"Silence is a general theme of the Christian mystical tradition, and this Christian mystic and saint, this spiritual master of the 16th century, Saint John of the Cross, knows them all. He knows the venial silences as well as the ordinary ones, and he also knows the silences that truly count. Thus, he knows and focuses on the silence that unites one with the great silence of God unspeakably uttering his Word. He shows that he knows the silence of illumination by eloquently etching the silence in which one is granted an intimation of divine presence, even if one impossible to hold. And he is a familiar with the depth, height, and edges of the silence in which, despite our apparently successful efforts to quell distraction and be ready for a visitation, one experiences nothing, or one experiences the absence rather than the presence of God. More of this shortly, but first I want to say something about drama, which only seems to be out of place talking about saints in general and this saint in particular. There is a drama of life, with forward momentum and setback, with surprising gifts and unexpected frustrations. This drama of life is connected with the drama of love, in which we give and receive love or find ourselves unable to give or receive, in which we love the right or wrong thing, the right or wrong person. And there is the drama of the spiritual life which, on Saint John of the Cross’ account, displays the same pattern. The drama of life and love that is our lot and the drama of spiritual life and love are related by analogy. It is this analogy that made Saint John suspect to some, since they feared that he untied the relationship between spiritual life and liturgy and spiritual life and the Church, was psychologizing the spiritual life and in effect reducing it to our capacity to have special experiences that just the very few have had and very few will ever have. It was this analogy that equally made Saint John of the Cross a hero to some: finally, it was thought, we can celebrate and enjoy a reflection on spiritual life capable of making sense to us without the apparatus of the Church or doctrine. We have, if you like, the outline of a secular or at least unaffiliated mystic and saint. Thomas Merton, however, thought that one could underscore the existential and experiential side of Saint John of the Cross while thinking that the great Carmelite was not only a loyal son of the Church, but impeccably orthodox across the entire arc of Catholic doctrines, not excluding the doctrine of the Trinity. We could, and perhaps should, think of Saint John of the Cross as belonging to two different but related spaces. This mystic and spiritual master is, indeed, from the heart of the Church and cannot be explained except by appeal to it. Moreover, he has imbibed all the tradition available to him. Augustine is hugely important, particularly his Confessions, On the Trinity, and Commentary on the Psalms; Aquinas is a loadstone from his theological studies in the university of Salamanca; and John of the Cross knows not only the work of Pseudo-Dionysius, the master of unknowing and before Saint John of the Cross the master of silence and darkness, but also the long reception of the extraordinary work of the unknown Syrian monk who shows the learner the way towards God through language, its destruction, and the experience in silence of divine silence where speech has become unnecessary. Still, as much as any other figure up to, and maybe beyond, the 16th century Saint John of the Cross speaks also to those who are at the margins of Christianity, either in a state of separation from the Church, but perhaps still in a state of belief, or outside the Church entirely, but perhaps wanting to believe, who cry out with Paul “Lord help thou my unbelief.” Saint John of the Cross is, I would submit, the mystic and saint of the threshold."
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