MYSTICISM: The Living Flame Of Love — Stanza 2 by John of the Cross

The Living Flame Of Love — Stanza 2 by John of the Cross

From The Living Flame of Love

Stanza II

O sweet burn!
O delicious wound!
O tender hand! O gentle touch
That savors of eternal life,
And pays every debt!
In slaying you have changed death into life.

EXPOSITION

We learn here that it is the three persons of the Most Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who accomplish the divine work of union in the soul.  The “hand,” the “burn,” and the “touch” are in substance one and the same; and the three terms are employed because they express effects peculiar to each.  The “burn” is the Holy Spirit; the “hand” is the Father, and the “touch” is the Son.  Thus the soul magnifies the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, extolling those three grand gifts and graces that they perfect within it, in that they have changed death into life, transforming it in themselves.

The first of these gifts is the delicious wound, attributed to the Holy Spirit, and so the soul calls it the “burn.”  The second is the “taste of everlasting life,” attributed to the Son, and the soul calls it the “gentle touch.”  The third is the “gift” that is the perfect recompense of the soul, attributed to the Father, and is therefore called the “tender hand.”  Though the three persons of the Most Holy Trinity are referred to severally because of the operations peculiar to each, the soul is addressing itself to but one essence, saying, “You have changed it into life,” for the three persons work together and the whole is attributed to each and to all.  There follows the verse:

O sweet burn!

In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses says, “Our Lord God is a consuming fire,” that is, a fire of love.  And as his power is infinite, he consumes infinitely, burning with great vehemence, and transforming into himself all he touches.  But he burns everything according to the measure of its preparation, some more, others less; and also according to his own good pleasure, as, and when, and how, he will.  And as this is an infinite fire of love, so when he touches the soul somewhat sharply, the burning heat within it becomes so extreme as to surpass all the fires of the world.  This is the reason why this touch of God is said to be a “burn”; for the fire there is more intense, and more concentrated, and the effect of it surpasses that of all other fires.  When the divine fire shall have transformed the soul into itself, the soul not only feels the burn, but itself is become wholly and entirely burned up in this vehement fire.

It is wonderful and worthy of telling that though this fire is so vehement and so consuming, though it can destroy a thousand worlds with more ease than the material fire can destroy a single straw, it consumes not the spirit wherein it burns, but rather, in proportion to its strength and heat, delights and deifies it, burning sweetly within according to the purity and perfection of their spirits.  Thus, on the day of Pentecost the fire descended with great vehemence upon the Apostles, who, according to Saint Gregory, sweetly burned interiorly.  The church also says, when celebrating that event: “The divine fire came down, not consuming but enlightening.”  For as the object of these communications is to elevate the soul, the burning of the fire does not distress it but gladdens it; does not weary it but delights it, and renders it glorious and rich.  This is the reason why it is said to be sweet.

Thus then the blessed soul, which by the mercy of God has been burned, knows all things, “whatsoever it shall do shall prosper,” against it nothing shall prevail, nothing shall touch it.  It is of that soul that the Apostle said: “The spiritual man judges all things, and he himself is judged of no man.”  And, again, “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God,” because it belongs to love to search into all that the Beloved has.

O, the great glory of the souls who are worthy of this supreme fire that, having infinite power to consume and annihilate you, consumes you not, but makes you infinitely perfect in glory!  Wonder not that God should elevate some souls to so high a degree, for he alone is wonderful in his marvelous works.  As the Holy Spirit says, it burns the mountains of the just in three ways.  As this burn then is so sweet – as it is here said to be – how happy must that soul be which this fire has touched!  The soul would speak of it, but cannot, so it says only, “O delicious wound.”

O delicious wound!

He who inflicts the wound relieves and heals while he inflicts it.  It bears some resemblance to the caustic usage of natural fire, which when applied to a wound increases it, and renders a wound, which iron or other instruments occasioned, a wound of fire.  The longer the caustic is applied, the more grievous the wound, until the whole matter be destroyed.

Thus the divine burn of love heals the wound that love has caused, and by each application renders it greater.  The healing that love brings is to wound again what was wounded before, until the soul melts away in the fire of love.  So when the soul shall become wholly one wound of love it will then be transformed in love, wounded with love.  For herein he who is most wounded is the most healthy, and he who is all wound is all health.

And yet even if the whole soul be one wound, and consequently sound, the divine burning is not interrupted; it continues its work, which is to wound the soul with love.  But then, too, its work is to soothe the healed wound, and the soul therefore cries out, “O delicious wound,” and so much the more delicious the more penetrating the fire of love.  The Holy Spirit inflicted the wound that he might soothe it, and as his will and desire to soothe it are great, great will be the wound that he will inflict, in order that the soul he has wounded may be greatly comforted.

O blessed wound inflicted by him who cannot but heal it!  O happy and most blessed wound!  For you are inflicted only for the joy and comfort of the soul.  Great is the wound, because he is great who has wrought it; and great is the delight for it: for the fire of love is infinite.  O delicious wound then, and the more delicious the more the burn of love penetrates the inmost substance of the soul, burning all it can burn that it may supply all the delight it can give.  This burning and wound, in my opinion, are the highest condition attainable in this life.  There are many other forms of this burning, but they do not reach so far, neither are they like this: for this is the touch of the divinity without form or figure, either natural, formal, or imaginary.

But the soul is burned in another and most excellent way, which is this: When a soul is on fire with love, but not in the degree of which I am now speaking – though it should be so, that it may be the subject of this – it will feel as if a Seraph with a burning brand of love had struck it, and penetrated it already on fire as glowing coal, or rather as a flame, and burns it utterly.  And then in that burn the flame rushes forth and surges vehemently as in a glowing furnace or forge; the fire revives and the flame ascends when the burning fuel is disturbed.  Then when the burning brand touches it, the soul feels that the wound it has thus received is delicious beyond all imagination.  For beside being altogether moved or stirred, at the time of this stirring of the fire, by the vehement movement of the Seraph, wherein the ardor and the melting of love is great, it feels that its wound is perfect, and that the herbs that serve to temper the steel are efficacious; it feels the very depths of the spirit trans-pierced and its delight to be exquisite beyond the power of language to express.

The soul feels, as it were, a most minute grain of mustard seed, most pungent and burning in the inmost heart of the spirit, in the spot of the wound, where the substance and the power of the herb reside, diffuse itself most subtly through all the spiritual veins of the soul in proportion to the strength and power of the heat.  It feels its love to grow, strengthen, and refine itself to such a degree as to seem to itself as if seas of fire were in it filling it with love.

The fruition of the soul now cannot be described otherwise than by saying that it understands why the kingdom of Heaven is compared in the gospel to a mustard seed, which by reason of its great natural heat grows into a lofty tree.  “The kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and sowed in his field.  Which is surely the least of all seeds; but when it is grown up, it is greater than all herbs, and is made a tree, so that the birds of the air come and dwell in its branches,” (Matthew 13:31-32).  The soul beholds itself now as one immense sea of fire.  Few souls, however, attain to this state, but some have done so, especially those whose spirit and power is to be transmitted to their spiritual children; since God bestows on the founder gifts and graces, according to the succession of the order in the first fruits of the Spirit.

To return to the work of the Seraph, which in truth is to strike and wound.  If the effect of the wound is permitted to flow exteriorly into the bodily senses, an effect corresponding to the interior wound itself will manifest itself without.  Thus it was with Saint Francis, for when the Seraph wounded his soul with love, the effects of that would became outwardly visible.  God confers no favors on the body that he does not confer in the first place chiefly on the soul.  In that case, the greater the joy and violence of the love that is the cause of the interior wound, the greater will be the pain of the visible wound, and as the former grows so does the latter.  The reason is this: Such souls as these, being already purified and strong in God, their spirit, strong and sound, delights in the strong and sweet Spirit of God; who, however, causes pain and suffering in their weak and corruptible flesh.  It is thus a most marvelous thing to feel pain and sweetness together.  Job felt it when he said, “Returning, you torment me wonderfully.”  This is marvelous, worth of the “multitude of the sweetness of God, which he has hidden for them that fear him,” (Psalm 30:20).  The greater the sweetness and delight, the greater the pain and suffering.

O infinite greatness, in all things showing yourself omnipotent.  Who, O Lord, can cause sweetness in the midst of bitterness, and pleasure in the midst of pain?  O delicious wound, the greater the delight the deeper the wound.  But when the wound is within the soul, and not communicated to the body without, it is then much more intense and keen.  As the flesh is bridle to the spirit, so, when the graces of the latter overflow into the former, the flesh draws in and restrains the swift steed of the spirit and checks its course; “For the corruptible body is a load upon the soul, and the Earthly habitation presses down the mind that muses upon many things,” (Wisdom 9:15).

He, therefore, who shall trust much to the bodily senses will never become a very spiritual man.  This I say for the sake of those who think they can ascend to the heights and power of the spirit by the mere energy and action of the senses, which are mean and vile.  We cannot become spiritual unless the bodily senses are restrained.  It is a state of things wholly different from this when the spirit overflows into the senses, for there may be great spirituality in this; as in the case of Saint Paul, whose deep sense of the sufferings of Christ overflowed into his body, so that he said in Galatians: “I bear the marks of our Lord Jesus in my body.”

Thus, as the wound and the burn are such as this, what will be the hand that inflicted it; and what will be the touch that causes it?  This the soul shows in the following verse, extolling more than explaining, saying:

O tender hand! O gentle touch

O hand, as generous as you are powerful and rich, giving me gifts with power.  O gentle hand! laid so gently upon me, and yet, if you were to press at all, the whole world would perish; for only at the sight of you the Earth trembles, the nations melt, and the mountains are crushed in pieces.  O gentle hand, I say it again, for him you touched so sharply.  Upon me you are laid so softly, so lovingly, and so tenderly.  You are the more gentle and sweet for me than you were hard for him [Job]; the loving sweetness with which you are laid upon me is greater than the severity with which he was touched.  You kill and you give life and there is no one who shall escape out of your hand.

But you, O divine life, never kill but to give life, as you never wound but to heal.  You have wounded me, O divine hand, so that you may heal me.  You have slain in me that which made me dead and without the life of God which I now live.  This you have done in the liberality of your gracious generosity through that touch with which you touch me, by the brightness of your glory and the figure of your substance, that is, your only-begotten Son in whom, since he is your Wisdom, you reach “from end to end mightily,” (Wisdom 8:1).

O gentle, subtle touch, the Word, the Son of God, who, because of the pureness of your divine nature, penetrates subtly the very substance of my soul, and, touching it gently, absorbs it wholly in divine ways of sweetness not “heard of in the land of Canaan,” nor “seen in Teman,” (Baruch 3:22).  O touch of the Word, so gentle, so wonderfully gentle to me; and yet you were “overthrowing mountains, and breaking rocks in Horeb,” by the shadow of your power going before, when you announced your presence to the prophet in “the whisper of a gentle air,” (3 Kings 19:11-12).  O soft air, how is it that you touch so softly when you are so terrible and so strong?  O blessed soul, most blessed, which you, who are so terrible and so strong, touch so gently.  Proclaim it to the world, O my soul – no, proclaim it not, for the world does not know the “gentle air,” nor will it listen to it, because it cannot comprehend matters so deep.

O my God and my life, they shall know you, and behold you when you touch them, who, making themselves strangers upon Earth, shall purify themselves, because purity corresponds with purity.  The more gently you touch, the more you are hidden in the purified soul of those who have made themselves strangers here, hidden from the face of all creatures, and whom, “You shall hide in the secret of your face from the disturbance of men,” (Psalm 30:21).

O, again and again, gentle touch, which by the power of its tenderness undoes the soul, removes it far away from every touch whatever, and makes it your own.  You who leave behind your effects and impressions so pure that the touch of everything else seems vile and low, the very sight offensive, and all relations with them a deep affliction.

The more subtle any matter is, the more it spreads and fills, and the more it diffuses itself, the more subtle it is.  O gentle touch the more subtle you are, the more infused.  And now the vessel of my soul, because you have touched it, is pure and clean and able to receive you.  O gentle touch! as in you there is nothing material, so your touch is the more penetrating, changing what in me is human into divine, for your divine essence, with which you touch me, is wholly unaffected by modes and manner, free from the husks of form and figure.  Finally then, O gentle touch, and most gentle, for you touch me with your most simple and pure essence, which being infinite is infinitely gentle; therefore it is that this touch is so subtle, so loving, so deep, and so delicious, that it

Savors of eternal life.

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