The Writings

The works of St. John of the Cross do not compare in quantity and thematic variety with the writings of other great Doctors of the Church. As a poet, first of all, John presented the rich content of his mystical experience in lyric poetry, and by this has contributed a sublime treasure to Spanish literature. In addition, he has left us four major prose works: The Ascent of Mount Carmel; The Dark Night; The Spiritual Canticle; and The Living Flame of Love. The only other writings left are relatively few letters and various maxims and counsels. Written during the last 14 years of his life, after his intellectual and spiritual growth had come to full flower, his extant works show a doctrinal synthesis of the spiritual life that was substantially complete in his mind once he began to write. No essential change of thought occurs in his teaching; there is no "earlier John " to contrast with the "later John. " The themes he dwells on also remain constant: union with God, its trinitarian origins and final outcome in glory; Jesus Christ, Word and Beloved; faith, as both the content of the mystery and the obscure way to union; love, the going out from self to live in the other; the active and passive development of the theological life; the communication of God in silent prayer; the appetites, a dynamic of sin and destruction.
In the field of Spanish literature, John of the Cross has won a prominent place for his poetry. As for his prose style, he writes in different modes. Sometimes he explains through common symbols, at other times in biblical language, or again through the conceptual terms of the scholastic theologian; sometimes the style is very much his own creation. But it is not apparent that he took pains to polish his prose. His sentences can get complicated, repetitious, and cluttered. Not infrequently, however, the inspiration of his poetry overflows into his prose, offering passages of literary power, originality, and beauty.

With the exception of The Sayings of Light and Love and some letters whose autographs have been conserved, John of the Cross's original manuscripts have been lost. His writings come to us in numerous codices that hand on more or less faithful copies. Thus we have a critical problem concerning the original reading and the selection of the codex that seems most faithful to the original. The particular introductions to each work will point out the codex considered most trustworthy by specialists; this copy will then be followed in the translation.

Here is an overview of the authentic works and their actual or approximate places and dates of composition:

TOLEDO PRISON (1578)

The Spiritual Canticle (poem, 31 stanzas)

For I Know Well the Spring (poem)

The Romances: On the Gospel text "In principio erat Verbum (poem)

On the psalm "Super flumina Babylonis " (poem)

CALVARIO, BEAS, BAEZA (1578-81)

The Dark Night (poem, 1578 or 1579)

The Sketch of the Mount

The Sayings of Light and Love

The Precautions

Counsels to a Religious

The Ascent of Mount Carmel (treatise, 1581-85)

Additions to The Spiritual Canticle (poem); other poems (1580-84)

GRANADA (1582-88)

The Spiritual Canticle (commentary in a first redaction, 1584)

The Dark Night (commentary, 1584-85)

Last poems in Granada (1585)

The Living Flame of Love (commentary in a first redaction, 1585-86)

The Spiritual Canticle (commentary in a second redaction, 1585-86)

LA PEÑUELA (1591)

The Living Flame of Love (commentary in a second redaction)


Copyright ICS Publications. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, if this copyright notice is included. Maintained by the Austrian Province of the Teresian Carmel