Volume > Issue > The Ecumenical Orthodoxy of St. John of the Cross

The Ecumenical Orthodoxy of St. John of the Cross

CARTOGRAPHER OF THE SOUL

By Christopher Nugent | December 1991
Christopher Nugent is Associate Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of Kentucky, and author of Ecumenism in the Age of the Reformation.

Right now the whole world seems to be going through a dark night of the soul. — Flannery O’Connor

In the halcyon days of 1966, Alexander Jones, writing the foreword to the Jerusalem Bible, observed that “two slogans have been wisely adopted” for our times: “aggiornamento, keeping abreast of the times, and approfondimento, or deepening of theological thought.” Some see the two concepts as contrary. Consequently, we would be compelled to choose between autonomy and authority, a cult of novelty and a cult of tradition, or, if you will, the theologically correct and the ecclesiastically correct. Meanwhile, the cultivated euphoria of Desert Storm recedes, leaving us to confront our collective desert experience. Fortunately, this year is also the fourth centennial of the person who wrote the book on it.

But St. John of the Cross stands for a lot more than The Dark Night of the Soul. He is multi-dimensional, and as cartographer of the soul he evidences no contradiction between its opening and its deepening. Which is another way of saying that he enlarges our understanding of catholicity, which is by no means merely institutional. And it is just his kind of mysticism that can stand, in the most concrete sense of that well-known phrase of Bonhoeffer’s, for a Christianity “come of age.” At this, overly protective souls might be confirmed in their instinct to sound the alarm, resurrecting the old saw about mysticism as beginning in “mist” and ending in “schism.” To the contrary: The genius of the Catholic faith is international and mystical, a “coincidence of opposites,” and it may take a mystic to restore our sense of the inviolability of the Mystical Body of Christ.

All the same, the diminutive John (1542-1591), child of poverty and alienation, hardly appears a man of destiny. He wrote of the grace of “holy oblivion,” and to some extent that has been his lot. If he has been praised, as with the title “The Mystical Doctor” (1926), he has not been assimilated and, human nature being as it is, he may have been praised as an alternative to assimilation. In the same way, the scholarship on John in the 20th century, whether theological or literary, is prodigious, but publication is conceptualization, not realization. A pilgrimage through European churches is likely to issue in the sense that, unlike a St. Anthony of Padua or even a St. Anne, the Mystical Doctor is not a very popular saint.

Often a prophet is not honored. John of the Cross is challenging, very challenging — as is, one might add, the New Testament. Perhaps John’s poetry was too erotic for seminarians, his prose too cerebral for free spirits. John had more than his share of authority problems and dark nights. If he survived a brush with the Spanish Inquisition, he ended broken at the hands of his own Carmelite brethren. And earlier, in 1577-1578, the “Calced” Carmelites — John being of course with the reforming or “Discalced” party — had John incarcerated at Toledo under the most squalid and humiliating circumstances. But this was the site of the saint’s first great spiritual breakthrough, and I find it unavoidable to mention that the confinement was for the period of nine months, a powerful symbol.

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