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watershed in ascetical and mystical theology
on August 8, 2002
St. John of the Cross is unique in the history of Western mysticism. Before St. John of the Cross, at least ten centuries witness the development of ascetical and mystical theology without attaining the totality for which St. John of the Cross is justly celebrated. He achieves this wholeness because in his own life he manifests the ascent of Mount Carmel of which he speaks, the journey of the soul from departure to purgation to union with God in the perfection that precedes the immediate entry of the soul into eternal beatitude. Only too well does the Catholic Church assign St. John of the Cross the title of Mystical Doctor, "Doctor Mysticis." In the centuries that follow, the Church may honor great mystics--we may note, for example, the contemporary friar, Padre Pio, who has been graced with the sublime epithet of the "second St. Francis"--yet it must be argued that no one since St. John of the Cross has united to the same extent such a holy life with lofty theology.
What I would like to do is to highlight this work as a watershed in ascetical and mystical theology. There are important antecedents. The pattern of spiritual life as a journey toward God in progressively higher stages of perfection is found in the writings of the early Orthodox Church, for example, St. Isaac the Syrian. The Greek Fathers in particular are significant in developing the theology of negation or apophatic theology to which St. John of the Cross is indebted. As the High Middle Ages approaches, there takes place a flowering in individual mysticism, notably, beginning with the ardent intimations of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, then culminating in the charming, to some extent legendary accounts of St. Francis of Assisi. In the second Founder of the Franciscans, St. Bonaventure, we come across a more developed statement of ascetical and mystical life as it progresses in three stages--purgative, illuminative, and unitive. By the time we reach the Late Middle Ages, we find a mature statement of ascetical and mystical theology in England and the Low Countries, exemplified by Bl. John Ruysbroeck, The Seven Steps of the Ladder of Spiritual Love, with which St. John of the Cross was no doubt at least acquainted. None of these mystics, however, have had the same lasting impact on later generations as St. John of the Cross.
To the present day, an understanding of St. John of the Cross is a necessary part of the training of spiritual directors, even those who do not follow directly in the Carmelite tradition. This universal application bespeaks the clarity, accuracy, and depth by which he outlines the essential features of the soul's journey toward God. With St. John of the Cross, the spiritual director is provided with an impeccable map of the spiritual life. Purgation is indispensable, not merely of the senses, but above all, of the spirit. Divine union entails the unmitigated cleansing of the soul. If St. John of the Cross is uncompromising, the reader understands it is only as it should be. Hence, the famous "todo y nada" found in the Ascent of Mount Carmel, another important work:
Para venir a gustarlo todo,
no quieras tener gusto en nada;
para venir a poseerlo todo,
no quieras poseer algo en nada.
To reach satisfaction in all
desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possess all
desire the possession of nothing.
The Dark Night of the Soul further derives its power from the testimony of St. John of the Cross' life. Indeed, his life reads like his poetry.
In the quiet of sleeping hours, we see his pilgrim soul hearkening to the delicate call of religious life.
On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings--oh, happy chance!--
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.
In his windowless 6' x 10' cell, imprisoned, abused, abased, hauled out every so often for public flogging by his brothers in religion, we see him crafting the exquisite lyrics by which he celebrates his divine transformation.
Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!
Ulcers afflicting his legs and back, we see him lying in his cell in destitution, abjection, and mortal distress, interiorly rapt in eager anticipation of his final union with God.
I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.
St. John of the Cross is the paragon of Spanish Catholicism at its finest--fiery, soaring, impassioned, unconditional, all-consuming.