What do you see when you look out a window? As I write this looking out the second-floor window on my right the rooftops are still covered with a gleaming snow that fell a few days ago. For me the snow is an opening into the Advent season – there is an expectancy in the air, a freshness and newness descending upon us. It gives me a sense of peace and tranquility. I do not know if St. John of the Cross ever saw snow outside his window but I do know that he was a “window gazer”. It was one of his ways of praying through God’s creation. Although he enjoyed walking and praying outdoors, he also used the opportunity of his cell as a sanctuary of prayer. Looking through his window, with his elbows on the window sill, he would become absorbed in deep prayer from the beauty of the flowers seen during the day to the majestic wonders of the star-studded sky at night.
John is often given a bad rap because of his asceticism. Asceticism can invoke various images and emotions. Like other things in our lives it goes back to the motivation. Many practice a natural asceticism for natural reasons: to lose weight, to win a trophy, to be physically fit, etc. The word “asceticism”, however, usually convokes concepts associated with a spiritual ideal. Asceticism can be a synonym for mortification or self-denial. It may be a form of penance for sin committed or the desire to bring one’s life into closer conformity with the will of God. In this it includes self-discipline and renouncement of unnecessary material comforts. The degree to which one practices asceticism is again dependent on the motivation or goal to be achieved. John would write in his Spiritual Canticle: “My sole occupation is Love”.
Such a life style should not be taken out of context from his entire life. What he demanded of himself he did not impose on others. While to some John’s asceticism may have seemed unduly severe, it was basically a detachment from all selfish or self-centered desires. The opposite of self-centered is other-centered which is shown through kindness, gentleness and compassion. His love of nature enabled him to enjoy the camaraderie of his brethren while walking through the countryside and sharing with them the spiritual insights evoked by God’s creation. Serene, patient and forgiving he got along well with individuals. Known for his joy he was an amiable companion.
The images formed from the sights, sounds, and smells that entered his senses remained in his memory to be spilled out later in his prose and poetry. Such images inflamed him even more with love of God and deepened his appreciation in other areas, such as his love for music. We see traces of this also in his written works in his choice of words to attempt to describe an experience of the mystical life. Even words, such as “silent music, sounding solitude”, of the Spiritual Canticle felt to him inadequate and left him stammering. Here he sings of the spousal love between the soul and Christ, the Bridegroom.
The loving relationships which nurtured John in his early family life amidst suffering and the extreme poverty he experienced honed his character in the virtues of gentleness, detachment and compassion. Although he reached transforming union as a young man this did not isolate him from the practicalities of life. Rather the sensitivity of his spirit revealed itself in an active way through the empathy which was very evident in the care he demonstrated for the sick and his persistence in begging alms for the poor, both before his entrance into religious life and even afterwards when he cared in a loving way for his own Carmelite brethren, as well as the help he provided for the sustenance of the Nuns. It was even more apparent in the one-on-one spiritual care that he provided for souls through confession and spiritual direction.
John was both mystic and poet. This combination is not always found in one person. Not only was he a poet but was considered to be one of Spain’s finest poets. Father Thomas Dubay in Fire Within affirms that his poetic genius was his greatest achievement on the natural level. On the supernatural level he was a man on fire with the love of God experiencing deep ecstatic prayer. Thus he was able to express within this poetry his most profound mystical thoughts. It is possible to be a mystic without being a poet and to be a poet without being a mystic. How fortunate we are to have both to such a high degree in one individual!
John has so much to teach us. The Spiritual Canticle, considered to be his finest work walks us through life. It is the story of each one of us, the story of our relationship with God. Born into this world we are separated from God by the sin of our first parents, the God for whom our soul longs. It is the story of God’s search for us and our search for Him. The effects of original sin will be felt throughout life’s journey.
It was in the intense suffering of John’s imprisonment for nine months at Toledo by his own Carmelite brethren that he conceived this work, a love story, which would describe the soul’s journey through life in fulfillment of God’s plan for it. It is the story of spiritual growth and all the struggles that come in striving to live in conformity with God’s will, to overcome habits of sin, to grow in the virtues, especially charity, and to commune with God in deep prayer. It is the story of one’s longing and yearning for God, a love enkindled by the beauty with which God has clothed the world leading the soul to desire an even more infinite beauty – God Himself. Through suffering we experience the limits of our earthly existence and are in a better position to leave behind us whatever does not enable us to embrace the sole longing of our desire. As we grow in prayer there will be different levels of intensity of Presence and apparent absence of God which rouses our longing until that final encounter. Let us not grow weary as we ascend to the peak of Mt. Carmel – where the perfect union we aspire to awaits us in eternal glory.