Jun 04 2021

John of the Cross – I Entered the Unknown

Published by at 7:29 am under Poetry

I Entered the Unknown
by John of the Cross

English version by Ivan M. Granger

I entered the unknown,
and there I remained unknowing,
all knowledge transcended.

Where I entered I knew not,
but seeing myself there,
not knowing where,
great things then made themselves known.
What I sensed I cannot say,
for I remained unknowing,
all knowledge transcended.

In this peace and purity
was perfect knowledge.
In profoundest solitude
I understood with absolute clarity
something so secret
that I was left stammering,
all knowledge transcended.

So deep was I within,
so absorbed, transported,
that all senses fled,
and outer awareness fell away.
My spirit received the gift
of unknowing knowing,
all knowledge transcended.

He who reaches this realm
loses himself,
for all he once knew
now is beneath his notice,
and his mind so expands
that he remains unknowing,
all knowledge transcended.

And the higher he rises
the less he knows:
That is the dark cloud
that shines in the night.
The one who knows this
always remains unknowing,
all knowledge transcended.

This knowing by unknowing
is of such exalted power,
that the disputations of the learned
fail to grasp it,
for their knowledge does not reach
to knowing by unknowing,
all knowledge transcended.

Of such supreme perfection
is this knowledge
that no faculty or method of mind
can comprehend it;
but he who conquers himself
with this unknowing knowing,
will always transcend.

And if you are ready to receive it,
this sum of all knowledge is discovered
in the deepest ecstasy
of the Divine Essence.
Goodness and grace
grant us this unknowing,
all knowledge transcended.

— from This Dance of Bliss: Ecstatic Poetry from Around the World, Edited by Ivan M. Granger


/ Image by oddsock /

St. John of the Cross repeatedly contrasts knowledge with unknowing.

I entered the unknown,
and there I remained unknowing,

all knowledge transcended.

The Spanish word rendered here as “knowledge” is ciencia, which has the more obvious translation of “science.” But the poem’s archaic use of “science” implies not the scientific process, but a more general sense of knowledge acquired through reason and the testimony of the senses.

And John of the Cross emphasizes that his unknowing is superior.

He is not advocating ignorance, however. The Spanish saint is instead speaking about the mystical idea of “unknowing,” the state in which all concepts and mental filters have been set aside. In that state of unknowing, we rise above the elaborate constructions of the logical mind and come to rest in pure awareness (“knowing by unknowing”). He is contrasting true, unfiltered knowing, gnosis, with the mere accumulation and organization of information.

To be unknowing in this sense is to encounter every instant entirely as it is, in pure wonder, without projection, without anticipation or agitation. The intellectual mind—a hugely important tool!—has one very serious weakness: It never encounters the present moment nakedly. It is always processing, analyzing, making everything fit within its comprehension. It never truly witnesses; it only interprets.

We certainly want to cultivate a critical intellect, but we must always remember that it is not the whole of consciousness. The awareness can step beyond the intellect. To fully apprehend reality, it must.

So deep was I within,
so absorbed, transported,
that all senses fled,
and outer awareness fell away.

This state of supreme unknowing is not perception in the sense of drawing in and interpreting exterior input through the senses. In normal perception, the intellect sifts and sorts that sensory data and formulates it into a working hypothesis of what reality is. That hypothesis, however, is always an incomplete shorthand that only approximates reality.

By contrast, the mystic’s unknowing is the centered awareness of unfiltered reality. This awareness does not tilt off its seat in order to reach out through the senses. It is at rest, poised. It witnesses without an egoic agenda. The full awareness in this state of unknowing does not sift reality, it bathes in it.

Rather than an interpretation, one sees clearly, free from artificial mental constructions–knowing by unknowing.

And if you are ready to hear it,
this sum of all knowledge is discovered
in the deepest ecstasy
of the Divine Essence.
Goodness and grace
grant us this unknowing,

…all knowledge transcended.


Recommended Books: John of the Cross

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey To Touch the Sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual & Metaphysical Light For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics
More Books >>


John of the Cross, John of the Cross poetry, Christian poetry John of the Cross

Spain (1542 – 1591) Timeline
Christian : Catholic

John of the Cross was born Juan de Ypes in a village near Avila, Spain. His father died when he was young, and he was raised in poverty with his two brothers by his widowed mother.

In his early 20s, John entered the Carmelite order and moved to Salamanca to further his studies. Among his other teachers was the well-known mystic and poet Fray Luis de Leon.

Still in his 20s, the young John of the Cross first met the woman who would become his mentor, Teresa of Avila, who was in her 50s at the time. Teresa of Avila was a mystic, a writer, a social activist, and a founder of several monasteries. She had begun a reform movement within the Carmelite Order, advocating a return to simplicity and the essential spirituality that should be at the heart of any monastic order. John of the Cross joined her movement of Discalced Carmelites and quickly became a leading figure himself.

Members of the unreformed Carmelites felt threatened by the critique from this new movement, and they turned to force, imprisoning and even torturing John of the Cross. He was held in a tiny cell in Toledo for nine months, until he escaped.

As terrible as this experience must have been, it was during his time of imprisonment that John’s spirituality and poetry began to blossom. The experience of losing everything, of being supremely vulnerable, seems to have brought John of the Cross to a profound state of openness and spiritual insight.

It was during his imprisonment that John began to write poetry.

Once he escaped from prison, John continued his work with Teresa of Avila, founding new monasteries and advocating for their spiritual reforms. He spent the rest of his life as a spiritual director among the Discalced Carmelites.

His two best known works, the Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul, are considered masterpieces of Spanish poetry and esoteric Christianity. Besides these, he wrote many other short poems, along with extensive commentaries on the meaning of his poetry as they relate to the soul’s experience of divine reality.

More poetry by John of the Cross

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “John of the Cross – I Entered the Unknown”

  1. Charison 05 Jun 2021 at 9:58 am

    Really resonate with this. Found his writings about 20 years ago. Seems John may have been influenced by an earlier work The Cloud of Unknowing.

  2. John Prettymanon 05 Jun 2021 at 3:15 pm

    Your commentary is great Ivan….keep up the good work.
    Do you live in Colorado …or is it Hawaii ?
    John

  3. Ivan M. Grangeron 05 Jun 2021 at 4:02 pm

    Thank you, John. I lived in Hawaii for several years in the early 2000s, but today I live in Colorado. Hello from the Rocky Mountains!

  4. Nur Fatma Koksalon 06 Jun 2021 at 10:00 pm

    Hi, I recently discovered this website. It is a real treasure chest:) I liked how you defined “intellect” s attitude. It is very important to accept the limitations of the intellect otherwise we are left with a distorted version of reality. Thank you for all the poems and comments!

  5. Trish Yorkon 07 Jun 2021 at 4:40 pm

    This is such a transcendent read & ties in beautifully with the Eckhart Tolle teachings in the School of Awakening I am so grateful to be immersed in currently.
    I grew up in a devotely Catholic family so always appreciate learning more of the history. Thank you for sharing this with poem with us.
    All best wishes & blessings from Canada,
    ~ Trish

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