The Metaphysics of Mysticsm

a Commentary on the Mystical Philosophy of St. John of the Cross

By

Geoffrey K. Mondello

Dedicated to Mary, Mother of God

 

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Home
Preface to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
Foreword to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
An Introduction to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Mystical Tradition and St. John of the Cross
The Presuppositions of the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of the Will in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Understanding in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Memory in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Metaphysics of the Dark Night of the Soul
The Metaphysics of the Night of the Spirit
The Problem of Induction as Pseudo-Problematic
Prolepsis: Objections to the Mystical Experience
Being, Becoming, and Eternity
A Biography of St. John of the Cross
Epilogue to the Metaphysics of Mysticism

© Copyright 2011-2017 by Geoffrey K. Mondello. All rights reserved
author@johnofthecross.com

 

The Mystical Tradition and St. John of the Cross

Confluence, Divergence, and Coherence

 

From the outset, as it must be clear by now, it will not be our purpose, nor does it lie within the scope of this book to seek parallels between the doctrine of St. John of the Cross and the many mystics who preceded him within the tradition to which he very clearly belongs. It is, rather, my express wish to examine the philosophy of St. John upon its own terms, in and of itself, without cluttering the text or confusing an already difficult issue with a plethora of distracting references and historical asides that, while providing a broader overview, inevitably vex us by pulling us away from the focus required to grasp this profound work. Historical perspective is very valuable; indeed, indispensable to an understanding of mysticism at large, and while clear parallels do in fact exist between the doctrine of St. John and the doctrines of earlier mystics, the reader who would have both – the breadth of historical perspective and the rigorous focus of a clearly defined examination – must inevitably decide upon one or the other. I have opted for the latter. But I also recognize the necessity of some perspective from the former. As E. Allison Peers had correctly pointed out, in the works of St. John we find ourselves at the confluence of a great mystical tradition to which many prior writers had contributed – each uniquely, but only in part – to the culmination of that unified and disciplined whole systematically, and for the first time coherently, articulated in the thought of one writer: St. John of the Cross.

But St. John is no mere synthesizer. His unique and profound contribution, not merely to the literature, but to the theology of mysticism, is unparalleled, and unrivaled by any of his predecessors, many of whom unquestionably contributed to the development of his thought. But one would not, for that reason, hold the creative genius of, say, Heisenberg, to be diminished simply because prior physicists had made separate and distinct contributions which the creative genius of Heisenberg – grasping in toto what each had only succeeded in articulating in part – molded into a successful physics no less original for these prior contributions, than it was creative in articulating the whole. Our notion of creativity as such quite often and unconsciously appears to derive its paradigm from God understood as having literally created ex nihilo. But in man, in any man, creativity is not something that suddenly emerges quite spontaneously and in isolation. There are always antecedents from which creative genius springs, distilling something pure from the brackish tributaries upon which it draws. Within the Christian tradition this was certainly so of St. Thomas Aquinas. It is no less true of St. John of the Cross.

Mystical theology, we might say, appropriately begins, as it ends – in a paradox. The most direct, and certainly the most widely accepted interpretation of the development of the tradition of Western Christian Mysticism traces its origins back to Plotinus in the third century 1 But where Plato had endeavored to preserve the fluid dialogical nature of what was essentially philosophic inquiry, the Neoplatonists in general, and particularly Proclus in his tremendously influential Elements of Theology, strove toward a rigorously architectonic form, a form through which they sought to elaborate not so much a synoptic philosophy, but a coherent and essentially reactionary doctrine. This doctrine, only casually derived from Platonism, emerged from what essentially began as dialogues between Plotinus and Ammonius Saccas – a long-standing oral tradition to which Plotinus himself adhered until he was fifty and had begun making notes of his lectures. It was these notes which his pupil Porphyry subsequently edited and organized into the Enneads 2 – and the reason this was done at all is the whole point of the paradox to which we had adverted at the beginning.
 

The Bursting Chrysalis:
   Antagonism, Assimilation and Articulation    

While Plotinus himself makes no reference whatever to Christianity, confining his criticisms specifically to Gnosticism, it nevertheless remains that the mystical doctrine of Plotinus that had been subsequently developed by Porphyry and Iamblichus  3 – and especially as it had been systematically articulated by Proclus – cannot be understood apart from, because in fact it was in large measure a calculated response to, the burgeoning threat of the still nascent Christianity. Not only was Christianity winning converts to the cause, but more importantly, it was simultaneously encroaching upon the state religion – and with it, making decided inroads against what the Neoplatonists saw as the last vestiges of classical culture. Neoplatonism was, in this very clear sense, a reactionary philosophy – it was articulated in response to, and essentially to compete with, the new religion of Christianity which was sweeping the Empire, and along with it, the Hellenic tradition that had become a part of the unraveling fabric of post-classical society. And this is to say that even the systematic origin of the phenomenon of mysticism has its historical roots in antithesis.

It is important to understand in this connection that early Christianity, imbued as it was with the anticipation of the imminent Parousia, or Second Coming of Christ, had more urgent, and certainly more practical objectives in light of its impending redemption, and, consequently, little interest in speculation. With the passage of time, this sense of imminence, of impendence, while not entirely lost, inevitably receded before the more immediate demands thrust upon it by an antagonistic culture. The early Christian community soon came to the realization that it had to cogently evaluate its own doctrines in the very terms of its antagonists; to coherently interpret their deepest convictions in light of the increasingly critical and hostile position of the Neoplatonists. While it is true that the Neoplatonists could claim an historical continuity with classical antiquity through the fusion of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical concepts, it is also true that Neoplatonism had effectively exceeded the legitimate bounds of classical philosophy. In fact, Neoplatonism had radically redefined philosophy by no longer understanding its objective to lay simply in the attainment of truth, but by transforming truth into religious insight through a specifically epistemological enterprise in which philosophic knowledge culminated in the knowledge of God, or better yet, in God as the culmination of philosophical knowledge. Through this transformation it successfully, if superficially, combined the official gods of the Empire reinterpreted through Plotinus, with the prestige that classical philosophy enjoyed at large. It was, after all, a doctrine clearly more congenial to, because it more closely accorded with, the prevailing Hellenistic tradition through its unique interpretation of Plato, and had, moreover, the distinct advantage of preserving important and popular elements of pagan religion. The official polytheism of the state, now reinterpreted in pseudo-Platonic terms – however tentative – in turn lent philosophical legitimacy to Neoplatonism, a legitimacy it would not have otherwise enjoyed apart from the prevailing cultural affinity for Plato.

Neoplatonism, then, effectively forced Christianity out of the slumber of its own critical naiveté. In a larger sense, the conflict which had long existed between Rome and Galilee had now emerged from the narrow and patently futile gauntlet of the Roman arena, where even blood had failed to attenuate the conflict, into the decisive arena of the mind. Faith would wither under the light of unrelenting reason – and reason would succeed where duress not only had miserably failed, but had served to fuel the fervor of this growing, unreasoned, and recalcitrant sect. Another approach was clearly necessary to preserve what was left of the respectability of Hellenism in a declining empire, and Plotinus found in Platonism the most effective instrument to this end. This is not to say that the essentially reactionary impulse of Plotinus was exercised, or even conceived, in the interests of the state, at least in a way that we would understand in contemporary terms; still less that he did not have a genuine philosophical commitment to, if coupled with a defective understanding of, the tradition of Platonism – but the fact remains that the doctrine itself unquestionably evolved as a response to both cultural and contemporary considerations.

Inevitably, however, even this perspective is too myopic. Very clearly, systematic mysticism cannot be discussed apart from Plotinus, Porphyry, and especially Proclus – who first made the distinction between the via affirmativa and the via negativa in the epistemological approach to God – and whose synthesis of Neoplatonic concepts through Aristotelian logic was to prove so influential in later Scholastic thought. But the mystical enterprise must be understood within a much larger historical context. The bankrupt philosophies of the classical era, Eclecticism, Epicureanism, Skepticism and Stoicism, all of which had promised – and failed – to deliver happiness, resulted in a general disillusion with philosophy as a viable means of rescuing post-classical society from its impending dissolution. And while it is true that Neoplatonism attempted to provide that alternative by vying with Christianity, it is no less true that the mystical impulse itself clearly predated the advent of Neoplatonism as the first systematic formulation of the basic mystical thesis; an impulse which cuts across all traditions and cultures and has been universal in every age. It is fundamentally a human response that is as ancient as the Divine invitation echoed in the cool of the evening in the garden of the first paradise: “Vocavitque Dominus Deus Adam, et dixit ei: ‘Ubi es?’ “ 4 The Divine solicitation to union with God, then, is as ancient as the creation of the heart of man. The human susceptibility to God cannot be confined to a culture, a tradition, a doctrine, or even any one religion. This is no invitation to indifferentism; it is merely a realization, a recognition, that this susceptibility is rooted in the ontology of the soul itself, and is therefore universal to all men, in all ages, in every culture. It is obviously another case altogether how each culture has interpreted this invitation and responded to it. For the Christian mystic, however, this invitation takes the decisive and definitive form of God Incarnate in the Person of Jesus Christ, a point to which we alluded earlier, and for which reason we needn’t reexamine now.

The concatenation of persons and ideas which had culminated in the lucid exposition of St. John is more or less clearly defined along an historical continuum that is nevertheless worth exploring, for the thought of St. John cannot be exscinded from the tradition out of which alone it coherently arises. We had already briefly adverted to Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus as the systematic progenitors of the mystical doctrine that had come to be subsequently elaborated within Christian metaphysics. There are many intermediary figures, to be sure: Iamblichus, the Syrian pupil of Porphyry; Marinus, the disciple of Proclus; and commentators like John Philoponus who subsequently converted to Christianity, among a host of other less significant figures after whom Neoplatonism, as a viable philosophy in its own right, had effectively come to a conclusion, having been supplanted by the decidedly more cogent and closely reasoned Christian interpretation. Christian thought, in the end, did not abolish Neoplatonism, as Neoplatonism had been intended to abolish Christianity, but rather reinterpreted it, and in the process had not so much adopted, as assimilated significant features of Neoplatonism, and incorporated them, with some residual tension, within the philosophic body of Christian doctrine.

The Neoplatonic emphasis on the dialectic approach to God is a good illustration. For the Neoplatonist there are essentially three dialectical moments culminating in the knowledge of God. These may broadly be summarized as the predicative, in which we affirm something about God; the dispredicative, in which, paradoxically, we deny what we have affirmed, at least in a univocal sense; and finally the superlative, in which we reaffirm what we had denied, but in an equivocal sense; this latter finally achieving the most adequate approximation not simply linguistically available, but epistemologically possible. An example will prove helpful. For the Neoplatonist, the only ascriptions proper to God are the One and the Good. The most fundamental concept of being, however, is not predicated of God except equivocally, or analogically: it is not predicated of the One or the Good – because it is absolutely transcendent – in the way that it is predicated of other things in the universe of experience. So much had at least been suggested by Plato in his Republic and Symposium, although with a good deal of vacillation and, we might add, with sufficient enough ambiguity, if not ambivalence, to provide stable enough a platform for Plotinus to make his leap to super-reality where Aristotle through that same ambiguity stepped down to the world of experience. The fact remains, however, that every instantiation of being in the world of ordinary events is, without exception, determinate, limited, and therefore finite. In other words, each is possessed of being in a way that is not just different from, but radically dissimilar to, the completely transcendent Being of God. We cannot, as a consequence, univocally ascribe being to God – who is without limitation, determination, and finitude – in the way that we ascribe being to a man or, for that matter, to a tree. In this sense, then, God is not being; at least not being ordinarily understood. To arrive at an adequate understanding of the nature of God, then, we must effectively dispredicate him of being in the way that being is understood of everything else apart from God. God, as a result, must essentially be understood neither as being, nor as not-being. His being is, in the terminology of the Neoplatonists, above being.

A good deal more, of course, is involved in this dialectic which is extrapolated to every other possible predicate of God with essentially the same result: the thesis, having been established, is at once abrogated through its antithesis, and the erstwhile contradiction is sublated into a synthesis reconciling this apparent opposition. The synthesis itself, however, is at best only tentative, resting as it does upon a precarious balance between the univocal and the equivocal use of language – and the problems this inevitably creates for language, together with the paradoxes it subsequently engenders, are by now obvious and have become intrinsic to mystical discourse ever since. In other words, what has become conceptually synthetized through language does not translate into an ontological opposition that in the end is understood as apparent only. The ontological opposition remains unmitigated and intact. What has been conceptually reconciled are merely the terms of opposition applied to the Absolute – an opposition which, in any event, is entirely extraneous to the One in virtue of its utter transcendence – a synthesis which the Neoplatonist tentatively achieves through the use of the superlative. And this, of course, is simply another way of saying that the Absolute is only susceptible of being addressed analogically.

As we may well anticipate, such an analysis – at least relative to the paramount concept of being – was fraught with problems upon its own terms, and, as it stood, was not entirely amenable to thinkers struggling to articulate a Christian philosophy within an otherwise useful Neoplatonic framework. Systematically sound, the metaphysical architecture around which Plotinus constructed his doctrine stood largely in need of rehabilitation only – specifically along the lines of its cosmological and ontological interpretations. And it is precisely on this point, in one of the first crucial breaks with unchristened Neoplatonism, that the 4th century Marius Victorinus, considered by some to be the first Christian Neoplatonist in the Western tradition, took exception. Significantly, Victorinus held being or esse to be, if not the most appropriate, at least the most accurate name for God in one of the earliest, if only inchoate, formulations of Christian philosophical thought. A tension, then – one never entirely resolved – ineluctably emerges from the Christianizing of Neoplatonism; a tension, we can see, essentially resulting from the incorporation of significant features of Neoplatonism, both metaphysically and cosmologically, together with the repudiation of one of its most basic tenets concerning the fundamental concept of being.

In other words, while much of the metaphysical infrastructure of Neoplatonism remained intact despite its adaptation to specifically Christian concepts; ontologically, the abstract, superessential being of, say, Proclus, is clearly not identical, nor can it be equated, with the personal Being of the Christian Neoplatonists. Although the One identified by Plotinus is indeed, and almost parenthetically described as “the paternal divinity,” 5 the god of Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus is, in a manner of speaking, not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To begin with, it is not a personal being to whom, for example, prayers are addressed; a being understood as intimately involved in the lives and the affairs of men. For the Neoplatonist, there is no predilection for man in the abstract being of the Absolute. The whole point, however, is that not just the Being, but the personal Being of God, is unquestionably the most fundamental tenet of Christianity; in fact, it is unquestionably the first principle of any specifically Christian metaphysics.

As a consequence, the categorical transcendence of the Absolute of Plotinus – a transcendence so complete that it does not so much as admit of the predication of “being” to a proper conception of the Absolute except by way of pure analogy – becomes an immediate point of contention in the adaptation of Neoplatonism to Christianity. This, paradoxically, but no less obviously, is not to say that the Christian philosopher does not attribute transcendence to God; he merely interprets this transcendence, not in less categorical, but in less stringently ontological terms; terms which, in the end, find their most coherent definition in a metaphysics involving the notion of participation.
 

The Areopagitica    

Certainly in terms of the influence exercised by any one Neoplatonist, the most central figure, and unquestionably the most instrumental in this transformative assimilation is Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, or as he is often simply called, the Pseudo-Dionysius, the fifth century Christian philosopher (probably a disciple of Proclus) whose actual identity remains unknown, although largely conjectured upon. He is generally believed to have been an ecclesiastic of some sort whose pseudonymous authorship of this body of writings that has come to be known as the Areopagitica, is ostensibly attributed to one of the judges of the Areopagus, or the supreme tribunal in Athens, before which St. Paul had stood to defend his evangel, and subsequent to whose eloquent defense, converted to Christianity 6. We now know this not to be the case, and the reasons put forth for this pseudonymity are many and varied, but few of them seriously suggest anything more than the type of pious literary imposture that appears to have been commonly practiced at the time. In any event, the authorship of these works is largely beside the point considering the systematic coherence achieved in which Neoplatonic concepts were successfully synthesized with accepted Christian doctrine. These treatises, which were to have an impact well into the middle ages and beyond, and which in toto constitute the Areopagitica, are four: De Divinis Nominibus (a paradigm of the via affirmativa), Caelestis Hierarchia, Ecclesiastica Hierarchia, and Theologia Mystica (an even more celebrated paradigm of the via negativa) 7 The latter, though extremely brief – having only five chapters – distills elements essentially derived from the other three treatises which then form the basic principles to mystical union with God. Anyone who has read anything of the medieval mystics will be immediately acquainted with much of the imagery and many of the analogies, to say nothing of the method, in this work. And while we do not intend to go into a detailed analysis of the Christianized Neoplatonism of the Pseudo-Dionysius, it is sufficient for this brief summary to note that the Areopagitica is the locus classicus not only of the linguistics of mysticism, together with the inchoate development of a distinctive mystical epistemology, but of the via negativa, or the negative way, the concept perhaps most central to the later metaphysical thought of the medieval mystics in particular, and Christian mysticism in general.

It is very clear from the outset that the author of the Areopagitica was profoundly influenced by Proclus, the last and arguably the most systematic thinker of the Neoplatonic school, who was deeply antagonistic to Christianity. Despite this marked influence, however, the synthesis which the Pseudo-Dionysius had effected between Neoplatonism and Christianity was so successful that the Areopagitica very early on were invoked as competent documents on both sides of the Monophysite controversies in the 6th century, and in the dispute over Monothelism in the 7th. Within the latter part of that same century we find St. John Damascene, the last of the Greek Fathers, appealing to the Pseudo-Areopagite in discussing the limitations of language in addressing the Absolute, particularly in his references to the essential incomprehensibility of God. 8 Widespread as his influence had been, however, it was St. Maximus Confessor, the 7th century theologian who, by successfully integrating dogmatics into the Pseudo-Dionysian schema through his lucid commentaries on all four treatises, had provided the necessary theological glosses to obvious ambiguities in the texts, bringing the works of the Pseudo-Dionysius into closer alignment with orthodox doctrine and thus effectively preparing them for, and greatly contributing toward, their general recognition in the later Middle Ages.

Ironically, the profound influence that the Pseudo-Dionysius was to exercise upon the later development of medieval mystical thought was nearly lost to the West together with the knowledge of classical Greek that had all but vanished in the four hundred years preceding the Carolingian reforms and the subsequent revival of letters, culture, and learning. Greek at this time, indeed, the pursuit of learning in general, appears to have been preserved exclusively in the monasteries of Ireland, which alone had been spared the barbarian incursions that had ravaged the Continent and extended as far as Britain. Fortunately, however, they had failed to press farther west, and at the behest of Charles the Bald, it was the Irish philosopher and theologian, Johannes Scotus Erigena, one of a handful of theologians in the West who had acquired facility in classical Greek, who was largely responsible for bringing the Areopagitica 9 (together with St. Maximus Confessor’s Ambigua) into the mainstream of medieval theological thought through his translation in 858 of the works from their original Greek into Latin. At the same time, he incorporated significant features of these works into his own speculative theology that itself had become prominent in his most celebrated, if controversial work, De Divisione Naturae 10, otherwise known as the Periphyseon, which was widely read by mystical theologians in the 13th century and exerted considerable influence upon such later figures as Johann Eckhart. With the isolated exception of Johannes Scotus Erigena, however, a significant hiatus occurred in the development of mystical-theological thought between the 9th and the 11th centuries that coincided with the greater gap in continuity that had occurred within philosophy itself apart from a few notable exceptions such as Boethius in the early 6th century – considered by some the last of the Romans – whose De Consolatione Philosophiae (a philosophical and not an explicitly Christian work per se) bears the unmistakable stamp of Proclus, and possibly St. Isadore of Seville in the 7th century, more properly an encyclopedist in his attempt to compile a sort of summa of universal knowledge, parts of which, incidentally, preserved important fragments of classical learning that would otherwise have been lost altogether.
 

Revival, Reason and Revelation:
   the Middle Ages and the Mystical Tradition

Not until the revival of letters and learning in general under the auspices of Charlemagne (principally through Alcuin, the great architect of the Carolingian renaissance) will we find the literature of mysticism reintroduced through the reintroduction of classical learning itself. This, as we have seen, was the impetus that brought the Pseudo-Dionysius to Johannes Scotus Erigena in the first place. While the assimilative process, as we may expect, was gradual, so effective was the reform in education and learning that had been brought about largely through the efforts of Alcuin that the educational system it produced survived the collapse of the Carolingian Empire, which had effectively ended with the death of Charles the Fat in 888. However, the wealth of classical learning it had succeeded in acquiring was preserved in the Cathedral schools and monasteries through which it subsequently became available to the mystics who would later flourish in the 12th century

It would seem to appear that these two distinct repositories of classical literature were largely responsible for the two equally distinct approaches to mysticism that we find emerging in the 12th century. While clearly not separate traditions, the divergent interpretations found their clearest expressions respectively in the Cistercian monasteries, most notably at Clairvaux and Signy, under the auspices of St. Bernard – widely regarded as the first medieval mystic – and at the Abbey School of St. Victor in Paris founded in 1108 by William of Champeaux, but which really came to renown under the leadership of Hugh of St. Victor, one of the foremost theologians of the 12th century and one of the principal architects of scholasticism. In many respects it was St. Bernard, however, who, in his “homilies on the Canticle”, and elsewhere, put the indelible stamp of Christianity upon the Neoplatonic mysticism of the Pseudo-Areopagite by contending that grace, and not simply the abstracting process of contemplation, was essential, indeed, indispensable to the knowledge of God that culminates in mystical union; a union, moreover, achieved not through the intellect, but through the will; not through reason, but essentially through love, and for whom the very possibility of union at all presumed the imago Dei in the soul.

William of St. Thierry, a close friend and colleague of St. Bernard, provided perhaps the clearest expression of the Cistercian emphasis upon the role of the will in the realization of union:

“When the object of thought is God, and the will reaches the stage at which  it becomes love, the Holy Spirit at once infuses Himself by way of love [such that] the understanding of the one thinking becomes the contemplation of the one loving” 11  

In this respect it would appear that St. John of the Cross is much closer to St. Bernard and William of St. Thierry than to Hugh of St. Victor to whom he is in other respects nevertheless indebted. While not prescinding from the necessity of revelation, and always within the bounds of orthodoxy, Hugh of St. Victor nevertheless strongly emphasizes the role of reason in attaining to the knowledge of God. His contribution to the literature of mysticism, principally in the form of his five mystical works, De Arca Noe Morali et Mystica; De Vanitate Mundi; De Arrha Animae; and De Contemplatione et eius speciebus was significant and the Neoplatonic influence upon his thought unquestionable as we see in his Commentariorum in Hierarchiam Caelestem Sancte Dionysii Areopagitae secundum interpretationem Joannnis Scoti libri x. The emphasis upon reason, which characterized the Victorines in general, is particularly evident in the mystical works Beniamin maior and Beniamin minor by Richard of St. Victor for whom contemplation formed the terminus of a progression of knowledge to the point of pure reason beyond which – and only with divine assistance – the soul attains to union. In an interesting aside nevertheless apropos of St. John, Richard invokes a particularly useful analogy in the way of underscoring the importance of dogma and Scripture to the mystical experience by seeing in the Mount of the Transfiguration a prototype of certain “visions” accompanying this experience, and claiming that such essentially peripheral phenomena, if they are in fact genuinely divine in origin, must be corroborated by Moses and Elijah, who for Richard symbolize the Church and Sacred Scripture. If they accord with neither, they are to be rejected. Certainly the tradition that culminates in the thought of St. John owes a considerable debt to the Victorine School in further elaborating the Christian synthesis that derived its impulse from the Pseudo-Areopagite. The extent to which St. John of the Cross was influenced by this important school of thought is, I think, most clearly evidenced in his use of the allegorical interpretation of Scripture, certainly not in the Victorine emphasis upon reason. It would also seem probable that St. John’s metaphysics of participation through love owes at least an historical debt to Richard of St. Victor in whose De Trinitate God is emphasized as love itself, as the Evangelist John had beautifully summarized, and not merely as a perfectly loving being.

This tradition continues to be developed in the writings of the13th century Franciscan mystic Giovanni Fidanza, better known as St. Bonaventure, a contemporary and close friend of St. Thomas Aquinas, whose Itinerarium mentis in Deum, or Journey of the Mind to God, and De Triplici Via, or the Three-fold Way – essentially a compendium of the mystical theology of the Victorine School – were widely read by such diverse later 14th century mystics as Blessed Henry Suso and Jean Gerson. It is really in the 14th century, however, that we come the flowering of mysticism, and more specifically, to the apex of speculative mysticism. The various earlier systems, both rational and affective – that is to say, emphasizing either reason or the will respectively – converge at that academic crossroads where the increasingly abstract, dry, and often contentious schools encountered a popular yearning for depth and renewal in the most basic spiritual aspirations of which the academics had seemingly lost sight in the pursuit of matters abstruse and trivial by comparison. Here we find such familiar and notable figures as Eckhart, Ruysbroeck, Suso, Tauler, and Gerson, all of whom, directly or indirectly, to some extent influenced St. John of the Cross. Within the limited scope of this book we cannot possibly attempt to detail the individual contribution to the thought of St. John of each of these figures who were, at least chronologically, his most immediate predecessors; it is nevertheless clear, however, that the most direct sources to which St. John had access were in any event themselves indebted to the contributions of previous figures within the same tradition. And while we may safely advert to the earliest systematic formulations of this doctrine in the Neoplatonists in general and the Pseudo-Dionysius in particular, and see every subsequent development essentially in light of this basic metaphysical doctrine, we cannot, and quite obviously, for that reason prescind from those unique contributions that were instrumental in articulating this early and largely inchoate doctrine in a way that progressively succeeded in making it consistent with both Christianity and reason.

To a large degree, each figure in the mystical tradition owes a greater debt to the influence of another and preceding figure in a way that is more clearly recognized than his debt to the rest. But we must equally recognize that every mystic is essentially eclectic in drawing upon the distinct universe of ideas that constitute the tradition out of which his own thought emerges, sometimes subscribing to certain aspects of one doctrine while largely rejecting the rest, as in the case of Blessed Henri Suso’s rehabilitation of some of the faulty doctrines of Johann Eckhart. In a sense, to say that St. John owes his most immediate debt to Ruysbroeck, as some maintain, even if true in a purely chronological or immediate sense, is to fail to see in Ruysbroeck the myriad other mystics, indeed, the entire mystical continuum to which the doctrine of Ruysbroeck or any other mystic is indebted. Every mystic, then, incorporates something of the thought of not merely one particular mystic preceding him, but of the entire tradition implicitly comprehended within the doctrine of that mystical figure to whom he himself is most immediately indebted. And distinct elements within this tradition extend back well beyond the Pseudo-Areopagite himself; in fact, at least as far back as the 3rd century AD, some two hundred years prior to the appearance of the Areopagitica. And the whole point is this: whether or not say, Maximus Confessor in the 9th century had read St. Athanasius’s Life of Antony written around 357 AD or the Spiritual Homilies of the 5th century Pseudo-Macarius, and whether or not Maximus’s Ambigua itself was the subject of study of say, Johann Tauler, may be impossible to ascertain. What is certain, however, is that an entire tradition consisting of a wide variety of writings by a great many different writers is brought to bear on the doctrines that later became articulated in the speculative systems of the great 14th and 15th century mystics.

Any brief survey, for example, must certainly include Origen, the 3rd century scholar and Church Father who stands not only as one of the most creative minds in the history of the Church, but as one of its earliest mystical teachers. Indeed, not only was Origen a contemporary of Plotinus, but he studied under the very same Ammonius Saccas from whom Plotinus derived his own mystical doctrine. In Origen, among other things, we find one of the earliest examples of the systematic use of allegory in the interpretation of Scripture 12, a literary device exercised no less by St. John of the Cross than it was by the Victorines some four centuries before him. Among the mystical doctrines to be found in his Commentary on the Song of Songs is a conception of union framed around the notion of the imago Dei and his writings clearly adumbrate the celebrated three-fold way of purgation, illumination, and union,13 which had subsequently come to typify the mystical path to God. But there are other aspects of mysticism to be considered as well. The 4th century St. Antony, for example, is widely acknowledged as having contributed indispensable elements to the development of the ascetic aspects of Western mysticism, which find their clearest expression in the form of what are basically the ascetical prescriptions mandated by the via negativa. The conception of a rehabilitation of man’s nature to its original state of consonance with God, which had been forfeited as a result of the Fall, is equally addressed by St. Anthony, and in the context of a conception of union with God. His skeptical regard of supernatural phenomena and his admonitions concerning them (to be reiterated by Maximus later, and St. Bernard later still), his stress on the necessity of withdrawal from the world, together with his counsels concerning impediments likely to be encountered as a result of diabolical interference, are very familiar to us by now from a much later historical context.

More influential still upon the thought of the medieval mystics was the 4th century Desert Father St. Gregory of Nyssa to whom the mysticism of St. John is, directly or indirectly, indebted. In contradistinction to earlier (and some later) mystics, but very much like the Pseudo-Dionysius (whose writings were unquestionably influenced by St. Gregory of Nyssa) ecstatic union is to be attained through darkness, not light. Not surprisingly, in his Life of Moses (as St. John will much later describe it in his Ascent of Mount Carmel) we find that the journey to “… the knowledge of God … is a steep mountain difficult to ascend …”, and in this ascent itself, moreover, the imago Dei figures largely in the mystical experience that follows. The Incarnation is, for St. Gregory, as it is for St. John, and for Maximus Confessor before either of them, absolutely essential to the very possibility itself of mystical union. The necessity of abstraction from sensibility, and the imperative of faith as the only proximate means to this union – this is no less the currency of the mysticism of St. Gregory than it is of St. John of the Cross.

In the writings of these early Fathers, particularly Origen and St. Gregory, we also find some of the earliest references to Divine love inflicting a wound whose pain is longing for union; a sentiment echoed only less eloquently but no less passionately by St. Bernard than by St. John of the Cross. Like St. Antony before him, and St. John after him, St. Gregory understood mystical union as essentially culminating in the restoration of the imago Dei obscured by sin. But our striving after parallels for their own sake, should we care to pursue them further, may well continue indefinitely, and in the end be quite pointless; the recognition of such antecedents itself suffices to our present purpose. For what I am suggesting in all this is merely what I had attempted to state with a good deal more brevity earlier: All the coherent, but fragmented elements of an entire historical tradition, dating at least as far back as the 3rd century, come into brilliant focus in the thought of St. John of the Cross some thirteen hundred years later. Perhaps, in closing, an analogy of our own will be useful. This tradition comes to us more or less like the fragments of a mirror shattered at the dawn of time, each piece of which, in some diminished form, in and of itself reflects something authentic of the one same sun whose light is brought to bear upon it – but these scattered pieces are finally brought into proper orientation, aligned, reintegrated, and seamlessly conjoined only through a creative insight so flawless in perspective that the whole is for the first time reflected as unfragmented in all its parts, revealing a brilliance far greater in its unity than the sum of each distinct light reflecting in only the totality of its parts. Where each previous mystic, through the indomitable prompting of Unspeakable Love, had succeeded merely in hurling a star into the darkness, St. John, peering into that same night, grasped the divine dialectic of darkness and light – and with the finger of God traced the constellation that revealed, in the closing words of Dante’s Paradiso, “the love that moves the sun and every star.”

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1 or literally, ‘sets of nine’ essays divided rather arbitrarily by Porphyry in his penchant for numerology into six groups.
2 Apart from the Enneads, Porphyry himself had written several influential treatises, the most notable being his Sentences, essentially an exposition of the philosophy of Plotinus, and the Isagoge (or introduction to Aristotle’s categories) which figured largely in later medieval thought especially in the controversy over universals in the 11th and 12th centuries.
3 His principal works, broadly organized as the Summary of Pythagorean Doctrines, while less celebrated than those of Porphyry, were more speculative still, and contributed significantly to the modification of the basic metaphysical tenets of Neoplatonism, elements of which Proclus would subsequently take up in his final systematic synthesis.
4 “… the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” Gen. 3.9 (Vulgate)
5 Ennead 5.1
6 Acts 17.34
7 Not including ten letters, apart from these treatises, attributed to the Pseudo-Dionysius as well. These were addressed severally to ecclesiastics of ranks ranging from the monk, Caius, to the Bishop of Titus, and one ostensibly to the Apostle John himself.
8 De Fide Orthodoxa I.12
9 The text of which, in the original Greek, had been archived by Pope Paul I in the Abbey of St. Denis just north of Paris in 757 where it had remained unread for the better part of a hundred years.
10 A boldly speculative but unsuccessful attempt to synthesize the emanationisn, pantheism, and mysticism of the Neoplatonic schema with the empirical elements of Aristotle, Christian theism, and the doctrine on creation.
11 Golden Epistle, 249-250
12 Philocalia, chapters 1-15
13 intimated earlier still by St. Clement of Alexandria in his Stromateis in the 3rd century. 

 

The Presuppositions

 

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Home
Preface to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
Foreword to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
An Introduction to the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Mystical Tradition and St. John of the Cross
The Presuppositions of the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of the Will in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Understanding in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Role of Memory in the Philosophy of St. John of the Cross
The Metaphysics of the Dark Night of the Soul
The Metaphysics of the Night of the Spirit
The Problem of Induction as Pseudo-Problematic
Prolepsis: Objections to the Mystical Experience
Being, Becoming, and Eternity
A Biography of St. John of the Cross
Epilogue to the Metaphysics of Mysticism

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