Prayers of the Saints: St. John of the Cross

Living Flame of Love

1. O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest center! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now perfect me! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!
::
2. O sweet burn-healing
O delightful wound!
o gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life.
::
3.  O lamps of fire!
in whose splendors
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.
::
4.  How gently and lovingly you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love.

 

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About St. John of the Cross:

Take yourself back, before the landmark wars of the 20th century, back beyond the industries of the 19th and the revolutions of the 18th.  Take yourself into Spain, just decades after Columbus sailed the ocean blue.  And head straight to the heart of the country, just hours north of Madrid. There on the upper levels a medieval Spanish fort, you will find a frail monk wasting away in a cobbled jail cell.  The room is small, plastered with his scattered notes. They are scribbles from his heart.  They are seeds of his great work written on scraps of paper which were smuggled in by sympathetic guards.  There, in the damp quarters, we find one of the world’s great Spiritual Masters, St. John of the Cross.  He is penning The Spiritual Canticle  insights of intimacy with the Father.  His work still illuminates believers today, young and old.

John of the Cross is remembered for four main works.  I will introduce them in their own time: Living Flame of Love first, The Ascent to Mt. Carmel in chapter three, The Dark Night of the Soul in chapter four, and the Spiritual Canticle in chapter five.

John wrote the The Living Flame of Love, nearer to the end of his life.  In it he dwells upon union with God, as his main theme. The spiritual life is like a burning log.  We are the wood. He is the flame. John draws his image from an ancient observation.  When you light a log on fire, the log slowly becomes the fire.  It leaves only ashes of impurity on the forest floor.  And as it transforms, it “grows much more and becomes more completely enkindled, until it gives out sparks of fire and flame.”[1]  The whole Living Flame is about this observation.  He talks about it first in the Ascent:

 “It must be known that God dwells and is present substantially in every soul, even in that of the greatest sinner in the world.  And this kind of union is ever at play between God and all the creatures. In this union He is preserving their life; so that if union of this kind were to fail them, they would at once become annihilated and would cease to be.  And so, when we speak of union with God, we speak not of this substantial union, which is continually at play.  We speak of the union and transformation of the soul with God, which is not being at play continuously, but only when there exists that likeness that comes from love.  We shall call this the union of likeness, even as that other union is called substantial or essential.”[2]

John is picking upon the great biblical tradition that spans from Leviticus to Matthew. Our spiritual life is about being changed from un-likeness to likeness, from being un-holy to holy, from being imperfect to perfect.  Genesis to Revelation is about a God who is recreating his unique world into a land of likeness.


[1] Living Flame of Love Prologue.

[2] John of the Cross, Ascent Book 2 Chapter 5.

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