From Carmelite Studies VI: John Of The Cross edited by Steven Payne, OCD  


Emmanuel J. Sullivan, O.C.D.

Emmanuel Sullivan is a member of the Institute of Carmelite Studies and a past president of The Mariological Society of America. He is an associate professor of philosophy and religious studies and chair of the Religious Studies Department at St. Joseph's College in North Windham, ME.


In the history of the Church, the Order of Carmel has come to be known for its dedication to a life of prayer and to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. From its very earliest days near the end of the twelfth century, the hermits who gathered together on Mount Carmel to lead a life of prayer built in the midst of their cells a small chapel dedicated to Mary. Soon they became known as "The Brothers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel," and that little chapel became the focal point of their daily existence.

As the Order migrated to Europe and adopted a life-style similar to that of the mendicant friars, on more than one occasion the Carmelites successfully defended their right to be known as the "Brothers of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel." In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, in the writings of Carmelites, we find many statements to the effect that the Order was founded to honor and serve Our Lady. While some would question the historical precision of such statements, still the fact remains that the earliest hermits did dedicate their chapel to Mary and that there developed a growing awareness that Mary was in truth the patroness of the Order.

While Carmelites gathered together for "a life of allegiance to Jesus Christ" (in obsequio Jesu Christi, according to the Rule given them by Albert of Jerusalem), they looked to Mary as their model and guide in this gift of their lives to the service of Christ and his church. Wherever a Carmel came into existence, it was almost always with a church dedicated to Mary under the title of her Annunciation, Immaculate Conception, or Assumption.

Because of Mary's patronage of the Order, Carmelites looked upon themselves as belonging totally to her; likewise Mary their patroness and Mother belonged in a very special way to the Order of Carmel and to each of its members. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it was Mary the Most Pure Virgin who became the focus of Carmel's Marian devotion. What was stressed was not so much Mary's bodily chastity as her purity of heart and total dedication to God.

This understanding of devotion to Mary was in complete accord with Carmel's contemplative ideal, as clearly expressed in the famous work known as The Institution of the First Monks, which speaks of the goal of Carmelite life in the following terms:

In regard to that life we may distinguish two aims, the one of which we may attain to, with the help of God's grace, by our own efforts and by virtuous living. This is to offer to God a heart holy and pure from all actual stain of sin. The second aim of this life is something that can be bestowed upon us only by God's bounty, namely to taste in our hearts and experience in our minds, not only after death but even during this mortal life, some thing of the power of the divine presence, and the bliss of heavenly glory.

This work and the consequent spirituality that it engendered had a tremendous influence, centering Carmelite spirituality on Mary as the model, personification, and embodiment of its contemplative ideal. The goal and the ideal of Mary's life came to be seen as the goal and ideal of the life of every Carmelite. While Albert's Rule for the Carmelites does not mention Mary by name, it does call all Carmelites to a continual meditation and living assimilation of the word of God, "pondering the Law of the Lord day and night." Carmelites were quick to realize that no one ever heard or kept that divine word better than did their Patroness and Mother, Mary.

It should also noted that during this same period Mary the Most Pure Virgin became increasingly known as Mary, the sister of each and every Carmelite. The Order had always been known as the Brothers of our Lady of Mount Carmel, but now a deeper conscious ness emerged of what that title meant. Mary our Patroness, Mary our Mother, is also our Sister. Our very home is her home, and the habit we wear unites us in a most intimate way to her. Carmelites began to appreciate as never before that Mary is not just above and beyond us in so many ways, but is also one with us. She is our sister, and as our sister she is with us always and everywhere.


It was to Carmel thus permeated with the presence of Mary and the call to imitate her in her total response to God that Juan de Yepes came at the age of twenty in the year 1563. Just as Carmel was totally Marian before John's entrance into the Carmelite novitiate, with equal truth it could be said that John was totally Marian before joining Carmel. All his biographers attest to his great love and devotion to Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Without exception, these same biographers recount how on more than one occasion Mary had intervened in an extraordinary way to save John from almost certain death. There seems to be little doubt that it was Mary who attracted John to Carmel. John would certainly have felt very much at home in the distinctively Marian atmosphere that was and is so much a part of life in Carmel.

In his years of Carmelite formation, John's love and devotion to Mary would grow even deeper and more intense. We know that very soon after his ordination to the priesthood in 1567, John came in contact with Teresa of Jesus and learned of her intention to extend the reform of Carmel to include friars as well as nuns. At this particular time, John informed her that he was on the verge of leaving Carmel to join the Carthusians. Just why he was considering this move is not known, but had he carried it out, he would have had to give up much that he deeply appreciated, not the least of which was Carmel's deep and pervasive Marian tradition. At any rate, as she testifies in the Book of Foundations, Teresa urged John to reconsider, and "pointed out the great good that would be accomplished if in his desire to improve he were to remain in his own order" (F, 3, 17).It has been suggested that Teresa prevailed on John's great love for Mary, and that it was this that attracted him to join her in the work of the reform of Carmel. If this is true, then we could say that Mary not only brought John to Carmel, but also kept him in Carmel.

In November of the following year, 1568, John became one of the founding members of the first monastery of discalced Carmelite friars, in Duruelo. From this time and until his death in December of 1591, John played a very important role in the life of the new and growing family of discalced Carmelites. He held many important offices among the discalced and was of great assistance to Teresa of Jesus and her Carmelite nuns. He also endured many difficulties and misunderstandings, especially in his later years. But since these have already been described by other contributors to this volume, let us turn now to John's texts, which have earned for him the title of "Doctor of the Church."


All of John's writings, his prose and even more his poetry, tell us of what God will accomplish in us through prayer, as well as what wonders God has already accomplished, in our lives and in our world. John is constantly urging us to make room within ourselves for God, to empty ourselves, that God may live and act in and through each one of us. Mary is ever present in John's thoughts. She more than anyone else exemplifies that self-emptiness within that calls forth the very fullness of God's self-communication, presence and love. For John, it is Mary who teaches us what constant intimate union with God means. It is Mary who shows us how to be responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit molding us in the image of her Son. And it is Mary who teaches us how to pray, and who helps us to learn and grow spiritually from our sufferings, so that we might more readily respond to and ease the sufferings of others.

A question often asked is why John wrote so little directly about Mary. The truth is that while the explicit references to Mary are very few, all of John's writings are really centered on Mary. Actually, there is little about Mary that John has left unsaid. His whole spiritual doctrine conveys an implicit Mariology.

John's writings are all concerned with the union of the soul with God. In his mind, the prime exemplar and perfect model of the soul united in union of love with God is Mary, the Mother of Jesus. All that John teaches about that union finds its focus not just in doc trines and principles but in the very person of the Virgin Mother. For him, Mary is the living embodiment of all that he has come to know and experience about union with God.

While prayer and devotion to Mary are the two distinctive characteristics of Carmelite life, in John's case these two characteristics merge into one. For him, Carmelite life is not a life of prayer and devotion to Mary, but rather a prolongation, a continuation of Mary's own life of prayer. The goal of Carmelite life and the goal of every Christian life is that very same union with God that John sees so clearly present in the life of Mary.

In an excellent recent article on "The Marian Gospel of Saint John of the Cross," Father José Vicente Rodriguez examines all the texts in the writings of Saint John where the re is an explicit reference to Mary.1 He lists a total of twelve such instances. When we examine these, we find that Rodriguez, like so many before him, identifies only four references to Mary in the major works of Saint John. The first is found in chapter 2 of book 3 of the Ascent of Mount Carmel, and is considered the most fundamental and significant of John's Marian texts. In the commentary on the Spiritual Canticle, we find two more explicit references to Mary: one in stanza 2, which treats of Mary at the wedding at Cana; and another in stanza 20, which treats of suffering in the life of Mary. The fourth Marian reference from John's major works is in the commentary on stanza 3 of the Living Flame of Love, and treats of the meaning of Mary's overshadowing by the Holy Spirit.

Other significant references to Mary occur in two of John's poems: "The Romance on the Gospel Text: In Principio Erat Verbum," and the little poem entitled: "Del Verbo Divino." The final important Marian reference is found in the "Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love," included among the "Sayings of Light and Love." All the remaining references are incidental invocations of the name of Mary in John's letters and counsels to various religious.

Before considering the four major Marian references, it would be well to recall some of what Fr. Rodriguez has to say in his introductory remarks. First, he reminds us that for Saint John of the Cross, Mary is encountered not as a theological problem but as a real person clearly present in the history of salvation. He notes that John always sees Mary in relation to Christ and in relation to his Mystical Body.

It is in the two poems mentioned above (i.e., the "Romances" and "Del Verbo Divino") that we discover something of the depth and intensity of John's own personal love and devotion to Mary. In the major treatises, however, because of his immediate preoccupation with pastoral concerns and his general goal of discussing union with God, John's references to Mary are more restrained. Yet even here, says Rodriguez, "John is a master in situating Mary at strategic points and in key contexts, in order to shed light on his doctrine and to encourage us on our way by Mary's example and her docility in allowing herself to be formed by the Holy Spirit."

Ascent of Mount Carmel

In chapter 2 of book 3 of the Ascent, we find the following passage, considered (as we have said) the principal Marian text of Saint John of the Cross.

God alone moves these souls [who have reached habitual union with God] toward those works that are in harmony with his will and ordinance, and they cannot be moved toward others. Thus the works and prayer of these souls always produce their effect.

Such were the prayer and the works of our Lady, the most glorious Virgin Raised from the very beginning to this high estate, she never had the form of any creature impressed in her soul, nor was she moved by any, for she was always moved by the Holy Spirit. (A, 3, 2, 10)

The context in which John make this statement is a discussion of the purification of the memory and its union with God. The soul must be purified of all natural knowledge, all such knowledge as can be formed from the objects of the five corporal senses. For the memory cannot be united both with God and with sensory forms and distinct kinds of knowledge, inasmuch as God has no such form or image naturally comprehensible to the memory. Divine union empties the memory of all particular forms and kinds of knowledge and elevates it to the supernatural.

John affirms that in the state of union:

all the operations of the memory and the other faculties are divine. God now possesses these faculties as their complete lord because of their transformation in him. And consequently it is he who divinely moves and commands them according to his divine spirit and will. [In this state] the operations of the soul united with God are of the divine Spirit and are divine. (A, 3, 2, 8)

For John, souls in this state "perform only fitting and reasonable works and none that are not so. For God's Spirit makes them know what must be known and ignore what must be ignored, remember what ought to be remembered with or without forms and forget what ought to be forgotten, and makes them love what they ought to love, and keeps them from loving what is not in God." Precisely because "God alone moves these souls" to do the works in harmony with his will and ordinance, they cannot be moved toward other works. "Thus the works and the prayers of these souls always produce their effect" (A, 3, 2, 10).

According to Rodriguez, when we view this principal Marian text in its context, the following points should be noted:

1. The Virgin Mary was elevated to perfect union with God from the first instant of her existence.

2. This initial union implies without question the Immaculate Conception.

3. Mary, the perfect pre-redeemed one, remains always at the summit of perfection, and for John of the Cross the efficacy and excellence of her life and actions derive from the fact that she remains forever so empowered by God.

4. This passage clearly identifies the source of the effectiveness of her prayer and petitions. If we recall here the intervention of Our Lady at Cana and in other circumstances, the positive and efficacious response of Christ and his heavenly Father will not surprise us, for they together with the Holy Spirit were encouraging this very prayer that they desired to grant.

5. In the light of these considerations, it is evident that John of the Cross sees Mary as one who prays, as the perfect one who prays, one more perfect than her prayer. In Mary's ca se, as in no one else's, the Spirit of the Lord aids human weakness; dwelling in her, he pleads with unspeakable groanings in order to manifest the spiritual yearnings she can neither fully express or comprehend (cf. Rom 8: 26-27).

6. Besides the petitions and the prayers of Mary, the text mentions Mary's works as full of efficacy. We can think of her cooperating with Christ in the history of salvation, yet knowing that "the total salvific influence of the Blessed Virgin on men originates, not from some inner necessity, but from the divine pleasure. It flows from the superabundance of the merits of Christ, rests on his mediation, depends entirely on it and draws all its power from it" (Lumen Gentium, #60).

7. Without in any way forcing John's text, it is clear that the passage does not reserve the efficacy of her works, prayers and petitions to the more solemn moments in Mary's life, such as the Annunciation, the birth of Christ, her presence at the cross and in the Cenacle. "All her works, prayers and petitions" means exactly that: all, including those which humanly speaking we call less important. When the Second Vatican Council spoke of Mary's collaboration, it stated precisely: "This union of the Mother with the Son in the work of salvation is made manifest from the time of Christ's virginal conception up to his death" (Lumen Gentium,57). But Rodriguez asks:

Was the involvement of Mary in the work of salvation blocked or frozen before the Annunciation? This is certainly the impression we might get from reading the Council [document]. Yet we can ask (and in the question is found our positive response): Was the Spirit active in the world before Christ was glorified, and even before he was conceived by the work of the same Holy Spirit, and is the Spirit present and active in Mary even before the Incarnation? Was she not enjoying by anticipation and for always the fruits of the redemption?

Should we not consider all her works, prayers and petitions an involvement in the future redemption of all humanity? Why cannot we call this anterior world of Mary, and all that proceeds from the action of the Spirit within her, an intimate collaboration with the Son and Redeemer? Is the category of space and time an insuperable impediment?

8. Just as Mary with the Apostles implored the gift of the Spirit, could not Mary moved by the Spirit have implored anteriorly the coming of the Messiah? There is nothing unusual in this notion, for John in his poetry has already told how the prophets and men of God had done precisely this. Nevertheless, to petition or request is not yet always "impetration" in the technical sense, which includes obtaining through prayer that which is requested or petitioned. If for the reasons given we believe in John's doctrine concerning the efficacy of Mary's prayer then, in her case, to pray and to implore is the same as to impetrate; in her case, to make a request is to obtain that which is requested.

9. In this text, John recalls the most pure docility of Mary to the action of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the same chapter, although he does not name her explicitly, John does seem to have her clearly in mind when he writes:

Although it is true that a person will hardly be found whose union with God is so continuous that the faculties, without any form, are always divinely moved, nevertheless, there are those who are very habitually moved by God and not by themselves in their operations, as Saint Paul says: The children of God (those who are transformed in God and united to him) are moved by the Spirit of God (that is, moved to divine works in their faculties) [Rm 8:14]. It is no marvel that the operations are divine, since the union of the soul with God is divine. (A, 3, 2, 16)

Mary is the creature always moved by the Holy Spirit, and in her this divine adoption is realized in a perfect manner.

10. If we apply some of John's descriptions of God's generous self-communication to souls (wherever there is room), we would find the basis for an interior biography of our Lady, cooperating with the inhabitation of the Holy Trinity. John assures us that in the soul faithful in love, the promise of the Son of God will be fulfilled: that the Most Blessed Trinity will come and dwell in anyone who loves him (see Jn 14:23ff.). God takes up his abode in us by making us live the life of God and dwell in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

11. Finally, we should note John's own doctrine, that the most holy Virgin, elevated to the state of perfect union with God from the very beginning, did not experience that same forgetfulness and purification of the memory that we suffer who are still on the road to perfection.

* * *

Many years ago, in an article on "The Mariology of Saint John of the Cross," Otilio Rodriguez noted that: "This one citation of the Mystical Doctor is the equivalent of an entire volume of Mariology."2 More recently (1981), in an article in Spanish entitled: "The Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary According to Saint John of the Cross", another distinguished Carmelite scholar, Father Ismael Bengoechea, has many very interesting things to say about this basic text. He begins by observing that this brief Marian passage from the As cent of Mount Carmel tells us all that John needs to tell us about Mary, and adds that "John of the Cross has succeeded in condensing in this one utterance his entire system of spirituality, and has made of it a radically pneumatological vision. No modern charismatic writer has expressed with greater profundity the unlimited action of the Paraclete in Mary." In fact, says Bengoechea, "I do not believe that it is possible to say more about the perfection of Mary in fewer words."3 He goes on to say that while John has written much on the Holy Spirit and little explicitly on Mary, yet if we were to speak of a Mariology according to Saint John of the Cross, it would be essentially a pneumatological Mariology, one in which the role of the Holy Spirit would be clearly and emphatically stressed.

Spiritual Canticle

On two occasions in the Spiritual Canticle, John brings the example of Mary to our attention. In the commentary on stanza 2, he tells us that:

The discreet lover does not care to ask for what she lacks or desires, but only indicates this need, so that the Beloved may do what he pleases. When the Blessed Virgin spoke to her Beloved Son at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, she did not ask directly for the wine, but merely remarked: They have no wine [Jn 2:3]. (C, 2, 8)

John then lists three reasons why it is better to merely show our need to the Lord, rather than tell him how to fulfill those needs.

First, the Lord known what is suitable for us better than we do; second, the Beloved has more compassion when he beholds the need and the resignation of a soul that loves him; third, the soul is better safeguarded against self-love and possessiveness by indicating its lack, rather than by asking for what in its opinion is wanting. (ibid.)

Here Mary is presented to us as the perfect model of the prayer of petition.

In stanza 20, John is treating of the preparation of the soul for spiritual marriage. Part of that preparation consists in the subduing of the passions, which John (following Boethius) lists as joy, sorrow, hope, and fear. When the preparation is complete, sensible sorrow is no longer felt, though the effects of such sorrow are experienced on a higher level. John tells us: "Sometimes, however, and at certain periods, God allows [the soul] to feel things and suffer from them so she might gain more merit and grow in the fervor of love, or for other reasons, as he did with the Virgin Mother, St. Paul, and others" (C, 20 & 21, 10).

While the experience of sensible sorrow would otherwise have been incompatible with our Lady's state of intimate union with God, John tells us that God allowed her to experience such sorrow, precisely that she might grow in love; and, we could add, that she might in crease in her compassion for all of us. Thus Mary is presented to us as the Mother of Sor rows and as one who knows by experience what it means to endure intense sorrow.

Living Flame of Love

Finally, in stanza 3 of the Living Flame of Love, John once again refers to Mary's intimate union with the Holy Spirit. He is describing the state of transforming union with God, and likens the graces God bestows on a soul in this state to an "overshadowing." For John:

when a person is covered by a shadow, it is a sign that someone else is nearby to protect and favor. As a result the Angel Gabriel called the conception of the Son of God, that favor granted to the Virgin Mary, an overshadowing of the Holy Spirit: The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the most High will overshadow you. (F, 3, 12).

John goes on to tell us that when the Holy Spirit casts his shadow on a soul, he is so close that he not only touches but is united with it, and the soul understands and experiences the power, wisdom and glory of God (see F, 3, 15). Thus we gain further insight into what Mary's life must have been like, she being more closely united to the Holy Spirit than all other creatures.

Other Passages

In addition to the four Marian references in his major works, there is also a very significant reference to Mary in John's "Prayer of a Soul Taken with Love." John always manifested a deep awareness that he belonged totally to Mary, and in this very beautiful little prayer, he gives expression to his equally deep conviction that Mary belongs totally and completely to each one of us. In this prayer, John speaks for all of us as he says to our heavenly Father:

You will not take from me, my God, what you once gave me, in your only Son, Jesus Christ, in whom you gave me all I desire.

Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and mine the sinners. The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God Himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me. (Sayings of Light and Love, 26-27)

I find this reference to Mary, in a certain sense, even more significant than all the others. Here John isn't just recounting wonderful things about Mary, but is telling us she is ours, with us and for us, always and everywhere. He is telling us that we must realize and appreciate that Mary belongs totally and completely to each one of us. Our guide on the road to union with God is no distant stranger, but our very own Blessed Mother.


For John of the Cross, our goal in life is literally to love God as we are loved by God. While union with God does not entail on the part of the soul a substantial conversion into the very being of God, it does involve a very real participation in the divine life. When united with God, we still remain creatures, and God still remains God. Yet, our powers and our activities are so divinized, so influenced by the Holy Spirit, that we together with the Holy Spirit act as one. Not only are we possessed by the Holy Spirit, but, in reality, we ourselves possess that same Holy Spirit. It is this possession of the Holy Spirit that enables us in the very truest sense to love God with the very Love wherewith he loves us. In the state of union, the soul responds to God with a love worthy of and equal to God's, and that love is his own Holy Spirit. In the state of union, the soul loves God not just with its own ability, but with and through the very person of the Holy Spirit, that living bond of love that unites the Father and the Son.

All of John's writings are concerned with loving union of the soul with God. While he mentions Mary explicitly on but few occasions, there can be no doubt that Mary is constantly present in his thoughts. It is axiomatic of John's teaching that we possess the Holy Spirit to the extent that we ourselves are possessed by the Holy Spirit. For John, no human person was ever more possessed by the Holy Spirit or possessed the Holy Spirit more fully than Mary, the Mother of Jesus and our own Blessed Mother. She is for John and for all of us, the perfect model and inspiration of loving intimate union with God.

For Saint John of the Cross, holiness union with God is much more a reality to be received than a reality to be achieved. Our efforts, our works and our prayers are necessary, but they only help us to be free to receive God's love. Even these efforts, works, and prayers are themselves God's gift to us, helping to prepare us for an even greater gift, God's own self-communication.

For John, Mary is our greatest help on our journey to union with God. Not only do we belong especially to her; John is deeply and constantly aware that she belongs especially to us. Mary helps us to see that it is with and by God's own Love that we are to love him who loves us so much.

For me, John's motto "Love is repaid only by love" gives us his entire message. According to our saint, we only truly love God when we love him as he loves us and it is by the Holy Spirit that he loves us, and it is by that same Holy Spirit that we must love him. Our goal in life is the same as Mary's to open ourselves to the Holy Spirit, that we, like Mary, may love God as we are loved by God, and that we, like Mary, may love God with his own Holy Spirit.


1. See José Vicente Rodriguez, "Evangelio Mariano de San Juan de La Cruz," Ephe merides Mariologicae 40 (1990): 245-272.  

2. See Otilio Rodriguez, "Mariologia de san Juan de la Cruz," Estudios Marianos 2 (1943): 359-399.  

3. Ismael Bengoechea, "El Espiritu Santo y La Virgen Maria, segun San Juan de la Cruz," Ephemerides Mariologicae 31 (1981): 51-70.  

4. Other works consulted include: Fr. Conrad, Carmel is All Mary's (St. Teresa's Press: Flemington, NJ, 1965); Ailbe Doolan, "Our Lady and Saint John of the Cross," Carmelite Digest 1 (1968): 58-60; Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, "Aspetti e sviluppi della grazia di Maria Santissima secondo la doctrina di San Giovanni della Croce," Rivista di vita spirituale 5 (1951): 52-70; Gregorio de Jesus Crucificado, "La muerte de amor de Maria," Estudios Marianos 9 (1950): 239-268; Ildefonso de la Inmaculada, "Nuevo principio misti co de la Mariologia: San Juan de la Cruz descubre la tecnica de la perfeccion de Maria," Miriam 15 (1963): 115-118; Christopher O'Donnell, "Our Lady of Mount Carmel," in his At Worship With Mary (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1988), 107-117; Fr. Sebastian, "Our Lady in the Theology of St. John of the Cross," Mount Carmel Magazine 9 (1961): 44-50; and Redemptus Mary Valabek, "Mary on the Summit of Mt. Carmel: The Devotion of St. John of the Cross for Our Lady of Mt. Carmel," Carmel in the World 21 (1982):135-148.  

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