KEY THEMES IN THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: 3–NURTURING DESIRE

 

We should always identify the desires of our lives. Desire is the human response to what will make us complete. It shows us the direction of a pilgrimage we undertake to find fulfillment, to find ourselves, to find the love for which we were created. This yearning within us cries out, “show me what my soul has been seeking” (C. v.38). Once we identify the desire of life, it becomes the motivating force for all we do.

As we pursue desire with single-minded dedication, we must first of all purify our desires. Our desires define us. We seek something or someone so intensely it takes the place of God. When we abandon all false desires, false gods, we lose ourselves and find our true selves (C. v.29). We must undertake this journey with excitement and enthusiasm and let nothing digress or distract us. “A characteristic of the desires of love is that all deeds and words unconformed with what the will loves will weary, tire, annoy, and displease the soul as she beholds her desire goes unfulfilled” (C. 10.5). Some grow weary in this journey and many abandon the effort. We must follow our desire unceasingly, with deliberate and intense longing.

Let your heart be drawn by God. Desire is placed in our hearts by God who longs to satisfy our desire more than we do. God is the prime Lover who has placed this yearning within us. He calls us personally, fills the world with reminders of his love, illumines us, and transforms us in contemplation.

Appreciate the signposts that direct to desire. We are immersed in God’s love. All around us are signs that help us clarify and intensify our desire. We see traces of the love we seek in creation, in God’s works, wonders, and decrees, in other human beings and in the spiritual world—all reminding us of the intensity of desire for the source of all this love. These signs of our Lover’s desire nurture our hearts, constantly communicate to us, and let us know where true love lies. Even our own initial desires, and more so as they grow, act as messengers showing us both what our hearts desire and also what the Beloved longs for. This illumination from creatures produces immense appreciation and love of God and a resulting intense impatient love.

Only a life of love satisfies desire. John makes us aware of deep desires that we have, a hunger that cannot be satisfied except we make this journey of love. Following our desire means learning how to love until we find “the perfection of love . . . [and] complete refreshment therein” (C. 9.7). As we follow our desire God teaches us to love with the very strength with which God loves us (C. 38.4).

A YEAR WITH JOHN OF THE CROSS: 365 daily readings and reflections

A UNIQUE OPPORTUNITY TO SPEND A YEAR WITH SAINT JOHN OF THE CROSS.


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This book, A Year with St. John of the Cross, offers 365 daily readings and reflection. 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 in this book will introduce readers to all these, as well as comments from many leading writers and commentators on John. This year will be an opportunity for readers to immerse themselves in the spirituality of John of the Cross. Each day offers a focused reading, four key reflections, and three specific challenges for the day.

For those who are enthusiastic supporters of St. John of the Cross, and for others who wish to discover new and substantial paths in their spiritual journey, this book is a one-of-a-kind opportunity to encounter John and his challenges like never before.

Let your reading of this new book be your personal journey with John of the Cross, or you may decide to share your reflections with close friends who, like you, see John of the Cross as their spiritual guide. You could decide to form a group to help each other, even sharing of Facebook or Twitter to urge each other on.

One of the main uses of the book is to help readers who do not have ready access to a spiritual director. These readings and reflections my help fill that gap. For many, spiritual direction is a luxury and finding a competent spiritual director as difficult as John of the Cross suggested it would be. Many need to find alternative solutions and substitutions. Maybe these readings and reflections will help.

I hope you will find this special book helpful in your spiritual journey.

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This new book id available from amazon.com

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE –KEY THEMES: 1–Love-filled desire

 

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

The poem of the Spiritual Canticle begins with a cry of intense unfulfilled longing and desire (C. v.1) and ends with the bride proclaiming that she has found what she has been seeking and desiring (C. v.38). The commentary begins with the bride who “with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded with love for God” (C. 1.1) calls out to her unseen Beloved. It ends beyond spiritual marriage when the bride pleads “with the desire that he transfer her from spiritual marriage . . . to the glorious marriage of the Triumphant” (C. 40.7). The Spiritual Canticle is a poem of lovesick desire, wounded desire, and love-filled desire. Both poem and commentary pulsate with intense desire, draw us into this profound yearning for fulfillment, and leave us, too, inflamed with desire for God. In the first twelve verses the bridegroom never speaks, we hear only the bride’s cries of anxious search; nothing really exists of importance except her desire to find her Lover.

The initial advice for the bride is quite simple: “your desired Beloved lives hidden in your heart . . . strive to be really hidden with him, and you will embrace him within you and experience him with loving affection” (C. 1.10). She soon finds it is not that simple, for the Beloved comes and goes with the swiftness of a stag, showing himself and then hiding (C. 1.15). His visits are moments of loving encounter, wounds of love, that increase the bride’s desire to be with her Beloved, but he departs and she suffers pain and sorrow in his absence (C. 1.16). He leaves her suffering with love, incomplete and dying with desire for a more perfect loving union. “So extreme is this torment that love seems to be unbearably rigorous with the soul” (C. 1.18). She cries “but you were gone” and feels abandoned, suspended with no supports, and in need of the healing presence of her Lover. She appreciates the tastes of love he gives her, but rather than satisfy her desire they intensify her suffering and increase her longing (C. 1.22). “The loving soul lives in constant suffering at the absence of her Beloved, for she is already surrendered to him and hopes for the reward of that surrender: the surrender of the Beloved to her. Yet he does not do so” (C. 1.21).

The bride turns to creation and there finds traces of the beauty of her Beloved (C. 6.1), but seeing her Beloved in the beauty of the world only leads to greater desire to be in his presence; it is a sickness only union can heal. She has this same response to revelations of her Beloved through other rational beings. Eventually her desire leads her to insist: “You have communicated by means of others, as if joking with me; now may you do so truly, communicating yourself by yourself” (C 6.6). Her desire remains unsatisfied, in fact intensifies; “she is dying of love” “wounded with vehement love,” and feels so restrained in this bodily life (C. 8.2). This is because she realizes that “the soul lives where she loves more than in the body she animates,” and as a result she “never stops seeking remedies for her sorrow,” claiming “why since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?” (C. 9.1).

Transformation in love

I would like to add a few thought to the last posting that dealt with transformation. John says that transformation in love takes place in the inner wine cellar, “the last and most intimate degree of love in which the soul can be placed in this life” (C. 26.3). It corresponds to the last stage in the development of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, this transformation in love is also the transformation of one’s spiritual faculties, all now focused on the love of God. As God communicates the divine life a person becomes one, so immersed in the values of God that nothing else matters, no worldly values, not even oneself (C. 26.14). In simple contemplative union a person is completely purified and transformed in love (C. 26.17).

Night over Toledo where John discovered God's love.

Night over Toledo where John discovered God’s love.

 

As God communicates self with genuine love, the soul and God are bound to each other in mutual surrender. “And since he transforms her in himself, he makes her entirely his own and empties her of all she possesses other than him” (C. 27.6). As spiritual betrothal was a preparation for spiritual marriage, the latter becomes a preparation for one’s total transformation into the beauty of divine wisdom when one becomes like the Beloved. This takes place in the next life when she can enter with Christ into the deepest caverns of the mysteries of God. “The soul, then, earnestly longs to enter these caverns of Christ in order to be absorbed, transformed, and wholly inebriated in the love of the wisdom of these mysteries” (C. 37.5). This she knows is not possible in this life. She wants the perfection of God’s love for her and her love for God; a total communion in eternity. So, now “she desires the clear transformation of glory in which she will reach this equality” (C. 38.3). Transformation ends in consummated, perfect, and strong love. “This is transformation in the three Persons in power and wisdom and love, and thus the soul is like God through this transformation” (C. 39.4).

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

 

This transformation includes experiencing the wonders of God’s life and designs, what the bride calls the indescribable “what” of joy in eternity. It will include knowing and experiencing the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit, joy in the fullness of life in God, appreciation of the harmony of creation, contemplation of the divine essence, and total transformation in love (C. 38-39). The poem ends with the bride longing for this eternal union in love; she is detached and withdrawn, evil put to flight, passions subjected, sensory part reformed, and her entire being participating in the goods of the Bridegroom to the soul. Her transformation in this life is complete and she is ready for the union of eternity.

 

Another key theme from the Spiritual Canticle: Transformation

God’s call and gift of transformation is the goal of the spiritual journey and it takes place in spiritual marriage for which all the rest of the Spiritual Canticle is a preparation. It then continues in eternity through deeper union and the revelation of the divine mysteries. Transformation takes place in contemplation when we become receptive to God’s activity within us, as God purifies our false desires and false gods and fills us with an inflow of divine love. We never earn or achieve transformation, but what we can do is endeavor with God’s grace to conform our will to the divine. It starts with God’s self-gift and we then respond by changing our lives and developing virtues. Although it is a gift, we can ready ourselves to receive this God-given transformation.

Following the ascetical and illuminative phases of the spiritual journey one  enters the stage of spiritual betrothal, the final preparatory stage before spiritual marriage. Once this preparation is complete, “the soul is purified, quieted, strengthened, and made stable that it may be able to receive permanently this divine union, which is the divine espousal between the soul and the Son of God” (N.2. 24.3). In this preparation through contemplation the soul is passive. This is God’s work of readying a person for his love. Individuals cooperate by placing no obstacles in the way and even this preparation of positive dispositions is only possible with God’s help.

The goal of the spiritual journey is transformation that teaches us true love.  This implies removing false loves, controlling all faculties, focusing everything on the love of God, and becoming more and more like him in love. Transformation can be viewed in different ways as a progressive immersion in love, an ever deeper communication of divine life, a union with the Beloved in love, a mutual surrender, an identification of the bride with her Lover.

In the transformation of spiritual marriage the bride possesses her Lover and is possessed by him. This state differs from spiritual betrothal in so far as “it is a total transformation in the Beloved, in which each surrenders the entire possession of self to the other with a certain consummation of the union of love” (C. 22.3). The union is so intimate that both appear to be God. In this union, the Bridegroom transforms his bride by endowing her with gifts and virtues, giving her union, perfect love, and spiritual peace. He establishes mutuality in love, protects her from all threats, grants her habitual tranquility, and makes her equal to him in love—thus she enjoys a union of likeness with her Beloved (C. 24). The bride thus transformed in the intimacy of love enjoys these gifts in the very depths of her being. This union leads her to forgetfulness and withdrawal from all that is not conducive to this intimate love and control of all desires and pleasures in anything other than God. Now, all is enjoyed in God.

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.

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).