St. John of the Cross—Reflection on His Sayings of Light and Love
Many spirituality writers toss the phrase “dark night of the soul” as if it were always self-explanatory. In many cases, non-Christian writers refer to the term in order to expound on points of mystery in the human psyche or even in the supernatural realm. St. John of the Cross, the Mystical Doctor of the Church, coined the phrase to mean something frustrating, if not beautiful, about the human journey toward God.
For those who have experienced such dark nights, the soul is ensconced in silence, a seeming black hole of nothingness. They do not feel. They do not see or hear God in response to their desperate pleas for help and healing. All seems lost. Yet, if they remain faithful to God and His ways, they discover His invitation to a spiritual depth in contemplation they could never have conjured on their own. It is by way of obscure faith – faith that is certain but unclear – that St. John of the Cross believed these tormented souls will happen upon their eternal reward.
More than this, he wrote tomes of pithy spiritual gems in both poetry and prose, containing sage advice glimmering with symbolism. In honor of his feast day, here are five of those words he imparted hundreds of years ago. They are meant to inspire and encourage the weary pilgrim even today, especially today.
God values in you an inclination to aridity and suffering for love of Him more than all possible consolations, spiritual visions, and meditations1.
Many faithful followers of Christ begin their spiritual path to Heaven by looking for signs. Consider the Rose Novena in honor of St. Therese of Lisieux. Those who pray it often will confidently proclaim its efficacy – “I saw a rose, a sign!” – and thus praise God for answering them in their time of need.
This is also true of consolations and other spiritual delights. St. John of the Cross believed that God grants His devotees particular comforts in an effort to swoon them more deeply into prayer based on love. At some point, however, a soul will find that she is no longer feeling the warmth toward God in her heart she once did, and that God, too, seems distant and cold.
When we suffer these spiritual droughts as an offering of love for God, it is far more meritorious than the seasons in which we felt a closeness to Him.
The person who in aridity and trial submits to the dictates of his reason is more pleasing to God than he who does everything with consolation, yet fails in this submission2.
For those who rely upon emotion to guide their spiritual inclinations and aspirations toward Heaven, interior trials of darkness and aridity become monstrous and insurmountable. They become discouraged and struggle with doubt, because they have based their faith on feelings rather than an act of the will. St. John of the Cross wants us to persevere through our trials, however long and arduous they may be, with patience and continual praise to God for all He has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. This refines a soul into a purer, more pleasing masterpiece to God than s/he who remains a spiritual infant and never advances in the spiritual life.
Do not think that, because the virtues you have in mind do not shine in your neighbor, he will not be precious in God’s sight for something of which you are not thinking3.
We can refer to the reference in Matthew 7:5, in which we hear of the importance of removing the plank from our own eyes before taking out a splinter from our neighbor’s eye. It is an abasement to admit one’s faults and to continually reflect upon them when dealing with a difficult person, yet pride would have us justify our sins – gossip, anger, judgment. Humility, wrote St. John of the Cross, reminds us of our nothingness and our brokenness, so that we are less inclined to judge those we believe are amoral or immoral.
The soul that walks in love neither rests nor grows tired4.
Love, as a conscious decision, forges through tribulations and suffering, while never despairing of its end – Heaven. When a soul advances through such struggles, it understands on an unspoken but deeply intimate level that God’s love sustains it. It is God within the soul who gives it both light and permits it to sit in the silence of darkness. God grants it strength to face adversity and the ability to persevere in unfailing hope.
Strive to preserve your heart in peace and let no event of this world disturb it. Reflect that all must come to an end5.
Every saint lived in troubling times. We are no different. Political division, economic frailty, social unrest, and the spirit of anger confront the foundation of peace within our hearts. They battle against truth, against what we know is good and beautiful in the world. When we recall, according to the wisdom of St. John of the Cross, that all things pass, we are more apt to let nothing disturb our peace.
St. John of the Cross is a timeless saint who spoke as much to his acolytes as he does to his modern-day devotees. We can find encouragement in the periods of our lives when we feel as if God has forgotten us, when we encounter struggle after struggle as if in the footsteps of Job, when our relationships suffer and we find ourselves facing devastating losses. The key to overcoming such adversities is in our fidelity to God through prayer and reception of the Sacraments of the Holy Eucharist and Confession. Then the light and darkness become impenetrable, yet pierce our souls with a holiness we cannot see this side of Heaven.
1. St. John of the Cross, Collected Works, Sayings on Light and Love #14, 667.
2. Ibid, #20, 668.
3. Ibid, #60, 672.
4. St. John of the Cross, Collected Works, Maxims and Counsels: Maxims on Love #18, 675.
5. Ibid, #75, 679.