Celebrating the Feast of St John of the Cross on 14 December
During a fraternal visit to Japan last month, I had the joy of meeting a 98 year-old missionary confrere. He was rereading St John of the Cross and he related to me with extraordinary clarity how the saint's mystical experience can be understood only by beginning with the connection between the life of the Trinity and the creation of man and of the world. The life of the Trinity expands, overflows and is reflected in the relationship that the Son has with humanity. It is this that John relates poetically in the Trinitarian Romance: humanity is the spouse that the Father gives to the Son and the world is created as the dowry of the spouse. Behind this poetic image and this spousal language lies a profound truth that the mystic had grasped long before, and much better than the theologian: the world is for human beings and they are for God. Everything exists in a logic of unity, in a plan of communion.
In the beginning is Love, the "ineffable bond" that unites the Father and the Son, which "the more it is one, the more it generates love". John had received as a gift the experience of this supreme truth, of this mystery of being, and once tasted, his journey of research began. The truth of God is like that: you can only search for it after you have found it, or better, after having being found by it. The soul, then, goes out into the night "inflamed with love's urgent longings", wounded by the desire for the love that it has known. Fray John has in himself the restlessness of an explorer, of a voyager, a bit like the great navigators of his time, except that his navigation is not directed towards what is more distant, but towards what is near, so near that is escapes us, because it is not outside of us, but within, and at the same time embraces us, to the extent that we exist in Him.
John of the Cross invites us to discover that when a human being says "I", he or she is in reality speaking in the abstract, because that I exists only as a "you" who is summoned by Another. The more we succeed in standing in the presence of this Other who calls us, so much the more does our I acquire meaning and light, colour and life. As he writes in the verses of the Living Flame of Love: it is in the splendour of the presence of the Beloved that the caverns of human feeling, which were dark and blind, are filled with light and warmth. The human being, detached from the bosom of the Trinity, lives a tragic life, fragmented, cast in the midst of things that do not speak to and do not respond to the desire to love, to the nostalgia for unity. Because of this, the only way of salvation is, so to speak, "to detach oneself from this detachment", so as to reunite with that original communion.
But what is the way that leads to this unifying and transforming simplicity? John writes: "the gate entering into these riches of his wisdom is the cross, which is narrow, and few desire to enter by it, but many desire the delights obtained from entering there" (CB 36, 13). The Way of the Cross, in the mystical and poetic transfiguration of John, becomes a journey that is an amorous flight, a liberation/escape to the Beloved. The encounter with the Beloved is not possible without escaping from the house in which we have lived, without going out beyond the confines of our ordinary and daily manner of living. This change, brought about by theological faith and love, John describes using the symbol of the night. The encounter with the Beloved, the embrace, takes place in the night, not in the day. The night is the place where autonomy, that capacity for self-determination, is lost. We abandon ourselves in trust to the darkness, and miraculously the darkness is transformed in to light, because in the darkness desire bursts into flame, the flame of a love set alight by him who "was awaiting me in a place unknown to anybody else". The night separates us from everything and everybody, but also draws us into a relationship with him alone, who in himself enfolds everything and everybody. The night is illuminated and warmed by the fire of the desire of the Beloved. For this reason, man cannot get lost in it, provided this fire will burn in his heart. It will infallibly lead him into the arms of the One who is awaiting him much more than any human being ever sought.
To be a human being is an immense grace because this in Christ is the condition of God himself. But this way of existing is not given to us naturally. We must become like this, we must make ourselves like this, and the only way to make ourselves human is the way that God himself has shown us in Jesus Christ: through faith and obedience. This is the "word of light and love" that John has left to us, an invitation to go out, to go beyond our limits, allowing ourselves to be guided by a love that has the power to attract us to itself, if we do not resist it, and abandon ourselves to it with complete trust and total obedience. Then we shall arrive at the fullness and freedom of the children of God.
*Superior General of the Order of Discalced Carmelites