August 12, 2011

Two Years with St. John of the Cross

Two years ago this week, with much trepidation, I began reading John of the Cross. I say with trepidation because even though I was familiar with Carmelite spirituality with its focus on contemplation and union with God, I did not feel I was spiritually mature enough to delve into John's mystical theology.  I had read most of Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux, but John still frightened me.  Years ago I discovered his poem "The Dark Night"" and I became enamored with it. "One dark night, fired with love's urgent longing...ahh, the sheer grace!"  The entire poem touched me, calling me into a deeper relationship with Jesus.  I knew that reading John would help me in this regard, yet I was avoiding it since I had heard that John was difficult to read, easily misunderstood, and that his writings could be frightening to one who was not ready to be purged and plunged into the Dark Night.

As a Benedictine, I follow a spiritual path of finding God in everyday life, in achieving balance between work and prayer, and in preferring nothing to the Love of Christ.  It is a very practical spirituality, and I tend to be a very practical person.  Carmelite spirituality seems to go a step beyond.  It takes preferring nothing to Christ to its highest level.  As I prayed my way through The Ascent of Mt. Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, John's two volume work commenting on his poem "The Dark Night," I found that while it was difficult to read, it was not frightening and it did challenge me to go beyond my own spiritual complacency.  Both volumes speak of the purgation one must go through in order to achieve mystical union or spiritual marriage with Christ.

This week, almost two years to the day when I first started delving into the works of St. John, I completed a third book, The Spiritual Canticle. It is John's commentary on his poem of the same name based on his favorite book of Scripture, The Song of Songs.  As with the Song of Songs, it follows a bride in search of her Bridegroom, and the consummation of their Love.  It naturally follows the sensual and spiritual purgation that John writes about in the previous two books.

Sometimes I ask myself why I waited so long to read these great classics of Catholic spirituality.  I now know that yes, I had to be ready.  I could have read them earlier and I probably would have quickly muddled my way through them taking in a bit of wisdom here and there.  But Sanjuanist mystical theology is meant be absorbed, not just read.  It is meant to lead us to a state of perfection in Christ by uncovering all that keeps us from Christ and seeking "nada," that is nothing but union with Him.

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