"The greatest glory we can give to God is to do his will in everything."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"We must not be behind time in doing good; for death will not be behind his time. "

St Phillip Neri

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"Obedience is a short cut to perfection."

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 16


Introduction

1. Since the virtues of the bride are perfect and she enjoys habitual peace in the visits of her Beloved, she sometimes has a sublime enjoyment of their sweetness and fragrance when her Beloved touches these virtues, just as a person will enjoy the sweetness and beauty of flowers and lilies when they have blossomed and are handled. In many of these visits the soul sees within her spirit all her virtues by means of the light the Bridegroom causes. And then in a wonderful delight of love she gathers them together and offers them to him as a bouquet of beautiful flowers. And he, in accepting them - for indeed he accepts them - receives great service.

All of this goes on interiorly. The soul feels that the Beloved is within her as in his own bed. She offers herself together with her virtues, which is the greatest service she can render him. Thus one of the most remarkable delights she receives in her interior communion with God comes from this gift of herself to her Beloved.

2. The devil, who in his great malice is envious of all the good he sees in the soul, knowing of her prosperity, now employs all his ability and engages all his crafts to disturb this good, even if only a slight part of it. It is worth more to him to hinder a small fraction of this soul's rich and glorious delight than to make many others fall into numerous serious sins, for these others have little or nothing to lose; but this soul has very much to lose because of all her precious gain. The loss of a little pure gold is much worse than the loss of many other base metals.

The devil at this point takes advantage of the sensory appetites, although most of the time he can do very little or nothing, since these appetites are already deadened in persons who have reached this state. When he is unable to stir these appetites, he produces a great variety of images in the imagination. He is sometimes the cause of many movements of the sensory part of the soul and of many other disturbances, spiritual as well as sensory. It is not in a person's power to be free of these until the Lord sends his angel, as is said in the psalm, round about them that fear him and delivers them [Ps. 34:7], and until he brings peace and tranquility in both the sensory and spiritual parts of the soul.

Referring to the devil's disturbances and distrustful of the wiles he uses to cause her harm at this time, the soul, seeking this favor from God, speaks to the angels whose duty it is to assist her now by putting the devil to flight. She recites the following stanza:

Catch us the foxes,
for our vineyard is now in flower,
while we fashion a cone of roses
intricate as the pine's;
and let no one appear on the hill.

Commentary

3. Desirous that neither envious and malicious devils nor wild sensory appetites nor the various wanderings of the imagination nor any other knowledge or awareness hamper the continuance of this interior delight of love, which is the flower of her vineyard, the bride invokes the angels, telling them to catch all these disturbances and keep them from interfering with the interior exercise of love, in the delight of which the virtues and graces are communicated and enjoyed by both the soul and the Son of God. And thus she says:

Catch us the foxes,
for our vineyard is now in flower,

4. The vineyard spoken of is the nursery of all the virtues in this holy soul; these virtues supply her with a sweet-tasting wine. This vineyard is in flower when the soul is united with her Bridegroom according to the will and gladdened in him according to all these virtues together.

At times, as we said, many various kinds of images are brought to the memory and phantasy and many appetites and inclinations are stirred up in the sensory part. These are of so many kinds that when David was drinking this delicious spiritual wine with intense thirst for God, he proclaimed on experiencing the hindrance caused by them: My soul has thirsted for you; oh, how many ways my flesh for you! [Ps. 63:1].

5. The soul calls all this harmonious composite of appetites and sensory movements "foxes" because of the great resemblance. As foxes pretend to be asleep when they are out to catch their prey, so all these appetites and sensory powers are tranquil and asleep until these flowers of virtues rise and blossom in the soul in an exercise of love. At that moment, then, it seems that the sensual flowers of the appetites and sense powers awaken and arise in the sensory part of the soul in an effort to contradict the spirit and to reign. Covetousness will reach such a point, as St. Paul says, that the flesh covets against the spirit [Gal. 5:17]. Since the flesh has a strong inclination to sensory things, once the spirit finds delight the flesh becomes distasteful and unpleasant.1 As a result these appetites are a notable disturbance to the sweet spirit. Thus she says: "Catch us the foxes."

6. The malicious devils on their part disturb the soul in two ways: They vehemently incite and stimulate these appetites and, by means of them and other imaginations, and so on, wage war on this peaceful and flowering kingdom of the soul.

In the second way, which is worse, when it is impossible for these devils to disturb her in the first way, they assail her with bodily torments and noises in order to distract her. And what is still worse, they struggle against her with spiritual terrors and horrors that sometimes become a frightful torment. If permission is given them they can do this very easily, for since the soul at this time enters into great nakedness of spirit for the sake of this spiritual exercise, the devil can easily show himself to her, because he is also spirit.2

At other times he attacks her with different horrors before she begins to enjoy these sweet flowers, when God is beginning to withdraw her from the house of the senses that she may enter, through this interior exercise, the garden of her Bridegroom. The devil knows that once the soul has entered into that recollection, she is so fortified that however much he may try he cannot do her harm. Frequently when he goes out to block the soul she recollects herself very quickly in her deep interior hiding place, where she finds intense delight and protection. Then the terrors she suffers seem so exterior and far away that the devils not only fail to frighten her but cause her happiness and joy.

7. The bride of the Song of Songs spoke of these terrors, saying: My soul troubles me because of the chariots of Aminadab [Sg. 6:12]. By Aminadab she refers to the devil, and she call his attacks and assaults chariots because of the terrible violence and clamor he produces with them.

The soul afterward says here: "Catch us the foxes"; this very request was made by the bride of the Song of Songs: Catch us the little foxes that damage the vines, for our vineyard is in flower [Sg. 2:15]. She does not say "catch me" but "catch us," because she is speaking of both herself and the Beloved. They are united and enjoying the flower of the vine.

The reason she says the vine is in flower rather than with fruit is that, even though the virtues in this life are enjoyed with all this perfection we have been discussing, she merely enjoys them as though in flower. Only in the next life will they be enjoyed as the fruit. And she adds:

while we fashion a cone of roses
intricate as the pine's;

8. While the soul at this stage is enjoying the flower of this vineyard and delighting on the bosom of her Beloved, it will happen that all her virtues are suddenly and clearly revealed in their perfection and give her immense sweetness and delight. The soul feels that these virtues are both in her and in God so they seem to form a very pleasant and flowering vineyard belonging to the Bridegroom as well as to herself in which they both feed and delight. She then gathers all these virtues and makes very delightful acts of love in each of them and in all together. She offers this bouquet to the Beloved with remarkable tenderness and sweetness of love. The Beloved himself helps her, for without his favor and help she would not be able to gather these virtues and offer them to him. Hence she says: "While we fashion a cone of roses."

9. She fashions this bouquet in the shape of a pine cone, for as a pine cone is something sturdy with many pieces, or pine kernels, firmly fastened together, so this cone or bouquet of virtues that the soul arranges for her Beloved forms one perfect whole embodying in itself many perfect and strong virtues and very rich gifts. All perfections and virtues are incorporated in orderly fashion in the one solid perfection of the soul. This perfection, while being formed through the practice of the virtues - as well as when already formed - is offered by the soul to the Beloved in that spirit of love we are discussing. These foxes should, then, be caught so they do not hinder the interior communion of the two.

The bride asks not only for the ability to make a good bouquet but also for what follows in the next verse:

and let no one appear on the hill.

10. To attain this divine interior exercise there is also need for solitude and withdrawal from all things presentable to the soul, whether from the lower, sensory portion, or from the higher, rational part. These two parts comprise the entire compound of human faculties and senses, and she calls this compound a "hill." All the natural knowledge and the appetites dwelling on the hill in this harmonious composite are like prey to the devil, who hunts and catches them in order to harm the soul.

She says: "And let no one appear on the hill," that is, let no image of any object belonging to any of these faculties or senses we have mentioned appear before the soul and the Bridegroom. This is like saying: Let there be no particular knowledge or affection or other consideration in any of the spiritual faculties (memory, intellect, and will); and let there be no other digressions, forms, images, or figures of objects, or other natural operations in any of the bodily senses and faculties, either interior or exterior (the imaginative power and phantasy, and so on, sight and hearing, and so on).

11. The soul says this because, for the perfect enjoyment of this communion with God, all the senses and faculties, interior and exterior, should be unoccupied, idle, and empty of their own operations and objects. The more active they are in themselves at such a time, the more they hinder communication. When the soul reaches a certain degree of interior union of love, the spiritual faculties are no longer active, and much less the corporeal ones, since the union of love is already wrought and the soul is actuated in love. Thus the faculties cease their work, since on attaining the end the activity of the means ceases. Then the soul attends to God with love, which is to love in the continuance of unitive love.

"And let no one appear on the hill" then. Let only the will appear, attending to the Beloved in a surrender of self and of all the virtues in the way described.
 

 
   
 
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