Recently I took part in an international symposium marking the 400th anniversary of the death of the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross. For me, it was a very special time. I have taught courses on him for nearly 15 years and he has been for me, during my adult years, without doubt, the single most important spiritual guide in my life.
Who was this man? That question is not easy to answer since, around John of the Cross, there exists a myth which scares off most people. For all kinds of reasons, both his admirers and critics alike, tend to paint John this way:
He is a brilliant person, whatever his faults. However, he is a most austere, severe, and inhuman person, someone who is insensitive to the normal feelings, urges, and distractions that incurably haunt the rest of us. He is pathologically single-minded, not given to distractions or humor. He is heavy, the mystic of darkness, hung up on suffering and the cross, a spiritual masochist, counseling us to choose always pain over pleasure, what is more difficult over what is more pleasant, and life after death over life after birth.
As well, he is a mystic. His thoughts are drawn from extraordinary revelations from God which are the prerogative of certain spiritual athletes like himself. These mystical revelations are themselves a sure sign that he is divorced from the bread and butter of life (not your average neighbour whom you invite over on a summer’s evening for drinks and a barbecue!) He’s a saint, but, ultimately, he and his spirituality do not enter with true understanding the realm of ordinary day-to-day life, with all its heartaches and headaches over relationships, mortgages, money, sex, careers, food, and entertainment. He was a great man, one in a million, and his books are great books, but his person is divorced from the ordinary life and his spirituality is, at best, a high road for a religious elite.
That is the way most people, admirers and critics, understand John of the Cross. He is, for them, like an art object, something you stare at and dislike or admire, but that you go home from!
What, among other things, is unfortunate about this picture is that it confuses an extraordinary expression of something with the idea that this something itself is extraordinary. John’s spirituality is an extraordinary expression of something very ordinary.
Samuel Butler once distinguished between what he called statecraft and soulcraft. Statecraft is the art of shaping community. Soulcraft is the art of shaping the soul.
John of the Cross is one of the great masters of all time in the art of soulcraft. What he offers in this realm is parallel to what a Mozart offers in the area of music, a Michelangelo offers in the area of painting and sculpture, and what a Shakespeare offers in the area of literature. He is a master and what he produces can be intimidating to the amateur for that reason.
George Eliot once wrote a small book entitled, The Lifted Veil within which she tells the story of a woman who had extraordinary psychic powers. This woman could see into the future because, for her, the veil of time was partially lifted.
John of the Cross is a master of soulcraft because, for him, the veil was also partially lifted. As a mystic, he was not given insight into the future, but he was given privileged insight into the dynamics of love, prayer, loneliness, faith struggles, transformation, suffering, and consummation. His books might also aptly be entitled, The Lifted Veil.
Hence, while he was not an ordinary person and his writings are far from ordinary, his spirituality is not elitist. Shakespeare was a one-in-a-million writer, but his plays are meant to be enjoyed by the millions. John of the Cross was a one-in-a-million mystic, but his works are meant to give insight and challenge to the millions. Common folk enjoy the Mozarts, Michelangelos, and Shakespeares … even as they know that these were not ordinary composers, artists, and writers. They were rare, great geniuses that gave precious expression to ordinary experience.
John of the Cross should be understood in the same way, as a most rare, great genius, a one-in-a-million master of soulcraft, who gave precious expression to ordinary religious experience.