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John of the Cross: Carmel, Desire and Transformation

Monday 21st - Wednesday 23rd June 2021
St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London

Hosted by the Centre for Initiatives in Spirituality and Reconciliation (InSpiRe), in Collaboration with the Mystical Theology Network, The British and Irish Carmelites and the University of Roehampton.

Saint John of the Cross remains a major source of Western thought on spirituality, theology and mysticism. He is of continuing relevance in the context of present cultural malaise concerning meaning, purpose, authenticity and God.

Compared to Teresa of Avila, there has been relatively little recent attention given to him in the Anglophone world and it is felt timely to hold this international conference to explore his mystical theology and spirituality from a variety of interdisciplinary perspectives.

Approaching him in the context of the late medieval mystical tradition, the conference will examine his life and teaching both historically and in its legacy for today, as it arises in a variety of discourses. In particular, it will examine three key aspects of John’s work: desire, transformation and Carmel.

Leading academics in the field will discuss the importance of John from historical, theological, philosophical, pastoral, ecumenical, psychological and aesthetic perspectives.

There will also be an opportunity for wider involvement from participants in short papers around the wider themes of desire, transformation and Carmel.

Videos from the 'St John of the Cross: Carmel, Desire and Transformation' conference are available online.

Watch the conference coverage

We hope to publish the papers in 2022, please keep an eye on this site for updates.


  • Shelagh Banks
  • Christopher Cook
  • Tessa Holland
  • Edward Howells
  • Iain Matthew
  • Bernard McGinn
  • Mark Murphy
  • Louise Nelstrop
  • Terence O’Reilly
  • Simon Podmore
  • Ronald Rolheister
  • Colin Thompson
  • Peter Tyler
  • David Perrin


Day one: John and Carmel (Monday 21st June 2021)

  • 12.30pm:   Welcome and Introductions.WDR
  • 12.45pm: Keynote Address: Professor Bernard McGinn – John and the Western Mystical Tradition
  • 1.45pm: Break
  • 2pm: Prof Christof Betschart OCD - Desire for God and its Realisation: Henri de Lubac in dialogue with John of the Cross
  • 3pm: Break
  • 3.15pm: Prof Terry O Reilly– John of the Cross and Carmel
  • 4pm: Colin Thompson - The Look of the Beloved in St John of the Cross’s ‘Spiritual Canticle’
  • 4.45pm: Break
  • 5pm: Panel Discussion chaired by Dr Louise Nelstrop 
  • 5.30pm: End of day one
  • 6.30pm: Supper – Dolche Vita (residential delegates only)

Day two: John and Transformation (Tuesday 22nd June 2021)

  • 9.30am: Keynote Address: Fr Iain Matthew OCD – John and the Human Willing of the Cross’
  • 10.30am: Break
  • 11am: Keynotes
    • 11am: Steven Payne "Amada en el Amado Transformada": John of the Cross on Transformation
    • 11.45am: Tessa Holland – Seeking the Abyss in John
  • 12.30pm: Panel Discussion chaired by Dr Mark Murphy
  • 1pm: Lunch – Senior Common Room
  • 2pm: Prof Ronald Rolheiser OMI - ‘Transformation in John of the Cross: What Deep Innate Human and Spiritual Ground Is Being Transformed in Each of the Dark Nights?
  • 3pm: Break
  • 3.15pm: Short Papers chaired by Prof Peter Tyler
  • 5.15pm:  End of day two
  • 6.30pm: Supper – Dolche Vita (residential delegates only)

Day three: John and Desire (Wednesday 23rd June 2021)

  • 9.30am: Keynote Address: Louise Nelstrop/Simon Podmore: John and Desire
  • 10.30am: Break
  • 11am: Keynote Address: John, Desire and Psychology:
    • 11am: David Perrin – John of the Cross and Emmanuel Levinas: The Search for a God without Being
    • 11.45am: Mark Murphy - John and Lacan
  • 12.30pm: Panel Discussion chaired by Sr Jo Robson OCD
  • 1pm: Lunch – Senior Common Room
  • 2pm: Keynote:
    • 2pm: Prof Christopher Cook
    • 2.45pm: Sr Shelagh Banks OCD - John of the Cross and the Carmelite Nuns: Reciprocity and Communion
  • 3.30pm: Break
  • 3.45pm:Final Panel chaired by Dr Edward Howells
  • 5pm: Close of Conference

Prayer, worship and meditation

Each day of the conference the Roman Catholic Eucharist will be celebrated in the Chapel Crypt at 8.30am. The Chapel Crypt and Interfaith Prayer Room will be available for meditation and prayer throughout the conference.


Imagery of seeing and looking constitutes one of the most significant yet least studied symbols of the Spiritual Canticle of St John of the Cross.  My aim is to examine its development across the poem, where it appears a number of times in association with both lovers and in varying forms.  The evolution of their mutual ‘mirada’, ‘look’ or ‘glance’, enables us to follow the trajectory of the soul from searching to finding and absence to presence, and marks the poem’s language as the artistic expression of the road to union analyzed more systematically in the prose commentary the poet wrote later in an attempt to explain something of its sense. 

About the speaker

Colin Thompson is an Emeritus Fellow of St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He read French and Spanish, then Theology at Oxford and wrote his doctoral thesis on the mystical poetry of the Spanish Carmelite St John of the Cross.  Meanwhile, he was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Congregational Church of England and Wales in 1971 (since 1972 the United Reformed Church).  He held a post-doctoral post at Christ Church, Oxford from 1974-8, before being appointed University Chaplain at the University of Sussex (1978-89).  In 1989 he returned to Oxford to take up the Tutorial Fellowship in Spanish at St Catherine’s College, until retirement in 2011.  He has been Associate Minister at Wheatley United Reformed Church, just outside Oxford, since 2000.  His principal research interests lie in the culture of the Spanish Golden Age.  He has published three books, each of which has been translated into Spanish: The Poet and the Mystic: A Study of the Cántico espiritual of San Juan de la Cruz; The Strife of Tongues: Fray Luis de León and the Golden Age of Spain; and St John of the Cross: Songs in the Night.  He has also written articles on a range of other Golden Age writers, notably the poets Garcilaso de la Vega, Luis de Góngora and Francisco de Quevedo.

John of the Cross entered the Carmelite order at the age of twenty-one. What was his understanding at the time of the Carmelite rule, and how did it develop in the years that followed? The paper will seek answers to these questions in his life and writings, and in the Carmelite tradition as it was known in sixteenth-century Spain. It will then examine the influence of his Carmelite calling on his teachings and on the powerful images he used to convey them.

About the speaker

Terence O’Reilly is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, University College Cork. His principal field of research is sixteenth-century Spain, especially the influence on literature and art of its religious thought. His recent publications include St Teresa of Ávila. Her Writings and Life, which he edited with Colin Thompson and Lesley Twomey (Oxford: Legenda, 2018).

John of the Cross (1542–1591), a Christian theologian and Catholic priest born in Spain, lived through the worst of the Spanish Inquisition. Emmanuel Levinas (1906­–1995), a Jewish philosopher and layman born in Lithuania, lived through the 1917 Russian revolution and the collapse of the old regime. The contrast between these two eminent thinkers could not be greater. Levinas worked assiduously to remain within the confines of philosophy to bring profound reflections, even those about God, to his audience so they could think their own way into the encounter with the Divine Other. John of the Cross, a trained theologian in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, talked and wrote about God unabashedly. What, then, brings these two men together: one from the upheavals of sixteenth-century Spain, the other from war-torn twentieth-century France and Germany? Simply put, both of these men refused to start their reflection on life from abstract principles: rather, their point of departure was the ambiguity and complexity of human experience. As a result, both refused to bottle up God in a metaphysics that ultimately would freeze solid the very Mystery that spurred them on in their various existential pursuits. In a word, both John’s and Levinas’ writings about God refused to endow God with absolute Being. After a comparative analysis of the God-talk engaged in by these two authors, the following question is explored: How do we speak about God, and what are the consequences of John’s and Levinas’ radical negation of the Being of God for both Christian theology and Christian spirituality?

About the speaker

David B. Perrin, Ph.D. is Full Professor at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada. He is a former President and Vice-Chancellor of St. Jerome’s University, a past-President of the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality, and was the Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Saint Paul University, Ottawa, Canada.  As a professional educator, academic speaker and author, as well as a popular workshop and retreat director, he has given conferences, workshops and retreats on a range of topics in Canada, the United States and Europe. Of particular interest to him are the writings and life of the Spanish mystic John of the Cross.  His popular interests focus on the lived experience of spirituality in today’s world and how that experience opens up new possibilities for meaningful faith-filled living.  Along with numerous articles in academic journals, book publications include Canciones Entre el Alma y el Esposo of Juan de la Cruz: A Hermeneutical Interpretation (1996); For Love of the World: The Old and New Self of John of the Cross (1997); Studying Christian Spirituality (2007); and The 20-Minute Retreat: 21 Sessions With the Saints to Nourish Your Faith  (2019).

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Monday 21st - Wednesday 23rd June 2021
St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London

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For more information about this event please contact Prof Peter Tyler (Professor - Pastoral Theology and Spirituality):

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