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MOUNT CARMEL MAGAZINE
VOL 66. NO.4 OCTOBER - DECEMBER 2018
IN THIS ISSUE
Deep into the Thicket: The Vocation of St John of the
John of the Cross in Opposition
Praying with St John of the Cross: A Life-Giving Way
Voices of the Heart
The Sayings of Light and Love: Signposts to Spiritual
The Song of the Sweet Nightingale: The Union with God
He So Desires for Us
Love's Urgent Longings: Our Deepest Desire and the Desire
Springs of Living Water
The Divine Indwelling: Elizabeth of the Trinity's Reading
of John of the Cross
A Lover's Quest: Relationship in John of the Cross
From Frailty to Glory: Homily on the Feast of St John
of the Cross
Food for the Journey - Books
ALEXANDER OF MARY QUEEN BEAUTY OF CARMEL
JOHN OF THE CROSS IN OPPOSITION
The author is a Carmelite friar currently based in our house of studies in Rome, the Teresianum. He is the author of The Impact of God: Soundings from St John of the Cross and, more recently, John of the Cross: Seasons of Prayer, published by Teresian Press. In this article, he looks at what John of the Cross is so passionately against and why he cares about it so much.
Like a photographic negative
In service of what he positively believes and cares for, he is also well able to say what he opposes. His negativity is this: the gift known in contrast; like the sacred image on the Shroud, showing hidden contours in photographic negative. So John's call for self-emptying, nada, serves a prior fullness which is God's self-bestowal on the world. The soul 'made great' by God (SCB 28:1), 'set within God's way of feeling' (LF 1:32), appreciates the truth of Isaiah's saying, 'All the nations are as nothing' before Him (Is 40:17). 'And they have this same weight for the soul: all things are as nothing for her and she herself in her own eyes is nothing [nada]. Only her God for her is everything [el todo]' (LF 1:32).
This spousal negativity, a devotion to the Beloved which relativises all else, is explored in many ways in John's writing. He returns frequently to its biblical basis, Jesus' summons to deny oneself in order to follow him. John examines it philosophically in 1 Ascent, where creation is non-being when set up in rivalry with the Creator (cf. 1A 4:4). He proposes it as a personal programme in 3 Ascent, progressively teaching the reader to relate to the world in a way that does not stifle joy. In Book 1 of The Dark Night, he exposes, as a master-psychologist, the mechanisms which cripple our freedom. All of this serves John's 'yes' as to what will truly fill us. It serves God's 'yes' to us.
John offers, then, various systematic accounts of the value of negativity, of 'a negating will, in humble and loving surrender' (2A 16:10, la voluntad negativa). What we want to focus on here, however, is two texts where John's 'no' reaches a more passionate climax, setting off the fire alarm in his pastoral soul. Here is what he most fears, what he is most 'against'.
A high-water mark
Here John's opposition, his negativity, reaches a high-water mark. It is directed to 'great scholars and men of power' (grandes letrados y potentes); those who are driven by ambition and a quest for promotion (pretensiones y mayorías); people whose learning and status (letras y más alto estado) have increased their responsibility.
Waking up to the gift
The vocabulary and syntax of John's writing here is not difficult. But what it actually means, what the experience of God to which it points might be like, remains an awe-inspiring mystery. As he himself professed in the Prologue to the Canticle: 'It would be foolish to think that the sayings of love in mystical understanding, which is what these verses are, could in some way be explained with words For who could ever express in writing what the Spirit gives those loving souls, where he dwells, to understand? And who could ever manifest with words what he makes them feel? And who, finally, what he makes them desire? For sure, no one can; no, not even they themselves can ' (SCB Prol. 1). What John can do is call people to wake up to the gift, beg them to believe in the gift, declare how counterfeit are all our substitutes for the gift; and so, in this climactic passage in Chapter 39 of The Spiritual Canticle, he can confess what he is for by denouncing what he is against:
Here John's opposition, his negativity, is directed to those who are driven by ambition and possessiveness (pretensiones, posesiones), people perverted by the quest for greatness and glory (grandezas y gloria), an ambition which diminishes the person without their realising.
Wanting to be 'somebody'
Once identified, this target of John's negativity begins to show its face elsewhere. The Prologue to the Sayings of Light and Love denounces false showiness, 'worldly rhetoric, the verbosity and dry eloquence of human wisdom', and seeks instead 'words spoken to the heart, bathed in gentleness and love'.
Again, in his programme for healing of memory (3A 1-15) and of will (3A 16 ff.), it is the self-promotion worked by pride that calls forth John's most adroit surgery. People's vanity declares itself, he says, in the annoyance they feel when their spirituality goes unacknowledged, or when others' experience seems to rival theirs. Yet they themselves may be blind to this pride, even though they are sunk in it up to the eyebrows (cf. 3A 9:2). It is this enslavement to our own importance that the reversal which is noche is set to cure (see 1DN 2).
Similarly, in discussing virtuous living, John unmasks the self-regard which can poison acts of generosity. He calls us to look away from self and seek joy in the Beloved; not, then, to be like benefactors who want their names emblazoned beside their pious gifts, 'as if it were themselves, not the sacred image, that they wanted to be put there where all bend the knee' (3A 28:5).
The centre of humility
What Jesus bestows is the freedom of sonship. In 1 Ascent 4, where John works through a series of contrasts between the living God and the idols we erect, particular attention is given to the contrast between God's freedom and the worldly counterfeit. This leads John to focus on people 'besotted with offices and other such positions'. Rejecting Jesus' call to become as servants, they cannot 'reach royal freedom of spirit'. This does not dwell 'in a heart subjected to its own wishes, because that is a slave's heart, but in the free, for that is a son's heart' (1A 4:6).
Mental noise and unreality
More than life at San Andres, it may have been the atmosphere in the University itself that precipitated a crisis, a need for decision, in John. The prestige of the university, its competitive hierarchy, and the splendour of its pageantry would have lent themselves to an ethos of academic ambition, jealousy, rivalry, mental noise and unreality. St Teresa's offer to John, which took shape in the friars' new community in Duruelo, said 'no' to all that; 'yes' to simplicity and inconspicuous service, to standing in the centre of one's humility; 'yes' to the derelict Christ, and to transformation 'in the three Persons in power and wisdom and love' (SCB 39:4).
Possessed by the light of God
At stake here is something more than a sage perception of human folly. It is the light of God possessing John that makes fake light so jarring. John's negativity - 'say "no" to this, do not let it enslave you' - reflects a mystery of grace which is all tenderness and surprise:
It is because, in his poverty, John has been claimed by this God, been surprised by His tenderness, that John speaks with such virulence when he sees God's gift obstructed. The 'humility of God' sensitises John to the tragic nature of human vanity. This is what he is against, what John's 'negation' would have us work on, and what the 'night' does work on. Putting that another way, the strength of John's 'no' reveals in negative the passion with which his God is 'for':
MOUNT CARMEL VOL 66. NO.4
OCTOBER - DECEMBER 2018