LETTER: God Alone by John of the Cross

God Alone by John of the Cross

14 April 1589

To a religious, his penitent,

The peace of Jesus Christ, son, be ever in your soul.  I received your reverence’s letter, in which you tell me of the great desires that our lord gives you to occupy your will with him alone, and to love him above all things, and in which you ask me to give you a few directions as to how you may achieve this.

I rejoice that God has given you such holy desires and I shall rejoice much more at your putting them into execution.  To this end you should notice that all pleasures, joy, and affections are ever caused in the soul by the will and desire for things which appear to you good, fitting, and delectable, since the soul considers these to be pleasing and precious; and in this way the desires of the will are drawn to them, and it hopes for them, and rejoices in them when it has them, and fears to lose them; and thus, through its affections for things and rejoicing in them, the soul becomes perturbed and unquiet.

So, in order to annihilate and mortify these affections for pleasures with respect to all that is not God, your reverence must note that all that wherein the will can have a distinct joy is that which is sweet and delectable, since this appears pleasant to it, and no sweet and delectable thing wherein it can rejoice and delight is God, for, as God cannot come within the apprehensions and pleasures of the will; for in this life, even as the soul cannot taste of God essentially, so none of the sweetness and delight that it tastes, howsoever sublime it be, can be God; for, further, all that the will can have pleasure in and desire as a distinct thing, it desires in so far as it knows it to be such or such an object.  Then, since the will has never tasted God as he is, neither has known him beneath any apprehension of the desire, and consequently knows not what God is like, it cannot know what it is like to taste him, nor can its being and desire and experience attain to the knowledge of the desire for God, since he is above all its capacity.

And thus it is clear that no distinct object from among all objects that the will can enjoy is God.  Wherefore, in order to become united with him, a man must empty and strip himself of every inordinate affection of desire and pleasure for all that can be distinctly enjoyed, whether it be high or low, temporal or spiritual, to the end that the soul may be purged and clean from all inordinate desires, joys, and pleasures whatsoever and may thus be wholly occupied, with all its affections, in loving God.  For, if in any wise the will can comprehend God and become united with him, it is by no apprehensible means of the desire, but by love; and, as neither delight nor sweetness nor any pleasure that can pertain to the will is love, it follows that none of these delectable feelings can be a proportionate means whereby the will may unite itself with God, but only the operation of the will, for the operation of the will is very different from its feeling; it is through the operation that it becomes united with God, and has its end in him, who is love, and not through the feeling and apprehension of its desire, which makes its home in the soul as its end and object.  The feelings can only serve as motives for love if the will desires to pass beyond them, and not otherwise; and thus delectable feelings do not of themselves lead the soul to God, but cause it to rest in themselves; but in the operation of the will, which is to love God, the soul sets on him alone its affection, joy, pleasure, contentment, and love, leaving all things behind and loving him above them all.

Wherefore, if any man be moved to love God otherwise than by the sweetness which he feels, he is already leaving this sweetness behind him and setting his love on God, whom he feels not; for, if he set it upon the sweetness and pleasure that he feels, dwelling upon this and resting in it, this would be to set it upon creatures or things pertaining thereto and to turn the motive into the object and the end; and consequently the act of will would become harmful; for, as God is incomprehensible and inaccessible, the will, in order to direct its act of love towards God, has not to set it upon that which is can touch and apprehend with the desire, but upon that which it cannot comprehend or attain thereby.  And in this way the will remains loving that which is certain, in very truth, by the light of faith, being empty and in darkness, with respect to its feelings, and transcending above all that it can feel with the understanding, and with its own intelligence, believing and loving beyond all that it can understand.

And thus he would be very ignorant who should think that, because spiritual delight and sweetness are failing him, God is failing him, and should rejoice and be glad if he should have them and think that for this reason he has been having God.  And still more ignorant would he be if he went after God in search of this sweetness, and rejoiced and reste

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d in it, for in this case he would not be seeking God with his will grounded in the emptiness of faith and charity, but spiritual sweetness and pleasure, which is of creature, following his taste and desire; and thus he would not then love God purely, above all things (which means to set the whole strength of the will upon him), for, if he seizes hold upon that creature and clings to it with the desire, his will rises not above it to God, who is inaccessible; for it is impossible that the will can rise to the sweetness and delight of divine union, or embrace God or experience his sweet and loving embraces, save in detachment and emptying of the desire with respect to every particular pleasure whether from above of from below; for it is this that David meant when he said: open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it.

It must be known, then, that the desire is the mouth of the will, which opens wide when it is not impeded or filled with any morsel — that is, with any pleasure; for, when the desire is set upon anything, it becomes constrained, and apart from God everything is constraint.  And therefore, in order for the soul to succeed in reaching God and to become united with him, it must have the mouth of its will opened to God alone, and freed from any morsel of desire, to the end that God may satisfy it and fill it with his love and sweetness, and it may still have that hunger and thirst for God alone and refuse to be satisfied with aught else, since here on Earth it cannot taste God as he is; and furthermore, that which it can taste, if it so desire, as I say, impedes it.  This was taught by Isaiah when he said: All you that thirst, come to the waters.  Here he invites those that thirst for God alone to the fullness of the divine waters of union with God, though they have no money — that is, no desire.

Very meet it is, then, if your reverence would enjoy great peace in your soul and achieve perfection, that you should surrender your whole will to God, so that it may thus be united with him, and that you should not employ it in the vile and base things of Earth.

May his majesty make you as spiritual and holy as I desire.

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