THE FIRE OF LOVE: REFLECTIONS ON THE SPIRITUALITY OF JOHN OF THE CROSS
A NEW BOOK ON THE CENTRAL TEACHINGS OF JOHN OF THE CROSS
Dear friends and enthusiastic followers of St. John of the Cross:
I would like to introduce to you my latest book on John of the Cross. In this current set of reflections I attempt to focus on the central aspect of all John’s works. He is known for his teachings on the dark night, his insights into faith, his views of the stages of the spiritual life, his profound analysis of the place of the three theological virtues in human growth, his enthusiastic and positive understanding of creation as a reflection of God, and so on. John of the Cross is also known for his challenging approach to spiritual growth and some commentators even call him “doctor del las nadas” (the doctor of the nothings) because of his presumed rigorous rejection of all that is not God. But the Church has proclaimed him the “Mystical Doctor,” and appreciates him as the great teacher of human and divine love and contemplation.
John of the Cross is one of the greatest teachers the world has ever known on the importance of love as the central value and meaning of life, and this is the focus of these current reflections. He teaches us about “the great God of love,” telling us “He whom my soul loves is within me,” and “nothing is obtained from God except by love.” He challenges us to make the journey to God, “along the spiritual road that leads to the perfect union with God through love.” Wisely he tells us that we have to travel “with no other light or guide than the one that burns in our hearts,” for it is “love alone that makes us soar to God,” for this needs to be “a journey of strong love.” There comes a point in this journey when we can say “nor have I any other work now that my every act is love,” because we know that “when evening comes we will be examined on love.” So, since “the ultimate reason for everything is love,” let us be careful and “where there is no love put love, and we will draw out love.” At the end of our journey, perhaps we can say with John “stricken by love, I lost myself and was found.”
I hope you will find this special book helpful in your spiritual journey. Use it daily for your meditation on the central values of John’s teachings and the heart of your own journey to God and to a deeper appreciation of the meaning of life.
This book is available at amazon.com
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?
This short book deals with some of the many concerns that people have today regarding their life of faith. There are three parts to the book. First, the book considers some of the many struggles that people must overcome in order to continue as people of faith. Nowadays, it is hard to believe and certainly difficult to distinguish between authentic faith and the clutter of secondary beliefs that confuse and misdirect people’s dedication and enthusiasm. So many believers put their energy into issues that were not primary concerns for Jesus. It is no use denying the problems we face in our society and churches. Rather, we must struggle to grow in faith in spite of the difficulties all around us—whether the growing irrelevance of religion, the worrying trends of social movements that simply use religious language for their political and social goals, or the politicizing of religion. We will have to purify these developments if faith is to survive. Second, if faith is to grow we will need to search for reasons to believe, consciously identifying those experiences that we see as glimpses of grace that strengthen faith. We often find that life is full of small things that we are convinced matter intensely, and passionately, and convincingly. These experiences give us hope and when shared in community strengthen our dedication, illumine our faith, and deepen our love in God’s self-communication. Third, in re-committing ourselves to the life that results from faith we nurture that life and discover that God in whom we believe draws us to a greater share in divine life through spiritual growth, deeper prayer, participation in the life of the Church, enriching energies of the soul, and deeper union with the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.
So, part I faces the struggles that challenge our faith, part II encourages us to keep focused on convincing reasons for faith, and part III insists we can find life and fulfillment in our dedication to God. I hope readers will find this book helpful in their own journeys to deeper faith.
Available on Amazon.com
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.
Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros
When undertaking our spiritual journey with John of the Cross we must not feel burdened by thoughts of the impossibility of making even the first steps. We are not struggling to move forward step by step. Rather we must be aware that God is drawing us to divine life. So, John urges us to have an attitude of confident response, for “God is the principal agent in this matter, and . . . acts as the blind man’s guide who must lead it by the hand to the place it does not know how to reach” (F. 3.29). The primary activity for us who seek God is not to place any obstacles in the way of God’s work of drawing us to union in love. So, this year, as we reflect on John’s call and challenges, let us take courage. Our responsibility includes letting God draw us in small steps, never allowing ourselves to go back, never overdoing it at first—just moving steadily and consistently in the one direction that matters. In these efforts, John can be our guide. “Our goal will be, with God’s help, to explain all these points, so that everyone who reads this book will in some way discover the road that they are walking along” (A. Prologue.7).
1. We all know that beginnings are always hard.
2. We have probably tried before and not done too well. Let us just move slowly, peacefully, confidently, step by step.
3. Teresa of Avila spoke about making this journey with “a determined determination.”
4. Let us pray for perseverance in sticking with this commitment to journey with John for a year.
CHALLENGES FOR TODAY
• Half-hearted responses will not help you on this journey.
• Remember Jesus’ stories about a man who started to build a tower and couldn’t finish it, and a king who started a war and couldn’t get organized. Make sure you desire to finish a job that you want to start.
• Pray for others who begin this journey with John in these readings and reflections.
In the months ahead I want to share readings and reflections that are for everyone who longs for a deeper spirituality. Too often John is mistakenly seen as elitist—a misunderstanding that has done a lot of harm, misinterpreted John, and excluded so many people of good will from the opportunities intended for them. John may have started by focusing on the members of the Carmelite Reform, but over time God’s Church recognized John’s gifts for everyone, declaring John a doctor of the universal Church. Why? Because John’s teaching is part of the universal call to holiness. You will find John’s teachings and their guidance and challenges in my selection of blogs for the next few months. Scholars today focus less on the intentions of a writer and more on the response of readers. This reader response criticism is what identifies an author’s true audience, and we know that more people read John of the Cross today than ever before. Thus, readers throughout the world have found in John answers to their needs and now claim John as their mentor and guide. Frequently, nowadays, good dedicated people stop short of what they could do in the spiritual life; they become easily satisfied with one popular writer or another. John of the Cross will challenge us much more than most. Let us give him the chance.
1. Let us give ourselves enthusiastically to these readings.
2. What spiritual needs do we have and who do we know can respond to them? Maybe John is our answer.
3. Let us hope that these readings and reflections may well lead us where we have always wanted to go.
4. As we begin our readings and reflections perhaps we will find John has answers we have been seeking.
CHALLENGES FOR TODAY
• Pray for openness to the Holy Spirit.
• Let John speak for himself; don’t merge his ideas with others’ views.
• Pray the Lord will keep your heart open to challenge.
We have been looking at some of the key themes in the Spiritual Canticle in recent blog postings. I would like to turn to consider and reflect on some ideas in the Living Flame of Love. In the prologue to the Living Flame of Love John says, “There is no reason to marvel at God granting such sublime and strange gifts” (F. Prologue .2). Many people who read and study John of the Cross can readily identify with the challenges and struggles he describes in climbing Mount Carmel. They can see their own dark experiences in his descriptions of the dark night of the soul. They can also identify with the longings for love and union in the encounter of the lovers in the Spiritual Canticle. Yet, many of these devotees of John of the Cross do not find themselves in the Living Flame of Love. It is simply not for them—so they think. They know it describes the final stage of the spiritual life and are convinced few ever get there and feel their time and energy are best spent on the struggles of the journey. However, there is something about the Living Flame that helps put everything else into focus and makes everything else worthwhile. John tells us what it is—get used to God’s generosity to us all.
A recent book on John of the Cross’ Living Flame of Love
The Living Flame describes how the Holy Spirit makes a person live in God. This transformation in the depths of one’s personality is an encounter with the mystery of God that gives one a new source of identity and destiny. In this poem and commentary, the person is on fire with love, inflamed in divine union, immersed in the revelations of the Trinity, and so gifted that only a veil separates him or her from complete union. Of course, no one earns this. It is God who draws us to divine life, for God always takes the initiative, being the primary Lover. It is the nature of God to be love and to love. Always moved by infinite love, it is of the essence of God to extend love—it is who God is. Salvation history describes God’s strategy of love for us all, and it tells us how God constantly takes a risk with us, sharing and inviting us to love. Moreover God’s gifts of love are not just for a small elite group. John reminds us that God “is not closefisted but diffuses Himself abundantly, as the sun does its rays, without being a respecter of persons” (F. 1.15). But, this is where John wants his readers to be real in appreciating God’s awesome gifts of love, and so he insists, “There is no need to marvel at God granting such sublime and strange gifts” (F. Prologue.2). “Do not wonder that God brings some souls to this high peak” (F. 2. 5). Really, “There is no need to be amazed” (F. 2.36). John wants his readers to get used to God acting in this way.