Born into a destitute family in 1542, John of the Cross knew what it meant to rely solely on God. Later he would join the Carmelite order and later come in to contact with another great mystic, Teresa of Avila. Teresa had a desire to reform the order and recruited John to help, but when the monks in his monastery discovered what he was up to, they kidnapped him, locked him in cell, and beat him three times a week for nine months, until he was able to escape. For many, that would have driven them from God, but for John, it drove him closer, so that he understood that we should seek to separate ourselves from everything – both good and evil – so that we might find union with God.
In the Ascent of Mt. Carmel, John writes, “The soul that is attached to anything however much good there may be in it, will not arrive at the liberty of divine union. For whether it be a strong wire rope or a slender and delicate thread that holds the bird, it matters not, if it really holds it fast; for, until the cord be broken the bird cannot fly.”
John understood that there are many things that hold us captive and like his cell, they prevent us from truly becoming one with God; therefore, he urges us to break those bonds and to seek God, not from outside of ourselves, but from within. “What more do you want, o soul! And what else do you search for outside, when within yourself you possess your riches, delights, satisfaction and kingdom — your beloved whom you desire and seek? Desire him there, adore him there. Do not go in pursuit of him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and you won’t find him, or enjoy him more than by seeking him within you.”
As one of the great mystics, he achieved what most of us will only have the opportunity to read about, but through his experiences, he points us not outward, but in.
I wasn’t quite able to figure out if Dietrich Bonhoeffer was quoting an entire hymn of Paul Gerhardt or only a portion, but the following prayer for morning was included in one of Bonhoeffer’s letters to his friend Eberhard Bethge. It very much seems to speak of what John learned.
“In me… that is, within himself without God… In me there is darkness,
But with You there is light;
I am lonely, but You do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with You there is help;
I am restless, but with You there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with You there is patience;
I do not understand Your ways,
But You know the way for me.”
A few verses on he continues:
“Lord Jesus Christ,
You were poor
And in distress, a captive and forsaken as I am.
You know all man’s troubles;
You abide with me
When all men fail me;
You remember and seek me;
It is Your will that I should know You
And turn to You.
Lord, I hear Your call and follow;
(Letters and Papers from Prison)
If you desire to be freed from your cell or cut loose from the ropes or threads that bind you, then perhaps those last two words – “Help me” – form the perfect prayer.
In our first reading from the Song of Solomon, Solomon said:
Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not;
I called him, but he gave no answer.
John would say, seek the one whom your soul loves and seek him within yourself. If you cannot free yourself from those things that restrict you, cry out, “Help me,” and you will be saved, for the “Lord himself watches over you.”