“O Sweet Cautery”: John of the Cross and the Healing of the Natural World”

Mary Frohlich, RSCJ, Catholic Theological Union at Chicago

In “The Living Flame of Love,” John of the Cross began to use the image of “cautery” to express the paradox of one act that both grievously wounds and radically heals. In his time, the sixteenth century, cauterization—the application of a heated iron to a part of the body—was commonly used by physicians as a means of cleaning and sterilizing wounds. John applies this image to the Holy Spirit, calling it a “sweet cautery” and a flame of love that “assails and wounds” the soul in its deepest center.

For John of the Cross, the cautery effected by the Holy Spirit’s radical invasion of the human person ultimately heals not only the soul, but the whole cosmos. This is a contemplative transformation that, as such, occurs at an interior and invisible level. Its implications, however, are quite concrete. The one who has experienced this most intimate wound “in the middle of the heart of the spirit,” John says, “feels its ardor strengthen and increase and its love become so refined in this ardor that seemingly there flow seas of loving fire within it, reaching to the heights and depths of the earthly and heavenly spheres, imbuing all with love.” To participate in creation from the point of view of God is to engage the entire interdependent web of creaturely relations with kinship, coresponsibility, and self-giving love. In our time, with our increasingly fine-tuned knowledge of ecology and our vastly enhanced potentials for global interaction, this clearly implies action on behalf of restoring health to the threatened ecosystems of our planet.

The full paper, published in Horizons, “O Sweet Cautery”: John of the Cross and the Healing of the Natural World” by Mary Frohlich, RSCJ, Catholic Theological Union at Chicago, can be viewed here free of charge until February 28, 2017.

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