Posts Tagged ‘John of the Cross’

Held in the hands of God?

December 10, 2016

Advent 3 – 2016

Matthew 11:2-11

Marian Free


In the name of God who sees us through our darkest moments and brings us safely to the other side. Amen.

I am sure that many of you will have heard the expression “the dark night of the soul”. It originates from a poem written by John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic of the 16th century. John’s poem, The Ascent of Mount Carmel, describes the journey of the soul towards God. The dark nights (John does not add “of the soul”) refer to times of purification that are necessary on a journey that is a joyful experience of being guided by God. Over time the phrase lost its original meaning and was extended to the expression “the dark night of the soul”. This latter rather than referring to a necessary and joyful time of purification, came to refer to a time of spiritual dryness, a time when God’s presence was difficult if not possible to discern. Many deeply spiritual people experience this absence at some time or another during their lives. For example, Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun had moments of bleakness centred around doubts about the afterlife and we are told that for most of her life Mother Teresa experienced an emptiness and dryness in her spiritual life.

But, as I have said, John of the Cross, does not see dark nights as a negative, but as gifts from God, as opportunities for spiritual growth. His hope is that the person on a spiritual journey will take advantage of these times and rather than trying to fight them or to solve the problem will allow themselves to rest entirely in God. He writes, and I paraphrase[1]:

“DURING the time, then, of the aridities of this night of sense – God effects the change of which we have spoken, drawing forth the soul from the life of senses into that of the spirit—that is, from meditation to contemplation. In this situation the soul no longer has any power to work or to reason with its faculties concerning the things of God. As a result, those on this journey suffer great trials, not so much because of the emptiness, but because they fear being lost on the road and worry that all spiritual blessing is over for them. They feel that God has abandoned them because they find no help or pleasure in good things. Then they grow weary, and endeavour (as they have been accustomed to do) to concentrate on some spiritual practice that used to bring them blessing thinking that their efforts will make a difference and that by failing to do this they are doing nothing.”

He goes on to point out that at these times it is the doing nothing that is important. It is only when they stop striving to do things themselves that they will really be able to experience what God is doing for them. In fact, according to John of the Cross the suffering that a person might experience in this dark night results not from the darkness, but from their trying to escape it. It is their resistance to the gift that God is trying to give them that causes them to experience aridity instead of peace. Instead of trying to learn from the experience, such people struggle to find a way out and it is in the struggle (not in the darkness) that their suffering lies.

As I reread today’s gospel and the poignant account of John the Baptist’s anxieties and doubts, I wondered if, in a later age, his namesake John of the Cross might have identified the Baptist’s experience as a “dark night”. I have always wondered why, when John has so confidently announced Jesus as the one whose “sandals he is unworthy to untie”, should now need to ask if Jesus is the one who is to come. What happened to the John who could, without fear of reprisal call the Pharisees and the Sadducees “vipers”? How could someone who was so sure of his mission and purpose in life, now have doubts? Could it be true that someone who saw himself as a prophet be surprised that he was at odds with the authorities – so much so that he was now in prison?

It was as I pondered these questions that I began to consider the “dark night of the soul” and to ask if this might explain John’s sense of doubt and insecurity.

John seems utterly confident. He preached repentance because he believed that the kingdom of heaven had come near. His message was so powerful that even the Pharisees and Sadducees came out from Jerusalem to hear him. His vision and foresight was such that he identified Jesus as the one “whose sandals he is not worthy to carry”. More than that, he has had the privilege of baptising Jesus. It must have been heady stuff. He must have felt so close to God. He was the mouthpiece of God, he was announcing the coming of the anointed one.

Now however, John is in prison. He is utterly powerless, isolated from what is happening in the world. His has lost confidence in his mission. He is not sure that Jesus really is “the one who is to come”. From prison, John needs reassurance that he has not misunderstood. He needs to be reassured that Jesus is the one and that the kingdom he proclaimed is indeed in the process of becoming a reality.

In his “dark night” John is unable to rest in God, to trust that God has all things in hand. John needs to take action. He needs to be in control. He needs to fight against the darkness instead of letting the darkness hold and transform him. He can’t let go of his sense of mission and purpose and that means that he can’t trust God. He can’t be sure that he was right.

Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. But for me it answers the question as to why John is now filled with doubt. His spiritual journey has taken an unexpected turn and he is not ready. He presumably thought that he had reached a pinnacle in his relationship with God. His confidence in his mission has led to a confidence in himself and a failure to recognise that he still has much to learn. As he is unprepared for this change in direction and, filled with self-doubt, begins to doubt God.

It is this moment that signifies the difference between Jesus and John. John, despite his courage and his prophetic qualities is at this point in his life and spiritual journey unable to let go of his sense of purpose and to completely trust in God. Jesus on the other hand, allowed God to take him to the cross. He was not sure what lay ahead, but trusted that whatever it was, God would have everything in hand and that if he, Jesus, place his trust completely in God, he would come out the other side radically transformed by whatever it was God had in store for him.

Like life itself, our spiritual journeys do not always take the route that we expect. In the light of John’s story, the question that we have to ask ourselves over and over again is this: “Do we really trust God?” and if we do, will we have the confidence and courage to rest in God even when our lives take a direction that we did not expect and that seems to have brought us to a dead halt.

God has our lives in God’s hands. Are our lives in the hands of God?




[1] The original reads:

“DURING the time, then, of the aridities of this night of sense (wherein God effects the change of which we have spoken, drawing forth the soul from the life of sense into that of the spirit—that is, from meditation to contemplation—wherein it no longer has any power to work or to reason with its faculties concerning the things of God, as has been said), spiritual persons suffer great trials, by reason not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that God has abandoned them since they find no help or pleasure in good things. Then they grow weary, and endeavour (as they have been accustomed to do) to concentrate their faculties with some degree of pleasure upon some object of meditation, thinking that, when they are not doing this and yet are conscious of making an effort, they are doing nothing. “




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