Reflections on
St. John of the Cross Pt 1

While I generally write pieces that are relevant to both Atheists and those who believe or are trying to believe in God, this series is more focused on those who conduct their search for liberation in the context of a God-centered practice.

My hope is that Atheists will realize this information will give them insights into how other people believe and practice, rather than to think that I am asking them to agree with any of these specific views.

I believe it is unwise to read the major works of St. John of the Cross without first reading modern commentaries.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, Father Marc Foley, a Carmelite Priest, has provided the best commentaries I have seen so far. His recent book “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel-Reflections” offers some useful ways to help understand John’s terminology.

He correctly identifies a core problem for modern readers of John’s books. John used terms that had very specific definitions in the tradition from the Middle Ages that is the tradition that formed his approach to contemplation and his writing style. To one degree or another, those definitions are different from modern usage and these differences can easily create confusion for modern readers.

For example he gives a definition of how John uses the word “sense” and the word “spirit.”

1) By” sense” John meant, “…the five bodily senses and the interior senses of imagination, phantasy, and sense memory. “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel-Reflections” ICS Publications, Washington, DC 2013 Marc Foley OCD, page 3

John did not use phantasy in the way we might today. For him phantasy was more of a constructing function of the mind that assembles complex images.

2) By “spirit” John meant it,”… consists primarily of intellect, memory, and will.”   IBID page 5

Regrettably Father Marc Foley is not that clear about how “sense memory” in the “senses” is different from the way he refers to “memory” in the “spirit.” This is an example where better editing by the publisher really would have been helpful.

But still his commentary offers a reasonably clear description of what John meant by the word “sense” and the word “spirit’ and that is a helpful beginning.

It is helpful because the core description of John’s map of the progress with contemplative prayer has four aspects divided into the two general categories of “sense” and “spirit.”

The Active Night of Sense.

The Passive Night of Sense.

The Active Night of Spirit.

The Passive Night of Spirit.

By having a better idea of how he is using the words “sense” and “spirit” it is possible to have a better idea of what functions of the mind are being tended to in each of these four stages. I will go into more detail next week.

But, I encourage anyone who is interested in making a serious study of St. John of the Cross to obtain a copy of Father Foley’s two works, “The Ascent of Mt. Carmel-Reflections” and “Ascent to Joy.” I suggest you read them both before making an attempt to read John’s own writings. One major benefit to doing so is that Father Foley offers a reinterpretation that softens up some of the bleak and extreme language John often used. Whether he is correct in doing this I don’t know, but still reading Father Foley’s interpretation is, in my opinion, much better than starting with the original works.

Unfortunately Father Foley’s exposition on a wide range of topics related to John’s views on contemplative prayer are in some ways incomplete and in other ways vague and confusing in their own right. Still, one can get a solid overview of John’s method and use of key terms and this is a good beginning.

Why would anyone bother trying to understand St. John of the Cross if both he and his commentators often stumble as they try to get key points across?

Because the core message of St. John of the Cross is a highly effective way to study contemplative prayer in a Catholic context.

I will go into more detail as to why I feel that way next week.

Please let me know what experience, if any, you have of reading and putting into practice St. John of the Cross’s teachings.

Will Raymond Author of “The Simple Path of Holiness” and Host of

will   at meditationpractice    dot    com  (spelled out to limit spam)


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