NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE VALUE OF SILENCE

John as a person of reflection

John as a person of reflection

 

God communicates in silence. Part of our understanding of the divine nature is that God communicates love internal to the Trinity and in constant gift to the world. Humanity often cannot or will not listen, but God’s communication is everywhere. As an English hymn reminds us, “The whole world is aflame with God but only they who see take off their shoes.” In the Spiritual Canticle the Bridegroom praises his bride for her choice of solitude, and as their love develops she finds quiet and peaceful solitude in which she can rest alone, focusing on her love for her Beloved. So, she lived in solitude before reaching spiritual marriage in which she discovers perfect solitude, complete refreshment, and rest. In this quiet solitude, the Beloved now “guides, moves, and raises her to divine things” (C. 35.5), moving her to deeper love of God. She has learned to rest in quiet solitude, and there God communicates in silence.

We hunger for silence. Our lives are filled with noise and clutter, and in our spiritual lives, for the most part, we wander around disoriented, at best adding a new coat of paint to our spiritual lives now and again. John of the Cross presents an entire remaking of the spiritual system. He challenges us to leave aside everything from the outside and only listen to what is within. In silent attentiveness and inner recollection, we open our hearts to the transforming presence of God. In receptivity we find God in the world, in others, in divine wisdom and designs; we discover God’s love for us and we become thrilled to find God teaches us how to love. The soul acknowledges that her Beloved is like “lonely wooded valleys,” quiet, pleasant, delightful, refreshing, and enriching. But, it is always “in their solitude and silence they refresh and give rest” (C. 14-15.7).

John emphasizes a silent resting in the Spirit. In contemplation we hear the communications of the Holy Spirit and recognize the call to open our minds and hearts. Thus, we can listen to the unspoken communications of love for not only is the Beloved hidden, but so too is love. In silent resting we can prepare our hearts to discover both. Contemplation will be illuminative and delightful, but purgative and painful, as God gives new knowledge and strips away the old. “In contemplation God teaches the soul very quietly and secretly, without its knowing how, without the sound of words, and without the help of any bodily or spiritual faculty, in silence and quietude, in darkness to all sensory and natural things” (C. 39.12)

Transformation comes in silence. John of the Cross himself, in aloneness and abandonment, heard communications of wonder. In contemplative silence we can quiet the sensible dimensions of life and focus our spiritual vitality on the exclusive commitment to the pursuit of God’s love. This means readying ourselves for divine interventions in our lives. In fruitful emptiness God guides our spiritual activity. Even in the spiritual sleep of betrothal, “the soul possesses and relishes all the tranquility, rest, and quietude of the peaceful night; and she receives in God, together with this peace, a fathomless and obscure divine knowledge” (C. 14-15.22).

Key concepts in the Spiritual Canticle–seeking a hidden God

Seeking encounter with a hidden God

In some recent blogs I have been looking at key concepts in John of the Cross’ great work the Spiritual Canticle, focusing particularly on the hiddenness of God. Let’s have a look at how we can encounter a hidden God.

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In seeking God we need to foster an awareness of our failures and sense of emptiness without God, cultivate a longing for God, and seek God in faith, love, and unknowing which is the virtue of hope. We must be aware that God is not like any understandings or experiences we have of God, and God does not act as we expect. We should accept dryness, darkness, and emptiness, since God is often present to us in these seemingly negative experiences. We must reject all sensory satisfactions that can be found in the pursuit of spiritual values. We should rejoice in the discoveries we make, maintain a sense of urgency in the search, and center everything on love, leaving aside any affection and desire for anything other than God.

In fact, we should “let all things be as though not” (C. 1.6), leaving aside the nothingness (nada) of life as we focus on the all (todo) of God. We must go deep within ourselves in recollection and hide away with God in the depths of our own inner spirit, leaving aside interest in all else.

We do not gain more knowledge of God but discover God in faith. “Faith and love are like the blind person’s guides. They will lead you along a path unknown to you, to the place where God is hidden” (C. 1.11). We can never rejoice in what we understand or experience of God but only in what we can neither understand nor experience. It is in darkness that we see who God is.

We seek God who reveals self in the dark night of contemplation, and this requires of us discipline of life, a single-minded dedication to God, priorities that focus all life in the pursuit of God, and careful correction of our faults. Then we can ready ourselves for God’s illumination as we are enlightened in the dark night. Like the soul in the story we must arrive at the point of wanting no more messengers. We must be content with nothing except the revelation of God in contemplation (C. 6.1-2).

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Part of our contribution is to engage in a relentless search. “Seeking my love,” we must do all that is possible in a journey away from self and towards God. For this search we will need a heart that is naked, strong, and free (C. 3.5) and a clearly developed self-knowledge (C. 4.1). This search can include an appreciation of the wonders of God’s love in creation (C. 4.3) insofar as they can awaken us to love God more. It will be a journey in pain and longings, in poverty of spirit, and in love (C. 1. 13-14).

 

Key concepts–the hiddenness of God

Where is God hidden?     

Night over Toledo where John discovered God's love.

Night over Toledo where John discovered God’s love.

 

John says that “The good contemplative must seek God with love’ (C 1.6). But where does one find God. In the Spiritual Canticle John gives several indications.

We find God in the revelation of the Son. “The Son is the only delight of the Father, who rests nowhere else nor is present in any other than in his beloved Son” (C. 1.5).We are all like the lover of the poem who seeks God but finds God always seems distant when we want to be close. God is hidden but we can find God as long as we understand that even when we find God it will still be in hiddenness.

In addition to the Son’s revelations, the primary experience in which the Trinity is discoverable is in the depths of our own hearts. “It should be known that the Word, the Son of God, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is hidden by his essence and his presence in the innermost being of the soul” (C. 1.6). God is within everyone by divine essence. God is never absent from us, for in each of us there is a center which is naturally divine.

God is even hidden in the divine gifts of presence, whether by essence, grace, or spiritual affection. Even these are hidden, for “God does not reveal himself as he is, since the conditions of this life will not allow such a manifestation” (C. 11.3). God’s hiding place is within us not outside us; “you yourself are his dwelling and his secret inner room and hiding place” (C. 1.7). So, we should not go searching for God elsewhere, outside of ourselves, but find God within. Nearness to God inflames greater love, reveals the Beloved, but reminds one he is more hidden than revealed (see C. 13.1). Even when the soul gets close she is told she is not ready for union and receives glimpses and intense longings, but is still told to go back (C. 13.2). No matter our own efforts, God remains hidden, and we need to appreciate the need for purification, emptiness, and receptivity.

God is sometimes hidden in the communications we receive and in the concepts we have. We must cultivate an absolute conviction of divine transcendence and let God be who God wishes to be for us. While the full revelation of God only comes in the next life, God is within our hearts but hidden. To find God we must leave aside every other interest, thus uncovering both God and our true selves. Often this means we must be aware that spiritual communications can be more our own images than God’s. We must go beyond the normal objects of the faculties—intellectual knowledge, memories, and limited desires (C. 1. 12-13).

We find God still hidden in faith and we continue to seek God in faith, love, and unknowing, leaving aside all former knowledge, understanding, activities of faculties, and satisfactions (C. 1. 10-11). Often we can see better in darkness. “Only by means of faith, in divine light exceeding all understanding, does God manifest Himself to the soul” (A.2. 9.1).

God is hidden even in the touches of love given to the soul; they communicate, reveal, and wound, but they hide, too. “The soul experiencing this love exclaims: ‘Why do you leave it so,’ that is, empty, hungry, alone, sorely wounded and sick with love” (C. 9.6). In verse ten she goes on to insist, “Extinguish these miseries, since no one else can stamp them out.” In the resulting love-sickness God both reveals and remains hidden. “The reason for this is that the love of God is the soul’s health, and the soul does not have full health until love is complete” (C. 11.11).

Sometimes God is hidden because we continue to look at our own false images of God. We must remove these false gods in the dark night. Clinging to our own knowledge, memories, and loves blocks a genuine revelation of God. Even religion’s certainty does not lead us to truth, and a healthy insecurity and doubt concerning contemporary religion’s many declarations can open us to the unseen world that can lead us to God. Our knowledge impedes God’s self-revelation.

We can also see that the depressing misery of our world can hide our appreciation of God, but God’s future, our hope, overwhelms and overcomes the misery and even gives meaning to what seems increasingly meaningless. Part of our contemporary misery is that we have become skilled at concealing truth, hiding from our own consciences, and blocking God’s communication.

 

 

Reflections on some key concepts in the Spiritual Canticle

1. THE HIDDENNESS OF GOD 

 

In the Spiritual Canticle the bride who is seeking after her Beloved finds that God is hidden. She is in love with a hidden God, and so cries out, “Where have you hidden Beloved” (C. v.1).  Although God is hidden the bride already sees God as her Beloved.  “Tell him I love most that I am sick, I suffer, and I die without his love.” However, she senses that God has already withdrawn from her and is hidden from her. “She feels . . . that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget him so in the midst of creatures” (C. 1.1). Filled with love and fearful of losing this love, she renounces everything except the pursuit of love and profound union. She becomes aware that God will always be somewhat hidden while she remains in this life. From the first stanza the soul is not seeking sensible satisfaction but union with the divine essence which is hidden beyond human perception and knowledge. John reminds us that sometimes we make mistaken interpretations of God’s presence. “Neither the sublime communication nor the sensible awareness of his nearness is a sure testimony to his gracious presence, nor are dryness and the lack of these a reflection of his absence” (C. 1.3). Even in the union of love to which this poem leads God is still hidden to the soul as long as this life lasts, for we are on pilgrimage to an awareness of the absolute otherness of God. In this journey God is primary actor, drawing us to divine life. “In the first place it should be known that if anyone is seeking God, the Beloved is seeking that person much more” (F. 3.28). God visits us and thus raises us up, then withdraws and leaves us in painful longings of love.

A mural of the four major works of John of the Cross in Segovia

A mural of the four major works of John of the Cross in Segovia

As the soul appreciates God’s beauty and love in creation, and through others, she is inspired to love God more. But these are merely traces of God’s presence and a partial understanding of God, and the soul becomes anxious for a deeper encounter beyond the constraints of the body. Likewise the Beloved gives tastes of his love, and then he seems to hide and abandon the soul who is longing for completeness and union. Partial revelations of love and of the divine presence inflame the soul and leave her aware that God is really still more hidden than revealed. Even the revelation that comes with faith still leaves the soul hungering for the real thing, not a sketch but the vision and reality of union. Partial presence feels like absence, but the soul is full of God’s love and celebrates the Beloved’s presence in all aspects of creation, and also in the gifts that the Beloved makes to her in the virtues of her own life.

Beautiful gardens in Segovia

Beautiful gardens in Segovia

Even in the revelations of spiritual betrothal the soul senses the hiddenness of the Beloved that still results from temptations and sensory reactions. She welcomes his communications, but they will always be somewhat hidden “until God introduces her into his divine splendors through transformation of love” (C. 13.1). So, in spite of her burning love, the Beloved tells the bride “Adapt yourself to this lower knowledge that I am communicating to you” (C. 13.8). In spiritual betrothal the Beloved reveals more of himself and his attributes, touching the bride in the very substance of her being, but even this is still “dark, for it is contemplation” (C. 14-15.16), and “Truly a hidden word” (C. 14-15. 17).

In spiritual marriage the bride hides away with her Beloved to receive the revelations in secret. In spiritual marriage each surrenders totally to the other, “two natures in one spirit and love” (C 22.3). The bride is now absorbed in love and nothing else matters; she gives herself to the Bridegroom keeping nothing back (C 27). He in turn teaches her “a sweet and living knowledge” (C 27.5). Overwhelmed, the bride is not yet satisfied and longs for deeper knowledge “deep into the thicket” (C. 36.10), where “she will know the sublime mysteries of God and human beings” (C. 37.2). Then she goes on “to the high caverns in the rock which are so well concealed” (C. 37.3), where she enjoys the knowledge, fruition, and delight of the love of God. This experience of mutual love and sharing has no name: “that which the vision of God is to the soul has no other name than ‘what’” (C. 38. 6). It is inexplainable, undiscoverable, until “the day of your eternity” when the soul will be “gloriously transformed in you.” For now, the soul is still in “a serene night” of contemplation, as she hears her Bridegroom calling her, and she is ready for “the glorious marriage of the Triumphant” (C. 40. 7).

Continuing this theme of how God is hidden in the spiritual journey, in future blogs I want to share on the topic “Where is God hidden,” and then “How do we encounter a hidden God.”

Some Reflections on the Spiritual Canticle

 

I would like to dedicate the next few blog postings to reflections on the Spiritual Canticle, one of John’s truly beautiful works of spirituality. The poem of the Spiritual Canticle is John of the Cross’ longest poem, probably his favorite, and the one that gives us a glimpse into his own spiritual journey while in prison in Toledo. He wrote thirty-one of the forty stanzas during his time in the Toledan prison with its oppression and darkness. Yet this poem speaks to us of liberation, beauty, and loving union. He gave more attention to the commentary than to any of his other works, and it is clearly one of the most important spiritual writings in the history of spirituality.

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

The Spiritual Canticle presents us with an invitation to give greater meaning to our lives, a meaning that comes from appreciation of a horizon of life beyond this one that gives meaning to this one. John is challenging, and we will need perseverance, since the early stages of the journey are not enough to satisfy desire and love. He calls us to seek the same experience he had; not more knowledge or information about God, but personal transformation and divination. This will mean leaving aside all that is not conducive to life with God and pursuing all that is of God. At a time when there are so many childish approaches to religion, John calls us to leave aside religion’s trivia and to mature as total human beings and to fulfill our destiny of life in union with God. The Spiritual Canticle reminds us that “now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Gal 4.9), you must open yourself to transformation. In the past we often wanted ourselves more than we wanted God, and we blocked God out of our lives. The Spiritual Canticle reminds us that God is the primary Lover and longs for us to give ourselves in union. It is one of the most thrilling presentations of humanity’s call and destiny; the great invitation of ultimate human fulfillment.

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

 

The Spiritual Canticle is an extraordinary poem and commentary, filled with the thrill, excitement, and longing of two lovers. At times it is fast-paced, moving with impatient love and longing, and at other times it is slow-paced, as the two lovers spend time enjoying each other’s company. John started the poem in prison in Toledo, and there are indications that this is John’s own journey of love (see C. 27.8; 28.8; 36.4). The poem begins with the lover’s cry of pain at perceived abandonment. “Why have you left me? Where have you hidden, my love? Why did you leave so soon after filling me with your love?” The first five verses describe painful purification in the lover’s yearnings and search. “Tell him I love so much that I am sick, I suffer, and I feel near death without him.” With verse six the scene changes from purification to illumination in contemplation. “This love-sickness I feel cannot be healed except by your presence, my love.” Spiritual betrothal starts with verse twelve, but the bride-to-be barely gets chance to yearn for deeper union before the bridegroom urges her to go back to further purification, telling her she is not ready for the union for which she longs. With verse twenty-two the period of spiritual marriage begins, “The bride has entered the sweet garden of her desire.” And from verse thirty-six we read of the final period of intense longing for full union in eternity. “Let us rejoice, my love, and go forward to behold ourselves in your beauty.”

As the Ascent of Mount Carmel and the Dark Night describe the spiritual journey as the maturing of faith, the Spiritual Canticle emphasizes the journey of love. Should you have interest in further study and prayerful reflection on the Spiritual Canticle, then please read my new book John of the Cross—The Spiritual Canticle: The Encounter of Two Lovers, available from amazon.com.

I would like to introduce a new series of books on St. John of the Cross. I have been working on these for over six years. This series presents introductions to each of the great works of John of the Cross. Each volume is a study guide to one of John’s major works and gives all the necessary background for anyone who wishes to approach this great spiritual writer with appropriate preparation in order to reap the benefits of one of the most challenging figures in the history of spirituality. Each book is a complete introduction offering background, history, knowledge, insight, and theological and spiritual analysis for anyone who wishes to immerse himself or herself into the spiritual vision of John of the Cross.

While targeted to the general reader these volumes would be helpful to anyone who is interested in the spiritual guidance of this saint. These books give insight into the critical components of spiritual life and can be helpful for anyone interested in his or her own spiritual journey. They could be helpful for the many people involved in the spiritual guidance of others, whether in spiritual direction, retreat work, chaplaincy, and other such ministries. Throughout these books the reader is encouraged to develop the necessary attitudes, enthusiasm, spiritual sensitivity, and contemplative spirit needed to benefit from these spiritual masterpieces of John of the Cross. Attentive reflection on these studies will encourage readers to have a genuine love for John of the Cross and his approach to the spiritual journey.

These books give historical, regional, and religious background rarely found in other introductory books on John of the Cross. They each present an abbreviated and accessible form of John’s great works. Later chapters in each book give John’s theological and spiritual insights that could be used for personal reflection and group discussion. Sections abound in quotes and references from John’s books and each sub-section can be used as the basis for daily meditation. The volumes complement each other, and together give the reader excellent foundation for reading the works of this great spiritual leader and saint.

Volume 1. John of the Cross: Your spiritual guide

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This unique book is written as if John of the Cross is speaking directly to the reader. It is a presentation by John of the Cross of seven sessions to a reader who has expressed interest in John’s life and teachings. This book introduces the great mystic and his teachings to his reader and to all individuals who yearn for a deeper commitment in their spiritual lives and consider that John could be the person who can guide them.

Table of contents

  1. John’s life as a contemporary life
  2. John as a spiritual guide
  3. John’s vision of the spiritual life
  4. Preparations for the spiritual journey
  5. Major moments and decisions in the spiritual life
  6. Necessary attitudes during the spiritual journey
  7. Celebrating the goal of the spiritual journey

 

Volume 2. The Dark Night is Our Only Light: A study of the book of the Dark Night by John of the Cross

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This introduction to the Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross gives all the necessary background for anyone who wishes to approach this great spiritual work with appropriate preparation in order to reap the benefits of one of the most challenging works in the history of spirituality. The book starts with the life of John of the Cross, identifying the dark nights of his own life. It provides the needed historical, religious, and personal background to appreciate and locate its content. It then presents readers with aids they can use to understand the work. With these preparations in mind the book moves on to present the stages of the spiritual life and the importance of the nights. A summary of John’s own work brings readers in direct contact with the challenges of the message and its application today. The book ends with 20 key questions that often arise when someone reads this book.

Table of contents

  1. John of the Cross and the dark nights of his own life
  2. Influences on John’s writing of the Dark Night
  3. Aids to reading the Dark Night
  4. Understanding the book of the Dark Night
  5. The book of the Dark Night by John of the Cross – a summary
  6. Five key spiritual challenges of the book of the Dark Night
  7. The dark night in contemporary life
  8. Twenty questions for John of the Cross and his book of the Dark Night

 

Volume 3. The Spiritual Canticle: The encounter of two lovers. An introduction to the book of the Spiritual Canticle by John of the Cross

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The book starts with the life of John of the Cross, showing how he was always a model of love in his own life, and how, guided by his own experience he became a teacher and later a poet of human and divine love. The book provides the needed historical, religious, and personal background to appreciate and locate its content. The book then presents the links between John’s Spiritual Canticle and Scripture’s love poem, the Song of Songs. A summary of John’s own work brings readers in direct contact with the challenges of the message and its application today. With these preparations in mind the book moves on to present the stages of the spiritual life and the importance of the journey of love. The book then focuses on key concepts in the Spiritual Canticle, applying each of them to contemporary situations. Finally it considers the images of God presented in the book and how they relate to the spiritual journey.

Table of contents

  1. John of the Cross: model of love and poet of love
  2. The Spiritual Canticle
  3. The Spiritual Canticle and the Song of Songs
  4. The Story of the Spiritual Canticle
  5. The dynamism of the spiritual life in the Spiritual Canticle
  6. Key concepts in the Spiritual Canticle (part I—God)
  7. Key concepts in the Spiritual Canticle (part II—the bride)
  8. The image of God in the Spiritual Canticle

Conclusion: The Spiritual Canticle and the search for union in love

I hope you will enjoy reading these new books and find them helpful in your understanding of the great works of John of the Cross and that they will also help you in your own spiritual life.

These books are all available from amazon.com

How we can approach the spiritual journey

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

We have been discussing how John approaches the spiritual journey. To begin with we need to remember growth in the spiritual life is primarily God’s work within us. We do not earn advancement by our efforts. Rather, we are being drawn to union in love by God who is the primary Lover. However, we do have to want this growth in loving union. In the Ascent of Mount Carmel John explained that some people do not advance along the path of virtue because “they do not want to enter the dark night or allow themselves to be placed in it” (A. Prologue.3). There are several reasons for this, including a person’s misunderstanding of the journey, the lack of adequate spiritual guidance, and unwillingness and resistance. John also pointed out that “God gives many souls the talent and grace for advancing, and should they desire to make the effort they would arrive at this high state. And so it is sad to see them continue in their lowly method of communion with God because they do not want or know how to advance” (A. Prologue.3).

So, the first step we can take is to want to progress to union with God in love. Many say they want this, but commitment to the journey is clearly not a priority for them. It is something in the back of their minds that they would like to accomplish but it is not the overriding desire of their lives. They travel all over seeking knowledge from gurus, pilgrimages, projects, media personalities, retreats, readings, and so on; travels that take them nowhere. In the poem, “One Dark Night,” John described the true seeker as “fired with love’s urgent longings” (stanza 1) and suggested that the strength of this love gives the courage and constancy to make this journey (A.1. 14.2). Then again, he described the lover at the start of the Spiritual Canticle as one filled “with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded with love for God” (C. 1.1).

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

 

Above is the famous saying of John that in the evening of life we will be judged on love. This is a quality needed throughout the spiritual journey.

So, if we want to make this journey to God we must have love-filled desire; we must want it more than anything else. When John speaks of desire he is describing an attitude that permeates every aspect of our personality. It is an existential yearning or longing to be who we are called to be and capable of becoming. When he says we need intense desire to complete this journey he is describing what is at the core of our own humanity, something we need to accomplish in order to find peace and fulfillment in life.

“Some people—and it is sad to see them—work and tire themselves greatly, and yet go backwards; they look for perfection in exercises that are no profit to them, but rather a hindrance” (A. Prologue. 7). They desire the wrong thing! If our desire is strong enough we will be willing to depart on this journey in darkness, setting an accurate direction to attain our goals. It means keeping our focus on “your Beloved whom you desire and seek” (C. 1.8). Desire will be with us at every moment of the journey. We need to keep in mind that we you are desiring what God wants for us—we cannot become attached to our own desire and our own way of fulfilling it.

Moreover, desire in itself is not enough, we must do something about it; we must do all we can to satisfy it. John stated this very firmly in the Spiritual Canticle. “Since the desire in which she seeks him is authentic and her love intense, she does not want to leave any possible means untried. The soul that truly loves God is not slothful in doing all she can to find the Son of God, her Beloved” (C. 3.1). This means engaging in all the efforts John described as characteristics of beginners who are truly longing for something more. So, let us remember that everything that is not focused on desire for God, or integrated into that desire, is a distraction. Unfortunately, for most people their desires are too small or are focused on the wrong object.

Each of us can ask ourselves what do I desire? What do I long for that I think will make me complete? What motivates my primary decisions each day? Sometimes we long for something so much that it takes God’s place in our lives. The Spiritual Canticle begins with this cry of longing, “Where have you hidden, Beloved?” and the lover proclaims, “Him I love most, tell him I am sick, I suffer, and I die.” We must follow this desire unceasingly, with deliberate and intense longing. This is part of our contribution to the preparations for this journey.