Deeper into John’s darkness

A second installment on St. John of the Cross, whose feast is on Thursday:

“Saint John is known as the “Mystical Doctor” and has been a pivotal figure for Christian mystics after him,” writes Jack Bernard in an article for Theology Books Web site. “But don’t be mislead by the title. He is actually suspicious of mystical experiences because he believes that true mystical intimacy with God takes place beyond the reach of sense perception. In fact when God is most at work in us, we may feel him absent. He is leading us to live by faith apart from sense experience. In our age feeling has become the primary criteria for truth for many people. St. John invites us to face into the dark feelings of God’s absence by faith, because it is precisely there that we are most likely to find him.”

Thomas Merton, a disciple of John’s makes a siimilar point in an essay he wrote in the early 1950s:

“John of the Cross is the patron of those who have a vocation that is thought, by others, to be spectacular, but which, in reality, is lowly, difficult, and obscure. He is the patron and the protector and master of those whom God has led into the uninteresting wilderness of contemplative prayer.”

Yet in this uninteresting wilderness, John found inspiration for some vivid physcially-charged poetry. Here is Kavanaugh and Rodriguez’s translation of The Living Flame of Love:

O living flame of love

that tenderly wounds my soul

in its deepest center! Since

now you are not oppressive,

now consummate! if it be your will:

tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

O sweet cautery,

O delightful wound!

O gentle hand! O delicate touch

that tastes of eternal life

and pays every debt!

in killing you changed death to life.

O lamps of fire!

in whose splendors

the deep caverns of feeling,

once obscure and blind,

now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,

both warmth and light to their Beloved.

How gently and lovingly

you wake in my heart,

where in secret you dwell alone;

and in your sweet breathing,

filled with good and glory,

how tenderly you swell my heart with love.

Tomorrow, a look at John’s “apophatic” theology. (Complete with a definition of the word apophatic!) And as an audio bonus for reading to the bottom of this entry, check out this sample of Dark Night of the Soul by the singer Loretta McKennitt. (Hat tip to the Rev. Julie Murdoch.)

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