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Reading St. John of the Cross with John Paul II

3 Oct 2001
Dr Tracey Rowland

Prior to his joining the seminary, John Paul II was a member of a lay Carmelite spirituality group led by a tailor called Jan Tyranowski. It was in this group that he first studied the works of St. John of the Cross. Later, as a doctorate student at the Angelicum, he chose to investigate the topic of: "Faith according to St. John of the Cross". This dissertation was supervised by the legendary Dominican Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange. The work has been published in English translation by Ignatius Press, but is now out of print and not readily available outside of Carmelite libraries.

In his works St. John of the Cross assigns 3 theological virtues - faith, hope and charity - to three faculties of the soul: intellect, memory and will. For example, he says:

"The livery which the soul wears is of three principal colours - white, green and purple - signifying the three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity ... Faith is an inner tunic of a whiteness so pure that 1 blinds the vision of the intellect. And thus, when the soul journeys in its vestment of faith, the devil can neither see it nor succeed in harming it, since it is well protected by faith - more so than by all the other virtues - against the devil, who is the most powerful and cunning of enemies."

St. John seems to have adopted this idea from an English Carmelite called John Baconthorpe. The classification of the three faculties comes from St. Augustine. In De Trinitate Augustine spoke of the three powers of the soul as: memoria, intellectus and voluntas. St. Bonaventure tied these faculties to the processions of the Trinity: "the generating mind, the word and Love are in the soul as memory , understanding and will, which are consubstantial,coequal and interpenetrate each other. (The Journey of the Mind to God). Faith is assigned to the intellect, memory to the will and charity to the intellect. According to St. John of the Cross, the effect of hope on the memory is to "fill it with presentiments of eternal glory". The Transfiguration provides an excellent example of this notion of a "presentiment of eternal glory".

In his doctoral thesis John Paul II focused on the relationship between faith and the intellect. He begins with the distinction drawn by St. John of the Cross between the two ways in which the intellect can receive knowledge: one natural, one supernatural.

  • "Natural Knowledge" is that which depends directly or indirectly on the senses
  • "Supernatural knowledge" is that which exceeds the natural powers of the intellect.

There is a further sub-division of the supernatural:

  • CORPOREAL SUPERNATURAL KNOWLEDGE - that which is received through the external or internal senses.
  • SPIRITUAL SUPERNATURAL KNOWLEDGE - that which is received directly into the intellect without the intervention of the senses.

There is a further sub-division of spiritual supernatural knowledge:

  • (i) Distinct, Particular knowledge
  • (ii) Confused, general and dark knowledge

Re: (i) 4 kinds - visions, revelations, locutions, spiritual feelings.

Re: (ii) contemplation - that which is given in faith.

NB: The intellect of its own cannot reach the heights of supernatural knowledge - this is a gift of grace.

By the illumination of the virtue of faith the soul becomes transformed and is more and more capable of participating in the life of the Trinity. John Paul II observes that this relationship between God and the soul is at once felial and spousal. John of the Cross emphasises that the function of faith depends ultimately on the will - the intellect and other faculties cannot admit or reject anything unless the will intervenes." The process of ascent to the level of contemplation is called by John of the Cross the Ascent of Mt. Carmel, and requires, as most people know, a process of spiritual purification known as the "Dark Night of the Soul." St. John of the Cross describes the process thus:

"The Holy Spirit illumines the recollected intellect and enlightens it according to its manner of recollection, and... the intellect cannot find any other and greater recollection than in faith; and therefore the Holy Spirit will not illumine it in anything else more than in faith. For the purer and more refined the soul is in faith, the more it has of the charity infused by God; and the more charity it has, the more is it illumined and the more Gifts of the Holy Spirit are communicated to it, for charity is the cause and the means by which they are communicated to it. And although it is true that, in the other illumination of truths, the Holy Spirit communicates a certain light to the soul, the light given in faith, where there is no clear understanding, is as different as is the most precious gold from the basest metal, and quantitatively, as the sea exceeds a drop of water. For in the first way wisdom concerning one or two or three truths is communicated, but in the other all God's wisdom in general is communicated, which is the Son of God, who is communicated to the soul in faith."

In his commentary John Paul II highlights the dependence of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit upon the existence of charity. In his Lenten homilies published under the title "The Sign of Contradiction" John Paul II reflects upon what he calls "the way of purification". He begins his reflection with the observation that there is a qualitative difference between the sin of Satan and the sins of mankind. This is because Satan had a greater degree of knowledge of God. Satan had knowledge but he did not love so he would not serve. For this reason St. Thomas Aquinas observed that "sin of this gravity presupposes another level of perfection in that same being, a level of intellect and will different from that of man”. John Paul II then makes the following observations:

  • Human sin - in contrast - consists of turning away from God principally because of disorder in man's attitude to created things.
  • God's justice embraces not only the inevitability of punishment for crime but also the law of purification of sinful man. This law has roots deep in human existence. The conscience has a purifying function.
  • Part of the law of suffering is that it entails loneliness. It is here on the road leading to man's fulfilment that we find the mystery of purgatory.
  • The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church - Lumen Gentium 49 - affirms the doctrine on purgatory. "While some of the disciples of Christ are pilgrims on earth, others who have passed from this life are being purified". This doctrine on purgatory gives formal expression to the law of purification.
  • There is a "temporal punishment" which must be endured either in this life or the world to come in order for the soul to be purified.
  • The mystery of purgatory is explained not only by the order of justice and the need for expiation through temporal punishment but also perhaps primarily by the order of charity and union with God.

John Paul II then quotes St. John of the Cross:

“With such punishment God greatly humbles the soul in order greatly to uplift it later; if God did not arrange for these feelings, once experienced, to subside quickly, the soul would die within a few days ... These feelings are sometimes so intense that the soul seem to perceive hell and its own perdition wide open to its gaze, for they endure in this life the purgatory due to be endured in the next. And so the soul may pass through this state, or it may not, or it may remain in it only a short time; for one hour of it in this life is of more avail than many in the next."

NB: Objectivity cannot be dealt with in exclusively cognitional terms - that is, in terms of the intellect alone. The human person is a very complex animal.

John Paul II: "There is a superimposing and mutual compenetration of the ontological dimension (the flesh and the spirit), the ethical dimension (moral good and evil) and the pneumatological dimension (the action of the Holy Spirit in the order of grace, including the work of the theological virtues)."

One may add there is also a further order of the person's relations with other persons, some of whom may be instruments of grace or instruments of the devil.