in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

A Soulful New Year to You All!

Dear All

As the midnight hour creeps over the world I wish you all a very HAPPY AND SOULFUL NEW YEAR!

I am just putting the final touches to a new article on Soulfulness for the Milltown Review which I shall send tomorrow before I leave for India. It is a joy and a privilege to once again be returning to that wonderful land and I will certainly be thinking of you all over the coming weeks where I shall try and put some blog posts on our conference, further details of which can be found on:

In the meantime please find attached the beginning of the article which I hope will appear in full form in due course.

The picture is from the current exhibition of late Rembrandt at the National Gallery in London for which I am grateful to Dr Mary Eaton for getting me a ticket. He indeed was a master of the soul and a worthy guide for the year ahead...

God bless


Mindfulness, Heartfulness or Soulfulness?:

Teresa of Avila, Otto Rank and James Hillman on the Return of the Soul


Professor Peter Tyler

Key Words: Soul, Mindfulness, Heartfulness, Otto Rank, James Hillman, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Teresa of Avila, Mental Prayer


One of the most surprising developments in contemporary psychology has been the renewal of interest in 'soul-language' as a way of describing the human psyche. Reports of the death of the soul over the past few years now seem premature in the extreme. Consequently this article will explore the reaction against the empirical turn that psychology takes in the mid 20th Century by two eminent psychologists: Otto Rank and James Hillman. Their work will be related to another feisty rebel whose 500th anniversary we celebrate this year: St Teresa of Avila. Starting with Rank and his reaction to Freudian orthodoxy the article shall then explore Teresa's own unique, ‘language of the spirit’ before returning to Hillman and seeing how Teresa’s work can inform the contemporary debate. Of particular concern will be the ongoing debate regarding ‘mindfulness’ and its use in psychological setting. A key argument of the article will be that Teresa of Avila’s oración mental can be described as a form of mindfulness – or perhaps better – a form of heartfulness or soulfulness.




Rank’s Impertinence

In May 1930 the founders of the modern practices of psychology, psychoanalysis and psychiatry gathered in Washington D.C. to participate in what was called the ‘First International Congress on Mental Hygiene’. Four thousand people from over fifty-three countries, including Australia and the USSR, gathered, largely to baptise the new discipline of psychoanalysis and introduce it as a respectable and viable form of clinical intervention. Included in the purpose statement for the convention was the idea that it was necessary to determine ‘how best to care for and treat the mentally sick, to prevent mental illness, and to conserve mental health’ (in Proceedings of the First International Congress on Mental Hygiene). As with most such gatherings, scientific and intellectual seeking was clouded by the internal politics of a nascent movement that was still vulnerable and trying to assert its respectability in the face of a sceptical world. Accordingly, when Dr Otto Rank, one of Freud’s first disciples and advocates, rose to speak there was excited anticipation regarding how he viewed the direction in which analysis was moving, especially at this the moment of its first public ‘coming out’ in America. His paper was not to disappoint. In a short ten minute extract of his paper, Rank deftly condensed his views on analysis, psychology and the forces that were at that moment shaping the future of analysis, the effects of which we still live with today. In his speech Rank contrasted ‘the scientific’ approach to ‘human behavior and personality’ (Sp:221) with what he called the ‘human side’: that ‘characteristic which... can’t be measured and checked and controlled’. This latter, he argued, ‘was the only vital factor in all kinds of therapy, mental health’. That which is ‘human and cannot be schematized’ had to be distinguished, he suggested, from ‘intellectual knowledge’ of the human psyche, for the scientific attitude does not so much neglect the personal as lead to a denial of it in order to ‘maintain the scientific attitude’. Rank’s paper was essentially one that went to the fundamental heart of what we think psychology (or psychoanalysis/psychotherapy) is.  An enquiry was being made into the mysterious nature of psyche – this time not in the language of the ancients but in our own well-used twentieth and twenty first century phrases


Psychology as Interpretation

One of the key themes of Rank’s speech to the Mental Health Congress, and much of his writing after his break with Freud in the 1930s, was that psychology is not so much a ‘science of facts’ as an ‘art of interpretation’. As he put it in his Mental Hygiene Speech:


Psychology does not deal primarily with facts as science does but only with the individual’s attitude toward facts. In other words, the objects of psychology are interpretations – and there are as many of them as there are individuals. (Sp:222).


By situating the truths of psychology in the hermeneutic turn rather than the

aimless seeking for quasi-empirical ‘facts’, Rank had essentially anatomised the

nature of analysis as a clinical discipline. In this he was not alone. For it is an

interesting historical coincidence that at precisely the time Rank was working

on his notion of self in America his fellow Austrian, the philosopher Ludwig

Wittgenstein (1889 – 1951) was having similar thoughts about the nature of

psychology. Like Rank, Wittgenstein was beginning to develop a theory of

psychology that emphasised its hermeneutic above any quasi-empiricial status.

This work would flower towards the end of his life in the writings that

followed that published as Part One of the Philosophical Investigations and would

occupy the Viennese philosopher for the last few years of his life in Ireland and


Thus, both Wittgenstein and Rank present us with a bifurcation in the twentieth century’s attitude to the self: we can either chase after quasi-scientific explanations of psychic phenomena or see the exploration of the psyche, especially from a clinical perspective, as a seeking after interpretation and meaning. Thus in Rank’s Mental Hygiene lecture, he speaks not of presenting a new psychological theory, but rather of a new ‘worldview’/ Weltanschauung.

To express this adjustment of ‘worldview’ required by the analytic patient Rank chose an interesting phrase (one also used by Freud): Die Seele/ seelische, that is ‘the Soul’ or (inelegantly in English) ‘the soulish’[2]. These terms, which all of a sudden in the past few years we find psychologists using again, were of utmost importance for Rank’s exposition of the nature of the psyche and the life of the mind. As he wrote at the beginning of Seelenglaube und Psychologie (literally, ‘Soul-belief and Psychology’, published in 1930, the year of Rank’s fateful lecture to the Mental Health Congress, hereafter SP): ‘To write a history of psychology is to write a history of the soul’ (SP:1). For him psychology is nothing less than Seelekunde – a difficult phrase to translate – literally ‘service of or witness to the Soul’. In choosing to base his analysis and much of his later work around the term ‘soul’, Rank was deliberately pointing out the position that I am suggesting in this article -  that psychology cannot simply be considered an empirical science, rather the philosophical, or indeed we might say, the metaphysical, is as important in considering the psyche as the empirical. Thus the term ‘soul’ becomes for Rank a cipher to widen the ambit of psychology to take in artistic, creative and philosophical reflection on the self as well as the straightforwardly empirical.  Hence the analytical situation (what Rank calls ‘the analysis of analysis’) becomes an arena for the love emotion and the ethical gaze of the therapist to the client and vice versa – this is for him das Seelische. Analysis, thus ultimately for Rank, is ‘at bottom a love therapy’ (WT:20).

Which brings us to our second dialogue partner - St Teresa of Avila. For just as Rank realised that talk of the psyche and psychology, would be limited by a purely empirical or scientistic approach, so, I would like to suggest here, we can say the same for Teresa. For just as Rank uses language to deconstruct the expression of the psyche on the boundary of what can be said, so Teresa, in works such as her Book of the Life and Interior Castle, equally challenges, I would like to suggest, our common-place notions of the selfhood, the soul and what it is to be a human being.


[1] For more on this notion see Tyler 2014
[2] We immediately run into a problem with the English translation of seelisch. ‘Soulish’ or ‘Soulful’ are possibilities, but have perhaps now been irrevocably adapted by Southern Blues players so that they no longer convey the Rankian sense of Seele. The term I shall use later in the article – ‘soulfulness’ – might be an alternative.


Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Christmas Blessings from Meister Eckhart!

Here, in time, we are celebrating the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity, because this same birth is now born in time, in human nature. St Augustine says: ‘What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me? That it should happen in me is what matters.’

Meister Eckhart: Christmas Sermon


So we now come to the moment of the eternal birth of the Word in the soul. As Geertgen tot sint Jens depicts it in the picture above, it takes place at night, while all is quiet and still. When we have opened the soul to the divine then the divine will enter. This we celebrate tonight as the Divine Word springs down from on high into the simple stable of our mind. As they used to say in the old newspapers : ‘A Happy Christmas to all Our Readers’. Thank you for taking the time and trouble to read this and I wish you all a very happy Christmas wherever you may be or whatever you may be doing. We remember in particular those in the troubled parts of the world and ask God’s peace and blessing on them.





Tuesday, 23 December 2014

The Silence of the Heart

Luke 1:57-66

The time came for Elizabeth to have her child, and she gave birth to a son; and when

her neighbours and relations heard that the Lord had shown her so great a kindness, they shared her joy.

  Now on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; they were going to call him Zechariah after his father, but his mother spoke up. ‘No,’ she said ‘he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘But no one in your family has that name’, and made signs to his father to find out what he wanted him called. The father asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And they were all astonished. At that instant his power of speech returned and he spoke and praised God. All their neighbours were filled with awe and the whole affair was talked about throughout the hill country of Judaea. All those who heard of it treasured it in their hearts. ‘What will this child turn out to be?’ they wondered. And indeed the hand of the Lord was with him.


Today’s reading concludes the strange story of the birth of John the Baptist. Zechariah, his father, had entered into the Holy of Holies and been struck dumb. Surely he must have been a talkative man (even when he cannot speak he needs to write things out), and yet his speech falls silent in the presence of the Holy One. As we heard in the O Antiphon a few days ago: ‘kings fall silent before you’. Periods of silence punctuate the scriptures at regular intervals (we can think of Elijah at the cave of the heart and the moment in the tumult of the Book of Revelation when ‘all is silent for half an hour’). Now we have the pregnant silence out of which the Eternal Word will be spoken. ‘In the beginning was the conversation’ so translated Erasmus the beginning of John’s Gospel, and we are brought on the threshold of Christmas to the choreography between silence and speech, saying and showing. Like his son, Zechariah points the way to the source of Being, who must lie in silence.

As we enter into the birth of the Conversation in the soul tomorrow let us remember to keep a little silence today to allow the words to say by their showing.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

The Stripping of Idols - the Birth of God in the Soul

2 Samuel 7:1-11,16

Once David had settled into his house and the Lord had given him rest from all the enemies surrounding him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘Look, I am living in a house of cedar while the ark of God dwells in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go and do all that is in your mind, for the Lord is with you.’

  But that very night the word of the Lord came to Nathan:

  ‘Go and tell my servant David, “Thus the Lord speaks: Are you the man to build me a house to dwell in? From the time I rescued the people of Israel from Egypt until now, I have never lived in a temple; I have travelled round living in a tent. In all my travelling with the people of Israel I never asked any of the leaders that I appointed why they had not built me a temple made of cedar.

 I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, to be leader of my people Israel; I have been with you on all your expeditions; I have cut off all your enemies before you. I will give you fame as great as the fame of the greatest on earth. I will provide a place for my people Israel; I will plant them there and they shall dwell in that place and never be disturbed again; nor shall the wicked continue to oppress them as they did, in the days when I appointed judges over my people Israel; I will give them rest from all their enemies. The Lord will make you great; the Lord will make you a House.”’


For the birth of God in the soul there has to be the stripping of idols. In today’s reading we are reminded of the desire for humans to make temples, shrines and palaces for the gods within. Yet the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is a God who lives in a tent, travelling with the sheep and never settling. The fire goes before us.

Each year at Christmas there is the temptation to make shrines, temples, traditions – so much so that they blind us to what they have become – blocks in the face of God rather than invitations to the Unknown Birth. The miracle of Christmas is not about pension funds, annuities or securities, it is the God of no security who is present in each moment. A flame flares in the night – and will guide us ‘as sure as dawn’ to where we need to be.


Happy Advent!



Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Womb of God

The angel said to him, ‘Zechariah, do not be afraid, your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth is to bear you a son and you must name him John. He will be your joy and delight and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord; he must drink no wine, no strong drink. Even from his mother’s womb he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, and he will bring back many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah, he will go before him to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children and the disobedient back to the wisdom that the virtuous have, preparing for the Lord a people fit for him.’...

 When his time of service came to an end he returned home. Some time later his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept to herself. ‘The Lord has done this for me’ she said ‘now that it has pleased him to take away the humiliation I suffered among men.’ Luke 1:5-25

Today's readings in our Christmas preparation take us to the womb of God, or as St Teresa of Avila calls it, las entrañas – the entrails or bowels, or, if you prefer, the root chakras. We are taken to the bowels or entrails of our being where God is born. Living in our modern 'world of the head' we forget our connection with the earth, the womb and the mother. Both readings chosen by the Church today (the second of which I give above) emphasise this connection with the earth, fecundity and birthing, as did Leonardo da Vinci in the 'Madonna of the Rocks' above - the Madonna is as old as the earth, she is the earth. The motto of my university, St Mary's in Twickenham, is taken from the ancient prayer to Mary as 'Star of the Sea' (Stella Maris): Monstra te esse Matrem - 'show thyself to be a mother' - which amuses generations of our rugby-playing undergraduates. But this is exactly the theme of today's readings and meditations. As Meister Eckhart says, at every moment, every hour, every minute, God is born in the womb of our being. And, as he goes on to say, 'only the virgin can give birth to Our Lord Jesus Christ' - the virgin being 'the one without pictures'. So, in these dark nights before the birth of God in the soul we reflect on our ability to be mothers of God, to allow the mysterious birth in the root of our souls that will bring salvation to the world.

I finish with Teresa's descriptions of the 'birth of God in the soul' - first as a young woman in 'The Book of LIfe' and later as an old 'crone' (her words) in 'The Interior Castle'. As both a young woman and a crone Teresa experiences the birth of God in the soul as a powerful force penetrating her to her entrails (the root chakra being of course so close to the sexual/erotic chakra - thus leading to so much silly interpretation by amateur Freudians), from this will come her joy and desire to reform the Carmelite order and 'the world in flames'. With joy let us run to meet the Christ child waiting to be born in our womb:

(From 'Teresa of Avila: Doctor of the Soul')

'We have returned to the ecstastic libidinal scene in Chapter 29 of The Life where Teresa encountered the cherub with the wounding spear:


Sometimes (when I was at this place) the Lord wanted me to see this vision: I saw an angel close to me on my left side in corporal form, something I only see occasionally. Although angels are represented to me many times I don’t see them, at least not in the sense of ‘vision’ of which I spoke at first. It pleased the Lord that I should see this vision in the following manner: he was not large but small, very beautiful, the face so enflamed that he appeared to be one of the very high angels that appear to be totally aflame (I believe they are called Cherubim although they don’t tell me their names, but I see clearly that there is a great difference between certain types of angels and others, and between these and others still, of a kind that I could not possibly explain). I saw in his hands a long golden spear (un dardo de oro largo), and at the end of the iron tip there appeared a little flame, this he seemed to put into my heart several times so that it reached my entrails (y que me llegava a las entrañas).[1] As he removed it, they seemed to be drawn with it so that I was left totally on fire with a great love of God. The pain I felt was so great that I uttered several moans, and so excessive was the sweetness (suavidad) caused by this pain that one would never want to lose it, nor would the soul be content with anything less than God. It is not a bodily pain, but spiritual, although the body has a share in it – considerably so. It is such a sweet love-exchange (un requiebro) which passes between the soul and God that I beg Him out of His goodness to give this gusto to anyone who thinks I am lying. (V: 29.13)


This striking and justly celebrated passage is now recalled in the Sixth Mansion:


          So powerful is the effect of this on the soul that it dissolves with desire      and doesn’t know what to ask for, for clearly it seems that it is with its      God. You will ask me: Well, if it knows this, what does it desire or what      pains it? What greater good does it want? I don’t know. I do know that     it seems that this pain reaches to the soul’s entrails (entrañas)[2] and           that when He who wounds it draws out the arrow, it indeed seems, in      accord with the deep love the soul feels, that God is drawing these         very entrails after Him. I was thinking now that it is as though, from this fire enkindled in the brazier that is my God, a spark (un centella)       jumped out and so touched the soul that the flaming fire was felt by it        and since it was not enough to set the soul on fire, and it is so      delightful, the soul is left with that pain; and this produced by it just      touching the soul. (M: 6.2.4)


When the two passages are juxtaposed like this it is possible to interpret the passage according to Teresa’s mystical theology. Bernini’s statue at Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome is, of course, a magnificent artefact of Baroque statuary, however the effect has been to take the passage from Chapter Twenty Nine of The Life entirely out of its mystical context so distorting its significance within her text. When the text is placed alongside that from the Sixth Mansion what is remarkable is the consistency of the language of the two passages written over ten years apart. The only word that does not reappear in The Castle is gustar. Following her development and clarification of the role of the gustos this is unsurprising and to be expected that it would be dropped in the later passage. The flame of the cherubim remains (so essential for the Victorine tradition, see, for example the ‘dart of flaming love’ mentioned in The Cloud of Unknowing). However Teresa introduces the all important word centella in the later passage. A clear reference to the synderesis of the medieval mystical tradition (literally; ‘the little spark’): the place, according to Gerson, Bonaventure and Hugh of Balma, where the divine touches the human in the soul. This little spark gently ‘touches’ the heart and causes the ecstasy of fire. It does not ‘penetrate’ as some translators suggest and although sexual connotations are present in the passage this sexualised interpretation cannot detract from the fact that these passages are referring to the workings of the heart rather than anything specifically sexual. The other phrase that remains constant in the two passages is las entrañas – entrails or bowels. Teresa, as always, is circumspect in her descriptions of the nature of the ‘centre of the soul’ and this is another instant where she carefully uses language to indicate a source without clearly delineating the nature of the source. A theme we shall return to in Chapter Eight below. In their balance of Dionysian unknowing with libinal energisation these passages are rightly celebrated as masterpieces of Teresa’s mystical theology.'

 Happy Advent!

[1] Allison Peers uses the more provocative ‘penetrate’ here, whilst Kavanaugh uses ‘reach’.
[2] Matthew  and Allison Peers give ‘bowels’ for entrañas which seems very appropriate.


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

The Beginning of Christmas - the O Antiphons and the Genealogy of Christ

17th December: O Wisdom! You Hold All Things Together in a Strong Yet Gentle Fashion...


Today the Catholic Church begins the ‘novena’ of Christmas with the great reading from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel:


Matthew 1:1-17

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

2Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,

3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram,

4and Ram the father of Ammin'adab, and Ammin'adab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon,

5and Salmon the father of Bo'az by Rahab, and Bo'az the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse,

6and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uri'ah, 7and Solomon the father of Rehobo'am, and Rehobo'am the father of Abi'jah, and Abi'jah the father of Asa,

 8and Asa the father of Jehosh'aphat, and Jehosh'aphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzzi'ah,

9and Uzzi'ah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezeki'ah, 10and Hezeki'ah the father of Manas'seh, and Manas'seh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josi'ah,

11and Josi'ah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoni'ah was the father of She-al'ti-el, and She-al'ti-el the father of Zerub'babel,

13and Zerub'babel the father of Abi'ud, and Abi'ud the father of Eli'akim, and Eli'akim the father of Azor,

14and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eli'ud, 15and Eli'ud the father of Elea'zar, and Elea'zar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob,

16and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.

17So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.

I am reminded of that old TV programme ‘Roots’, where the hero returns to his family village in Africa and gets the elders to recite the names of the ancestors – suddenly he is filled with joy as he recognises the name of his own forebear. So again, we listen to these names, some strange, many unknown, some familiar (or notorious) and we get a sense of the long lineage to which we are heirs... and what a lineage!

St Matthews lays out before us the names of our, and Christ’s,

spiritual ancestors; carefully arranged in groups of seven (the holy number):

from Abraham to the birth of King David, from David to the Babylonian exile

and from the return from Babylon to the culmination of the lineage in the birth

of Christ to Mary.

Yet, if we look at the text carefully it is a most surprising list of people.

For, as well as the great patriarchs and prophets we find some rather unusual


Tamar, whose story occurs in Genesis 38, goes to some rather

extreme lengths to conceive by Judah, including disguising herself as a


The Book of Joshua tells us that Rahab, the mother of Boaz, actually

was a prostitute who betrayed her own people so that the Israelites may seize

the city of Jericho.

Ruth, as described in the book named after her, is not just an outsider

– a Moabite – but also what we would call today an asylum seeker and

migrant worker – needing to pick ‘the alien corn’ in an alien land.

The fourth woman of the genealogy – Bathsheba – is so distressing to

St Matthew that he cannot even bring himself to give us her name – simply

referring to her as ‘Uriah’s wife’. Presumably because of her role in betraying

her husband and marrying another – King David.

Thus, Matthew presents us with our, and Christ’s, spiritual ancestors,

and they are a somewhat motley crew. Yes, there are great and wise saints

amongst them, but there are also thieves, vagabonds and traitors.

Our memory, both personal and spiritual, contains all this.


This evening is also the beginning of the ‘Great O Antiphons’ that will be sung at Evening Prayer in the Catholic tradition from now until Christmas Eve. They are sung at the moment in the prayer when the great song of Mary, the Magnificat, occurs and seems to link the mystery of the Incarnation with that of Mary as the vessel of salvation. Today’s, in Latin, reads:

O Sapientia, quae ex ore Altissimi prodiisti,

attingens a fine usque ad finem,

fortiter suaviter disponens que omnia:

veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiae.


And translates as:


O Wisdom, you come forth from the mouth of the Most High.

You fill the universe and hold all things together in a strong yet gentle fashion.

O come to teach us the way of truth.


The medieval English Carmelite, John Baconthorpe referred to Mary as the pure cloud mentioned in the Book of Kings, condensed from the saline of humanity, out of whom the refreshing waters of Christ fall and bring life to the world.

For, as we have often heard, ‘God makes straight with crooked lines’.

And in the person of Mary, the salvation of the world comes from the ‘crooked’lineage of which she is heir. Jesus, St Matthew tells us, is born from a tainted and impure line. But this fact means that God has accepted us, once and for all, in our light and darkness. After the birth of Christ there is no going back.

God has become one of us. A fact worth of special celebration today.

For when we look at the life of Mary, as in the life of Christ, we see the

holding together of these two poles of human existence: the joy and ecstasy

of Mary of the Magnificat and also the terrible suffering of Gethsemane and

the Cross traditionally represented by Our Lady of Sorrows.


Over the next six days we shall see in the antiphons an exposition of this theme as God is made incarnate in the mess and struggle of all our lives...


Happy Advent!



Saturday, 13 December 2014

John of the Cross - Spiritual Rules for the Soul

Happy Fiesta of Saint John of the Cross!

Every year as the mayhem of Christmas approaches I find the quiet feast day of this gentle man a little oasis of calm and peace. To celebrate his feast day (and for Catholics it is 'Rejoicing/Gaudate Sunday' too), I share with you John's rules for the soul from my 'St John of the Cross: Outstanding Christian Thinker'. John, the eternal introvert and 'quiet man' continues his simple ministry away from the world of glamour and pride. Often people will take me aside and have a quiet word about his teaching. So, on this quiet night so near to the darkest day of the year let us remember in our prayers and thoughts those who are travelling through the dark night - whether of intellect, heart or spirit - and ask that they will soon see 'the night, more lovely than the dawn'.

Viva Juan de La Cruz!

John’s Spiritual Rules for the Soul


(From ‘ St John of the Cross – Outstanding Christian Thinker’, Continuum, 2010)

John adheres to three spiritual rules regarding God’s action in the soul:


1. God acts on the soul in an orderly fashion.

2. God acts gently on the soul.

3. God instructs us according to the state of our soul.


With regard to spiritual direction John is constantly advising the director to keep these three rules before their eyes at all times, knowing that God can only act and be received by someone in so far as they have the capacity to receive that action. However, throughout he continues to urge his charges to take on the steep ascent of Mount Carmel to reach the ultimate goal of nada-todo at the peak of the mountain:


Wipe away, O spiritual soul, the dust, hairs, and stains, and cleanse your eye; and the bright sun will illumine you, and you will see clearly. Pacify the soul, draw it out, and liberate it from the yoke and slavery of its own weak operation, which is the captivity of Egypt (amounting to not much more than gathering straws for baking bricks). And, O spiritual master, guide it to the land of promise flowing with milk and honey. Behold that for this holy liberty and idleness of the children of God, God calls the soul to the desert, where it journeys festively clothed and adorned with gold and silver jewels, since it has now left Egypt and been despoiled of its riches. (LF 3.38)


Thus, as always with John, we have a paradox between the shining splendid goal that is placed before us and to which we should aspire alongside the sympathetic warmth of his acceptance of our fragile nature and our incompleteness at this time before the Lord. John does not take his eye off the ultimate prizes but always tempers his message with the warmth of a seasoned pastoral counsellor.

The ultimate aim of the director, then, for John is to lead the soul to greater ‘solitude, tranquility, and freedom of spirit’ (LF 3.46). This latter quality, ‘freedom of spirit’ is very much at the heart of John’s whole theology and teaching on the life of the spirit:


When the soul frees itself of all things and attains to emptiness and dispossession concerning them, which is equivalent to what it can do of itself, it is impossible that God fail to do his part by communicating himself to it, at least silently and secretly. It is more impossible than it would be for the sun not to shine on clear and uncluttered ground. As the sun rises in the morning and shines on your house so that its light may enter if you open the shutters, so God, who in watching over Israel does not doze or, still less, sleep, will enter the soul that is empty, and fill it with divine goods. (LF 3.46)