It’s the feast of St. John of the Cross today. John was a 16th century Spanish mystic, saint and doctor of the Church. This all makes him sound very distant and pious, but he is really very down-to-earth, and his life and experience can teach us a lot about how to live happily and healthily in December 2020.
I met John on a retreat at Kopua monastery 15 years ago. I had heard of him before then but knew little more than his name. On that retreat one of the monks gave me a little book based on one of John’s poems, The Living Flame of Love and the retreat became for me a powerful experience of God leading through darkness.
When many people hear of John and his friend Teresa of Avila they might think of the “dark night of the soul”. That sounds pretty bleak and unwelcome, but through John’s reflections on the dark night I have understood how to live more fully and fruitfully through the painful moments of life.
For John & Teresa dark night was simply the absence of the felt experience of God. You and I know what that feels like. It not a good feeling and it’s especially difficult when we’re not experiencing joy in other parts of life either.
Many people survive life by using food & drink, ambition, success, money and relationships to medicate painful symptoms in the hope of escaping the darkness, ignoring the fact that a sense of darkness often serves some helpful purposes:
- to awaken us to the fact that we have confused our priorities and have become too occupied with what is not essential.
- to help us to understand the beauty and breadth of human relationship since life’s darknesses serve to lead us to greater intimacy with God and with others. Without shared darkness friendship soon becomes superficial and unsatisfying.
- as a reminder that our greatest human desire is not to live in the floodlights of success but to love and to be loved in every moment, including and especially in our darkness.
I have quoted Pope Francis a few times already on this theme, but his profound insight deserves repetition. Earlier in this pandemic year he reflected:
“The storm [darkness] exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities.
“The tempest [darkness] lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anaesthetise us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly “save” us, but instead prove incapable of putting us in touch with our roots and keeping alive the memory of those who have gone before us. We deprive ourselves of the antibodies we need to confront adversity.
“In this storm [darkness], the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters.
If you were to ask John or Teresa whether they preferred the dark night or the light of day what do you think they would reply? My thought is that they would say ‘God is in the light and God is in the darkness so whatever my feeling the reality is that God is present and that’s all I need’.
In an era when many are more likely to listen the world of nature than the words of the saints, you might find it helpful to consider the cosmos. God created night and day and they are both not only good but necessary. A city that never sleeps might be ok for a week’s vacation, but we soon yearn for a break from the heart of the sun and the quiet of the night so that we can get some rest.
There’s a saying of a priest who has been a great mentor for me: Luigi Giussani reminds me daily that the circumstances [darknesses] I am in, whatever they are, God allows me to be in for my maturity.
In my healthiest moments I have no desire to revert to immature thinking and behaviour. Give me maturity of faith any day which means I welcome anything that will bring me greater maturity, even if it comes through darkness.
A concluding thought from John:
“God has to work in the soul
in secret and in darkness
because if we fully knew what was happening,
and what mystery, transformation,
God and Grace will eventually ask of us,
we would either try to take charge,
or stop the whole process.”
- Become aware of any darkness that you experience in your own life and know that Jesus is as present and active in your dark as in your light. Invite Jesus to give you the eyes to see in this darkness, and know that difficult days and weeks are an opportunity for greater maturity of faith in relationship with Jesus who is the only real light.
- You might like to download the Christmas poster with a Luigi Giussani quotation at this link.
- More resources: The life of John of the Cross at this link. John of the Cross quotations at this link. The Impact of God. Iain Matthew