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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Saint John of the Cross - By Love Alone

Saint John of the Cross explored how all of creation was the fruit of the love shared by the Father and the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Father is the One who for Saint John completely delights in the Son. The Son is for him the One who adores the Father with profound joy and solemn gratitude. Out of this inexhaustible mutual love, the Holy Spirit communicates the whole personal reality of One to the Other in an eternal exchange. This vision of the inner life of the Trinity allows Saint John to propose the mysterious purpose of creation, its ultimate end in the plan of God. For the Carmelite Doctor of the Church, it is out of the profundity of the Trinitarian mystery that the Father proposes to present His Son a Bride so that the Son might know what it is to be loved like the Father is loved by the Son. That Bride is the summit of all creation: the Church—and, throughout the poetry and commentary of Saint John, every soul personifies this ecclesial mystery anew through faith, baptism and growth in spiritual maturity. When it comes to growth to full spiritual maturity, mental prayer in particular is the special means that Saint John expounds on. In in image of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we are made for the loving communion that lives in the heart of the Church. The blood of Christ has given us access to this mystery. If we contemplate this loving communion in faith we not only see a pattern for how we ought to live, but we receive the power to live in the likeness of God. This vision is so biblical! When know from John 10:10 that Jesus longs for His disciples to have an abundantly fulfilling life. Not simply happy within the bounds of this present life, but extremely so in ways that this present life cannot contain. When men and women thrive, they give God glory because they are in the image of the One who eternally thrives before the Father: the more like Him they are, the more they reveal His glory. Jesus made this kind of life possible when He was born of the Virgin Mary and gave himself up for us through his death on the Cross. Because of sin, we were cut off from this fullness of life. Before Christ, the miserable absence of love in our hearts blinded and weakened us so that we could not attain our true good. Our own hostility constantly threatened our very existence. The Lord could not watch indifferently when the noble goodness with which He endowed us was subject to such futility. He set out to save us. Since He is the Word of the Father, whatever He enters into receives purpose and meaning. When He entered into fallen humanity, He brought our nature into harmony with God’s will to raise us up. Yet this was done at a great price. Throughout his writings, Saint John of the Cross reveals his conviction that,Jesus did not hold back from entering into the terrible mystery of our own suffering. He did this not only in a general way for all of humanity, but in a specific way for every single soul. He has suffered the particular hardships, difficulties, and wounds that weigh us down and He did so to the end. As a result, He knows intimately the absence of love that oppresses each heart and we never suffer this alone. For the Carmelite Master, the Lord is always present especially in His seeming absences and always ready to fill this absence with his faithfulness—if we will follow Him all the way to the Cross. It is on this point that the wisdom of Saint John of the Cross is particularly eloquent. For he is adamant that we should respond to the excessiveness of such love. One only truly enters the heart of another when one embraces the suffering that is there. Out of pure love, Christ has chosen to know our suffering. Out of love and gratitude, Saint John of the Cross encourages us to become familiar with the Lord's suffering—to share with Him even the difficult spiritual sorrows and death that He offered for our sake. We do this through prayer and by being faithful to obligations of love that He has entrusted us with—even when we do not feel or understand, even when the effort to love seems to put to death everything else that is in us. This in fact was the experience of Saint John of the Cross who died mostly misunderstood, especially by the community that he spent his life building up. When faithfulness to God's love takes us into hardships that completely overwhelm us and cause us to suffer the loss of all things, he firmly believed we are finally accomplishing our greatest work. Just as the greatest work of Christ's humanity was accomplished through the physical and spiritual agony that He suffered in his death, so too our greatest work is being realized when we seem to have utterly failed and feel ourselves completely powerless. Even when he was catastrophically misunderstood, this great mystic tenderly loved those who the Lord had given him in his community, and in so doing witnessed to the whole Church what it means that "in the evening time of our life, we will be judged by love alone."

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