John Paul II was heavily influenced by St. John of the Cross -- the mystic, the doctor of the Church, and the co-renewer of the Carmelite order (with Teresa of Avila). John of the Cross is most famous for his poetry that expresses the depth of human longing for God, poetry that mimics the Song of Songs, and thus invokes the same passionate marital imagery. This depth of longing deeply resonated in John Paul II, not only in his private prayer, but also in his intellectual life. Early in his academic career, John Paul II paired the first chapters of Genesis with this ardent longing that John of the Cross knew. John Paul II began his life-long intellectual exploration of the ache of the human heart, the ache not only to see God himself, but also the heart’s ache to know and be known in personal human relationships. Much of this thought is developed in his earlier work, Love and Responsibility, and of course continues to be explored in the Theology of the Body. I say all of this only because it seems to me that to really know and understand John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, we ought to also know perhaps his biggest personal and academic influence: John of the Cross’ deep, deep ache for God. This piece considers a beautiful poem alongside John of the Cross’ way of prayer, as put forth in Iain Matthew’s book, The Impact of God (an incredibly helpful book on prayer, one that has helped me more than any other).
Let’s start by reading this poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:
God speaks to each of us as he makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.
Give me your hand.
These are the words we dimly hear:/You, sent out beyond your recall,/ go to the limits of your longing.
Yes, we “dimly hear” something “beyond our recall,” beyond our memory. Yes, we long for something that is missing. In his Theology of the Body, John Paul II tells us that “inscribed in the depths of the human heart, [we hear] a distant echo of original innocence.” He’s referring to the original innocence of Adam and Eve. This is what we’re missing. He’s referring to what it was like for man in the beginning, at the origin — before knowledge of good and evil, before sin and shame, before death and disease, before anxiety and depression, before confusion and disorientation, before the ache and longing we now have to see His face again, to know perfect love, mercy, and beauty.
This is the universal ache that we alll experience — we can’t quench it; it’s bottomless, infinite. We know this because day after day we do whatever we can to numb the ache, to make it go away for at least a few hours. We consume and we consume anything and everything. Some things we consume seem innocent enough — movies, music, games, parties, food, drink, social media. Still other things seem a bit worse — sex, pornagraphy, drugs. Anything to avoid the silence where we’ll hear that never-ending echo. What if we don’t grab at anything though? Iain Matthew shows us John of the Cross’ way:
If, however, a person chooses not to fill the hole with one more sensation, not to flit to another relationship or a different project, but to see this one through, life can transfer onto a new level. John calls it “spirit.” (44)
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror./ Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Yes, it is bewildering. Yes, this is back to front. Yes, instead of fumbling around for one more thing, John encourages us to just sit in silence, in the aching pain. Matthew says “at first it can feel like starving” (44). Yet John of the Cross, Ranier Maria Rilke, John Paul II say yes, go to the limits of your longing, don’t settle for TV or parties or the next thing, please don’t settle. They tell us that we made for something that will satisfy our desires once and for all. But first we have to sit in silence aching, yes, go to the very limits of our longing. At first it will feel like starving. At first. But “for John, the very act of not running away is an exciting event” (89). Why? Because for John, where God is concerned, “love is never idle; it is in continuous movement” (25). He will show up, for “if the person is seeking God, how much more is her beloved seeking her? (31)
Something like “maybe God will show up if I sit here in silence long enough waiting for Him,” does not make sense to John. For him “it is not God’s presence, but the way He is present that may cause us difficulty” (76). God is always present.
John teaches us how to respond, and it’s so simple. The response required is, above all, that we believe. Believe namely that God does want to give us himself; that he is [already] giving us himself and that he means to pursue that gift through to its ultimate consequences (32).
What are these “ultimate consequences”? Earlier we considered our universal human ache written in our heart. Because every person shares a bottomless, infinite ache for something, “their capacity will be infinite; so their thirst is infinite, and their hunger is deep and infinite...The capacity of these caverns [the human spirit] is deep, because that which can fill them is deep, infinite; and that is God” (97; emphasis mine).
This is John’s God: the always moving, never idle God “Whose plan is to fill us with nothing less than Himself...He hovers over to enter, presses in, and once in, burns through until he finds the deepest core of the human person” (25). Furthermore, “He does not give in a general way only, like rays of sunlight shining above a mountain, but leaving me-in-particular shadowed in the valley. John’s God enters to confront the person as if there were no other. It seems to her that God has no other concern, but that he is all for her alone” (26).
So in the silence, let everything happen to you. Yes, it may be terrifying not reaching for that next thing, but John of the Cross teaches us that God will show up. But He “does more than arrive. He provokes, invites, and perseveres” (26). He desires a relationship, so first He loves, and this love gives new life, it refreshes and revitalizes. In a word, it transforms, then calls us forth.
Give me your hand
At his first mass as Pope, Saint John Paul II repeated “do not be afraid:” “do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power...Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ...Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man’. He alone knows it.” When John Paul visited his homeland Poland for the first time after being elected Pope, in the presence of the oppressive, communist, anti-religion government, he said to the Polish people “do not be afraid.” John Paul, the same man who was invaded by the Nazis, removed from university, and forced to work in a stone quarry when he was 19 years old. John Paul, the same man who recalls, "I was not at my mother's death, I was not at my brother's death, I was not at my father's death...At twenty, I had already lost all the people I loved." John Paul’s exhortation is not empty or untested, he knows fear, and still he says “do not be afraid.”
Of course, John Paul is repeating Jesus and the Apostles’ words from the New Testament. Do not be afraid is uttered over and over and over. Why? Because like John Paul said, “Christ knows what is in man.” He knows us, He knows it hurts, and He knows it’s gut-wrenching and terrifying sometimes. Consider the Apostles. Similar to John Paul, they watched their loved ones die. They watched their teacher, their master, their Messiah, their God, get tortured and killed. Then, they watched each other get tortured and killed. Yet all throughout their New Testament letters, we hear “do not be afraid.” How do they say that? Because something burned into the deepest part of them, told them they were good, told them they were loved, called forth from the silence and said “give me your hand.” They said okay.
Matthew, Iain. The Impact of God. Hodder and Staughton. 1995.
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