John of the Cross and my Reintroduction to Prayer

I have lately realized my deep need to learn how to pray again. It snuck up on me. I didn’t feel spiritually anemic, and feel as though I have been growing in virtue and in my appreciation for God’s will and grace. I even feel like a full participant in worship.

The only problem is that I really haven’t been praying very much.

At least, not by myself. I’ve still been praying with my family, with people from the church, with my small group, etc, but my own time of private devotion has become sparse. Even as I’ve increased my habit of taking in the word, and meditating on it (even prayerfully), I have felt my capacity for simple prayer to be diminished. Even after a moment or two or prayer, I have found my mind sliding to the next task to be done, or to some easily accessible distraction—the phone, social media, and the general internet are ready culprits. It has just become too easy not to pray, not to immerse myself in the presence of God.

I found a similar note in Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor, in which he speaks about the difficulty he had growing in prayer, even as he was neck deep in ministry and the Word. Peterson mentions finding help along the way in two spanish mystics, Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Thanks for the tip, Eugene!

I’ve known about the two for a while. We used to take youth group kids to a monastery outside Little Rock, and it happened to be of the Discalced variety of Carmelites that descend from the movement born by Theresa and John. And while I’ve never really gotten into Theresa’s writing (perhaps it is just not time for that yet), John’s image of the Dark Night has been in the back of my head for a long time, and his book buried on my shelf.

Every once in a while, I find that a renowned book by one of the spiritual masters just won’t work for me. I remember, for instance, my first time trying to read Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. It just didn’t work for me—I had a hard time getting through even the first couple of chapters without glazing over.  After a couple of years, I picked it back up, and it was totally different. It just absolutely spoke to me, blowing my mind and pulling me deeply into conversation with Bonhoeffer’s important ideas of community. The book was of course the same, but whatever had happened in between those readings had changed me, preparing me to receive what was there. The book would become critical to my thinking, but the first time through, I just wasn’t ready for it.

The Dark Night of the Soul is working on me like that right now. Just like I had to be prepared to learn from Bonhoeffer on community, I think I needed a period of latency before I could really absorb the teachings of John of the Cross on prayer. I’ve tried a couple of times before—six and perhaps ten or twelve years ago. Then, I couldn’t really get into the book. It seemed foreign and stiff. Now, it seems vivid and crucial to where I am spiritually. I’m finding it to be just the conversation partner I needed to rediscover prayer.