St. John of the Cross: The Loss and Discovery of Our Identity in God

Jesus Christ Crucifix

All of us use labels to define ourselves. The fun uncle. The nurturing mother. The devoted husband. The good friend. The athlete. The nurse. The risk-taker. The talker. The intellectual. The beauty. The person with a particular movie-preference profile on Netflix. But the problem with using external qualities to define ourselves is that, sooner or later, we are all at risk of losing our identity. The frailty of the human condition means that tragedy strikes at everyone at some point in their lives. Serious illness, the death of a loved one, injury or disability, loss of a job, or the natural changes that come with aging– these life events happen to everyone, and the pain they can bring is twofold. A grieving parent, for example, has to mourn the loss of her children as well as her sense of self. Who am I now if I devoted my life to raising a child who is suddenly gone? For the injured athlete, who am I now if I can no longer control my body? Or for anyone who loses his job, who am I if not my profession? What now is the purpose of my life?

St. John of the Cross has good news for all of us. Those external labels were not the core, essential you. Inside you is your true self which rests in God and cannot be taken away or harmed by any possible hardship. However we come to it, an essential part of the Christian journey is passing through “the dark night of the soul,” in which we experience the pain of shedding all the baggage of our external, false selves in order, finally, to be perfectly one with God.

The “dark nights of the soul” is a term unique to St. John, but he uses it to describe a familiar process found in the New Testament as well as in many Church Fathers. In more familiar Biblical language, we might call it the “death of the old man.” St. Paul writes that our “old man” is crucified with Christ in order that we may be raised from the dead with Christ (Rom 6:6, Eph 4:22). So, while St. John does not seem to be describing a new phenomenon, he is giving it a new descriptive name, and he may be the earliest Christian writer to focus to such a great extent on how it feels for our old man to be crucified. If we had always thought of the death of our old man as purely symbolic, it may come as something of a shock to think of real pain being involved. But when our turn inevitably comes to go through pain or tragedy, then we may take comfort in knowing that many have travelled down this path before us.

The dark nights of St. John of the Cross are the stripping away of everything about the self that is false, secondary, non-essential. Denys Turner, in his discussion of the dark nights, calls it the loss of the ego: the narratives we create about our identity and our past, the images and goals we have of who we would like to become, all possessive loves, all the accomplishments of our own efforts and will, all our weaknesses, all fears, guilt, shame, and pride. (The Darkness of God, p. 238-241) And St. John describes the feeling of this deconstruction of the self in terms that closely mirror depression: “the distaste for food, the gnawings of anxiety in the pit of the stomach, the dulling of the eye and ear, the souring of taste, the rawness of touch, the rankness in the nose… the loss of the power of enjoyment, generalized and objectless fears, the evacuation of meaning, the collapse of memory into random associations, the sense of the pointlessness of any willed pursuit” (Ibid., p. 232). “The emotional crisis of the passive night of the senses is like the condition of total transparency, in which nothing can be seen because everything is seen through” (Ibid. p. 234).

But St. John does not propose to leave a suffering soul in such a state. On the other side of the dark nights, everything is transformed. “We discover in ourselves the presence of a purely passive power, a pure capacity to be attracted, a desire for God which, being no longer grounded in the need to possess, to dominate and destroy, can be the desire, as the Cloud author put it, for God ‘himself, & none of his goodes’… The dark nights are the dawning of a realization that in this loss of selfhood, nothing is lost; it is the awakening of the capacity to live without the need for it.” (Ibid. 236, 243)

St. Paul himself makes a good example. Before he encountered Christ on the road to Damascus, he was a prominent and well-respected Jew, a pharisee. A major part of his identity was his zealous persecution of Christians. He famously held the coats for his colleagues while they stoned St. Stephen to death. After his conversion, he was literally struck blind for a time. And he lost everything.

Who was he now? He was no longer an authority-figure, but considered himself the least of the apostles. As a new follower of Christ, he would now be rejected by his old anti-Christian community, but that was no guarantee of acceptance by the Christians. Understandably, the other apostles initially feared and suspected him. In his conversion, St. Paul gave up his friends, his position in the synagogue, and also his home. He would spend most of the rest of his life travelling across the Mediterranean to preach the gospel and establish new churches. As time went on, St. Paul also lost his health, his freedom (in prison for his faith), and finally, his life. Layer by layer, everything he had that was false or non-essential was stripped away.

What, if anything, does St. Paul have to say about his experience of conversion and the crucifixion of his “old man”? It seems that, for St. Paul, the most painful aspect was the loss of his pride in believing himself to be blameless and of his pride in his identity as a Hebrew. “If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, an Hebrew of the Hebrews; as touching the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him.”(Phil. 3: 4-8)

Ultimately, he was able to give up all these things because he found his true self in Christ. Through this gradual process of losing or transforming his sense of self, St. Paul was sustained by Christ’s love. The true, essential Paul remained always safe, resting in Christ. He writes eloquently of this in his letter to the Romans:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:35-38)

The inner, essential Paul he refers to as “the new man” is not dependent on possessions or health or honor or even the love of any other person. It is his true, authentic self, the part of him that is connected to God. While undergoing every kind of loss and hardship, St. Paul writes, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed… but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4: 8-9, 16).

Although St. Paul lost everything that he valued most about himself before his conversion, he discovered his true self, his “inward man” in God. This process only deepened through the rest of his life, as he bore with hardships in travelling, prison, illness, and ultimately was sentenced to death by the Roman government. Truly, nothing could separate him from the love of God. In the same way, the continuity and transformative power of the love of God is also the message of St. John of the Cross in his writings on the dark night of the soul.

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37 Responses to St. John of the Cross: The Loss and Discovery of Our Identity in God

  1. MNS says:

    In full disclosre, I am not a fan of St. Paul, finding him pretty misogynistic. It seems to me in some of his writings, he simply replaced his pride in being a Pharisee with his pride in being a leader of the new Church. I wonder, if we are tied up in our roles, how we guard (after traveling through the dark night) against simply returning to an overidentification with the new role – whatever that may be. How do you discover what is your “core”?

    • maryeholste says:

      MNS, thanks for your honesty and your comment! You asked the million-dollar question, to which I don’t have an answer myself yet.
      As for St. Paul, I think a lot of people feel that way, and for what it’s worth, I don’t think it’s a requirement to like him just because he wrote some of the New Testament. I am not enough of a scholar to know whether he would have come off as a misogynist to readers in AD 50-60. This sounds like a good research project for a future blog article.
      Back to your main question, though. How do you discover your “core”? I think this must be such an intensely personal, intimate process that it would be hard to answer, even for someone with a lot more experience than I have. So a few snippets of very vague thoughts are all I can offer. Maybe someone else can suggest something better!
      1. When we are living in the present moment, we are more likely to just be ourselves than when we are dreaming about the future or the past. Our egos seem to be very interested in past and future.
      2. Our true selves are not very concerned about what other people think of us. They are not trying to fit into someone else’s mold. A lot of times, we bury our true selves very deep because of fear, hurts, pain. Anything we can do to face the pain that we have in our lives (we’re all human, so we all have some!) and to begin healing from it helps. In my mind, the key to it all is gradually coming to the place that we can know, really know in our gut, that we (our true, most vulnerable selves) are loved by God beyond our wildest dreams.
      3. How do we keep from going back to living as ego, as our outward selves? I don’t know, but I am guessing it must be an on-going struggle.
      What are your own thoughts on these questions?

  2. “the distaste for food, the gnawings of anxiety in the pit of the stomach, the dulling of the eye and ear, the souring of taste, the rawness of touch, the rankness in the nose… the loss of the power of enjoyment, generalized and objectless fears, the evacuation of meaning, the collapse of memory into random associations, the sense of the pointlessness of any willed pursuit”

    How poignant and accurate. And I needed to read this today. Bless you!

  3. Renewing Eve says:

    How interesting that I found this today (Thanks for posting it, Fr. Stephen)! I just began reading The Dark Night of the Soul a few days ago. It is a truly soul-dissecting book! I am seeing how far I have to go, not knowing if I will ever get there, but I’m also hopeful. It has given me lots of things to think about before my next Confession. Thank you for writing about it so beautifully.

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  5. Rhonda says:

    Lots to think about! Thanks, Mat. Holste.

  6. definitely your father’s daughter. thanks for posting this 🙂

  7. Elijahmaria says:

    Dear Mary, In my travels I found a distinctive similarity between the writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila and that of Nikitas Stithatos when he writes of the light that is darkness, so that even as we are transfigured we are transfigured from darkness into the light that is darkness. I love the imagery. Elijah’s still small whisper is the auditory version and it is no accident that Elijah is strongly associated with the Carmelite order. And then the light that blinded the Great Apostle as you mention, so we are blinded that we may see. I must admit that your father directed me to your blog but I will be coming back on my own. And I’ve a friend who is a secular Carmelite with a great love for St. John and she’ll be by to read your lovely essay….In Christ, …another Mary

    • maryeholste says:

      Hello! I remember you from your insightful comments on Fr. Kimmel’s blog as well. Thank you so much for your kind words and for adding the image of Elijah’s still small voice. That fits in perfectly! I love it.

    • Theresa says:

      I am the Secular Carmelite friend and so grateful to read this this morning. I have read the ICS Publication of the Dark Night and it has always been one of my favorite in Carmel. I surely don’t state that I grasp everything John is saying for one has to experience some of it to know…but John has always spoken to my soul even in my humble beginnings in Carmel.

      I will agree with Fr. Stephen that that quote particularly spoke to me this morning.

      I would love to share your post on my blog…I would link back to here…with your permission.

      Many blessings…

  8. Thanks for the post. Small correction: Paul’s encounter was on the road to Damascus.

    • Elijahmaria says:

      LOL…Road to Emmaus is so fundamental to our focus on the resurrected Christ that it falls out of our mouths, or clicks off a keyboard like water flowing downstream!!…I never even saw the error on account. Good thing we have sharp eyes and ears around!

    • maryeholste says:

      Oh, yes you are right! Thank you. I didn’t even bother to look. I’ll make sure to correct that.

  9. leonard nugent says:

    This is one of the best discussions of John of the Cross I have read!

  10. Elijahmaria says:

    Dear Mary and MNS: I say this so directly because I am presuming that we are all believers here:

    Fascinating question this question of the true self, It comes to me often the thought that the heart of each unique soul is known by no one but God. If we loose sight of that axiom, then we really do lose sight of the true self, the self that God intended at our moment of becoming. In other words the search for the true self is no less than the search for God and his Providence in our lives.

    St. John of the Cross, author of all of that lovely mystical poetry, also said this:
    “Enter into account with thy reason to do that which it counsels thee on the road to God, and it will be of greater worth to thee with respect to God than all the works which thou doest without this counsel and all the spiritual delights which thou seekest.
    Blessed is he who puts aside his pleasure and inclination and regards things according to reason and justice in order to perform them.
    He that acts according to reason is like one that eats of substantial food, and he that is moved by the desire of his will is like one that eats insipid fruits.”…St. John, from his Maxims

    Substantial food is Eucharist. Substantial food is Prayer. Substantial food is the practice of the Virtues. Substantial food is Love of Neighbor. Substantial food is Sacrifice and Almsgiving.

    In the practice of eating substantial food, we are taught, we make room for God indwelling. We gain insight and inspiration into His will for us and we are able to grasp these things internally and sensibly through the intellectus/or nous, in the light of reason which is the way in which we discern the will of God and how our will conforms, or not, to His– and justice here as John uses it refers to God’s providence, the good of His creation, including our poor selves.

    So in plain language, we don’t ever come to know our true selves till we allow God to show us, and can then see ourselves as He sees us. That is part of divinization or theosis. It is the heart of the lesson of the road to Emmaus in fact, dear Mary. When Jesus revealed Himself, then those with him were able to once more recognize themselves as his disciples!… and I believe we are graced with that ability here on the earth, for as St. Paul says, in paraphrase, that we will know them by their fruits. That applies to ourselves as well as to others. Now it’s past time for me to hush up!!……M.

    • maryeholste says:

      I meant to ask earlier. I am not familiar with Nikitas Stithatos, but it sounds like he would fit in with the other things I am reading at the moment. What would you recommend of his for a beginner?

      • Elijahmaria says:

        Nikitas Stithatos was disciple of St. Symeon the New Theologian later in St. Symeon’s life. I don’t know that there is anything of his in translation aside from what is in Volume 4 of The Philokalia. I will keep an eye out for anything in my travels. His work on the stages of the spiritual life and his imagery of sensory darkness that comes from the stilling of the passions comes from the Syriac tradition in the persons of Isaac of Syria and of Evagrios the Solitary and also he takes much from the ages of the spiritual life outlined by Dionysius the Areopagite, from whom he takes the more clearly developed idea of divine darkness.

  11. nikodim says:

    Very nice text about John of the Cross. Except for one (little) mistake: It’s was not on the road to Emmaus, but on the road to Damascus Saint Paul encountered Christ. Love in X, Nikodim

  12. JT says:

    I try to take the simple approach to God (though I love the mystics both Catholic & Orthodox) in this area of the ” Dark night of the soul”. I can either accept things as they are or accept things as I want them to be and usualy I hit the two by four pretty quickly when I don’t and Iead with my ego. Thank God it is a life time journey and we have the sacraments for healing and chipping away the old man!!

  13. Margaret says:

    Beautiful article, thanks for writing! (And thanks to Fr. Stephen Freeman for linking it on his blog!) Formerly Anglican, I am familiar with the Dark Night of the Soul. I have not been back to read it for years because quite frankly I am enjoying reading all the recommendations from the church fathers of the Orthodox Christian Church where we’ve been now for 8 years! God be praised! Concerning “how” to discover what is at one’s core, I have found attending Orthodox services, Fr. Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray and Living Prayer, trying to practice the Jesus Prayer daily, reading commentaries by church fathers on the scriptures and these books very helpful, but I’m very much a work in progress: (helpful books) The Path to Sanity by Dee Pennock, Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives by Elder Thaddeus of Vitnovinca and Ancient Christian Wisdom and Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy, a meeting of the minds, by Fr. Alexis Trader.

  14. Margaret says:

    I forgot to mention that “Everywhere Present,” Br Fr. Stephen Freeman, has been very helpful to read and re-read as a native of the Southern United States and raised in a protestant denomination by very faithful Christian family before marrying and becoming Anglican. 🙂

  15. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Reblogged this on Eclectic Orthodoxy and commented:
    What a pleasure to discover Mary Holste’s (relatively) new blog. One can see the influence of Fr Stephen Freeman in her ascetical reflections, but she has her own distinctive Orthodox voice. I commend her blog to you.

  16. David Brent says:

    Mary,
    You have blessed me today! Thank you.

  17. Sue Lickteig,kcmo says:

    Just a simple “thank you ” as I find more friends in Christ to share this journey to Him, to love Him better and join others in living a life here on earth that makes sense- as it never has been before, that it is only to please Him, do as He wills and rejoice with others for whom this is our reason to be. God bless you all , thank you for sharing and showing more ways to know, love Him better. I had just learned of Ss. Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross via Mike Bickle, IHOP here in KC and here is more, halleluia!

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