Review: John of the Cross, 3rd edition of the Collected Works

The publication of new editions of books can seem like no more than a simple way for publishers to make more money. However, the third edition of the Collected Works of John of the Cross, translators Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, from the Institute of Carmelite Studies is definitely worth having, even if you have the earlier edition.

The text is not significantly different to previous editions except for the biblical quotations which are now of contemporary translations rather than translations from the Vulgate (which John himself used) this means that occasionally it is necessary to check a translation from the Vulgate to work out why John used a particular reference. But it does make it easier to look references up. Some effort has been made to use gender neutral language when appropriate.

The main difference is in the footnotes. A good deal of material that was in the extensive introductions in earlier editions is now moved to an appropriate place in the footnotes. This makes it much more accessible as the text is read. The order in which the writings are presented has been changed to reflect the latest scholarship, as found in the most recent Spanish editions, and this scholarship also accounts for changes in the translations.

As in previous editions the indices are excellent and the Scripture index especially comprehensive and shows how deeply immersed John was in Scripture.

In 1992 when I was ordained deacon I chose the image of the crucified Christ by John of the Cross (an image which inspired Dali’s painting) to be on my ordination card. I was inspired by John’s sublime poetry, especially in The Dark Night:

One dark night,

Fired with love’s urgent longings

– ah the sheer grace! –

I went out unseen,

My house being now all stilled.

..

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.

My faith had been important to me all through my childhood, but it was a profound experience, a ‘baptism of the Spirit’ when I was 14, that transformed that into an intense in-loveness for Jesus that has stayed with me.

But despite John’s poetry speaking to me deeply I have always been slightly dismissive of his prose. His friend Theresa of Avila’s prose is easier to read and contains more biographical detail, which makes it so much easier to identify with her and follow the narrative of her life. She is also a stormier character and I find that very attractive.

However, since I bought this new edition I have been re-reading John’s prose. I’ve also re-read Iain Matthew’s excellent introduction to John’s work The Impact of God and Ruth Burrows’ Ascent to Love.

What has struck me most strongly in re-reading this material is John’s desire to be a guide to the soul, not to just let the individuals in his care drift aimlessly, but to show that there is a journey to be made. He is especially concerned to ensure that a change in prayer life that might indicate a move towards contemplation is not misinterpreted, leading the individual to return to their earlier ways of praying. The second element to strike me is that John is aiming to be a guide to shedding what Merton calls the false self, Paul’s “old man”, and finding the true, the real self. This true self can only be found in Jesus. The false self, however, is not like a set of clothes that can be taken off and laid aside easily. We cling to what is easy and familiar and the false self has to die, with all that is associated with dying.

Ruth Burrows in her Guidelines for Mystical Prayer describes the experience of one of the sisters whose spiritual life she is describing:

“I was in the garden, and for a moment I seemed to be looking within and I saw or realized in a mysterious way that I was not there. There was no ‘I’. I can’t say more than that. I had gone. It wasn’t that I saw or felt God, but it was as if I were in a vast and lonely plain far removed from everything.”

The ‘I’ which is so exalted in our society, as the centre of the universe, which must be available to choose and consume is actually a prison, a heavy burden. Escaping that prison, waking up, is an experience given by God and that John wants many to find.

As ever, I can’t help using my educational thinking in this context. So much of what passes for spiritual writing is like discovery learning in the classroom. It is content free, the most significant thing is to choose. Reading John is like reading an old fashioned text book, or a ‘knowledge organiser’ in the current jargon. The trouble with discovery learning is that the ‘I’ remains in charge; always choosing. I believe (with many others) that when we don’t teach knowledge we are selling children short. I am fascinated by the huge interest in Mindfulness. People are hungry to be taught about the interior life. They want to know what to expect when they take the journey inwards. They know that they need guidance and information, that other people have made that journey and will be reliable guides for others.

I wonder to what extent we are selling people short if we don’t teach them ‘guidelines to mystical prayer’? We think we are allowing people to be themselves, to express themselves , but could it be that is precisely the point? It is self they are expressing, rather than self that is dying? How do we help people to express what John puts this way:

I abandoned and forgot myself, laying my face on my Beloved; all things ceased; I went out from myself, leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.”

I am writing this on the evening of the conversion of St. Paul, he puts it succinctly:

“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

Gal 2:20

2 Comments

  1. I came across this, and your reflection on finding a real sense of common ground with the New Wine network. It is really refreshing to hear this. Many thanks and every blessing in your ministry.
    It will not surprise you that my involvement with schools continues as a C of E Primary School governor here in Reading.
    Best wishes
    Richard Bainbridge

    Like

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