A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Hilary Pearson on 13th December 2023
Today we celebrate St Lucy of Syracuse. Tomorrow is the feast of the Spanish Carmelite friar, St John of the Cross. Looking at these two saints gives this sermon its theme: light and darkness.
First St Lucy. According to The Golden Legend, which was compiled by a Dominican friar in 1226, and was, in effect, the medieval Wikipedia for the lives of the saints, she lived in Syracuse in Sicily in the fourth century AD. It was a period of imperial persecution of Christians because they would not worship the emperor Diocletian and the gods regarded as important by the emperor. The tradition is that she was a young noblewoman who had a vision of St Agatha, a martyr of the third century, telling her to renounce her fiancé and start to give her wealth to the poor. She did this, which infuriated the fiancé who denounced her as a Christian to the Roman consul. She was arrested and, after argument with her, the consul ordered her to be gang raped. Attempts to drag her away to meet her fate failed as the Holy Spirit made her too heavy, so she had hot pitch and boiling oil poured over her and then she was stabbed. Before dying she prophesied that Diocletian had died and that persecution would end. Just then, messengers arrived from Rome to announce this had indeed happened and the consul was arrested for corruption, tried and executed. She was buried where she died and a church built over the site. Her name in Latin means ‘Light’ and her feast in early December became an Advent celebration of the true Light coming into the world at Christmas. You may know that it is celebrated in Scandinavia by young girls wearing white and with wreaths carrying lighted candles on their heads, serving special bread and cookies to their family.
The only information we have about Lucy comes from tradition; it is far from reliable! By contrast we have a lot of reliable facts about the life of St John of the Cross We also have his writings, which still inspire and challenge us today. He was born in 1542, in a small town in central Spain. He was the youngest of three sons in a family that struggled financially; his father died when John was aged three, leaving the family penniless. John’s mother moved several times, and finally found work as a weaver in a busy market town. One brother died, possibly of malnutrition. After some elementary education, John managed to get a job in a hospital. He impressed the administrator of the hospital, who enabled John to get more advanced education, and then offered him the chance to be ordained and be chaplain to the hospital. Instead, John chose to join the Carmelites, a religious order known for their combination of active work and contemplation. They sent him to the leading university of Salamanca to study, and he was then ordained. Shortly afterwards he met Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun who had started a reform of the female Carmelite order and who was seeking Carmelite men who would similarly reform the male order. John enthusiastically agreed to join her reform movement, and they remained closely associated thereafter.
The reform did not go smoothly – although Teresa had some influential backers, including King Philip II of Spain, the traditional Carmelites tried to stop the reform. On a December night in 1577, when John was chaplain to Teresa’s convent in Toledo, a group raided his house, seized him and imprisoned him in the unreformed Carmelite friary in Toledo. He was kept there for over 9 months, in a tiny room ten feet by six feet with only a tiny slit high up in the wall for light and no heat or ventilation. He had no change of clothes and only bread and water to live on. Once a week he was taken out and flogged in front of all the Carmelites in the friary refectory. He eventually manged to escape very early one morning by making a rope from his bedsheets, and after unscrewing the lock on his door and escaping through a window with a long drop to the ground, he made a dangerous journey across Toledo. He finally managed to take refuge with Teresa’s nuns who arranged for him to get to a safe place and be treated for his injuries. Then, towards the end of his life, he was even rejected by the reformed Carmelites because of his uncompromising approach, and he suffered painful illnesses. John’s life began and ended in suffering and rejection.
During his imprisonment, John composed several poems in his head; in the latter part of this time he had a more sympathetic jailer who gave him a pen and paper and who allowed him time out of the cell, so John could write them down. These poems are generally regarded as some of the greatest in the Spanish language. The two best known both have echoes of the Song of Solomon; they are called The Spiritual Canticle and The Dark Night. In the years after he was liberated John wrote lengthy commentaries on these poems, which contain profound spiritual concepts and guidance on the road to union with God.
You may have heard the term ‘dark night of the soul’; that comes from John’s commentary on ‘The Dark Night’ poem. That commentary, along with another work entitled ‘Ascent of Mount Carmel’, set out a profound theological and spiritual path for the journey to a close loving relationship with God, which he calls ‘union’. I cannot give more than very brief taste of John’s teachings here. I should warn you that he does not offer easy answers. He drew a famous sketch of the road to God as an image of the ascent of Mount Carmel, in which the perfect way is straight up the steepest path, which he marks with the repeated Spanish word ‘nada, nada’ – nothing, nothing. Even things that seem to be good, such as knowledge and satisfaction, must be denied.
The essence of his teaching is that the road to union involves periods he refers to as ‘dark nights’. These are of two kinds, of the senses and of the soul. For each there is what he calls an ‘active’ and a ‘passive’ dark night. In the active nights it is the believer who does the work of getting rid of things that separates them from God and which damage their lives and souls. But John teaches that this voluntary work towards perfection is not enough. The passive dark nights, first of the senses and then of the soul, are the work of God in the individual believer. However, John warns that many who start out on this journey do not advance because they do not want to go through this experience of darkness, or may not understand what is happening because they do not have a suitable spiritual guide. The reward is entry into what John calls ‘the divine light of perfect union with God that is achieved, insofar as it is possible in this life, through love”.
So, in both St Lucy and St John of the Cross, we see suffering and darkness transformed into light. Let us remember both of them as we go forward through the winter darkness of Advent to the birth of the true Light.