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.

 

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TAKE COURAGE TO BEGIN THI SYEAR WITH JOHN OF THE CROSS 3

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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.

 

 

Drawn by a Vision (A reflection by Helen Doohan)

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Church built on the home of John of the Cross in Fontiveros

John’s early life was marked by transition from one place to another because of family circumstances. From Fontiveros, where he was born, to Arevalo and then Medina del Campo where he spent many years, travel, transitions and new encounters characterized his formative years. Catalina was rejected by her husband’s family after his death and so she made the arduous journeys in search of work, education for her sons and a better life. Although never far from extreme poverty, she instilled the values of love, compassion, generosity, and care for others within the family. John benefited from her emphases throughout his life.

 Both Catalina and John were drawn by a vision of something better for themselves and the family. Yet they had to embrace hardship, rejection and suffering, growing and maturing because of these experiences. A vision always draws us out of ourselves. A positive and compelling vision enables us to accept difficulties along the way because they lead to growth.

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A modern interpretation of John of the Cross on display in the museum in Ubeda where John died

 In our world today we see the extraordinary movement of people from Mexico, Central America, Syria, Afghanistan, northern Africa and other war torn countries. Poverty, lack or opportunity, destruction and death force people to make hard decisions and to travel to new places. Something draws them – a vision of a better life for family and friends, opportunities for work and education, safety and security. The vision I speak about is for basic human life and values. But we do not have these, how do we even begin to have a vision of the spiritual and the transcendent?

 Taking such steps to move into the unknown, as did so many of our ancestors, prepares us for the courage necessary to live a life open to radical transformation. John’s humble beginnings and his family’s search, drawn by a vision, prepared him for the outstanding life he lived in love and service to others. It also enabled him to see the possibilities for union with God and for a vital and reformed Carmel. We can only pray that today’s migrants will move to a greater vision. And we can hope that we too will be drawn by the light and love of the Christian message.

 

 

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.

The Contemporary Challenge of St. Teresa of Avila: A new book

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This book is an introduction to the life and teachings of Saint Teresa of Avila. It is a collection of notes and reflections taken from material I have presented in courses and workshops on St. Teresa over many years and in many countries to people from all walks of life who see Teresa’s teachings on prayer as the vision and guidance they long for. This book on The Contemporary Challenge of Saint Teresa of Avila is an introduction to her life and writings and readers should use it as a companion to the careful and prayerful reading of Teresa’s own writings for it is in no way a substitute for reading her works. I hope these notes and reflections will introduce readers to this giant in the history of spirituality and one of the greatest teachers of prayer that the world has ever known.

This book is a companion to an earlier book, The Contemporary Challenge of St. John of the Cross which was used extensively by individuals and groups as an introduction to St. John of the Cross’ life and teachings. It was also used by many in formation programs. This current book on Teresa may well fulfill similar goals.

 

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.