This spring, Fr. Richards tasked the parish staff with reading Fr. Iain Matthew's book, The Impact of God: Soundings From St. John of the Cross. This request was a blessing in disguise. It's a blessing, because the book, ultimately, is a beautiful and thought-provoking exploration of the Spanish mystic's theology of nada and todo (nothing and all), his approach to prayer, his call to love and union with God. It was in disguise, because by most accounts, St. John of the Cross is not an easy read:
- first, because he begins with poetry -- in particular, achingly breathless love poetry -- to God;
- second, because his unpacking of these poems exposes layer upon layer of latent meaning -- like God Himself, hidden within;
- and third, because his message of detachment and relinquishing control to a God whom we cannot hope to see clearly is a hard teaching.
It's a difficult book to review, given the challenge of the topic, so instead I will share three key concepts that stuck out to me and to which my thoughts have returned many times in the weeks since I started it. If these entice you, pick up the book and savor it, a bit at a time.
- St. John writes of a hidden, but active God. Too often we think of God as "out there" -- we set out to seek Him, and feel as though the effort is ours. According to St. John of the Cross, this is not the case: God is actively seeking us and inviting us to Himself. The first move is His, and when we respond, the reason He is difficult to perceive is not because He is far away, but because He is infinitely vast and incredibly close. God is not eclipsed by things closer at hand; He is all-eclipsing.
- God desires union, but needs space to achieve this -- and complete union with the infinite God requires lots of space! This is why detachment is important: we must empty ourselves of the things of this world in order to receive the things of the next. When St. John speaks of nada ("nothing" in Spanish), he is talking about creating this space for God, who then makes of Himself a gift in Christ, which by its nature is todo ("all"). Put simply, the only space big enough for todo is nada. While we can work toward this goal of nada ourselves, remember that God is active: He seeks to make room. St. John says that those times of bewildering suffering in life, when God seems so hard to find, quite often are the times in which God is making room for Himself, in you -- not forcibly, but by invitation, inviting you to let go and take His hand.
- Finally, St. John insists that spiritual advisors, teachers, and other guides exercise great care that they not become hindrances to the work of our seeking God. He writes, "God carries each person along a different road, so that you will scarcely find two people following the same route in even half of their journey to God." This sensitivity to the individual reflects our nature and dignity as unique images of God.
The flexibility is fundamental because it alone does justice to the dignity of each person, a 'most beautiful and finely wrought image of God'. It does justice too to the laws of growth. ... John says that humanity, and each person, was wedded to Christ when he died on the cross, a wedding made ours at our baptism. But all that happens 'at God's pace, and so all at once'. It has to become ours at our pace, ' and so, little by little' (Matthews, p. 15).
I will admit that I also found Fr. Matthew's writing challenging, at first. He weaves quotes from the saint's poetry, prose, and letters in freely with his interpretations and explanations, creating a poetic account that does not read like literary or theological analysis. Ultimately, this too is a blessing, because a book that could have been an academic exercise turns into a personal invitation to explore the mystic's works further and to strive for a deeper prayer life. Once you trust that the author knows St. John of the Cross well enough to write with authority, the book reads like a mini-retreat -- and I'm sure I will read it again.
Labels: baptism, books, church, faith, poetry, prayer, saints, work