Friday, December 14, 2007

December 14: John of the Cross

Today we remember John of the Cross (another Advent saint not officially on our calendar, with a similar story as Lucy’s—he was briefly). John was a Carmelite monk in 16th century Spain, and was a student of Teresa of Avila. He continued her mystical work. He is best known for his work Dark Night of the Soul. That work has led many to believe that John was, as we would now say, clinically depressed. Perhaps this is true, but we cannot be certain. For John, the “dark night” was a particular way to God, in which the mind and will were trained to let go of the things of this world (and also memories and the will itself) as possessions, to be replaced by pure love and adoration of the living God. The “dark night” produced by this letting go was not an end in itself—hope was, the hope that can only come from the love of God.

Here’s a quote from John about memories as possessions of which we must let go.

Our aim is union with God in the memory through hope; the object of hope is something unpossessed; the less other objects are possessed, the more capacity and ability there is to hope for what one hopes for, and consequently the more hope; the greater the possessions, the less capacity and ability for hope, and consequently so much less of hope; accordingly, in the measure that individuals dispossess the memory of forms and objects, which are not God, they will fix it on God and preserve it empty, in the hope that God will fill it. As often as distinct ideas, forms, and images occur to them, they should immediately, without resting in them, turn to God with loving affection, in emptiness of everything rememberable. If these things refer to their obligations, they should think not look on them for a time any longer than is sufficient for the understanding and fulfillment of these obligations. And then they should consider these ideas without becoming attached or seeking gratification in them lest the effects of them remain in the soul. Thus spiritual persons are not required to cease recalling and thinking about what they must do and know. Since they are not attached to the possession of these thoughts, they will not be harmed. From the Ascent of Mount Carmel, chapter 15

It seems to me this is all about the word “possession,” and John’s conviction that nothing should possess us except the love of God. I think he would be the first to say how very, very difficult this is, how it is a lifetime’s work for most people, and how doing so can produce a “dark night of the soul,” because we are so used to clinging to our “possessions,” i.e. finding our identity in them when our fundamental identity should come from God alone.

Pithy stuff for this Friday in Advent!

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