Chapter Five—The Journey Was Worth It!—Betrothal and Spiritual Marriage

Betrothal is that final state just prior to the permanent union of God with the soul.  It is the final part of the passive purgation of the spirit, a transitional stage from the Illuminative Way to the Unitive Way.  In this state, the flesh, the world and the devil may still attack the soul and attempt to distract it and draw it out of the union it enjoys.  Though the soul begins to enjoy the blessings of this union, it needs strength, courage and countless virtues to infuse it so that it can enter into the permanence of divine marriage.  Once divine marriage is achieved, neither the devil, the flesh nor the world have any power over it whatsoever. It is perfectly at rest with the Beloved.

Saint John’s close companion, Saint Teresa of Ávila, explains the difference between these two states by saying that betrothal is like two candles that are lit and touched together at the wick.  Suddenly, the flame burns as one. The two are perfectly united. However, she also explains that this is not a permanent state in that it is possible for the candles to be separated again. Thus, betrothal brings union with God but not in the permanent way that marriage does.  The soul is united to God, but the temptations of the flesh, the world and the devil still attack and seek to separate them from each other.

Spiritual marriage is like rain falling into a river.  Once the drops enter the river, it is not possible to remove them.  They are so mingled that, even though they remain distinct, they are forever united.  The drops of rain become part of the mighty river.

In the The Spiritual Canticle, Saint John of the Cross explains the state of betrothal in Stanzas 14-21.  This is a state wherein the soul moves from the painful purgations of its last imperfections to that of pure union.  The union of betrothal is a spiritual union. However, the bodily senses are not yet fully united to God. Saint John explains it this way:

But before I proceed to explain the stanzas which follow, I must observe that, in the state of betrothal, wherein the soul enjoys this tranquillity, and wherein it receives all that it can receive in this life, we are not to suppose its tranquillity to be perfect, but that the higher part of it is tranquil; for the sensual part, except in the state of spiritual marriage, never loses all its imperfect habits, and its powers are never wholly subdued, as I shall show hereafter.  What the soul receives now is all that it can receive in the state of betrothal, for in that of the marriage the blessings are greater. Though the bride-soul has great joy in these visits of the Beloved in the state of betrothal, still it has to suffer from His absence, to endure trouble and afflictions in the lower part, and at the hands of the devil. But all this ceases in the state of spiritual marriage. (The Spiritual Canticle 15.10)

In this state of betrothal, the soul is united to God in the spirit.  Though the lower part of the soul remains imperfect and the devil continues to try to inflict harm upon the soul, the spirit remains vigilant and at peace.  This temporary state of betrothal, however, eventually gives way to the permanent state of marriage.

In marriage, every part of the soul, spiritual and sensual, is transformed by God and shines brightly with the light of the Holy Spirit.  By analogy, it’s like the stars in the sky on a sunny day. The stars are still there, shining brightly, but they are invisible because the brightness of the Sun overwhelms them.  So it is with every faculty, desire and passion of the soul. The entire soul, spirit and senses, takes on the brightness of the Holy Spirit and radiates as if the soul were God and God were the soul.  The two are united without either losing their identity. The union transforms; it does not destroy. All the lower loves of the soul, every other attachment it formerly had, and all former concepts and experiences are annihilated so that God and God alone takes possession of and lives in and through the soul.  It is this last, unquenchable enkindling with an impassioned love of God that enables the soul to cling to and become one with its Beloved.

When the soul has lived for some time as the bride of the Son, in perfect and sweet love, God calls it and leads it into His flourishing garden for the celebration of the spiritual marriage.  Then the two natures are so united, what is divine is so communicated to what is human, that, without undergoing any essential change, each seems to be God—yet not perfectly so in this life, though still in a manner which can neither be described nor conceived. (The Spiritual Canticle 22.5b)

In this state of divine union, the soul realizes that every purgation it has endured was worth it.  There will be no regrets, only gratitude beyond imagination that the soul persevered through the long journey to union.  Saint John identifies two final blessings for the soul who has entered through the purgation of the senses and the purgation of the spirit.  First, in this life the soul enjoys habitual union with God, as briefly described in the quote above. This is the life of earthly perfection.  However, Saint John also points out that even more awaits the soul: the Beatific Vision. While on Earth, the soul will live in perfect union with God and experience the fullness of the life of God.  But that fullness of life in God is elevated once the soul dies and enters into the glory of Heaven, beholding the face of God in the Beatific Vision.

 

The Living Flame of Love

The experience of divine union is beyond words.  However, Saint John of the Cross attempted, nonetheless, to speak of this union using a poetic presentation.  The poem describes the sweetness and the burning intimacy felt by the soul, having finally reached God the Beloved after such a dark and painful journey to be with Him.

Stanzas the Soul Recites in Intimate Union with God:

O Living Flame of Love,
That woundest tenderly
My soul in its inmost depth!
As thou art no longer grievous,
Perfect thy work, if it be thy will,
Break the web of this sweet encounter.

O sweet burn!
O delicious wound!
O tender hand! O gentle touch!
Savouring of everlasting life,
And paying the whole debt,
By slaying Thou hast changed death into life.

O lamps of fire,
In the splendours of which
The deep caverns of sense,
Dim and dark,
With unwonted brightness
Give light and warmth together to their Beloved!

How gently and how lovingly
Thou wakest in my bosom,
Where alone Thou secretly dwellest;
And in Thy sweet breathing
Full of grace and glory,
How tenderly Thou fillest me with Thy love.

Saint John assisted his readers by writing a commentary on each stanza to explain the deeper meaning behind this poem.  This same structure will be used below as follows.

Stanza 1:

O Living Flame of Love,
That woundest tenderly
My soul in its inmost depth!
As thou art no longer grievous,
Perfect thy work, if it be thy will,
Break the web of this sweet encounter.

The “Living Flame” is the Holy Spirit.  The soul cries out “O” as an expression of its deepest longings of love.  The Holy Spirit has now fully enflamed the soul and the soul expresses its deepest love of God, desiring all the more to enter deeply into that love.  The soul is “tenderly wounded” or “cauterized” by love. It may seem like a paradox to say that love wounds, but it does so only to heal, just as hot metal cauterizes a wound.  Love has tenderly healed the soul by freeing it from everything not of God. Every touch of God draws the soul closer and brings greater healing, freedom and divine transformation.  This experience of God’s most tender love will continually deepen for all eternity.

Saint John once again recalls the image of the log that he described in The Dark Night.  He explains that the soul being purified by God’s love is like a burning log.  As it crackles and burns, its impurities are released. The soul becomes humbled by the blackened soot that surrounds it.  Yet slowly, the fire begins to transform the log just as God’s love begins to transform the soul.

At this stage of spiritual development, the soul rejoices with exuberant exultation, because it is not only fully purified of all attachments, but also because its “inmost depth” has been set ablaze by the Holy Spirit.  The soul and God are now one, united in the flame of God’s perfect love. Nothing impure remains. Everything within the deepest center of the soul is changed and transformed. All is ablaze with the love of God, and the love of God radiates forth.  God Himself becomes the center of the soul, and the soul rests in this inner center of the life of God Himself.

Recall that during the Purgative and Illuminative Way of the beginner and proficient, the soul was purified by the love of God.  This “Living Flame” afflicted the disordered appetites and imperfect faculties. But now, the Living Flame, the Holy Spirit, no longer afflicts anything within the soul.  The “fire” no longer purges since all is purged. It flickers with warmth and beauty because the Living Flame is one with the soul on every level. As a result, the soul begins to think with the mind of God, delights in the memories of God and loves with the will of God.  Love’s delight is so strong and glorious that the soul longs for Heaven.

Recall also that at various times, as the soul went through the purgations of sense and spirit, it longed for death.  This longing was primarily a result of its painful purgations and also because it humbly saw much wretchedness within itself.  However, now that all sin and all disorder are completely dispelled from the soul, it longs to die now out of love. It is now the Holy Spirit who enkindles a spiritual longing to “break the web” of this life and enter into the Beatific Vision of Heaven.  First, God broke the soul free from the sensory attachments. Second, He broke the soul free from the spiritual imperfections within the intellect, memory and will. Now, the soul, being one with God, desires to have its spirit freed from the body so that the spirit can be with God in Heaven.  The soul is consumed with love, and love directs the soul from the deepest center, flowing forth in joyful and exuberant abundance.

The poem continues with Stanza 2:

O sweet burn!
O delicious wound!
O tender hand! O gentle touch!
Savouring of everlasting life,
And paying the whole debt,
By slaying Thou hast changed death into life.

The second stanza treats the same subject but from a different perspective.  These lines identify the unique workings of each person of the Blessed Trinity.  The “sweet burn” and “delicious wound” come from the Holy Spirit. The “tender hand” is that of the Father.  And the “gentle touch” is the touch of the Son.

The Holy Spirit—The “sweet burn” of the Holy Spirit accomplishes a cauterizing of the soul.  Cauterizing is a form of healing by burning. However, this burning of the deepest center of the soul by the Holy Spirit does not cause any pain since all sin is already removed.  As a result, the only effect the soul experiences from this burn is health, strength and the sweetest delight. The fire of the Holy Spirit is powerful. In fact, it is so powerful that it could consume “a thousand worlds.”  But in this case, the soul absorbs the Living Flame of love and glows with its brightness and beauty.

The touch of the Holy Spirit continually wounds the soul, but every touch heals the previous wound.  Thus, touch after touch after touch wounds and heals and wounds and heals and so on. With every touch there is greater transformation and delight.  This divine touch does not communicate images, concepts or forms. It is the pure Spirit of God touching the pure spirit of the soul, communicating with it in a way purely spiritual.

The Father—God is all-powerful. With His mighty hand, He controls Heaven and Earth. Saint John recalls the following Scripture passages that illustrate such power by the hand of the Father:

Who looks at the earth and it trembles, touches the mountains and they smoke! (Psalm 104:32).

It is I who bring both death and life, I who inflict wounds and heal them, and from my hand no one can deliver (Deuteronomy 32:39).

However, the Father is also tender with His hand.  He is generous and bountiful, and He showers us with mercy and kindness.  Ultimately, through the Father’s gentle hand, He gave us His human touch of love and healing through the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ.

The Son—Therefore, the Son of God, sent from the Father, is the delicate touch that Saint John describes.  The Son touches the soul in its inner substance. This touch has the effect of absorbing the soul completely into the divine essence.  The touch of the Son is so gentle and yet so powerful that the soul can be touched by nothing else, nothing of this world nor of the devil nor of the flesh.  The touch of the Son of God alone takes possession of the soul.

This touch of the Son not only produces the fullest delight in the spirit, but also overflows into the body and senses.  Additionally, the soul is given many gifts such as fortitude, wisdom, love, beauty, grace, patient endurance and goodness.

The soul is now a new creation.  The death of its former self has resulted in new life in God.  In this new state, the intellect no longer relies upon the senses and human reasoning as the source of its knowledge, but now knows purely by the mind of God.  The will is not drawn to any natural affection nor to anything other than God Himself. The will of God is now the sole motivation of the human will, since both wills now are united as one.  And the memory no longer occupies itself with anything of this world but is fixed on eternity alone. Though the soul remains distinct from God, it can be said that it becomes divinized, becoming God by participation and union.  The unity is so profound that every thought, desire, passion, will, memory, etc., is completely directed by God and is in His perfect possession.

The poem continues with Stanza 3:

O lamps of fire,
In the splendours of which
The deep caverns of sense,
Dim and dark,
With unwonted brightness
Give light and warmth together to their Beloved!

Imagine a dark room in which one bright lamp after another is lit.  Imagine countless lamps filling one dark room. Each one of those lamps unites its light with the other to transform the darkness of the room (the deep cavern) into brightness.  So it is in the soul. Each lamp is what we can call an attribute of God: Mercy, Wisdom, Omnipotence, Power, Beauty, and so on. God, in His very essence, IS His attributes. He is Mercy itself, Wisdom itself, Power itself, and so on.

When the soul enters into divine union, it participates in the very attributes of God.  Wisdom, Mercy, Power, etc., flood the soul and shine so brightly within the soul, it is as if the soul possesses these attributes itself, and it does.

The attributes of God are like a blazing flame burning within the soul.  Not only does the flame shine its light within the soul, but the flame also enkindles the very air within the soul.  It transforms the air, making it into the flame. Thus, the soul becomes God by participation. This spiritual truth is beyond comprehension and explanation.

The “deep caverns” of the soul, namely, the depths of the intellect, memory and will, become so transformed in God that they shine the actual “light and warmth” of God back to God.  The soul loves by the Power of the Beloved. It is loved by God and loves by God. It praises, worships and adores God by the transforming hand of God Himself.

The poem ends with Stanza 4:

How gently and how lovingly
Thou wakest in my bosom,
Where alone Thou secretly dwellest;
And in Thy sweet breathing
Full of grace and glory,
How tenderly Thou fillest me with Thy love.

This final stanza expresses the immense gratitude of the soul for two things.  First, the soul thanks God for the gentle and loving “awakening” it experiences.  Second, the soul is filled with gratitude at the “breathing” of God in the soul, which reveals the grace and glory of God and the heights to which the soul is drawn.

Awakening—The soul becomes aware of the “thousands upon thousands” of God’s virtues and excellences.  This awareness is beyond any conceptual knowledge. It’s a pure spiritual knowledge given directly to the spirit by God Himself.  The soul now sees all of creation through the mind of God Himself. All is understood from the divine perspective, taught by God Himself.  Though this knowledge is beyond human capacity, the soul is not overwhelmed since God sustains it in this knowledge.

Breathing—As for this breathing of God into the soul, Saint John says that he does not want to speak of this since anything he says about it will fall short of the reality.  Words simply could never even come close to the reality of what takes place by the breath of God within the soul.

 

The Spiritual Canticle

Let us conclude the teaching of Saint John of the Cross by quoting him directly.  These quotes are from the commentary on the final stanza of his poem The Spiritual Canticle—Stanza 40.2 and 40.3.  Saint John begins by offering five blessings the soul receives in divine union:

The first is that the soul is detached from all things and a stranger to them. The second is that the devil is overcome and put to flight. The third is that the passions are subdued, and the natural desires mortified.  The fourth and the fifth are that the sensual and lower nature of the soul is changed and purified, and so conformed to the spiritual, as not only not to hinder spiritual blessings, but is, on the contrary, prepared for them, for it is even a partaker already, according to its capacity, of those which have been bestowed upon it.

“None saw it.”

That is, my soul is so detached, so denuded, so lonely, so estranged from all created things, in heaven and earth; it has become so recollected in Thee, that nothing whatever can come within sight of that most intimate joy which I have in Thee. That is, there is nothing whatever that can cause me pleasure with its sweetness, or disgust with its vileness; for my soul is so far removed from all such things, absorbed in such profound delight in Thee, that nothing can behold me.

Saint John concludes his commentary on this sublime poem by stating that the soul now is left with a longing for Heaven.  Though it is part of the “Church militant,” meaning the Church on Earth, it longs to be drawn to the “Church triumphant,” meaning the Church in Heaven.  Thus, as described below in Stanza 40.8, the soul now waits until God draws it into the glory of the Beatific Vision for all eternity!

All these perfections and dispositions of the soul the bride sets forth before her Beloved, the Son of God, longing at the same time to be translated by Him out of the spiritual marriage, to which God has been pleased to advance her in the Church militant, to the glorious marriage of the Church triumphant. Whereunto may He bring of His mercy all those who call upon the most sweet name of Jesus, the Bridegroom of faithful souls, to Whom be all honour and glory, together with the Father and the Holy Ghost, IN SECULA SECULORUM.  AMEN.


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