From St. John of the Cross to Us

Part I:

Chapter 2: John of the Cross' Teaching of Contemplation


There is no substitute for reading John of the Cross himself. Reading his poems will give us a glimpse of what was in his heart, while reading his major prose works, especially when he talks about the transition from meditation to contemplation, will give us his formal teaching about contemplation.

The story that begins in Chapter 3 is the story of how this transition was understood by those who came after him. But if we are to make any sense of it we need to understand what John was saying so we can see whether it was altered or not.

In order to help us grasp St. John’s ideas on contemplation this chapter is divided into two parts. The first is a short primer on the basic principles that govern St. John’s view of contemplation. The second is a tour of some of his actual texts on the subject.

New Beginnings

The story of Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) and John of the Cross (1542-1591) and their Carmelite reform is well known and need not be repeated here in detail. Teresa, gifted with mystical graces, is inspired to reform her Carmelite Order, a job the calls for brains, guts and holiness, all of which she had in abundance, not to mention a large dose of common sense and a sense of humor.

1562 finds her finishing the first version of her autobiography and founding the first convent for the sisters of the Reform. Five years later she receives permission to extend the Reform to the Carmelite friars, and she meets a young friar who is at the point of passing to the more secluded life of the Carthusians, but who is willing to work with her on her new project if they begin without any long delay.

This is John of the Cross, or Juan de San Matía, as he was known then. Equally gifted with Teresa in the graces of the mystical life, he is very different from her in temperament. If it hadn’t been for Teresa, he probably would have gone to the obscurity of the Carthusian Order and perhaps never have written anything at all. It wasn’t in his nature to think up a reform of his own Order by himself. But once set upon this road he was to be unmovable. The infant reform was soon locked in a bitter struggle with its parent congregation, and the history of its early years is a perfect antidote to the belief that contemplation can only flourish in tranquility.

In 1578, while John of the Cross was imprisoned and tormented in a jail cell in Toledo by his brothers in religion, poems of astonishing beauty began to well up inside of him. These primordial outpourings became the gems around which his writings crystallized, and it is his writings on the beginning of the mystical life that occupy an important place in his Ascent of Mt. Carmel and its companion work, The Dark Night of the Soul, and his later Living Flame of Love that are going to occupy us.

There is another factor that can help us situate St. John and St. Teresa's writings. Both of them are rooted in the mainstream of the mystical traditions of the Church. Teresa read Bernardo de Laredo and Francisco de Osuna, while John of the Cross was familiar with Dionysius and the Institutions attributed to Tauler, and they both can be placed in that current of mysticism that stretches from the Scriptures to Clement of Alexandria and Origen to Gregory of Nyssa, and from Dionysius to the Victorines and the mystics of the Rhine. The originality of the great Carmelite saints should not be looked for in some kind of departure from the Church's mystical heritage, but in their revolutionary expression of this age-old mystical current. A new age was dawning in Europe, and one of its most important features was a dramatic increase in psychological self-consciousness. Further, up until the time of Teresa and John mysticism had tended to remain amalgamated with theological reflection and Scriptural exegesis. It hadn't been focused upon for itself. Then come Teresa and John who begin to talk about mystical experience not only for itself, but as a personal experience.

A Primer on St. John’s Teaching on the Beginning of Contemplation

St. John’s teaching on the transition from ordinary prayer to contemplation can be distilled into the following points:

By ordinary prayer St. John meant any kind of prayer that we can do by our own efforts aided by God’s grace. He called this meditation. In it we make use of our natural faculties, that is, our senses, imagination, intellect, memory and will in order to pray.

But since this is not how we understand meditation today, it is important to see the difference. Meditation today brings to mind a particular formula for praying in which we imagine a scene from the Gospel, for example, and draw conclusions about what it means for our lives, and this process stirs our hearts to praise, thank and love God, and to amend our lives. The realm of ordinary prayer, that is, prayer that we can do ourselves, is now divided between this kind of meditation and other more simplified and affective prayers that go under the names of the prayer of simplicity, or the prayer of the practice of the presence of God, and so forth. These kinds of prayers make much less use of the discursive activity of the intellect and much more of the will in acts of love. But for John of the Cross, who lived at a time before these distinctions fully emerged, meditation embraces all these kinds of ordinary prayer.

John also gives a precise meaning to the word contemplation. It is a kind of prayer that we cannot do whenever we want, for it does not depend on the natural working of the faculties. It is a prayer given by God in the depths of the heart so it is called infused contemplation, or mystical experience. The goal of the Christian life is union with God, and contemplation is a mysterious experience of that union.
St. John also gives us a schema of the evolution of the life of prayer. The beginning of our serious interest in the life of prayer, or conversion to God, is often marked by a period of sensible consolation. God feels present to us. We feel a warm glow in our spiritual exercises, a glow that pervades our feelings and thoughts, indeed, all our natural faculties, and serves the good purpose of drawing us from the things of the world to the things of God. But eventually this sense of God’s presence falls away. This can happen gradually or suddenly, and we are left in darkness. It can feel like God has abandoned us, and in our anxiety we wonder if we have committed some sin to bring about what appears to be a terrible state of affairs. And most of all, we want things to be back the way they were. This could be called the dark night of the senses in the wider meaning of the term, and is a common experience in those devoted to the life of prayer.

But this is not precisely what St. John is interested in. It is true, he says, that this dark night might be due to our lukewarmness or sins, or even to some kind of psychological problem which, in the language of his day, he called melancholy. But most of St. John’s energy goes into analyzing another possibility. This dark night might be a very distinctive kind of dark night that is meant to lead us from ordinary prayer or meditation to infused contemplation. His famous three signs were meant to guide us so we could discover whether we were actually called to this kind of contemplation or not.

The first sign is that we cannot pray like we did before. The second – in order to rule out a disinclination coming from our own bad conduct – is that we have no desire to fix our attention on other things. The third sign is meant to rule out melancholy, or a disinterest in things coming from some kind of psychological cause. But it goes beyond all that and is, by far, the most important sign. We are beginning to experience an interior quiet and rest that we are inclined to give ourselves to even while we may still be thinking that we should be going back to our old way of praying with our faculties, and that to give into this new inclination is to give into idleness. This inner quiet is the beginning of contemplation, itself. It is a loving knowledge that comes, not through the faculties of sense, imagination, intellect, memory or will, but wells up from the depths of the heart and draws us into those depths, to rest there and receive what God is giving us.

John was so concerned that someone might miss this call to contemplation that he described it in exquisite detail. He explains, for example, how this new experience could be so gentle and subtle, and we are so used to pounding away with the faculties, that it might be imperceptible at first – insensible, he says – to our ordinary consciousness. We would have to quiet ourselves and be lovingly attentive to this new experience in order to taste it. Ironically, these wonderfully detailed descriptions of the transition from meditation to contemplation were going to haunt the history of spirituality.

John of the Cross on Contemplation

This brief summary can hardly do justice to St. John’s delicately nuanced treatment of the transition from meditation to contemplation. It is worth trying to steep ourselves in his language. The best way to do this is to read The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book 2, Chapters 12-15, The Dark Night, Book 1, Chapters 8-10, and The Living Flame of Love, Stanza III, Nos. 26-58 from which the following passages have been drawn.

The Ascent of Mt. Carmel

Contemplation does not come through the natural working of the faculties. St. John makes this clear in Chapter 12 in The Ascent of Mt. Carmel:

"For the farther the soul progresses in spirituality, the more it ceases from the operation of the faculties in particular acts, since it becomes more and more occupied in one act that is general and pure." (1)

Therefore we need to take up a special attitude towards this general act which is contemplation:

"The advice proper for these individuals is that they must learn to abide in that quietude with a loving attentiveness to God (con atención y advertencia amorosa en Dios en aquella quietud) and pay no heed to the imagination and its work. At this stage, as we said, the faculties are at rest, and do not work actively but passively, by receiving what God is effecting in them." (2)

This passage continues: "...and, if they work at times it is not with violence or with carefully elaborated meditation, but with sweetness of love moved less by the ability of the soul itself than by God as will be explained hereafter." (3)

It is worth noting that the first edition of St. John’s writings altered this final passage to read: "…and work not save in that simple and sweet loving attentiveness; and if at times they work more (than this) it is not with violence…" (4) What appears here as a perhaps unimportant shift in emphasis will take on a deeper meaning as our story unfolds.

In Chapter 13, John goes on to describe the three signs by which we can know whether this quietude or general and pure knowledge, or infused contemplation, is actually being given to us. "The first is the realization that one cannot make discursive meditation nor receive satisfaction from it as before." (5)

"The second sign is an awareness of a disinclination to fix the imagination or senses upon other objects exterior or interior." (6)

"The third and surest sign is that a person likes to remain alone in loving awareness of God (con atención amorosa a Dios) without particular considerations, in interior peace and quiet and repose, and without the acts and exercises (at least discursive, those in which one progresses from point to point) of the intellect, memory and will, and that he prefers to remain only in that general loving awareness and knowledge (con la atención y noticia general amorosa) we mentioned, without any particular knowledge or understanding." (7)

"Actually at the beginning of this state the loving knowledge is almost unnoticeable (casi no se hecha de ver esta noticia amorosa). There are two reasons for this: first, ordinarily the incipient loving knowledge is extremely subtle and delicate and almost imperceptible (casi insensible) (almost imperceptible to the senses – P); second, a person who is habituated to the exercise of meditation which is wholly sensible hardly perceives or feels this new insensible purely spiritual experience (no hecha de ver ni casi siente estotra novedad insensible que es ya pura de espíritu) (it is unaware and hardly conscious of this other new and imperceptible condition, which is purely spiritual – P). This is especially so when through failure to understand it he does not permit himself any quietude, but strives after the other more sensory experience. Although the interior peace is more abundant, the individual allows no room for its experience and enjoyment (no se da lugar a sentirla y gozarla).

"But the more habituated he becomes to this calm the deeper his experience of the general loving knowledge of God (amorosa noticia general de Dios) will grow. This knowledge is more enjoyable than all other things because without the soul’s labor it affords peace, rest, savor and delight." (8)

There is a general continuity between meditation and contemplation, for both aim at the love and knowledge of God, but they do so in different ways.

"It should be known that the purpose of discursive meditation on divine subjects is the acquisition of some knowledge and love of God. Each time a person through meditation procures some of this knowl-edge and love, he does so by an act. Many acts, in no matter what area, will engender a habit. Similarly, the repetition of many particular acts of this loving knowledge (muchos actos de estas noticias amorosas) becomes so continuous that a habit is formed in the soul. God, too, effects this habit in many souls without the precedence of at least many of these acts as means, by placing them at once in contemplation.

"What the soul, therefore, was periodically acquiring through the labor of meditation on particular ideas has now, as we said, been converted into the habitual and substantial, general and loving knowl-edge (en hábito y sustancia de una noticia amorosa general). This knowledge is neither distinct nor particular as the previous. Accordingly, the moment prayer begins, the soul as one with a store of water, (como quien tiene allegada el agua) (like one to whom water has been brought – P) drinks peaceably without the labor or the need of fetching the water through the channels of past considerations, forms and figures. At the moment it recollects itself in the presence of God it enters upon an act of general, loving, peaceful and tranquil knowl-edge, drinking wisdom and love and delight (se pone en acto de noticia confusa, amorosa, pacifica y sosegada en que está el alma bebiendo sabiduría y amor y sabor)." (9)

This experience of contemplation is necessary if we are to leave ordinary prayer or meditation: "If a man did not have this knowledge or attentiveness to God, (esta noticia o asistencia en Dios) he would as a consequence be neither doing anything nor receiving anything. Having left the discursive meditation of the sensitive faculties and still lacking contemplation (the general knowledge in which the spiritual faculties – memory, intellect, and will – are actuated and united in this passive, prepared knowledge) he would have no activity whatsoever relative to God." (10)

But it is not always easy to consciously experience contemplation: "It is noteworthy that this general knowledge is at times so recondite and delicate (especially when purer, simpler and more perfect), spiritual and interior that the soul does not perceive or feel it (no la echa de ver ni la siente), even though employed with it." (11)

"As we have mentioned, it seems to a person when occupied with this knowledge that he is idle because he is not at work with his senses or faculties (no obra nada con los sentidos ni con las potencias). Nevertheless he must believe he is not wasting time, for even though the harmonious interaction of his sensory and spiritual faculties ceases, his soul is occupied with knowledge in the way we have explained." (12)

"He will often find that he is experiencing this loving or peaceful awareness passively (esta amorosa o pacifica asistencia sin obrar nada) without having first engaged in any active work (regarding particular acts) with his faculties. But on the other hand he will frequently find it necessary to aid himself gently and moderately with meditation in order to enter this state.

"But once he has been placed in it, as we have pointed out, he does not work with the faculties. It is more exact to say that then the work is done in the soul and the knowledge and delight is already produced, than that the soul does anything, besides attentively loving God (tener advertencia el alma con amar el Dios) and refraining from the desire to feel or see anything. In this loving awareness the soul receives God's communication passively, just as a man, without doing anything else but keeping his eyes open, receives light passively. This reception of the light infused supernaturally in the soul is a passive knowing. It is affirmed that the person does nothing, not because he fails to understand, but because he understands by dint of no effort other than the reception of what is bestowed... This light is never lacking to the soul, but because of creature forms and veils weighing upon and covering it the light is never infused. If a person will eliminate these impediments and veils, and live in pure nakedness and poverty of spirit, as we shall explain later, his soul in its simplicity and purity will then be immediately transformed into simple and pure Wisdom, the Son of God. As soon as natural things are driven out of the enamored soul the divine are naturally and supernaturally infused, since there can be no void in nature." (130

The Dark Night

"The sensory night is common and happens to many." (14)

" is at the time they are going about their spiritual exercises with delight and satisfaction, when in their opinion the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly on them, that God darkens all this light and closes the door and spring of the sweet spiritual water they were tasting as often – and as long as they desired." (15)

"This usually happens to recollected beginners sooner than to others, since they are freer from occasions of backsliding and they more quickly reform their appetites for worldly things. A reform of the appetites is the requirement for entering the happy night of the senses. Not much time ordinarily passes after the initial stages of their spiritual life before beginners start to enter this night of sense. And the majority of them do enter it, because it is common to see them suffer these aridities." (16)

It is important to distinguish between what can be called the dark night in the strict sense, that is, a dark night coming from the beginning of contemplation, and a dark night in a more general sense, which is a growing inability to meditate as before. If these two nights were identical John could have simply concluded his treatment here and not have gone on to describe the signs that are necessary in order that we can be sure that we are entering into the night of contemplation. But a few lines later he goes on:

"Because the origin of these aridities may not be the sensory night and purgation, but sin and imperfection, or weakness and lukewarmness, or some bad humor or bodily indisposition, I will give some signs here for discerning whether the dryness is the result of this purgation or of one of these other defects. I find there are three principal signs for knowing this.

"The first is that as these souls do not get satisfaction or consolation from the things of God, they do not get any out of creatures either." (17)

"The second sign for the discernment of this purgation is that the memory ordinarily turns to God solicitously and with painful care and the soul thinks it is not serving God, but turning back because it is aware of this distaste for the things of God." (18)

"Since the sensory part of the soul is incapable of the goods of the spirit it remained deprived, dry, and empty, and thus while the spirit is tasting the flesh tastes nothing at all and becomes weak in its work... If in the beginning the soul does not experience (no siente) this spiritual savor and delight, but dryness and distaste, it is because of the novelty involved in this exchange." (19)

"Which contemplation is secret and hidden from the very person that experiences it; and ordinarily, together with the aridity and emptiness which it causes in the senses, it gives the soul an inclination and desire to be alone and in quietness, without being able to think of any particular thing or having the desire to do so. If those souls to whom this comes to pass knew how to be quiet at this time, and troubled not about performing any kind of action, whether inward or outward, neither had any anxiety about doing anything, then they would delicately experience this inward refreshment in that ease and freedom from care. So delicate is this refreshment that ordinarily, if a man have desire or care to experience it, he experiences it not; for, as I say, it does its work when the soul is most at ease and freest from care; it is like the air which, if one would close one’s hand upon it, escapes." (20)

"The third sign for the discernment of this purgation of the senses is the powerlessness, in spite of one's efforts, to meditate and make use of the imagination, the interior sense, as was one's previous custom. At this time God does not communicate Himself through the senses as He did before by means of the discursive analysis and synthesis of ideas, but begins to communicate Himself through pure spirit by an act of simple contemplation, in which there is no discursive succession of thought." (21)

"Those who do not walk the road of contemplation act very differently. This night of the aridity of the senses is not so continuous in them, for sometimes they experience the aridities and at other times not, and sometimes they can meditate and at other times they cannot. God places them in this night solely to exercise and humble them, and reform their appetite lest in their spiritual life they foster a harmful attraction towards sweetness. But He does not do so in order to lead them to the life of the spirit, which is contemplation. For God does not bring to contemplation all those who purposely exercise themselves in the way of the spirit, nor even half. Why? He best knows. As a result He never completely weans their senses from the breasts of consideration and discursive meditations, except for some short periods and at certain seasons, as we said." (22)

"The attitude necessary in the night of sense is to pay no attention to discursive meditation, since this is not the time for it. They should allow the soul to remain in rest and quietude, even though it may seem very obvious to them that they are doing nothing and wasting time, and even though they think this disinclination to think about anything is due to their laxity... They must be content simply with a loving and peaceful attentiveness to God, (una advertencia amorosa y sosegada en Dios), and live without the concern, without the effort, and without the desire to taste or feel Him (sin gana de gustarle o de sentirle). All these desires disquiet the soul and distract it from the peaceful quiet and sweet idleness of the contemplation which is being communicated to it." (23)

The Living Flame of Love

St. John returns for a third time to this theme of when we ought to turn from meditation to contemplation in The Living Flame of Love.

" ... the practice of beginners is to meditate and make acts of discursive reflection with the imagination...

"But when the appetite has been fed somewhat, and has become in a certain fashion accustomed to certain things, and has acquired some fortitude and constancy, God begins to wean the soul, as they say, and place it in the state of contemplation. This occurs in some persons after a very short time...

"The soul conducts itself only as the receiver and as one in whom something is being done; God is the giver and the one who works in it, by according spiritual goods in contemplation (which is knowledge and love together, that is, loving knowledge), (noticia y amor divino junto, esto es, noticia amorosa) without the soul's natural acts and discursive reflections, for it can no longer engage in these acts as before." (24)

"Since God, then, as the giver communes with him through a simple loving knowledge (noticia sencilla y amorosa) the individual also as the receiver communes with God through a simple and loving knowledge or attention (noticia y advertencia sencilla y amorosa) so that knowledge is joined with knowledge and love with love. The receiver should act according to the mode of what is received, and not otherwise, in order to receive and keep it in the way it is given." (25)

"If a person should, then, desire to act on his own through an attitude different from the passive loving attention (advertencia amorosa passiva) we mentioned, in which he would remain very passive and tranquil without making any act, unless God would unite Himself with him in some act, he would utterly hinder the goods God communicates supernaturally to him in the loving knowledge. This loving knowledge is communicated in the beginning through the exercise of interior purgation, in which the individual suffers, as we have said, and afterwards in the delight of love." (26)

"He should be very free and annihilated regarding all things, because any thought or discursive reflection or satisfaction upon which he may want to lean will impede and disquiet him, and make noise in the profound silence of his senses and his spirit, which he possesses for the sake of this deep and delicate listening (profunda y delicada audición de Dios)." (27)

"When it happens, therefore, that a person is conscious in this manner of being placed in solitude and in this state of listening, he should even forget the practice of loving attentiveness I mentioned (aun el ejercicio de la advertencia amorosa que dije ha de olvidar) (aun la advertencia amorosa que dije ha de olvidar - first redaction) so as to remain free for what the Lord then desires of him. He should make use of that loving awareness (advertencia amorosa) only when he does not feel himself placed in this solitude or inner idleness or oblivion or spiritual listening. That he may recognize it, it always comes to pass with a certain peace and calm and inward absorption." (28)

"This wisdom is loving, tranquil, solitary, peaceful, mild, and an inebriator of the spirit, by which the soul feels tenderly and gently wounded and carried away, without knowing by whom, nor from where, nor how. The reason is that this wisdom is communicated without the soul's own activity.

"... and although one is not so clearly conscious of it (no se echa tanto de ver) it will in due time shed its light. The least that a person can manage to feel is a withdrawal and an estrangement to all things, sometimes more than at other times, accompanied by an inclination towards solitude and a weariness with all creatures and with the world, in the gentle breathing of love and life in the spirit... the blessings this silent communication and contemplation impresses on the soul, without it then experiencing them (sin ella sentirlo) are, as I say, inestimable." (29)

"...In the contemplation we are discussing (by which God infuses Himself into the soul) particular knowledge as well as acts made by the soul are unnecessary, because God in one act is communicating light and love together, which is loving supernatural knowledge (noticia sobrenatural amorosa). We can assert that this knowledge is like light which transmits heat, for that light also enkindles love. This knowledge is general and dark to the intellect because it is contemplative knowledge, which is a ray of darkness for the intellect, as St. Dionysius teaches." (30)

"God will feed you with heavenly refreshment since you do not apply your faculties to anything, nor encumber them, but detach them from everything, which is all you yourself have to do (besides the simple loving attentiveness – advertencia amorosa sencilla – in the way I mentioned above, that is, when you feel no aversion toward it). You should not use any force, except to detach the soul and liberate it, so as not to alter its peace and tranquility." (31)

St. John’s Language of Contemplation

When St. John talked about contemplation he made no effort to use the same words to describe it. He used language fluidly in order to describe a living reality from different perspectives.

In the Ascent he calls contemplation: a general and pure act, interior quiet, loving knowledge, general knowledge, or general loving knowledge, supernatural knowledge of contemplation, general loving advertence, loving or peaceful attendance, loving attention, attention and loving advertence, attention and general loving knowledge.

In The Dark Night contemplation becomes: obscure and dry contemplation, interior refreshment, a loving a calm advertence, infused contemplation, obscure and secret contemplation, and a sweet, peaceful, loving infusion of God.

While in The Living Flame it is described as: loving knowledge, wisdom and loving knowledge, simple and loving knowledge, loving advertence, passive loving advertence, recollection and interior solitude, infused love, silent quietude, and emptiness and solitude.

A Postscript on St. Teresa of Avila

This infused contemplation that St. John is talking about is no different than what St. Teresa teaches. She naturally has her own distinctive point of view, but in essence their doctrines on contemplation are identical. When she is talking about the prayer of quiet she writes:

"This quiet and recollectedness in the soul makes itself felt largely through the satisfaction and peace which it brings to it, together with very great joy and repose of the faculties and a most sweet delight... It dares not move or stir, for it thinks that if it does so this blessing may slip from its grasp: sometimes it would like to be unable even to breathe. The poor creature does not realize that, having been unable to do anything of itself to acquire that blessing, it will be still less able to keep it longer than the time for which the Lord is pleased that it shall possess it. I have already said that in this first state of recollection and quiet, the faculties of the soul do not fail; but the soul has such satisfaction in God that, although the other two faculties may be distracted, yet, since the will is in union with God for as long as the recollection lasts, its quiet and repose are not lost, but the will gradually brings the understanding and memory back to a state of recollection again. For, although the will is not yet completely absorbed, it is so well occupied, without knowing how, that, whatever the efforts made by the understanding and memory, they cannot deprive it of its contentment and rejoicing: indeed, without any labor on its part, it helps to prevent this little spark of love for God from being quenched.

"... there are many, many souls that reach this state and few that pass beyond it..." (32)

"This quiet and recollection - this little spark - if it proceeds from the spirit of God... is not a thing that can be acquired, as anyone who has experience of it must perforce realize immediately, but this nature of ours is so eager for delectable experiences that it tries to get all it can. Soon, however, it becomes very cold; for, hard as we may try to make the fire burn in order to obtain this pleasure, we seem only to be throwing water on it to quench it." (33)

"What the soul has to do at these seasons of quiet is merely to go softly and make no noise. By noise, I mean going about with the understanding in search of many words and reflections with which to give thanks for this benefit and piling up its sins and imperfections so as to make itself realize that it does not deserve it." (34)

For Teresa there are two kinds of prayers of recollection that can precede this prayer of quiet. One is called active recollection "because the soul collects together all the faculties and enters in itself to be with its God. Its Divine Master comes more speedily to teach it, and to grant it the Prayer of Quiet, than in any other way. For, hidden there within itself, it can think about the Passion, and picture the Son, and offer Him to the Father, without wearying the mind by going to seek Him on Mount Calvary, or in the Garden, or at the Column." (35)

"...I should like to be able to explain the nature of this holy companionship with our great Companion, the Holiest of the holy in which there is nothing to hinder the soul and her Spouse from remaining alone together, when the soul desires to enter within herself, to shut the door behind her so as to keep out all that is worldly and to dwell in that Paradise with her God. I say "desires," because you must understand that this is not a supernatural state but depends upon our volition, and that by God's favor, we can enter it of our own accord: this condition must be understood of everything that we say in this book can be done, for without it nothing can be accomplished and we have not the power to think a single good thought. For this is not a silence of the faculties: it is a shutting up of the faculties within itself by the soul." (36)

In contrast to this active recollection St. Teresa describes a passive or supernatural recollection "which almost invariably begins before" the prayer of quiet. (37)

"A person involuntarily closes his eyes and desires solitude; and, without the display of any human skill there seems gradually to be built for him a temple in which he can make the prayer already described; the senses and all external things seem gradually to lose their hold on him, while the soul on the other hand, regains its lost control." (38)

"So, like a good Shepherd, with a call so gentle that even they can hardly recognize it, He teaches them to know His voice... Do not suppose that the understanding can attain to Him, merely by trying to think of Him within the soul, or the imagination, by picturing Him as there. This is a good habit and an excellent kind of meditation, for it is founded upon a truth – namely, that God is within us. But it is not the kind of prayer that I have in mind, for anyone (with the help of the Lord, you understand) can practice it for himself. What I am describing is quite different. These people are sometimes in the castle before they have begun to think about God at all. I cannot say where they entered it or how they heard their shepherd's call: it was certainly not with their ears, for outwardly such a call is not audible. They become markedly conscious that they are gradually retiring within themselves; it happens only when God is pleased to grant us this favor." (39)

"One preparation for listening to Him, as certain books tell us, is that we should contrive, not to use our reasoning powers, but to be intent upon discovering what the Lord is working in the soul; for, if His Majesty has not begun to grant us absorption, I cannot understand how we can cease thinking in any way which will not bring us more harm than profit, although this has been a matter of continual discussion among spiritual persons. For my own part, I confess my lack of humility, but their arguments have never seemed to me good enough to lead me to accept what they say. One person told me of a certain book by the saintly Fray Peter of Alcántara (for a saint I believe he is), which would certainly have convinced me, for I know how much he knew about such things; but we read it together, and found that he says exactly what I say, although not in the same words; it is quite clear from what he says that love must already be awake...

"... when from the secret signs He gives us we seem to realize that He is hearing us, it is well for us to keep silence... But if we are not quite sure that the King has heard us, or sees us, we must not stay where we are like ninnys, for there still remains a great deal for the soul to do when it has still the understanding; if it did nothing more it would experience much greater aridity and the imagination would grow more restless because of the effort caused it by the cessation of thought... God gave us our faculties to work with, and everything will have its due reward; there is no reason, then, for trying to cast a spell over them - they must be allowed to perform their office until God gives them a better one." (40)


(K is the Kavanaugh-Rodriguez translation; P is the Peers’ translation, while O is the original text in the Obras de San Juan de la Cruz. BAC, 6th edition.)


  1. Ascent, 2, 12, 6. P. p. 130.
  2. 2, 12, 8. K. p. 139. O. p. 506.
  3. 2, 12, 8. P. p. 132.
  4. P. p. 132, n. 27.
  5. 2, 13, 2. K. p. 140.
  6. 2, 13, 3. K. p. 140.
  7. 2, 13, 4. K. p. 141. O. p. 507.
  8. 2, 13, 7. K. p. 141. P. p. 135-156. O. p. 507-508.
  9. 2, 14, 2. K. p. 142-143. P. p. 138. O. p. 508-509.
  10. 2, 14, 6. K. p. 144. O. p. 509.
  11. 2, 14, 8. K. p. 144. O. p. 510.
  12. 2, 14, 11. K. p. 146.
  13. 2, 15, 2 and 4. K. p. 148-149. O. p. 513.
  14. Dark Night. I, 8, 1. K. p. 311.
  15. 1, 8, 3. K. p. 312.
  16. 1, 8, 4. K. pp. 312-313.
  17. 1, 9, 1 and 2. K. p. 313.
  18. 1, 9, 3. K. p. 313.
  19. 1, 9, 4. K. p. 314. O. p. 632.
  20. 1, 9, 6. P. pp. 66-67.
  21. 1, 9, 8. K. p. 315.
  22. 1, 9, 9. K. p. 316.
  23. 1, 10, 4. K. p. 317. O. p. 635.
  24. The Living Flame of Love. III, 32. K. pp. 621-622. O. p. 944.
  25. III, 34. K. pp. 622-623. O. p. 944.
  26. III, 34. K. p. 623. O. p. 944.
  27. III, 34. K. p. 623. O. p. 945.
  28. III, 35. K. p. 623. O. pp. 945-946.
  29. III, 38-40. K. p. 625. O. pp. 947-948.
  30. III, 49. P. p. 629. O. p. 952.
  31. III, 65. P. p. 636. O. p. 960.
  32. Life. p. 154.
  33. Ibid., pp. 155-156.
  34. Ibid., p. 156.
  35. The Way of Perfection. Ch. 28, p. 185.
  36. Ibid., Ch. 29, pp. 191-192.
  37. Interior Castle, Fourth Mansion, III, p. 85.
  38. Ibid.
  39. Fourth Mansion, III, pp. 86-87.
  40. Ibid. pp. 87-89.



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Part II, Section 1