The Night of the Senses: Belief and Understanding in John of the Cross


All translations (no matter the language) of the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:9b is “If you do not believe, you will not be established (you will not last, abide). In contrast, translations of the Septuagint’s Isaiah 7:9b (the GREEK translation of the Hebrew Bible) have the following translation, which John of the Cross quotes (in Spanish, of course): 9b “but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand.” The Church fathers, for example, Augustine of Hippo and Anselm used this Septuagint translation to coin 
credo ut intelligam (Anselm of Canterbury) “I believe that I may understand” and  crede, ut intelligas (Augustine), “Believe so that you may understand.”

The Greek word in the Septuagint that is the occasion (the cause are the translators) of all the trouble is SINETE. There are two possible translations of SINETE: the first (because the more probable?) is “being together” and the second “understand.” In English, we say about someone who has miraculously not made a hash of his life that “he has it together.” The (Latin) Vulgate (which is a translation from the Septuagint) is the same as the original Hebrew, namely, si non credideritis non permanebitis “if you will not believe, you will not stand firm,” where “stand firm” is the FIRST meaning of the Septuagint’s SINETE.
So, the Vulgate took the first meaning of the Greek (Septuagint) word SINETE “bring together (having it all together, established, stand firm), whereas John of the Cross (Spanish) and several English translations use “understand.”

NOW THIS IS WHERE THE Theological TROUBLE BEGINS. Edith Stein following John of the Cross uses the translation “if you don’t believe, you will not understand” to maintain that if you want to understand (God) you have to “turn off the light of your knowledge.”

Did John of the Cross intentionally ignore the Vulgate rendition of Isaiah 7:9b in order to establish his “night of the senses” upon the Septuagint version. If John had used the Vulgate instead of the Septuagint he might have ended up with a “day of the senses.” But then that may not be so good for monks.


Google “night of the senses.” Of the ten sites on the page, the first nine are about erotica. The 10th is my topic. 

I was reading Edith Stein‘s “The Science of the Cross,” which is a paraphrase of “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” of John of the Cross, when I came across this piece:

We can only accept, says Stein, what we are told by turning off the light of our knowledge. We have to agree with what we hear without having any of the senses elucidate it for us. Therefore faith is a totally dark night for the soul. But it is precisely by these means that it brings her light: a knowledge of perfect certainty that exceeds all other knowledge and science so that one can arrive in perfect contemplation at a correct conception of faith. That is why it is said: Si non credideritis, non intelligetis ‘If you do not believe. you will not understand.’ Isaiah 7:9.”

(Edith Stein is a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism). 

Edith Stein, Breslau, 1926

I was not familiar with this translation of Isaiah 7:9, for all the English translations say “if you will not believe, you will not be established/stand firm” or something similar. So does the Vulgate; so does the Hebrew Bible say the same.

When I investigated the matter, which involved the comparison of translations of different languages and reading John of the Cross, the journey led me much further than linguistic meaning (linguistic sense) but to another sense of “sense,” into the deeps of John’s “Dark Night of the Senses.”

 Faith and understanding, God created both. Which is the cart, and which the horse, which comes first? Is it true that credo ut intelligam (Anselm of Canterbury) “I believe that I may understand?” Augustine of Hippo was more imperative: crede, ut intelligas, “Believe so that you may understand.” 

There are two kinds of believing: believing that (something is true/real) and believing in (something or somebody), that is, trusting. You can have the first kind of belief (belief that something is true) without believing in the second kind (trust), but you cannot have the second (trust) without first believing that what or whom you trust (believe in) is true. Believing that, therefore, logically precedes believing in (trust). 

Believing in” in Hebrew is called emunah. A Jew (or a Christian) does not have to prove  the existence of Him in whom he trusts. “In the beginning” (Genesis 1:1) should be enough, and if not, then the person doesn’t have a biblical bone in his body. “Biblical man, says Buber, is never in doubt to the existence of God. In professing his faith, his emuna, he merely expresses his trust that the living God is near to him as he was to Abraham and that he entrusts himself to Him” (“Two types of faith” 1962). (See my Faith and Understanding: the Biblical view). 

Is it true that traduttore, traditore :“to translate is to betray?”  Is Robert Payne, Chairman of the Translation Committee of the American PEN Organization, correct when he says: “The world’s languages resemble infinitely complicated grids, and the basic patterns of these grids scarcely ever coincide. [Except] on some rare occasions translation does succeed – beyond all possibility.” And:“Whenever we translate exactly and accurately it is a coincidence–in the sense of the purest accident. And the task of the translator is to move sure-footedly among these accidents, he cannot do it by logic.” (Payne, Robert. “On the Impossibility of Translation”, The World of Translation. New York: PEN, 1971, pp 361-4). 

If Robert Payne is right, this would mean that the structure of a language defines the structure of thought. There is much research, however, to show that traduttore, traditore “to translate is to betray” is not as radical as the Payne claims. I think there is a bigger problem than the translation between languages, which is the miscommunications and misunderstandings between people who speak the same language/s. (See my Translation, transflation and betrayal: Plato’s Gorg(i)as). 

In this article, I examine a few problems in the translation of a sentence in Isaiah 7 “If you will not believe, you will not understand” (Isaiah 7:9b) which is one English translation of the Septuagint’s (Greek) translation of the original Hebrew. The Septuagint – also called the LXX because it was purported to have been produced by 70 knowledgeable and pious Jews – was used by the majority of Jews between 250 BCE and 100 CE. Most Jews at that time used Greek as their lingua franca, and were like the majority of modern non-Israeli Jews, whose Hebrew knowledge is at best, middling and at worst, piddling. 

My intention is not merely to take a linguistic excursion into the minefield of translation, but to explore how one’s theological or mystical presuppositions can turn dark into light, and light into dark. The “one” I am referring to is, according to Edith Stein and many Catholics, the greatest mystical mind of the Roman Catholic Church: the medieval Carmelite monk, John of the Cross, whom Edith and her Carmelite Order refer to as “Our Holy Father.” I shall focus on John’s “Night of the senses” in his Ascent of Mount Carmel, which contends that God cannot be reached through the (five) senses, and so, in order to understand faith and the cross of Christ, we have to flee the senses, without, I presume, taking leave of our senses. 

In section 1, I briefly explain the difference between word meaning, sentence meaning and discourse meaning, and then in section 2, I examine translations of Isaiah 7:9b (quoted above), which is pertinent to Section 3 where I examine John of the Cross’s argument that sense experience is enemy of faith and the Cross. 

1. The meaning of words, sentences and discourse 

The meaning of a word within a sentence often cannot be established without consideration of the other words in the sentence, and indeed, without consideration of the larger context (discourse). 

Discourse occurs when sentences come alive and function in communication. A sentence in isolation is inactive; it only has the potential to function. It is this potential which has to actualised in discourse. For example, the sentence “I am reading” is understood by anyone who knows English grammar and vocabulary. This is called the “meaning” of the sentence, which you can derive from a dictionary and a grammar book. When, however, this sentence comes alive in a communication (that is, in discourse) we have more than the meaning of the sentence but also what the speaker/writer means by the sentence – how a person uses the sentence. I gave an example (in Jacob Neusner and the Grammar of Rabbinical Theology (Part 2), where I showed that the sentence “I’m reading” in answer to the question “What are you doing?” may have a wide variety of meanings; for example, 1.“Please don’t disturb me,” or 2. “Get out of my face.” 

Geoffery Leech (“Pragmatics,” 1983) explains. There is: 

the meaning of a X (a word or a sentence),

which is the semantic/sentence/grammatical meaning (the three terms are synonymous),


what you mean by X ,

which is the discourse/pragmatic/sociolinguistic meaning.

To illustrate the difference between 1 and 2, I shall be using Isaiah 7:9b quoted by John of the Cross in the section “The night of the senses” of his Ascent of Mount Carmel. Here is Isaiah 7:9b in its larger context:  

 1. And it came to pass in the days of Achaz the son of Joatham, the son of Ozias, king of Judah,there came up Rasim king of Aram, and Phakee son of Romelias, king of Israel, against Jerusalem to war against it, but they could not take it. 2. And a message was brought tothe house of David, saying, Aram has conspired with Ephraim. And his soul was amazed, and the soul of his people, as in a wood a tree is moved by the wind. 3. And the Lord said to Esaias, Go forth to meet Achaz, thou, and thy son Jasub who is left, to the pool of the upper way of the fuller’s field. 4. And thou shalt say to him, Take care to be quiet, and fear not, neither let thy soul be disheartened because of these two smoking firebrands: for when my fierce anger is over, I will heal again. 5. And as for the son of Aram, and the son of Romelias, forasmuch as they have devised an evil counsel, saying, 6. We will go up against Judea, and having conferred with them we will turn them away to our side, and we will make the son of Tabeel king of it; 7. thus saith the Lord of hosts, This counsel shall not abide, nor come to pass. 8. But the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus, Rasim; and yet within sixty and five years the kingdom of Ephraim shall cease from being a people. 9a And the head of Ephraim is Somoron, and the head of Somoron the son of Romelias: 9b but if ye believe not, neither will ye at all understand; or: “If you will not believe, you shall not understand). 

I now examine some of the problems in the translation of verse 9b, where the main focus falls in the second part: “…you shall not understand.” 

2. Isaiah 7:9b, “If you will not believe, you shall not understand.” 

The English version of Isaiah 7:9b “If you will not believe, you shall not understand in John of the Cross, who writes in Spanish, is translated from the Septuagint. This English translation is not uncommon among translations of the Septuagint. Translations from the Hebrew text itself, however, such as English translations and translations into many other languages, rarely, if ever translate the original Hebrew as “…you will/shall not understand. Here is the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:9b: אִם לֹא תַאֲמִינוּ, כִּי לֹא תֵאָמֵנוּ. im lo ta-aminu, ki lo tei-ameinu

 The triliteral (three-letter) root aleph-mem-nun אמן (as in aminu, ameinu), is a play on words. This root means to be firm, confirmed, reliable, faithful, have faith, believe; hence “If not ta-aminu (if you will not believe), not tei-ameinu (you will not be established, remain, stand firm).” 

Here is the Greek Septuagint translation of the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:9b: 

καὶ ἐὰν μὴ πιστεύσητε οὐδὲ μὴ συνῆτε



μὴ NOT



μὴ NOT


 The bit we’re interested in is the final word (underlined)


 As we see, there are two possible translations of sinete: the first (because the more probable?) is “being together” and the second “understand.” In English, we say about someone who has miraculously not made a hash of his life that “he has it together,” “he has a firm grip on things,” “he stands on his own two feet.” Other translations from the original Hebrew text (English, German, French), however, do not have “you shall not understand.” Here are the French and English translations of the Jewish Mechon Mamre’s JPS 1917 Hebrew text:

 French Mechon Mamre – Et la tête d’Ephraïm, c’est Samarie, et la tête de Samarie, c’est le fils de Remaliahou. Si vous manquez de confiance, vous manquerez d’avenir. In English – If you don’t trust, you’ll have no future.

 English Mechon Mamre – And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah’s son. If ye will not have faith, surely ye shall not be established.

 The Mechon Mamre English translation, “you shall not be established,”is the most common of English translations. Other translations have a synonym of “not be established” such as “not stand firm,” “not remain steadfast.” Luther’s translation is at its pithy best:Gläubt ihr nicht so bleibt ihr nicht, literally, “believe you not, then abide/survive you not.” I am reminded of another of Luther’s gems, in connection with Roman Catholic indulgences; over the top, but nevertheless very telling: Wenn die Münze im Kästlein klingt, die Seele in den Himmel springt. “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” 

Here is a French translation of the Septuagint by Pierre Giguet, 1872)Et si vous ne me croyez point, c’est que vous manquerez d’intelligence. And my English translation: “And if you don’t believe me, it’s because you lack intelligence.” 

How did Giguet arrive at that translation? I think the reason is this: συνῆτε sinete is a combination of two parts, sin “with” and ēte “put/send.” Somebody who is not “with it” is “out of it,” he is not “together,” he is at a complete loss, he doesn’t think straight, he doesn’t understand; he’s stingily endowed upstairs. So, the idea of “not understand” is contained in “lacks intelligence.” Also, not to forget that it is the person’s own fault that he doesn’t understand, or lacks intelligence, and not the fault of his genes or external circumstances such as parental neglect or a falling out of a tree when he was three. 

Edith Stein, in her “Science of the Cross” uses a Latin translation attributed to St Augustine, si non credideritis, non intelligetis “if you will not believe, you will not understand,

” which is also a possible translation of the Septuagint. The Vulgate, in contrast, si non credideritis non permanebitis “if you will not believe, you will not stand firm,” which is another possible translation of the Septuagint. Permanebitis is the second-person plural future active indicative of permaneō, stay to the end, hold out, endure; last, survive, continue, persist, persevere. devote one’s life to, live by. A modern Spanish translation ( is similar to the Latin of the Vulgate: “no creen en mí,
    no permanecerán firmes,” which is understandable because Spanish, a Latin (Romance) language, is relatively close to Latin. In the last two words, we can see the English words “permanent” and “(stand) firm.” 

In our main text (Isaiah 7:9b), there are two kinds of “establishing”: holding things together in 1. your noggin and in 2. your life. They are, of course, complementary: if you can’t hold your thoughts together, life falls apart; and if things fall apart, it could very well be (but certainly not always) because you’re a klutz – you’ve lost your senses; which brings us to our main (dis)course.

3. Understanding the Night of the Senses in John of the Cross 

Here is Edith Stein’s paraphrase (in her “The Science of the Cross”) of John of the Cross’s understanding of Isaiah 7:9b, “If you will not believe, you will not understand (which I cited in the introduction): 

We can only accept, says Stein, what we are told by turning off the light of our knowledge. We have to agree with what we hear without having any of the senses elucidate it for us. Therefore faith is a totally dark night for the soul. But it is precisely by these means that it brings her light: a knowledge of perfect certainty that exceeds all other knowledge and science so that one can arrive in perfect contemplation at a correct conception of faith. That is why it is said: Si non credideritis, non intelligetis ‘If you do not believe. you will not understand.’ Isaiah 7:9.” 

Here is John of the Cross in the same vein in his Ascent of Mount Carmel Chapter 3:3: 

The light of natural knowledge cannot inform us of these things, because they are out of proportion with our natural senses. We know them because we have heard of them, believing that which the faith teaches us, subjecting thereto our natural light, and making ourselves blind before it: for, as it is said by St. Paul, faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ. Faith is not knowledge that entereth in by any of the senses (italics added), but rather the ascent of the soul to that which cometh by hearing. Faith, therefore, far transcends the foregoing illustrations for not only does it not produce evidence or knowledge, but, as I have said, it transcends and surpasses all other knowledge whatever, so that perfect contemplation alone may judge of it. Other sciences are acquired by the light of the understanding, but that of faith is acquired without it, by rejecting it for faith, and it is lost in its own light. Therefore it is said by Isaias, ‘lf you will not believe you will not understand.’ 

To summarise John,  if you want to understand faith, you need to enter the night, the dark night, the dark night of the soul. (The only dark night most have heard of is the celluloid version, the Dark Knight). 

Theologians distinguish between three aspects of “faith” – information(notitia), mental assent to this information as fact (assensus) and belief (trust) in those facts. (See Two conversions: the mind (NOTITIA) and the heart (FIDUCIA) of faith in Blaise Pascal. John of the Cross would have no disagreement with that as long as the sense of hearing and seeing is confined to the cell of holy content; which is alright for a monk. What is more disturbing is what he says a little later: 

It is evident that faith is a dark night to the soul. and it is thus that it gives it light: the more it darkens the soul the more does it enlighten it. It is by darkening that it gives light. According to the Words of the prophet,’If you will not believe, that is, ‘if you do not make yourselves blind you shall not understand.’” 

In the discussion of “if you do believe, you shall not understand(Isaiah 7:9b) we were concerned with whether this was the correct translation. It now appears that John is using what he thinks is – and indeed seems to be – an acceptable translation of the Septuagint to promote his interpretation of it, namely, “if you do not make yourselves blind, you will not understand.” For John, unless you are blind, or rather, make yourself blind – to the natural world, you can never have any supernatural knowledge. The Bible, in contrast, says otherwise. There is no need to make yourself blind, for you were blind from birth, worse, dead from birth. Jesus comes to open the eyes of the blind because they cannot and don’t want to see unless Jesus makes them want to see. “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind” (John 9:39). That is why faith is an unmerited gift of God: 

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:4-10 ESV). 

In support of his “If you do not make yourselves blind, you will not understand” John quotes Romans 10:17: 

So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” I don’t see anything here related to “if you do not make yourselves blind, you will not understand.” Even less so when Romans 10:17 is read in context (verses 14-17): 

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?[c] And how are they to hear without someone preaching? 15 And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” 16 But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” 17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. 

When Isaiah 7:9b is seen in the larger context of the whole of Isaiah 7, the Targum gets it right, even though it adds words to Isaiah 7:9: 

If ye will not believe; the Targum adds, ‘the words of the prophet;’ surely ye shall not be established, or remain; that is, in their own land, but should be carried captive, as they were after a time; or it is, ‘because ye are not true and firm’; in the faith of God, as Kimchi interprets it; or, ‘because ye are not confirmed’ (that is, by a sign).” (Targum).

Someone on the translation panel of the English Standard Version of the Bible liked Kimchi. Here is the ESV: “If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.”

 And John Calvin (on Isaiah 7:9b):

Hence we ought to draw a universal doctrine, that, when we have departed from the word of God, though we may suppose that we are firmly established, still ruin is at hand. For our salvation is bound up with the word of God, and, when this is rejected, the insult offered to it is justly punished by him who was ready to uphold men by his power, if they had not of their own accord rushed headlong to ruin. The consequence is, that either we must believe the promises of God, or it is in vain for us to expect salvation. (Commentary on Isaiah volum e 1 p. 183 – 184). 

Assume that the sentence “If you will not believe, you will not understand” is a good translation of the both the Septuagint and the Hebrew, this still doesn’t justify using it to change the larger (discourse) context of the passage, which is not about throwing your senses (in both senses of the term) out of the window of your blind soul,making it even blinder, but about the dire judgements of God on those who do not believe God’s promises. 


Earlier we read in John of the Cross that “Faith is not knowledge that entereth in by any of the senses.”  Sense” has at least two senses as in “physical senses” and in “making sense.” If we don’t understand the larger (discourse) context of “If you will not believe, you will not understand” (Isaiah 7:9b), we may end up getting our theological wires crossed. It would, however, be foolish to write off John of the Cross or the mystical element in religion, for how else to describe union with Christ other than as a “mystical” union? John shows us, in the words of A. W. Tozer that man “has become a parasite on the world, drawing his life from his environment, unable to live a day apart from the stimulation which society affords him.” ( “The Great God Entertainment,”pp. 22-25. In Jeremy Walker). 

Our senses have indeed become parasites on the world, sucking the lifeblood out of its environs, unable to exist a day without the stimulation the world affords our senses. This fact, however, should not encourage us to flee, as occurs in all kinds of mystical systems, the world, for to do so is to flee from the historical, from the incarnation of God in history, God in the flesh, who did not teach us to shuck off our mortal senses but rather to use them in the way Christ and the Apostles make so clear – to me, at least. The bugbear of mystics, whether Christian, Buddhist or Sufi, is that “their yearning after God Himself can never endure the trammels of the historical.” (Wilhelm Herrmann, 1906,“Communion with God”). It’s not through the senses, of course, as John of the cross makes clear that we fulfill the deep “sense” of our need, but through faith in Christ and its corollary – “take up your cross and follow me.” It’s not, however, the use but the abuse of the senses – sight, taste, touch, hearing, smell – that drags us away from the light into the darkness. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13). But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9).

As far as the senses and the sense of God are concerned, I think another saint had it just right; Augustine’s “Confessions,” Book 10:

But what is it that I love in loving thee? Not physical beauty, nor the

splendor of time, nor the radiance of the light–so pleasant to our eyes–nor the sweet

melodies of the various kinds of songs, nor the fragrant smell of flowers and

ointments and spices; not manna and honey, not the limbs embraced in physical

love–it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet it is true that I love a certain

kind of light and sound and fragrance and food and embrace in loving my God, who

is the light and sound and fragrance and food and embracement of my inner man–

where that light shines into my soul which no place can contain, where time does

not snatch away the lovely sound, where no breeze disperses the sweet fragrance,

where no eating diminishes the food there provided, and where there is an embrace

that no satiety comes to sunder. This is what I love when I love my God.

And what is this God? I asked the earth, and it answered, “I am not he”;

and everything in the earth made the same confession. I asked the sea and the

deeps and the creeping things, and they replied, “We are not your God; seek above