|ASCENT OF MOUNT CARMEL|
By St John of the Cross, OCD
Introductions to Ascent of Mount Carmel
GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO THE WORKS OF ST. JOHN OF THE
DATES AND METHODS OF COMPOSITION. GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS
WITH regard to the times and places at which the works of St. John of the Cross were written, and also with regard to the number of these works, there have existed, from a very early date, considerable differences of opinion. Of internal evidence from the Saint's own writings there is practically none, and such external testimony as can be found in contemporary documents needs very careful examination.
There was no period in the life of St. John of the
Cross in which he devoted himself entirely to
writing. He does not, in fact, appear to have felt
any inclination to do so: his books were written in
response to the insistent and repeated demands of his
spiritual children. He was very much addicted, on the
other hand, to the composition of apothegms or maxims
for the use of his penitents and this custom he
probably began as early as the days in which he was
confessor to the Convent of the Incarnation at Ávila,
though his biographers have no record of any maxims
but those written at Beas. One of his best beloved
daughters however, Ana María de Jesús, of the Convent
of the Incarnation, declared in her deposition,
during the process of the Saint's canonization, that
he was accustomed to 'comfort those with whom he had
to do, both by his words and by his letters, of which
this witness received a number, and also by certain
papers concerning holy things which this witness
would greatly value if she still had them.'
Considering, the number of nuns to whom the Saint was
director at Ávila, it is to be presumed that M. Ana
María was not the only person whom he favoured. We
may safely conclude, indeed, that there were many
others who shared the same privileges, and that, had
we all these 'papers,' they would comprise a large
volume, instead of the few pages reproduced elsewhere
in this translation.
All his biographers tell us that he wrote some of the stanzas of the 'Spiritual Canticle,' together with a few other poems, while he was imprisoned at Toledo. 'When he left the prison,' says M. Magdalena del Espíritu Santo, 'he took with him a little book in which he had written, while there, some verses based upon the Gospel In principio erat Verbum, together with some couplets which begin: "How well I know the fount that freely flows, Although 'tis night," and the stanzas or liras that begin "Whither has vanishèd?" as far as the stanzas beginning "Daughters of Jewry." The remainder of them the Saint composed later when he was Rector of the College at Baeza. Some of the expositions were written at Beas, as answers to questions put to him by the nuns; others at Granada. This little book, in which the Saint wrote while in prison, he left in the Convent of Beas and on various occasions I was commanded to copy it. Then someone took it from my cell -- who, I never knew. The freshness of the words in this book, together with their beauty and subtlety, caused me great wonder, and one day I asked the Saint if God gave him those words which were so comprehensive and so lovely. And he answered: "Daughter, sometimes God gave them to me and at other times I sought them."'
M. Isabel de Jesús María, who was a novice at Toledo
when the Saint escaped from his imprisonment there,
wrote thus from Cuerva on November 2, 1614. 'I
remember, too, that, at the time we had him hidden in
the church, he recited to us some lines which he had
composed and kept in his mind, and that one of the
nuns wrote them down as he repeated them. There were
three poems -- all of them upon the Most Holy
Trinity, and so sublime and devout that they seem to
enkindle the reader. In this house at Cuerva we have
some which begin:
It seems, then, that the Saint wrote in Toledo the first seventeen (or perhaps thirty) stanzas of the 'Spiritual Canticle,' the nine parts of the poem 'Far away in the beginning . . .,' the paraphrase of the psalm Super flumina Babylonis and the poem 'How well I know the fount . . .' This was really a considerable output of work, for, except perhaps when his gaoler allowed him to go into another room, he had no light but that of a small oil-lamp or occasionally the infiltration of daylight that penetrated a small interior window.
Apart from the statement of M. Magdalena already quoted, little more is known of what the Saint wrote in El Calvario than of what he wrote in Toledo. From an amplification made by herself of the sentences to which we have referred it appears that almost the whole of what she had copied was taken from her; as the short extracts transcribed by her are very similar to passages from the Saint's writings we may perhaps conclude that much of the other material was also incorporated in them. In that case he may well have completed a fair proportion of the Ascent of Mount Carmel before leaving Beas.
It was in El Calvario, too, and for the nuns of Beas, that the Saint drew the plan called the 'Mount of Perfection' (referred to by M. Magdalena and in the Ascent of Mount Carmel and reproduced as the frontispiece to this volume) of which copies were afterwards multiplied and distributed among Discalced houses. Its author wished it to figure at the head of all his treatises, for it is a graphical representation of the entire mystic way, from the starting-point of the beginner to the very summit of perfection. His first sketch, which still survives, is a rudimentary and imperfect one; before long, however, as M. Magdalena tells us, he evolved another that was fuller and more comprehensive.
Diagram of Mt Carmel
The superiority of the second plan over the first is very evident. The first consists simply of three parallel lines corresponding to three different paths -- one on either side of the Mount, marked 'Road of the spirit of imperfection' and one in the centre marked 'Path of Mount Carmel. Spirit of perfection.' In the spaces between the paths are written the celebrated maxims which appear in Book I, Chapter xiii, of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, in a somewhat different form, together with certain others. At the top of the drawing are the words 'Mount Carmel,' which are not found in the second plan, and below them is the legend: 'There is no road here, for there is no law for the righteous man,' together with other texts from Scripture.
The second plan represents a number of graded
heights, the loftiest of which is planted with trees.
Three paths, as in the first sketch, lead from the
base of the mount, but they are traced more
artistically and have a more detailed ascetic and
mystical application. Those on either side, which
denote the roads of imperfection, are broad and
somewhat tortuous and come to an end before the
higher stages of the mount are reached. The centre
road, that of perfection, is at first very narrow but
gradually broadens and leads right up to the summit
of the mountain, which only the perfect attain and
where they enjoy the iuge convivium -- the heavenly
feast. The different zones of religious perfection,
from which spring various virtues, are portrayed with
much greater detail than in the first plan. As we
have reproduced the second plan in this volume, it
need not be described more fully.
It seems not improbable that the Saint continued writing chapters of the Ascent and the Spiritual Canticle while he was Rector at Baeza, whether in the College itself, or in El Castellar, where he was accustomed often to go into retreat. It was certainly here that he wrote the remaining stanzas of the Canticle (as M. Magdalena explicitly tells us in words already quoted), except the last five, which he composed rather later, at Granada. One likes to think that these loveliest of his verses were penned by the banks of the Guadalimar, in the woods of the Granja de Santa Ann, where he was in the habit of passing long hours in communion with God. At all events the stanzas seem more in harmony with such an atmosphere than with that of the College.
With regard to the last five stanzas, we have
definite evidence from a Beas nun, M. Francisca de la
Madre de Dios, who testifies in the Beatification
process (April 2, 1618) as follows:
From a letter which this nun wrote from Beas in 1629
to P. Jerónimo de San José, we gather that the
stanzas were actually written at Granada and brought
to Beas, where
The most fruitful literary years for St. John of the
Cross were those which he spent at Granada. Here he
completed the Ascent and wrote all his remaining
treatises. Both M. Magdalena and the Saint's closest
disciple, P. Juan Evangelista, bear witness to this.
The latter writes from Granada to P. Jerónimo de San
José, the historian of the Reform:
In another letter (February 18, 1630), he wrote to
the same correspondent:
These and other testimonies might with advantage be fuller and more concrete, but at least they place beyond doubt the facts that we have already set down. Summarizing our total findings, we may assert that part of the 'Spiritual Canticle,' with perhaps the 'Dark Night,' and the other poems enumerated, were written in the Toledo prison; that at the request of some nuns he wrote at El Calvario (1578-79) a few chapters of the Ascent and commentaries on some of the stanzas of the 'Canticle'; that he composed further stanzas at Baeza (1579-81), perhaps with their respective commentaries; and that, finally, he completed the Canticle and the Ascent at Granada and wrote the whole of the Dark Night and of the Living Flame -- the latter in a fortnight. All these last works he wrote before the end of 1585, the first year in which he was Vicar-Provincial.
Other writings, most of them brief, are attributed to
St. John of the Cross; they will be discussed in the
third volume of this edition, in which we shall
publish the minor works which we accept as genuine.
The authorship of his four major prose works -- the
Ascent, Dark Night, Spiritual Canticle and Living
Flame -- no one has ever attempted to question, even
though the lack of extant autographs and the large
number of copies have made it difficult to establish
correct texts. To this question we shall return
If some of these derive from his native genius and temperament, others are undoubtedly reflections of his education and experience. The Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophy, then at the height of its splendour, which he learned so thoroughly in the classrooms of Salamanca University, characterizes the whole of his writings, giving them a granite-like solidity even when their theme is such as to defy human speculation. Though the precise extent of his debt to this Salamancan training in philosophy has not yet been definitely assessed, the fact of its influence is evident to every reader. It gives massiveness, harmony and unity to both the ascetic and the mystical work of St. John of the Cross -- that is to say, to all his scientific writing.
Deeply, however, as St. John of the Cross drew from the Schoolmen, he was also profoundly indebted to many other writers. He was distinctly eclectic in his reading and quotes freely (though less than some of his Spanish contemporaries) from the Fathers and from the mediaeval mystics, especially from St. Thomas, St. Bonaventura, Hugh of St. Victor and the pseudo-Areopagite. All that he quotes, however, he makes his own, with the result that his chapters are never a mass of citations loosely strung together, as are those of many other Spanish mystics of his time.
When we study his treatises -- principally that great composite work known as the Ascent of Mount Carmel and the Dark Night -- we have the impression of a master-mind that has scaled the heights of mystical science and from their summit looks down upon and dominates the plain below and the paths leading upward. We may well wonder what a vast contribution to the subject he would have made had he been able to expound all the eight stanzas of his poem since he covered so much ground in expounding no more than two. Observe with what assurance and what mastery of subject and method he defines his themes and divides his arguments, even when treating the most abstruse and controversial questions. The most obscure phenomena he appears to illumine, as it were, with one lightning flash of understanding, as though the explanation of them were perfectly natural and easy. His solutions of difficult problems are not timid, questioning and loaded with exceptions, but clear, definite and virile like the man who proposes them. No scientific field, perhaps, has so many zones which are apt to become vague and obscure as has that of mystical theology; and there are those among the Saint's predecessors who seem to have made their permanent abode in them. They give the impression of attempting to cloak vagueness in verbosity, in order to avoid being forced into giving solutions of problems which they find insoluble. Not so St. John of the Cross. A scientific dictator, if such a person were conceivable, could hardly express himself with greater clarity. His phrases have a decisive, almost a chiselled quality; where he errs on the side of redundance, it is not with the intention of cloaking uncertainty, but in order that he may drive home with double force the truths which he desires to impress.
No less admirable are, on the one hand, his synthetic skill and the logic of his arguments, and, on the other, his subtle and discriminating analyses, which weigh the finest shades of thought and dissect each subject with all the accuracy of science. To his analytical genius we owe those finely balanced statements, orthodox yet bold and fearless, which have caused clumsier intellects to misunderstand him. It is not remarkable that this should have occurred. The ease with which the unskilled can misinterpret genius is shown in the history of many a heresy.
How much of all this St. John of the Cross owed to
his studies of scholastic philosophy in the
University of Salamanca, it is difficult to say. If
we examine the history of that University and read of
its severe discipline we shall be in no danger of
under-estimating the effect which it must have
produced upon so agile and alert an intellect.
Further, we note the constant parallelisms and the
comparatively infrequent (though occasionally
important) divergences between the doctrines of St.
John of the Cross and St. Thomas, to say nothing of
the close agreement between the views of St. John of
the Cross and those of the Schoolmen on such subjects
as the passions and appetites, the nature of the
soul, the relations between soul and body. Yet we
must not forget the student tag: Quod natura non dat,
Salamtica non praestat. Nothing but natural genius
could impart the vigour and the clarity which enhance
all St. John of the Cross's arguments and nothing but
his own deep and varied experience could have made
him what he may well be termed -- the greatest
psychologist in the history of mysticism.
It will be remembered that the Saint spent but one year upon his theological course at the University of Salamanca, for which reason many have been surprised at the evident solidity of his attainments. But, apart from the fact that a mind so keen and retentive as that of Fray Juan de San Matías could absorb in a year what others would have failed to imbibe in the more usual two or three, we must of necessity assume a far longer time spent in private study. For in one year he could not have studied all the treatises of which he clearly demonstrates his knowledge -- to say nothing of many others which he must have known. His own works, apart from any external evidence, prove him to have been a theologian of distinction.
In both fields, the dogmatic and the mystical he was greatly aided by his knowledge of Holy Scripture, which he studied continually, in the last years of his life, to the exclusion, as it would seem, of all else. Much of it he knew by heart; the simple devotional talks that he was accustomed to give were invariably studded with texts, and he made use of passages from the Bible both to justify and to illustrate his teaching. In the mystical interpretation of Holy Scripture, as every student of mysticism knows, he has had few equals even among his fellow Doctors of the Church Universal.
Testimonies to his mastery of the Scriptures can be
found in abundance. P. Alonso de la Madre de Dios, el
Asturicense, for example, who was personally
acquainted with him, stated in 1603 that 'he had a
great gift and facility for the exposition of the
Sacred Scripture, principally of the Song of Songs,
Ecclesiasticus, Ecclesiastes, the Proverbs and the
Psalms of David.' His spiritual daughter, that
same Magdalena del Espíritus Santo to whom we have
several times referred, affirms that St. John of the
Cross would frequently read the Gospels to the nuns
of Beas and expound the letter and the spirit to
them. Fray Juan Evangelista says in a well-known
Fray Pablo de Santa María, who had also heard the
Saint's addresses, wrote thus:
Nor was this admiration for the expository ability of
St. John of the Cross confined to his fellow-friars,
who might easily enough have been led into
hero-worship. We know that he was thought highly of
in this respect by the University of Alcalá de
Henares, where he was consulted as an authority. A
Dr. Villegas, Canon of Segovia Cathedral, has left on
record his respect for him. And Fray Jerónimo de San
José relates the esteem in which he was held at the
University of Baeza, which in his day enjoyed a
considerable reputation for Biblical studies:
The Scriptural knowledge of St. John of the Cross
was, as this passage makes clear, in no way merely
academic. Both in his literal and his mystical
interpretations of the Bible, he has what we may call
a 'Biblical sense,' which saves him from such
exaggerations as we find in other expositors, both
earlier and contemporary. One would not claim, of
course, that among the many hundreds of applications
of Holy Scripture made by the Carmelite Doctor there
are none that can be objected to in this respect; but
the same can be said of St. Augustine, St. Ambrose,
St. Gregory or St. Bernard, and no one would assert
that, either with them or with him, such instances
are other than most exceptional.
We may suppose that, during his novitiate in Medina,
the Saint read a number of devotional books, one of
which would almost certainly have been the Imitation
of Christ, and others would have included works which
were translated into Spanish by order of Cardinal
Cisneros. The demands of a University course would
not keep him from pursuing such studies at Salamanca;
the friar who chose a cell from the window of which
he could see the Blessed Sacrament, so that he might
spend hours in its company, would hardly be likely to
neglect his devotional reading. But we have not a
syllable of direct external evidence as to the titles
of any of the books known to him.
Some clues to the nature of his reading may be gained from his own writings. It is true that the clues are slender. He cites few works apart from the Bible and these are generally liturgical books, such as the Breviary. Some of his quotations from St. Augustine, St. Gregory and other of the Fathers are traceable to these sources. Nevertheless, we have not read St. John of the Cross for long before we find ourselves in the full current of mystical tradition. It is not by means of more or less literal quotations that the Saint produces this impression; he has studied his precursors so thoroughly that he absorbs the substance of their doctrine and incorporates it so intimately in his own that it becomes flesh of his flesh. Everything in his writings is fully matured: he has no juvenilia. The mediaeval mystics whom he uses are too often vague and undisciplined; they need someone to select from them and unify them, to give them clarity and order, so that their treatment of mystical theology may have the solidity and substance of scholastic theology. To have done this is one of the achievements of St. John of the Cross.
We are convinced, then, by an internal evidence which is chiefly of a kind in which no chapter and verse can be given, that St. John of the Cross read widely in mediaeval mystical theology and assimilated a great part of what he read. The influence of foreign writers upon Spanish mysticism, though it was once denied, is to-day generally recognized. It was inevitable that it should have been considerable in a country which in the sixteenth century had such a high degree of culture as Spain. Plotinus, in a diluted form, made his way into Spanish mysticism as naturally as did Seneca into Spanish asceticism. Plato and Aristotle entered it through the two greatest minds that Christianity has known -- St. Augustine and St. Thomas. The influence of the Platonic theories of love and beauty and of such basic Aristotelian theories as the origin of knowledge is to be found in most of the Spanish mystics, St. John of the Cross among them.
The pseudo-Dionysius was another writer who was considered a great authority by the Spanish mystics. The importance attributed to his works arose partly from the fact that he was supposed to have been one of the first disciples of the Apostles; many chapters from mystical works of those days all over Europe are no more than glosses of the pseudo-Areopagite. He is followed less, however, by St. John of the Cross than by many of the latter's contemporaries.
Other influences upon the Carmelite Saint were St. Gregory, St. Bernard and Hugh and Richard of St. Victor, many of whose maxims were in the mouths of the mystics in the sixteenth century. More important, probably, than any of these was the Fleming, Ruysbroeck, between whom and St. John of the Cross there were certainly many points of contact. The Saint would have read him, not in the original, but in Surius' Latin translation of 1552, copies of which are known to have been current in Spain. Together with Ruysbroeck may be classed Suso, Denis the Carthusian, Herp, Kempis and various other writers.
Many of the ideas and phrases which we find in St. John of the Cross, as in other writers, are, of course, traceable to the common mystical tradition rather than to any definite individual influence. The striking metaphor of the ray of light penetrating the room, for example, which occurs in the first chapter of the pseudo-Areopagite's De Mystica Theologia, has been used continually by mystical writers ever since his time. The figures of the wood consumed by fire, of the ladder, the mirror, the flame of love and the nights of sense and spirit had long since become naturalized in mystical literature. There are many more such examples.
The originality of St. John of the Cross is in no way
impaired by his employment of this current mystical
language: such an idea might once have been commonly
held, but has long ceased to be put forward
seriously. His originality, indeed, lies precisely in
the use which he made of language that he found near
to hand. It is not going too far to liken the place
taken by St. John of the Cross in mystical theology
to that of St. Thomas in dogmatic; St. Thomas laid
hold upon the immense store of material which had
accumulated in the domain of dogmatic theology and
subjected it to the iron discipline of reason. That
St. John of the Cross did the same for mystical
theology is his great claim upon our admiration.
Through St. Thomas speaks the ecclesiastical
tradition of many ages on questions of religious
belief; through St. John speaks an equally venerable
tradition on questions of Divine love. Both writers
combined sainthood with genius. Both opened broad
channels to be followed of necessity by Catholic
writers through the ages to come till theology shall
lose itself in that vast ocean of truth and love
which is God. Both created instruments adequate to
the greatness of their task: St. Thomas' clear,
decisive reasoning processes give us the formula
appropriate to each and every need of the
understanding; St. John clothes his teaching in
mellower and more appealing language, as befits the
exponent of the science of love. We may describe the
treatises of St. John of the Cross as the true Summa
Angelica of mystical theology.