In the wilderness I will put cedar trees, / acacias, myrtles, olives. / In the desert I will plant juniper, / plane tree and cypress side by side; / so that all may see and know, / may all observe and understand, / that the hand of Yahweh has done this, / that the Holy One of Israel has created it.
From the days of John the Baptist until now, the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.
Today is the Feast of St. John of the Cross. The poetry and commentary of John contain some of the most immediate and compete descriptions that we have of the process of human and spiritual transformation. Although the readings for today’s liturgy are those for the second week of Advent, they suggest to us one of the central teachings of John: When we truly awaken to the truth and presence of God in our souls, of the very life of God in us, our perspective and view of the world is transformed.
Some years ago a friend and I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. One of the aspects of the visit that made it so significant was that the museum was not at all crowded, and so it was possible to actually spend time before each work and to allow its life to penetrate consciousness. As I viewed each of the works, I could almost feel how much movement there was in them. Van Gogh draws us into what almost seems like an “atomic” vision of reality, of the moving and dynamic life that swirls and flows, and pulses with life through all in common, the animate and inanimate alike.
The great artist or mystic is one who is more awake than most of us. During Advent we pray and sing that we too might wake up. Van Gogh actually seems to see that the boundaries and lines we designate to separate out one being and one thing from another are really artifice. John of the Cross says that when our soul awakens it “seems that all the virtues and substances and perfections and graces of every created thing glow and make the same movement all at once.”
We learn from Theodore James Ryken’s account of his conversion that he experienced being brought low or put in his place. As John of the Cross might understand that, it means to be awakened from the illusion of our own centrality and separateness and to come to know our place among all of creation in the loving and creative love/action of the Creator. What we call God’s plan, what Ryken finds himself called to serve, is not an external imposition of a remote deity but rather the very truth and nature of things that are making “the same movement all at once.”
The violence that the Kingdom of Heaven always endures is the violence of our own pride and willfulness. The reason that the first step to conversion and transformation is being brought low and put in our place is that we are always forgetting our place. We live in the world from a perspective which has ourselves at the center. Everything that is not us is an object to us, an object that we, in our violence, want to dominate and give a place that will serve our sense of self-identity. In short, whether we do so consciously or not, we are always tending to act as if we are god. We do this both when we inflate ourselves and when we depreciate ourselves. Both of these are failures to recognize our true place. The violence that we inflict on the Kingdom of Heaven is always a result of our attempt to force reality to fit our perspective, our understanding of ourselves and the world.
Thus it is that John of the Cross says: “And here lies the remarkable delight of this awakening: The soul knows creatures through God and not God through creatures.” Most of the time, even our attempts to know God come out of our own perspective. We create and even worship a god who is in service to our project. These are the gods that further separate rather than unite us. When our gods are justifications for our own way of seeing and thinking, when they are actually buttresses of our illusions of separateness, it is inevitable that they will be a source of violence against the other and so against the Kingdom. The great paradox is that often our assertions of being virtuous and justified are among the greatest affronts to the Kingdom, to the truth of our communion that Van Gogh expresses.
According to the insight and teaching of John of the Cross, the great passage of transformation is that from knowing God through creatures to knowing creatures through God. As Nicholas of Cusa says, our vision of God is really God’s vision of us. We can only come to know creatures through God when our vision becomes purified, when we come to live not out of what we know but out of what we do not know. To know God through creatures is to attempt to know, to love, to serve God out of our own ways of seeing, out of our taken for granted knowingness.
As individuals and as groups and communities, we all know how difficult it is to change, to discover a truly new way of being and acting. We all tend to suffer from a poverty of imagination. The basic reason for this is that our life view is limited by our past experience. We tend to think about the new as merely a slight variant of the old. Were we, individually or together, to try to really imagine the “new,” we would first need to detach ourselves from what we have known and experienced and enter into a place of not knowing, even of no-thingness, so that what truly is and is meant to be could begin to show itself to us. This is exactly why the mystical strains of all great wisdom traditions speak of the dark night, or the coming to recognize the truth of no-thingness. To begin to see God as God sees us requires that, as Jesus teaches, we must first realize the blindness of our own way of seeing.
This is very difficult for us because it requires a radical faith, hope, and love. It requires of us that we trust when we have no moorings left. This kind of trust and faith is what the tradition means by appreciative abandonment. And when we attempt to do this in community, it also requires a deep trust and commitment to each other. It is interesting that in the original rule of the Xaverian Brothers, the formula spoken at the time of final vows spoke not only of the commitment of the individual to the community but, in turn, of the community to the individual. It expressed to the individual Brother who was abandoning himself in this act that he could trust the community’s commitment to him in return.
It takes deep trust to commit oneself in marriage or to God in a community into an unknown future. It takes a radical faith in God to give up one’s own perspective and notions, trusting in the fidelity of God to show the way, the truth, and the life that so exceed the capacity of our own understanding and experience. We struggle to change because we want, at once, to be new and, at the same time, to preserve the security and comfort of the little we already know.
According to St. John of the Cross, and in his own way Vincent Van Gogh, “all the virtues and substances and perfections and graces of every created thing glow and make the same movement all at once.” We see and experience so little of that, ordinarily, because we are held bound by the limits our need for security impose on us. From those limits we inflict our own forms of violence on others, on ourselves, on the world, and so on the Kingdom. Perhaps the greatest gift we can give to each other in our love of them is to strengthen our shared capacity to trust the Mystery of God that is so unfathomable to us. In such trust and faith, supported by each other, we can let go of our habits of mind and body enough to begin to catch glimpses of a world that glows and moves together in the love of God.
For this awakening is a movement of the Word in the substance of the soul, containing such grandeur, dominion, glory, and intimate sweetness that it seems to the soul that all the balsams and fragrant spices and flowers of the world and all the powers and virtues of heaven are moved; not only this, but it also seems that all the virtues and substances and perfections and graces of every created thing glow and make the same movement all at once.
. . . .
Even this comparison is most inadequate; for in this awakening they not only seem to move, but they all likewise disclose the beauties of their being, power, loveliness, and graces, and the root of their duration and life. For the soul is conscious of how all creatures, earthly and heavenly, have their life, duration, and strength in him, as it clearly realizes what he says in the Book of Proverbs: “By me kings reign and princes rule and the might exercise justice and understand it [Prv. 8:15-16]. Although it is indeed aware that these things are distinct from God, insofar as they have created being, nonetheless what it understands of God, by his being all these things with infinite eminence, is such that it knows these things better in God’s being than in themselves.
And here lies the remarkable delight of this awakening: The soul knows creatures through God and not God through creatures. This amounts to knowing the effects through their cause and not the cause through its effects. The latter is knowledge “a posteriori,” and the former is essential knowledge.
St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, Stanza 4, 4-5