March 31

The Mysticism of St. John of the Cross

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 15: 1-32

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When he came to himself…
The God beyond God of the mystical tradition, the mystical chorus in which
does sing San Juan de la Cruz, by means of wonder and love and praise, can bring
us to your selves, our real selves, our own most own selves…
You qualify. Yes, you qualify. You are qualified. You qualify because you
are in the flesh. Once you are born, an uncle did used to say, you are old enough
to die. You qualify. Once you are born, an uncle did used to say, you are old
enough to die. The community of faith, the community of faith working through
love here in Marsh Chapel, has reason this month to remember such existential
qualification. Directly or indirectly you have born witness: in memorial, in
funeral, in pastoral care, in personal prayer, in vigil, this month. The line of death
crossing the line of life at age 84, at age 71, at age 20, at age 18 months, and at all
the ages in between. A theologian, a professor, a young adult, an infant, a foreign
worshipping community. You qualify. Yes, you qualify. You are qualified. You
qualify because you are in the flesh. Once you are born, an uncle did used to say,
you are old enough to die.
Death makes us mortal. Facing death makes us human. Our three lessons,
in this sense, acclaim together, not the denial nor the avoidance nor the
suppression of the reality of death, but faith in the face of death, faith facing
death. And what else is faith.
The disgrace of Egypt was slavery, social death. Death abides. Faith faces
death, and, in that, rolls away the stone of disgrace. You come to communion
month by month, in that faithful spirit. The LORD said to Joshua, "Today I have
rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt." Like his cousin, David, in the psalms,

Joshua sings out faith: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me, all the days of
my life, AND…I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
In Corinth, amid communal chaos aplenty, St. Paul lifted the same call:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even
though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer
in that way. So, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has
passed away; see, everything has become new! Not Christ according the flesh, nor
even according to the spirit, but Christa kata staupon, according to the cross. You
come to communion month by month in that faithful spirit. He will and does have
more to say, elsewhere, on the fruit of that spirit (Gal. 5), on the effect of that
spirit (Phil. 4), on the gift of that spirit (2 Cor. 3).
If we know a parable, it may be this one, the prodigal son. We will walk
with the prodigal to communion today. Notice this: his discovery of life in life, his
coming home to his own-most self, the best return home odyssey day of his life
come out of what? Failure. His salvation emerges from what? Failure. His
coming to his senses and coming to terms with self, world and God, is forged in
what fire? Failure. Not all failure is self-inflicted, but almost all failure is partly so.
Consider our condition. An authoritarian mind may have no intention at all to
leave office, at any point at all, defeated or undefeated, impeached or
unimpeached, convicted or un-convicted. Read again Eric Fromm, as we did in
the autumn, sentient citizens. Here is diminishment, here is failure: in
mendacious speech, in predatory relations, in destructive disregard for common
good institutions, in cheap or small-minded reduction of life and its living to deals
and their undoing, in disregard for climate and environment, in pitiless toying
with nuclear violence, and the myriad shreddings of American civil society and its
hard won support of voluntary associations (church, country, school, hospital,
scouting and the like).

Merton Remembered

Last year, Lent 2018, we debated and discerned with Thomas Merton, you
may remember, for whom San Juan de la Cruz was a powerful influence. From six
pages of Merton’s reflections on John, we here select several telling lines:
The two words "desiring nothing" contain all the difficulty and all the
simplicity of St. John of the Cross. But no Christian has a right to complain of them.
They are simply an echo of …words that sum up the teaching of Jesus Christ in the

Gospel… "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself”…This total self-
denial, which St. John of the Cross pursues into the inmost depths of the human
spirit, reduces our interior landscape to a wasteland without special features of
any kind whatever. We do not even have the consolation of beholding a personal
disaster. A cataclysm of the spirit, if terrible, is also interesting.
These times of aridity cause the soul to journey in all purity in the love of
God, since it is no longer influenced in its actions by the pleasure and sweetness of
the actions themselves, . . . but only by a desire to please God…
The joy of this emptiness: it is a solitude full of wild birds and strange
trees, rocks, rivers, and desert islands, lions, and leaping does. These creatures are
images of the joys of the spirit, aspects of interior solitude, fires that flash in the
abyss of the pure heart whose loneliness becomes alive with the deep lightnings
of God. (RAH emphasis for delivery).

Dark Night Theology

San Juan de la Cruz was an apophatic theologian, a negative theologian,
one whose language of God began and ended by saying what God is not. We have
kindred cousin compatriots of this tradition here within Boston University. Think
of Ray Hart, God Being Nothing. Think of Bob Neville, God the Creator. Think of
Wesley Wildman’s new book, dedicated to the ministry of Marsh Chapel, God Is.
Think of the legacy of our BU poets and professors interpret who interpret poetry:
Christopher Ricks, or Geoffrey Hill, or Roseanna Warren, or Robert Pinsky, or
Derek Walcott.
Colin Thompson has summarized this form of thought: For Christian
tradition, there are two main strands of thought about the relationship between
language and God. One is positive (‘cataphatic’), and sees likenesses
between…the world of human experience and the nature of God…It is associated
with …the immanence of God…and a spirituality….that rises from the known to the
unknown… The other strand is negative, or apophatic, and denies that human
language can convey anything at all about God…The name of Dionysius the
Areopagite is indelibly associated with it…It springs from a theology of
transcendence, which insists on a complete ontological separation between the
Creator and creation, on the otherness and unknowability of God…Its spirituality is
one of purgation of the soul from its natural concerns…to commune with God in
darkness and nothingness. Its language is of…paradox, antithesis and oxymoron
(Thompson, 227).
Remember? O for that night when I in him might live invisible and dim
(Vaughn). This week, concluding a superb Lowell lecture on queer theology, Dr.
Mark Jordan from Harvard exclaimed, in his critique of unfair naming, turn off the
factory glare of false naming! Negative theology, the theology of the dark night
of the soul, we might add, theologizes his faithful cry, saying, of language about
God, turn off the factory glare of false naming!
James Baldwin: whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals,
precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves. (Letter from a
Region in my Mind (New Yorker, reprint, 12/3/18). We might paraphrase:
Whatever straight Methodists do not know about gay Methodists reveals,
precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves.
You heard Isaiah 55 last week: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor
are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the
earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your
There is an herbal bitterness, an antique acquaintance with hardship, in the
dark night, the dark night of the soul. It recalls Ecclesiastes, for whom there is
nothing new. Young adults, students it may be, can acquire a kind of muscular
wisdom, a personal endurance, for STEM and pottery and all everything in
between. Thompson: Before maturity can be gained a certain degree of
independence is required, and…the process of gaining it sometimes leaves a bitter
taste. St. John is, after all, ‘of the cross’.
So, in his spirit, we want to look at the people who work at Dunkin Donuts
not at the people who shop at Dunkin Donuts…to look at the people who leave
High School or college, not at the people who set up camp at high school or
college…to look at the people who suffer the wounds of warfare, not at the
people who gain glory by sending others into battle…to look at the people who
defer to others in conversation and listen, not at the people who override others
in conversation and speech.

The question whether our time and condition afford a true opening to an
inner life, of any vibrant sort, is itself open, very much an open question. The
momentary droplets of technologies new and inescapable stand up the first
phrase of the question, while the commerce and discourse they carry construct
the second. Our Lenten theological conversation partner is St. John of the Cross.
His one interest was the inner life.


Have you given attention to inner life?
If you will forgive personal illustration, in the main to be minimized or
avoided in preaching, the question arose in early January. With SJDLC and Lent on
the horizon, and the prospect of his poetic, pious illumination of such a life, it
seemed fit to use the works of early epiphany ins some seclusion, to try out, or
test again the prospect of an inner life, largely un-invaded by the droplets of
technologies new and normally inescapable. A fortnight, this was to be, given
over to reading, to quiet, to composition, to exercise, to nature, to prayer.
It was unpleasant. In temperament and by habit only roughly aligned with
seclusion, the early days caused an increase, not a diminution, of anxiety, worry,
acedia, despond and ennui. The temporary banishment of routine, rhythmic, and
regular stimuli—no internet? no cable news? no unexpected visits? no steady
buzzing of instruments—caused lingering worries to multiply, potential crises to
seem real, and absent anxieties to return, like the biblical demon into the
woman’s scrubbed home, seven-fold. It was miserable. I am not fit for the
monastic life, neither eromitic nor cenobitic. Not even a tiny bit(ic). Of a sudden
the great distance between our Lenten sermons was no longer geographic
(Segovia to Boston), epochal (16 th to 21 st centuries), denominational (Catholic to
Protestant), theological (medieval or early renaissance to late modern or post-
religious), or linguistic (Castillian Spanish to American English). The great
distance, it first seemed, was from sound to silence. In the silent din of loneliness
and anxiety, the study and reading and early sermonic composition went ahead,
unfunded, as it were, from the central government.
Yet something remarkable happened. After several days, somehow, the
fever broke. Somehow the absence of earlier common stimuli and the presence

of regular exercise, pages read and written, intermittent visits from spouse and
friends, the draw of the poetry itself (it must be emphasized), and a determined
hour glass routine, caused the fog to lift. The quieter routine, unto itself, brought
at least an inkling of a tiny little aperture—a fortified inner life. It is difficult for us
to assess our addictions and our dispositions without some intervening variance
in habit and position. The standard recommendation here, for ordinary life, as
you know is quiet or rumination or reading or prayer or reflection: an hour a day,
a day a week, a week a quarter, a quarter a year. Death makes us mortal. Facing
death makes us human.

Eucharist at Eucharist

Gracious God

Thou giver of every good gift visible and invisible
We pause in grace to offer our thanks

Thankful we are for women and men who have given support, labor and service to

our ministry, over many years

Their talents, loyalty, commitment and care we honor today

Thankful we are for this day, a harbinger of coming warmth, of brighter days, of

robins’ return, of the promise of spring

Every day is a gift from your hand, including this one sunny day we share, here and


Thankful we are for the kindness and thoughtfulness that make our work spaces,

classes and meetings better places, happier places

Help us remember that it is not the night that kills but the frost, not the night of

unknowing but the frost of unloving that does harm

Thankful we are for the good people in this good place at this good time
For leadership rooted in nearly two centuries of moral intention, of ethical

compass, including our leadership here today

Thankful for commitment, kindness, and goodness, we come to eucharist, to


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

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