Enriched by its long past and bearing its precious heritage, Carmel reached the period of its reform. To consider this reform apart from the whole tradition and to fail to link the reformers, Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross, to their own spiritual family, would be to give an incomplete idea of Carmelite spirituality and an inaccurate picture of the reform itself.
The power of their genius, made fruitful by their holiness, cannot be denied, and the light and penetration they have given Carmel are obvious. Raised up by God at a moment which was both critical and propitious, they brought Carmel back to life but they did not give life to Carmel. Before their reform Carmel existed and one of its two chief branches owes nothing to these two very pure lights and has continued to flourish.
Because of their nearness to us, Saint Teresa and Saint John of the Cross seem alone to represent Carmel and we cannot imagine Carmel without them. Certainly it is not for a Carmelite to underestimate their role and their glory; to do so, would be to strike his father and mother, but how could we lessen their glory by situating them in this long and glorious line of spiritual men and women who throughout the centuries have formed Carmel. Was this not what Saint Teresa herself felt and wanted when she wrote in chapter thirteen of The Way of Perfection:
The manner of life which we ambition is not merely that of religious women; it is more like that of hermits. Let us remind ourselves of our holy fathers, those hermits of by-gone days whose life we long to imitate.
Saints are like that! Their way of remaining faithful to tradition or of returning to it is so richly alive, so full of the spirit of God that they create something new: nova et vetera. Without changing any of the features they give the loved face a new youthfulness: "Send forth your spirit and they shall be created and you shall renew the face of the earth...".
The influence of Saint Teresa on Carmel's spirituality differs greatly from that of Saint John of the Cross because of differences in the personality and temperament of the two reformers and because of the different roles they were called upon to play. Yet they complement one another perfectly.
That Saint Teresa was first and foremost a contemplative cannot be denied. It is in fact in the domain of prayer and mystical life that she deepened and enriched Carmelite spirituality.
But her personality and her role went further than this because it was with her whole being that she gave herself to a life of union with God. Stripping herself of all things without repudiating any of these things, it is the totality of her aspirations, her heart, her strength and her life that she willed to make subject to God.
So it is not only the understanding of religious life but also of spiritual life that was enriched and renewed first in Saint Teresa herself and then in Carmel of which she was the mother and the reformer.
Saint Teresa's realism is so deep and so authentic that even unconsciously she strove to make an organic whole and a living unity of the different parts of her existence. Prayer is the source of the life and movement of this organic whole; it is the principle of unitive transformation. But it attains its end only when it is able to orient all the different parts of religious life toward the same end and to give the same directive idea to every aspect of daily life and even to the most humble forms of activity.
Saint Teresa's contributions to Carmelite spirituality are not to be found merely in her writings (revealing though these may be), for they were never anything more than occasional compositions in which were mirrored God's action in her soul or in her life. Her contributions are to be discovered and examined first in her work as a reformer because, in a certain sense, she modeled Carmel after her own image. Not that she pointed her ideal in a new direction but that she strongly impressed it with her genius. So it is in the Constitutions and in the form of religious life which she asked her daughters to follow, no less than in her writings, that we must look for the elements that henceforth were to characterize Carmel's spirituality.
In this, Saint Teresa's influence is sharply distinguished from that of Saint John of the Cross. There can be no doubt, as we shall see, that he was, from the first instant, won to the cause of reform. Moreover, he remained at Carmel only on condition that the reform be carried out. But even though he worked heroically for its success, he is preeminent because it was in this setting that he achieved perfect spiritual liberty, and complete mystical development.
While Saint Teresa first reconstructed the Carmelite dwelling, then reestablished its foundations and created therein a climate eminently favorable for true spiritual life; Saint John of the Cross having come to the end of the most amazing of journeys to the realm of mystical union, then laid down its principles, traced its routes and described all its riches.
Like the commandment bequeathed to us by our Lord, Carmel is wholly concentrated on a double and single movement of love. Double, because it is directed to God and to our brothers. Single, because the one theological virtue of charity informs the two movements, the two tempos of Carmelite spirituality which give it its vital rhythm and are, as it were, its heart beat and its breath.
Even before she thought of this rhythm, Teresa had lived it intensely. Therefore this double movement marks her reform because her life was lived according to the spirit of Carmel, that is to say she gave the preponderant place, the "better part" to contemplation.
She was a realist, so she understood that the whole life of Carmel had to be reconsidered as a function of contemplative life. Strict enclosure, silence, work in solitude must be restored so that union with God could develop in most favorable surroundings. Under an original, albeit basically traditional form, Carmel was to live again, the life and spirit of its origins, thanks to Saint Teresa. The best proof of this is given us by the response the Carmelites themselves made to the reform. If Saint John of the Cross and the first Discalced were won over to the reform, it is because they discovered in it what we have attempted to analyse: this primitive spirit, this original soil, without which nothing would flower, without which Carmel would cease to be.
Only the analysis of the ensemble of the works of Saint Teresa, of her spiritual counsels, of her mystical experiences - all of which help to restore true contemplative life, true life of union with God, can reveal her true role.
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It cannot be denied that the Saint has her own way of looking at contemplative life. Her experience of this life, on the mystical plane, is unique. But this way and this experience, however original they may be, are situated well within the boundaries of Carmelite spirituality. And the form of life that she restored appears, in the light of experience, to be the best adapted to the exigencies and aspirations of contemplative souls.
A woman's way of thinking about union with God cannot be exactly the same as that of religious men. Although the ideal is the same for all, it must be approached differently and attained by different paths. Saint Teresa understood this perfectly. Beginning with a conviction and a deep contemplative and mystical experience she considered each detail of religious life not only as a function of the sought-for goal but also in terms of concrete feminine nature.
A highly developed sense of moderation, coupled with a penetrating psychology, in short, a profound wisdom mark the Constitutions to which she gave a realistic foundation. Because of her unflagging efforts, the idea of contemplative life ceased to be abstract and vague. It found its way into and became an integral part of the tiniest acts of life. An intimate bond united prayer and life, morality and mysticism, exterior conduct and union with God. Between a life of highest mysticism and the gift of self, between the soul's need to love and the most lowly forms of fraternal charity, Teresa created links, established relations, forged tight bonds.
In contemplative and religious life as she understood and organized it, an organic unity was realized, not by outer pressure but by an inner principle which was both gentle and strong: this principle was love. The soul that contemplates must long to give itself to Him whom it loves. It must long to be one with Him and to serve Him.
This organic unity was realized according to the norms of a higher wisdom. As one of her recent historians has correctly observed:
Teresa was able to resolve with classic good sense, let us say catholic good sense, two delicate problems: that of the requirements of union with God and the requirements of human nature; that of the relations between the framework in which is inserted common religious life and the personal development of mystical life. If the asceticism which she practiced, and on whose necessity she insisted, was always intransigent, it was also always reasonable. The humble realities of life here below are the foundation on which one must build in order that the spirit may ascend to God. Progress is conditioned by these foundations, just as the life of the tree is determined by its roots; to neglect the first, to destroy or to paralyze the second would be fatal.1
To Saint Teresa, Carmel owes its elan and its psychology. Carmelite psychology was always realistic. Under the reformer's influence it became more so. In fact her prudence and supernatural wisdom made her require that contemplative life- and mystical experience when this is added - be made more and more dependent on dogmatic formulae, the sacraments, submission to the Church and to superiors, the practice of virtues, fidelity to the Rule. Only in this way can sentimentalism, illuminism and quietism in any form whatsoever be avoided.
Better than anyone else did she understand and highlight what is basic in spiritual life: the need of making everything rest of the renunciation of self-will, generosity carried to the point of perfection in the carrying out of the duties of one's state of life, fraternal charity, bearing with one's neighbor. It is virtues like these that, in their realism, support the whole spiritual edifice and assure its unity. There can be no division in being, no dichotomy between life that is purely human and life-made-divine.
A mystical life that insists on purest realism ensures the supreme unity of its being. This organic unity with all the intercommunication of all its inner elements whose life is derived from a higher principle - this is one of the most precious legacies that Carmelite spirituality owes to Saint Teresa.
It is essentially by means of prayer that Saint Teresa believes this higher principle will reign in the soul and will provide this organic unity. Everyone knows that Saint Teresa was the great mistress of prayer. On this capital point her contribution is as traditional as it is original.
It is traditional because, like all the spiritual men and women who preceded her, Saint Teresa wanted to orient contemplatives towards the summits of union with God. This result and this grace she thought they would find in prayer because God and the soul, although working on separate planes, in prayer unite their efforts.
She was also traditional in teaching (on this point she resembled her predecessors) that the contemplative ideal of transforming union is not extraordinary. She believed that it was the integral fullness of spiritual life. So to it she aspired, though it be with humility, because infused contemplation always remains an absolutely gratuitous divine gift.
At the same time, Saint Teresa showed her originality in not being satisfied with assigning this goal to the contemplative life; she pointed out the paths that lead to this goal. Her teaching was marked by a wealth of experience and a psychological depth that have yet been equalled, as well as by a singularly noble and profound conception of a life of union with God. "To pray is not to think much to love much". And for Teresa:
To love is to surrender one's self without reserve. This means to surrender one's will in such a way to the divine will, however crucifying it may be, that one finds joy in suffering when this is pleasing to the Beloved; and this intense love is a call for His presence. The soul enraptured by God tends spontaneously to possess Him. The ideal of perfect donation corresponds quite naturally in her doctrine, with the desire of mystical union. God must be generous to the generous soul... The soul's total gift calls for the total gift of God.2
In prayer, as Teresa experienced it and as she taught it to her daughters, Christ's position is dominant. This is one of the original points of her spirituality. Admittedly before her time Christ's presence was implicit and active in every part of Carmel's spiritual life but His role was not sharply defined. Saint Teresa brought Him to the fore, as never before.
"The method of prayer by which all must begin, continue and end, consists in keeping one's self in our Savior's company".3 No statement could be clearer.
Because Teresa gave so important a place to Christ in prayer, it is highly important to understand what He meant to her. No less important is it to trace her spiritual evolution on this point.
Christ was everything to Teresa. This is undeniable. "Act with Him as with a father, a brother, a master, a spouse".4 She cherished Him with the tenderness of a mother, the respect of a daughter, the love of a spouse. But in this love there "is nothing that is not spiritual".5 In fact "the spiritual delights that the Lord grants are a thousand leagues apart from the satisfactions enjoyed by two spouses. Here love is united with love".6
If Christ is able to raise Teresa above every sensible affection, while "keeping alive her powers of loving, it is because she realises that He is the eternal, the transcendent; it is because He is the absolute, the infinite; it is because He is God".7 There can be no doubt that even in God, Teresa cannot get along without a heart that loves. But Teresa never forgets that the Heart that Christ gives her to love in His humanity is a divine Heart. If some souls find that the humanity of Christ is for them an obstacle, it is because they do not think of Him as they should.
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The humanity of Christ could not fail to help the Blessed Virgin, she was too firmly fixed in faith, she knew that Jesus was both God and man. The name of Jesus is constantly on Saint Paul's lips. I have studied the ways of several great contemplative saints: Saint Francis of Assissi, Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Bernard, Saint Catherine of Siena, and I find that they traveled along no other road.8
So Teresa's decision was made. On this road there are so many advantages of love and faith, that she offered her daughters the Humanity of Jesus as the path par excellence and the ordinary way for all.9
Yet the evolution of Christ's role in the Saint's prayer is no less revealing than the position He holds. At the beginning Teresa kept Christ before her eyes, but gradually she began to meditate on the mystery of His Person. Soon she saw in Him most of all a guide and a companion; then Jesus Christ became for her the way, the path to the Father, the light in which we see Him. Teresa united herself to God by the Word Incarnate. Finally, with Christ's help, Teresa was led to the Blessed Trinity whose importance never ceased to increase in her interior life.
From this we must not conclude that Jesus Christ was relegated to a secondary place but that He no longer was seen in the same perspective. He continues to be Man who, being God, reveals God to all who will listen to Him and contemplate Him... but He is above all the Incarnate Word with whom the soul must be united in order to make some return through Him to the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit.10
This was the way Christ led Teresa to the Triune God. He taught her to be aware of God as her last end, absolute omnipotence. The answer to the call of her whole soul. He led her to the heart of the mystery which is the origin and goal of all mystical life. It is true that Christ's role, indispensable though He be, since "no one comes to the Father" except through Him (John 14 : 6), is apparently less visible in certain mystics who seem lost in the divine darkness; but in Saint Teresa's teaching He shines with a brilliant light from which Carmelite spirituality will always benefit.
The Saint's first intention was merely to found a monastery where she and those who wished to folllow her could, with the help of a more strict enclosure and a more austere life, keep the promises they had made to the Lord according to the vocation of their Order. Later, realising the vast needs of the Church, and desiring in her great charity to assist those who were fighting for her, she went still further, as far as this was possible.11
In strengthening the bonds which united her with Jesus Christ and His Church, Teresa acted according to the most orthodox mysticism. This was also according to Carmelite spirituality. On this, as well as on the two preceding questions, no one can fail to see the richness and the originality of her contribution.
It is, in fact, with Jesus Christ that Saint Teresa begins her deep understanding of the reality of the Church. Of course her submission to the Church had always been completely loyal and even fervently joyous - and this it was to remain until the end. Yet there is more than this in her dying cry: "I am a daughter of the Church". She was referring not only to the visible Church, the traditional Church which was rooted deep in her Spanish soul, this Church from whom, without ignoring its human aspects and its weaknesses, she never ceased to ask for a rule of faith, a rule of life and light for the guidance of her soul. To her, the Church was above all else Christ.
This enlightened and universal view of the Church and the absolute confidence she pledged to it are possible only because of her mystical union with Christ. To Teresa, the Church is not only an intensely vital reality, it is also an institution established on dogmatic foundations that are very sure and very rich. It is the Church that asks of us in Christ's name not a contemplative and unitive love but an active love. To Teresa the Church means Christ and souls, that is to say now and always she considered the mystery of Christ from the apostolic point of view. The second commandment is like the first and flows from it.
It follows that divine love, in Teresa's eyes, never ceases to grow but radiates in ever ever widening concentric circles, just as waves move outward from a center. Fraternal and supernatural charity is directed first to all those who live in the monastery, then with constantly renewed fervor and strength it is transformed into a love for souls, for all souls, that is to say for the whole Church. "A soul who aspires to become the spouse of God Himself... cannot allow itself a sluggard's rest. The redemptive God gives His life and self-giving love to the soul who gives herself to Him". Less than a century later a voice from "beyond the Pyrenees" answered like an echo: "This is no time to sleep".
Christ is always "the center of this apostolate", and Teresa never forgets that this must be contemplative above all else. So she sees that this is first the practice of virtue, fidelity to the Rule, renunciation and the cross. Then (and this is its real meaning) she sees that the apostolate is a form of prayer, that is to say, it is love in act. "The more advanced souls are in contemplative prayer, the more they are concerned with the needs of others, especially with the needs of other souls". 12
Just like her daughter Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus, the first Teresa burned with the desire to be a doctor, a missionary, an apostle; she longed to make God's name known and His kingdom come in every part of the world. A zeal much like that of her father Elias entered her prayer and made it a prayer of fire. Her writings are in their own way another form of this zeal, and they show us that she was constantly "filled with the ardent desire of being useful to souls". "Her heart was broken at the sight of so many souls who are being lost". "She was ready to give a thousand lives to save a single soul". She spent her time "in praying for those who defend the Church, for those who preach and for theologians". She wrote: "With the passage of time my desire grows to contribute to the good of souls... and to the exaltation of the Church".13
But this active and apostolic woman never failed to give to her action and her apostolic work the seal of Carmelite spirituality which is primarily contemplative. This soul at first, that is at the beginning of the contemplative life, she said: "must first be concerned about itself, as if it and God were alone on the earth". Otherwise the soul would "lose" itself in the world. When it is a little more advanced - its faculties being now at rest - God will ripen the fruits of its garden so that it can draw strength from them. This is what God wants. However, He does not want the soul to distribute the fruits of its garden before it has first been strengthened by them. Otherwise the "soul will only learn to taste them... and will eventually die of hunger".
It is only when the soul has attained to union, and God has taken possession
of the very depths of the soul that good works are required: "Once
the soul has reached this point, it no longer offers God simple desires;
His majesty gives it the strength to carry them out".
Therefore to become an apostle, the soul must love, love without any reserve and give itself totally to God. Once again, Teresa has rediscovered and completely renewed the spirit of her Order which has two purposes, one subordinate to the other: contemplation which unites the soul with God and reveals the infinite value of souls, then overflows in the apostolate.
These are the contributions that Saint Teresa made to Carmeltie spirituality: she re-thought and reformed the whole contemplative life in terms of the true and pure Carmelite ideal; she renewed and deepened the life of prayer founded in Christ, experienceing and describing all its stages as far as the highest states of pure mysticism; she held broad and safe views of the Church and of Carmel's apostolate. She poured out these riches in a climate marked by freedom, fervour and balance, in an atmosphere of expansive and undisturbed joy.
So we see why she continues to be the most radiant figure of Carmel and how, like the spouse of the Canticle, she continues to attract souls to Christ: "Draw me: we will run after thee". (Cant. 1 :3).
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1 M. LEPEE, Sainte Therese d' Avila. Le realisme mystique. Desclee de Brouwer.
2 GABRIEL DE SAINTE-MARIE-MADELEINE, "Carmes", Dictonnaire de Spiritualite, col. 197.
3 Life, chapter 12.
4 The Way of Perfection, 30.
5 The Heavenly Mansions, fifth dwelling, chapter 4.
7 LEPEE, ibid., p. 154.
8 Life, 22.
9 The Heavenly Mansions, sixth dwelling, chapter 7.
10 M. LEPEE, op. cit., p. 172.
11 RIBERA, Vie de Sainte Therese, II, ch. I.
13 Foundations, I.
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SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS
Carmelite spirituality owes just as much to Saint John of the Cross as it does to Saint Teresa. At first sight the audience and the influence of the Mystical doctor seem destined to remain very restricted. Did he not address himself to :
certain persons of our holy religion of the primitives of Mount Carmel, men and women, who by the grace of God are on the pathway of this mount (of Carmel)... They indeed are already detached from the things of this life and will the better understand this doctrine of detachment of spirit.1
Nevertheless experience proves that the saint's influence was not limited and that it increased and went far beyond the walls of Carmel. No doubt this is to be explained by the fact that Saint John of the Cross pursued a single objective with a clarity of vision which was equaled only by the rigor of his teaching and the heroic fixity of a will focussed on the absolute. What did he actually ask? Nothing else than to go on as far as divine union in transforming love. And what does he teach? The spiritual attitude necessary for one who who would arrive promptly at the summit of the Mount of Perfection. Now "whatever may be the mountain" in our life, and whatever form it may take, there is a straight path leading to the summit and it is this way that he wishes to point out to souls."2
Therefore a soul, who is resolved to advance towards sanctity and feels inwardly attracted toSaint John's abrupt and direct method, will find precious help in this sure and experienced guide. Did he not, like his Master, begin to do before he began to teach?
The mystical doctor considers mystical life under its essential and complementary aspects. First, he discusses the work of detachment in a soul advancing toward God; then he examines God's direct action on a soul who submits passively to this divine action. He then sings of the joys and splendours of divine union. In other words, his work embraces the whole question of the transformation of our being and our way of acting under the influence of the Spirit of God.
Heroically faithful to the spirit of the primitive Rule that Saint Teresa, in reforming the Order, made it possible for him to live; focussing on its essential precept: union with God in uninterrupted prayer, Saint John of the Cross has given us a work that is unique because of the richness, as much psychological as mystical, of his experience, as well as by the holiness of his life. He goes beyond pure speculation because he wants, lovingly, tenderly and warmly, to persuade souls to journey along the path of divine union and to show them its treasures. To do this he makes use of a very rare poetic gift which enables him sweetly to communicate to souls the lights he has received and the living flame of his love for God.
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1. Which path leads to the summit of the Mount of Perfection?
With the whole tradition of Carmel to support him, John of the Cross unhesitatingly answers: "The path of the Bible and the Gospel, that is to say the path that is Christ... " At Carmel, the soul always draws strength from the divine Word. Of course this means the New Testament and also the Old Testament, for Carmel's roots are fixed deep in Scripture. John of the Cross kept the Bible and two or three other books of piety in his cell. He never ceased to read and meditate on the Bible. In it he searched not only for a knowledge of revelation but he believed that he could find in its pages the laws that always govern the dealings of the Holy Spirit with souls.
Did he think that beyond the literal meaning one ought to look for a deep mystical and spiritual meaning? Of course it is the Spirit alone who possesses the secret of this mystical meaning and it has been promised infallibly only to the Church but the Spirit grants it also to those who humbly follow the guidance of the Church in their search. John is skilled in this exegesis and his interpretations are those of a master. He believes that Scripture is the rule and measure of progress in interior life and that it enlarges one's own experience, containing as it does innumerable examples from the past.3
But God's word means above all the Gospels. In truth "God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spoke in times past to the fathers by the prophets, last of all in these days has spoken to us by His Son" (Heb. 1 : 1-2). And the mystical doctor has declared that "God spoke but a single word and that word is His Son". And on another occasion he said: "God has told us everything in His Son; look well at Him for in Him you will find everything".4
As a matter of fact Saint John's teaching, like his life, was obviously based on the Gospels. He has placed himself in Christ's Heart and in the heart of Christ's teaching. It is true that his speculative study of the spiritual life does not seem to be Christo-centric. Nevertheless in it he forcefully affirms5 that no union with God is possible except in Christ, and this is true both of faith (which is adhesion to God in Christ) and of life. To reach God we must make Christ our model. Saint John wants us always to desire to act like Christ. "Of what use is this life if it does not give us the opportunity of acting like Christ?" Christ crucified is the synthesis of his whole doctrine. "Let Christ crucified alone be enough for you; with Him suffer, with Him rejoice; never suffer or rejoice without Him".6
When he had reached the goal of mystical life he declared that knowledge of Christ's mysteries is the highest wisdom possible in this life: "The soul, being henceforth raised up... above all things, may now make use of nothing to help it or to rise higher except the Word, the Spouse Himself".
"Let the soul long to enter into the darkness of the Cross which is the way of life". And perfection in the spiritual life will mean nothing else than an immense love of extreme Poverty and suffering for the sake of the Beloved: "To love, is not to experience great things; it is to know great poverty and great suffering for the Loved One", that is to say, "for our great God crucified and humbled".7
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The Shepherd with "His two fair arms outstretched and His Heart pierced through and through with love" dominates the life of Saint John of the Cross.
If the mystical doctor carries, as he does, the image of the Crucified in his heart, it is also on the Crucified that he bases his whole doctrine. "If any one wishes to come after Me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow Me". It is truly the Gospel teaching which is the foundation of the saint's teaching.
To imitate Christ, "any sense pleasure that is not purely for God's honor and glory must be renounced and given up for the love of Jesus Christ". Renouncement and love, is this not a complete description of Christ? It is also a complete description of Saint John of the Cross.
Therefore it is within this frame of reference that we must consider his doctrine. Detachment in all things through absolute attachment to Christ. Renouncement is the obverse of love. "That you may possess all things, seek to possess nothing". "Desire to be detached from all things, empty and poor for Christ's sake".8
Saint John of the Cross was to speak of this renunciation as no one else had ever done before. His flaming words have singular strength.
On the path up the mountain, the soul will meet and be tempted by false goods of many kinds. One by one they must be rejected and nothingness is to be preferred to them. Faced successively with temporal advantages, intellectual riches, virtues the soul believes it possesses, graces, finally self, the soul must give to all the same answer: Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.
This is a road nature cannot travel. Saint John of the Cross knows this well so he draws the strength needed for detachment from an impassioned attachment to Christ. "Do you want to be perfect? Draw near to Christ by meekness and humitlty, then follow in His footsteps to Calvary and the Holy Sepulchre".9 "If a man resolves to carry this cross for God' sake, he will find great refreshment and much sweetness and this will enable him to travel along this road, detached from all things and desiring nothing".10
To follow Christ does not mean, according to Saint John of the Cross, that one must in any way withdraw one's self from a system of human values or deny them by a renunciation of mind or senses. What he asks is that these values be used according to right order: the senses are to pass judgment on things of sense, the intellect is to appreciate things intellectual.
It is only when one wishes to attain to God and be united with Him that these things must be renounced for the sake of faith which henceforth is the only source of light, the only right path for this divine quest.
In two of his works he described the itinerary of the soul journeying towards the summits of divine union along the paths of renunciation: The Ascent of Carmel and The Dark Night; the first stresses the work of the soul while the second insists on the divine initiative.
Saint John of the Cross describes in terms of night the work that is first accomplished in the sensible part of man, this is the active and passive night of the senses; then in the spiritual part, this is the active and passive night of the spirit. Here night is a symbol of the renunciation of things, a renunciation that is either voluntarily assumed or passively endured. The necessary role of the theological virtues is evident in the purification of the soul's spiritual faculties: intelligence is purified by faith, memory by hope, will by charity.
The light cast upon the role of theological virtues, and especially on faith, is one of the most important aspects of Saint John's doctrine and because of its universal value goes far beyond the limits of Carmelite spirituality.
What Saint John is looking for, is the path that leads quickly and surely to the summit of the mount of perfection and therefore to union with God. From this point of view the place he gives to faith is better understood. Its mission is to purify the soul's vision of God. In fact it alone can remove whatever acts as a screen or an obstacle to the possession of God and enable us to see things truthfully because faith is: "an interior light derived from the light of God which enlightens all things according to His light and makes us see them as He sees them".11
There are two reasons why this light derived from God is a light of shadows: faith must cleanse our intellect of notions that are simply human and that are in no way worthy of God.
How, in fact, can the divine Being be grasped by human intelligence? What man can feel and know about God is infinitely remote from what He is... There is no communion or essential likeness between God and creatures, but there is an infinite distance between His nature and theirs.12
This affirmation of the absolute divine transcendence, as well as the consequences that follow, is a keystone of the spirituality of Saint John and of Carmel.
But if God is infinitely beyond our intelligence, the soul cannot "go to Him unless she spares no effort to deny and refuse her natural as well as supernatural knowledge".13 For the human intelligence must enter into this night.
There is another reason why faith is "a light of shadows": it permits truth to be grasped only in darkness. Faith is a path "well suited for union with God" but this union is granted only "in a mirror and darkly".
Yet Saint John will sing its praises because "even though it be night", it enables us to know God and to embrace Him in the darkness.
This grasp of the mystery of God by means of faith is limited only by our generosity. A faith absolutely freed from every image, from every representation will give us God wholly.
The soul strays far from the road leading to divine union when it leans at all on its own understanding... not knowing how to release and detach itself therefrom.15
The soul must empty itself of all that is within its competency... and remain always detached and in darkness, leaning on obscure faith and taking it for its light and guide, not trusting to anything it understands, tastes, feels or imagines.16
Saint John asks that this faith be exercised when in speaking of prayer he insists on the necessity of passing, at the prescribed time, from discursive meditation to "the obscure, general, loving" contemplation of the mystery of God.17 It is plain that the faith for which he asks is not theoretical or abstract but rich in love; it is a living faith.
Whence comes this faith? How is it strengthened in us?
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Here appears the magnificent synthesis that Saint John of the Cross achieves between the purest mysticism of Denis, negative and obscure, and the teaching that rightly gives priority of place to Christ in the spiritual life.
At no instant does Saint John of the Cross forget that Christ is "the author and finisher of our faith" (Heb. 12 :2). Christ gives us faith and He is the first to benefit from the gift. When the eyes of the soul are fixed on Christ, the Incarnate word, faith enables them to discover Him as He is in the mystery of His divine and human Person. Before addressing the divine Persons of the Trinity and acquiring a general, obscure and confused knowledge of God, faith turns first to Christ and through faith the soul is in a certain sense made like Him: "All the wisdom of God which is the Son of God is communicated to the soul in faith".18
To attain to God it is, therefore, essential to look with eyes illumined by faith "fe ilustratisima" upon Him who is the way: "If you look at Him closely, you will find in Him all things... You will find in Him the wisdom of the marvels of God, as my apostle said: In the Son of God are all treasures of wisdom and knowledge of God".19
Christ considered "in faith" becomes the door that introduces us into the mystery of divine life and the trinitarian exchanges. To Saint John of the Cross, as well as to the sacred writer, Christ is at the same time the author and finisher of our faith.
The path followed by Saint John of the Cross in the purification of the intelligence by faith resembles that taken by him in the purification of the memory by hope.
As to hope, there is no doubt that it renders the memory empty and brings darkness over it as to things of this life and the next; for hope is ever concerned about things not yet possessed, if they were already possessed there would be no place for hope.20
And in the purification of the will by charity:
Charity creates an absolute void in the will inasmuch as it obliges us to love God above all things. This can only take place when our affection for things is centered wholly in God. For this reason Christ says in Saint Luke: "He who does not renounce all that he possesses cannot be My disciple".
For when the soul is detached from all things and has emptied and detached itself... which is all that the soul can do on its part... then it is impossible that God will not perform His part which is to communicate Himself to it, at least in secret and in silence.
It is more impossible than that the sun should fail to shine in a serene and unclouded sky. For as the sun, when it rises in the early morning and shines into your house, will enter if you open the shutter, even so will God, who keeps Israel and slumbers not (Ps. 120 : 4), still less sleeps, enter the soul that is empty and fill it with divine blessings.21
2. Union is the transformation of the soul in God by the Spirit of Love.
If there is in the spiritual doctrine of Saint John of the Cross a dark mountain side and a steep path of renunciation and of faith for the soul who ascends the mountain of Carmel in the footsteps of Christ, there is also a summit of light awaiting the generous soul who ascends with Him. Saint John of the Cross describes and praises this summit in His Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame of Love.
Nada... Todo... Nothingness... All things... The Doctor of nothingness is even more admirable when he hymns the union of love with God, its splendors and its joys. Of the "complete beatitude promised in the mountain, he is the peerless doctor".22
By poverty of spirit, by faith, by hope and also by charity, Saint John has dug "deep caverns" in the soul, infinite capacities that God longs to fill with this love "that He has prepared for those who love Him".
Desiring that other souls may benefit by what he himself has experienced, the Mystical Doctor invites them to embark with him upon this "happy adventure". He urges them: "All this is yours, all this is for you; do not set yourself any lower goal".23
All this means God; all this means the whole Trinity. Does not the Trinity dwell in the pure soul? Let the soul be conscious only of this. Let it seek this divine Spouse who lives in the depths of its being and who invites it to be united with Him.
The Word, in company with the Father and the Holy Spirit remains essentially hidden in the soul's deep center. To find Him, as is possible in loving union, the soul must go out and hide itself from all things created... enter into deepest recollection within itself, there to communicate with God in acts of love and affection.24
Recollection contains the seed of the whole mystical life. Saint John of the Cross explains that this is so because the author of this recollection is no other than the Holy Spirit who
enlightens the recollected intellect in proportion to its recollection, and as there can be no greater recollection of the intellect than in faith, the Holy Ghost will not enlighten it in any other way more than in that of faith. For the purer and more perfect the soul is in faith, the greater is the infusion of charity and the more abundant the gifts of the Holy Spirit.25
In this way from the very beginning the mystical life is seen to be placed under the motion of the Spirit of Love. Christ does not cease to act in the soul by His Spirit. This Spirit purifies the soul along the paths ascending the Mount, detaches the soul during the trials of the nights, then floods the soul with light and love. Although the soul did not realize this, it was the influence of the Spirit that directed it and carried it toward the heights. On reaching the summits the soul perceives and knows itself to be entirely submissive to divine inspiration.
The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus, is the great artisan of the mystical life. He is the master of the union of the soul with the Word its Spouse.
Although it is not necessary to have attained to mystical union in order to understand what Saint John of the Cross now has to say to us, still we must have some little experience of the secret action of the Holy Spirit in the soul. For one who has known this action, symbols and words themselves are eloquent. To those who lack this experience, these symbols and words fail to reveal the deep continuity of the action of the Holy Spirit and the unity that characterizes a life wholly marked with His seal.
No doubt this unity can be explained, when the same image of divine action that was proposed by Saint John of the Cross in the Ascent is repeated in the first stanza of The Living Flame. And it is only when the soul can look back at the road it has traversed and the transformation accomplished in it by this Spirit of multiple activities that it becomes clearly aware of the power and admirable effects of divine Love.
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It must be known that before this fire of love is introduced into the substance of the soul and is united with it, by means of perfect and complete purity and purgation, this flame, which is the Holy Spirit, wounds the soul, destroying and consuming in it the imperfections of its evil habits. And this is the operation of the Holy Spirit, wherein He prepares it for divine union and the transformation of its substances in God through love.
For the same fire of love which afterward is united with the soul and glorifies it, is that which formerly assailed it in order to purify it. Even as the fire that penetrates the log of wood is the same fire that first of all attached and wounded it with its flame, cleansing and stripping it of its cold accident until, by means of its heat, it could enter it and transform it into itself.26
In this way the Holy Spirit enabled the soul to detach itself progressively from all things, buried it deep in faith, enlightened its darkness, helped it to go out of itself, brought it in the prayer of union to allow it to die interiorly and in pain cleansed it during the great passive purifications of the nights. Now it is He who touches its inmost being with luminous and transforming fire. Throughout this whole work the soul never ceased to descend more deeply into its inner depths and to draw near this center whence it has its origin in God. Now this flame "transforms it into itself and gives it sweetness, peace and light".
To describe the action of the Holy Spirit and the graces given the soul, Saint John of the Cross has recourse in his poems to the "rich and burning words"28 that the liturgy so often uses. In souls whom He is leading to transforming union, He is "the gentle breeze", "the unction", "the fire", "the perfume", "the living water". He "breathes" through the garden of the soul, and each time that He touches the soul, He "communicates to it most delicately a knowledge full of serene and peaceful love".29 He gives the soul the fragrance of divine sweetness as "the amber sends forth its perfume".30 But more than all else He is in it this living fire
which not only consumes and transforms it in sweet love but burns it and covers it with flames. Each time this flame breaks forth, it bathes it in glory and refreshes it with everlasting life. Such is the action of the Holy Spirit.31
This divine fire "transforms the soul into itself and becomes a burn of ardent fire". "Yet this vehement and consuming fire does not destroy the soul... It divinizes it, on the contrary, according to the measure of its love, fills it with delights, enkindling it with its fire and the sweetest ardors".
"O sweet burn", cries the Mystical Doctor, "O tender wound! O delicate touch!... O lamps of fire!... In Your sweet breathing, so full of glory and good things, how tenderly You fill me with Your love... "32.
The action of the Holy Spirit is wholly concerned with the union of the soul with the Word, its Spouse. The Spiritual Canticle first describes the close of this painful night that prepares for the espousals and gives hint of "the waking of dawn" (stanzas 1-12); then the espousals themselves are described (stanzas 13-27); and lastly the spiritual marriage (stanzas 28-29). It is this marriage that gives the soul a very deep understanding of the inexhaustible mysteries of Christ and, by enabling the soul to live with the life of God Himself, draws it into the bosom of the Trinity. "There it breathes to God the same breath of love that the Father breathes to the Son and the Son to the Father and this is the Holy Spirit Himself whom they breathe into it".33
The Living Flame also sings of "the most perfect and the richest love" that of the soul united to God by love; and it tries to describe the flaming of this love in the soul and it gives an analysis of the state of a soul that has reached this fullness of love. But when the Mystical Doctor begins to comment on the last stanza of his poem in which he sings of the mysterious awakening of God in the soul, overwhelmed then by "all the fragrance and pleasing perfumes of all the flowers in the world", he pauses: "I would not want to speak of this aspiration, nor am I able to say how full it is of the goodness and the glory of God's most tender love for the soul. Because I see clearly that I cannot describe it and if I were to speak, men would believe that such a description would be possible..."34
In the soul united to Christ by the Spirit, in whom it has just been reborn, now open the great deeps of Trinitarian life. But where Saint Teresa seems to see a goal which she contemplates, Saint John of the Cross finds a life with which he intends to nourish himself and which he intends to live in truth.
Saint Teresa writes in the Interior Castle (seventh mansion):
The soul introduced into this mansion of spiritual marriage sees the Persons of the Blessed Trinity reveal themselves to it... all three communicate themselves to the soul and speak to it. They discover to it the meaning of the Gospel passage in which Our Lord announces that He will come with the Father and the Holy Spirit to make His dwelling in the soul who loves Him and keeps His commandments.
Going still further, Saint John declares, in all truth, but with remarkable daring:
The soul can... love God as much as God loves it because it loves Him with the same love with which He loves it and this is the Holy Spirit.35
Granted that God in His goodness raises the soul to become deiform and unites it to the most blessed Trinity, making it divine by participation, how would it be hard to belive that it made its acts of intelligence, knowledge, and love in the Trinity, with the Trinity, like the Trinity, but by participation.36
It is evident that the riches poured by Saint John of the Cross into Carmel's treasury are great. Contemplative souls never cease to draw from this treasury.
When the Church made him a universal "doctor" by giving him the title Mystical Doctor, contemplatives were assured that they would find no guide more experienced, more daring, more sure in every way, one who could lead them along the paths of Nothingness to the possession of the All and the splendors of divine union.
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1 Prologue to The Ascent of Mount Carmel, I,6.
2 LUCIEN MARIE DE SAINT-JOSEPH, O.C.D., Les auvres spirituelles de S. Jean de la Croix, Introduction, 31, Desclee de Brouwer.
3 J. WEHRLE, Saint Jean de la Croix, docteur.
4 Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 2: chapters 7 and 22.
6 Maxim, 209.
7 Maxim, 235.
8 The Ascent, Book I, chapter 13.
9 Spiritual Sentences, 176.
10 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 7.
11 P. CONGAR, O.P., Esquisse du mystere de l'Eglise.
12 The Ascent, Book 2 chapter 8.
13 The Ascent, Book 3, chapter 2.
14 Mystical Poems.
15 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 4.
17 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 13.
18 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 9.
19 The Ascent, Book 1, chapter 22.
20 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 6.
21 Cf. The Living Flame, Book 3, chapter 40.
22 DOM CHEVALIER, Le Cantique Spirituel de Saint Jean de la Croix, p. xxxiv.
23 Maxim of the Saint.
24 Canticle I.
25 The Ascent, Book 2, chapter 29.
26 The Living Flame, stanza I, 16..
27 The Living Flame, first stanza.
28 FRANCOIS DE SAINTE-MARIE, Initiation a Saint Jean de la Croix, p. 175.
29 Spiritual Canticle, stanza 26; The Living Flame, stanza 3.
30 Spiritual Canticle, stanza 31.
31 The Living Flame, stanza I.
32 The Living Flame, stanza 4.
33 The Spiritual Canticle, 39.
34 The Living Flame.
35 Spiritual Canticle, stanza 37.
36 Spiritual Canticle, stanza 38.
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The close of the sixteenth century and the seventeenth century are truly the golden age of the Reformed Carmel. They witnessed the rapid multiplication of Carmelite houses for men and women. In Spain the very name of Salmanticenses suffices to testify to the intense intellectual and theological activity of the order.
While John of Jesus-Mary, Thomas of Jesus, Joseph of Jesus-Mary (Quiroga), Philip of the Trinity and, a little later, Joseph of the Holy Ghost, studied the whole question of the mystical life, especially the difficult problem of acquired and infused contemplation, the Reform of Touraine, with the Venerable John of Saint-Samson strove to restore the primitive spirit of silence and solitude in all its purity. The humble blind man of Rennes became the master and director of a whole line of spiritual men.
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, a simple converse brother, the cook of the convent of Rue de la Vaugirard - Lawrence of the Resurrection, brought back contemplative life to "the practice of the presence of God", returning in this way to the primitive spirit of Elias: "Yahweh lives in whose presence I am". He said:
In the sight of God thoughts count for little, love means everything. It is not necessary to have great things to do: I can turn my little omelette in the pan for the love of God; when that is done and if I have nothing more to do I can prostrate myself on the ground and adore God who has given me the grace to do what I have done, then I rise happier than a king. When I can do nothing else, I can always pick up a straw from the ground for the love of God...
Men seek methods for learning how to love God. They want to reach their goal by, I do not know how many different practices. They go to a lot of trouble to stay in His presence in a great number of ways; is it not much shorter and far more direct to do all things for His love, to make use of all the duties of one's state to express our love for Him, and to maintain His presence in us by our heart's commerce with Him? We need not go about this in any subtle way, all we must do is simply to do what we do.1
But it is faith, and faith alone that makes it possible for the soul to remain in this presence of God. Lawrence of the Resurrection extols the good results of this practice in these words:
O faith! O faith! O admirable virtue which enlightens man's mind and leads him to a knowledge of His Creator. It is faith that reveals to me the infinite perfections of God, that gives me a perfect idea of His greatness, that enables me to know Him as He is. Faith teaches me in a short time more than I could ever learn in a long time in the schools.2
Nevertheless this faith has value in Lawrence's eyes only insofar as it is transformed into fire and kindles his love. "All things are possible to one who believes, still more to one who hopes, still more and more to one who loves".3
Many of Saint Teresa's daughters, in their turn, attained to a high degree of prayer and spiritual life, and profoundly influenced the most enlightened and the most saintly souls of their age.
For example, Blessed Marie of the Incarnation who was venerated by all the mystics of Paris at the time of Berulle and Saint Francis of Sales. The same is true of Anne of Jesus and Anne of Saint Bartholomew who came from Spain to establish foundations in France and then went to Belgium. At Beaune lived the humble Marguerite of the Blessed Sacrament.
The attraction of Carmel was also felt by the repentant soul of Louise de la Valliere who became Louise of Mercy, and by the pure soul of Louise of France, the daughter of Louis XV who thirsted for reparation.
Carmel flourished not only in France. In other lands as well the influence of Carmelites was very beautiful; this is especially true in Florence where Saint Mary Magdalene of Pazzi lived, and a century later Saint Teresa Margaret Redi.
Yet beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century there was a sudden change that lasted for more than one hundred years. It would seem as if the mystics were silent or that they had no new message to give. Must the riches of the past henceforth suffice? Was Carmel asked to live on these treasures without adding anything more? To believe this would be to misunderstand completely the perpetual renewal which is the nature of contemplative life.
Does not the name of Elias mean "the Verdant One"? A Saint Teresa of the Child Jesus was to show the world that Carmel's vine continues to flower and bear fruit.
1 LAWRENCE OF THE RESURRECTION, Maximes spirituelles.
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