14 December 2015

Feast of St John of the Cross

I am no scholar of St john of the Cross, though I certainly love his writing and feel deep affinities with his spirituality. In any case during this third and more joyful week of Advent I remember that John writes of divine light which is so bright we are blinded by it (it is as darkness to us) and silence aflame with love. These are images I love. I also recall an article on John from America Magazine which corrects some common misconceptions. Part of it is reproduced here.

America: January 30, 2006 Issue
Lawrence S. Cunningham

[[There are so many mistaken notions about St. John of the Cross (1542-91) that we might do well to clarify some of them at the outset. He is, of course, most identified with the phrase dark night of the soul, but in fact he never uses the term. John does speak of the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the spirit in his treatise titled simply The Dark Night. But he is centrally concerned not to identify those purifying processes with what we would call clinical depression (or what he would have called melancholy, which he does discuss and carefully distinguishes from the dark night) or world-weariness or monastic acedia (spiritual torpor). Nor is it true that John was a reclusive hermit with little experience of the world. His biographers have estimated that after his ordination, he traveled nearly 18,000 miles all over Spain, mainly on foot.

We also know that John was a man of practical abilities. We have his famous painting of the crucifixion, which most know through the painting by Salvador Dali, which was inspired by John’s. Spain still has a functioning aqueduct that he designed and helped to build for a Carmelite monastery. Finally, he is not, despite the best efforts of some, to be classified with those mystics who are closer to Buddhism than to Christianity; in fact, his spiritual doctrine is both profoundly Christological and Trinitarian. It is merely a cliché to call him simply a mystic of the night, an apophatic mystic, since his final work ends in light, as is clear from its title, The Living Flame of Love.

In passing, it is also worthwhile to note that John would be unfamiliar with the term mystic or mysticism (words first used long after his death), but he does speak of mystical theology, a term that has behind it a millenium of history in the Christian tradition. When John spoke of mystical theology, as he did more than a few times in his writings, he had in mind the traditional term deriving from the writings of the sixth-century Syrian monk known to us as the Pseudo-Dionysius. It was a phrase well known to every medieval doctor. Mystical theology meant that hidden state of experiencing God without images or concepts. Mysticism, by contrast, was a term coined after John’s death to describe deep spiritual experience detached from formal practices of religion, as the late Michel de Certeau has shown in his classic work The Mystic Fable.]]

Also, let me add my best wishes to Sister Nerina Er Dio, and all Carmelites who celebrate the feast of one of their greatest Saints today.