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Ascent of Mount Carmel By St. John of the Cross

Ascent of Mount Carmel

St. John of the Cross

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This book has 243 pages in the PDF version, and was originally written between 1578 and 1579. This is a translation by E. Allison Peers and is in the public domain as the copyright was not renewed.


Ascent of Mount Carmel is a spiritual treatise by 16th-century Spanish Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross. Originally written between 1578 and 1579, the text outlines the progress of the Soul to the summit of the metaphorical Mount Carmel, where it encounters God. Ascent of Mount Carmel is considered one of the greatest works in Christian Mysticism, showing how a lifestyle that favours abstinence of the worldly pleasures can lead to a union with Christ. The treatise was written after he escaped from prison, after being detained by a group known as the Carmelites, over the fact that John was in favour of reformation, and they were not. He was canonised by Pope Benedict XIII in 1726, and in 1926 he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI.

As well as the actual text of the book, this edition contains: Translator’s Preface To The First Edition; Translator’s Preface To The Second Edition; Principal Abbreviations; An Outline Of The Life Of St. John Of The Cross; General Introduction To The Works Of St. John Of The Cross; Introduction; and, The Manuscripts.

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Production notes: This edition of Ascent of Mount Carmel was published by Global Grey ebooks on the 13th April 2021. The artwork used for the cover is 'The Virgin of the Carmen with Saint Theresa and Saint John of the Cross' by Juan Rodríguez Juárez.

Excerpt from 'Ascent of Mount Carmel'

AS will be seen from the biographical outline which we have given of the life of St. John of the Cross, this was the first of the Saint’s treatises to be written; it was begun at El Calvario, and, after various intervals, due to the author’s preoccupation with the business of government and the direction and care of souls, was completed at Granada.

The treatise presents a remarkable outline of Christian perfection from the point at which the soul first seeks to rise from the earth and soar upward towards union with God. It is a work which shows every sign of careful planning and great attention to detail, as an ascetic treatise it is noteworthy for its detailed psychological analysis; as a contribution to mystical theology, for the skill with which it treats the most complicated and delicate questions concerning the Mystic Way.

Both the great Carmelite reformers pay close attention to the early stages of the mystical life, beyond which many never pass, and both give the primacy to prayer as a means of attaining perfection. To St. Teresa prayer is the greatest of all blessings of this life, the channel through which all the favours of God pass to the soul, the beginning of every virtue and the plainly marked highroad which leads to the summit of Mount Carmel. She can hardly conceive of a person in full spiritual health whose life is not one of prayer. Her coadjutor in the Carmelite Reform writes in the same spirit. Prayer, for St. John of the Cross as for St. Teresa, is no mere exercise made up of petition and meditation, but a complete spiritual life which brings in its train all the virtues, increases all the soul’s potentialities and may ultimately lead to ‘deification’ or transformation in God through love. It may be said that the exposition of the life of prayer, from its lowest stages to its highest, is the common aim of these two Saints, which each pursues and accomplishes in a peculiarly individual manner.

St. John of the Cross assumes his reader to be familiar with the rudiments of the spiritual life and therefore omits detailed description of the most elementary of the exercises incumbent upon all Christians. The plan of the Ascent of Mount Carmel (which, properly speaking, embraces its sequel, the Dark Night) follows the lines of the poem with the latter title (p. 10). Into two stanzas of five lines each, St. John of the Cross has condensed all the instruction which he develops in this treatise. In order to reach the Union of Light, the soul must pass through the Dark Night — that is to say, through a series of purifications, during which it is walking, as it were, through a tunnel of impenetrable obscurity and from which it emerges to bask in the sunshine of grace and to enjoy the Divine intimacy.

Through this obscurity the thread which guides the soul is that of ‘emptiness’ or ‘negation.’ Only by voiding ourselves of all that is not God can we attain to the possession of God, for two contraries cannot co-exist in one individual, and creature-love is darkness, while God is light, so that from any human heart one of the two cannot fail to drive out the other.

Now the soul, according to the Saint’s psychology, is made up of interior and exterior senses and of the faculties. All these must be free from creature impurities in order to be prepared for Divine union. The necessary self-emptying may be accomplished in two ways: by our own efforts, with the habitual aid of grace, and by the action of God exclusively, in which the individual has no part whatsoever. Following this order, the Ascent is divided into two parts, which deal respectively with the ‘Active’ night and the ‘Passive.’ Each of these parts consists of several books. Since the soul must be purified in its entirety, the Active Night is logically divided into the Night of Sense and the Night of the Spirit; a similar division is observed in treating of the Passive Night. One book is devoted to the Active Night of Sense; two are needed for the Active Night of the Spirit. Unhappily, however, the treatise was never finished; not only was its author unable to take us out of the night into the day, as he certainly intended to do, but he has not even space to describe the Passive Night in all the fullness of its symbolism.

A brief glance at the outstanding parts of the Ascent of Mount Carmel will give some idea of its nature. The first obstacle which the pilgrim soul encounters is the senses, upon which St. John of the Cross expends his analytical skill in Book I. Like any academic professor (and it will be recalled that he had undergone a complete university course at Salamanca), he outlines and defines his subject, goes over the necessary preliminary ground before expounding it, and treats it, in turn, under each of its natural divisions. He tells us, that is to say, what he understands by the ‘dark night’; describes its causes and its stages; explains how necessary it is to union with God; enumerates the perils which beset the soul that enters it; and shows how all desires must be expelled, ‘however small they be,’ if the soul is to travel through it safely. Finally he gives a complete synthesis of the procedure that must be adopted by the pilgrim in relation to this part of his journey: the force of this is intensified by those striking maxims and distichs which make Chapter xiii of Book I so memorable.

The first thirteen chapters of the Ascent are perhaps the easiest to understand (though they are anything but easy to put into practice) in the entire works of St. John of the Cross. They are all a commentary on the very first line of the poem. The last two chapters of the first book glance at the remaining lines, rather than expound them, and the Saint takes us on at once to Book II, which expounds the second stanza and enters upon the Night of the Spirit.

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