Getting back to The Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross, let’s look at what he says about growth in prayer. (Sorry this post is so much later in the week than usual. It’s been a hard week for our family. I going to try to get back on track soon.)
Recall that The Spiritual Canticle speaks of the soul in the three different stages of the spiritual life: the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. Last time we spoke a lot about the purgative way. John portrays the soul of the “beginner” as full of deep desire for God. He writes:
“The reason the soul suffers so intensely for God at this time is that she is drawing nearer to him; so she has the greatest experience within herself of the void of God, of very heavy darkness, and of spiritual fire that dries up and purges her so that thus purified she may be united with him.” (Stanza 13, 1)
This is the first dark night, a necessary purgation before union.
Then in Stanza 13, we read:
“I am taking flight!”
At last the soul is flying to God, experiencing in some measure the Bridegroom she has been seeking. This is the first taste of consoling contemplation. The next several stanzas speak of the soul’s joy in having found God.
Then at last comes union, with the Bridegroom saying:
“Beneath the apple tree:
there I took you for my own,
there I offered you my hand,
and restored you,
where your mother was corrupted.” (Stanza 23)
All is love
The Bride (the soul) responds by speaking of drinking her Beloved in “the inner wine cellar” (stanza 26). There she gives God the complete gift of herself, holding nothing back. Savor these beautiful lines:
“Now I occupy my soul
and all my energy in his service;
I no longer tend the herd,
nor have I any other work
now that my every act is love.” (Stanza 28)
John writes in his commentary that the soul’s work is no longer tainted with self love or an appetite for anything other than God. All is love of Him. Everything that happens to her, everything she does, only increases her love. She embraces all things for love. She dwells in habitual union with God.
Now you see why writers such as Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen suggest reading The Spiritual Canticle before John’s more famous works. The saint presents an inspiring picture of the life of the soul who loves God. When we understand what the goal is, we are ready to go back and say, how did the soul get here? How can I do the same?
Then we are ready to “begin” with John. Our hearts are inflamed with desire for God. We are now ready to start learning about his teaching on darkness and detachment.