Thoughts for December 14 (St John of the Cross) from Fr Willie Doyle

St John of the Cross, Doctor of the Church

Surely you are not right in trying to keep our Lord away from you, or in thinking that He looks upon you with displeasure. When sin in the past is repented for, the poor soul who once strayed from Him has a strange attraction for His gentle Heart. You pain Him intensely if you think He does not love you now, nor wish for your affection. Give Him all you can, warmly and naturally, like a little child, and rest assured that the one longing of His Heart is to see you advance rapidly in holiness and perfection. You must try and cultivate great confidence and trust in our dear Lord’s love and mercy, driving far from you sadness and regret of all kinds. Give it no quarter, it is all from the devil and so most harmful.

COMMENT: Despite Fr Doyle’s rather muscular spirituality, he was also a great exponent of the concept of spiritual childhood. Today’s words can be read in tandem with yesterday’s quote on the danger of deliberate sin – yes, sin is destructive of our interior lives, but the solution to this is to get back up, repent and keep on trusting in God. He regularly advised others to cultivate a simple and very affectionate trust in Jesus. He himself demonstrated his affection by the way in which he would gently kiss statues and other holy images. Tenderness and childlikeness lived side by side with Fr Doyle’s abundant personal toughness.

The same can also be said of today’s saint, John of the Cross, one of the great reformers of the Carmelite Order and a Doctor of the Church. At first glance, St John can see a bit off-putting. He followed a path of great personal austerity; it was even necessary for St Teresa of Avila to intervene to mitigate some of these hardships. Here is St Teresa’s description of the very first house of reformed Carmelite friars, of which St John was a member:

As I went into the church I was amazed to see the spirit which our Lord had inspired there; and I was not the only one, for two merchants, friends of mine, who had come with me from Medina, did nothing but cry, there were so many crosses, so many skulls!

I can never forget one little cross of wood by the holy water, to which a picture of Christ on paper was fastened; it seemed to cause more devotion than if it had been made of some material most admirably fashioned. The choir was the garret, which was lofty in the centre, so that they could say the office in it, but they had to stoop very low to enter it and hear Mass. In the two corners of it next the church they had two little hermitages filled with hay, for the place was very cold, in which they must either lie down or sit; the roof almost touched their heads. There were two little openings into the church, and two stones for pillows; there were also crosses and skulls…

They used to go out to preach in many places around where the people needed instruction, and that also made me glad that the house was established there, for I was told that there was no monastery near, nor the means of supporting one, which was a great pity. They obtained so good a name in so short a time as to give me the very greatest pleasure when I heard of it. They went, as I am saying, a league and a half and two leagues bare- footed to preach — for at that time they wore no sandals, which they were afterwards ordered to wear — and that in the cold, when the snow was deep, and when they had preached and heard confessions came home every night late to their meal in the monastery: all this was as nothing because of their joy.

St John was a profound mystical writer and expert guide to the higher reaches of the spiritual life, particularly the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul, in which the soul is plunged into crisis and even doubts that God exists. Many saints have experienced this crisis; St Therese of Lisieux was so affected by this that she even had the creed stitched onto her habit so that it would always be close to her to bolster her faith.

Part of St John’s teaching can be summed up by the suggestion that we should love God for His own sake, not because of the spiritual pleasure we derive from prayer. This form of denial can make St John seem like a negative figure. Yet he was also filled with passionate love for God which spilled over into poetry and he possessed the same kind of childlike trust that Fr Doyle speaks of today. As St John wrote:

It is well for those who find themselves in this condition to take comfort, to persevere in patience and to be in no wise afflicted. Let them trust in God, Who abandons not those that seek Him with a simple and right heart, and will not fail to give them what is needful for the road, until He bring them into the clear and pure light of love.

Let us follow the example of St John of the Cross and Fr Doyle in cultivating a simple, but profound, trust in Jesus.