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Songs of the solitary bird

by
02 May 2014

Daniel Muñoz gives thanks to God with St John of the Cross

GALLERIA BRERA, MILAN

Known in the breaking of the bread: The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

Known in the breaking of the bread: The Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio

The qualities of the solitary bird are five: first, that it seeks the heights; second, that it admits of no companionship, not even with its own kind; third, that it stretches out its beak into the air; fourth, that it has no fixed colour; fifth, that it sings sweetly. These are the qualitiesthat the contemplative soul has topossess. . . It has to sing sweetly for the love of its Spouse.

These words by St John of the Cross sum up his entire life - who he was and who he dreamt of being. John of the Cross (in Spanish San Juan de la Cruz, or San Juan for short) is Spain's most universally appreciated Christian writer.

John's poetry was a channel that pointed to a higher and deeper reality - that of God's work and presence in his life. In this sense, his poetry expresses a living faith and a spiritual journey - one that at times is full of longing, because of an experience of God's absence, and at other times is full of the most wonderful shouts of joy, out of a deep encounter with Christ.

Some people think of mystics and, by extension, of John of the Cross as solitary people who live in a permanent state of spiritual ecstasy, absorbed in deep contemplation. This was not John's experience, certainly not most of the time. He was a very ordinary man, who faced many challenges in his life, got his hands dirty with manual labour, and endured great hardship and physical and emotional pain.

John, in the tradition of all good monastic spirituality, found it impossible to separate his spiritual life from the more practical aspects of his existence. His was a holistic spirituality with an impact on everything he did and every aspect of his identity.

So he was able to make compatible his love for nature with his love for God, and his role as a leader and reformer of the Carmelite order with his job of project-managing building restorations, buildingwalls, and landscaping gardens.

All of these practical tasks reflected what God was doing in his life, restoring and landscaping his soul, and also what he, as a mentor and spiritual director, could encourage in the lives of the young novices who joined his community.

The mystics believed that the God in whom "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17.28) can be found deep within us. The journey that San Juan invites us to follow is an inner journey, through which we become more aware of who we are, and who God is. This is a journey of discovery and transformation, in which we become more and more the person we were created to be, as we set our eyes above, on Christ, yet keep our feet on the ground.
 

For prayer and reflection

Reflect on your own life journey. You may find it helpful to draw a timeline on paper and identify some of the big turning-points in your life. These could be changes connected with moving school, moving home, or experiencing a positive or negative event. Many of them will have helped to shape you into the person you are. Take some time to offer them to God in prayer.

You may also find it helpful to think of two or three individuals who have had a positive impact on your life. What did you learn from them? Take some time to thankGod for their lives, and for what they mean or meant to you.
 

This is the first of four edited extracts from Transformed by the Beloved: A guide to spiritual formation with St John of the Cross by Daniel Muñoz (BRF, £6.99 (CT Bookshop £6.29); 978-1-84101-584-2).

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