A friend of mine suggested I read Wayne Simsic’s Seeking the Beloved: A Prayer Journey with St. John of the Cross, offering the book pretty high praise: “I never ‘got’ John of the Cross until I read this book,” she said. That alone made me think it was worth checking out. And I would agree that this is an excellent primer to the great mystical theologian, deftly and accessibly interpreting his teachings in ways that make sense to the ordinary person of our day.
Simsic breaks the wisdom of John of the Cross down into themes such as “Longing for Love,” “The Redirection of Our Desires,” “Drawn to Christ,” “From Meditation to Contemplation,” “Walking in Darkness,” and “Trusting this Holy Darkness.” As you can see from the order presented here, he wisely (and correctly) places John’s “dark night” teachings at the end, rather than the beginning, of this exploration. I can’t help but think that so many people first encounter John by trying to read The Dark Night of the Soul, only to be put off by the stern, fearsome tone of that book. John does not flinch from the hard work of profound inner transformation, but he was clear in his understanding that such interior alchemy was the result of God’s lavish love and profound yearning for us; so, taken as a whole, John’s teaching is profoundly optimistic, even joyful. But to get a sense of this, the newcomer to John’s work needs to begin with some of his lesser known works, like Living Flame of Love or Spiritual Canticle (both of these books are out of print except from old translations; I would recommend just going ahead and getting The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, which is available in paperback, Kindle and Nook versions). Or, read a book like Simsic’s, which functions as a sort of travel guide to the fullness of John’s wisdom.
Simsic understands that the point behind reading John of the Cross (at least for laypeople) is not to parse out the intricacies of his theology but rather to be inspired to pray, to draw closer to the God who seeks us. So this book functions as a sort of retreat manual, with discussion questions, short chapters, and stories to help illustrate John’s teachings. You can use the book without having John’s writings handy, although it certainly would work as a companion volume to accompany a reading of the saint’s writings. It’s a gentle and inviting book — and my friend was right: Seeking the Beloved is an ideal way to discover just how John’s rich teachings on prayer and contemplation continue to be relevant to us today.