For Love of
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
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