That's the best photo I could find of him, in the spirit of full disclosure, the aura around his head was photoshopped, yet his life was nothing short of a miracle, and certainly a gift to us.
There is no mystic who gives a more powerful impression of an absolute mastery of his subject, intimacy with God. No mistiness, vagueness or indecision clouds his writing. He is as clear-cut and definite as can be.
These are not his biases, they are yours, potentially, and it might help you recognise them, if nothing else. One cannot maintain a state of awareness while being subjected or imprisoned in a worldview delimited by borders called childhood, tradition or past experiences.
He may look like an over-pious monk that likes to take it too far, but is the border a limit imposed by us in order to preserve our current state and to protect ourselves from change? Nobody likes rework, any new information that extends us outside of our cosiness, even if positive, is not welcomed without some reluctance.
Maybe shaving his head in a form of a halo is the definition of taking it too far, I have no good arguments in his favor on this one, we'll conveniently blame it on the social pressure of his dedicated peers. I do wonder if they ever complemented each other on the roundness of the halo, or if it made them walk more upright, like they were almost floating, from so much piety, or if they would just walk into the local barber shop, and with a straight face, ask for a 'halo'...
That's enough, let's get into it.
If John had a billboard, this is what he would write on it:
“If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.”
The Good Stuff (Finally)
The ascension to union with God is depicted as a dark night, broken into three stages.
The first one deals with depriving the body of all sensual desires, cleaning the vessel, the second stage hinges on a wish to keep on going, through faith, and the third is complete union with God.
''These three parts of the night are all one night; but, after the manner of night, it has three parts. For the first part, which is that of sense, is comparable to the beginning of night, the point at which things begin to fade from sight. The second part, which is faith, is comparable to midnight, which is total darkness. The third part is like the close of night, which is God, this part now being closest to the light of day.'' - John of the Cross
The First Stage
This initial stage deals mostly with external issues afflicting the soul, such as desires and conflicting thoughts.
''For slavery can have no part with liberty; and liberty cannot dwell in a heart that is subject to desires, for this is the heart of a slave. But it dwells in the free man, because he has the heart of a son.'' - John of the Cross
Desires complete the circle of illusion, which promotes the idea that we are in control. Desires are a way to reach out, and feel if something is still there, inside us.
They enslave us, and we gladly accept, because letting go would mean losing ourselves, understandable. But Jesus thought that however loses his life, will gain it, there is nothing eternal to be had from clinging on to our limited selves.
''For this cause God commanded that the altar whereon the Ark of the Covenant was to be laid should be hollow within; so that the soul may understand how completely empty of all things God desires it to be, that it may be an altar worthy of the presence of His Majesty. '' - John of the Cross
''And He permits and wills that there should be only one desire where He is, which is to keep the law of God perfectly, and to bear upon oneself the Cross of Christ. And thus nothing else is said in the Divine Scripture to have been commanded by God to be put in the Ark, where the manna was, apart from the book of the Law, and the rod of Moses, which signifies the Cross. For the soul that aspires nothing else than the keeping of the law of the Lord perfectly and the bearing of the Cross of Christ will be a true Ark, containing within itself the true manna, which is God, when that soul attains to a perfect possession within itself of this law and this rod, without any other thing whatsoever.'' - John of the Cross
Keeping the law (Torah) and intimacy with Jesus is what makes a complete Christian, it's the dynamic duo.
''The reason for this is that, as the philosophers say, the soul, as soon as God infuses it into the body, is like a smooth, blank board upon which nothing is painted; and, apart for that which it experiences through the senses, nothing is communicated to it, in the course of nature, from any other source. And thus, for as long as it is in the body, it is like one who is in a dark prison and who knows nothing, apart from what he is able to see through the windows of the said prison; and, if he saw nothing through them, he would see nothing in any other way. And thus the soul, apart for that which is communicated to it through the senses, which are the windows of its prison, could acquire nothing, in the course of nature, in any other way.'' - John of the Cross
The above paragraph deals with our limited input in terms of our five senses, which dictate our reality. Apart from what we receive through these senses, and is further than a few planets away from us, we cannot perceive, literally. I mean, someone could be standing right next to us, and we wouldn't know it, if light would not reflect their form. They would have to try to reach us by sound, using words, which are symbols, fractions of what we actually want to express. If this doesn't work, we've got touch and smell. Wow, so advanced!
However, with all this poverty, we are quick to define and require to comprehend the divine, instead of letting the one that created us reveal Himself.
''And it is this that desire does to the soul, kindling its strong sexual desire and dazzling its understanding so that it cannot see its light. For the cause of its being thus dazzled is that when another light of a different kind is set before the eye, the visual faculty is attracted by that which is interposed (sexual desire) so that it sees not the other; and, as the desire is set so near to the soul as to be within the soul itself, the soul meets this first light and is attracted by it; and thus it is unable to see the light of clear understanding, neither will see it until the dazzling power of desire is taken away from it.'' - John of the Cross
This is more of a proximity issue, talking about sexual desire as being obviously super strong, and interposing between us and God's light. We see the first one, and just forget to look further, like a hungry child eating a piece of bread outside the bakery he doesn't know he owns. Not cool.
''Through this obscurity, the thread which guides the soul is that of ‘emptiness’ or ‘negation’. Only by voiding ourselves of all that is not God can we attain to the possession of God, for two contraries cannot co-exist in one individual, and self-love is darkness, while God is light, so that from any human heart one of the two cannot fail to drive out the other.'' - John of the Cross
''The necessary self-emptying may be accomplished in two ways: by our own efforts, with the habitual aid of grace, and by the action of God exclusively, in which the individual has no part whatsoever. '' - John of the Cross
We all have a real problem with letting go and trusting God, it's easier to struggle and get a mental reward for going through the pain, rather than letting go, and letting God do it Himself, with no effort on our part.
The problem with no effort is that we are smart enough to know that the one who works for it, gets the praise and the glory, and as bad as it sounds, we want some of that. We are socially wired to put in the work, and then expect the pat on the back, the recognition. When it's given to us a silver platter, and we have to give God the recognition for even the work that we weren't able to do, it doesn't quite add up in our mind, so we just go back to working for it, with little to no advancements. To rest in God's presence is a struggle at first, the mind just does not want to comprehend it, it's too simple and plain.
Maybe God has something more extravagant on the menu, e special formula, that we can put off for being too complicated. I mean, this one is so easy, that we could start right now, and do it from anywhere, no matter the circumstances... No, no, there has to be another way, we just can't procrastinate with this one, it can't be the way to God!
''For these are souls who, instead of committing themselves to God and making use of His help, rather hinder God by the indiscretion of their actions or by their resistance; like children who, when their mothers desire to carry them in their arms, start stamping and crying, and insist upon being allowed to walk, with the result that they can make no progress; and, if they advance at all, it is only at the pace of a child.'' - John of the Cross
The Second Stage
Congratulations, you've leveled up! Here, one fights with complete obscurity and leaves reasoning behind, powering through sheer faith. The first stage is seen as lower, dealing with more external issues, namely desires, while this second stage is higher, as it deals with hidden parts in us, as we await in pure faith.
It's a darker part of the journey, where most would give up.
All rivers flow to the sea, because it stays low. God wants you to go even lower, and discard yourself of any power or hope you have left, so that He can finally come and reside in you.
The first night deals with our soul, which is made up of our mind, emotions, memories and beliefs, while the second night deals with our spirit.
A prayer of complete silence and faith will now engulf us in darkness for multiple reasons:
For starters, we don't even know where we're going or what's happening, and thus, we are not susceptible to any attacks from the enemy, or rationalising, trying to comprehend what is happening.
This journey in faith absolves us of all impurities while we climb the ladder of faith towards God, and our spirit goes on, while our soul remains with the devil and temptations at the bottom of the ladder, for they cannot climb higher.
To want to rationalise or understand this stage is basically making yourself go back down to the bottom of the ladder every time, for that is where your soul and mind are left.
God does this for our benefit, so that we cannot be tricked or stopped by ourselves or the devil. We must only go forward and not stop, and cling on to faith, which could be compared to a sail that we lifted in the wind, and it always finds it's own way to God.
The darkness is so deep in order for us to be concealed from everything that may distract us, and nobody but God knows where we are, and what is happening. It's a way of letting go in trust, and allowing God to catch us.
''For, in order that one may attain supernatural transformation, it is clear that he must be plunged into darkness and carried far away from all contained in his nature that is sensual and rational. For the word supernatural means that which soars above the natural self; the natural self, therefore, remains beneath it.'' - John of the Cross
Explained in a more practical manner, this is the stage where doubts start creeping in, such as:
- This is a complete waste of time!
- What am I even doing here?!
- What if God is not paying attention?
- How long is this going to take?
- I wonder how many minutes passed...
This is the testing ground, and the mind will pull out every trick in the box to get you to do something, to run away from this stilness.
''A blind man, if he be not quite blind, refuses to be led by a guide; and, since he sees a little, he thinks it better to go in whatever happens to be the direction which he can distinguish, because he sees none better; and thus he can lead astray a guide who sees more than he, for after all it is for him to say where he shall go rather than for the guide. In the same way a soul may lean upon any knowledge of its own, or any feeling or experience of God, yet, however great this may be, it is very little and far different from what God is; and, in going along this road, a soul is easily led astray, or brought to a standstill, because it will not remain in faith like one that is blind, and faith is its true guide.'' - John of the Cross
The Third Stage
This stage is to be experienced, as natural wisdom cannot comprehend what God emanates from His substance, in the purest of ways, through intimacy with our spirit.
As a general rule, we are concerned about the journey, the destination is beyond expectation and human comprehension, just get there, is what I'm trying to say.
''All the virtues grow through the practice of any one of them, and all the vices grow through the practice of any one of them likewise'' - John of the Cross
The Five Evils (according to John of The Cross)
1. The first evil is vanity, pride, vainglory and presumption; for a man cannot rejoice in his works without esteeming them. And hence arise boasting and like things, as is said of the Pharisee in the Gospel, who prayed and congratulated himself before God, boasting that he fasted and did other good works.
2. The second evil is usually linked with this: it is our judging others, by comparison with ourselves, as wicked and imperfect, when it seems to us that their acts and good works are inferior to our own; we esteem them the less highly in our hearts, and at times also in our speech. This evil was likewise that of the Pharisee, for in his prayer he said: ‘I thank Thee that I am not as other men are: robbers, unjust and adulterers. So that by one single act he fell into these two evils, esteeming himself and despising others, as do many nowadays, saying: I am not like such a man, nor do I do this and that, as does such or such a man. And many of these are even worse than the Pharisee. He, it is true, not only despised others, but also pointed to an individual, saying: ‘Nor am I like this publican.’ But they, not satisfied with either of these things, go so far as to be angry and envious when they see that others are praised, or do more, or are of greater use, than themselves.
3. The third evil is that, as they look for pleasure in their good works, they usually perform them only when they see that some pleasure and praise will result from them. And thus, as Christ says, they do everything and work not for the love of God alone.
4. The fourth evil follows from this. It is that they will have no reward from God, since they have desired in this life to have joy or consolation or honour or some other kind of interest as a result of their good works: of such the Saviour says that herein they have received their reward. And thus they have had naught but the labour of their work and are confounded, and receive no reward.
There is so much misery among the sons of men which has to do with this evil that I myself believe that the greater number of good works which they perform in public are either vicious or will be of no value to them, or are imperfect in the sight of God, because they are not detached from these human intentions and interests. For what other judgment can be formed of some of the actions which certain men perform, and of the memorials which they set up, when they will not perform these actions at all unless they are surrounded by human respect and honour, which are the vanity of life, or unless they can perpetuate in these memorials their name, lineage or authority, even setting up their emblems and escutcheons in the very churches, as if they wished to set themselves, in the stead of images, in places where all bend the knee?
In these good works which some men perform, may it not be said that they are worshipping themselves more than God? This is certainly true if they perform them for the reason described and otherwise would not perform them at all. But leaving aside these, which are the worst cases, how many are there who fall into these evils in their good works in many ways?
Some wish to be praised, others to be thanked, others enumerate their good works and desire that this person and that shall know of them, and indeed the whole world; and sometimes they wish an intermediary to present their alms, or to perform other of their charitable deeds, so that more may be known of them; and some desire all these things. This is the sounding of the trumpet, which, says the Saviour in the Gospel, vain men do, for which reason they shall have no reward for their works from God.
In order to flee from this evil, such persons must hide their good works so that God alone may see them, and must not desire anyone to take notice of them. And they must hide them, not only from others, but even from themselves. That is to say, they must find no satisfaction in them, nor esteem them as if they were of some worth, nor derive pleasure from them at all.
It is this that is spiritually indicated in those words of Our Lord: ‘Let not thy left hand know what they right hand doeth. Which is as much to say: Esteem not with thy carnal and temporal eye the work that thou doest spiritually. And in this way the strength of the will is concentrated upon God, and a good deed bears fruit in His sight; so that not only will it not be lost, but it will be of great merit.
And in this sense must be understood that passage from Job: ‘If I have kissed my hand with my mouth, which is a great sin and iniquity, and my heart hath rejoiced in secret.’ Here by the hand is understood good works, and by the mouth is understood the will which finds satisfaction in them.
And since this is, as we say, finding satisfaction in oneself, he says: If my heart hath rejoiced in secret, which is a great iniquity against God and a denial of Him. And this is as though he were to say that he had no satisfaction, neither did his heart rejoice in secret.
5. The fifth of these evils is that such persons make no progress on the road of perfection. For, since they are attached to the pleasure and consolation which they find in their good works, it follows that, when they find no such pleasure and consolation in their good works and exercises, which ordinarily happens when God desires to lead them on, by giving them the dry bread of the perfect and taking from them the milk of babes, in order to prove their strength and to purge their delicate appetites so that they may be able to enjoy the food of grown men, they commonly faint and cease to persevere, because their good works give them no pleasure.
In this way may be spiritually understood these words of the Wise Man: ‘Dying flies spoil the sweetness of ointment.’ For, when any mortification comes to these persons, they die to their good works and cease to practise them; and thus they lose their perseverance, wherein are found sweetness of spirit and interior consolation.
Poem to ponder on:
''Strive always to prefer, not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult;
Not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing;
Not that which gives most pleasure, but rather that which gives least;
Not that which is restful, but that which is wearisome;
Not that which is consolation, but rather that which is disconsolateness;
Not that which is greatest, but that which is least;
Not that which is loftiest and most precious, but that which is lowest and most despised;
Not that which is a desire for anything, but that which is a desire for nothing;
Strive to go about seeking not the best of temporal things, but the worst.'' - John of the Cross
Not a Boring History
John of The Cross was a Spanish mystic born in 1542, where he fought a battle to redeem the moral values and principles of the monasteries in order to shine a light on the people they were serving and being a role model for.
He joined forces with Teresa of Avila and raised the standards of what following Christ would look like. They loved their rules and regulations, but they also stayed loyal to Jesus until the end, through many hardships, which gives them and A++ for raising the bar and not letting themselves fall on the long journey.
Limited only by his time and circumstances, he was well beyond his era in terms of knowledge of the divine, and his ability to expose the inner path to God in one of his greatest books, Ascent of Mount Carmel, is nothing short of epic.
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