St. John of the Cross

Carmel cherishes mystics, those, who have been transformed directly by God’s love. John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish Carmelite, was a mystic who towers above most. John captures his experience in poetry, hoping that we can resonate with him and so recognise God’s love active in our own lives.

As a young Carmelite I was warned off reading John of the Cross. Too complex and high fluting for one so recently in the land of Carmel. As a Carmelite, long in the tooth now, I do not claim to fully understand John but am amazed by his ability to articulate his transformation by God in poetry, and then to explain his journey in prose so that you or I can be guided in how to allow God to lovingly transform us in our unique journey. If only we would let God in!

At first glance I would have very little in common with John. I had a secure comfortable middle class family life, well-educated with a scientific bent. I fell into a Carmel still coping with Vatican II reforms but with very little knowledge of Carmel. 

John on the other hand was born into and brought up in poverty, with his father dying when he was an infant. John was educated in practical skills like painting and carpentry so he could earn a living but when he joined the Carmelites, was then honed in philosophy and theology for ordination. John’s world view was so very different from mine. Yet through the poetry stretching across the centuries and despite very different cultures I (you) can resonate with John’s experience of God’s love.

John was picked out by Teresa of Avila as soon as he was ordained to further her reform, a simpler way of being Carmelite harking back to a romanticised ideal of the original Carmelites.

John’s poetry was a result of imprisonment and brutalisation by his brother Carmelites who did not like the reform. John never left Spain moved from house to house, usually walking with companions, and using his practical skills in the new convent. He had a gift for friendship especially with women and could listen with empathy and act as a surefooted guide. A delight for any community and combined with an intellectual scholarship used not only for his own writing but also in enabling others to develop as they studied. He was asked to do a lot of administration, which was entangled with the politics both secular and religious of a society undergoing rapid change. 

It was through this intense involvement with his everyday world that John saw with clarity that if he was to be fully human (or if you and I were to be) then we needed to empty ourselves to allow God to flood in. John was rooted in scripture. His writings perhaps a parallel to the three days of the Easter Season. Jesus was totally orientated to God. Jesus suffered on Good Friday, and through the emptiness of the Saturday was transformed by the Spirit on Easter Sunday.

John single mindedly pursued the idea that we yearn for union with God and that unless we strive to make every aspect of our personality oriented towards God, the Spirit cannot flow into us to and transform us. He regarded everything as good as it was part of God’s creative power but recognised that we constantly allow ourselves to be disorientated by either taking pleasure in these gifts or misusing them. We must learn to focus attention on what is primary in our lives, the search for God.

He used the poetry of a wounded lover searching for her lover, explaining this as a dynamic ascent of a mountain. This was a constant struggle often experienced in dark obscurity, as we journey upwards emptying ourselves and being purified as we ascended Mount Carmel. The purpose on reaching the summit was a union with God expressed in the Spiritual Canticle as a Bride and Bridegroom searching for each other and delighting in each other. The transformation of this union is described in the Living Flame of love, the work of the Spirit.

John by explaining his poetry describes what happed to him and God’s desire for union with him but maps out that this is the normal pattern for you and me if only we would recognise it. 

We are ill at ease (wounded). 

We yearn for God. 

We need to recognise that everything, 

good, bad, or indifferent needs to be oriented to God. 

God will wreak this in us if we are willing, but God desires more – union. 

How belittled and unworthy we feel. 

Only by allowing God to flow in and transform us 

can be fully ourselves.

Fully alive.

The invitation is there. John offers himself as a gentle guide 

but are we willing to make the journey from Good Friday to Easter 

to become who we really are?

Paul de Groot O.Carm

Weekly Reflections

Steps on the Journey - weekly Reflections from Carmel
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