St. John of the Cross

Today we celebrate St. John of the Cross, the Spanish Carmelite mystic and doctor of the Church.

St. John suffered much in his efforts to reform the Carmelite order. He was imprisoned twice and treated extremely cruelly during his second imprisonment, from which he escaped. Yet during that imprisonment he wrote many of his beautiful poems that celebrate God’s love.

After he recovered, he went about in the work of reform, only to be the target of ill-will from other members of the reform movement.

His was not a life of outward joy and consolation – but a life lived in the light of the Cross.

But he was faithful. As he wrote in Spiritual Canticle:

Many desire the consoling joy
to which the Cross leads,
But few desire the Cross itself.

Reading these words this morning I recalled a Jesuit priest who led me during a short retreat at the Creighton retreat center in Iowa. I was on a high after a visit to Palestine and Israel. He pointedly asked me:

Are you seeking the God of consolation or the consolation of God?

And yet, when we seek the God of consolation we can deal with the pains and sufferings of life, we can bear the Cross.

I think for people like St. John of the Cross  it may come back to living life with a spirit of thanksgiving, gratitude, and gratuitousness.

In We Drink from Our Own Wells, Gustavo Gutiérrez writes

The experience of gratuitousness is the space of encounter wit the Lord. Unless we understand the meaning of gratuitousness, there will be no contemplative dimension in our lives. Contemplation is not a state of paralysis but of radical self-giving, as we saw in reading passages from John of the Cross. In the final analysis, to believe in God means to live our life as a gift from God and to look upon everything that happens in it as a manifestation of his gift. (p. 110)

That, perhaps is the secret of St. John of the Cross: encountering God’s love even in the midst of prison, living the Cross and being consoled and strengthened by the Cross of Christ who comes and seeks us.

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One response to “St. John of the Cross

  1. A “Cross” that I avoid bearing daily is the incessant chatter in my head that takes the form of fears and anxieties about many things that all flow into a central theme of “people will find out just how bad a person I am”. The avoidance to picking up my Cross is manifested in constantly working, watching TV, eating; anything that keeps me from being quiet and alone with those parts of myself.

    Recently, however, I was sick for two weeks. Physically unable to move around or eat much and emotionally preoccupied with the pains of sickness to focus on TV, I was forced to be quiet; to be alone with my Cross. Feeling uncomfortable and a strong desire for nurturing (that is usually hidden by my avoidance behaviors or artificially created by eating), I began reading the book, Wherever You Go There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The book is divided into three parts with the first part made up of a series of short writings on the various practices that lay the foundation needed to be truly mindful. At the end of many of these short writings are “Try” activities to practice. Usually when I read this type of book, I just read and say, “I’ll come back and do the activities once I’ve read the entire book”. This time however, I felt pulled to enter into each activity as I read along.

    This was a scary proposition as the basis for all the activities is the practice of stopping, listening, just “being”…being in tune with what was going on about me; both in my head and body and outside my head and body. As I struggled to just “be” with the chatter in my head, my biggest fear was that I would be so overwhelmed by the chatter that I would just die.

    Then one day, as I quieted myself and acknowledged all that was going on inside and outside my body, the chatter in my head was suddenly gone. The various fears, anxieties and judgments had come forward, and having been acknowledged, stepped off stage and was replaced by the unmistakable peace of “quiet”. One of “the consoling joy
    to which the Cross leads”

    As I rejoined the mainstream of life this past Monday, going back to work and taking up the responsibilities that go with my roles of husband and dad, I feared that I would never again experience the peace of “quiet” like I had the last few days of my convalescence. This fear resurfaced this morning as I walked and struggled with just being one with the sounds and smells of the outdoors.

    But as I read this reflection on St. John the Cross, I thought but isn’t this what John means when he writes “His was not a life of outward joy and consolation – but a life lived in the light of the Cross”? It’s not in “the consoling joy to which the Cross leads” that I grow and find God but in living in “the light of the Cross”. Which for me means not giving into work, TV, eating or other avoidance activities but instead accepting God’s invitation to enter into the quiet which includes listening to the chatter in my head and facing the struggles associated with “just being”; “living the Cross and being consoled and strengthened by the Cross of Christ who comes and seeks us.”

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