God has willed the body to be the sacrament of encounter, the transparency and visibility of the person. Yes, he has willed the body to be the making-visible of his own invisible mystery within the world. We cannot flee from our bodiliness in order to draw near to him, as it is precisely in and through the body that he approaches us, even as the spirit, alive within the flesh, reaches out to him in the ineffability of his invisible mystery. The two are together; the two are not meant to be separated: spirit and body, body and spirit. And God has made himself visible in the flesh, in Christ, and he will be eternally visible, eternally given, in the glory of the new creation—in the heart of the visibility of creation and of our experience of bodiliness. For there, in the words of Job, “My own eyes will see my Redeemer, mine, and not another” (cf. Jb 19:25-27). Our eyes, physical, material eyes, will see the invisible God! We will not, of course, contain him or reduce him to our size, but we will be utterly open to him who is utterly open to us. The light which, invisible to us in this life and visible only through the medium of creation, will be itself visible there, in the beauty of the new world. Or rather, the new world will be beautiful because it will no longer be the case that we will glimpse God through created realities, but rather that we will see all created realities through God.

God himself will be the sacrament of encounter with creation, and not the creation the sacrament of encounter with God. And yet this does not make the body irrelevant, does not set it aside as no longer important or necessary. Rather, it confirms anew the beauty of the body, the gratuity of its meaning as the witness of eternal Love and the primal manifestation of this Love’s free gift. It will be, even and especially then, the incarnation of the invisible mystery, even as the invisible mystery is made directly visible to us in the very flesh. The body, in a word, will continue to be the radiant expression of the inner person—of the human person in communion with the divine Persons—even as the person becomes visible to the eyes of the spirit, not apart from the body but inseparable from the body, indeed, as the living body animated by the spirit, in utter transparency. Yes, the body, inseparable from the spirit, speaks the word of primal love, and will continue to speak it forever, as a word is inseparable from its meaning, and, in God, the meaning is inseparable from the Word.

When we speak in this way of the sacramental mystery of the human body as the space of encounter with the inner mystery of God himself, and as the locus in which the threads of communion are woven throughout the entire creation, we indeed speak a word that is scandalous to many. Can the body, weak, limited, and frail, really be so important? Does it not ultimately get in the way, if not in the normal affairs of daily life, at least when it comes to our desire to draw near to God in prayer? Here, indeed, we confront a profound wounded tendency that inheres in our fractured nature due to sin, and which has cropped up again and again throughout the history of the Church. For if God is truly transcendent, beyond our capacity to understand with our minds or to touch with our bodies, is not the only way to get authentically close to him to leave these behind, to “shut off” their operation, so that he alone may make himself present?

Now, it is true that God can indeed touch us so deeply with his mysterious presence that our being is stilled and quieted by his touch, brought into a state of awe-filled silence before him. As Psalm 131 beautifully expresses:

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up

my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things

too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul

like a child quieted at its mother’s breast’

like a child quieted is my soul.

O Israel, hope in the LORD

from this time forth and for evermore.

Indeed, God’s presence can bring us even to the experience of ecstasy, in which our fallen humanity is overwhelmed by the intensity of his uncreated Love, and cannot sustain full consciousness. This does not refer to a negation of our created being, to an annihilation of our natural orientation to beauty, goodness, and truth, nor even to a dismissal of the natural operation of our faculties of mind, will, affectivity, emotion, and sensation. These may at certain intense moments be “enraptured” by the mystery of God’s presence so directly that they cannot sustain their normal operation (as only in heaven, with the complete integration of body and spirit, will this be possible). In such moments of ecstasy—experienced in any number of ways—there is a kind of “going-out-of-self” that is not a literal leaving or dismissing of one’s being or personhood, but is rather a total absorption in the beauty of the One who ravishes our being with his touch.

This explains why many of the mystics throughout history have spoken of the encounter with God in spousal terms; there is no created analogy nearly as adequate to expressing the depth of this encounter as that of man and woman becoming “one flesh.” But to say this also immediately raises the question that, if God has designed the flesh to be of such immense importance in the communion of human persons, why would it be irrelevant in our communion with God? The fact is that it is not irrelevant, but of profound significance; for God wants all of us, all of us, in body and spirit, to be taken up into intimacy with him. Why else would he make the most profound and intimate encounter with us occur through the physical act of eating his very Body present in the Eucharist? Why would he raise up the flesh at the end of time and give it—give us—a participation in the joy of eternal life and the face-to-face vision of his ineffable beauty? Yes, as Tertullian said, “The flesh is the hinge of salvation.” And, after quoting these words, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “We believe in God who is creator of the flesh; we believe in the word made flesh in order to redeem the flesh; we believe in the resurrection of the flesh, the fulfillment of both the creation and the redemption of the flesh” (CCC, 1015).

+ + +

In order to clarify and cradle all that we are saying in this book about the innate goodness of our human desires, of our natural inclinations as capacities placed within us by God, it is important to point out, to emphasize, that only God is the true fulfillment of all the desires of the human heart. In all that I am writing, this is a deep, implicit assumption: that the heart reading these words longs for God beyond all things, and is eager to seek his face alone, in poverty of spirit, without leaning on created things as a crutch, without resting in creating things as if they were our destination, but receiving and cherishing them only insofar as given by God and as made sacraments of his own loving self-communication. I realize, however, that this assumption will be in many cases false, and that such purity of heart is, sadly, the exception rather than the rule.

That is why I point out now that the profound incarnational reality we have been exploring, the redemption not from the body but of the body, is rooted in a deep purification of the innermost wellsprings of the human heart and spirit. Only this, indeed, this deep purification and maturation of the human person, can allow a spontaneous drawing toward what is authentically good, an ordering of our natural inclinations in truth, and also birth a lighthearted trust in these deep movements of our hearts—which is itself always dependent upon a deeper trust in God who speaks, and a distrust in ourselves alone, for God alone is trustworthy, and it is his voice that we learn to hear even in these most intimate stirrings of our own hearts.

This is the profound wisdom of Saint John of the Cross, which our world today—as the world always—so desperately needs. But his wisdom is in fact nothing but the wisdom of the Gospel, nothing but the truth of Christ expounded in its furthest implications, where it meets us in the places of our innermost purification, in our deepest darkness, as well as in our highest and most radiant capacities for participation in the life and love of the Trinity. John sees humanity as poised between the infinite majesty of an all-surpassing God and the dim beauty of a creation that reflects this God but also lies infinitely below him, and which, when clung to in disordered possessiveness, hinders the flight of the human spirit into communion with the divine.

And this drama, this drama is so central…it is the central drama of human life. God beyond all things, God in purity of heart and nakedness of spirit? Or creation as a sedative that, because so close, feels so real, and yet ultimately leaves the heart washed out, empty, naked, and stuck in mediocrity whereas it was meant to fly free into intimacy with the Infinite and Eternal? We cannot therefore lessen the impact of the words of John of the Cross, as austere as they may be, nor the depth and extent of purification to which he invites the human heart—on behalf of Christ, whom he serves.

The wisdom of John of the Cross is sure, and the Church has recognized this in calling him a Doctor of the Church. Nonetheless it is also important and helpful to realize that his particular focus—of the negation of every disordered clinging to be pure space of openness for God, and union with God beyond all things—while being the central focus that alone allows everything else to unfold with authentic purity and transparency, should also be complemented by affirming the goodness of created reality, and indeed the obligation to love creation rightly, not just to renounce it. Only the purity to which he invites us allows us the love creation rightly, yet in his particular historical situation and also with his passionate focus on God alone, sometimes one wishes he would have situated his words more firmly on the foundation of a healthy humanity, a mature humanity that lives truly within the incarnateness of this world. For the beautiful truth is that the ecstatic movement that John expresses so vividly, and which is meant to be the true heartbeat of the life of each one of us (manifested uniquely, however, according to God’s particular design and the unique voice of our own heart), is not a dualistic movement that denies creation or the body, but purifies it, lifts it up, and sanctifies it, to participate freely in the life of the spiritual union of the person with God in the utter poverty of love, hope, and faith.

Yes, this negation—negation of the clinging tendencies of sin—occurs within and houses a mature and healthy human affirmation of all things, and of those capacities placed in us by God (which is what I have been emphasizing in these reflections). But to truly affirm created things as God intends, as living sacraments of his presence and gifts from his heart to ours, we must affirm them with poverty and purity of heart, which means with a heart totally open to God as the only true solace and rest and fulfillment of all that we desire. If this is the case, then our relation with all created things, with our own desires and capacities, will be marked by a placid simplicity, a peaceful rest, a lighthearted responsiveness, a simple and humble trust in the voice of God that sounds even in our own most intimate desires, while also being the true and only rule by which we gauge everything, never trusting merely in ourselves or acting on our desires simply because we desire. Rather, we desire God, God alone and God beyond all, and only in this one, all-consuming desire of our life is every other desire set free, liberated, and elevated, to be what it was always meant to be.*

All the works of John of the Cross are aimed toward this one thing: that we may raise up our desires, our infinite desires, from finite, created things, and cup them upwards to welcome the outpouring of the infinite and eternal God, who ardently desires to communicate himself to us in love. This process is deep and prolonged, and goes from the most superficial tendencies that we experience from day to day, and which, when marked by fear or possessiveness, keep us bound to ourselves and to the petty wishes or problems of daily life, to the deepest and most hidden aspirations of our inner being, which impel us restlessly beyond all limited, finite beauty (but often through it) to the one who alone is boundless Beauty, and thus eternal Repose. This is what John encourages us to do insofar as he calls forth our own ascetical response, our own effort: to press beyond all created things, and through them, to seek the face of God as our only true happiness. Or better: to recognize that God ardently desires to pour himself out, all of himself totally and without reserve, into the receptive human heart, and all that we need to do is let ourselves be detached from all that clutters the inner space of our heart, so that he may have space to give himself.

Yes, we have a God who is Gift, a God who ardently desires to give all that he is to us, without reserve! And if this is the case, all that we need to do is open ourselves to receive. So much gets in the way, however, and this is where John wishes to help us, where John so ardently wants to help prepare our hearts to welcome God as he gives himself, to welcome God as he is—not God as we imagine him, not God as he is limited by our own conscious wishes or desires, not God limited to the frailty of human willing or the narrowness of human comprehension, but God, the infinite and eternal, the burning furnace of eternal love and everlasting intimacy that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!

Iain Matthew says of John of the Cross:

If put to it, he would divide reality into two. On the one hand, there is the universe of stars and space, sun and earth; of animals and plants; of microbes, neutrinos and quarks. There is spirit, flesh, thought and movement. There are people, with all our relationships, and all the choices and chances holding our history together. In short, everything there is, on the one hand.

And on the other hand, there is God.

God, who is not a part of all that, who is not one more piece when all the pieces have been located; God who sustains all of that but is grasped by none of it. All of that derives from, exists in, points to, reveals God, but when one has penetrated to the deepest godliness of it all, God remains infinitely different. “God” means just what man cannot say, that blazing reality which is and remains for us absolute mystery. …

John has no doubt about humanity’s real possibilities for greatness. The universe is a ‘limitless sea of love’; the soul ‘a most beautiful and finely wrought image of God’; a single thought of the human person ‘worth more than all the world’. There is no question about John’s optimism. It is just that it translates into an equivalent hunger when human capacity is not felt to be fulfilled:

‘The capacity of these caverns [the human spirit] is deep, because that which can feel them is deep, infinite; and that is God. So in a sense their capacity will be infinite; so their thirst is infinite, and their hunger is deep and infinite, and their sense of pain and disintegration is infinite death’ when the soul is alert to ‘receive what will fill it.’

That is the dilemma: John has an absolute need for a God who transcends absolutely. The impasse accounts for most of the deviations in human living—trying to fill the need with something else, or trivializing God so that I can grasp him. John however believes there is an answer which compromises nothing.

[He says] ‘You do very well […] to seek him always as one hidden. You honour God greatly and indeed come near to him, when you hold him to be nobler and deeper than anything you can attain. So do not settle down or try to find a corner in what your mind and heart can grasp… And do not be like many heartles people who have a low opinion of God: they think that when they cannot understand him or sense or feel him, he is further away—when the truth is more the opposite: it is when you understand him less clearly that you are coming closer to him… So you do well at all times, whether life, or faith, is smooth, or hard, you do well to hold God as hidden, and so to cry out to him, “Where have you hidden?”’

Feeling he is absent need not mean he is absent; feeling he is closer need not mean he is closer. Having disconnected ninety-five percent of the gauges we use to read God’s proximity in our life, John does have something positive to say:

‘If you want to hear it again, listen to a word filled with reality and unfathomable truth. It is this: seek him in faith and love.’

Here the dilemma is resolved. John is looking for union with a transcendent God; he needs a means which yet does not get in the way; a ladder which is also the top of the ladder. Believing, hoping, loving are the only means, and they are the means by which a person is directly ‘united’ with God. i

To turn our desires upwards, in our relation with every created reality and also far beyond them, to the God who wishes to give himself—and who always does give himself. This is what John wishes for us. And yet even beyond that, he realizes that our own “cupping upward” of desire, our own purification of heart insofar as it lies within our capacity, falls infinitely short of the depths of our need for purification and transfiguration. This is where his exploration of the mystery of “night” comes into play, comes as a terrifying and yet enthralling reality, as a beautiful mystery that involves us in the infinite expanse of God’s own capacity to love, and yet does so precisely by opening us to the experience of our desperate, anguished, gaping need for God, and to the purification of our sin that is a true crucible in which the redeeming work of Christ is made alive at the heart of our own life.

The night leads to the experience of what John calls the “caverns” of our inner being which are crying out to be filled by the infinite, and can be settled with nothing less. This crying out beyond all things can feel like death, like suffocation, and indeed it must, for it is but the voice of our heart opening itself to the One who surpasses all things even while sustaining them; it is the voice of our inmost solitude made to rest in God alone, made to welcome God as he is in poor and virginal receptivity, with utter nakedness.

And God meets us in our desire and our longing, and himself pours out his love so intensely that it accomplishes in us all that we cannot accomplish on our own (even though, in fact, we cannot accomplish anything on our own, and even the smallest efforts and acts of goodness and truth are awakened in us, sustained, and brought to completion by his grace). In the night this hidden operation of grace that is present at every moment of life—in every aspiration, action, and choice for beauty, goodness, and truth, this grace that communicates itself freely and lovingly through every created reality given by God as a gift and sacrament of his presence—communicates itself so intensely, in nakedness, to the human spirit that it plunges the person in darkness. It is like looking directly and intently into the sun, and experiencing one’s vision darkened by its own limitation. The light of God given so deeply is too intense, too bright, too radiant and clear, for us to contain within our fallen and sinful limitations, and even in our current creaturely condition. But God pours anyway, and as he does so his very gift makes space for his gift, his very love expands the heart until it is capable of receiving his love, his very light burns its way into the very core of our capacity for vision, so that we may know and be united to God, not in a clinging to this or that little insight or idea or desire, but in a profound contemplative contact—spirit to spirit, heart to heart—with the infinite and eternal Trinity, with the boundless abyss of Love that is God.

This is the blessed reality of contemplation. It is knowledge of God, not through any created medium, not even through the sacramental symbolism and capacity of the body, but in unmediated contact. But because of this, such a contact seems generalized rather than specific, obscure rather than obvious, ineffable rather than expressible. It is not in fact general in the sense of being abstract; it is in fact as far from abstract as possible: it is utterly concrete, utterly specific, but not because defined by creaturely limitations, by a natural created essence, or by any of our ideas or thoughts about it. Rather it is specific because it is Personal, because it is God. It is a Presence in the darkness…or a Presence emerging from a light too radiant to behold in the confines of this present life. But the Presence is real, and true, and concrete, even though only known in the obscurity that is also clarity, in the clarity that is also too deep and wide to be contained or pinned down by us, but can only be surrendered to, lived through, and loved.

Yes, contemplation is God himself communicated directly to our spirit—and in fact to our body—as he is in himself without the mediation of created forms, deeper than mind, deeper than will, deeper even than our capacity to feel. And this is why the only proximate means to welcome this contemplation—this self-communication of God in grace—is faith, hope, and love. Yes, only in welcoming God in trust and in desiring him as he is (as he is, not as I wish him to be!) beyond all things, only in the loving receptivity and reciprocal gift which lets him unreservedly flow into me and surrenders myself back into him—only in this can I welcome and enter into communion with God as he is in himself.

[W]hat unites you to God is faith, hope, love, in Christ, risen in his Church, present in the world. Anything else ‘that you could imagine, understand, or think in this life’, while it may be good if it stirs up your faith and love, in itself ‘is not and cannot be a direct means to union with God’.

So John’s negative emphasis in faith and love is prudent enough: unhook a chain of dependence which can lead to tragedy. Still, in itself is could be depressing, even destructive. However, the fact is that John is saying ‘Let go, get out of the way’, only because he is so convinced that God, in his truth and love, is pressing to come in. His God is not ‘out there’ to be hit upon by the lucky voyager; his God is invasive, self-giving, entering to befriend. Where the gift is that total and immediate, then making room, not launching out, has to be the priority. …

The whole pattern of John’s experience is concentrated here: making ‘room for God in order to receive’; ‘when the soul makes room for God, then she is enlightened and transformed in God’. This is a ‘letting go’ born of passion more than prudence. It is the scramble of people who realise that a loved one whom they thought to be in a distant country, has already got into the lift and will be coming through that door in a matter of seconds.

Paul’s understanding of love—‘poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us’ (Rom. 5:5)—was taken into the decrees of the Council of Trent in northern Italy (1545-63), decrees promulgated in Salamanca while John was a student there. They effectively spoke of faith, hope and love as gifts of God given in baptism, by which God, dwelling in the soul of the Christian, takes us into his own inner life.

Developing on this, faith is a divine gift by which we believe God as he proposes himself; love, a gift by which we choose God and want what he wants. In this, the Spirit of God is loving us and putting us in the current of love between the Son and the Father. By faith we know with the Son’s knowing and by charity we love with the Spirit’s loving.

Something takes place in the Christian which is greater than she is: faith is God’s lifting the soul into God’s own life. It is ‘theological’ virtue: it comes from God (theos) and leads to God.

This is not a depth one necessarily perceives—though in mystical experience it is beginning somehow to register. But this (grace, the indwelling of God in the soul, the soul’s sharing the life of God, faith-hope-love) is a Christian’s deepest truth. …

John’s own experience of God nerved him to speak in this way, because it was experience in faith—‘most enlightened faith’, Flame says—not outside faith. Contemplative growth, into the white heart of a dark, loving knowledge, is growth into faith, not something foreign to faith. John’s security remains, not science or elation, but belief in the God of Jesus Christ. In summoning the believer to ‘union’, he proposes a goal which, while it must unfold, is already ours.ii

Faith, hope, and love are not merely human acts that I perform; no, they are God’s own inner life as Trinity poured out into me through grace and operative within me, teaching and enabling me to live and love in the very likeness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: in their own utterly virginal, utterly poor receptivity to one another and in the totality of their reciprocal gift, bound together in complete, unmediated, contemplative intimacy for all eternity!

This path from the narrow clinging of sinfulness to the expansiveness of faith, hope, and love—through being incorporated into the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, in his passage through suffering and death to the glory of Resurrection—is the path of redemption, the path that is offered to us by God in grace. It is already a seed given in baptism, which seeks to grow and mature until it has totally gripped, totally harnessed, totally permeated, healed, and transformed our entire existence into ceaseless communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And this communion, born of the deepest naked contact of the heart in faith, hope, and love—held in the utter poverty of virginal receptivity that relies on God alone in utter openness and total surrender—also allows us, indeed calls us, to welcome and cherish all things in God and God in all things, in the vivid sacramental, incarnate existence that he has willed for us in creating us as embodied persons in a material universe.

This is, in fact, the deepest priesthood to which he has called us: not merely caring for creation, not merely acting in this world, not merely lifting things up and beautifying them; no, in ourselves being freed in the innermost wellsprings of our being so that, passing beyond all things into the naked, unmediated embrace of God in faith, hope, and love, we may also turn out and welcome, cherish, and hold all things from within this place, with the gaze of free love, pure love, disinterested and cherishing love, which we have first received from God, and which has also matured from gazing, in faith, upon the mysterious countenance of infinite Beauty that is all of our life and joy: the Father gazing upon the Son, and the Son upon the Father, in the radiant and ecstatic joy of the Holy Spirit, a gaze which is turned also upon us, and draws us into the heart of their eternal mutual beholding and the everlasting joy of their undying embrace.


*A telltale sign of a disordered attachment, as opposed to a healthy, free, and loving relationship with created reality, is that it blinds, constricts, preoccupies, and narrows the human heart. It causes restlessness, superficiality, anxiety, petty cares, frustration, impatience, and a host of other ills (to a more or less obvious degree depending on the gravity of the attachment). But whether it is greater or small, it limits the human person from being all he or her is meant to be, or, said more accurately, it limits the human person from taking flight into the intimate embrace of God. A truly loving responsiveness to reality, on the other hand, begets lightness of spirit, freedom of will, illumination of mind, humility, patience, peace, and a spirit of expansiveness. This is because such responsiveness to created reality has been willed by God to be a “sacrament” of his presence to us, and to exist in harmony with the more direct, unmediated contact with God in the depths of our hearts, in the virginal-point of stillest prayer.

i. Iain Matthew, The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross (Hodder & Stoughton Ltd: London, 1995), 96-98.

ii. Ibid., 100-101.