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Posted October 25, 2005

Book: John of the Cross
Author: Wilfrid McGreal
Triumph, Liguori, Missouri, pp.80

An Excerpt from the Introduction:

This is a book about a man with a sublime imagination. He was the victim of misunderstanding by those who should have appreciated him. Faced with darkness and cruel treatment, he responded with great poetry that sings of the highest experience of love. The man is Juan de Yepes (1540-1591), known as John of the Cross. He came from Castile in the heart of Spain and lived most of his life as a member of a community of brothers and friars, the Carmelites.

John has a message and vision of life that can have real meaning for people today. His poems, born in darkness and personal tragedy, even with a sense of loss of God, find God in the midst of sorrows. For John, the healing presence of God could be found in dark, unlikely places. He also believed that our human longings, our deepest desires can only find fulfillment in God. John claimed to have found that closeness and fulfilment in God. John claimed that closeness and fulfilment and wanted to share his experience and the possibility of that eperience with others. The way to his intimacy with God is a way of letting go of what could seem dearest and most important in life. John’s teaching is challenging but it is not abstract, it is not unreal. It comes from the heart and speaks the language of the imagination.

As John of the Cross, the man, is probably scarcely known in the English-speaking world, this introduction provides a biographical sketch. The section on John as poet and mystic is meant to give a flavour of this poetic genius. John’s poems spring directly from the moments in his life when he believed he was intimate with God. The rest of the book attempts to pick out the key themes and concerns which run through his other writings.

Can John say anything to people today? In his own day, John was concerned to be a genuine guide to people searching for personal growth and help in their quest for God. In an age when many guides and gurus prove to be bogus, does John offer a wisdom that transcends time? John was a passionate, caring person who wanted only the best for those he guided. This book will hopefully enable his voice to be heard by men and women at the end of the twentieth century.

An Excerpt from the Book:

John of the Cross can certainly address our imagination because he expressed his deep religious experiences in poetry. He found a poetic voice which sang beautifully of his intimate experiences.

John had shown a great love for poems, songs and music when he worked in the hospital at Medina. He had a gift of easing the pain of patients by singing songs which he had composed. This gift seemed to go underground when he studied theology but was given a new lease of life by Teresa of Avila, who wanted him to break out of his seriousness. Teresa herself was no mean poet and she often challenged John to cap some poem she had written.

However, it was his experience of imprisonment at Toledo in 1577-8 that gave rise to his great poetic outpouring. The intensity of his suffering and his simultaneous awareness of God’s love and goodness gave birth to an amazing lyric voice in John.

John’s love of poetry had its roots in the popular songs he heard as a boy in Medina. Medina was famous for its market and the crowds were entertained by singers with their repertoire of love-songs. John also had a chance to study literature, first of all at the Jesuit College and then during the noviciate. He would have read the great Latin poets, such as Horace and Ovid, and also the poems of a contemporary Spanish poet, Garcilaso de la Vega. Garcilaso was a young man about the Spanish Court who cut rather an heroic figure. He died young, but his poems wre full of invention and innovation. John was obviously impressed with his work, especially the sensitive way he wrote of nature. John loved nature and felt a kinship with Garcilaso’s imaginative approach.

John’s poetic output is not huge. In fact the totality of his works comes to about 40 pages in The Collected Works. His poetry dates from 1578, with “The Spiritual Canticle” being among the earliest of his works, and with “The Living Flame of Love”, written in 1585, rounding off his poetic output.

Rather than talking about and around John’s poetry it would be better to let John speak for himself. For this purpose, the poem “The Dark Night” would be a good choice.

The Dark Night

Songs of the soul that rejoices in having reached the high state of perfection, which is union with God, by the path of spiritual negation.

One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
In darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

On that glad night
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Love.

Upon my flowering breast,
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

John wrote this poem in the months after his escape from Toledo. It is rich in symbolism and, while a translation can never capture the power of the poem, there is more than enough to enjoy. The poem uses the symbol of night in a way that draws out a sense of mystery. The night recalls the darkness of John’s prison cell and the times of darkness when he must have been torn by a range of conflicting emotions. Was he in prison because he was at fault? Why had his own turned against him? But night is also a time of mystery when deep feelings can well up, atime to begin a journey.

In fact, the opening stanza, which rejoices in the freedom of the Lover to leave the house, echoes the Songs of Songs:

Upon my bed at night
I sought him whom my soul loves;
I sought him, but found him not . . .
‘I will rise now and go about the city . . .
I will seek him whom my soul loves.’ (Song of Songs 3:1-2)

Because the Lover feels so passionately, the night is no longer a threat — the rapturous love inside her soul is like a light. The light in her heart is a better guide than a full moon. The burning love is not only a light but it seems like a guiding, homing beacon as she finds her Beloved. In stanza V, John introduces a new symbolic element as the poem sings of the night in language that echoes the great Easter hymn of light, the Exsultet, Stanza V begins:

O guiding light!
O night more lovely than the dawn!

While the Exsultet proclaims:
Of this night scripture says:
The night will be as clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy.

In stanza VI of “The Dark Night” the Beloved rests and sleeps on the Lover’s breast because the purification has been so complete that it has become the most fitting place for union and in that closeness the wound of union takes place. The union is beyond anything the sense can begin to describe or comprehend. The union is also expressed as a wound, as the immensity of love is painful to the human spirit as the finite is overwhelmed by the infinite. So it feels a pain at being unable to take in such love in its entirety. This is a state which Teresa of Avila also experiences and describes in her writings.

So the Lover, who stands for you and I as we journey to God, has found perfect union with God. The final stanza takes us to fulfillment and hints at the joy of heaven, the beatific vision. This state of union where only God matters is the mystic state, and John maintains that human beings can experience such closeness to God in this life. The poem, as it moves from the house to finding the Beloved, expresses a journey that is a wonderful risk. Perhaps John is trying to tell us that because we perceive the image of God in our humanity, then if we trust enough in who we are we can be passionately close to God. This sense of trust is implied in the closing lines:
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

These lines link the poem by allusion to the Sermon on the Mount, where Christ uses the beauty of the lilies of the field to emphasis God’s care for us and our need to trust in that care:

‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed lik one of these.’

The technique behind ‘The Dark Night’ warrants examination and provides insights into the way John crafted his experiences. John once told a friend that when he tried to compose poetry, ‘Sometimes God gave me words and sometimes I looked for them myself.’ Obviously, a good working knowledge of Spanish is needed to appreciate the details of John’s art, but with the help of translation the essence of the poems can still be touched.

What is obvious is the simplicity of language. Adjectives are few, but the nouns and verbs carefully chosen – all have force. The work ‘nigh’ appears and reappears, growing richer and richer in meaning. It begins as the night that enables the Lover to start on the quest: gradually, by the third stanza, it is linked to joy, and by the fifth stanza it has become the means for the lover’s union. In the same stanza, there’s the marvellous way the union is described – at once economical and also allowing the force of the words to underline the marvel.

Amado con amada . . . . . . . . . . . . The Lover with his beloved,
amada en el Amado transformada! . . . . Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

The reader just has to say the Spanish aloud to get the feeling of the union taking place, the very sound conveys a sense of amazing communion of ecstatic love.

Table of Contents:

1. John’s life and background

2. Poet and mystic

3. The prose works

4. Nada, the night of the twentieth century

5. John and spiritual direction