Feast Day: December 13th
Today I want to tell the story of a sketch. Of course, it has to do with the saint we celebrate this week – St. John of the Cross – but I think it captures so much of his heart and mysticism and sanctity, that it offers all of us all a chance to follow after him on the road to heaven.
Juan was born in Spain in 1542, which means he entered a divided and violent world. Martin Luther would die 4 years later, unreconciled to the Catholic Church, and having set in motion the protestant reformation that would fracture Christianity, and insight the bloody religious then starting around Europe. Of course, much of Luther’s complaints stemmed from real abuses that marred the mystical body of Christ, but, as always, the call of Christians is to assist Our Lord in building up the Church, never in tearing it asunder. Don’t abandon, assist. Don’t complain, cleanse. Don’t reject, reform. Don’t leave, love.
That call was heard by John of the Cross. It was heard by many saints that appeared during these trying years. St. Philip Neri, St. Charles Borromeo, St. Francis Xavier, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher, St. Francis de Sales, St. Peter Canisius, Pope St. Pius V, St. Theresa of Avila… All these and more would be God’s beacons of sanctity in the midst of a terrible century. God never leaves, He just keeps loving.
But back to St. John, and his drawing. At the age of 21, John entered the Carmelite Order and began his study of theology and philosophy, culminating in his ordination as a Carmelite priest in 1567. Seeing the depravity and laxity rampant around him, John seriously considered leaving them to become a Carthusian, but God had other plans. The young priest encountered a Carmelite nun, Teresa of Ávila, and was captivated by her dream to reform the Carmelite order. Don’t leave, love.
In their efforts to reform the order, John (now “of the Cross”) would be suppressed, then imprisoned, even tortured, and would travel many thousands of kilometers founding and leading the struggling communities, in the end being completely exhausted by his efforts. But finally in 1580, the Discalced Carmelites (literally meaning “un-shod”, referring to their taking up the original penance of the Carmelites to not wear shoes) were approved as a new branch of the order by Pope Gregory XIII. It was during these, his final years that he composed Living Flame of Love, his shortest poem, but hauntingly poignant. If I might be bold, it could also be summarized: Don’t leave, love.
- Oh, living flame of love
That tenderly woundest my soul in its deepest centre,
Since thou art no longer oppressive, perfect me now if it be thy will,
Break the web of this sweet encounter.
- Oh, sweet burn! Oh, delectable wound!
Oh, soft hand! Oh, delicate touch
That savours of eternal life and pays every debt!
In slaying, thou hast changed death into life.
- Oh, lamps of fire,
In whose splendours the deep caverns of sense
Which were dark and blind with strange brightness
Give heat and light together to their Beloved!
- How gently and lovingly thou awakenest in my bosom,
Where thou dwellest secretly and alone!
And in thy sweet breathing, full of blessing and glory,
How delicately thou inspirest my love!
But what about that sketch? For that we have to go back to those first years after meeting Teresa. He had just barely decided not to become a Carthusian. He had yet to be beaten by his own brothers. He had yet to crisscross Spain. And yet, as he wedged himself in the choir loft in Ávila, his prayer carried him to the cross, and then up over it, to see it as the Father did.
Christ hangs in darkness and suffering, spurned and provoked … but He did not leave, He loved.
The Father glances down, His greatest gift rejected … but He didn’t leave, He loved.
The Spirit is poured forth, upon a world torn and terrible … but He didn’t leave, He loved.
And so did John, and so must we.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin often simply looks at the crucifix if prayer isn’t easy, and he recently discovered that the Heavenly Father, speaking to St. John, Himself encourages just that: “Fasten your eyes on him alone because in him I have spoken and revealed all, and in him you will discover even more than you ask for and desire … If you desire me to answer with a word of comfort, behold my Son subject to me and to others out of love for me, and afflicted, and you will see how much he answers you.” [Ascent of Mt. Carmel, St. John of the Cross, chapter 22, 5-6]