For Love of the World:
The Old and New Self of John of the Cross

by David B. Perrin

1997 International Scholars Publications, (301) 654-7414


The poetry of John of the Cross is generally agreed to be a powerful expression of experiences so profound that only rich, poetic imagery even begins to satisfy. John explained that his experiences of God were basically unwordable. All he could do was attempt to communicate through the paradoxical symbols of his poetry. Readers easily respond to their own depths to John's soul language.

John's prose commentaries on his poetry, however, are a different matter. In these commentaries John attempts to interpret his experiences in theological categories of the day. The attempt is often lyrical, but it also becomes a treatise difficult to read because the language is foreign. John, with his own adaptations, uses the Scholastic-Aristotelian language he learned from his studies in the great theological school of Salamanca.

The psychology of his day understood the human person to have various powers or faculties. Each power or faculty had an appetite or drive seeking fulfillment. For example, the faculty of the eye desired to take in that which was pleasing. John's analysis was that the appetite in each faculty or power was expressive of a person's basic hunger for God. "The soul's center is God," he wrote. Because people today usually do not think of themselves compartmentalized, nor do they use this metaphysical language to express themselves, the writings of John of the Cross are often uninviting and even inaccessible.

Dr. David Perrin meets this problem head-on. He carefully and clearly explains the categories used by John of the Cross. Perrin does not avoid John's language, but provides a reader with interpretive keys. In particular he shows how John, in his poetry and prose, is describing the transformation of a person's appetites. In this transformation of human desire, the person, under the impact of God's love, learns to want what God wants. All the person's desires eventually are in accord with God's desire. In this consonance of desires the transformed person now lives in a way which cooperates with God's reign.

John of the Cross discusses this transformation as a movement from the old self to the new self. Using John's scholastic categories, Perrin carefully and insightfully guides the reader along the journey, making clear the old which is dying and the new which is being born. With Perrin's sure, scholarly exposition, John's writings become more accessible and the profundity of his teachings more evident. Contrary to popular assumptions about mystics, this new self has not been removed from the mundane. Perrin writes, "What has been given in the description of the new self is a way to embody love amidst the ambiguities and the paradoxes of daily life."

John Welch, O.Carm., Ph.D. Full Professor at the Washington Theological Union Washington, D.C., United States of America