“When you looked at me your eyes imprinted your grace in me; for
this you loved me ardently ; and thus my eyes deserved to adore what they beheld in you” (Spiritual Canticle 32).
After visiting Spain last year, I wrote and shared about an imaginary dialogue with St. Teresa of Jesus in Seville. What I did not mention then was that I had also planned to attend a brief course on her at the CiTes (International Center of Studies of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross). But God through Teresa’s disciple Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross) had other plans for me. When I arrived in Avila, the course on Teresa had been
As the professor began to speak on St. John of the Cross’s Spiritual Canticle (inspired by the Song of Songs), I began to receive my first true exposure to a sublime expression of God’s love, through the words of this saint, a man who was so much in love with God in Christ Jesus that the pages seemed to be on fire. It was for me the first time, since visiting the Holy Land, that I had been made experientially (for lack of a better word) aware of the Incarnate Son of God, Jesus who walked this earth, and was now approaching me intensely thanks to a saint who ascended God’s mountain to a very high level. He was looking at me straight in the eye, in the heart, and telling me that He was in love with me. And it was both very intense and enthralling.
Now let us turn away from a beginner like me to the wisdom of the spiritually “perfect” (using the terms of John of the Cross for the three levels of the spiritual life: beginner, proficient, perfect). Karol Wojtyla was introduced to St. John of the Cross by Jan Tyranowski, a mystic and spiritual mentor of his in Krakow, who played a key role in his vocation to the priesthood (first seeking to become a Discalced Carmelite friar, but ultimately discerning that the diocesan priesthood was his true calling). The young Polish priest who later became Pope St. John Paul II wrote his doctoral thesis at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum) in Rome on “The Faith According to Saint John of the Cross.” This Discalced Carmelite mystic and saint was God’s instrument in fashioning the spiritual life of Pope John Paul II, who came to be known as a mystic himself. He teaches us in his thesis that it is the gift of faith granted by a God who is Love that ignites the soul to desire only God, and God alone. Young Father Wojtyla wrote this on the Spiritual Canticle in his doctoral thesis:
St. John of the Cross states in the prologue: ‘Mystical wisdom, which comes through love … does not have to be understood distinctly in order to produce love and affection in the soul, for it is similar to faith, whereby we love God without understanding him.’ The role of love in mystical knowledge is primary. But love does not need distinct knowledge of the object; the mode of faith suffices, wherein God is loved without clear knowledge. Such is the function of faith…as that of an obscure and general knowledge.Karol Wojtyla, transl: J. Aumann, OP, Faith According to Saint John of the Cross, San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986
Those who have read the Old Testament, even if briefly, are aware that the story of salvation is illustrated by the typology of a spiritual spousal relationship between God as the Bridegroom and Israel as the Bride. This imagery endures through the New Testament to our days, as the Church is the Bride of Christ, the Bridegroom, who as spouses are one body in Love. St. John of the Cross follows that same typology (inspired in the Old Testament’s Song of Songs) in his Spiritual Canticle, to bring to us the reader, seeker of spiritual union with God, the experience of True Love. The mystical fire of God’s burning love in the soul that has been touched by Him in its innermost being sparking in the soul the fire of faith opens the eyes of the mind to the infinite love, beauty and goodness that only God the Bridegroom can be. No amazing landscape, no creature of any kind, no earthly beauty can calm the longing of the soul for the Bridegroom. His love has transformed the soul totally rendering it immune to any worldly allurement, no matter how powerful it may be:
Since the soul so ardently desires union with the Spouse, and sees that there is no relief nor any means to that end in any creature, she speaks again to faith as that which can most vividly provide light concerning her Beloved and takes it as a means to that end. Indeed there is no other means by which a soul can come to true union with God, as is indicated by Hosea: “I will espouse you to me in faith.’ (Hos 2:22). Then with ardent desire she says to faith: O faith of Christ my spouse! If you would but show forth clearly the truths concerning my Beloved that you have infused into my soul…Saint John of the Cross, Spiritual Canticle, Stanza 11, 1, Washington, DC: ICS Publications, 1991, p. 469.
John of the Cross took the Carmelite habit in his native Spain in 1563 (interestingly, same year as the Council of Trent a pivotal reform moment for the Catholic Church), and was ordained a priest in 1567. He became a disciple of St. Teresa of Avila, who he joined in the reform of the Carmelite order, thus helping her found the Discalced Carmelite order of friars. He suffered persecution and was imprisoned for nine months in Toledo in a small prison cell by his fellow Carmelites (known to this day as the ‘Calced Carmelites’, and thus the Carmelite order includes the Calced and Discalced groups) who rejected the reform – despite having been approved by the Vatican. In that period of extreme suffering, St. John composed the Spiritual Canticle. Fr. Iain Matthew, OCD sheds eloquent light on this:
Here John was a child. He had been hauled beyond the threshold of his own resources, taken to those outer limits where the only alternatives are the Spirit who fills… he now ached in a way he never had before for a God who was utterly beyond him. This was the real wound, and it drew from him a raw cry, ‘Where are you?’ Three days in the belly of the earth: that was the meaning he gave to his imprisonment. He was being granted a share in the dying and rising of Jesus.Iain Matthew, OCD, The Impact of God. Soundings from St. John of the Cross, London, UK: Hodder and Stoughton, 1995, p. 11.
In our journey this Advent season, maybe feeling lost or imprisoned by our human challenges, let’s let the grace bestowed by God’s intense love purify our soul and ignite it with an exultant love for Him, reminding us that He loved us first. Then, we can take John of the Cross’ intimate dialogue of love with God, and make it our own as we seek spiritual purification (may be even through the gift of a ‘Dark Night’?) in order to become white as snow, clean and pure as the clearest sky to meet our Savior, Emmanuel. Just as Juan de la Cruz, a man totally in love with his Lord, a saint who also lived during times of major need of reform in the Church, and who took up the mission to purify the Bride of Christ, beginning with himself and ultimately transforming his order and so many others across the ages, we can follow his lead on our path of faith to meet the Incarnate Christ.
It is He, the Christ Child lying in the manger with open arms whose eyes and smile tell us: “I am in love with you, I have always been in love with you. Will you love me back, even if a little?” With the shepherds who saw and followed the star of Bethlehem, we can join them in humility and, in the most silent of nights, hear John of the Cross’ words echo across the fields calling for our Lord, our Love, who makes all things new because “nothing is impossible with God” (Lk 1:37):
My beloved, the mountains,
Lonely wooded valleys,
rare islands, thundering rivers,
the whisper of love, carried by the breeze.
The tranquil night at one with the rising dawn,
the silence of music,
the mighty sound of solitude,
the feast where love makes all new. (Spiritual Canticle, A 13-14)
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Virginia Fraguio is a Secular Discalced Carmelite. She holds a Master’s Degree in Theological Studies and is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity at the University of St. Thomas at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston, TX. She is passionate about the truth, spreading the Catholic faith and spirituality, going on pilgrimages, and the international dimension of the Universal (Catholic) Church. Virginia was born in Argentina and grew up in Japan. After living in Brazil for some years, she was brought to the United States by her U.S. employer twelve years ago.