Sweet Cautery: The Living Flame of Love

The Living Flame of Love is sometimes described as the most accessible of St. John’s major works and therefore a good place to begin becoming acquainted with his ideas.  “Living Flame of Love”, like “The Spiritual Canticle,” is the name of both a poem and a commentary on the poem. And the two poems have a connection; “The Spiritual Canticle” describes, as St. John of the Cross explains, “the highest degree of perfection one can reach in this life (transformation in God).” “The Living Flame of Love” then explains one aspect of this transformation in more detail. In “The Spiritual Canticle,” the Bride and the Bridegroom both speak of a wound they have suffered, each from the other. This wound is the effect of love–not just a limited or comfortably familiar love, but an overwhelming, life-altering reality. Once touched by this love, the soul is never the same. It is wounded, and the wound produces desperate longing when the Beloved is absent. But it is a strange wound; when the Beloved is present, the ache is not relieved but intensified. Initially, the soul suffers as its attachments and imperfections are burned away. In The Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night, St. John uses the metaphor of night to describe this purification. In The Living Flame of Love, the image is of a flame touching, heating, and igniting a log of wood.

The process of purification is painful because we are stripped of appetites and desires that may have found their way deep into our hearts. In The Living Flame of Love, St. John draws a metaphor from his youth, when he worked at the hospital in Medina del Campo: cauterization. By this treatment, very hot iron was touched to infected wounds and sores, to destroy the infection. He uses this image in his poem, but with a strange description:

O sweet cautery!

O delightful wound!

The second line, in the original Spanish, is “O regalada llaga,” using a derivative of the Spanish word for “gift.”

So the wound is also a gift.

To modern understanding, a wound is a form of physical or emotional damage that is purely negative and must be healed. This sense derives perhaps from our therapy-obsessed culture with its overriding imperative to make everyone healthy, at least as the culture defines health. But this sense is not entirely compatible with Christianity. For how were we redeemed? By His wounds, the Most Precious Wounds. And to be redeemed does not mean to be injury-free, at least in this life. But it does mean that our wounds must touch the One Who was wounded for us.

In The Living Flame of Love, St. John of the Cross is not describing wounds inflicted on us by injustice or ill fortune. He is describing the effect of the Holy Spirit on our fallen and broken souls. When God touches us, to purify us and bring us closer to Him, we are wounded. As attachments are severed and appetites turned away from earthly attractions, we are wounded. Even the purified soul experiences the touch of God as a wound, because the heart suffers from its inability to receive all the love being poured out for it.

When first published, the poem was titled, “Songs of the soul in the intimate communication of the union of love with God.” The poem expresses the highest state of union. Why, then, is it considered a good place to begin reading St. John of the Cross? Perhaps because everyone knows the pain of separation from God that is the backdrop of this life. Sincere people of faith know its true cause. Atheists and agnostics might not openly admit that some strange incompleteness haunts all their accomplishments and satisfactions, but they surely must feel it, at least from time to time. The Living Flame of Love is about this universal human experience.

There are other reasons to begin here. In a recent online discussion, a Carmelite religious compared it to the view from the summit of a mountain. We might hesitate to attempt the daunting climb, but the vivid description of one who has been there might inspire us to go.  Also significant is the fact that St. John wrote it for a layperson: doña Ana de Peñalosa, a well-to-do widow who gave significant support to the Carmelite reform, including opening her home to a group of Carmelites, when the property they were promised for their new foundation was withdrawn at the last minute.

The Living Flame of Love is not only for the spiritually adept. Like the divine union that it describes, it is for everyone.


Photo by Connor Jalbert on Unsplash.

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