St. John’s teaching on the transition from ordinary prayer to contemplation can be distilled into the following points:
By ordinary prayer St. John meant any kind of prayer that we can do by our own efforts aided by God’s grace. He was referring primarily to meditation. In it we make use of our natural faculties, that is, our senses, imagination, intellect, memory and will in order to pray. Meditation today brings to mind a particular formula for praying in which we imagine a scene from the Gospel, for example, and draw conclusions about what it means for our lives, and this process stirs our hearts to praise, thank and love God, and to amend our lives. The realm of ordinary prayer, that is, prayer that we can do ourselves, is now divided between this kind of meditation and other more simplified and affective prayers that go under the names of the prayer of simplicity, or the prayer of the practice of the presence of God, and so forth. These kinds of prayers make much less use of the discursive activity of the intellect and much more of the will in acts of love. But for John of the Cross, who lived at a time before these distinctions fully emerged, meditation embraces all these kinds of ordinary prayer.
John also gives a precise meaning to the word contemplation. It is a kind of prayer that we cannot do whenever we want, for it does not depend on the natural working of the faculties. It is a prayer given by God in the depths of the heart so it is called infused contemplation, or mystical experience. The goal of the Christian life is union with God, and contemplation is a mysterious experience of that union. St. John also gives us a schema of the evolution of the life of prayer. The beginning of our serious interest in the life of prayer, or conversion to God, is often marked by a period of sensible consolation. God feels present to us. We feel a warm glow in our spiritual exercises, a glow that pervades our feelings and thoughts, indeed, all our natural faculties, and serves the good purpose of drawing us from the things of the world to the things of God. But eventually this sense of God’s presence falls away. This can happen gradually or suddenly, and we are left in darkness. It can feel like God has abandoned us, and in our anxiety we wonder if we have committed some sin to bring about what appears to be a terrible state of affairs. And most of all, we want things to be back the way they were. This could be called the dark night of the senses in the wider meaning of the term, and is a common experience in those devoted to the life of prayer.
But this is not precisely what St. John is interested in. It is true, he says, that this dark night might be due to our lukewarmness or sins, or even to some kind of psychological problem which, in the language of his day, he called melancholy. But most of St. John’s energy goes into analyzing another possibility. This dark night might be a very distinctive kind of dark night that is meant to lead us from ordinary prayer or meditation to infused contemplation. His famous three signs were meant to guide us so we could discover whether we were actually called to this kind of contemplation or not.
The first sign is that we cannot pray like we did before. The second – in order to rule out a disinclination coming from our own bad conduct – is that we have no desire to fix our attention on other things. The third sign is meant to rule out melancholy, or a disinterest in things coming from some kind of psychological cause. But it goes beyond all that and is, by far, the most important sign. We are beginning to experience an interior quiet and rest that we are inclined to give ourselves to even while we may still be thinking that we should be going back to our old way of praying with our faculties, and that to give into this new inclination is to give into idleness. This inner quiet is the beginning of contemplation, itself. It is a loving knowledge that comes, not through the faculties of sense, imagination, intellect, memory or will, but wells up from the depths of the heart and draws us into those depths, to rest there and receive what God is giving us.
John was so concerned that someone might miss this call to contemplation that he described it in exquisite detail. He explains, for example, how this new experience could be so gentle and subtle, and we are so used to pounding away with the faculties, that it might be imperceptible at first – insensible, he says – to our ordinary consciousness. We would have to quiet ourselves and be lovingly attentive to this new experience in order to taste it. Ironically, these wonderfully detailed descriptions of the transition from meditation to contemplation were going to haunt the history of spirituality.