Jacob came away limping. Paul was blinded. St. Francis bled in his hands and feet. St. Philip Neri suffered broken ribs.
The encounter with God, Scripture and tradition suggest, is a profoundly wounding experience. In his Spiritual Canticle, St. John of the Cross puts it this way:
Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
you fled like the stag
after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone.
We are wounded by God because in being touched by Him we have been opened to a whole new way of living and seeing the world. Opened in this way we respond by going out of ourselves, offering ourselves up. As St. John of the Cross puts it “…after wounding me;/ I went out calling you, but you were gone.” These wounds then are wounds of love, of openness to the Other.
Such openness takes the form of a wound because we are not yet able to fully embrace God while we remain in sin and imperfect. There is no other way: We must be open to God before we can be filled by God.
As we come closer to Him, however, our wounds only worsen, as it were, as the dross of sin is melted away from our souls. Here is how the saint explains it in The Living Flame of Love:
Before the divine fire is introduced into the substance of the soul and united with it through perfect and complete purgation and purity, its flame, which is the Holy Spirit, wounds the soul by destroying and consuming the imperfections of its bad habits.
Our sense that we have been wounded paradoxically reflects both God’s absence and presence: His absence, because we cannot draw to the full union we desire while still remaining in sin, and His presence because He is already working within us to remove those imperfections so that we might yet draw closer to Him.
St. John of the Cross insists that this experience happens in the very core of our being, at the center of our souls. As he puts it in the first stanza of the above referenced poem: “O living flame of love/ That tenderly wounds my soul/ In its deepest center!”
Such imagery is deeply Scriptural. In Luke 24, after the disciples on the road to Emmaus realize that they have had an encounter with the resurrected Christ, they exclaim, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?”
The image is repeated in Acts 2 after Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit is actually depicted as descending upon the apostles like tongues of fire. Empowered in the Spirit, Peter preaches the gospel for the first time since the Ascension of Christ.
The response of the crowd is telling: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). That’s how the translation in the revised edition of the New American Bible reads. Some translations more literally translate the Greek this way: They were pierced to the heart.
This should sound familiar. It’s how Scripture describes Christ on the cross. In Isaiah 53:5 we read,
But he was pierced for our sins,
crushed for our iniquity.
He bore the punishment that makes us whole,
by his wounds we were healed.
Christ Himself was wounded for us—one might say with us—on the cross. This casts St. John of the Cross’ account of the spiritual life in a new light. Indeed, we are wounded by our encounter with an all-powerful and all-holy God, at once experiencing the excruciating pain of estrangement from a God we long to embrace fully. But Christ is there with us, wounded with us, suffering with us. In becoming fully man while remaining fully divine, He experienced this profound distance, this sense of alienation in the very core of His being.
It is perhaps, then, most fitting that heaven is opened to us in the form of a wound as well, through the piercing of Christ’s side. God meets us in our humanity, in the fullness of our humanity, even the very depths of our wounded souls. Christ’s wounds are the way to God. Or more to the point: they are God with us in the most profound way imaginable.
Perhaps this is why devotion to Christ’s wounds has traditionally been such a comfort and consolation. Rather than cringing at them, we ought to cling to the wounds of Christ. As the Anima Christi prayer well puts it, Within Thy wounds hide me.
St. John of the Cross wondered at a God who seemed hidden from us. Yet in Christ we are now hidden in God (as St. Paul tells us in Colossian 3:3).