The Poetry and Piety of St. John of the Cross

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Luke 13:1-9

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           We interlace our interpretation of Holy Scripture, this Lent, with the poetry and piety, the mystical witness of John of the Cross.  Today, then, first Luke, then San Juan, second Isaiah, then San Juan.

 

Luke On Mercy

 

            We listen for the Gospel in St. Luke Our other gospels do not carry any of these teachings from Luke 13. Like most of the second half of the Gospel of Luke they are special to Luke.  They are notoriously hard to interpret, with edgy choices for the interpreter.  But given their specificity to Luke and their place within Luke, along with their absence elsewhere, we might be forgiven an inclination to give them a heartily Lukan rendering.  Luke celebrates history, theology, the poor, and the church.  Yes.  But Luke also celebrates love, pardon, mercy, love.  When he was yet a far way off, we read soon, the father saw him, saw his son, and raced headlong toward him, racing to put an ring on his finger and shoes on his feet, and hug and embrace him, and ‘love on him’ as now I understand some people say, though the odd use of the preposition in between the verb and the pronoun seems odd.  The Galileans are not greater sinners than others, for all the political violence and then death sent their way by Pilate.  They are beloved children of God.  Those on whom the natural violence inherent in gravity and the cascading violence inherent in human architectural and other error, which led to their tragic deaths, by no means means they are greater sinners than others.  We may take from their tragedy for ourselves quite simply the wise admonition to straighten up and fly right, to prize our time now we have it, to seize the day.  And to what end?  To love, God and neighbor.  To love, God and neighbor.

 

            And there is still time.  Yes, there may well come a time when it is too late.  Other portions of Scripture make sure for sure we remember that.   It is later than we think.  But Luke has a different Gospel to announce:  there is still time, there is extra time, there is more time, there is time.  The kindly gardener, gently redirecting his boss, the owner of the vineyard, makes a call for mercy.   A little water, a little fertilizer, a little time—a little more of each—and who knows what may come out of the ground?  And if not, next year, well…You have the feeling don’t you that next year that same gardener will have another way to protect the vine.  Give it just a little more time.  Give it just a little more time.  Your inner life, your John of the Cross life, your wisdom and contemplation in life—a little water, a little nourishment, a little time, especially time, and who knows?  Mercy. It takes time.

 

Feminine Divinity

 

St. John evoked mercy.  Mercy, pardon, peace and love, discovered through the inner life, through inner struggle, is the gift of St John of the Cross and his sixteenth century mind, to our own time of bewilderment in century 21.  San Juan is best known, if at all, in popular imagination for the poetry and piety in the opening phrase of his greatest poem, ‘The Dark Night’, of the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’.  Listen again to three lines from this most beautiful and famous of poems: …en una noche oscura…en la noche dichosa…!o noche que guiaste…Dark night. Lucky night.  Guiding night.  Colin Thompson has aptly best summarized this poem, in his recent composite study of St. John of the Cross, based on years of work and multiple essays and articles: ‘in this ‘noche’ a woman cries out and…all activity ceases and all cares are abandoned’.  There is an abandon, a freedom here, that casts aside what is inherited, expected, and customary.

 

            For instance, we notice here the happy nonchalance about gender.  The seeker, presumably a voice for the saint himself, is nonetheless given voice as an adoring woman.  We notice here, as resplendently everywhere in San Juan de la Cruz, a direct and easy conflation or combination of the sensuous and the spiritual, erotic love and love divine.  Of course, the Bible, in particular the ‘Song of Songs’ has paved or led the way here from antiquity.  It is striking to assemble the chorus of female divines who in a broadly mystical tradition explored the back roads and trails of the inner life:  Julian of Norwich, Margery Kemp, St. Catherine of Siena, Hildegard of Bingen, Mechtold of Magdeburg, and, of course, she from whom John learned and for whose Carmelites he labored, Santa Theresa de Avila. Together they sang: “God is incomprehensible to our intellect, but not to our love”.  Human language and thought will ever fall short (of God).  Here we notice the beautiful, the twilight ‘negative’ perspective of John of the Cross.  We notice here that the “dark night of San Juan is all-embracing:  it is the negation of the creaturely appetites at the start of the journey (ascetism, mortification), the route taken (faith), and the goal sought (the hiddenness of God)”.  That is, we here notice a movement from purgation to illumination to union, from purgation to illumination to union.  We notice here the rare, lily-like beauty of the poetry whose roots are deep in the caverns of Scripture, whose trunk is made up of the sung, country love ballads of Italy and especially of Castilla la Vieja, and whose branches touch and are touched by the personal, ‘dark’ experience of San Juan de la Cruz:  poet, priest, monk, theologian, confessor, leader, ascetic, Spaniard, Catholic—saint, lover of God and neighbor, a dead though living reminder of the possibility of the inner life:  en una noche oscura…amado con amada…amada en el amado transformada…sin otra luz y guia…sino la que en el Corazon ardia…en mi cuelo heria…todos mis sentidos suspendia…

 

Isaiah’s Hope

 

We listen for the good word, the God Word, today also in Isaiah.  One of Isaiah’s keenest modern interpreters was our preacher in Evanston, Illinois until his death in 1960, Ernest Fremont Tittle.  Back in the 1930’s Tittle organized a listing of 1000 preachers who, like him, were committed to the principles of Christian pacifism.  While his dream was submerged during the Second World War, nonetheless his hope lives on.  His work reminds us that citizenship is always subordinate to discipleship, that the first commandment against idolatry presides over all the other nine, that while the separation of church and state is a quintessentially American and necessarily Christian understanding.

 

            Tittle preached the Jesus of the prophets, of peace, of the new creation, the hope that Isaiah did foretell.  The special 8thcentury bce hope of Isaiah for Israel and her Davidic King, changes, is transformed, into a grand and lasting vision of the Christ of God, and the power of Christ to bring heaven to earth. Some of this changes happens in Isaiah itself, as part I gives way to Chapter 40 (II) in the exile, and the Isaiah of the exile is further decorated by the excitement of the last ten chapters, written during the restoration (III).  Isaiah 1,2,3. To be clear:  in Isaiah, a small, particular, national hope becomes a grand and universal vision of great hope, on earth as it is in heaven.  Divine hope is honed in the struggle of Isaiah’s own life, in the predicted demise of Israel, in the brutality of exile, in the sweetness of liberation, and, at last, by your faith, in the advent of Christ.  The ringing bells of hope, an eschatological bell choir of prophesy, make Isaiah so memorable.  Especially our passage today, Isaiah 55.  And Tittle’s Isaian hope for the future was based wholey upon his allegiance to Jesus Christ, the light shining in the dark:

 

                        Jesus, after 19 centuries, remains an object of wonder.  There is something wonderful in the very fact that he has escaped oblivion.  What chance, on any human reckoning, did he have to be remembered?  A Jew, living in a small and remote province of the Roman Empire;  an obscure Jew belonging to the peasant class; a man of whom the vast majority of his contemporaries never heard, and who moreover left no written record of anything that he had said or done or dreamed; a man rejected and repudiated by the leaders of his nation, and deserted at the last even by his disciples.  Out of obscurity he came; and when, an object of hatred and derision, he was put to death on a gallows, it might well have been supposed that into oblivion he would go. But upon the contrary, the name of Jesus, in Emerson’s phrase, is “not so much written as ploughed into the history of the world.”

 

Grace at Dusk

 

            For St. John of the Cross, in full depth, Jesus was an object of wonder.  We note the attention in SJDLC to the art of co-operating with grace, to the human search for God and God’s search for the human, to amanuensis—memory, to words that ‘find us out’, to witness even stammering witness, to the authority and oneness of Scripture.  We note that St. John’s prime concern is the inner life of the individual.  And that is as good a short definition of pastoral ministry as one can find.  It is based on eremetismo interior.  And it is based on the connection between sensory deprivation and imaginative stimulus:  out of his dark night there arose—poetry and piety.

 

            “In the same way God will appear dark to the human intelligence because it lacks the organs to comprehend him”.   The dark night is a night of purgation, yes, but also of faith.  Like the moth, like the owl, who see in the dusk not in the sunlight.  O for that night when I in him might live invisible and dim.  For St John, there clearly was a connection between sensory deprivation and imaginative stimulus.  Out of his dark night arose poetry.   In the poetry and piety of St John of the Cross, we may find, uncover or discover, the courage and capacity to see at twilight, in the dark, in the dusk.

 

            In the dusk.  What do we see at nightfall?  Do we see, for instance, to take one obvious and immediate example,  that a claim of national emergency might not be seen as merely an extension of corruption, mendacity, and scurrilous life.  Come twilight, cultural and social twilight, do we like moth and owl squint and see that it is quite possibly much more?  It is the harbinger, the promissory note of a move toward authoritarianism.  It may be the emergence, or ironically emergency, of an openness to authoritarian leadership, that against which the US Constitution was largely written, was largely composed.  We shall need our night vision, our dark night vision.

           

In the dusk.  What do we see at nightfall?  Our sight, dimmed in the dark, finally relies on, recoils to, the sight of moth and owl, the twilight sight along the path of spiritual negation, along the path of the dark night of the soul.  Fear not the dark.  Faith is a walk in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Hope is a companion in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Love is present in the dark, in with and under all.  Or, to conclude, as San Juan wrote: 

 

On a night of darkness,

In love’s anxiety of longing kindled,

O blessed chance!

I left by none beheld.

My house in sleep and silence stilled.

 

In darkness and secure,

By the secret ladder disguised,

O blessed venture!

In darkness and concealed,

My house in sleep and silence stilled.

 

By dark of blessed night,

In secrecy for no one saw me

And I regarded nothing,

My only light and guide

The one that in my heart was burning.

 

This guided, led me on

More surely than the radiance of noon

To where there waited one

Who was to me well known,

And in a place where no one came in view.

 

O night, you were the guide!

O night more desirable than dawn!

O dark of night you joined

Beloved with beloved one,

Beloved one in Beloved now transformed!

 

Upon my flowering breast

Entirely kept for him and him alone,

There he stayed and slept

And I caressed him

In breezes from the fan of cedars blown.

 

Breezes on the battlements—

As I was spreading out his hair,

With his unhurried hand

He wound my neck

And all my senses left suspended there.

 

I stayed, myself forgotten,

My countenance against my love reclined;

All ceased, and self-forsaken

I let my care behind

Among the lilies, unremembered.

 

 

            May God grant usgospelas in Luke, poetryas in St. John,hopeas in Isaiah, and pietyas in St. John.  Lift up your hearts:  Fear not the dark.  Faith is a walk in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Hope is a companion in the dark.  Fear not the dark.  Love is present in the dark, in with and under all.

 

The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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