ST JOHN OF THE CROSS – God or nothing

– Aurelio Porfiri

There are many differences among the saints. That is, there are many ways of being a saint even if all are united by the burning desire to follow God with all their strength. Sanctity is a river that has many tributaries. Some saints are more popular than others for historical or devotional reasons that may even escape an immediate understanding. We think of St Anthony of Padua, St Pius of Pietrelcina, St Rita of Cascia and so on. Others, in spite of their evident greatness, are perhaps less present in popular devotion, like that Spanish Carmelite that the Church celebrates on December 14th, Saint John of the Cross (1540-1591). He was a contemporary of St Teresa of Avila, another great Spanish Carmelite, one of the reformers of the Carmelite order. For the depth of his mystical and poetic writings he was declared Doctor of the Church.

The Salesian Mario Scudu says of him: “In the collective imagination the greatness of a man is measured and admired not only for how he has managed to live his own human adventure, but also for the way in which he faced the hours of the supreme transit from the cares of the mortal life ‘on the other side’ that of God. The moment of one’s own death: that of the definitive choices, that is, of the final ‘crisis,’ which scares everyone. John of the Cross on his deathbed, to his brothers who read the prayers of the dying, asked for something more ‘cheerful’: he asked expressly some verses of the Song of Songs, a beautiful and overwhelming love poem of the Old Testament (which he knew well). Did not he go to meet Love? Then it was needed something more appropriate. After reading, John finished his earthly journey by praying the words ‘In your hands, Lord, I entrust my spirit.’ That is, in the hands of God Love, for whom he had lived, he had worked and suffered, for that God whom he had loved, preached and sung. A few years earlier he had written the poem ‘Break the canvas now at the sweet meeting.’ Here is what death was for him: a ‘sweet encounter’ with God Love. He was 49 years old all spent for God.”

It seems difficult to understand how we can find joy in the adversities of life, adversity that John knew, including an imprisonment that lasted many months. Yet we must understand that those who ascend to the heights of mysticism like him, like Teresa of Avila and like another great Carmelite closest to us, Saint Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, live on a level different from the common life, a plane in which the perspectives are different, sometimes opposite, compared to those of the world.

In his Ascent to Mount Carmel John of the Cross meditated: “The soul always tries to incline: not at the easiest, but at the most difficult; not at the most tasty, but at the most insipid; not to what you like best, but to what you like less; not at rest, but at fatigue; not to comfort, but to that which is not comfort; not at the most, but at minus; not to the highest and most precious, but to the most vile and despised; not looking for something, but not wanting anything; not in search of the best side of created things, but of the worst and to desire nudity, deprivation and poverty of what is in the world for the love of Jesus Christ.” Do not these seem opposite to what the world suggests? Yet only through this kind of mortification can we renounce our senses so that the voice of God can be heard over the noise of our passions. Other messages in the same opus, which certainly can surprise us if seen with the eyes of the world: “To come to taste everything, do not look for taste in anything. To achieve possession of everything, do not want to own anything. To come to be everything, do not want to be anything. To get to the knowledge of everything, do not try to know anything in anything. To come to what you do not enjoy now, you have to go where you do not enjoy. To reach what you do not know, you have to go through where you do not know. To reach possession of what you do not have, you have to go through where you have nothing now. To reach what you are not, you have to go through where you are not now.” Of course, what vertiginous heights! Here is a healthy relativism, the one that puts human things in brackets, the things we cannot help but feel attachment to, our life, our health, our pleasures. Yet this wisdom is common to all wisdom, like the Chinese one articulated by the master Confucius: “To put the world in order, we must put the nation in order. To put the nation in order, we must put the family in order. To put the family in order, we must cultivate our personal life. To cultivate our personal life, we must first put our hearts in order.” The conversion of the world to God begins with our hearts, not with great ideas and decades of plans.

In a homily for the celebration of the Word held on 4 November 1982 in Segovia, Pope John Paul II spoke of St John of the Cross: “With this insistence on the purity of faith, John of the Cross does not deny that the knowledge of God can be to be reached gradually starting from the creatures, as the Book of Wisdom teaches and St Paul repeats in the Letter to the Romans (see Rom 1, 18-21, cf St John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, 4, 1). The mystical doctor teaches that in faith it is also necessary to deprive oneself of creatures, both of those that are perceived through the senses and those reached by the intellect, to unite in a cognitive way with the same God. This way leads in union, it passes through the “dark night” of faith.” The dark night – this concept that, after John of the Cross, has crossed the lives of many other Christians. The paths of our holiness depend on the interpretation of this “dark night.” I think of a beautiful book by Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Come, be my light. John Paul II himself, in his Apostolic Letter Master of the Faith (1990), stated: “Only Jesus Christ, the definitive Word of the Father, can reveal to men the mystery of pain and illuminate with the rays of his glorious cross the darker nights of the Christian. John of the Cross, consequent with his affirmations around Christ, tells us that God, after the revelation of his Son, ‘has remained almost as mute, having nothing else to say’; the silence of God has its most eloquent revealing word of love in the crucified Christ. The Saint of Fontiveros invites us to contemplate the mystery of the Cross of Christ, as he habitually did it, in the poem of El Pastorcico or in his famous drawing of the Crucifix, known as the Christ of St John of the Cross. On the mystery of Christ’s abandonment on the cross he certainly wrote one of the most sublime pages of Christian literature. Christ experienced suffering in all his rigor until death on the cross. The most severe forms of physical, psychological and spiritual pain were concentrated on him in the last moments: ‘My God, my God! why have you forsaken me?’ (Mt 27:46). This atrocious suffering, caused by hatred and lies, has a profound redeeming value. It was ordered to ‘simply pay the debt and unite the man to God.’ With his loving surrender to the Father, at the moment of the greatest abandonment and of the greatest love, ‘he performed the most marvelous work he had accomplished in heaven and on earth during his earthly existence, full of miracles and wonders, a work that consists in having reconciled and united to God, by grace, the human race.’ Thus the mystery of the Cross of Christ reveals the gravity of sin and the immensity of the love of the Redeemer of man.” In the light of these words and of the teaching of Saint John of the Cross we can also understand those – unheard – of Saint Therese of Lisieux, who claimed to love suffering. No, humanly we cannot and must not love suffering, this is possible only when illuminated by a greater light.

In the aforementioned work, Saint John of the Cross also affirmed: “When you stop on something, let yourself slip away to the whole. And when you come to have everything, you have to own it without wanting anything, because if you want to own something entirely, you do not have your only treasure in God.” I think that spending more time meditating on these great saints, rather than the current quarrels, will help us in the ways of good and holiness.

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