Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Graduation, mystagogy and St. John of the Cross 

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published May 27, 2022

Another graduation season is upon us. Across the archdiocese, colleges have already held their commencement ceremonies. Soon the high schoolers will graduate. This being the 21st century, even the elementary school children observe some formal rite of passage. Today my younger son makes his “Fifth Grade Walk” through the halls of the school he has attended for six years. It’s his first bit of public swagger since his pre-school “graduation,” which seems like only yesterday.   

My older son has survived middle school, and tomorrow will walk from the building where for two years he was both a “Zoomie” and a “roomie” and usually masked. He’ll walk to the high school with his fellow class of 2026 and be officially welcomed as a new freshman. 

If you’ve followed my column for the past 11 years, you know I have a bittersweet feeling about this time of endings and beginnings. In many ways, my boys have grown up here in my little monthly spot in the paper. But time moves on, as it must, and all of us have to embrace change. 

My RCIA class had a bit of a graduation too last week. They finished their program with an introduction to mystagogy, the process which marks the beginning of their neophyte year. In our discussion of mystagogy, I found a good deal of comfort about change, and in a moment of serendipity following the class, a friend sent me a beautiful poem by St. John of the Cross that amplifies the essence of mystagogy. 

Window depicting St. John of the Cross at the National Shrine of St. Therese in Darien, Ill. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Mystagogy is an invitation into contemplation of Christ’s incarnation, life, passion, death and resurrection. The word comes from two Greek roots—mystes, for mystery, and agogos, for teaching or leading. Literally, the word means “led toward mystery,” the process by which we come to a deeper understanding of our participation in the Divine Life. Reaching this understanding is not easy. It requires that we embrace the act of pilgrimage, a spiritual quest or journey that is undertaken for the purpose of enlightenment, understanding and acceptance. 

The Catholic novelist, philosopher, and essayist Walker Percy speaks of the difference between a life lived according to repetition—the alienated and disaffected approach to the everyday—and rotation—a life that moves and revolves while seeking to gain insight and awareness that transcends the self. At the same time, Percy speaks of the “Holiness of the Ordinary” and encourages us to discover the spiritual and the sacred, even in the mundane and routine. 

Percy’s approach to Pilgrimage is famously described in his novel “The Moviegoer” as “The Search.”  “What is the nature of the search? You ask. Really it is very simple, so simple that it is easily overlooked.  The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”  Percy adds that “to become aware of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” 

As I say, this is not easy! 

An antidote to troubles 

We have known, and know, the fear of a global pandemic. We are anxious about a widening war. We grieve for victims of social injustice and hate. We worry about economic collapse. We are angry. We are afraid. 

The poem by St. John of the Cross that my friend and mentor sent me is titled “Glosa a lo Divino,” which is a good example of a Spanish Medieval poetic form. The poem suggests an antidote to the troubles of the world, and rather than turning to the material for comfort, it urges us fully toward the spiritual. 

St. John of the Cross has always been one of my favorite doctors of the church. He lived in Spain in the middle of the 16th century and was a member of the Carmelite order. Not surprisingly, he was deeply attracted to the theology of St. Teresa of Avila; he joined her reformed version of the Carmelites and understood intuitively her beautiful insight that “All things are passing. God alone suffices.” Perhaps his most famous work is “The Dark Night of the Soul,” a classic treatise on the reality and consequences of doubt and redemptive suffering. 

In addition to being a brilliant philosopher and theologian, St. John of the Cross was also a poet, and he is often considered a patron saint of poets. The version of the poem that my friend shared with me is translated by Mirabai Starr and is easily found online. 

The poem is simply structured and is best appreciated read or listened to aloud. At the heart of the poem are two primary themes, which can be thought of as a problem and a solution. The problem, St. John argues, is that the world is characterized by appetites and pleasures that are ultimately unsatisfying. The solution is to renounce this transience with a plunge into the spiritual. At first, the poet implies, this pilgrimage away from the temporal into the spiritual is difficult. Yet paradoxically, the more the poet moves toward the divine life, the world becomes less appetizing and the mystery of the sacred both more appealing and more easily embraced. 

Here is the refrain that runs throughout the solution: “There is only one thing/for which I would risk everything: an I-don’t-know-what/that lies hidden/in the heart of the Mystery … But I would risk everything/for an I-don’t-know-what/That lies hidden/In the heart of the Mystery./ The generous heart/does not collapse into the easy things,/but rises up in adversity./Faith lifts it higher and higher./Such a heart savors/an I-don’t-know-what/found only in the heart of the Mystery … /I am bound for/an I-don’t-know-what/deep within the heart of the Mystery.” 

As you read that excerpt from the poem, you are probably struck by two things. For one, you likely wonder as I do about the repetition of the “I-don’t-know-what” phrase, which moves from being “hidden” to being “savored” to “found” to “deep within.”  This development captures the sense of pilgrimage and reminds me of T.S. Eliot’s lines that “In order to arrive at what you do not know/You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.” A journey into mystery requires that we abandon ourselves to mercy, which overcomes fear and leads us from unknowing into a place of love almost beyond understanding. Thus, what was once “risked” is transfigured. 

Secondly, you probably wonder, what is “the Mystery?” Again, I think it is beyond knowing now, but it can be known. St. Paul speaks of it. St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of it. Really all the saints, and therefore all the poets, speak of it.  Eliot called it “the Still Point,” where darkness becomes light and stagnation becomes dancing. 

Howard Nemerov’s wonderful poem “September, First Day of School” describes the moment a father takes his son to first grade for the first time.  He captures both the sadness and the hope a parent feels in that moment: “May the fathers he finds/Among his teachers have a care of him/More than his father could. How that will look/I do not know, I do not need to know./ But may great kindness come of it in the end.” 

This graduation season, in a time of anxiety and uncertainty, let us remain certain of God’s profound love for us. St. John of the Cross calls us to trust. Percy beckons us to search. Nemerov reassures us that sometimes “not knowing” can be an invitation. Eliot, who would have made a great commencement speaker, echoes as only he could the same sentiment of a medieval Spanish mystic poet: “In my end is my beginning.” 

David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.