“San Juan de la Cruz was a poet of paradox. In San Juan we feel the deepest, most withdrawn sense of solitude, though his theme was union. He sought freedom from the senses although his own poems comprise the most intensely erotic literature …. and while he moved toward the invisible, he gave us the things of this world in startling light.
The oscillation of prayer lends itself well to the form of a love song. The soul, acutely aware of the incompleteness and isolation of its human “I”, expresses anguish and longing for the fulfillment of wholeness, and ecstasy and rapture upon encounter.”
- Willis Barnstone
The poem, The Spiritual Canticle, by St John of The Cross, is reproduced on this page accompanied by some extracts from the commentary.
My Love, where are you hidden?
Why have you left me sorrowing alone?
I followed you unbidden,
but like a stag you’d flown:
wounded , I called, but you, my Love, were gone.
In this first stanza the soul, enamoured of her bridegroom, longs for union. She records her longings of love and complains to Him of His absence, especially since His love wounds her. Through this love the soul departed from all creatures and from herself.
In her petition she seeks the manifestation of His divine essence, because the hiding place of the Word of God is the bosom of the Father, that is the divine essence, which is alien to every mortal eye and hidden from every human intellect.
Anyone who is to find a hidden treasure must enter into the hiding place secretly, and once he has discovered it, he will also be hidden just as the treasure is hidden.
Forget all your possessions and all creatures and hide in the interior, secret chamber of your spirit. And there, closing the door behind you, you should pray to your Father in secret. Remaining hidden with Him, you will experience Him in hiding, and love and enjoy Him in hiding, and you will delight with Him in hiding, that is, in a way transcending all knowing and feeling.
Shepherds, if you should find him
as you go through the sheepfolds to the hill,
him I love most, remind him –
heartsick, I grieve and will
die of my grief, for pain of love can kill.
In search of love I’ll go
beyond the mountains, lowlands, far away,
no fear of wild beasts know,
to gather flowers not stay;
no fortress or frontier will bar my way!
The flowers of self gratification will hinder her should she desire to gather them and accept them. Mental, sensory and spiritual gratification are attachments that feed the ego, serving only to hinder the spiritual nakedness required.
The soul affirms she will not fear the rebellions of her mental state, nor be restrained by the fortress of egotism or the frontier of familiar reference points in the mind and senses. She will pass by frontiers and go out from self, beyond all familiar reference points in the mind and senses.
Such is the method the soul, in this stanza, claims she must follow in order to seek her Beloved on this road.
O forests, wooded bowers
planted by that dear hand I love so well,
meadows studded with flowers
gem-like in verdant dell,
if you have seen him pass, I pray you, tell!
A thousand blessings casting
among these leafy groves he hastened by,
his passing glance a lasting
beauty imposed, his eye,
his face alone clothed them with harmony.
Ah, who can heal my sorrow!
In true surrender yield to me, most dear,
and send me from tomorrow
no envoys who appear
and cannot tell me what I long to hear!
The envoys of the faculties are inadequate. They cannot convey what needs to be known.
Essential knowledge of Him is the real knowledge for which the soul asks here. She asks Him in this stanza to surrender His presence that she might abide in Him.
All those who come and go
freely, speak of your graciousness, but they
wound worst of all, and though
it leaves me dying, stay
and stammer – what? – I know no way to say.
If what I understand wounds me with love, this which I do not understand completely, yet have sublime experience of, is death to me.
This understanding and experience that the divinity is so immense as to surpass complete understanding is indeed sublime knowledge.
Those who understand God more, understand more distinctly the infinitude which remains to be understood; whereas those who see less of Him do not realize so clearly what remains to be seen.
Since it is not understandable, it is indescribable, although, as I say, one may know what the experience of it is.
Life, how can you continue
a life that’s death-in-life, with no reprieve?
Death near – embedded in you
by arrows you receive
from what your Love within makes you conceive.
Life of my soul, how can you endure in this bodily life, for it is death to you and privation of that true spiritual life in God, in which through essence, love, and desire you live more truly than in the body? And now that this understanding of God’s grandeur has not caused you to go out and be freed from the body of this death so as live and enjoy the life of your God, how can you still live in a body so fragile?
To understand these lines it should be known that the soul lives where she loves more than in the body she animates; for she does not live in the body, but rather gives life to the body, and lives through love in the object of her love.
The soul lays great stress on this complaint, for she suffers from two contraries: natural life in the body, and spiritual life in God. They are contraries insofar as the one wars against the other. And living both in the body and in God, she necessarily feels great torment, since the one painful life thwarts the other delightful one, so much so that the natural life is like death to her, because through it she is deprived of the spiritual life in which she has all her being and life by nature and all her operations and affections through love.
This heart you have enraptured –
why leave it sorely wounded? Why not heal?
Taken by force and captured,
Beloved, I appeal –
why not bear off the prey you swooped to steal?
She has no other remedy than to put herself in the hands of the one who wounded her, so that in relieving her He may slay her now entirely with the force of love.
Why didn’t He heal her with His presence since He wounded her heart with love coming from knowledge of Himself? She also asks, since He stole her through the love by which He captivated her and carried her away from her own power, why he leaves her thus drawn out of her own power and does not truly place her heart in His own, taking it for Himself in complete transformation of love in glory.
Quench all my grief! Draw near!
Your touch alone brings comfort in my plight.
Light of my eyes, appear!
You are indeed their light,
and for your sake alone I guard my sight.
Show me your face, my Lover,
even though beauty seen unveiled should kill,
let it be so! Discover
your presence, if you will,
at once the cause and cure of all my ill.
The soul is right in daring to say, may the vision of your beauty be my death, since she knows at the instant she sees this beauty she will be carried away by it, and absorbed in this very beauty, and transformed in this same beauty, and made beautiful like this beauty itself, and enriched and provided for like this very beauty.
The soul that loves God lives more in the next life than in this, for the soul lives where it loves more than where it gives life.
It should be known that love never reaches perfection until the lovers are so alike that one is transfigured in the other.
O crystal spring clear-shining,
if on your silver surface could appear
those eyes for which I’m pining –
suddenly, and quite near! –
whose image printed deep within I bear.
Turn them away, my Love!
I’ll fly from here!
The Beloved revealed to her some rays of His grandeur and divinity and carried her out of herself in rapture and ecstasy: “for they cause me to take flight and go out of myself to supreme contemplation, which is beyond what the sensory part can endure.”
Return, small dove, alight!
For on the hill above
the wounded stag in sight
finds freshness from the fanning of your flight.
The soul went out of the body very willingly in that spiritual flight and thought that now her life was at an end and that she would be able to see her Bridegroom openly and enjoy Him forever. But the Bridegroom intercepted her flight saying, “return, small dove”. This is like saying: in your sublime and swift contemplation and in your burning love and in the simplicity of your advance, return from this lofty flight in which you aim after true possession of Me; the time has not yet come.
My Love’s a mountain range,
deep lonely valleys, wooded down below,
far islands, rare and strange,
streams singing as they flow,
whisper of loving breezes, soft and low.
My Love’s the hush of night
so still when dawn steals softly through the skies,
solitude’s sounding might,
silent music, delight
of love-feast that consoles and gratifies.
This experience is nothing but a strong and overflowing communication and glimpse of what God is in Himself.
Since this little dove was flying in the breeze of love above the flood waters of her loving fatigues and yearnings, which she has shown until now, and could nowhere alight, the compassionate father Noah, stretching out his merciful hand, caught her on her last flight and placed her in the ark of his charity.
Finding in this recollection all that she desired and more than is expressible, the soul begins to sing the praises of her Beloved in the following stanzas. They apply to His grandeurs, which she experiences and enjoys in this union.
Not only do her vehement yearnings and complaints cease, but, in being graced with the blessings mentioned, a state of peace and delight and gentleness of love begins in her.
Our vines with blooms are bright
so drive the little foxes far from here.
With roses clustered tight
we’ll make a bunch, my dear,
while on the hillside no-one must appear.
Frequently various kinds of images are brought to the memory and phantasy and many appetites and inclinations are stirred up in the sensory part.
It seems that the sensual flowers of the appetites and sense powers awaken and arise in the sensory part of the soul in an effort to contradict the spirit and reign.
To attain this divine interior exercise there is need for solitude and withdrawal from all things presentable to the soul, whether from the lower, sensory portion, or from the higher, rational part. For the perfect enjoyment of this communion with God all the senses and faculties, interior and exterior, should be unoccupied and empty of their own operations and objects.
“While on the hillside no one must appear.” Let only the will appear, attending to the beloved in a surrender of self.
Cold southern wind, cease blowing!
Come, warm wind of the North, awakening Love,
breathe through my garden, flowing
with fragrance as flowers move
where my Beloved, pasturing, may roam.
You daughters of Judea,
dwell in the outskirts, do not seek to touch
our threshold, or draw near,
while amber sheds forth much
perfume among the flowers and roses here.
Hide yourself now, my dearest,
and turn your face unto the mountains; say
not a word, see her nearest
companions, those who stay
with her and sail to strange isles far away.
Birds on a lilting wing,
lions and harts, does leaping feather-light,
mounts, valleys, waves that sing
sad songs, winds, flames alight,
dread rulers of the watches of the night,
I call upon you all
by melodies of lyre and siren songs,
let now your angers fall
and do not touch the wall:
wake not my Bride from sleep for which she longs.
In these two stanzas the Bridegroom gives the bride-soul possession of peace and tranquility by conforming the lower part to the higher, cleansing it of all its imperfections, bringing under rational control the natural faculties and motives, and quieting all the other appetites.
The Bridegroom conjures and commands the useless wanderings of the phantasy and imaginative power to cease. He makes these disturbing activities and movements cease by means of the immense delight and sweetness and strength received in the spiritual communication and surrender He makes of Himself at this time.
Because God vitally transforms the soul in Himself, all these faculties, appetites, and movements lose their natural imperfection and are changed to divine.
At last the Bride has entered
the garden of her heart’s desire, a place
wherein to rest, all centred
on Love, whose arms embrace
her neck, the while he gazes on her face.
“The bride has entered,” where the spiritual marriage between this soul and the Son of God is effected. It is a total transformation in the Beloved in which each surrenders the entire possession of self to the other with a certain consummation of the union of love. The soul thereby becomes divine, becomes God through participation, insofar as is possible in this life. It is accordingly the highest state attainable in this life.
She has been transformed into her God.
Beneath the apple tree
there did you come to plight your troth, and I
gave my hand, set you free,
redeemed, betrothed to me
there where your ravished mother learned to die.
A thousand shields surround
our flowered bed with glint of brightest gold,
brave lions all around;
peace is its root and ground
and kingly purple tapestries enfold.
The seat of the virtues is love, and by love are they conserved.
Each of the virtues is of itself peaceful, meek, and strong, and consequently produces in the soul these three effects: peace, meekness and fortitude. And because this bed is in flower, made from the flowers of virtues, and all these are peaceful, meek, and strong, the bed itself is built up in peace, and the soul peaceful, meek and strong. These are three properties against which no war can be waged, and the virtues keep the soul so tranquil and safe that to her it seems she is built up in peace.
Young maidens follow, yearning
to find the sandal-prints where you have trod,
the well-spiced wine, the burning
spark, whose quick touch is turning
the heart to wax, but filled with things of God.
In secret cellar deep
I drank of my true love, then to the plain
went forth, as one asleep,
knew nothing, joy or pain,
and of the flock I followed none remain.
The reason is that the drink of highest wisdom makes her forget all worldly things.
That elevation and immersion of the mind in God, in which the soul is as though carried away and absorbed in love, entirely transformed in God, does not allow attention to any worldly thing. She is not only annihilated before and estranged from all things, but even from herself, as if she had vanished and been dissolved in love; all of which consists in passing out of self to the Beloved.
That transformation in God makes her so consonant with the simplicity and purity of God, that it leaves her pure and empty, radiant in simple contemplation.
His heart he gave me there,
most sweet and secret knowledge there revealed,
and casting all my care
on him, nothing concealed,
I gave myself as bride, my promise sealed.
Surrendered now my soul,
all that was mine yielded to him as Lord,
no flock I guard, my whole
service is love outpoured;
love is my task and love my one reward.
Tell them, if from today
I am not seen or heard on common ground,
tell them I lost the way,
love-stricken, roamed around;
for love I lost myself, and I was found.
Aware of the Bridegroom’s words in the Gospel, that no one can serve two masters, but must necessarily fail one, the soul claims here that in order not to fail God, she failed all that is not God. He who truly walks in love lets himself lose all things immediately in order to be found more attached to what he loves. On this account the soul affirms here that she lost herself, which is to desire to be found.
He who does not know how to lose himself, does not find himself.
When a soul treading the spiritual road has reached such a point that she has lost all roads and natural methods in her communion with God, and no longer seeks Him by reflections, or forms, or sentiments, or by any other way of the senses, but has advanced beyond them all and beyond all modes and manners, and enjoys communion with God in Faith and love, then it is said that God is her gain, because she has certainly lost all that is not God.
With emeralds green-glowing
and flowers gathered in cool morning air,
let us wreathe garlands showing
your love, your tender care,
all intertwined with one thread of my hair.
With but a single hair!
Upon my neck you watched it flutter, fall,
your gaze held captive there,
a prisoner in thrall:
one glance of mine wounded you past recall.
What will be the tie caused by the soul’s love for God, the Bridegroom; especially since God here is the principal lover, who, in the omnipotence of His fathomless love, absorbs the soul in Himself more efficaciously and forcibly than a torrent of fire would devour the drop of morning dew.
You looked with love on me,
and deep within your eyes imprinted grace;
this mercy set me free,
held in your love’s embrace,
to lift my eyes, adoring, to your face.
He descends upon the soul in mercy, impressing and infusing His love and grace in her, making her beautiful and lifting her so high as to make her a partaker of the very divinity.
It should be noted for an understanding of this that, God does not love things for what they are in themselves, but because of what He is in Himself. Thus love is the purpose for which He loves. With God, to love the soul is to put her somehow in Himself. He loves the soul within Himself, with Himself.
Let none despise me now:
if you have found me dark, am I not fair?
Your look that can endow
all things, sought me – see how
your eyes on me left grace and beauty there!
The little snow-white dove
back to the ark with olive branch has flown.
The mate she sought, her Love,
on verdant banks, alone,
this turtle-dove found, and is now his own.
In solitude she lives,
and there in solitude has built her nest;
in solitude he gives
her guidance, love and rest,
wounded, like her, in solitary quest.
Rejoicing, let us go
and see ourselves in your own beauty; wait
at mountain heights where flow
purest streams, and know
more of the woods we deeper penetrate.
Beloved, we’ll go then
among the high rock caverns unsurpassed,
lofty and far from men,
there enter, hidden fast,
and taste new pomegranate wine at last.
There you’ll reveal to me
all that my soul has longed for on the way-
you, Love, my life will be!
there give without delay
the gift you gave to me that other day.
Soft breathing of the air,
sweet song of nightingale above the plain,
the graceful thicket, where
a night serene and fair
brings flame that burns, consuming with no pain.
No-one was there to see,
Aminadab’s last battles now were ended;
raised was the siege and free
the place; the cavalry
at sight of waters peacefully descended.
(Tr. Marjorie Flowers)