Category Archives: Carmelite

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross (primarily The Dark Night)

by St. John of the Cross (1585: The Dark Night commentary is completed)

The Dark Night (or as it is oftentimes called “The Dark Night of the Soul“) is the best known of the writings of St. John of the Cross, a Spanish Carmelite priest who was a contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila.

The Dark Night would most likely be the main attraction of a volume of his collected works, as it was for me. But there are three other major works that are also quite worthwhile: The Ascent of Mount Carmel, The Spiritual Canticle, and The Living Flame of Love. All four are based off of the same general pattern. First there is a poem of some length, broken into stanzas, usually five lines each. Then what follows is a commentary that takes one stanza at a time and shows how these stanzas, by design, apply to the spiritual principles St. John is trying to illuminate for us.

Like Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross is not easy reading. Therefore, like I  did for The Interior Castle, I once again strongly advise the reading of Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within beforehand.

As it turns out for me, I found myself liking The Living Flame of Love as much if not more than The Dark Night.

As John is such a superior and gifted writer and theologian, let’s share some excerpts.

First, from The Ascent of Mount Carmel, we have a passage that could serve as a summary of God Wants You Happy by Father Jonathan Morris. It comes from Book Two, Chapter 6, section 1 (which covers the second stanza):

The theological virtues perfect the faculties of the soul and produce emptiness and darkness in them.

1. We must discuss the method of leading the three faculties (intellect, memory, and will) into this spiritual night, the means to divine union. But we must first explain how the theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity (related to those faculties as their proper supernatural objects), through which the soul is united with God, cause the same emptiness and darkness in their respective faculties: faith in the intellect, hope in the memory, and charity in the will. Then we shall explain how in order to journey to God the intellect must be perfected in the darkness of faith, the memory in the emptiness of hope, and the will in the nakedness and absence of every affection.

As a result it will be seen how necessary it is for the soul, if it is to walk securely, to journey through this dark night with the support of these three virtues. They darken and empty it of all things. As we said, the soul is not united with God in this life through understanding, or through enjoyment, or through imagination, or through any other sense; but only faith, hope, and charity (according to the intellect, memory, and will) can unite the soul with God in this life.

– pg. 166

Next, from The Dark Night, we have another concentrated dose which comes from Book Two, Chapter 11, section 3:

3. This happens very particularly in this dark purgation, as was said, since God so weans and recollects the appetites that they cannot find satisfaction in any of their objects. God proceeds thus so that by both withdrawing the appetites from other objects and recollecting them in himself, he strengthens the soul and gives it the capacity for this strong union of love, which he begins to accord by means of this purgation. In this union the soul loves God intensely with all its strength and all its sensory and spiritual appetites. Such love is impossible if these appetites are scattered by their satisfaction in other things. In order to  receive the strength of this union of love, David exclaimed to God: I will keep my strength for you [Ps. 59:9], that is, all the ability, appetites, and strength of my faculties, by not desiring to make use of them or find satisfaction in anything outside of you.

– pg. 420

And finally, from The Living Flame of Love, the commentary on Stanza 1, section 24:

24. Not many people undergo so strong a purgation, only those whom God wishes to elevate to the highest degree of union. For he prepares individuals by a purification more or less severe in accordance with the degree to which he wishes to raise them, and also according to their impurity and imperfection.

This suffering resembles that of purgatory. Just as the spirits suffer purgation there so as to be able to see God through a clear vision in the next life, souls in their own way suffer purgation here on earth so as to be able to be transformed in him through love in this life.

– pg. 651

NOTE: John of the Cross was influential on many saints and saints-to-be, such as Térèse of Lisieux, Edith Stein (see her Science of the Cross), and John Paul II, who wrote one of his two doctoral dissertations on John of the Cross.

 

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The Interior Castle

The Interior Castle

by St. Teresa of Avila (1577)

I would not recommend reading this book — even a study edition — without first having been prepped by Fr. Thomas Dubay’s Fire Within. If you are wrestling with trying to locate yourself within the landscape of the spiritual journey, Teresa of Avila will help shed some light, but I will warn that reading her raised as many questions as answers for me. This is not all bad: we are talking about an extremely transcendent subject, so anything less would not be nearly as interesting, and even captivating and engrossing.

Her basic model is of a castle with seven chambers, each of which represents a major stage within the soul’s spiritual journey inward. The first three are fairly basic, but the fourth is clearly a departure, in which the beginnings of contemplative prayer are discovered. Five, and especially six and seven, are described in ways that are full of vivid imagery and indications of exceptional phenomena, though I have come to understand that these are not necessarily essential.

If you are going to explore deeply the mystical aspects of the spiritual life, you will not want to omit St. Teresa. Just go in prepared.

 

The Science of the Cross

The Science of the Cross

by Edith Stein (1983; original delayed publication in 1950; written 1942)

Edith Stein (a.k.a. St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) wrote this shortly before she was taken to her death by the Nazis. She was a brilliant philosopher before she converted from atheism to Catholicism almost overnight, when she read the autobiography of St. Teresa of Avila while staying at a friend’s home one night. The keen intellect of this Carmelite nun is on display in this work, which is no easy read, but not impossible. She takes the reader through the writings of John of the Cross, quoting him liberally, but doing it in an organized sequence, elucidating much that would escape the casual uninitiated reader of St. John.

Here is a substantial excerpt from Chapter 6, “Purgation through Hope”:

The perfect purgation of the soul is received passively from God. All the soul has to do is prepare herself to receive it: whatever the senses present “must not be stored in the memory…but she must leave them immediately and forget them, and put as much effort into this as one would to remember other things. No image of remembrance should remain in the memory, as though these things  had never existed. The memory should be left completely free and unhindered, and one must not seek to engage it in any meditation on heavenly or terrestrial things. . . . One should leave . . . these things and remain forgetful of them, counting them but a hindrance on the way.”

A spiritual person, on the contrary, who “still wishes to make use of natural knowledge and discursive reflection of the memory in the journey to God” will experience three kinds of harm. She will suffer from manifold miseries concerning things of the world, “for instance, falsehoods, imperfections, appetites, inclinations to criticize, waste of time, etc. . . . ” If one allows the memory to occupy itself with what has been perceived through the senses, one falls “into imperfections step by step. For some emotion will cling to these sensory objects, now of sorrow and fear, soon of hate and vain hopes of vainglory, which will remain in the soul. . . . all things that hinder the perfect purity of the soul and perfect union with God. . . . These imperfections are better overcome all at once through complete denial of the memory.” It is best “to learn to silence and quiet the faculties of the soul so that God may speak to her.” Then “a river of peace will descend on her . . . and . . . in this peace, God will remove all the misgivings, suspicions, disturbances, and darknesses which awakened in her the fear that she is already lost or is near to being lost.”

Further harm comes from the intervention of the devil. He “can add to the soul’s knowledge new impressions, ideas, and reasonings, and by means of them move her to pride, avarice, anger, envy, and so on, and thus seduce her to unjust hatred and vain love . . . By far, most of the great delusions and evils that the devil causes in the soul spring from the knowledge and thought processes of the memory. When therefore, this faculty is shrouded in the complete darkness of forgetfulness and its activity is halted, the gates remain locked against the diabolical influence . . . and this leads to great blessings for the soul.”

The third kind of harm to the soul consists in this: the natural content of the memory can be “an impediment to moral good and deprive one of spiritual good.” The moral good “consists in bridling the passions and curbing the inordinate appetites, and then in the soul’s resulting tranquility and peace, as well as in the moral virtues engendered in her.”

All confusion and disturbance in the soul is caused by the contents of the memory. The soul that lives in restlessness, and that gets no support from moral good, is “incapable of receiving any spiritual good, for the spiritual good can abide only in an even-tempered and peaceful soul.” Should the soul value the contents of the memory and turn to them, “it is impossible for her to be free to receive the Incomprehensible, Who is God.” If she wishes to go to God, she must “replace the mutable and comprehensible by the Immutable and Incomprehensible.”

Then in place of the harm so far described, the soul will gain the opposite advantages: rest and peace of spirit, purity of conscience and of soul, and therewith the best preparation “for the reception of human and divine wisdom and virtues.” She is preserved from many suggestions, temptations, and disturbances caused by the evil enemy, for whom those thoughts provided a handhold. The soul becomes receptive for the motivation by and inspirations of the Holy Spirit.”

– pp. 82-84

(NOTE: The soul is referred to in the feminine pronouns, but only in the same way that ships are, not because the author is female–in fact, most of these references are from John of the Cross–but only because all creatures, and indeed creation itself, are seen as feminine in relation to the Creator.)

If you are interested in a well done movie on the the life of Edith Stein, The Seventh Chamber, starring Maia Morgenstern (who played the mother of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ), is a worthwhile film. It is in Italian with English subtitles.

Fire Within

Fire Within: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and the Gospel on Prayer

by Thomas Dubay, S.M. (1989)

This is widely considered Fr. Dubay’s master work. It’s like a key that helps to unlock extra meaning from his other books. It is also the best preparation to reading St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross for yourself. Without this preparation, I am certain I would have given up, or maybe not even tried in the first place.

The greatest thing about Fr. Dubay is, while it is initially far from obvious, he says what he means and he means what he says. Repeated readings make that impression stronger and stronger. He is thoroughly convincing because of this. I cannot think of another author for which I could say it quite that way. He is unique in that regard.

From Chapter One, “A Question of Relevance”:

Because we are all without exception called to the heights of holiness, this volume is emphatically intended, also without exception, for all men and women in every way of life. When later we examine the inner reasons why this must be so, it shall become clear why our two saints are accurate in their assessment and fully in accord both with Scripture and the mind of the Church.

– pg. 4

A book on advanced prayer is a book on advanced joy. It is a love story, a book about being loved, and loving, totally. It is a book on holiness, the heights of holiness to which the Gospel invites everyone.

Still, we must face the fact that there are people who think the message is too good to be true. Strange as it may seem, among these people are not a few contemporary priests and nuns. It is regrettable, but understandable, that there are those that reject it out of ignorance, men and women who may know of our two saints only from hearsay, not close contact. Not infrequently, among these are religious who were told in their early formative years that Ss. Teresa and John “are not for you” and who could not find these saints’ works in the convent library, for they were erroneously judged as dangerous. Others, very likely, have heard stray bits about the nada doctrine and supposed it was only one spirituality among others that one could take or leave with impunity. Invariably these are people who have so tenuous  a grasp of the New Testament that they would be astonished to learn that these two Carmelites say nothing significant that is not already in the Gospels and the canonical Letters of Paul and Peter, James and John. It is one of the tasks of this volume to show this last point to be true.

But how do we face the further fact of people who have read the sanjuanist and teresian works and who either misunderstand the message or forthrightly reject it? Few if any of these are serious scholars, but they do include some nuns, friars and priests. It may be useful to listen to their objections and respond briefly to them before proceeding further.

Perhaps the most frequent objection bears on the nada doctrine, the drastic detachment taught by both Teresa and John but especially emphasized by the latter. Death to one’s senses and desires is unhealthy if not impossible, it is said, and we understand better today that we can find God not in negation but in affirmation, joy and celebration. Mortification, penance and self-denial are considered to be of the old school, whereas an emphasis on delight and jubilation is more appealing nowadays.

The full response to this objection may be found positively explained in our chapter on freedom, for thorough understanding is the best answer to partial views. A few short comments will suffice for now. People who argue against detachment and self-denial are perhaps unaware that they are simultaneously rejecting the same teaching found in the New Testament. Jesus lays it down that to be his disciple, anyone and everyone must “renounce all that he possesses”, not just part or most of it. In Titus 2:12 we read that “what we have to do is give up everything that does not lead to God”. John and Teresa ask not a whit more . . . or less.

– pp. 5-6