For the past couple of years, I’ve belonged to a small faith conversation group that runs from around May to August.
It focuses on the writings of Discalced Carmelite saints St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Avila and St Therese of Lisieux along with other traditional and contemporary spiritual writers.
Due to social distancing this year it’s been via zoom conference rather than a relaxed conversation over tea and pastries. It’s not nearly as good as meeting up face-to-face but better than nothing.
This year we’re focusing on themes in the poetry of St John of the Cross – one is what he calls a ‘wound’ in the spiritual life.
What is the ‘wound’ in St John of the Cross?
St John has a reputation for being too difficult to understand. That’s a shame, when, for example the wound he speaks of, at least as far as I can understand it (an important caveat!!), is something lots of people probably have experienced.
Have you ever been so deeply moved by an encounter with someone, beautiful piece of music, a stunning sunset, a passage of scripture or another spiritual book, or a homily or talk in such a way that you weren’t the same after that?
I may be wrong but I think it is something like that, or can happen like that.
St John tells of a God who takes the initiative in a person’s spiritual life, and in touching a soul both wounds and heals it.
Wounds it because everything we thought we knew and thought about ourselves and the world and our future in it is shattered in that moment and we are launched onto a different and uncertain path.
Something happens, and from somewhere inside comes a cry of recognition and consent, a fiat, and we’ve fallen in love with a God we somehow know but do not know. He has gone, leaving a great, gaping, desire to know and love Him better no matter what.
You could call it a craving, but an authentic desire for God must have a different quality to other cravings. And that’s how it also heals; other things within us which would take us from God begin to fall away.
Like the deer longs for running streams, so my heart longs for you, O my God.Psalm 42: 1-2
This longing’s object is so different to anything else we can crave, so ultimately unattainable – yet the unattainability of God doesn’t discourage. It can only expand our horizons as it leads us on.
Do you want the Father’s love to open new horizons for you and bring you along paths never imagined or hoped for, dreamt or expected…?Pope Francis’ speech at WYD 2019 opening ceremony
St John manifests this insatiable search (insatiable because aka the Snickers tagline nothing else will satisfy) at the beginning of the spiritual life in the famous first lines of his Spiritual Canticle:
Where have you hidden, beloved,The Spiritual Canticle by St John of the Cross
and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone
Or St Augustine so beautifully put it:
You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.Confessions of St Augustine
It’s not comfortable, this having to stay restless bit, but it is healing. A lot of other things, stupid and harmful things, lesser cravings and worries that used to tie us up in knots, start to fall away.
Some of that is just the natural process of growing up, but in the wounded I think St John would say there’s also a honing of desire for God where before there were endless desires for all sorts of things and experiences. And it brings with it a certain, unshakeable, peace.
I wish I could say I have been wounded by God’s love in such a way that I was forever on fire to relentlessly search for God in the way St John describes. I don’t think I can, but his poetry still resonates with me as it has for so many people.
There’s good reason why his poems, commentaries and other writings continue to have an impact five centuries after he wrote them.
His Canticle describes a search which is restless but also infused with joy, as the searcher finds traces, or what we might call clues of God everywhere. What William Wordsworth a couple of hundreds years later would call intimations of God, or more recently, Gerard Manley Hopkins sang of evidence of God’s grandeur.
Seeking my LoveThe Spiritual Canticle by St John of the Cross
I will head for the mountains and for watersides,
I will not gather flowers,
nor fear wild beasts;
I will go beyond strong men and frontiers.
O woods and thickets,
planted by the hand of my Beloved!
O green meadow,
coated, bright, with flowers,
tell me, has he passed by you?
Pouring out a thousand graces,
he passed these groves in haste;
and having looked at them,
with his image alone,
clothed them in beauty.
In our conversation the other week, the question naturally arose of why do some people have this encounter that launches them on a great spiritual quest, and plenty of others don’t seem to need it at all?
I used to wonder that too, and I think it’s a distraction. I don’t know what’s going on in anyone else’s soul – I hardly remember what I think or am doing from one day to the next…
I only know that something happened in my life at around 19 that set me on a path where I want to know and love God, and more than that, I’m not content with an idea of God who peacefully listens to requests and arranges things from up from in heaven – I want to bring God down here!
I want a God who is with us – Emmanuel – who I have been told and accept has already come in that man Jesus Christ with thanks to his mother (who, if you read the Gospels and know a little bit about history and humanity you see both satisfactorily explode the limits of the word extraordinary) and who is already here. Though not in a way that we can possess God completely and have everything perfect.
That’s why the God-with-us when physically here wanted us who are drawn to his presence to pray: May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Yes, may it. But in the meantime I find traces of God everywhere if I ever stop to look, even, if I’m honest, sometimes at work in me. Who is…(people who know me will read this and think it outrageous or hilarious so how do I put it?)…not always a paragon of virtue…
That’s the God I love: the One who knows me more deeply than anyone else – who knows who I want, and am so far unutterably unable, to be. And who will never consent to be separated from me but calls and calls and calls until, finally, I will run.
Love is patient; love is kind.1 Corinthians 13:4-7
So I totally get the wound thing as I think St John of the Cross would like to explain it to us.
It is a wound which restores and that I hope in my case it never callouses over so long as I need the touch of the Divine Healer.