I love opinionated non-PC people. This blog is to vent my opinions on life, the universe and everything. Which is 42 which in gematria is "My Heart" (LBY) according to Rabbi Abulafia. The Divine Heart is the centre of everything.

Friday, September 13, 2013

A Jewish and Marian reading of St John of the Cross

St John of the Cross was one of the greatest spiritual writers and mystics of the Catholic Church as well as a great reformer (in association with St Teresa of Avila) of the Carmelite Order. In my tutorial presentation I wish to focus on the Jewish background of St John of the Cross and the influence of Jewish teachings that in a hidden manner emphasizes the Marian dimension of his writings. In this tutorial I wish to focus on his concept of the Dark Night especially referring to the second book of the Dark Night and the 16th chapter.

            John was born as Juan de Yepes y Alvarez. His father Gonzalo de Yepes was of a wealthy converso (converted Jewish family) that like the family of St Teresa of Avila were silk merchants. These families of silk merchants had officially converted to Catholicism in 1391 and had spent much effort hiding their Jewish origins so they could pass for families of “pure blood” Old Christians.[1]  Gonzalo threatened this secrecy when he married Catalina Alvarez a Jewish conversa from a recently converted family from Toledo.[2] Toledo was known to have a network of Conversos families.[3] In fact St Teresa’s paternal family also came from a Jewish conversos family of Toledo who moved to Avila after they did penance in an auto-de-fe in 1485 for relapsing into Judaism.[4] Gonzalo and Catalina were cut off from the Yepes family and they became simple weavers.[5]

            Toledo was known as a centre of Kabbalah and the Church, encouraged by Popes, for over a hundred years had been advocating the study of Jewish Kabbalah as a way to explain more fully the Catholic mysteries. In fact some writers believe that it was the Catholic Church that helped spread the wisdom of the Kabbalah especially the Zohar. Sixtus IV ordered the translation into Latin of seventy works of Kabbalah and Pope Paul IV encouraged and supported the first printing of the Zohar. Both St John of the Cross and St Teresa of Avila used the writings of Bernardino de Laredo (especially the Ascent of Mount Sion) who was a known converso (as well as a doctor and a Franciscan) drawing on Jewish mystical traditions.[6]

            Bernardino de Laredo’s writings were able to be passed by the Inquisition only when he rewrote them emphasizing Scriptural quotes and Catholic sources. St John of the Cross followed his example by explaining his ideas with frequent scriptural references. Even then certain sections of his writings seem to have been removed. One who is familiar with the Jewish Kabbalah and mystical books can’t help but notice that St John of the Cross refers to the same Scriptural sources as the mystical writings of the Jewish rabbis and mystics. The Bahir seems to be one source, whether used directly or indirectly, for some of St John’s teachings.[7] My point is that it is only going back to the Jewish sources in order to understand St John’s concept fully that it is clearly reveals the deeply hidden Marian nature of John’s writings.

            St John of the Cross uses Psalm 18 to explain his concept of mystical darkness. The opening verses of the Bahir also quotes this same Psalm 18 in order to explain the spiritual darkness in a discussion of the two spiritual ways of darkness and of light.
Rabbi Nehuniah ben HaKana said: One verse (Job 37:21) states, "And now they do not see light, it is brilliant (Bahir) in the skies…[round about God in terrible majesty]." Another verse, however, (Psalm 18:12), states, "He made darkness His hiding place." It is also written (Psalm 97:2), "Cloud and gloom surround Him." This is an apparent contradiction. A third verse comes and reconciles the two. It is written (Psalm139:12), "Even darkness is not dark to You. Night shines like day -- light and darkness are the same."... (Bahir 1).[8]
The Ramban in his commentary on Genesis distinguishes between the “vakhoshekh” (and darkness) in Genesis 1:2 and the ‘hakhoshek’ (the darkness) mentioned in verses 4 and 5[9] which is also linked by the Jewish tradition to the darkness of Miriam’s Well.

            This second darkness is a created female darkness connected with the “face over the waters”. This is linked by the Kabbalists with the female created Wisdom of Proverbs 8 in regards to the circle (face over the waters) drawn over the face of the deep. They consider the vayhi or (and there was light) to be the created female light of the Celestial Mother which is hidden in the darkness of Miriam’s Well (well waters are primordial waters) on the twilight between the first and second day of Creation. This mother is called Miriam (Bitter Seas) and Zohar (dark light or splendour). She is associated with the concept of the tabernacle and house of God’s presence (Shekhinah). St John when speaking of the Dark Night of the Soul uses the term dark waters, dark contemplation, dark night, tabernacle, hidden, hiding place, tabernacle of David, divine Wisdom in souls[10] which are all allusions to this Dark Lady or Black Madonna who is the Lady of Carmel. Carmelite tradition associates the yad (hand or foot) shaped[11] dark water/rain cloud seen by Elijah on Mt Carmel with the Virgin Mary and the foot of the woman in Genesis 3:15.[12]

            The concept of the dark night in John’s writings refers to four kinds of dark night divided into two categories. The first dark night is the dark night of the senses and the second dark night is the dark night of the soul which is divided into three dark nights- the dark night of the memory, dark night of the intellect and the dark night of the will. This is also understood in the concept of the purgative, illuminative and unitive ways linked to hope, faith, and love.[13]

            This is also linked to the four worlds in Kabbalah of Assiyah (action), Yetzirah (formation), Beriah (creation) and Atzilut (nearness to God).[14] The dark night of the senses is an active dark night in which one uses the disciplines and good deeds given in the commandments to achieve ones purpose. At this stage the bride (soul) circles the bridegroom.[15] The dark night of the soul is a passive dark night. The passive dark night of memory (purgative) leads one to hope (tikvah) which is the bathing and cleansing of the bride (soul). The passive dark night of intellect (illuminative) leads one to faith (emuna) and is the dressing of the bride in her bridal pearl garments.[16] The passive dark night of the will (unitive) leads to love (ahavah) and the undressing of the bride by the bridegroom and consummation.  This is the level which culminates in divine coupling (cleaving /union/ devekut) of the soul and her beloved Lord. The dark and beautiful Lady of the Song of Songs, delights in her beloved one in mystical and virginal nuptial union. This is why St John of the Cross writes his concepts firstly in poetry that mirrors the poetry of the Song of Songs. After this he explains each verse of his poem in more detail constantly referring one to a mystical reading of Biblical texts and verses.[17]

            In order to more fully understand this wisdom one needs to understand the Kabbalistic understanding of the Divine Man (Adam Kadmon) or Tree of Life in regards to the sefirot or attributes of God. The left side of the Sefirotic array is classified as the female side and the side of the dark light (zohar) and the right side of the array is associated with the male and the brilliant light (bahir). The uncreated Sefirot described by the Ramban (Nachmanides) is associated with Adam Kadmon (Kingdom of Holiness or Divine Will) and the perfect or immaculate mirror or reflection that is the created Sefirot (described by Rambam/ Maimonides) is the female known as Shekhinah (female Presence) and Kavodah (female Glory of God).  
"What is his heart? He said: Mother (Imma), Ben Zoma is outside, and you are with him. The heart (Lev) in gematria is thirty-two. These are concealed, and with them the world was created. What are these 32? He said: These are the 32 Paths. This is like a king who was in the innermost of many chambers. The number of such chambers was 32, and to each one there was a path. Should the king bring everyone to his chamber through these paths? You will agree that he should not. Should he reveal his jewels, his tapestries, his hidden and concealed secrets? You will again agree that he should not. What then does he do? He touches the Daughter, and includes all the paths in her and in her garments. One who wants to go inside should gaze there. He married her to a king, and also gave her to him as a gift. Because of his love for her, he sometimes calls her “my sister,” since they are both from one place. Sometimes he calls her his daughter, since she is actually his daughter. And sometimes he calls her “my mother.”..." (Bahir 63).[18]
Hidden in the text of the writings of St John of the Cross is this Dark Lady of Carmel who is the burning bush and the dark fire that burns unto the heart of heaven. The Bahir (31) states  
...What is “God’s glory”? What is this like? A king had a matron [Matronita] in his chamber, and all his troops delighted in her. She had sons, and each day they came to see the king and to bless him. They asked him, “Where is our mother?” He replied, “You cannot see her now.” They said, “Let her be blessed wherever she is.”...[19]
The Song of Songs (7:5) refers to the head (rosh) over Carmel which can be linked with the word Be-ReSH-it (In the Beginning) read as the bat (daughter/lady) of the Rosh (Head). Flowing from this ‘beginning’ the creator reveals himself through the first three days of darkness which are the primordial dark nights of the soul unleashed from the ‘face over the deep’ by the power of the Holy Spirit (Ruach Elohim) hovering or overshadowing the ‘face over the waters’ she who is the blueprint (umanuta) of all Creation. The darkness hides the mystery of her Son who is God and man- the Primordial uncreated Adam (Adam Kadmon) who takes created flesh (from the Lady of Carmel) as the Messiah (Zer Anpin/ Little or Shorter Face). The soul of each man united with the Lady of Carmel and her Son the ‘Head (Rosh) over Carmel’ and the ‘Head (Rosh) of Creation (Beginning)’ must return through the darkness of the three days to its source in the divine Will.

            Our Lady of Carmel is this Dark Lady of whom Lord Byron, in the style of the poems of St John of the Cross, wrote of in his “Hebrew Melodies”.
SHE walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies,

And all that's best of dark and bright

Meets in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellow'd to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impair'd the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress

Or softly lightens o'er her face,
Where thoughts serenely sweet express

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek and o'er that brow

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,—

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent.


[1] Michael Dodd (OCD), “John of the Cross: His Person, His Times and His Writings” Carmelite Studies VI (Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2000).
[2]  Michael Dodd (OCD), “John of the Cross: His Person, His Times and His Writings”.
[3] Linda Martz, A Network of Converso Families in Early Modern Toledo: Assimilating a Minority (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003). 
[4] Gerald Brenan, St John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry (London: Cambridge University Press, 1973), 94-95.
[5] Michael Dodd (OCD), “John of the Cross: His Person, His Times and His Writings”.
[7] Aryeh Kaplan, (trans), The Bahir (United States of America: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1979).
[8] Bahir 1
[9] Rabbi C. Chavel (translator), Ramban Nachmanides: Commentary on the Torah Genesis (New York: Shilo Publishing House, 1973).
[10] E. Allison Peers, The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross (Wheathampstead Hertfordshire: Anthony Clarke, 1974), 425-427.
[11] In ancient Hebrew ‘yad’ referred to any of the extensions of the limbs- hands and feet. In modern and Rabbinic Hebrew ‘yad’ refers to the hand.
[12] http://www.carmeldundee.co.uk/carmel-scapular.htm
[13] E. Allison Peers, The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross.
[14] Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation: In Theory and Practice (Boston: Red Wheel/Weiser, 1997).
[15] Psalm 19:5-8: "For the Sun he set up a tent in their midst, which is like a groom emerging from the nuptial chamber, like a warrior eager to run the course. The source is at the ends of the heavens, its circuit is to their end; nothing escapes its burning heat. The Torah of God is perfect, restoring the soul."
[16] Zohar Veyechi speaks of the garment as the ‘Splendour of Carmel’ made by the dripping of pearls.
[17] E. Allison Peers, The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross.
[18] Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, (trans), The Bahir (United States of America: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1979), 63.
[19] Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, (trans), The Bahir (United States of America: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1979), 31.


Berg, Michael.(translator) The Zohar New York: Kabbalah Center, 2003.

Brenan, Gerald.  St John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry, London: Cambridge University Press, 1973.

Chavel, C. (translator). Ramban Nachmanides: Commentary on the Torah. New York: Genesis Shilo Publishing House, 1973.

Dodd, Michael (OCD). “John of the Cross: His Person, His Times and His Writings”Carmelite Studies VI. Washington DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 2000.

Kaplan, Aryeh. Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation: In Theory and Practice. Boston: Red Wheel/ Weiser, 1997.

Kaplan, Aryeh (trans). The Bahir. United States of Amercia: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1979.  

Martz, Linda.  A Network of Converso Families in Early Modern Toledo: Assimilating a Minority. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2003. 

Peers, E. Allison. The Complete Works of Saint John of the Cross.Wheathampstead Hertfordshire: Anthony Clarke, 1974.
The Holy Bible. Douay-Rheims ed., New Hampshire: Loreto Publications, 2009.