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When I Finally “Got” St. John of the Cross

When I Finally Got St John of the Kevin Schraer

Kevin Schraer

Heather King - published on 06/24/14

Lessons from the Sonoran Desert.

I once did a retreat near the Sonoran Desert.

“Each Friday is observed as ‘Hermit Day,’” read the laminated schedule in my room. “In complete silence and modified fasting, we commemorate the passion and death of Christ and do so in solidarity with workers for justice and peace and with victims of injustice.”

I was way behind the idea of Hermit Day; in fact, I wished every day were Hermit Day.

Somewhere around the 48th hour of any retreat I realized that I don’t really want to be a guest, or a visitor, or a retreatant; I want you to go away and leave me your fully-stocked place that I can stay in alone. I will talk to you, and I will be gracious, interested, attentive, and sincerely, even abjectly grateful—but I’d still be happier alone. By happy I don’t mean free from pain.

Was Christ “happy?” I sometimes wondered. Nietzsche said that Christ never laughed, but I refused to believe that the Son of Man hadn’t cracked up at a good black humor joke.

With my room nicely cooled down the second morning, I thought, These poor fussy nun folk want to be all shut up and safe: they would not know how to truly enjoy nature and the desert like a free spirit such as myself. So I will just turn off the A/C, open my windows, and the screens will let in the lovely desert air! Fifteen  minutes later, almost perishing of heat stroke, I had to stagger over, slam shut the windows, draw the curtains, and re-blast the A/C to frigid for the remainder of the day.    

Similarly, as I was leaving for a post-dinner hike that night, Sister Kathy suggested, “Best bring a flashlight. And be sure to wear good shoes!” Again I thought, How timid and lame. I will just march pluckily off and have a good tramp. So I set off down the trail she had pointed out, and easily made my way to the wash she had said to walk down for about a city block, and after I’d gone a way thought to retrace my steps and mark where the trail had come out, because trails through cactus and underbrush can be kind of sketchy, and paths can look like trails that aren’t.

So I went back, found what I thought was the right trail, decided I’d better follow in for a bit to make sure, and within minutes found myself surrounded by impenetrable stands of cholla and saguaro. With the sun sinking fast, I literally started sprinting, caught sight of the roof of the chapel, headed that way, lost sight of the roof, and might be floundering out there still, or dead, my skeleton stripped clean, if I hadn’t finally spotted, and sheepishly made my way toward, the stations from the outdoor Way of the Cross behind the retreat house, saved by “Jesus Falls the Third Time.”

With all that, I was deeply grateful to the folks at the retreat house, who showed the fruit of their lives of prayer by being welcoming, solicitous, helpful, kind, and best of all, leaving me to my own devices.

Left to my own devices I read, and after I read, I ponder. One person who I’d made a career of pondering was St. John of the Cross, the 16th century mystic who’d been kidnapped from his monastery, imprisoned, starved, tortured, and not so coincidentally, coined the phrase “dark night of the soul.”

I had tried to read St. John many times with meager results. I’d highlighted, underlined, and made margin notes in Ascent of Mount Carmel until I was blue in the face, but somewhere between the night of the senses and the night of the spirit, the passive night and the active night, the three virtues, the three faculties, and the fifth way the “desires harm the soul by making it lukewarm and weak, so that it has no strength to follow after virtue and to persevere therein,” I inevitably got sidetracked.     

Luckily, I’d brought along Ron Rolheiser’s The Restless Heart. In it, he  described the mystical journey in language even a theological naïf like me could understand. He observed:  

John of the Cross offers no painless way to enter loneliness and to come to grips with it. He is very realistic here. The inward journey involves pain, intolerable pain. According to him, once we stop trying to run away from our loneliness and stop trying to fill our thirsty caverns with counterfeit and psuedosolutions, we enter, for a time into a terrible raging pain, the pain of purgatory, the pain that is felt when we cut ourselves off from psuedosupports and take the plunge inward, into the infinite mystery of ourselves, reality, and God. Eventually this journey leads to a deep peace, but in the early stages it causes intolerable pain…. Like all births, it is a journey from the secure into the unknown; like all births, it involves a certain death; and like all births, too, it is very painful because it is with much groaning of the flesh that new life can be brought forth.

That retreat kicked off a seven-week cross-country road trip, during which I went to Mass every single day. Those seven weeks were but a single leg on what has proved to be a life-long, ongoing pilgrimage.

My blindness, pride, and character defects have been on full display. So have my perseverance, generosity of spirit, and sense of humor.

Fr. Rolheiser is right. The pain is intolerable.

And—ever more—the joy cannot be contained.

Heather King is a Catholic convert, sober alcoholic, and writer whose most recent book is STRIPPED: Cancer, Culture and The Cloud of Unknowing. She speaks nationwide and blogs at Heather King: Mystery, Smarts, Laughs. For more, see her new About page.

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