One of the best experts on Saint John of the Cross, the British Allison Peers calls this saint the mystic of mystics. Should these words frighten us? he asks himself in the introduction to his excellent book Spirit of Flame. No! There is no need for any apprehension! he answers.
A mystic is a person who has fallen in love with God. We are not afraid of lovers – no indeed : ‘all the world loves a lover’. They attract us by their ardor, their single mindedness, their yearning to be one with the object of their love. It was in just that way that Saint John of the Cross thought about God and strove after God, longing, too, that others would do the same.
Amazingly enough, when you start yearning for God you start yearning for man. You even start savoring nature which surrounds you. God encompasses all. The mystic embraces all.
In the small village of La Carolina (Jean) in front of the ‘La Immaculada’ Church there is an ecological statue of Saint John of the Cross. A rather unique statue. The Saint is sitting on some lumber and a little rabbit is trying to hide under his habit!
It recalls a pleasant, refined story. John of the Cross spent his last months of his life in Penuela, today La Carolina. A small convent, a friendly community, a beautiful atmosphere of quiet and calm. He was happy and relaxed that he could work in the fields away from the bustle and complexity of Madrid.
One day Father Cristobal de Santa Maria was burning some dry branches in the fields around the convent when suddenly the wind changed and all the crops started catching fire. The fire began to spread rapidly and started approaching dangerously the convent. The friar, realizing the seriousness of the situation, threw himself into fighting the fire. He finished off broken and dead to use the expression of one of the Fathers who was there.
Meanwhile the bells had started ringing and all the Fathers were out trying to subdue the fire. Someone insisted that Father Prior should consume the consecrated hosts because they were afraid that the fire might destroy the entire building. Father John insisted that they should not over panic! Come on! We need the Blessed Eucharist because it is the Eucharist that is going to defend us! Being the practical man he was, Father John soon organized the tasks – some were to stay kneeling down in front of the Blessed Sacrament praying, others were to collect the necessary belongings from the convent, just in case the fire overcomes them, while the third group wrestled with the fire. He himself stationed himself where the flames were most furious. It was risky because the flames continued to spread with fury. But John stayed there without moving, talking with God.
In a little while, the fire, as if obeying an order, retreated and the flames began to burn out….
Once the danger was over, Father John arose and returned to the convent. He entered into the cell of a friar who had been unable to leave his room because of his illness and jokingly told him : It would have been a novel experience to die roasted by fire!! Then he went to speak with the Prior, Father Diego de la Concepcion, who was fuming because of Father Cristobal’s carelessness and with a lot of simplicity told him: “Father Prior, it is better if you soothe Father Cristobal and have some chicken soup made for him because he definitely needs it; look at him – he is exhausted and devastated.”
When things started to calm down, Brother Martin opened the doors of the church to let out the smoke which had filtered in. As soon as he opened these doors there. I find a small rabbit who found refuge in the Church. As soon as I opened the door, the rabbit came out running towards the place where Brother John was with the other religious and hid beneath his habit. The fathers caught it and held it by the ears, but twice the rabbit managed to escape always running towards the saint, each time hiding beneath his habit …
It is an exquisite story. It happened in the last months of his life. It shows us how practical he was. It shows us also his refined gentleness with his brothers. Saints do not live detached four meters above the ground, in a nirvana of dreams and illusions. Their feet are well fixed to the ground. They know how to help out. They know how to be of service to others.
Furthermore, whoever lives close to God acquires a harmony with nature itself – with trees, with flowers, with fire, with animals!
We are all attracted by nature. We all enjoy going for a walk among the fields or by the sea. Why does nature leave such a deep impression on us? True, it is beautiful, but there is a deeper, a more revealing reason.
Nature attracts us because it is innocent. Look into the eyes of a dog – there is a striking innocence. The innocence which man, who has made himself the god of his life, has lost. The innocence which the girl who has lost her virginity has lost. And without innocence there is no bliss! Life is as simple as that. Observe a photograph of yourself as a child, when your senses had not yet been sullied with pornography, with dirty jokes or the corrupt stupidity which television tries to make us swallow constantly. Look into your eyes when you were a kid and the difference is remarkable!
The good news is that our Lord Jesus Christ can give us back this innocence. Jesus Christ came so that he can recuperate for us that proximity with God which we, in our madness, lost. The dead burden of sin may clings to us like a sticky glue. But Jesus Christ has the power to free us from this stigma and make us new again. Completely fresh. He did not come to patch the disorder or to repair the havoc but to create a new man. A new nature. He wants to generate us afresh.
It is possible to live differently. It is possible to be energized again. It is possible to be young … even though the years may pass.
This is why Saint John of the Cross could sing his love in such a passionate and fervent way. Our hardened ears may feel confused. Our sins may have made us old. But a lover is always young. John addresses God and dares to tell him this :
“Lord God my beloved! Give me without delay that which I ask you! Do not remember my sins but exercise your goodness and mercy on them. Do not await my good works : do these for me yourself.
Allow the sufferings which you wish me to accept to come upon me. For how can a man begotten and nurtured in lowliness rise up to you, Lord, if You do not raise him with the hand which made him?
Do not take away from me, my God, what you once gave me in your only son, Jesus Christ, in Whom you gave me all I desire. Hence I rejoice because I know that if I wait for you, you will not delay.
Yes mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and mine the sinners.
The angels are mine, and the mother of God, and all things are mine; and God himself is mine and for me because Christ is mine and all for me.
What do I ask then and what do I seek once this is all mine and all for me?
O my God, teach me not to engage myself in something less or pay heed to the crumbs which fall from my Father’s table. But grant that I shall go forth and exult in my glory! So I shall ever more hide myself in You and exult in you!”
The Saint called this prayer ‘The prayer of a soul in love with God’. He who realizes how Jesus Christ is able to give him back purity of heart and zeal for life, inevitably enters into a tumultuous love story with him.
But if we want to delve deeper, we shall discover that there is yet another reason why we are so attracted to nature. In nature we see obedience. The sun does not contend with God, but daily it shares its heat and its warmth. Trees and flowers always give us their fruit and their beauty. Stones stay where they are put. Animals know how to show their gratitude to those who love them without demanding a lot.
He who does not obey is not smart because without obedience one cannot love. If you love your wife, you have to obey her and if you love your parents you obey them. Because love is relationship with the other; it is I who give myself to the other. And this is impossible without obedience.
In love it is not I who count but the other. So much so that one can taste ecstasy only when one crucifies oneself for others. God created nature in his image. He created us in His image. Each cell in our body was created on his image. And the image of the Son of God is a Body stretched out on a cross. A Body resting on the bed of a cross out of love for mankind.
This is the only reality which God raised from the death.
To live this love is heaven.
This is the banner which we Christians must raise before our generation. It is not true that you are happy when you sin. It is not true that you are happy when you are caged in by your egotism. No this is not true!
True happiness means receiving this spirit of Jesus Christ, this crucified and victorious love. And this can only come from heaven.
We have no reason to be afraid of our Lord. Jesus Christ is very good. Saint John of the Cross is a valid witness of this basic truth. God never ran him down. He always encouraged him. When others turned their back on him, and reproached him and complained about him, Jesus Christ always told him: Courage! I love you. I care for you!
This love of Jesus Christ won John over. It can win you over. He is the most handsome, He is the best, He is the bridegroom. He who finds Christ finds life. He who finds Christ is never alone, even if he is on a sick bed, even if his children have abandoned him in an old people’s home, even if he has remained single all his life.
But, he who has not found Christ – even if he has a beautiful wife and three children and people idolize him and has reached the top and is rolling in money …. if he has not found Christ, I am very sorry for him, he is alone. Alone. He is condemned to rummage everywhere and always for a little bit of pleasure, a little bit of gratification. He craves to be loved. He tries to wallow in pleasure because only thus can he feel loved. And so he tries drugs, get involved in power struggles, seeks sex, passes hours before the television, eats and eats. He cries a lot. Always more alone and miserable.
Outside God, everything is tasteless, Saint John of the Cross used to say. How right he was! Only He can come over to meet you in your situation and tell you: Rise, rise my dove and come, come. Rise from your sin, rise from your death and let us go to Jerusalem to eat the fruits of innocence and of obedience.
And so we become young …. even if our hair is white and we have wrinkles on our faces. For love keeps us always fresh and youthful.
In the Spiritual Canticle the Saint writes thus about this fully fledged love.
With flowers and emeralds
chosen on cool morning,
we shall weave garlands
flowering in your love,
and bound with one hair of mine.
And he comments : The flowers are the soul’s virtues, and the emeralds are the gifts she has received from God. These flowers and emeralds are chosen on cool mornings. This means they are acquired at the time of youth, which is life’s cool morning. She points out that they are chosen, because she obtained them during her youth when the vices put up more strenuous opposition and nature is more inclined and ready to lose them; also by beginning to gather the virtues, at this early season, she acquires more perfect and choice ones.
How lucky we are that God has set his eyes upon us!
(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.