St. John of the Cross. Public Domain/Wikimedia

Wholly in Love

Examining St. John of the Cross’ wisdom on every priest’s desire for union with God

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Given the many times in any priest’s life when he feels lonely, misunderstood and more aware of God’s absence than of God’s presence, how is it possible to rekindle his innate desire for union with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? An answer may be found in what St. John of the Cross (1542-91) proposes as the sum of perfection in his famous quatrain:

“Forgetfulness of created things, / remembrance of the Creator, / attention turned toward inward things, / and loving the Beloved.” — “The Collected Works,” 14:73

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For St. John, forgetfulness does not mean a lack of appreciation for created things, but a release from one’s inordinate attachments to them. As a poet filled with awe for beauty and order, he relished traces of the transcendent in creation. He beheld hints and shadows of God in leaping stags, sheepfolds, mountains, watersides, flowers, wild beasts, frontiers, woods, thickets, green meadows and groves — all of which God clothed in a loveliness beyond words.

In “The Spiritual Canticle,” St. John depicts the union of the lover and the Beloved in the splendor of cool breezes, in the solitude of lonely wooded valleys, on strange islands, by the side of resounding rivers, in the tranquil night and at the time of the rising dawn.

Mindful that priests, like him, are of God’s gifts, St. John disclaimed any thought of ownership in favor of stewardship. He focused his attention not on things in themselves but on remembrance of their divine origin.

Especially in times of suffering and aridity, John of the Cross renewed his belief that God refreshes and deepens the bond of love that is the essence of every priestly vocation. He thanked God for the grace of giving him living knowledge of the Trinity. He felt himself overflowing with the desire to serve the Lord and to make every act of teaching, preaching, confessing and directing an epiphany of the abundant love God had bestowed on him.

He says in his quatrain that, to be perfected in the Lord, priests and people must turn their attention in two directions at once: toward inward things and toward loving the Beloved.


Theological Virtue: Faith

“Faith is the theological virtue by which we believe in God and believe all that he has said and revealed to us, and that Holy Church proposes for our belief, because he is truth itself. By faith ‘man freely commits his entire self to God.’ For this reason the believer seeks to know and do God’s will. ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ Living faith ‘work[s] through charity.’

“The gift of faith remains in one who has not sinned against it. But ‘faith apart from works is dead’: when it is deprived of hope and love, faith does not fully unite the believer to Christ and does not make him a living member of his Body.

“The disciple of Christ must not only keep the faith and live on it, but also profess it, confidently bear witness to it, and spread it: ‘All however must be prepared to confess Christ before men and to follow him along the way of the Cross, amidst the persecutions which the Church never lacks.’ Service of and witness to the faith are necessary for salvation: ‘So every one who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven; but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.’”

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1814-16


Reorder the Inner Life

Before priests can turn outward and become instruments used by God to love and serve others, they have to reorder their inner life. They need to face any facet of their interiority that is not in tune with God’s will.

In Book One of “The Dark Night of the Soul,” St. John probes the imperfections one needs to address before one can be united with the Beloved (cf. Chapters 2-7). The first and foremost imperfection that lurks as much in a priest’s heart as in the heart of all of us is the secret pride that begets complacency. How easy it is for a priest to imagine himself to be advanced perhaps because he spends extra time in prayer, while failing to address the veiled but vicious roots of spiritual vanity. Even at moments of speaking of spiritual things, might he have done so to catch others’ attention more than to honor God? Is it not tempting to offer others instruction when he needs to seek spiritual direction himself? Are there times when he judges others too harshly because they do not live up to his expectations of how good Christians ought to act?


Unless priests have the humility to pay attention to the Pharisee in them, St. John cautions that there is no chance for them to deepen their desire for the Beloved nor to reach the sum of Christian perfection.

Vanity of this sort is a serious obstacle to purity of heart and poverty of spirit. Other imperfections that make it impossible to love God with one’s whole being and one’s neighbors as oneself include from “The Dark Night”:

— Spiritual avarice or the collector mentality that may tempt a cleric to neglect putting into practice what he preaches. He may take more pleasure in his possessions or in outer symbols of devotion than in the Giver of all good gifts (cf. Jas 1:17).

— Spiritual lust escalates the desire for sensory consolations more than for intimacy with the God who consoles. The result may be waves of impure thoughts and feelings that attract demonic seduction, stir waves of rebellion and weaken the disposition of chaste, respectful love.

— Spiritual anger breeds indiscreet zeal; it sparks angry reproofs of others’ faults and conduct contrary to peace and patience. This vice may also trigger anger at oneself for repeated failings that may evoke doubts regarding God’s mercy and forgiveness.

St. John identifies with the precision of a true physician of the soul other imperfections such as indiscreet zeal condemnatory of others’ sins or fostering uncharitable admonition; he also focuses on the vice of spiritual gluttony that causes one to be so inordinately attached to the “more” that one forgets the “more than.” If gluttony of this sort is not curtailed by the grace of growing in faith in the dark nights of sense and spirit, priests may fail to realize that to follow Jesus begins with denying oneself.

The final two imperfections St. John identifies are spiritual envy and spiritual sloth. A cleric, unaware of the insidious tactics of envy, may look askance at anyone who seems to be making more progress on the road to perfection than he is. He may focus on the speck in another’s eye and fail to see the plank in his own (cf. Mt 7:4).

Sloth may tempt one to flee from spiritual exercises that do not provide the gratification they once did. Becoming bored with the ordinary routine of parish life and seeking more satisfying modes of ministry may be a symptom of sloth.

These are the ways described by St. John to satisfy one’s own will rather than God’s. All pose obstacles to attaining the sum of perfection since, in his words, only the turn toward inward things enables one to turn from self-love to love of the Beloved.

To Be Perfected in God

St. John summarizes what it means to be perfected in God in the last stanza of his poem on “The Dark Night,” saying:

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

To enhance powers of inner receptivity and to listen, as Jesus did, to the Father’s will, priests practice the asceticism of relaxing their busy minds and readying the inner chambers of their hearts for the entrance of the Divine Guest. They turn away from all that is not of God in order to reclaim all that is in God.

From a “destructive” point of view, asceticism smashes idols of one’s own making; it helps one to avoid dissipation and distraction and clears the clutter associated with excessive activity devoid of contemplative repose. It repels all forms of inordinate consumption and possessiveness. On the “constructive” side, asceticism renders one inwardly available at all times for God. It means that priests are vigilant, ready and on guard when Christ knocks on their door (cf. Rv 3:20).

Not only do they listen to God in the silence of their hearts, they also become instruments of God in the world by letting go of self-centeredness, vanity, avarice and envy.

Union with the Beloved

Asceticism is a prerequisite for union with the Beloved. St. John reminds those on this road that moderation is essential. Holiness is not a grace one can gain by oneself alone. A wise, learned and experienced spiritual director like John of the Cross rejects any identification of mysticism with extraordinary events seen as ends in themselves. Should such consoling graces be part of an awakening moment, it is best neither to dwell upon them nor to demand a repeat performance. Neither is mysticism a way to gain a form of knowledge (gnosis) that takes precedence over the common ways of liturgy, word and sacrament.

St. John urges anyone who follows Jesus to base their desire for union with the Beloved on the theological virtues of poverty, chastity and obedience, as well as on the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.

From this perspective, both asceticism and mysticism teach priests, who in turn teach God’s people, to sense a deeper spiritual reality behind what they can grasp as though reflected in a mirror (cf. 2 Cor 3:18).

In desiring nothing but God’s will, priests experience what it means to be at peace in adversity and prosperity, in desolation and consolation. In the company of the Beloved, nothing raises them up and nothing weighs them down because they live in the center of their humility.

Coveting something produces the opposite effect: weariness and torment. For nothing can bring to rest one’s restless heart save union with God — a union that fosters complete trust in holy providence and the yielding of one’s will to the will of God.

Steps of the Ladder

St. John of the Cross
An engraving from 1701 of St. John of the Cross Index Fototeca / Bridgeman Images

In Book Two of “The Dark Night,” St. John’s image of the mystical ladder of love provides a description of the movement from maturing in discipleship to evangelizing those hungering to meet the Beloved in their life, thanks to the witness of the priests who care so deeply for them (cf. Chapters 18-21). John reveals how to climb up the 10 steps of this ladder as every priest wholly in love with God will want to do the following:

• Strive to relinquish the illusion that ultimate fulfillment can be found in earthly things and your inordinate desires for them. You need to change whatever conditions of your past life have kept you from the truth that you can find no lasting comfort, pleasure or support in anyone or anything but God, who alone suffices.

• Seek your Beloved in all things, in your thoughts, words and deeds, and always refer to his benevolence from the moment you awaken to the time you fall asleep.

• Realize that because of your great love for God you can look upon yourselves as the worst of sinners and admit that your service is only possible because the Lord works through you to save the souls he loves.

• The good news is that if and when you undergo suffering in any form, you will do so without weariness, taking care not to substitute the consolations of God for the God who consoles.

• Ask for the grace to live in God’s presence amid setbacks and sufferings with as much inner calm and patient endurance as possible.

• Run in haste to God from whom you receive so many tender touches.

• Express intense and loving gratitude for the favors God has bestowed upon you as part of your commitment to always pray.

• Cling to your Beloved and refuse to let him go.

• Thank God for the grace of being on fire sweetly (this sweet burning is the work of the Holy Spirit) because of your union with God in faith, hope and love.

• Anticipate the moment of being wholly assimilated into God in the beatific vision, glimpsed in some way already here on earth. In God’s good time you will pass over to paradise, having been purified in spirit, heart, mind and will on this ladder of mystical ascent.


Theological Virtue: Hope

“Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit. ‘Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.’ ‘The Holy Spirit … he poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might be justified by his grace and become heirs in hope of eternal life.’

“The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man; it takes up the hopes that inspire men’s activities and purifies them so as to order them to the Kingdom of heaven; it keeps man from discouragement; it sustains him during times of abandonment; it opens up his heart in expectation of eternal beatitude. Buoyed up by hope, he is preserved from selfishness and led to the happiness that flows from charity.”

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos.1817-18


Signs of Christian Maturity

St. John acknowledges that this climb and its evangelizing potential depend on priests and people giving priority to the integration of contemplation and action. He meditates upon the following 10 signs of Christian maturity, each of which is complemented by loving service to others:

• Longing for God. You are anxious in an advantageous way — that is, you are lovesick for the Beloved. You feel averse from things that are less than God; you languish for God, knowing, as St. Augustine said, that our heart is restless until we rest in God.

• Searching for the Beloved without ceasing. You seek God in all that you are and do. In labor and leisure you turn to the Beloved and surrender your cares and concerns to him. According to St. John: “The soul goes about so solicitously on this step that it looks for its Beloved in all things. In all its thoughts, it turns immediately to the Beloved. … In all converse and business it at once speaks about the Beloved; when eating, sleeping, keeping vigil, or doing anything else, it centers all its care on the Beloved” (“Dark Night,” Book 2, 19:2).

• Performing good works with fervor. You perform good works for the sake of serving God’s reign on earth while sensing that what you do is of little worth if it is not done for God.

• Pursuing God with or without consolation. You endure the limits life imposes upon you for the sake of the Beloved, desiring blessings, to be sure, but giving God praise under all circumstances.

• Ascending higher with incessant hunger. You gather every desire of yours into one: to live and die for God. You find any delay in this regard increasingly tiring.

• Running swiftly to God. You run toward God with eager anticipation. Thanks to the touches and communications you receive from God, renewed is your strength and increased is your charity.

• Moving upward with ardent boldness. You ascend as high as grace enables you to go, neither adapting your own pace nor losing your peace by retreating in fear from the unknown.

• Holding on to the Beloved. Captivated by the Beloved, you are drawn by grace into a state of union with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For however brief a duration, you enjoy God’s nearness in an experience that never leaves you.

• Burning gently in God. You are consumed by a sweet conflagration that purifies the last remnants of your ego-self without destroying your deepest identity in the Trinity.

•  Seeking God with pristine clarity. You are no longer on the ladder in this life because you anticipate the beatific vision, enjoying a taste of the eternal supper that deepens and refreshes love.

Last Supper
An icon of the Last Supper in the chapel of the Convent of the Holy Trinity in Lomnica, Vranov nad Toplou,
Slovakia Adam Ján Figel’/AdobeStock

John’s Four Counsels

St. John distilled this path to God in four counsels on how to reach perfection, the first of which is resignation. This counsel teaches disciples to pay less attention to their own agendas and more to God’s plan for their life. One way John practiced this counsel was to guard his heart by not getting overly involved (he used the word “meddling”) — neither by word nor by thought — in the affairs of others.

His second counsel for reaching perfection is mortification. He reminds the priests and nuns he counseled that he himself entered the monastery to be tried by others so that he might grow in virtue. He pictured those with whom he lived as craftsmen placed there by God to mortify one another by chiseling away all remnants of pride and vainglory with the tools they had in hand — namely, their words, deeds, temperaments and thoughts. Trials will never be lacking on this path to discipleship, but it is only in and through them that one learns the meaning of suffering and the reasons not to lose hope.

The third counsel concerns the practice of virtue. Priests and religious are to be constant in their observances and to never let the goal of personal gratification or functional satisfaction mar the transcendent joy of following Christ for the sheer love of doing so. Priests undertake tasks to please God, an intention that often leads them to choose the more difficult way rather than the easy way, the more rugged rather than the smooth, the more distasteful rather than the delightful. Such practices make them more than willing to endure persecution and misunderstanding to defend the Faith.

The fourth counsel on the road to perfection is to enjoy solitude. Alone with the Alone, priests come to see that what the world says will guarantee their happiness turns out to be empty of meaning. To follow Christ means to leave behind pleasures and possessions, the proofs of earthly power, that others less motivated by the call to discipleship may seek as ultimate values. This stance of inner solitude is the best guarantee that one will work not for personal gain but for growth in Christian maturity. Priests do their best concerning purity of heart and poverty of spirit to detect the truth that the favorite hiding places of evil are self-deception posing as wisdom and pride disguised as humility. These are evils each priest has to confront in his daily life as well as on the battlefield of his heart.

Given new life by God’s grace does not mean one ceases to sin; it does mean that God finds one worthy to be saved. The goal set before priests by grace is that of union with the Beloved. The peaceful refreshment he offers his friends redeems them from restlessness; it ends the inner wars that prevent them from listening to God in the silence of the heart and then going forth to proclaim the Good News in family life, Church and society.

Privileged Place

The privileged place of this awesome interchange between priests and Christ occurs at the Eucharistic table. To eat of Christ’s body and drink of his blood alerts them to whatever in them is unconformed to the divine will. In the presence of the Beloved they beg for the grace to be and become, in St. John’s words, living flames of love that draw others to the irresistible warmth and compassion of God.

This desire moves priests from the twilight of sensual and spiritual deprivation, through the midnight moments of pure faith, to the dawn of union with God and communion with others. With prayers on their lips, with God’s word in their minds, with courage in their hearts, they follow their beloved Lord from this earthly existence to the banquet prepared for them by him from the beginning of time to the fullness of eternity.

SUSAN MUTO, Ph.D., is dean of the Epiphany Academy of Formative Spirituality in Pittsburgh and author of “Gratefulness: The Habit of a Grace-Filled Life” (Ave Maria Press, $16.95).


Theological Virtue: Charity

“Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.

“Jesus makes charity the new commandment. By loving his own ‘to the end,’ he makes manifest the Father’s love which he receives. By loving one another, the disciples imitate the love of Jesus which they themselves receive. Whence Jesus says: ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.’ And again: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.’

“Fruit of the Spirit and fullness of the Law, charity keeps the commandments of God and his Christ:’Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.’”

— Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 1822-24


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