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. Strange it is, this property of lovers, that they like to enjoy each other's companionship alone, apart from every creature and all company. If some stranger is present they do not enjoy each other freely, even though they are together and may speak to each other just as much as when the other is absent, and even though the other does not talk to them. The reason they desire to commune with each other alone is that love is a union between two alone.
Once the soul is placed at the peak of perfection and freedom of spirit in God, and all the repugnances and contradictions of sensuality have ceased, she no longer has any other activity to engage her than surrender to the delights and joys of intimate love of her Bridegroom. As it is written of the holy Tobit, that after he had undergone the trials of his poverty and temptations he was enlightened by God and spent all the rest of his days in joy [Tb. 14:4], so does the soul of whom we are now speaking, since the goods she beholds in herself are of such joy and delight.
2. Isaiah declares this of the one who has practiced the works of perfection and arrived at the summit of which we are discussing. Addressing the soul, he says of this perfection: Then your light will rise up in darkness, and your darkness will be as the noonday. And your Lord God will give you rest always and will fill your soul with brightness, and deliver your bones; and you will be like a watered garden and an unfailing fount of water. And the solitudes of ages will be built in you. You will raise up the beginnings and foundations of generation and generation, and you will be called the builder of the fences, withdrawing your paths and ways to quietude. If you separate your labor from the day of rest and from doing your will on my holy day, and call yourself the delicate, holy, and glorious Lord's day of rest, and if you glorify him by not doing your own ways and not fulfilling your own will, then you will delight in the Lord, and I will extol you above the heights of the earth and feed you with the inheritance of Jacob [Is. 58:10-14]. These are the words of Isaiah. Jacob's inheritance here is God himself. Accordingly, as we said, this soul is no longer engaged in anything else than joy in the delights of this pasture. One thing only is left for her to desire: perfect enjoyment of God in eternal life. In the remaining stanzas she asks her Beloved for this beatific pasture of the manifest vision of God.1 Thus she exclaims:
3. Now that the perfect union of love between God and the soul is wrought, she desires to employ herself in those things proper to love. She it is who addresses the Bridegroom in this stanza, asking for three things proper to love.
First, she desires to receive the joy and savor of love, which is what she asks for in saying, "Let us rejoice, Beloved."
Second, she desires to become like the Beloved, and she asks for this in stating, "And let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty."
Third, she desires to look closely at and know the things and secrets of the Beloved himself, which is what she requests in saying, "And further, deep into the thicket." The verse follows:
4. That is: Let us rejoice in the communication of the sweetness of love, not only in that sweetness we already possess in our habitual union but in that which overflows into the effective and actual practice of love, either interiorly with the will in the affective act or exteriorly in works directed to the service of the Beloved. As we mentioned, when love takes root it has this characteristic: It makes one always desire to taste the joys and sweetnesses of love in the inward and outward exercise of love.2 All this the lover does in order to resemble the Beloved more. And thus she continues:
5. This means: Let us so act that by means of this loving activity we may attain to the vision of ourselves in your beauty in eternal life. That is: That I be so transformed in your beauty that we may be alike in beauty, and both behold ourselves in your beauty, possessing then your very beauty; this, in such a way that each looking at the other may see in the other their own beauty, since both are your beauty alone, I being absorbed in your beauty; hence, I shall see you in your beauty, and you will see me in your beauty, and I shall see myself in you in your beauty, and you will see yourself in me in your beauty; that I may resemble you in your beauty, and you resemble me in your beauty, and my beauty be your beauty and your beauty my beauty; wherefore I shall be you in your beauty, and you will be me in your beauty, because your very beauty will be my beauty; and thus we shall behold each other in your beauty.3
This is the adoption of the children of God, who will indeed declare to God what the very Son said to the Eternal Father through St. John: All my things are yours, and yours mine [Jn. 17:10]. He says this by essence, since he is the natural Son of God, and we say it by participation, since we are adopted children. He declared this not only for himself, the Head, but for his whole mystical body, the Church, which on the day of her triumph, when she sees God face to face, will participate in the very beauty of the Bridegroom. Hence the soul makes the petition that she and her Bridegroom go forth to behold each other in his beauty.
6. That is: to the morning and essential knowledge of God, which is knowledge in the divine Word, who in his height is signified here by the mountain. That they may know the Son of God, Isaiah urges all: Come, let us ascend to the mountain of the Lord [Is. 2:3]; in another passage: The mountain of the house of the Lord shall be prepared [Is. 2:2].
"And to the hill," that is, to the evening knowledge of God, which is God's wisdom in his creatures, works, and wondrous decrees. The hill suggests this wisdom because it is not as high as the morning wisdom. Yet the soul asks for both the evening and the morning wisdom when she says: "To the mountain and to the hill."
7. The soul in urging the Bridegroom, "Let us go forth to the mountain to behold ourselves in your beauty," means: Transform me into the beauty of divine Wisdom and make me resemble that which is the Word, the Son of God. And in adding "to the hill," she asks that he inform her with the beauty of this other, lesser wisdom contained in his creatures and other mysterious works. This wisdom is also the beauty of the Son of God by which the soul desires to be illumined.
8. The soul cannot see herself in the beauty of God unless she is transformed into the wisdom of God, in which she sees herself in possession of earthly and heavenly things. The bride wanted to come to this mountain and to this hill when she asserted: I shall go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of incense [Sg. 4:6]. The mountain of myrrh refers to the clear vision of God and the hill of incense to the knowledge of creatures, for the myrrh on the mountain is more choice than the incense on the hill.
9. That is, to where God bestows on the intellect knowledge and wisdom, called water here because it cleanses and removes accidents and phantasies and clears away the clouds of ignorance. The soul always possesses this desire to have clear and pure understanding of the divine truths; and the greater her love, the more she longs to enter further into these truths. Because of this desire she asks for the third property of love, saying:
10. Into the thicket of your splendid works and profound judgments, whose multitude and variety are such that we can use the term "thicket." In these works and judgments there is abundant wisdom, so full of mysteries, that not only is the term "thicket" apt, but even "curdled thicket," which David uses: Mons Dei, mons pinguis, mons coagulatus (The mountain of God is a fat mountain and a curdled mountain) [Ps. 68:16].
This thicket of God's wisdom and knowledge is so deep and immense that no matter how much the soul knows, she can always enter it further; it is vast and its riches incomprehensible, as St. Paul exclaims: O height of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God, how incomprehensible are his judgments and unsearchable his ways [Rom. 11:33].
11. Yet the soul wants to enter this thicket and incomprehensibility of judgments and ways because she is dying with the desire to penetrate them deeply. Knowledge of them is an inestimable delight surpassing all understanding. David, therefore, in speaking of the savoriness of these judgments, says: The judgments of the Lord are true and in themselves justified. They are more to be desired and coveted than gold and precious stone of great price; and they are sweeter than honey and the honeycomb, so much so that your servant loved and kept them [Ps. 19:9-11]. Hence the soul ardently wishes to be engulfed in these judgments and know them from further within. And, in exchange, it will be a singular comfort and happiness for her to enter all the afflictions and trials of the world and everything, however difficult and painful, that might be a means to this knowledge, even the anguish and agony of death, all in order to see herself further within her God.
12. This thicket into which the soul thus wants to enter also signifies very appropriately the thicket and multitude of trials and tribulations, for suffering is very delightful and beneficial to her. Suffering is the means of her penetrating further, deep into the thicket of the delectable wisdom of God. The purest suffering brings with it the purest and most intimate knowing, and consequently the purest and highest joy, because it is a knowing from further within. Not being content with just any kind of suffering, she insists: "And further, deep into the thicket," that is, even to the agony of death in order to see God. The prophet Job, desirous of this suffering in order to see God, exclaimed: Who will grant that my request be fulfilled and that God will give me what I hope for and that he who began me may destroy me, and let loose his hand and put an end to me. And that I may have this comfort, that in afflicting me with sorrow he might not spare me? [Jb. 6:8-10].
13. Oh! If we could but now fully understand how a soul cannot reach the thicket and wisdom of the riches
of God, which are of many kinds, without entering the thicket of many kinds of suffering, finding in this her
delight and consolation; and how a soul with an authentic desire for divine wisdom wants suffering first in
order to enter this wisdom by the thicket of the cross! Accordingly, St. Paul admonished the Ephesians not
to grow weak in their tribulations and to be strong and rooted in charity in order to comprehend with all the
saints what is the breadth and height and depth, and to know also the supereminent charity of the
knowledge of Christ, in order to be filled with all the fullness of God [Eph. 3:13, 17-19]. The gate entering
into these riches of his wisdom is the cross, which is narrow, and few desire to enter by it, but many desire
the delights obtained from entering there.4