I read St. John of the Cross, or tried to, some 18 years ago, after first having met him during a research project in college some five years before that. I recall the more recent of those attempts being somewhat frustrating, like trying to eat crab without a decent tool to open the shell. In fact, speaking of tools, I picked up another book recently (from our church library) about the writings of St. John of the Cross and quickly realized that it had all the warm fuzzies of looking inside a tool box. Now, I can imagine a person who could actually get warm fuzzies from looking in a tool box, but it would be someone who already knew tools, knew what they could do and what s/he could do with them. But it's very hard to interface with tools apart from that experience! And that's how I was left feeling about John after picking up that other book.
But, I'm not writing about that other book here. The brilliance of Iain Matthew's book is that he is not merely expounding on a spiritual master's technique or writings. The subtitle is Soundings from St. John of the Cross, because his point is really get us to meet St. John, to hear him bear witness to the God John adores, and ultimately to know, trust and adore Him also.
Meeting St. John of the Cross this way, through this Carmelite prior, has been a heart burning within me sort of experience. His life was one "forged by a conjunction of love and pain," raised in the lowest strata of class-conscious Spanish society by his widowed mother and working as a teen in a hospice for those with syphilis. Then, after beginning his ministry with the Carmelite reform, he was imprisoned for several months by rival priests who opposed him. Toward the end of his life, he was opposed by those in his community to the point where his counsel to them was ignored. Matthew says:
It was in the midst of his hardest trial, in prison, when he composed the stunningly beautiful Canticle. In fact, Matthew explains that while it seems St. John does not spend much ink writing explicitly about himself, the lack of personal anecdote is deceptive. Because in reality he is writing always of his own experiences, or at least the fruit of them. He explains:
He had been hauled beyond the threshold of his own resources, taken to those outer limits where the only alternatives are a Spirit who fills, or chaos. It was as if the anaesthetic which normal life provides had worn off, his inner self had been scraped bare, and now he ached in a way he never had before for a God who was utterly beyond him. (p.10)
[The word St. John speaks to us] is not the creation of his ingenuity -- he submitted to the word in abject poverty. But he is original in saying it because it claimed him unreservedly and issues from him as his. In his darkness, there was disclosed to him Christ's unpaid-for desire to love him. A God who gives himself, to the poor: that pattern will explain all John has to say. (p. 12)It seems some people get nervous about the great mystics because their spirituality seems so far removed from "normal life." Certainly being a mystic is not about multiplying religious activities. It is about the encounter with a Person, with the Divine. I love the way Matthew reveals St. John's view of God as available to all.
Sensitivity to the other person characterised John because, in his view, it characterises God... This, John believes, is God's teaching method: to give himself in a way the person can handle. Why does God give people experiences they may later have to leave behind? Because, he says, God treats us 'with order, gentleness, and in a way that suits the soul.'
And John himself wrote that in his writings he really wanted to give only a general light, not specific instruction.
And I think that this is better. Where words are born of love, it is better to leave them open, so that each person can benefit from them in their own way and at their own spiritual level -- this rather than tying the verses down to a meaning that not everyone could relish (p. 15)And who does John know God to be? In his poetry, he places these words in God's mouth:
'I am yours, and for you, and I am please to be as I am that I may be yours and give myself to you.'Further, Matthew says:
If our understanding of [John's book] the Flame is correct, John experienced this as real. He is aware that people may find it too much to cope with, and looks for an explanation. The only one he finds is God himself.
'When a person loves another and does her good, he does her good and loves her with his own personality and character. So with your Bridegroom, who is in you: it is as he who he is that he shows you favour.' (p. 26)
The gospel has eyes -- 'the eyes I long for so', John calls them -- and the point comes on the journey where the bride meets those eyes which had long been looking on: 'It seems to her that he is now always gazing upon her.' It is a moment of exposure, as she finds herself a factor in another's life and heart... It has been said that 'a person is enlightened', not 'when they get an idea', but 'when someone looks at them'. A person is enlightened when another loves them. The eyes are windows on to the heart; they search the person out and have power to elicit life... Christianity is an effect, the effect of a God who is constantly gazing at us, whose eyes anticipate, radiate, penetrate and elicit beauty. (p. 28)I could go on quoting huge chunks of this book! However I will quote just one other section (at length) that made explicit to me the help that St. John of the Cross is to me.
Matthew goes on to explain that John taught in person that this experience was rooted in a vivid contemplation of the gospels, even though his famous writings tend to assume this point.
Given a sense of the vitality of prayer, as a supreme value, and a real possibility, then the practice of it becomes easier to handle. John's vision presents us, not with a blank page and the command 'Fill it', but with something that is taking place, and with that invitation, 'Step into it, be part of it.'
The happening is God present within us, giving himself. That is John's exultant answer to his own tense question, 'Where?' [as in, 'where have you hidden, beloved? from the Canticle.]
'Oh soul, most beautiful among all creatures, you who so long to know the place where your beloved is, so as to seek him and become one with him, now it has been stated: you yourself are the home in which he dwells... Here is a reason to be happy; here is a cause for joy; the realisation that every blessing and all you hope for is so close to you as to be within you.'
John grounds the answer in Scripture: 'The kingdom of God is within you' (Luke 17:21); 'You are God's temple' (2 Cor. 6:16). Then he draws from it an answer to our question, 'How?'
'Be glad, find joy there, gathered together and present to him who dwells within, since he is so close to you; desire him there, adore him there, and do not go off looking for him elsewhere... There is just one thing: even though he is within you, he is hidden.'
That is John's description of the encounter of prayer, which opens us to the impact of God and helps change the world (p. 142).
This, I grasp. This I can relate to, and it fills me with peace. It is a cause for joy! Somehow, it is easy for me to relate to God through meeting St. John of the Cross in this text. His testimony resonates with me, and the nod of his experience to me gives me the courage to trust, to know that God is the self-bestowing, the infilling God. Our relationship is His initiative.
Here are selected poems of St. John of the Cross.