I was reminded this week of the story of John of the Cross (pictured above) who was a young Spanish 16th century friar. He worked with Teresa of Avila to reform the Carmelite Order. Their vision was for a contemplative life of voluntary simplicity, solitude and silence based on the Gospel teachings. This was a life of stripping away rather than of accumulating, of renouncing worldly power and status and an intentional seeking of nothing except loving friendship with God and a life of loving service to God and others. In 1577 he was imprisoned in Toledo by those who were antagonist to the reforms. His cell was a tiny closet that had once been a latrine. There was not enough room to lie down and the only window was far above his head. He was taken out and flogged twice a day. But he persevered and one dark night, he was able to escape thanks to a sympathetic guard. He wrote of ‘the dark night of the soul,’ possibly linked to his time in the cell. For John, the journey of the soul to God is a journey of darkness away from a possessive desire for the things of this world, it is born of restlessness and dissatisfaction into the night of desolation. It is this stage of profound darkness that leads to the joy of true union with God in love. It is as if God uses a sense of abandonment to trigger a deeper longing for himself. This is the experience of the cross that leads to the unimaginable joy and radiance of the resurrection. The way down is the way up? It is darkest just before the dawn?
We may feel imprisoned at this time of lockdown – thankfully not just in the toilet! We too may feel abandoned by God or know those who feel that way. Let us be encouraged by this young Spanish poet who recognised the complex, mysterious path to God through experiences of pain and loss and enter into the light and hope of the resurrection just like the women on that first Easter morning. In the midst of darkness, God’s light and love shine even more brightly.
‘Yet even in the midst of all these things, we triumph over them all, for God has made us to be more than conquerors, and his demonstrated love is our glorious victory over everything! So now I live with the confidence that there is nothing in the universe with the power to separate us from God’s love. I’m convinced that his love will triumph over death, life’s troubles, or dark rulers in the heavens. There is nothing in our present or future circumstances that can weaken his love. There is no power above us or beneath us—no power that could ever be found in the universe that can distance us from God’s passionate love, which is lavished upon us through our Lord Jesus Christ!’ (Romans 8:37-39 Passion Translation)
Here is love vast as the ocean,
loving kindness as the flood,
when the Prince of life, our ransom
shed for us his precious blood.
Who his love will not remember?
Who can cease to sing his praise?
He can never be forgotten
throughout heaven’s eternal days.
On the Mount of Crucifixion
fountains opened deep and wide;
through the floodgates of God’s mercy
flowed a vast and gracious tide.
Grace and love, like mighty rivers,
poured incessant from above,
and heaven’s peace and perfect justice
kissed a guilty world in love.
~ William Rees (1802-1883)