St John of the Cross (1542 - 1591)
Catholic belief, prayers and spiritual teaching
St John of the Cross (1542 - 1591)
THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE (cont)
by St John of the Cross
1. The soul in this state becomes such an enemy of the lower part and its operations that she does not want God to communicate to that part any of the spiritual good he gives to the higher part. Because of its weak condition the sensory part is unable to endure an abundant spiritual communication without fainting. Consequently the spirit suffers and is afflicted and cannot enjoy the communication peacefully. As the Wise Man says: The body on account of its corruption is a burden to the soul [Wis. 9:15]. Since the soul desires the highest and most excellent communications from God, and is unable to receive them in the company of the sensory part, she desires God to bestow them apart from it.
St. Paul states of his sublime vision of the third heaven, in which he saw God, that he does not know whether he received it in the body or out of it [2 Cor. 12:2]. Nevertheless, in whatever way it did take place, it occurred outside the body. For if the body had participated, St. Paul would have known of this and the vision would not have been as sublime as he implied by stating that he heard such secret words that it is unlawful for anyone to speak of them [2 Cor. 12:4]. Knowing full well that such favors cannot be received by so fragile a vessel [2 Cor. 4:7], and desiring that the Bridegroom grant them outside her, or at least without her, the soul asks him in this stanza:
2. The bride-soul asks four things of the Bridegroom in this stanza:
First, that he be pleased to communicate himself to her very inwardly, in the hiding place of the soul.
Second, that he inform and shine on her faculties with the glory and excellence of his divinity.
Third, that this communication be so sublime and profound that she may neither desire nor know how to give a description of it, and that the sensory and exterior part be incapable of receiving it.
Fourth, that he be enamored of the many virtues and graces he has placed in her. These accompany her in her ascent to God through a very lofty and elevated knowledge of the divinity and through excesses of love that are very strange and extraordinary in comparison with those she ordinarily has. Thus she says:
3. This is like saying: My dear Spouse, withdraw to the innermost part of my soul and communicate yourself in secret, manifest your hidden wonders, alien to every mortal eye.
4. The "face" of God is the divinity, and "the mountains" are the soul's faculties (memory, intellect, and will). This verse is like saying: Let your divinity shine on my intellect by giving it divine knowledge, and on my will by imparting to it divine love, and on my memory with the divine possession of glory.
The soul asks in this line for everything she possibly can ask of him. She is no longer satisfied with the knowledge and communication of the "back" of God - which was his communication to Moses [Ex. 33:23] - and is knowledge of him in his effects and works; she can only be satisfied with God's face, which is an essential communication of the divinity to the soul. This communication is not brought about through any means, but through a certain contact of the soul with the divinity. This contact is something foreign to everything sensory and accidental, since it is a touch of naked substances - of the soul and the divinity.1 Consequently she adds:
5. This means: Do not speak as before when the communications you granted me were such that you spoke them to the exterior senses; that is, you spoke things apprehensible to the senses since these things were not so high and deep that the sensory part could not attain to them. But now let these communications be so lofty and substantial and interior that you do not say anything to the senses, that is, let not the senses attain knowledge of them. Spiritual substance cannot be communicated to the senses, and anything imparted to sense, especially in this life, cannot be pure spirit, since sense is incapable of it.
The soul, then, desiring this communication of God that is so substantial and essential it is imperceptible to sense, asks the Bridegroom to refrain from speaking, which is like saying: Let the depth of this hiding place, which is spiritual union, be of such a kind that the senses will be unable to feel or speak of it, as were the secrets heard by St. Paul about which it was unlawful for anyone to speak [2 Cor. 12:4].
6. When God looks, he loves and grants favors. And the companions whom the soul tells God to look at are the many virtues, gifts, perfections, and other spiritual riches he has placed in her as the pledges, tokens, and jewels of betrothal. Thus this verse is like saying: But Beloved, first turn to the interior of my soul, and be enamored of the company - the riches - you have placed there, so that loving the soul through them you may dwell and hide in her. For, indeed, even though they are yours, since you gave them to her, they also belong to her,
7. That is, they belong to my soul that goes to you by means of strange knowledge of you and by modes
and ways that are foreign to all the senses and to common natural knowledge. And thus it is as though,
desiring to oblige him, she were to say: Since I go to you through a spiritual knowledge strange and foreign
to the senses, let your communication be so interior and sublime as to be foreign to all of them.