My first encounter with St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) was musical, in Thunder Bay at a Steve Bell concert where Steve performed ‘Dark Night of the Soul,’ based on St. John’s poem of the same name. Later, I was to encounter this mystic saint through the similarly folksy music of John Michael Talbot. I found the image of the dark night and the discovery of the beloved quite irresistible.
I next encountered him in the written translation of his poetry in a slim volume of his poems given me by my friend Emily. Although I was to lose this book and The Way of a Pilgrim in a misguided use of cargo pockets on my trousers to carry books, its brief time in my life was a blessing. His vivid and almost (dare one say it?) erotic imagery of the relationship between the soul and God was powerful for me.
I think this Spanish mystic would have approved of my initial encounters with him — as well as the association of his poems with The Way of a Pilgrim. You see, St. John was a mystic and a monk, indeed, but he was also a singer. I remember hunting down information on him on the web after these early meetings, and I learned that his spiritual friend, St. Teresa of Avila, described John of the Cross as spending time walking in the hills and singing songs to God.
And why not? Why not sing songs to one’s lover?
St. John of the Cross demonstrated his great love for the Almighty through the commitment of his life to monasticism. This was the sixteenth century, and anyone who has looked at, say, the Fifth Lateran Council or the events that started in Germany in 1517, knows that the Church in many ways was in need of reform. St. John and St. Teresa were both Carmelites, and both were involved in the reforming of their religious order.
St. John’s commitment to reform of the Carmelites was so great that he was considered with suspicion by other Carmelites monks and once found himself imprisoned in a rival monastery. But have no fear — he made a daring escape! Let no one tell you that the life of a mystic is boring and full naught but long nights sitting around in silence seeking the divine embrace!
Besides the poem ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, St. John of the Cross also wrote a commentary on it, appropriately titled The Dark Night of the Soul. I read E. Allison Peers’ translation of this well-nigh central text to post-mediaeval western mysticism whilst in Cyprus (where I was informed by a friend that all you needed from St. John was a quotation and then you’d be cool). I never moved to its sequel, The Dark Night of the Spirit, for that was for contemplatives who had moved appropriately through the lessons of the Dark Night.
The concept of the Dark Night is something any spiritually healthy person needs to know. We may have effulgent love for God that pours itself out in poetry and beauty and paintings and dance and essays and ecstasies and social action* and who knows what else. But we will at times find ourselves unsatisfied. We will be dark, dry, barren. Those things we once found sweet — prayer, the Scriptures, the Eucharist — are bitter and empty.
This is there for us to grow. God doesn’t want us to be good, strong Christians. He wants us to be better, stronger Christians, pursuing the way of perfection through worship and imitatio Christi all of our days. As a mother weans a child of her milk so the child can move to solid food, so God removes some of the pleasantness of the spiritual life for a spell so that we can grow into even greater and clearer manifestations of his unending love for us.
I have by no means done anything resembling justice to this mystic, poet, spiritual reformer. If I have somehow whetted your appetite, find his poems, find Peers’ translation of the Dark Night, and read the relevant chapter of Edith M. Humphrey’s Ecstasy and Intimacy. You won’t be disappointed through an acquaintance with St. John.
Also — pray for a while today. St. John would recommend it, for how can we say we love God when we spend no time with him?
*St. John of the Cross was cited by Thomas Merton as saying that contemplation was more important than action, and that one action that has been preceded by much contemplation is worth more than ten with none. Or something like that — see The Inner Experience.