John of the Cross and the Dark Night

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John of the Cross, one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians.  One commentator observed that “John has no peers when it comes to explaining and guiding others to a complete and total union with God in prayer through the mystical and contemplative life.”

One of John’s most persistent prayers was that God would enable him “to suffer and be despised,” a prayer his opponents in the Carmelite order helped answer. He was repeatedly kidnapped, imprisoned and even tortured. At one point, he was imprisoned for six months deep in the bowels of a Carmelite monastery. It was so cold he developed frostbite and he was given so little food that, in the words of one author, “anyone less accustomed to fasting might have given up in despair.”  At another time, he was imprisoned for nine months for refusing to renounce the Carmelite reforms he and Teresa of Avila were promoting.

John’s theology was in the category of apophatic or negative theology.  He believed that before we approach God, we must first own up to the fact that all our ideas and concepts about God may be completely erroneous and may actually hinder us from reaching him as he is. He insisted that only by going through a “dark night” process that could take “some years” would we be stripped of our false assumptions and natural predispositions, enabling us to encounter God in spirit and truth. John spoke of the need “to strip ourselves of everything that is not God, for God.” The idea is to stand before God “detached, stripped, pure and simple, with no way or manner of being.” This allows God to fill all that empty space with His love.

Although John is not always the easiest to read, he wrote some wonderful poetry, in addition to his longer works like Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel.  It might make some good reading during these last days of Advent.


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