Question: I recently read some of St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul. That night I had bad dreams and was troubled in spirit. Some of what I read suggested that we should not meditate or reason when feeling far from God but simply contemplate, because God is doing something new. Am I imagining it, or is this work counter-Christian?
Response: What “St. John of the Cross” offers is Medieval Catholic mysticism that is divorced from the sure Word of the Lord. According to Catholic sources, John, a Spanish mystic and Carmelite friar, was one of the major figures of the “Counter Reformation.” He studied the humanities at a Society of Jesus (Jesuit) school, and was canonized as a saint by Pope Benedict XIII (1726). He quoted extensively from the Bible in his works (Peter Tyler, St. John of the Cross [New York: Continuum, 2010] p.116), but it is clear that what he taught is contrary to Scripture.
Like “St. Teresa of Avila” (1515-1582), he was of the Carmelites, a religious order dedicated to the Virgin Mary (“Mary and the Holy Spirit in the Writings of John of the Cross,” www.icspublications.org/archives/others/cs6_10.html). According to Catholic teaching, he regarded pain and suffering as an integral part of salvation. Gerald Brenan, biographer, wrote, “With stones for pillows, their feet wrapped in hay, among…crosses and skulls, the friars remained praying from midnight to daybreak while the snow drifted through the tiles onto their clothes....Their only other possessions were a few books, some scourges [for self-administered penance and sharing in Jesus’ suffering] and bells and five hour-glasses [for precisely regulating their schedule]” (Gerald Brenan, St. John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry [Cambridge University Press] p. 15).
In a review, Gary Gilley notes, “Dark Night of the Soul is not a complete treatise on mysticism, focusing almost entirely on the first tier—purgation. It was apparently St. John’s intention to write on illumination and union, but either he chose not to do so or his manuscripts have been lost (p. 193).
“Concerning ‘purgation’ we are told that there are two stages: purgation of the senses and of the spirit....The dark night is a description of these two levels of purgation. In the first stage...the senses and affections are killed in order that they not obstruct the spirit” (Book review at: www.svchapel.org/resources/book-reviews/4-christian-living/113-dark-night-of-the-soul-by-st-john-of-the-cross).
Rather than “killing” the senses and affections, Scripture clearly tells us, “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth” (Col:3:2). Biblical meditation doesn’t involve disabling or setting aside the mind, but instead, as Psalm 1 tells us, godly men (and women) take delight in God’s Word, and meditate upon it both day and night (Ps:1:2). In Joshua:1:8, the Lord instructed, “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein....”