More on Jesus And St. John Of The Cross – Fr. Iain Matthew

April 4, 2012

As St. John of the Cross’ illness increased at the end of his life, he was removed to the monastery of Ubeda, where he at first was treated very unkindly, his constant prayer, "to suffer and to be despised", being thus literally fulfilled almost to the end of his life. But at last even his adversaries came to acknowledge his sanctity, and his funeral was the occasion of a great outburst of enthusiasm. The body, still incorrupt, as has been ascertained within the last few years, was removed to Segovia, only a small portion remaining at Ubeda; there was some litigation about its possession. A strange phenomenon, for which no satisfactory explanation has been given, has frequently been observed in connexion with the relics of St. John of the Cross: Francis de Yepes, the brother of the saint, and after him many other persons have noticed the appearance in his relics of images of Christ on the Cross, the Blessed Virgin, St. Elias, St. Francis Xavier, or other saints, according to the devotion of the beholder. The beatification took place on 25 Jan., 1675, the translation of his body on 21 May of the same year, and the canonization on 27 Dec., 1726.
Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910

John’s word — an inflowing God, space for the gift — emerged from his experience; and Toledo was the furnace which fired that experience. The question about the importance or lack of it, of Jesus for John has to be answered there. In his Ballads, he has answered it for us there. When he needed to say something – not to teach, or direct, or comment, but just because he needed to say it (the witnesses say that is why he wrote poetry) — what he said was `Jesus’, who filled John in a poverty he had first shared.

If that is where John’s view of Jesus starts, we are in place now to follow it through in his major writings — along those two lines: where is Jesus in the doctrine on God’s self-gift; and where is he in the doctrine on making room? First, God’s gift, the to do, the ‘all’, which gives the nada any meaning.

We can focus here on two hinge chapters: one in Ascent, the work stressing the need to rely on God, in faith, and not on other supports; and one in Canticle, which presents the whole drama as a journey.

First, Ascent. When John says, `Not this, nor that, nor that, but faith’, it can bring a marvelous sense of spaciousness and freedom; but it can also bring a feeling of rootlessness. It is all very well his telling us to let go of secondary supports, but we have to hold on to something. The books of the Ascent revolve around this `something’, and it takes a hinge chapter to name it (unlucky for those who don’t read that far, but that is John’s style!). The hinge is Ascent, Book Two, Chapter 22. The author holds up a clear signpost announcing its centrality: ‘to clarify our subject and establish its doctrinal foundation …’ The chapter makes great reading on its own. But when it is put in context, it becomes very powerful.

To put it in context, a race through the twenty-one chapters that go before:

  1. 1-4, faith is a meeting, with God, in darkness;
  2. 5, the goal is union;
  3. 6, theological virtue brings you there;
  4. 7 we shall hop over;
  5. 8, feelings and concepts cannot actually .,~ deliver God in himself;
  6. 9, faith can and does; then come the alternatives to faith (listed in 10);
  7. 12-15, thinking about and imagining gospel scenes is important, but the time may come to go beyond pictures for the sake of more total presence;
  8. as for experiencing extraordinary phenomena, like apparitions (11, 16), this should not be actively sought — they do not give you God in himself; 17, God sometimes bestows these experiences because of a person’s concrete needs, but,
  9. 18, they can still be misunderstood –
  10. 19, Scripture shows us that;
  11. 20, even biblical personages could take up divine communications wrongly; and just because,
  12. 21, God answers when people ask for a sign, it does not mean he is pleased with that request.
  13. And so we come to 22. If, in the Old Covenant, people did ask for signs and were right to rely on extraordinary phenomena — prophets, dreams, priestly divination — why can we not cling to supernatural signs and experiences now?

The whole of the book rises to this question: What should we seek, if we don’t seek all of that? Put otherwise, the author says: not this, nor that, nor that, nor this, nor — and we say, `Well, what?! We have to look somewhere!’ Again, John says, faith, faith, faith, faith — and we say, `What is this faith for which we sacrifice everything else?’

The answer: Jesus Christ.

`In giving us, as he did, his Son, who is his only Word — he has no other — he has spoken it all to us, once and for all, in this only Word; he has no more to say.

Faith, to which all other means should be subordinated, now receives definition: Christ is the only `proximate means to union with God’. He is the `somewhere’ to which we must uniquely look. He is the Gift for which space must urgently be made.

This is the meaning of the ‘nada, nothing’: a space shaped for Christ. In Flame John showed how any emptiness is because of a greater fullness: there, to the bride-soul, `all things are nothing; she is in her own eyes nothing. Only her God is, for her, everything (todo)’. Now the everything receives a name:

`God has become mute and has no more to say: what he used to say partially, to the prophets, he has now said totally, in his Son, giving us his Son, who is our Everything …

If he is everything, he contains in himself the good that is in anything else. Religious experiences, charismatic gifts, supernatural phenomena, insights and uplifts — these are all excellent, if they point to Christ; they can be real motives for love, if they do not glue us to themselves but impel us to Christ, his word, his community. Otherwise, they will prove a (perhaps wonderful) irrelevance.

For John this was not cold doctrine: it kept his hope alive and was the source of his joy. In his prayer, he knew his own `meanness and limitations’; but `You will not take from me my God, what you once gave me in your only Son Jesus Christ, in whom you gave me all I long for; so I shall rejoice: you will not delay, if I do not fail to hope.’?

That is the gift: not just what Jesus said, but who he personally is: the Word, who reveals by being given, and who speaks by being.

This is the risen Christ, spoken once into history, and now eternally alive. He is the event of faith who `gives us an experience of God’. Risen — available, impinging, pressing to come in, held out to us as given. So for `anyone who wanted to question God’ or who sought to receive `some vision or revelation’, the Father would present this manifesto:

`If I have already said all things to you in my Word, my Son, and if I have no other, what kind of answer could I give you now, or what could I reveal that would surpass this? Set your eyes on him alone, because in him I have said it all to you [...] and you will find in him even more than you are asking, more even than you desire. [...] He is my total locution and vision, my total revelation and the whole of my reply. This I have already spoken to you, [...] giving him to you as Brother, Companion, Master, Ransom and Reward’s.

In Canticle there is a different atmosphere. The darkness there is more of the heart than the mind,’ where the bride, for all her clarity, feels rootless, homeless, until the Other is at her centre. The search is in the key of love, with its own kind of gift and its own way of receiving. The gift is `Christ, the Bridegroom’. If she keeps `turning over and handling these mysteries [...] of faith, she will deserve that love disclose what faith contains: the Bridegroom’.

The point is that love takes the person on a journey deeper into him. Deeper, but always into him. Canticle brings waves of understanding, unveiling each time what was there from the beginning. It is as if one heard a drama on the radio about children being saved from drowning; then it turns out to be a news item, not a drama; then one discovers the children are one’s own children.

So, the bride’s search starts off with a meditation on the mysteries of Jesus — meaning Jesus born, tempted, teaching, healing, praying, sweating, dying, rising. She begins with this. As she goes further, she comes … to the mysteries of Jesus; surpassing that she reaches … the mysteries of Jesus; until finally, in the utter newness of heaven, she will be overwhelmed by the mysteries of Jesus.

What began, then, as wholesome piety (Ascent of Mt. Carmel Book One, 13), develops into a raging sore (Canticle, Second Redaction, 7) — Give me no more messages: `You be the messenger and the message!’ What was felt as a sore, becomes a healing (Canticle, Second Redaction, 22). She had been involved all along in the life of the Healer (Canticle, Second Redaction 23). The layers keep unfolding, until finally the Healer becomes her home, his mysteries the living space in which both can be alive (Canticle, Second Redaction 37). She, and he, enter the caverns, las cavernas, which are himself.

And so up to the caverns,
set deep into the rock
– almost out of sight –
we’ll find a way to enter,
there to taste the pomegranate wine
(Canticle stanza 32).

`O my dove, in the clefts of the rock …’ (Song of Songs 2:14). Using Solomon’s language, John’s stanza reflects for him the union for which he has been striving, and anticipates the fullness of heaven. The commentary is a pivotal chapter.

The caverns, the living space, are the mysteries of Jesus. Entering means taking on the shape of Jesus’ life so as to meet Jesus’s heart.

`The soul longs really to enter these caverns, Christ’s caverns, so that she might indeed be absorbed, transformed, drunk with the love their wisdom contains, hiding herself in the heart of her Beloved.’

The caverns remain even in heaven: the risen Christ is what he is now, because of all he went through then. All he experienced then is alive in him. His earthliness is risen; but being risen, its vitality is infinite. John has emphasized the otherness of God. The journey into the heart of Christ which Canticle traces does not compromise that. In Christ, God’s otherness is communicated, not dissolved. For John, Christ is himself the receding depth which makes the divine `always new and increasingly amazing’.

`However much saintly teachers have discovered and holy people understood [...] the greater part remains to be said, and even to be understood. There is much to fathom in Christ. He is like a huge mine with seam after seam of treasures. However deeply you dig, never will you find an end or come to a conclusion …’

John does say that the time may come, in prayer, when it will be unhelpful to spend energy picturing gospel scenes. That is fair enough: what we want is the person, not pictures of the person. But there is nothing secondary about the role of Christ. John knows him, not as a potential hindrance, but as the universe’s open sluice-gate to the divine. He is the only place from which one can gaze on the Father unrestrictedly: `thanking the Father and loving him anew with great delight and feeling, through his Son Jesus Christ. And this she does united with Christ, together with Christ.’

Heaven will be that: a total entry into the caverns of Christ’s heart, an infinite space for the Father.

That accounts for Jesus’ place in half of the dynamic: the gift, the All, faith as presence. Unequivocally, John names it as the Son of God risen in his flesh. Jesus is that half of the dynamic.

What about the other half: the space, nada, faith as darkness? There is a hint back in Book 2 Ascent Chapter 22: part of the Father’s manifesto there runs like this:

`If you want me to answer with some word of comfort, look at my Son, subject to me and subjected, afflicted, out of love for me — and you will see how many words of comfort he will speak to you.’

When the Son speaks comfort, he speaks it with the strength of experience. His gift is, first, his companionship. Another hinge chapter (the one we hopped over in the summary of Book Two of Ascent) drives this implacably home.

As it becomes clear that John’s program can lead not just to upright behavior, but to inner poverty and total emptiness, it is hardly surprising that we may feel misgivings. That is where John’s hinge chapter, Book 2 Ascent 7, aims to meet us.

He does need to meet us. He needs to ground his invitation to go forward on sometimes naked faith, and on a love that can lead one to die for the other. That is the active side; but more than that, all he has to say about the obscurity that can submerge one’s horizons, till it fogs out the lighting of the soul, that, especially, needs justifying.

The undergirding has to address the whole program, not just part of the program. The hinge chapter comes in Ascent, the work ostensibly about the active side of our journey. It is Night that focuses on the passive side, on the darkness that comes upon us and can empty out one’s inmost spirit. But, in the mind of the author, Ascent and Night are two halves of a single project, in which he shows that the night which comes upon us is his real concern.

He looks towards that from the start, and when he has dealt with that, he feels that `the main reason for my setting to work’ has been addressed. When, in the chapter we are looking at now, he takes time out to underpin his message, the whole message, especially `the main’ message, is in view.

John reasons like this: I know that what I am saying seems to be stretching things, so I want to show that it comes, not from me, but from Christ.

He begins with Jesus’ words. The call to discipleship means a narrow gate and a tight passage; it means denying self, taking a cross, and following. Here, losing life is gaining; it is cup, sweet yoke, entry to the sheepfold. When a person goes forward without pay-offs, in darkness, dryness, to please God, that is `the cross, pure and spiritual, nakedness of spirit, the poverty of Christ’.

What John has to say, then, he believes to be thoroughly unoriginal. It is lifted straight from the gospel. Still, words are not enough. It is not enough for Jesus to have said, `night’; it is important in John’s view that he should also have experienced it, since `he is our example and our light’.

This introduces the great statement. As we said, it has to be strong enough to carry all the weight of pain that John is going to plumb in succeeding chapters. That means not just the struggle of effort (‘active’), but the reversal that comes upon us (‘passive’); not only at the level of physical hardship or pain (‘sense’), but at the more inward level that shakes or stifles me as a person (‘spirit’). There has to be a home here for the person who has come to feel `abandoned’ by God, fit to be `loathed by everyone and everything’ — even by God — `for ever’. John’s logic here is almost too daring. It is worth reading the passage gently:

`… progress lies only in imitating Christ: he is the way and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by him … So any person who wanted to go forward in sweetness and ease and ran from imitating Christ, well, I would not be happy about it.

Since I have said that Christ is the way, and that this way means dying to our natural selves in sense and spirit, I would like to show how this is modelled on Christ, since he is our example and light.

First of all [referring then to sense], there is no doubt that Christ died to sense — spiritually, during his life; and naturally, at his death. For, as he said himself, in his life he had nowhere to lay his head; and at his death, he had less.

Second, [so, the level of spirit] it is certain that at the moment of death he was also annihilated in soul, without any comfort or relief; the Father left him that way in innermost dryness, according to the lower part. That is why he was compelled to cry out, `My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?’ This was the most extreme feeling of forsakenness he had had in his life. And by it he did his greatest work — greater than any he had done in his life, however, miraculous, on earth or in heaven. That is, he reconciled and united the human race with God through grace.

This he did, as I say; at the time, the very moment when this Lord was most annihilated in all things: in his human reputation, since in seeing him die people mocked him instead of in any way valuing him; in his natural self, since there he was annihilated in dying; and in support and in spiritual comfort from the Father, since at that time he deserted him, so that he might pay the debt without qualification and might unite humankind with God – staying like that, annihilated, and reduced as to nothing.’

For John, the experience of God’s love is truest when it is too deep for words. In a related way, his picture of Christ’s love – annihilated, contorted, deserted — is too deep for comment.

What follows, then, is footnote rather than explanation.

It is vital not to minimalize the scope of what John says here, because it is one of Christianity’s greatest appreciations of the death of its Lord, and to short-change it would be to take away from believers something they may one day, in their own pain, need desperately to hear.

It has been suggested that John stops short of associating Jesus with the night of the spirit. The inclusion of the phrases, `according to the lower part’, and `feeling of’ in the fourth paragraph are seen as John’s way of drawing back from that association.

This is incorrect. The whole point of the chapter is to prepare the reader to accept whatever will come in the rest of the work. If Jesus were being proposed as a model only of more peripheral pain (for all its terror), that would make the chapter pointless. `You can go there because Christ has been there’; that is John’s logic.

What is more, Jesus is especially associated with that inner pain which bites at the level of spirit: `annihilated in soul’, `innermost dryness’, no `spiritual’ comfort. And despite the location of the passage in a book (Book II Ascent) ostensibly about the `active night’ (what we do), Jesus’ night was all about what happened to him — the more penetrating `passive night’. Jesus knew the night where what should not be, is.

John, like Aquinas, does talk about Jesus’ physical pain and his loss of reputation. But John is determined to follow through the consequences of the Cross. For him, the real focus is in Jesus’ relationship with his Father. That is where he feels abandoned. Jesus retrieves the sinner, the human race of sinners, by walking the sinner’s distance from the Father and retrieving him there.

Why, then, the phrases `lower part’ and `feeling of’?.

We are capable of knowing at one level and not knowing at another: there is the knowledge of words, of images, of concept, of feeling, of presence. A person can know their name, but not be thinking of their name. Someone in love can be concentrating on question four of their mathematics exam, and still know they are in love. This is all obvious enough. But the layering of the human spirit seems to go further. A person can know God more and be able to talk about God less. The saints can know hellish darkness and still speak of a kind of peace — but still be going through hellish darkness. The mystics are familiar with depths of spirit which have their own mode of knowing, untranslatable on to more customary levels.

It is human, then, to know and not to know at the same time. So, presumably, with the Son-made-human, Jesus, whose spirit is an unfathomable mine. To speak of ‘lower’ allows there still to be a ‘higher’, an even deeper. So John’s phrases, ‘lower part’, ‘feeling’, are his way of allowing, through traditional terminology, that the crucified Jesus, annihilated at all the levels with which we are familiar, was still, at a level deeper or higher than his thinking mind and feeling heart, at the fine-point of his spirit, uniquely in communion with his Father. The annihilation of the cross as it were scraped off every other layer to let that layer pulsate unrestrainedly. On the cross, the heart of Jesus became a massive space for the fire of the Spirit to burn — free to blaze out, `more intense than all the fires in the world,’ in resurrection.

Something else worth noting: the words ‘most extreme forsakenness — greatest work — greater than any other he had done’ ring a bell. They follow the same pattern as John’s statement about the primacy of love. ‘A little of this pure love is more precious to God … and of more benefit to the Church, even though it seems to be doing nothing, than all those other works put together.’ John learned that from Jesus. And Jesus taught him the nature of that love. That ‘pure love’ may bring radiant elation. On the other hand it may feel as rough as a splintered cross-beam. It may come as dryness, darkness, the over-exacting demand not to renege on one’s integrity. If it does, John says, know that you are not alone, and that you are helping to save the world.

John ends the passage by making that connection:

‘This is so that the really spiritual person might understand […) that the more annihilated she be for God […) the more is she united with God, and the greater the work she does. It doesn’t consist, then, in good times or sweet spiritual feelings, but in a living, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior, death on the cross.’

Why does John say that in Ascent, but not in the book where he describes the spirit’s stripping, the Night? On careful reading, Jesus is present in Night: it is love for him that empowers the person’s search; union with him, the `Son of God’, is the goal that makes it all worthwhile; and the `immense love of Christ the Word’, the risen Christ who kept the disciples’ hope alive, appears, furtively, at points in the drama. Jesus is present at the start and the close, and odd moments in between. But for most of the book, he does not appear.

That ties in with the main point of the book Night. The book means to tell us, not so much what is actually happening in the night of spirit, but how it feels. John wants to prepare us for night by simulating its crude obscurity as much as literature can. What night feels is `senseless’. `If I knew God was in it, I could go through with it’, but the point is that God feels not to be in it. That is what makes it night. John wants us to be prepared for that, and, in that, not to panic.

Godless is how it feels. Actually, the darkness of spirit which John plumbs is divine light too close to focus, love felt as pain.

That said, the face of Christ is not so far from the Night picture as at first seems. He is there, but there from the inside. The journey is not any journey. It is a way of the ‘cross’.  It is hanging in mid-air, unable to breathe. It is the belly of the whale, the belly of the earth, the `sepulchre of dark death’, prelude to `the resurrection’.

In the night, Jesus is not only `there’. His dying and rising is an active force, prone, if allowed, to unfold its compacted meaning. He shapes us from within. The nada is his emptiness. The darkness that can eat into human life, with its threat of isolation and appearance of chaos, has taken on Christ’s contours. It has become a space for his Father to fill.

`Jesus’ is far from secondary to this sixteenth-century Spaniard. But he does view him in a particular light, and this has its consequences. He dares to propose him as model in the night, at its worst — the terrible night, horrenda noche. The texts mean that, whatever the person may be suffering, Jesus has touched and sanctified that abyss. Jesus may not have shared the pain in kind — he did not know what it was to grow old, to lose a child, or to sin. But he has searched out every pain in intensity. The suffering of the Son of God, wrecked, mocked, deserted and Godforsaken, offers a home for everyone’s sorrow.

John’s vision, then, has consequences. It means that I am never alone; wherever I may have to go, Jesus has been there, Jesus is there. John’s Christ is the understanding Christ, the Christ who knows what it is like to be me.

However, if Christ’s companionship is that far-reaching, and his love is that dynamic, John’s vision commits believers, not simply to acknowledging formulae about Jesus, or to following a benign ethic; it commits them to allowing Jesus to work out his dying and rising in their lives.

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  1. I’m enjoying the posts on Saint John of the Cross very much. Thanks for posting them!

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