"Try to turn your heart from the love of things visible and bring yourself to things invisible. For they who follow their own evil passions stain their consciences and lose the grace of God. "

Thomas á Kempis

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"Lord, here burn, here cut, and dry up in me all that hinders me from going to You, that You may spare me in eternity."

St Louis Bertrand

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"Spiritual persons ought to be equally ready to experience sweetness and consolation in the things of God, or to suffer and keep their ground in drynesses of spirit and devotion, and for as long as God pleases, without their making any complaint about 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 13


Introduction

1. The reason the soul suffers so intensely for God at this time is that she is drawing nearer to him; so she has greater experience within herself of the void of God, of very heavy darkness, and of spiritual fire that dries up and purges her so that thus purified she may be united with him. Inasmuch as God does not communicate some supernatural ray of light from himself, he is intolerable darkness to her when he is spiritually near her, for the excess of supernatural light darkens the natural light. David indicated all this when he said: Clouds and darkness are round about him; fire goes before him [Ps. 97:2-3]. And in another psalm he asserts: He made darkness his covert and hiding place, and his tent round about him is dark water in the clouds of the air; because of his great splendor there are in his presence clouds, hail, and coals of fire [Ps. 18:12-13], that is, for the soul drawing near him. As the soul comes closer to him, and until God introduces her into his divine splendors through transformation of love, she experiences within herself all that David described. In the meanwhile, like Job, she exclaims over and over: Who will grant me to know him and find him and come unto his throne? [Jb. 23:3].1

Just as God through his immense mercy grants the soul favors and consolations in the measure of her darknesses and voids, for sicut tenebrae ejus, ita et lumen ejus (as is the darkness, so is the light) [Ps. 139:12], and because in exalting and glorifying her he humbles and wearies her, so in like manner he sent the soul that was suffering these fatigues some of his divine rays with such strong love and glory that he stirred her completely and caused her to go out of her senses. Thus in great fear and trembling, she spoke to her Beloved the first part of the following stanza, and her Beloved then spoke the remaining verses.

Withdraw them, Beloved,
I am taking flight!
Bridegroom
Return, dove,
the wounded stag
is in sight on the hill,
cooled by the breeze of your flight.

Commentary

2. The Beloved usually visits his bride chastely, delicately, and with strong love amid the intense loving desires and ardors she showed in the previous stanzas. God's favors and visits are generally in accord with the intensity of the yearnings and ardors of love that precede them.

Since, as she just finished saying in the previous stanza, the soul desired these divine eyes with such yearnings, the Beloved revealed to her some rays of his grandeur and divinity. He communicated these so sublimely and forcibly that he carried her out of herself in rapture and ecstasy. At the beginning this is accompanied by great pain and fear in one's natural makeup. Unable in her weakness to endure such excess, she proclaims in this stanza: "Withdraw them, Beloved," that is, your divine eyes, "for they cause me to take flight and go out of myself to lofty contemplation, which is beyond what human nature can endure." She makes this plea because seemingly the soul is flying away from the body. This flight from the body is what she desired; this is why she begged him to withdraw his eyes, to cease communicating them to her in the body in which she is unable to suffer and enjoy them as she would, and to communicate them to her in her flight outside the body.

The Bridegroom, then, impedes this desire and flight, saying: "Return, dove, for the communication you receive from me is not yet of the state of glory to which you now aspire. Return to me, for I am he whom you, wounded with love, seek. For I, too, like the stag, wounded by your love, begin to reveal myself to you in your high contemplation, and I am refreshed and renewed in the love that arises from your contemplation." The soul, then, says to the Bridegroom:

Withdraw them, Beloved,

3. As we mentioned, the soul in accordance with her intense desire for these divine eyes, for the divinity, received interiorly from the Beloved such divine communication and knowledge that she had to say, "Withdraw them, Beloved."

The misery of human nature is such in this life that when the communication and knowledge of the Beloved, which means more life for the soul and for which she longs so ardently, is about to be imparted, she cannot receive it save almost at the cost of her life. When she receives the eyes she has been searching for so anxiously and in so many ways, she cries: Withdraw them, Beloved!

4. The torment experienced in these rapturous visits is such that no other so disjoins the bones and endangers human nature. Were God not to provide, she would die. And indeed, it seems so to the soul in which this happens, that she is being loosed from the flesh and is abandoning the body.

The reason for this is that such favors cannot be received wholly in the body, for the spirit is elevated to commune with the divine Spirit who comes to the soul. Thus the soul must in some fashion abandon the body. As a result the body must suffer and, consequently, the soul in the body because of their unity in one suppositum.2 The torment she experiences at the time of this visit and the terror arising from her awareness of being treated in this supernatural way make her cry: Withdraw them, Beloved!

5. Yet, it should not be thought that because she says "withdraw them" she desires him to do so. Those words spring from natural fear, as we said.3 No matter what the cost, she would not want to lose these visits and favors of the Beloved. Although human nature suffers, the spirit takes flight to supernatural recollection and enjoyment of the Beloved's spirit, which is what she desired and sought.

Yet she would not want to receive the spirit in the body, for there she cannot receive it fully, but only in a small degree and with considerable suffering. But she would want to receive it in the flight of the spirit, outside the body, where she can rejoice freely. Accordingly she says "withdraw them, Beloved," that is, cease communicating them to me in the body,

I am taking flight!

6. This is like saying: I am taking flight from the body so you may communicate them to me outside it, since they cause me to fly out of the body.

For a better understanding of the nature of this flight, it should be noted that, as we said,4 in this visit of the divine Spirit, the spirit of the soul is carried away violently to communicate with him, and it abandons the body and ceases to have its feelings and actions in it, for they are in God. Thus St. Paul said that in his rapture he did not know if his soul was receiving the communication in the body or out of the body [2 Cor. 12:2].

However, it should not be thought because of this that the soul forsakes the body of its natural life, but rather that the soul's actions are not in the body. This is why in these raptures and flights the body has no feeling and even though severely painful things are done to it, it does not feel them. This rapture is not like other natural transports and swoons in which one returns to self when pain is inflicted.

These feelings are experienced in such visits by those who have not yet reached the state of perfection but are moving along in the state of proficients.5 Those who have reached perfection receive all communications in peace and gentle love. There these raptures cease, for they are communications that prepare one to receive the total communication.

7. This would be an apt place to treat of the different kinds of raptures, ecstasies, and other elevations and flights of the soul that are customarily experienced by spiritual persons. But since, as I promised in the prologue,6 my intention is only to give a brief explanation of these stanzas, such a discussion will have to be left for someone who knows how to treat the matter better than I. Then too, the blessed Teresa of Jesus, our Mother, left writings about these spiritual matters that are admirably done and which I hope will soon be printed and brought to light.7

What the soul thus says about flight here should be understood in reference to rapture and ecstasy of the spirit in God. And next, the Beloved says:

Return, dove.

8. The soul went out of the body very willingly in that spiritual flight, and thought that now her life was at an end and she would be able to see her Bridegroom openly and enjoy him forever. But the Bridegroom intercepted her flight, saying "Return, dove." This is like saying: In your sublime and swift contemplation and in your burning love and in the simplicity of your advance for the dove has these three properties return from this lofty flight in which you aim after true possession of me; the time has not yet come for such high knowledge. Adapt yourself to this lower knowledge that I am communicating to you in this rapture of yours. And it is this:

the wounded stag

9. The Bridegroom in this verse compares himself to a stag. It is characteristic of the stag that he climbs to high places and when wounded races in search of refreshment and cool waters. If he hears the cry of his mate and senses that she is wounded, he immediately runs to her to comfort and caress her.

The Bridegroom now acts similarly. Beholding that the bride is wounded with love for him, because of her moan he also is wounded with love for her. Among lovers, the wound of one is a wound for both, and the two have but one feeling. Thus, in other words, he says: Return to me, my bride, because if you go about wounded with love for me, I too, like the stag, will come to you wounded by your wound. Also by appearing in a high place I am like the stag. Hence he says:

is in sight on the hill,

10. That is, on the height of your contemplation that you experience in this flight. For contemplation is a high place where God begins to communicate and show himself to the soul in this life, but not completely. Hence he does not say that he has appeared fully but that he is in sight. However sublime may be the knowledge God gives the soul in this life, it is but like a glimpse of him from a great distance.

The third characteristic of the stag is contained in the next verse:

cooled by the breeze of your flight.

11. By the "flight," he means the contemplation received in that ecstasy; and by the "breeze," the spirit of love that this flight of contemplation causes in the soul. He very appropriately terms this love caused by the flight a "breeze," because the Holy Spirit, who is love, is also compared to a breeze in Scripture, for the Holy Spirit is the breath of the Father and the Son. And just as the Holy Spirit is like a breeze from the flight (that is, he proceeds through spiration from the contemplation and wisdom of the Father and the Son), so the Bridegroom calls this love of the soul a breeze because it proceeds from the contemplation and knowledge she has of God at this time.

It is noteworthy that the Bridegroom does not say he comes at the flight, but at the breeze of the flight, because, properly speaking, God does not communicate himself to the soul through its flight (the knowledge it has of him), but through the love it has from this knowledge. For just as love is the union of the Father and the Son, so is it the union of the soul with God. Hence even though a soul may have the highest knowledge and contemplation of God and know all mysteries but does not love, this knowledge will be of no avail to her union with God, as St. Paul teaches [1 Cor. 13:2]. St. Paul also says: Caritatem habete quod est vinculum perfectionis (Have this charity that is the bond of perfection) [Col. 3:14].

This charity, then, causes the Bridegroom to run to the spring of his bride's love just as the cool waters cause the wounded and thirsty stag to run seeking refreshment. Consequently he uses the word "cooled."

12. As a breeze cools and refreshes a person worn out by the heat, so this breeze of love refreshes and renews the one burning with the fire of love. The fire of love bears this property: The breeze by which it is cooled and refreshed makes it increase, for in the lover, love is a flame that burns with a desire to burn more, like the flame of natural fire. He refers to the fulfillment of this desire to burn more in his ardent love for his bride as being "cooled." In other words he says: In the ardor of your flight it burns more, because one love enkindles another.

It is worthy of note that God does not place his grace and love in the soul except according to its desire and love. Those who truly love God must strive not to fail in this love, for they will thereby induce God, if we may so express it, to further love them and find delight in them. And to acquire this charity, one ought to practice what St. Paul taught: Charity is patient, is kind, is not envious, does no evil, does not become proud, is not ambitious, seeks not its own, does not become disturbed, thinks no evil, rejoices not in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth, suffers all things (that are to be suffered), believes all things (that must be believed), hopes all things, and endures all things (that are in accord with charity) [1 Cor. 13:4-7].
 

 
   
 
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