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 at the beginning of this song has grown aware of her obligations and observed that life is short [Jb. 14:5], the path leading to eternal life constricted [Mt. 7:14], the just one scarcely saved [1 Pt. 4:18], the things of the world vain and deceitful [Eccl. 1:2], that all comes to an end and fails like falling water [2 Sam. 14:14], and that the time is uncertain, the accounting strict, perdition very easy, and salvation very difficult. She knows on the other hand of her immense indebtedness to God for having created her solely for himself, and that for this she owes him the service of her whole life; and because he redeemed her solely for himself she owes him every response of love. She knows, too, of the thousand other benefits by which she has been obligated to God from before the time of her birth, and that a good part of her life has vanished, that she must render an account of everything - of the beginning of her life as well as the later part - unto the last penny [Mt. 5:26], when God will search Jerusalem with lighted candles [Zeph. 1:12], and that it is already late - and the day far spent [Lk. 24:29] - to remedy so much evil and harm. She feels on the other hand that God is angry and hidden because she desired to forget him so in the midst of creatures. Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business, and not delaying a day or an hour, with desires and sighs pouring from her heart, wounded now with love for God, she begins to call her Beloved and say:
2. In this first stanza the soul, enamored of the Word, her Bridegroom, the Son of God, longs for union with him through clear and essential vision. She records her longings of love and complains to him of his absence, especially since his love wounds her. Through this love she went out from all creatures and from herself, and yet she must suffer her Beloved's absence, for she is not freed from mortal flesh as the enjoyment of him in the glory of eternity requires.1 Accordingly she says:
3. This is like saying: O Word, my Spouse, show me where you are hidden. In her petition she seeks the manifestation of his divine essence, because the hiding place of the Word of God is, as St. John asserts [Jn. 1:18], the bosom of the Father, that is, the divine essence, which is alien to every mortal eye and hidden from every human intellect. Isaiah proclaimed in speaking to God: Indeed, you are a hidden God [Is. 45:15].
It is noteworthy that, however elevated God's communications and the experiences of his presence are, and however sublime a person's knowledge of him may be, these are not God essentially, nor are they comparable to him because, indeed, he is still hidden to the soul. Hence, regardless of all these lofty experiences, a person should think of him as hidden and seek him as one who is hidden, saying: "Where have You hidden?"
Neither the sublime communication nor the sensible awareness of his nearness is a sure testimony of his gracious presence, nor are dryness and the lack of these a reflection of his absence. As a result, the prophet Job exclaims: If he comes to me I shall not see him, and if he goes away I shall not understand [Jb. 9:11].
4. It must be understood that if a person experiences some elevated spiritual communication or feeling or knowledge, it should not be thought that the experiences are similar to the clear and essential vision or possession of God, or that the communication, no matter how remarkable it is, signifies a more notable possession of God or union with him. It should be known too that if all these sensible and spiritual communications are wanting and individuals live in dryness, darkness, and dereliction, they must not thereby think that God is any more absent than in the former case. People, actually, cannot have certain knowledge from the one state that they are in God's grace or from the other that they are not. As the Wise Man says, We do not know if we are worthy of love or abhorrence before God [Eccl. 9:1].
The soul's chief aim in this verse is not to ask for sensible devotion, in which there is neither certain nor clear possession of the Bridegroom in this life, but for the manifest presence and vision of his divine essence, in which she desires to be secure and satisfied in the next life.
5. The bride of the divine Song of Songs had this very idea when, longing for union with the divinity of the Word, her Bridegroom, she asked the Father: Show me where you pasture and where you rest at midday [Sg. 1:7]. In requesting him to disclose his place of pasture, she wanted him to reveal the essence of the divine Word, his Son. For the Father does not pasture anywhere else than in his only Son, for the Son is the glory of the Father. And in begging that he show her his place of rest, she was asking to see that same Son. The Son is the only delight of the Father, who rests nowhere else nor is present in any other than in his beloved Son. He rests wholly in his Son, communicating to him his essence at midday, which is eternity, where he ever begets him and has begotten him.
When the soul, the bride, cries: "Where have you hidden?" she seeks this pasture, the Word, her Bridegroom, where the Father feeds in infinite glory, and she seeks the flowering bosom where he rests with infinite delight of love, deeply hidden from every mortal eye and every creature.
6. So this thirsting soul might find her Bridegroom and be united with him in this life through union of love insofar as possible, so she might slake her thirst with the drop of him that can be received in this life, it would be well for us to answer for her Bridegroom since she asks him, and point out the place where he is most surely hidden. She may then surely find him there with the perfection and delight possible in this life, and thus not wander in vain after the footprints of her companions [Sg. 1:7].
It should be known that the Word, the Son of God, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is hidden by his essence and his presence in the innermost being of the soul. Individuals who want to find him should leave all things through affection and will, enter within themselves in deepest recollection, and let all things be as though not. St. Augustine, addressing God in the Soliloquies, said: I did not find you without, Lord, because I wrongly sought you without, who were within.2 God, then, is hidden in the soul, and there the good contemplative must seek him with love, exclaiming: "Where have you hidden?"
7. Oh, then, soul, most beautiful among all creatures, so anxious to know the dwelling place of your Beloved so you may go in search of him and be united with him, now we are telling you that you yourself are his dwelling and his secret inner room and hiding place. There is reason for you to be elated and joyful in seeing that all your good and hope is so close as to be within you, or better, that you cannot be without him. Behold, exclaims the Bridegroom, the kingdom of God is within you [Lk. 17:21]. And his servant, the apostle St. Paul, declares: You are the temple of God [2 Cor. 6:16].
8. It brings special happiness to a person to understand that God is never absent, not even from a soul in mortal sin (and how much less from one in the state of grace).
What more do you want, O soul! And what else do you search for outside, when within yourself you possess your riches, delights, satisfaction, fullness, and kingdom - your Beloved whom you desire and seek? Be joyful and gladdened in your interior recollection with him, for you have him so close to you. Desire him there, adore him there. Do not go in pursuit of him outside yourself. You will only become distracted and wearied thereby, and you shall not find him, or enjoy him more securely, or sooner, or more intimately than by seeking him within you. There is but one difficulty: Even though he does abide within you, he is hidden. Nevertheless, it is vital for you to know his hiding place so you may search for him there with assuredness. And this, soul, is also what you ask, when with the affection of love you question: "Where have you hidden?"
9. Yet you inquire: Since he whom my soul loves is within me, why don't I find him or experience him? The reason is that he remains concealed and you do not also conceal yourself in order to find and experience him. If you want to find a hidden treasure you must enter the hiding place secretly, and once you have discovered it, you will also be hidden just as the treasure is hidden. Since, then, your beloved Bridegroom is the treasure hidden in a field for which the wise merchant sold all his possessions [Mt. 13:44], and that field is your soul, in order to find him you should forget all your possessions and all creatures and hide in the secret inner room of your spirit and there, closing the door behind you (your will to all things), you should pray to your Father in secret [Mt. 6:6]. Remaining hidden with him, you will experience him in hiding, that is, in a way transcending all language and feeling.
10. Come, then, O beautiful soul! Since you know now that your desired Beloved lives hidden within your heart, strive to be really hidden with him, and you will embrace him within you and experience him with loving affection. Note that through Isaiah he calls you to this hiding place: Come, enter into your inner rooms, shut the door behind you (your faculties to all creatures), hide yourself a little, even for a moment [Is. 26:20], for this moment of life on earth. If, O soul, in this short space of time you keep diligent watch over your heart, as the Wise Man advises [Prv. 4:23], God will undoubtedly give you what he also promises further on through Isaiah: I will give you hidden treasures and reveal to you the substance and mysteries of the secrets [Is. 45:3]. The substance of the secrets is God himself, for God is the substance and concept of faith, and faith is the secret and the mystery. And when that which faith covers and hides from us is revealed - that which is perfect concerning God, spoken of by St. Paul [1 Cor. 13:10] - then the substance and mysteries of the secrets will be uncovered to the soul.
However much the soul hides herself, she will never in this mortal life attain to so perfect a knowledge of these mysteries as she will possess in the next. Nevertheless, if like Moses she hides herself in the cavern of the rock (in real imitation of the perfect life of the Son of God, her Bridegroom), she will merit that, while he protects her with his right hand, God will show her his shoulders [Ex. 33:22-23], that is, he will bring her to the high perfection of union with the Son of God, her Bridegroom, and transformation in him through love. In this union she experiences such closeness to him and is so instructed and wise in his mysteries that, as for knowing him in this life, she has no need to say, "Where have you hidden?"
11. You have been told, O soul, of the conduct you should observe if you want to find the Bridegroom in your hiding place. Still, if you want to hear this again, listen to a word abounding in substance and inaccessible truth: Seek him in faith and love, without desiring to find satisfaction in anything, or delight, or desiring to understand anything other than what you ought to know. Faith and love are like the blind person's guides. They will lead you along a path unknown to you, to the place where God is hidden. Faith, the secret we mentioned,3 is comparable to the feet by which one journeys to God, and love is like one's guide. In dealing with these mysteries and secrets of faith, the soul will merit through love the discovery of the content of faith, that is, the Bridegroom whom she desires to possess in this life through the special grace of divine union with God, as we said,4 and in the next life through the essential glory, by which she will rejoice in him not in a hidden way, but face to face [1 Cor. 13:12].
In the meantime, even though the soul reaches union in this life (the highest state attainable here below), she always exclaims; "Where have You hidden?" For even in the state of union he is still hidden from her, in the bosom of the Father, as we said,5 which is how she wants to enjoy him in the next life.
12. You do very well, O soul, to seek him ever as one hidden, for you exalt God and approach very near him when you consider him higher and deeper than anything you can reach. Hence pay no attention, neither partially nor entirely, to anything your faculties can grasp. I mean that you should never seek satisfaction in what you understand about God, but in what you do not understand about him. Never pause to love and delight in your understanding and experience of God, but love and delight in what you cannot understand or experience of him. Such is the way, as we said,6 of seeking him in faith. However surely it may seem that you find, experience, and understand God, because he is inaccessible and concealed you must always regard him as hidden, and serve him who is hidden in a secret way. Do not be like the many foolish ones who, in their lowly understanding of God, think that when they do not understand, taste, or experience him, he is far away and utterly concealed. The contrary belief would be truer. The less distinct is their understanding of him, the closer they approach him, since in the words of the prophet David, he made darkness his hiding place [Ps. 18:11]. Thus in drawing near him you will experience darkness because of the weakness of your eye.
You do well, then, at all times, in both adversity and prosperity, whether spiritual or temporal, to consider God as hidden, and call after him thus:
13. She calls him "Beloved" to move him more to answer her prayer. When God is loved he very readily answers the requests of his lover. This he teaches through St. John: If you abide in me, ask whatever you want and it shall be done unto you [Jn. 15:7]. You can truthfully call God Beloved when you are wholly with him, do not allow your heart attachment to anything outside of him, and thereby ordinarily center your mind on him. This is why Delilah asked Samson how he could say he loved her, since his spirit was not with her [Jgs. 16:15], and this spirit includes the mind and the affection.
Some call the Bridegroom beloved when he is not really their beloved because their heart is not wholly set on him. As a result their petition is not of much value in his sight. They do not obtain their request until they keep their spirit more continually with God through perseverance in prayer, and their heart with its affectionate love more entirely set on him. Nothing is obtained from God except by love.
14. It is noteworthy of her next remark, "and left me moaning," that the absence of the Beloved causes continual moaning in the lover. Since she loves nothing outside of him, she finds no rest or relief in anything. This is how we recognize persons who truly love God: if they are content with nothing less than God. But what am I saying, if they are content? Even if they possess everything they will not be content; in fact the more they have, the less satisfied they will be. Satisfaction of heart is not found in the possession of things, but in being stripped of them all and in poverty of spirit. Since perfection consists in this poverty of spirit, in which God is possessed by a very intimate and special grace, the soul, having attained it, lives in this life with some satisfaction, although not complete. For David, in spite of all his perfection, hoped to have this fullness in heaven, saying: When your glory appears, I shall be filled [Ps. 17:15].
As a result, the peace, tranquility, and satisfaction of heart attainable in this life is insufficient to prevent the soul from moaning within itself - although this moan may be tranquil and painless - hoping for what it lacks.7 Moaning is connected with hope, and the Apostle affirmed that he and others moaned even though they were perfect: We ourselves who have the first fruits of the spirit moan within ourselves, hoping for the adoption of the children of God [Rom. 8:23].
The soul, then, bears this moan within herself, in her enamored heart. For there where love wounds is the moan rising from the wound, and it ever cries out in the feeling of his absence; especially when the soul, after the taste of some sweet and delightful communication of the Bridegroom, suffers his absence and is left alone and dry. She thus says:
15. It is noteworthy that in the Song of Songs the bride compares the Bridegroom to the stag and the mountain goat: My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag [Sg. 2:9]. She makes this comparison not only because he is withdrawn and solitary and flees from companions like the stag, but also because of the swiftness with which he shows and then hides himself. He usually visits devout souls in order to gladden and liven them, and then leaves in order to try, humble, and teach them. Because of his visits his withdrawals are felt with keener sorrow, as is evident in the following verse: After wounding me;
16. This is like saying: The pain and sorrow I ordinarily suffer in your absence was not enough for me, but having inflicted on me a deeper wound of love with your arrow, and increasing my desire to see you, you flee as swiftly as the stag and do not let yourself be captured even for a moment.
17. In further explanation of this verse, it should be known that be-sides the many other different kinds of visits God grants to the soul, in which he wounds and raises it up in love, he usually bestows some secret touches of love that pierce and wound it like fiery arrows, leaving it wholly cauterized by the fire of love. And these wounds, mentioned here, are properly called wounds of love.8 They so inflame the will in its affection that it burns up in this flame and fire of love. So intense is this burning that the soul is seemingly consumed in that flame, and the fire makes it go out of itself, wholly renews it, and changes its manner of being, as in the case of the phoenix that burns itself in the fire and rises anew from the ashes. David said in this regard: My heart was inflamed and my reins have been changed, and I was brought to nothing, and I knew not [Ps. 73:21-22].
18. The appetites and affections, which the prophet refers to as reins, are all changed to divine ones in that inflammation of the heart, and the soul, through love, is brought to nothing, knowing nothing save love. The change of these reins at this time is accompanied by a kind of immense torment and yearning to see God. So extreme is this torment that love seems to be unbearably rigorous with the soul, not because it has wounded her - she rather considers these wounds to be favorable to her health - but because it left her thus suffering with love, and did not slay her for the sake of her seeing and being united with him in the life of perfect love. In stressing or declaring her sorrow, she says, "After wounding me," that is, leaving me thus wounded, thus dying with wounds of love for you, you have hidden as swiftly as the stag.
19. This feeling is so strong because in the love-wound that God produces in the soul, the affection of the will rises with sudden rapidity toward the possession of the Beloved, whose touch was felt. Just as quickly, she feels his absence and the impossibility of possessing him here as she wants. And together with this feeling, she then experiences "moaning" over his absence. These visits are not like others in which God refreshes and satisfies the soul. He bestows these to wound more than heal and afflict more than satisfy, since they serve to quicken the knowledge and increase the appetite (consequently the sorrow and longing) to see God.
These are termed spiritual wounds of love and are very delightful and desirable. The soul would desire to be ever dying a thousand deaths from these thrusts of the lance, for they make her go out of herself and enter into God. She explains this in the following verse:
20. No medicine can be gotten for these wounds of love except from the One who causes them. Thus the wounded soul, strengthened from the fire caused by the wound, went out after her Beloved who wounded her, calling for him that he might heal her.
This spiritual departure, it should be pointed out, refers to the two ways of going after God: one consists of a departure from all things, effected through an abhorrence and contempt for them; the other of going out from oneself through self-forgetfulness, which is achieved by the love of God. When the love of God really touches the soul, as we are saying, it so raises her up that it not only impels her to go out from self in this forgetfulness, but even draws her away from her natural supports, manners, and inclinations, thus inducing her to call after God.
Accordingly, this verse is like saying: My Spouse, in that touch and wound of your love you have not only drawn my soul away from all things, but have also made it go out from self - indeed, it even seems that you draw it out of the body - and you have raised it up to yourself while it was calling after you, now totally detached so as to be attached to you.
21. This is like saying: At the time I desired to hold fast to your presence I could not find you, and the detachment from one without attachment to the other left me suspended in air and suffering, without any support from you or from myself.
What the soul refers to as going out in search of the Beloved, the bride of the Song of Songs calls "rising": I will rise and seek him whom my soul loves, by going about the city, through the squares and the suburbs. But, she adds, I did not find him, and they wounded me [Sg. 3:2; 5:6-7]. The rising of the soul, the bride, is spiritually understood as rising from the lowly to the sublime. The same is understood of the soul's words here, "I went out," that is, from her lowly manner and love to the sublime love of God.
Yet the bride states that she was wounded because she did not find him. And the soul also declares that she was wounded with love and he left her thus. The loving soul lives in constant suffering at the absence of her Beloved, for she is already surrendered to him and hopes for the reward of that surrender: the surrender of the Beloved to her. Yet he does not do so. Now lost to herself and to all things for the sake of her loved one, she has gained nothing from her loss, since she does not possess him.
22. The suffering and pain arising from God's absence is usually so intense in those who are nearing the
state of perfection at the time of these divine wounds that they would die if the Lord did not provide. Since
the palate of their will is healthy and their spirit is cleansed and well prepared for God, and they have been
given some of the sweetness of divine love, which they desire beyond all measure, they suffer beyond all
measure. An immense good is shown them, as through a crevice, but not granted them. Thus their pain and
torment is unspeakable.