TAKE COURAGE TO BEGIN THI SYEAR WITH JOHN OF THE CROSS 3

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

When undertaking our spiritual journey with John of the Cross we must not feel burdened by thoughts of the impossibility of making even the first steps. We are not struggling to move forward step by step. Rather we must be aware that God is drawing us to divine life. So, John urges us to have an attitude of confident response, for “God is the principal agent in this matter, and . . . acts as the blind man’s guide who must lead it by the hand to the place it does not know how to reach” (F. 3.29). The primary activity for us who seek God is not to place any obstacles in the way of God’s work of drawing us to union in love. So, this year, as we reflect on John’s call and challenges, let us take courage. Our responsibility includes letting God draw us in small steps, never allowing ourselves to go back, never overdoing it at first—just moving steadily and consistently in the one direction that matters. In these efforts, John can be our guide. “Our goal will be, with God’s help, to explain all these points, so that everyone who reads this book will in some way discover the road that they are walking along” (A. Prologue.7).

1. We all know that beginnings are always hard.
2. We have probably tried before and not done too well. Let us just move slowly, peacefully, confidently, step by step.
3. Teresa of Avila spoke about making this journey with “a determined determination.”
4. Let us pray for perseverance in sticking with this commitment to journey with John for a year.

CHALLENGES FOR TODAY
• Half-hearted responses will not help you on this journey.
• Remember Jesus’ stories about a man who started to build a tower and couldn’t finish it, and a king who started a war and couldn’t get organized. Make sure you desire to finish a job that you want to start.

• Pray for others who begin this journey with John in these readings and reflections.

 

 

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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.

KEY THEMES IN THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE 5: LOVE AND SELF-SURRENDER

One of the key themes in the Spiritual Canticle is the dedicated vision of love and surrender. John of the Cross gives a wonderful portrait of this as he develops the stages of spiritual betrothal and spiritual marriage. Let us look at some of his ideas and for those who have the time I have given some of his wonderful sayings from The Spiritual Canticle for extra reading.

Spiritual betrothal is a time of deeper love and mutual surrender; the two lovers feel each other’s pain, share ever deeper communications, appreciate each other’s longings, show mutual gratitude for graces and gifts, and yearn for union. The bride develops “a singular and intense love for God,” and “his absence is a singular and intense torment for her” (C. 17.1). In this growth of love and self-surrender “a singular fortitude and a very sublime love are also needed for so strong and intimate an embrace from God” (C. 20-21.1). Even before spiritual marriage she gives her love and surrender to her Bridegroom (C. 22.5).

Spiritual marriage is the time of mutual strong love and surrender. God shows the soul genuine love, the tenderness and truth of love, supreme and generous love. The bride is “dissolved in love” and “she makes a complete surrender of herself.” “[T]his mutual surrender of God and the soul is made in this union” (C. 27.2). “In this stanza the bride tells of the mutual surrender made in this spirit of espousal between the soul and God . . . joined by the communication he made of himself to her, . . . and by the complete surrender she made of herself to him, keeping nothing back for herself” (C. 27.3). The bride’s total surrender is caused by God, it is a gift to the bride of the necessary purity, perfection, and self dedication needed for total surrender (C. 27.6). Her surrender in loving union includes the surrender of her soul and its faculties so that they focus only on love of God and what pleases God. She surrenders to a consuming love and her every expression becomes an act of love. The bride puts it this way: “This is like saying that now all this work is directed to the practice of love of God, that is: 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).

The Bridegroom and bride now enjoy mutuality in love and in self-surrender, enjoying each other’s love. “God not only values this love of hers because he sees that it is alone, but also cherishes it because he sees that it is strong. . . . [T]his is why he loved her so much; he saw that her love was strong . . . alone and without other loves” (C. 31.5). Transformed in love, her love is now God’s love in her. She is united to God’s strong love for her, and “her love for him is as strong and perfect as his love for her” (C. 38.3). This is what she was searching for and what God wanted of her too.

KEY THEMES IN SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: 2–THE NATURE OF DESIRE IN JOHN OF THE CROSS

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Desire is not easily satisfied. When John speaks of desire he is describing an attitude of the whole person, an existential yearning or longing to be who we are called to be, who we need to be in order to find peace and fulfillment in life. When John speaks of desire he is describing what is at the core of our humanity. The desire he describes is the cry of humanity for fulfillment in the union of love.

Desire’s original focus is on “your Beloved whom you desire and seek” (C. 1.8). Having fallen in love the desire is now for a deeper experience of something that has already happened. Since the soul has already been swept off her feet by her Lover her journey is always painful at her loss, but the pain is tolerable because of her confidence in her Lover’s fidelity. As the search develops, “It seems to the soul that its bodily and spiritual substance is drying up with thirst for this living spring of God.” She feels her desire can only end when “she could plunge into the unfathomable spring of love” (C. 12.9). Being with one’s Lover is the only thing that matters—to lose oneself for the Beloved and to lose interest in all creatures. “And this is to love herself purposely, which is to desire to be found” (C. 29.10).

We then respond to desire within our own hearts. The desire John presents is the human heart seeking meaning and fulfillment and finding them in love. It is no use seeking fulfillment in the accumulation of desires outside ourselves. “Do not go in pursuit of him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and wearied thereby, and you shall not find him, or enjoy him more securely, or sooner, or more intimately than by seeking him within you” (C. 1.8). So, desire is fulfilled in the interior recollection of our own hearts, for our Lover resides within. “Desire him there, adore him there” (C. 1.8) for he whom your soul loves is within you.

These visits of love intensify desire. While our desire seems at times to burn us up, we also quickly see it is God who desires the love relationship and he is the first Lover. So, God visits the soul frequently during her desire-filled search for her Lover. However, she experiences these visits of love with joy and excitement, but also with pain. In fact, her desire is not fulfilled nor even calmed by these visits. Rather, she experiences them as wounds in her heart—wounds of love that cause a longing for total love. So, these visits of love are not simply refreshing experiences offered by her Lover. “He bestows these to wound more than heal and afflict more than satisfy, since they serve to quicken knowledge and increase appetite (consequently the sorrow and longing) to see God” (C. 1.19)

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

The soul tries every means to satisfy desire. Desire by itself is not enough, we must do something about it, we must do all we can to satisfy it. “Since the desire in which she seeks him is authentic and her love intense, she does not want to leave any possible means untried. The soul that truly loves God is not slothful in doing all she can to find the Son of God, her Beloved” (C. 3.1). Among the primary means are the uprooting of false loves, the practice of virtues, and the spiritual exercise of active and contemplative life. Everything that is not focused on desire for God is a distraction. We must be careful for we become our desires and for the most of us our desires are too small. Fortunately, the night is the death of all false desires, all false gods. The search is filled with “a thousand displeasures and annoyances” (C. 10.3) that can easily distract the search and this demands constant effort. Desiring to reach God in spiritual marriage, “it is necessary for her to attain an adequate degree of purity, fortitude, and love” (C. 20-21.2).

Desire is for greater love and union, from early stages of love and excitement in pursuing her Lover, through periods of pain and loss at his absence, and on to spiritual betrothal and marriage. “The loving soul, however great her conformity to the Beloved, cannot cease longing for the wages of her love . . . the wages of love are nothing else . . . than more love, until perfect love is reached” (C. 9.7). The soul is filled with impatient love that allows no rest, no delays in the ongoing pursuit of greater love. Desire for deeper love and union is what propels and motivates the soul in her ceaseless pursuit of her Lover. This intense desire focuses on seeking the beauty and essence of God. “Reveal your presence, and may the vision of your beauty be my death” (C. 11. 1-2).

 

John of the Cross and Toledo

 

Toldeo, the Alcantaran Gate. Just beyond this bridge John was in prison.

Toldeo, the Alcantaran Gate. Just beyond this bridge John was in prison.

John arrived in Toledo in December 1577 and would spend nine months in the prison there. Toledo was a beautiful city, until recently the nation’s capital. It stands on a hill, with the river Tagus flowing around it; it gives the impression of openness to the sky, an architectural masterpiece where the renaissance of the north meets the Moorish influences of the south; the Mudeja reminds travelers that the Moors conquered Toledo as far back as the tenth century. The Carmelite monastery was quite close to Toledo’s great castle and at the same time not far from the river Tagus. John’s tiny cell had only a small slit for a window. Here John suffered the deepest darkness of spirit, doubt, and uncertainty, even though of his trials he later wrote, “Well and good if all things change, Lord God, provided we are rooted in you” (S. 34). Here John was immersed in darkness and could hear only the rhythmic flow of the river. Here he wrote “By the streams of Babylon” and also the poem “For I know well the spring that flows and runs, although it is night.” He wrote the latter around the feast of Corpus Christi—a wonderful expression of Trinitarian theology and spirituality that culminates with the gift of the Eucharist. Possibly around Christmas, John wrote the nine romances that describe the history of salvation as a project of God’s love for us, culminating in the mother, Mary, who gazes in wonder at the world turned upside down as God gives self to us in love. Although John’s experience in Toledo was one of abandonment, cruelty, and total lack of love, he nevertheless wrote the first 31 verses of the love song, the Spiritual Canticle that describes the eager search of a bride for her lover. In a dark night, John was fired by love’s urgent longings. Although John was only in Toledo for nine months—nine long and painful months, nevertheless, it is the place that captures the agony and the ecstasy of John of the Cross.

 

John of the Cross a Contemporary Inspiration

The title of my first book on John of the Cross was The Contemporary Challenge of John of the Cross. I feel strongly that John is a major challenge both religiously and socially in our contemporary Church and world. Unfortunately there is little written from this perspective. Rather John is treated at a figure of literature or history or worse still domesticated by those who find him too challenging. John was a prophet in his own time and continues to be in ours.

John was under five feet tall, thin from his sacrifice and imprisonment, and oval faced with a little growth of beard and mustache. He wore the rough brown habit of the reform, a coarse white mantle, and sometimes a dark brown skull-cap. Contemporaries said that, although clearly ascetical, he had a pleasing appearance and was interesting to talk to. He was always in control of himself; peaceful, calm, and quietly joyful. He was simple, straightforward, and shunned all manifestations of authority. Those who knew him said he was polite, delicate in dealing with others, and could share both their manual work and their recreation. He loved the beauty of nature, and deep friendships were important to him. He was a compassionate person, particularly sensitive to the poor, sick, and suffering. Above all, John was a giant in the spiritual life, drawing teaching of universal value from experience, both his own and others.

John’s early life already showed traces of values that were to make up the general direction of his future. He could see, in the example of his parents, what it meant to sacrifice all for the sake of true love. The poverty of his family showed him that mere accumulation of things does not guarantee love and happiness. However, the pain and struggles that came with poverty made John sensitive to deprivation in others and always ready to alleviate it where he could. His family fostered piety, and John treasured such attitudes throughout his life, especially devotion to Mary. Compassionate charity, learned especially in his hospital service, became a permanent feature in his concern for others. At considerable personal sacrifice, John always integrated study into his life, from the early years in Medina del Campo right up to his last years in Andalusia. Deep love for God and for others was the special quality that permeated John’s whole life, as it did his message. Poverty, charity, piety, study, and deep love formed permanent parts of John’s life.

John was a man of destiny. From his early life, when friends had all kinds of plans for him, he had a clear picture of what he wanted from life. He had a sense of vocation—personally called by God. He worked in the hospital, was successful, enjoyed the work, but knew there is more to life than generous, successful ministry. He went to the Jesuit school in Medina, thoroughly enjoyed study, valued it all his life, but recognized that for him there was more to life than education. Entering the order of Mount Carmel, attracted by it spirit of contemplation and Marian piety, he had a happy novitiate and learned to encounter God in new ways. But this experience too, great as it was, did not satisfy John’s yearning for God. He then went to Salamanca for theology, a chance to study about God, but no amount of study alone led him to union with God. He decided to join the Carthusians, but Teresa encouraged him to seek the deeper contemplative union he wanted in her renewed Carmel. By the age of 25, John had learned that ministry, education, religious life, and theology do not automatically insure union with God. Even reforming an institution to facilitate the life one seeks is no guarantee. John sensed an irresistible attraction to God and pursued this goal uncompromisingly and relentlessly. What he had experienced he valued but, without despising previous experiences, he left them aside to continue the search in new ways.

Some people accumulate many small manifestations of love for God; others make a single-minded, single-hearted choice for love of God, and see everything as secondary to the quest for God’s love. Accumulated love rarely implies renunciation; choice-oriented love always does. The seeker renounces all that up to the present was viewed as the best means available, renounces without despising previous means, moves forward to the goal of life. Choice-love is creative of one’s personality, as is evident in John, who sought God even through the nights, journeying to the union for which he yearned. Accumulated small expressions of love never substitute for choice-oriented love, even though they may help to manifest and maintain it. Choice-oriented love is the clearest indicator of ongoing conversion, while accumulated love can still be shown by someone who refuses to face the need for a new conversion.

When you read the life of John of the Cross you cannot help but be filled with sadness, joy, peace, and a sense of wonder and awe. Reading his life is exciting. John integrated all the best values from his experience in one great thrust of self-dedication to God. His goal was always clear, never neglected or watered down; he pursued it with the united effort of all his strength and talents. His was not a selfish goal of personal growth, for he took others along with him, sharing the vision and the love by which he felt drawn.

John shows us how to live in a struggle-filled post-conciliar Church, since he himself entered Carmel the year the Council of Trent finished its deliberations. He learned to cope with people who resisted the renewal he wanted, with ecclesiastical authorities interested in the power that religion brings, with the spite of some, the envy of others, and dishonest slander of still others. Through all his struggles, he maintained right priorities and proved that contemplative union is possible under any circumstances. John’s life was one long night.