Excerpts from “The Living Flame of Love”
St. John of the Cross in The Living Flame of Love dedicates much time to considering how a spiritual director who does not know the ways of God can become a major obstacle to a soul’s growth in union with God. For St. John this “knowing the ways of God” implies knowing the ways of [human] nature, to distinguish what is rooted in simple human processes from what is the the Holy Spirit’s stirring in a soul. The following selection deals specifically with a soul’s transition from “discursive meditation” to “contemplation” where the Lord wants to more directly guide a person’s prayer (we’ll deal with that in a future course), but the general operative principle is a director must be schooled in the ways of God and way of human nature, to comprehend what is happening and thus be able to guide a soul.
- Wipe away, O spiritual soul, the dust, hairs, and stains, and cleanse your eye; and the bright sun will illumine you, and you will see clearly. Pacify the soul, draw it out, and liberate it from the yoke and slavery of its own weak operation, which is the captivity of Egypt (amounting to not much more than gathering straws for baking bricks) [Ex. 5:7-19]. And, O spiritual master, guide it to the land of promise flowing with milk and honey [Ex. 3:8, 17]. Behold that for this holy liberty and idleness of the children of God, God calls the soul to the desert, where it journeys festively clothed and adorned with gold and silver jewels, since it has now left Egypt and been despoiled of its riches, which is the sensory part [Ex. 32:2-3]. Not only this, but the Egyptians are drowned in the sea of contemplation [Ex. 14:27-28], where the Egyptian of sense, not finding a foothold or some support, drowns and thereby frees the child of God, which is the spirit that has emerged from the narrow limits and slavery of the operation of the senses, from its little understanding, its base feeling, and its poor way of loving and being satisfied, that God may give it the sweet manna. Although this manna has all these tastes and savors [Wis. 16:20] with which you desire the soul to be occupied through its own labor, nonetheless, since it is so delicate it melts in one’s mouth, it will not be tasted if mingled with some other taste or some other thing. When a soul approaches this state, strive that it become detached from all satisfaction, relish, pleasure, and spiritual meditations, and do not disquiet it with cares and solicitude about heavenly things or, still less, earthly things. Bring it to as complete a withdrawal and solitude as possible, for the more solitude it obtains and the nearer it approaches this idle tranquility the more abundantly will the spirit of divine wisdom be infused into its soul. This wisdom is loving, tranquil, solitary, peaceful, mild, and an inebriator of the spirit, by which the soul feels tenderly and gently wounded and carried away, without knowing by whom or from where or how. The reason is that this wisdom is communicated without the soul’s own activity.
- And a little of this that God works in the soul in this holy idleness and solitude is an
inestimable good, a good much greater at times than a soul or its director can imagine. And
although one is not always so clearly conscious of it, it will in due time shed its light. The least
that a person can manage to feel is a withdrawal and an estrangement as to all things, sometimes more than at other times, accompanied by an inclination toward solitude and weariness with all creatures and with the world, in the gentle breathing of love and life in the spirit. Everything not included in this estrangement becomes distasteful, for, as they say, once the spirit has tasted, all flesh becomes bitter.
- Yet the blessings this silent communication and contemplation impress on the soul, without
its then experiencing them, are inestimable, as I say. They are most hidden unctions of the Holy
Spirit and hence most delicate; they secretly fill the soul with spiritual riches, gifts, and graces.
Since it is God who grants them, he does so in no other manner than as God.
- Because of the refined quality and purity of these delicate and sublime anointings and shadings of the Holy Spirit, neither the soul nor its director understands them; only he who bestows them in order to be more pleased with the soul comprehends them. Individuals can with the greatest ease disturb and hinder these anointings by no more than the least act they may desire of their memory, intellect, or will; or by making use of their senses, appetite, and knowledge, or their own satisfaction and pleasure. This is all seriously harmful and a great sorrow and pity.
- Oh, it is a serious and regrettable situation that even though this interfering with these holy unctions seems to cause hardly any damage at all, the harm done is greater and worthy of deeper sorrow and compassion then the harm done in the disturbance and ruin of many other ordinary souls who are not in the position to receive such sublime adornment and shadings! Were a portrait of extremely delicate workmanship touched over with dull and harsh colors by an unpolished hand, the destruction would be worse, more noticeable, and a greater pity than if many other portraits of less artistry were effaced. Who will succeed in repairing that delicate painting of the Holy Spirit once it is marred by a coarse hand?
- Although this damage is beyond anything imaginable, it is so common and frequent that scarcely any spiritual director will be found who does not cause it in souls God is beginning to recollect in this manner of contemplation. How often is God anointing a contemplative soul with some very delicate unguent of loving knowledge, serene, peaceful, solitary, and far withdrawn from the senses and what is imaginable, as a result of which it cannot meditate or reflect on anything, or enjoy anything heavenly or earthly (since God has engaged it in that lonely idleness and given it the inclination to solitude), when a spiritual director will happen along who, like a blacksmith, knows no more than how to hammer and pound with the faculties. Since hammering with the faculties is this director’s only teaching, and he knows no more than how to meditate, he will say: “Come, now, lay aside these rest periods, which amount to idleness and a waste of time; take and meditate and make interior acts, for it is necessary that you do your part; this other method is the way of illusions and typical of fools.”
- These directors should reflect that they themselves are not the chief agent, guide, and mover of souls in this matter, but the principal guide is the Holy Spirit, who is never neglectful of souls, and they themselves are instruments for directing these souls to perfection through faith and the law of God, according to the spirit given by God to each one. Thus the whole concern of directors should not be to accommodate souls to their own method and condition, but they should observe the road along which God is leading one; if they do not recognize it, they should leave the soul alone and not bother it. And in harmony with the path and spirit along which God leads a soul, the spiritual director should strive to conduct it into greater solitude, tranquility, and freedom of spirit. He should give it latitude so that when God introduces it into this solitude it does not bind its corporeal or spiritual faculties to some particular object, interior or exterior, and does not become anxious or afflicted with the thought that nothing is being done. Even though the soul is not then doing anything, God is doing something in it.