Transformation in love

I would like to add a few thought to the last posting that dealt with transformation. John says that transformation in love takes place in the inner wine cellar, “the last and most intimate degree of love in which the soul can be placed in this life” (C. 26.3). It corresponds to the last stage in the development of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, this transformation in love is also the transformation of one’s spiritual faculties, all now focused on the love of God. As God communicates the divine life a person becomes one, so immersed in the values of God that nothing else matters, no worldly values, not even oneself (C. 26.14). In simple contemplative union a person is completely purified and transformed in love (C. 26.17).

Night over Toledo where John discovered God's love.

Night over Toledo where John discovered God’s love.

 

As God communicates self with genuine love, the soul and God are bound to each other in mutual surrender. “And since he transforms her in himself, he makes her entirely his own and empties her of all she possesses other than him” (C. 27.6). As spiritual betrothal was a preparation for spiritual marriage, the latter becomes a preparation for one’s total transformation into the beauty of divine wisdom when one becomes like the Beloved. This takes place in the next life when she can enter with Christ into the deepest caverns of the mysteries of God. “The soul, then, earnestly longs to enter these caverns of Christ in order to be absorbed, transformed, and wholly inebriated in the love of the wisdom of these mysteries” (C. 37.5). This she knows is not possible in this life. She wants the perfection of God’s love for her and her love for God; a total communion in eternity. So, now “she desires the clear transformation of glory in which she will reach this equality” (C. 38.3). Transformation ends in consummated, perfect, and strong love. “This is transformation in the three Persons in power and wisdom and love, and thus the soul is like God through this transformation” (C. 39.4).

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

 

This transformation includes experiencing the wonders of God’s life and designs, what the bride calls the indescribable “what” of joy in eternity. It will include knowing and experiencing the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit, joy in the fullness of life in God, appreciation of the harmony of creation, contemplation of the divine essence, and total transformation in love (C. 38-39). The poem ends with the bride longing for this eternal union in love; she is detached and withdrawn, evil put to flight, passions subjected, sensory part reformed, and her entire being participating in the goods of the Bridegroom to the soul. Her transformation in this life is complete and she is ready for the union of eternity.

 

Another key theme from the Spiritual Canticle: Transformation

God’s call and gift of transformation is the goal of the spiritual journey and it takes place in spiritual marriage for which all the rest of the Spiritual Canticle is a preparation. It then continues in eternity through deeper union and the revelation of the divine mysteries. Transformation takes place in contemplation when we become receptive to God’s activity within us, as God purifies our false desires and false gods and fills us with an inflow of divine love. We never earn or achieve transformation, but what we can do is endeavor with God’s grace to conform our will to the divine. It starts with God’s self-gift and we then respond by changing our lives and developing virtues. Although it is a gift, we can ready ourselves to receive this God-given transformation.

Following the ascetical and illuminative phases of the spiritual journey one  enters the stage of spiritual betrothal, the final preparatory stage before spiritual marriage. Once this preparation is complete, “the soul is purified, quieted, strengthened, and made stable that it may be able to receive permanently this divine union, which is the divine espousal between the soul and the Son of God” (N.2. 24.3). In this preparation through contemplation the soul is passive. This is God’s work of readying a person for his love. Individuals cooperate by placing no obstacles in the way and even this preparation of positive dispositions is only possible with God’s help.

The goal of the spiritual journey is transformation that teaches us true love.  This implies removing false loves, controlling all faculties, focusing everything on the love of God, and becoming more and more like him in love. Transformation can be viewed in different ways as a progressive immersion in love, an ever deeper communication of divine life, a union with the Beloved in love, a mutual surrender, an identification of the bride with her Lover.

In the transformation of spiritual marriage the bride possesses her Lover and is possessed by him. This state differs from spiritual betrothal in so far as “it is a total transformation in the Beloved, in which each surrenders the entire possession of self to the other with a certain consummation of the union of love” (C. 22.3). The union is so intimate that both appear to be God. In this union, the Bridegroom transforms his bride by endowing her with gifts and virtues, giving her union, perfect love, and spiritual peace. He establishes mutuality in love, protects her from all threats, grants her habitual tranquility, and makes her equal to him in love—thus she enjoys a union of likeness with her Beloved (C. 24). The bride thus transformed in the intimacy of love enjoys these gifts in the very depths of her being. This union leads her to forgetfulness and withdrawal from all that is not conducive to this intimate love and control of all desires and pleasures in anything other than God. Now, all is enjoyed in God.

Reflections on some key concepts in the Spiritual Canticle

1. THE HIDDENNESS OF GOD 

 

In the Spiritual Canticle the bride who is seeking after her Beloved finds that God is hidden. She is in love with a hidden God, and so cries out, “Where have you hidden Beloved” (C. v.1).  Although God is hidden the bride already sees God as her Beloved.  “Tell him I love most that I am sick, I suffer, and I die without his love.” However, she senses that God has already withdrawn from her and is hidden from her. “She feels . . . that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget him so in the midst of creatures” (C. 1.1). Filled with love and fearful of losing this love, she renounces everything except the pursuit of love and profound union. She becomes aware that God will always be somewhat hidden while she remains in this life. From the first stanza the soul is not seeking sensible satisfaction but union with the divine essence which is hidden beyond human perception and knowledge. John reminds us that sometimes we make mistaken interpretations of God’s presence. “Neither the sublime communication nor the sensible awareness of his nearness is a sure testimony to his gracious presence, nor are dryness and the lack of these a reflection of his absence” (C. 1.3). Even in the union of love to which this poem leads God is still hidden to the soul as long as this life lasts, for we are on pilgrimage to an awareness of the absolute otherness of God. In this journey God is primary actor, drawing us to divine life. “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). God visits us and thus raises us up, then withdraws and leaves us in painful longings of love.

A mural of the four major works of John of the Cross in Segovia

A mural of the four major works of John of the Cross in Segovia

As the soul appreciates God’s beauty and love in creation, and through others, she is inspired to love God more. But these are merely traces of God’s presence and a partial understanding of God, and the soul becomes anxious for a deeper encounter beyond the constraints of the body. Likewise the Beloved gives tastes of his love, and then he seems to hide and abandon the soul who is longing for completeness and union. Partial revelations of love and of the divine presence inflame the soul and leave her aware that God is really still more hidden than revealed. Even the revelation that comes with faith still leaves the soul hungering for the real thing, not a sketch but the vision and reality of union. Partial presence feels like absence, but the soul is full of God’s love and celebrates the Beloved’s presence in all aspects of creation, and also in the gifts that the Beloved makes to her in the virtues of her own life.

Beautiful gardens in Segovia

Beautiful gardens in Segovia

Even in the revelations of spiritual betrothal the soul senses the hiddenness of the Beloved that still results from temptations and sensory reactions. She welcomes his communications, but they will always be somewhat hidden “until God introduces her into his divine splendors through transformation of love” (C. 13.1). So, in spite of her burning love, the Beloved tells the bride “Adapt yourself to this lower knowledge that I am communicating to you” (C. 13.8). In spiritual betrothal the Beloved reveals more of himself and his attributes, touching the bride in the very substance of her being, but even this is still “dark, for it is contemplation” (C. 14-15.16), and “Truly a hidden word” (C. 14-15. 17).

In spiritual marriage the bride hides away with her Beloved to receive the revelations in secret. In spiritual marriage each surrenders totally to the other, “two natures in one spirit and love” (C 22.3). The bride is now absorbed in love and nothing else matters; she gives herself to the Bridegroom keeping nothing back (C 27). He in turn teaches her “a sweet and living knowledge” (C 27.5). Overwhelmed, the bride is not yet satisfied and longs for deeper knowledge “deep into the thicket” (C. 36.10), where “she will know the sublime mysteries of God and human beings” (C. 37.2). Then she goes on “to the high caverns in the rock which are so well concealed” (C. 37.3), where she enjoys the knowledge, fruition, and delight of the love of God. This experience of mutual love and sharing has no name: “that which the vision of God is to the soul has no other name than ‘what’” (C. 38. 6). It is inexplainable, undiscoverable, until “the day of your eternity” when the soul will be “gloriously transformed in you.” For now, the soul is still in “a serene night” of contemplation, as she hears her Bridegroom calling her, and she is ready for “the glorious marriage of the Triumphant” (C. 40. 7).

Continuing this theme of how God is hidden in the spiritual journey, in future blogs I want to share on the topic “Where is God hidden,” and then “How do we encounter a hidden God.”

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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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
Email | LinkedIn | Web | Blog