John of the Cross and the Mystery of Love

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of one of its great mystics, St. John of the Cross. John was friend and confidant to another of the great mystics of the Church, Teresa of Avala and, like Teresa and many other mystics, expressed his experience of God in poetry.

One of John’s poems is a beautiful one for us as in this latter part of Advent. It is titled Romances – First Romance: On the Gospel “In principio erat Verbum,” Regarding the Most Blessed Trinity.

In the beginning the Word
was; he lived in God
and possessed in him
his infinite happiness.
That same Word was God,
who is the Beginning;
he was in the beginning
and had no beginning.
He was himself the Beginning
and therefore had no beginning.
The Word is called Son;
he was born of the Beginning
who had always conceived him,
giving of his substance always,
yet always possessing it.
And thus the glory of the Son
was the Father’s glory,
and the Father possessed
all his glory in the Son.
As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that unites them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all three.
One love in them all
makes of them one Lover,
and the Lover is the Beloved
in whom each one lives.
For the being that the three possess
each of them possesses,
and each of them loves
him who bears this being.
Each one is this being,
which alone unites them,
binding them deeply,
one beyond words.
Thus it is a boundless Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.

This love of which John speaks is the love into which we are invited by our God. What an invitation!

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Memorial of St. John of the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of John of the Cross, one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians and considered by some to be Spain’s greatest lyrical poet.  

In The Ascent of Mount Carmel (one of two works that began as a series of poems written while he as in prison), John of the Cross warns against the dangers of dwelling on supernatural apprehensions that may arise in prayer. It is an important warning, because many fall into the trap of thinking the supernatural stuff is the point. But his warning is even more generally applicable in regard to the dangers of self-esteem and vanity that may arise in those following a spiritual path.  He writes:

These supernatural apprehensions of the memory, if esteemed, are also for spiritual persons a decided occasion for slipping into some presumption of vanity. Since anyone not receiving these is liberated from falling into this vice, because nothing within him warrants this presumption, so, on the other hand, anyone receiving them will be exposed to the idea that he is now worth something on account of these supernatural communications. Though, indeed, a person, in considering himself unworthy, can attribute them to God and be thankful for them, yet there usually remains in the spirit a certain hidden satisfaction and an esteem both for the communication and for oneself. Consequently, without one’s realizing it, an abundant spiritual pride will be bred.

This is quite evident form the displeasure and aversion these individuals feel toward anyone who does not laud their spirit nor value their communications, and from the affliction they experience upon thinking or being told that others receive the same favors or even better ones. All this is born of hidden self-esteem and pride. And these persons are not fully aware that they are steeped in pride….[T]hey are full of hidden self-esteem and satisfaction, more pleased with their own spirit and spiritual goods than with those of their neighbor. They resemble the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like other men, and that he had the various virtues, and who from the thought of these virtues derived self-satisfaction and presumption….Since they observe interiorly some apprehensions and devout and sweet feelings, which they think are of divine origin, they become self-satisfied to the extent of thinking that they are very close to God, and that others who are without them are very far from Him, and, like the Pharisee, they look down upon these others….

[A]ll the visions, revelations, and feelings from heaven, or whatever else one may desire to think upon, are not worth as much as the least act of humility. Humility has the effect of charity; it neither esteems nor seeks its own, it thinks no evil save of self, it thinks no good of self but of others.

During this Advent season, as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, you might spend some time reflecting on John’s words and asking yourself:

Are there times when you feel your own spiritual progress makes you “better” than others? 

Do feelings of pride and self-esteem arise in respect of your spiritual practice? 

And, perhaps most importantly: How do you need God to be with you to combat those feelings? 

John of the Cross was one of the mystics we prayed with during the 2008, Retreat in Daily Living at UST Law School on the theme, Praying with the Mystics that I offered at UST Law School. Here is a recording of the reflection I gave to the participants that day.

Poetry of John of the Cross

Today is the memorial of St. John of the Cross, not only one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians, but one of Spain’s greatest lyrical poets. (He was also a great friend and confidante of one of my favorites of the mystics, Teresa of Avila, who also wrote some wonderful poetry.)

One of John’s shorter poems is titled, Romances – First Romance: On the Gospel “In principio erat Verbum,” Regarding the Most Blessed Trinity. It is a wonderful poem to reflect on in the Advent season.

In the beginning the Word
was; he lived in God
and possessed in him
his infinite happiness.
That same Word was God,
who is the Beginning;
he was in the beginning
and had no beginning.
He was himself the Beginning
and therefore had no beginning.
The Word is called Son;
he was born of the Beginning
who had always conceived him,
giving of his substance always,
yet always possessing it.
And thus the glory of the Son
was the Father’s glory,
and the Father possessed
all his glory in the Son.
As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that unites them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all three.
One love in them all
makes of them one Lover,
and the Lover is the Beloved
in whom each one lives.
For the being that the three possess
each of them possesses,
and each of them loves
him who bears this being.
Each one is this being,
which alone unites them,
binding them deeply,
one beyond words.
Thus it is a boundless Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.

Several years ago, during a reflection series titled Praying with the Mystics, I gave a short reflection on John of the Cross, which you can listen to listen to below or download here. (The podcast runs for 14:20.)

St. John of the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of St. John of the Cross, called the Doctor of Mystical Theology. John was a 16th Century Spanish monk and one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians (as well as one of Spain’s greatest lyrical poets).

John wanted nothing more than to be a hermit. But then he met Teresa of Avila, who enlisted him in her plans to reform the Carmelites, thus pulling him into a life of public service and controversy.

One of John’s most persistent prayers was that God would enable him “to suffer and be despised,” and his opponents in the Carmelite order helped answer that prayer. 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 were pushing. He escaped from that prison, reportedly by picking the lock of his cell, slipping past a guard and climbing out a window using a rope made of strips of blankets.

John lived a life of constant prayer and during his imprisonment he composed poems. Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel, both classics of Western Christian writing, began as a series of prison poems. Subsequent to his release, he wrote long commentaries on these and others of his poems.

In 1591, John became ill from fevers and gangrenous sores on his leg. By December his condition worsened and he asked for last rights on December 11th. Two days later he asked forgiveness for any problems he may have caused. He died as the clock struck midnight (as he had predicted, so he could sing matins in heaven). On his lips as he died were the words of Christ: “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

In the darkness as well as in the light, John found God. He is a model of faith in God, especially at those times when God seems absent or far away.

St. John of the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the memorial of St. John of the Cross, one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians. He was also a great friend and confidant of St. Teresa of Avila, and, despite the fact his own leanings were toward a more hermitic life, he became involved in her plans to reform the Carmelites, thus pulling him into a life of public service and controversy. (One time, he was imprisoned for nine months for refusing to renounce the Carmelite reforms he and Teresa were pushing.)

John of the Cross is also considered by many to be Spain’s greatest lyrical poet. One commentator suggested that “as a poet, he ranks with the greatest.”

One of John’s shorter poems is titled, Romances – First Romance: On the Gospel “In principio erat Verbum,” Regarding the Most Blessed Trinity. As I re-read it, it struck me as a wonderful poem to share during this Advent season.

In the beginning the Word
was; he lived in God
and possessed in him
his infinite happiness.
That same Word was God,
who is the Beginning;
he was in the beginning
and had no beginning.
He was himself the Beginning
and therefore had no beginning.
The Word is called Son;
he was born of the Beginning
who had always conceived him,
giving of his substance always,
yet always possessing it.
And thus the glory of the Son
was the Father’s glory,
and the Father possessed
all his glory in the Son.
As the lover in the beloved
each lived in the other,
and the Love that unites them
is one with them,
their equal, excellent as
the One and the Other:
Three Persons, and one Beloved
among all three.
One love in them all
makes of them one Lover,
and the Lover is the Beloved
in whom each one lives.
For the being that the three possess
each of them possesses,
and each of them loves
him who bears this being.
Each one is this being,
which alone unites them,
binding them deeply,
one beyond words.
Thus it is a boundless Love that unites them,
for the three have one love
which is their essence;
and the more love is one
the more it is love.

Praying with St. John of the Cross

This week, the participants in my Praying with the Mystics retreat in daily living are praying with John of the Cross, one of the most acclaimed of the Christian mystical theologians and considered by some to be Spain’s greatest lyrical poet.  (Two of John’s great works, Dark Night of the Soul and Ascent of Mount Carmel, began as a series of poems written while John was in prison.) 

In The Ascent of Mount Carmel, John of the Cross warns against the dangers of dwelling on supernatural apprehensions that may arise in prayer. His words, however, are more generally applicable in regard to the dangers of self-esteem and vanity that may arise in those following a spiritual path.  (The last line of the quoted passage fits particularly well with today’s Gospel.)  He writes:

These supernatural apprehensions of the memory, if esteemed, are also for spiritual persons a decided occasion for slipping into some presumption of vanity. Since anyone not receiving these is liberated from falling into this vice, because nothing within him warrants this presumption, so, on the other hand, anyone receiving them will be exposed to the idea that he is now worth something on account of these supernatural communications. Though, indeed, a person, in considering himself unworthy, can attribute them to God and be thankful for them, yet there usually remains in the spirit a certain hidden satisfaction and an esteem both for the communication and for oneself. Consequently, without one’s realizing it, an abundant spiritual pride will be bred.

This is quite evident form the displeasure and aversion these individuals feel toward anyone who does not laud their spirit nor value their communications, and from the affliction they experience upon thinking or being told that others receive the same favors or even better ones. All this is born of hidden self-esteem and pride. And these persons are not fully aware that they are steeped in pride….[T]hey are full of hidden self-esteem and satisfaction, more pleased with their own spirit and spiritual goods than with those of their neighbor. They resemble the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like other men, and that he had the various virtues, and who from the thought of these virtues derived self-satisfaction and presumption….Since they observe interiorly some apprehensions and devout and sweet feelings, which they think are of divine origin, they become self-satisfied to the extent of thinking that they are very close to God, and that others who are without them are very far from Him, and, like the Pharisee, they look down upon these others….

[A]ll the visions, revelations, and feelings from heaven, or whatever else one may desire to think upon, are not worth as much as the least act of humility. Humility has the effect of charity; it neither esteems nor seeks its own, it thinks no evil save of self, it thinks no good of self but of others.

I suggested that the participants in the retreat spend one of their days of prayer this week considering John’s words and asking themselves: Are there times when you feel your own spiritual progress makes you “better” than others?  Do feelings of pride and self-esteem arise in respect of your spiritual practice?  And, perhaps most importantly: How do you need God to be with you to combat those feelings?  Useful questions for all of us to put to ourselves.

During our retreat meeting on Tuesday, I recorded my introductory talk on John of the Cross.  You can download or listen to the podcast (which runs for 14:20) here.