St. John of the Cross: Reaching the Summit

st. john of the cross feast day reflection

I learned about St. John of the Cross over a three-month course while studying abroad in Rome. Fr. Paul Murray was our Irish Dominican Professor, who also happened to be a poet, a professor, and a writer.  For three hours each week I eagerly opened my mind to all he taught us about St. John of the Cross.

One of the phrases which is commonly associated with St. John of the Cross is “the dark night of the soul.” This is a stage where we are so closely united to Christ that we long to be with Him, and to be separated from Him brings us pain. Thinking about the pain of this separation makes me grateful for Fr. Paul Murray’s words, “It is enough to want Heaven and it is enough to want to want Heaven.”

Of course, this doesn’t let us off the hook. In order to grow in holiness we need to overcome our own ego and conform our wills to God’s. Thankfully, we have St. John of the Cross to lead the way.

It is enough to want Heaven and it is enough to want to want Heaven. -Fr. Paul Murray #BISblog // Click To Tweet

St. John’s Formation

Saint John of the Cross was born in the mid-sixteenth century in a small village near Avila, Spain. His family was very poor and his father died when he was just a young boy.

At 18 years old he entered college and towards the end of his college education, he sensed a clear calling to the religious life. At 21 he entered the Carmelite monastery in his hometown. He continued studying humanities and philosophy for three years at the prestigious University of Salamanca. Four years later he was ordained a priest and celebrated his first Mass in his hometown. It is here that he met his soon-to-be good friend, St. Teresa of Avila.

Friends and Reformers

Shortly after they first met, St. Teresa shared with John her hopes to reform the Carmelite order to its original rule with the hopes of helping the order embrace the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. She asked St. John for his help and support in this mission. Just five years after their initial meeting, and at St. Teresa’s request, John became the confessor and vicar of the Monastery where St. Teresa was the prioress. Not only did the two share a great friendship, but together they were also reformers and later became Doctors of the Church. One of his major works, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, closely resembles St. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. Both of these literary masterpieces shed light on the slow, but vital purification of the soul towards Christian perfection.


St. John’s  work to reform the Carmelites did not come with ease. In fact, he received orders from his own superiors telling him to depart from Avila and return home. However, John stood his ground and refused to leave because he had already received approval from the nuncio, a greater authority within his order.

The Carmelites, who did not respect the authority of the nuncio, then kidnapped John and imprisoned him in the monastery in Toledo. He lived for nine months in a tiny cell that was hardly big enough for him to lie down in. His diet consisted of bread and water, and every week he was brought out to be lashed in front of the community. One friar had mercy on John’s soul and would kindly smuggle paper to him which John used to write poetry.

He did not let the darkness of the cell stifle the light of Christ in his soul.

St. John of thee Cross did not let the darkness of the cell stifle the light of Christ in his soul. #BISblog // Click To Tweet

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The Three Ways

St. John wrote about the three stages of the spiritual life, including, the dark night of the soul.

1. The Purgative Way (Spiritual Childhood)

This is when one begins to break bad habits, overcome temptation, and grow in virtue. At the end of this stage one can experience something called the “dark night of the senses.” It is a stage when God calls us to detachment not only from material things, but also from spiritual consolations. Here God purges sin from our heart in order to make more room for Him to reign.

2. The Illuminative Way (Spiritual Adolescence)

This is a time of continued growth in virtue, charity, and prayer. One may still experience the “dark night of the senses,” but in this time of detachment we are growing in the life of virtue and God is further revealing Himself to us.

3. The Unitive Way (Spiritual Adulthood)

In this stage, one has fallen so deeply in love with God that their desire is for Him alone. One has moved beyond the “dark night of the senses,” but may then experience the “dark night of the soul.”

This stage is one which can cause what St. Teresa of Avila calls a “wound” of love, a “delightful pain.” She writes:

This action of love is so powerful that the soul dissolves with desire…This pain reaches to the soul’s very depths and that when He who wounds it draws out the arrow, it indeed seems, in accord with the deep love the soul feels, that God is drawing these very depths after Him.

Let’s remember that like St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa was also a mystic. Her words may seem beyond us, but they do still give us a glimpse of how deep her love for Christ was. The deepness is mysterious.

Getting There

In the Ascent of Mount Carmel St. John of the Cross writes about how to achieve this Divine Union and ascent to the top of the mountain. He writes:

In this detachment the spiritual soul finds its quiet and repose; for since it covets nothing, nothing wearies it when it is lifted up, and nothing oppresses it when it is cast down, because it is in the centre of its humility.

He speaks of uniting our sufferings with Christ and clinging to the Cross. He sketched an image which shows Jesus at the moment He surrendered His spirit to the Father. When we surrender our own Spirit to the Father we allow ourselves permission to be removed from the noise of the world. Then, in the “quiet and repose” which St. John speaks of, we find freedom.

Just think of the Our Father prayer, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done….deliver us from evil.” In our surrender, we are given the grace to be freed from the bondage of sin.

Reaching the Summit

Someone once told me that it is not that our will ought to be conformed to Christ, but rather that it should be united with Christ. To conform means to be obedient to, but to unite means to become one with. When our wills have become united with Christ’s, we do not have to put so much effort forth in fulfilling His will, because already we are walking in-step with Him.

What spiritual stage do you find yourself in? What things do you think God is asking you to detach from in order to make more room for Him to dwell in your heart?

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Susanna Parent is a regular contributor to the BIS blog. She serves as Evangelization Manager for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the Office of Evangelization. She is a recent graduate of the Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry program with the School of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas. When she’s not reading and writing you can find her enjoying life with her new husband, brewing French press coffee in her kitchen, reading wine labels with friends in an effort to discover the perfect Pinot Noir and blogging about her travel adventures. You can find out more about her here.

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Paola @ Swallow the World
    December 19, 2018 at 10:53 am

    I have the complete works of St. John of the Cross in my library. This has motivated me to actually read them!

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