"Those who love God are always happy, because their whole happiness is to fulfill, even in adversity, the will of God."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"Before a man chooses his confessor, he ought to think well about it, and pray about it also; but when he has once chosen, he ought not to change, except for most urgent reasons, but put the utmost confidence in his director."

St Philip Neri

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"It is well to choose some one good devotion, and to stick to it, and never to abandon it."

St Philip Neri

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 St John of the Cross   (1542 - 1591)

 

THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE (cont)

 

by St John of the Cross

 

Stanza 7


All who are free,
tell me a thousand graceful things of you;
all wound me more
and leave me dying
of, ah, I-don't-know-what behind their stammering.

Commentary

1. In the previous stanza the soul showed her sickness, or wound of love for her Bridegroom, caused by the knowledge irrational creatures gave of him. In this stanza she asserts that she is wounded with love because of another higher knowledge she receives of the Beloved through rational creatures (angels and humans), creatures more noble than the others. She also asserts that she is not merely wounded, but is dying of love. This dying of love is due to an admirable immensity these creatures disclose to her, yet do not completely disclose. Because this immensity is indescribable she calls it an "I-don't-know-what." And because of it the soul is dying of love.

2. We can deduce that in this matter of love there exist three ways of suffering for the Beloved corresponding to three kinds of knowledge of him.

The first is called a wound. It is the mildest and heals the most quickly, as does a wound. This wound arises from the knowledge the soul receives from creatures, the lowest of God's works. The bride of the Song of Songs refers to this wound, which we also call sickness, saying: Adjuro vos, filiae Jerusalem, si inveneritis dilectum meum ut nuntietis ei quia amore langueo (I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem, if you find my Beloved that you tell him I am sick with love) [Sg. 5:8]. By "the daughters of Jerusalem" she refers to creatures.

3. The second is called a sore wound and cuts more deeply into the soul than the simple wound. As a result it is longer-lasting because it is like a wound that has now become sore, from which she feels she is indeed sorely wounded by love. This sore wound is produced in the soul by knowledge of the Incarnation of the Word and the mysteries of faith. Since these are more remarkable works of God, embodying in themselves a greater love than that shown forth in creatures, they produce in the soul a more intense love. Thus, if the first is like a wound, this second is like a sore wound, which lasts longer. Speaking of this to the soul in the Song of Songs, the Bridegroom says: You have wounded my heart, my sister, with one of your eyes and with one hair of your neck [Sg. 4:9]. The "eye" refers to faith in the Incarnation of the Bridegroom, and the "hair" signifies love for this very Incarnation.

4. The third kind of suffering of love is like dying. It is equivalent to having a festered wound, since the soul is now like a wound wholly festered. She lives by dying until love, in killing her, makes her live the life of love, transforming her in love. This death of love is caused in the soul by means of a touch of supreme knowledge of the divinity, the "I-don't-know-what" that she says lies behind their stammering. This touch is not continual or prolonged, for if it were the soul would be loosed from the body. It passes quickly, and she is left dying of love. And she dies the more in realizing that she does not wholly die of love.1

This love is called impatient love. Genesis points to it in telling that Rachel's longing to conceive was so intense that she pleaded with her spouse Jacob: Da mihi liberos, alioquin moriar (Give me children, otherwise I will die) [Gn. 30:1]. And the prophet Job exclaimed: Quis mihi det ut qui coepit, ipse me conterat (Who will grant that he who gave me a beginning might destroy me?) [Jb. 6:8-9].

5. The soul says in this stanza that these rational creatures cause two kinds of suffering of love in her, the sore wound and death; the sore wound because, as she asserts, they relate a thousand graces of the Beloved in their teaching about both the mysteries of faith and the wisdom of God; death, from what, as she says, lies "behind their stammering": the feeling and knowledge of the divinity sometimes unveiled in what she hears about God. She says then:

All who are free

6. She refers here to rational creatures (angels and humans) as those "who are free." For they alone among all creatures are free to engage in knowing God. This is the significance of the term "are free," which rendered in Latin is vacant. This verse, as a result, is like saying: All of them are free for God. Some, the angels, are free for God in contemplating and enjoying him in heaven; others, human beings, by loving and desiring him on earth.

Through these rational creatures the soul acquires a more vivid knowledge of God, sometimes through the consideration of their excellence, which transcends all created things; at other times through what the rational creatures teach about God. The angels teach us interiorly through secret inspirations; others teach exteriorly, through the truths of Scripture. As a result she says:

tell me a thousand graceful things of you;

7. This line means: They teach me choice things about your grace and mercy manifested in both the works of your Incarnation and the truths of faith. And they forever tell more, because the more they desire to tell, the more of your graces they are able to reveal.

all wound me more

8. Insofar as angels inspire me and humans teach me about you, they inspire me to love you more. Thus all wound me more with love.

and leave me dying
of, ah, I-don't-know-what behind their stammering.

9. These lines amount to saying: Besides the fact that these creatures wound me with the thousand graceful things they explain about you, there is a certain "I-don't-know-what" that one feels is yet to be said, something unknown still to be spoken, and a sublime trace of God as yet uninvestigated but revealed to the soul, a lofty understanding of God that cannot be put into words. Hence she calls this something "I-don't- know-what." If what I understand wounds me with love, what I do not understand completely, yet have sublime experience of, is death to me.

Sometimes God favors advanced souls through what they hear, see, or understand - and sometimes independently of this - with a sublime knowledge by which they receive an understanding or experience of the height and grandeur of God. Their experience of God in this favor is so lofty that they understand clearly that everything remains to be understood. This understanding and experience that the divinity is so immense as to surpass complete understanding is indeed a sublime knowledge.

One of the outstanding favors God grants briefly in this life is an understanding and experience of himself so lucid and lofty that one comes to know clearly that God cannot be completely understood or experienced. This understanding is somewhat like that of the Blessed in heaven: Those who understand God more understand more distinctly the infinitude that remains to be understood; those who see less of him do not realize so clearly what remains to be seen.

10. I do not think anyone who has not had such experience will understand this well. But, since the soul experiencing this is aware that what she has so sublimely experienced remains beyond her understanding, she calls it "I-don't-know-what." Since it is not understandable, it is indescribable, although, as I say, one may know what the experience of it is. As a result, she says the creatures are stammering, for they do not make it completely known. "Stammering," a trait we notice in children's speech, means that one is unsuccessful in saying and explaining what one has to say.
 

 
   
 
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