JOHN OF THE CROSS IN EVERYDAY LIFE

223

In the months ahead I want to share readings and reflections that are for everyone who longs for a deeper spirituality. Too often John is mistakenly seen as elitist—a misunderstanding that has done a lot of harm, misinterpreted John, and excluded so many people of good will from the opportunities intended for them. John may have started by focusing on the members of the Carmelite Reform, but over time God’s Church recognized John’s gifts for everyone, declaring John a doctor of the universal Church. Why? Because John’s teaching is part of the universal call to holiness. You will find John’s teachings and their guidance and challenges in my selection of blogs for the next few months. Scholars today focus less on the intentions of a writer and more on the response of readers. This reader response criticism is what identifies an author’s true audience, and we know that more people read John of the Cross today than ever before. Thus, readers throughout the world have found in John answers to their needs and now claim John as their mentor and guide. Frequently, nowadays, good dedicated people stop short of what they could do in the spiritual life; they become easily satisfied with one popular writer or another. John of the Cross will challenge us much more than most. Let us give him the chance.

Reflection Points

1. Let us give ourselves enthusiastically to these readings.
2. What spiritual needs do we have and who do we know can respond to them? Maybe John is our answer.
3. Let us hope that these readings and reflections may well lead us where we have always wanted to go.
4. As we begin our readings and reflections perhaps we will find John has answers we have been seeking.

CHALLENGES FOR TODAY
• Pray for openness to the Holy Spirit.
• Let John speak for himself; don’t merge his ideas with others’ views.
• Pray the Lord will keep your heart open to challenge.

A new year with St. John of the Cross

For various reasons I have been unable to write my blog for several months. So, let’s make a new start and begin a year together focusing on reflections about John of the Cross. I look forward to continuing them in the months ahead focusing on  a special year with St. John of the Cross. In this year with St. John of the Cross we will read and reflect on his life, ministry, spiritual direction, spirituality, as well as selections from all his works, short and long. The readings and reflections will introduce us to all these, as well as comments from many leading writers and commentators on John. This year will be an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the spirituality of John of the Cross.

051

The area around the Monastery of John in Segovia–the monastery is on the left

I took this photo from the walls of the Castle of Segovia looking down on the residential area below. The church in the center right is now of the Knights Templar. John’s church and monastery are center left. John was the superior here for several years. One of his spiritual directees was Dona Ana de Penalosa for whom John wrote both the poem and commentary on the Living Flame of Love, and she left her palace and took up residence in one of the houses in the picture. She and her husband are buried in the church. 

Throughout the year we should keep in mind the importance of appreciating the entire spiritual system of John, which is reflected in all of his works. Likewise we should see the links between John’s various works, know something of the historical background and times of John, and be sensitive to his use of mystical language. When reading John’s works we must avoid entering them with prejudice from former false understandings of John. We should read his writings directly, often, and reflectively, and try to enter into dialogue with John. We should appreciate the unique focus and message of each of his works, remember the central significance of his poetry, and above all be sure to interpret his message for today.

 

067
The Church of the Segovia Monastery

This is the church of the monastery in Segovia where John of the Cross is buried. Next to it is the shrine of Fuencisla where the Madonna was honored even before John’s time and still is today.

Reflection Points

1. This year is an opportunity for each of us to respond to John’s call and challenge like never before—to dedicate ourselves to life with God in Christ.
2. Perhaps in the past we may have dabbled a little with John’s life and works. This year can be an integrated approach.
3. If we are faithful to these daily readings and reflections they can transform our approach to spirituality.
4. Let us prepare our hearts for the reflections that lie ahead.

CHALLENGES FOR TODAY

• Pray for openness to the challenges of this year.
• Ask God to prepare you for the unexpected.
• Think about sharing these reflections in a group.

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.

350

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.

102

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.

Dynamism of the spiritual life–John’s integrated vision

STAGES IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

When John of the Cross writes any of his works his system of spiritual development is already complete, at least in his own mind. He may write other works later, but these are explanations for others not for him. Everyone lives based on convictions that form a systematic way of approaching life—whether they realize it or not, whether they can articulate it or not. John has a very clear understanding of the systematic development of the spiritual life and how each part relates to others in a progressive development. Part of John’s genius is his ability to see the whole picture. Thus, he can refer to a dark night, a guiding night, and a night more lovely than the dawn. He can see suffering as an integral part of total transformation. He may start by saying “I went out unseen,” “I went out calling you,” and “tear through the veil,”—all first steps in the journey whose challenges, blessings, and end he already knows. So, when John writes to his directees he locates his advice within the context of the systematic development of the spiritual life (see L. 3 and 13, S. 19, 23, 25).

JOHN WRITES WITH AN AWARENESS OF ALL THE STAGES

There are other signs that John sees a specific purpose for each step in the whole development process; he appreciates the various stages in the spiritual life. He speaks of the benefits of the nights when he has already moved on to something better, and thus no longer feels the burden but the resulting joy. “One dark night, . . . ah, the sheer grace!” “This glad night and purgation causes many benefits, even though to the soul it seemingly deprives it of them” (N.1. 12.1). This ability to see the overall picture also gives rise to the sometimes contrasting reactions of John and his directees, real or literary. Beginners rejoice in their initial consolations, but John is saddened by their lowly state. Those in the passive night suffer, while John, knowing what is really happening, can rejoice. A further sign of the presence of a system in John’s works is his continual use of parenthetical remarks to clarify what is happening. Some asides refer to what lies ahead (A.2. 5.1), others to stages already passed (F. 1.18; C. Theme.1).

STAGES MODELED ON GOD’S JOURNEY TO US

While his major works refer to our return journey to God, John is also very clear about what precedes our journey to God, namely, God’s journey to us, brilliantly described in the “Romances.” Our journey to God is modeled on God’s journey to us. John is always aware of God’s strategy of love, both in coming to us and in drawing us to divine life. John is a wonderful guide; he knows the major steps in our journey even though they may not be entirely predictable, nor identical for all. But a prudent guide like John knows the key moments in our journey to God; he already knows possible pitfalls, challenges, moments of rest, and the ecstasy of the end.

VARIOUS INTERPREATIONS

Some disciples of John see his system as a modification of Pseudo-Denis the Areopagite’s division of the spiritual journey into three stages: beginners, proficient, and perfect, corresponding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive phases of spiritual growth. John accepts these stages, but stresses the transitions from one to the other in the night of sense and the night of spirit.

Others feel John’s system starts with individuals who have already made a decisive commitment to God and hence he excludes the preliminaries of spiritual preparation and focuses on the means to the end of union with God. The means are the nights seen in three steps: 1. the active night of sense, 2. the active night of spirit and the passive night of sense taken together as two aspects of the same experience, and 3. the passive night of spirit.

CHALLENGES OF JOHN

A simple way of understanding John’s thought which is the secret of his own life and his system is to view life as a dynamic development in three fundamental phases: the relentless pursuit of God, the willingness to endure the nights, and the discovery of union with God which is also the total renewal of self. In this view, the spiritual journey implies emptying ourselves of all that is not God, so that we can be filled with what is truly of God. For John the focus is not on the negative aspects of the means but on the enthusiasm for the end in transformative love. In fact, the whole system is nothing except decisions of choice-oriented love, always choosing what is the most loving thing to do; a great example of the challenges of John of the Cross.

Dr. Leonard Doohan is an author and workshop presenter
He focuses on issues of spiritual leadership. He also has a special interest  in John of the Cross
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog