December 14th is the Feast Day of St. John of the Cross, a Spanish priest and mystic who lived in the 16th century. He was a contemporary of St. Teresa of Avila and the two embarked on a journey to reform the Carmelite order, which they felt had grown too lax. He was canonized in 1726, and in 1926, he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI. He is known as the "mystical doctor."
Perhaps more than anything, St. John is remembered for coining the expression "dark night of the soul." Due to tensions arising from the efforts to reform the Carmelite order, St. John was imprisoned by several of his own friars. He was forcibly removed from his cell in Ávila, Spain, on December 2nd and taken to a monastery in Toledo. In his book Union with God: The Teaching of St. John of the Cross, Desmond Tillyer writes St. John was "jailed in a monastery where he was kept under a brutal regime that included public lashings before the community at least weekly, and severe isolation in a tiny stifling cell measuring barely 10 feet by 6 feet. Except when rarely permitted an oil lamp, he had to stand on a bench to read his breviary by the light through the hole into the adjoining room. He had no change of clothing and a penitential diet of water, bread and scraps of salt fish." St. John managed to escape eight months later, and completed his poem Dark Night of the Soul, which traces the journey of a soul thorough the hardships and difficulties of withdrawing from the world in order to be joined to God.
The cross ornament for this year is a good expression of St. John's charism. The words on the cross, "No greater love," come from the Gospel of John 15:13. The full verse, spoken by Jesus, is "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends." The beginning phrase of the verse - "No one has greater love than this," - uses the Greek word agapaō to describe the specific type of love. Agapaō is considered to be the highest form of love, the self-sacrificing, divine love that only God is capable of offering fully, and to which we are invited. In the second part of the verse - "to lay down one's life for one's friends" - "friends" means "those whom one loves" and the Greek word used to describe this type of love is phileō, signifying an inferior, human kind of affection. However, both words are often used with the same meaning in the Gospel of John. He doesn't always make a sharp distinction between the way God loves and the best efforts of humans, but often uses them interchangeably.
The intermingling of divine and human love was an experience that St. John of the Cross lived. It was God's love that helped him keep going, and his human love for his friends that motivated him. Like Jesus, he was rejected and abused by those he wanted to help. He was also tried and imprisoned. And, like Jesus, St. John found the strength to do the one thing that was required of him - to remain faithful, in spite of everything.
If we are passing through a period of "the dark night of the soul," the holidays can be especially difficult, even disastrous. At times like these it is especially comforting to look at a cross, an instrument of torture and death, and remember that we don't have to overcome, or rise above, or even change what we are going through. We can just sit, and wait, and hope for the spring, that time of rejuvenation and new life, when we emerge from darkness into the sun. In the meantime, we can think about St. John of the Cross and the words of Jesus, and just focus on remaining faithful.
This blog page is a slightly different type of Advent calendar. Using ornaments, Scripture and poetry for reflection, we journey through the 28 days of Advent 2022 to Christmas morning, and the Incarnation of Christ.