“He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths.” (Job 19:8)
Today we give thanks to God for the life and witness of one of the greatest mystical theologians who ever lived – St. John of the Cross. During my life as a Christian, a priest and a monk, whenever I have felt my life of prayer has become shallow or even empty, I have invariably found new life, hope and passion in John’s writings, and especially in such great poems as The Living Flame of Love and The Dark Night with its famous opening line, “En unanocheoscura.”
I first came to know this sixteenth century mystic and Carmelite friar, when I was a student. I and a friend were traveling through Spain, and I remember sitting on a hillside looking down at the marvelous city of Toledo, with its ancient buildings stacked up dramatically above the river Tajo or Tagus. But among the lovely medieval buildings we were gazing at, one had a very dark history. It was a Carmelite monastery, in whose dank and dark prison, John was held for nine months, living on bread and water, and taken out regularly to be beaten and abused. Finally, at a point close to death, he managed to make a miraculous escape “by dark of night.”It was this terrible experience though, which was the source of his extraordinary insights into the life of prayer, for throughout all these months of darkness and suffering, he was sustained by an intense inner flame of light – mystical love for Jesus Christ. As he reflected on all these experiences he wrote poems of extraordinary power, beauty and luminosity.
“O llama de amor viva,” he wrote. “O living flame of love.”
His imprisonment was a direct result of his meeting with that other great mystical writer of the 16th century, St. Teresa of Avila. When they met she was 52, while John was just 25. And yet from the start they both recognized an extraordinary spiritual affinity. She had already started a mission to reform the Carmelite communities in Spain, which had become very lax. She longed to restore the Carmelites to a simpler and more deeply spiritual standard. She’d also been looking for a man to start a parallel reform of the men’s orders. In John she recognized that man, and he also became her confessor, as well as spiritual director to the sisters of Teresa’s convent at Avila.
But spiritual innovation was a dangerous matter in 16th century Spain. The Inquisition were deeply suspicious of these two reformers. Many of John’s fellow friars did not want to be reformed thank you very much, and they were jealous of him and hated him. And so, in 1577 he was kidnapped and taken to that prison in Toledo, where they hoped he would die.
He did not die. Yet he did “die.” In the midst of deep inner anguish and near despair, he experienced a kind of spiritual death, and in a profoundly mystical way, shared with Jesus the desolation of the cross, the utter experience of abandonment by God. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” But he also experienced something else – a deep mystery and paradox: and that is, that at the heart of the dark is light; that the dawn breaks when we have entered fully into the night. So John could say from his own experience, with the Psalmist, “The darkness is no darkness with thee: the night is as clear as the day.” (Psalm 139:12)
Some of you reading this will not quite know what I’m talking about – but others of you may well have experienced something of this yourselves. John’s experience and writings have bequeathed to us the famous phrase, “the dark night of the soul.” “La nocheoscuradel alma.”
I’d like to say something about the dark night of the soul – because I’ve had individuals talk to me about their prayers and say “I think I must be having a dark night of the soul” – but what they mean is often not at all what John is describing.
The ‘night of the soul’ is often thought of as another kind of religious experience – a very exalted, very painful, very dramatic mystical sharing in the sufferings of Christ, or something of that sort. But actually, it’s much simpler, and much more alarming. Rowan Williams describes it as “the end of religious experience, the very opposite of mysticism. It’s a wall in the way, as Job says, it is the evacuation of meaning. We’ve been going round and round the paths, and suddenly we see that the path goes round a hole, a bottomless pit.”
It’s like all the words, the books and techniques for prayer will no longer help. There’s no sense or meaning any more. I’m just talking to no one. Or worship, the liturgy can suddenly seem a hollow and meaningless ritual.
If that happens to you, John can be your guide. Don’t worry. Rather, in the words of T. S. Eliot, “Let the dark come upon you, which shall be the darkness of God.” John says, What are you really after? Do you want spirituality? Mystical experience? Nice warm feelings in your prayer? Or do you want God? If you want God you must let go of all substitute satisfactions. “The dark night is God’s attack on religion.” (Rowen Williams) To all who claim that religion is just a human construct, a fantasy, to make us feel warm and comfortable, John of the Cross speaks eloquently and powerfully.
To all who claim that religion is just a human construct, a fantasy, to make us feel warm and comfortable, John of the Cross speaks eloquently and powerfully. For many Christians prayer will always be something positive and consoling.
If you right now are experiencing darkness in your spiritual life, if with Job you can say “he has walled up my way so that I cannot pass” – hang in there! Let the darkness come upon you. Don’t be afraid. It might well be God drawing you ever deeper into his heart of love. The dark night of the soul might well be God’s gift to you, and that through the experience you may come to share in the dazzling darkness – which is at the heart of our crucifixion/resurrection faith.
To go into the darkness with faith, trust and above all loving desire for God, however distant he may seem, and to take John of the Cross as your trusted guide, can be one of life’s greatest journeys.
John invites us to this mystical journey, certain that with the Psalmist, we too will find that “the darkness is no darkness with thee: but the night is as clear as the day.”
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