Archive for the ‘Lenten Series 2019: St. John of the Cross’ Category

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

March 24

The Poetry and Piety of St. John of the Cross

By Marsh Chapel

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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

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


March 10

The Dark Night of the Soul and St. John of the Cross

By Marsh Chapel

Click here to listen to the entire service

Luke 4: 1-13

Click here to listen to the sermon only


Five days ago here at Marsh Chapel about 1,000 students and others presented themselves for ashes, Ash Wednesday.  Our hard working Marsh Chaplains and team served 430 or so.  The Chapel also hosted three Catholic services and the weekly contemporary Theological School service, wherein ashes were given.  Hence, about 1,000.  In the last few years, Ash Wednesday has begun to catch up with Easter and Christmas in active young adult participation.


My middle name of late is ‘I don’t know’, which I don’t.  One of our chaplains preaches an Ash Wednesday sermon every year, ‘the ashes are not magic ashes’.  But they draw.  The touch draws.  The solemnity, too. The whisper of mortality at the fountain of youth.  The strange, numinous, yet public pause.  The flesh of it all.

There is perhaps another cause or reason.  Here, mid-winter, is an encounter with antiquity.  For two millennia women and men have been preparing for a holy Lent.  For two millennia women and men have stopped to remember, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  As our English chorister read it some years ago, Thou art DUST and to DUST though shalt return.  Is this not subliminally why, in part, we are here this morning, too?  For two millennia women and men have listened to readings from Holy Writ.  For two millennia women and men have received Jesus in cup and bread.  For two millennia, come Sunday, there have been choirs and preachers and prayers and candles and quiet.  The architecture of our gothic nave, with an origin nearly a millennium ago, speaks to us so.  Our long tall, yes traditioned, stained glass captures places and people from longer ago.  Our habits of liturgy, stand and sit, our habits of liturgy, sing and give, our habits of liturgy, bow and kneel, our habits of liturgy, our body language, give us a jarring encounter with antiquity.  For once, every seven days, we are not jailed and stuck in the shallow shallows of the twenty first century.  We are liberated to time travel, to get out and see the past, and perhaps, now and then, to hear something good and learn something new. 


It is the season of Lent, and again, come this first Sunday in Lent, we meet Jesus in the wilderness.  There He resists.  In the time honored tradition of a three part story, we are given a lesson about making and keeping human life—human.  Here, as in our other gospels, the Lord faces and masters the various temptations which we also know.  They include a kind of will to power, and a sort of pride, and a type of avarice.  We come to church with some experience of temptation and resistance.  As the song writer says, ‘good experience comes from seasoned judgment--which comes from bad experience’.

In many communities, including our own, the sun rises this morning, this Lenten morning, on experience of loss and hurt.  This morning there are homes and families who have suddenly known unexpected loss.  This morning there are friends and groups of friends who have been faced with mortal danger.  At one breakfast table, a wife now sits alone, for the first time on a Sunday in 60 years.  At another breakfast table, a family gathers for the first time, in a long time, and missing a member.  It would help us to remember just how short our words do fall in trying to describe the depth of these moments.  Our words arrive only at the shoreline, at the margin of things.  Beyond this we practice prayer, a kind of sitting silent before God.

Our immediate community here along the Charles River today mourns unexpected losses.  Along with the scripture and the music, amid the hymns and prayers of our worship, there walks also among us today, by the mind’s farther roads, a recognition of loss.  There is some shock to loss.   There is a kind of fear that comes with loss.  There is, often later, an honest anger.  There is some numbness.  There is a real, and good, desire to do something helpful.  There are questions, numerous and important.  And there is the one haunting question, too, why?

We do not know why these things happen. We hurt, and grieve.  In the bones.  At the deeper levels, we just do not know, and for an academic community committed to knowing, and knowing more, and more, this means wandering in a serious wilderness.  Give us an equation to solve.  Show us a biography that needs writing.  Provide us with an experiment.  Happily we would organize a committee, or develop a proposal, or phone a list of donors.  But loss, unexpected and unfair, is tragic.  The tragic sense of life, el sentimiento trajico de la vida, takes us out into wilderness, where we learn, with Jesus, to resist.  Faith is resistance. Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.

We are in worship this morning to attest to something.  Faith is the power to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship is the practice of faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  God is the presence, force, truth, and love Who alone deserves worship, and worship is the practice of the faith by which we learn to withstand what we cannot understand.  Worship prepares us to resist.  So we see Jesus again in the wilderness.  To resist all that makes human life inhuman.  So here you are, come lent, come Sunday, come 11am, today again to walk in the wild, in the wilderness.

The Marsh Lenten Sermon Series

Our Lenten Series, beginning today, will engage in conversation with St. John of the Cross.  From 2007-2016, Lent by Lent, we identified a theological conversation partner for the Lenten sermons, broadly speaking, out of the Calvinist tradition.  In this decade, we turn to the Catholic tradition.   With Calvin we encountered the chief resource for others we engaged over ten years—voices like those of Jonathan Edwards (2015), Paul of Tarsus (2014), Marilyn Robinson (2013), Jacques Ellul (2012), Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran cousin, (2011), Karl Barth (2010), and Gabriel Vahanian (2007), and themes like Atonement (2009) and Decision (2008).  In this decade, beginning with Lent 2017, the Marsh pulpit, a traditionally Methodist one, turns left, not right, toward Rome not Geneva, and we will preach with, and learn from the Roman Catholic tradition, so important in the last 200 years in New England, and some of its great divines including Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, Erasmus, Hans Kung, Karl Rahner, and others, one per year.  Perhaps you will suggest a name or two, not from Geneva, but from Rome?  For those who recall, even if dimly, the vigor and excitement of Vatican II, there may well be other names to add to the list.  We began with Henri Nouwen in 2017, and continued with Thomas Merton in 2018.  We turn this Lent to St. John of the Cross.  You may remember how much Merton loved St. John of the Cross, from last year.  If not, as we start, listen to Merton on Lent:


“Ash Wednesday is for people who know that it means for their soul to be logged with these icy waters: all of us are such people, if only we can realize it.  There is confidence everywhere in Ash Wednesday, yet that does not mean unmixed and untroubled security.  The confidence of the Christian is always a confidence despite darkness and risk, in the presence of peril, with every evidence of possible disaster…  Once again, Lent is not just a time for squaring conscious saccounts: but for realizing what we had perhaps not seen before.  The light of Lent is given us to help us with this realization.  Nevertheless, the liturgy of Ash Wednesday is not focused on the sinfulness of the penitent but on the mercy of God.  The question of sinfulness is raised precisely because this is a day of mercy, and the just do not need a savior.”    Thomas Merton
San Juan de la Cruz

Let us then start our 2019 lenten Marsh Chapel tour of a part of antiquity.

St. John of the Cross was born in Old Castile,  Spain, in 1542, and is one of the great Catholic, great Christian, great religious mystics.  He came from a troubled, poor family of weavers, with perhaps some Jewish ancestry.  Out of desperate poverty, his single mother placed him in an orphanage.  He later studied in Salamanca, and was known there for long mid night prayers, endless silence, fasting, and self-mortification and solitude. In 1567 he was ordained priest, and went home by custom to celebrate his first mass in Medina, and there had his life reformed in an unexpected encounter with Theresa of Avila, who signed him up and signed him on to help her develop her reformed, descalced (that is, shoe-less), primitive rule new Carmelite order.

‘Carmel’ in Hebrew means garden, and the Scriptural reference of course is to 1 Kings and Elijah, on Mt. Carmel.  John adored the Bible.  Much of his young adulthood was consumed in spiritual direction and the hearing of confessions among the nuns (here nuns not nones), the religious committed to Santa Theresa de Avila, and to the endless ecclesiastical intrigues, contentions, and outright feuds involved in running, or starting, or reforming anything religious, including a religious order.  Such a mirror from the past has been spiritually helpful, this winter, as many of us face a winter of denominational discontents.  St. John was a man, like Zaccheus of old, of small stature, under 5 feet in height.

A most dramatic event in his younger adulthood came as a consequence of these administrative disputations, when he was arrested and then imprisoned in the Alcazar, the castle, in Toledo.  There he was rudely treated, nearly starved, and after nine months escaped, scaling down the walls of the castle just above the river Tagus.  It makes a dramatic narrative, and ends with his reception, his protection by and hiding out with the Carmelite nuns again.  Now St. John is known, today, if he is at all, today, by single phrase, ‘the dark night of the soul’, ‘the dark night of the soul’.  Unfair of course it is to anyone to remember them by one phrase.  Yet John of the Cross is so recalled.  He is our spelunking guide, our patrol leader through the caves of darkness, the hours, especially wee morning hours, of despair, the wilderness, the wilderness, the wilderness, the wilderness, which our Lord, sursum corda, endured, tamed and blessed, see Luke 4.  Think of John in the dark, nine months, in the Toledo castle.  Think of him in escape, on a moonless night.  Think of him, stumbling through the penumbruos streets, lurking in the vestibule of the nunnery for safety.  Then think of him translating that pedestrian dark night into the poetic dark night of the soul.

In his beatification in the 17th century, about 40 years after his death, it was remembered that he heard, in his prison despair, in Toledo, the voice of a young man singing a simple love song, Muerome de amores, Carillo.  ?Que Hare?—que te mueras, alaide.  ‘I am dying of love, dearest.  What shall I do?  Die’.  Of a sudden, somehow, in the heart of darkness, San Juan de la Cruz was transported into ecstacy, the song of love becoming the song of death, and life.  The simple voice of a love poem gave the heart of his mystical encounter, transported of course to the love of God.  This becomes his poetic, spiritual, prayerful, mystical pattern.

Is this not the Lenten gospel, for you?  Your wilderness, your wandering, your wasteland—see, hear—is the landscape of love, the landscape of longing for love, love personal, love human, love spiritual, love divine all loves excelling.  Quien no sabe de penas no sabe cosas buenas.  Quien no sabe de penas no sabe cosas buenas.  ‘Whoever does not know hurt does not know good things either’. (San Juan de la Cruz).

This lent we shall see by the dark light, the dark night, the dark night of the soul.

While life’s dark maze I tread

And griefs around me spread

Be thou my guide

Bid darkness turn to day

Wipe sorrow’s tears away

Nor let me ever stray

From thee aside

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