"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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"The name of Jesus, pronounced with reverence and affection, has a kind of power to soften the heart. "

St Philip Neri

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"Happy is the youth, because he has time before him to do good. "

St Philip Neri

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 St John of the Cross   (1542 - 1591)

 

THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE (cont)

 

by St John of the Cross

 

Stanza 39


Introduction

1. Yet since the soul in this state of spiritual marriage knows something of this "what," she desires to say something about it, for by her transformation in God something of this "what" occurs within her. She now feels within herself the signs and traces of the "what," for as it is said in the book of Job: Who can keep back the word conceived within and not say it? [Jb. 4:2]. In the following stanza she says something about the fruition she will enjoy in the beatific vision, by explaining insofar as possible the nature and mode of the "what" that she will there possess.

the breathing of the air,
the song of the sweet nightingale,
the grove and its living beauty
in the serene night,
with a flame that is consuming and painless.

Commentary

2. In this stanza the soul declares with five expressions the "what" she says the Bridegroom will bestow on her in that beatific transformation.

First, she says it is the breath or spiration of the Holy Spirit from God to her and from her to God.

Second, jubilation in the fruition of God.

Third, the knowledge of creatures and of their orderly arrangement.

Fourth, pure and clear contemplation of the divine essence.

Fifth, a total transformation in the immense love of God. The verse then is:

the breathing of the air,

3. This breathing of the air is an ability that the soul states God will give her there in the communication of the Holy Spirit. By his divine breath-like spiration, the Holy Spirit elevates the soul sublimely and informs her and makes her capable of breathing in God the same spiration of love that the Father breathes in the Son and the Son in the Father. This spiration of love is the Holy Spirit himself, who in the Father and the Son breathes out to her in this transformation in order to unite her to himself. There would not be a true and total transformation if the soul were not transformed in the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity in an open and manifest degree.

And this kind of spiration of the Holy Spirit in the soul, by which God transforms her into himself, is so sublime, delicate, and deep a delight that a mortal tongue finds it indescribable, nor can the human intellect, as such, in any way grasp it. Even what comes to pass in the communication given in this temporal transformation is unspeakable, for the soul united and transformed in God breathes out in God to God the very divine spiration that God - she being transformed in him - breathes out in himself to her.

4. In the transformation that the soul possesses in this life, the same spiration passes from God to the soul and from the soul to God with notable frequency and blissful love, although not in the open and manifest degree proper to the next life. Such I believe was St. Paul's meaning when he said: Since you are children of God, God sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, calling to the Father [Gal. 4:6]. This is true of the Blessed in the next life and of the perfect in this life according to the ways described.

One should not think it impossible that the soul be capable of so sublime an activity as this breathing in God through participation as God breathes in her. For, granted that God favors her by union with the Most Blessed Trinity, in which she becomes deiform and God through participation, how could it be incredible that she also understand, know, and love - or better that this be done in her - in the Trinity, together with it, as does the Trinity itself! Yet God accomplishes this in the soul through communication and participation. This is transformation in the three Persons in power and wisdom and love, and thus the soul is like God through this transformation. He created her in his image and likeness that she might attain such resemblance.

5. No knowledge or power can describe how this happens, unless by explaining how the Son of God attained and merited such a high state for us, the power to be children of God, as St. John says [Jn. 1:12]. Thus the Son asked of the Father in St. John's Gospel: Father, I desire that where I am those you have given me may also be with me, that they may see the glory you have given me [Jn. 17:24], that is, that they may perform in us by participation the same work that I do by nature; that is, breathe the Holy Spirit. And he adds: I do not ask, Father, only for those present, but for those also who will believe in me through their doctrine; that all of them may be one as you, Father, in me and I in you, that thus they be one in us. The glory which you have given me I have given them that they may be one as we are one, I in them and you in me; that they may be perfect in one; that the world may know that you have sent me and loved them as you have loved me [Jn. 17:20-23].1 The Father loves them by communicating to them the same love he communicates to the Son, though not naturally as to the Son but, as we said, through unity and transformation of love. It should not be thought that the Son desires here to ask the Father that the saints be one with him essentially and naturally as the Son is with the Father, but that they may be so through the union of love, just as the Father and the Son are one in unity of love.

6. Accordingly, souls possess the same goods by participation that the Son possesses by nature. As a result they are truly gods by participation, equals and companions of God. Wherefore St. Peter said: May grace and peace be accomplished and perfect in you in the knowledge of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ, as all things of his divine power that pertain to life and piety are given us through the knowledge of him who called us with his own glory and power, by whom he has given us very great and precious promises, that by these we may be made partakers of the divine nature [2 Pt. 1:2-4]. These are words from St. Peter in which he clearly indicates that the soul will participate in God himself by performing in him, in company with him, the work of the Most Blessed Trinity because of the substantial union between the soul and God. Although this participation will be perfectly accomplished in the next life, still in this life when the soul has reached the state of perfection, as has the soul we are here discussing, she obtains a foretaste and noticeable trace of it in the way we are describing, although as we said it is indescribable.2

7. O souls, created for these grandeurs and called to them! What are you doing? How are you spending your time? Your aims are base and your possessions miseries! O wretched blindness of your eyes! You are blind to so brilliant a light and deaf to such loud voices because you fail to discern that insofar as you seek eminence and glory you remain miserable, base, ignorant, and unworthy of so many blessings! The next expression the soul uses to explain the "what" is:

the song of the sweet nightingale,

8. The result of the soul's breathing the air is that she hears the sweet voice of her Beloved calling to her. And she in this voice expresses to him her delightful jubilation and calls both voices the song of the nightingale. Just as the nightingale begins its song in the spring, once the wintery cold, rain, and changes have passed, and provides melody for the ear and refreshment for the spirit, so in this actual communication and transformation of love that the bride has now attained in this life, in which she is freed from and protected against all temporal disturbances and changes, and divested and purged of imperfections, penalties, and clouds in the senses and the spirit, she feels a new spring in spiritual freedom and breadth and gladness. She hears the sweet voice of her Bridegroom who is her sweet nightingale. Renewing and refreshing the substance of the soul with the sweetness and mellowness of his voice, he calls her as he would call one now disposed to make the journey to eternal life, and she hears this pleasant voice urge: Arise, make haste, my love, my dove, my beautiful one, and come; for now the winter has passed, the rains have gone far off, the flowers have appeared in our land, the time of pruning has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land [Sg. 2:10-12].

9. The bride feels that this voice of the Bridegroom speaking within her is the end of evil and the beginning of good. In the refreshment, protection, and delightful sentiment afforded by this voice, she too, like the sweet nightingale, sings a new and jubilant song together with God, who moves her to do this. He gives his voice to her that so united with him she may give it together with him to God.

This is the Bridegroom's aim and desire, that the soul may intone to God with a spiritual voice of jubilation, as he requests in the Song of Songs: Arise, make haste my love, and come, my dove; in the clefts of the rock; in the hollow of the wall show me your face, let your voice sound in my ears [Sg. 2:13-14].

The ears of God signify his desires to have the soul sing to him with this voice of perfect jubilation. That this voice be perfect, the Bridegroom asks that she sing and let it resound in the caverns of the rock, that is, in the transformation into the mysteries of Christ. Since the soul rejoices in and praises God with God himself in this union (as we said in speaking of love),3 it is a praise highly perfect and pleasing to God, for a soul in this state of perfection performs very perfect works. This voice of jubilation, thus, is sweet both to God and to the soul. As a result the Bridegroom declared: Your voice is sweet [Sg. 2:14], that is, not only to you but to me as well, since through union with me you sing for me - and with me - like the sweet nightingale.

10. Such is the song of the soul in the transformation that is hers in this life, the delight of which is beyond all exaggeration. Yet since this song is not as perfect as the new song of the glorious life, the soul in this bliss becomes mindful of the new song of glory, hearing faintly in the song of this life the excellence of the possession of glory, which is incomparably more precious. And she states that the "what" that he will give her is the song of the sweet nightingale. She continues:

the grove and its living beauty

11. This is the third gift the Bridegroom will bestow on the soul. Since many plants and animals are nurtured in it, the "grove" refers to God, for he nurtures and gives being to all creatures rooted and living in him. Through this gift God shows himself to her and reveals himself as Creator.

By the "living beauty" of this grove, for which she asks the Bridegroom here, she intends to beg for the grace, wisdom, and beauty that every earthly and heavenly creature not only has from God but also manifests in its wise, well ordered, gracious, and harmonious relationship to other creatures. We find this accord among the lower creatures and among the higher, and we find it as well in the relationships between the higher and the lower. The knowledge of this harmony fascinates and delights the soul. The fourth gift follows:

in the serene night,

12. This night is the contemplation in which the soul desires to behold these things. Because of its obscurity, she calls contemplation night. On this account contemplation is also termed mystical theology, meaning the secret or hidden knowledge of God. In contemplation God teaches the soul very quietly and secretly, without its knowing how, without the sound of words, and without the help of any bodily or spiritual faculty, in silence and quietude, in darkness to all sensory and natural things. Some spiritual persons call this contemplation knowing by unknowing.4 For this knowledge is not produced by the intellect that the philosophers call the agent intellect, which works on the forms, phantasies, and apprehensions of the corporal faculties; rather it is produced in the possible or passive intellect. This possible intellect, without the reception of these forms, and so on, receives passively only substantial knowledge, which is divested of images and given without any work or active function of the intellect.5

13. This contemplation, in which the soul, by means of her transformation, has sublime knowledge in this life of the divine grove and its living beauty, is consequently called "night." Yet however sublime this knowledge may be, it is still a dark night when compared with the beatific knowledge she asks for here. In seeking clear contemplation, she asks that this enjoyment of the grove and its living beauty, as well as the other goods mentioned, take place now in the serene night; that is, in beatific and clear contemplation, the night of the dark contemplation of this earth changing into the contemplation of the clear and serene vision of God in heaven. Therefore, by saying "in the serene night," she means in the clear and serene contemplation of the vision of God. David declares of this night of contemplation: The night will be my illumination in my delights [Ps. 139:11], which is like saying: When I shall delight in the essential vision of God, then the night of contemplation will have changed into day and light for my intellect. The fifth good follows:

with a flame that is consuming and painless.

14. By the "flame" she here understands the love of the Holy Spirit. "To consummate" means to bring to completion or perfection. The soul, then, in affirming that the Beloved will give her all the things she mentioned in this stanza and she will possess them with consummate and perfect love and these goods will all be absorbed - and she with them - in perfect love that is painless, affirms all this in order to reveal the complete perfection of this love. That love be perfect, it must have these two properties: It must consummate and transform the soul in God; and the inflammation and transformation engendered by this flame must give no pain to the soul, which cannot be true except in the beatific state where this flame is delightful love. For by the transformation of the soul in this flame, there is a beatific conformity and satisfaction of both lover and Beloved, and thus the flame gives no pain from the variety of greater or lesser intensity, as it did before the soul reached the capacity for this perfect love. Having reached perfection, the soul possesses a love so comforting and conformed to God that, even though God is a consuming fire, as Moses says [Dt. 4:24], he is now a consummator and restorer. This transformation is not like the one the soul possesses in this life, for although the flame in this life is perfect and consummating in love, it is still also somewhat consuming and tends to take away, acting as fire does on coal; although the coal is conformed with and transformed into the fire, and does not fume as it did before the transformation, still the flame that consummated the coal in fire consumed and reduced it to ashes.

This is what happens to the soul that in this life is transformed through the perfection of love. Although it is conformed, it still suffers a kind of pain and detriment: first, because of the lack of the beatific transformation, the absence of which is always felt in the spirit; second, because of the detriment the weak and corruptible sense suffers from the strength and height of so much love, for any excellent thing is a pain and detriment to natural weakness, as it is written: Corpus quod corrumpitur, aggravat animam [Wis. 9:15].6 Yet in that beatific life she will feel no detriment or pain, although her understanding will be very deep and her love immense. For God will equip her for one and strengthen her for the other, consummating her intellect with his wisdom and her will with his love.

15. Since in the preceding stanzas as well as in this one the bride sought from God immense communications and knowledge for which she needs the strongest and highest love, a love commensurate with the greatness and height of this knowledge, she asks that this knowledge be communicated in consummated, perfect, and strong love.
 

 
   
 
   
   
   
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