By Lisa Rosenlund,
Saint Brendan Parish Manager
Each week, we summarize a specific style, form, or approach to prayer, using the highly-acclaimed book by Robert J. Wicks, Prayer in the Catholic Tradition: A Handbook of Practical Approaches (Franciscan Media 2006). In this article, you’ll learn more about prayer in the tradition of Saint John of the Cross.
For the sixteenth century Carmelite mystic and Spanish poet, Saint John of the Cross, prayer is much more than just a time to be with God, a spiritual practice, or a specific method. Rather, it is a process of falling madly and deeply in love with Jesus Christ. Saint John guides us through this process in his books, Living Flame of Love, Dark Night, and Spiritual Canticle.
First in this process is the infatuation phase, which produces an ardent desire to know everything about Jesus Christ by immersion in the Gospels. The focus is on the humanity of Jesus, “because desire needs something – someone – concrete to motivate it” (337). In this phase, increasing intimacy with Christ is consoling and familiar. Feeling his presence and companionship offers strength and spiritual support that allows perseverance in prayer. For some, the first phase may last a long time, like a perpetual Christmas that never matures into Easter.
In a second phase, it becomes increasingly difficult to pray and love Jesus as before. Anxiety results in this “dark night of the soul” because of an inability to regain the sense of Christ’s presence. One no longer feels the former consolation and peace, but instead may experience boredom, anger, confusion, disappointment, and disillusionment. This phase is similar to the purification of Lent and the cry from the human Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Once purified and transformed by the dark night, one is ready to move on to the third and final phase of perfect and mature love, where the soul moves beyond the self that was and into God. In this stage, one surrenders one’s ego and unites fully with the other. A true unselfish love for the other develops. This dying of the ego and birth of a fully integrated love represents a movement into Easter.
In this stage, the believer is reborn into a new life united with Christ as spouse, the union of lover and beloved in a spiritual marriage. “Each surrenders the entire possession of self to the other” (344). As in earthly marriage, there is an equality of friendship in spiritual marriage, where the possessions of both are held in common. The spiritual spouses enjoy the mutuality, equality, and shared beauty of deep communion. John makes clear, however, that the fruit of this total mutuality and equality is the extension of love, hope and service to others. Through his own love, God teaches his beloved how to love others purely, freely, and totally.
No matter where we are in the continuum of spiritual development, Saint John’s metaphor of love and marriage can provide a useful way of experiencing prayer.
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