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

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Living Flame of Love - Chapter 2

I continue my study of St. John of the Cross' book with the second chapter, which focuses on the following stanza:

O sweet burn!
O delicious wound!
O tender hand! O gentle touch!
Savouring of everlasting life, 
And paying the whole debt,
In destroying death thou hadst changed it into life.

O Sweet Burn! O Delicious Wound!

Here John of the Cross speaks of the dual nature of God, as all powerful but also all-loving.  Right away what strikes me is how, according to the Saint, "He burns everything according to its preparation."  It's so amazing how even His consuming fire yields to our freedom! For we are the ones who prepare ourselves (or don't), but what other fire could have such an ability to control itself and not just take over?  And I see here how crucial it is for us to be part of this, for how could we call a burn "sweet" or a wound "delicious", if it were simply inflicted upon us?

I had truly not considered until I read this what an incredible thing it is that God would yield to us, even in all His passion.  St. John writes, "O how wonderful the fire of God! Though so vehement and so consuming, though it can destroy a single straw, it consumes not the spirit wherein it burns, but rather, in proportion to its strength and heat, delights and deifies it, burning sweetly within according to the strength which God has given."  This is truly miraculous, like Moses and the burning bush.  Like if a person stumbled into an open field and there saw a powerful lion with all the power to consume him, and yet yielding - who else but God could do this!  Like Daniel in the lion's den, we are living in the midst of this miracle where God, who has all power to consume our souls in the fire of His glory does not, but waits for our participation, yields to our freedom.  Why? Because He does not seek to destroy us , but to burn with us, as St. John (quoting the Church) says, "the divine fire came down not consuming, but enlightening."  And further, "O, the great glory of the souls who are worthy of this supreme fire which, having infinite power to consume and annihilate you, consumes you not, but makes you infinitely perfect in glory!"  How humbling to consider that the all powerful God, in all His glory, presents Himself thus to us!  Who could do anything but say, "yes"? 

From this point he goes on to describe the wound by comparing it to a caustic wound, which then introduces a whole new way of looking at it.  Because it is naturally painful, severely so, but with the ultimate purpose of soothing and healing that which could be healed no other way, and which left alone would surely lead to death.  "It bears some resemblance," he writes, "to the caustic usage of natural fire, which when applied to a wound increases it, and renders it a wound, which iron or other instruments occasioned, a wound of fire." Only an extreme state would necessitate that kind of intervention, and while in that instant yielding to that intervention would be full of pain, it is not difficult to see how one would see this wound and look back on it as a beautiful thing, precisely for the good that it made possible - indeed a new life.  These are scars that indicate our growth in Christ, like a woman whose body retains the physical marks of childbirth which, though reminders of a process of incredible pain, nevertheless remain joyous because of the new life that was brought forth that necessitated them (and could not have come any other way.)  This is why St. John is able to say, "This burning and wounding, in my opinion, are the highest condition attainable in this life."

He goes on to speak of how joy and pain can coexist, and how this coexistence is precisely the evidence of God in our life. "It is thus a marvellous thing to feel pain and sweetness together...who O Lord, can cause sweetness in the midst of bitterness, and pleasure in the midst of pain?" He wraps up his reflection by speaking of the marks these wounds leave as the marks of Christ, and this for me was one of the most profound takeaways I had.  How often do I see my trials as the marks of Christ? If it is true that joy and pain can be present in these moments, why do I default to pain?  I want to choose joy, so that it illuminates the pain with love, thereby making it more bearable.  In this way it will still be a wound, but that wound will be one that heals and transforms, ultimately becoming a mark of new life, of Christ's presence in me.

O Tender Hand, O Gentle Touch

"O gentle hand! Laid so gently upon me, and yet, if though wert to press at all, the whole world must perish; for at the sight of thee the earth trembles, the nations melt, and the mountains are crushed in pieces."  Do I grasp what an incredible thing God's mercy is, the full strength of His hand that is so tender with me?  How incredible is it that God, so great and powerful, can at once be so merciful and loving, never forcing but always waiting for our freedom!  It has never struck me how amazing this is, that such divine love would still submit to my approval.  This contrast of strength and gentleness is something I have never really considered, and I find it so mysterious.  Who else could do this but Christ?

Reading this after the line that precedes it makes me ask - can I come to see my suffering as this tender hand of God? Can I let go of the expectations that someday it won't be here, and instead see that it is the mark of Our Lord Jesus on my life, the pain that exists together with the sweetness?  This is a fundamental shift, and it is where I want to be.

Savouring of Everlasting Life

In this section it strikes me that when St. John tries to describe everlasting life, he purposely cuts it short, saying, "The proper way to speak of [these deep things of God] is for him who has been favoured with them to understand them, feel them, and be silent." I love that he does this! This makes this gift of God so much more perfect because he does not reduce it to words.  How much more then should I do this in my own life!  I, a great talker, must learn to sit in silence and allow the graces of God to permeate my heart, and remain within.

And Paying the Whole Debt

Sometimes these graces come through injury, as the next part of this line suggests, for no debt can be paid without some sacrifice.  He writes that, "iron cannot be fashioned according to the pattern of the artificer but by fire and the hammer, and during the process its previous condition is injured."  As I write this it is Lent, and I cannot help but be aware of my own lack of silence in front of the injury of my previous condition.  I still do not yield willingly to God, and therefore am navigating this difficulty oblivious to everlasting life (that could be mine for the savouring!)  He continues, "so many are weak, shrinking from trouble, and unwilling to endure the least discomfort or mortification, or to labor with constant patience," and I see myself at this exact moment in time.  Through St. John, God gives me a new prayer - that He will help me to stand in front of life and all its difficulty with a constant patience, so that my everyday labouring will yield that sweet taste of everlasting life which will surely sustain me.

He goes on to redeem even the smallest of sufferings, recalling that, "Tobias was acceptable to God, therefore He tried him; He gave him he grace of tribulation, the source of greater graces still, and it is written that 'the rest of his life was in joy'."  How often do I see my daily trials in this way, not as an affliction but a gift, a gateway to grace? The fact that He has allowed me to endure these sufferings is a sign of His preference for me.  This turns all of my petty sufferings around, and causes me to want to face them in a different way, one with gratitude and awareness for the potential encounter with Christ that each one carries (how many of these have I let slip through my fingertips?)

"We are therefore to count it a great favour when Our Lord sends us interior and exterior trial."  Help me to get there, Lord.

Thou Hast Changed Death Into Life

Re-reading this line now a few weeks after I first read and made notes of it, it is even more profound how God changes death into life. I have had a very trying few weeks, and returning to the wise words of this great Saint shows me how I have been living death - frustration, despair, hopelessness.  But the promise of God is ever before me, if I only allow Him to work in me.  To see and accept my suffering in patience, attentive to the gift they are and the potential of grace each one affords.

"The will, which previously loved weakly," St. John writes, "is now changed into the life of divine love, for now it loves deeply with the affections of divine love, moved by the Holy Ghost in Whom it now lives."  The more I am united with God, the better I will love my family and those around me.  While I may never reach the level of divine union that St. John of the Cross has, his words nevertheless serve as sweet balm to a fledgling soul, searching only to be united with God.  I find in him encouragement and hope for what is possible even (and precisely through) the sufferings great and small that God pleases to send our way.

Thoughts at the end of this chapter

I feel like St. John of the Cross is teaching me so much about how God loves me and wants to love me, and it all hinges on my freedom.

It occurs to me at this point when I say "suffering", and internalize St. John's words and apply them to my life, that I'm probably not experiencing suffering in the same way he describes.  I am still living very much on the level of the senses, and most of my struggles are a direct response to my circumstances - a response I continue to have because I have not yet fully surrendered to God. I still cling to my own efforts, my own control.  

In this chapter it is clear when he speaks of souls who have attained this degree of purification and the trials they face, I am not experiencing this (and I know at my current stage in life, I wouldn't be able to) While I know it is a good, the thought at the moment terrifies me.  I don't know if God has called me to be one of these souls, however I do know that John of the Cross is helping me to see my vocation in a whole new light.  Where I feel the impulse to minimize or discount my struggles as "not spiritual", the typical complaints of a mother, he is helping me to see that any suffering accepted actively for God can be transformed to a mark for Christ. All of a sudden these things which I have long prayed against become for me a source of strength, a step along the path that makes me more like Christ. I don't know if that path will take me to the place he is describing in this book, but I know that if it does God will give me what I need, and it will not be a punishment inflicted but a gift given.  

My prayer as I work through this chapter is that I will not look ahead in fear of that which should not be feared (which my soul cannot comprehend from where I am now) but that I will glean from this great work the wisdom I need to live my life where God has put me right now.  And that by being open to receiving His love and surrendering those moments that cause me so much hardship (trivial though they may seem), it will allow God to transform them into joyful marks that bear witness to Christ.

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