He preferred to be among stones, he said, and became devoted to construction projects, perhaps another sign of psychological growth. In his later years he was not only the prior of the house in which he dwelt, but he became for a time the Vicar Provincial of Andalusia, a job that entailed a great deal of traveling in order to visit the houses of the Province. He also became one of the counselors to Doria. This was unfortunate because, as we have seen, he was no diplomat and never failed to speak his mind on essential matters. Doria, who could tolerate no overt opposition to his autocratic rule, launched a campaign to discredit John and drive him out of the order, or at least out of the country. He used as his tool in this work a friar who hated St. John for a reprimand he had once received, and who now went from monastery to convent trying to gather evidence to be used in stripping the habit from the order's co-founder. Finally, under these circumstances St. John had his wish that he would receive no office and was sent south as a preliminary step for a possible mission to Mexico. Here he fell sick, and died on Dec. 14, 1591.


Both temperament and early environment influenced St. John's reserve and his teaching on detachment. The doctrine on self -abnegation, so evident in the Ascent and Dark Night, is much like John's personal appearance which put people off when they first made his acquaintance. His contemporaries saw a tiny, emaciated, dark-complexioned man in a tattered habit. How many could discern one of the greatest poets of Spain, and a future doctor of the Church?

We can read St. John today and become depressed as if we must exhibit a similar degree of mortification in order to progress in the spiritual life. Perhaps we have the wrong perspective. How much of St. John's reserve and insistence on detachment sprang precisely from the rich exuberance of his inner life? Was his doctrine on mortification more an effect of his inner experiences than a cause of them? Elements of type and environment were, no doubt, operative, but the power and beauty of these inner graces were stronger. They imposed on St. John the desire to hide himself, and with terrible clarity made him realize how foolish it would be to lose them for a lack of self-control.

If St. John's prose begins to weary us or make us heavy-hearted, we should turn to his poetry. This poetry, acclaimed as some of the finest in Spanish literature, has been scrutinized in order to elucidate St. John's dependence on earlier poetic forms, particularly the Song of Songs, Garcilaso de la Vega, and the popular tunes of his own time. And these dependencies are both clear and extensive. Yet his freedom and mastery of his material fused it with his inner life and produced some strikingly original creations. St. John was not a poet as we normally conceive them. It is hard to imagine him being concerned about cultivating his poetic skills or the size of his output, nor would it have occurred to him to write a poem on a non-religious theme. This does not mean that he wrote in some kind of ecstatic trance which precluded the difficult effort of composition, but rather, that his poetry was intimately connected to his mystical experience, and at the service of it, as it were.

Another important aspect of St. John's poetic works is the unevenness of quality that they display; they do not all reach the same heights. His critics have recognized the preeminence of his "Spiritual Canticle" and "On a Dark Night", both written around the time of his imprisonment and escape. Even some of the poems written after this time, when John had advanced even further in the contemplative life and was a more experienced poet, failed to show the powerful lyric imagery of his finest work. For example, "Tras de un amoroso lance", while it pleases the intuition type with the imagery of flight and the mystic with its content, does not excite the critic. In the same way, "Entréme donde no supe", despite its close connection with contemplative experience, is more cerebral than the "Spiritual Canticle". This unevenness prompts Brenan, when commenting on the "Living Flame of Love", to ask, "Or had the conjunction of events that led to San Juan's brief poetic phase already passed?"(15)

Here we rejoin the theme of the interaction between individuation and contemplation. These prison poems express "a penetrating strangeness of tone that recalls, as very little poetry really does, the poignancy of dreams". (16) The actual prison experience, together with St. John's knowledge of Latin and Spanish poetry, and his meditation on the Scriptures, were the raw materials floating, as it were, in his inner subjectivity awaiting the moment when they would be of service in expressing this double inner transformation. This inner self was assailed by the graces of contemplative prayer and pierced by the sorrows, torments and longings that came to St. John as he lay abandoned in his cell. Both these powerful emotions and the dark fire of contemplation were stretching him to the breaking point. They were two tensions which reinforced each other. One was trying to overthrow the old man of sin, and the other, the old supremacy of the ego. Perhaps the song of the workman in the street outside his cell finally tipped the balance. From the lips of this most introverted of men bursts a song of astonishing vibrancy of feelings and sensual imagery. The very things of creation towards which St. John has manifested such reserve and restraint take on a numinous quality. He speaks of flowers, woods and meadows, and culminates in crying out, "Mi Amado, las montańas ... My Beloved is the mountains, the wooded valleys lonely and sequestered, the strange and distant islands, the loud, resounding rivers, the loving breezes with their gentle whispers".(17)

From a psychological point of view St. John's poetry expresses a depth of feeling and sensation. This typological aspect is symbolized by the close connection that existed between the poetry and the Carmelite sisters. Virtually the first thing he did after escaping prison was to recite his poems to them. He dedicated the Spiritual Canticle to Ana de Jesús, and was transported into a deep state of emotion while listening to the singing of one of the sisters, as we have seen. It was a Carmelite nun, as well, that inspired him to complete the "Spiritual Canticle" by telling him that her prayer consisted in contemplating the beauty of God.

When St. John's poems burst forth, they traversed the unconscious and were shaped by its internal structure, its archetypal patterns, and clothed themselves in the images they found there. Mountains and rivers, la musica callada, la soledad sonora, became the paradoxical symbols of the Beloved. The tensions were released, the spiritual met the things of sense, the integration of the psyche formed the living context for the union with God.

Much stranger than the fact that St. John's poetry is strongly marked by the qualities of the other side of his personality are the delicacy and quality of these poetic expressions. Both feelings and sensations show little of the lack of development that these functions in St. John must have possessed, nor do they evoke sexual overtones despite speaking in the language of lovers. Perhaps the reason for this is because we are not looking simply at an enantiodramatic outburst of the unconscious side of the personality. We are faced with a genuine act of poetic creation which transcends the normal boundaries of expression from the unconscious. At the same time the mystical experience, more powerful and deeply rooted than all else, transforms both the dimension of unconscious expression and the poetic act itself. Yet, despite the central role of the contemplative experience in St. John's poetry, it demanded an activation of the unconscious as the medium of passage through which it could direct itself towards consciousness and articulated expression, and find the rich imagery while transforming it that gives St. John's best poems such a deeply human as well as spiritual character. Without the transformation of the psyche that had its critical turning point in Toledo, St. John's poetry would never have reached the heights it did.


A knowledge of St. John's poetry is perhaps the best safe-guard to avoid being put off completely when starting to read his prose commentaries. The reactions to picking up the Ascent of Mount Carmel or the Dark Night range from incomprehension to depression tinged with boredom, as St. John appears to engage in endless divisions and subdivisions, and a merciless rooting out of human desires. Our reaction can be, "This may well be fine for people in cloisters who are receiving mystical graces, but does it really speak to us today?" A knowledge of his poetry can prevent us from too quickly labeling St. John as negative and privative and turning away. Yet it puts us in a dilemma. What kind of man could pen both the verses of the "Spiritual Canticle" and the commentary on the Ascent and Dark Night? Why does St. John adopt such a rigorous scholastic prose when commenting on his poems? The key to the resolution of this paradox lies in the very nature of his poetry as a production both of the mystical experiences he underwent, and the depth of his own unconscious. Neither mystical experience nor those roots of the unconscious in which poetic intuitions are born, are the realm of clear ideas and distinctions. When St. John recited his poems to his sisters in the Order of Mount Carmel, he knew he was uttering "mystical sayings born out of love", and while he had sometimes sought for the words in which to express this love, at other times he felt the words were given to him, and even with a sense of inspiration he was deeply and painfully aware of how inadequate any explanation would be in relationship to the actual experience. When the sisters at Beas heard the "Spiritual Canticle" they wanted an explanation of it, reasoning, naturally enough from a commonsense point of view, that the author could explain the magical symbols in it. In essence, the reason why St. John had difficulty in writing commentaries on his poetry was because in a very real sense he did not know what they meant. There was no equivalent conceptual explanation at his fingertips for the kinds of experiences he had undergone, even though some sort of strange knowledge was associated with them. He says in the Prologue to the Spiritual Canticle:

"Who can describe the understanding He gives to loving souls in whom He dwells? And who can express the experience He imparts to them? Who, finally, can explain the desires He gives them? Certainly, no one can! Not even they who receive these communications. As a result these persons let something of their experiences overflow in figures and similes, and from the abundance of their spirit pour out secrets and mysteries rather than rational explanations."(18)

He finds in this method of proceeding a close analogy with the Song of Songs and the rest of Scripture, "where the Holy Spirit, unable to express the fullness of His meaning in ordinary words, utters mysteries in strange figures and likenesses." This brings us closer to understanding something of St. John's use of Scripture. He was attracted to some of its "strange figures and likenesses" since they seemed to him to be authentic expressions of the hidden mysteries, and thus a kind of guarantee to his own groping to express his mystical experience. Thus, St. John had a sense of how his commentaries were bound to fall short and appear inadequate. He is going to explain his verses only in a general way and not exclude other possible interpretations, for the possibility of other interpretations resides in the disparity between the richness of the symbols and the thinness of the conceptual statements.

From a psychological point of view we are face-to-face with the birth of multi-faceted archetypal symbols that are susceptible to a number of different interpretations, all equally valid and referring to different levels of being enfolded in the one symbol.

The very nature of this kind of poetic creation allows us to understand some of the puzzling facts surrounding St. John's literary career. St. John, according to our hypothesis, was an introverted intuition type who was transfixed, as it were, by the splendor and beauty of his inner experiences. While he was a clear and concise thinker, he had no gift of rhetoric like so many preachers of his day. When he started out to comment on the poem "On a Dark Night", he began in all good faith to attempt to treat of it verse by verse. But his commentary was a production of his consciousness. His sense of order and logic soon led him into many by-ways and supplementary explanations, and what began to emerge was something quite different from his original intention. He loses sight of the poem and follows the thread of the logical argument, and then pursues that with great rigor. In the Spiritual Canticle he again is attempting a commentary on the poem, but even when he forces himself to produce explanations of the words, they fall flat. The commentary on the Ascent rolls on and on with its own momentum, and then it is as if suddenly St. John awoke to the fact that things are not going like he originally desired, and he was faced with a seemingly insuperable task to complete the logical explanation, and like many intuition types, he breaks off in sight of the goal. The inadequacy of his explanation inspired him to begin again and comment anew on the "On a Dark Night", giving us the treatise the Dark Night, but here, again, his plans go awry. The inadequacy of conceptual expression for symbolic realities could also shed light on the question of St. John making more than one redaction of some of his works.

If St. John, conceptually speaking, had to grope to express the meaning of his poems, then we can understand some of the difficulties in reading his prose. He seemed to be constantly coming back to the same points and approaching them from different directions and hedging them about with parentheses and circumlocutions. He acted like a man who had something to say and can't really come out straight and say it. If his prose begins to close in on us and his divisions weary us and his expressions of abnegation depress us, we should return to his poems in order to renew our sense of the beauty and freedom that must have existed in the contemplative experiences themselves. St. John recognized that there were more meanings concealed in these poems than he could ever utter. Each of us as a unique individual will have a distinctive way of understanding this poetry, and through it interpreting his prose, for each of us is called in a unique way to the same experiences that gave birth to both. If we understand the nature of St. John's prose, we can be more tolerant when we hit upon its limits, and in a better frame of mind to appreciate the superlative, positive qualities it possesses with its incisive analyses and masterful descriptions.

And if finally, as we have been maintaining, St. John's poetry is the product both of his mystical experiences and the concomitant process of individuation, then his prose expositions in their own way will show these same two inner transformations, which brings us to the task of the next chapter.



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Chapter 7