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
Stanzas 20 & 21
1. The attainment of so high a state of perfection as that for which the soul here aims, which is spiritual marriage, requires the purification of all the imperfections, rebellions, and imperfect habits of the lower part, which, by being stripped of the old self [Eph. 4:22-23], is surrendered and made subject to the higher part; but a singular fortitude and a very sublime love are also needed for so strong and intimate an embrace from God. For in this state the soul obtains not only a very lofty purity and beauty but also an amazing strength because of the powerful and intimate bond effected between God and her by means of this union.
2. In order that she reach him, it is necessary for her to attain an adequate degree of purity, fortitude, and love. The Holy Spirit, he who intervenes to effect this spiritual union, desiring that the soul attain the possession of these qualities in order to merit this union, speaks to the Father and the Son in the Song of Songs: What shall we do for our sister on the day of her courtship, for she is little and has no breasts? If she is a wall, let us build upon it silver bulwarks and defenses; and if she is a door, let us reinforce it with cedar wood [Sg. 8:8-9]. The silver bulwarks and defenses refer to the strong and heroic virtues covered with faith, which is signified by the silver. These heroic virtues are those of spiritual marriage, and their foundation is in the strong soul, referred to by the wall. The peaceful Bridegroom rests in the strength of these virtues without any weakness disturbing him. The cedar wood applies to the affections and properties of lofty love. This lofty love is signified by cedar and it is the love proper to spiritual marriage. The bride must first be a door in order to receive the reinforcement of cedar wood; that is, she must hold the door of her will open to the Bridegroom so he may enter through the complete and true "yes" of love. This is the yes of betrothal that is given before the spiritual marriage. The breasts of the bride also refer to this perfect love that she should possess in order to appear before the Bridegroom, Christ, for the consummation of this state.
3. The text, however, mentions that the bride answered immediately by stating her desire to be courted: I am a wall and my breasts are as a tower [Sg. 8:10]. This means: My soul is strong and my love lofty, and so I should not be held back. Desiring this perfect union and transformation, the bride also manifested this strength in the preceding stanzas, especially in the one just explained, in which to oblige her bridegroom further she sets before him the virtues and preparative riches received from him. As a result the Bridegroom, desiring to conclude this matter, speaks the two following stanzas in which he finishes purifying the soul, strengthening and disposing her in both sensory and spiritual parts for this state. He speaks these lines against all the oppositions and rebellions from the sensory part and the devil.
4. In these two stanzas the Bridegroom, the Son of God, gives the bride-soul possession of peace and tranquility by conforming the lower part to the higher, cleansing it of all its imperfections, bringing under rational control the natural faculties and motives, and quieting all the other appetites mentioned in these two stanzas. The meaning of these stanzas is:
First, the Bridegroom conjures and commands the useless wanderings of the phantasy and imaginative power to cease once and for all.
He also puts under the control of reason the two natural powers, the irascible and the concupiscible, which were previously somewhat of an affliction to the soul.
And, insofar as is possible in this life, he perfects the three faculties (memory, intellect, and will) in regard to their objects.
What is more, he conjures and commands the four passions (joy, hope, fear, and sorrow) so from now on they will be mitigated and controlled by reason.
Such is the meaning of the terms used in the first of these stanzas. The Bridegroom makes these disturbing activities and movements cease by means of the immense delight and sweetness and strength received in the spiritual communication and surrender he makes of himself at this time. Because God vitally transforms the soul into himself, all these faculties, appetites, and movements lose their natural imperfection and are changed to divine. And thus he says:
5. He calls the wanderings of the imagination "swift-winged birds," for these digressions are quick and restless in flying from one place to another. When the will is enjoying the delightful communication of the Beloved in quietude, these wanderings usually displease her by their restless flights and put an end to her satisfaction. The Bridegroom says that he conjures them by the pleasant lyres, and so on (by sweetness and delight so abundant and frequent that they cannot be the impediment they were before she reached so high a state), to cease their restless flights, impulses, and excesses. This should be understood similarly regarding the other verses we will comment on here, such as:
6. By the "lions" he refers to the acrimony and impetuosity of the irascible power, for in its acts this power is bold and daring like the lion.
By the "stags" and the "leaping roes" he refers to that other power, the concupiscible, which is an appetitive power. This faculty causes two classes of effects: one of cowardice and the other of daring. It produces the effects of cowardice when things are found difficult, for it then retires, withdraws within itself, and becomes cowardly. Because of these effects this faculty is comparable to stags, for since the stag has a more intense concupiscible power than many other animals, it is very cowardly and withdrawn. This faculty produces the effects of daring when things are found easy, for then it does not withdraw and become cowardly but makes bold to accept these things with its appetites and affections. And because of these effects this faculty is compared to the roes, which have such concupiscence that they do not merely run after their desires but even leap after them. And thus he calls them leaping roes.
7. In conjuring the lions he bridles the impulses and excesses of anger. And in conjuring the stags he strengthens the concupiscible power against the cowardice and pusillanimity that previously made it withdrawn. And in conjuring the leaping roes he satisfies the appetites, previously restless and leaping like roes from one thing to another, trying to satisfy concupiscence. This concupiscence is now satisfied by the pleasant lyres whose sweetness it enjoys, and by the siren's song, the delight of which it feeds on.
It should be observed that the Bridegroom does not conjure anger and concupiscence to cease, for these powers are never wanting to the soul. But he conjures their disturbances and inordinate actions, signified by the lions, stags, and leaping roes, to cease. It is necessary that in this state these inordinate movements be lacking.
8. These expressions denote the vicious and inordinate acts of the three faculties, memory, intellect, and will. These acts are inordinate and vicious when they reach either a high level or a low level, or even when they are inclined toward one of them without actually reaching it.
Thus the "mountains," which are high, refer to acts that are extreme through an inordinate excess. The "lowlands," being low, refer to acts that are extreme through defect. The "river banks," which are neither high nor low but still not level, participate somewhat in both extremes and refer to the acts that exceed or lack something of the mean or right measure. Although these are not extremely inordinate, as would be the case with mortal sin, they are nonetheless partly so, either through venial sin or through imperfection, however slight, in the intellect, memory, and will.
He also conjures, by means of the pleasant lyres and the siren's song, all these acts in excess of the just measure to cease. These lyres perfect the three faculties of the soul by bringing them to an operation that lies in the just measure, without extremes or even any part in extremes. The remaining verses follow:
9. These four references indicate the four passions: sorrow, hope, joy, and fear.2 The "waters" denote the emotions of sorrow that afflict the soul, for they enter like water. David, referring to them, says to God: Salvum me fac, Deus, quoniam intraverunt aquae usque ad animam meam (Save me, my God, for the waters have come in even unto my soul) [Ps. 69:1].
The "winds" allude to the emotions of hope, for like the wind they fly toward the absent object. David also says: Os meum aperui et attraxi spiritum, quia mandata tua desiderabam (I opened the mouth of my hope and drew in the breath of my desires because I longed and hoped for your commandments) [Ps. 119: 131].
The "ardors" refer to the emotions of the passion of joy that inflame the heart like fire. David says: Concaluit cor meum intra me, et in meditatione mea exardescet ignis (My heart grew hot within me, and in my meditation a fire shall be enkindled) [Ps. 39:3]. This is like saying: In my meditation joy shall be enkindled.
By the "watching fears of night" are understood the emotions of fear, the other passion. These fears are usually very great in spiritual persons who have not reached this state of spiritual marriage of which we are speaking. Sometimes when God wishes to grant them some favors, he causes fear and trembling in the spirit and also shriveling of the flesh and the senses, because the sensory part is not fortified, perfected, and habituated to such favors. Sometimes, too, the devil, being envious and sad over the soul's peace and good when God grants it recollection and sweetness in himself, strives to put horror and fear in the spirit so as to hinder that good. And sometimes he does this as though he were threatening her there in the spirit. When he becomes aware of his inability to reach the inmost part of the soul because of her deep recollection and union with God, he tries to cause distraction, wanderings, conflicts, sorrows, and dread, at least in the sensory part, to see if in this way he can disturb the bride in her bridal chamber.
He calls these emotions "fears of night" because they are produced by the devil, who endeavors by their means to diffuse obscurity in the soul and darken the divine light she enjoys.
He calls them "watching fears" because of themselves they awaken her from her peaceful interior sleep, and also because the devils are always awake and watching for their chance to cause these fears. These fears, as I said, are passively introduced by God or the devil into the souls of those who are already spiritual. I am not speaking here of other temporal or natural fears, for such fears are not characteristic of spiritual people; but these spiritual fears are.
10. The Beloved also conjures these four passions of the soul and makes them cease and be calm insofar as he gives the bride in this state riches, strength, and satisfaction through the pleasant lyres of his sweetness and the siren's song of his delight. He does this so they may not only cease to reign in her but also cease to cause her any displeasure.
If previously the waters of sorrow over something reached the soul - especially concerning her own sins or those of others, since sin is what usually causes the most sorrow in spiritual persons - her grandeur and stability are now so great that even though she knows what these sins are, they do not produce sorrow or grief. And she does not have compassion, that is, the feeling of compassion, even though she possesses its work and perfection. In this state the soul lacks what involved weakness in her practice of the virtues, though the strength, constancy, and perfection of them remains. For the soul in this transformation of love resembles the angels who judge perfectly the things that give sorrow without the feeling of sorrow, and exercise the works of mercy without the feeling of compassion. Sometimes, however, and at certain periods, God allows her to feel things and suffer from them so she might gain more merit and grow in the fervor of love, or for other reasons, as he did with the Virgin Mother, St. Paul, and others. Yet in itself the state does not include this feeling of sorrow.3
11. Neither is she afflicted with the desires of hope. Being now satisfied in this union with God insofar as is possible in this life, she has neither anything to hope for from the world nor anything to desire spiritually, for she has the awareness and experience of the fullness of God's riches. In life and in death she is conformed to the will of God, saying in both the sensory and spiritual part without the impulse of any other longing or appetite: Fiat voluntas tua [Mt. 6:10]. Thus her desire for the vision of God is painless.
Neither do the emotions of joy, which usually caused her a feeling of possessing more or less, make her aware of any want; nor do they add a sense of new abundance. What she ordinarily enjoys is so great that, like the sea, she neither decreases by the outflow of waters nor increases by the inflow. For this is the soul in which is established the fount whose waters, as Christ says through St. John, leap up unto life everlasting [Jn. 4:14].
12. Because I asserted that this soul does not receive anything new in this state of transformation, in which it seems that accidental joys are taken from her (which are not lacking even in the glorified), it should be pointed out that even though these joys and accidental sweetnesses are not lacking - ordinarily they are numberless - they do not on this account add anything to the substantial spiritual communication. She already possesses everything that could come to her anew. Thus what she possesses within herself is more than what comes to her anew.
Hence, every time joyous and happy things are offered to this soul, whether they are exterior or interior and spiritual, she immediately turns to the enjoyment of the riches she already has within herself, and experiences much greater gladness and delight in them than in those new joys. She in some way resembles God who, even though he has delight in all things, does not delight in them as much as he does in himself, for he possesses within himself a good eminently above all others. Thus all new joys and satisfactions serve more to awaken the soul to a delight in what she already possesses and experiences within herself than to new delights, for, as I say, what she already possesses is greater than these.
13. If something gives the soul joy and contentment but she esteems another even more, it would be natural for her, on enjoying the former, to turn her thoughts at once to the latter and find her satisfaction and joy in that. Thus what is accidental in these new spiritual joys is so little in comparison with the substantial good the bride already has within herself that we can call it a nothing. The soul that has attained this fulfillment, which is transformation, in which she has reached full stature, does not grow through these new spiritual things as do others who have not arrived. Yet it is a wonderful thing to behold how, although the soul receives no new delights, it always seems to her that she receives them anew and also that she has had them before. The reason is that she ever takes pleasure in them anew, since they are her good that is ever new. Thus it seems to her that she is always receiving new things without need.
14. Yet were we to desire to speak of the glorious illumination he sometimes gives to the soul in this habitual embrace, which is a certain spiritual turning toward her in which he bestows the vision and enjoyment of this whole abyss of riches and delight he has placed within her, our words would fail to explain anything about it. As the sun shining brightly on the sea lights up great depths and caverns and reveals pearls and rich veins of gold and other minerals, and so on, the Bridegroom, the divine sun, in turning to the bride so reveals her riches that even the angels marvel and utter those words of the Song of Songs: Who is she that comes forth like the morning rising, beautiful as the moon, resplendent as the sun, terrible as the armies set in array? [Sg. 6:10]. In spite of the excellence of this illumination, it gives no increase to the soul; it only brings to light what was previously possessed so she may have enjoyment of it.
15. Finally, the "watching fears of night" do not reach her, for she is now so clearly illumined and strong and rests so firmly in her God that the devils can neither cause her obscurity through their darknesses, nor frighten her with their terrors, nor awaken her by their attacks. Nothing can reach or molest her now that she has withdrawn from all things and entered into her God where she enjoys all peace, tastes all sweetness, and delights in all delights insofar as this earthly state allows. The Wise Man's words refer to this soul: The peaceful and tranquil soul is like a continual banquet [Prv. 15:15]. As one at a banquet enjoys the taste of a variety of foods and the sweetness of many melodies, the soul at this banquet, which she now receives at the bosom of her Beloved, enjoys every delight and tastes every sweetness.
So little of this is describable that we would never succeed in fully explaining what takes place in the soul that has reached this happy state. If she attains the peace of God that, as the Church says, surpasses all understanding,4 all understanding will be inadequate and mute when it comes to explaining this peace.
Verses from the stanza follow:
16. We have already explained that by "the pleasant lyres" the Bridegroom refers here to the sweetness bestowed on the soul in this state. By it he causes all the disturbances we mentioned to cease. As the music of the lyres fills the soul with sweetness and refreshment and so absorbs and suspends her as to keep her away from bitterness and sorrow, so this sweetness takes such an inward hold on her that nothing painful can reach her. These words are like saying: May all bitter things cease for the soul by means of the sweetness I place in her.
We also said that the "siren's song" signifies the soul's habitual delight. He calls this delight the "siren's song" because, as they say, this song is so charming that it enraptures and enamors its hearers and makes them forget all things as though they were in a transport. Similarly, the delight of this union absorbs the soul within herself and gives her such refreshment that it makes her insensible to the disturbances and troubles mentioned. These disturbances are referred to in this verse:
17. He calls these troubles and disturbances of the inordinate passions and operations "anger." Just as anger is a certain impulse that troubles peace by going beyond its limits, so all the passions and so on that we mentioned exceed by their movements the limits of peace and tranquility, and when they touch the soul they cause disquietude. As a result he says:
18. By "the wall" he refers to the enclosure of peace and the fence of virtues and perfections by which the soul is shut in and protected, for she is the garden mentioned above that is enclosed and protected solely for the Beloved, among whose flowers he browses. In the Song of Songs he calls her an enclosed garden: My sister is an enclosed garden [Sg. 4:12]. Thus he tells them here not to touch even the wall of his garden
19. That she may delight more freely in the quietude and sweetness she enjoys in her Beloved. It should be
known that now no door is closed to the soul, but it is in her power to enjoy this gentle sleep of love at will,
as the Bridegroom indicates in the Song of Songs: I conjure you, daughters of Jerusalem, by the roes and
harts of the fields that you do not stir up or wake the beloved until she wishes [Sg. 3:5].