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
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
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
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