(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The sixteenth century Carmelite monk Juan de Yepes (canonized in 1726 as Saint John of the Cross) drew upon the long tradition of apophatic mysticism to chart the ascent of Mount Carmel, which is his image for the ascent of the soul to God. There is reason to believe that Saint John was familiar not only with the writings of the early apophatic mystic, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, but also such later ones as Eckhart and Ruysbroeck. Saint John, however, provides a precise, comprehensive, and elegant description of the way of unknowing that is missing in preceding texts.

Although the Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul appear as two volumes with different titles, they constitute a single treatise on one poem. The recommended order for reading them is:(1) Active purgation of the senses: Ascent, book 1 (2) Passive purgation of the senses: Dark Night, book 1 (3) Active purgation of the spirit: Ascent, books 2 and 3 (4) Passive purgation of the spirit: Dark Night, book 2

It is well to begin the “ascent” with chapter 5 of book 2 of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, wherein Saint John defines substantial union and mystical or transforming union. The former is natural union with God whereby the soul is able to exist; the latter is supernatural in that the transformation of the soul, whereby the will is brought into conformity with the will of God, is effected through grace. Substantial union is the union of essence, while transforming union is the union of likeness. Saint John suggests that the purpose of the Christian life is to experience mystical union; all Christians, therefore, are called to ascend the mount.

Saint John’s mystical map assumes that God is totally other than the soul and yet can be known by the soul. Granted that God is not like the soul, the soul cannot rely on what is like her to know and love God. Since all means must be proportioned to the end, and since the end is the unknown, the soul must travel by the unknown to the unknown. Thus the ascent is a leaving behind and being detached from that which is known, meaning that which is like the soul, in order to travel by the unknown (the unlike) into the unknown (the unlike) which is God. Night is the image for the journey wherein the soul is deprived of desire for worldly things, dispossessed of natural understandings of God and plunged into Divine Darkness.

There is only one night, but there are stages in the night. In the first part of the night, the Active Night of the Senses, the soul strives actively to rid herself of desires that come in a natural way through the five exterior senses and the interior senses of the imagination and fancy. Unless desires are purged, the soul will suffer privative desire: The more she fills herself with desire for things, the more she is deprived of God. She will also suffer five positive effects: She is wearied, tormented, darkened, defiled, and weakened. The main point that Saint John makes is that it is our craving for things rather than the things themselves that hinders the ascent.

The soul is unable to accomplish the purgation of the senses. God perfects the work in a more intense darkness known as the Passive Night of the Senses. Saint John describes passive purgation in terms of the spiritual imperfections that afflict beginners: pride, avarice, luxury, wrath, gluttony, envy, and sloth. These chapters reveal the author’s spiritual perceptiveness, sharpened not only by reflection on his own journey but also by years of service as spiritual director to novices, brothers, priests, and nuns. He knew firsthand, for example, the grave obstacle of pride that blocked the ascent of beginners who flaunted their piety, looked to confessors for praise, and were impatient with their own faults; or the extremes of bodily penance in which the gluttonous indulged while in pursuit of spiritual sweetness.

Spiritual sweetness, that is, the good feelings the soul experiences in meditation and devotion, must cede to dryness if the ascent is to continue. In a chapter of stunning clarity Saint John sets forth three signs by which to discern if the absence of sweetness in spiritual activities is caused by the soul’s own lukewarmness or is God’s way of leading her into a more delicate mode of prayer. Had Saint John left no more than this one chapter (nine), his place in mystical literature would be assured. The first sign is that the soul finds no pleasure in God or things created; the second is that the soul is anguished because without spiritual sweetness she thinks she is not serving God but backsliding; the third is that she cannot meditate or use her imagination in prayer, devotion, and reading. If the three signs exist together, they mark the transition from meditation to contemplation, from active consciousness to passive, from the natural to the supernatural, from the known to the unknown. The proper response to the experience of aridity that is indicated...

(The entire section is 2056 words.)