Marking the Birth of St. John of the Cross: 24 June

Author: Fr. Justin Avanooparambil, OCD

Marking the Birth of St. John of the Cross: 24 June

Fr. Justin Avanooparambil, OCD 

'Todo y Nada', 'Night' and 'Spousal symbol'

"For who can write down that which He reveals to loving souls wherein He dwells? And who can express the experience He imparts to them? Certainly, no one can! Not even they who receive these communications. As a result, these persons let something of their experiences overflow in figures and similes, and from the abundance of their spirit pour out secrets and mysteries rather than rational explanation".1

This is how St. John of the Cross writes in the prologue to his classical work, The Spiritual Canticle.

We have taken this quotation as a key to understand the theme we wish to discuss now. "Who can express the experience He imparts" to the souls who love him? It simply means that the real experience of God is ineffable. A soul in intimate union with God participates also in his wisdom and in his immensity, which are far beyond its comprehension.

The mystics find that mere words are not sufficient to describe their experience to fellow human beings. Their attempt, therefore, to share with others this experience through the medium of symbols is quite spontaneous. This again explains the reason why as a mystic St. John of the Cross gives symbolic titles for his four major works:

1. The Ascent of Mount Carmel explains an arduous journey undertaken by the soul to the top of the mountain where God dwells. It gives the picture of a soul under purification through proper ascesis. (The title as such has no reference to the Carmelite Order or to that geographical spot in Haifa, Israel. In this symbolic title the word "ascent" carries the content of the book).

2. The Dark Night of the Soul: The journey to the top of the "mountain" where the mystical union takes place is made in utter darkness, obscurity and uncertainty. Faith is the only light that the soul has in this dark night.

3. The Spiritual Canticle is a "love-drama" in elegant poetry. The soul with a "longing heart" searches its Beloved (Christ) and finally finds him to its great joy; this drama ends in "mystical marriage".

4. The Living Flame of Love treats of the soul's love, which like a burning fire ends in union with the Beloved; it is an intensification of the transforming union. The soul thus transformed in God's love is a "Living Flame".

To sum up, there exist a certain harmony and a clear progress in the development of the theme in these four major works, even though they bear different symbolic titles.

Two Symbols

The whole of Sanjuanistic doctrine spread out in the above-mentioned four major works can be explained by two mystical symbols. They are: (i) the symbol of "Night" and (ii) the "Spousal symbol".

The two major works — The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, are in truth one single treatise, but only for practical purposes are they considered as two works. Both of them together present the theme of purification of the soul in its various dimensions.

The dominant symbol in both these works is evidently that of the "Night". A proper explanation of this would cover the entire doctrine contained therein.

The remaining two major works, The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love, in fact, are the presentation and prolongation of the very same truth. That is, they both explain the experience of a deep love-relationship between the soul and its Spouse (Christ) that comes after a proper purification process in the "Night".

The Spiritual Canticle symbolically narrates this reality. And The Living Flame is nothing other than the realization of this love, culminating in the transforming union. In other words, it presents the continuation and culmination of the "love-drama" being enacted by the soul and its Spouse.

The central theme of both these works is presented to us by another symbol called the "Spousal symbol". Thus, a brief explanation of these two symbols will introduce us to the four major works of St. John of the Cross.

The Symbol of 'Night': Night is a cosmic phenomenon experienced due to the privation of light. The reality of night in the writings of St. John of the Cross assumes immense mystical significance. There it is no longer understood as a cosmic phenomenon but as a symbol that carries a wealth of meaning about the life of the soul.

In fact, the Saint's own life is reflected in his mystical treatises. But as a man of learning he has drawn inspiration from other sources as well; however, they all converge to embellish the symbol of night.

This symbol unfolds for us the progressive phase of the whole process of the soul's purification until it is made ready to enter into union with its Beloved.

There is no doubt that it is St. John of the Cross who popularised the symbol of night in Christian mystical literature. But he did not invent it overnight. His doctrine is rooted in his life-experience. His was a life lived often in the shades of night.

Of the innumerable experiences of night in his life, the "night" in the monastery-prison of Toledo stands out as the most important chapter in his life and sheds much light on his doctrine, especially on the symbol of night with which we are concerned.

The only light that lit that obscure period of his life was his living faith and a burning love for his Lord, the Beloved of his heart. It is in these supreme moments of utter exterior and interior darkness that his heart burst into song, wherein the symbol of night takes the most definitive shape:

"On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings,
Oh, happy chance!
I went forth without being observed, My house being now at rest".2

Meaning of the Sanjuanistic Night

The "Night" is meaningful and relevant only to a soul that seeks perfection: "for a soul to attain to the state of perfection, it has ordinarily first to pass through two principal kinds of night, which spiritual persons call purgation or purification of the soul; and here we call them nights, for in both of them the soul journeys as it were by night, in darkness".3 This is how St. John of the Cross explains his concept of night.

His statement includes three important points:

i) the soul seeking perfection has to pass through two nights;

ii) this passing through is like a journey made by night;

iii) the term "night" is used to signify "purgation" or "purification".

St. John of the Cross describes the movement and progress of the soul towards God as a journey in the night. But why do we call it "a journey in the night"?

Again, the Saint gives three reasons: "We may say that there are three reasons for which this journey made by the soul to union with God is called 'night'":(i) The person who decides to journey towards God has to renounce all worldly possessions; and this denial is like a "night" to all his senses; (ii) the road toward this union is faith, which is "night" to the intellect; (iii) the point of arrival is God, who is also a "dark night" to man in this life.

Supernatural faith does not reveal God in a clear vision but obscurely. This is the reason why the Saint calls his principal ascetical work The Dark Night of the Ascent of Mount Carmel.

St. John of the Cross says above that mortification or deprivation is a "night to all the senses of man".

Night can be considered as a symbol taken from the visual faculty. When the eyes are closed, the privation of light is as night to our faculty of vision. We can say that a blind man is in perpetual night.

In like manner the mortification of the natural desires could be called a night to the soul.

Just as the visual faculty is nourished by light and fed by objects that can be seen, so the soul is fed and nourished by the senses; and when these senses are mortified and deprived of their objects, they may be said to be in darkness or night.

It is in this sense that St. John of the Cross treats of the night of senses in the Book of the Ascent: "We here describe as night the privation of every kind of pleasure which belongs to the desire; for, even as night is nothing but the privation of light and consequently, of all objects that can be seen by means of light, whereby the visual faculty remains unoccupied and in darkness..." .3

In the night of the senses the soul departs, in affection and desire, from all things of the world with the sole aim of journeying towards God. But by so doing, only one side of the process of purification is realized.

Like the exterior senses of seeing, hearing, etc., man has interior faculties of knowing, loving and remembering which are the objects of intellect, will and memory. It is night to these faculties when they are deprived of their objects.

In short, the "night of the senses" is emptiness or privation of the sense which results from their being mortified and detached from the things of the world. Whereas, the "night of the spirit" is emptiness which results from the mortification or purification of the soul's spiritual faculties from their objects.

The Spousal Symbol: For St. John of the Cross, the spousal symbol is at the core of his exquisite literary creation, The Spiritual Canticle. That is to say, the whole doctrinal edifice is built on it. This symbol opens before us the lively drama of a bride who set out to find her Bridegroom. In her earnest search she does not shrink from asking the shepherds, creatures and plants the whereabouts of her Beloved:

"Shepherds, you that go
Up through the sheepfolds to the hill, If by chance you see
Him I love most,
Tell Him that I sicken, suffer and die".6

It is an arduous journey with a heart all aflame with love for the Beloved. Thus, the Saint continues to sing in the same tone:

"O woods and thickets
Planted by the hand of my Beloved! O green meadow, coated, bright, with flowers,
Tell me, has He passed by you?".7

Meaning of the Sanjuanistic Spousal Symbol

The relation between God and the soul cannot be better expressed except through the "spousal symbol". As Edith Stein observes: "The bridal union with God is seen to be the original and true bridal state, while corresponding human relationships appear as imperfect images of this original, just as the Fatherhood of God is the archetype of all earthly paternity".8 Therefore, it is not surprising at all if our Mystical Doctor has chosen it as his most favourite symbol.

Although in The Spiritual Canticle the bridal relationship is the central theme, The Dark Night and The Living Flame too echo the same melody of The Spiritual Canticle.

St. John of the Cross could write such "love-poems" (like The Spiritual Canticle and Romance) of exquisite beauty, incomparable in any language, only because he was a man totally overtaken by God, who is the Love Supreme.

He considered God as the Beloved of his heart. To this "Beloved of his heart" he gave his total love, detaching himself from everything else that is not his Beloved.

He sought the union of love with him passing through the "dark night" of purifications, with an unwavering faith as his only guide and light.

"This guided me
More surely than the light of noon
To where He waited for me
— Him I knew so well —
In a place where no one else appeared".9

Our Saint's love for God was passionate and irrevocable. Thus, chastity for him was not something inhuman or a dry abstinence from something evil. Instead, it is one of the expressions of a total self-offering by the creature to its Creator in whom alone love finds its perfection and fulfilment.

The total submission to God of human sexuality is the condition of its sanctification. But there is the ultimate valid reason for chastity: that God may be free to possess to the full a virgin-soul and body, which he has prepared for his own dwelling.

The intense delight of being so possessed could probably be expressed in no other terms than that of the Spousal symbol which our Saint borrows mainly from the Canticle of Canticles.

The scenes in The Spiritual Canticle are all full of suspense and eloquence. But what matters most to us is the masterly way the Mystical Doctor presents to us a profound spiritual reality. The bride and the Bridegroom, taking the role of the soul and Christ respectively, manifest their love in mutual giving.

On the part of the soul it is a total surrender, and on the part of Christ it is a gradual manifestation of His glory:

"It must be known that many souls attain to the first cellars and enter therein, each according to the perfection of love which he possesses, but few in this life attain to this last and innermost perfection, for in this there comes to pass that perfect union with God which they call the 'Spiritual Marriage'. And that which God communicates to the soul in this most intimate union is completely ineffable, for it is God Himself who communicates this to the soul and transforms her into Himself with marvellous glory".10

Before arriving at this stage of "intimate union" where everything is "totally beyond words", there are several steps through which the soul has to pass. It suffices for us here to know that the whole painful process of purification that the soul endured, as we said before, is all oriented towards this final goal: complete union with God. In this sense the "spousal symbol" is the crown of all the mystical teachings of St. John of the Cross.


As the entire spiritual teachings of St. John of the Cross can be explained by two key (Spanish) words Todo y Nada [All and Nothing], so also his whole mysticism can be explained, as we have already seen, through two symbols: Night and the Spousal symbol. They are like the keys of two large rooms full of treasures.

If his ascetical work The Ascent of Mount Carmel starts with guiding a soul that is desirous of spiritual perfection, his mystical work The Living Flame of Love ends with bringing the same soul to the experience of Transforming Union. This is the last stage of spiritual perfection attainable here on earth. He calls it "a foretaste of Eternal Life".11 The next stage is called 'Beatific Vision' which, he says, is not meant for this life!


1 Spiritual Canticle B, Prologue, n. 1.
2 Dark Night, Stanza, n. 1.
3 Ascent of Mount Carmel 1, n. 1.
4Ibid., 2, n. 1.
5Ibid., 3, n. 1.
6 Spiritual Canticle B, n. 2.
7 Ibid., n. 4.
8 Stein, E., The Science of the Cross: A Study of St. John of the Cross, p. 183.
9Dark Night, Stanza, n. 4.
10Spiritual Canticle B; 26, n. 4.
11The Living Flame of Love, 1, n. 6; 2, n. 21.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
6 June 2007, page 9

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