"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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"God commands not impossibilities, but by commanding he suggests to you to do what you can, to ask for what is beyond your strength; and he helps you, that you may be able."

St Augustine

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"For what would it profit us to know the whole Bible by heart and the principles of all the philosophers if we live without grace and the love of God?"

Thomas á Kempis

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 St John of the Cross   (1542 - 1591)

 

THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE (cont)

 

by St John of the Cross

 

Stanza 11


Introduction

1. It should be known that the loving Bridegroom of souls cannot long watch them suffering alone as this soul is suffering because, as he says through Zechariah, their afflictions touch him in the apple of his eye [Zech. 2:8], especially when these afflictions are the outcome of love for him, as are those of this soul.1 He also declares through Isaiah: Before they call, I will hear; while they are yet with the word in their mouth, I will hear them [Is. 65:24]. The Wise Man says of him that if the soul seeks him as money, she will find him [Prv. 2:4-5].

Apparently God granted a certain spiritual feeling of his presence to this loving soul whose prayers are so enkindled and who seeks him more covetously than people seek money, since she has left herself and all things for him. In this spiritual sense of his presence, he revealed some deep glimpses of his divinity and beauty by which he greatly increased her fervor and desire to see him. As a man throws water into the forge to stir up and intensify the fire, so the Lord usually grants certain signs of his excellence to some souls that walk in these fiery longings of love to make them more fervent and further prepare them for the favors he wishes to grant them later. Since the soul saw and experienced through that obscure presence the supreme good and beauty hidden there, she recites the following stanza, dying with the desire to see him:

Reveal your presence,
and may the vision of your beauty be my death;
for the sickness of love
is not cured
except by your very presence and image.

Commentary

2. The soul desiring to be possessed by this immense God, for love of whom she feels that her heart is stolen and wounded, unable to suffer her sickness any longer, deliberately asks him in this stanza to show her his beauty, his divine essence, and to kill her with this revelation and thereby free her from the flesh, since she cannot see and enjoy him as she wants. She makes this request by displaying before him the sickness and yearning of her heart, in which she perseveres in suffering for love of him, unable to find a cure in anything less than this glorious vision of his divine essence. The verse follows:

Reveal your presence,

3. In explanation of this verse it should be known that God's presence can be of three kinds:

The first is his presence by essence. In this way he is present not only in the holiest souls but also in sinners and all other creatures. With this presence he gives them life and being. Should this essential presence be lacking to them, they would all be annihilated. Thus this presence is never wanting to the soul.

The second is his presence by grace, in which he abides in the soul, pleased and satisfied with it. Not all have this presence of God; those who fall into mortal sin lose it. The soul cannot know naturally if it has this presence.

The third is his presence by spiritual affection, for God usually grants his spiritual presence to devout souls in many ways by which he refreshes, delights, and gladdens them.

Yet these many kinds of spiritual presence, just as the others, are all hidden, for in them God does not reveal himself as he is, since the conditions of this life will not allow such a manifestation. Thus the above verse "reveal your presence" could be understood of any of these three ways in which God is present.

4. Since it is certain that at least in the first way God is ever present in the soul, she does not ask him to be present in her but that he so reveal his hidden presence, whether natural, spiritual, or affective, that she may be able to see him in his divine being and beauty. Since he both gives the soul natural being through his essential presence and perfects her through his presence by grace, she begs him to glorify her also with his manifest glory.

Yet insofar as this soul is full of fervor and tender love of God, we should understand that this presence she asks the Beloved to reveal refers chiefly to a certain affective presence the Beloved accords her. This presence is so sublime that the soul feels an immense hidden being from which God communicates to her some semi-clear glimpses of his divine beauty. And these bear such an effect on the soul that she ardently longs and faints with desire for what she feels hidden there in that presence. This is similar to what David felt when he exclaimed: My soul longs and faints for the courts of the Lord [Ps. 84:2].

At this time the soul faints with longing to be engulfed in that supreme good she feels present and hidden, for although it is hidden she has a notable experience of the good and delight present there. Accordingly she is drawn and carried toward this good more forcibly than any material object is pulled toward its center by gravity. With this longing and heartfelt desire, unable to contain herself any longer, the soul begs: Reveal your presence

5. Moses had this very experience on Mount Sinai. While standing in God's presence, he was able to get such sublime and profound glimpses of the height and beauty of the hidden divinity that, unable to endure it, he asked God twice to reveal his glory: You say that you know me by name and that I have found favor before you. If therefore I have found favor in your presence, show me your face that I may know you and find before your eyes the grace which I desire fulfilled [Ex. 33:12-13], that is, to reach the perfect love of the glory of God. Yet the Lord answered: You shall not be able to see my face, for no human shall see me and live [Ex. 33:20]. This is like saying: You ask a difficult thing of me, Moses, for such is the beauty of my face and the delight derived from the sight of my being that your soul will be unable to withstand it in a life as weak as this.

The soul knows that she cannot see him in his beauty in this kind of life. She knows this either through God's answer to Moses or through her experience of what is hidden here in the presence of God. For even though he appears only vaguely, she faints. Hence she anticipates the reply that can be made to her as it was to Moses and says:

and may the vision of your beauty be my death;

6. This is like saying: Since the delight arising from the sight of your being and beauty is unendurable, and since I must die in seeing you, may the vision of your beauty be my death.

7. It is known that there are two sights that will kill humans because of the inability of human nature to suffer their force and vigor: one is the sight of the basilisk, from which it is said a person dies immediately; the other is the vision of God. Yet the causes are very different, for the sight of one kills through a terrible poison, and the vision of the other kills by an untold health and glorious good.

The soul does nothing very outstanding by wanting to die at the vision of the beauty of God in order to enjoy him forever. Were she to have but a glimpse of the height and beauty of God, she would not only desire death in order to see him now forever, as she here desires, but she would very gladly undergo a thousand singularly bitter deaths to see him only for a moment; and having seen him, she would ask to suffer just as many more that she might see him for another moment.

8. To shed further light on this verse, it should be known that when the soul asks that the vision of his beauty be her death she speaks conditionally, under the supposition that she cannot see him without dying. Were she able to see him without dying, she would not ask him to slay her, for to desire death is a natural imperfection. Yet with the supposition that this corruptible human life is incompatible with the other incorruptible life of God, she says: May the vision of your beauty be my death.

9. St Paul teaches this doctrine to the Corinthians, saying: We do not wish to be unclothed, but we desire to be clothed over, so that which is mortal may be absorbed in life [2 Cor. 5:4]. This is like saying: We do not desire to be despoiled of the flesh, but to be clothed over with glory. Yet, observing that one cannot live simultaneously in glory and in the mortal flesh, he says to the Philippians that he desires to be set free and to be with Christ [Phil. 1:23].

Yet one may question: Why did the children of Israel formerly flee God and fear to see him lest they die, as Manoah and his wife did [Jgs. 13:22], whereas this soul desires to die at the sight of God? We reply that there are two reasons for this: First, even though the children of Israel at that time died in the grace of God, they were not to see him until the coming of Christ. It was much better for them to live in the flesh, increasing their merits and enjoying their natural life, than to be in limbo, without ability to merit and suffering the darkness and spiritual absence of God. As a result they considered it a wonderful gift and favor from God to live for many years.

10. The second reason is based on love. Since the Israelites were not so fortified in love or so close to God through love, they feared to die upon seeing him. But because now in the law of grace the soul can see God when separated from the body, the desire to live but a short while and die in order to see him is more perfect.2 And even if this were false, the soul loving God as intensely as this one does would not fear to die from seeing him. True love receives all things that come from the Beloved prosperity, adversity, even chastisement with the same evenness of soul, since they are his will. And they afford her joy and delight because, as St. John says: Perfect charity casts out all fear [1 Jn. 4:18].

Death cannot be bitter to the soul that loves, for in it she finds all the sweetness and delight of love. The thought of death cannot sadden her, for what she finds is that gladness accompanies this thought. Neither can the thought of death be burdensome and painful to her, for death will put an end to all her sorrows and afflictions and be the beginning of all her bliss. She thinks of death as her friend and bridegroom, and at the thought of it she rejoices as she would over the thought of her betrothal and marriage, and she longs for the day and the hour of her death more than earthly kings long for kingdoms and principalities.

The Wise Man proclaims of this kind of death: O death, your sentence is welcome to the person who feels need [Ecclus. 41:2]. If it is welcome to those who feel need for earthly things, even though it does not provide for these needs but rather despoils such persons of the possessions they have, how much better will its sentence be for the soul in need of love, as is this one who is crying out for more love. For death will not despoil her of the love she possesses, but rather will be the cause of love's completeness, which she desires, and the satisfaction of all her needs.

The soul is right in daring to say, "may the vision of your beauty be my death," since she knows that at the instant she sees this beauty she will be carried away by it, and absorbed in this very beauty, and transformed in this beauty, and made beautiful like this beauty itself, and enriched and provided for like this very beauty. David declares, consequently, that the death of the saints is precious in the sight of the Lord [Ps. 116:15]. This would not be true if they did not participate in God's own grandeurs, for in the sight of God nothing is precious but what he in himself is.

Accordingly, the soul does not fear death when she loves; rather she desires it. Yet sinners are always fearful of death. They foresee that death will take everything away and bring them all evils. As David says, the death of sinners is very evil [Ps. 34:21]. And hence, as the Wise Man says, the remembrance of it is bitter [Ecclus. 41:1]. Since sinners love the life of this world intensely and have little love for that of the other, they have an intense fear of death. But the soul that loves God lives more in the next life than in this, for a soul lives where it loves more than where it gives life, and thus takes little account of this temporal life. She says then: May the vision of your beauty be my death.

for the sickness of love
is not cured
except by your very presence and image.

11. The reason lovesickness has no other remedy than the presence and the image of the beloved is that, since this sickness differs from others, its medicine also differs. In other sicknesses, following sound philosophy, contraries are cured by contraries, but love is incurable except by things in accord with love.3

The reason for this is that love of God is the soul's health, and the soul does not have full health until love is complete. Sickness is nothing but the lack of health, and when the soul has not even a single degree of love she is dead. But when she possesses some degrees of love of God, no matter how few, she is then alive, yet very weak and infirm because of her little love. In the measure that love increases she will be healthier, and when love is perfect she will have full health.

12. It should be known that love never reaches perfection until the lovers are so alike that one is transfigured in the other. And then the love is in full health. The soul experiences within herself a certain sketch of love, which is the sickness she mentions, and she desires the completion of the sketch of this image, the image of her Bridegroom, the Word, the Son of God, who, as St. Paul says, is the splendor of his glory and the image of his substance [Heb. 1:3]; for this is the image referred to in this verse and into which the soul desires to be transformed through love. As a result she says: For the sickness of love is not cured except by your very presence and image.

13. She does well to call imperfect love "sickness," for just as a sick person is too weak for work, so is the soul that is feeble in love too weak to practice heroic virtue.

14. It is also noteworthy that those who feel in themselves the sickness of love, a lack of love, show they have some love, because they are aware of what they lack through what they have. Those who do not feel this sickness show they either have no love or are perfect in love.
 

 
   
 
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