Catholic belief, prayers and spiritual teaching
|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
OUTSTANDING QUALITIES AND DEFECTS OF THE SAINT'S STYLE
THE profound and original thought which St. John of the Cross bestowed upon so abstruse a subject, and upon one on which there was so little classical literature in Spanish when he wrote, led him to clothe his ideas in a language at once energetic, precise and of a high degree of individuality. His style reflects his thought, but it reflects the style of no school and of no other writer whatsoever.
This is natural enough, for thought and feeling were always uppermost in the Saint: style and language take a place entirely subordinate to them. Never did he sacrifice any idea to artistic combinations of words; never blur over any delicate shade of thought to enhance some rhythmic cadence of musical prose. Literary form (to use a figure which he himself might have coined) is only present at all in his works in the sense in which the industrious and deferential servant is present in the ducal apartment, for the purpose of rendering faithful service to his lord and master. This subordination of style to content in the Saint's work is one of its most eminent qualities. He is a great writer, but not a great stylist. The strength and robustness of his intellect everywhere predominate.
This to a large extent explains the negligences which we find in his style, the frequency with which it is marred by repetitions and its occasional degeneration into diffuseness. The long, unwieldy sentences, one of which will sometimes run to the length of a reasonably sized paragraph, are certainly a trial to many a reader. So intent is the Saint upon explaining, underlining and developing his points so that they shall be apprehended as perfectly as may be, that he continually recurs to what he has already said, and repeats words, phrases and even passages of considerable length without scruple. It is only fair to remind the reader that such things were far commoner in the Golden Age than they are to-day; most didactic Spanish prose of that period would be notably improved, from a modern standpoint, if its volume were cut down by about one-third.
Be that as it may, these defects in the prose of St. John of the Cross are amply compensated by the fullness of his phraseology, the wealth and profusion of his imagery, the force and the energy of his argument. He has only to be compared with the didactic writers who were his contemporaries for this to become apparent. Together with Luis de Granada, Luis de León, Juan de los Ángeles and Luis de la Puente, he created a genuinely native language, purged of Latinisms, precise and eloquent, which Spanish writers have used ever since in writing of mystical theology.
The most sublime of all the Spanish mystics, he soars aloft on the wings of Divine love to heights known to hardly any of them. Though no words can express the loftiest of the experiences which he describes, we are never left with the impression that word, phrase or image has failed him. If it does not exist, he appears to invent it, rather than pause in his description in order to search for an expression of the idea that is in his mind or be satisfied with a prolix paraphrase. True to the character of his thought, his style is always forceful and energetic, even to a fault.
We have said nothing of his poems, for indeed they
call for no purely literary commentary. How full of
life the greatest of them are, how rich in meaning,
how unforgettable and how inimitable, the individual
reader may see at a glance or may learn from his own
experience. Many of their exquisite figures their
author owes, directly or indirectly, to his reading
and assimilation of the Bible. Some of them, however,
have acquired a new life in the form which he has
given them. A line here, a phrase there, has taken
root in the mind of some later poet or essayist and
has given rise to a new work of art, to many lovers
of which the Saint who lies behind it is unknown.
'So sublime,' wrote Menéndez Pelayo, 'is this poetry
[of St. John of the Cross] that it scarcely seems to
belong to this world at all; it is hardly capable of
being assessed by literary criteria. More ardent in
its passion than any profane poetry, its form is as
elegant and exquisite, as plastic and as highly
figured as any of the finest works of the
Renaissance. The spirit of God has passed through
these poems every one, beautifying and sanctifying
them on its way.'
The outstanding qualities of St. John of the Cross's
writings were soon recognized by the earliest of
their few and privileged readers. All such persons,
of course, belonged to a small circle composed of the
Saint's intimate friends and disciples. As time went
on, the circle widened repeatedly; now it embraces
the entire Church, and countless individual souls who
are filled with the spirit of Christianity.
In one sense, St. John of the Cross took up his pen in order to supplement the writings of St. Teresa; on several subjects, for example, he abstained from writing at length because she had already treated of them. Much of the work of the two Saints, however, of necessity covers the same ground, and thus the great mystical school of the Spanish Carmelites is reinforced at its very beginnings in a way which must be unique in the history of mysticism. The writings of St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, though of equal value and identical aim, are in many respects very different in their nature; together they cover almost the entire ground of orthodox mysticism, both speculative and experimental. The Carmelite mystics who came after them were able to build upon a broad and sure foundation.
The writings of St. John of the Cross soon became
known outside the narrow circle of his sons and
daughters in religion. In a few years they had gone
all over Spain and reached Portugal, France and
Italy. They were read by persons of every social
class, from the Empress Maria of Austria, sister of
Philip II, to the most unlettered nuns of St.
Teresa's most remote foundations. One of the
witnesses at the process for the beatification
declared that he knew of no works of which there
existed so many copies, with the exception of the
How many of these copies, it will be asked, were made directly from the autographs? So vague is the available evidence on this question that it is difficult to attempt any calculation of even approximate reliability. All we can say is that the copies made by, or for, the Discalced friars and nuns themselves are the earliest and most trustworthy, while those intended for the laity were frequently made at third or fourth hand. The Saint himself seems to have written out only one manuscript of each treatise and none of these has come down to us. Some think that he destroyed the manuscripts copied with his own hand, fearing that they might come to be venerated for other reasons than that of the value of their teaching. He was, of course, perfectly capable of such an act of abnegation; once, as we know, in accordance with his own principles, he burned some letters of St. Teresa, which he had carried with him for years, for no other reason than that he realized that he was becoming attached to them.
The only manuscript of his that we possess consists of a few pages of maxims, some letters and one or two documents which he wrote when he was Vicar-Provincial of Andalusia. So numerous and so thorough have been the searches made for further autographs during the last three centuries that further discoveries of any importance seem most unlikely. We have, therefore, to console ourselves with manuscripts, such as the Sanlúcar de Barrameda Codex of the Spiritual Canticle, which bear the Saint's autograph corrections as warrants of their integrity.
The vagueness of much of the evidence concerning the
manuscripts to which we have referred extends to the
farthest possible limit -- that of using the word
'original' to indicate 'autograph' and 'copy'
indifferently. Even in the earliest documents we can
never be sure which sense is intended. Furthermore,
there was a passion in the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries for describing all kinds of old manuscripts
as autographs, and thus we find copies so described
in which the hand bears not the slightest resemblance
to that of the Saint, as the most superficial
collation with a genuine specimen of his hand would
have made evident. We shall give instances of this in
describing the extant copies of individual treatises.
One example of a general kind, however, may be quoted
here to show the extent to which the practice spread.
In a statement made, with reference to one of the
processes, at the convent of Discalced Carmelite nuns
of Valladolid, a certain M. María de la Trinidad
deposed 'that a servant of God, a Franciscan tertiary
named Ana María, possesses the originals of the books
of our holy father, and has heard that he sent them
to the Order.' Great importance was attached to this
deposition and every possible measure was taken to
find the autographs -- needless to say, without
We may lament that this good father had no predecessor like himself to copy the Saint's treatises, but it is only right to say that the copies we possess are sufficiently faithful and numerous to give us reasonably accurate versions of their originals. The important point about them is that they bear no signs of bad faith, nor even of the desire (understandable enough in those unscientific days) to clarify the sense of their original, or even to improve upon its teaching. Their errors are often gross ones, but the large majority of them are quite easy to detect and put right. The impression to this effect which one obtains from a casual perusal of almost any of these copies is quite definitely confirmed by a comparison of them with copies corrected by the Saint or written by the closest and most trusted of his disciples. It may be added that some of the variants may, for aught we know to the contrary, be the Saint's own work, since it is not improbable that he may have corrected more than one copy of some of his writings, and not been entirely consistent.
There are, broadly speaking, two classes into which the copies (more particularly those of the Ascent and the Dark Night) may be divided. One class aims at a more or less exact transcription; the other definitely sets out to abbreviate. Even if the latter class be credited with a number of copies which hardly merit the name, the former is by far the larger, and, of course, the more important, though it must not be supposed that the latter is unworthy of notice. The abbreviators generally omit whole chapters, or passages, at a time, and, where they are not for the moment doing this, or writing the connecting phrases necessary to repair their mischief, they are often quite faithful to their originals. Since they do not, in general, attribute anything to their author that is not his, no objection can be taken, on moral grounds, to their proceeding, though, in actual fact, the results are not always happy. Their ends were purely practical and devotional and they made no attempt to pass their compendia as full-length transcriptions.
With regard to the Spiritual Canticle and the Living
Flame of Love, of each of which there are two
redactions bearing indisputable marks of the author's
own hand, the classification of the copies will
naturally depend upon which redaction each copy the
more nearly follows. This question will be discussed
in the necessary detail in the introduction to each
of these works, and to the individual introductions
to the four major treatises we must refer the reader
for other details of the manuscripts. In the present
pages we have attempted only a general account of
these matters. It remains to add that our divisions
of each chapter into paragraphs follow the
manuscripts throughout except where indicated. The
printed editions, as we shall see, suppressed these
divisions, but, apart from their value to the modern
reader, they are sufficiently nearly identical in the
various copies to form one further testimony to their
general high standard of reliability.
THE principal lacuna in St. John of the Cross's
writings, and, from the literary standpoint, the most
interesting, is the lack of any commentary to the
last five stanzas of the poem 'Dark Night.' Such
a commentary is essential to the completion of the
plan which the Saint had already traced for himself
in what was to be, and, in spite of its unfinished
condition, is in fact, his most rigorously scientific
treatise. 'All the doctrine,' he wrote in the
Argument of the Ascent, 'whereof I intend to treat in
this Ascent of Mount Carmel is included in the
following stanzas, and in them is also described the
manner of ascending to the summit of the Mount, which
is the high estate of perfection which we here call
union of the soul with God.' This leaves no doubt but
that the Saint intended to treat the mystical life as
one whole, and to deal in turn with each stage of the
road to perfection, from the beginnings of the
Purgative Way to the crown and summit of the life of
Union. After showing the need for such a treatise as
he proposes to write, he divides the chapters on
Purgation into four parts corresponding to the Active
and Passive nights of Sense and of Spirit. These,
however, correspond only to the first two stanzas of
his poem; they are not, as we shall shortly see,
complete, but their incompleteness is slight compared
with that of the work as a whole.
Conjectures have been ventured on this question ever since critical methods first began to be applied to St. John of the Cross's writings. A great deal was written about it by P. Andrés de la Encarnación, to whom his superiors entrusted the task of collecting and editing the Saint's writings, and whose findings, though they suffer from the defects of an age which from a modern standpoint must be called unscientific, and need therefore to be read with the greatest caution, are often surprisingly just and accurate. P. Andrés begins by referring to various places where St. John of the Cross states that he has treated certain subjects and proposes to treat others, about which nothing can be found in his writings. This, he says, may often be due to an oversight on the writer's part or to changes which new experiences might have brought to his mode of thinking. On the other hand, there are sometimes signs that these promises have been fulfilled: the sharp truncation of the argument, for example, at the end of Book III of the Ascent suggests that at least a few pages are missing, in which case the original manuscript must have been mutilated, for almost all the extant copies break off at the same word. It is unthinkable, as P. Andrés says, that the Saint 'should have gone on to write the Night without completing the Ascent, for all these five books are integral parts of one whole, since they all treat of different stages of one spiritual path.'
It may be argued in the same way that St. John of the Cross would not have gone on to write the commentaries on the 'Spiritual Canticle' and the 'Living Flame of Love' without first completing the Dark Night. P. Andrés goes so far as to say that the very unwillingness which the Saint displayed towards writing commentaries on the two latter poems indicates that he had already completed the others; otherwise, he could easily have excused himself from the later task on the plea that he had still to finish the earlier.
Again, St. John of the Cross declares very definitely, in the prologue to the Dark Night, that, after describing in the commentary on the first two stanzas the effects of the two passive purgations of the sensual and the spiritual part of man, he will devote the six remaining stanzas to expounding 'various and wondrous effects of the spiritual illumination and union of love with God.' Nothing could be clearer than this. Now, in the commentary on the 'Living Flame,' argues P. Andrés, he treats at considerable length of simple contemplation and adds that he has written fully of it in several chapters of the Ascent and the Night, which he names; but not only do we not find the references in two of the chapters enumerated by him, but he makes no mention of several other chapters in which the references are of considerable fullness. The proper deductions from these facts would seem to be, first, that we do not possess the Ascent and the Night in the form in which the Saint wrote them, and, second, that in the missing chapters he referred to the subject under discussion at much greater length than in the chapters we have.
Further, the practice of St. John of the Cross was not to omit any part of his commentaries when for any reason he was unable or unwilling to write them at length, but rather to abbreviate them. Thus, he runs rapidly through the third stanza of the Night and through the fourth stanza of the Living Flame: we should expect him in the same way to treat the last three stanzas of the Night with similar brevity and rapidity, but not to omit them altogether.
Such are the principal arguments used by P. Andrés which have inclined many critics to the belief that St. John of the Cross completed these treatises. Other of his arguments, which to himself were even more convincing, have now lost much weight. The chief of these are the contention that, because a certain Fray Agustín Antolínez (b. 1554), in expounding these same poems, makes no mention of the Saint's having failed to expound five stanzas of the Night, he did therefore write an exposition of them; and the supposition that the Living Flame was written before the Spiritual Canticle, and that therefore, when the prologue to the Living Flame says that the author has already described the highest state of perfection attainable in this life, it cannot be referring to the Canticle and must necessarily allude to passages, now lost, from the Dark Night.
Our own judgment upon this much debated question is
not easily delivered. On the one hand, the reasons
why St. John of the Cross should have completed his
work are perfectly sound ones and his own words in
the Ascent and the Dark Night are a clear statement
of his intentions. Furthermore, he had ample time to
complete it, for he wrote other treatises at a later
date and he certainly considered the latter part of
the Dark Night to be more important than the former.
On the other hand, it is disconcerting to find not
even the briefest clear reference to this latter part
in any of his subsequent writings, when both the
Living Flame and the Spiritual Canticle offered so
many occasions for such a reference to an author
accustomed to refer his readers to his other
treatises. Again, his contemporaries, who were keenly
interested in his work, and mention such
insignificant things as the Cautions, the Maxims and
the 'Mount of Perfection,' say nothing whatever of
the missing chapters. None of his biographers speaks
of them, nor does P. Alonso de la Madre de Dios, who
examined the Saint's writings in detail immediately
after his death and was in touch with his closest
friends and companions. We are inclined, therefore,
to think that the chapters in question were never
written. Is not the following sequence of
probable facts the most tenable? We know from P. Juan
Evangelista that the Ascent and the Dark Night were
written at different times, with many intervals of
short or long duration. The Saint may well have
entered upon the Spiritual Canticle, which was a
concession to the affectionate importunity of M. Ann
de Jesús, with every intention of returning later to
finish his earlier treatise. But, having completed
the Canticle, he may equally well have been struck
with the similarity between a part of it and the
unwritten commentary on the earlier stanzas, and this
may have decided him that the Dark Night needed no
completion, especially as the Living Flame also
described the life of Union. This hypothesis will
explain all the facts, and seems completely in
harmony with all we know of St. John of the Cross,
who was in no sense, as we have already said, a
writer by profession. If we accept it, we need not
necessarily share the views which we here assume to
have been his. Not only would the completion of the
Dark Night have given us new ways of approach to so
sublime and intricate a theme, but this would have
been treated in a way more closely connected with the
earlier stages of the mystical life than was possible
in either the Living Flame or the Canticle.
Another example is to be found in the arrangement of his expositions. As a rule, he first writes down the stanzas as a whole, then repeats each in turn before expounding it, and repeats each line also in its proper place in the same way. At the beginning of each treatise he makes some general observations -- in the form either of an argument and prologue, as in the Ascent; of a prologue and general exposition, as in the Night; of a prologue alone, as in the first redaction of the Canticle and in the Living Flame; or of a prologue and argument, as in the second redaction of the Canticle. In the Ascent and the Night, the first chapter of each book contains the 'exposition of the stanzas,' though some copies describe this, in Book III of the Ascent, as an 'argument.' In the Night, the book dealing with the Night of Sense begins with the usual 'exposition'; that of the Night of the Spirit, however, has nothing to correspond with it.
In the first redaction of the Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross first sets down the poem, then a few lines of 'exposition' giving the argument of the stanza, and finally the commentary upon each line. Sometimes he comments upon two or three lines at once. In the second redaction, he prefaces almost every stanza with an 'annotation,' of which there is none in the first redaction except before the commentary on the thirteenth and fourteenth stanzas. The chief purpose of the 'annotation' is to link the argument of each stanza with that of the stanza preceding it; occasionally the annotation and the exposition are combined.
It is clear from all this that, in spite of his
orderly mind, St. John of the Cross was no believer
in strict uniformity in matters of arrangement which
would seem to demand such uniformity once they had
been decided upon. They are, of course, of secondary
importance, but the fact that the inconsistencies are
the work of St. John of the Cross himself, and not
merely of careless copyists, who have enough else to
account for, is of real moment in the discussion of
critical questions which turn on the Saint's