The importance of love in our spiritual journey

p1120115

I would like to draw your attention to a new printing of my book, The One Thing Necessary: The Transforming Power of Christian Love, recently re-published by ACTA Publications (www.actapublications.com). I hope it will help you in your spiritual journey.

 

This radical new interpretation of love as the touchstone of the Christian message, explores the human longing for meaning; the Scriptures; the relational model of the Trinity: the ideas of human vocation, destiny and community; the mystical spiritual traditions; and his own experiences to explain what love is, how we find it, and how it can change the world. Each of the seven chapters contains several quotes and focus points at the beginning and provocative questions at the end for reflection or discussion by adult religious education and bible study groups.

“This book is all about love—and love as the one thing necessary. It is most certainly not about easy love or cheap grace. It is about the transforming power of Christian love. It is not only challenging but disturbing, a book written with conviction and passion.”     Fr. Wilfrid Harrington, OP., Biblical scholar.

“[Doohan’s] artful gathering and arranging of ideas reminds one of the impact of a gigantic bouquet of mixed flowers chosen individually and with great care.”           Carol Blank, Top 1000 reviewers, USA.

“Would that we heard more about this in our churches and religious discussions because, “this transforming power of Christian love will save the world” (p. 93).  Mary S. Sheridan, “Spirit and Life.”

 

 

Called to love

In John of the Cross’ extraordinary book on the Living Flame of Love he reminds us that  God would want everyone to be at the level of life and union described in the Living Flame. He challenges us to appreciate that one’s total life is involved in a union of love. In fact, every act is now love (C. 28.8). Nothing really matters anymore except to be in the union with a person we love with all our hearts. That union will be on all levels of life, and everything that is done is done for love. However, he finds few who are ready to make the commitment, and others who do not want to be guided to this goal (F. 2.27). He seems saddened to acknowledge that some do not relish the communications of God (F. 1.6), others just do not understand these gifts and find them incredible (F. 1.15), and still others do not have the basic experience needed to appreciate these profound challenges (F. 3.1). However, John insists that God grants these favors and does so according to the divine will. Generally, these gifts are made to those who “have performed many services for Him, have had admirable patience and constancy for His sake, and in their life and works have been very acceptable to Him” (F. 2.28). God purifies such people in varying degrees according to God’s desire to raise them (F. 1.24), and leads them eventually to the remarkable delight of God’s awakening (F. 4.5).

So, John reminds us not to be amazed that God grants such gifts. He reminds us twice (F. Prologue.2; 1.15) that Jesus told us that the Trinity would abide within anyone who loved God. God is faithful to the divine nature and to these promises made. Put simply, God delights in giving and enriching those who seek divine union. God is seeking union in love with us more intensely than we seek it with God. We must look at the gifts we have received, marvel in God’s love, and be aware of God’s constant generosity towards us. We need to live with awareness that all life is a wonderful manifestation of God’s love (see C. 24; 40). We must awaken ourselves to an appreciation of the reality that we are immersed in God’s love. This changes the motivation for all our activities and gives us a new consciousness of the meaning of life. This is what the Living Flame calls us to appreciate and never to be amazed at this authentic vision of life. This is the new state of existence to which God calls all human beings.

Unfortunately, one of the great contemporary problems we face is indifference to the life of the spirit, as we immerse ourselves in the superficiality of religious devotions, thinking we can earn growth. In one of his sayings John urges us to keep things in perspective. “Who can free themselves from lowly manners and limitations if you do not lift them to yourself, my God, in purity and love? How will human beings begotten and nurtured in lowliness rise up to you, Lord, if you do not raise them with your hand that made them?” (S. 26). Aware of our own emptiness, the Living Flame reminds us that we grow primarily by receiving and cherishing the gifts of God. These gifts are not little supports here and there on our journey to God. They transform us into who we are intended to be. So, we need to think about life in light of the Living Flame; this is our goal, this is God’s hope for us.

 

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).

 

SPIRITUAL CANTICLE –KEY THEMES: 1–Love-filled desire

 

Journeying to Mt Carmel

Journeying to Mt Carmel

The poem of the Spiritual Canticle begins with a cry of intense unfulfilled longing and desire (C. v.1) and ends with the bride proclaiming that she has found what she has been seeking and desiring (C. v.38). The commentary begins with the bride who “with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded with love for God” (C. 1.1) calls out to her unseen Beloved. It ends beyond spiritual marriage when the bride pleads “with the desire that he transfer her from spiritual marriage . . . to the glorious marriage of the Triumphant” (C. 40.7). The Spiritual Canticle is a poem of lovesick desire, wounded desire, and love-filled desire. Both poem and commentary pulsate with intense desire, draw us into this profound yearning for fulfillment, and leave us, too, inflamed with desire for God. In the first twelve verses the bridegroom never speaks, we hear only the bride’s cries of anxious search; nothing really exists of importance except her desire to find her Lover.

The initial advice for the bride is quite simple: “your desired Beloved lives hidden in your heart . . . strive to be really hidden with him, and you will embrace him within you and experience him with loving affection” (C. 1.10). She soon finds it is not that simple, for the Beloved comes and goes with the swiftness of a stag, showing himself and then hiding (C. 1.15). His visits are moments of loving encounter, wounds of love, that increase the bride’s desire to be with her Beloved, but he departs and she suffers pain and sorrow in his absence (C. 1.16). He leaves her suffering with love, incomplete and dying with desire for a more perfect loving union. “So extreme is this torment that love seems to be unbearably rigorous with the soul” (C. 1.18). She cries “but you were gone” and feels abandoned, suspended with no supports, and in need of the healing presence of her Lover. She appreciates the tastes of love he gives her, but rather than satisfy her desire they intensify her suffering and increase her longing (C. 1.22). “The loving soul lives in constant suffering at the absence of her Beloved, for she is already surrendered to him and hopes for the reward of that surrender: the surrender of the Beloved to her. Yet he does not do so” (C. 1.21).

The bride turns to creation and there finds traces of the beauty of her Beloved (C. 6.1), but seeing her Beloved in the beauty of the world only leads to greater desire to be in his presence; it is a sickness only union can heal. She has this same response to revelations of her Beloved through other rational beings. Eventually her desire leads her to insist: “You have communicated by means of others, as if joking with me; now may you do so truly, communicating yourself by yourself” (C 6.6). Her desire remains unsatisfied, in fact intensifies; “she is dying of love” “wounded with vehement love,” and feels so restrained in this bodily life (C. 8.2). This is because she realizes that “the soul lives where she loves more than in the body she animates,” and as a result she “never stops seeking remedies for her sorrow,” claiming “why since you wounded this heart, don’t you heal it?” (C. 9.1).

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.