Apr 06 2012
Love’s Living Flame
by John of the Cross
English version by Antonio T. de Nicolas
(Songs that the soul sings in her intimate union with God, her beloved Bridegroom.)
O Love’s living flame,
Tenderly you wound
My soul’s deepest center!
Since you no longer evade me,
Will you, please, at last conclude:
Rend the veil of this sweet encounter!
O cautery so tender!
O pampered wound!
O soft hand! O touch so delicately strange,
Tasting of eternal life
And canceling all debts!
Killing, death into life you change!
O lamps of fiery lure,
In whose shining transparence
The deep cavern of the senses,
Blind and obscure,
Warmth and light, with strange flares,
Gives with the lover’s caresses!
How tame and loving
Your memory rises in my breast,
Where secretly only you live,
And in your fragrant breathing,
Full of goodness and grace,
How delicately in love you make me feel!
— from St. John of the Cross: Alchemist of the Soul: His Life, His Poetry (Bilingual), His Prose, by Antonio T. de Nicolas
/ Photo by NomadicFox /
It’s Easter / Passover week. A poem today to explore the soul’s journey of wounding and death, leading to renewed life and openness and integration.
John of the Cross gives us several important themes here worth exploring:
In the ecstasy of deep communion, there is often a sense of heat — filled with immense love — that permeates the body. As this fire moves through the body, it also moves through the awareness, consuming all thoughts (or, more accurately, the tremors from which thoughts emerge). This fire burns away even the thought of “I” — only the sense of this living flame remains.
This is such a wonderful fire that mystics often describe it as a flame of love, so enchanting that, like the moth, you want to dart in and be utterly consumed.
This is why John of the Cross refers so passionately to “Love’s living flame.”
Pain and Wounding
The notion of wounding as part of the spiritual path has particular significance within mystical Christianity, but we find similar language in all spiritual traditions:
This “pain” has a few levels of meaning and types of experience.
On one level, the pain can be quite literal and even physical. But it might be more accurate to refer to this as “intensity” rather than “pain.” It can be as if the senses and the perceptual mind’s ability to process it all gets overloaded. The mystic then experiences a searing, cleansing sort of intensity, that might be called pain.
Through profound opening, one feels everything more completely, a sort of universal empathy. There is a lot of hidden suffering in the world and, at a certain point, we feel it as our own. (Actually, we always feel it anyway, but the walls of denial fall away, and we become aware of it for the first time.) In a directly sentient way, we become aware of the interconnectedness of life. Initially, that flood of feeling is intense, even painful, but that is the pain of the heart breaking open. It becomes a sort of wound one carries, but it resolves itself to a beauty and sense of unity that manages to integrate even the most terrible suffering.
Other mystics speak of a wounding in a more metaphorical sense. The pain experienced is the perception of one’s separation from God. But that pain itself is the doorway to reunion. By allowing oneself to become completely vulnerable to that pain, to surrender to it, the mystic finds the pain transformed into the blissful touch of the Beloved.
Ultimately, all of these forms of pain is the pain of the pierced ego. For one with inner balance, where the protective but limiting shell of the ego is no longer necessary, that pain points the way to freedom.
For this reason, mystics and saints describe the pain as being joyful or beautiful. It is the, in fact, the beginning of bliss.
With all this talk of pain, let’s not forget that this pain is not a negative. When we acclimate to the intensity, when the reflex to contain the flood eases, we discover the overriding sensation is one of bliss.
|John of the Cross|
John of the Cross was born Juan de Ypes in a village near Avila, Spain. His father died when he was young, and Juan was raised in poverty by his widowed mother.
His intellectual gifts were recognized by an early patron who provided for his initial education at a Jesuit school.
In his early 20s, Juan entered the Carmelite order, taking the monastic name Juan de la Cruz / John of the Cross. He moved to Salamanca to continue his studies. Among other teachers, he studied with mystic and poet Luis de Leon.
Still in his 20s, the young John of the Cross first met the woman who would become his mentor, Teresa of Avila, who was in her 50s at the time. Teresa of Avila was a mystic, a writer, a social activist, and a founder of several monasteries. She had begun a reform movement within the Carmelite Order, advocating a return to simplicity and the essential spirituality that should be at the heart of a monastic order. John of the Cross joined her movement of Discalced Carmelites and quickly became a leading figure himself.
Members of the unreformed Carmelites felt threatened by critique of this new movement, and they turned to force, imprisoning and even torturing John of the Cross. He was held in a tiny cell in Toledo for nine months, until he finally managed to escape.
As terrible as this experience must have been, it was during his time of imprisonment that John’s spirituality and poetry began to blossom. One of his guards smuggled in scraps of paper, and John began to write poetry. The experience of losing everything, of being supremely vulnerable, seems to have brought John of the Cross to a profound state of openness. That openness is the doorway sought by mystics leading to the experience of spiritual communion.
Free from prison, John continued his work with Teresa of Avila, founding new monasteries and advocating for their spiritual reforms. He spent the rest of his life as a spiritual director among the Discalced Carmelites.
His two best known works, the Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul, are considered masterpieces of Spanish poetry and esoteric Catholicism. In addition, he wrote many other short poems, and extensive commentaries on the meaning of his poetry as they relate to the soul’s journey to God.
His feast day is celebrated on December 14.