As the Family Goes

JP II Quote

"As the family goes, so goes the nation, and so goes the whole world in which we live." John Paul II

Saturday, February 3, 2018

The Living Flame of Love - Chapter 1

Before I begin, let me just take a moment to say that I am not an expert in theology in any way.  These thoughts are simply my own experience as I read through this work of St. John of the Cross.

I didn't so much choose this book as it chose me.  I was intending on re-reading "Dark Night of the Soul," which I first read over five years ago, and thought I was buying a collection of his works.  It turns out that this particular edition was just one book, "The Living Flame of Love," and his minor works (poetry, letters, etc.) But once I cracked open the first page I realized that the Lord intended for me to read it, and I have been drawn in.  St. John of the Cross is famous for his poetry, and I'm not sure if all of his works follow the same format, but "Dark Night" and this one begin each chapter with a stanza of his poetry, and expand on that in the chapter.  So my study of this book begins with the first stanza of his poem:

Oh living flame of love!
That woundest tenderly
My soul in its inmost depth
As though art no longer grievous
Perfect thy work, if it be thy will
Break the web of this sweet encounter

Oh Living Flame of Love!

Imagery of fire and flames as spiritual union really speak to me.  I have long been drawn to Steve Bell's reflections on this (themselves heavily influenced by St. John of the Cross), and this stanza makes me thing of the song, "Burning Ember," which says:

Burning Ember I remember
Love's first light in me
I was cold then, like a stone when I
Saw your flickering
Burn forever and let me never
Curse the pain you bring
Somehow I know
I will be whole in your burning

St. John of the Cross' words on this first line of his great poem speak to this same desire that I have, that while I know I am not there in terms of being lifted to this level of diving love (The Living Flame of Love is written to describe the next step along the road for those who have passed through the Dark Night), nevertheless it awakens a desire in me as I read these words, that is so intuitive and familiar, and it almost causes me to vibrated when I read them.  I want, as the great Saint describes, to have "so vivid a sense of God and a perception of Him so sweet that [my soul] cries out, 'O Living Flame of Love!' "

That woundest tenderly, my soul in its inmost depth

This part of the poem is so encouraging, because it affirms that even having a small amount of union with God is still being with God ("A soul which has but one degree of love is already in God, who is its centre: for one degree of love is sufficient for our abiding in Him in the state of grace.") For a busy Mom of eight with a huge desire for contemplation and a life that does not afford much opportunity for it, this section is such an affirmation that, while I have not (and may never) reach the same level of divine union with God as the great mystical Saints, I don't need to.  There are still many graces available to me even if I only ever attain one degree of love, precisely because that love is from God.

And yet, St. John doesn't leave me there.  He continues to describe what waits for those drawn in to deeper union with God, in a way that does not discourage me, but calls me to just be open to the ways the Lord may be calling me to a deeper union with Him.  "When a stone lies on the ground it is said to be within its centre, because within the sphere of its active motion, which is the element of earth, but not in the inmost depth of that centre, the middle of the earth, because it still has power and force to descend thither, provided all that hinders it be taken away."

Which leads me to my wounding.  This is the part I still have the most difficulty with, and I think what is standing in the way of my going deeper with Christ.  Because the wounding does not feel tender, it feels painful, and I react so negatively against it.  I can see in these pages the call to be more submissive to this wounding, which is a natural function of my daily life.  The great Saint describes over and over in this part of the text a state of being which I want very much to be my own.  "For as fire is never idle, but in continual love, the function of which is to wound, so as to cause love and joy, when it exists in the soul as a living flame, darts forth its most tender flames of love, causing wounds, exerting joyously all the arts and wiles of love as in the palace of its wedding feast." I find myself calling on Christ as the living flame of love, because I feel this fire but it still causes me so much suffering.  I do not embrace it, as the great Saint writes, and I am still surprised by it, by my own woundedness.  I want this flame to be a love that flows forth from me.  These wounds do not feel tender and I realize it is because I still resist them so much.

"The flame wounds the soul in its inmost depth, that is, it wounds when it touches the very depths of its substance, power and greatly surpasses that which occurs in the ordinary union of love, for it is in proportion to the greater heat of the fire of love which now emits the living flame." I can see so much wisdom in God leading me to this book at this particular moment.  Because I feel I have been living this tension for so long.  But now I see that this tension is so that I will learn that this is not where He wants me to stay. It is meant to draw me deeper into His love, but it requires a total surrender.

As thou art no longer grievous, perfect thy work, if it be thy will

This whole section (as thou art no longer grievous) was a bit of a turning point for me when I first read it, but even more so now after I went back to reflect on the on the line before.  I realize that so much of the grief I am living is brought on by me, not so much that God is intending to grieve me - He is simply attempting to draw me closer to Him.  Grievousness enters when I am too stubborn to surrender, when I hold onto my woundedness and feelings of despair rather than turning them over to the fire of His love.  So when I submit more completely to Christ, while it feels that God is no longer grievous, it seems to me that this is at least in part because I have submitted that which causes me grief to Him. It requires my active participation and surrender.  "As hardness is discovered when contrasted with tenderness and aridity when compared with love, so the will comes to a knowledge of its own hardness and aridity when contrasted with God, though it does not feel the love and tenderness of the flame...until, being expelled by these, the love and tenderness of God reign supreme in the will."  And so, this becomes my prayer - that God will perfect His work, if it is His will.

Break the web of this sweet encounter

This line was fascinating to me, and if I had not read what St. John wrote about it, I likely would have just breezed right past it.  In Communion and Liberation, we speak so much of the encounter with Christ, so this language is very familiar.  But "break the web of this encounter"? Can there be more?

Yes there can.  If we imagine the soul as a piece of wood in the divine flame of love, there is a natural progression to its burning.  In the beginning it rages, burning hot and quickly, but once the initial surge has passed a calm sets in, as the log comes consumed by this flame it has encountered.  There comes a moment where the fire is no longer raging but soft, almost tender, and indeed can be seen deep within and throughout the entire log.  The encounter, which has been taking place ever since the flame first touched the wood, is now consuming the log, making it its own.  And at this stage, in the soft glow of its flame, there remains still the smallest frame of its former self, illuminated from within.  This frame is the web St. John of the Cross is speaking of - that last little bit of resistance that hangs on before we finally let go and surrender all to Christ.

It is so interesting to me that in this section he asks why we would want to break this web? Why not just cut it out?  The reason for this breaking is because our desire is in response to His love, which bursts forth.  Presumably a soul at this level of union with God would no longer want to wait for the cutting or removal of this "web" (which he says is anything that hinders us from God), but now being fully consumed by His love, wants Him to just burst in - like a passionate, no-nonsense "yes!" with their whole self.  I take comfort also in noting that this union of love of which speaks is not only meant for Heaven, but our earthly life with Him as well.

Thoughts at the end of this chapter

While it's true that in my heart I feel very much this desire towards contemplative life (St. John's writings teach me so much about myself, and put an articulate voice to things I have felt about myself for a long time - I feel at home reading his works), it is also true what my friend said - not everyone is called to contemplate life as an active way of living, least of all a homeschooling Mom of eight.  So given that God has made me this way, how can I live the tension that comes from desiring this deep, quiet and thoughtful union with God, and the very active daily life that my vocation introduces?  How can this contrast help me to grow closer to Christ, even in (and more profoundly, through) the noise and busyness of everyday life?

At the conclusion of this stanza, I am left with encouragement.  Encouragement that any degree of union with God is still holy, beautiful and worth striving for (whether you are a contemplative monk or a busy wife and mother), but that each degree will call you ever so gently on to further union with Him. When I look at my life it is painfully clear that while I do have Christ, I want Him so much more - I want Him to permeate and transform everything I do so that even the trials will be an opportunity for encounter with Him. As I leave this first stanza and prepare to dive into the next, I pray that He will help me to say yes to His love as a living flame in my life, and through the intercession of St. John of the Cross, draw me ever deeper in union with Him.

1 comment :

  1. Natasha, may I say I am in awe of you. your journey is challenging and blessed. Thank you for sharing it. As I read what surfaced in me is the wonder and beauty of the busyness of your life; through which God calls you closer with such delicious tension...One that you cannot ignore, in fact one that you desire with all your heart. Give thanks for the gift of busyness without which this blessed tension may not have presented itself. God gives us the desire to desire, then the grace to be open to receive what God desires to gift us with. Blessings on your continued journey with John of the Cross.