Editor’s note: This post was originally published 8/19/2019 and is repeated in honor of the feast day of St. John of the Cross, 12/14.
Do you recognize yourself among the souls who realize that the pleasures of the world are fleeting, who want to give God a greater place in their lives, who wish to draw near to Him, and yet wonder, simultaneously, if their desires are within reach?
Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, O.C.D.(1893-1953), a Carmelite priest, spiritual director and expert on the teachings of the great Carmelite spiritual masters, assures us in Union with God According to St. John of the Cross that yes, these God-given desires are attainable, and he points to someone who can guide us. In a new edition of his spiritual classic, he illuminates St. John of the Cross as “a master of the contemplative life,” which is simply a life which “directly seeks intimacy with God.”
“The supreme grandeur of the human person,” Fr. Gabriel says, is “to be called to live eternally in intimate companionship with his God; alone with God alone, in an inexpressible contact with Him.” Contemplation, the deeper prayer in which the soul is drawn by God, is a type of anticipation of that eternal intimacy. And this prayer is not only meant for religious: St. John of the Cross taught laity and religious alike about the contemplative life, a life of prayer and mortification because he knew it could prepare them to receive a more intimate experience of God’s love. In giving these teachings to the laity, he never wanted to water them down or diminish them in any way, for it was “not only the crumbs from his sumptuous table that the saint allotted to seculars” but his entire doctrine.
Fr. Gabriel begins with The Spiritual Canticle, the song of a soul searching for and finding union with God, because it is here where we glimpse the “magnificent goal to which the saint intends to lead the soul.” The cross, after all, is not the end. “It is,” he reflects, “only an instrument, a means of salvation and holiness. It is not exact, therefore, to say that St. John of the Cross is the doctor of the cross and renunciation; he is precisely the doctor of the union and love of God.”
Purification and Prayer
Once we have tasted a slice of the sweetness of union, we are better able to endure the difficult detachments and renunciations, described in The Ascent of Mount Carmel, which are the painful but necessary prerequisites for this union of wills – our own utterly dissolved into God’s. Even the smallest and most subtle disordered affection or attachment can keep us from the transforming union in which our will disappears. Fr. Gabriel quotes the famous passage from the Ascent:
Whether the bird be tied with a rope or a thread, it cannot fly; obviously the thread is broken more easily than the rope, but as long as it be not effectively broken, the bird truly cannot fly. (Asent I, XI, 4)