St. John of the Cross, whose feast day is Dec 14, is a saint for Advent. A saint of darkness and uncertainty, a saint of prison cells and flickering candlelight, a saint of secret ladders and lacerated muscle, a man whose tenuous existence was barefoot and moonless, St. John spent his days being pulled to pieces. From the shambles of his old life arose the phoenix of hope, undeterred and unbowed.
I’ve been climbing Mount Carmel with St. John. Or, let’s say, I’m attempting to drop a few of my sensible attachments with his encouragement. We’ll see. At the least, we can glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel together.
I’ve only read his poetry in translation, but it seems to me that it is very profound and very beautiful, arriving from somewhere deep within his personal suffering. When he speaks of leaving the house in the dead of night and slipping away while the inhabitants are asleep, he is speaking of the mystical ascent of the soul from sensible attachment towards union with the divine, yes, but he is also speaking of his literal escape from the angry, abusive monks of his own religious order. Even his torture and betrayal assist his mystical ascent.
This is our time, Advent, to plunge headlong into the abyss with him, to confront our demons and make straight our roads, to beat a path in a trackless desert. Down that road comes Love, and the suffering and agony of our attempts top make ready for him or, if it’s been a bad year, simply to confront the despairing sadness of the fecklessness of our own hearts, this is all part of the poetry. We work it out with fear and trembling, for how else can God enter under our roof?
Here is St. John’s marvelous poem about Advent. I’ve found it worth contemplation.
UPDATE: There are some serious questions about the translation of this poem (by Daniel Ladinsky) and to what extent it is properly attributed to St. John. See the discussion in the comments for more.
If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the Holy and say,
“I need shelter for the night.
Please take me inside your heart, my time is so close.”
Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ, taking birth forever,
as she grasps your hand for help,
for each of us is the midwife of God, each of us.
Yes, there, under the dome of your being,
does creation come into existence eternally,
through your womb, dear pilgrim,
the sacred womb of your soul,
as God grasps our arms for help:
for each of us is His beloved servant never far.
If you want, the virgin will come walking down the street,
pregnant with Light, and sing!