St John of the Cross Revisited

A couple of years ago I tried to express some inchoate thoughts about St John of the Cross and the Mass readings for the day by writing

Many years ago, before I became a nun, I went to Toledo and walked up to the town from the railway station. It was a summer’s evening and the scene that unfolded was, quite literally, picturesque. Some muleteers were driving their beasts across the bridge at the foot of the cliff, red tassels swinging as they lurched on their way. Higher up, where the mountain swifts were circling, one could see those famous lines of St John of the Cross, carved into the honeyed stone: En una noche oscura . . . It was another of those paradoxes in which Catholicism in Spain seems to delight: the fleeting intimacy of a moment of prayer emblazoned on a rockface for all the world to see.

I think today’s readings about the prophet Elijah and his New Testament counterpart, John the Baptist, and the feast of the Carmelite, John of the Cross, we celebrate today express another paradox. All three were inflamed with an ardent love of God, at once enormously attractive yet profoundly disturbing to those whose love is less certain. All three were men of deep and powerful silence whose words, when uttered, seared the soul. All three were men of mystery, most at home in the solitude of the desert, whose public lives were anything but obscure. In themselves they personify both the interiority of prayer and the exteriority of action. The source was, of course, one and the same: that passionate, intimate relationship each had with God.

During these days of Advent Elijah, John the Baptist and John of the Cross remind us what it means to be consumed with love of God. It must blaze out from us, shine, like ‘the shining from shook foil’ as Hopkins would say, become a fire that never goes out. And it must do so, that others may take fire, too.

I stand by what I said, but today’s Advent liturgy provides us with different readings, Numbers 24.2-7, 15-17 and Matthew 21.23-27, which cast a different light on the feast. Today we are confronted with the question of authority. Like Balaam, St John of the Cross was one who heard the word of God and saw what God made him see; so too, St John the Baptist, who, more than any other before the coming of Christ, was so utterly on fire with love of God that he almost ceased to exist as a separate entity — he was just the voice who would precede the Word, the lamp eclipsed by the Sun.

We are sometimes tempted to think that there are two Superpowers, God and us; and that what we think right must be what God thinks right, too. We are often tempted to shortcircuit the process of discernment, so to say, and sit a little lightly to doing our homework and praying about what we have learned. It is no accident that St John of the Cross, like his namesake St John the Baptist, was a man of profound humility and persevering prayer, a man whose whole life was an exploration of the will of God. We can look back on his history and think how badly he was treated by the religious authorities of his day, but we must also remember that what St John of the Cross sought was also what he lived: fidelity to God in all the circumstances of life. We say to ourselves, with our better knowledge, we would not have imprisoned him, even for a minute, no; we would not have crucified Christ, either, would we? There is a very uncomfortable question there that we might all usefully consider today.