Carmel in the World
2020. Volume LIX, Number 2

  • Editorial
  • Falco Thuis, O.Carm.
  • Ruth Burrows and To Believe in Jesus
  • The garment of lovers: Learning from the wounds of love and longing in the poetry of Saint John of the Cross
  • The Conversion of Dorothy Day
  • Saturday Evening in the Church of the Carmelites
  • ‘It is as if they have nothing more to ask…’
  • Bishop Gauchi: A dedicated Carmelite and bishop in Peru
  • Contemplative hermits and/or active missionaries?
  • The Song of Songs in the Carmelite Tradition – Part I
  • ‘To love is to labour to detach and strip itself for God’s sake of all that is not God’ (below)
  • God has his own rhythms and times – An interview with former Prior General, Fernando Millán Romeral, O.Carm.

‘To love is to labour to detach and strip itself for God’s sake of all that is not God’ – John of the Cross

Jacqueline Schembri is a wife, mother of three adult children, grandma of an infant boy and a catechist. As part of her ongoing formation in the faith, she read for a BA(Hons) in Theology and graduated in 2012. She is currently reading for an MA in Spirituality (Carmelite Stream) at the Faculty of Theology, in the University of Malta.

O guiding night!

O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united

the lover with his beloved,

transforming the beloved in her Lover.[1]

‘God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him’ (1John 4:16). The soul that has been wounded by God’s love yearns to become one with him. Hence, the ultimate aim of the human person to be in union with God comes from God alone ‘because he loved us first’ (1John 4:19). Indeed, God is the prime mover of the spiritual life and any action of the soul towards God is a response to his love. John of the Cross defines the love of a soul as its ‘labour to detach and strip itself for God’s sake of all that is not God’.[2] Detachment is an indispensable element for mystical transformation as, once the yearning soul wilfully embarks on this journey, it must empty itself of its ego to make space for God. The soul’s identity will then be defined by the life of God within it. Indeed, man is created to love and participate in the Trinitarian life as John of the Cross expresses in his poem, Romances:

For as the Father and the Son and he who proceeds from them live in one another, so it would be with the bride; for, taken wholly into God, she will live the life of God.[3]

‘You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect’ (Matthew 5:48). Indeed, Jesus calls his disciples to imitate the Father’s perfect love in their lives to the extent that their will is perfectly united with God’s will. Union with God is the marriage of the soul’s will with God’s and, as Ruth Burrows explains, ‘if we choose something contrary to what God chooses for us then we cannot be in union with him’.[4] In the state of conformity, the soul can declare to God ‘what you desire me to ask for, I ask for; and what you do not desire, I do not desire, nor can I, nor does it even enter my mind to desire it’.[5] John of the Cross teaches that this state of conformity may be reached when the soul undergoes a wilful and gradual process of purification and frees itself from any attachments incompatible with God’s will. The will is central in John and he insists that

In order to be united with him, the will must consequently be emptied of and detached from all disordered appetite and satisfaction … so that purged and cleansed … it might be wholly occupied in loving God.[6]

Making room for God
The Carmelite doctor of mystical love calls the journey which the soul undertakes towards union of love with God an Ascent to nothing. Matthew Iain explains that the progress of the journey up the mountain will be measured ‘by the amount of room God is given to manoeuvre’.[7] The more appetites and gratifications are emptied within the soul the more free-space, nada, is allowed for God to give God. Only when the soul denies itself completely can God communicate himself supernaturally through grace and transformative union be reached.[8] As Paul exhorts the Ephesians, ‘Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts’ (Ephesians 4:22). Inordinate desires and attachments, though not necessarily sinful, enslave the heart, they become its gods and block God’s entry. Attached to its inordinate desires the soul finds itself going against its will as Paul stated, ‘I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate’ (Romans 7:15).
John of the Cross describes the journey of the soul from its bodily form to union with God as a Dark Night. In his teaching, John of the Cross insists that a natural union between God and souls always exists, as God is essentially present in every human being. However, the supernatural union of love between God and the soul, that is, the transformative union with God, exists only when there is ‘likeness of love’.[9] ‘For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’ (Matthew 6:21). Indeed, John of the Cross insists that one grows in likeness to what one loves, hence he guides us to examine our desires saying, ‘Deny your desires and you will find what your heart longs for. For how do you know if any desire of yours is according to God?’[10] Those who are attached to the satisfactions of worldly pleasures cannot attain the beauty of the Divine embrace for only those who desire God will to be mystically united with God. For the wilful soul is open to God’s ways and, as Kees Waaijman puts it, the soul ‘longs for the form of love to become the form of its soul’.[11] Albeit paradoxically, John’s teaching guides us as we ascend the mount and insists that, ‘To reach satisfaction in all, desire satisfaction in nothing’.[12] Any desire of our own, any feeling or thing that does not help the soul grow in love for God must be rejected to allow room for God to transform us. Indeed, Jesus clearly states that ‘the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life’ (Matthew 7:14), and we must let nothing hinder or weigh us down.

Dark night
For the soul to reach the perfection of love every dimension of the human person must be purified, indeed the whole of one’s being. John of the Cross states clearly in The Dark Night that the soul cannot come to the Divine union of love of God without great purity, and this purity ‘is unattainable without vigorous mortification and nakedness regarding all creatures’.[13] The journey of the human person towards union with God is called a ‘dark night’ as the soul undergoes severe tribulations until it reaches its goal.[14] The ‘night’ feels senseless and Godless.[15] John teaches about two kinds of purification, the sensory and the spiritual, that is, the senses and the spiritual faculties: the intellect, memory and will. ‘The dark night of sense is a spark of love for God, devoid of self-seeking’.[16] During this night, the soul labours towards selfless love, willing to endure transformation as it becomes aware of its sinfulness, grows in goodness and experiences spiritual dryness.[17] No longer can it control its spiritual life by feelings, neither can it perceive the presence of God: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Mark 15:34). Indeed, Christ himself suffered spiritual darkness when he felt abandoned by the Father in the face of death. Nevertheless, he did not give in to despair but endured in hope and trust in his heavenly Father ‘uniquely in communion with Him’.[18] In the experience of spiritual darkness, the soul is being challenged to detach itself from any feeling or emotion of the presence of God and to persevere on its journey in hope. Jesus’ ray of hope pointed to his Resurrection and the soul’s ray of hope points to its union with God.
The soul’s active purification, that is, the soul’s effort, though vital, is not enough for the soul to reach mystical union, and so Divine intervention is crucial. The soul is drawn in the passive purgation of the night which consumes all the imperfections which the soul cannot actively purify through its own effort ‘if God takes not its hand and purges it not in that dark fire’.[19] Benedict XVI explains that ‘purification is brought about by the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit who, like a burning flame, consumes every impurity’.[20] The pure love of God shines through the soul only when the soul is pure from every stain and loves God alone, freely and unreservedly.

Faith, hope and charity
Faith, hope and charity bring us to purity of heart. John of the Cross teaches that these three virtues, ‘have the function of withdrawing the soul from all that is less than God, they consequently have the mission of joining it with God’.[21] Hence, if the soul aims at union with God it must develop these virtues. Matthew expounds John’s teaching saying, ‘Believe, trust, love, and you are receiving the gift’.[22] In Ascent, John of the Cross stresses the need for the soul to let go and rely solely on God in faith. Faith purifies the intellect which is the soul’s capacity ‘to think rationally, to understand and comprehend’.[23] John sees faith as a ‘secret ladder’ to union with God.[24] For the soul to be God-centred rather than self-centred, it must destruct its ego and let God take control, in the darkness of faith. Faith is dark because it is beyond what we can grasp by our own conceptual knowledge. Essentially, faith gives us God, it ‘informs us of matters we have never seen or known, either in themselves or in their likenesses’.[25] As Thomas Aquinas says, ‘Faith does not quench desire, it inflames it’.[26] Paul insists that ‘faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ’ (Romans 10:17). Indeed, our faith is Jesus Christ, the only Word of the Father and the all for us. Silent pondering on the Word sets us on the right path to come to know Jesus, our way to fullness of love. Indeed, ‘He is the gift for which space must urgently be made’.[27]
Furthermore, in The Dark Night, John explains that the ‘secret ladder’ is the ladder of love whereby the soul is raised ‘step by step to God, its Creator. For it is only love that unites and joins the soul to God’.[28] Love purifies the will and enlightens the soul to choose God and to do his will. When the soul is purified and freed from its attachments it becomes free for love,[29] ready to deny itself ‘both to suffering for Christ and to annihilation in all things’.[30] John’s teaching on love is based on Christ’s kenosis and his complete submission to the Father’s will even to death on the Cross. Jesus insists that ‘whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Matthew 16:25). Jesus’ disciple must be willing to give up everything for his sake, indeed up to the point of losing one’s life. Christ is the model for our spiritual journey as he himself says to us: ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life; and no one comes to the Father, but by me’ (John 14:6).
John of the Cross teaches that the memory is purified by hope. In John, memory ‘is not just a storehouse for past experience … it also fuels the imagination in looking to the future’.[31] Memory is associated with possession, we possess our experiences. When our memory is healed, we become detached from past experiences and from the anxiety of things that may occur which ultimately may never happen but destroy the joy of the present moment. ‘For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope’ (Jeremiah 29:11).

The ultimate aim of the human person is to be in union with God. Nevertheless, we have numerous attachments which distract our focus. Love is the basis of John’s teaching and he insists countless times that, unless the human person is freed from his attachments, transformative union may not be reached as these attachments block God’s way. Christ is the model for the spiritual journey, he taught us to live in faith, hope and charity. John of the Cross insists that when God touches the soul with his love, he thrusts the soul in darkness, takes away its securities and the soul embarks on a process of death and re-birth. Indeed, mystical union is not a point of arrival but a dynamic movement of the human soul towards becoming what it was created to be – transformed in God.

Courtesy of the Carmelite Institute Malta

1.      John of the Cross, The Dark Night in Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (transl. and ed.): The Complete Works of St John of the Cross, ICS Publications: Washington, DC, 1991. p. 359.
2.      Ibid., The Ascent of Mount Carmel, in The Complete Works, Bk II, 5/7.
3.      Ibid., Poetry, in The Complete Works, p. 64.
4.      Ruth Burrows: Ascent to Love: The Spiritual Teaching of St John of the Cross, Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd: London, 1987. p. 43.
5.      John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, in The Complete Works, p. 657.
6.      Ibid., Letters, in The Complete Works, p. 747.
7.      Iain Matthew: The Impact of God: Soundings from St John of the Cross, Hodder & Stoughton: London, 1995. p. 37.
8.      John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, in The Complete Works, Bk II, 5.
9.      Ibid.
10.    John of the Cross, Sayings, in The Complete Works, p. 86.
11.    Kees Waaijman: Spirituality: Forms, Foundations, Methods, Peeters: Leuven, 2002. p. 472.
12.    John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, in The Complete Works, Bk I, 13.
13.    John of the Cross, The Dark Night, in The Complete Works, Bk II, 24.
14.    Ibid., Prologue.
15.    Matthew, The Impact of God, p. 132.
16.    Burrows, Ascent to Love, p. 61.
17.    Ibid., p. 51.
18.    Matthew, The Impact of God, p. 131.
19.    John of the Cross, The Dark Night, in The Complete Works, Bk I, 3.
20.    Benedict XVI, General Audience, February 16, 2011. Accessed at:
21.    John of the Cross, The Dark Night, in The Complete Works, Bk II, 21/11.
22.    Matthew, The Impact of God, p. 94.
23.    Gerald G. May: The Dark Night of the Soul: a psychiatrist explores the connection between darkness and spiritual growth, HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.: New York, 2005. p. 54.
24.    John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, in The Complete Works, Bk II.
25.    Ibid., Bk II, 3.
26.    Donald Haggerty: The Contemplative Hunger, Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2016. p. 189.
27.    Matthew, The Impact of God, p. 124.
28.    John of the Cross, The Dark Night, in The Complete Works, Bk II, 18.
29.    May, The Dark Night of the Soul, p. 98.
30.    John of the Cross, The Ascent, Bk II, 7/8.
31.    May, The Dark Night of the Soul, p. 54.

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