Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Dec. 14, 2016: St. John of the Cross

Dec. 14, 2016: St. John of the Cross

(There is a grace awaiting for those who read this long post, prayerfully -Fr. Paul)

John of the Cross has been called ‘one of the world’s great simplifiers’.  One can look down what is a majestic tree-lined avenue, instead of coming upon it at a busy intersection in a maze of streets. The journey looks worth while, and possible.

‘If the person is seeking God, much more is her Beloved seeking her.’  This is the fact, and it requires a fundamental revision in our perceptions of our own roles.

Stranded and starving, somebody has to get packed up and sent off into the unknown to search for food, taking what water is left, hacking a way through the undergrowth, hoping somehow to forge a path to something somewhere. But then comes the noise of a helicopter, and rescue approaching. That changes everything. The one thing needed now is some space, so that what is coming can come.

This is the revision: for John, God is an approaching God, and our main job will be not to construct but to receive; the key word will be not so much ‘achievement’ as ‘space’. ‘Making space for God in order to receive.’ That this is John’s view of the Christian task may need some elaborating.

John uses two kinds of image in exploring our role. The first implies an earnest effort to attain. Climbing a mountain . . . Just after his escape, before his busier years in Baeza and Granada, John spent a few months in the foothills of the Segura mountains. His ministry there involved a
weekly journey of five or six miles over a hill to the sisters in Beas (the ones who had not been too sure about him when he first arrived). Retracing the journey, one can follow a meandering route which takes hours, leaving one hot and slightly irritated. There is, apparently, a more direct route. John would probably have made it his business to find this one, and take it.

To keep the sisters going while he was away, John wrote cards for each of them. One which he spread fairly widely (he made an estimated sixty copies) was a sketch of a mountain, with wide paths leading to dead ends, and one narrow path going direct to the summit. (Add the scrunch of sand and stones and we are with him on his route to Beas.) On the central path is the word ‘nada’ – ‘nothing’. It is repeated all the way up – nada, nada, nada, nada, nada, nada, and on the broad, spacious, sunkissed summit, nada: ‘Here there is no road, because for the just there is no law; she is her own law.’

The ‘nothing’ gets developed in the longer writings.
To come to savor all seek to find savor in nothing;
to come to possess all, seek possession in nothing;
to come to be all, seek in all to be nothing . . .
to come to what you know not. you must go by a way where you know not . . .
to come to what you are not you must go by a way where you are not.

This then is one image for ‘progress’: ascent. The image is demanding, radical, all-embracing. Here we come close to the gospel Jesus who asks for everything and evidently believes he is worth such a price. We come close too to the essence of loving, which, unless its dynamic is frustrated, will tend towards totality. At the same time, it is important to understand the ‘nothing’ correctly.

Here are some things it is not saying: ‘Christian progress means forsaking whatever gives joy.’ Of course not.
‘Christian progress means striving for perfection.’ Not quite this either, though John can use the word.

Apart from the fact that John intends to open a path to joy, and that his priority is not self-realization (perfection), but relationship (union), a view of the journey from those perspectives would suggest that Christianity is one more test of excellence, which, in exalting the prima donna, tells the majority not to bother auditioning. If God is so far away, and it is so hard, better to let the demands of the gospel, and its promise, slip off into the shadows.

Trying again, ‘Christian progress means: searching for the one who is giving joy to my life, who seems to believe in me, who makes me alive. When I am with him, every moment is a discovery; and being without him is like dying.’ This is, partly, what John is saying. That is why he writes, first, poetry, and why his poems relish the image of the lover’s quest.
Beloved – you wounded me – I went out – you were gone . . .

 If progress is an ascent, then it is not the lonely labour of the athletic Christian. John steps out with vigor because the Other’s love has ‘wounded’ him, and there can now be only one thing to care about. Ascent; lover’s quest, but both belong to one family of images, where the onus is on the person to take the steps towards encounter.

However, another kind of image is primary. We have seen it already in the symbol, ‘flame’. In this case, it is the flame that does the entering; and the essential activity belongs, not to us, but to the Other, to ‘the Spirit of her Bridegroom’.  In the Living Flame the entry is unimpeded and incandescent. Previously, as John portrays the journey, the approach felt more aggressive – like fire burning into wood, first making it sputter and steam, blacken and crackle, until the wood itself becomes flame.  But whether the flame is purifying or glorifying, it is the same ‘fire of love’ that is approaching, entering.

This thrust keeps recurring: sunlight shining, eyes gazing, a mother feeding, water flowing, images of a God who initiates and invades. In this family of images, the emphasis is not on our forging a way, but on our getting out of the way. Progress will be measured, less by ground covered, more by the amount of room God is given to maneuver. ‘Space’, ‘emptiness’, are key words; or, as John puts it, nada.

This is what gets a person up the mountain. It has to be so. If John’s writing springs from the impact of an invasive God, lavish in bestowing himself ‘wherever he finds space’,  the only meaningful asceticism would be the kind that clears the ground to make way for the onrush. All John has to say about our task must be interpreted in this light.

Writing to the Beas community, John speaks of people who ‘do not stay empty, so that God might fill them with his ineffable delight; so they leave God just as they came – not prose. It is welcome to a God who is coming in to fill. That is John’s vision. It has an immediate consequence. The crucial question is not, What must I achieve?, but, What stands in his way? We shall look at that next.

-Fr. Iain Matthew, "The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross"