"God gives us some things, as the beginning of faith, even when we do not pray. Other things, such as perseverance, he has only provided for those who pray."

St Augustine

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"Obedience is a short cut to perfection."

St Philip Neri

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"It is vanity to be concerned with the present only and not to make provision for things to come."

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 24


Introduction

1. But what immediately follows this delightful surrender of the bride and the Beloved is their bed, in which the bride tastes in a more stable manner the delights of her Bridegroom. In the following stanza she speaks of their bed, which is divine, pure, and chaste, and in which the soul is divine, pure, and chaste. For the bed is nothing else but her very Bridegroom, the Word, the Son of God, as will soon be said, on whom she reclines through the union of love. She calls her bed a flourishing one because her Bridegroom is not only flourishing but the very flower of the fields and the lily of the valleys, as he himself says in the Song of Songs [Sg. 2:1]. Thus the soul reclines not merely on the bed in flower but on the flower itself, the Son of God, who bears within himself divine fragrance, grace, and beauty, as he likewise declares through David: The beauty of the field is with me [Ps. 50:11]. The soul thus relates in song the properties and graces of her bed:

Bride
Our bed is in flower,
bound round with linking dens of lions,
hung with purple,
built up in peace,
and crowned with a thousand shields of gold.

Commentary

2. In the two preceding stanzas the bride-soul's song told of the graces and grandeurs of her Beloved, the Son of God. In this stanza the theme continues but also includes the happy and high state in which she has been placed, and its security. Third, she tells of the rich gifts and virtues with which she sees herself endowed and adorned in the nuptial chamber of her Bridegroom, for she says she is now in union with God and possesses the virtues with fortitude. Fourth, she relates that she now has perfect love. Fifth, that she has perfect spiritual peace, and all is enriched and made beautiful with gifts and virtues to the measure that can be possessed and enjoyed in this life, as will be said in commenting on the verses. First, then, she tells about her delight in the union with her Beloved, saying:

Our bed is in flower,

3. We have already mentioned that this bed of the soul is the Bridegroom, the Son of God, who is in flower for the soul. For now that she is united with and reclines on him and has become his bride, her Beloved's breast and love is communicated to her. This means that he communicates to her his wisdom, secrets, graces, virtues, and gifts, and through them he makes her so beautiful and rich and so imbues her with delights that it seems to her that she rests on a bed made of a variety of sweet divine flowers that delights with its touch and refreshes with its fragrance. Very appropriately does she call this union with God through love a "bed in flower," for this is what the bride speaking to the Bridegroom in the Song of Songs calls it: Lectulus noster floridus (our bed in flower) [Sg. 1:16].

She calls it "our," because both have the same virtues and the same love (which are the Beloved's), and both have the same delight, as the Holy Spirit says in Proverbs: My delights are with the children of the earth [Prv. 8:31].

She also says that it is in flower because the virtues of the soul in this state are now perfect and heroic. This, though, could not have come about until the bed was in flower in the perfect union with God. Next she declares the second property of this union:

bound round with linking dens of lions,

4. By the "dens of lions," she understands the virtues possessed in this state of union with God, for dens of lions are very safe and protected against all other animals. Fearful of the strength and boldness of the lion within, not only do these animals dare not enter but they dare not even stay nearby. Thus when the soul possesses the perfect virtues, each of them is like a den of lions in which Christ, the Bridegroom, united with the soul in that virtue and in each of the others, dwells and assists like a strong lion. And the soul herself, united with him in these same virtues, is also like a strong lion because she thereby receives the properties of God.

In this state the soul is so protected and strong in each of the virtues and in all of them together - while at rest on this "bed in flower" of union with God - that the devils not only fear to attack her but do not even venture to appear before her. For they become greatly frightened on seeing her so exalted, courageous, and bold, with the perfect virtues in the bed of her Beloved. When she is united with God in transformation they fear her as much as they do him, and they dare not even look at her. The devil has an extraordinary fear of the perfect soul.

5. She also says that the bed is bound round with linking dens of lions because in this state the virtues are bound together, united, and fortified by each other, and fitted to the full perfection of the soul, sustaining one another in such a way that no part remains open or weak. They are so fastened that not only does the devil fail to find entry, but nothing in the world, high or low, can disquiet, molest, or even move the soul. Liberated from all the disturbance of the natural passions, and estranged from and stripped of the torment and variety of temporal cares, she enjoys in security and quietude the participation of God.

This is what the bride wanted to say in the Song of Songs: Who will give you to me for my brother, nursed at the breasts of my mother, that I may find you alone outside and kiss you, and no one despise me? [Sg. 8:1]. This kiss is the union of which we speak, in which the soul is made equal with God through love. Because of this desire she asks who will give her the Beloved as her brother (which would both signify equality and produce it), nursed at the breasts of her mother (which is a destroying of all her natural imperfections and appetites received from her mother Eve), so she may find him alone outside (be united with him alone, outside of all things, stripped of all things according to the appetite and will). Thus no one will despise her, that is, neither the world nor the flesh nor the devil will dare attack her. For none of these can disturb the soul that is liberated and purged of all things and united with God. She enjoys now in this state habitual sweetness and tranquility that is never lost or lacking to her.

6. Besides this habitual satisfaction and peace, the flowers of the vir- tues of this garden are so wont to open within her and spread their fra-grance, it seems - and so it is - that she is filled with the delights of God.

And I said that the flowers of the virtues within her are wont to open, because even though she is filled with perfect virtues she is not always enjoying them actually although, as I said, she ordinarily does enjoy the peace and tranquility they cause. We can say that in this life they are present in the soul as flower buds in a garden. It is sometimes a wonderful thing to see them all open through the Holy Spirit and diffuse a marvelous variety of fragrance.

The soul will behold in herself the mountain flowers mentioned above, which are the abundance, grandeur, and beauty of God; and, intertwined among them, the lilies of the wooded valleys, which stand for rest, refreshment, and protection; and next, interspersed there, the fragrant roses of the strange islands, referring to the strange knowledge of God. Then too she will be struck by the scent of the lilies beside the resounding rivers, which we said represented the greatness of God filling every soul. And she will perceive from the jasmine interwoven there a fragrance diffused by the whistling of love-stirring breezes, which we also said the soul enjoys in this state. Likewise she is aware of all the other virtues and gifts we mentioned: the tranquil knowledge, silent music, sounding solitude, and the delightful and loving supper.1

And sometimes her experience and enjoyment of these flowers united together is such that she can very truthfully say: "Our bed is in flower, bound round with linking dens of lions." Happy is the soul who in this life merits at some time the enjoyment of the fragrance of these divine flowers! And she says that this bed is also

hung with purple,

7. In Scripture purple denotes charity, and kings use and clothe themselves in purple. The soul says that this bed in flower is hung with purple because it is only by the charity and love of the King of heaven that all the virtues, riches, and goods flourish, receive sustenance, and give enjoyment. Without such love the soul could not enjoy this bed and its flowers. Thus all these virtues are present in her as though hung with the love of God, as in a subject in which they are well preserved. And they are as though bathed in love because each one of them is ever enkindling her love of God, and in all things and in all works they move her with love to love God more.

Such is the meaning of "hung with purple." A clear reference to this is found in the divine Song of Songs. For there it is said that the couch or bed Solomon made for himself was of wood from Lebanon, and the columns were of silver; the seat, of gold; and the hangings, purple; and it is said that he put order in all by means of charity [Sg. 3:9-10]. The virtues and endowments, signified by the wood from Lebanon and the silver columns, and which God places in the soul, have their couch and reclining place made of gold. For, as we have said, the firm seat of the virtues is love, and by love they are conserved. And all of them are put in order and exercised by means of the charity of both God and the soul. And she also says of this bed

built up in peace,

8. Here she lists the fourth excellence of this bed, which is dependent on the third. The third was perfect love; and from perfect love, whose property, as St. John says, is to cast out all fear [1 Jn. 4:18], stems perfect peace of soul, the fourth characteristic of this bed.

For a greater understanding of this, it should be known that each of the virtues is of itself peaceful, meek, and strong; consequently, each produces in the soul these three effects: peace, meekness, and fortitude. And because this bed is in flower, made from the flowers of virtues, and all these virtues are peaceful, meek, and strong, the bed itself is built up in peace; and the soul peaceful, meek, and strong. These are three properties against which no war can be waged, neither by the world nor the devil nor the flesh. And the virtues keep the soul so tranquil and safe that to her it seems she is built up in peace. To what has already been said, she adds the fifth property of this bed in flower:

And crowned with a thousand shields of gold.

9. These shields are the virtues and gifts. Even though these virtues and gifts, as we said, are the flowers, and so on, of this bed, they also serve as the soul's crown and her reward for having struggled to acquire them. Not only this, but they also have a defensive value, like strong shields, against the vices that were conquered through the practice of virtue. As a result the bride's bed in flower is crowned with them as her reward and protected by them as by a shield.

She states that they are gold in order to designate the high value of the virtues. The bride made this same assertion in other terms in the Song of Songs: Behold that 60 strong men of the strongest in Israel surround the bed of Solomon, each with a sword at his thigh in defense against the fears of night [Sg. 3:7-8].

And she asserts there are "a thousand" to denote the multitude of virtues, graces, and gifts with which God endows the soul in this state. To signify the vast number of the bride's virtues, the same term was used in the Song of Songs: Thy neck is like the tower of David that is built with defenses; a thousand shields hang from it and all the armor of the strong men [Sg. 4:4].
 

 
   
 
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