Themes from The Spiritual Canticle

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Blessed Soul by Bernini

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Before Christmas we began looking at St. John of the Cross’s poem The Spiritual Canticle. I hope you were able to spend some time pondering it.

This canticle is John’s equivalent of Interior Castle. He says of the verses:

“They refer… to the three states or ways of spiritual exercise (purgative, illuminative, and unitive) through which a person passes in advancing to this state [of perfection], and they describe some of the characteristics and effects of these ways.” (Theme, 1)

Now let’s briefly look at what he says about the purgative way. I won’t have time to dig really deeply into this. If you want more depth, read John’s commentary yourself! I just want to help you understand John’s perspective on the spiritual life, what he means by the terms he uses, and his general thought.

John’s “beginners”

As we know from reading St. Teresa and others, the purgative way is the way of beginners. John is famous for saying that those who dedicate themselves to prayer “very soon” receive the gift of contemplation. Here is one of the many ideas that we can misunderstand. Many people do!

John’s “beginners” are not those in the first mansions of St. Teresa, who have just barely entered the castle, are just barely avoiding mortal sin. Rather, they are advanced in the sense that they are nearing the end of the purgative way. He is talking about people in the third mansions.

Why do I say this? In his explanation of stanza 1, he says:

“The soul at the beginning of this song has grown aware of her obligations and observed that life is short … the things of the world vain and deceitful … and salvation very difficult.”

She also fears God must be angry with her for having wasted so much time on vain things. John describes her further:

“Touched with dread and interior sorrow of heart over so much loss and danger, renouncing all things, leaving aside all business. and not delaying a day or an hour…”

Now, honestly, how many of us can describe ourselves that way? We think of the saints in such terms. But John calls such souls “beginners.” What we tend to see as holiness is really just the beginning. This soul is not yet even a contemplative. But she has begun to put God first.

It’s vital to understand this if we don’t wish to misinterpret John. Because he says some very obscure things in the next several pages.

Where to find God

This beginner wants to find God. He is hiding. She

“seeks the manifestation of his divine essence … which is alien to every mortal eye and hidden from every human intellect.” (Stanza 1, 3)

John tells us that Jesus is hidden in the Father’s bosom. Easy enough.

But then he says that communications from God are not God. Sublime knowledge of God is not God. Consolation in prayer is not God. He warns us against “paus[ing] to love or delight in” any of these things (Stanza 1, 12).

And this is where many people, including Centering Prayer practitioners, go wrong with John. Thinking he is speaking of the absolute beginner, they teach everyone to ignore all communications from God, all good feelings, and all knowledge of God in prayer.

You can’t instruct a soul in the first mansions to do this! She doesn’t have any knowledge of God to speak of. She hasn’t experienced any consolation in prayer. God has not communicated anything to her. She has to get to know something about God before she can realize how far that knowledge falls short of God Himself.

What sense does it make to talk to a soul of not resting in “lofty experiences,” when she has not had any? John assumes that she has had some and not found satisfaction in them. She has learned that she must seek her Beloved beyond these experiences.

Here are some words that help us understand John’s meaning better:

“People, actually, cannot have certain knowledge from the one state [of consolation] that they are in God’s grace or from the other [dryness] that they are not… The soul’s chief aim in this verse is not to ask for sensible devotion… but for the manifest presence and vision of his divine essence.” (Stanza 1, 4)

So, he is not saying that we should try on purpose to avoid any kind of knowledge of God in prayer. Or that we should ignore any communications from God in prayer. Or that we should try not to feel good in prayer. What then?

We must realize that divine communications (real or imagined), consolation, and intellectual knowledge of God do not indicate intimacy with Him. They don’t indicate that the soul has found what she seeks. That’s it. It’s not that these things are not good. But they are not good indications that we are holy.

And, really, this is just what beginners–that is, those who have made some progress through the purgative way–are tempted to do. They are tempted to think they are saints because they experience consolation in prayer. They are tempted to ask God for more consolations, more communications, greater intellectual understanding, rather than true intimacy with Him.

John says, the soul must keep seeking. She has only just begun. She should not find satisfaction here. She cannot find God in His essence in these things. But she can find Him. Where?

In herself.

God dwells in the soul

This presents a third problem with interpreting John. He writes:

“Individuals who want to find him should leave all things through affection and will, enter within themselves in deepest recollection, and let all things be as though not… God, then, is hidden in the soul, and there the good contemplative must seek him…” (Stanza 1, 6)

John goes on to say that God dwells even in a soul in mortal sin. This is in keeping with the teaching of the Church. Mortal sin does not chase God out of the soul, for the soul cannot exist without a special act of God. The human soul is directly created by God. This sets it apart from everything else in the world. Everything else comes into being naturally–including the human body. But no act of nature can produce a human soul.

This is why, even though we can learn about God from nature, we cannot find Him there in the same way that we can find Him within our souls. Nothing else we experience on earth is as close to God as the soul. And nothing is as close to us either!

Think about that. We cannot get any closer to something than we are to ourselves. But as long as we are on this side of death we cannot get any closer to God than ourselves either. (Please note that John is not discounting the Real Presence in the Eucharist. He is looking at the natural world versus the supernatural.)

John’s words are sometimes taken as expressing nonduality. This is a completely erroneous interpretation. Blasphemous, even. John does not EVER identify God with the soul. He simply says–as does Teresa–that the soul is the best place on earth to find God. We can learn more about God by recollecting ourselves and focusing on the spiritual than by any seeking of Him in the world at large.

But that does not mean God and the soul are the same thing!

Our soul is the closest we can get to God on earth, yes. But there is a deeper union with God that we cannot experience on earth. One day we shall find Jesus in the bosom of the Father. In the Father’s innermost being, not our own. But we can’t experience that and live (on earth).

We move from the lesser to the greater. From the reflection of God in creation, to His reflection in our souls–which is so much greater–to the essence of God in the Beatific Vision. In case we do not understand this, John writes:

“However much the soul hides herself [within her soul], she will never in this mortal life attain to so perfect a knowledge of these mysteries as she will possess in the next. Nevertheless, if like Moses she hides herself in the cavern of the rock… God will show her his shoulders.” (Stanza 1, 10)

Yes, the amount we can learn about God from the physical world is limited. The amount we can learn by relying on our minds or affections is limited. The amount we can experience God through His communications is limited. But so is the intimacy we can find in our souls.

We do not see God face to face when we look at our souls. We only see His “shoulders” or back, as Moses did. This is more than we can see anywhere else on earth. But it is still not the fullest union with God. And it most certainly says nothing to obscure the fact that God and the soul are two separate beings, one uncreated, one created. One who is being, and one who receives being. One the I AM, the other, as God told St. Catherine of Siena, “she who is not.”

Please, do not let anyone lead you astray here! Christianity is not Buddhism, Hinduism, or any kind of New Age Spirituality. St. John of the Cross taught nothing like these other ideas. When you examine all his words in context, his meaning becomes clear.

And if you have any objections to my interpretation, or need any further help understanding this, please post a comment so we can make the truth clearer. Thanks!


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Hi, I'm a Catholic writer and homeschool mother of four boys. I practice Carmelite spirituality. Check out my Books page for publications to help your whole family grow in holiness.

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