Some Astonishing Words from Saint John of the Cross


Some Astonishing Words from Saint John of the Cross

I had feared that the clarity of St. John's declaration would be lost in the E. Allison Peers's translation, but it is still there. I offer first, St. John's tremendous metaphor of the pane of glass and the ray of light, and then the conclusion springing from that line of thought.

from The Ascent of Mount Carmel--Book II, Chapter 5 St. John of the Cross

6. In order that both these things may be the better understood, let us make a comparison. A ray of sunlight is striking a window. If the window is in any way stained or misty, the sun's ray will be unable to illumine it and transform it into its own light, totally, as it would if it were clean of all these things, and pure; but it will illumine it to a lesser degree, in proportion as it is less free from those mists and stains; and will do so to a greater degree, in proportion as it is cleaner from them, and this will not be because of the sun's ray, but because of itself; so much so that, if it be wholly pure and clean, the ray of sunlight will transform it and illumine it in such wise that it will itself seem to be a ray and will give the same light as the ray. Although in reality the window has a nature distinct from that of the ray itself, however much it may resemble it, yet we may say that that window is a ray of the sun or is light by participation. And the soul is like this window, whereupon is ever beating (or, to express it better, wherein is ever dwelling) this Divine light of the Being of God according to nature, which we have described.

7. In thus allowing God to work in it, the soul (having rid itself of every mist and stain of the creatures, which consists in having its will perfectly united with that of God, for to love is to labour to detach and strip itself for God's sake of all that is not God) is at once illumined and transformed in God, and God communicates to it His supernatural Being, in such wise that it appears to be God Himself, and has all that God Himself has. And this union comes to pass when God grants the soul this supernatural favour, that all the things of God and the soul are one in participant transformation; and the soul seems to be God rather than a soul, and is indeed God by participation; although it is true that its natural being, though thus transformed, is as distinct from the Being of God as it was before, even as the window has likewise a nature distinct from that of the ray, though the ray gives it brightness.

Astonishing. So much so that my group and I spent the better part of two hours talking about this single passage--its implications, ramifications, and its purpose.

St. John of the Cross tells us that in complete union we beome God by participation. That is, in the best Buddhist sense, all that remains of us in terms of things antithetical to God has vanished--the "Ego" but not the self. This is very difficult to explain, but it marks one of many places where Buddhist doctrine varies from Christian. Buddhists strive for the state of extinction of self. That can be interpreted as the irradication of all that keeps one from God. But explicitly it seems to be the annhilation of personality. I used to think St. John of the Cross was very Buddhist in his teaching, but reading carefully, I have learned better. St. John makes the point that one retains one's own nature. What is annhiliated is all that prevents God from shining through one.

The way I explained it to the Carmelite Group was in comparison to a stained-glass window. Each pane of glass has its distinctive coloration, shape, and placement in the window. As each is purified and made truly transparent rather than merely translucent, each retains its color, shape and position--its unique nature within the window frame. We become God by participation, but the delivery of God is mediated by His vessel--the particular pane of glass. Thus we have St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Catherine of Siena, St. Jerome, and St. John of the Cross. No two of these are exactly the same or even remotely similar, and yet all became unique conveyances of God, unique Godly participators in spreading His word and glory.

We would all do well to spend some time truly reflecting upon the meaning of this passage in our own lives. We all have the potential to become "God by participation," and, in fact, we all have that as our root calling and goal. To fall short of it is, as either Peguy or Bloy is paraphrased as saying, the only real tragedy.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on August 4, 2003 7:40 AM.

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