On a Dark Night

I come from a monastic community that has always been extremely reticent about prayer and spiritual experience. D. Catherine Gascoigne, the first abbess of Cambrai, said all she wanted to say about prayer in half a dozen sentences; her contemporary, D. Gertrude More, was the exception that proves the rule — she had more of the prolixity of Fr Augustine Baker, her teacher. It remains a community joke that no one should ever write her spiritual autobiography. How fortunate we are that St John of the Cross was untroubled by such restraints, though I dare to say that I think many misunderstand him or read him superficially. His teaching on prayer is wise, deep and immensely challenging. Even after a lifetime of trying to pray, I am not sure that I quite ‘get’ him. I can revel in the beauty of his poetry, shudder at the way he was treated by his confrères, delight in his courage and the anecdotes we have about him, understand some of what he is saying, but there remains a distance, a degree of unknowing, which not only proves I was right to become a Benedictine rather than a Carmelite, but also that there are many ways of praying which, despite having much in common, also have their differences. We have to find the one that suits us, that is intended for us, and it can be a long and hard task to discover what it is.

The hardness of the task must not put us off, however. A few years ago I tried to express what I mean by that, and what I wrote then strikes me as still being valid. The darkness of Advent is a preparation for the coming of Light, just as the darkness of prayer is a preparation for the coming of the Giver of prayer, God himself; and the gifts that God gives are never intended for ourselves alone. They are to be shared:

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 rock-face 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.

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