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River of suffering – St. John of the Cross

February 28, 2012 by  
Filed under Dan Burke, Poetry, Suffering

River of Suffering

ZurbaranStJohnoftheCrossAnd I saw the river over which every soul must pass

to reach the kingdom of heaven

and the name of that river was suffering:

and I saw a boat which carries souls across the river

and the name of that boat was love.


PS: This poem is attributed to St. John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church, but I have not been able to find the source. If you know the source, please email me at and put “River of Suffering” in the subject line.  Thank you!


Art: John of the Cross, Zurbarán, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dan Burke

Dan is the President of the Avila Foundation, the parent organization of, the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation, Divine Intimacy Radio and Divine Intimacy Radio - Resources Edition, Into the Deep Parish Programs, the Apostoli Viae (Apostles of the Way) Community, and the FireLight Student Leadership Formation Program, author of the award-winning book, Navigating the Interior Life - Spiritual Direction and the Journey to God, Finding God Through Meditation-St. Peter of Alcantara, 30 Days with Teresa of Avila, Into the Deep, Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux, and his newest book The Contemplative Rosary with St. John Paul II and St. Teresa of Avila. Beyond his "contagious" love for Jesus and His Church, he is a grateful husband and father of four, the Executive Director of and writer for EWTN's National Catholic Register, a regular co-host on Register Radio, a writer and speaker who provides online spiritual formation and travels to share his conversion story and the great riches that the Church provides us through authentic Catholic spirituality. Dan has been featured on EWTN's Journey Home program and numerous radio programs.

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  • This is absolutely beautiful! I love the imagery and the message! Thank you!

  • $1650412

    You guys are going to make me actually break down and read John of the Cross to find where he says this aren’t you? I just have this fear that he will be so over my head I won’t be able to track with him- you know like Teresa of Avila. I have started her book three times and each time I can follow what she is saying a little further, but not all the way to the end! I have read John’s poetry, and whoa! It is beautiful, but way beyond me, and that is just relatively short snips of his heart and soul – there. I am frankly terrified of trying to crack Ascent of mt Carmel, or the Dark Night— hey! Does anyone publish a version of St. John of the Cross for Dummies? 

    • LizEst

       Hi Jo,

      There is a great little book of only 76 pages by Susan Muto titled “Words of Wisdom for Our World–the Precautions and Counsels of St. John of the Cross” (published by ICS pubs) It’s one of my favorites–easy to read and follow (small price, too). I offer that suggestion as something to look into.

      • $1650412

        Thanks so much!

      • Kmccabe

        Ditto on Susan Muto…Epiphany Association!!!!

    • Becky Ward

      This is how I started with the Bible. Something caught my attention and I looked it up….and read a little more. Then I began reading the whole book of the passages that caught my attention…….eventually I think I might get through the whole thing…… 🙂

      LOVING this post…..!

      • judeen

        to read the Holy Bible as instruction of your daily life.. and what is happening around you… the bible becomes a treasure chest of answers.. to everything spiritual there is a explaination and how to live on earth = with heaven on earth.. as in the our Father. how to get blessings and keep them , how to have your crops grow, get rain and have hefers instead of bulls on your farm , how to be rich and how to live poor.. so on

    • Alexandra Campbell

      Hi Jo,
      It took me 25 years to be able read St Teresa’s Life all the way through. I began it in my mid 20’s, put it aside when I got sidetracked into Hinduism, and then brought her back out when I had my conversion back to Christianity. It was still slow going but you sound like you are following the right path, just don’t give up. If you pray for the grace of understanding her and St John, God will give it to you if you persevere. I accidentally read St John’s Living Flame of Love, one of his last books, before reading the more difficult Dark Night, and I am glad I did as it matched up with the phase of receiving a lot of spiritual consolations that I was in early in my serious prayer life. Later, when I stopped getting so many consolations, I turned to the Dark Night and began to understand the purgation phase and redemptive suffering much better. St John explains each stanza of his poetry and when you study his life and the time he spent imprisoned by his own fellow Carmelites (not the reformed group) you see how his experiences influenced his poetry. Hang in there and stick with the original sources is my advice!

    • Lisa

      Jo… hang in there… soon you will find that the Holy Spirit will guide your reading at exactly the right time! I felt this same way about Teresa of Avila (one of my favorites)… I started one of her books 2 times, and suddenly, (like a gift) the 3rd time I understood. And… as a bonus, from our dear Lord, it was perfect for me for that time in my life. Trust… He will give you perfect understanding at the right time!! God bless… lisa


        Absolutely my experience, as well!

    • RB2

       Most of these books by the Saints are available in free pdf form in ‘google books’. Usually versions written/translated by authors 100-200 years ago. No copyright. Download and let the computer search through it for you. Additionally I know of at least 3 very excellent catholic sites that aggregate these versions and additional ones(not found on google) in pdf form and other formats.

      If you have an affordable B&W laser printer at home, then making hard copies( 4 pages to a sheet,front and back,) becomes a very affordable way of making your own hard copy. Just need some spring clips to hold it all together.

    • Mae

      Tan Books publishes The Classics Made Simple: The Dark Night of the Soul…
      It’s $4.95 right now, plus shipping

    • judeen

      it seems we can read a book when the Holy Sprit makes us ready… your called to read them…. I only really understood a certain part of the book and had to read much to get to the point I needed… be pacient with your self.. 1st ask God to take you on a deeper walk with Him…. you want all His gifts He has for you.. and use them for all His Glory…

  • Brigette

    Wow~this is a great piece to post for Lent. May my soul always be open to suffering to draw claose toHim.

  • Melissa

    So beautiful and powerful. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Mizue Inokuchui

    I want to row the right boat of love by myself.

  • Mbtvalli

    Truth.  Thank you for posting this.

  • Joseph

    The Church in South Africa has introduced the Ecclesia program in which parishioners meet in small faith sharing groups. Recently a topic on discipleship came up and there was consensus that “Jesus doesn’t want me to suffer, He wants me to be comfortable and to enjoy life and I do not have to experience any pain in life”.

    I know that suffering in this life through carrying my cross daily in the circumstances and my state in life and following the Lord is the life of a disciple. After all we all know God’s message that unless you do penance you shall all perish.

    QUESTION: How do you introduce this topic of suffering without driving others to abandon the faith? Keep in mind doctrine is not taught in any of the homilies at Sunday Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and thus some Catholics think all “churches are equal”. These are people who believe that infant baptism is just a ritual that has no Theological significance.

    • $1650412

      Joseph, I think the concept of suffering is universal, so all you have to do is mention hardship and everyone can think of something in their lives to which they can relate. The challenge you have is actually in building the theological bridge for people through catechesis that helps them see that God uses our sufferings to purify us, to bring us closer to Himself and to conform us to His image- it is actually the way to become closest to Christ– to enter into His sorrows and sufferings; and He has carried all of our pain before we have ever even become aware of it or of Him. I think we get hung up on the idea of our very human response, which is to make every effort to escape, alleviate, eradicate or ameliorate suffering in our lives and in the lives of others. That is what seems most human and most merciful. But actually it is the yielding to suffering that is beyond our control and the giving of ourselves over to whatever draught or sip from Christ’s chalice that the Lord ordains for us, that is going to make us most fulfilled in this life- in the context of the Christian vocation, I mean. Lent and the Stations of the Cross devotion are a good means for helping people grasp this, I think. Maybe you can make it personal for them by talking them through similar experiences in their own lives that might be parallels to what Jesus went through in each station- or something like that.  I bet you are God’s man for the moment though and He will give you some great resources!

  • Susan

    Double, Triple Dito on Dr. Muto. I recommend ‘John of the Cross for Today: The Ascent

    • LizEst

      Couldn’t help noting you share the same first name!

      I’m dying to ask…

  • A saved sinner

    There are no coincidences! I mentioned to a coworker yesterday, how it is so moving when someone who has dealt with a tragedy (the loss of a loved one[s) by forgiving the person who was responsible for their death.
    By the Grace of God’s LOVE is anyone capable of doing this.
    Faith, Hope and Love…

    • Pat Hanley

      By the Grace of God’s love I am privileged to have met and shared with three such people who have this grace of amazing forgiveness. 
      A young expectant lady had husband shot in front of her and she forgave the two killers and the person who sent them.
      A couple’s son was murdered by his wife. Both forgave their daughter in law.
      In the love of The Merciful Jesus and Our Lady Queen of Peace nothing is impossible. God incidence !.

      • judeen

        Forgiveness is powerful… and we dont think too.. what got that person to such despreate point in their life to do such a thing.. I do not want to know… God does… ours is to forgive , our weapon is love.. and to remember the enemy is Powers and pricipalitys that have fallen from heaven…

    • judeen

      only through God… my children molsted…. could you forgive that person?  only through God.. and other things… it is a process .. it is not a feeling but a decision… and stick to it… the feeling comes later… but it is a freedom for the person to forgive.. giving it to God… for we can do nothing.. we stop the pain in fogiving and stop the hurt that the devil wants us to have… we beleive in eternity … that is our hope… and we forgive as we would want to be forgiven – the Our Father
      God bless               the pain does leave… use it for souls..

  • Bridgetgalassi

    Hello. My husband shared your ode to St. John of the Cross. It made my day brighter knowing a powerful poetic truth remains online and seen by many. I have a question regarding your studies of St. John of the Cross and I am not meaning to be silly, but is there a fire or desert included in St. John of the Cross’ visions?

    Sacred Heart of Jesus,


    • That would depend on what you mean by “vision.” In the Dark Night and Ascent he talks about the “desert” in a little more than ten places but no mention of a vision that I recall. In these same works he uses “fire” more than 100 times… Probably no help to what you are asking.

  • Sojrnr

    I don’t know that St, John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila are so difficult as they are alien to average guys like me. I’ve tried to read the Dark Night, The Interior Castle, even the Cloud of Unknowing. So far haven’t got much beyond the introductions, which cause me as much confusion as the works!

    I’ve recently finished Fr. Benjamin Groeschel’s I Am Always with You, which is a wonderful book, and my understanding of the mystics grew a bit, but Theresa and St. John are still pretty inaccessible to me.

    I have taken the “little way,” St. Therese, of course, and find this very helpful both in prayer and in life. I love Therese’s poetry and try to remember to pray “My Song for Today” every day.

    I would agree with those who suggest perseverance. The first time I read the Story of a Soul my reaction was “yea, okay.” The second time I read it, about a year later, I could not put it down! Maybe this same thing happens with SJC and Theresa.

    Just to keep us all humble, somewhere in one of her books, probably in the translators introduction, I read that St. Edith Stein read Theresa’s Life in a single night, said to herself “this is the truth,” converted to Catholicism and entered the Discalced Carmelites. Pretty good but then Edith Stein was a genius and an extraordinary philosopher.

    Which raises another thing. Read her poem on the Holy Spirit but be prepared to be lifted up into a higher dimension of understanding. I have it here somewhere in my mess but cannot find it or remember the title but if you google St. Edith Stein (St. Benedicta de la Croix) you’ll find it. She only wrote two poems I think so its easy to find.

    Now if you want to read something else that is challenging read her Science of the Cross!

  • Sojrnr

    I do have a question. How do we accept suffering before it comes? I’ll try to explain.

    A great many prayers have been written that ask God to give us the gift of preparing for suffering, accepting suffering, and growing in suffering but still we shrink from it. One of my greatest fears is that when my cross comes I will refuse it and try to get someone else to carry it. Simeon carried our Lord’s cross under compulsion, but it was the soldiers who forced it on him, not the Lord. So others are compelled to assist in carrying our crosses, but that is very much different than having a cross thrown at us by a faithless or cowardly person. How do we prepare ourselves for our cross if we are to avoid bitterly forcing it on someone else, like a spouse or our children.

    • The only preparation is living in a state of grace and closeness to the Lord. There are ways to deal with it when you are in the middle of it, but these counsels are usually meaningless to those outside of the trials. He always gives what we need to endure – it is an unfailing promise.

    • judeen

      we need each other.. God asked us to love one another.. to help each other and love each other no matter what.. the worry is not of God… take each moment as God gives it to us… suffering is a blessing.. for one can love in such depth and understand others… those who God loves goes through this purification…. so be pacient… your time is not now… except what God wants… and remember nothing but good comes out of things when God is in it…

      • Sojrnr

         Thank you both.

    • Becky Ward

      A healthy fear of displeasing or offending God is good! It shows the desire of our hearts. But when it turns to worry or fear of being able to accomplish what God asks of us, that’s not of God, but the evil one.

      Jesus promises us, “I will be with you ALWAYS!!!”, and God never gives us more than we can handle.

      We must remember that all we can handle is what He gives us today! Tomorrow He will give us the grace to deal with tomorrow’s challenges. (Matthew 6:34)

      God Bless Us!!

      • Sojrnr

         All true. Thanks

  • judeen

    suffering =humbles us.. purifies our hearts, souls and emotions , feelings.. it gives us understanding compation, strenght , endurance. empathy.. so on… it helps us realize what is important.. and to suffer to be able to reach eternal joy in heaven is worth it.. and suffering offered up with Jesus passion and death to save souls is worth it… we can just suffer or we can make it work to the Glory of God.. we can complain or we can be still and offer it up as a prayer

  • Sojrnr

    I wonder if there is anything more terrifying than a test of faith. But then again we must be tested if our faith is to remain strong. Still there are a lot of nights spent questioning if I’ll be ready, if my faith is in good soil or is covered with thorns.

  • John Quartieri

    Source is Prayers For Healing – Summer
    https:// books. google .com books (Prayers for Healing: 365 Blessings, Poems, & Meditations from Around the World)

    • LizEst

      Thanks John. That still does not list the source. It is only a collection or compilation…and it is a very common thing that is done. We’re looking for the specific book or poem or writing of St. John of the Cross in which this is written. Nice try, though! God bless you.

      • John Quartieri

        I cannot find it either.

        • LizEst

          Yes, we even asked some Carmelites to look for it a number of years ago… In the interest of honesty, we try to be specific with such things because sometimes sayings get inadvertently attributed to people, without factual basis. This happens a lot. In fact the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center has a link on their site specifically devoted to things that Blessed Mother Teresa did NOT say. You can view that here:

          • John Quartieri

            My mom has a masters from the Franciscan School of Theology and she couldn’t place it. I study divine philosophy and St. John OTC quite a bit. Whether written by him or not, it is in line with his logic and outlook. He woud not mind being aligned with it 🙂

          • LizEst

            Agreed. We’ll continue our search, though! It’s bound to come up.

  • John Quartieri

    “”The purest suffering produces the purest understanding.” -St. JOTC

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