Today we honor Juan de la Cruz, or John of the Cross. Though he died in 1591, John was widely unknown until more recently. Born in 1542 in Spain, his father died when he was three. His mother and siblings were thrown into poverty. He received early education in an orphanage, but by 17 he had learned carpentry, tailoring, sculpting, and painting through apprenticeships. He was able to do his university studies with the Jesuits; after school he joined the Carmelite order. In 1567, he was ordained to the priesthood and recruited by Teresa of Avila to reform the Carmelite order. He studied extensively, was a spiritual director, and devoted himself to the search for God. Because of his attempts to dramatically reform the Carmelites, he was eventually imprisoned. There he wrote poetry as a comfort. His “Dark Night of the Soul” became his most famous piece. As John of the Cross has been rediscovered, he has become known as “the church’s safest mystical theologian” and “the poet’s poet.”
I was thinking John must have known a lot about the dark night of the soul. He had a rough childhood, fought to get an education, and then found incredible resistance when he tried to make the devotion of the Carmelites better; his prison cell must have felt like a dark night. I am reading an Advent devotional right now, and it has felt pretty dark at times. I can tell the author has experienced some rough times, though she never specifies what they are in her poetry. But the darkness of her soul pervades her writing. I have wondered as I read why she is putting such darkness in our Advent devotional – a season of light. But then I thought about the realities of this season – the pain the season can bring of lost loved ones, of unfulfilled dreams, of unmet expectations, of pressure and anxiety. Perhaps the author, like John of the Cross, is willing to expose the dark night that can live in the soul.
So where is the light for us to grasp in Advent? I appreciate those words of instruction in Colossians: “Devote yourselves to prayer.” Prayer is one of the places that we can dump darkness and discover light. Prayer is the conversation in which we can struggle vulnerably and honestly with God, and eventually end up on the other side renewed and refreshed. This is one of our Advent invitations: devote yourselves to prayer. Whether you already feel bathed in light or you are longing for the light, prayer is the place where we meet God and we find strength for the journey. Amen.