Juan de Yepes y Álvarez, better known to history as St. John of the Cross (1542—1591), was a Catholic mystic, theologian, and poet in Spain. He was also a friar in the Carmelite order and an influence in the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic revival following the Protestant Reformation. His most famous works are Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul , both exploring the joys and pains of the soul’s journey toward union with Jesus Christ. Christian mystics such as John of the Cross sought out and prized experiential knowledge of God and pondered the “mysteries” of spirituality.
John of the Cross’s writings, his poetry in particular, are considered the height of Spanish Christian mystic literature (www.britannica.com/biography/Saint-John-of-the-Cross, accessed 12/7/21). Spiritual Canticle was mostly written in a small, dark prison cell, where he was being kept by other Carmelites for his attempts to reform the order. He and Teresa of Avila, a nun who mentored him, spent decades working to return the order to its original values of austerity and asceticism. John regularly took long fasts and practiced self-flagellation in an attempt to further his spiritual growth, which he believed must come through suffering.
In the Canticle, John tries to describe the joy of finding and needing only Christ:
“My soul is occupied,
And all my substance in His service;
Now I guard no flock,
Nor have I any other employment:
My sole occupation is love.”
Through his writings, John of the Cross promoted a mystical path to the true union of one’s soul with Christ. According to John of the Cross, union with God requires quietude and meditation and an experience of suffering along with Christ—a spiritual crucifixion, of sorts. He placed an emphasis on love, which he taught comes through detaching oneself from everything in the world and suffering for Christ. He sought to travel from the “dark night” to what he called “the Deification of the soul” (Canticle, Stanza XXVI).
John of the Cross was beautified by the Roman Catholic Church in 1675, canonized in 1726, and declared to be a doctor of the church in 1926. His feast day, honoring his life and work, is December 14.
By its very nature, mysticism implies that there is a mysterious part to our relationship with Jesus Christ, that to truly know Him requires an individual experience and esoteric knowledge usually born out of heavenly visions, extreme hardship, and asceticism or self-denial. Mysticism seeks a supernatural encounter with God and often takes an extremely metaphorical approach to Scripture.
For all his sincerity and lofty poetry, John of the Cross was not a promoter of truth. It’s true that Christians may at times have solitary and unique experiences with God, but this is not the focus of Scripture or the example of the first-century church (Acts 2—6). In the Bible, we see the church living in community and fellowship, not in isolation. Their focus was on the apostles’ teaching about Christ, not personal visions. They did not seek out suffering as a means to further their union with God.
As a Catholic, John of the Cross pursued a works-based salvation and expressed devotion to Mary. Br. Martin of the Assumption, who knew John of the Cross personally, testified that John would often sing hymns to Mary and “was so devoted to Our Lady that every day he prayed the Office of Our Lady on his knees.” As he was dying, John heard the bell for midnight prayer, and he said, “And I, too, through the goodness of the Lord, will have to say them with our Lady in heaven” (quoted by Br. John-Mary of Jesus Crucified, OCD, in “The Mariology of Saint John of the Cross,” https://discalcedcarmel.org/the-mariology-of-saint-john-of-the-cross, 12/4/18, accessed 12/7/21).
John of the Cross’s idea of a step-by-step process of self-denial and affliction culminating in glory is not taught in Scripture. A believer has God’s peace now; he doesn’t have to experience a “dark night” first (Romans 5:1). The child of God is seated “in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” now (Ephesians 2:6). We have union with Christ now (Ephesians 1:7). Neither Jesus nor the apostles ever taught a “dark night of the soul.”
John of the Cross was not able to get closer to Jesus than we ourselves are. The way to God is not to be found through whipping ourselves, isolating ourselves, or seeking ecstatic visions. In Christ, we have the grace of God. God has given us everything we need to live a godly life and abide in Him as adopted children in His family (2 Peter 1:3–8). We should be careful not to add anything to the work of Christ on the cross as a means of reaching God.