Travels with John of the Cross–Ubeda

My wife and I have traveled a lot to the places linked to John of the Cross. We recently went to Ubeda where John died. However, we first stopped in Baeza, where John had opened a house of studies for the friars, close to the old university. There he resided from 1579-82. In Baeza John wrote part of “En una noche oscura” (the Dark Night poem), and some of the ascent of Mt. Carmel. When John of the Cross became ill towards the end of his life, he was sent to Ubeda, in the province of Jaen, for treatment. At first he was made unwelcome in the monastery by the prior, Francisco Crisostomo. whom John had corrected earlier in life. When other friars reported to the provincial about John’s mistreatment, the provincial, Fr. Antonio Heredia, the first companion of John in the reform, came to Ubeda to rectify this mistreatment.

The entrance to the monastery in Jaen where John of the Cross died

The entrance to the monastery in Jaen where John of the Cross died

We entered the monstery of discalced Carmelites through the same door through which John was brought on September 28, 1591, suffering from fever and inflammation of his leg. John suffered much in those days in Ubeda. His health deteriorated and he died at Midnight December 14th 1591. He was 49 years old.

 

John's room or cell in the Monastery of Jaen

John’s room or cell in the Monastery of Jaen

The monastery’s museum contains the room where John died, the table on which his body was prepared for burial, the chapel where his funeral took place and where he was briefly buried from his death in 1591 to May 1594, when his body was transferred to Segovia.

The monastery Church

The monastery Church

 

A portrait of the burial of John of the Cross

A portrait of the burial of John of the Cross

 

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Elsewhere the museum shows episodes from John’s life, using the actual items associated with John whenever possible, such as a table where he sat to give spiritual direction. There are also relics, writings of John, artistic portrayals of his life and teachings, and art and books inspired by John.

A statue of John in the center of the town of Ubeda

A statue of John in the center of the town of Ubeda

Visiting Ubeda was both a fascinating and moving experience for us.

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Drawn by a Vision (A reflection by Helen Doohan)

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Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

John’s early life was marked by transition from one place to another because of family circumstances. From Fontiveros, where he was born, to Arevalo and then Medina del Campo where he spent many years, travel, transitions and new encounters characterized his formative years. Catalina was rejected by her husband’s family after his death and so she made the arduous journeys in search of work, education for her sons and a better life. Although never far from extreme poverty, she instilled the values of love, compassion, generosity, and care for others within the family. John benefited from her emphases throughout his life.

 Both Catalina and John were drawn by a vision of something better for themselves and the family. Yet they had to embrace hardship, rejection and suffering, growing and maturing because of these experiences. A vision always draws us out of ourselves. A positive and compelling vision enables us to accept difficulties along the way because they lead to growth.

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A modern interpretation of John of the Cross on display in the museum in Ubeda where John died

 In our world today we see the extraordinary movement of people from Mexico, Central America, Syria, Afghanistan, northern Africa and other war torn countries. Poverty, lack or opportunity, destruction and death force people to make hard decisions and to travel to new places. Something draws them – a vision of a better life for family and friends, opportunities for work and education, safety and security. The vision I speak about is for basic human life and values. But we do not have these, how do we even begin to have a vision of the spiritual and the transcendent?

 Taking such steps to move into the unknown, as did so many of our ancestors, prepares us for the courage necessary to live a life open to radical transformation. John’s humble beginnings and his family’s search, drawn by a vision, prepared him for the outstanding life he lived in love and service to others. It also enabled him to see the possibilities for union with God and for a vital and reformed Carmel. We can only pray that today’s migrants will move to a greater vision. And we can hope that we too will be drawn by the light and love of the Christian message.

 

 

The Importance of Place (A reflection by Helen Doohan)

          Growing up in Brooklyn, with its city streets, diverse neighborhoods, crowded homes, and noisy environment, made my travel to the Midwest of the United States a striking experience. I saw first hand the fields of grain, white and ready for harvest, and only then did I fully understand the biblical imagery. A later visit to the Holy Land confirmed in me the need to experience a place, its culture and its people in order to truly understand the written word and to tap into the spirit of the writer.

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Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

           Traveling through Spain, especially the northern part, offered me a clearer perspective into John of the Cross and his writing. His use of images, similes and metaphors come from the places he knew. The vast desert areas, dry and barren, where light and darkness form bold contrasts, account for John’s use of day and light, darkness and night to describe the spiritual journey. The fields, rich and fruitful, ready for the harvest meet basic needs and then some. The trees and vines, mountains, rivers and streams all find a way into John’s poetry. Cities like Segovia with its aqueduct, churches, shops and many streets, Salamanca which was John’s place of study, Toledo where John was imprisoned, Avila where he met with Teresa and began the reform, Medina del Campo where he worked as a boy and celebrated his first Mass as a priest, cities large and small with their people, art, culture and hardships affect John’s approach to his life and ministry.

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The view from John’s monastery in Segovia

           I have been blessed to experience these wonderful places today and I ask myself which images were most important to John? Why darkness when there is so much light in certain seasons? How did John tolerate the loneliness of prison when he appreciated nature and people so much? Is his interpretation of Scripture colored by his daily life and the wonder and beauty of Spain? Is his expansive view of the Church and the reform of Carmel conditioned by the vastness of the land? And why is there such an emphasis on love in his writings?

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

           Places are important both then and now but in order to be affected by them we need to truly see, smell and taste their richness. The open spaces must permeate our bones, the beauty of the environment fill us with wonder and the unending and enveloping sky move us to the transcendent. For us, as for John, these aspects of our world are seen as a gift of God and a gift of love.

The Holy Spirit and Strong Love

The Holy Spirit fills the person with strong and unitive love in two ways: as a permanent presence, a habit of love, and as an enflaming of love in intense acts. As a person is thus transformed, all his or her actions cease to be his or her own for it is the Holy Spirit who now makes them and moves the person to union with God. These acts of love perfect a person in a short time, fortifying him or her in love (F. 1.33). John Welch explains this beautifully. “[W]hen the human spirit is transformed in a deep union of love with the Holy Spirit, motivation for our love shifts. The motivation for our love is no longer in us but now is in God. We now love but essentially do not have the reason for our love. The intention for our love has now moved, so to speak, into God. We love without knowing why; we simply love, and can do nothing but love. In our love, God is loving God and God’s world. ‘. . . The soul here loves God, not through itself but through Him’” (When Gods Die, p. 63).  John tells us that a person feels this love in the very substance of his or her soul, in the deepest center of the human spirit. It is this stronger love and more unitive love that leads the person to God. “[L]ove is the soul’s inclination, strength, and power in making its way to God, for love unites it with God. The more degrees of love it has, the more deeply it enters into God and centers itself in Him” (F. 1.13).

The Living Flame challenges us to think about human existence in a different way. Life and growth is what God is doing in us. God desires to share divine life with us, to communicate a new way of living and loving, and to establish an intimate relationship with each of us. We are called to live the life of God. If we can only remove obstacles to God’s actions within us, then God is free to transform us into who we are intended to be, created to be. The psalmist reminds us that this steadfast love of God is precious, it is better than any other aspect of life (Ps 63.3). This transforming love of the Holy Spirit in this living flame gladdens a person’s heart and allows him or her to enjoy “the glory of God’s glory in likeness and shadow” (F. 3.16). The person possesses God in love and is possessed by God’s love.

 

The importance of love in our spiritual journey

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I would like to draw your attention to a new printing of my book, The One Thing Necessary: The Transforming Power of Christian Love, recently re-published by ACTA Publications (www.actapublications.com). I hope it will help you in your spiritual journey.

 

This radical new interpretation of love as the touchstone of the Christian message, explores the human longing for meaning; the Scriptures; the relational model of the Trinity: the ideas of human vocation, destiny and community; the mystical spiritual traditions; and his own experiences to explain what love is, how we find it, and how it can change the world. Each of the seven chapters contains several quotes and focus points at the beginning and provocative questions at the end for reflection or discussion by adult religious education and bible study groups.

“This book is all about love—and love as the one thing necessary. It is most certainly not about easy love or cheap grace. It is about the transforming power of Christian love. It is not only challenging but disturbing, a book written with conviction and passion.”     Fr. Wilfrid Harrington, OP., Biblical scholar.

“[Doohan’s] artful gathering and arranging of ideas reminds one of the impact of a gigantic bouquet of mixed flowers chosen individually and with great care.”           Carol Blank, Top 1000 reviewers, USA.

“Would that we heard more about this in our churches and religious discussions because, “this transforming power of Christian love will save the world” (p. 93).  Mary S. Sheridan, “Spirit and Life.”

 

 

Four aspects of love

 

The Living Flame describes four aspects of the final stage in spiritual life, spiritual marriage, which John presented in the Spiritual Canticle (stanzas 22-35). To attain this fullness of union, John’s doctrine is clear—nada, nothing. The Ascent and the Dark Night purify in view of a union of love. They describe a transformation that takes place in contemplation when we become receptive to God’s activity within us, when God purifies our false desires, false loves, and false gods and fills us with an inflow of God’s love. One’s capacity for this love depends on the exclusive and integrated focus of every aspect of one’s life. Prior to spiritual marriage the bride already evidenced love and surrender to her Bridegroom (C. 22.5), “but a singular fortitude and a very sublime love are also needed for so strong and intimate embrace from God” (C. 20-21.1). The Spiritual Canticle describes how the bride makes a complete surrender of herself to love, how she is “dissolved” in “such supreme and generous love” (C. 27.2). This loving union transforms a person and unites his or her will to God. This is a time of mutual surrender, profound communication, and total dedicated devotion to God’s service (C. 28.3). The bride declares “All the ability of my soul and body . . . move in love and because of love. Everything I do I do with love, and everything I suffer I suffer with the delight of love” (C. 28.8). Towards the end of his description of spiritual marriage in the Spiritual Canticle John tells us how God values the bride’s love because it is strong, and he adds, “this is why he loved her so much, he saw that her love was strong. . . alone and without other loves” (C. 31.5). A major change has taken place in this communion of love, “God here is the principal lover, who in the omnipotence of his fathomless love absorbs the soul in himself” (C. 31.2). From now on the bride’s love will be God’s loving in her, “so firmly united with the strength of God’s will, with which he loves her, that her love for him is as strong and perfect as his love for her” (C. 38.3).

What the Living Flame makes clear is that this transformation in love in the very depths of a person is the work of the Holy Spirit, who wounds the soul with the tender love of God. John uses the term “wound of love” often, especially in the Spiritual Canticle. Generally, it describes the pain the bride experiences in her unfulfilled longings to be with her Lover. We all experience profound pain at the absence of someone we love intensely, a spouse, friend, parent, child, and so on. It is the empty space in our hearts that should be filled but is now empty. We feel the pain even more when we think about our loss. Sometimes this wound of love results from partial presence which instead of satisfying us leaves us in greater pain at a sense of absence and increases desire to be with someone. The more we experience and reflect on these partial presences the more we feel wounded with love.

The Contemporary Challenge of St. Teresa of Avila: A new book

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This book is an introduction to the life and teachings of Saint Teresa of Avila. It is a collection of notes and reflections taken from material I have presented in courses and workshops on St. Teresa over many years and in many countries to people from all walks of life who see Teresa’s teachings on prayer as the vision and guidance they long for. This book on The Contemporary Challenge of Saint Teresa of Avila is an introduction to her life and writings and readers should use it as a companion to the careful and prayerful reading of Teresa’s own writings for it is in no way a substitute for reading her works. I hope these notes and reflections will introduce readers to this giant in the history of spirituality and one of the greatest teachers of prayer that the world has ever known.

This book is a companion to an earlier book, The Contemporary Challenge of St. John of the Cross which was used extensively by individuals and groups as an introduction to St. John of the Cross’ life and teachings. It was also used by many in formation programs. This current book on Teresa may well fulfill similar goals.