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.

 

God grants special gifts of love

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

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.

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

 

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–SHARING IN GOD’S BEAUTY

 

Every page of the Spiritual Canticle celebrates beauty. The bride rejoices in all aspects of creation, the mountains, lonely wooded valleys, strange islands, and so on. John shares with the bride the prayer of St. Francis, “My God and all things,” for she feels that all things are God (C. 14-15.5). John also sees God’s beauty in people, “Oh, then, soul, most beautiful of all creatures” (C. 1.7). For John, sin is the absence of beauty, and he looks at it with sadness rather than being judgmental. The spiritual journey is God’s progressive revelation of divine life to the bride, and she immerses herself more and more in the knowledge of her Lover. John shares his knowledge of this journey with his readers, fully aware that “not even they who receive these communications” are able to “describe. . . the understanding [God] gives to loving souls in whom he dwells” (C. Prologue.1). He agrees with theologians and philosophers that we know God primarily through the divine attributes, and he lists them in both the Ascent and the Living Flame (A. 2. 26.3, F. 3.2). “God in his unique and simple being is all the powers and grandeurs of his attributes. He is almighty, wise, and good; and he is merciful, just, powerful and loving, etc.; and he is the other infinite attributes and powers of which we have no knowledge” (F. 3.2). In the journey the bride not only knows these qualities of God but experiences them vitally, penetrating their meaning for her life. Mystics rarely add to the traditional list of divine attributes, but John singles out one attribute that was very special to him—divine beauty. He uses this word to describe God, always using the noun form hermosura (beauty) rather than the adjective hermoso (beautiful). This unusual description is not used analogically from the beauty of nature, but rather is clearly intended to refer to the inner being of God. Thus, the bride asks God “to show her his beauty, his divine essence” (C. 11.2). So, for John beauty is a divine attribute equivalent to the divine essence.

John's monastery in Segovia

John’s monastery in Segovia

In two passages John seems swept off his feet when he thinks of God’s beauty. In one of them he uses the word “beauty” twenty-four times in a single paragraph (C. 36.5) and in the other six times in four lines (C. 11.10). Mother Francisca de la Madre de Dios testified that on one of his visits to Beas, sometime in 1582-1584, John was carried away by the thought of the beauty of God and wrote five additional stanzas of the Spiritual Canticle on the beauty of God (36-40). People who study the mystics refer to the constant repetition of a concept as “mystical obsession.” In this case, John seems so overwhelmed by the thought of God’s beauty that it could be part of his own original experience of God.

Even in the early illuminative phase of contemplation the bride seeks the presence of God and identifies it as beauty, longing “to see him in his divine being and beauty.” In response to her longings, “God communicates to her some semi-clear glimpses of his divine beauty” (C. 11.4). This intensifies her longing for more intimate presence, but with this comes the awareness that such a vision is not possible, for human nature cannot endure such a revelation in this life. Thus, the bride cries “may the vision of your beauty be my death” (C. 11.16); she is willing to die to have the vision of God’s beauty. In the meantime she affirms her faith “which contains and hides the image and the beauty of her Beloved” (C. 12.1), just a sketch of the reality. She experiences God’s beauty all around her (C. 24.6) and longs to see herself in the beauty of God (C. 37.1). Her lovesickness climaxes in the ecstatic cry for union in eternity: “Let us rejoice, Beloved, and let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty” (C. v.36).

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

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.

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE–KEY THEMES 4: GOD VALUES STRONG LOVE

 

From the beginning of both poem and commentary for the Spiritual Canticle, the bride’s love is very strong, she is determined in her approach to her Beloved, and she is clearly willing to do and endure whatever it takes to find union in his love. She knows her obligations, appreciates the dynamics of salvation history, is well aware of her indebtedness to God, and saddened by the evil and harm she sees in the world (C. 1.1). During the experiences of this journey her love will mature as she learns to let go of false loves and to discover new ways of loving (C. 1.2). However, from the first step she does everything under the powerful motivation of strong love (C. 1.2) and with readiness to persevere in her love and sacrifice everything else to gain or receive it (C. 1.13). To her initial determined self-gift and self-forgetfulness she adds acceptance of the burning pain that her Lover’s treatment causes. “She loves him more than all things when nothing intimidates her in doing and suffering for love of him whatever is for his service” (C 2.5).

Soon after her relationship begins and she thinks loving union is close at hand, she discovers that “love seems unbearably rigorous with the soul” (C 1.18) and that true love includes purification of all appetites, focus of intellect, will, and memory, mortification and penance, spiritual exercises, and the reception of God’s gifts in contemplation. Intense love such as this requires freedom and fortitude, “Since seeking God demands a heart naked, strong, and free from all evils and goods that are not purely God” (C. 3.5). The soul finds some solace is feeling filled with love on seeing traces of her Beloved in the beauty of the world and cries out “If up to this time I could be content with [indirect knowledge], because I did not have much knowledge or love of you, now the intensity of my love cannot be satisfied with these messages; therefore: ‘Now wholly surrender yourself!’” (C. 6.6).

The soul continues to surrender herself to her Beloved, to love him in every way she can, and to continue to prepare herself to love more purely and intensely. She pleads for healing which can only come from love, and she continues her fight against temptations and disturbances caused by the world, the devil, and the flesh. In this period the soul needs steadfastness and courage, bravery against all fears, and strength to persevere. When the soul is in the midst of the darkness and voids of her struggles, the Bridegroom sends her signs of his love, “divine rays with such strong love and glory” (C. 13.1). Thus, he repays her surrender and strong love with his strong love, and he continues to do this, adapting his visits of intense love to the intensity of her love (C. 13.2). At this time of intense burning love, the Holy Spirit comes to her in contemplation as a refreshing breeze that both cools and inflames her love. “As a breeze cools and refreshes a person worn out by the heat, so this breeze of love refreshes and renews the one burning with the fire of love” (C. 13.12).