Every single man’s life is a God’s story inscribed in the story of humanity. The story of every saint’s life has something special to say about God.
John of the Cross – a man of non-opposite opposites
Many times I hear opinion that there are many realities in life impossible to reconcile: faith and daily life, prayer and family, religion and modern morality, Church and politics, work and rest.
With this exact mentality of „but it can’t be reconciled” I am going to analize the life of Saint John of the Cross.
The Saint, as little boy, lost his father. His family lives very poorly. John is brought up together with his brother only by his mother. In young age he is student, nurse, fundraiser at the same time; young boy who works among the sick and leans over stinking wounds, but he never loses enthusiasm.
How is he seen in Carmelite Order before the first community of Discalced is formed in Duruelo (1568)? On exterior very short, only 5 feet tall, pale (which deserves his nickname „unripe pumpkin”). As religious he is not link to any statement, but characterized by extraordinary transparency of heart. He is a confessor whom both lay and religious trust.
How is he seen in the Order of Discalced Carmelites? John is always ready to welcome, listen and console brothers, he seems to never get disturbed. He take care in a special way for good nutrition for the sick, good medical care, the most expensive medicines necessary in treatment, and even for good humor. He is critical and doesn’t tolerate that the sick brothers will be translated to an hospital with the pretext of receiving there better care.
It is said about John that he is a man of contemplation, prayer, silence, ascetics and regular life. Without doubt his works confirm this kind of a style that may seem a form of escape from the problems of everyday life. But the reality is different. This man of not so good health leads the new order becoming a simply worker who participates directly in construction of every convent, who travels a lot. It is said that during his life he traversed 25 thousand km, majority walking or riding a mule.
Saint John is a man of action, who is constantly interested in formation of the brothers, specially novices – the fundament of newly born order. He is a confessor and spiritual director of many persons. Therefore: prayer and deed, action and contemplation, God and person – no opposites, but natural conflict-free cohesion.
This extraordinary capacity of uniting opposites, and extraordinary peace of heart inspite of difficulties, can be clearly seen during his 9 month long stay in convent prison. John desires good, reforms the Order, wants renewal. And what is the reaction? He is punished and persecuted by his own brothers. Closed for 9 months, he spends this time in a small space without light, fresh air, cold in winter, hot in summer, among fasting and psychological pressure coming from the community. He could get broken, resent his grievance to God, people, community. Everyone has forgotten him… But what happens in this time? John discovers his poetical capacities and his difficult experience of God’s work he describes in a form of the most beautiful poems, hailed to be the pearls of Spanish poetry. Among them, Spiritual Canticle, the Dark Night and the Source.
Once in the dark of night,
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose
(O coming of delight!)
And went, as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose
O guiding dark of night!
O dark of night more darling than the dawn!
O night that can unite
A lover and loved one,
Lover and loved one moved in unison.
Through poetry John tries to understand the strange acting of God and the unfair treatment he receives from people. Those 9 months is the exact time that the new life needs to come to the world. And that’s true, after this event a new John is born… Following opposites: the world of God and the world of people, bitterness of rejection and beauty of interior experiences are united.
Nevertheless, the greatest non-opposite opposites are seen when the Saints draws Your spiritual journey of life – the journey of friendship with God. The Spanish Mystic shows first the beautiful, fascinating and reachable goal – the fundament of your spiritual life, and later he presents demanding effort of choosing this goal every single day.
What is this goal, this fundament of your life in spirit? He writes in Spiritual Canticle:
O you soul, then, most beautiful of creatures, who so long to know the place where your Beloved is, that you may seek Him, and be united to Him, you know now that you are yourself that very tabernacle where He dwells, the secret chamber of His retreat where He is hidden. Rejoice, therefore,and exult, because all your good and all your hope is so near you as to be within you; or, to speak more accurately, that you can not be without it, “for lo, the kingdom of God is within you.”(Lc 17:21) So says the Bridegroom Himself, and His servant, St. Paul, adds: “You are the temple of the living God.”(2Cor 6:16) What joy for the soul to learn that God never abandons it, even in mortal sin; how much less in a state of grace! What more can you desire, what more can you seek without, seeing that within you have your riches, your delight, your satisfaction, your fullness and your kingdom; that is, your Beloved, Whom you desire and seek? Rejoice, then, and be glad in Him with interior recollection, seeing that you have Him so near. Then love Him, then desire Him, then adore Him, and go not to seek Him out of yourself… (SC 1,8-9)
And how your daily choice of this goal should look like? He says in Ascent of Mount Carmel:
not after that which is most easy, but after that which is most difficult.
Not after that which is most pleasant, but after that which is most unpleasant.
Not after that which giveth pleasure, but after that which giveth none.
Not after that which is consoling, but after that which is afflictive.
Not after that which ministers repose, but after that which ministers labour.
Not after great things, but after little things.
Not after that which is higher and precious, but after that which is lower and despised.
Strive not to desire anything, but rather nothing.
Seek not after that which is better, but after that which is worse, and desire to be detached from all things, empty and poor for Christ’s sake. This state is to be embraced with perfect heart, and the will must conform thereto. Because if our heart be truly engaged in these efforts, we shall in short time attain to great joy and consolation therein, doing our work orderly with discretion” (Ascent of Mount Carmel I,13,6).
To understand better these requirements, let us compare it with the modern prayer of Mother Therese of Calcutta:
Lord, When I am hungry, send me someone to feed;
When I am thirsty, send me someone who needs a drink;
When I am cold, send me someone to warm;
When I am sad, send me someone to cheer;
When I need understanding, send me someone who needs mine;
When I need to be looked after, send me someone to care for;
When I think only of myself, draw my thoughts to another.
So let us pray as though everything depends on God, and work as though God depends on us for everything. Amen
Saint John with courage walks the road of his own choices because he sees the goal, he desires God who awaits at the end of this road. And given that this goal is of great value, even your human logic will tell you that the means need to be proportional, meaning demanding. Your goal is God, and means are to receive the way God thinks and acts shown to us in Jesus. And again in this offer of John there are no opposites – unity of goal and means leading to it: contemplation and action, abandonment and closeness, beautiful goal and difficult means.
Fr. Mariusz Wójtowicz OCD