St. John of the Cross
We tend to steer our spiritual lives by self-fulfillment or self-denial—some of us inclined more one way than another, most of us lurching awkwardly back and forth.
Both ways however start from and reinforce the self. How can one part of the self ever realize the whole?
The great Japanese philosopher Dogen wrote: “To start from the self and try to understand all things is delusion. To let the self be awakened by all things is
For our WHOLE self to flourish we need to “move from zero” instead of “starting from self.”
In the words of St John of the Cross:
“To enjoy all, seek enjoyment in nothing. To come to possess all, desire to possess nothing. To arrive at being all, desire to be nothing. To come to the knowledge of all, desire the knowledge of nothing.”
What I find striking here is that he is not afraid to enjoy, to desire, to know and bear fruit—BUT the self is not in the driver’s seat. The self is radically surrendered to the point that it has sunk back into nothingness.
And yet it’s not at all self-denying self on its own terms, self still in the driver’s seat; self thwarting self, disguised in the respectable veneer of duty and obligation.
St John of the Cross embodied this way of true spiritual freedom and bore the sweetest fruit precisely in the midst of bitter suffering and degradation.
Like his Master, he was “despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering and familiar with pain.” His father died when he was three. His widowed mother was spurned by his father’s family and as a small child, he underwent years of poverty and hunger.
He was educated in the faith by Jesuits but it was a dangerous time in the Church: the Inquisition was at the height of its power. The very archbishop of Toledo, effectively head of the Church in Spain was thrown in prison by them.
The fearless Teresa of Avila persisted in her efforts to reform the Carmelites and in time recruited John to her cause. On Dec 2, 1577, he was abducted by the
unreformed branch of the Carmelites who resented his efforts and thrown into a tiny, filthy prison. He had a bucket, rarely changed, a tiny slit for a window, no change of clothes, his office books…and a pen and paper smuggled into him by the friar who served as guard.
Three times a week the community brought him to the refectory where he was stripped from the waist down as the jeering community filed past and beat him with rods. It was during this imprisonment that he composed most of The Spiritual Canticle and many of his greatest works.
After 9 months he escaped by night and made it back to his own, reformed
community. But he wasn’t treated much better. In the house where he ultimately landed, the prior was against him and there was a concerted slander campaign designed to force him out of the order. In 1591 he developed a bacterial infection in one of his feet and became feverish. He was left without medical help until it was too late and died, forgiving the prior and community.
John didn’t privilege his literary and spiritual gifts over and against the rest of his life. They grew from and expressed it. But he also didn’t wallow in his suffering, secretly glad to have an excuse to escape his creativity.
Like St Paul, he learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry. He became nothing and allowed all things, even life at its most bitter, to serve his spiritual awakening.