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).

KEY THEMES IN SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: 2–THE NATURE OF DESIRE IN JOHN OF THE CROSS

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Desire is not easily satisfied. When John speaks of desire he is describing an attitude of the whole person, an existential yearning or longing to be who we are called to be, who we need to be in order to find peace and fulfillment in life. When John speaks of desire he is describing what is at the core of our humanity. The desire he describes is the cry of humanity for fulfillment in the union of love.

Desire’s original focus is on “your Beloved whom you desire and seek” (C. 1.8). Having fallen in love the desire is now for a deeper experience of something that has already happened. Since the soul has already been swept off her feet by her Lover her journey is always painful at her loss, but the pain is tolerable because of her confidence in her Lover’s fidelity. As the search develops, “It seems to the soul that its bodily and spiritual substance is drying up with thirst for this living spring of God.” She feels her desire can only end when “she could plunge into the unfathomable spring of love” (C. 12.9). Being with one’s Lover is the only thing that matters—to lose oneself for the Beloved and to lose interest in all creatures. “And this is to love herself purposely, which is to desire to be found” (C. 29.10).

We then respond to desire within our own hearts. The desire John presents is the human heart seeking meaning and fulfillment and finding them in love. It is no use seeking fulfillment in the accumulation of desires outside ourselves. “Do not go in pursuit of him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and wearied thereby, and you shall not find him, or enjoy him more securely, or sooner, or more intimately than by seeking him within you” (C. 1.8). So, desire is fulfilled in the interior recollection of our own hearts, for our Lover resides within. “Desire him there, adore him there” (C. 1.8) for he whom your soul loves is within you.

These visits of love intensify desire. While our desire seems at times to burn us up, we also quickly see it is God who desires the love relationship and he is the first Lover. So, God visits the soul frequently during her desire-filled search for her Lover. However, she experiences these visits of love with joy and excitement, but also with pain. In fact, her desire is not fulfilled nor even calmed by these visits. Rather, she experiences them as wounds in her heart—wounds of love that cause a longing for total love. So, these visits of love are not simply refreshing experiences offered by her Lover. “He bestows these to wound more than heal and afflict more than satisfy, since they serve to quicken knowledge and increase appetite (consequently the sorrow and longing) to see God” (C. 1.19)

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

The soul tries every means to satisfy desire. Desire by itself is not enough, we must do something about it, we must do all we can to satisfy it. “Since the desire in which she seeks him is authentic and her love intense, she does not want to leave any possible means untried. The soul that truly loves God is not slothful in doing all she can to find the Son of God, her Beloved” (C. 3.1). Among the primary means are the uprooting of false loves, the practice of virtues, and the spiritual exercise of active and contemplative life. Everything that is not focused on desire for God is a distraction. We must be careful for we become our desires and for the most of us our desires are too small. Fortunately, the night is the death of all false desires, all false gods. The search is filled with “a thousand displeasures and annoyances” (C. 10.3) that can easily distract the search and this demands constant effort. Desiring to reach God in spiritual marriage, “it is necessary for her to attain an adequate degree of purity, fortitude, and love” (C. 20-21.2).

Desire is for greater love and union, from early stages of love and excitement in pursuing her Lover, through periods of pain and loss at his absence, and on to spiritual betrothal and marriage. “The loving soul, however great her conformity to the Beloved, cannot cease longing for the wages of her love . . . the wages of love are nothing else . . . than more love, until perfect love is reached” (C. 9.7). The soul is filled with impatient love that allows no rest, no delays in the ongoing pursuit of greater love. Desire for deeper love and union is what propels and motivates the soul in her ceaseless pursuit of her Lover. This intense desire focuses on seeking the beauty and essence of God. “Reveal your presence, and may the vision of your beauty be my death” (C. 11. 1-2).

 

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

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).

 

Key concepts–the hiddenness of God

Where is God hidden?     

Night over Toledo where John discovered God's love.

Night over Toledo where John discovered God’s love.

 

John says that “The good contemplative must seek God with love’ (C 1.6). But where does one find God. In the Spiritual Canticle John gives several indications.

We find God in the revelation of the Son. “The Son is the only delight of the Father, who rests nowhere else nor is present in any other than in his beloved Son” (C. 1.5).We are all like the lover of the poem who seeks God but finds God always seems distant when we want to be close. God is hidden but we can find God as long as we understand that even when we find God it will still be in hiddenness.

In addition to the Son’s revelations, the primary experience in which the Trinity is discoverable is in the depths of our own hearts. “It should be known that the Word, the Son of God, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is hidden by his essence and his presence in the innermost being of the soul” (C. 1.6). God is within everyone by divine essence. God is never absent from us, for in each of us there is a center which is naturally divine.

God is even hidden in the divine gifts of presence, whether by essence, grace, or spiritual affection. Even these are hidden, for “God does not reveal himself as he is, since the conditions of this life will not allow such a manifestation” (C. 11.3). God’s hiding place is within us not outside us; “you yourself are his dwelling and his secret inner room and hiding place” (C. 1.7). So, we should not go searching for God elsewhere, outside of ourselves, but find God within. Nearness to God inflames greater love, reveals the Beloved, but reminds one he is more hidden than revealed (see C. 13.1). Even when the soul gets close she is told she is not ready for union and receives glimpses and intense longings, but is still told to go back (C. 13.2). No matter our own efforts, God remains hidden, and we need to appreciate the need for purification, emptiness, and receptivity.

God is sometimes hidden in the communications we receive and in the concepts we have. We must cultivate an absolute conviction of divine transcendence and let God be who God wishes to be for us. While the full revelation of God only comes in the next life, God is within our hearts but hidden. To find God we must leave aside every other interest, thus uncovering both God and our true selves. Often this means we must be aware that spiritual communications can be more our own images than God’s. We must go beyond the normal objects of the faculties—intellectual knowledge, memories, and limited desires (C. 1. 12-13).

We find God still hidden in faith and we continue to seek God in faith, love, and unknowing, leaving aside all former knowledge, understanding, activities of faculties, and satisfactions (C. 1. 10-11). Often we can see better in darkness. “Only by means of faith, in divine light exceeding all understanding, does God manifest Himself to the soul” (A.2. 9.1).

God is hidden even in the touches of love given to the soul; they communicate, reveal, and wound, but they hide, too. “The soul experiencing this love exclaims: ‘Why do you leave it so,’ that is, empty, hungry, alone, sorely wounded and sick with love” (C. 9.6). In verse ten she goes on to insist, “Extinguish these miseries, since no one else can stamp them out.” In the resulting love-sickness God both reveals and remains hidden. “The reason for this is that the love of God is the soul’s health, and the soul does not have full health until love is complete” (C. 11.11).

Sometimes God is hidden because we continue to look at our own false images of God. We must remove these false gods in the dark night. Clinging to our own knowledge, memories, and loves blocks a genuine revelation of God. Even religion’s certainty does not lead us to truth, and a healthy insecurity and doubt concerning contemporary religion’s many declarations can open us to the unseen world that can lead us to God. Our knowledge impedes God’s self-revelation.

We can also see that the depressing misery of our world can hide our appreciation of God, but God’s future, our hope, overwhelms and overcomes the misery and even gives meaning to what seems increasingly meaningless. Part of our contemporary misery is that we have become skilled at concealing truth, hiding from our own consciences, and blocking God’s communication.

 

 

Dynamism of the spiritual life–John’s integrated vision

STAGES IN THE SPIRITUAL LIFE

When John of the Cross writes any of his works his system of spiritual development is already complete, at least in his own mind. He may write other works later, but these are explanations for others not for him. Everyone lives based on convictions that form a systematic way of approaching life—whether they realize it or not, whether they can articulate it or not. John has a very clear understanding of the systematic development of the spiritual life and how each part relates to others in a progressive development. Part of John’s genius is his ability to see the whole picture. Thus, he can refer to a dark night, a guiding night, and a night more lovely than the dawn. He can see suffering as an integral part of total transformation. He may start by saying “I went out unseen,” “I went out calling you,” and “tear through the veil,”—all first steps in the journey whose challenges, blessings, and end he already knows. So, when John writes to his directees he locates his advice within the context of the systematic development of the spiritual life (see L. 3 and 13, S. 19, 23, 25).

JOHN WRITES WITH AN AWARENESS OF ALL THE STAGES

There are other signs that John sees a specific purpose for each step in the whole development process; he appreciates the various stages in the spiritual life. He speaks of the benefits of the nights when he has already moved on to something better, and thus no longer feels the burden but the resulting joy. “One dark night, . . . ah, the sheer grace!” “This glad night and purgation causes many benefits, even though to the soul it seemingly deprives it of them” (N.1. 12.1). This ability to see the overall picture also gives rise to the sometimes contrasting reactions of John and his directees, real or literary. Beginners rejoice in their initial consolations, but John is saddened by their lowly state. Those in the passive night suffer, while John, knowing what is really happening, can rejoice. A further sign of the presence of a system in John’s works is his continual use of parenthetical remarks to clarify what is happening. Some asides refer to what lies ahead (A.2. 5.1), others to stages already passed (F. 1.18; C. Theme.1).

STAGES MODELED ON GOD’S JOURNEY TO US

While his major works refer to our return journey to God, John is also very clear about what precedes our journey to God, namely, God’s journey to us, brilliantly described in the “Romances.” Our journey to God is modeled on God’s journey to us. John is always aware of God’s strategy of love, both in coming to us and in drawing us to divine life. John is a wonderful guide; he knows the major steps in our journey even though they may not be entirely predictable, nor identical for all. But a prudent guide like John knows the key moments in our journey to God; he already knows possible pitfalls, challenges, moments of rest, and the ecstasy of the end.

VARIOUS INTERPREATIONS

Some disciples of John see his system as a modification of Pseudo-Denis the Areopagite’s division of the spiritual journey into three stages: beginners, proficient, and perfect, corresponding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive phases of spiritual growth. John accepts these stages, but stresses the transitions from one to the other in the night of sense and the night of spirit.

Others feel John’s system starts with individuals who have already made a decisive commitment to God and hence he excludes the preliminaries of spiritual preparation and focuses on the means to the end of union with God. The means are the nights seen in three steps: 1. the active night of sense, 2. the active night of spirit and the passive night of sense taken together as two aspects of the same experience, and 3. the passive night of spirit.

CHALLENGES OF JOHN

A simple way of understanding John’s thought which is the secret of his own life and his system is to view life as a dynamic development in three fundamental phases: the relentless pursuit of God, the willingness to endure the nights, and the discovery of union with God which is also the total renewal of self. In this view, the spiritual journey implies emptying ourselves of all that is not God, so that we can be filled with what is truly of God. For John the focus is not on the negative aspects of the means but on the enthusiasm for the end in transformative love. In fact, the whole system is nothing except decisions of choice-oriented love, always choosing what is the most loving thing to do; a great example of the challenges of John of the Cross.

Dr. Leonard Doohan is an author and workshop presenter
He focuses on issues of spiritual leadership. He also has a special interest  in John of the Cross
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John of the Cross–A Prophet of God

We often mistakenly think a prophet speaks about the future, but this function is minor and accidental to the prophet’s main task. The word “prophet” comes from Greek and means to speak on behalf of God. A prophet challenges people to live in the present according to the values of God, and surely there are few people to whom this applies more than John of the Cross. The influences on his life are at times unusual, but he pursues his goal of union with God in love no matter the circumstances. At times his is a voice in the wilderness proclaiming the wonders of God and calling us all to faithfully pursue transformative union even through the nights of life.

John lived with many people who had a wrong set of values. Whether they were political leaders who saw greatness in expansionism, wars, power, and wealth, or religious leaders forcing conversions, controlling other people’s belief, and imposing their own views on others. Likewise the social caste system stressed wealth, status, bloodlines as important aspects of life. John lived with people who were attached to the structures that gave them power and prestige. John understood how useless it was to force belief systems on people who did not want them. All around him he saw people creating God in their own image and likeness, unwilling to let go and let God be a transforming presence in their lives. A prophet condemns such warped views of humanity and challenges us to follow God, for faith needs to be a loving self-gift

John was poor in spirit, or even more, poor with spirit. He loved being poor and appreciated how this could lead to greatness. He lived peacefully in spite of religious corruption all around him. In fact, he always lived with love for the Church with its awkwardness and with its graciousness. He knew that even bad situations have potentiality for good, and he sought such goodness amidst the horrors inflicted on him. It is amazing how John kept focused on his goals of union with God no matter the circumstances around him. But, he was practical too, and knew when enough is enough; so he knew when it was time to escape from the prison that the religiously arrogant had created for him.

The Tomb of John of the Cross in Segovia

As a prophet of God, John above all told us how to see God’s love everywhere, in nature, in people, and even in oppressors. John appreciated his own enduring purpose in life, his own destiny. He yearned for transformation in loving union with God. John pursued spiritual growth but never selfishly, rather always with a sensitivity and compassion towards everyone he met. He was not a lonely mystic in selfish pursuit of perfection. He was a man for others; enjoying others’ company, facilitating their growth, and seeking whatever was best for them. More than anything, this prophet lived his life aware of a realm of life beyond this one that gave meaning to this one. No matter the situations of his day and the nights he had to live, John speaks of God and reminds us the nights might be dark, but they can be guiding, transforming, and beautiful.