Getting to the Hart of St. John of the Cross

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This is becoming one of my favorite Hart pieces. Inasmuch as it deals with the processes and strategies of the soul’s transformation it’s one of the most, or (if we take him at his word that there is “not a pastoral bone in my body”) perhaps the only, pastoral of his essays. Either way, it’s a wonderful reflection upon St. John’s theology of human transformation, especially the dark nights (plural!) of the soul. Here’s a portion:

The mystical quest after God must begin with the active and arduous labors of ascetic mediation, but must culminate in the passive purification of the soul by grace. According to John, the soul goes on its way to God in darkness for three reasons: firstly, purgation is darkness because it denudes the soul of all its appetites for worldly things; secondly—and most importantly at this point—the way of illumination is a road of faith, not of the intellect, and the frail light of one’s wits cannot guide one through it; and, lastly, God is night to humankind in this world: even in union with the soul, his presence is inscrutable and his being incomprehensible (a sentiment expressed, if anything, even more strongly by Palamas, and by the entire Eastern tradition before him). To become passive before and in attendance upon the power of God is to experience how far the light of God’s wisdom exceeds human knowing; one cannot but be blinded by it; one’s first exposure to it is of necessity an affliction to all the soul’s faculties. And it is a night dark with pain, at times with torment, because in the first encounter with divine grace, with the fire of God’s love, the soul’s last impurities—the last residue of self-absorption—are burned away. The initial experience of God’s presence is shattering, seeming to destroy rather than heal the soul, to portend ultimate annihilation rather than salvation, because it obliterates the last vestiges of one’s dearly cherished illusion that one gives oneself unity, that one is sufficient for oneself, that one has any wholeness, freedom, or reality apart from God…

This is the awful extreme of self-knowledge, given to one only in a consuming intimacy with the divine: so frail, finite, and sinful is the soul that union with the divine must at first seem a condition of utter dereliction, of Godforsakeness; God’s love cannot be distinguished from his wrath. But the bitterness of this night is necessary if illusion and false comfort—even religious comfort—are to be put away, so that the life of the spirit may be reduced to one act of faith and longing. It is the night of surrender, wherein one must allow everything to be accomplished by God…

…God’s action in refining the soul is not a means by which he obtains satisfaction for sins, but is rather the necessary means by which the lover of God is made equal to the object of his love….

Bright Morning of the Soul

8 comments on “Getting to the Hart of St. John of the Cross

  1. I’ve read this as well, and found it disturbing in all of the right ways. St. John’s writings have always seemed haunting and otherworldly to me, and in a sense all DBH did was articulate the magnitude of this sense for me. It is John’s Second Dark Night that points to territory that few of us will ever dare to tread, where the satisfaction in spiritual things must preclude the soul’s (experience of) union with God. For those of us not called to live the monastic life, asceticism must look different in some respects as it coincides with the passing concerns of daily life. I’m not exactly sure how this looks, but St. John’s writings have been immensely helpful if I am feeling stuck, if for no other reason than assuring me that feeling stuck, it would seem, is part of the process.

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    • Tom says:

      Totally agree, Jed. My worry is that theosis becomes the reward of a way of life that is not longer available to working people. But that amounts to a denial of the very thing John believes in – that God is in/with/through all things and that the mind/heart is immediately present to him. So there has to be a way one can live in the modern working world and still pursue transformation. But John’s right – it does require things that our ‘working world’ seems to have designed out of itself – primarily ‘silence’, and ‘time’ away from the working world (to meditate, contemplate, worship). One things is for sure – Sunday mornings aren’t enough to get it done. In my tradition – Sunday morning is the loudest, most distracting event of the week.

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      • I’ve been experimenting with this very issue, and not in a systematic fashion. The best I can come up with is that I do think theosis arises from the ordinary rhythms and disciplines of Christian life. But this comes for those of us who live in the ordinary world primarily being present in the moment, to the people God places in our path, to our work, to the sense of God’s presence, or the feeling of his absence. I know that one of the greatest difficulties in my spiritual growth is to be where I am, and not in some imagined future where I will be more saintly (which is already assured in God’s grace) or where circumstances will be more favorable. I don’t feel that I am very good at this, my goal at this point is to fail forward and learn to rest in the mercy of God – the Jesus prayer certainly helps with this.

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      • Tom says:

        Looks like a book in the making for you there Jed!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Is there a connection to madame Guyon?

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