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October 4th, 2009, 01:55 AM
Introduction To The Living Flame Of Love

The Poem

The stanzas of The Living Flame of Love sing of an elevated union within the intimate depths of the spirit. The subject matter is exalted, so much so that John dares speak of it only with a deeply recollected soul. The image of flame, working on the wood, dispelling the moisture, turning it black, then giving it the qualities of fire, appeared first in the Dark Night. In the Canticle it turns up again in the serene night toward the end of the poem, a flame that is painless, comforting, and conformed to God. This flame, John told us there, is the love of the Holy Spirit. Now, having grown hotter and sometimes flaring up, it impels the Carmelite friar to write more verses about the sublime communion taking place in his deepest center.

At this depth he lives in both stable serenity and exalted activity; the tone is prolonged admiration and holy ardor. The six-line length of each stanza, the sounds, the rhythm, convey these characteristics.

All the verses of the poem point to the same profundity; there is no progressive movement from stage to stage. The focus is on the present, on what is taking place now. Only a few times is there a glance toward what went before, and then merely for the sake of stating that the past has unfolded into the peace and plenitude of the present.

John wrote this brief lyric creation that so ardently and closely approaches the mystery of divine union for Doña Ana de Peñalosa, a devout laywoman whom he directed. It is the only instance we know of in which he composed a poem for another, although we do not know whether he did so in answer to a request from her. What is certain is that he composed these stanzas burning in love's flame, with the intimate and delicate sweetness of love.

The Commentary

As John composed his commentary on the stanzas of the Spiritual Canticle, those close to him made copies and circulated them. It is not surprising that Ana de Peñalosa would ask for another commentary, one on the magnificent stanzas John had written for her. If we consider the mentality of the times, when many frowned on the practice of mental prayer among women (as we know from St. Teresa's experience) and thought of sanctity as a pursuit more suited to monks and friars, it is surprising that John wrote this loftiest of his works for a laywoman. The only thing that made him hesitate to respond to her pleadings was his difficulty in speaking of what pertained to the intimate depths of one's being. He waited for a spirit of recollection and fervor to descend on him, as seems to have been the case with his poems. Then he wrote the work, immersed in the flame, in the shortest space of time, within a span of two weeks (according to Fray Juan Evangelista), and at a time, in 1586, when he had many other duties as vicar provincial of Andalusia. The profound recollection he required of himself referred to the interior quality of his life, not to a freedom from business matters and concerns. He waited for an opportunity in which he could almost relive the moment of the poem, and thus the commentary bears much of the poetry's light and heat, its symbolism and lyric tone.

As with the Dark Night and the Spiritual Canticle, he follows his customary procedure: first he cites the entire poem; then, repeating each stanza separately, he sums up its content; finally, he explains each verse in particular. The commentary of the Flame is more prolonged than that of the Canticle, but not as extended as in the Night. At times, rather than adhere to a simple interpretation of these expressions of his own experience, he heeds the call to be a spiritual teacher and enters into digressions that enlarge the commentary. The paramount one occurs in the third stanza, njmbers 27-67. There he explains how souls must watch what they are doing and into whose hands they commit themselves so as not to impede God's work and thereby stumble and slip back on their journey.

John also teaches about some other topics that lie outside the immediate scope of the poem: the soul's purgation wrought previously by the flame (1. 19-25); the cause and mode of death of those who have reached the state of transformation (1. 30); transpiercing of the soul and impression of the stigmata (2. 9-14); the necessity of suffering in order to reach transformation in God (2. 25-30); the thirst, hunger, and longing of the spiritual faculties experienced toward the end of purification and illumination (3. 18-26).

On the whole, as with the poem itself, John's concentration is on the present, the high goal from which he may glance fleetingly at the past or look to a future glory intuited rather than fully known from his present horizon. He begins where he left off in the Spiritual Canticle, with the highest degree of perfection attainable in this life, transformation in God, called also spiritual marriage.

Within this state love can become more ardent, and the wood more incandescent and inflamed. In other words, the love is Òdeeper in quality and more perfect within this very state of transformation.Ó What this means is that there is greater likelihood for habitual union to become actual, for the fire to burst into flame. The activity of the Holy Spirit is now more powerful, the experiences are on the borderline between faith and eternal glory. In different modes the stanzas concentrate on the same realities. Thus as he interprets his poem for us, John explains how there are two different aspects of union with God and the total union experienced in the substance and faculties of the soul may be either habitual or actual. The actual union, always a passing phenomenon, never becomes permanent on this earth. The habitual union of love is compatible with everyday life, less intense in form. Here John is speaking of those moments in which God's special self-communication is more alive and intense. He refers to these symbolically as living flames, delightful wounds, splendors from the lamps of fire, and awakenings of the Beloved.

The dominant theme is the wonderful work of God in his Trinitarian Being, illumining and delighting and absorbing the soul in the embrace of love. And John here describes and gives witness to this mystical experience taking place in his deepest center, in the profound caverns of his being. This is a new country to which he brings us. Now he speaks more of glorification than of purification. His absorption is not in some undetermined absolute, but in communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The heightened periods of sublime union are like glimpses of glory offered to the spirit. It is as though the Holy Spirit were summoning a person to the next life by the Òimmense glory he marvelously and with gentle affection places before its eyes.Ó This is made possible by a Òhighly illumined faith,Ó the veil being now so thin that it no longer cloaks the light with darkness but allows it to begin to seep through. This soul finds as well a remarkable new delight in all of creation, for it now knows creatures in God. Absorbed in God, enlivened by his loving presence and communication, it receives a foretaste of eternal life. At the time of these glorious encounters, the soul comes within a step of departing from earth.

John senses that people may either think he is exaggerating or not believe him at all; in fact, what he says seems to him as far short of the reality as a painting is from the living object. He notes in such human skepticism a failure to understand who God really is, that the Lord delights in being with the children of this earth. Why should we marvel that he wants to be so prodigal in giving? John points out that lovers love and do good to others in the measure of their own nature and properties. Because God is liberal, the reasoning continues, he loves and favors and does good to us liberally. But perhaps Ana de Peñalosa was herself able to share something of the very realities John was describing. Those who are cleansed and enkindled with love are in the position to taste and relish this language of God; others without this preparation may find the words uninteresting, bitter, or incredible.

As with the Spiritual Canticle, two redactions have come down to us and are referred to as Flame A and Flame B. But the likeness to the Canticle stops there, for the differences between the two versions of the Flame are not notable. Without any change in the sequence of the stanzas, the modifications in the second redaction, Flame B, consist only of some clarifying insertions and some more detailed doctrinal explanations. Most probably John introduced these variations into the text while at La Peñuela in the last months of his life, August-September 1591. A witness who lived with him at La Peñuela told of how in the early morning John used to withdraw into the garden for prayer and remain there until, coaxed by the heat of the sun, he returned to his monastery cell where he spent his time writing on certain stanzas of poetry. By this date all his other works, including the Canticle, had reached their final stage. Moreover John brought a copy of the work with him to Ubeda. He gave it as a gift in gratitude to Ambrosio de Villareal, the doctor who had cared for him there. What must have been the doctor's thoughts as he read of "how much God exalts the soul that pleases him"?

The work may be divided this way:

Stanza 1

The nature and work of the flame (1-26).

In the deepest center.

A flame that previously purged.

The desire for glory (27-36).

The veils of separation.

The death of love.

Stanza 2

The work of the three divine Persons in the soul's substance (1-22).

The blazing, wounding fire of the Holy Spirit.

The powerful, bounteous hand of the Father.

The delicate, delightful touch of the Word.

The hundredfold reward (23-36).

Stanza 3

The splendors produced by the lamps of fire (1-76).

The work of both the soul and the Holy Spirit.

The deep capacities of the caverns of the soul.

Cautions against three blind guides.

Blindness caused by the appetites.

The soul's gift to God (77-84).

Stanza 4

Awakening of the Word; knowledge of creation in him (1-13).

The secret indwelling of God in the soul's substance (14-16).

Participation in the breathing of the Holy Spirit (17).

We have translated the second redaction, or Flame B, and have followed the Codex of Sevilla, consulting as well the Codex of Baeza and the Codex of Toledo, which is a copy of the first redaction.