The history of the Catholic Church features a number of great spiritual masters, saints, and mystics. Some of the giants of the Church’s rich spiritual and mystical tradition include Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Louis de Montfort, and Saint Faustina. A towering figure among all these giants is Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), the priest and mystic who was a key figure in the Counter-Reformation in Spain and is one of the thirty-seven Doctors of the Church. He wrote four massive treatises on the spiritual life—most famously The Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent of Mt. Carmel—and worked to reform the Carmelite order with St. Teresa of Avila.
Father Donald Haggerty has written many books on the spiritual life and contemplation. His new book Saint John of the Cross: Master of Contemplation (Ignatius Press, 2022) is an in-depth exploration of the writing of the prolific Spanish mystic. Father Haggerty’s book helps the reader approach the theological richness and daunting prolificacy of the remarkable saint. It has been described as a “profound and beautiful book” by Father Peter John Cameron, O.P., a “spiritual masterpiece” by Kathryn Jean Lopez, and a “bold, bracing, exhilarating book” by Matthew Levering.
Father Haggerty is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He taught moral theology and worked as a spiritual director in seminaries for twenty years, and has directed numerous yearly retreats for the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by St. Teresa of Calcutta.
He recently corresponded with Catholic World Report about his most recent book.
Catholic World Report: How did this book come about? Do you have a particular devotion to Saint John of the Cross?
Fr. Donald Haggerty: I became captivated by St. John of the Cross in my first year studying for the priesthood, which is now over thirty-five years ago.
At that time I asked a priest on the faculty at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, a former rector Monsignor Montano, if he might be willing to do a private study with me for credit on Pope St. John Paul II’s doctoral dissertation, published by Ignatius Press and entitled Faith According To Saint John of the Cross. I remain grateful to this day for that opportunity. Later, in my fourth year, I wrote a master’s thesis under this same priest’s direction on St. John of the Cross and his Spiritual Canticle.
In the years since, I have turned and returned continually to the writings of this Carmelite saint as a challenging stimulus to my spiritual life. He is an author who, at least for me, has passage after passage which repay re-reading. I have used him very often in private prayer, quoted him for years in retreats for the Missionaries of Charity, and regularly have encountered new insights in his writings. We grow over time in the company of his teaching, so that these passages take on different and deeper meaning over time.
So I would say I have more than a devotion to him. He has been a wonderful and close mentor in my life.
CWR: You’ve written several works on spirituality, including Contemplative Provocations: Brief, Concentrated Observations on Aspects of a Life with God (2013), The Contemplative Hunger (2016), Conversion: Spiritual Insights into an Essential Encounter with God (2017), and Contemplative Enigmas: Insights and Aid on the Path to Deeper Prayer (2020). How is this book in continuity with those?
Fr. Haggerty: The three earlier books with “contemplative” titles are all much affected by the influence of St. John of the Cross on my thought and spirituality. These earlier books consist of meditative insights on prayer and interior life and deeper spirituality. The impact of St. John of the Cross resonates on many of these pages, depending on the topic. A turn to these books after reading this new book on St. John of the Cross will certainly enhance one’s appreciation for the Carmelite mystic. The themes of God’s hidden concealment, the role of purification and suffering in spiritual advancement, the deeper truths of interior love for God are prominent in these books and essential aspects of the teaching of St. John of the Cross.
These earlier books have also been much affected by my involvement over the years with the Missionaries of Charity and St. Teresa of Calcutta. The combination of a contemplative pursuit of Our Lord in his divine mystery and of the encounter with his mystery in the presence of the poor has marked my life. These books all reflect that essential blending of the contemplative quest for God with an active life lived in the world.
CWR: What’s is the point of contemplation? How would you respond to those who dismiss or downplay contemplation, saying that we should focus on corporal works of mercy?
Fr. Haggerty: A short answer about the meaning of contemplation is not really possible, which is why this book on the great master of contemplation has been written.
In one sense, the word contemplation refers specifically to a particular grace given in prayer to those who are serious about prayer. Relations with God are bound to undergo an alteration of interior experience as we give ourselves more generously to God. As we grow more united to the will of God, a transition takes place in the silence of prayer, a threshold is crossed, which requires a different receptivity on our part in response to the invitation of God. This contemplative transition changes our interior life of prayer, but even more it begins to transform our soul, showing its effects in all areas of life.
In the spiritual life, what happens within us in grace will always show itself in outward manifestations. With the beginnings of contemplative graces, God becomes more truly the transcendent mystery of infinite love, and at the same time our crucified Lord becomes more utterly personal in his love for our soul. Everything in effect changes as greater depths open up in our soul’s relations with God, and there is no finishing point to this movement into depth except at the end of life.
In answer to the objection that a commitment to the practice of private prayer somehow `steals from’ or `subtracts from’ the more worthy pursuit of helping others in charity, the response must be a strong rebuttal. Interior depth in prayer, when it is filled by God, always carries its effects outside prayer to greater charity, greater humility, greater generosity.
Mother Teresa and her sisters have been a living proof of this spiritual truth. She always wanted her sisters to be contemplatives in the heart of the world; from prayer they go out to meet the presence of Christ in the poorest of the poor. Their remarkable generosity flows out of the hours they spend in prayer each day. The depth of love and surrender to God that we bring from prayer makes us see differently and perceive suffering and human need in a more sensitive manner.
The true contemplatives of this world are always the souls of greater love and attentiveness to the needs of others.
CWR: What role does asceticism play in contemplation? And can asceticism be taken too far?
Fr. Haggerty: Asceticism is in no way a cause of the grace of contemplation. But some effort of a disciplined self-restraint is essential if we are to grow in a depth of prayer in our lives. This is perhaps overlooked in many lives, but certainly not by St. John of the Cross. He does not advocate a harsh approach to asceticism, but a sensible understanding rooted in a wisdom about the human will.
The will is the great faculty of charity and love, and it requires a dynamic effort of self-emptying to grow in a depth of love. As St. John of the Cross comments: “Deny your desires and you will find what your heart longs for.” We cannot advance in prayer or holiness if we are casual and uncaring about a sacrificial dimension in our life. When we are indulgent in choices for the sake of bodily pleasure, even of an innocent nature, and impulsive in pleasing ourselves and satisfying our own preferences, the will is essentially dominated by self-absorbed pursuit. Contemplation depends for its inception and its growth on the will being united in love with the will of God.
The capacity for exercising self-denial to some degree is a kind of preliminary test if we desire the longing of our will to lean out more vigorously toward a love for Our Lord. Otherwise, there are constant barriers rising up between ourselves and God. The result then is that prayer inevitably dulls and dissipates. We ought to remember as well that an asceticism of love is the goal, which demands an effort of the mind, not just of the body. Indeed, a capacity for mental austerity is a great need for an advancement in love – an ability to turn our thoughts during a day away from irritations and uncharity toward prayer and a love of God.
Naturally asceticism, like everything else, can be taken to extremes. The mistake in that case would be to presume that bodily ascetical practices are a measure in themselves of spiritual growth, which is false. It is love, charity, sacrificial self-giving, that open us to deeper graces in prayer and carry us toward the deeper invitations of God.
With that said, however, it would seem that extremes in bodily asceticism are rather rare in the current day, and should not become a reason or excuse to forsake the importance of sacrifice and self-discipline in the spiritual life.
CWR: In the book you talk of “loss of self for the greater love”; is a sort of kenosis necessary for deep and authentic contemplation?
Fr. Haggerty: The contemplative life of prayer finds its foundation in the central Gospel passages where Jesus urges us to lose ourselves, to die to ourselves, in a love for him and the Gospel, in order to discover our true self in him. This demands a sacrificial life, the kenosis or self-emptying that is at the heart of all genuine love.
Married couples who perceive the true challenge of their vocation know well this need of giving up self for the sake of greater love. But it is also a dynamic process in the life of prayer. A turning from self in order to turn a loving attention toward our beloved Lord in prayer requires this ongoing kenosis. Prayer has a need for self-forgetfulness, which is a quality of love. The Other who is God, rather than ourselves, becomes the greater focus of our attention when we love. Our longing for Our Lord in prayer, our surrender to him, takes place more deeply as we release ourselves from self. Contemplative prayer will always display this aspect of self-emptying, which includes also the trials of purification undergone in prayer.
This book exposes the very important teaching of St. John of the Cross on the link between the trials of purification and the advancement in depth in a soul’s relations with God. There are observable patterns of fruitful effects as we decrease more, and his importance increases. All people of serious spirituality have noticed, for instance, that sacrificial self-giving outside prayer often paves the way to a renewed encounter with God in prayer.
Conversely, our effort to love Our Lord in a pure desire for him in prayer, even in dryness and obscurity, often unleashes a surge of greater generosity in our life outside private prayer. The loss of self in or out of prayer is never an arrival at an unfruitful emptiness or absence. God mysteriously fills with his own presence what we empty in ourselves or give away out of love for him.
CWR: In the process of researching and writing the book, was there anything you discovered that surprised you?
Fr. Haggerty: In my years of reading and pondering St. John of the Cross, I have again and again received new thoughts and insights that I had not perceived before, and encountered passages read previously that conveyed new depths of meaning. He is certainly a spiritual guide who rewards faithful attachment to his guidance.
In fact, I would affirm there is no spiritual writer like him in his ability to write passages of which one can never tire nor arrive at a satiety. The year prior to writing the book was no different. I was struck much by his descriptions in The Living Flame of Love of the human faculties of intellect, will, and memory as vast caverns of longing within the soul. He writes of the “vast emptiness of their deep capacity” to be filled by the presence of God.
His treatment of the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity infusing these faculties with the divine presence is a crucial part of his teaching on contemplative prayer and spirituality. This teaching opens a door into profound implications for the life of prayer. The effort of digging down beneath layers of depth in one’s encounter with divine love is never concluded. The infinite magnitude of God’s love makes this quest in prayer a never-ending adventure over a lifetime.
Another section likewise struck me more than ever during the course of writing this book. In delving again into The Spiritual Canticle, I was moved freshly by his depiction of the soul wounded with love for God, and God’s own wound of love for the soul he loves in a special manner.
CWR: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
Fr. Haggerty: I wrote this book out of love for St. John of the Cross and his writings and with the desire that his teachings on prayer and spirituality should become more accessible and attractive to the wide range of people today seeking greater depth in their spiritual life.
We have been living for a while now in a time when a desire for deeper prayer is on the upsurge. Many lay people make time for silent, private prayer as well as for daily Mass. Eucharistic adoration continues to spread in parishes, drawing many people.
I would say emphatically that St. John of the Cross is an essential guide for those who commit themselves to a regular practice of silent prayer. He teaches clearly that contemplative graces are open to all who are willing to live generously in their love for God and his will. This possibility of a deeper contemplative disposition taking hold in our lives is an invitation from God, like the call to holiness. It should be humbly recognized by many unsuspecting people for whom God waits to give greater gifts to their souls.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Fr. Haggerty: The traditional maxim that the hidden contemplative souls are the great fire burning beneath all that is fruitful in the Church is always worth repeating. The contemplative souls have a unique power of intercession for others precisely because they are souls of love.
And Our Lord and his Mother Mary apparently cannot resist the requests of souls animated by love when they pray for others. It seems that a quiet, contagious spread of contemplative prayer in the Church is taking place among many souls who have discovered a love for prayer. These people are a great hope for the current day. It would be wonderful if silent prayer is recognized more and more as a necessity in the daily lives of young lay people, of married couples, of religious and priests, of seminarians.
The deepening love for prayer will have untold fruits; indeed, the Church in any era is measured by its quality of prayer. We should pray that prayer itself becomes a greater need in the Church and in the world. Nothing else may be more important at this critical time in history.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!