Saint John of the Cross

by Juan de Yepes y Álvarez

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Saint John of the Cross

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6617

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The following prose works by Saint John of the Cross explicate themes in his poetry, using methodologies of Scholastic criticism: La subida del Monte Carmelo (1578-1579; The Ascent of Mount Carmel, 1864, 1922), Cántico espiritual (c. 1577-1586; A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul, 1864, 1909), and Llama de amor viva (c. 1582; Living Flame of Love, 1864, 1912). Discussion of them in the text is parallel with that of the poems.


With Saint Teresa de Jesús of Ávila, Saint John of the Cross carried out the reform of the Carmelite Order and defended the Descalced Carmelites’ rights to self-determination within obedience. In addition to becoming rector of the Carmelite College at Alcaláde Henares and founder of the Descalced Carmelite College in Baeza, John of the Cross was vicar of the El Calvario Convent in Andalusia and prior of Los Mártires in Granada and of the Descalced Carmelite Monastery in Segovia. Moreover, he participated in the foundation of at least eight Descalced Carmelite houses throughout Spain. John of the Cross was beatified in 1675 by Pope Clement X, canonized in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII, and declared Doctor of the Church in 1926 by Pope Pius XI.

In Spain, John is considered to be the most successful lyric poet of the sixteenth century because of his harmonious resolution of popular and medieval traditions with the new learning and literary forms of the Renaissance. Beyond Spain, perhaps because of his singular dedication to one ideal and the strength of his vision, his poetry continues to rank among the finest love poetry written in any language.


From his twenty-first year, Saint John of the Cross dedicated his life and writing to the singular goal of making the adventure of the contemplative life of the anchorite an actuality in sixteenth century Spain. His accomplishment, particularly in literature, far surpassed his expectations.

Saint John of the Cross was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez in 1542 in the town of Fontiveros in the kingdom of Old Castile. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, and his mother, Catalina Álvarez, had worked in that small village for thirteen years as silk weavers and merchants, aided by John’s older brother, Francisco. Gonzalo de Yepes’ great-grandfather had been a favorite of King Juan II; one uncle was an Inquisitor in Toledo; three others were canons; and one was the chaplain of the Mozarabic Chapel in Toledo.

Because of her lower social status, Catalina Álvarez was hated by her husband’s family, so much so that upon Gonzalo’s death they refused to help her support his three children, forcing them to live in poverty. In 1548, they moved to Arévalo, where Francisco was apprenticed as a weaver and Juan, without success, attempted a variety of trades.

From Arévalo, the Yepes family moved to the town of Medina del Campo, famous since the Middle Ages for its annual three-month-long international trade fair. There, John learned his letters and learned to beg for his Jesuit school. His brother married, and his mother, Catalina, in spite of their difficulties, took in a foundling. In 1556, when Emperor Charles V stopped at Medina on his way to his retirement at the monastery at Yuste, John saw the hero of European spiritual unity. The great moment did not, however, contribute to John’s learning a trade. In 1563, he was taken to the Hospital de la Concepción by Don Alonso Álvarez de Toledo, where he became a nurse, working in that profession until he was twenty-one years old.

In 1563, having rejected the offer to become the hospital’s chief warder, John left it to profess in the Order of Mount Carmel. The young Spaniard followed the rule of the Order in perfect obedience, according to contemporary accounts, but he spent hours searching for the spirit of the primitive rule in A Book of the Institutions of the First Monks (reprinted in 1507). In this fourteenth century work, Juan de Yepes discovered the tradition of the eremitical way, which leads through austerity and isolation to the experience of the Divine Presence. John of the Cross received permission to follow the old rule when he made his final profession before Ángel de Salazar, who had recently allowed Teresa de Jesús to found the Order of Descalced Carmelites in Ávila.

After professing in 1564, the young friar traveled to the University of Salamanca, to which the Spanish then referred as Roma la chica because of its large international student body and its superb reputation in theology. The first three years he spent at Salamanca as an artista, and the fourth as a theologian studying, not with the famous Francisco Vitoria, father of international law, nor with Luis de León, who taught there between 1565 and 1573, but with the more traditional Father Guevara and Father Gallo, who taught Saint Thomas Aquinas’s Summa theologica (c. 1265-1274) and Aristotle’s Ethica nicomachea (c. fourth century b.c.e.). The effect of this study appears in Saint John’s later writing. Rather than posing a threat to his mystic contemplation, Scholasticism served to keep his mystic effusions within the confines of reality, fostering a clarity of language and logical development, a lyricism of thought, and a psychology of common sense that made his work accessible to all readers.

The faculty during those years at Salamanca longed for intellectual emancipation, and many, such as Luis de León, were cautioned and often jailed for years by the Inquisition. The debate was between the Scholastics, who authorized only the Latin Vulgate, and the Renaissance-inspired Scripturalists, who wished to translate the Hebrew and Koine Greek into modern languages. Typically, John of the Cross did not involve himself in this intellectual turmoil but continued to seek the solitary spirit of Mount Carmel. His zeal was so great that in 1566, those Carmelite students who were entrusted to his tutelage by the vicar general of the Order, Juan Bautista Rubeo, complained of John’s rigor, self-discipline, and near-constant state of contemplation. John’s course was not the outward one. Instead of finishing his university career, he left Salamanca in 1567 for Medina del Campo, where he said his first Mass at the Church of Saint Anne in the presence of his brother, the latter’s family, and his mother, Catalina Álvarez.

Because it was permissible to do so among the Carmelites, John immediately decided to enter the Carthusian Order for a life of total silence, solitude, and contemplation. His decision was delayed, however, by his meeting Teresa de Jesús, who had come to Medina del Campo, with Juan Bautista Rubeo’s blessing, to establish a convent for Descalced Carmelite nuns. Teresa convinced John to follow the contemplative way within his own Order so that her nuns would have a confessor. Moreover, at the time of Teresa’s visit, King Philip II wrote to Father Antonio Heredia, the prior of Saint Anne’s, giving him permission to reform the Carmelite Order of Monks as well, telling him that a wealthy gentleman had donated a house in the hamlet of Duruelo for that very purpose.

In August, 1568, Teresa, three nuns, one Julián de Ávila, and John of the Cross left Medina del Campo for the city of Valladolid and for Duruelo. Teresa taught John the old rule through example as she commanded his aid in establishing the Convent of El Río de los Olmos outside Valladolid. She then changed his name from Juan de San Matías to John of the Cross. She also persuaded him that recreation in the form of music, song, and dance were necessary (as well as taking long walks, which prevented the Carmelites from becoming surly) and sent him with one workman to prepare the house at Duruelo for the eventual arrival of Father Heredia from Saint Anne’s.

During their five weeks of rigorous labor, John revived the mode of desert life of the original Carmelites, going barefoot, wearing serge vestments, fasting, praying, and doing penance. When Father Heredia arrived to take charge, John was careful to observe Vicar General Rubeo’s dictates not to depart in principle from the Unmitigated Carmelite Order as already defined, so as to avoid antagonizing them. While Teresa’s letters to Heredia reveal her concern regarding the severity of the brothers’ penances and flagellations, John’s mother Catalina Álvarez came to be their cook, his brother Francisco came to sweep their cells, and Ana Isquierda came to wash and mend their clothes.

From Duruelo, John went to establish religious houses in the towns of Mancera and Pastrana, and in 1570 he went to the University of Alcaláde Henares to found a college for the Order. At Alcalá John tutored his charges in Thomist philosophy, heard their confessions and those of the nuns at the Imagen Convent, and directed the friars in their contemplative life.

In 1571, Teresa de Jesús called John of the Cross to be the confessor at the Convent of the Incarnation in Ávila. She relates that, during the months of December and January, she began to have access to the ineffable experience of matrimonio and that John was of immense help to her: “One cannot speak of God to Father John of the Cross because he at once goes into ecstasy and causes others to do the same,” she writes. The practical-minded Teresa complained that John’s desire to bring everyone to spiritual perfection was a source of constant annoyance. Moreover, testimony from his living companions, Father Germaine and Brother Franciso, claimed that John was tormented with frightful night apparitions and on one occasion was severely beaten by an enraged countryman—all of which he welcomed.

Suddenly, the reformed Order began to encounter difficulty on every level. In 1570, Philip II appointed visitors to examine the houses, an action which angered the Vicar General. Father Rubeo retaliated by appointing various defenders, who were sent to each of the provinces. Teresa left the Convent of the Incarnation and met Father Gracián, who persuaded her to disregard Father Rubeo’s orders not to establish houses in Andalusia simply because the Vicar General felt that the vitality of southern Spain was incongruent with the contemplative way. With Gracián’s assurance that Philip II would support her, Teresa, then sixty-three years old, went ahead and established houses in Seville, Peñuela, and Granada. Rubeo accordingly declared the Descalced Order disobedient and ordered the immediate evacuation of the Andalusian convents in 1575. Gracián and Teresa refused; he was excommunicated, and she was ordered by the Council of Trent to pick a convent where she would spend the remainder of her days. She refused and decided to spend another year in Seville.

Meanwhile, John of the Cross was still serving as confessor at La Incarnación in Ávila, until Gracián called him and other Descalced Carmelites to Almodóvar in 1576. Father Gracián proposed that the reformed Order name its own definitors and provincials, in effect making themselves independent of the Unmitigated Carmelites under Father Rubeo. At this meeting, John of the Cross wished, as usual, to avoid conflict. In fact, he opposed the election of officers from among the reformed Order, since the Calced brothers already fulfilled these duties, leaving the followers of the reformed Order to their meditations. John’s voice went unheard, and Gracián succeeded.

Rubeo reacted by sending Father Jerónimo Tostado to visit the Spanish Descalced houses in order to discourage their expansion. Supposedly, had Teresa and Gracián taken their case to Rome, the Pope could have settled their differences with Rubeo. Philip II, however, was anxious to maintain the traditional Spanish monarchical sovereignty over the Church Militant and impeded Gracián and Teresa’s move in that direction.

In 1577, Teresa attempted to return to La Incarnación in Ávila, but Tostado excommunicated all the nuns who voted for her reinstatement as prioress. He evicted them from the convent and denied them access to their confessors. He then tried to persuade John to abandon Teresa and reenter the unreformed Order, promising him a priorship. John refused.

While visiting Teresa, who was living in secrecy in Toledo, John was arrested by the secular arm of the Church, beaten, and locked in isolation. When he was led out for interrogation, he succeeded in escaping back to his cell to destroy letters, only to be recaptured and imprisoned within the Carmelite monastery in a closet at water level on the River Tajo. There he remained from December, 1576, until his escape in August, 1577. Teresa repeatedly wrote Philip II regarding the situation, but her letters went unanswered. Rubeo and Tostado considered Teresa’s work finished and John of the Cross to be a rebel who had disobeyed by serving as confessor to the Convent of the Incarnation in Ávila without Rubeo’s express permission.

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While he was imprisoned, John composed, among others, his poems “The Spiritual Canticle” and “The Living Flame of Love,” which, according to nineteenth century Spanish critic Menéndez y Pelayo in his Historia de los heterodoxos españoles (1887), “surpass all that has ever been written in Spanish.” John was fed bread and water only three times a week on the floor of the refectory, after which he was beaten by each of the friars, who verbally insulted his kneeling form. Occasionally, so that he would not collapse from hunger, he was given rancid sardines.

After loosening the bolts of his cell door during his jailer’s absences, John of the Cross lowered himself down a rope made of bedclothes to the monastery garden. There, a stray dog showed him a route of escape. Believing that the Virgin Mary was lifting him, he succeeded in scaling two walls to reach the street. By hiding in doorways of various houses, he made his way in full daylight to the Carmelite Convent of San José, where he found refuge for several days until the nobleman Don Pedro González de Mendoza arranged for his recuperation at the Hospital of Santa Cruz. During John’s stay with the nuns of San José, he spoke of his captors in glowing terms as his benefactors who had brought him to an understanding of grace, to which he referred as “the dark light.” He recited to the nuns the poems he had composed while in captivity, and one of the nuns wrote them down.

Because Tostado’s persecution of the Order had abated, John was soon appointed vicar of the El Calvario monastery in Andalusia. John customarily led the thirty monks into the mountains for evening meditations. According to tradition, they ate only salads made from wild herbs that were carefully chosen by an expert, the cook’s mule. On feast days, they dined upon migajas, bread fried in oil. At El Calvario, John of the Cross wrote The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

One year later, in 1579, John was ordered by Father Ángel de Salazar to take three friars to the university town of Baeza and set up a monastery in an old house; this was to become the College of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. The college quickly became an object of intense curiosity among the faculty at the university, who, believing that John of the Cross enjoyed infused wisdom, respected his insight into the mysteries of the faith and attended his lectures on morals and religious questions. John, however, prudently sent his charges to the university to study theology.

In 1581, John and his companion, Brother Jerome, established a convent of four nuns in Granada. The following year, John was elected prior of the Carmelite monastery there, Los Mártires. The revolt of the Alpujarras, in which Moorish converts to Christianity had elected a king and rejected their new religion, had been suppressed by Philip II ten years prior to John’s arrival. Consequently, many of the children born to apostate families now served as slaves or protected servants in the homes of wealthy Old Christian families. Moreover, during those years there lived in Granada a ninety-year-old woman remembered as La Mora de Ubeda, who had gained a reputation among contemporary Muslim theologians for mystic wisdom acquired through the faqir tradition. The young moriscos drawn to their fathers’ faith were threatened with years of rowing in the king’s galleys should they wear Moorish clothes, carry Moorish weapons, speak, read, or write Arabic, bathe too frequently, dance the zambra, or play Moorish instruments. John served as confessor to moriscos and Old Christians alike, and to those seduced by the splendors of the city crowned by the Alhambra and the Generalife, he taught that “we travel not in order to see but in order not to see.”

In Granada, John wrote the books A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and Living Flame of Love to distinguish the contemplative way to unity according to the Divine Will from both natural and Muslim mysticism, which often took the form of possession and madness. According to John of the Cross, these states were outwardly nearly indistinguishable from the transports of the dark light of grace; they occurred, he said, not only among Christians drawn to the Illuminist movement but also among the young moriscos, upon whom he was often called to perform exorcisms.

While John of the Cross was still at Baeza, a wealthy young Genoese, Jesús María Doria, professed within the Descalced Order and quickly found favor with Teresa de Jesús through Philip II’s recommendation. Doria was to be John of the Cross’s nemesis. Teresa, well aware of the Italian’s keen mind, sent him to her friend Gracián, who in turn sent him as their representative to Rome. In 1582, Doria returned to Spain with special papal privileges, determined to reorganize the Order of Descalced Carmelites according to the machina of the Italian houses. In order to do so, he succeeded in having himself elected vicar general of the Order and unsuccessfully tried to send his former superior and continual rival, Gracián, to Mexico. In 1588, through a general conference, he revamped the Order’s governing structure. Meanwhile, John of the Cross, while founding monasteries and convents in Córdoba, Segovia, and Málaga, sought to mediate between Doria’s missionary zeal to send Carmelites throughout all Christendom and beyond, and Gracián’s equal determination to keep the Order small and confined to Spanish soil. At a general meeting in Almodóvar, John actually spoke out against the hunger for power he saw invading the Order in the guise of worthy projects—but to no avail.

In 1588, John was appointed prior to the convent in Segovia, which became the seat of government of the Order during Doria’s frequent trips abroad. Philip II learned of John’s able administration and commended him for it. John’s companions, however, attested that he scourged himself regularly, was sickly, wore sparto-grass undergarments and chains which drew blood, fasted almost continuously, and refused to wear anything but the heaviest clothing the year round. He slept only three hours each night and still heard confessions and ministered to the sick while trying to reconcile Gracián and Doria. His inner life was such that on occasion he was incapable of carrying out the simplest task, so frequent and overwhelming were his raptures. The last time he saw his brother Francisco, whom he claimed to have loved more than anyone else, John told him of a vision in which Christ asked him his desire. To Christ, John replied, “Suffering to be borne for Your sake and to be despised and regarded as worthless.” His prayer was to be answered.

In 1589, the nuns of the Order, convinced that Doria was determined to abolish the reforms initiated by Teresa, petitioned Gracián and John to be separated from the Brothers over whom Doria ruled. Doria learned of the conspiracy from Luis de León and, suspecting that both Gracián and John were supporting the feminine rebellion against him, denounced the two to Philip II, who intervened directly with an order that the nuns remain.

At the next chapter meeting, John was denied any post whatsoever. First the council accepted and then rejected his offer to lead twelve Carmelites to Mexico. He and Gracián were to learn the extent of Doria’s anger. In Seville during the chapter meetings, there was such fear of Doria that no one dared to oppose him. John bravely spoke out, accusing Doria of destroying charity, free discussion, and the right to self-determination within the rule. Doria reacted by sending John of the Cross into exile, to the solitude of the desert monastery of Peñuela in Extremadura. Gracián suffered a worse fate, being stripped of his habit, expelled from the Order, and sent begging justice to Rome. The accusation against him was disobedience.

In Peñuela, John of the Cross became seriously ill with an infection and went to Úbeda seeking aid. There, the prior treated him badly because, years earlier, John had scolded him for his manner of preaching. John’s ecstatic prayer in Segovia, as reported by his brother Francisco, was answered in Úbeda: “not to die a superior, to die where he was unknown and to die after great suffering.”


The work of Saint John of the Cross, although not copious, presents a synthesis of medieval learning and Renaissance form, couched in the tradition of Spanish realism. He sought through his poems and books to explain to his Order the nature of the three steps through contemplation to union with the Divine Presence: the via purgativa, the via iluminativa, and the via unitativa. The poem “The Dark Night” and the poet’s book-length explication The Ascent of Mount Carmel address the beginner or novice, revealing the two spiritual revolutions he will experience; the poem “The Spiritual Canticle” and its book-length explication A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul address the aprovechantes, who intermittently see their aspirations fulfilled; the poem “The Living Flame of Love” and its explication Living Flame of Love address those perfect religious aspirants who seldom cease to experience the dark light of grace. The three poems were written during the imprisonment of John of the Cross in Toledo in 1577, the first book during his priorship at El Calvario in 1578 and the remaining two while he was prior of Los Mártires in Granada in 1581. Although the works become clearer when read in the context of sixteenth century Spain, John of the Cross’s method of combining medieval, Renaissance, and popular traditions to explain the mysteries of the faith in terms of universal human experience frees his writing from its historical limitations.

Saint John of the Cross’s prose explicates his poetry: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul, and Living Flame of Love use the methodology of Scholastic criticism to explain the doctrine contained in his three major poems. The author readily admits that the intellect hinders rather than aids one’s progress toward meditation, but he maintains that reason, in theology as well as in physics and psychology, is the only reliable guide. Reason and the concomitant qualities of simplicity and clarity are extolled as those values most to be esteemed in the religious life of prayer and discipline, so that the contemplative may avoid the danger of becoming attached to the intricate beauty of the ritual rather than to its spirit. The contemplative must present a tabula rasa—freeing his will from the self so that he may be charitable, his understanding from knowledge so that he may have faith, and his memory from continuity so that he may have hope—before he may receive grace.

Reason enables Saint John of the Cross to distinguish the contemplative’s two passages through the “dark night,” first from initiate to aprovechante, then to perfect, from the states of melancholy, aboulia, and possession which they closely resemble. The initiate’s enthusiasm soon becomes anger in the form of the frustration experienced by a child denied the rewards he seeks, and he is then subject to pride, restlessness, boredom, envy, impatience, fetishism, and dishonesty until, when he least expects it, he “stand[s] alone in the bitter and terrible dark night of the senses” in which the world appears inverted. The initiate entering the first dark night manifests total distraction and fear that he is lost. All of his attempts to regain the source of his former well-being are foiled. Some initiates attempt to begin their discipline again, to no avail. Most, on entering the first dark night, manifest madness in the form of extreme sexual desire, blasphemy, and vertigo.

Once they have overcome these trials, however, the aprovechantes may lose their humility and attack with too much confidence, to the point that their experience of grace is self-deceiving and they become blinded by hallucinations, voices, and transports. Since the aprovechantes have not completely overcome their former affections, they are in danger of becoming physically and psychologically ill.

According to John of the Cross, the second passage through the dark night to perfection is even more difficult and may last many years. For the physically weak, it is unbearable. The aprovechantes experience spiritual poverty, helplessness, detachment, incomprehension, an absence of will, and anguish over losing mind and memory. They may by chance finally acquire wisdom in the form of the dark light of the fire described in Living Flame of Love. The perfect is then enjoined to make of his soul a hiding place where the beloved may live with gracious company in pleasure and ease.

Although Saint John of the Cross’s psychology is limited to three faculties (the will, reason, and memory) and four interrelated emotions (pleasure, pain, fear, and hope), he provides a clear view of the spiritual adventure of a sixteenth century Spaniard who is not called to the territorial adventure of imperial expansion. In an interesting image, John compares the reluctant adventurer to a canvas that refuses to be still for the artist’s brush.

“The Dark Night”

In “The Dark Night,” John of the Cross presents the momentary union of the novice’s soul with God in terms of the fulfillment of the desires of two lovers who have been separated. Most directly, the poem re-creates the escape of the beloved at night from her house to a meeting with her lover outside the walls of the city, where they surrender themselves to the rapture of their passion. The beloved recalls her fear, her desire, the necessary deceptions and precaution, the shock of being found by her lover, and the joy of the encounter, with its consequential loss of self in a union with all and nothingness.

The simplicity of the poem gives it its strength and almost hypnotic power. The Spanish is rustic, although not uncultured, and it characterizes the beloved with a pastoral simplicity and innocence as she ventures forth to meet her lover. Morphologically and syntactically, the poet gives the beloved’s words some features of that dialect between Gallego-Portuguese and Castilian which characterizes the standard literary form of rustic speech known as sayagués. Moreover, the poet employs a stanza which discourages elaboration in favor of simplicity, clarity, and precision. From the soldier-courtier Garcilaso de la Vega (1501-1536), who two decades earlier had revolutionized Spanish poetry by successfully adapting the softer Italian hendecasyllable to the more regularly accented and rigid medieval Spanish verse, John of the Cross borrowed the lira. By alternating three heptasyllables and two hendecasyllables within a rhyme scheme which seals the lines by pairing them without regard to length, the poet using the lira directs his thought inward and inhibits elaboration. The inward direction of the poem, reflecting the recollection necessary for the beloved’s escape, is reinforced by the poet’s skillful use of repetition within and between the strophes. Through onomatopoeia, he re-creates with sibilants and voiceless fricatives the darkness, silence, secrecy, and softness of the adventure.

To overcome the temporal limitation of the language of the poem, the poet uses a series of apostrophes to the night. The poem is a re-creation of the encounter in which the beloved attributes to the night the same immediacy ascribed to the lover. Again, in response to the inward direction of the poem, the apostrophe culminates in the center of the poem, in which the metamorphosis of lover-beloved occurs on the morphological level: “amado con amada/ amada en el amado transformada.” The fusion of the lovers becomes confusion, and the sounds of the poem overwhelm the sense, so that the original gender distinction between the allomorphs “amado” and “amada” disappears into “transformada.”

“The Spiritual Canticle”

“The Spiritual Canticle” enlarges the theme of “The Dark Night” to include mortification and illumination. The poem, comprising forty liras, is an eclogue, modeled on those of Garcilaso de la Vega, in which John of the Cross presents the lovers in a dialogue as shepherds who are now espoused. (In “The Dark Night,” they had to escape in order to be united.)

The first stanzas present the beloved initiate moving through the via purgativa as a young shepherdess seeking her lover, who has abandoned her soon after revealing his love. Her sense of loss turns her life into an attenuated death and a desperate search for reunion. First, she tries to reach him through other shepherds. Then she abandons both her fears and her pleasures to look for him on her own. As she wanders, the beauty she discovers reminds her of his grace, until she is overwhelmed by longing. The shepherds who speak to her of him merely increase her pain, because she cannot understand the meaning of their words. As she has already surrendered her will to him, she believes her punishment is unjustified, yet she hopes that by his possession of her, she will regain the self she has lost and the reason for being which she lacks. When she least expects it, her lover’s eyes appear to her, reflected in a fountain where she quenches her thirst. The via purgativa ends with the medieval motif of the maid at the fountain overtaken by a stag.

The next step toward union, the via iluminativa, begins with fear. The beloved flees in panic until the lover’s words assure her that her flight merely attracts him more, and therefore her attempt to escape is futile. Since the beloved has not acquired perfection, the via iluminativa of the aprovechante and the via unitativa of the perfect become confused. The beloved may ascend to union and also descend to mortification on the secret ladder introduced by the poet in “The Dark Night.” In the fourteenth and fifteenth stanzas, the beloved finds union with her lover, expressed as an ecstatic vision of mountains, valleys, strange islands, sweet melodies unheard, and sonorous silence. The vision is enriched by imagery reminiscent of the Old Testament Song of Songs and, because of the absence of verbs, is made to appear simultaneous.

The beloved must descend from union, presented as a garden in Zion, first to mortification in which she defends their vines from foxes; then to illumination in which she weaves their roses into garlands; then back to mortification in order to defend their solitude, to conjure the rain-laden western wind, to restrain the envious, and to hide her lover away in silence while distracting him with the delights of her raptures. To aid his beloved, the lover proudly commands his creation, through song, to abandon them to their rapture. He then proceeds to raise her again to union, regaling her with the fulfillment of her desire, healing her sorrow, defending her tranquillity with the controlled power of lions, the wealth of gold shields or coins, the luxury of purple hangings, and the peace derived from a social structure based upon others’ admiration and awe before the brilliance of their passion and the fragrance of their wine that, because of its age, gives delight without sorrow.

In stanzas twenty-six through twenty-nine, the beloved addresses those same admirers of her rapture in order to explain her distraction. She reveals that it derives from the wine that she shares with her lover and that consequently her only concern has become to learn to love well. She explains to them that she will no longer be among them on the commons, because she has become entranced with loving, losing herself only to be found by her lover. In the last ten stanzas, unconcerned that their admirers overhear, she addresses her lover and reveals to them the source of their love. His passion derives from one insignificant grace, presented as a single hair blown across her throat. Because of her humility and unworthiness, the continuation of that passion arises from the beauty which flows from his eyes, and is reflected in her, as her passion arises from discovering her reflection in him. The verbal tenses of these last eight stanzas refer not to chronology but to the fulfillment of the lover and beloved’s purpose. The distinctions among past, present, and future disappear as the lovers explore profound and lofty mysteries. Accordingly, the eclogue ends not in the classical manner of the shepherd’s departure with the setting sun, but with the image of horses descending a hill to drink water once the siege they had resisted is lifted.

“The Living Flame of Love”

The third of the poems written by Saint John of the Cross while in the monastery prison of Toledo, “The Living Flame of Love,” continues the allegory of “The Dark Night” and “The Spiritual Canticle.” This work presents in four liras the song of the beloved to her lover’s passion during their ecstatic union. The beloved is now perfect inasmuch as her grace is actual rather than potential. These liras, having six rather than five lines and deriving from Garcilaso de la Vega’s friend and immediate literary predecessor, Juan Boscán (1500?-1542), are freer, less vacillating and inwardly directed than the first two poems.

The poem is one of the most intense moments in a powerful literary tradition. In it, the beloved sings of the lover’s passion as a life-giving and living fire that consumes with fulfillment rather than destruction. The beloved rejoices in her total surrender and pleads to have the rapture made complete by his destruction of the barriers which still divide them. His passion captures, wounds, and subdues her with a gentleness that reveals to her the nature of eternity. The taste of this knowledge turns her heart from the sorrow of living an attenuated death apart from her lover to the joy which his presence infuses as she comes into being through his love. The dark light emanating from her lover’s fire illuminates the entirety of her beauty when the poem ends abruptly with her lover’s breath rousing her passion again as he awakens on her breast.

Three other poems written in Toledo at the same time do not achieve as perfect a synthesis of the eclogue, Song of Songs, and folk motifs derived from the tradition of the romances and courtly lyrics of the villancicos as do the three poems presented here. The coplas de pie quebrado, known as “Although by Night,” present the medieval motif of the fonte frida in such a way that the night acquires at least thirteen different meanings through an equal number of contexts. In the nine romances which constitute the “Ballad on the Gospel ‘In the Beginning Was the Word,’” the poet employs the same method as in his major poems, explaining the mysteries of the faith in terms of the varieties of human love. In “Ballad on the Psalm ‘By the Waters of Babylon,’” the ascetic’s sense of alienation and his consequent rejection of the world are presented in terms of the Babylonian captivity of Israel’s people, who refuse to sing the jubilant songs of Zion.

Additional Reading

Brenan, Gerald. St. John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1973. Includes a translation of his poetry by Lynda Nicholson. Bibliography.

Crisógano de Jesús Sacramentado, Father. The Life of Saint John of the Cross. Translated by Kathleen Pond. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958. A thoroughly documented and detailed biography of Saint John of the Cross as a person and as a Carmelite friar. Illustrations, charts, notes, and references make this a necessary resource for the serious scholar.

Cugno, Alain. Saint John of the Cross: Reflections on Mystical Experience. Translated by Barbara Wall. New York: Seabury Press, 1979. This concise study attempts to understand John from a philosophical rather than a theological or mystical viewpoint. It explores such major themes in the philosophy of religion as the absence of God, the meaning of mysticism, the role of desire in religion, and the doctrine of the Kingdom of God.

Duohan, Leonard. The Contemporary Challenge of John of the Cross: An Introduction to His Life and Teaching. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1995. This biographical work looks at the life of Saint John of the Cross and what it means to modern people. Includes bibliographical references.

Frost, Bede. Saint John of the Cross, 1542-1591, Doctor of Divine Love: An Introduction to His Philosophy, Theology, and Spirituality. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1937. This classic study of John’s thought attempts to do justice to the complexity and variety of his writings. The author admits the difficulty inherent in any attempt to understand John’s thinking about mystical experience, given that language proves inadequate to describe it.

Gaylord, Mary Malcolm, and Francisco Marquez Villanueva, eds. San Juan de la Cruz and Fray Luis de Leon: A Commemorative International Symposium. Newark, Del.: Juan de la Cuesta, 1996. This collection of works from a symposium examines mysticism in literature, focusing on John of the Cross and Luis de Leon. Includes index.

Gicovate, Bernard. San Juan de la Cruz. New York: Twayne, 1971. The author provides a comprehensive general introduction to John’s life, poetry, and prose texts. Written with the student of literature in mind, this book explores John’s literary technique as well as his religious philosophy. Includes bibliography.

Hardy, Richard P. Search for Nothing: The Life of John of the Cross. New York, Crossroad, 1982. Hardy wrote this biography to explore John’s humanity and make his personality accessible to the modern reader. Hardy provides a necessary corrective to more traditional accounts of John’s life.

Kavanaugh, Kieran. John of the Cross: Doctor of Light and Love. New York: Crossroad, 1999. A study of St. John of the Cross that reprints the poems and includes useful features such as a select bibliography. Illustrated.

Payne, Steven, ed. John of the Cross: Conferences and Essays by Members of the Institute of Carmelite Studies and Others. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1992. This collection of essays deals with John’s thinking on a variety of theological topics, useful to the scholar as well as the general reader. Each essay includes bibliographical notes.

Perrin, David Brian. For Love of the World: The Old and New Self of John of the Cross. San Francisco: Catholic Scholars Press, 1997. This work examines the beliefs of John of the Cross and places him within the history of the Catholic church. Includes index.

Ruiz, Federico, et al. God Speaks in the Night: The Life, Times, and Teaching of John of the Cross. Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh. Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991. This book commemorates the fourth centenary of John’s death with almost one hundred short essays authored by Spanish Carmelite scholars and is lavishly illustrated with beautiful color photographs and illustrations. Organized around the central events of John’s life, this volume provides a wealth of information of use to the scholar as well as the general reader. Includes an index of names and places.

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