St. John of the Cross: The (Original) Dark Knight

Written by Chris

Photo by Damir Mijailovic on


Hold on, I know what you’re thinking: “who the heck is this dude?!”Yes, we’re beginning the church history section with a Roman Catholic mystic from the sixteenth century. “Why?” Let me tell you…

I think it’s easy for us to draw lessons from prominent people in church history; bastions of orthodoxy, names that have gone down in legend. But there are also timely messages for us in the twenty-first century to consider from such figures as ol’ St. John. Here are avenues of thought that we would not walk down if we kept to the well-marked ways of the great and good of orthodox Christian history. The thing that makes a character like San Juan – he was a Spaniard – so compelling, is that he approached life from such a different angle and environment to most of us. Yet it seems his desire to know God, enjoy him and serve him was the same.

St. John – born Juan de Yepes in the Spanish village of Fontiveros in 1542 – was a “…man of silence, recollection, and self-discernment”[1] in life but he cries out to us still. Here is found profound beauty of soul poured forth in what is considered some of the greatest Spanish poetry. His unique perspectives can skirt the standard defences we erect for our comfortable status-quo expressions of faith and get to the heart of some of our foibles and mistakes.  (although, going by what we know of his theology, he was a rebel even within Catholicism). 

As something of an outsider he offers us something different. When we turn to the standard figures of church history, we see people looking around at us from the inside. The streets they walk, the views they see, are our own. St. John stands outside the gates of our citadels and cries his pronouncements from beyond the walls. He looks in on us, giving him a distinct perspective and powerful platform. And this is what he has to say… 

4 Lessons from St John

St. John asks us to consider three things. Firstly, his writings aim to depend on Scripture. Next, if he has strayed from this aim, he asks the reader to submit to the Catholic Church. Thirdly, he was writing for the friars and nuns of his Order, embedded in a life of seclusion and contemplation.

His writings should primarily be assessed on how they correlate with Scripture, pouring his work through the filter of the Word. We must also view him as a product of his time. Sometime his work is hard to decipher but, we shouldn’t use this as an excuse to disregard him. From the fire of St. John’s soul there burn sparks that can illuminate some of the theological and cultural blind spots that exist for evangelicals today.

1. Creative expression can help us process the Christian life.

On a dark night, 
Kindled in love with yearnings–oh, happy chance!–
I went forth without being observed, 
My house being now at rest.

Dark Night of the Soul

The first lesson is a simple one: St. John, in the depths of his most intense trials, composed poetry. His creativity was both a gateway to process this extreme experience and an end in itself. For evangelicals, this is often something we are overly wary of. Instead of finding creative outlets to deal with our inner emotions we often merely prescribe prayer, Scripture reading, or a ‘good’ Christian book. The first two of these are foundations of the Christian life, and the last one is a useful extra. But side-stepping other forms of emotional outlet hamstrings us. We must rightly temper this with a cautious view of St. John’s emphasis on ‘mystical’ experiences and prayers. Yet, this should not stop us recognising our over-emphasis on cerebral means – ‘knowing more’ intellectually – and seeing the value and efficacy of less commonplace activities.

When considering the evidence we could be surprised by our over-indulgence in ‘intellectual knowledge’. The Bible is packed with poetry and creativity. David’s emotional outlet in the Psalms encourages us to engage our feelings creatively, to cry out to God from the depths of our soul and to ‘sing a new song’ (Psalm 149:1). St. John was also inspired by Song of Songs, and much of his language is dripping with that rich dialect of love for God. He captures something of the emotion and longing for God that all Christians should have in their inner being and lets it pour out:

In the happy night, 
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught, 
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

Dark Night of the Soul

2. Take time to contemplate God.

Reveal Your presence, 
And let the vision and Your beauty kill me, 
Behold the malady 
Of love is incurable 
Except in Your presence and before Your face.

The Spiritual Canticle

St. John helps us see the importance of contemplating who God is. A contemporary idol is ‘action’. In an age of mass-activity and instant results we are prone to desire for ‘doing’. Application = pray more, read more, give more, serve more. Increasingly we have lost a sense of dwelling on God: thinking more, feeling more, contemplating more, resting in. 

In the silence before God we have no place to hide: “we come to prayer – and there is nothing left in us, no ground on which to stand.”[5] Of course we are not not saved through contemplative ascent any more than through frantic action. St. John helps us re-establish a right understanding of what it means to contemplate God’s otherness while we also cling to the teaching of the New Testament. We can pray to God as Father not solely King or Master but on the basis of our familial connection. (Matthew 6). If we truly take time to contemplate who God is, both in His majesty and approachability, rather than jumping to ‘activity’, we will redress some of the balance we have lost.

3. There is Purpose in Suffering.

Quench my troubles, 
For no one else can soothe them; 
And let my eyes behold You, 
For You are their light, 
And I will keep them for You alone.

The Spiritual Canticle

St. John can reinvigorate our understanding of suffering. Dealing with and processing suffering lies at the core of his work. Dark Night was, for John, a mystical experience but it resonates in the ordinary, everyday lives of believers. Suffering is not just spiritual but visceral and physical. In The Dark Night, he masterfully depicts the spiritual turmoil that may befall a believer: “…the aridities which they [believers] suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them.”[6] But this is the key: St. John saw these trials as purposeful. They are not meaningless and uncertain but are considered “spiritual exercise”[7] after which the soul rejoices. We experience God more closely and he pours out his grace to us in this darkness.

We should be reminded of Paul’s deep distresses and tribulations of 2 Corinthians 11. His sufferings were intensely physical as well as psychological, but the darkness of his night caused the light of the glory of God, which awaited him, to shine even brighter. Jesus assured his followers that they are blessed if they are following in the same suffering pattern he did (Matthew 5). It is in these times that love for God is kindled most greatly. In Psalm 89, the writer, in the face of his people’s seeming forsakenness, can still sing of his love (v1), pine after God (v46) and it is this that brings him through to say “blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and Amen” (v52.)

4. Don’t seek to detach yourself from creation.

I remained, lost in oblivion; 
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself, 
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

Dark Night of the Soul

There are things we can learn from St John as a negative example too.

Mysticism assumes that if we want to know God, we cannot rely on human experience alone. This leads to a perceived experience of God where the boundaries of reality often seem expanded.[8] We should be especially cautious with this. St. John says there is a ‘beginner’ experience, which is “common and comes to many”, and a greater one that comes to “only they that are practiced and proficient.”[9] These levels of experience do not exist in the Bible.

This forms the basis for St. John’s asceticism. True holiness was, for him, a detachment from earthly things that would cloud our experience of God in the mystical realm. 

There are also worrying links to a neo-platonic revival and Gnostic thought. Neoplatonism holds that the realm of the mind is greater than that of matter. It is linked to ‘Gnosticism’, the ancient heresy that separated those who had a certain ‘secret knowledge’ from those that did not. It derided the physical as inferior to the ‘spiritual’. There are alarming similarities with St. John’s Christian spirituality.

Paul Elmer More, the American essayist, attacked this aspect of St. John’s thinking[10] saying that this extreme ascetism is incompatible with the Doctrine of the incarnation – if the flesh is so loathsome, why would God come to earth in human form? St. John’s idea of the mystical act of God directly touching the soul belittles Christ’s role as Mediator. In this, St. John derides the physical, as he believes God himself bypasses it, choosing instead to interact with humanity through mystical experience.

We must temper these assertions with Paul’s letter to the Colossians. In it he deals explicitly with those who claimed to have a greater spiritual experience or desirable secret knowledge (2:18-19.) It attacks those who peddled a spirituality that rejected the physical. In 2:20-23, these things have the appearance of wisdom but lack value. And 1 and 2 John were in part written to address the gnostic notion of secret knowledge.

In these epistles, we see that true spirituality is love: physical, in-the-flesh, and supremely displayed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament Israel was to be a light to the nations. They were not to store up secret spiritual knowledge make the promises of God made clear to everyone thus spreading out to all the earth (e.g. Isaiah 49:6.) 1 Timothy 4:1-5 says we are not to reject God’s good gifts, as they are made holy by the word and through prayer. If we reject the physical gifts, we reject the Giver.

4. Enjoy the fruits of Biblical union with God.

In darkness and secure, 
By the secret ladder, disguised–oh, happy chance!–
In darkness and in concealment, 
My house being now at rest.

Dark Night of the Soul

For St. John, union was a mystical spiritual state progressed towards, and only reached through, contemplative affliction of the soul and an abandonment of the things of earth. Much of his understanding of this subject is confused. At its climax, the journey to union for the believer leads to such a close bond that the soul “seems God and God the soul”[11] as it becomes absorbed by the divine, being truly divine in itself[12].

Hmmm, I see problems. While we do become ‘partakers of the Divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4) and the Father and Son will dwell in us (John 17:20-23) God doesn’t absorb us into himself, such that we become indistinguishable with Him, or that Christ replaces us with himself. If we are indistinguishable from God, how are we not perfect? But Hebrews 7:28 states that there is only one Son who has been made perfect forever, and we hold onto the hope that the believer will one day be made perfect (Galatians 5:5).

No, in union with God, we become what we were made to be: we are made more human, not made divine. Union is more akin to being adopted into a family (Ephesians 1:5) or grafted into a vine (John 15:4-6) than absorbed like water into a tank. Union with God is therefore not a journey to embark upon, but a reality for the believer that is increasingly lived out. God the Trinity brings us to union with Him by faith in Christ and his work in his death and resurrection (Romans 6:3-11).

St. John falls into the trap of confusing union with communion. The legal or covenantal aspect of our union with God in Christ is the basis for the mystical or organic communion and fellowship we share with Him.[13]

We must hold fast to a Biblical view of union with God. All spiritual life for the Christian stems from this truth. It is a central pillar of understanding for our own salvation and for the very nature of God Himself. But we must be at pains to teach that it is not obtained by spiritual experience, or striving along a road, but is dependent on the cross of Christ, our faith in him, and the divine work of the Spirit. This is helpful for those in our congregations who have come from religious backgrounds where mysticism and individual spiritual experience is given higher status. It also rightly attacks a new-age, self-actualized spiritualism that sits well within a pluralistic and post-modern culture.

In Conclusion: Holistic Christian Spirituality

St. John of the Cross is an obscure figure for evangelicals, but we can positively assert his example of using a creative outlet to deal with his Christian experience. We can see the power and validity of contemplating God. St. John sharpens our understanding of the role and usefulness of suffering in the Christian life. Negatively, we need to hold the views of mysticism at arm’s length as it creates an unhelpful binary level of spirituality and asceticism. We also need to be wary of St. John’s unbiblical rendering of union with God.

Maybe most of all, St. John helps us see the importance of teaching a Biblically centred, holistic Christian spirituality where we do not downplay the physical or overplay the ‘spiritual’ but bring the two rightly in line with Scripture. It speaks to those of us who, having sought to distance ourselves from materialism, have detached ourselves from created thing, and to those of us that strive for the material too much. St. John helps us see the danger of a pendulum swing too far in either direction.

[1] Herrera, R. A., Silent Music: The Life, Work and Thought of St. John of the Cross, Eerdmans, 2004, p.48
[2] Or, the Order of the Brothers of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel(!)
[3] Tillyer, D., Union with God: The Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Mowbray, 1984, p.6
[4] The Dark Night of the SoulThe Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Living Flame of Love
[5] Burrows, R., Ascent to Love: The Spiritual Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1987, pp.63-64
[6] Dark Night, p.25
[7] Dark Night, p.2
[8] Herrera, p.2
[9] Dark Night, p.20
[10] More, P.E., The Catholic Faith, Princeton University Press, 1931 pp.255-283
[11] Dark Night, p.30
[12] Horton, M., Pilgrim Theology: Core Doctrines for Christian Disciples, Zondervan, 2012, p.276
[13] Horton, p.277

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