Photo of Tarn Hows and surrounding hills by Gill Henwood
Today, December 14th, is a special day. It’s the day the Church keeps the feast of St. John of the Cross.
Some years ago, towards the end of a visit to Spain, we arrived at Ubeda. It was a wet Sunday afternoon and the town was all but deserted. The one eating and drinking place was the only crowded place. I had gone there, however to see something very important.
We had started the Spanish journey by travelling from Madrid to Avila. There, my companion and I visited the shrine of St. Teresa of Avila. She has been a favourite saint of mine for a long time and I have tried to dig deep into her spirituality. There is something profoundly mystical about her and yet, also, an accessible ordinariness. Teresa tells it as it is! She also tells God what’s on her mind!
Her legacy, for which she was honoured as a Doctor (Teacher) of the Faith, is her teaching on prayer. Yet her writing, done usually on the hoof, had to be encouraged. She was busy at the time reforming the Carmelite order and founding new convents of what became known as the discalced (barefoot) order of the contemplative Carmelites. (when she wasn’t actually shouting at popes, nobles and, at times God!)
In all this activity she had a series of mentors, confessors and encouragers. The chief amonst these, and her very special friend was St John of the Cross. His friendship did so much to help her in guiding others and in leaving us the great spiritual treasure we still have today.
St. John of the Cross was, himself, a man of deep spirituality. His writings and, especially his spiritual poems, established him as a mystic who walked close to God and for whom God’s love was deeply personal. The power of God’s love to touch ALL hearts is expressed by John in something he truly believed. He said, Where there is no love put love in and you will find love. In people and in situations where love is lacking, put the love of God in and you will draw love out. John of the Cross saw this as one of the most important witnesses we can make for God.
Often misunderstood and persecuted, even imprisoned, he found strength from his deep relationship with God. He also found a spiritual home in Teresa’s discalced Carmelites which he joined.
Amongst his writings is ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’, ‘The Ascent of Mount Carmel’ and ‘Spiritual Canticle’. A good introduction to his life and spirituality is by E Allison Peers, available still from good bookshops.
Like Teresa he was made a Doctor of the Church.
That rainy afternoon in Ubeda, our knocking on the door of the museum/monastery was rewarded at precisely 4pm! (When siesta was over). We were led by a quiet but welcoming monk to the shrine of St. John of the Cross. A wonderfully profound moment at the end of our joureying in Spain. In my heart was the link between the beginning of that journey and its end, not least because these two saints, in so many ways, had hearts for God that beat as one. Teresa said of John: “I cannot be in the presence of John without being lifted up into the presence of God.” In each other, they found God’s friendship and company.
But let Teresa have the last word about him on this, his feast day. She said of him, ‘Though he is small in stature, he is Big in God’s eyes.’ What better thing could be said of anyone!