St. John of the Cross
           by Richard Lang

The goods of God, which are beyond all measure, can only be contained in an empty and solitary heart.

St. John of the Cross, 1542-91.


I am thinking of St. John of the Cross, one of the greatest of Christian mystics, alone in prison in Toledo, Spain, in 1578 - unjustly condemned. He is weak from illness, hungry, suffering from frostbite. His cell was originally a lavatory for an adjoining guest room, about nine feet by five, with only a tiny slit, high up in the wall, to give light. His bed is nothing more than a board on the floor with two old blankets. Dressed only in the tunic of his habit and with only his breviary to read, he is feeling profoundly alone. He knows not how long he will be incarcerated. Perhaps he will die there. I imagine him visited by his demons - by hopelessness and despair and anger and hurt. Yet another dark night of his soul. Living mostly on only bread and water, suffering public lashings, for the first six months he has not even been allowed to wash and never given a change of clothes.

Most of us have not been in such dire circumstances, but I think we can feel our way into his condition.

And yet it is clear that St John, embracing his aloneness, facing his abandonment by the world, stumbled yet again upon God - God, who is nothing, God who is No-thing, God who is totally Other yet nearer to us than our own breathing. This Mystery he discovers again, now, alive within the very centre of his soul. Stripped of everything he finds that - wonder upon wonder - he is not stripped of God. Emptied of all he had come to rely on, deprived of contact with his friends, he again finds his cup filled and overflowing. These prison walls do not contain him. This moment is a gift from God, from his innermost nature. Being here is being in just the right place for now. Gratitude flows.

During this time of imprisonment St John wrote some of the greatest lyric stanzas in Spanish literature, among them a major portion of The Spiritual Canticle.

What happened next? In August of 1578 St. John of the Cross succeeded in escaping from this prison.

He went on to write The Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent of Mount Carmel.

May each of us awaken to the spirit within, ever present, ever reliable.


Richard Lang
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