Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lessons From "Dark Night of the Soul"

Hailed as a "masterpiece of Religious Literature" Dark Night of the Soul Spanish: La noche oscura del alma is the title of a poem written by 16th century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross. It's also the name of a treatise he wrote later, commenting on the poem.

Are you an average person? If so, chances are you'll never in your lifetime pick up a violin, let alone play it. "The Dark Night" is like the violin and St. John, the "master's hand" playing the instrument. Once in a blue moon a virtuoso comes on the scene who can play the violin like the master. That virtuoso is one E. Allison Peers, who transcended the barriers of both time and language to update the 16th century Spanish mystic's writings into a modern form that 20th and 21st century folk may more easily grasp.

The copy I've been studying is the Doubleday image 3rd Revised edition of 1959. But wait, there's more. Behind E. Allison Peers stands another virtuoso, P. Silverio de Santa Teresa, C.D., who updated St. John's manuscripts into modern Spanish, which became the book that was the source of the Peers translation.

Saint John of the Cross was a Carmelite priest. His poem narrates the journey of the soul from its bodily home to its union with God. The journey occurs during the night, which represents the hardships and difficulties the soul meets in detachment from the world and reaching the light of the union with the Creator. There are several steps in this night, which are related in successive stanzas. The main idea of the poem can be seen as the painful experience that people endure as they seek to grow in spiritual maturity and union with God.

Though updated and modernized, even a learned reader may need to have a copy of a good dictionary nearby. Peers was obviously extremely well-educated and scholarly. His writing style reflects that. I'm up to Book I Chapter III, which addresses avarice (insatiable greed for riches) in the spiritual or religious sense.

It is apparent in the translation that St. John was firmly against "religion for show." He condemns "the attachment of the heart" as he chides holy men and women who carry "relics and tokens, like children with trinkets." He says "true devotion must issue from the heart" in a paragraph that made me think of three things:
1) People who attach otherworldly qualities to medals, scapulars and rosaries
2) People who "adore" paintings or pictures of Jesus, Mary etc., which brings me to
3) The practice in Islam where it is forbidden to create or display any sort of image of Muhammad [PBUH]

At left is a picture of what Peers calls an "English Palm Cross." St. John wrote "I knew a person who for more than ten years made use of a cross roughly formed from a branch (of palm) that had been blesses, fastened with a pin twisted round it; he had never ceased using it, and he always carried it about with him until I took it from him, and this was a person of no small sense and understanding."

St. John believed that those on the correct path toward God "attach themselves to no visible instruments, nor do they burden themselves with such." In essence:
St. John's thinking can be expanded outside the religious context. In your personal life are there "things" that you have attached undeserved importance to or imparted particular qualities upon? Like maybe that St. Christopher's medal you keep in the car or that pair of "lucky sox" that you can't go bowling without? I'm not talking about items with sentimental value. I'm talking about items which have no power other than that which your imagination gives them. Think about it!
ABOUT St. John of the Cross: Born as John de Yepes on June 24, 1542, at Fontiveros, Spain, the youngest child of Gonzalo de Yepes and Catherine Alvarez. His father was a descendant of a rich family in France but was disowned for marrying a weaver’s daughter.

John received his early education from a school in Medina del Campo. As a student, he was found to be attentive and diligent in his studies. At 14, his services were taken by the governor of the hospital of Medina to care for the hospital patients who were suffering from incurable illnesses. For seven years, John divided his time between waiting on the poorest of the poor and pursuing his education.

In 1563, at the age of 21, he entered the Carmelites at Medina, taking the name of John of the Cross, and was ordained priest at the age of 25. At his first Mass, he received the assurance that he would preserve his baptismal innocence. After his ordination, he was given permission to follow the original rule of Albert of Vercelli which imposed strict discipline and solitude.

With the help of St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila opened the first monastery of the newly reformed Discalced Carmelites (friars) on November 28, 1568. Hence, St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are referred to as the 'parents' of the Order.

John became master of novices and the spiritual and confessor of the convent. He implemented reforms, including his belief that the order should return to its life of prayer. His reforms did not sit well with many Carmelites who accused him of rebellion.

He was put in prison and beaten three times a week by the monks. The cell was six feet by ten feet with only one tiny window up near the ceiling. While suffering in prison, he found happiness in God and in prayer. He started writing mystical poetry which he brought with him when he escaped from prison after 9 months.

St. John of the Cross joined his Creator on December 14, 1591, at Ubeda in Andalucia in Spain. He was beatified by Pope Clement X on January 25, 1675, and was declared saint by Pope Benedict XIII on December 27, 1726. He was proclaimed Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius XI on August 24, 1926.
Calced - definition of Calced by the Free Online Dictionary ...

Discalced Carmelites - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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