Thanks to St. John of the Cross, Master of Paradoxes

In the past, I have shared my affinity for both the writings of John C.H. Wu (the Chinese Chesterton, here with his family and Pope Pius XII) and St. John of the Cross. Do you remember when I shared my friend John’s thoughts on Thérèse of Lisieux? He compared her to Lao Tzu and Confucius.

As this is the feast day of St. John of the Cross, I would like to share with you some of John Wu’s thoughts about this Doctor of the Church as well as this diagram of St. John’s Ascent of Mt. Carmel.


I recall from Wu’s book entitled Beyond East and West that he said, and I’ll paraphrase, that when he ran across St. John’s works, he thought to himself “how Chinese he is.”

You can see the Blessed Doctor’s diagram of The Ascent of Mount Carmel, which is another of his important teaching poems on contemplative prayer. We are indeed blessed that St. John the poet did not leave us to interpret his poems on our own. Indeed, in both The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul, he painstakingly explains what he means by every line that he wrote. And in the case of Ascent, he left us this diagram too.

Here is what John Wu writes about this saint in his book The Golden Age of Zen: Zen Masters of the T’Ang Dynasty,

The Way Upward

Zen masters are soaring spirits. However high a state they have attained, they never cease to speak of the way upward. But it is interesting to note that at a certain point, the only way to go upward is by descending to the earth.

Thus, when a monk asked the master Chi-ch’en, “What is the way upward?” the latter replied, “you will hit it by descending lower.” This makes me think of St. John of the Cross who wrote,

By stooping so low, so low,
I mounted so high, so high,
That I was able to reach my goal.

Despite all the differences of undertones and overtones between the two, yet it is intriguing to note the identity of the paradoxical form in which their insights were presented.

St. John of the Cross is a master of paradoxes. For instance, this:

In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything,
Desire to have pleasure in nothing.
In order to arrive at possessing everything,
Desire to possess nothing.
In order to arrive at being everything,
Desire to be nothing.
In order to arrive at knowing everything,
Desire to know nothing.

All these paradoxes have their counterparts in the philosophy of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu. As Chuang Tzu puts it,

“Perfect joy is to be without joy.” Lao Tzu says:

“The Sage does not take to hoarding.
The more he lives for others, the fuller his life.
The more he gives the more he abounds.”

Again:

“Is it not because he is selfless
That his Self is realized?”

 

 

 

 

Finally, according to Lao Tzu, to know that we do not know is the acme of knowledge.

My friend John wrote once that,

To me as a Chinese, the great thing about Christianity is that it combines the profound mysticism of Lao Tzu with the intense humanism of Confucius. It differs from Taoism in that the Tao, or the Word, has taken on flesh and has a warm pulsating heart. It differs from Confucianism in that it is the Word, and nothing short of the Word, that has done so.

He goes on to remind us that his soul found a true home in the Catholic Church.

Have I lost anything by being Catholic? Absolutely nothing. On the contrary, I have gained Christ, and in gaining Christ, I have gained all.

The works of St. John of the Cross helped my friend John C.H. Wu find his longed for home in the Catholic Church. That, in turn, has helped me and countless others find a home here where we are at peace as well.

St. John of the Cross, pray for us!

  • mikeylabelle

    Good stuff. Thanks!


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