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
ASCENT OF MOUNT CARMEL INTRODUCTION
AS will be seen from the biographical outline which we have given of the life of St. John of the Cross, this was the first of the Saint's treatises to be written; it was begun at El Calvario, and, after various intervals, due to the author's preoccupation with the business of government and the direction and care of souls, was completed at Granada.
The treatise presents a remarkable outline of
Christian perfection from the point at which the soul
first seeks to rise from the earth and soar upward
towards union with God. It is a work which shows
every sign of careful planning and great attention to
detail, as an ascetic treatise it is noteworthy for
its detailed psychological analysis; as a
contribution to mystical theology, for the skill with
which it treats the most complicated and delicate
questions concerning the Mystic Way.
St. John of the Cross assumes his reader to be familiar with the rudiments of the spiritual life and therefore omits detailed description of the most elementary of the exercises incumbent upon all Christians. The plan of the Ascent of Mount Carmel (which, properly speaking, embraces its sequel, the Dark Night) follows the lines of the poem with the latter title (p. 10). Into two stanzas of five lines each, St. John of the Cross has condensed all the instruction which he develops in this treatise. In order to reach the Union of Light, the soul must pass through the Dark Night -- that is to say, through a series of purifications, during which it is walking, as it were, through a tunnel of impenetrable obscurity and from which it emerges to bask in the sunshine of grace and to enjoy the Divine intimacy.
Through this obscurity the thread which guides the soul is that of 'emptiness' or 'negation.' Only by voiding ourselves of all that is not God can we attain to the possession of God, for two contraries cannot co-exist in one individual, and creature-love is darkness, while God is light, so that from any human heart one of the two cannot fail to drive out the other.
Now the soul, according to the Saint's psychology, is made up of interior and exterior senses and of the faculties. All these must be free from creature impurities in order to be prepared for Divine union. The necessary self-emptying may be accomplished in two ways: by our own efforts, with the habitual aid of grace, and by the action of God exclusively, in which the individual has no part whatsoever. Following this order, the Ascent is divided into two parts, which deal respectively with the 'Active' night and the 'Passive.' Each of these parts consists of several books. Since the soul must be purified in its entirety, the Active Night is logically divided into the Night of Sense and the Night of the Spirit; a similar division is observed in treating of the Passive Night. One book is devoted to the Active Night of Sense; two are needed for the Active Night of the Spirit. Unhappily, however, the treatise was never finished; not only was its author unable to take us out of the night into the day, as he certainly intended to do, but he has not even space to describe the Passive Night in all the fullness of its symbolism.
A brief glance at the outstanding parts of the Ascent
of Mount Carmel will give some idea of its nature.
The first obstacle which the pilgrim soul encounters
is the senses, upon which St. John of the Cross
expends his analytical skill in Book I. Like any
academic professor (and it will be recalled that he
had undergone a complete university course at
Salamanca), he outlines and defines his subject, goes
over the necessary preliminary ground before
expounding it, and treats it, in turn, under each of
its natural divisions. He tells us, that is to say,
what he understands by the 'dark night'; describes
its causes and its stages; explains how necessary it
is to union with God; enumerates the perils which
beset the soul that enters it; and shows how all
desires must be expelled, 'however small they be,' if
the soul is to travel through it safely. Finally he
gives a complete synthesis of the procedure that must
be adopted by the pilgrim in relation to this part of
his journey: the force of this is intensified by
those striking maxims and distichs which make Chapter
xiii of Book I so memorable.
Here the Saint treats of the proximate means to union
with God -- namely, faith. He uses the same careful
method of exposition, showing clearly how faith is to
the soul as a dark night, and how, nevertheless, it
is the safest of guides. A parenthetical chapter (v)
attempts to give some idea of the nature of union, so
that the reader may recognize from afar the goal to
which he is proceeding. The author then goes on to
describe how the three theological virtues -- faith,
hope and charity -- must 'void and dispose for union'
the three faculties of the soul -- understanding,
memory and will.
In his third book St. John of the Cross goes on to describe the obstacles to union which come from the memory and the will. Unlike St. Thomas, he considered the memory as a distinct and separate faculty of the soul. Having written, however, at such length of the understanding, he found it possible to treat more briefly of that other faculty, which is so closely related to it. Fourteen chapters (ii-xv) describe the dark night to be traversed by the memory; thirty (xvi-xlv) the passage of the will, impelled by love. The latter part is the more strikingly developed. Four passions -- joy, hope, sorrow and fear -- invade the will, and may either encompass the soul's perdition, or, if rightly directed, lead it to virtue and union. Once more St. John of the Cross employs his profound familiarity with the human soul to turn it away from peril and guide it into the path of safety. Much that he says, in dealing with passions so familiar to us all, is not only purely ascetic, but is even commonplace to the instructed Christian. Yet these are but parts of a greater whole.
Of particular interest, both intrinsically and as
giving a picture of the Saint's own times, are the
chapters on ceremonies and aids to devotion -- the
use of rosaries, medals, pilgrimages, etc. It must be
remembered, of course, that he spent most of his
active life in the South of Spain, where
exaggerations of all kinds, even to-day, are more
frequent than in the more sober north. In any case
there is less need, in this lukewarm age, to warn
Christians against the abuse of these means of grace,
and more need, perhaps, to urge them to employ aids
that will stimulate and quicken their devotion.
We cannot estimate of how much the sudden curtailment
of the Ascent of Mount Carmel has robbed us.
Orderly as was the mind of St. John of the Cross, he
was easily carried away in his expositions, which are
apt to be unequal. No one would have suspected, for
example, that, after going into such length in
treating the first line of his first stanza, he would
make such short work of the remaining four. Nor can
we disregard the significance of his warning that
much of what he had written on the understanding was
applicable also to the memory and the will. He may,
therefore, have been nearer the end of his theme than
is generally supposed. Yet it is equally possible
that much more of his subtle analysis was in store
for his readers. Any truncation, when the author is a
St. John of the Cross, must be considered
Unfortunately there is no autograph of this treatise
extant, though there are a number of early copies,
some of which have been made with great care. Others,
for various reasons, abbreviate the original
considerably. The MSS. belonging to both classes will
Although this copy is carefully made and richly bound -- which suggests that it was a gift from the Reform to the house of Alba -- it contains many errors, of a kind which indicate that the copyist, well educated though he was, knew little of ascetic or mystical theology. A number of omissions, especially towards the end of the book, give the impression that the copy was finished with haste and not compared with the original on its completion. There is no reason, however, to suppose that the errors and omissions are ever intentional; indeed, they are of such a kind as to suggest that the copyist had not the skill necessary for successful adulteration.
MS. 6,624. This copy, like the next four, is in N.L.M.
[National Library of Spain, Madrid], and contains the
same works as that of Alba de Tormes. It was made in
1755, under the direction of P. Andrés de la
Encarnación, from a manuscript, now lost, which was
venerated by the Benedictines of Burgos: this
information is found at the end of the volume. P.
Andrés had evidently a good opinion of the Burgos
MS., as he placed this copy in the archives of the
Discalced Reform, whence it passed to the National
Library early in the nineteenth century.
MS. 2,201. This, as far as the Ascent is concerned, is an almost literal transcription of the last MS., in a seventeenth-century hand; it was bound in the eighteenth century, when a number of other treatises were added to it, together with some poems by St. John of the Cross and others. The variants as between this MS. and 13,498 are numerous, but of small importance, and seem mainly to have been due to carelessness.
MS. 18,160. This dates from the end of the sixteenth
century and contains the four treatises named above,
copied in different hands and evidently intended to
form one volume. Only the first four chapters of the
Ascent are given, together with the title and the
first three lines of the fifth chapter. The
transcription is poorly done.
Pamplona. A codex in an excellent state of preservation is venerated by the Discalced Carmelite nuns of Pamplona. It was copied, at the end of the sixteenth century, by a Barcelona Carmelite, M. Magdalena de la Asunción, and contains a short summary of the four treatises enumerated above, various poems by St. John of the Cross and some miscellaneous writings. The Ascent is abbreviated to the same extent as in 13,498 and 2,201 and by the same methods; many chapters, too, are omitted in their entirety.
Alcaudete. This MS., which contains the Ascent only,
was copied by St. John of the Cross's close friend
and companion, P. Juan Evangelista, as a comparison
with manuscripts (N.L.M., 12,738) written in his
well-known and very distinctive hand, puts beyond all
doubt. P. Juan, who took the habit of the Reform at
Christmas 1582, knew the Saint before this date; was
professed by him at Granada in 1583; accompanied him
on many of his journeys; saw him write most of his
books; and, as his close friend and confessor, was
consulted repeatedly by his biographers. It is
natural that he should also have acted as the Saint's
copyist, and, in the absence of autographs, we should
expect no manuscripts to be more trustworthy than
copies made by him. Examination of this MS. shows
that it is in fact highly reliable. It corrects none
of those unwieldy periods in which the Saint's work
abounds, and which the editio princeps often thought
well to amend, nor, like the early editions and even
some manuscripts, does it omit whole paragraphs and
substitute others for them. Further, as this copy was
being made solely for the use of the Order, no
passages are omitted or altered in it because they
might be erroneously interpreted as illuministic. It
is true that P. Juan Evangelista is not, from the
technical standpoint, a perfect copyist, but,
frequently as are his slips, they are always easy to