In his writings, John seized the opportunity to communicate with his readers as a mystic, poet, teacher, and ardent lover of God. For the sake of instructing, he draws on his knowledge of theology, psychology, and spiritual direction. Beginning with the symbols of his poetry, he then leads the reader to his conceptual system with its own language and applications. As for sources, in John’s time the past provided not merely source material but authority. The Church acknowledged certain writers as authoritative. Scripture, above all, settled matters. A biblical passage was considered an authority from Scripture, and was often referred to as such by John. The modern concern with accurate texts and critical scholarship was not then in force; it seems John often quoted from memory or from medieval compilations. Some of the nonscriptural works he quotes are now known as spurious. The point is that instead of historical scholarship, textual accuracy, and a cautious mind with regard to the received wisdom, John’s world set high store by a tradition handed down through the centuries and mediated through sometimes corrupt texts.
In both structure and outline of thought, John’s writings display the influences of Aquinas and the scholastics. Certain elements of the mysticism reflect Augustine and Neoplatonism. Some images and stages suggest both the German and Rhineland mystics and the themes, problems, and language of the earlier Spanish mystics. A susceptibility to sensual impressions and symbols characteristic of Spanish poetry in this period is obvious; there may also be symbolic and linguistic influences from Islam. But however much we speculate on all this, the only book that can be properly called a fount of John’s experience and writings is the Bible.
For John, the Bible served as a living and unfailing wellspring. Its waters pervade the entire being of this mystical thinker, poet, and writer. The Bible was his hymnal, his meditation book, a book for travel, for contemplation, and for writing. Scriptural quotations throughout his works show how deeply he had assimilated the Divine Word, but he never keeps to a single exegetical style; and the reader might find this disconcerting.
Three principal ways to benefit from the biblical text attracted John. First, the Bible offered him an excellent expression of his own spiritual experience. Second, he found in the Bible a confirmation of his theological argument. Finally, he enjoyed and followed the contemporary practice of using scriptural passages in an accommodated sense. John discovered a close alliance between biblical history and his own personal history, an identification of ancient experiences with actual ones. Reading the Bible as a Christian, in a Christocentric light, he recognized his own life reflected and described there. He noted that here and now the grace and truth of the biblical word was being accomplished. The disorder of the appetites could be compared with the idolatrous love of ancient Israel. Job, the psalmist, and Jeremiah suffered and put to song the dark night of the spirit. The quest for union repeated the steps of the Song of Songs.
In special ways, he identified with persons of the Bible: with Moses, David, Job, the psalmist, Jeremiah, Paul, and John. He was drawn to the personal, concrete experiences presented there, inclining toward individuals whose vocation and attitudes were well defined and who had expressed their experiences in the first person. Not content with merely quoting the doctrines and deeds of these people, he turned his attention to their experiences in relation to God. He recounted and sang of his own joys, sufferings, and experiences of God’s mercies and favors by disguising them in the words of the prophet, the psalmist, or St. Paul. All the while, the living and collective consciousness of the whole Church is present. In John’s teaching, God will not bring clarification and confirmation of the truth to the heart of one who is alone. Such a one would remain weak and cold in regard to the truth. As he went out from himself and passed through the spiritual night, John entered more and more into the substance of the Church, into God’s self-manifestation in time. He found no difficulty in relying on the judgment of the Church in matters relating to the expression of his experience and teaching. Church life, doctrine, and prayer supplied the context in which he read and used Scripture.
John also recognized that we cannot understand the truth of Christ without the Holy Spirit. He does not say that the Holy Spirit “spoke ” to us, but that he “speaks ” to us in the Scriptures, leading us to the complete truth. If we can never fully understand the secret truths and diverse meanings of God’s words, these words will, nevertheless, in a certain manner grow with those who read them in the Spirit. That John was a mystic in no way prejudiced his work as a spiritual director or theologian. A central purpose of his was to transmit the content of his mystical experience. Such experience favored theological reflection because the mystic enjoys a particularly enlightened perception of the mysteries of God, of divine action, and of the life of grace in individuals. From a pastoral viewpoint as well, the mystic knows the goal, and is in a better position to delineate the way and evaluate the means.
Enlightened by his own experience and the experience of others, sometimes – notably in the case of the great St. Teresa herself – as rich and deep as his own, he entered as theologian the most difficult and unexplored regions. He sought to take the revealed mysteries that had been analyzed by theologians and create a doctrinal synthesis that would bring unity and cohesion to all the converging realities of the process of divinization. But in his work as a theologian John also, in veiled ways, sought to transmit something of his own intimate experience of God’s mystery so as to awaken a similar experience in his readers. He presented the mystery so others might come close and be totally transformed by it: “One speaks badly of the intimate depths of the spirit if one does not do so with a deeply recollected soul.
Copyright ICS Publications with permission.