St John of the Cross teaches us that the 'dark night of the soul' is an invitation to a deeper life in the Lord
"[if someone] should try to persuade you of any lax doctrine, do not believe in it nor embrace it; even though he might confirm it with miracles. But believe in and embrace more penance and detachment from all things, and do not seek Christ without the cross" (St. John of the Cross, Doctor of Mystical Theology) In fact, the importance of the cross in the life of the true Christian disciple became St. John's message. For St. John, innocent and voluntary suffering embraced in the way of the cross becomes an avenue to sublime intimacy with the Risen Lord.
Icon of St. John of the Cross
About six years later, the family moved to Arevalo, only to move again in three years to Medina del Campo in an attempt to escape conditions of grinding poverty. There, St. John entered a school for poor children, and soon showed a talent for nursing and hospital work. Graced with the abilities of quick learning, he studied Latin and rhetoric at a nearby Jesuit school.
St. John felt drawn to the contemplative life and thus entered the Carmelite monastery at age twenty-one. After excelling in his studies at the Carmelite College of St. Andrew and at the University of Salamanca, he was ordained in 1567, and was given his first assignment in which he was to act as tutor to the Carmelites of St. Anne Monastery in Medina del Campo. It was there, in 1568, that he met the mystic and Doctor of Prayer St. Teresa of Avila, who persuaded him to begin a reform movement among the Carmelite brothers which eventually resulted in bringing new vigor to the order.
However, things were soon to take an ill turn for St. John. Caught in a dispute between the Carmelites of the Mitigated Observance and the Carmelites of the Reform, he was accused of monastic disobedience and imprisoned in December of 1577 at the Monastery of Toledo. For the next nine months, he was locked in a six-by-ten-foot cell, with only meager light filtering in from a small slit high up on one wall.
The Way of The Cross
Temperature fluctuations during his imprisonment were severe: painfully cold winter months were soon followed by the stifling heat of summer. And, as if this were not enough, St. John had to endure cruel floggings on the bare skin of his back -- the scars of which he bore throughout the remainder of his life.
It was there, in the seeming unending solitude of the dark cell, that St. John of the Cross composed wonderful poems and canticles which he committed to memory, since pen and paper were luxuries his captors withheld. These would later be used as a basis for his literary works, including his book, The Spiritual Canticle, which is influenced by the Song of Songs.
On reading his spiritual works there is little doubt that, in the empty silence of his captivity, St. John of the Cross was drawn upon the sublime heights of contemplation in the loving embrace of Christ. In The Dark Night, he writes:
"[I] departed from my low manner of understanding, and my feeble way of loving, and my poor and limited method of finding satisfaction in God. . . . This was great happiness and sheer grace for me, because through the annihilation and calming of my faculties, passions, appetites, and affections, . . . I went out from my human operation and way of acting to God's operation and way of acting" (John of the Cross, Selections from The Dark Night & Other Writings [HarperSanFransisco, 1987], 2).
St. John was no stranger to suffering. Through his intimate experience with loneliness, pain and darkness, he was drawn all the nearer to the God of light and love, peace and consolation. For in union with Christ, the physical evil of suffering is transformed into something beyond itself, into something of wondrous good through the grace of God. After all, although the greatest evil imaginable is the crucifixion of the innocent Savior, that voluntary sacrifice on the cross of the sinless Christ resulted in the redemption of fallen humankind.
In fact, the importance of the cross in the life of the true Christian disciple became St. John's maxim: "Do not seek Christ without the cross." For St. John, innocent and voluntary suffering embraced in the way of the cross becomes an avenue to sublime intimacy with the Risen Lord. Therefore, suffering with the Savior is one key to the lofty heights of contemplation, which opens the door to the loving embrace of the Holy Spirit, transforming pain into unheard-of joy. While such a concept is quite foreign to contemporary society, it is entirely compatible with the Gospel:
For instance, Mark's gospel is written to a Christian community suffering persecution. One could say that Mark is encouraging his contemporaries to endure the cross, since true Christian discipleship consists in both recognizing through faith that Jesus is the Son of God -- the Messiah -- and then following him in loving freedom along the way of the cross. We are to make Christ's story our story; our Savior's life our life.
"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses ...
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