John of the Cross, Merton & Ibn Abbad

Today is the feast of St. John of the Cross, a Carmelite. John joined with Theresa and others in calling for reform of the Carmelite order. Having had enough of John’s prophetic voice, his Carmelite superiors imprisoned him, lashed him weekly in front of the community and confined him in a small cell until he managed to escape. Being banned to speak in a diocese pales in comparison to imprisonment and weekly beatings!The Episcopal reading for yesterday includes an introductory part that was not in the Catholic lectionary (Lk 3:7-9). John the Baptizer was headed toward prison and his death by beheading. No wonder. “You brood of vipers!” That kind of talk will get you in trouble anytime anywhere. Yet, John was calling the people to repentance, to justice. Give your second coat to someone who has none. Charge no more taxes than are allowed. Do not extort money from the people by false accusations. John was calling the people to justice. He was trying to reestablish right order with God, neighbors and creation.

Amid all the talk in the readings about rejoicing, we hear John talking about baptism with unquenchable fire, winnowing fans, gathering the wheat and burning the chaff. In his homily, Father John Rice, Rector of Good Shepherd Church in Hayesville, NC made a point that I found very helpful. Usually, we picture the wheat and chaff as symbolizing two groups of people. Those on this side will enter the Kin-dom. Those on the other side will enter the burning fires of Gehenna.

This may be the wrong picture. Father John said that it is about us and the cleansing and purifying fire of the Holy Spirit. We are both wheat and chaff. A preacher once asked a little girl in Sunday school, “If good were green and evil were yellow, what color would you be?” The girl replied, “I would be streaky!” The fire of the Spirit is the winnowing fan that separates the chaff from the wheat within us and further completes the work of the Spirit in bringing us to completion. Our salvation, our restoration to wholeness is indeed a cause for rejoicing. We need but let the Spirit burn away the chaff.

I cannot help but think how often we paint ourselves as good and others as evil. Merton warned against this myopic view. We all have the potential for evil lurking deep within us. The unquenchable fire and the winnowing fork are needed  to cleanse us and bring us to completion.

Enter John of the Cross. Father Ron Rolheiser reflects on what John the Baptizer is saying:

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once suggested that peace and justice will come to us when we reach a high enough psychic temperature so as to burn away the things that still hold us apart. In saying this, he was drawing upon a principle in chemistry: Sometimes two elements will simply lie side by side inside a test-tube and not unite until sufficient heat is applied so as to bring them to a high enough temperature where unity can take place.

John of the Cross has a similar image: Intimacy with God and with each other will only take place, he says, when we reach a certain kindling temperature. For too much of our lives, he suggests, we lie around as damp, green logs inside the fire of love, waiting to come to flame but never bursting into flame because of our dampness. Before we can burst into flame, we must first dry out and come to kindling temperature. We do that, as does a damp log inside a fire, by first sizzling for a long time in the flames so as to dry out.

How do we sizzle psychologically and spiritually? For John of the Cross, we do that through the pain of loneliness, restlessness, disquiet, anxiety, frustration, and unrequited desire. In the torment of incompleteness our psychic temperature rises so that eventually we come to kindling temperature and, there, we finally open ourselves to union in new ways. That too is an image for advent. (

Merton was heavily influenced, especially in his early years, with the thought of John of the Cross. The apophatic way of the dark night informs Merton’s spirituality. “The torment of our incompleteness” opens us to the “unquenchable fire” of the Holy Spirit.

We encounter God in darkness, in limitation, in nothingness, in nakedness. God dwells deep down within us. We have to let go, fall into the abyss of our utter nothingness, and tumble out into the wonderful love of God.

Teilhard de Chardin spoke about psychic temperature. John of the Cross spoke about wet logs being dried by the fire. Merton speaks of letting go and standing naked, purified, before God. Thomas Keating, Cistercian mystic, speaks about the Divine Physician. When we let go and settle into centering prayer, the old stuff that has been hidden from us emerges or sometimes erupts into consciousness. When we let go and gently wave goodbye to these thoughts, feelings, and fleeting impressions, the Sprit is healing us, making us whole, and bringing us to completion.

By way of the serendipity God keeps blessing me with, Patrick O’Connell, a Merton scholar from Gannon College, having heard of my interest in Merton and Islam, sent me a paper he had presented on Merton’s correspondence with Abdul Aziz, a Sufi from Pakistan. This led me to read “Readings from Ibn Abbad,” in Raids on the Unspeakable. Thank you, Pat!

Our task is simple. We only have to let go. We just have to abandon ourselves to God, the all Merciful. Islam refers to the Mercy of God as God’s primary attribute among the 99 names for God.

Merton wrote about Ibn Abbad, a 14th century, Muslim mystic. Representing the Sufi tradition in Islam and echoing John of the Cross, Idn Abbad  “taught that it is in the night of desolation that the door to mystical union is secretly opened.” (Raids on the Unspeakable, 141) We find God in our emptiness and brokenness.

Look at a few passages from what Merton wrote:

O men:

The last end of our desire;

May He draw close to us

The Living, the Unchanging.

May He move toward us

His huge Majesty

(If it be possible to bear it!)

His Glory.

O Men:

Burn away impure desire

In His Glory!

. . .

For the servant of God

Consolation is the place of danger.

. . .

But desolation is His home:

For in desolation He is seized by God.

And entirely taken over into God,

In darkness, in emptiness,

In loss, in death of self.

Then the self is only ashes. Not even ashes!

“Not even ashes! God’s glory burns away that which keeps us from surrendering to God. God’s glory is the winnowing fan of John the Baptizer, the psychic temperature of Chardin, the log drying heat of John of the Cross, the sizzling temperature of Rolheiser, and the breath of Keating’s Divine Physician. God’s glory is the heat in the hands of the prayer minister who is laying on hands and praying for our healing, our being brought to completion.

In our desolation, despair, nothingness, and emptiness, God finds us. God’s mercy overshadows us and brings us life, eternal life now.

Merton believed that Eucharist was the foundation for contemplative living. Last summer, we spent a few days at Glenstal Abbey, a Benedictine abbey near Galway. We were there for the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ. The homilist spoke what came to be a koan for me, “We break the bread and we are broken by the bread.” Jesus broke bread, confronted the ultimate evil on Calvary, and was broke but rose again. If we are faithful to Jesus’ mission, we will be broken by the bread we break. God finds us in our brokenness.

Rejoice! God is bringing to completion that which began with our conception. We are coming into wholeness and health and salvation. We are drawing into closer union with God. Rejoice, God is near. God is loving us into life.

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