John of the Cross was invited by Teresa of Ávila (1515–1582) to join her in reforming the Carmelite Order by returning to a renewed fidelity to prayer, simplicity, and poverty. The priests of the order did not take kindly to the suggestion that they needed reform and demanded that John stop his involvement. John said that he would not stop because he discerned in his heart that God was calling him to continue with this work. The priests responded in a very harsh manner, capturing him and putting him in a small dark prison cell with little protection from the elements. John was imprisoned for nine months. During that time, on a number of occasions, he would be taken out of his cell, stripped to the waist, and whipped.
John felt lost. It wasn’t just because of the severity of his imprisonment. This was the Church! The priests who were mistreating him were people he had emulated. John went through what we could call the traumatization of spirituality, which can be described as a kind of dark night of faith in which we lose experiential access to God’s sustaining presence in the midst of our struggles. [I, Richard, imagine many are going through a similar experience as we learn about the Catholic Church’s extensive cover-up of sexual abuse.]
Trauma is the experience of being powerless to establish a boundary between our self and that which is about to inflict, or is already inflicting, serious harm or even death. It is one of the most acute forms of suffering that a human being can know. It is the experience of imminent annihilation. And so, when your faith in God has been placed in the people who represent God’s presence in your life and those people betray you, you can feel that God has betrayed you. And it is in this dark night that we can learn from God how to find our way to a deeper experience and understanding of God’s sustaining presence, deeper than institutional structures and authority figures.
For John of the Cross, his suffering opened up onto something unexpected. John discovered that although it was true that he could not find refuge from suffering when he was in his prison cell, he also discovered that the suffering he had to endure had no refuge from God’s love that could take the suffering away, but rather permeated the suffering through and through and through and through and through. Love protects us from nothing, even as it unexplainably sustains us in all things. Access to this love is not limited by our finite ideas of what it is or what it should be. Rather, this love overwhelms our abilities to comprehend it, as it so unexplainably sustains us and continues to draw us to itself in all that life might send our way.
This is why John of the Cross encourages us not to lose heart when we are passing through our own hardships, but rather to have faith in knowing and trusting that no matter what might be happening and no matter how painful it might be, God is sustaining us in ways we cannot and do not need to understand. John encourages us that in learning to be patiently transformed in this dark night we come to discover within ourselves, just when everything seems to be lost, that we are being unexplainably sustained by the presence of God that will never lose us. As this painful yet transformative process continues to play itself out in our lives, we can and will discover we are finding our way to the peace of God that surpasses understanding.