John, A Carmelite

John’s decision to join the Carmelite Order rather than to become a Jesuit should arouse little surprise judging from his later writings. In these, John expounds on spiritual life in a manner quite different from that taught within the Jesuit Order. There is only scant documentation regarding John’s early spiritual life. It is only known that he frequently attended Mass, would spend long hours in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and humbly fulfilled his obedience. It is recorded, nonetheless, that, from an early age, he had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary, to whom the Carmelite Order was dedicated. It is also seems evident, based on his later writings, that John, during his youth, had learned and experienced an approach to prayer and the spiritual life quite different from that which he saw practiced among the disciples of St. Ignatius (1491-1556) at the Jesuit College.

Ignatian spirituality was an outgrowth of the devotio moderna, a movement that encouraged the practice of projecting oneself into a Biblical scene through use of the imagination in order to arouse pious emotions. Ignatius of Loyola built upon this practice in his Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises consist of a series of methodical instructions for developing meditative prayer and self-examination in the context of a four–week retreat. For each week there are series of successive meditations for imaginative, mental prayer. The first week involves thinking upon one’s sin and the judgment to come, the second week on the life of Jesus, the third on His passion, and finally, the fourth on His resurrection. Images, used to arouse these thoughts, are strongly encouraged.

In contrast, John of the Cross, in his spiritual directives persistently criticizes the use of images and the imagination in prayer. John writes in The Ascent to Mount Carmel,

“Those who not only pay heed to these imaginative apprehensions but think God resembles some of them, and that one can journey to union with God through them, are already in great error and will gradually lose the light of faith in their intellect . . . Furthermore, they will not increase in the loftiness of hope, the means of union with God in the memory. This union is effected by disuniting oneself from everything imaginative.”

John makes allowance for mediation at the early stages of spiritual life. However, his perpetual admonition is for the novice to progress beyond the need for discursive mediation; whereas, St. Ignatius of Loyola encouraged its continued use. Thus, while it is obvious from his later writings that John benefited from his instructions in Latin and Greek while at the College in Medina, nevertheless he bore little sympathy for the method of prayer employed by his teachers.

Instead, John was attracted to the Carmelite Order, finding in its emphasis on silence and prayerful contemplation a much closer affinity to his own spiritual outlook. The Carmelite foundation of Santa Ana had been made in Medina only three years prior to John’s becoming a novice there in 1563. The Carmelite Order itself had been founded in Palestine in the late 12th century. Little is known of its exact origin. Sometime between 1206 and 1214, a group of hermits living on Mount Carmel requested a rule of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Albert Avogandro (1204-1214). The subsequent Rule of Saint Albert emphasizes the eremitic life of the Carmelite monks. They are ordered to build in solitary places and comprised of separate cells; a strict silence is to be kept from Compline (9pm) to Prime (6am); the monks are encouraged to be vigilant in prayer; and Mass is to be said daily.

Another founding document from this period is The Book of the First Monks. It welds a close connection with the Carmelite monk and the Biblical figure of Elijah, as he is seen at the brook, Cherith (cf. I Kings 17:3-4). Life, according the unknown author, is comprised of two goals: To offer God a pure heart and “to taste somewhat in the heart . . . the intensity of the divine presence. “This”, the writer continues, “is to drink of the torrent of the love of God” as God promised to Elijah. And, “It is in view of this double end,” he concludes, “that the monk ought to give himself to the eremitic and prophetic life.” John, undoubtedly, integrated these teachings into his own spiritual practice. It is known from the account Alonso de Villalba, one of John’s fellow students at Salamanca, that shortly after his profession, John began to keep the rigorous Primitive Rule.


Though devoted to silence and solitude, John nevertheless spent only one year at Medina before he moved to the bustling town of Salamanca in order to study at the Carmelite College of San Andres. The college had been founded in 1548 and was situated in conjunction with the renowned Salamanca University. The student body at the college was very small; only nine other Carmelites joined John when he matriculated in 1565.21 However, altogether nearly 7,000 students matriculated at Salamanca the same year and the streets and lecture halls were crowded with a colorful variety of seculars and religious orders. John’s decision to enter the College of San Andres appears to have been made freely; perhaps he was prompted by the recent improvements made to the College by the Carmelite General Chapter of 1564; perhaps he was lured by the chance to study the greatest achievements of humanistic and theological learning.

The University at Salamanca (chartered in 1254) was, at that time, one of the greatest centers of learning and scholarship in all of Europe, equal to the universities at Bologna, Paris and Oxford. An animated and diverse academic atmosphere pervaded the lecture halls and in this progressive environment John developed his own independence of mind. During this time, Gaspar de Grajal (1530-1575) taught biblical hermeneutics according to the “Scripturist” school in opposition to the established “Scholastic” approach. Luis de Leon (1527-1591), the professor of theology, was not afraid to challenge the revered figures of Aristotle (4th c. BC) and Aquinas (1225-1274). At the College of San Andres, the teachings of John Baconthorpe (1290-1347) formed the basis of theological formation. Baconthorpe was a Carmelite, Aristotelian in orientation but dismissive of many of the conclusions drawn by Aquinas and Dun Scotus (1266- 1308). John’s own caution toward the Scholastic approach can be seen as a direct reflection of this formation. His writings demonstrate a comfortable familiarity with the concepts and logic of medieval philosophical and theological thought; yet he remains free in drawing his own, unique conclusions.

Beyond this general observation, it is difficult to discern any element in his education to which John of the Cross was particularly indebted for his later teachings on the Dark Night. One tradition to which it would be impossible not to ascribe any influence on the Spanish Mystic is the Corpus Dionysium (CD). Several translations of the Areopagite existed in John’s days at Salamanca and there is every reason to believe that he was well acquainted with both the text and its accompanying medieval commentaries. The triadic model of purgation, illumination, and union, adopted by John appears to finds it origin Dionysius. John of the Cross directly quotes from the CD only four times, but significantly: once in each of his four major commentaries. Each of these quotes is drawn from Dionysius’ Mystical Theology, referring to the phrase “ray of divine darkness” (“caliginis divinae radium”). This image of illuminative darkness is the aim and fulfillment of Dionysius’ via negativa. John, in turn, equates the via negativa with his own evocative image of the Dark Night (noche oscura).

The scarcity of John’s direct quotations from the CD prevents the inquirer from discerning the degree to which he relied upon a direct reading of the text and the degree in which he was influenced by the Scholastic commentaries of Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141), Aquinas, and Scotus. John certainly adopted the systematic language of the Scholastics. Nevertheless, whereas Aquinas and Scotus treat the via negativa as an active intellectual exercise by which the philosopher deduces what God is from what He is not, John of the Cross consistently discusses the “ray of darkness” only within the context of a passive experience of God. For the Scholastics, the via negativa was made subservient to doctrinal affirmation. John, as we shall explore later, had quite a different purpose in mind. The Carmelite’s cautious adoption of the Scholastic’s presentation of Dionysius represents his general approach to his education: a discerning and reserved assimilation in service of his one goal: mystical union with God.

His reserve, nonetheless, did not diminish his academic achievements. The outstanding scholarship exhibited by John of the Cross is evidenced by his appointment as prefect of students at San Andres. Records indicate that the young Fray John was highly regarded not only by his teachers, but also by his peers, who marveled at both his erudition and moral austerity. He bore all the marks of a promising professor, but John’s ambition did not lay in an academic career. Kieran Kavanaugh asks, in his introduction to John’s writings, whether his dissatisfaction lay in his distaste for an “atmosphere where the pursuit of knowledge too easily turned into a pursuit of self-exaltation, a quest for titles, chairs, promotions and awards?” His heart desired above all else a life of contemplation, the life that had originally attracted him to the Carmelite order, and this first love whispered to him in the lecture hall. This attraction led him to write his dissertation on contemplation and its practice, based on his reading of Dionysius and Gregory the Great. It is most unfortunate that this document was not preserved. Nonetheless, its writing demonstrates John’s early orientation toward the life of quiet prayer, even while a student at Salamanca.

The desire to intensify his life of contemplative prayer so plagued John of the Cross that he considered joining the rigorous Carthusian order. Since the mid-13th century, the Carmelite Order had undergone a gradual metamorphosis: the original eremitic life had been abandoned in favor of a coenobitic one. The shift was seen as necessary for the survival of the order as they were forced to leave the austerity of Palestine and found themselves in England and Continental Europe. Houses of the order were permitted in populated areas in violation of the Primitive Rule of St. Albert. In 1432, a Mitigated Rule was adopted, abolishing the necessity for silence and the abstention from meat. It has been mentioned that John of the Cross individually maintained observance of the Primitive Rule but the severity necessary for its keeping was not supported by the laxity of his order. Thus, John’s interest in joining the Carthusian Order was well justified. However, in 1567 John of St Matthias (as he was still then known) was ordained to the priesthood and journeyed to Medina de la Campo to serve his first mass at the monastery chapel of Santa Ana. In Medina, he encountered the pivotal figure of Teresa of Avila. It was an event that would dramatically change his life. Instead of vanishing into the obscurity of the Carthusian Order, John would join Teresa’s work and become the great reformer of the Carmelite Order.

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