St. John of the Cross Discussion II

Some new issues presented by Dr. Robert Hoftiezer,

Last year, as part of our contemplative prayer group, I was re-reading Juan de la Cruz and I was shocked at the amount of quasi-erotic content in what he wrote. It set me to thinking about the real basis of Western spirituality. I know there is an attempt of late to integrate Zen and Christian mysticism. However, in the light of what I believe the Christian process to be, I cannot see any relationship between them.

Several elements in the Christian mysticism of St. John lead me to believe that it is a mysticism of the unconscious.

1. The sense deprivation, which is part of the Western mystical process, leads to phenomena familiar to anyone who has read about the sense-deprivation experiments in years past. In the absence of stimuli and, I believe, in the absence of normal cognitive responses to external stimuli, the unconscious unloads the content of previous experiences spontaneously. This can give the impression that such experiences arise from outside of the psyche, but the nature of the material reported by the mystics is consistent with previously processed information; i.e., with their initial mental -- theological -- prejudices.

2. The displacement of affect -- libido, which is part of the way of negation, produces an amorphic, non-specific erotic environment that leads to ecstasies which, again, in the absence of any apparent action on the part of the subject, appear to arise from without. The result is an auto-erotic state in which the energy of the displaced libido arises spontaneously. Such ecstatic phenomena can also be brought about by prolonged periods of chanting. In any case, the nature of the "flights of divine love" bear all the earmarks of the language of the unconscious.

3. In defense of this suggestion is the fact that a certain sexual polymorphism resides in the unconscious of normal people. This is usually channeled into interpersonal sexuality. But, in the absence of such a sexual cathexis, the "libidinal energy" becomes dissociated from the ego, remaining in the unconscious from which, from time to time, it enters normal, waking consciousness.

4. Finally, the entire Christian process -- its emphasis on passivity, its dissociation of affect, its identification with specific noetic elements, its sense-response-deprivation, its suppression of the conative element of the psyche -- all point to the activities of the unconscious.

Another issue is the Western understanding of the loss of "ego." It was very instructive for me to read of Bernadette Roberts' experiences. Consistent with her Western Christian prejudice, she equates the loss of the sense of ego that she experienced with that of the Eastern mystics. But the phenomena she reports speak of an impoverishment of the ego, something totally inconsistent with the Eastern understanding. It is no accident that there is nothing in the East that corresponds to Western psychology. This is the logical consequence of seeing the mind as just another of the senses and not something of a separate order. The overcoming of ego in Zen, for example, is not the "loss" of ego, as Roberts reports, but an integration of ego within a wider context. When Dogen speaks of the "dropping off of mind and body," he is not referring to the "loss" of anything. Nor does the statement imply a cause-effect relationship, as if the event of dropping off "produced" the subsequent state of integration. For the Zennist, everything always remains as it was. There is no suppression of ego or thought. The shikantaza of the Soto school, which goes back to Dogen, has nothing to say about self or ego in the Western sense. The state of attentive presence, which is his zazen, is a "letting be." It is this state of noetic, conative, and affective permissiveness that allows the transformation called enlightenment to occur.

I fear that the entire program of integrating Eastern thought with Western practice is doomed to failure because of the fundamentally psychological approach of Western practitioners. The mysticism of John of the Cross is clearly a mysticism of the unconscious. There is nothing supernatural about it. The constant concern in the West with the suppression of the ego and with the displaced sexual impulse can only lead to a psychological state in which the individual lives out of his unconscious. Dr. Robert Hoftiezer,


Editor's response:

I have looked at this issue of the interaction between contemplative activity and the unconscious in St. John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung, and also a little bit in connection with centering prayer in From St. John of the Cross to Us, both of which are online, and have made similar points in regard to the elimination of conscious activities leading to an activation of the unconscious, but this has not led me to the conclusion that John of the Cross' mysticism is nothing more than these kinds of responses coming out of the unconscious. I believe that there is a genuine spiritual core, and these phenomena form like an aura around it. I also think that there are quite problematical aspects to the current East-West dialogue, at least from the Catholic perspective, but my interest has been captured from a theological point of view when I see Catholic participants transforming Christianity into Buddhist and Hindu categories.


More Issues:

From Joseph Ferraro,

I finished your book on From St. John of the Cross to Us and considered it as excellent. The books shows a lot of historical research and synthesis by you and is an important contribution to Sanjuanist studies. I had stated that I was sure I would learn much from it and I did. I didn’t realize that the works of St. John had such difficulty getting accepted by his own order and the official Church. Also, I was unaware that the Discalced Carmelites began to betray his doctrine soon after his death. I had thought that acquired contemplation was part of an original synthesis of Crisógono de Jesús Sacramentado in his defense of the two ways of sanctification, but now I see that he is merely passing on a tradition which sprung from the 16th and 17 centuries. Your book also explains why modern Carmelite theologians, also under the influence of the Council, such as Albani, Ciro García, Luis Jorge González, Frederico Ruiz, Camilo Maccise, etc. pretty much finish with the mysticism of John of the Cross. The same applies, of course, to John Paul II's "Carta apostólica con ocasión del IV centenario de la muerte de San Juan de la Cruz" where he more or less removes all mysticism from the nights.

However, I still think there is something missing, something which does not have to do directly with the subject of acquired contemplation. When John and Teresa come on the historical scene in Spain, it would seem that there is already a hostile attitude towards infused contemplation as can be seen in the prologo or preface of the Ascent, the third stanza of the Living Flame, and Teresa´s Way of Perfection. I don’t think it is explainable merely as a reaction against the Illuminados since it involves denying basic doctrines. I rather think that it has a social origin -- theology at the service of the Spanish crown, an accommodation of Catholic theology to the vast social changes happening with city dwellers, the Conquest, etc. Again, I repeat something which I stated in an earlier letter. The controversies about grace of Bañez, Molina, etc. have to be investigated.

Also I find some of the terminology ambiguous, such as the spiritual unconsciousness and divine union. If by divine union is meant the union of a soul with grace once it has been infused, and I think this is the meaning of the expression, I agree there is divine union. But this is not the way Teresa and John use the term.

I've looked at St. John's doctrine from the point of view of the theology of the two ways of sanctification. His doctrine is reduced to 5 or 6 basic premises and conclusions. 1)We have a supernatural end which consists in knowing and loving God as He knows and loves Himself; 2) the means have to be adequate for the end if they are going to reach it; 3) nothing finite is adequate to take us to a supernatural or infinite end; 4) only the theological virtues are adequate means to reach the supernatural end. From this there follows a conclusion which shows the wrongness of the theology of the two ways and the supposedly human mode of operation of faith. If the theological virtues are the only adequate means for reaching our supernatural end, then they can have no human mode of operation since such a mode is finite and therefore inadequate for reaching the end. Their mode can be only divine, involving infused contemplation, even though it be only an instantaneous experience. From this, there follows another conclusion. Since God wants the salvation and sanctification of all of us, and since there is no salvation or sanctification without the operation of the theological virtues, then mysticism in the sense of infused contemplation is for all of us (even though the initial communications be instantaneous or "subliminal"). Its the essence of the Christian message. However, this reasoning is absent from Garrigou, Maritain, Arintero, Merton, etc. who have recourse to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, as if the gifts could operate independently of the operation of the theological virtues. There is much which has to be done here.

That grace accommodates itself to the human more of operation is another theological fallacy. Sanctifying grace is a participation in the divine nature. As a nature it has its own mode of operation which is not human. To attribute a human mode of operation to sanctifying grace is to reduce the divine nature to human nature and contradict the very definition of a nature as an interior cause of activity. Therefore, it follows that sanctifying grace can only have a divine mode of operation, which implies infused contemplation. Or to state the same thing in another way, if the operation is according to the human mode, then its source is human nature and not the divine nature participated.

If by the spiritual unconsciousness is meant that as a result of the infusion of grace, the divine nature, together with its activities of knowing and loving (the persons of the Trinity) in which we participate by infused contemplation, are present but not experienced so that the soul is unaware experientially of the presence, once more I agree. By the removing of the impediments of having our attention too focused in the sensible, we begin to perceive it. One thing is, I think, that the contemplation is not perceptible to the senses, and another that it is perceptible to the intellect and will during the transition from meditation to contemplation but unnoticed, in a sense, due to the soul having its attention too focused in the sensible, trying to recapture the former pleasures associated with meditation.

Another thing of importance is whether or not infused contemplation is for all, which is not directly your topic but which you treat when summarizing the position of others. Your position, taken from your criticism of acquired contemplation, would seem to be in the affirmative, as it would seem to be from our exchange of letters previously when you talk of psychology rather than theology.

My own opinion is, of course, that the interest in mysticism is apt to die out once again as long as infused contemplation is considered as an epiphenomenon or accidental to the Christian life and as long as theology teaches the acceptance of square-circles such as the elevation of natural acts by the presence of grace, of natural acts which are not natural but supernatural. This is one reason why souls don’t reach it. They donut know it exists. Another reason is the great lack of spiritual direction, before and especially after the Council.

Certainly there are many positive things which resulted from Vatican II, especially for us in Latin America and the interest in alleviating the condition of the poor. But there are negative aspects as well, the Council falling into a species of pelagianism, emphasizing the importance of the active life to stop communist advancement and forgetting completely the need of the contemplative life. Really, I had hoped that the Council would treat the problem of infused contemplation, since for me this is the Christian life. As you know better than I, the active life disposes from the contemplative. But in much we have a Greek ethic (including the practice of justice so emphasized by the organizers of the Council), the ten commandments, Christ’s new commandment, etc. which indicate what is to be done in the active life so that we can reach the contemplative. But it seems that the organizers of the Council didn’t even realize that the problem of infused contemplation exists. My opinion is that a lasting interest in infused contemplation (the expression mysticism has become ambiguous) can only exist if we can reduce its necessity in the Christian life to first principles taken from scripture and taken from reason.

Editor's Response

I definitely agree with your points about the supernatural character of faith an the theological virtues stemming from our elevation through grace. But what happens when we are no longer considering these matters from a theological point of view, but are looking at them from the perspective of the practice of the life of prayer? Then it seems clear that most people do not experience the life of infused contemplation as John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila described it. Certainly all prayer is supernatural inasmuch as it is rooted in a grace-filled soul. But can’t we find a way to keep the distinction between a life of prayer that works in and through our natural faculties elevated by grace, and a life of prayer in which infused contemplation has become manifest? Perhaps this is the point that led earlier theologians to talk about the role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. These gifts have to be active throughout everyone’s Christian life, but can’t we say that they operate in a different mode when it comes to contemplation?

I am not sure that we are really that far apart on many of the things you are saying about contemplation. I certainly agree, for example, about how theology was strongly influenced by the spirit of the times, and the same is true for contemplative spirituality. Perhaps we can narrow the apparent distance between our perspective positions by distinguishing between a properly theological perspective and a psychological one. Indeed, I think a confusion of these perspectives led to all sorts of difficulties in the first half of the 20th century even among people as talented as Gabriel de Santa María Magdalena. From a theological point of view since our souls are elevated by grace, i.e., by our fundamental relationship with the Trinity, then this supernatural organism produces supernatural acts. To go back to a distinction found among the theologians, why can’t we say that these acts are supernatural according to substance, but not always supernatural according to mode? Therefore, a person who prays the Our Father with faith and love is, indeed, praying in a supernatural way because this prayer is flowing from a soul elevated by grace. But this does not mean that each vocal prayer, or meditation, or aspiration, needs to be equated with infused contemplation. Can’t we say that infused contemplation is not only supernatural according to substance, but also according to mode? This same kind of distinction can be applied to the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which must always be active in the operations of the supernatural organism of the soul, but can operate in two different modes.

But when we take a psychological perspective, we face these same issues in a different way. There are many holy Christians who appear not to receive manifest infused contemplation. This does not necessarily mean that they are consciously putting obstacles in the way of this contemplation. The apparent failure of someone like Thomas of Jesus to receive infused contemplation seems to have led him to the doctrine of acquired contemplation. The solution he gives is bad, but the problem he faced is very real and is wide-spread today. People aspire to contemplation, show some of the signs that John of the Cross talks about, but don’t arrive at this experience of contemplation. One possible solution is to distinguish between a contemplation as it makes its way into consciousness, and "unconscious" contemplation, i.e., an infused contemplation in the depths of the soul not making itself manifest. But it is also necessary to consider that perhaps for various reasons of temperament or occupation God is not calling some people to infused contemplation in a proximate sense.

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments:

St. John of the Cross: Discussion I

How to contribute to this discussion

Reading: St. John of the Cross as a Poet

For St.John's writings on line