"A single act of uniformity with the divine will suffices to make a saint."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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"God commands not impossibilities, but by commanding he suggests to you to do what you can, to ask for what is beyond your strength; and he helps you, that you may be able."

St Augustine

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"The greatest glory we can give to God is to do his will in everything."

St Alphonsus de Liguori

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 St John of the Cross   (1542 - 1591)

 

THE SPIRITUAL CANTICLE (cont)

 

by St John of the Cross

 

Stanza 3


Seeking my Love
I will head for the mountains and for watersides,
I will not gather flowers,
nor fear wild beasts;
I will go beyond strong men and frontiers.

Commentary

1. The soul is aware that neither her sighs and prayers nor the help of good intermediaries, about which she spoke in the first and second stanzas, are sufficient for her to find her Beloved. Since the desire in which she seeks him is authentic and her love intense, she does not want to leave any possible means untried. The soul that truly loves God is not slothful in doing all she can to find the Son of God, her Beloved. Even after she has done everything, she is dissatisfied and thinks she has done nothing.

And accordingly in this third stanza she says that she herself through works desires to look for him, and she describes the method to be employed in order to find him: She must practice the virtues and engage in the spiritual exercises of both the active and the contemplative life. As a result she must tolerate no delights or comforts, and the powers and snares of her three enemies (the world, the devil, and the flesh) must neither detain nor impede her. She says,

Seeking my love
That is, seeking my Beloved, and so on.

2. She points out here that for the attainment of God it is not enough to pray with the heart and the tongue or receive favors from others, but that together with this a soul must through its own efforts do everything possible. God usually esteems the work persons do by themselves more than many other works done for them. And mindful of the words of the Beloved, Seek and you shall find [Lk. 11:9], the soul decides to go out searching for him in the way we mentioned, to seek him through works that she may not be left without finding him. Many desire that God cost them no more than words, and even these they say badly. They desire to do for him scarcely anything that might cost them something. Some would not even rise from a place of their liking if they were not to receive thereby some delight from God in their mouth and heart. They will not even take one step to mortify themselves and lose some of their satisfactions, comforts, and useless desires.

Yet, unless they go in search for God, they will not find him, no matter how much they cry out for him. The bride of the Song of Songs cried after him, but did not find him until she went out looking for him. She affirms: In my bed by night I sought him whom my soul loves; I sought him and did not find him. I will rise up and go about the city; in the suburbs and the squares I will look for him whom my soul loves [Sg. 3:1-2]. And she says that after undergoing some trials she found him [Sg. 3:4].

3. Those who seek God and yet want their own satisfaction and rest seek him at night and thus will not find him. Those who look for him through the practice and works of the virtues and get up from the bed of their own satisfaction and delight seek him by day and thus will find him. What is not found at night appears during the day. The Bridegroom himself points this out in the Book of Wisdom: Wisdom is bright and never fades and is easily seen by them that love her, and found by them that seek her. She goes out before them that covet her that she might first show herself to them. Those who awake early in the morning to seek her shall not labor, because they will find her seated at the door of their house [Wis. 6:12-14]. This passage indicates that when the soul has departed from the house of her own will and the bed of her own satisfaction, outside she will find divine Wisdom, the Son of God, her Spouse. As a result, she says here: "Seeking my Love"

I will head for the mountains and for watersides,

4. The mountains, which are high, refer to the virtues: first, because of their height; second, because of the difficulty and labor one undergoes in climbing them. She says she will exercise the contemplative life by means of these virtues.

The watersides, which are low, refer to the mortifications, penances, and spiritual exercises by which she says she will practice the active life, joined with the contemplative life that she mentioned. To seek God in the right way and acquire the virtues both are necessary.

These words, then, are like saying: Seeking my Beloved, I will both practice the high virtues and humble myself by lowly mortifications and humble exercises.

She recites this line because the way to look for God is to do good works for him and mortify evil within oneself in this manner:

I will not gather flowers,

5. Since seeking God demands a heart naked, strong, and free from all evils and goods that are not purely God, the soul speaks in this and the following verses of the freedom and fortitude one should possess in looking for him.

She declares she will not gather the flowers she sees along the way. The flowers are all the gratifications, satisfactions, and delights that may be offered to her in this life and will hinder her should she desire to gather and accept them. They are of three kinds: temporal, sensory, and spiritual. All three occupy the heart and hinder the spiritual nakedness required for the direct way of Christ, if the soul pays attention to them or becomes attached. Consequently she says that in order to seek him she will not gather these things. This line is equivalent to saying: I will not set my heart on the riches and goods the world offers, neither will I tolerate the pleasures and delights of my flesh, nor will I pay heed to the satisfactions and consolations of my spirit in a way that may detain me from seeking my Love in the mountains and riversides of virtues and trials.

She makes this declaration in order to take the advice the prophet David gives those who journey along this path: Divitiae si affluent, nolite cor apponere (If riches abound, do not set your heart on them) [Ps. 62:10]. These riches refer to both sensory and temporal goods and to spiritual consolation.

It should be known that not only are temporal goods and bodily de-lights contradictory to the path leading to God, but so also are spiritual consolations, if possessed or sought with attachment, an obstacle to the way of the cross of Christ, the Bridegroom. Those who are to advance must not gather these flowers. More than this, they must also have the courage and fortitude to say:

nor fear wild beasts;
I will go beyond strong men and frontiers.

6. In these verses she records the soul's three enemies: the world, the devil, and the flesh. They are causes of war and hardship along the road. The wild beasts refer to the world, the strong men to the devil, and the frontiers to the flesh.

7. She calls the world "wild beasts" because in the imagination of the soul that begins to tread the path leading to God the world is pictured as wild animals threatening and scaring her. The world frightens her principally in three ways:

First, it makes her think she must live without its favor, and lose her friends, reputation, importance, and even wealth.

Second, through another beast, no less ferocious, it makes her wonder how she will ever endure the permanent lack of the consolations and delights of the world and all its comforts.

Third, which is still worse, it makes her think that tongues will rise up against her and mock her, there will be many remarks and jeers, and she will be considered almost worthless.

These fears are brought before some souls in such a way that not only does persevering against these wild beasts become most difficult, but so does being able to get started on the journey.

8. Yet some generous souls will be faced with other wild beasts, more interior and spiritual: hardships and temptations and many kinds of trials through which they must pass. God sends these to those he wants to raise to high perfection by trying them like gold in the fire. According to David, Multae tribulationes justorum (Many are the tribulations of the just), but out of these the Lord will deliver them [Ps. 34:19]. Yet the truly loving soul, esteeming her Beloved above all things, trusting in his love and friendship, does not find it hard to say: "Nor fear wild beasts," and "I will go beyond strong men and frontiers."

9. She calls devils, the second enemy, "strong men" because they strive mightily to entrap her on this road and also because their temptations are stronger and their wiles more baffling than those of the world and the flesh and, finally, because the devils reinforce themselves with these other two enemies, the world and the flesh, in order to wage a rugged war.

David, in alluding to them, calls them strong men: Fortes quaesierunt animam meam (The strong men sought after my soul) [Ps. 54:3]. The prophet Job also remarked concerning this strength that there is no power on earth comparable to that of the devil, who was made to fear no one [Jb. 41:25]; that is, no human strength is comparable to his. Only divine power is sufficient to conquer him and only divine light can understand his wiles.

A soul that must overcome the devil's strength will be unable to do so without prayer, nor will it be able to understand his deceits without mortification and humility. St. Paul counsels the faithful: Induite vos armaturam Dei, ut possitis stare adversus insidias diaboli, quoniam non est nobis colluctatio adversus carnem et sanguinem (Put on the armor of God that you may be able to resist the wiles of the devil, for this struggle is not against flesh and blood) [Eph. 6:11-12]. By blood he means the world, and by the armor of God, prayer and the cross of Christ, in which are found the humility and mortification we mentioned.[1]

10. The soul affirms also that she will pass by frontiers, which refer to the natural rebellions of the flesh against the spirit. As St. Paul says: Caro enim concupiscit adversus spiritum [Gal. 5:17], which is like saying: The flesh covets against the spirit and sets itself up as though on the frontier to oppose the spiritual journey. A person must pass these frontiers by breaking through these difficulties and throwing down with willful strength and determination all sensory appetites and natural affections. In the measure that these are present in the soul, the spirit is impeded by them and cannot go on to true life and spiritual delight. St. Paul indicated this clearly: Si spiritu facta carnis mortificaveritis, vivetis (If by the spirit you mortify the inclinations and appetites of the flesh, you shall live) [Rom. 8:13].

Such is the method the soul, in this stanza, claims she must follow in order to seek her Beloved on this road. The method, in sum, consists of steadfastness and courage in not stooping to gather flowers; of bravery in not fearing the wild beasts; of strength in passing by strong men and frontiers; and of the sole intention to head for the mountains and watersides of virtues, as we explained.

 
   
 
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