Each of us bears the image of Christ. And each of us will make a choice—yes or no—to place our lives completely in the hands of God, to be molded into an expression of transcendent beauty.
For St. John of the Cross, the soul is like a bird that needs to be released so that it can fly freely toward this goal. Watch birds at a feeder, and you will marvel at their simplicity, freedom, and beauty in flight. This is the freedom that is waiting to be released within us. How do we attain it? John suggests simply that we walk in the presence of God:
Take God for your bridegroom and friend, and walk with him continually; and you will not sin and will learn to love, and the things you must do will work out prosperously for you.” (Sayings of Light and Love, 68)
This may seem like an exercise of the imagination that will be difficult to practice in our busy lives, but for John, it is a vital act of faith. No matter where we are or what we are doing, we are in God. At first we may imagine that Christ walks alongside us during the day, but eventually our faith journey leads us to discover the spirit of Christ alive in our hearts beyond any image, thought, or feeling.
Walking in the presence of God runs contrary to our usual experience of getting though the day. Through the regular course of our days, we often create an illusory reality that centers on our own desires and forgets the fundamental ground of love. Forgetfulness seems to be our ongoing human condition and is reinforced by familiar rhythms that protect our security and comfort, including the things that draw us into addictive behaviors. Because of this forgetfulness, however, we find ourselves feeling isolated—removed from God, others, and creation. Love falters; our ability to hand ourselves over in love diminishes.
However, walking with God and giving God our loving attention throughout the day empties the self and creates space for love. I once saw a documentary in which Blessed Mother Teresa was interviewed by a British journalist. As the camera panned the scene, it showed Mother Teresa holding a small circle of wooden beads behind her back, fingering each in turn, as she answered the interviewer’s questions. Who can guess what words she repeated in her heart? What caught my attention, however, was the natural way in which she forgot herself and remained in touch with the divine, even in a formal setting.
There is no room for self-posturing when we realize how profoundly we are embraced by love. This is the gospel path: Knowing ourselves loved by God, we find the will to forget ourselves and live in communion with God, others, and creation. In losing ourselves and leaving behind our old ways, we allow ourselves to be emptied, creating “heart space” so that we can be filled.
Wayne Simsic is an author and retreat leader. He teaches at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike, Ohio. This article is adapted from his book Seeking the Beloved: A Prayer Journey with St. John of the Cross. If you’d like to read another excerpt or purchase the book, please visit our Bookstore.