Wednesday, November 25th, 2020

The Reward Love Looks For

The saints often do and say things that leave us rather amazed. For the saints have the grace to see to the bottom of things, and to point out the profound basics of the spiritual life. One saint appears on the brink of Advent and gives us just such a lesson.

St John of the Cross (1542-1591) is commemorated on 24 November. A brief but powerful episode from his life comes down to us. Our Lord and St John are in conversation.

Joannes, quid vis pro laboribus?

Domine, pati et contemni pro te.

‘John, what would you have in exchange for all these labors of yours?’

‘Lord, to suffer and be despised for you.’

If we take St John’s reply to be nothing more than a manifestation of the masochistic side of religious zealotry, then we will have missed the point entirely.

The astonishing thing is that St John had a desire to suffer as a reward for his labors. Suffering, we ordinarily think, is something that garners a reward; something we pass through and then receive respite from. On the contrary, St John reveals that there is more to the question than that.—Suffering borne well unifies the soul with Christ. And that is no invention: it’s a truth that runs through the entire doctrine of St Paul.

St John’s loving dialogue reminds us of a similar episode from the life of St Thomas Aquinas. When he was asked a similar question by Christ, namely, about the reward he might seek in exchange for his faithful teaching, his answer is like St John’s: Non nisi te. ‘Nothing except You.’ And this confirms what we said above. St John knew that sacrificial suffering gives Christ to the soul. Thus, our two holy friars used different words, but asked for the same thing.

And it is St Thomas himself who reminds us that zeal is an effect of love.[1]

We do well to note that St John of the Cross occupies a place in the great post-Tridentine Catholic revival. Saint John is four years old when Martin Luther dies in 1546. And what a story of contrasts! How differently each man engages his suffering before God, how different their fruits. And the contrast appears all the more starkly when we remember that St John suffered most acutely at the hands of his brethren in religion.

The grace of St John’s love of the Cross is fittingly celebrated as Advent begins: for it is during Advent that the labor pains of creation and the struggle of the Church Militant are especially put before us. And anyone who has suffered much knows the power of St John’s words: pati et contemni pro te. Would it be really that presumptuous for us to make them our own?


[1] Cf STh I-II, Q28, art 4. “I answer that, Zeal, whatever way we take it, arises from the intensity of love. For it is evident that the more intensely a power tends to anything, the more vigorously it withstands opposition or resistance.”

{Art Credit: Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), The Angelus (1857-1859); Musée d’Orsay.}


Lightning Meditations