Catholic Lessons on Prayer: St. John of the Cross (I of II) 

We have rediscovered a classic of Catholic Spirituality, the Interior Castle, by St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582). We will elevate our thoughts to God with her disciple and good friend St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) and his insightful work Ascent to Mount Carmel. St. John of the Cross was inspired by all those biblical characters who had a mountain-top experience: Abraham, Moses, and the disciples, but especially Elijah (Cf. 1 Kings 19:11). The mountain is, then, the place where God dwells and where the soul is united with Him. The main message of St. John of the Cross is that one gets to God’s Mountain only through a “dark night”: 

One dark night, 

fired with love’s urgent longings 

– ah, the sheer grace! – 

I went out unseen, 

my house being now all stilled. 

This is the first stanza of the poem. St. John of the Cross composed and memorized it in prison. The book is a commentary of the poem line by line. There are two nights of the soul: one of the senses and one of the spirit. This great mystic invites us to imagine three paths toward the top of a mountain: one of the senses, one of the spirit, and the narrow path to God.  

Only one of the paths leads us to God. The other two are deceiving and would take us away from our goal. The path of the senses is that of our material desires and wants: possessions, freedom, prestige, knowledge, and rest in the world. He notices that the more one desires them, the less one has them. St. John invites us to have an active “dark night” of the senses in which we say neither this, nor this, nor this, nor this… this self-negation to the earthly goods is the first step to receiving God, our Everything.   

St. John of the Cross invites us to go through this purifying night because there will come a time when we won’t desire those earthly goods, and yet we will have them all in God. 

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