Many of us hunger for a kind of prayer that goes deeper than words or thoughts about God. We sense that we have come to the point where we need to stop talking about divine love and experience it. We long for a silent union with God that is often called “contemplation,” and we want to know how to get to this place in our spiritual lives.
The challenge comes when we recognize that we need some guidance for this inward journey. Who can show us the way to this deep, living experience of God and his love? Like many other seekers throughout the centuries, I have found this help from the seventeenth-century Spanish Carmelite, St. John of the Cross.
“Fervor on the Path to Heaven.” I have to admit that when I first encountered John, I had a hard time seeing him as a prayer guide. For me, he was a learned mystic, a saint, and a doctor of the church—and so I placed him on a pedestal, far removed from my experience.
But then, reading the writings of Thomas Merton, I was surprised to see how much John of the Cross had influenced the young monk’s spirituality and changed his life. Merton found in John a call to contemplative freedom beyond spiritual ambition and beyond rigid methods of prayer. It was a call to be guided simply by God. At the same time, I became more familiar with other Carmelites who were also influenced greatly by John’s simple way to God: Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Brother Lawrence, and Edith Stein.
However, it was only when I began to direct retreats focused on the spirituality of John of the Cross that my attitude changed dramatically. Like me, many of the retreatants had preconceived ideas about John that prevented them from fully appreciating him. Some had locked horns with his writings on an intellectual level and missed the spirit of the text. One woman admitted that as she “hammered away” at his treatises on prayer, she lost sight of the reason she was originally drawn to John: his humble love for God and for other people.
The Power of Poetry. I approached the first retreats with some apprehension, assuming that we would spend most of the time clarifying the meaning of John’s rich and complex writings. Before focusing on the treatises, however, I introduced images from John’s poetry. Many people responded enthusiastically because these images resonated with their own experience. These discussions opened the door to John’s spirit and his teachings.
Looking back, I can see how this makes sense. Though he was highly educated in philosophy and theology, John of the Cross was primarily a poet. He knew the power of poetry not simply as an art form but as a deep, even intuitive expression of the inner life. In fact, John wrote poems first, and only later, when people pressed him for an explanation, did he describe his meaning in prose commentaries.
On these retreats, I also focused on John’s path of love. Many people tend to emphasize the importance of faith as they journey through their own “dark night of the soul” and forget that the journey is sustained by love from beginning to end. For John, both are vital to the spiritual adventure: love fires the heart, and faith protects the heart, even in darkness, with the trust that God is still guiding us.
At the end of the retreats, I was surprised to see how many people had responded to John in a personal way. Quite a few were moved deeply by his longing for God, and reading his words enkindled this ache in them. Others focused on John’s relentless search for union with God. Still others realized that they had been practicing some form of silent prayer all along, aware of God’s presence throughout the day and taking time to rest in it—they just didn’t know that this is what they were doing!
The dark night especially was a subject that many people identified with in their own faith journeys. Some pointed to a lack of fruitfulness in their ministry. Others talked about their struggles with caregiving, difficulty in choosing a direction in life, and problems with addictive behavior. They also discovered that John’s dark night was a powerful antidote for the tendency to sentimentalize religion or seek signs and visions rather than God himself.
Treasure in Our Hearts. Over time, I decided to write out some of the insights I received as a gift from these retreats and combine them with my own study of John of the Cross. The result is the book Seeking the Beloved: A Prayer Journey with St. John of the Cross.
The book is neither a complete summary of John’s spirituality nor an attempt to break new ground. Rather, it presents John as a personal guide for prayer.
With wisdom, humility, and authenticity, John of the Cross can lure us into the deepest caverns of our hearts, where we can find a God who loves us deeply, passionately, and constantly. We only need to say yes to his invitation, and our journey will begin.
Wayne Simsic is an author and retreat leader. He teaches at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. This article is adapted from Seeking the Beloved.
Seeking the Beloved: A Prayer Journey with St. John of the Cross, by Wayne Simsic (softcover, 144 pp.), is available from The Word Among Us at 1-800-7759673 or online. If you’d like to read an excerpt, please visit our website.