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Wisdom for the Ascent – 1 – St. John of the Cross

Wisdom for the Ascent

Wisdom for the Ascent:

THE soul must of necessity–if we would attain to the divine union of God–pass through the dark night of mortification of the desires, and self-denial in all things. The reason is this; all the love we bestow on creatures is in the eyes of God mere darkness, and while we are involved therein, the soul is incapable of being enlightened and possessed by the pure and simple light of God, unless we first cast that love away. Light hath no fellowship with darkness, for as St. John saith, ‘The light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.’

John of the Cross, S., Zimmermann, B., & Lewis, D. (2010). The Ascent of Mount Carmel (15—16). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.

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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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  • hazcompat

    The possession of the pure and simple light of God is available to the least and the greatest. Lift up your hearts,


  • Stiofan Deburca

    Litany of Humility (private devotion – Cardinal Merry del Val after daily Mass) provides another dimension ie removal of self!

    • Alexandra Campbell

      I love this litany and need to post it on my bathroom mirror so I can say it everyday, thank you for reminding me!!!1

      • $1650412

        The Litany of Humility? Oh, my experience with that prayer is that the answers begin to manifest immediately! ;0)

  • Claire

    Is this possible for ordinary people in everyday life?

    • Becky Ward


    • Alexandra Campbell

      I found that it is possible in little glimpses. For example, I live alone for the most part with my cat only for company. When I notice that I am LOVING my cat tooooo much, because he is my only companion in the physical world, I try to back off of this inordinate affection and practice, actively, with my mind to Love him only for the sake of his Creator. So, while petting him, I close my eyes and think of the Marvelous God who made him, rather than Zorro (his name) himself…I try to focus on loving him for the sake of God and muse over how wonderful God is that He gives us pets for unconditional love in a sometimes cruel world…

      While I am meditating in this way, I turn my heart upward to God alone as the source of all of the wonderful things in creation…This practice has helped me attain a tiny measure of detachment from the pleasure I obtain from my cat and attach more of my love, little by little, to God Alone…

      • fairlady68

         I love your post Alex Campbell…and I love my kitty cat too. I do also enjoy her for the sake of the fact that she is a creation and indeed a beautiful gift from God.

    • Dear friend – this is a great question that we should probably answer at length. The short answer is that It is not only possible, but necessary.

      • Alexandra Campbell


  • judeen

    Gods love is so much deeper than we think it is… love unconditionally.. good or bad… a person is a gift… love conquers everything, endures everything. there is a peace… after this dark night… a pertection over the heart…. yet one can feel others pain if God wants one too… so that they will seek healing through God… there is a fight against ones feelings emotions bodily yearnings… and 1 learns that in God there is all the answers . and does not need to be controled through whimes… of the body… and mind.

  • judeen

    to let go and let God… if 1 is controled by feelings of love.. 1 does not love deep enough… to let go.. and do the best for that persons soul… is deep love.. to be hated because of good… for that person… is a chance that 1 needs to take.. it is a rejection of ones self also… a deeper love… eternal love… is our love to be loved back? or a true love that God gives . a parent or even a preist must ask them selves… do I do this for God and their soul , or to be liked. questions.. it is all in Gods hands,, when we do Gods will.. not ours..

  • Barbaraksanders

    As long as the soul is “bent toward the creature” it cannot
    stand up straight and face the creator.  barbara

    • LizEst

       That’s very good. Is that your own?

    • Mimi Blanchard

       I also like what Barbaraksanders said and want ti as the same thing as New Name, did you write this?

  • Jmedwid

    This is the level of contemplative prayer beyond emotions. Sometimes we touch this level, but only Christ could go there and stay at that consistent level of union with God. Saints get to that level more often than the rest of us mortals. When we even occassionally touch this level of light in the darkness we can never comprehend the unconscious mind through the conscious mind. We can only glimpse it like “seeing through a glass darkly.” St. Paul in King James version

    It could be dangerous to take this literally because on its face it might seem that one has to consciously seek “mortification” through some worldly action other than deep contemplative intention. Therefore,
    at this level of spirituality a spiritual director who practices and lives out the contemplative path is indispensible–at least to me in my spiritual journey and in my judgement.

  • Ben

    This ones got me a bit confused. So God sees our love for one another as darkness. And we need to cast away this love to be elightened and posessed by the light of God? Im assuming that means what we think is love is actually darkness, and we need to cast away false love to be enlightened by God. It couldnt mean actual real love. Otherwise it would be against the commandment of Jesus to love one another as He has loved us.

    • Jmedwid

      Hi Ben, This thought is in the context of deep contemplative relationship with God. In that sense the goal is to actually become love. It isn’t a feeling. It is a state of being. “God is love.” Also, John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” God commands us to love one another as he has loved us. Remember how the woman had only to touch Jesus’ robe to be healed? That is because he was pure love. He embodied love. We are called to embody love, too. Even Jesus himself had to spend the entire night in the Garden of Gesthemene in deep contemplative relationship with God to walk the way of the cross the next day. He may have done this to teach us how to do it as, embodying love himself, he may not have had to pray. We don’t know, but he set the example and we, too, are called to deep relationship (friendship) with God. God calls us children unto himself that we, too, may become united in love–unconditional friendship with him–way, way beyond feelings and attachments to things of the world. Even music in mentioned in today’s readings.

  • AnnieB

    Am I the only one struggling to understand this? Are we being advised not love others? I must be misunderstanding. Help me someone!

    • Becky Ward

      Hi Annie,

      NO!! We are not being advised to to not love others. Our human love is possessive. We love others for selfish reasons…..because we’re related, or have common interests.

      My take on this is that St. John is telling us here that, while we are involved with this kind of love we are not capable of letting go of our thoughts and ideas of what love – God’s love – really is.

      I’m sure most of us are familiar with the expression that our possessions possess us, and not the other way around. Take a car for instance, it’s a tool, something to get us from one place to another. Yet many people have their part of their identity tied up in what kind of a car they drive…or house they own……or clothes they wear. If these things were to be stolen or destroyed it would be the cause of no little grief!!

      This is idolatry! I recently learned that the word ‘worship’ means “what we hold dear”! In light of this it is easy to see how many things we worship besides God……how about cell phones?

      Until we start the work, and it is work, to put things in proper order, with God first, we simply cannot understand the truth that by spiritually giving all our ‘stuff’ to the Lord, He frees us from it, and then grants us the grace to see it in its proper place. This includes people!

      We do not stop loving. We offer it all to the Lord and ask Him to show us (enlighten us to) the way He sees things. Here is a very good prayer to get things started – it’s done wonders for me!!

      • AnnieB

        That makes sense, thanks Becky.

      • fairlady68

         Thanks for expanding on the meaning of the word “worship” as “what we hold dear.” I am less likely to have my identity tied up in my possessions but I do spend more time than I would like maintaining them. I need to simplify!

  • Sojrnr

    I sympathize with those who are struggling with this passage from JotC. His writings are deeply mysterious and sometimes seem even to contradict the teachings of Christ and His Church. This is one example. We are often told that after we pray we must act towards another through Charity. So how is it that we must see our love of fellow creatures as life in darkness. Jesus said “love thy neighbor,” but the saint seems to say that we should deny that love.

    What gives? I sometimes think that such spiritual counsel is so very confusing that it does more harm than good. The saint seems to want to take us out of this world. Sometimes he seems to espouse a god who is an abstraction rather than a person. Then, when we don’t get it, he seems to be saying that we are hopeless. There is a strong temptation to just give up. Maybe for some of us this rising in the Spirit seems so far away that we see our prayers as so inadequate as to be self defeating.

    I wonder what one does to surmount this confusion?

    • Dear Friend:You made a key distinction in your note that he “seems to contradict.” The truth is that though some might find him difficult to understand, if he contradict the Church or he would not have been named a Doctor of the Church. St. Peter refers to St. Paul’s writings as difficult to understand. So, what to do in these situations? Dig in and find what it is in our own perception or understanding that clouds our ability to understand. Sometimes it is simply a lack of knowledge or familiarity. Sometimes it is a lack of experience. Regardless of the reason, there is no contradiction. Saint John’s teachings are rooted in the mystical and ascetical tradition of the Church that can be found in St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas etc. Still, your questions are good but a challenge to answer in a combox. Suffice it to say that Jesus said, “take up your cross” and he said, “be in the world but not of it” and “if anyone does not hate father/mother etc. is not worthy of me. So, what does it all mean? Keep digging in. Fr. Thomas Dubay’s book “Fire Within” is a great place to find some of these answers.

      • Sojrnr

        Thanks Dan. I have Fr. Dubay’s “Fire Within.” I have read parts of his “Evidential Power of Beauty.” I found “Evidential Power” very accessible I think because of its Thomistic tendencies. I am more comfortable in this tradition of proof and proofs.

        Maybe its that the mystics can be, well, mysterious. St. Thomas is actually easy to grasp, at least in his major writings. But then that may not be true of everyone since Thomas is frequently said to be “complicated.”

        Anyway, I am certain you are correct–its a matter of digging deeper.

  • Sojrnr

    I pray the Rosary. This is vocal prayer but is the center of my prayer. I struggle to meditate on the mysteries. Since this is vocal prayer, the lowest form of prayer so I’m told, and since I struggle with meditation and often do just “say” the prayers am I getting nowhere?

    Is it possible that just the struggle in prayer, rather than attainment of what we are supposed to learn, is the real essence of prayer. St. Alphonsus said that there is value just in trying to stop distractions.

  • Tough teaching for an intellectual midget. I just offer God my good intentions at the beginning of the day and ask His Grace to discern His Will for me and the courage to do it…..when I fail Him – which I do oh so often – I have Faith He will not abandon me but gives me the strength to stand up again and start afresh

  • fairlady68

    The comments on some of these posts are often at least as edifying as the original post. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful responses. I really learn a lot from everyone who writes on this website.

  • joyce

    “Those who talk so much with creatures cannot hear the voice of the CREATOR” said Blessed aLFONSO mA. fUSCO

  • Joyce

    ” Those who talk to much to creatures cannot hear the voice of the CREATOR”, said Blessed Alfonso Ma. Fusco.

  • Sal

    It is better to lite a candel than walk in the dark

  • $1650412

    Can y’all like post the Clif notes version when you quote this guy, or something? This is nearly Chinese to me! If I can barely understand what John means here, should I question my salvation?

    • Of all people

      • $1650412

        No you know really, my Lent this year first of all reveals to me again how puny my loves are in my life- all of them, except for perhaps the very extravagant and generous love I lavish on myself. Secondly, it becomes clearer and clearer to me in these more intense times of focus on spiritual development according to Christ’s Passion, that Jesus is not above asking us to offer up what we think might be our happiness, or fulfillment in consolation, maybe even that secure sense of knowing we are completely in the center of His will, for His sake.
        This seems confirmed to me through this saying of St.JoC and again in the meditation today in the Magnificat magazine by Psuedo-Macariaus. Abraham had every right to be happy and pleased in the fulfillment of God’s will and provision for him in his son, Issac- and yet, God asked him to sacrifice his son. By all rights and reason this was an off the wall request, contrary in so many ways to what God had seemed to reveal about Himself to that point.  So, I think if I really want to love God, it is possible that I might be at points deprived of any ‘sense of accomplishment’ or advance in any area of my life or in all areas of my life- and that even the things that would stand out to holy people as indicative of good, might be absent from my experience at times- but that when I am emptied of anything that ‘reinforces’ me- for lack of a better way to explain it, perhaps then I will find, there at the end of me, where the fullness of the love of God for me begins- like stepping off the sandbar into the bottomless ocean, and there is where He is my very great reward, my portion and cup, my true and only heritage.
        But perceiving and stepping off can be two different things, and to have temporarily lost my footing at the edge (read: experienced trial) and panicked (read: sinned in an ugly lack of confidence in God) rather than having peacefully yielded- makes me think, that here in these shoals that I recognize in this blazing light of day- when darkness falls again; I do not know if I will know where I will be. That sounds really mystically cryptic-  it sounds way more spiritual than I am, but this is as close as I can get to grasping what John is saying-
         Maybe next year I will be more eager in Lent to come to a better understanding! :0)

        • Becky Ward

          Great insight in your reference to Abraham and the apparent contradiction in God’s asking him to sacrifice Issac….lots to think about here.

    • Becky Ward

      Fr. Barron spoke of the mystics in one of the CATHOLICISM episodes and he compared them to baseball players. Some people are “naturals” – the game comes easy to them, they have the right build, and strength, and agility to be good players. You can see it when you watch them…and this goes for people in many other areas too….music, art, teaching……..ever watched a really good teacher with their students?……..well the same thing happens in regard to the spiritual life….the mystics are ‘naturals’ at sensing and responding to God. They are there, as are all the saints, as lamps to guide the rest of us home.

      I’m never going to be a professional baseball/softball player, but I can appreciate their gifts and skills…and I’ve enjoyed playing the game with my limited abilities.

      Maybe that’s all Go asks of us….look to the saints for inspiration and insight as to what is possible, do our best to understand what they have to tell us, and then bloom where we are planted with the gifts God has given us…remembering that we are all unique.

      • Eskor25

        The call to sanctity is universal. Our individual uniqueness doesn’t change that.

        • Becky Ward

          Absolutely!! Yet we need to remember not to compare ourselves to others, I guess that was my point….we are drawn to and are able to understand the writings and lives of the saints, as well as mountains of other good materials as God designed us

    • I think St John of the Cross is great, along with Theresa of Avila but their writings can seem pretty opaque. I reckon just go with their little sister- Therese of Lisieux. She takes the best of both of them and then goes even further and without all the ‘chinese’!!

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