Growing in Wisdom With St. John of the Cross

Candlemas

I am in a moment of transition. I am preparing to return to active ministry in the Bronx at our Carmelite Parish there, but I sense a sadness in my heart about something my current living situation gives me that the Bronx cannot. What is that gift? The ability to see the stars. I love the Bronx and the people of my parish. My heart feels a profound joy as I return to them, yet as a man from rural Michigan, I will miss the stars. I love to gaze at them.

I had almost forgotten about stars during my previous ministry in the Bronx. Parish life with a school is a busy thing. In the busy-ness of that life, the mind and the heart can easily let go of little joys and gifts that were with them for years. Yet, seeing the stars was an experience that always stopped me in my tracks. Those moments were simply periods of awe and wonder as the stars made their whispering presence known to me. During my time of recovery from my amputation a few months ago, the ability to see and hear those little moments was fortified.

The Beauty of Stars

My communing with the stars is not a private experience, though. People have been admiring the stars throughout the history of humanity. Looking up at the stars is a window to the infinite. The night sky seems boundless, yet it contains things of form in it. The little dots of light seem far out in the universe away from us but also impact and aid us in our lives.

Ask any sailor about the stars and their use in navigation on the open seas. They are points of reference between the infinite and boundless sky above and the finite world below. As a bridge between the infinite and finite worlds, they foster the growth of wisdom that comes about from being open to the experience of awe and wonder. As the book of Sirach teaches us: “Heaven’s height, earth’s extent, the abyss and wisdom—who can explore them?” (Sirach 1:3). We can explore them in the Spirit who animates the Church, the body of Christ through which we are given life.

By God’s wisdom we can become present to Him no matter how small the moment might be, like in the twinkle of a star. This quote from St. John of the Cross shows us how we may be guided by and thus transformed in the wisdom of God:

Wisdom enters through love, silence, and mortification.  It is great wisdom to know how to be silent and to look at neither the remarks, nor the deeds, nor the lives of others. (Sayings of Light and Love, #109)

The Path of Love

Wisdom is offered to us as a gift through the sacraments. We embrace and enter this gift in a journey that has three milestones. Those markers are love, silence, and mortification. Love is first because this journey is not a path constructed by us. For example, the beauty of the stars helps to reveal God’s goodness. The awe and wonder that arises from this experience reveal the desire that God has for a relationship. All relationships are a journey. God’s love is not merely the end of the journey but the means by which one travels in relationship with Him. His love is shown through the openness of the Cross. Any relationship with God must go through the open gate of the Son’s pierced Heart. It is in the vulnerability of love that wisdom is first revealed. St. John of the Cross lists love as the first marker because it is only by love that the other two markers of this journey are knowable.

The Reception in Silence

The second marker on our journey is silence. To be silent is a command to conform ourselves to the reality that is before us, not the reality that we wish there could be. Silence is a communal act because one is always silent in relationship to some thing or someone. Josef Pieper wrote that “only someone who is silent is listening … thus, the world reveals itself to the silent listener and only to him; the more silently he listens, the more purely is he able to perceive reality” (A Brief Reader on the Virtues of The Human Heart, 12-13).

God’s love reveals to us that He wants us to know Him. Wisdom is a virtue that aids in that growth of knowing the One who has loved us first. Silence is the means through which we receive God, not as we want Him to be but as He is. Remember, the incarnation is a testimony that He comes to us through His reality, not through a reality we wish existed. Silence is the means of accepting His reality of what is true.

Mortification and Our Sight

The third marker recognizes that we are a fallen people. It is in mortification that we make a necessary acknowledgement: the human condition is twisted. We humans exist in a way that God did not desire for us when He created us. Our hearts hunger for satisfaction, whether it comes through experiences of satiation or numbness. Attachments arise from our need for satisfaction; this need gives birth to conflict with others, for we our not isolated automatons but communal beings. Others are not a threat to our fulfillment for satisfaction when, by wisdom, we begin to understand that only in God are we satisfied.

Mortification is a means to keep us from becoming distracted by the remarks, deeds, and lives of others. Mortifications are a safeguard against the poison that comes from the sin of covetousness. To be a covetous person is to give oneself over to a strong desire for a thing we believe will complete us. Mortifications work to break the hold that strong desires have on us. Just as we play a role in how our desires hook us, so also we play a role in becoming free from them through mortifications.

Just as love reveals the path that wisdom offers us with silence as our guide, so mortifications protect us during the journey. The concupiscence of sight, a ramification of the fall, will always offer us enticements that lead to us stepping off the path of love. God’s wisdom offers us mortifications to correct our sight so that we keep our gaze focused on the good things of the Lord, whether we have full understanding of those things or not.

Wisdom to the Full

“The beginning of wisdom is fear of the LORD …” (Proverbs 9:10a). Fear of the Lord in our modern times is understood through the lens of awe and wonder, a lens I used in this article. However, both manners of speech convey the same reality: God invites us into the infinite. Wisdom is the way to understand the radicalism of that invitation, an invitation not made from afar but in proximity to us through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Wisdom can never exhaust the mystery of this invitation but allows the mind and heart of a person to be permeated by it, just as the stars, through their beauty, aid in my growth of wisdom. Wisdom is a gift that I will need during my own time of transition.

I pray that you may be open to those little moments of beauty that God gives you. They are gifts that are meant to help you grow in wisdom so that your relationship with Him may attain “… the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13b).

I abyss myself in His magnificence and His wisdom but when I ponder His goodness,
my heart can say nothing – I can only adore
. ~ St. Teresa of Jesus of the Andes

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2 thoughts on “Growing in Wisdom With St. John of the Cross”

  1. Joseph Mclaughlin

    Amen! “The Heavens Declare the glory of God; the wonders of his work Displays the firmament!” (an English translation of Psalm 19:1 used for an edition of The Creation by Franz Joseph Hayden.)

  2. What? There are no stars in The Bronx? LOL. The vastness of the universe is awe inspiring and gazing at the stars brings us closer to the Creator. I hope you find a location that will give you the opportunity to enjoy the heavens.

    Enjoyed reading the article.

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