John is one of those characters who has always been out there lurking in my shadows, but I've never taken much time to look directly at him. I (and perhaps my Carmelite brothers) am not without some ambivalent feelings about John.
One of those issues is that our roots are in "the Ancient Observance" (O. Carm.)—some of whose members imprisoned and brutalized John in Toledo through 1577 and 1578. He was the reformer, and our guys were the reactionaries. We are in the line of the bad guys, and it's good to know that—good to know that we have been wrong. But in my own time with the Carmelites I've seen an explosion of interest in his work, from the ground up, which has reminded us (me) of some necessary things to be found there about the interior life. It has also encouraged more conversation and some joint ventures between ourselves and our Discalced (O.C.D.) brothers and sisters.
Another ambivalence, related to the first, has to do with the perceived intensity or "specialness" of "the spiritual life" that people sometimes assume about me (us) here in "religious" life. There's probably no escape from this, except to ignore it and go about living the best I can (funny that this reflection arrived just after I typed that). On one hand, I can see that the intense busyness of teaching high school for the past thirty-two years has not been a big help to my "spiritual life" as it is traditionally understood ... it's quite likely that I don't have a "spiritual life as traditionally understood." But I do have an inner life (just as you do, dear reader) fueled by and fueling all kinds of emotional and intellectual weather ... somewhere in the swirl of this may be found "the spiritual" ... I guess. It's a still point, sometimes very dark ... sometimes not so.
From Iain Matthew's The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross, which is the best intro to John that I've found:
Stranded and starving, somebody has to get packed up and sent off into the unknown to search for food, taking what water is left, hacking a way through the undergrowth, hoping somehow to forge a path to something somewhere. But then comes the noise of a helicopter, and rescue approaching. That changes everything. The one thing needed now is some space, so that what is coming can come.
This is the revision: for John, God is an approaching God, and our main job will be not to construct but to receive; the key word will be not so much 'achievement' as "space'. 'Making space for God in order to receive.' (35)
That goes a long way toward explaining the need for all that talk about detachment and the path of negation (nada nada nada nada nada). It's not a flight from the (mostly) normally great things of life, but making room for what's Best.
Merton says this in "Light in Darkness: The Ascetic Doctrine of St. John of the Cross" in Disputed Questions (209):
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