Today’s feast of St John of the Cross (1542-1591) turns our attention to one of the greatest masters and teachers of prayer in the history of the Church. His writings about the topic have depth and beauty but also a simplicity that ensures that his insights are accessible to us who try to pray and to pray better. There is so much of St John’s teaching on prayer that we could highlight. Here I would like to focus on one profound but simple insight that is found in his masterpiece Spiritual Canticle.
The message of what John teaches here is about intercessory prayer and how to interpret our human needs or lacks - not as inconveniences but as opportunities for prayer and deeper trust in the God of love. Bear in mind that John wrote his Spiritual Canticle in the confinement of his cramped prison cell in Toledo, Spain at a time of great trial in his life. As he wrote his masterpiece, he would have been in great need himself, not least for hope and strength. Yet this was a time John didn’t concentrate on his hardships but instead on what he believed God was doing - drawing him deeper to Himself as a Lover to his Beloved. Therefore, John’s mystical insights into the spiritual life were minted in the crucible of his own life experience and suffering. They do not come from a plaster saint in an ivory tower.
For St John, naming our human needs and presenting them before God in prayer is act of love marked by a pure quality. This is true for as St John teaches, a love which does not spell out what it needs or wants, but holds out its need so that the Beloved might do what pleases him, is especially powerful. John insists that this is true for three reasons:
‘Firstly because the Lord knows what is suitable for us better than we do’; second, the Beloved has more compassion when he beholds the need and resignation of a soul that loves him; third, the soul is better safe-guarded against self-love and possessiveness by indicating its lack, rather than asking for what in its opinion is wanting’ (Spiritual Canticle, Commentary, Chapter 8 on Stanza 2, from The Collected Works of St John of the Cross, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez, ICS, Washington DC, 1991, p. 489).
Let’s take each of these three reasons in turn. First, St John says that the Lord knows what is best for us, better than we do. As human beings, we have many needs and desires. Many of them we are aware of and many we are not. The ones we are aware of can be divided into two categories – the things we truly need and the things we want but don’t need. So how can we distinguish our real needs from things we want but don’t need? This is the opportunity for us to turn towards God’s goodness and benevolence. Because he created us and knows us, God sees the bigger picture and is the one who truly helps us to see what is best for us. Praying our genuine needs before him is an act of humility and a recognition of our poverty for to be human is to stand before Him in need. Then we humbly ask for what we need. This is good for us for it makes us see our poverty and checks our pride. Being too self-sufficient is not good. Time and time again, the Lord brings us to know our need for so many graces but most of all, he brings us to see our need for Him.
Then St John tells us that ‘the Beloved has more compassion when he beholds the need and resignation of a soul that loves him’. To illustrate this, St John takes us to Cana in Galilee, to the wedding where Jesus and Mary are present. When the wine runs out, Mary sees the anxiety and responds by quietly pointing out to her Son the need she has noticed: ‘They have no wine’ (John 2:3). Mary’s words are a prayer of need; her perception of need is a prayer. The Blessed Mother takes the need and holds it before her Son. Here Mary gives us a wonderful example of someone who rouses her Son’s compassion by bringing a human need to his attention and surrenders herself to how the Lord might respond.
This raises the question - how do we pray our needs? Do we tell God how He should meet them or do we follow Mary’s example and prayerfully present those needs before Him with the resignation of a soul who loves him? And by doing so can we wait patiently for God to respond in his own time and in his own way?
Thirdly, John teaches that ‘the soul is better safeguarded against self-love and possessiveness by indicating its lack, rather than asking for what in its opinion is wanting’. Again, we have the example of the Blessed Mother at Cana. Once she saw that the wine had ran out, she simply said to Jesus: ‘They have no wine’. She could have asked and added – ‘Please provide some more’. She didn’t. Instead she simply indicates the lack and leaves the rest up to her Son. Unlike Martha who tells Jesus what to do – ‘tell my sister to help me’ (Luke 10:40) or the second thief on the cross who also tells the Lord what he should do – ‘save yourself and us as well’ (Luke 23:39), Mary simply presents the need before her Son. She does not ask him to do what she wants but she trusted that he would do what was best.
So often in praying to the Lord for our own needs and those of others, we ask God to meet our own expectations. We think we know what should happen and so we ask God and expect God to come around to our own way of thinking! St John of the Cross exposes this way of praying as being infected with self-love and possessiveness. We must let God be God. So instead of dictating to Christ what he should do or what should be done, in praying our needs, let us name those needs before God and hold them before Him. Then with Mary, we patiently wait in anticipation that whatever God will do will be the best and will precipitate his glory as happened at the wedding at Cana.
Friends, here is the way of intercessory prayer in St John of the Cross as we celebrate his feast day. It has three simple parts: to believe that God knows what is best for us better than we do; to see our needs and the needs of others and to prayerfully holds those needs before God; and finally to patiently wait with Mary for God to act on his terms and in his time in a way that all the glory belongs to him and that leads us to joyful praise.
St John of the Cross, pray for us!
Fr Billy Swan