"Spiritual persons ought to be equally ready to experience sweetness and consolation in the things of God, or to suffer and keep their ground in drynesses of spirit and devotion, and for as long as God pleases, without their making any complaint about it."

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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"It is well to choose some one good devotion, and to stick to it, and never to abandon it."

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 2


Shepherds, you who go
up through the sheepfolds to the hill,
if by chance you see
him I love most,
tell him I am sick, I suffer, and I die.

Commentary

1. The soul in this stanza desires the advantage of intercessors and intermediaries with her Beloved by begging them to bring him word of her grief and pain. This is the trait of a lover: When she herself cannot converse with her loved one, she does so through the best means possible. The soul wants to take advantage of her desire, affections, and moanings as messengers that know so well how to manifest to the Beloved the secret of the lover's heart. She entreats them to go, crying:

Shepherds, you who go

2. She calls her desires, affections, and moanings "shepherds," because they pasture the soul with spiritual goods - a shepherd or pastor is one who feeds or pastures - and by means of these yearnings God communicates himself to her and gives her the divine pasture. Without them he communicates little to her.

"You who go," is like saying, you that go out through pure love. Not all the affections and desires reach him, but only those that go out through true love.

up through the sheepfolds to the hill,

3. She calls the hierarchies and choirs of angels "sheepfolds." Through them, from choir to choir, our moanings and prayers go to God. She refers to God as "the hill," because he is the supreme height and in him, as on a hill, one has a view of all things and of both the higher and the lower sheepfolds. Our prayers rise up to him through the angels who offer them to him, as we said. The angel told Tobias: When you were praying with tears and burying the dead, I was offering your prayer to God [Tb. 12:12].

These shepherds can also be the angels who carry not only our messages to God but also God's messages to us. They feed our souls, like good shepherds, with sweet communications and inspirations from God - they are the means by which God grants them - and they protect us from the wolves, which are the devils.

Whether, then, these shepherds refer to the affections or to the angels, the soul longs that they all be helps and intermediaries with her Beloved. She pleads with them all:

if by chance you see

4. This means: If by my good luck you so reach his presence that he sees and hears you. It is noteworthy that even though God has knowledge and understanding of all, and even sees the very thoughts of the soul, as Moses asserts [Dt. 31:21], it is said when he provides a remedy for us in our needs that he sees them, and when he answers our prayers that he hears them. Not all needs and petitions reach the point at which God, in hearing, grants them. They must wait until in his eyes they arrive at the suitable time, season, and number, and then it is said that he sees and hears them.1 This is evident in Exodus. After the 400 years in which the children of Israel had been afflicted by their slavery in Egypt, God declared to Moses: I have seen the affliction of my people and have come down to free them [Ex. 3:7-8], even though he had always seen it.

And St. Gabriel, too, told Zechariah not to fear, because God had heard his prayer and given him the son for whom he had prayed those many years, even though God had always heard that prayer [Lk. 1:13]. Every soul should know that even though God does not answer its prayer immediately, he will not on that account fail to answer it at the opportune time if it does not become discouraged and give up its prayer. He is, as David remarks, a helper in opportune times and tribulations [Ps. 9:10].2

The soul means in saying "If by chance you see" that if by chance the time is at hand for my petition to be heard by

him I love most,

5. That is, by him I love more than all things. She loves him more than all things when nothing intimidates her in doing and suffering for love of him whatever is for his service. And when she can also say truthfully what she proclaims in the following verse, it is a sign that she loves him above all things. The verse is:

tell him I am sick, I suffer, and I die.

6. In this line the soul discloses three needs: sickness, suffering, and death. The soul that truly loves God with some perfection usually suffers from his absence in three ways, with respect to the three faculties of the soul: intellect, will, and memory.

With respect to the intellect, she says she is sick because she does not see God, the health of the intellect. God says through David: I am your health [Ps. 35:3].

With respect to the will, she declares she suffers because she does not possess God, the will's refreshment and delight. David also says: You shall fill us with the torrent of your delight [Ps. 36:9].

With respect to the memory, she says she dies because she suffers a distress that resembles death on remembering that she lacks all the goods of the intellect (the vision of God) and the delights of the will (the possession of God), and it is highly possible, among the dangers and sinful occasions of this life, to be without him forever. For she sees her lack of the sure and perfect possession of God, who, as Moses affirms, is the soul's life: He is certainly your life [Dt. 30:20].

7. Jeremiah also indicated these three kinds of needs in Lamentations, saying: Remember my poverty, the wormwood, and the gall [Lam. 3:19].

The poverty relates to the intellect because to the intellect belong the riches of the wisdom of the Son of God, in whom, as St. Paul says, are hidden all the treasures of God [Col. 2:3].

The wormwood, a most bitter herb, refers to the will because to this faculty belongs the sweetness of the possession of God. When this possession is lacking, the will is left in bitterness. And the fact that bitterness pertains to the will is understood spiritually in the Apocalypse when the angel told St. John that eating the book would bring bitterness to the belly [Rv. 10:9], meaning to the will.

The gall refers not only to the memory but to all a person's faculties and strength. Gall signifies the death of the soul, as Moses indicates, speaking of the condemned in Deuteronomy: Their wine will be the gall of dragons and the incurable poison of asps [Dt. 32:33]. Gall refers to their lack of God, which is death to the soul.

These three needs and sufferings are based on the three theological virtues (faith, charity, and hope) that reside in the three faculties of the soul in the order given here, intellect, will, and memory.

8. It should be pointed out that in this verse the soul does no more than disclose to the Beloved her need and suffering. The discreet lover does not care to ask for what she lacks and desires, but only indicates this need so the Beloved may do what he pleases. When the Blessed Virgin spoke to her beloved Son at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, she did not ask directly for the wine, but merely remarked: They have no wine [Jn. 2:3]. And the sisters of Lazarus did not send to ask our Lord to cure their brother, but to tell him that Lazarus whom he loved was sick [Jn. 11:3]. There are three reasons for this: First, the Lord knows what is suitable for us better than we do; second, the Beloved has more compassion when he beholds the need and resignation of a soul that loves him; third, the soul is better safeguarded against self-love and possessiveness by indicating its lack, rather than asking for what in its opinion is wanting. The soul, now, does likewise by just indicating her three needs. Her words are similar to saying: Tell my Beloved, since I am sick and he alone is my health, to give me health; and, since I suffer and he alone is my joy, to give me joy; and, since I die and he alone is my life, to give me life.
 

 
   
 
   
   
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