By Fr. Alex Ezechukwu, OCD
The Soul’s Journey Toward Divine Union
If you’ve plowed through any of the theological works of St. John of the Cross, or smiled at his love poems, you might have misgivings about him.
He might seem like a grim, life-denying ascetic, or a typical 16th century romantic poet.
Or even as a Buddhist.
But none of these really describe this greatest of mystics in the Church who is also recognized as Spain’s most prominent poet.
“John wants for us the fullness of life, the fullness of joy that is only found in God,” says Dr. Heather Ward, OCDS, an expert on Carmelite spiritualty who is featured in several lectures in our Wisdom Lectures series. (The series is sponsored by DecorCarmeli Media, a service of the Order of the Discalced Carmelites in the United Kingdom.)
Dr. Ward emphasizes that although St. John wrote prose, he is primarily a poet. In one of her recent lectures, Dr. Ward focuses on two poems, the “Spiritual Canticle” and “Living Flame of Love.”
Dr. Ward’s insights reveal St. John’s knowledge and experience of a soul’s deep encounter with God as Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier.
The "Spiritual Canticle" is a 40-stanza poem along with a line-by-line explanation of its sometimes-obscure phrases. The canticle is John’s own abridged paraphrase of the Canticle of Canticles in the Old Testament, also known as the Song of Solomon. Here, the biblical author uses the image of passionate love to describe the mystical sufferings and longings of a soul enamored with God.
"The Living Flame of Love" is an 18-line poem and an allegorical expression of the soul's journey toward divine union and mystical experience with God. St. John of the Cross, in his commentary on the poem, describes the soul as being “inwardly transformed in the fire of love and elevated by it that it is not merely united to this fire but produces within it a living flame.”
In this short poem, St. John draws heavily on the imagery of fire to symbolize both the pain of purification and the passionate love that fuels the soul's journey toward God.
Spirituality for All
The writings of St. John of the Cross are not meant only for the religious – in other words, nuns, friars, monks, and we may say priests in general – but for all the Christian faithful.
And his writings are not a systematic commentary of the spiritual life.
They are meant for those beginning the spiritual life, according to Dr. Ward. For those leaning toward the contemplative life. Those looking forward to complete identification and union with Christ.
Was St. John of the Cross a hard, unrelenting man?
No. He was a gentle man. As St. Francis de Sales later said, gentleness is a true strength.
“He was a very strong and determined man, but gentleness was the key to him,” Dr. Ward said. “He was sought after as a confessor because he was discerning, but he was gentle to the most hardened of sinners.”
Furthermore, in response to those at one point who tried to make Carmel more rigorous, he objected, “If the spirit of gentleness is lost, then Carmel will be lost.”
Virtuous Family Life
Growing up, St. John experienced examples of virtue at home. His father and mother were models of generosity and hospitality. His father gave up the status of nobility to marry his mother, who was a commoner.
His experience as a worker in a hospital for sufferers of venereal disease must have instilled in him a compassion for sinners. It is here that he no doubt discovered that disordered desires produce wounds that are physical, mental, moral and spiritual.
From his education at a Jesuit college he learned ideas about wounds and the pain of love. Through the visible wound, we might see the invisible wound of love. John was aware of the power of love and where it should be directed.
“It’s the language of languor, of languishing for love, of being wounded by love,” Dr. Ward related.
We also see that the transforming union is the work of the Trinity.
“The Blessed Trinity inhabits the soul by divinely illuminating its intellect with the wisdom of the Son, delighting its will in the Holy Spirit and by absorbing it powerfully and mightily in the delightful embrace of the Father’s sweetness.” (Living Flame of Love 1:15)
Doctrine of Incarnation
John’s mystical theology comes from the Bible and the Church.
“John is steeped in the tradition of mystical theology that’s centered on the incarnation,” Dr. Ward said. The mystic’s teaching on the transforming union is biblical but also develops the Patristic doctrine on the Incarnation: God became Man so that by grace he might become all that God is by nature.
“This is the abyss that Christ crosses in the Incarnation,” Dr. Ward said. “To become like us, so that by grace we become like Him.”
The Incarnation becomes key. With John, God’s creation, Incarnation and redemption are one action.
In his poem, “Romance on the Gospel Text In Principio Erat Verbum [In the beginning was the Word], Regarding the Blessed Trinity,” John gives us a unique peek into a kind of conversation between Christ and his heavenly Father:
“My Son, I wish to give you
A bride who will love you.
Because of you she will deserve
To share our company,
And eat at our table,
The same bread I eat,
That she may know the good
I have in such a Son;
And rejoice with me
In your grace and fullness.”
"I am very grateful,"
the Son answered;
"I will show my brightness
to the bride you give me,
so that by it she may see
how great my Father is,
and how I have received
my being from your being.
I will hold her in my arms
and she will burn with your love,
and with eternal delight
she will exalt your goodness".
In St. John’s works we learn, in the words of Dr. Ward, that “through the Incarnation, the entire created order is raised to God. Because in becoming human, Christ has taken on the whole of creation. It reaches its destiny through the Incarnation. And it is through the union of human beings with their Creator that this comes about.
It's as if God is saying to us: “Fasten your eyes on my Son Jesus Christ.”
She added that we and all created things exist because God is. We are held in being in his gaze. Because for Him, looking, creating, and loving is one continuous presence-action.
Wisdom Lectures Available
There are many more insights and spiritual jewels in Dr. Ward’s lectures. I encourage you to check out our Wisdom Lectures series.
In all, you’ll find more than one hundred videos available in the Wisdom Lectures series from DecorCarmeli Media. We produce these videos so that people can have access to authentic teachings on the spiritual life so they can benefit from the insights from the Carmelite tradition – a tradition that has produced many saints and doctors of the Church.
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