St. John of the Cross

August 30, 2007

I have been thinking a lot about St. John of the Cross lately, and in particular, The Long Dark Night of the Soul , his poetic/explicative meditation on the soul’s struggle to reunite with God. This process, in his mystic vision, necessarily includes a long and frightening period of perceived emptiness and abandonment.

The verses written by John of the Cross are considered by some to be the summit of Spanish poetry, and his subsequent theological works prompted his elevation to a Doctor of The Church, one of thirty-three people who are considered to have written so completely on a particular subject that nothing more can be added.

The most common translation of his work is by E. Allison Peers. I have it at home in paperback, but the text is in the public domain. Here’s the canticle that begins Long Dark Night. The remainder of the book is a discussion of the poem’s meaning.

On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings—oh, happy chance!—
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised—oh, happy chance!—
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night, In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me—
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

The speaker in the poem represents the soul. The complete text of the book can be read here.

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