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St. John of the Cross and Mystics

St. John of the Cross and Mystics

by The Rev. Danae Ashley

Collect of the Day: Judge eternal, throned in splendor, you gave Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross) strength of purpose and mystical faith that sustained him even through the dark night of the soul: Shed your light on all who love you, in unity with Jesus Christ our Savior; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I completed part of my Master of Divinity program at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit school, and the classes I took there opened me up to other parts of our Church history and traditions that were barely touched on at the Presbyterian (PCUSA)-affiliated school I attended for my undergrad. One class, Understanding the Christian Mystics, focused on Ignatius of Loyola, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross. I remember being a little nervous theologically about the class. The Roman Catholics with whom I grew up talked about saints without constraint, but my Protestant background prevented me from becoming too engaged with their stories. Now, here I was in a class that was not only about saints, but ones that were considered ‘mystics’—whatever that meant.

In our class, the professor, a dynamic Jesuit priest named John Mossi, asked us what we thought a mystic was and there were a variety of answers. “A saint,” someone said. “A person who has out of body experiences,” another suggested. “Someone who is especially holy,” added a third. My professor let us ponder for a few minutes before he revealed the answer: “You are all mystics,” he told us with a grin. We stared at him in surprise. What could he mean? I remember feeling drawn with curiosity to what he said. There was something within me that believed his statement, yet I did not know why. He went on to explain that a mystic was someone who has had an intense and intimate experience of God. Hadn’t we all had at least one experience like this? he asked. Therefore, we were all mystics, he concluded. 

I was familiar with sensory experiences of prayer since childhood, but did not know how to articulate it. I felt something open inside me that I did not realize needed to be acknowledged: if the way I experienced God was mystical in nature, then I was not alone—there were others like me. I now had a language to describe my experience and felt comforted. In learning more about each of the mystics, I began to see how many different ways one could pray and the myriad of ways one could experience God in prayer.

John of the Cross was a Carmelite friar who later joined Teresa of Avila in a reformed movement returning to the stricter rule of the Order in 1567. They became known as the Discalced (unshod) Carmelites or the Carmelites of Strict Observance. Each had deep experiences of God and wrote about them in their works. John became a spiritual director for many people and was devoted to the search for and transformation in God. He endured persecution when the other faction of his Order kidnapped him, imprisoning him for nine months in a monastery in Toledo. It was during this time that he began writing poems and other works which he took with him when he escaped. Despite this hardship and a life of poverty, John never became embittered. Instead, his answer was always to seek love, as he said, “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.”

Learning about John and his focus of eagerly seeking God and love in all things inspired me. The beauty of his poetry and his descriptions of his experiences of God expanded my understanding of the many different ways which people encounter God. He taught me that one is not better than the other – we cannot pray wrong. Whether it is in the midst of a forest, a jail cell, in a church pew, or hugging a loved one, every experience of God as love is right. John took his mystical encounters with God and lived out his devotion through caring for others. He advised, “In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.” During Advent, I ponder this in my heart. As we journey together toward Christmas, I hope that love transforms us all as we travel deeper into the heart-center of God.

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The Rev. Danae M. Ashley, MDiv, MA, LMFT is an Episcopal priest and marriage and family therapist who has ministered with parishes in North Carolina, New York, Minnesota, and is serving part-time as the Associate Rector at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Seattle and a therapist at Soul Spa Seattle. She has written for a number of publications, produced a play, and has been featured on several podcasts regarding fertility struggle and faith. Danae’s favorite past times include reading, traveling with her husband, dancing with wild abandon to Celtic music, and serious karaoke.

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