The Spiritual Canticle begins with a spiritual awakening by which one is launched into a pilgrimage of faith. Since it is characterized by the Divine Indwelling and since only living faith in Christ Jesus accesses the mystery of God, this journey is inward and makes progress by faith and love. The hidden presence of God in the soul means that though God is there, unaided human activity cannot access Him. Even grace filled techniques and methods only dispose the soul to contemplating this hidden presence.
To find God, Saint John of the Cross insists we must believe. Faith hides the intellect because principles of sacred doctrine are beyond its natural capacity to understand or demonstrate. Instead of proceeding by way of principles it grasps, the intellect proceeds by assenting to what the Church proposes to it. What the Church proposes and what Saint John focuses on in the beginning of the journey is that through faith and baptism, the Holy Trinity dwells in the soul not only to sustain its existence but also to be loved and known by faith.
Mental prayer or contemplation proceeds from this hidden reality. It is a simple act of faith and love which chooses to believe that God is dwelling in the soul with the desire to establish it in profound friendship. This act of faith withdraws from anything that could distract from such a wonderful gift, and focuses all its power on attending to the wonder of this hidden presence. Mental prayer is a movement of the will that submits the mind to mystery: the effort to seek the presence of God and to cling to this presence even when it cannot be felt or imagined or intuited or even thought about. In Spiritual Canticle 3, 5-9, St. John of the Cross speaks about the challenging obstacles and remarkable assistance the soul receives in this journey.
Why are the obstacles? The obstacles seem to purify and strengthen the soul's devotion, because they test our faith, challenging our determination to love and to believe in love. The more they challenge, the more love and faith grow from immature and tentative first movements to a deep and immutable way of being. The pilgrim soul takes on a greater and greater bridal identity the more it makes progress.
If the journey starts a little sluggish and anxious, the soul is always described by Saint John of the Cross as beautiful and loved beyond measure. The Lord is leading the soul from a devotion riddled with anxiety to one that is established in peace. In the silent stillness that characterizes its new existence in Him - a kind of engagement - the Lord invites the soul into a fullness of joy - a solemn betrothal and wedding banquet and life of union together. The passage ways from anxiety to peace and from peace to joy are marked by active things the soul must do like seek virtue and take up mortification, and passive things God permits the soul to suffer like severe external and internal trials. He describes the passive suffering of the soul in terms of wild beasts, thugs and frontiers. We will consider these in our next post.