Blessed Solemnity of St. John of the Cross! The following homily was given in Westminster Cathedral (London) to commemorate the 4th centenary of the death of St. John of the Cross. Although it was delivered 30 years ago, its message about the consoling love of God is perhaps one that we need to hear even more so today. The homily has since been published in volume 6 of the Carmelite Studies series: John of the Cross: Conferences and Essays by Members of the Institute of Carmelite Studies and Others.
During this past year’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of St. John of the Cross’s death the Carmelites have been doing much to mark the occasion, publishing magazine articles and books,1 for example, and organizing prayer services (like this beautiful eucharist here in the Cathedral)2 and study days all over the world. I had the opportunity to attend a study symposium on the Mystical Doctor in Avila last October. At it a respected third-world theologian (the non-Carmelite, Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez) paid tribute to St. John of the Cross. He told us he felt at ease relying on St. John whenever he had to give his people in Peru an answer to one of their most pressing questions: “How is it God loves us in spite of what we are going through, in spite of all we are suffering?”3 His words were—and still are—very haunting for me as a priest, because whether we live in the first or third world, we frequently find ourselves asking the corresponding questions: “How do I tell people, reassure them, that God loves them? How do I show the people of my time and place, with all their problems, tics and defects, that God really does care for them, that God is not indifferent to their plight, the passion and the problems of daily living?”
Happily, there is much in St. John of the Cross’s message to provide a constructive answer to these questions. Furthermore, today’s readings in his honor fit well with the assurances the Mystical Doctor gives us.4 In fact, we can find in both a threefold answer to the Peruvian priest’s haunting question about the realness of God’s love for us. Formulated in brief phrases, the reply might sound like this: 1) God made us loveable; 2) God has linked himself to us in lasting love; and 3) Love alone is the solution.
God has Made Us Loveable
The prophet Isaiah, in our first reading, couldn’t have put it more clearly, as he has the Lord God say, “You are precious in my eyes, you are honored and I love you” (Is 43:4). The solid basis for knowing that God truly loves us, right now, “wrinkles and all,” is the root-love God shows by creating us in the first place. We need to remind ourselves of this constantly: God’s plan for us is always a plan of love. Still, we often let wanderings and deviations on our part affect that divine plan for our lives, and doubts then set in. Doubt can lead to feelings of unworthiness, and then we somehow feel distant from our loving Lord. Another more contemporary word for that feeling of distance is “alienation.” Many are its sources and its manifestations: people feel disconnected from each other and from events all around them. While visiting my cousins from Streatham several years ago I heard them worrying over measures being taken by the government to curb drug addiction here in central London. Since then, I doubt if the drug problem has gone away, though I would hope some progress has occurred. But drugs are just one form that alienation takes: we could add to the list such problems as racial intolerance, domestic violence, neglect of the elderly and so on. These are due, at least in part, to the distance or “alienation” we allow to take shape in the external realm, and oftentimes this tends to influence our sense of closeness to God.
Still, we believe God made the world good, and we believe the words of the prophet found in the first reading: “You are very precious in my eyes.” A few words from the cofounder of the Discalced Carmelites, St. John of the Cross, will reinforce this belief. He too was convinced that God created the world good and has always looked at the people in it with eyes of love, despite all we have done to mess it up. He very frequently depicts God’s concern for his creation in terms of a lover looking after his beloved. In a long lyric poem that describes the coming and birth of Christ into our world, John of the Cross writes (with God the Father speaking to the Son):
My Son, I wish to give you
A bride who will love you.
Because of you she will deserve
To share our company,
And eat bread at our table
The same bread I eat.5
There is no distance between God and God’s creation in this vision of things. God is attracted to the bride because she is brought into God’s shared company by the Son. We are the “bride,” and God loves us. Christ, the Son, came not to condemn us, but to give us fullness of life. One ought to ponder this mystery at length; we have the right to, and it’s well worth the time spent. For now, let us recall just one more passage from St. John of the Cross confirming this same vision:
In this elevation of all things through the incarnation of his Son and through the glory of his resurrection according to the flesh, the Father did not merely beautify creatures partially, but rather, can we say, clothed them wholly in beauty and dignity. (Spiritual Canticle, 5, 4)
God has Linked Himself to Us in Lasting Love
Someone might still object, all the same, that the warm manifestation of Christ’s kindliness for the people he met, and the tenderness of his personal affection for them, was a one-time thing; now he is off, back in his eternal glory, while we are left in misery. Again, we feel the nagging doubt about that distance. We fear that the grandeur of God allows no room for the messiness of what we usually serve up in our shabby existence.
But nothing could be further from the truth. The second reading from Scripture for the feast of St. John assures us that: “we are heirs as well… co-heirs with Christ… [and] we know that God cooperates with those who love him, by turning everything to their good” (Rom 8:17, 28). Paul weaves into the words of this passage the acknowledgment that “we suffer in this life,” so he means to tell us not to lose hope in God regardless of the darkness. We are called to bear up under it all, and we can, because he who suffered, Jesus, has made us sharers in his destiny. Otherwise, why call us “co-heirs”? Or do we suppose Jesus could forget the very ones he made his sisters and brothers before the Father?
John of the Cross never allows such doubts about our sublime calling. Quite the opposite! St. John assures us that even the heartbreak of human existence, which Jesus once knew first-hand, is still cherished by the Savior. At the very end of the poem just quoted, where John describes the birth of Christ—that touching event we prepare to celebrate during this Advent season—he writes:
Mother [Mary] gazed in sheer wonder
On such an exchange:
In God, man’s weeping,
And in man, gladness.
To the one and the other
Things usually so strange.6
What a consoling thought! Our weeping now lies in God, since Jesus bears it with him. He came to bring us gladness, but he did not disregard our sadness and is willing to include it in the reality he bears even now in heaven. God’s love is not just for those who have “made the grade” and rest in the peace of his eternal embrace. The little friar from Castile who was willing to be known as John of the Cross and who shared in the demands of bearing the cross, willingly embrace the pain and suffering of this life because he knew that God’s love never fails, that it is tenacious and really capable of “turning everything to our good.”
Love Alone is the Solution
In the end, we still have misgivings about love’s power to transform our lives, because—in spite of what we’ve learned from the first two readings and St. John’s poem—we all too often fail to see love at work around us; we have to go on believing and hoping against hope that it will triumph. What other law did Christ give us, after all? “Love never wrongs the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law,” said one apostle (Rom 13:10); another tells us “anyone who has no love for the person he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen” (1 Jn 4:20).
Today’s Gospel text shows us how we disciples here need to imitate our Master, who says: “I have loved them as much as you loved me.” Just as Jesus trusted in his mission to show how intently active is God’s love at work in the world, so we need to overcome the obstacles to showing our world that same love, and showing that this love counts. It is often hard to pay such good service to love, when we see old hostilities breaking out again into open warfare, not just at the other end of the world, but now in Europe, in Yugoslavia and elsewhere; when we notice the selfishness and greed ruling people’s lives (as in the case of so many once respected financial organizations and so-called tycoons); when wandering, homeless children (on the same continent where that Peruvian priest-theologian lives) are slaughtered by death squads; when indifference marks the attitudes of so many respectable citizens as they’re faced with poor, unemployed people around them. One asks, “Why bother to try, anyway? What difference will it make?”
St. John of the Cross gives us a forceful answer. He himself was born into poverty, struggled through economic hardship as he grew (having to accept assistance from others to gain an education), suffered much mistreatment at the hands of the religious of the order he was trying to renew along with St. Teresa, and yet did not distance himself from reality or give in to feelings of defeat. Quite aware of how adversity can erode one’s willingness to be kind to others, he still was able to write the following piece of advice to a religious, a scant five months before he died four centuries ago: “Think nothing else but that God ordains all, and where there is no love, put love, and there you will draw out love.”7 Here one has a reliable recipe for happiness: Instead of waiting for love to happen, put it to work and you will then harvest its fruits.
Jean Guitton, a philosopher friend of Pope Paul VI, once said the great saints have the ability to say deep, deep things in the span of just a few concise words. Their sayings prove their spiritual genius.8 “Where there is no love, put love and you will draw out love,” surely qualifies John of the Cross as such a Christian spiritual genius. He was author of many others,9 but he forged pure gold when he penned these wise lines. They bespeak a certain positive-minded serenity that is very appealing. Just as they hold out the promise that investing in love builds up the reserves of love in the world, so too they invite us to tell others with conviction that, indeed, God does love us. Along with Fr. Gutiérrez, who welcomes St. John of the Cross’s message, I can say that: God loves us because he has created us loveable; he still welcomes us with all our problems into the realm of his bliss, right here and now; and he works along with us in bringing love to birth where it’s missing. Thanks to the witness and advice of St. John of the Cross we can rest assured of the power of God’s love and the power of its presence in our lives.
- The most beautiful yet informative volume is God Speaks in the Night: The Life, Times and Teaching of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh (Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991), with over 800 color photos and maps.
- This homily was delivered in Westminster Cathedral, London, on December 14, 1991, the feast of St. John of the Cross.
- Gutiérrez’s talk, entitled “Relectura de San Juan de la Cruz desde un pueblo y circunstancias nuevos,” was given in Avila on September 26, 1991; an English translation appears in the Winter, 1992 issue of the journal Spiritual Life.
- The liturgical readings for the eucharist on the Solemnity of St. John of the Cross are: First Reading, Is 43:1-3a, 4-5; Second Reading, Rm 8:14-18, 28-30; and Gospel, Jn 17:11, 17-26.
- From “Romances” 2, “On the communication among the Three Persons” (in Collected Works, rev. ed., 61-62); this entire sequence of poems is sometimes called “Romance on the Gospel text: In principio erat Verbum,” the title of its first section.
- From “Romances” 9, “The birth,” (in Collected Works, rev. ed., 67-68).
- Letter 26, to Madre María de la Encarnación, Segovia, July 6, 1591 (in Collected Works, rev. ed., 760).
- See Jean Guitton, “The Spiritual Genius of St. Thérèse,” Spiritual Life 20 (1974), 163-78.
- Recall, for example, the famous saying from the Spiritual Canticle: “Nothing is obtained from God except by love” (C, 1, 13).