In journeying with John desire only what God wants of you 7

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Statue of John of the Cross in Salamanca. During his studies here John discovered God’s will for him

It is important as we spend a little time each day with John of the Cross that we maintain a clearly focused commitment. A key attitude in one who makes this journey is to want to reach the goal of a deeper spirituality. A lot of people say they want to pursue a deeper spiritual life and seek union with God but they do not have the necessary attitudes. We must match our longing with readiness to be drawn by God. Perhaps the one great attitude needed to benefit from this year with John of the Cross is that we who seek this transformation must above all desire that God be everything for us. This is a time when we who pursue God give ourselves totally with fidelity and stability, wanting nothing except what God wants and doing nothing except what God wants. John tells us; “What does it profit you to give God one thing if He asks of you another? Consider what God wants, and then do it” (S. 95). God must be everything to the person who approaches this stage. It is a fundamental attitude of directing the whole of life to God and centering all one does on God alone.

1. Let us begin to make our own the challenge that John gives later in the journey: “Everything I do I do with love, and everything I suffer I suffer with the delight of love” (C. 28.8).
2. The end of our journey will include the total union of our desires with God’s, so let’s start by wanting this now.
3. Let us be honest with ourselves and say whether we really want the end of this journey.
4. We are beginning a difficult climb; are we ready to accept the struggles that lie ahead?

CHALLENGES FOR TODAY
• How much of your life is given to God?
• What do you want to do with the rest of your life?
• What does God want of you in these days?

 

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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.

 

A new year with St. John of the Cross

For various reasons I have been unable to write my blog for several months. So, let’s make a new start and begin a year together focusing on reflections about John of the Cross. I look forward to continuing them in the months ahead focusing on  a special year with St. John of the Cross. In this year with St. John of the Cross we will read and reflect on his life, ministry, spiritual direction, spirituality, as well as selections from all his works, short and long. The readings and reflections will introduce us to all these, as well as comments from many leading writers and commentators on John. This year will be an opportunity to immerse ourselves in the spirituality of John of the Cross.

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The area around the Monastery of John in Segovia–the monastery is on the left

I took this photo from the walls of the Castle of Segovia looking down on the residential area below. The church in the center right is now of the Knights Templar. John’s church and monastery are center left. John was the superior here for several years. One of his spiritual directees was Dona Ana de Penalosa for whom John wrote both the poem and commentary on the Living Flame of Love, and she left her palace and took up residence in one of the houses in the picture. She and her husband are buried in the church. 

Throughout the year we should keep in mind the importance of appreciating the entire spiritual system of John, which is reflected in all of his works. Likewise we should see the links between John’s various works, know something of the historical background and times of John, and be sensitive to his use of mystical language. When reading John’s works we must avoid entering them with prejudice from former false understandings of John. We should read his writings directly, often, and reflectively, and try to enter into dialogue with John. We should appreciate the unique focus and message of each of his works, remember the central significance of his poetry, and above all be sure to interpret his message for today.

 

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The Church of the Segovia Monastery

This is the church of the monastery in Segovia where John of the Cross is buried. Next to it is the shrine of Fuencisla where the Madonna was honored even before John’s time and still is today.

Reflection Points

1. This year is an opportunity for each of us to respond to John’s call and challenge like never before—to dedicate ourselves to life with God in Christ.
2. Perhaps in the past we may have dabbled a little with John’s life and works. This year can be an integrated approach.
3. If we are faithful to these daily readings and reflections they can transform our approach to spirituality.
4. Let us prepare our hearts for the reflections that lie ahead.

CHALLENGES FOR TODAY

• Pray for openness to the challenges of this year.
• Ask God to prepare you for the unexpected.
• Think about sharing these reflections in a group.

The Holy Spirit and Strong Love

The Holy Spirit fills the person with strong and unitive love in two ways: as a permanent presence, a habit of love, and as an enflaming of love in intense acts. As a person is thus transformed, all his or her actions cease to be his or her own for it is the Holy Spirit who now makes them and moves the person to union with God. These acts of love perfect a person in a short time, fortifying him or her in love (F. 1.33). John Welch explains this beautifully. “[W]hen the human spirit is transformed in a deep union of love with the Holy Spirit, motivation for our love shifts. The motivation for our love is no longer in us but now is in God. We now love but essentially do not have the reason for our love. The intention for our love has now moved, so to speak, into God. We love without knowing why; we simply love, and can do nothing but love. In our love, God is loving God and God’s world. ‘. . . The soul here loves God, not through itself but through Him’” (When Gods Die, p. 63).  John tells us that a person feels this love in the very substance of his or her soul, in the deepest center of the human spirit. It is this stronger love and more unitive love that leads the person to God. “[L]ove is the soul’s inclination, strength, and power in making its way to God, for love unites it with God. The more degrees of love it has, the more deeply it enters into God and centers itself in Him” (F. 1.13).

The Living Flame challenges us to think about human existence in a different way. Life and growth is what God is doing in us. God desires to share divine life with us, to communicate a new way of living and loving, and to establish an intimate relationship with each of us. We are called to live the life of God. If we can only remove obstacles to God’s actions within us, then God is free to transform us into who we are intended to be, created to be. The psalmist reminds us that this steadfast love of God is precious, it is better than any other aspect of life (Ps 63.3). This transforming love of the Holy Spirit in this living flame gladdens a person’s heart and allows him or her to enjoy “the glory of God’s glory in likeness and shadow” (F. 3.16). The person possesses God in love and is possessed by God’s love.

 

Four aspects of love

 

The Living Flame describes four aspects of the final stage in spiritual life, spiritual marriage, which John presented in the Spiritual Canticle (stanzas 22-35). To attain this fullness of union, John’s doctrine is clear—nada, nothing. The Ascent and the Dark Night purify in view of a union of love. They describe a transformation that takes place in contemplation when we become receptive to God’s activity within us, when God purifies our false desires, false loves, and false gods and fills us with an inflow of God’s love. One’s capacity for this love depends on the exclusive and integrated focus of every aspect of one’s life. Prior to spiritual marriage the bride already evidenced love and surrender to her Bridegroom (C. 22.5), “but a singular fortitude and a very sublime love are also needed for so strong and intimate embrace from God” (C. 20-21.1). The Spiritual Canticle describes how the bride makes a complete surrender of herself to love, how she is “dissolved” in “such supreme and generous love” (C. 27.2). This loving union transforms a person and unites his or her will to God. This is a time of mutual surrender, profound communication, and total dedicated devotion to God’s service (C. 28.3). The bride declares “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). Towards the end of his description of spiritual marriage in the Spiritual Canticle John tells us how God values the bride’s love because it is strong, and he adds, “this is why he loved her so much, he saw that her love was strong. . . alone and without other loves” (C. 31.5). A major change has taken place in this communion of love, “God here is the principal lover, who in the omnipotence of his fathomless love absorbs the soul in himself” (C. 31.2). From now on the bride’s love will be God’s loving in her, “so firmly united with the strength of God’s will, with which he loves her, that her love for him is as strong and perfect as his love for her” (C. 38.3).

What the Living Flame makes clear is that this transformation in love in the very depths of a person is the work of the Holy Spirit, who wounds the soul with the tender love of God. John uses the term “wound of love” often, especially in the Spiritual Canticle. Generally, it describes the pain the bride experiences in her unfulfilled longings to be with her Lover. We all experience profound pain at the absence of someone we love intensely, a spouse, friend, parent, child, and so on. It is the empty space in our hearts that should be filled but is now empty. We feel the pain even more when we think about our loss. Sometimes this wound of love results from partial presence which instead of satisfying us leaves us in greater pain at a sense of absence and increases desire to be with someone. The more we experience and reflect on these partial presences the more we feel wounded with 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.