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By Sister Elizabeth Ruth, O.D.C., Carmel of Our Lady of Walsingham, Norfolk
St. John of the Cross is known as the Mystical Doctor, because in a pre-eminent way he is the director of men on their interior journey towards God. As a spiritual guide and deeply religious man, trained in theology at the best Spanish universities of his day, he was able, as few others, to elucidate scripturally and doctrinally the ways of the Lord.
Primarily, though, he is a poet, and his poetry speaks for itself in deeply symbolic language, the language of love. He is also a man of his country and era. His two poles Toda-Nada, All-Nothing, no doubt were associated for him with the rugged beauty of Castile--the blazing Spanish sky above arid ground, with the sun glinting upon walled cities, the freezing night with brigands concealed in the darkness.
John and Spain speak the language of extremes, just as St. Francis of Assisi was a man of the Umbrian hills set with flowers and vines among shaded valleys. There is a tendency to contrast the harshness of one with the sweetness of the other, but this is to do a disservice to both. Both at heart are similar because they see the way to God as the way of giving all-desiring nothing but him, and letting the rest go: "My God and my All."
In this, Jesus Christ is the model, and there is no spiritual growth apart from the earnest imitation of him. "Be continually careful and earnest in imitating Christ in everything, making your life conform to his," John writes in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, almost as a key sentence. Only in this light can we understand his insistence on the denial of desires.
What he has in mind are all those selfish and self-seeking ways we go about trying to have God and what we want as well. It is not that other people and other things are not lovable and desirable, or that God wants the way to him to be miserable. It is that the only true joy is found in Jesus, and having him we have all else besides.
John's writings sound demanding. He understood in an experiential way that God is not to be had on the cheap. Perhaps in our own day Bonhoeffer's works could be profitably re-read on the cost of discipleship, which John well knew--his had not been an easy life.
In the journey of the soul to God as John depicts it in the Ascent and the Dark Night he points to faith as the guide, and faith is dark to the understanding. We must just trust God and go forward with no assurance apart from his word.
The saint probes the causes of why many begin this journey but make no progress. It is that self-love insinuates itself, and this must be eradicated by persistent effort in action and loving attention to God in humble prayer, no matter if we feel dry or empty of inspiration: John reveals the way of prayer as a way of great self-denial. We must not rely on anything we can see, feel, taste, experience, for God is more than all these. Only dark faith touches and holds him, and in this there is nothing to delight the senses or boost the ego. By purifying the soul of all that is not God, God strips us in order to clothe us anew in Christ. Nothing gives place to the All, sorrow is turned into joy.
In The Spiritual Canticle and The Living Flame of Love, where John treats more explicitly of union with God, he does so in terms of lover and Beloved. In the former he bases his poem and commentary on the Song of Songs, in the latter upon the imagery of the Holy Spirit as flame, wounding and burning as it prepares the soul to be consumed in the fire of love's ecstasy.
But perhaps in his letters most of all we see John as an understanding counselor, warm and loving, yet allowing no compromises. The way of the Christian can only be the way of Christ and his cross, and John puts the Gospel demands before us in all their unadulterated strength.
His is not a path of visions, ecstasies, abnormal phenomena. Rather, he rejects all these as diverting us from the God whom we can only know by faith, not by the "spectacular" which many so-called spiritual people seek. Union is not felt bliss but "the living death of the cross," as he says in the Ascent. God has spoken his final word in his Son, we have no need to seek anything but him as he is revealed to us in his life and teaching. To want other words, other revelations, is to seek self.
..."Seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened to you." The words of Jesus are as true today as they ever were. Those who want God and seek him singlemindedly will find him to their everlasting Joy--as did St John of the Cross.