JOHN OF THE CROSS IN EVERYDAY LIFE

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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.

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.

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.

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE –KEY THEMES: 1–Love-filled desire

 

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

The poem of the Spiritual Canticle begins with a cry of intense unfulfilled longing and desire (C. v.1) and ends with the bride proclaiming that she has found what she has been seeking and desiring (C. v.38). The commentary begins with the bride who “with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded with love for God” (C. 1.1) calls out to her unseen Beloved. It ends beyond spiritual marriage when the bride pleads “with the desire that he transfer her from spiritual marriage . . . to the glorious marriage of the Triumphant” (C. 40.7). The Spiritual Canticle is a poem of lovesick desire, wounded desire, and love-filled desire. Both poem and commentary pulsate with intense desire, draw us into this profound yearning for fulfillment, and leave us, too, inflamed with desire for God. In the first twelve verses the bridegroom never speaks, we hear only the bride’s cries of anxious search; nothing really exists of importance except her desire to find her Lover.

The initial advice for the bride is quite simple: “your desired Beloved lives hidden in your heart . . . strive to be really hidden with him, and you will embrace him within you and experience him with loving affection” (C. 1.10). She soon finds it is not that simple, for the Beloved comes and goes with the swiftness of a stag, showing himself and then hiding (C. 1.15). His visits are moments of loving encounter, wounds of love, that increase the bride’s desire to be with her Beloved, but he departs and she suffers pain and sorrow in his absence (C. 1.16). He leaves her suffering with love, incomplete and dying with desire for a more perfect loving union. “So extreme is this torment that love seems to be unbearably rigorous with the soul” (C. 1.18). She cries “but you were gone” and feels abandoned, suspended with no supports, and in need of the healing presence of her Lover. She appreciates the tastes of love he gives her, but rather than satisfy her desire they intensify her suffering and increase her longing (C. 1.22). “The loving soul lives in constant suffering at the absence of her Beloved, for she is already surrendered to him and hopes for the reward of that surrender: the surrender of the Beloved to her. Yet he does not do so” (C. 1.21).

The bride turns to creation and there finds traces of the beauty of her Beloved (C. 6.1), but seeing her Beloved in the beauty of the world only leads to greater desire to be in his presence; it is a sickness only union can heal. She has this same response to revelations of her Beloved through other rational beings. Eventually her desire leads her to insist: “You have communicated by means of others, as if joking with me; now may you do so truly, communicating yourself by yourself” (C 6.6). Her desire remains unsatisfied, in fact intensifies; “she is dying of love” “wounded with vehement love,” and feels so restrained in this bodily life (C. 8.2). This is because she realizes that “the soul lives where she loves more than in the body she animates,” and as a result she “never stops seeking remedies for her sorrow,” claiming “why since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?” (C. 9.1).

St. John of the Cross and the Resurrection

John of the Cross is so well known for his emphasis on the dark and purifying experiences of the night and often suggests this experience is a participation in the cross of the Lord. As we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord we might ask “How does John relate to the Gospel’s emphasis on the resurrection?”

 

Very well indeed! The dark night parallels the passion and leads to newness of life in the resurrection to union in love. John calls Jesus’ passion “the death of love” (L.  11),  and it prepares us for the resurrected life of union. “It is fitting that the soul be in this sepulcher of dark death in order that it attain the spiritual resurrection for which it hopes” (N.2. 6.1). John asserts that any evil tendency that needs to be uprooted “impedes the inner resurrection of the Spirit who dwells within” (L. 7). Not only do individuals enjoy this resurrection following purification, but so too does the whole world, and so John speaks of “this elevation of all things. . . through the glory of his resurrection” (C. 5.4).

John insists that there is no easy way to mystical union; it is a journey that goes through the passion. For each of us our own daily living of the passion consists in our journey through the dark nights. John lived at a time when the passion of the Lord was the primary focus in piety, but he leads us beyond the suffering to what follows in newness of life. Few have been so practical in indicating just what the passion really means for us, and few have been so clear in describing how wonderful the resurrection can be as John does in the Living Flame.

The Dynamism of the Spiritual Life

Church of John of the Cross with modern art of his major works

Possible stages in spiritual life development.

In his presentation of the dynamic development of the spiritual life John was originally considered a disciple of Pseudo-Dyonisius the Areopagite, who divided the spiritual life into three main stages: beginners, proficients, and perfect, corresponding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive periods of life. Writers dependent on this insight generally considered the three stages to be important but rarely gave any importance to the transitions from one to the other.

John’s own experience together with extensive knowledge gained through spiritual direction gave him better insight into the stages than anyone prior to him. To the traditional three-fold division John highlights the two crucial transitions. John knew from his own experience of night that crises can be moments of grace and progress, and he called the two transitions the night of sense and the night of spirit. The former was the transition to contemplation, and the latter the decisive moment of life as the complete trusting abandonment to God. The three stages of prior understandings remain and the second becomes a plateau of rest between the nights.

Thus, the nights become so important that John describes the entire journey to God as a dark night. “The darkness and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo on their way to the high state of perfection are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately. Nor does experience of them equip one to explain them. Only those who suffer them will know what this experience is like, but they won’t be able to describe it” (A Prologue, 1). Dedicated people who have started the journey come to a point where they advance no more. The problem is clear to John; for one reason or another they do not abandon themselves to God’s guidance and enter the dark night. “[A] soul must ordinarily pass through two principal kinds of nights. . . . The first night or purgation . . . concerns the sensory part of the soul. The second night. . . concerns the spiritual part” (A.1. 1.1-2). The first night occurs when beginners transition to contemplation, the second night occurs when proficients move to union. The dark night is an experience of purification, but the motivation for entering it is love. There are three reasons for calling this journey a dark night. The point of departure is a commitment to the denial of one’s appetites and to a rejection of self-centeredness and gratification as motives in life which is a dark experience of privation for the senses. The means or way to union is faith which is a dark unknowing experience for the intellect. The point of arrival is God who is an incomprehensible mystery—a dark night to any individual in this life (see A.1. 2.1).

The two nights, of sense and of spirit, have two parts, one active and the other passive. The active is a time of ascetical preparation and a deliberate practice of the three theological virtues. The latter is the beginning of contemplation and the inflow of God’s transforming action by means of the three theological virtues. Some writers see the active night of sense to be first, followed by the passive night of sense which is the entry into contemplation. However, the active night of sense will continue through contemplation. In fact, the illumination of contemplation throws further light on more unconscious levels that need active purification. The active night of sense is the effort to remove faults and sins one can see, but there are lots of faults one cannot see without God’s illumination in contemplation. Some have periods of rest after which comes the active night of spirit, followed by the passive night of spirit.

Others see the active night of sense as first, followed by the active night of spirit along with the passive night of sense as two parts of the same experience. Then the passive night of spirit follows. However, the experiences of active night of spirit and passive night of  sense continue to surface and purify even during any respite or plateau periods.

Reflections: In our spiritual journey we enter the thick darkness where we encounter God (Ex 20:21) and God gradually turns our darkness into light (Is 42:16). The journey through the passive nights is entirely in the hands of God. “In the first place it should be known that if anyone is seeking God, the Beloved is seeking that person much more” (F. 3.28). The point of departure is not our efforts but a loving God who is drawing us through the darkness to the light (N.1. 1.1; N.2. 1.1).

This is a journey that consists in the pursuit of no thing, a new discipline that the soul imposes on itself or allows and undergoes in God. John speaks of the nothingness of all creation in comparison with God and of all created and spiritual things as means to union with God. It is not that he despises any of them but that he sees everything as nothing in relation to God (N.1. 4.4-7). This can be a disconcerting aspect of John’s teaching unless we constantly remember his goal of everything re-found in God; through poverty and nakedness in God we possess all (see “Prayer of a soul taken with love”).

Poverty and negation, or mortification of voluntary, habitual imperfections that move us away from God are means to liberate us from what is false in ourselves, in our world, and in our understanding of God (A.1. 11). This becomes a spiritual empowerment and gives us the freedom to choose the good, to eliminate all that is not of God, and to pursue eagerly only what is of God. Thus, we become dry and ready to be set on fire. “For to love is to labor to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God” (A.2. 5.7).


Seeing life in these categories can be helpful but there is generally overlap. The passive night of sense can be from the beginning provided an individual is open to receive and understand the challenges. Then again, there is a way in which the active night of spirit is also connected to sense in that it is about gratification concerning spiritual things of intellect, memory, and will that spills over into the senses. Furthermore, the passive night of sense can be about unconscious sins, attitudes, and gratifications that are discovered through contemplation.

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
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