Now that we have finished our series on Interior Castle, I’d like to begin looking at the teaching of St. John of the Cross. This will be an occasional series, planned to be posted over the next year. Sometimes I will post on other subjects that inspire me.
Let’s begin with an introduction to St. John’s works and a few good books written about them.
John is most famous for his poems The Dark Night (of the Soul) and The Ascent of Mt. Carmel. But he wrote two other major works also, The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love. He wrote many one-sentence maxims that are grouped differently depending on which editor or translator you read. I will be using the standard English version of his works, The Collected Works if St. John of the Cross translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez group all John’s maxims as The Sayings of Light and Love. There are also short works of counsels and letters. And let’s not forget his shorter poems.
A difficult spirituality?
We know that Teresa of Avila’s work are sometimes misconstrued to promote unorthodox spiritualities such as Centering Prayer. This is true of John of the Cross’s works as well. John’s writing is more obscure than Teresa’s. Some find it frightening.
Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P. Writes:
One cannot discuss Teresa of Avila without thinking of her great collaborator, St. John of the Cross. They are so closely related in their life and work and doctrine that they are like two pillars on which is constructed the Carmelite school of spirituality. St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) is not as widely known and read as he deserves, and there are several reasons for this: he wrote primarily for souls that are already advanced on the path of perfection; his teaching on detachment and purgation is too demanding for some Christians; his language is often too subtle and mystical to suit the taste of modern readers. Yet, his writings and those of St. Teresa compliment each other so perfectly that one of the best ways to understand either one is to study the works of the other.” (Christian Spirituality in the Catholic Tradition, 194)
Here are a few guides that can help you in your study.
- Fire Within by Fr. Thomas Dubay. This perennial favorite provides a perfect exploration of the spirituality of both John and Teresa.
- Union with God by Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD. The author of Divine Intimacy delves into the life and teaching of our saint.
- The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kavanaugh and Rodriguez. The best translation of John’s works also provides an insightful introduction to each work.
Another book I hope to read at some point is John and Therese: Flames of Love : The Influence of St. John of the Cross in the Life and Writings of St. Therese of Lisieux
by Bishop Guy Gaucher. I read two of Bishop Gaucher’s books on Therese will writing Trusting God with St. Therese. He was the bishop of Lisieux and himself a Carmelite.
Many readers start reading John with The Ascent of Mt. Carmel. Finding his doctrine too dry and difficult, they give up reading him and may even settle for a mediocre Christian life. In my posts I hope to draw from many of John’s works and the books about him. This way we can compliment the series on Interior Castle without the temptation to despair.
Please pray for this series, that it may be fruitful for us all!
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6 thoughts on “The writings of St. John of the Cross”
Fr. Marc Foley, OCD , has written a book, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel: Reflections” that, when read before or alongside “Ascent,” brings greater understanding and a contemporary sense to John’s teachings. It, in effect, pours water on the “dryness” you mention, with the result of a life-giving freshness to an otherwise difficult work.
Thanks, Barbara. Another reader has recommended his book before, but I have not yet read it myself.
I am so excited – never even thought to check if Fr Garbriel of St Mary Magdalen had written other books! I so love Divine Intimacy. And I agree with your recommendation of the Collected Works translation by Kavanaugh and Rodriguez. It makes a huge difference in understanding. When I tried to read a different translation the words didn’t speak to my heart as the borrowed copy of this book had. So I bought the Kavanaugh translation and donated the other one. For me with John of the Cross, it is not so much on reading everything he wrote, by reading as it speaks to my soul. His poem, In Principio has had enough richness for years of meditation. I’m so glad you’re starting a series on him!
I don’t know if I’ve ever read that poem. Fr. Gabriel has been a great help to me in seeing the bigger picture of John’s spirituality and how it applies to our lives.
Fr. Thomas Dubay, SM.,
Also donated 14 Major Works ( 1 of 14 lost in database, will rescan ) and signed the international agreement making his out-of-print books available in USA & Internationally in
And he also taught with Kavanaugh and Rodriguez in his formal teachings using his book, “The Fire Within,” in which I had the distinguished privilege formal studies with. Thank you for your contemplatively homeschool and I hope virtual teachings will go to all homeschoolers and underprivileged with in-home private student teaching and learning their certificates. Sincerely yours with Jesus crucified Mary
Are you sure The Evidential Power of Beauty is in the public domain? It is currently being sold on the Ignatius Press website.