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).

A book of fire

The Living Flame of Love is the final chapter in John’s vision of love. It describes the end of a journey that began in longings of love that became an experience of purification for the person seeking union. The person in his or her journey then passed through a period of illumination regarding the God of love and his or her own need of love. Then the person reached the early stage of union in spiritual betrothal. The Living Flame of Love picks up from the final stage of union in the love of spiritual marriage and describes, in great beauty, several aspects of this final stage in the union of love. All these ideas are part of John’s wonderful vision of love.

I think Fr. Gabriel catches the wonder of this book when he writes: “The Living Flame of Love is a book of fire. Written all at a stretch in a fortnight, under the influence of an intense love, it reveals the Saint’s ardent soul better than the other works.” (St. John of the Cross: Doctor of Divine Love and Contemplation, 1954, 81).

The Feast of St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross died in Ubeda at midnight on December 14th 1591. He was just 49 years old and had given himself to the reform for 23 years. I remember the first time my wife and I visited the monastery of the Discalced Carmelite friars in Ubeda. The monastery was closed for the day but the Prior knew we were coming and had kindly instructed one of the brothers that we were to be given complete freedom to visit and spend as much time as we wished. We entered the monastery and museum of the life and times of John through the same door through which John of the Cross was brought on September 28 1591, suffering from fever and inflamation of his leg. John suffered much in those days in Ubeda, and died peacefully on December 14th. The museum contains the room where John died, the table on which his body was prepared for burial, the chapel where his funeral took place and where he was briefly buried from his death in 1591 to May 1593, when his body was transferred to Segovia. Elsewhere the museum shows episodes from John’s life, using actual items associated with John wherever possible, such as a table where he sat to give direction.

The Tomb of John of the Cross in Segovia

The Tomb of John of the Cross in Segovia

On the feast of St. John of the Cross, we are reminded that if we center our lives on love, all else will fall into place. John stated this in one of his sayings: “O Lord, my God, who will seek you with simple and pure love, and not find that you are all one can desire, for you show yourself first and go out to those who seek you” (S. 2). Then again, John summed up his own convictions on the centrality of love in another saying that became quite famous: “When evening comes, you will be examined in love” (S. 60). What we strive for is to say with the bride in the story of the Spiritual Canticle: “nor have I any other work now that my every act is love” (C. stanza 28). 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. May this day remind us of his challenges for our own lives.

I have brought together much of John’s teachings for our contemporary lives in a new series of reflections on his major works. I hope they will be helpful to you in your spiritual journey. You can see the books on my web-page leonarddoohan.com and all books are available for purchase on amazon.com. These books would make a wonderful Christmas gift for a friend interested in John of the Cross.

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.