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 December 15, 2012 • St. John of the Cross

Today—well, yesterday, actually—the Church celebrates the memory of the sixteenth century Spanish saint, John of the Cross, Juan de Yepes – probably the greatest Christian mystical writer of the last thousand years, and one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language. He was a man who worked not only for the reform and simplification of the monastic life of his time but also for the purification of the inner life of Christians from fantasy, self-indulgence and easy answers. If you haven’t heard of him, you’ve probably at least heard the phrase that he introduced into Christian thinking about the hard times in discipleship – 'the dark night of the soul'. My own first encounter with his work came pretty late in my theological education. I was on retreat in the days just before I was made a deacon. I had been offered one of the guest houses at a convent called “Fairacres” in Oxford, and my spiritual director gave me a copy of his book the Ascent of Mount Carmel. Before I settled into my reading and reflection, though, I joined the sisters for their evening meal. It was more simple and austere than anything I could have expected, and I’d lived at a monastery for the past three years. A small tossed green salad, a few spoons full of potato soup, and a tiny square of peach crumble were handed to me, mixed together all in one wooden bowl that made me think of the opening scene from Oliver Twist. About an hour later, I scaled the convent wall after Compline, and headed down the Iffley Road to find a curry house that would properly fortify me for the work ahead. I chose, poorly. That night I had my own ‘dark night of the soul’ as I was gripped by a combination of spices and grease that my body was ill-equipped to digest. But since I was up anyway, I dug into the book.

I found John of the Cross to be ruthless in his criticism of the ways in which we prevent ourselves from opening up to the true joy that God wants to give us by settling for something less than the real thing by confusing the truth and grace of God with whatever makes us feel good or comfortable. He is a disturbing and difficult writer. Not someone to congratulate ordinands on a job well done in completing the formation that will allow them to engage in ordained ministry, but someone to challenge that ministry and sharpen it for whatever trials lie ahead.

He wrote that an intimate experience of God comes from experiencing ‘darkness’ in God’s invisible light, and the darkness of faith alone. God’s darkness is not at all like our darkness. It is illuminating, even if it is invisible. It is in those moments when we cannot find God, times when we feel abandoned by Him, moments of grief, despair, and darkness—all too familiar to each of us these days, especially after yesterday—it is in those moments that John recognized God was still very much at work. He likens those moments in our lives to the moment when a parent takes their hands away from a toddler, to let them try a few steps under their own balance, even if it inevitably means repeatedly falling on their bottoms.

Using the language of darkness and light, John draws his readers into an awareness that our comprehension of God’s presence in our lives is only in its infancy. In one passage, which has stuck with me all these years, he speaks of a sunbeam going from one window of his cell to another window, and, he wrote, if the sunbeam does not encounter anything—a fleck of dust or the wall—then it passes through without being noticed, but that does not mean that the light was not there. He applies that to God’s spiritual or supernatural light which bears a relation to the ‘eye of the intellect’ in the same way that physical light relates to the eye of the body. Here instead of matter and sensible images, we have to work with concepts and forms. He presses this with imageless thinking, for images and symbols are creaturely representations and closed modes of thought which are apt to obstruct our apprehension of divine truth. He developed a disciplined unknowing, or darkness, imageless knowing. But the point of all this is that the invisibility of God, has not to do with darkness, but with the infinite excess of divine light over the created light which creates the images and symbols which fill our hearts and minds. God is dark to us, and unapproachable, because of the inability of our impure minds to fathom the absolute purity of his being. If it is difficult to know God, that comes from two things: the excess of divine rationality over our rationality, and in the impurity of our perception, the opaqueness of our mind. Knowledge of God can take place only when something stands in his light and reflects it to us, when a fleck of dust catches the sunbeam. (remember, mortal that you are dust) And that is the ministry which begins here today—two servants of God, given grace to take your place as proclaimers of the Good News, by vowing to stand in that light as best you can, and to reflect that light by your words, actions and lives, as best you can. To make the invisible light of God visible, to bring it into the created world, the world of flesh and matter—to make incarnate the light of God, using your own body and soul.

St John of the Cross also left us, in some of his poems, one of the most breathtakingly imaginative visions ever of the nature of the Joy of the Incarnation. He is recognized as one of the greatest poets in the Spanish language; and part of his genius is to use the rhythms and conventions of popular romantic poetry and folksong to convey the biblical story of the love affair between God and creation.

One of his sequences of poetry is called simply the 'Romances'. It's a series of seventy five short verses, telling the story of the world from the beginning to the first Christmas – but telling this story from God's point of view. It begins like a romantic ballad. 'Once upon a time', God was living eternally in heaven, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, with perfect love flowing uninterrupted between them. And out of the sheer overflowing energy of his love, God the Father decides that he will create a 'Bride' for his Son. The imagery is powerful and direct: there will be someone created who will be able, says God the Father, to 'sit down and eat bread with us at one table, the same bread that I eat.'

And so the world is made as a home for the Bride. Who is this Bride? It is the whole cosmos of beings who are capable of love and understanding. In the rich diversity of the world, the heavens and the earth together, God makes an environment in which love and intelligence may grow, until they are capable of receiving the full impact of God's presence. And so the world waits for the moment when God can at last descend and – in a beautiful turning upside-down of the earlier image – can sit at the same table and share the same bread as created beings.

As the ages pass on earth, the longing grows and intensifies for this moment to arrive; and at last God the Father tells the Son that it is time for him to meet his Bride face to face on earth, so that, as he looks at her directly, she may reflect his own likeness. The Son comes to set the table, and to prepare the bread which is to be shared, by living a life of servanthood, and being always obedient to the Father Who sent Him. It’s no accident that Bethlehem means ‘home of bread.’ When God has become human, then humanity will recognize in his face, in Jesus' face, its own true nature and destiny. And the angels sing at the wedding in Bethlehem, the marriage of heaven and earth, where, in the haunting final stanza of the great poetic sequence, humanity senses the joy of God himself, and the only one in the scene who is weeping is the child, the child who is God in the flesh: 'The tears of man in God, the gladness in man, the sorrow and the joy that used to be such strangers to each other.'

In John’s poems, the coming of Christ is not first and foremost a response to human crisis; there is remarkably little about sin in these verses. But his vision takes us further back into God's purpose. The whole point of creation is that there should be persons, made up of spirit and body, in God's image and likeness, who are capable of intimacy with God – not so that God can gain something but so that these created beings may live in joy. And God's way of making sure that this joy is fully available is to prepare a table for them, and to share bread with them, so that human beings may see what they are and what they are for. The sinfulness, the appalling tragedy of human history has set us at what from our point of view seems an unimaginable distance from God; yet God is very near to us, no matter how far we have placed ourselves from Him. It means that when He appears on earth He takes to himself all the terrible consequences of where we have gone wrong – 'the tears of man in God'; yet all that is only a shadow on the great picture, which is unchanged.

This is a perspective that is necessary when our own sins or those of a failing and suffering world fill the horizon for us, so that we can hardly believe the situation can be transformed. For if God has the power and freedom to enter our world and meet us face to face, there is nothing that can destroy that divine vision of what the world is for and what we human beings are for. Nothing changes, however far we fall; if we decide to settle down with our failures and give way to cynicism and despair, that is indeed dreadful – but God remains the same God who has decided that the world should exist so that it may enter into his joy. In all those moments of doubt and despair that you will encounter in your ministry, your new vocation is to proclaim that we can still meet the God who has made human tears his own and still works ceaselessly for his purpose of peace and rejoicing, through the witness of brave and loving people on both sides of the dividing wall.

The birth of Jesus which we are preparing to celebrate, in which that uncreated light which holds the universe together in history as a single human body and soul, and which finds its place in our lives as bread broken and shared, is an event of cosmic importance. It announces that creation as a whole has found its purpose and meaning, and that the flowing together of all things for the joyful transfiguration of our humanity is at last made visible on earth. Dear friends, the time has come, stand up and serve the vocation by which He has graciously called you to make His light shine in the darkness, and to feed a hungry world with the bread of heaven.

Service Schedule

DUE TO THE COVID-19 HEALTH CONCERNS ALL SERVICES AND ACTIVITIES HAVE BEEN SUSPENDED IN ORDER TO COMPLY WITH THE STATE OF WISCONSIN REQUIREMENTS AND THE HEALTH AND WELLBEING OF OUR COMMUNITY. 

Sunday
Rite II Eucharist – 9:00 am, Cathedral

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