“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 In San Juan we feel the deepest, most withdrawn sense of solitude, though his theme was union.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.” – Willis Barnstone
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.
The poem, The Spiritual Canticle, by St John of The Cross, is reproduced on this page accompanied by some extracts from St John’s commentary on the poem. Some more extracts from the commentary will be added as time allows.
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!
The soul has made known the manner of preparing oneself to begin this journey: detachment from self preoccupation and overcoming temptations and difficulties through fortitude. This is the practice of self-knowledge, the first requirement for advancing to knowledge of God.
On this spiritual road the consideration of creatures is first in order after the exercise of self knowledge. The soul thereby advances away from self absorption through the practice of extending her awareness beyond herself. She practices awareness of the ground of being in all that has being, the One being in all beings.
This stanza embodies a meditation upon the elements, creatures, heavens and the heavenly spirits.
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.
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.
All those who come and go freely: the experience of a self comes and goes. In union with God it is gone – there is no one left to know anything. All we can know of God is through the impressions we find left on us when we return to ourselves. And these impressions wound worst of all – and leave me dying.
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.
To be left embroiled in the experience of a self after having experienced what it is to be free is death in life.
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?
Why let me return to the experience of a separated, isolated self? Why not set me free?
Quench all my grief! Draw near!
Your touch alone brings comfort in my plight.
Light of my eyes, appear!
within makes you conceive.
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.
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.”
She would not want to receive the Spirit in the body, for there she cannot receive Him fully, but only in a small degree and with considerable suffering. But she would want to receive Him in the flight of the spirit, outside the body, where she can freely rejoice with Him.
For a better understanding of the nature of this flight, it should be noted that, as we said, in this visit of the divine Spirit, the spirit of the soul is carried away to communicate with Him, and it abandons the body and ceases to have its feelings and actions in it, for they are in God.
Return, small dove, alight!
For on the hill above
the wounded stag in sight
finds freshness from the fanning of your flight.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)