Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Knowledge and Symbolization in Saint John of the Cross

Elizabeth Wilhelmsen, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Document Type Article

Copyright © Verlag Peter Lang GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 1985; second revised edition, 1993.

Placed on hold/Withdrawn 11 November 2019, by author's request.


San Juan de la Cruz has been known throughout the past four centuries for various remarkable deeds. At the popular level he is known as a saint and an outstanding Christian mystic. This widespread image of him corresponds to the historical reality, for his primary concern was indeed the achievement of virtue, perfection and communion with God. San Juan de la Cruz is also recognized for the central role he played in the reform of the Carmelite Order. It is further acknowledged that he was endowed by nature with a gift for poetic creation and a talent for precise, systematic prose composition, both of which he placed at the service of his primary love and commitment.

In his lyrics, Juan de la Cruz endeavored to incarnate his ineffable and mysterious experience of the presence of God, while in his treatises he developed a thorough psychology and theology of mysticism. His articulations are such that this sixteenth-century thinker is unsurpassed in the history of Christian mysticism as either prose writer or poet. His position of preeminence can be gleaned from two sublime titles he bears: that of Patron of Hispanic Poets, granted to him by the Spanish Royal Academy, and the parallel title of Doctor Mysticus of the universal Church.

This study is an investigation of Juan de la Cruz's understanding of knowledge, symbolization and communication. Throughout his works, our author focusses upon cognition as exercized by all men; upon that specific form of intuitive knowledge occasioned by the poetic metaphor; and upon the immediate knowledge of God peculiar to the mystic's experience. As these pages attempt to manifest, he presents a well-developed and cohesive science of noetics in which different modes of human knowing are analyzed. It should be indicated parenthetically that the term "science" is employed here much the same way San Juan himself makes use of it, in the broad and legitimate sense of referring to a demonstrative body of knowledge concerning a given subject, and not in the conventional sense which restricts it to empiriological domains [Cf. O.E.D., s.v.].

The methodology employed throughout this study has consisted fundamentally in thorough and repeated readings of the works of John of the Cross. This approach has permitted the isolation of the texts pertaining to the subject of human noetic operations, whether ordinary or mystical. There are multiple texts on the role of the external and internal senses; on the relative functions of the active and passive intellects; on the differences between ordinary cognition following perception and knowledge infused without the mediation of sensation; and on the conditioned character of all knowledge. The texts on poetic expression, symbolization and communication are few in number, yet central in importance.

The present monograph is of an interdisciplinary nature. The first five chapters constitute essentially an epistemological analysis, while the remaining four deal with poetic expression as understood and practiced by our author. Previous studies have been made on many of the topics which appear in this work. What has not been carried out to date, however, is a study on cognition in Juan de la Cruz which relates his expositions of the various modes of human knowing to one another. To the end of providing such an analysis, San Juan's understanding of the principles governing ordinary cognition have been linked with his elucidation and justification of the mystic's knowledge in and through God, and these in tum with the efficacy of each of the literary genres he employs to give symbolic form to mystical experiences.