featured image

Charlene Rack reviews Fr. Donald Haggerty's new book, which opens up the wisdom of St. John of the Cross to a new audience.

I jumped at the chance to review Fr. Donald Haggerty’s book, St. John of the Cross: Master of Contemplation. In the distant past, I tried a few times to read some of St. John of the Cross’s works, but always came away overwhelmed and bewildered. I was hoping this book might be sort of a "St. John of the Cross for Dummies," because that’s what I’ve felt like when trying to read and understand his writings. He seems so far above and beyond me, and my life is so busy as a mother, grandmother, and caregiver. How could I ever reach the same spiritual level as a priest who was in solitary confinement for months in a small closet-like room? As a young mom, I was never alone. For years I could hardly even go to the bathroom without pint-sized company!

However, with this new book coming to me now that I'm in my sixties, I’m finding it much easier to grasp. Fr. Haggerty’s treatise is rich and enlightening, and full of encouragement. I found that my best reading experiences took place during Adoration, before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. Based on St. John of the Cross’s spirituality, that made a lot of sense to me. However, as Fr. Haggerty points out, St John’s path to holiness is not simply a style of contemplative prayer, but a way of letting go in our prayer so that we are led so much deeper than mere contemplation.


St John of the Cross-Haggerty


In his book, Fr. Haggerty took what was (for me) a mind-boggling tangle of thoughts and teachings, and, using bite-sized pieces and thorough commentary, opened up to me the wisdom of St. John of the Cross’s writings and spirituality. I specifically appreciated how Fr. Haggerty wove the writings of St. John of the Cross into his own explanations of St. John’s words. It was a perfect balance.

Short quotes and paraphrasing from the book seemed to be the best way to share a sampling of this richness with my readers, so that’s the method I chose.

In chapters 1 & 2 we learn that “exceptional fruitfulness arising from great suffering” is a unique mark of St. John of the Cross and his teachings. He was a man deeply in love with God. His main goal was always “an appeal to our hearts to become a beloved friend of God. We can’t simply “fall in love with God.” Our feelings, knowledge, or experiences cannot “take hold of God.” Our souls must be made wide open to God’s grace for that to happen. This is not an easy task, and perhaps even a bit scary, since God always remains hidden or concealed from us. He can only be “found” in the innermost being of our souls, if we are willing to “silence” our senses, and enter into the darkness, or “caverns” of our soul, which will unite us more closely with God in prayer.

Haggerty also mentions the forgotten and misunderstood practices of asceticism and self-denial. They’ve largely been swept under the rug in contemporary Catholicism, but are, nonetheless, essential for souls “seeking a closer relationship with God. A quote from St. John of the Cross in Ascending Mt Carmel says it this way. “Soar to the heights of dark faith.” (This is likened to the forsakenness of Christ on the Cross, when He lived out his greatest love for His heavenly Father and for all of us.)

In chapters 7 & 8, Fr. Haggerty speaks of “barricades on the road to contemplation,” followed by “the dawning light of the gift of contemplation.” And there’s so much more to help and encourage you on your journey, if you’re feeling called to a “deepness” in your contemplation and love of God.

I’ve lately been feeling myself called more frequently to adoration during Exposition of The Blessed Sacrament. Just the time of quiet is so restorative. I’ve not yet attempted to attain the heights of St. John (or, perhaps, more so the depths), but I want to give it my best shot. I’ve been getting braver about doing an act of full prostration while praying, and the last time I was at Exposition, there was a loud sound of water running, which acted as a white noise. I felt a bit  ... ”disoriented” after my prayer time, almost couldn’t recall where I was. As I continued reading Fr. Haggerty’s book, I thought to myself, “Maybe with having my eyes closed and my body still, in an act of prostration, along with the white noise, I had been taken somewhere in prayer where I’d never been before.” I don’t know for sure, but I will keep meditating in silence, and Fr. Haggerty’s book will be my reliable road map in the future.

I leave you pondering this final advice from St. John of the Cross (quoted from his letter to a Carmelite prioress). “There are no boundaries, no limits, to what God can give our souls. We ought not to limit Him by the measure of our own capacity” (356). We often say, “Let go and let God,” and that, I believe, is the best advice for maturing in our spirituality and relationship with God!

St. John of the Cross: Master of Contemplation is published by Ignatius Press and is available from the publisher, on Amazon, and wherever Catholic books are sold.


book review: St. John of the Cross, Master of Contemplation

Copyright 2022 Charlene Rack
Images: (top) Francisco de Zurbarán, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; Canva