Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

St. John of the Cross and the Divine Alchemy

December 14, 2020


Near the village where I grew up, there is a small chapel that I loved to visit for quiet prayer in my youth. At the side altar is the tabernacle, which has an unusual feature. It is placed on a plinth and is surrounded by thin metal wires that point upwards and converge above the tabernacle in the shape of a flame. On these wires are attached what looks like tongues of fire. It was before that tabernacle, in the real presence of the Lord in the Eucharist, that I spent many hours of prayer, experiencing his presence and warmth in ways that I did not understand at the time. It was only later that I discovered that the feature around the tabernacle was that of the burning bush that Moses encountered in the book of Exodus (Exod. 3). And it was only much later that I better understood what effect my hours of prayer had on me—with the help of the saint whose feast day we celebrate today.

St. John of the Cross (1542-1591) is one of the most profound spiritual masters in the history of the Church. Yet his writings are often perceived as being too deep or “out of my league” for many. This is unfortunate because, arguably more than any other saint, John’s insights into the nature and action of divine love are beautiful and simple. He points to the love of God being accessible, near and intimate to us. John is also the master of explaining how our encounter with God’s love always leads to a change in us, leaving us more perfect in love like God himself.

One of John’s favorite images for communicating this process is that of fire burning. As I mentioned, the symbol of fire is central to Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush. In the New Testament, Jesus used the symbol of fire to describe his passionate desire to establish his kingdom: “I have come to bring fire on the earth and how I wish it were blazing already!” (Luke 12:49). We also see the symbol of fire used for the Holy Spirit at Pentecost where the spirit of Jesus would continue to blaze out through the Church and into the world (Acts 2). Here I offer a brief summary of John’s greatest insights into the spiritual life that have much to teach us today about the universal human experience of God.

First, he teaches that the love of God exists before us, whether we accept it or reject it. God is the one who loves first, who created us in love and for love. And so, God is always the first lover, the perfect lover and source of all love. This is the love that we are subject to. It precedes us and burns before us. As John explains, the Holy Spirit is “an infinite fire of love . . . that surpasses all the fires of the world” (Living Flame of Love, 2.2).

Second, this love of God is not static but goes in search of the Beloved: “In the first place, it should be known that if anyone is seeking God, the Beloved is seeking that person much more” (Living Flame of Love, 3.28). This is the nature of love. Where God is concerned, “love is never idle; it is in continuous movement” (Living Flame of Love, 1.8). God engages us with his probing love and woos us through what John calls spiritual affection: “Through spiritual affection God refreshes, delights, and gladdens the soul” (Spiritual Canticle, 11.3).

Third, when God’s love finds us, it is not content to encounter us and leave us outside itself. Like two lovers who meet and whose first reaction is to embrace, so the love of the Trinity opens out before us, embracing us and enfolding us within God’s very life: “He loves the soul within himself” (Spiritual Canticle, 32.6).

Fourth, when we are embraced by God, we begin to change. A painful process begins whereby, in his light, we see more clearly our vices, imperfections, and sins. The fire of God’s love wounds us, burning away our ego and pride, slowly changing us to become more like him. Though painful, the process is a kind of divine alchemy whereby the love of God we encounter divests us of all that impedes our call to total self-giving, so that eventually our whole existence becomes fused with God’s life. This is what divine love does—changing our love to become more perfectly like his: “O night that has united the Lover with his beloved, transforming the beloved in her Lover” (The Dark Night, 5). By contemplating that love and allowing ourselves to be loved, our spirits are enflamed and woken up. As John teaches: “Contemplation is nothing but a hidden, peaceful, loving inflow of God, which, if not hampered, fires the soul in the spirit of love” (The Dark Night, 1.10.6).

Fifth, this purgative process reaches its climax when we become completely united to his divine life, burn gently, and rest within himself. Then we will become fully divine by participating in his life as gift. God’s aim is to make us “gods by participation,” as he is God by nature—like fire turning everything to fire (The Dark Night, 2.20.5). Because loving another means allowing them to be themselves, God’s love does not dissolve us into itself. John beautifully compares this to the light of a star which still shines in the noon sky even though its light is subsumed into the light of the sun. So will be the soul’s union with God (Spiritual Canticle, 22.3). The closest we can come to understand this consummation in love is with the marriage of a bride and groom and the consummation of their love. God is the Bridegroom and his people are the Bride. Consistent with Scripture, John prays, “May the most sweet Jesus, Bridegroom of faithful souls, be pleased to bring all who invoke his name to this marriage” (Spiritual Canticle, 40.7).

Lastly, the fruits of this nuptial union with God are abundant and show themselves in human lives—remarkable delight, cooperation with God’s grace, cessation of imperfections, heroic virtue, peace, and refreshment. The beauty of God enraptures our soul as we begin to resemble the goodness and beauty of the One who loves us: “That I may be absorbed in your beauty . . . transformed in your beauty that we may be alike in beauty, and both behold ourselves in your beauty” (Spiritual Canticle, 36.5). This beauty is always vibrant for the soul and is “like a song that is new, of great jubilation, enfolded in the gladness of its happy state” (The Living Flame of Love, 2.36).

Whenever I return home, I go back to that chapel and come before that same tabernacle where I prayed for hours in my youth. The symbolic structure of the burning bush around the Eucharistic presence of the Lord always intrigued me and still does. Thanks to St. John of the Cross, his insights help me to understand the dynamics at play every time we come before the mystery of God: that his love is always waiting for us; that he seeks to unite himself to us by engaging us with spiritual affection; that his love draws us and embraces us; that the divine alchemist changes us to become more like him; and that our destiny is to become fully united in blissful communion with his love. May all of us draw closer to the living flame of love, which we discover burning in the crib this Christmas.