Night friendlier than dawn

by
21 June 2013

By David Bryant

SS. VITTORE E CARLO, GENOA

Seeking: a detail from Jesus Christ Appears to St John of the Cross by Domenico Piola

Seeking: a detail from Jesus Christ Appears to St John of the Cross by Domenico Piola

THE earthly Christ-story ends dramatically. God disappears. Luke puts it succinctly. "A cloud took him out of their sight" (Acts 1.9). I guess that resonates with most Sunday worshippers. We have all experienced the church service from which the Holy One seems bleakly absent, times of stumbling, ineffec-tual prayer, and the desolate moments when not a crumb of comfort falls from heaven. The temptation to pack it in can be immense. Comfort comes from an unexpected source.

St John of the Cross (1542-91) was a Spanish Carmelite friar and mystic. A lifetime of contemplation led him to a paradoxical truth. It is only through such darkness and sometimes despair that we can draw near to the divine presence.

His efforts to reform his Order and to establish a strict rule of discalced or barefoot monks and nuns backfired. The Carmelite authorities were outraged, and imprisoned him in a tiny, damp cell, fed him bread and sardine scraps off the floor, and scourged his bare back daily.

Out of this hell came the seeds of his two great works, Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul. In them, he outlines the pathway to mystical union with God. They are a tough read, but much more accessible is his short collection of poems that scintillate with love, joy, eroticism, beauty, and holiness. In them, he unfolds the road to God.

His dramatic escape by prising off the hinges of his cell door and lowering himself from a balcony with a cloth-and-blanket rope is the genesis of one of John's profoundest poems: "Dark Night": "On a dark secret night, starving for love and deep in flame . . . unseen I slipped away."

Through those terrible midnight hours, he is haunted by fear of recapture and renewed torture, and feels abandoned by God. Then comes the miracle. The darkness of the night, which had seemed so hostile, becomes no less than the gate of heaven. "O night more friendly than the dawn! O tender night that tied lover and the loved one, loved one in the lover fused as one!"

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The final stanza is overwhelmingly moving. He finds God, and lies in his arms. "I lay. Forgot my being, and on my love I leaned my face. All ceased. I left my being, leaving my cares to fade among the lilies far away."

His most famous poem, "The Spiritual Canticle", speaks to anybody whose faith is wavering. "Where have you hidden away? You left me whimpering, my love. Wounding me you vanished like the stag. I rushed out shouting for you - but you were gone."

The bride who represents humankind chases God, the bridegroom, desperate for news of her lover. She asks the shepherds and the animals whether they have seen her beloved. The search intensifies, the pain of separation becomes acute. When all seems lost comes God's deeply reassuring reply. "My bride . . . lies upon the grass happy, resting her neck in the gentle arms of [me] her love."

John's words come across the centuries, and confront those who interpret the world solely in terms of a scientific atheism. Human fulfilment comes by unearthing God in and through the darkness. "I came into the unknown and stayed there unknowable, rising beyond all science."

The writings of St John of the Cross are a beacon to all who are struggling to find a deeper spirituality in a brutally secular world. It is when we feel most distant from God, beset by emptiness and darkness, that we are closest to his glory and light. He ends with a line of verse that has the power to reinvigorate our spiritual journey: "If a man wishes to be sure of the road he travels on, he must close his eyes, and walk in the dark."

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