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 thoughts.

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 (16th to 21st 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 now

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 thanksgiving

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

One Response to “The Mysticism of St. John of the Cross”

  1. From Grelly

    Beautiful history, thanks!