March 17

The Divine Presence and St. John of the Cross

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 13:31-35

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At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my course.

Every day, and especially each Lord’s day, Jesus brings us out, and meets us, at the existential line between life and death.  The Gospel from St. Luke foreshadows the cross.  The triumphant trumpet joy of the Letter to the Philippians, including its promise of our commonwealth, our koinonia, ‘in heaven’, pauses sharply to recall the cross.  Psalm 27, perhaps your favorite, or one of them, faces squarely the host of enemies encamped against Love, a prefigurement of the cross.  The genesis of Genesis which is the genesis of the people of faith, come Abraham, far more than the genesis of the creation prior, its real genesis is in the promise spoken to Abraham, often all we have to go on anyway, a word of faith in a pastoral voice toward a common hope, which is ‘Fear Not’, in a cruciform world, ‘fear not’, walk by faith in the dark.

Tomorrow in the dark on Marsh Plaza we will gather under the leadership of our BU Muslim student society, for vigil in faith, in the teeth of slaugher in New Zealand, and in the lasting shadow of the technology it was meant utilize and capture, world wide.  7pm.  We weep with those who weep.

We rustle about the cabin for nourishment, day by week, this Lent, delving for teaching and learning into the poetry of San Juan de la Cruz.

Toward the end of his life, St. John of the Cross was assigned to Granada in the south of Spain.  He came to love the natural beauty of his new home.  Those who have travelled in Andalusia can appreciate how he might have been enthralled so.  Though he loved the natural beauty of the region, the Andalusian accent, and to some measure the temperament of the people he met displeased him.  He missed the Castilian accent and the Castilian bonhomie it may be.

John offered his teaching, counsel, and spiritual direction in the open, warm Andalusian air, on long walks in the country side.  Spain does fully offer the willing peregrinator, pilgrim, pedestrian many and most wonderful trails, scenes and vistas.  Its ancient paths and pueblos carry in their very material the memories of a marvelous, ancient civilization.   That antiquity can teach us.

Jan and I visited once the winter home of Chopin, on Mallorca, where he composed etudes in concert with the rhythms of the falling seasonal rains, there in the heart of the Mediterranean.   Above the house in which Chopin composed and reposed was an ancient monastery, built in the year 1000 and closed near the year 1400.  We marveled, partly for the shimmering beauty of the mountain views, but also and more so that the monastery had been closed more than 600 years, more than twice the time my beloved Methodism has even existed.   It had more years dead and closed than we have had alive and open.  The ancient memories of Spain’s paths and pueblos help us gain, or regain, perspective.  One such is our 2019 memory of San Juan de la Cruz.

In Granada, later in his life, St. John wrote a great deal, including the composition of his commentaries on his few but famous poems.  Soon, though, in connection with ongoing institutional, religious disputes, he was transferred again, this time back to Castilla la Vieja, to the city of Segovia.  There he endured the ongoing political disputes within the Carmelite order.  After the death of St. Theresa of Avila, fights began between the factions of leaders, Doria and Gracian.  St. John travelled widely, to the detriment we imagine of his health in his waning years.  His habit was to ride on donkey or horseback, reading from the Scripture, and singing from his favorite book of the Bible—perhaps it is yours, too—the Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon.  One thinks from the corner of the imagination of Cervantes’ woeful knight errant, the one and the great, Don Quijote de la Mancha, the religious knight errant of a begone era, tilting at windmills and at the locura, the craziness of life itself.  La razon de la sin razon a mi razon me enflaquece…  St. John engaged his own travels in the year 1588, the year, all bright BU undergraduates will recall is that of the Spanish Armada, and its surprising defeat by the English, the dreaded English, along the cliffs of Dover.   When St. John died in 1591 (in December), his body, or most of it, was interred in Segovia, where there is to this day a notable and sizable shrine.

In these years, San Juan de la Cruz was an outspoken critic of clerical power, favoring short leadership term limits, favoring elected rather than appointed leaders, favoring outspoken communal discoursed and debate rather than smoke filled rooms, and most especially, favoring full recognition of the corruption that comes with power.  We can take some notes here, particularly those of us consigned with and to religious leadership.  You do not have to go far into the Q document record of Jesus’ teaching, found in Matthew and Luke, to come upon his description of religious leaders, those wearing robes and holding degrees, to be clear about it, as ‘whited sepulchers full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness’.  As harsh as that may be to our ears, try to hear it in the context of kosher commands, the context of the uncleanness of burial, the context of early Rabbinic Judaism.  As my friend Roy Smyres used to say of bishops, though he meant it fully for all ordained and all religious leaders, ‘They hear so often what a good job they are doing and what great people they are that after a while…they start to believe it’.  I try to keep his voice in earshot myself.  Roy traveled in mission across Africa as a young man in the 1920’s, and loved to recite from memory the poem ‘The Hound of Heaven’.

At the end of his life, St. John found himself in rugged travel, and in contest with religious leadership and religious corruption, the corruption that comes with power.  Hence, at the end of his life, he found himself under suspicion of undermining his superiors.  An inquisition was begun by the Inquisition, during which time, to protect him, John’s correspondence and many if not most of his writings were burned.  A woman, Ana de Penalosa, of Segovia, helped him and later developed the shrine in Segovia to his honor.  In 1974 in Segovia, six of us from Ohio Wesleyan studied for a year, under the tutelage of Don Felipe de Penalosa, he of ancient Spanish aristocracy, and most probably of the same family as Ana Penalosa.   On January 6, 1975, a lovely young woman from Cleveland joined our class for the remainder of the year, very petite, blonde and Scandinavian, and Don Felipe, most happily and faithfully married, at age 85 or so fell in love again.  He just marveled at Rebecca Heskamp, of OWU, now in Segovia, who arrived January 6, saying Es un don de los reyes (she is a gift of the Magi, a gift of the kings).   A little later in the winter he would introduce her as Rebecca,  de los Vikingos, ‘one of the Vikings’.  It is amazing how spoken speech can stay in the memory, over long time, is it not?  St. John died at midnight, December 14, 1591, saying, ‘Tonight I will sing matins in heaven”.  We remember last words.  Like those of Stonewall Jackson, Let us cross over the river and rest in the shade of the trees.  Like those of John Wesley, The best of all is, God is with us.  Like those of Jesus, I thirst.  Father forgive them.  It is finished.  Eli Eli Lama Sabachthani.  And, like those of John of the Cross, Tonight I will sing matins in heaven.

Some few of John’s writings and poems escaped the protective burning.  We have only 2500 verses of poetry, few but exquisite they are.  His poems rely heavily on a refrain of often repeated words: secret, secret; hidden, hidden; forgotten, forgotten; in disguise, in disguise; silence, silence; emptiness, emptiness; night, night.  His poems honor the inner life, ‘whose continual impulse’ is love of God and through God love of man and creation, or as we would say today, of the human being and of nature.  Beginning in 1614 and continuing on through 1627, his remaining poetry and prose and his memory recalled by colleagues, including his remembered speech, were recalled by colleagues and collected en route to his beatification in 1675.  The poems fill only a total of ten pages.

Influences on his poetry are both sacred and secular.  This accords beautifully with the lesson from Romans read among us last Sunday by Rev. Dr. Karen Coleman: If you confess with your lips that Jesus in Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved…for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches on all who call upon him (Romans 10: 9-12).   No distinction between Jew and Greek.  No distinction between religious and unreligious.  No distinction between observant and unobservant.   No distinction, as in the poetry of St. John of the Cross, between sacred and secular.  God is all in all!  God sings ‘don’t fence me in!’

Influences on his poetry are both sacred and secular.  The sacred in particular include the Bible as a whole, and the Song of Songs, of Solomon, especially and in particular.  The secular, most intriguingly, include ordinary Spanish love songs, pastoral romantic poetry, the popular influence of Garcilaso de la Vega (who imported the 11 syllable poetic line from the Italian Renaissance), and his own audition, his own experience of these.  Physically cloistered, he was poetically a regular citizen!  In Garcilaso, we read of Renaissance poetry, The refined sense of beauty, the artificiality of the pastoral themes, the diffused and sublimated sensations, all of which were taken from the Italian (106).  As a young man, St. John of the Cross would have read Garcilaso de la Vega.

Of most importance was the Song of Songs, an anthology of Hebrew folk songs intended for use at marriage festivals and dating in its present state from the third century bce (108).  The drama here of human love becomes a form and format for expression of love divine.  Marriage itself is just this.  With most coming to marriage at or over the age of 30, the more usual practical matters in marriage preparation are of less importance than they were a generation ago, when marriage occurred in the early twenties.  There is less need for counsel regarding budgeting, regarding sexuality, regarding extended family matters, regarding religious rhythms and observances.  But on the other hand, somewhat older couples coming to marriage today are more prepared to, more ready to understand marriage, ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ as it were.  By the mid thirties soon to be newly weds are more experientially prepared, than their cousins a generation ago, to understand human commitment, covenant, betrothal, intimacy and love as forms and formats and especially foretastes of divine commitment, covenant, betrothal, intimacy and love.    We say this in consideration of and counsel for those among us preparing others among us for marriage, an honorable estate, instituted of God and signifying unto us the mystical union which exists between Christ and his church, which holy estate Christ adorned and beautified by his presence in Cana of Galilee.   Note this:  it was a secular love song heard through the walls of this castle prison in Toledo that set John off into his writing of sacred poetry.

Yet, for all his talent, St. John really could not fully explain his own work, to his own satisfaction: it is not only that the poet cannot understand or explain his own experiences, he cannot understand or explain the poems that have come out of those experiences either (110).  In this, as in many other things, St. John foreshadows the poetry of Antonio Machado.

Longing. Anguish. Lightness. Exhilaration.  Travel.  Adventure.  Passion.  Tenderness.  Mountains.  Rivers.  And VERY FEW ADJECTIVES!  These are the themes one finds in the poetry of St. John of the Cross.  His genius, throughout, is the capacity of ‘condensing different elements of thought and feeling into a single phrase’.  It is—here is a new word for it—a kind of ontomontopoesia.

We note that the central image in the poetry, in the work, of the theology of St. John of the Cross is marriage, as in the Song of Songs, as in the Fourth Gospel, as in the poetry of William Blake.  We note that the abiding, attendant issues of church political intrigue, of popular country music ballads, of a confluence of spiritual, sensual love, again of marriage, of the dark nights soul nights, the soul’s pain in memory and hope.  We note the wise and lasting dialectics: to know and not to know; to descend and to ascend; to live and to die; to dwell in light and in darkness.  With St. John and with St. John we note the power of the paradox.

One of San Juan’s most important contributions to the history of Christian spirituality is to give a necessary and positive value to experiences of inner frustration and paralysis.  Like the dark nights themselves, they have to be faced, but rightly understood and used they become a means of growth (Thompson, 220).

They become ‘rays of darkness’.  They become rays of darkness, and the listener becomes one with the music, the reader becomes one with the poetry.

Here is a pointed personal question.  Have you worked to allow the dark nights of your life, the inner frustrations of your life, the times of paralysis in your life, to offer a mode, a condition for growth in faith? Here is a pointed personal question.  Have you worked to allow the dark nights of your life, the inner frustrations of your life, the times of paralysis in your life, to offer a mode, a condition for growth in faith?   If so, you may have or may well find some unexpected, unusual company, in the figure of One who experienced threat, One who wrestled with inner demons, his own and others’, One who brought spiritual medicine to bear on spiritual illness, and One who died on a cross:

At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you. And he said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my course.

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


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