Today is the feast of St John of the Cross (Juan de la Cruz); 1542 – 14 December 1591. He was a Carmelite friar and priest, ultimately of Marrano (converted Spanish Jews) extraction. He was a major figure of the Spanish Counter-Reformation, a mystic and Roman Catholic saint. He is one of thirty-six Doctors of the Church. John of the Cross is known especially for his writings. He was mentored by and corresponded with the older Carmelite, Teresa of Avila – http://www.bookofdaystales.com/teresa-of-avila/ . Both his poetry and his studies on the development of the soul are considered the summit of mystical Spanish literature and among the greatest works of all Spanish literature. He was canonized by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726.
John of the Cross lived a complicated life, fractured many times by his position on reform within the church that put him at odds with powerful factions. At one time he was even imprisoned and tortured – not by nasty heathens, but by supposed Christians. He was able to escape his tormentors, fortunately, and spent much of his life (both in prison and subsequently) writing mystical treatises. I do not have space to review all of his life and works. Instead I will focus on “Dark Night of the Soul” which is not the name John gave the poem; it was unnamed, but that is the name given by later commentators and is standard now. The poem is short, but he wrote an extensive commentary on it, following the visions that evoked the poem in the first place.
In “Dark Night of the Soul” (8 stanzas of 5 lines each), the narrator describes the journey of the soul to mystical union with God. The journey is called “The Dark Night” in part because darkness represents the fact that the destination, God, is unknowable, as in the 14th century, mystical classic The Cloud of Unknowing, which, like St. John’s poem, derives from the works of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite in the 6th century. Not only is God unknowable, the path to God is also unknowable. The first verse of the poem can be translated:
In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
(O hapless, happy plight!)
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be
At the beginning of his treatise on Dark Night (the Declaración), St. John writes: “In this first verse, the soul tells the mode and manner in which it departs, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, dying through a true mortification to all of them and to itself, to arrive at a sweet and delicious life with God.”
The “dark night of the soul” does not refer to the difficulties of life in general, although the phrase has understandably been taken to refer to such trials. The nights which the soul experiences are the two necessary purgations on the path to Divine union: the first purgation is of the sensory or sensitive part of the soul, the second of the spiritual part (Ascent of Mount Carmel, Ch. 1, 2). Such purgations comprise the first of the three stages of the mystical journey, followed by those of illumination and then union. St. John does not actually use the term “dark night of the soul” but only “dark night” (“noche oscura”).
There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas of the poem. The theme of the poem is the joyful experience of being guided to God. The only light in this dark night is that which burns in the soul. And that is a guide more certain than the mid-day sun: Aquésta me guiaba, más cierto que la luz del mediodía. This light leads the soul engaged in the mystical journey to Divine union.
The Ascent of Mount Carmel is divided into three books that reflect the two phases of the dark night. The first is a purification of the senses (It is titled “The Active Night of the Senses”). The second and third books describe the more intense purification of the spirit (Titled “The Active Night of the Spirit”). “Dark Night of the Soul” further describes the ten steps on the ladder of mystical love, previously described by Saint Thomas Aquinas and in part by Aristotle.
The region of Spain where John of the Cross was born and lived for much of his life is noted for the dish Judías del Barco – locally produced white beans with spices and chorizo. Seems like a suitable Christmas feast dish – even for an ascetic monk. Here is a video – in Spanish, I’m afraid. You’ll have to just deal with it I’m afraid. The good news is that you can get the basics from observation only if you are Spanish challenged. It’s not complicated anyway.