St. John of the Cross

This morning I read a blog post by Brother James, of the Order of the Holy Cross, from their Grahamstown, South Africa Monastery, and I was inspired by his words, and began a long rambling comment to that effect, but then decided that maybe I should just post my response here.

To understand my comments, I think you first need to read his post in full, which I link to here:

First, let me begin by thanking Brother James for his beautiful blog post, because it was the exact thing I needed to read this morning.  It is funny how that works, how if you read every day, if you always have a book or two on the go, and you read the blogs or articles that speak to you, you will almost always find the words that you need to read that day, words that seem to speak directly to your experience, even though they were not at all written directly for you.  And how two seemingly unrelated books or readings will also spring into conversation with each other. At least that is how it works for me.  So when I read this:

It is not so much that we are rained upon here, as we are rained among. I’m not sure how else to put it. You do feel rain from above but also from the sides – and  not because of wind, but just because we are actually  in a cloud. . . .

[and that as]a monk with a bit of a poetic heart cannot ignore living within a kind of “cloud of unknowing” for almost the entire Octave of Christmas without writing something about the experience.

And then a little later Br. James quoted this poem, that:

Heavy falling mist –
Mount Fuji not visible,
but still intriguing.

my soul and brain lit up with recognition, especially how, for me, it is in conversation with St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, which I began reading on New Year’s Eve.  I am still in the early pages, but in it St. John of the Cross writes of the dark night in a similar way as Brother James’ description of being in the midst of a cloud, in which once those souls have experienced “sweetness and pleasure” through meditation and prayer, God, “leaves them so completely in the dark that they know not whither to go with their sensible imagination and meditation.” (Bk. 1, Ch. VIII).  And, thus being strong enough to “walk on their own feet,” (1, VIII), in this cloud,

The way in which they are to conduct themselves in this night of sense is to devote themselves not at all to reasoning and meditation, since this is not the time for it, but to allow the soul to remain in peace and quietness,” and that “The truth is that they will be doing quite sufficient if they have patience and persevere in prayer without making any effort . . . . “contenting themselves with merely a peaceful and loving attention toward God, and in being without anxiety, without the ability and without desire to have experience of Him, or to perceive Him. (Bk. 1, Ch. XI)

And if the soul does this,

by not hindering the operation of infused contemplation that God is bestowing upon it, it can receive this with more peaceful abundance, and cause its spirit to be enkindled and to burn with the love which this dark and secret contemplation brings with it and sets firmly in the soul. (1, XI)

For me, this speaks directly to Basho, and to James’ meditation upon him.  Or rather, his blog post helps me understand St. John of the Cross a bit more clearly, particularly of being in the cloud, and not seeking to see through it, not trying to will it away, but rather trust that the mountain is still there, that God is still there, and to instead strive towards a peaceful and loving knowledge of that.  That being within a cloud, or in darkness is an opportunity not to strive to see as before, but to be and experience God in a new way, which is a gift.  As St. John of the Cross writes in the poem upon which he bases his book,

On a dark night, Kindled in love with yearnings – oh, happy/chance!-“

As one who has spent much of her life, and her spiritual seeking, in the darkness, these are redeeming and comforting words.  As someone who spent years trying to will an experience of God, only to experience the overwhelming sensation of God’s loving embrace once I let go of trying to will it into being, it is good for me to read this.  Because while I loved the “sweetness and pleasure,” of God’s palpable presence after that conversion moment, and then continued to enjoy it in prayer and meditation, that “beginners” spirituality of basking in the sun, what Barbara Brown Taylor call’s “solar spirituality,” in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, cannot, nor should not, be sustained.  Indeed, due to my nature, biology, life events and life history, I instead, several months after basking in His light, entered a period of profound darkness, and what ended up saving me was, in part, returning to the Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY where, finally sitting in safety and passive openness and belief in God, had God’s peace, if not light, return to me then.  I gained the openness and awareness that, as St. John of the Cross, Basho, and Brother James are helping me remember today, that although I sometimes may not see the mountain (or God) through the rain, the mountain (God) is still there, and having the knowledge and understanding of that even in the darkest of nights is a powerful thing.  But also, it is such a welcome thing when the sun returns, as Brother James also celebrates, that:

Beautiful blue skies and perfect summer weather have returned to these holy mountains outside of Grahamstown and beautiful flowers abound all over the property, But whether we are being immersed in the clouds with rain all around us, or are bathing in the sunlight of the perfect day, the Holy Name of Jesus is held out to us – as it has been for two millennia now – as the name which brings our life to flower.

So, by the length of my rambling, it is obvious that I am certainly no Basho, but basically, what I want to say, is that I am so thankful for Brother James’ post, and for the gifts reading, and the conversation of books and poetry bestows.