Most people who read St. John of the Cross (whose feast day was yesterday), read The Ascent of Mount Carmel or Dark Night of the Soul and never go beyond them. This is unfortunate. Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen advises:
One should not make one’s first acquaintance with the Saint through The Ascent of Mt Carmel; the first book one ought to take in hand is the Spiritual Canticle… From its very first pages [it] brings to one’s notice the magnificent goal to which the Saint intends to lead the soul.” (Union with God, ch. 2).
In The Spiritual Canticle, St. John shows us the intimacy with God that we can attain if we persevere. It is a love story between God and the soul. We cannot accept John’s doctrine of detachment presented in his other works unless we understand that detachment is a means to union with God. The soul that is totally in love with God will gladly give up everything for union with Him.
Detachment without love as its motive is more akin to Buddhism than Christianity. If we lose sight of the goal, we will never persevere.
The Spiritual Canticle was written as a poem, an expression of John’s burning love for God. When the Carmelite nuns of Breas read it, they urged John to explain what it meant. He knew that poetry came closer to expressing the deep things of God than prose. So he did not try to explain every word of his poem, but the general sense of it.
Following is the (public domain) translation by Benedict Zimmerman, OCD. I encourage you to read and meditate on these stanzas over the next few weeks as part of your prayer for a deeper union with Christ this Christmas. In January I plan to address the major themes covered in this work.
God lead your meditations!
Song of the Soul and the Bridegroom
Where have You hidden Yourself,
And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You have fled like the hart,
Having wounded me.
I ran after You, crying; but You were gone.
O shepherds, you who go
Through the sheepcots up the hill,
If you shall see Him
Whom I love the most,
Tell Him I languish, suffer, and die.
In search of my Love
I will go over mountains and strands;
I will gather no flowers,
I will fear no wild beasts;
And pass by the mighty and the frontiers.
O groves and thickets
Planted by the hand of the Beloved;
O verdant meads
Enameled with flowers,
Tell me, has He passed by you?
Answer of the Creatures
A thousand graces diffusing
He passed through the groves in haste,
And merely regarding them
As He passed
Clothed them with His beauty.
Oh! who can heal me?
Give me at once Yourself,
Send me no more
Who cannot tell me what I wish.
All they who serve are telling me
Of Your unnumbered graces;
And all wound me more and more,
And something leaves me dying,
I know not what, of which they are darkly speaking.
But how you persevere, O life,
Not living where you live;
The arrows bring death
Which you receive
From your conceptions of the Beloved.
Why, after wounding
This heart, have You not healed it?
And why, after stealing it,
Have You thus abandoned it,
And not carried away the stolen prey?
Quench my troubles,
For no one else can soothe them;
And let my eyes behold You,
For You are their light,
And I will keep them for You alone.
Reveal Your presence,
And let the vision and Your beauty kill me,
Behold the malady
Of love is incurable
Except in Your presence and before Your face.
O crystal well!
Oh that on Your silvered surface
You would mirror forth at once
Those eyes desired
Which are outlined in my heart!
Turn them away, O my Beloved!
I am on the wing:
Return, My Dove!
The wounded hart
Looms on the hill
In the air of your flight and is refreshed.
My Beloved is the mountains,
The solitary wooded valleys,
The strange islands,
The roaring torrents,
The whisper of the amorous gales;
The tranquil night
At the approaches of the dawn,
The silent music,
The murmuring solitude,
The supper which revives, and enkindles love.
Catch us the foxes,
For our vineyard has flourished;
While of roses
We make a nosegay,
And let no one appear on the hill.
O killing north wind, cease!
Come, south wind, that awakens love!
Blow through my garden,
And let its odors flow,
And the Beloved shall feed among the flowers.
O nymphs of Judea!
While amid the flowers and the rose-trees
The amber sends forth its perfume,
Tarry in the suburbs,
And touch not our thresholds.
Hide yourself, O my Beloved!
Turn Your face to the mountains,
Do not speak,
But regard the companions
Of her who is traveling amidst strange islands.
Lions, fawns, bounding does,
Mountains, valleys, strands,
Waters, winds, heat,
And the terrors that keep watch by night;
By the soft lyres
And the siren strains, I adjure you,
Let your fury cease,
And touch not the wall,
That the bride may sleep in greater security.
The bride has entered
The pleasant and desirable garden,
And there reposes to her heart’s content;
Her neck reclining
On the sweet arms of the Beloved.
Beneath the apple-tree
There were you betrothed;
There I gave you My hand,
And you were redeemed
Where your mother was corrupted.
Our bed is of flowers
By dens of lions encompassed,
Hung with purple,
Made in peace,
And crowned with a thousand shields of gold.
In Your footsteps
The young ones run Your way;
At the touch of the fire
And by the spiced wine,
The divine balsam flows.
In the inner cellar
Of my Beloved have I drunk; and when I went forth
Over all the plain
I knew nothing,
And lost the flock I followed before.
There He gave me His breasts,
There He taught me the science full of sweetness.
And there I gave to Him
Myself without reserve;
There I promised to be His bride.
My soul is occupied,
And all my substance in His service;
Now I guard no flock,
Nor have I any other employment:
My sole occupation is love.
If, then, on the common land
I am no longer seen or found,
You will say that I am lost;
That, being enamored,
I lost myself; and yet was found.
Of emeralds, and of flowers
In the early morning gathered,
We will make the garlands,
Flowering in Your love,
And bound together with one hair of my head.
By that one hair
You have observed fluttering on my neck,
And on my neck regarded,
You were captivated;
And wounded by one of my eyes.
When You regarded me,
Your eyes imprinted in me Your grace:
For this You loved me again,
And thereby my eyes merited
To adore what in You they saw
Despise me not,
For if I was swarthy once
You can regard me now;
Since You have regarded me,
Grace and beauty have You given me.
The little white dove
Has returned to the ark with the bough;
And now the turtle-dove
Its desired mate
On the green banks has found.
In solitude she lived,
And in solitude built her nest;
And in solitude, alone
Has the Beloved guided her,
In solitude also wounded with love.
Let us rejoice, O my Beloved!
Let us go forth to see ourselves in Your beauty,
To the mountain and the hill,
Where the pure water flows:
Let us enter into the heart of the thicket.
We shall go at once
To the deep caverns of the rock
Which are all secret,
There we shall enter in
And taste of the new wine of the pomegranate.
There you will show me
That which my soul desired;
And there You will give at once,
O You, my life!
That which You gave me the other day.
The breathing of the air,
The song of the sweet nightingale,
The grove and its beauty
In the serene night,
With the flame that consumes, and gives no pains.
None saw it;
Neither did Aminadab appear
The siege was intermitted,
And the cavalry dismounted
At the sight of the waters.
12 thoughts on “The Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross”
Connie, I would take exception with your first sentence. To read the Ascent or the Dark Night is never unfortunate, no matter when you read it! When I started reading St. John of the Cross, I began with the Living Flame of Love. What book did you read first?
Thanks for your thoughts, Dvora. Reading that sentence over, it does sound a bit odd, so let me clarify. Most people ONLY read The Ascent or Dark Night. And they do so on their own without any background in Carmelite spirituality or mystical theology. Then what happens is they think that John’s teaching is solely about detachment. They either give up, because it’s too hard to follow a way of abnegation when you are not on fire for love of God. Or they get a distorted picture of the spiritual life, seeing John as a pseudo-Buddhist. I read Dark Night on my own before I was a Carmelite and I’m not sure if I even made it all the way through the book. Later in my novitiate we read The Ascent. This time I knew a lot about Carmelite spirituality and the stages of spiritual growth. I also studied it with a knowledgeable guide and in a discussion group. After that we read Dark Night. I read both Spiritual Canticle and Living Flame of Love on my own. Teresa of Avila is hard for the average person of our day to understand, and John is harder. Anyway, my point (and Fr. Gabriel’s) is that love must motivate us from first to last. If we don’t understand that John’s teaching is about growing intimacy between the soul and Her divine Lover, we will not be able to follow it. And we will think only a few are called to the heights, or misunderstand what Christian detachment means. Does that make sense to you?
I see your edit, and it makes so much more sense! Fr. Marie-Joseph Huguenin, OCD is a friar from Quebec who completed his doctoral thesis at the Teresianum on a reader’s guide to the Ascent. His guide selects various chapters from the work, and he does not recommend reading one work all the way through, start to finish. Rather, he takes the reader from point to point and – in a connect the dots sort of way – once completed, the reader gains the big, beautiful picture that is the thought, theology, and doctrine of Our Holy Father. I think Fr. Gabriel would say, “bravo” for the way Fr. Marie-Joseph helps his readers to launch into the ascent with confidence and love, just like Little Therese.
Yes! That’s what I hope to do with this series too, look more at the over all themes in John’s work, rather than going line by line through one work. Otherwise, I could just hand people a commentary. Glad the edit worked for you.
Thank you for writing this out for us Connie.
I agree however something should be added when reading St. John of the cross one should use Lectio Divina or something similar as a meditative way to also live and be open to a much more profound experience and Union with Christ
Certainly, we shouldn’t just read it and not try to live it, if that’s what you are saying. That’s why I suggested meditating on his words for the next few weeks.
Oh, wait, I think you are saying that one should use Scripture in conjunction with John’s work? Scripture is certainly preferred for meditation. But sometimes we are tone-deaf to passages we have heard so many times. John appeals to the heart with every line of this poem, which helps raise our desires to god alone.
Yes as in the preface of Divine Intimacy
I look forward to your analysis.
I wouldn’t characterize Buddhist “detachment” as being without love. There are a lot of misunderstandings about Buddhism — perhaps because of words like “emptiness” used to describe experiences that are beyond thought. But the great 20th century Tibetan meditation teacher Tulku Urgyen said: “emptiness without compassion is never taught, water will always be wet.”
Alyosha, I knew I would hear form you when i wrote that! Of course, you as a Buddhist are striving to love others. But you are not practicing detachment out of love for God. For us, love is the beginning and end of detachment. So, love motivates us and gives us strength, and a deeper love is the goal towards which we aim. Detachment is only a means to grow in love. I did buy Buddhism for Dummies–I know, but I’ve got to start somewhere, right? I just haven’t read much of it yet, because I have so much reading to do about my own tradition. But I do look forward to learning more.
Yes! We’ve become blog friends. I appreciate you and your passion for God so much.
Buddhism for Dummies is probably pretty good. What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche is also a good introduction.
I’m not into mixing traditions. But I am very interested in parallels between traditions. I find what you talk about on this blog very inspiring.