Today is the feast of Saint John of the Cross, one of the 33 Doctors of the Church. Born in 1542, he is called the Doctor of Mystical Theology because of his deep insights on prayer and the soul’s striving toward perfection and union with God. Much is written about him and his rather interesting life. For today I’d like to look at one facet of this amazing saint.
St. John of the Cross is probably best known for his writings on The Dark Night of the Soul. I have never read it, but probably like many of you, I am familiar with the idea of the Dark Night of the Soul. It is a stage of purification as the soul grows in union with God. It is a time of great suffering and apparent abandonment by God. It seems fitting that we celebrate his feast day in the midst of the daily Mass readings which tell of John the Baptist. That got me thinking…
The Dark Night is often referred to as a desert experience, a place of emptiness and desolation, where there are no consolations from God and his presence cannot be felt. It is a place of loneliness, uncertainty and suffering. And yet, when we look at John the Baptist, we see him living in the desert, wearing a camel skin coat and eating locusts and wild honey. It was precisely in the desert that John the Baptist prepared for the coming of Christ.
How do we experience the desert? Is it a place of preparation for Christ?
I think it’s probably fair to say that for most of us, the desert experience is not a welcome occurrence. We want so much reassurance that we’re on the right path and that we are growing stronger in our spiritual walk. But when the road is rocky, and barren, and without water to quench our thirst, we quickly assume it’s the wrong road.
Usually the first step is to think we’ve done something wrong. Maybe I haven’t prayed as much or as hard as I can. Maybe I need to go to confession or Mass more frequently. Maybe I need to pray some novenas. These can sometimes lead to the “other” maybes. Maybe it’s not real. Maybe God isn’t who He says He is. Maybe I’m just bad and unlovable, and thinking that God could really love me is all a mistake.
None of this could be further from the truth. The truth is that God loves us too much to let us stay the way we are. When we have consolations and can feel His presence, what faith is there in that? Do we still believe when we do not feel those things? We either grow to be more like Him through great love or great suffering. We shun the suffering because it hurts. We shun the loving because it’s too hard. Both entail a death to ourselves.
It is in this dark and seemingly barren place where we stand in faith. We do not see or feel consolation, but we stay. We respond to God’s great gift of faith by trusting in His word and in His faithfulness. We do not know when the dark night will end. We do not know when the desert will bloom. We say, “Yes,” to God, like Mary did – not knowing the outcome, knowing only the invitation; dying to ourselves so that God can bring new life in us; believing “that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” (Rm 8:28)
I’ve often thought about the fact that God’s name is “I AM” – the eternal present. Not “I was” or “I will be”. When we find ourselves in the desert, we must choose to trust and believe in His word that He is with us – in the present even if it doesn’t feel that way. This is a true moment of faith. We do not see Him, but we believe that He is there. We stay the course, and we stand in faith. Faith: “the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1)
John of the Cross said:
O you souls who wish to go on with so much safety and consolation, if you knew how pleasing to God is suffering, and how much it helps in acquiring other good things, you would never seek consolation in anything; but you would rather look upon it as a great happiness to bear the Cross of the Lord.
If you find yourself in the desert during this Advent season or in times ahead, whether it has occurred before or it is a new experience, choose to trust that God is with you. It is an opportunity for great spiritual growth. Pray in faith. Prepare for the coming of Christ.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! Anne
“But I will call this to mind, as my reason to have hope: The favors of the LORD are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent; they are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness.” (Lam 3:21-23)
Heavenly Harmony, a song for the day: I Will Listen by Twila Paris. (You’ll have to select the first item on the list & hit play.)