An Instruction on Prayer from St John of the Cross


St. John of the Cross considered this part of the only information a beginner or proficient in prayer needed to know to continue. Obviously, he expected a lot of his beginners. These instructions are how to enter the active night of the senses--one part of the Dark night over which we have some control.

from The Ascent of Mount Carmel Book 1, Chapter 13 St. John of the Cross

10. To conclude these counsels and rules, it will be fitting to set down here those lines which are written in the Ascent of the Mount, which is the figure that is at the beginning of this book; the which lines are instructions for ascending to it, and thus reaching the summit of union. For, although it is true that that which is there spoken of is spiritual and interior, there is reference likewise to the spirit of imperfection according to sensual and exterior things, as may be seen by the two roads which are on either side of the path of perfection. It is in this way and according to this sense that we shall understand them here; that is to say, according to that which is sensual. Afterwards, in the second part of this night, they will be understood according to that which is spiritual.

11. The lines are these:

In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything, Desire to have pleasure in nothing.
In order to arrive at possessing everything, Desire to possess nothing.
In order to arrive at being everything, Desire to be nothing.
In order to arrive at knowing everything, Desire to know nothing.
In order to arrive at that wherein thou hast no pleasure, Thou must go by a way wherein thou hast no pleasure.
In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not, Thou must go by a way that thou knowest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou possessest not, Thou must go by a way that thou possessest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou art not, Thou must go through that which thou art not.
12. When thy mind dwells upon anything,

Thou art ceasing to cast thyself upon the All. For, in order to pass from the all to the All, Thou hast to deny thyself wholly in all. And, when thou comest to possess it wholly, Thou must possess it without desiring anything. For, if thou wilt have anything in having all, Thou hast not thy treasure purely in God.

This is, admittedly, the unfortunate and awkward translation of E. Allison Peers, the one which many read and which leaves them utterly mystified--with good reason. The translation fails in most cases to be good English, much less a good translation from Spanish.

So, while it is awkward, I think the sense of it shines through. The point of the instruction is to cultivate a habit of mind in which these things predominate. We are called to the via negativa--which is denial of self--but NOT denial of creation. That is all created things are good, but many serve as obstruction on the path to union with God. Many natural goods start as resting points and then become sticking points. St. John of the Cross insists that the way around this is to take pleasure in nothing less than the presence of God himself. That doesn't mean to make yourself miserable to ascend the mount--at least I don't so interpret it. I read it more in line with Plato's cave of illusions. All created things are merely shadows and images of that which truly gives pleasure--so rather than chase after the shadow--chase after that which casts the shadow to achieve true happiness in Union.

I invite other comments, questions, challenges. I am by no means expert and stand to learn a great deal from the many who often comment here. What I say is NOT definitive, it is merely an attempt to make clear what I think the great teacher is saying, and by making it clear make it more probable that I shall put it into action in the near future.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on May 1, 2003 8:33 AM.

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