Bright Faith in Dark Days: St. John of the Cross, John Paul II, and 2022

In December, 1577, John of the Cross was imprisoned in Toledo by his fellow Carmelites due to a dispute within the order. It was in prison that he finished “Spiritual Canticle” and other poems. The poem upon which he would write two famous commentaries (The Ascent of Mt. Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul) contains a line which summarizes his entire spiritual testament: A oscuras y segura… “In the dark, and safe.”

The night of August 1578, John shimmied out a window and leaped a good way down, feeling his way then along the building until he found the street. He next knocked on the door of a Carmelite convent where the sisters hid him until the dispute was resolved. When he revisited the spot some time later, he realized that he had leaped onto a ledge that was barely three feet wide, with a drop to the river below. He had been in the dark, but safe.

During the dark days of the Second World War, a polish seminarian studied philosophy and theology clandestinely at night, working as a laborer by day. He had been in the dark, but safe. Once the war was over and he was ordained, he went to Rome to further his studies, eventually pursuing a doctorate under the renowned Dominican Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP.

The thesis he wrote is entitled “Faith according to St. John of the Cross.” The young priest, Fr. Karol Wojtyla, learned Spanish well enough to read the 16th century baroque style Spanish of St. John in the original. (The thesis, written in Latin, was translated into English in 1981.) In his thesis, the future saint, Pope John Paul II, summarizes, “the entire journey to union with God is enveloped in the darkness of faith; darkness covers all the steps of the soul to God …” God calls each one of us to be in the dark, but safe.

I once walked past a grisly accident scene. I was carrying a toddler and shielded his eyes from seeing it. He was in the dark, but safe.

We all prefer the light. Nobody likes to walk downstairs in the dark. We fear for our safety and want to see so that we, by our own wits, can keep ourselves safe. I read the news of the world and the Church lately and feel depressed. What can I do about these evils which surround me? I see no way out and feel tempted to despair. Then again, what could a Polish seminarian hope for in 1943, or John of the Cross imprisoned by his own order? I am not advocating turning a blind eye to the world’s ills, but when faced with this temptation I have to conclude that I am not seeing the whole picture. It’s probably even worse than I imagine. Maybe, if I did see it, I would be spiritually scarred.

God is shielding me, keeping me in the dark, so that I can trust Him. Like that toddler (who now has a toddler of his own) I have to nuzzle more closely to the One shielding me. Darkness demands faith which produces union. I am in the dark, and safe.

As December’s days ebb away, we in the Northern hemisphere approach the shortest days of the year, the longest darkness. We are in the dark more than any other time. It is here, in the winter of my spiritual discontent, that both St. John of the Cross and St. John Paul II remind me that God is greater than the darkness. We are in the dark, and safe. For, as our Advent candles symbolize: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5.)

Edward Mulholland

Dr. Edward Mulholland is the Sheridan Chair of Classics at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where he co-directs the program: Great Books: The True, the Good and the Beautiful. Born in the Bronx, New York, he earned his master’s degree in classics from the University of London, England, and received both a licentiate and a Ph.D. in philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. From 1996-1998 he served as the head of the Humanities Department and the dean of the Journalism School at the Centro Universitario Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, Spain. From 1998-2005, he was Professor of Philosophy at Our Lady of Thornwood Education and Training Center in Thornwood, New York and Professor of Classical Languages at the Center of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut. From 2005-2011 he headed the Departments of Catholic Formation and Classical Languages at Pinecrest Academy in Atlanta, Georgia.