Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Soul’s Surrender to the Intimacy of Christ Jesus

1. The following poem is from Padre Fray Juan de la Cruz. Juan de la Cruz lived in the latter half of the 16th century. To put that in historical context, this was around the same time that the English reformation was in full flower. The first English Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549. As a friend and confessor of St. Teresa of Avila he was arrested, imprisoned in the Carmelite Friary in Toledo where he was treated with incredible cruelty. In his imprisonment he composed a number of poems which have become classics in contemplative theology. His poetry shows the influence both of secular love poetry and the Song of Songs. “A nun asked him whether God ‘gave him these words which were so comprehensive and so lovely.’ John replied: ‘Sometimes God gave them and at other times I sought them.’”[1]

2. It would be a mistake to attempt to expound the meaning of his poems, after all he didn’t really do that very well himself.[2] That is perhaps a characteristic of much of poetry. The language and imagery transcend simple analysis. Rather than attempt the impossible I offer these reflections and share with you what this wonderful poem by Padre Fray Juan de la Cruz stirs in me.

3. Love’s fire is a common theme of many spiritual writers. Richard Rolle, the 14th century English author of The Fire of Love, wrote the following:

Good Jesus, scourge me, wound me, slay me, burn me;
do with me here and now whatever in your goodness you decide;
that in the days to come I may know and feel
not evil but your love--and that, for ever!
To be despised, rejected, insulted by all,
for your sake, is sweeter to me
than to be called the brother of any earthly monarch,
honoured among men, and praised by all.... [3]

4. Similarly George MacDonald (1824-1904), in his very Scottish way, writes,

The fire of God, which is his essential being, His love, His creative power, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns—that the further from Him, it burns the worse.[4]

And again,

He will shake heaven and earth, that only the unshakeable may remain: he is a consuming fire, that only that which cannot be consumed may stand forth eternal. It is the nature of God, so terribly pure that it destroys all that is not pure as fire, which demands like purity in our worship.[5]

In the poem by Padre Fray Juan de la Cruz I have interwoven the commentary below the verses. The original translation by Roy Campbell, a South African, in 1951; the words in blue are my substitutions to make the poem more accessible to American readers. The titles in blue, are my titles, and not part of the original poem.

Song of the soul in intimate communication and union with the God who is love [6]

[The Song of Responsive Desire]

5. Oh flame of love so living,
How tenderly you force
To my soul’s inmost core your fiery probe!
Since now you’ve no misgiving,
End it, pursue your course
And for our sweet encounter tear the robe.

The fiery song of desire and fulfillment, in the context of Juan de la Cruz’s other poems, is a love cry from the bride to the Bridegroom. It is Jesus, the Anointed One, who is the Bridegroom! He is Flame of Love!

At the very beginning Juan acknowledges that the initiative comes entirely from the Divine Lover and our desire is a responsive desire. The Lover knows that His love will burn away our dross, and he knows that such burning is a death. He comes tenderly, forcing his way into the receptive heart, piercing to the very center of our being. He sees our responsiveness and desire and in that knowledge he has no misgiving. We cry out in invitation, “End it, pursue your course,” Oh, don’t hesitate come my Lord, enter in, and with sweet encounter tear the robe of my defensiveness.

6. [Entry and Purification]

Oh burning most tender!
Oh wound that is my reward!
Oh gentle hand! Oh touch how softly thrilling!
Eternal life you render,
Raise of all my sins, the burden,
And change my death to life, even while killing!

7. The word “burning” in the original English translation, is “cautery,” which conveys not only a burning wound but sealing of the wound. It is a burning, a cautery, most tender, “for He does not willingly afflict or grieve the sons of men."[7] The very wound His piercing love creates is in itself a reward. So also Teresa of Avila felt when the angel pierced her heart, “I saw in his hands a large golden dart and at the end of the iron tip there appeared to be a little fire. It seemed to me this angel plunged the dart several times into my heart and that it reached deep within me. When he drew it out, I thought he was carrying off with him the deepest part of me; and he left me all on fire with great love of God.”[8] Paradoxically that burning touch is gentle, softly thrilling. Eternal life He brings, He raises from our shoulders the burden of our sins and changes our death to life, even while He kills all that is dross in us.

8. [The Union]

Of Light of fiery blaze
To whose radiant fuel
The deepest caverns of my soul grow bright,
Lately blind with gloom and haze,
But in this strange renewal
Giving to the belov’d both heat and light.

The Light of fiery blaze is Himself the radiance, the refulgence of God’s glory bright, and the exact imprint of his nature.”[9] Even as we surrender to the Bridegroom, we open our hearts to the Father as well, in the power of the Spirit, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”[10] Oh, tremendous, unspeakable privilege to become the home of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The radiant fuel, the very power of the Spirit of Jesus makes the deepest, darkest, even the most feared caverns or our souls bright with brilliant light. Before, within, we were filled with gloom and haze, but now in this strange, almost alien renewal of life and light[11] he warms the very depths of our being.

9. [The Result]

What peace, with love enwreathing,
You conjure to my breast
Which only you your dwelling place may call:
While with delicious breathings
In glory, grace, and rest,
So delicately in love you make me fall!

What follows is a tremendous sense of enveloping peace, we are, to borrow a word from Richard Rolle, “rapt” in love, wrapped and enraptured. Campbell’s translation uses the word “conjure.” What has happened is something “magical.” There is no other way to express it. We now belong fully to him, fully surrendered to His love and fiery Presence. So fully do we belong to Him, He alone, has the right of calling our inmost being his dwelling place. The expression “delicious breathings” conveys a sense of a living, breathing, even delicious Presence within. We are in glory. We are in grace and rest, so delicately He has made us fall in love.
[1] St John of the Cross: The Poems, Translated from the Spanish by Roy Campbell, (London: The Harvill Press, 1951), p. 25-27,. p. 13
[2] Ibid. p. 17, “He can instruct, but he cannot really explain. He does not in the end know what he means, he only knows that he means what he says.”
[3] Clifton Wolters trans. Penguin, 1972
[4] George MacDonald, An Anthology, ed. C. S. Lewis, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1947), p. 63
[5] Ibid. p. 2
[6] St John of the Cross: The Poems, Translated from the Spanish by Roy Campbell, (London: The Harvill Press, 1951), p. 25-27, [Text in blue has been modified to meet contemporary English standards by Robin P. Smith].
[7] Lamentations 3:33
[8] The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. One, “The Book of Her Life”, (Washington: ICS Publications) 1987. P. 42
[9] Hebrews 1:3
[10] John 14:23
[11] “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Bored by the Rule of St. Benedict?

Do you at times find reading the Rule just a little obscure and boring? Apart from giving instructions for a monastic community on how to read the Psalter, what relevance does it have for Oblates and Companions of St. Benedict? Take for instance the reading for today:

Chapter 18 ~ Feb. 22 - June 23 - Oct. 23
At Terce, Sext and None on Monday
let the nine remaining sections of Psalm 118 be said,
three at each of these Hours.
Psalm 118 having been completed, therefore,
on two days, Sunday and Monday,
let the nine Psalms from Psalm 119 to Psalm 127
be said at Terce, Sext and None,
three at each Hour,
beginning with Tuesday.

And let these same Psalms be repeated every day until Sunday
at the same Hours,
while the arrangement of hymns, lessons and verses
is kept the same on all days;
and thus Prime on Sunday will always begin with Psalm 118.

Let me explain:

Always pay attention to context. The previous section says in part:
Then at Prime on Sunday
four sections of Psalm 118 are to be said;
and at each of the remaining Hours,
that is Terce, Sext and None,
three sections of the same Psalm 118.

Psalm 118 in the Roman Catholic division of Psalms is actually Psalm 119. A key verse giving the theme is “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (RSV Psalm 119:105).

For both Monks, Oblates and Companions Holy Scripture is the voice of God speaking to our souls. Souls? Our inner being, our person, who we are apart from the shell of the body. Psalm 119 reminds us that if we hide His word in our hearts, we will not sin against Him, or against each other for that matter (Psalm 119:11). In this section from the Rule St. Benedict instructs us to keep the love of the Word of God central in our hearts and minds every day of the week.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Enfleshed Love

There are many dimensions to the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ who is “Perfect God and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting.” (Quincunque Vult: The Creed of St. Athanasius). One of those dimensions is the enfleshment of Divine Love, first in Mary, and then in us.

Love enfleshed in human hearts, by necessity is coloured by each heart in which it is enfleshed. Some hearts are silver, some are gold, some a dross that never should be told. Even impure loves, twisted and misshapen, have an echo of God’s love, albeit barely recognizable. The closer one comes to the source of love in glad surrender, the purer flows His love within our hearts. The farther away from Him we are, the more bent, perhaps even perilously broken, is the love of God within that heart. But always remember that the God of love was broken for us, and that this pitiable breaking is nothing new to Him with whom we have to do. The miracle of the love of God is this, that his love, flowing from His being, is so often revealed in our affection, brotherly love, eros and romantic love, a living parable of the love of Christ Jesus.

There is an astounding grace in enfleshed love, but it is not just love that is enfleshed in us, but Love Himself is enfleshed not only in Mary Theotokos, but also through the agency of the Holy Spirit of God that same Love is enfleshed in us. He is the Vine, we are the branches. John 15:3. He has no illusions about our nature for nothing is, or ever has been, hidden from Him with Whom we have to do. We are quite frankly sinful human beings; that is our condition, and He knows that better than we ourselves.

One of the miracles of His grace extended to us in His indwelling in our human flesh is that our repentance is of necessity imperfect. It is impossible for us to confess all our sins. The deeper we dig the dirtier it gets. No sooner do we think we have reached the bottom of our bottomless pit of iniquity and consider that we have thankfully made a good confession, than some other thing we have missed in our confession creeps into consciousness. This is not always a work of the Holy Spirit. One cannot be saved by the good work of repentance and confession, one is saved by grace through faith, and there is an accuser of the brethren who seeks to heap guilt upon us and rob our joy. That is why Teresa of Avila says, “He gilds my faults.” The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. One, “The Book of Her Life”, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh & Otilio Rodriquez, (Washington: ICS Publications, 1987), 68-69.

After a long season of Christian living one often discovers that some thought pattern or habit of action, or inaction, is not really acceptable to God and never has been. The miracle of His love is this: Even though we have a store of undiscovered stuff He loves us and extends His grace to us. Not only that; He allows us to walk joyfully in His presence with all this undiscovered stuff and doesn’t seek to bring it to our attention until we are strong enough to discover more about ourselves. That is probably why the Dominican Mystic Henry Suso says somewhere, “No matter how much one abandons oneself, one repeatedly finds more of oneself to abandon.”

There is a truth hidden in Chaucer’s description of the Prioress whose nose was straight, her eyes green as glass, her mouth full small, and thereto soft and red, . . . about her arm she bore small coral prayer beads, beads all green and thereon hung a brooch of shining gold on which there was engraved a crowned A, and Amor Vincit Omnia, Love Conquers All. Chaucer Canterbury Tales, Prologue, 152-162, trans. Robin P. Smith. Despite the ambivalent purity of the Prioress, it is still true, that through the grace and gift of Christ, that Amor Vincit Omnia, Love conquers all; that we ourselves are gifted by virtue of that love with an amazing grace in God’s acceptance of us and His enfleshed love.

When Love is enfleshed in us; Love incarnate in us works His work through all our relationships and all our loving. St. Paul’s lofty description of the marriage relationship of one man and one woman starts with the mutual submission of each to the other. That by the way is a condition of being filled with the Holy Spirit of God. Ephesians 5:17-22. This description ends with correlation of the union of husband and wife with the great theme of Christ and the Church. Ephesians 5:32-33.

In this mutual submission all pretence of the perfection of either husband or wife is abandoned, which is why Charles Williams says that the lover is the cross on which the beloved is crucified. Charles Williams, Outlines of Romantic Theology, ed. Alice Mary Hatfield, (Berkeley, CA: The Apocryphile Press, 2005), p. 23. We accept one another even as God the Father through Christ Jesus accepts us, with eyes-wide-open forgiveness, knowing that neither husband or wife are perfect; indeed abandoning the unrealistic and ungodly expectation the other be perfect when we know full well that we ourselves are not perfect. Of course if you are character disordered that won’t make any sense. In that generous acceptance of flawed lover and flawed beloved, each for the other, we allow grace to work its abundance in glad tolerance gilding the faults of one another. Amor Vincit Omnia!

This enfleshed Love works His way down through all of our relationships, parent and child, brother and sister, dear friends, and even the dogs under the kitchen table. Love that cannot be loved in the mundane and flawed is not Love at all but only abstract sterility. Love, to be Love in the flesh must love as He loved, enfleshed in very human flesh with all its sins and foibles. Amor Vincit Omnia.