St. John of the Cross (originally Juan de Yepes y Álvarez 1542-91) was a Spanish mystic born in Ávila.
As a Carmelite monk, John and Teresa of Ávila founded the Discalced Carmelites. In Toledo, he was imprisoned in 1577 but escaped and became Vicar Provincial of Andalusia (1585-87).¹
Today, St. John of the Cross is best known in Catholic and contemplative Christian circles as the author of the Christian spiritual classic, Dark Night of the Soul. In this introspective account, St. John writes from personal experience about the delights and dejection involved in his own path of spiritual purification.
The work is reminiscent of another Christian classic, The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis. And it is often cited by Jungians and other contemporary seekers as justification for long periods of feeling alienated, depressed, or out of sorts in some other way.
Carl Jung, himself, used an alchemical metaphor to describe so-called depression as the nigredo—a stage of inner darkness.
While the spiritual life may involve initial periods of psycho-spiritual darkness and confusion, we should remember that, as St. John indicates, this is often only a stage. With ‘healthy-minded’ mysticism, as William James would have said, some kind of inner ‘daylight’ and transformative meaning should emerge after a period of profound confusion, despair and seeming meaningless.
However, positive and negative states may continue to alternate to some extent through the entire course of a seeker’s life. Christian mystics use another metaphor for the negative states, calling them periods of “dryness.” This comes from the idea that the Holy Spirit is experienced as a kind of pure and clean spiritual ‘water’ from above.
The main difference between life before and after a profound spiritual conversion is that afterward and even during negative states, a new kind of higher meaning – coupled with prayer – carries one through one’s challenging times. So instead of entirely depending on medical materialistic ‘solutions’ the more advanced mystic leans primarily on God and self-improvement to see themselves through.²
St. John was canonized in 1726 and his feast day is on December 14th.
¹ This is described at Wikipedia:
On the night of 2 December 1577, John was taken prisoner by his superiors in the calced Carmelites, who had launched a counter-program against John and Teresa’s reforms. John had refused an order to return to his original house, on the basis that his reform work had been approved by the Spanish Nuncio, a higher authority than John’s direct superiors in the calced Carmelites. John was jailed in Toledo, where he was kept under a brutal regimen that included public lashing before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell barely large enough for his body. He managed to escape nine months later, on 15 August 1578, through a small window in a room adjoining his cell. (He had managed to pry the cell door off its hinges earlier that day). In the meantime, he had composed a great part of his most famous poem Spiritual Canticle during this imprisonment; his harsh sufferings and spiritual endeavors are then reflected in all of his subsequent writings. The paper was passed to him by one of the friars guarding his cell.
² “Medical materialism” is a phrase often used by C. G. Jung. Since then some positive steps have been made in medicine to try to appreciate the importance of spirituality. But there is still a long way to go to realize the full integration of diverse perspectives.
Michael Clark has a Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Ottawa, Canada. His doctoral thesis bridges psychology, sociology and religion by looking at Carl Jung’s concept of synchronicity from a postmodern perspective. While one particular professor was quite hostile to Michael’s work, time has proved it to be a worthwhile contribution to the ongoing discussion.