asceticism, being of light, Carmelite, light, Mark, mystic, mysticism, paschal mystery, poet, reformer, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, The Sophia Center for Spirituality, theologian, Thomas Merton
The biography of St. John of the Cross reads with more twists and turns than a complex novel. It would be foolish of me to try to capsulize it here. Suffice it for me to say that the play of light and darkness was the constant of his years as I yield to other sources for comment.
Americancatholic.org summarizes his life in the following way: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me” (MK 8:34b) is the story of John’s life. The Paschal Mystery – through death to life – strongly marks John as reformer, mystic-poet, and theologian priest. Thomas Merton said of John: “Just as we can never separate asceticism from mysticism, so in St. John of the Cross we find darkness and light, suffering and joy, sacrifice and love united together so closely that they seem at times to be identified.” As John himself expressed it: “Never was a fount so clear, undimmed and bright; from it alone I know proceeds all light although ’tis night.”
Only one note would I add to these intimations of the seamlessness of seeming opposites in his life, that being the value of feminine influence, most visibly of St. Teresa of Avila, for his spiritual development and understanding of the unity of all things in God. The contribution to the mystical stream and religious life of Christianity by these two saints is vast, something to celebrate with all Carmelite monks and nuns in the world on this feast of John of the Cross.
Dorothy Hathway Forbes said:
I’ve always seen St. John of the Cross as a man with a profound love for God and a sure guide for the rest of us. His early life was harsh – extreme poverty, hunger, loss. As a youth, he worked in a hospital for contagious diseases, all the while pursuing studies for the priesthood. His most lyric poetry, where he expressed his love and trust in God, grew out of times of suffering and extreme trials.
I don’t know why people seem to remember him for his “dark night of the soul” (which is only dark because we’re not conscious of where we’re going as yet), and his “nadas” – the “not this, not that” writing that reminds me of the Tao – rather than for his love of God and his gentleness with his directees. John always called people away from idolatry (of egoistic desires, dependencies, addictions to acquisitions, etc.) to a live of freedom wherein it becomes possible to love each person as if they were the only people in this world. St. Teresa of Jesus was his elder by quite a few years – he was quite young when they met – however she recognized and understood his wisdom and potential. Both of them were radicals in similar ways, passionate in their love for God; each was a gift to the other.
I’d suggest that people who are interested in his writings begin with the Spiritual Canticle or the Living Flame of Love, and his poetry. Those will offer a positive introduction and can help avoid misunderstanding his more challenging works. One hint: if you struggle with some of his writings initially, return to them every few months and read small sections slowly and meditatively. Each time you’ll gain insights that will capture your heart.
Thanks, Dot, for both your comments this week. I was thinking of you when reflecting on John of the Cross!
Dorothy Hathway Forbes said:
John also had an amazing gift of detachment – I suppose some people would now call it “compartmentalizing”, but it really wasn’t an ego defense mechanism or an avoidance technique. He simply kept his eyes and heart on God and let the rest fall away. He certainly felt deep pain and experienced much cruelty in his life, however he could distinguish pain from suffering (which I think can be a lesson we all need to learn). Chapter 13 in Book 1 of the Ascent of Mount Carmel offers a sophisticated guide to personal growth as well. He often mentions that he writes for beginners.