My Brother Knights,
As we embark on the journey of Advent, I can’t think of a more appropriate Saint to hold up for veneration and imitation than John of the Cross, whose memorial is celebrated on December 14. St. John (1542-1591) was canonized in 1726 and named a Doctor of the Church in 1926. He is nicknamed “the Mystical Doctor” for his profound teachings on the soul’s journey into union with God.
He is a fitting example for us during Advent especially by virtue of his commitment to prayer. St. John of the Cross was not a monk; he did not spend his life in a cloister. So, we can’t dismiss his example of prayer as “only for monks.” He lived in a religious community, and prayer was unquestionably part of the daily schedule, but the friars also went out into the surrounding community to preach the Gospel.
Brothers, the Lord invites all of us into prayer that is more than just perfunctory. True, most of us may not reach the heights of mysticism and contemplative prayer reached by St. John of the Cross. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seriously invest in our prayer life! On the contrary, we should be inspired in pursuit of the tremendous graces God pours out upon those who make themselves available to Him in prayer.
I propose a simple test. What if we all take an honest look at our spiritual life and ask ourselves: do we say prayers, or do we pray? I’ll be the first to admit that I often fall into the trap of saying prayers without really praying. There’s no difficulty in discerning it, either. When I walk out of the chapel, I know well what was the quality of the time I just spent there.
Our attitude toward prayer makes much of the difference between praying and merely saying the words. To be clear, I am not suggesting that the use of memorized prayers does not constitute authentic prayer. Our traditional prayers are a great gift, and I use them all the time. However, it is definitely possible to say the words without really lifting up the mind and heart.
This Advent, if you find yourself saying prayers more than praying, I challenge you to let your mind and heart really get involved in your prayer time. If you think of prayer as an obligation, try to think of it instead as an opportunity. If you default to memorized prayers, you can certainly continue to use them, but make sure you also know how to speak to God from your heart, in your own words. Don’t be afraid to “waste time” with the Lord.
The other point I’d like to make regarding St. John of the Cross is that much of his poetry and the depth of his theology emerged from a terrible experience of suffering. He had been working alongside St. Teresa of Avila to carry out a reform of the Carmelite order, and these efforts were not always well received – even to the point that he ended up spending eight months in the modern equivalent of solitary confinement, imposed by his brother friars. He ultimately escaped from his monastery prison, bringing with him the poetry he had written on scraps of paper secretly provided to him by one of his guards.
While I’m sure most of us turn to prayer during hard times to ask God to deliver us from those trials, St. John’s example also teaches that what we suffer has tremendous potential to lead us deeper into our relationship with God. If you find yourself in a chapter of suffering, hear the voice of Jesus inviting you into communion with Him. He will take your trust in Him to the next level if you give Him permission to do so.
St. John of the Cross, pray for us! Vivat Jesus!
Rev. Kenneth St. Hilaire