Emphasize recollection during this year

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A statue of John in the center of the town of Ubeda showing John as a person of recollection

If we wish to undertake this spiritual journey with John of the Cross as guide, we must maintain a spirit of deep recollection. “Recollection” refers to the discipline of collecting ourselves around a central thought. It helps us to gather together the scattered aspects of life and unite them in a meaningful whole. Reading John’s writings requires education and sensitivity born of deep recollection, nurtured in silence, what John calls a “deep and delicate listening” (F. 3.34). John acknowledges that some people are just not ready for the material he wishes to present. Only a total immersion in the desire for the will of God and longing for God’s love will enable us to appreciate John’s channeling of God’s call to spiritual life and enrichment. John waited to write some of the commentaries until he felt God had endowed him with gifts of knowledge and fervor. We will need the same gifts to read them with profit. Four practices or attitudes can help us in developing a spirit of recollection: stillness of body, being open to inspiration by the Spirit, concentrating on being present to Christ, and silence in God. Each of these practices comes from ordinary events of each day. They come together in times of reflection.

1. Each day we should have times when we just sit still and do nothing.
2. Reflection also requires that we be people who can prepare themselves to be inspired, otherwise we are just left with empty quiet time.
3. Recollection requires focused attention. Can we give quality time to others, to the events of the day, to the issues of the world around us?
4. Recollection needs silence and this is not easy in our noisy world. Some quiet time each day is critical for spiritual health.

CHALLENGES FOR TODAY
• Try to be fully present to the people and events of this week.
• Remember recollection is not possible when your mind is cluttered with all kinds of issues.
• Give importance to stillness and silence.

 

The Importance of Place (A reflection by Helen Doohan)

          Growing up in Brooklyn, with its city streets, diverse neighborhoods, crowded homes, and noisy environment, made my travel to the Midwest of the United States a striking experience. I saw first hand the fields of grain, white and ready for harvest, and only then did I fully understand the biblical imagery. A later visit to the Holy Land confirmed in me the need to experience a place, its culture and its people in order to truly understand the written word and to tap into the spirit of the writer.

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Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

           Traveling through Spain, especially the northern part, offered me a clearer perspective into John of the Cross and his writing. His use of images, similes and metaphors come from the places he knew. The vast desert areas, dry and barren, where light and darkness form bold contrasts, account for John’s use of day and light, darkness and night to describe the spiritual journey. The fields, rich and fruitful, ready for the harvest meet basic needs and then some. The trees and vines, mountains, rivers and streams all find a way into John’s poetry. Cities like Segovia with its aqueduct, churches, shops and many streets, Salamanca which was John’s place of study, Toledo where John was imprisoned, Avila where he met with Teresa and began the reform, Medina del Campo where he worked as a boy and celebrated his first Mass as a priest, cities large and small with their people, art, culture and hardships affect John’s approach to his life and ministry.

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The view from John’s monastery in Segovia

           I have been blessed to experience these wonderful places today and I ask myself which images were most important to John? Why darkness when there is so much light in certain seasons? How did John tolerate the loneliness of prison when he appreciated nature and people so much? Is his interpretation of Scripture colored by his daily life and the wonder and beauty of Spain? Is his expansive view of the Church and the reform of Carmel conditioned by the vastness of the land? And why is there such an emphasis on love in his writings?

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

           Places are important both then and now but in order to be affected by them we need to truly see, smell and taste their richness. The open spaces must permeate our bones, the beauty of the environment fill us with wonder and the unending and enveloping sky move us to the transcendent. For us, as for John, these aspects of our world are seen as a gift of God and a gift of love.

Called to love

In John of the Cross’ extraordinary book on the Living Flame of Love he reminds us that  God would want everyone to be at the level of life and union described in the Living Flame. He challenges us to appreciate that one’s total life is involved in a union of love. In fact, every act is now love (C. 28.8). Nothing really matters anymore except to be in the union with a person we love with all our hearts. That union will be on all levels of life, and everything that is done is done for love. However, he finds few who are ready to make the commitment, and others who do not want to be guided to this goal (F. 2.27). He seems saddened to acknowledge that some do not relish the communications of God (F. 1.6), others just do not understand these gifts and find them incredible (F. 1.15), and still others do not have the basic experience needed to appreciate these profound challenges (F. 3.1). However, John insists that God grants these favors and does so according to the divine will. Generally, these gifts are made to those who “have performed many services for Him, have had admirable patience and constancy for His sake, and in their life and works have been very acceptable to Him” (F. 2.28). God purifies such people in varying degrees according to God’s desire to raise them (F. 1.24), and leads them eventually to the remarkable delight of God’s awakening (F. 4.5).

So, John reminds us not to be amazed that God grants such gifts. He reminds us twice (F. Prologue.2; 1.15) that Jesus told us that the Trinity would abide within anyone who loved God. God is faithful to the divine nature and to these promises made. Put simply, God delights in giving and enriching those who seek divine union. God is seeking union in love with us more intensely than we seek it with God. We must look at the gifts we have received, marvel in God’s love, and be aware of God’s constant generosity towards us. We need to live with awareness that all life is a wonderful manifestation of God’s love (see C. 24; 40). We must awaken ourselves to an appreciation of the reality that we are immersed in God’s love. This changes the motivation for all our activities and gives us a new consciousness of the meaning of life. This is what the Living Flame calls us to appreciate and never to be amazed at this authentic vision of life. This is the new state of existence to which God calls all human beings.

Unfortunately, one of the great contemporary problems we face is indifference to the life of the spirit, as we immerse ourselves in the superficiality of religious devotions, thinking we can earn growth. In one of his sayings John urges us to keep things in perspective. “Who can free themselves from lowly manners and limitations if you do not lift them to yourself, my God, in purity and love? How will human beings begotten and nurtured in lowliness rise up to you, Lord, if you do not raise them with your hand that made them?” (S. 26). Aware of our own emptiness, the Living Flame reminds us that we grow primarily by receiving and cherishing the gifts of God. These gifts are not little supports here and there on our journey to God. They transform us into who we are intended to be. So, we need to think about life in light of the Living Flame; this is our goal, this is God’s hope for us.

 

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE:KEY THEMES 8: Appreciation of the world

 

John loved the beauty of the world, enjoyed time alone in the cave in Segovia, loved to take his friars for walks at El Calvario, and saw beauty all around him in Granada. He was a man of sacrifice and detachment who also appreciated the world around him. “If you purify your soul of attachments and desires, you will understand things spiritually. If you deny your appetite for them, you will enjoy their truth, understanding what is certain in them” (S. 49). When you view the world through a different lens, everything changes. For John love made him see everything in a new way, in a real way. In the early part of the journey creatures are means but insufficient to lead to God, and one must detach oneself from everything. However, in the ascetical phase of the journey “the consideration of creatures is first in order after the exercise of self-knowledge” (C. 4.1) for it helps us appreciate the greatness of God’s love and generosity in creation, and this awakens our love for God (C. 4.1,3). “Only the hand of God, her Beloved, was able to create this diversity and grandeur” (C. 4.3). But the bride feels overwhelmed with love for her Beloved as she sees traces of his presence in creatures, and she becomes “anxious to see the invisible beauty that caused this visible beauty” (C. 6.1).

The view from John's monastery in Segovia

The view from John’s monastery in Segovia

Later, in God all is transformed and one can return to the beauty of everything in God, for all the world now speaks of the presence of the Beloved. John includes the whole cosmos in his loving appreciation: “woods” are the basic elements of the universe, “thickets” refer to the teaming of animals, “green meadows” are the stars and planets, and “flowers” are angels and saintly souls (C. v.4). One of the results of spiritual betrothal is that “In that nocturnal tranquility and silence and in the knowledge of the divine light the soul becomes aware of Wisdom’s wonderful harmony and sequence in the variety of her creatures and works” (C. 14-15.25). It is interesting that John changes tense from “created” to “carry on,” from past tense to present, for God is still working now, manifesting his glory through creation all around us (C. 4.3).

A modern interpretation of John of the Cross on display in the museum in Ubeda where John died

A modern interpretation of John of the Cross on display in the museum in Ubeda where John died

John is always showing us how to discover openings into the inner world of God’s love. One author suggests that the Spiritual Canticle represents “a reordering of the cosmos, a world made new,” and as we read the Spiritual Canticle “we begin to see that world differently and sense something of its beauty and wonder.”32 Creation is now an efficacious sacrament of God’s love. Creation is beautiful because God gazed on it, and when we look at the world in contemplation we encounter the loving actions of God. In the early part of the book, John presents creation as a reflection of God’s loving presence, where the woods and thickets are planted by the hand of the Beloved. Later, creation is no longer only a reflection but now there is identification: “My Beloved, the mountains.” Moreover, even though living in the times of the Inquisition, John does not seem willing to correct this, for now he truly is in love with the mountains, the lonely wooded valleys, and so on. For John this is due to the fact that the Son identified with the world in the Incarnation (C. 5.4, 37.1).

As we look on the world today, we see God’s wisdom and judgment in the wonders of all around us. “God created all things with remarkable ease and brevity, and in them he left some trace of who he is” (C. 5.1). The world gives us illumination concerning God. Sometimes God’s creation is so awesome that there is often an “I-don’t-know-what” behind the communication (C. 8.1). “[I]n the living contemplation and knowledge of creatures the soul sees such fullness of graces, powers, and beauty with which God has endowed them that seemingly all are arranged in wonderful beauty and natural virtue” (C. 6.1). The world calls us to God and urges us to appreciate the hidden presence of love that surrounds us.

 

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE–KEY THEMES 6: Romantic love

John proclaims divine love with great tenderness that uses human love as its point of departure. In the Spiritual Canticle John of the Cross describes the growing relationship of two lovers. The poem is full of intimacy, passion, intensity, sensualness, and a longing for union—all of which take hold of the reader. It is not only that in reading it we can think of our intimate relationship to God but we can also think of our passionate desire and intimate longing for our own lover. Arthur Symmons summarize what several have implied, “This monk can give lessons to lovers.” There is a profound affective sensuous dimension to John’s poetry. He could not write like he does without feeling as we do when we read it. Clearly, in spite of his emphasis on purification, John does not propose the destruction of sense but the total unification of affectivity towards God. He also indicates that we rediscover sense refined at the end of purification. Was John totally detached from the sensory pleasure of his work? When we witness such clumsy and selfish approaches to love today, it is refreshing to read the sensitive, delicate, considerate, and, yes, sensual and passionate approaches he describes and suggests.

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There is no explicit religious language in the poem. It is a poem about lovers. In his commentary he gives profound religious explanations but intertwined are comments about the approaches of lovers to each other. Here is a short selection of his many comments.

“Lovers are said to have their hearts stolen or seized by the object of their love” (C. 9.5).

“[S]he affectionately calls him here the light of her eyes, just as a lover would call her loved one the light of her eyes in order to show her affection” (C. 10.8).

“Supper affords lovers refreshment, satisfaction, and love” (C. 14-15.28).

“[G]irls attract lovers to themselves by their affection and grace” (C. 18.4).

“Anyone truly in love will let all other things go in order to come closer to the loved one” (C. 29.10).

“New lovers are comparable to new wine. . . .These new lovers find their strength in the savor of love.” (C. 25.10).

“Now then, the old lovers . . . are like old wine . . . these lovers taste the sweetness of the wine of love” (C. 25.11).

“Strange it is, this property of lovers, that they like to enjoy each other’s companionship alone” (C.36.1)

“The reason they desire to commune with each other alone is that love is a union between two alone” (C. 36.1).

“For lovers cannot be satisfied without feeling that they love as much as they are loved” (C. 38.3).

The first thing that John teaches lovers is to value love alone above all else. This will imply risk, but God’s love of us is such that God is willing to take a risk with us. Once a commitment is made then one’s capacity for love depends on the exclusive and integrated focus of every aspect of one’s life. Love implies total self-surrender to one’s lover; it is never stationary but always in movement—a long journey in which love matures gradually. Together they find “mutual refreshment and renewal in love” (C. 13.2).

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

John knows the importance between lovers of keeping a diligent watch over one’s heart. At the beginning of the poem the bride sees in herself a lot of conscious and unconscious resistance to God’s love and illumination and needs the purification of false loves and attachments (C. 1.1). In searching for her beloved she refuses to digress (C. 3.5), nor be tempted by enemies of her single-hearted pursuit (C. 3.6-7). As she gets closer to her Beloved she still keeps in check “many various kinds of images . . . brought to the memory and phantasy and many appetites and inclinations . . . stirred up in the sensory part” (C. 16.4). She longs for her heart to be carefully centered on her Beloved and to resist the negative drying up of interest that comes with “the foxes” (sensory movements) (C. v.16), the “deadening north wind” (dryness) (C. v.17), or the “girls of Judea” (lower affections) (C. v. 18). Once she enters spiritual marriage Aminadab (the devil) no longer appears, the siege is stopped (appetites and passions), and the cavalry descends (all bodily senses are controlled) (C. v. 40). A diligent watch over one’s heart helps the bride to maintain an exclusive focus on her Lover. “Deny your desires and you will find what your heart longs for” (S. 15).

Lovers always find it is difficult to be away from each other and also they often feel unworthy of each other when they are together. They savor the pain of both absence and presence. “Beholding that the bride is wounded with love for him, because of her moan he also is wounded with love for her. Among lovers, the wound of one is a wound for both” (C. 13.9). Prior to spiritual betrothal the “wounds” of love of the bride are mentioned twenty-five times. These experiences of pain at the Lover’s absence feel like a fire of love, enflamed within her (C. 1.17), and she tells him she is dying without him, wants nothing but him alone, feels unhealthy and incomplete without him, feels he has stolen her heart and nothing else matters anymore. Through these purifying wounds her love becomes impatient, burning, ardent, intense, and vehement. This purification becomes a progressive surrender to love. As the bride in the Song of Songs (8:6-7), the bride here indicates that nothing can quench love, neither floods drown it; she clearly wants her Lover as a seal upon her soul, for love is as strong as death.

Lovers want total self-gift from each other; partial gift is not what lovers want to give nor want to receive. They seek from each other what the psalms call “steadfast love,” that is “precious,” and “better than life” (Pss 36, 63, 89). In the Spiritual Canticle the bride tells her Lover do not hide, do not send me any more messengers, wholly surrender yourself, how can I endure not living where you live. She insists – carry me off, cure my love-sickness, extinguish my pain from your absence, reveal your presence. She sees her Lover’s gifts and signs of his presence everywhere—everything reminds her of him and speaks of his love.

Beautiful gardens in Segovia

Beautiful gardens in Segovia

She rests in his delight, finds her bed is in flower, enters the inner wine cellar of love, loses interest in all else, gives herself totally to him, and now she wounds him with her love. She has found her longed-for mate, finds love in solitude with him, and discovers her Lover in new ways never before imagined.

KEY THEMES IN THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE 5: LOVE AND SELF-SURRENDER

One of the key themes in the Spiritual Canticle is the dedicated vision of love and surrender. John of the Cross gives a wonderful portrait of this as he develops the stages of spiritual betrothal and spiritual marriage. Let us look at some of his ideas and for those who have the time I have given some of his wonderful sayings from The Spiritual Canticle for extra reading.

Spiritual betrothal is a time of deeper love and mutual surrender; the two lovers feel each other’s pain, share ever deeper communications, appreciate each other’s longings, show mutual gratitude for graces and gifts, and yearn for union. The bride develops “a singular and intense love for God,” and “his absence is a singular and intense torment for her” (C. 17.1). In this growth of love and self-surrender “a singular fortitude and a very sublime love are also needed for so strong and intimate an embrace from God” (C. 20-21.1). Even before spiritual marriage she gives her love and surrender to her Bridegroom (C. 22.5).

Spiritual marriage is the time of mutual strong love and surrender. God shows the soul genuine love, the tenderness and truth of love, supreme and generous love. The bride is “dissolved in love” and “she makes a complete surrender of herself.” “[T]his mutual surrender of God and the soul is made in this union” (C. 27.2). “In this stanza the bride tells of the mutual surrender made in this spirit of espousal between the soul and God . . . joined by the communication he made of himself to her, . . . and by the complete surrender she made of herself to him, keeping nothing back for herself” (C. 27.3). The bride’s total surrender is caused by God, it is a gift to the bride of the necessary purity, perfection, and self dedication needed for total surrender (C. 27.6). Her surrender in loving union includes the surrender of her soul and its faculties so that they focus only on love of God and what pleases God. She surrenders to a consuming love and her every expression becomes an act of love. The bride puts it this way: “This is like saying that now all this work is directed to the practice of love of God, that is: All the ability of my soul and body . . . move in love and because of love. Everything I do I do with love, and everything I suffer I suffer with the delight of love” (C. 28.8).

The Bridegroom and bride now enjoy mutuality in love and in self-surrender, enjoying each other’s love. “God not only values this love of hers because he sees that it is alone, but also cherishes it because he sees that it is strong. . . . [T]his is why he loved her so much; he saw that her love was strong . . . alone and without other loves” (C. 31.5). Transformed in love, her love is now God’s love in her. She is united to God’s strong love for her, and “her love for him is as strong and perfect as his love for her” (C. 38.3). This is what she was searching for and what God wanted of her too.

LEARNING HOW TO LISTEN

Listening is a key quality in John of the Cross. But we must learn how to listen, especially in our modern world which is so cluttered with trivia and filled with so much noise. Listening is important for us imn discerning the calls and challenges of our journey.

We must choose what to listen to. The bride comes across as a person who is very aware of life’s problems. She is not dabbling in life but has a mature focus on what priorities she chooses to pursue. Communication is serious and she has a two-fold focus: rejection of all that is not God and a deliberate listening to all that leads to God. “Since seeking God demands a heart naked, strong, and free from all evils and goods that are not purely God, the soul speaks  . . . of the freedom and fortitude one should possess in looking for him” (C. 3.5). So, she says she will deliberately choose what she will set her heart on, what she will tolerate, what she will pay heed to. There are so many distractions bombarding us from all sides, we need to choose what we wish to listen to and what we do not. Even in spiritual marriage the bride prefers “holy idleness” rather than the noisy accomplishments of active life and ministry (C. 29.3-4).

We must listen to our hearts. God speaks to our hearts. “I shall lead her into solitude and there speak to her heart” (Hos 2.14). The bride knows she must seek her Lover: she feels her heart is troubled, wounded, sick, unfulfilled. Her love impels her in her search, she longs for deeper union, thrills in her Lover’s presence, and delights in union. While her Beloved is always drawing her to himself, she listens to her heart’s longings. She lives detached from all that is not God “in profound silence of . . . senses and . . . spirit,” part of a “deep and delicate listening.” “God speaks to the heart in this solitude. . . in supreme peace and tranquility, while the soul listens . . . to what the Lord God speaks to it, for He speaks this peace in this solitude” (F. 3.34). Eventually, she listens only to her heart’s need for her Lover, all her energy is placed at his service, she has no other interests, and everything she does is an act of love (C. v.28).

We listen to God’s messengers. The Spiritual Canticle challenges us in the early phases of our journey to listen to God’s messengers. The soul listens to her inner spirit, to the shepherds who may have seen her Beloved, to creation that reveals traces of God’s presence, to others who teach a thousand graceful things of God, and to her beloved. All tell her something about God and the unceasing divine love that calls, heals, challenges, and fulfills. She listens to the revelation of God that produces a “Supper that refreshes and deepens love” (C. 14-15.28). Thus, she listens to God’s messengers that give voice to divine presence in the world. “This voice is the sounding solitude the soul knows here; that is, the testimony to God that, in themselves, all things give” (C. 14-15.27).

We also listen to the challenge of John of the Cross. John is a perfect example of a person who listens to God’s call to total transformation. His life evidences a relentless pursuit of union with God through early growth, reform, persecution, abandonment, and death. The fact that John attains what he does tells us that human beings are capable of this human growth and potential. Is what he achieved unusual or is it the desirable outcome for more of us? His life embodies the two great experiences of humanity—being wounded and being healed, and the Spiritual Canticle expresses how these two great experiences can fill the lives of us all. This book is for us; it is the life we can pursue. John writes in the broadest sense so we can each apply it personally and derive profit as best fits each of us. We must respond to John’s challenge by listening carefully to the voice of God who communicates in silence deep within our hearts.