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.

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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.

 

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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.

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.

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 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.”

 

 

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.

 

Called to love

In John of the Cross’ extraordinary book on the Living Flame of Love he reminds us that  God would want everyone to be at the level of life and union described in the Living Flame. He challenges us to appreciate that one’s total life is involved in a union of love. In fact, every act is now love (C. 28.8). Nothing really matters anymore except to be in the union with a person we love with all our hearts. That union will be on all levels of life, and everything that is done is done for love. However, he finds few who are ready to make the commitment, and others who do not want to be guided to this goal (F. 2.27). He seems saddened to acknowledge that some do not relish the communications of God (F. 1.6), others just do not understand these gifts and find them incredible (F. 1.15), and still others do not have the basic experience needed to appreciate these profound challenges (F. 3.1). However, John insists that God grants these favors and does so according to the divine will. Generally, these gifts are made to those who “have performed many services for Him, have had admirable patience and constancy for His sake, and in their life and works have been very acceptable to Him” (F. 2.28). God purifies such people in varying degrees according to God’s desire to raise them (F. 1.24), and leads them eventually to the remarkable delight of God’s awakening (F. 4.5).

So, John reminds us not to be amazed that God grants such gifts. He reminds us twice (F. Prologue.2; 1.15) that Jesus told us that the Trinity would abide within anyone who loved God. God is faithful to the divine nature and to these promises made. Put simply, God delights in giving and enriching those who seek divine union. God is seeking union in love with us more intensely than we seek it with God. We must look at the gifts we have received, marvel in God’s love, and be aware of God’s constant generosity towards us. We need to live with awareness that all life is a wonderful manifestation of God’s love (see C. 24; 40). We must awaken ourselves to an appreciation of the reality that we are immersed in God’s love. This changes the motivation for all our activities and gives us a new consciousness of the meaning of life. This is what the Living Flame calls us to appreciate and never to be amazed at this authentic vision of life. This is the new state of existence to which God calls all human beings.

Unfortunately, one of the great contemporary problems we face is indifference to the life of the spirit, as we immerse ourselves in the superficiality of religious devotions, thinking we can earn growth. In one of his sayings John urges us to keep things in perspective. “Who can free themselves from lowly manners and limitations if you do not lift them to yourself, my God, in purity and love? How will human beings begotten and nurtured in lowliness rise up to you, Lord, if you do not raise them with your hand that made them?” (S. 26). Aware of our own emptiness, the Living Flame reminds us that we grow primarily by receiving and cherishing the gifts of God. These gifts are not little supports here and there on our journey to God. They transform us into who we are intended to be. So, we need to think about life in light of the Living Flame; this is our goal, this is God’s hope for us.

 

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: KEY THEMES–SHARING IN GOD’S BEAUTY

 

Every page of the Spiritual Canticle celebrates beauty. The bride rejoices in all aspects of creation, the mountains, lonely wooded valleys, strange islands, and so on. John shares with the bride the prayer of St. Francis, “My God and all things,” for she feels that all things are God (C. 14-15.5). John also sees God’s beauty in people, “Oh, then, soul, most beautiful of all creatures” (C. 1.7). For John, sin is the absence of beauty, and he looks at it with sadness rather than being judgmental. The spiritual journey is God’s progressive revelation of divine life to the bride, and she immerses herself more and more in the knowledge of her Lover. John shares his knowledge of this journey with his readers, fully aware that “not even they who receive these communications” are able to “describe. . . the understanding [God] gives to loving souls in whom he dwells” (C. Prologue.1). He agrees with theologians and philosophers that we know God primarily through the divine attributes, and he lists them in both the Ascent and the Living Flame (A. 2. 26.3, F. 3.2). “God in his unique and simple being is all the powers and grandeurs of his attributes. He is almighty, wise, and good; and he is merciful, just, powerful and loving, etc.; and he is the other infinite attributes and powers of which we have no knowledge” (F. 3.2). In the journey the bride not only knows these qualities of God but experiences them vitally, penetrating their meaning for her life. Mystics rarely add to the traditional list of divine attributes, but John singles out one attribute that was very special to him—divine beauty. He uses this word to describe God, always using the noun form hermosura (beauty) rather than the adjective hermoso (beautiful). This unusual description is not used analogically from the beauty of nature, but rather is clearly intended to refer to the inner being of God. Thus, the bride asks God “to show her his beauty, his divine essence” (C. 11.2). So, for John beauty is a divine attribute equivalent to the divine essence.

John's monastery in Segovia

John’s monastery in Segovia

In two passages John seems swept off his feet when he thinks of God’s beauty. In one of them he uses the word “beauty” twenty-four times in a single paragraph (C. 36.5) and in the other six times in four lines (C. 11.10). Mother Francisca de la Madre de Dios testified that on one of his visits to Beas, sometime in 1582-1584, John was carried away by the thought of the beauty of God and wrote five additional stanzas of the Spiritual Canticle on the beauty of God (36-40). People who study the mystics refer to the constant repetition of a concept as “mystical obsession.” In this case, John seems so overwhelmed by the thought of God’s beauty that it could be part of his own original experience of God.

Even in the early illuminative phase of contemplation the bride seeks the presence of God and identifies it as beauty, longing “to see him in his divine being and beauty.” In response to her longings, “God communicates to her some semi-clear glimpses of his divine beauty” (C. 11.4). This intensifies her longing for more intimate presence, but with this comes the awareness that such a vision is not possible, for human nature cannot endure such a revelation in this life. Thus, the bride cries “may the vision of your beauty be my death” (C. 11.16); she is willing to die to have the vision of God’s beauty. In the meantime she affirms her faith “which contains and hides the image and the beauty of her Beloved” (C. 12.1), just a sketch of the reality. She experiences God’s beauty all around her (C. 24.6) and longs to see herself in the beauty of God (C. 37.1). Her lovesickness climaxes in the ecstatic cry for union in eternity: “Let us rejoice, Beloved, and let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty” (C. v.36).

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle