John of the Cross and the Seasons of Prayer
Iain Mathew, O.C.D.
“…And I am feeling very well, glory be to God, and doing fine. The openness of the wilderness really does soul and body good—though my soul is in great poverty. The Lord must want it to have its own spiritual desert. Well and good, so long as that is what pleases Him. His Majesty already knows what we are when left to ourselves.”
This is John of the Cross writing to his friends, Ana de Penalosa, August 1,1591, a month before his final sickness begins to overpower him. It is a bewildering time. John’s moral authority had once led him tp positions of influence and respect in his Order. Now, abruptly, he has found himself on the sidelines, a focus of controversy, victim of a campaign to have his name disgraced. “Just being his friend was a crime.”1
John is writing from La Penuela, an isolated monastery in the foothills of the Sierra Morena in the south of Spain, far away from the responsibilities and politics of Castile. The stillness is a mirror of his own spirit; a still point in a jostling, jealous world.
In the midst of all this, John is in a desert surroundings, el desierto. He is pleased to be there. It “does the soul and body good.” He relishes the solitude, openness, anchura, room to breathe. Apparently it was during this time that he reedited his most personal and intense writing, the Living Flame. The desert lets him connect with what is truest in him.
John encourages us to go there. The place of poverty within us is the threshold at which Christ stands. Our need is a way of prayer.
John of the Cross: the voice of fragility
“People do not know how rightly to rejoice, nor how rightly to mourn, for they do not know the distance between good and evil.”2 In the face of the world’s pain, John’s writing can seem rather private; too slow-moving to keep up with human need. In fact, the vaster the pain, the more vital John’s word. When the need is so far-reaching, superficial solutions will not do. John is one who has traveled the distance, from darkness to light; he has been led to the places within him which border on good and evil. Knowing that distance, his word goes to the root causes and can lead us, not to superficial adjustment, but to a gospel mourning and genuine joy.
Given the quality of John’s testimony, it is all the more illuminating, then to see where his word originates. The events in his story are worth recalling, to highlight this one fact: that John’s word issues from a history of weakness.
One witness was later to speak of the striking conjunction in John of strength, commitment on the other hand, and gentleness, mildness, on the other.3 His life had fired him to just that temper. The death of his father and brother when John was an infant; his displacement as a child as the family looked for a living; John’s work as a teenager with people dying of syphilis; a crisis in direction at the time of his ordination, through which Teresa helped to guide him; these were so many events emptying his spirit, carving out a nothingness, an expectancy, for the divine.
The honing of his spirit came to a head in circumstances where his weakness was extreme; moths of imprisonment in Toledo for his part in the Teresian reform. Transferred to a tiny, dark dungeon, where hunger, squalor and isolation could set to work, John was pushed there beyond thresholds he had never had to cross before, into unfamiliar regions, where emotional and physical weakness would have made him very vulnerable.
And it is precisely here that John began composing his most personal poetry, from which his writings derive.
That then is a first indication for us from John about prayer; the place within us where not everything is all right, where the wound that is in you aches. John says: go there.
The wound is the place where God dwells
Go to that place of need, because that is a threshold at which Christ stands; our need is an evidence of God. This is a second lesson from John on prayers.
It is said that physical hunger passes through three phases,4 You stop eating and you need food and that is hard to cope with. But as time passes, the body settles into a rhythm feeding on its fat reserves. The point comes, though, when these reserves run out and the body begins to feed on its own substance. Then hunger turns into a desperate craving, all the person’s instinct to preserve their life invested now in this, the body’s cry.
In our life of faith, too, there are levels and phases. Perhaps one is that second phase: what once was powerful and compelling has settled down, a steady jog, feeding on reserves. But if one were taken farther, to that third level of hunger, what would we find? That was the place John reached, and from which his prison poem, the Spiritual Canticle, begins: a word that issues from the substance of his spirit, the heart’s cry, craving for life.
Where have you hidden
Beloved, and left me groaning?
You fled like a stag
having wounded me;
I went out in search of you,
and you were gone …
This stanza, expertly crafted and couched in Song of Songs language, is the cry of Hohn’s spirit. He has experienced a wound within him. He calls out from there. Calls out for what?
At this point in his life, with dungeon walls and lice for company, John had many needs. He lacked light, warmth, food, clean clothing, medicine for his wounds; he might have been helped by reassurance that he had not made a mistake, that his life’s endeavor would be fruitful, that his friends still believed in him. All these protective layers were being stripped off him. But when he is exposed in this way, what he calls out for is none of these. “God, give me light, clothing, safety, friendship, a welcome, a fortune.
What he cries for is “You” a person, Another; Christ. “Where have you hidden, Beloved.” It is as if the removal of all those layers laid bare a deeper wound, the need which John is: it reveals John as a need for God.
John confirms that for us, too, there is a third level of hunger, where our reality, the “substance” of the soul, is crying out for God. To be taken there is an immense blessing. Our need is the measure of our dognity, the reverse image of our greatness. When the person is empty and cleansed, “the thirst and hunger and the spirit’s feeling of longing is more than can be borne … The capacity of these caverns is deep, for that which can fill them is deep, infinite, and that is God. So in a sense their capacity will be infinite, and so their thirst infinite, their hunger too is deep and infinite, their sense of undoing and pain is an infinite death … since the soul is in a sense ready too receive what will fill her”5
It is natural to flee from the place where that hunger throbs. Still, John encourages us to go there. It is what beckons the divine. It is the threshold at which Christ stands. We hunger for him because He has touched us; we want Him because He wants us. The wound is the print of our pledge upon us, the pledge of the Spirit who holds us from the abyss. John comments on his poem: we “have our feeling of longing, the sense of God’s absence” precisely there, “within our heart, where we have the pledge.”6
Two pointers, then, about prayer from John of the Cross: go to the fragile place; it is Christ who is waiting there.
Open spaces and the terror of the night
Thirdly, much of John’s system is really about this: trying to get us there, to the place of our need, to get us to go there, and stay there. The desert can be scary. The spirit suffers from a natural agoraphobia. The night is disconcerting; safer back in the house, with the glow of party lights and small talk.
In the Ascent of Mount Carmel, John expends his energy encouraging us not to lose our nerve or settle for a cheap alternative. When the wound that is in you begins to ache, or the anesthetic in you starts wearing off, do not grasp for compensation. Stay there. Show yourself you can stand there. Do not be a slave to the fear of not being anesthetized. Risk stepping into that open space where you need God. “Step free of your longings and you will find what your heart really longs for . . .”7
In the books of the Dark Night, John is talking to people who are being taken there. John’s nada is mystical, a nothingness into which he himself was led, far beyond the regions of his expertise. In that aching, open, darkened place, the temptation is to read the openness as emptiness, and to panic. John says rather, stay there; let God work there; say yes to God who is feeding you precisely there.
Ther person was wearing this white garment of faith as she went out in this dark night. She wore it as she journeyed . . . in inner darkness and oppression, when her mind was giving her no relief; no light from below, since her teachers were failing to meet her need. On this journey, she persevered, bearing it with constancy, passing through these difficulties, hiddenly drawing near; a fruit of God’s action (N.2.7).
To the question, Where is God? John is answering by pointing to when we felt most needy.
The wound at the heart of the world
When in Night John seeks words for the wound that is in him, it is the cries of Israel that surface; the psalms, Lamentations, Job—individuals, who voiced the pain of their people. The wound to which John descends, “Where have you hidden…?”, connects with the pain of the world. It is as if, deep beneath the surface where we perform and survive, there lay a reservoir of weakness where we all are one. In his solitary confinement John was accessing a universal cry.
The word John uses in the first stanza of his Canticle conveys this: gemido, “Where have you hidden, Beloved, and left me groaning.” In the Prologue to his commentary John speaks of his verses as an echo of the Spirit who pleads for us with a cry too deep for words, gemido inefables. From the wound within him rises the cry of the Spirit. It is a cry which gives voice to the longing of the whole of creation to be set free:
the creation itself will be st free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole of creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption . . . (Romans 8:21-23).
In another prison poem, Romances on the Incarnation, John pictures humanity longing for the coming of the Bridegroom, begging “with tears and cries” (lagrimas y gemidos) for the “companionship” of the Son of God.9 Individuals are pictured voicing the Advent prayer of the Church. So it is that those who are taken by God to the place of hunger within them, stand there on behalf of their people. They give voice to the cry, the need, of the universe. Such purified prayer is a source of healing; “a little of this pure love is more precious to God and for the soul, and of more benefit to the Church”–and so, to the world – “than all those other works put together.”10
Christ is the guarantee of this; the wounded Christ, a brother in our need. So John puts at the head of is treatise Ascent-Night the picture of Jesus reconciling humanity, restoring the universe, by entering the black hole where God seems not to be, John knows an annihilated Christ who was “compelled to cry out My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?? This was the most extreme foresakenness he had felt in his life. And by it he did his greatest work, greater than any he had done in his life . . . That is, he reconciled and united the human race with God. . . .”11
The journey to our poverty, then, is not a private affair; the healing of the world is at stake.
Let your need be your prayer
This, then, is one of the seasons of prayer in St. John of the Cross. We have been led by him to Cana, the family wedding where the wine runs out. Mary sees the anxiety, and has a quiet word with her Son just pointing what she has noticed.
This is a scene with cosmic scope; the wedding of the Lamb, espousing humanity, a humanity in peril. The mother of Jesus perceives what is lacking, and names it, without dictating a solution: “They have no wine.” Hers is a prayer of need; her perception of need is a prayer. She takes it, holds it, allows it to ache before him. And that precipitates glory. He “manifested his glory, and his disciples believed in him.”
This, then, is a way of prayer: to feel our way to the wound that is in us, to the place of our need. Go there, take it, name it, hold it before Christ.
To feel our way to the wound of the world, to those people or situations in dire need of healing. Go there, take them, name them, and hold them before him.
Go there, not to dictate to Christ what the answer should be or what he should do about it; but to hold the wound, before him.
“They have no wine.” John of the Cross sees wisdom here. A love which does not spell out “what it needs or wants, but holds out its need so that the Beloved might do what pleases him” is especially powerful.
And this for three reasons: firstly, because the Lord knows what is best for us, better than we do; second, because the Beloved’s compassion is more deeply moved when he sees the need and the surrender of the one who loves him; third, because the soul is less vulnerable to her self-love and possessiveness when she holds out the need before him than when she spells out her own view of what it is she needs.
This then, is a way of prayer in St. John of the Cross: to go to the place of our need, and hold that before God. “We have no wine;” a service to the world, a prayer that precipitates glory.
- Jose de Jesus Maria Vida de San Juan de la Cruz III. Burgos (3) 1927, 451. In San Juan de la Cruz: Obras Completas, ed Maximiliano Herraiz, Salamanca 1991, p. 16
- Sayings of Light and Love 62
- Magdalena de Espiritu Santo, BMC 10.324 [see note I]
- See Monika Hellwig Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, Sheed and Ward, US 1992, p. 5
- LB e 18, 22
- CA 1.6
- N. 2, 21.5
- Romances 177
- CB 29.2
- 2A 711