Duruelo is a sleepy remote town in Spain. Still preserved up to this day, the simplicity and the austerity of life in that small chapel John of the Cross and three other friars started a new community, 450 years ago. When I had the chance to visit this chapel, I noticed the crosses on the walls are made of branches and twigs tied together by a rope. They didn’t think of expanding; they were just faithful in what they were supposed to be doing.
Keeping the spirit of what made him a doctor of the Church; the vestiges are reminders of the saint’s teaching on the Dark Night. Some terms we equate when we hear of Dark Night: sufferings, trials, sacrifices, crises, detachment, poverty, persecutions, mortifications, purifications, etc. The problem is that people stay on these terms. They did not go beyond the meaning of the experience. Perceived by many as a “gloomy saint,” many misunderstood St. John of the Cross to be someone difficult to imitate.
If you look at John of the Cross’ physical appearance, he is not an ideal good-looking hunk or a gentleman knight in chivalry. He was a small man, measuring 4’11”. St. Teresa affectionately called St. John “half-a-friar.” And yet his appearance deceived what he accomplished. Truly a man of great caliber: an artist, a writer, a music lover, a religious, a confessor, a spiritual director, a priest, a reformer, a saint, a mystic, a theologian, a Doctor of the Church. He has received the title, “the loftiest poet of Spain;” “the most poetic among the theologians; the most theological among the poets.”
John of the Cross early first-hand acquaintance with deprivation and persecution might more easily have brought forth bitterness and grudges; instead, the result was a man purified and enlightened by LOVE. How did it all begin? It all started in the family.
It was from his parents that John of the Cross love’s greatest influence came from. Gonzalo, his father, was a very wealthy, young man when one day on a business trip saw a very poor orphaned lowly silk weaver young woman, in the name of Catalina. They fell in love though it was against all odds. When the relatives of Gonzalo in Toledo learn about it, they completely disown him and disinherited him. Despite the terrible sacrifice, their love flourished. This left an imprint on John of the Cross heart, an understanding of what true love is; he learned from his father that love is worth dying for. John would later write, “O living flame of love! How soothingly you wound… The taste of heaven around! Death done; you lift us living from the tomb” (Living Flame of Love).
His widowed mother taught him this extraordinary LOVE. She would look for bread to feed her children first. She traversed around 200 kilometres distance to ask help from her brother in law whom she expects to help because he was a clergy. To her dismay, he slammed the door in her face. John of the Cross later wrote: Love itself “when love burned bright with yearning, I arose…and how I left none knows – dead to the world my heart in deep repose;… no other light, no guide, except for my heart – the fire of love inside!… That led me on…to where there waited no one” (Dark Night).
I love St. John of the Cross. He is a man who knows how to suffer, not for its’ own sake. He knows that suffering in itself has no value if it’s not done out of love. He challenges but at the same time he comforts with his words of love and understanding. He demands but at the same time understands the frailty of human nature. He is austere but at the same time gentle and compassionate. He speaks of mortification and detachment but always in the context of loving. He reminds us that we have been bought by a great price. No suffering, no trial, no persecution can ever make us repay what Jesus did out of love, except to love Him back. “If this is the only way I can show my love to you, I am willing to suffer.” Suffering finds its meaning only in love.
Suffering is made possible only because there is a great love hidden behind that suffering. What matters most in our suffering is not the intensity of the pain, but the intensity of love.
John of the Cross experienced it first hand, with his own brothers in Carmel. His brothers persecuted him because they saw him overly zealous in faithfulness, and so they put him in prison. The room was 10 X 6 feet; with a very small opening high in the wall being his only source of light. In his prison cell, all he had was his breviary. Soon he would feel the effects of the terrible cold of Toledo and would find the skin coming off his toes from frostbite. After the meal on Fridays, he had to bare his shoulders and undergo the circular discipline. Each person present struck him in turn with a lash. St. John bore the scars of these beatings throughout his life. Here he was to spend nine months, solitary, hungry, in an atmosphere with an unpleasant smell, wasting away, with no other light than that which came in the wall of the tiny cell. He was flogged, starved, and told to forsake his commitment to the rule. These nine months of suffering became John’s dark night of the soul.
After his imprisonment was over, St. John of the Cross never said a word against those who had treated him so badly. But instead, he describes his experience in his poem, The Spiritual Canticle: Where have you hidden, Beloved, and left me moaning? You fled like the stag, after wounding me: I went out calling you, but you were gone. Instead of blaming his brothers, he searches for enlightenment from above. Instead of complaining, he was in search of the meaning of his suffering. It is the wound of love continually bleeding each day. The wound love is painful and yet soothing to the soul.
Some years ago we visited Segovia, Spain. We took the bus on our own. When we arrived there, we were told by the tourist officer to just follow the direction in the map, and you will find the church of St. John. Standing in front of the Church we found out, it was St. John the Baptist Church and is opposite the direction of the location of St. John of the Cross sepulchre. Thirsty, hungry, and tired, we walked back for an hour and found ourselves finally at St. John of the Cross sepulchre. We inquired an elderly friar who was blessing a car. Unfortunately, he doesn’t understand any English. We were advised to wait for 2 hours. And so we waited. So thirsty, that I wanted to drink already the water on the faucet. Finally, we were able to enter inside the chapel with the rest of the other guests. As we were about to leave the monastery, we boldly introduced ourselves again. We show our ID, we are from Asia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Taiwan. “We are Carmelites.” The friars rang the bell and call the entire community when they realized we were Carmelite priests. We were treated with sumptuous merienda that we didn’t bother taking dinner after. They even call a taxi for us and brought us back to the bus terminal. In the bus, I reflected at the experience: And so this is how John of the Cross felt when he was ignored and rejected by his own brothers. Ours was only very light.
My dear friends, “In the evening of life, you will be judged on love alone” as St John of the Cross says. He is not a Doctor of Dark Night; John of the Cross is a Doctor of Divine Love. In his Maxims, he says: “The soul that walks in love neither rests nor grows tired” (Maxims and Counsels, 18). “Love consists not in feeling great things, but in suffering for the Beloved” (Maxims and Counsels, 36). “If suffering is the only way to show my love, I will do it.”
Fr. Haluendo Rafael A. Amit, OCD