BILL TONER :: Many years ago, when I was about ten years of age, a cousin of mine, Maureen, got married. In those days the wedding breakfast, as it was called, was often held at home, rather than in a hotel. Maureen’s family were not well off, and they lived in a very small house in the Dublin Liberties. We were relatively ‘posh’, having moved to Drimnagh, though if you are familiar with Drimnagh you will be aware that the houses there were not very spacious either. But in any case my parents invited Maureen, and her husband-to-be, Brendan, to hold their wedding breakfast in our house.
The biggest problem was that we had to use the upstairs bedrooms as well as the living rooms. And because of that we had to dismantle the beds and put them into temporary storage with neighbours. And similarly with other items of furniture and junk. However in the end we were able to squeeze in all the guests and the wedding breakfast was a great success.
I was reminded of this event recently when reading a book, The Impact of God by the Carmelite priest Iain Matthew. This book is about the spirituality of the sixteenth century Spanish friar, John of the Cross. The book set me thinking about the state of our house just before we began to prepare it for that wedding breakfast. Imagine if the Bridegroom and his Bride arrived on the big day and found the upstairs rooms they were hoping to use full of beds and spare furniture instead of trestle tables. There would not have been enough room for the guests and they would have had to go elsewhere, confused and embarrassed.
John of the Cross describes God in a rather similar manner in the way he deals with each person. According to John, God is forever seeking entry to our heart and souls, but often finds them so full of clutter that he cannot find any space. God is always seeking us, even when we are not seeking God. The poet Francis Thompson, who suffered from opium addiction, describes God in his poem The Hound of Heaven as forever trying to hunt him down: “I fled him down the nights and down the days; I sped from those strong feet that followed, followed after…”.
The spirituality of John of the Cross turns on its head a tendency that is sometimes found among devout Christians, including some religious. This is the tendency to try to ‘find’ God, or ‘reach’ God through certain ways of praying, and it can become a particular preoccupation during retreats. John wrote about people who loaded themselves up with extraordinary practices, but got nowhere in the spiritual life. Nevertheless, John is clear that union with God is the only worthwhile goal in life. However, the context in which this goal is realized is not as much about us finding God, as about God finding us, – “If the person is seeking God, much more is her Beloved seeking her” (Living Flame, 3.28 ). As Iain Matthew says, “God – especially St. John’s God – cannot be conquered or achieved; he has to give, and must be received. In a scientific age which thrives on achievable goals, this lesson too comes slowly” (Op.cit. p.70). Coming from a different spiritual tradition, the Jesuit Tony de Mello writes: “The Holy Spirit is not produced by any efforts of our own. He cannot be ‘merited’. There is absolutely nothing we can do to get him… Jesus said, WAIT. We can’t produce the Spirit. We can only wait for him to come.”
In the same way as we needed space in our house in Drimnagh to host the bridegroom and bride, so God needs to find space in our mind, heart and soul so that we can receive him. We must try to clear the clutter in order to let God in. What kind of clutter is John talking about? Here he focuses not so much on objects as on desires: “We are not talking here about giving up things…We are talking about giving up the craving for gratification in those things” (Ascent of Mount Carmel I 3.4). Such things could be roles, relationships, projects, personal tendencies (nowadays John would probably include information and communication technology). These things are not bad, except when they become the centre of our lives, when in fact it is really God we want at the centre. And then we have to say ‘No’ – No, I don’t need this – particularly at the point where our desires are most implicated, where we are not prepared to negotiate (see Matthew, op.cit. pp.42-3).
It is interesting to note a similar emphasis in Jesuit spirituality, which also had its genesis in the 16th century. St. Ignatius tells us at the outset that his Spiritual Exercises are “every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God…” . Later on in the Exercises he urges the same detachment as St. John from particular objects: “I must be indifferent…so that I am not more inclined or disposed to accept the object in question than to relinquish it… I should be like a balance at equilibrium… that I might be ready to follow whatever I perceive is more for the glory and praise of God…”. He stresses the need to beg God to move our will in order to achieve this.
On a different but related note: for those who, in their praying, long for some kind of union with God, it is hard to give up the hope that some day God will speak to them or communicate with them in their prayers. But John of the Cross is very taken by the ‘otherness’ of God. He sees God as so ‘other’ that his friendship has to be given, it cannot be conquered (Matthew, op.cit., p.71). Not only that, but God is so ‘other’ that our only contact with him can be through faith, hope and love. In the words of St. John, “The Father spoke one word, who was his Son, and this word he is always speaking in eternal silence. It is in silence that the soul must hear it” (Sayings, 99). Happily, this is not to deny that sometimes we can have an awareness of the impulse of God’s grace in our lives. ‘Consolation’ plays a big part in the spirituality of St. Ignatius Loyola and in its definition he includes, “all interior joy that invites and attracts to what is heavenly”
A point made strongly, and without apology, by St. John, is that suffering is a privileged place of God’s inflow into our souls. Here, John is not just speaking about physical suffering, but about the negativity of life, Iain Matthew comments|: “That is the God-content of pain; it has power to unlock us at the point we cannot unlock ourselves” (Op.cit., p.78). Some readers will find here an echo of Leonard Cohen’s words, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”.
Perhaps at the beginning of a New Year, we could ask the Lord to help us to make room in our minds, hearts and souls, to create a space for God to make a home in us. And then let us be patient and wait for God, the Hound of Heaven, to find us anew. Our constant prayer should be like that of the Psalmist, “My soul is waiting for the Lord, more than watchman for daybreak”.