In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
My Brethren in Christ Jesus, blessings, and peace, as we today celebrate the Feast of St. John of the Cross. Going back to the origin of the Church at Pentecost, when tongues of fire descended from on high onto the assembled faithful, we have been reminded over the centuries since that the bedrock of the Church is not a manmade institution of laws and practices, which will appeal to eternal truths but inevitably be constrained and perverted by the cultural biases of the times. Nor is the Church rooted in any one systematic philosophy or theological school. She is not first and foremost the byproduct of a noble imagination, nor intended to be the instrument of hard, callous men using religion to dupe the people into remaining subservient. Surely, the good and evil machinations of fallen men have played a role in fashioning the Church as she is today; but the bedrock is the Holy Spirit. Christ Jesus tells us that “the gates of hell will not prevail against [the Church].” This is so because the Holy Spirit dwells in and through the lives of the faithful to protect the Church from the inevitable assaults of the enemy from without and also to reform the Church from the laxity and the corruption from within. The Church is the ongoing project of God on Earth. She is the life raft tossed to people about to drown beneath their sins, but she is also the school of hard knocks for those on the inside who are trying better to follow Our Lord’s footsteps to the Father’s Kingdom. Whether a source of comfort or discord, a spiritual refuge or an arena for spiritual combat, the end purpose is the same: The Church exists to refashion men more like God. This means reorienting souls that are much too accustomed to sin and darkness into souls bathed in grace and in light. All of this upon the surface sounds abstract and esoteric, but for this purpose to be realized it must be anything but. After all, man is not an abstraction; and his wayward passions do not simply exist in his mind as a kind of dark dream with little real-life effect on himself and his surroundings. If man’s sins are incarnational, as indeed they are in so many ways, then the grace that transforms men and frees them finally from the allure of sin must be incarnational, too. This means that his transformation will be something that happens to his body as much as in his mind and heart, and this transformation will play itself out in real-life history and have a ripple effect on untold people. Only God can do this for man, and so the Church has been and will remain God’s instrument for the work He continues to do for us in the world. The Holy Spirit owns the Church’s copyright, and we the faithful in the Church are at best temporary license holders. We can work in and for the Church, but we can never make her ours nor refashion her in our image. The Holy Spirit will not permit this; and whenever people are so bold in their sin as to try to steal the Church away from God, the Holy Spirit will rise up the sick, the meek, and the destitute, like the judges and the prophets of old, to reform the Church back to her rightful path. The gates of hell will not prevail, because the Holy Spirit can and will recruit the Saints who are needed and empower them for the task ahead. The faithful remnant may be small, perhaps no more than a pilgrim on his missionary trail or an ascetic in his cave. It may be despised and persecuted, or it may be so small as to be inconsequential in the eyes of the fallen world. But it will survive. On this we may have faith: The likes of a St. John of the Cross may be once or twice in a century, but these examples of faith, hope, and charity will not be wiped out altogether. No matter how oppressive the times, there will be Saints, and we the faithful will be able to find a home in which to seek God amidst the corruption and the despair that appears to prevail most everywhere else. There will be lanterns lit up for all to see guiding us back to Christ Jesus, and like St. John of the Cross we shall follow the lanterns as much as we hold up a lantern for others. Our salvation is in struggling for other people’s salvation, for our salvation is to love as we are loved, selflessly, fully; our lives an offering unto the God who is offering Himself to us.
St. John of the Cross knew poverty and hardship all his life. From the beginning, his was the life of a man on the Road to Calvary. A lesser man would have been resentful, but he seems to have known from early on that there was a beautifully fragile joy in bearing his own personal Cross in emulation of Our Lord’s. He entered into the Carmelite Order and befriended Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun dedicated to the reformation of the Order. In the previous century, many of the Carmelites had done away with the rigorous prayer and ascetical discipline that had guided the Order at its inception. As a sign of their worldliness, they were wearing in public covered shoes; and John and Teresa’s followers responded by being discalced or barefoot. Discalced Carmelites became in effect an Order within the Order, and the establishment Carmelites came to despise them for this. In 1577, a group of Carmelites opposed to the reformers kidnapped John from his monastic cell, and imprisoned him at an establishment monastery. While there, he was subject to weekly public lashings before the other monks. He was kept in a ten by six cell with very little air, and had to read his breviary with the lamplight from an adjoining room through a small hole in the wall. His only food for months consisted of dirty water, stale bread, and salt fish scraps. A monk guard with compassion slipped him pen and paper, and so he was able to write his poems which collectively came to be known as the Spiritual Canticle. Almost a year later, John was able to escape through a small window; and he had to move from safe house to safe house to avoid bounty hunters that the Carmelites sent out to find him. Eventually, Pope Gregory XIII formally recognized the Discalced Carmelites as a separate Religious Order, and John and Teresa, finally, were freed from persecution. Discalced Carmelite monasteries flourished as the reformers very soon supplanted the establishment in popular affection.
Nearer the end of his life, John of the Cross wrote “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a book of poetic stanzas and commentary that described the hardship that a soul faces when disentangling from her previous attachments to the fallen world. Purgation is a hard trek, because we have to give up so much of what we thought we loved more than God. It is the only path carved out by a life of faith, though, and the alternative is to remain a slave to those worldly obsessions that render us disciples of sin and death. Our only solace in moving away from the world, and in renouncing the devil’s temptations, is how close the Holy Spirit remains to us the whole time. In time, John writes, we come to see that God is closer to us than the pain of purgation. He is nearer our soul than we had been attached to the world. The result is a soul that emerges from that dark night, finally, fully, able to love. As he explains, “Love consists not in feeling great things, but in having great detachment [from the world], and in suffering for the Beloved.” When we orient this love toward God, then we become like Him, which is what Christ Jesus had earned for us on Calvary. John explains, “To love is to be transformed into what we love. To love God is, therefore, to be transformed into God.” We are not God literally, of course, but we take on His likeness, and we are able to be His adopted sons and daughters in Christ Jesus. By this do we have eternal life, so let us pray that the life of St. John of the Cross moves us to live out our faith with rigor and love.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.