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Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross
Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross

John of the Cross: Poet, Pastor, Mystic

Friday, April 24, 2020

Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross

John of the Cross: Poet, Pastor, Mystic
Friday, April 24, 2020

Father Iain Matthew is a contemporary Carmelite priest from England and author of The Impact of God: Soundings from St John of The Cross. My copy is all marked up, so brilliant are his insights on the predictable impact of God on the soul. In this passage he explores the mystical and symbolic power of the “night” for John and how it can encourage us today.

Poet, pastor, mystic, John [of the Cross] is first a witness to the impact of God in his life. He has taken the risk of surrender, and can speak with the authority of one who has been there. He testifies to a God who, precisely, is pressing in to meet, to change, and to fill us in our deepest need. . . . Love changes people, and John’s witness to God’s love may help us to trust and to be brave.

A generous God is fine when things are running smoothly. But what [about] when they are not and darkness is invading? What [about] when trusted patterns have broken down, or we feel too far gone to bother even trying? We dwell at outer limits, and some events in life—loss, failure, stress, sin—remind us of the threat of chaos.

That is where John of the Cross stands: at the threshold of uncertainty; and he assures us that what dwells beyond is not simply chaos. The darkness bears the Spirit of God, who broods over the waters of death and has power to work a resurrection. . . . In our darkness, he finds Jesus’s darkness; and what he echoes is the impact of Easter. . . .

Night: we cannot stop it, or hasten it; it just comes, and it teaches us every twenty-four hours that we are not in complete control. John does seem to think there is something important here. Others speak of growth, suffering, purification, but ‘we are calling’ it ‘night’; [1] calling it ‘“dark night,” very appropriately’ [2] . . . .

John’s Toledo imprisonment and escape gave to the symbol ‘night’ its full weight. . . . [For him] the symbol is able to carry humanity’s pain, able to hold even such a sense of alienation from God that the inner self feels dismantled. . . . That is the resonance of the symbol for John. Night signifies that which comes upon us and takes us out of our own control; it announces that as the place of resurrection. A God who heals in darkness—this is John’s word of hope in a destabilised [sic.] world.

We have all experienced some form of “night” in our lives, of lack of control and certainty. But we are also fortunate to have wise and good guides like John of the Cross to accompany us, reminding us that we are not abandoned by God in those times, but loved more deeply than we can imagine all the way through them.

[1] John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, book 1, 1.1, as cited in Matthew, 160.

[2] John of the Cross, The Dark Night, Prologue, as cited in Matthew, 160.

Iain Matthew, The Impact of God: Soundings from St John of The Cross (Hodder and Stoughton Ltd: 1995), 1, 3, 51, 55–56.

Image credit: A Vision of the Holy Trinity (detail), anonymous Brazilian painter, 17th century, Museu de Arte Sacra da Universidade Federal da Bahia, Salvador, Brazil.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: I like to say that Teresa and John were part of the “final supernova” of nondual, mystical consciousness in 16th century Spain, before it all but disappeared in Europe for five hundred years in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the invention of the printing press. Both Teresa and John wrote detailed accounts of their lives and experiences with God, which makes them very accessible teachers. —Richard Rohr
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