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).

The Dynamism of the Spiritual Life

Church of John of the Cross with modern art of his major works

Possible stages in spiritual life development.

In his presentation of the dynamic development of the spiritual life John was originally considered a disciple of Pseudo-Dyonisius the Areopagite, who divided the spiritual life into three main stages: beginners, proficients, and perfect, corresponding to the purgative, illuminative, and unitive periods of life. Writers dependent on this insight generally considered the three stages to be important but rarely gave any importance to the transitions from one to the other.

John’s own experience together with extensive knowledge gained through spiritual direction gave him better insight into the stages than anyone prior to him. To the traditional three-fold division John highlights the two crucial transitions. John knew from his own experience of night that crises can be moments of grace and progress, and he called the two transitions the night of sense and the night of spirit. The former was the transition to contemplation, and the latter the decisive moment of life as the complete trusting abandonment to God. The three stages of prior understandings remain and the second becomes a plateau of rest between the nights.

Thus, the nights become so important that John describes the entire journey to God as a dark night. “The darkness and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo on their way to the high state of perfection are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately. Nor does experience of them equip one to explain them. Only those who suffer them will know what this experience is like, but they won’t be able to describe it” (A Prologue, 1). Dedicated people who have started the journey come to a point where they advance no more. The problem is clear to John; for one reason or another they do not abandon themselves to God’s guidance and enter the dark night. “[A] soul must ordinarily pass through two principal kinds of nights. . . . The first night or purgation . . . concerns the sensory part of the soul. The second night. . . concerns the spiritual part” (A.1. 1.1-2). The first night occurs when beginners transition to contemplation, the second night occurs when proficients move to union. The dark night is an experience of purification, but the motivation for entering it is love. There are three reasons for calling this journey a dark night. The point of departure is a commitment to the denial of one’s appetites and to a rejection of self-centeredness and gratification as motives in life which is a dark experience of privation for the senses. The means or way to union is faith which is a dark unknowing experience for the intellect. The point of arrival is God who is an incomprehensible mystery—a dark night to any individual in this life (see A.1. 2.1).

The two nights, of sense and of spirit, have two parts, one active and the other passive. The active is a time of ascetical preparation and a deliberate practice of the three theological virtues. The latter is the beginning of contemplation and the inflow of God’s transforming action by means of the three theological virtues. Some writers see the active night of sense to be first, followed by the passive night of sense which is the entry into contemplation. However, the active night of sense will continue through contemplation. In fact, the illumination of contemplation throws further light on more unconscious levels that need active purification. The active night of sense is the effort to remove faults and sins one can see, but there are lots of faults one cannot see without God’s illumination in contemplation. Some have periods of rest after which comes the active night of spirit, followed by the passive night of spirit.

Others see the active night of sense as first, followed by the active night of spirit along with the passive night of sense as two parts of the same experience. Then the passive night of spirit follows. However, the experiences of active night of spirit and passive night of  sense continue to surface and purify even during any respite or plateau periods.

Reflections: In our spiritual journey we enter the thick darkness where we encounter God (Ex 20:21) and God gradually turns our darkness into light (Is 42:16). The journey through the passive nights is entirely in the hands of God. “In the first place it should be known that if anyone is seeking God, the Beloved is seeking that person much more” (F. 3.28). The point of departure is not our efforts but a loving God who is drawing us through the darkness to the light (N.1. 1.1; N.2. 1.1).

This is a journey that consists in the pursuit of no thing, a new discipline that the soul imposes on itself or allows and undergoes in God. John speaks of the nothingness of all creation in comparison with God and of all created and spiritual things as means to union with God. It is not that he despises any of them but that he sees everything as nothing in relation to God (N.1. 4.4-7). This can be a disconcerting aspect of John’s teaching unless we constantly remember his goal of everything re-found in God; through poverty and nakedness in God we possess all (see “Prayer of a soul taken with love”).

Poverty and negation, or mortification of voluntary, habitual imperfections that move us away from God are means to liberate us from what is false in ourselves, in our world, and in our understanding of God (A.1. 11). This becomes a spiritual empowerment and gives us the freedom to choose the good, to eliminate all that is not of God, and to pursue eagerly only what is of God. Thus, we become dry and ready to be set on fire. “For to love is to labor to divest and deprive oneself for God of all that is not God” (A.2. 5.7).


Seeing life in these categories can be helpful but there is generally overlap. The passive night of sense can be from the beginning provided an individual is open to receive and understand the challenges. Then again, there is a way in which the active night of spirit is also connected to sense in that it is about gratification concerning spiritual things of intellect, memory, and will that spills over into the senses. Furthermore, the passive night of sense can be about unconscious sins, attitudes, and gratifications that are discovered through contemplation.

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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