St John Paul II on St John of the Cross: Anguish in the Contemporary World

St John Paul II on St John of The Cross: The Mysticism of Faith in The Anguish Of The Contemporary World

Short Paper given at the conference Mystical Theology: Renewing the Contemplative Tradition: InSpiRe Conference Durham, 3 -5 September 2014
©Mary Stevens June 2014
with apologies for the absence of footnotes.


In the introduction to his doctoral thesis of Karol Wojtyła stated:

St John of the Cross did not write his works with a view to the investigations of scholars or those in higher studies; they are written for the purpose of directing contemplatives toward union with God.1

Pope John Paul II himself approached St John of the Cross through of profound, rigorous and divers scholarship yet he retained an urgent sense of the fundamental purpose of St John of the Cross, and so must we.

This paper will be in four parts. Firstly I will indicate the young Wojtyła’s own initial encounter with St John of the Cross and his later study of him. In the second section I will indicate the sanctioning and use by Pope John Paul of the image of the Dark Night in a context wider than that of its origin. In the third section I will touch briefly on Pope John Paul’s reflection on suffering. I will suggest that through the use of the image of the Dark Night we are seeing an indication that suffering and anguish presents a bridge for the meeting of the Pascal Christ and the contemporary world. In the fourth part I will suggest that this can lead to a simple and profound understanding of the place of women and men in the world in the light of the Pascal Mystery.

Part One: Encounter with St John of the Cross and study of his works

Let’s picture the context of the introduction of the Karol Wojtyła to St John of the Cross:
The year is 1940. Poland has been invaded by the Nazis and the Stalinists, annexed and divided between them. Random executions augment systematic butchery. The explicit Nazi policy is to destroy Polish people, all Polish culture, all that is Poland. The universities have been closed and very many intellectuals and academics slaughtered. (Those of us sitting in this room now, Academics and Religious, students, interested lay people, any small group of people coming together for whatever purpose: we would be targets…)
The attack on the Church in particular is carefully planned and brutal. So it is that the imprisonment and killing of many priests has forced the emergence of lay leadership in the daily life of the Church. In the Salesian parish of Debniki a middle aged layman, Jan Tyranowski, (9 February 1900–15 March 1947) has become a spiritual leader. It is thus that in February 1940, some two years before his decision to join the priesthood, Wojtyła encountered St John of the Cross through Tyranowski.

He it was who “disclosed to me the riches of his inner life, of his mystical life.”In his words, in his spirituality, and in the example of a life given entirely to God, he represented a new world that I did not yet know. I saw the beauty of the soul opened up by grace. …“the revelation of a universe”.

Tyranowski, with his life “given entirely to God” and the “beauty of a soul opened up by grace,” was as it were a living example of the spirituality of St John of the Cross, and this encounter of Wojtyła occurred in the chaos and brutality of war rather than in books or through religious specialists living in peace and tranquillity in the cloister. Straight away we see that in the life of Wojtyła the ambience for the reception of St John of the Cross is not confined to the cloister or the library.

Sanjuanist Study

Two years after his introduction to St John of the Cross Wojtyła joined the underground seminary. As a young seminarian he followed his interest in St John of the Cross and on his own initiative studied the works of the saint. This initial study later developed into the doctoral thesis written by Fr Wojtyła in Rome. His later study of phenomenology for his Habilitationsschrift would undoubtedly give to his first existential approach an additional intellectual perspective acuity.
Having indicated John Paul’s first encounter and study of St John of the Cross, I will now move on to the second part of my paper.

Part Two: The Dark Night

In the letter to the Carmelite General the pope writes:

The Mystical Doctor appeals today to many believers and non-believers because he describes the dark night as an experience which is typically human and Christian.
John Paul knows full well that for St John of the Cross the Dark Night is a state, a series of very specific experiences, associated with different stages in the development of faith: yet he has chosen to take up the widespread adoption of the term Dark Night as it is now frequently used to refer to the suffering and anguish of the contemporary world.

Why is this and what can we learn from it? To begin to answer that, we need to look at the experience of the Dark Night described by St John of the Cross. What is the experience of the Dark Night in St John of the Cross? The development of faith as described by St John of the Cross in the Dark Night, presents itself as the human person reeling from an experience of utter personal dereliction, which feels as if it caused by an absence of love, an absence of meaning: this is a love and a meaning which must devolve from God Who at these moments is hidden from the believer. Pope John Paul on the other hand reflects that a similar experience of meaninglessness, of absurdity, of lovelessness, the profound pain and anguish of life which are frequently found in the contemporary world can be similar to this experience of the apparent absence of God undergone by the believer in periods of intense development of faith.
In a homily delivered in Segovia at the tomb of St John of the Cross the pope said:

Modern man, despite his conquests, is bruised by the personal and collective experience of the abyss of abandonment, the temptation of nihilism, the absurdity of so much suffering physical, moral and spiritual. The Dark Night, the trial that touches the mystery of evil, demands the blossoming of faith and sometimes acquires the dimensions of an era and collective proportions.

The two experiences are indeed similar and both revolve in some way around the apparent absence of God.

Part Three: Suffering

So we now move on to ask what this has to offer us. To answer that, we need to begin by introducing the Pope’s tremendous reflection of suffering. For John Paul the “unfathomable mystery of human suffering,” “the appalling problem of suffering,” do not find an answer in the speculative order:

[suffering] is as deep as man himself, precisely because it manifests in its own way that depth which is proper to man, and in its own way surpasses it. Suffering seems to belong to man’s transcendence: it is one of those points in which man is in a certain sense “destined” to go beyond himself, and he is called to this in a mysterious way.

So firstly, suffering opens a vista within the human heart: a terrible vista. Appearing in this bleak vista is Christ: Christ abandoned and forsaken on the Cross, Christ giving himself to the Father in trust and obedience, Christ risen from the dead. Crucially, both St John of the Cross and Pope John Paul II see suffering as an event within the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. This brings a salvific meaning to suffering. To ascribe to suffering a “salvific meaning” is not at all to extol suffering for its own sake, it is not to see it as character building or, far less, to see it as some sort of punishment which has the power to save; it is rather to recognise that the opening up, the exposing, of the depth of the human person through suffering can be the opening up to God. So it is that:

Man can put this question [of the meaning of suffering] to God with all the emotion of his heart and with his mind full of dismay and anxiety; and God expects the question and listens to it…


All these sufferings have been taken by Christ in His cry of pain and his faithful self-abandonment to the Father. In faith, hope and love, the night turns into day, suffering into joy, death into life.

Part Four: Hermeneutic of Dark Night

In what way can this provide a key for men and women searching not only for strength, but at the deepest level searching for meaning in absurdity and anguish?
At this point we need to return to the St John of the Cross. In order to be true to him it is essential to hold in mind that for St John, and also for John Paul II, the salvific power of suffering, the Dark Night, is coherent only in the light of the transforming union with God to which all men and women are called.
St John of the Cross addressed the crisis of his times with a highly developed exposition of the life of faith. Similarly Pope John Paul II addressed the crisis of his time, of our time, with an emphasis on the life of faith. This is because for Pope John Paul II, the meaning of human life is about the human person called into being by God for union with God, for transforming union with God and it is faith which is the only proximate means of that union with God. This is far from being a disengagement with the “real world”. Faith, the pope says
anchors every human person in a real world permeated with the presence of surpassing realities.
There are three important components to this statement: firstly, there is the affirmation, which is fundamental to the theology and theological anthropology of John Paul, that the “real world” is indeed permeated with surpassing realities to the extent that the surpassing realities inform the reality of the world and the very meaning of human existence; secondly, faith is described as an anchor, thus as something which fixes and secures; and finally, it is in this “real world,” with its hope and challenges, that faith operates, connecting the believer in concrete life to that which transcends the immediate. This threefold statement translates into an exploration of faith which is intimately concerned with both the path of life and its purpose.


The contribution from St John of the Cross which St John Paul II presents to the world of suffering thus concerns the fundamental meaning and way of life. For both saints Divine union is the fundamental meaning and drive of the human person. This is a mysticism within the real world, as it is with its hopes and joys, sorrows and anguish and all that which is found in the reality of human life. It concerns the entire human person and his experience in the most profound self-understanding and transformation, a transformation which is not merely a change of attitudes and perspectives but an entirely new way of knowing and doing.


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