Monday, December 14, 2009

The Reason for the Season: John of the Cross

A correspondent reminded me that today is the Feast of Juan de Yepes Alvarez, known better as Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591). A friar of the Carmelite order and a reformer of religious life in the sixteenth century, he was also one of the great Spanish mystics of that era, sharing this distinction with Teresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola. His work can be found even in New Age bookstores (where most customers are inclined to ignore a spirituality that imposes moral demands, but you never know ...)

(The Bride) Where have You hidden Yourself,
And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You have fled like the hart,
Having wounded me.
I ran after You, crying; but You were gone ...

(The Bridegroom) Return, My Dove!
The wounded hart
Looms on the hill
In the air of your flight and is refreshed ...

I just happened to have a copy of his Spiritual Canticle in my library. It is a saga of a bride (the soul) searching for her bridegroom (the Christ) after losing him, and rejoicing upon finding him. At a time when vernacular editions of the Bible were not common, the Canticle served as a Spanish-language adaptation of the Song of Songs. It endures today as an affirmation in the Catholic tradition, of the "theology of the body."

This may be one of those cases where the 1969 reform of the Roman Calendar of Saints made for an improvement. It was originally placed on November 24, as opposed to his date of death, which would have been the norm, but interfered with the Octave of the Immaculate Conception. With the suppression of many liturgical octaves in the Roman Rite in 1955, that impediment was removed.

During this season of expectation, we liken ourselves to the Israelites, who after wandering in the desert, the glory days of Kings David and Solomon, the conquests and the exiles, found themselves subject to the "Pax Romana" without another Moses or Elias to guide them. They awaited the promised King, as the bride awaits her bridegroom. The "dark night" of John of the Cross is a vigil of waiting for the dawn.

As we await the Savior.

[VIDEO: "The Dark Night of the Soul." Music and lyrics by Loreena McKennitt. Illustration of "The Christ of Saint John of the Cross" by Salvidor Dali. Production by Clover Studio.]

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