Archive for the ‘St. John of the Cross’ Category


Karol Wojtyla Encounters St. John of the Cross – Michael Waldstein

June 12, 2013
This concept of the relationship between God and the soul, at once filial and conjugal, is based on two constant elements: [1] the adoptive communication of grace and [2] the power of love.

This concept of the relationship between God and the soul, at once filial and conjugal, is based on two constant elements: [1] the adoptive communication of grace and [2] the power of love.

In 1941, one year before he entered the underground seminary of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, twenty-one years old, and a student of Polish literature, had a profound encounter with St. John of the Cross. The Gestapo played an instrumental and, in retrospect, historic role in bringing about this encounter. Hitler stripped Polish parishes of most their priests in order to break the backbone of Polish religious and intellectual resistance.

Consequently, Wojtyla came under the spiritual guidance of a layman, Jan Tyranowski, who introduced him to St. John of the Cross. The young student was so struck by St. John of the Cross that he immediately learned Spanish to read the Mystical Doctor in the original:

“Before entering the seminary, I met a layman named Jan Tyranowski, who was a true mystic. This man, whom I consider a saint, introduced me to the great Spanish mystics and in particular to St. John of the Cross. Even before entering the underground seminary, I read the works of that mystic, especially his poetry. In order to read it in the original, I studied Spanish. That was a very important stage in my life.”

Seven years after this first encounter with St. John of the Cross, now twenty-eight years old and a priest, Wojtyla defended his dissertation on the understanding of faith in St. John of the Cross, directed by Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, then professor of spiritual theology at the Angelicum. The dissertation, written in Latin, quotes the original text of St. John of the Cross in Spanish.

Looking back in 1982 at more than forty years of familiarity with St. John of the Cross, John Paul II says the following about his spiritual master in a homily delivered on November 4, 1982 (thus between TOB 99, October 27, 1982, and TOB 100, November 24, 1982):

“To him I owe so much in my spiritual formation. I came to know him in my youth and I entered into an intimate dialogue with this master of faith, with his language and his thought, culminating in the writing of my doctoral dissertation on `Faith in John of the Cross.’ Ever since then I have found in him a friend and master who has shown me the light that shines in the darkness for walking always toward God.”
[John Paul II, Homily at Segovia (Nov. 4, 1982)]

The main topic of Wojtyla’s doctoral thesis is faith as a means of union between God and the human person. Faith as a means of union is also the point John Paul II emphasizes in his apostolic letter Maestro en la fe (1990) dedicated to St. John of the Cross.

I myself have been especially attracted by the experience and teachings of the Saint of Fontiveros. From the first years of my priestly formation, I found in him a sure guide in the ways of faith. This aspect of his doctrine seemed to me to be of vital importance to every Christian, especially in a trail-blazing age like our own which is also filled with risks and temptations in the sphere of faith….

I wrote my doctoral thesis in theology on the subject of “Faith according to John of the Cross.” In it, I devoted special attention to an analytical discussion of the central affirmation of the Mystical Doctor: Faith is the only proximate and proportionate means for communion with God. Even then I felt that John had not only marshaled solid theological doctrine, but that, above all, he had set forth Christian life in terms of such basic aspects as communion with God, the contemplative dimension of prayer, the strength that apostolic mission derives from life in God, and the creative tension of the Christian life lived in hope.
John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Maestro en la fe to Felipe Sáinz de Baranda, Superior General of the Discalced Carmelites on the Occasion of the Fourth Centenary of the Death of John of the Cross (Dec. 14, 1990)

Had Wojtyla chosen the topic of love rather than faith for his dissertation, the evidence of the strong impact of St. John of the Cross on his understanding of spousal love would be more direct and clear.

Still, in his dissertation he does quote and analyze a text that seems to be an important seed of much of his later thinking about love and personal subjectivity.

O lamps of fire!
in whose splendors
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.

The sense of personal subjectivity, which is so important to Wojtyla, is powerfully expressed in this stanza: caverns of feeling with fiery lamps that spread warmth and light across the whole distance to the beloved. In his commentary on the last two lines, St. John of the Cross writes:

Since God gives himself with a free and gracious will, so too the soul (possessing a will more generous and free the more it is united with God) gives to God, God himself in God; and this is a true and complete gift of the soul to God.

It is conscious there that God is indeed its own and that it possesses him by inheritance, with the right of ownership, as his adopted child through the grace of his gift of himself. Having him for its own, it can give him and communicate him to whomever it wishes. Thus it gives him to its Beloved, who is the very God who gave himself to it. By this donation it repays God for all it owes him, since it willingly gives as much as it receives from him.

Because the soul in this gift to God offers him the Holy Spirit, with voluntary surrender, as something of its own (so that God loves himself in the Holy Spirit as he deserves), it enjoys inestimable delight and fruition, seeing that it gives God something of its own that is suited to him according to his infinite being.

It is true that the soul cannot give God again to himself, since in himself he is ever himself. Nevertheless it does this truly and perfectly, giving all that was given it by him in order to repay love, which is to give as much as is given. And God, who could not be considered paid with anything less, is considered paid with that gift of the soul; and he accepts it gratefully as something it gives him of its own. In this very gift he loves it anew; and in this resurrender of God to the soul, the soul also loves as though again.

A reciprocal love is thus actually formed between God and the soul, like the marriage union and surrender, in which the goods of both (the divine essence that each possesses freely by reason of the voluntary surrender between them) are possessed by both together. They say to each other what the Son of God spoke to the Father through John: All that is mine is yours and yours is mine, and I am glorified in them [John 17:10].
St. John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love

Wojtyla quotes key sections of this text and discusses them in some detail. The most important passage highlights the Trinitarian aspect of the transforming union between the soul and God.

This concept of the relationship between God and the soul, at once filial and conjugal, is based on two constant elements: [1] the adoptive communication of grace and [2] the power of love.

[Ad 1:] The soul becomes “God by participation’ and therefore by participation it possesses divinity itself;

[Ad 2:] and the will gives to the Beloved through love nothing less than that which it had received from him: the gift of participated divinity. Hence the soul gives God to himself and through himself because the motion of the Holy Spirit is continuously transformed.

Nevertheless, the one who gives is in fact the soul, which loves God in return to a supreme degree. Since its will is perfectly united with the divine will, it cannot carry out any other works than those that adhere to the divine will.

Consequently, due to the perfection of the transforming union, the soul’s will is entirely occupied in the same objectives of the divine will, namely, loving God and giving to him in love that which it has from him by participation — divinity itself, not only through the lover’s will, but as God loves, by the movement of the Holy Spirit.

With this, we reach the “Trinitarian” mystical teaching that was already mentioned in the Spiritual Canticle.
Wojtyla, St. John of the Cross, 230


More on Jesus And St. John Of The Cross – Fr. Iain Matthew

April 4, 2012

As St. John of the Cross’ illness increased at the end of his life, he was removed to the monastery of Ubeda, where he at first was treated very unkindly, his constant prayer, "to suffer and to be despised", being thus literally fulfilled almost to the end of his life. But at last even his adversaries came to acknowledge his sanctity, and his funeral was the occasion of a great outburst of enthusiasm. The body, still incorrupt, as has been ascertained within the last few years, was removed to Segovia, only a small portion remaining at Ubeda; there was some litigation about its possession. A strange phenomenon, for which no satisfactory explanation has been given, has frequently been observed in connexion with the relics of St. John of the Cross: Francis de Yepes, the brother of the saint, and after him many other persons have noticed the appearance in his relics of images of Christ on the Cross, the Blessed Virgin, St. Elias, St. Francis Xavier, or other saints, according to the devotion of the beholder. The beatification took place on 25 Jan., 1675, the translation of his body on 21 May of the same year, and the canonization on 27 Dec., 1726.
Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910

John’s word — an inflowing God, space for the gift — emerged from his experience; and Toledo was the furnace which fired that experience. The question about the importance or lack of it, of Jesus for John has to be answered there. In his Ballads, he has answered it for us there. When he needed to say something – not to teach, or direct, or comment, but just because he needed to say it (the witnesses say that is why he wrote poetry) — what he said was `Jesus’, who filled John in a poverty he had first shared.

If that is where John’s view of Jesus starts, we are in place now to follow it through in his major writings — along those two lines: where is Jesus in the doctrine on God’s self-gift; and where is he in the doctrine on making room? First, God’s gift, the to do, the ‘all’, which gives the nada any meaning.

We can focus here on two hinge chapters: one in Ascent, the work stressing the need to rely on God, in faith, and not on other supports; and one in Canticle, which presents the whole drama as a journey.

First, Ascent. When John says, `Not this, nor that, nor that, but faith’, it can bring a marvelous sense of spaciousness and freedom; but it can also bring a feeling of rootlessness. It is all very well his telling us to let go of secondary supports, but we have to hold on to something. The books of the Ascent revolve around this `something’, and it takes a hinge chapter to name it (unlucky for those who don’t read that far, but that is John’s style!). The hinge is Ascent, Book Two, Chapter 22. The author holds up a clear signpost announcing its centrality: ‘to clarify our subject and establish its doctrinal foundation …’ The chapter makes great reading on its own. But when it is put in context, it becomes very powerful.

To put it in context, a race through the twenty-one chapters that go before:

  1. 1-4, faith is a meeting, with God, in darkness;
  2. 5, the goal is union;
  3. 6, theological virtue brings you there;
  4. 7 we shall hop over;
  5. 8, feelings and concepts cannot actually .,~ deliver God in himself;
  6. 9, faith can and does; then come the alternatives to faith (listed in 10);
  7. 12-15, thinking about and imagining gospel scenes is important, but the time may come to go beyond pictures for the sake of more total presence;
  8. as for experiencing extraordinary phenomena, like apparitions (11, 16), this should not be actively sought — they do not give you God in himself; 17, God sometimes bestows these experiences because of a person’s concrete needs, but,
  9. 18, they can still be misunderstood –
  10. 19, Scripture shows us that;
  11. 20, even biblical personages could take up divine communications wrongly; and just because,
  12. 21, God answers when people ask for a sign, it does not mean he is pleased with that request.
  13. And so we come to 22. If, in the Old Covenant, people did ask for signs and were right to rely on extraordinary phenomena — prophets, dreams, priestly divination — why can we not cling to supernatural signs and experiences now?

The whole of the book rises to this question: What should we seek, if we don’t seek all of that? Put otherwise, the author says: not this, nor that, nor that, nor this, nor — and we say, `Well, what?! We have to look somewhere!’ Again, John says, faith, faith, faith, faith — and we say, `What is this faith for which we sacrifice everything else?’

The answer: Jesus Christ.

`In giving us, as he did, his Son, who is his only Word — he has no other — he has spoken it all to us, once and for all, in this only Word; he has no more to say.

Faith, to which all other means should be subordinated, now receives definition: Christ is the only `proximate means to union with God’. He is the `somewhere’ to which we must uniquely look. He is the Gift for which space must urgently be made.

This is the meaning of the ‘nada, nothing’: a space shaped for Christ. In Flame John showed how any emptiness is because of a greater fullness: there, to the bride-soul, `all things are nothing; she is in her own eyes nothing. Only her God is, for her, everything (todo)’. Now the everything receives a name:

`God has become mute and has no more to say: what he used to say partially, to the prophets, he has now said totally, in his Son, giving us his Son, who is our Everything …

If he is everything, he contains in himself the good that is in anything else. Religious experiences, charismatic gifts, supernatural phenomena, insights and uplifts — these are all excellent, if they point to Christ; they can be real motives for love, if they do not glue us to themselves but impel us to Christ, his word, his community. Otherwise, they will prove a (perhaps wonderful) irrelevance.

For John this was not cold doctrine: it kept his hope alive and was the source of his joy. In his prayer, he knew his own `meanness and limitations’; but `You will not take from me my God, what you once gave me in your only Son Jesus Christ, in whom you gave me all I long for; so I shall rejoice: you will not delay, if I do not fail to hope.’?

That is the gift: not just what Jesus said, but who he personally is: the Word, who reveals by being given, and who speaks by being.

This is the risen Christ, spoken once into history, and now eternally alive. He is the event of faith who `gives us an experience of God’. Risen — available, impinging, pressing to come in, held out to us as given. So for `anyone who wanted to question God’ or who sought to receive `some vision or revelation’, the Father would present this manifesto:

`If I have already said all things to you in my Word, my Son, and if I have no other, what kind of answer could I give you now, or what could I reveal that would surpass this? Set your eyes on him alone, because in him I have said it all to you [...] and you will find in him even more than you are asking, more even than you desire. [...] He is my total locution and vision, my total revelation and the whole of my reply. This I have already spoken to you, [...] giving him to you as Brother, Companion, Master, Ransom and Reward’s.

In Canticle there is a different atmosphere. The darkness there is more of the heart than the mind,’ where the bride, for all her clarity, feels rootless, homeless, until the Other is at her centre. The search is in the key of love, with its own kind of gift and its own way of receiving. The gift is `Christ, the Bridegroom’. If she keeps `turning over and handling these mysteries [...] of faith, she will deserve that love disclose what faith contains: the Bridegroom’.

The point is that love takes the person on a journey deeper into him. Deeper, but always into him. Canticle brings waves of understanding, unveiling each time what was there from the beginning. It is as if one heard a drama on the radio about children being saved from drowning; then it turns out to be a news item, not a drama; then one discovers the children are one’s own children.

So, the bride’s search starts off with a meditation on the mysteries of Jesus — meaning Jesus born, tempted, teaching, healing, praying, sweating, dying, rising. She begins with this. As she goes further, she comes … to the mysteries of Jesus; surpassing that she reaches … the mysteries of Jesus; until finally, in the utter newness of heaven, she will be overwhelmed by the mysteries of Jesus.

What began, then, as wholesome piety (Ascent of Mt. Carmel Book One, 13), develops into a raging sore (Canticle, Second Redaction, 7) — Give me no more messages: `You be the messenger and the message!’ What was felt as a sore, becomes a healing (Canticle, Second Redaction, 22). She had been involved all along in the life of the Healer (Canticle, Second Redaction 23). The layers keep unfolding, until finally the Healer becomes her home, his mysteries the living space in which both can be alive (Canticle, Second Redaction 37). She, and he, enter the caverns, las cavernas, which are himself.

And so up to the caverns,
set deep into the rock
– almost out of sight –
we’ll find a way to enter,
there to taste the pomegranate wine
(Canticle stanza 32).

`O my dove, in the clefts of the rock …’ (Song of Songs 2:14). Using Solomon’s language, John’s stanza reflects for him the union for which he has been striving, and anticipates the fullness of heaven. The commentary is a pivotal chapter.

The caverns, the living space, are the mysteries of Jesus. Entering means taking on the shape of Jesus’ life so as to meet Jesus’s heart.

`The soul longs really to enter these caverns, Christ’s caverns, so that she might indeed be absorbed, transformed, drunk with the love their wisdom contains, hiding herself in the heart of her Beloved.’

The caverns remain even in heaven: the risen Christ is what he is now, because of all he went through then. All he experienced then is alive in him. His earthliness is risen; but being risen, its vitality is infinite. John has emphasized the otherness of God. The journey into the heart of Christ which Canticle traces does not compromise that. In Christ, God’s otherness is communicated, not dissolved. For John, Christ is himself the receding depth which makes the divine `always new and increasingly amazing’.

`However much saintly teachers have discovered and holy people understood [...] the greater part remains to be said, and even to be understood. There is much to fathom in Christ. He is like a huge mine with seam after seam of treasures. However deeply you dig, never will you find an end or come to a conclusion …’

John does say that the time may come, in prayer, when it will be unhelpful to spend energy picturing gospel scenes. That is fair enough: what we want is the person, not pictures of the person. But there is nothing secondary about the role of Christ. John knows him, not as a potential hindrance, but as the universe’s open sluice-gate to the divine. He is the only place from which one can gaze on the Father unrestrictedly: `thanking the Father and loving him anew with great delight and feeling, through his Son Jesus Christ. And this she does united with Christ, together with Christ.’

Heaven will be that: a total entry into the caverns of Christ’s heart, an infinite space for the Father.

That accounts for Jesus’ place in half of the dynamic: the gift, the All, faith as presence. Unequivocally, John names it as the Son of God risen in his flesh. Jesus is that half of the dynamic.

What about the other half: the space, nada, faith as darkness? There is a hint back in Book 2 Ascent Chapter 22: part of the Father’s manifesto there runs like this:

`If you want me to answer with some word of comfort, look at my Son, subject to me and subjected, afflicted, out of love for me — and you will see how many words of comfort he will speak to you.’

When the Son speaks comfort, he speaks it with the strength of experience. His gift is, first, his companionship. Another hinge chapter (the one we hopped over in the summary of Book Two of Ascent) drives this implacably home.

As it becomes clear that John’s program can lead not just to upright behavior, but to inner poverty and total emptiness, it is hardly surprising that we may feel misgivings. That is where John’s hinge chapter, Book 2 Ascent 7, aims to meet us.

He does need to meet us. He needs to ground his invitation to go forward on sometimes naked faith, and on a love that can lead one to die for the other. That is the active side; but more than that, all he has to say about the obscurity that can submerge one’s horizons, till it fogs out the lighting of the soul, that, especially, needs justifying.

The undergirding has to address the whole program, not just part of the program. The hinge chapter comes in Ascent, the work ostensibly about the active side of our journey. It is Night that focuses on the passive side, on the darkness that comes upon us and can empty out one’s inmost spirit. But, in the mind of the author, Ascent and Night are two halves of a single project, in which he shows that the night which comes upon us is his real concern.

He looks towards that from the start, and when he has dealt with that, he feels that `the main reason for my setting to work’ has been addressed. When, in the chapter we are looking at now, he takes time out to underpin his message, the whole message, especially `the main’ message, is in view.

John reasons like this: I know that what I am saying seems to be stretching things, so I want to show that it comes, not from me, but from Christ.

He begins with Jesus’ words. The call to discipleship means a narrow gate and a tight passage; it means denying self, taking a cross, and following. Here, losing life is gaining; it is cup, sweet yoke, entry to the sheepfold. When a person goes forward without pay-offs, in darkness, dryness, to please God, that is `the cross, pure and spiritual, nakedness of spirit, the poverty of Christ’.

What John has to say, then, he believes to be thoroughly unoriginal. It is lifted straight from the gospel. Still, words are not enough. It is not enough for Jesus to have said, `night’; it is important in John’s view that he should also have experienced it, since `he is our example and our light’.

This introduces the great statement. As we said, it has to be strong enough to carry all the weight of pain that John is going to plumb in succeeding chapters. That means not just the struggle of effort (‘active’), but the reversal that comes upon us (‘passive’); not only at the level of physical hardship or pain (‘sense’), but at the more inward level that shakes or stifles me as a person (‘spirit’). There has to be a home here for the person who has come to feel `abandoned’ by God, fit to be `loathed by everyone and everything’ — even by God — `for ever’. John’s logic here is almost too daring. It is worth reading the passage gently:

`… progress lies only in imitating Christ: he is the way and the truth and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by him … So any person who wanted to go forward in sweetness and ease and ran from imitating Christ, well, I would not be happy about it.

Since I have said that Christ is the way, and that this way means dying to our natural selves in sense and spirit, I would like to show how this is modelled on Christ, since he is our example and light.

First of all [referring then to sense], there is no doubt that Christ died to sense — spiritually, during his life; and naturally, at his death. For, as he said himself, in his life he had nowhere to lay his head; and at his death, he had less.

Second, [so, the level of spirit] it is certain that at the moment of death he was also annihilated in soul, without any comfort or relief; the Father left him that way in innermost dryness, according to the lower part. That is why he was compelled to cry out, `My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?’ This was the most extreme feeling of forsakenness he had had in his life. And by it he did his greatest work — greater than any he had done in his life, however, miraculous, on earth or in heaven. That is, he reconciled and united the human race with God through grace.

This he did, as I say; at the time, the very moment when this Lord was most annihilated in all things: in his human reputation, since in seeing him die people mocked him instead of in any way valuing him; in his natural self, since there he was annihilated in dying; and in support and in spiritual comfort from the Father, since at that time he deserted him, so that he might pay the debt without qualification and might unite humankind with God – staying like that, annihilated, and reduced as to nothing.’

For John, the experience of God’s love is truest when it is too deep for words. In a related way, his picture of Christ’s love – annihilated, contorted, deserted — is too deep for comment.

What follows, then, is footnote rather than explanation.

It is vital not to minimalize the scope of what John says here, because it is one of Christianity’s greatest appreciations of the death of its Lord, and to short-change it would be to take away from believers something they may one day, in their own pain, need desperately to hear.

It has been suggested that John stops short of associating Jesus with the night of the spirit. The inclusion of the phrases, `according to the lower part’, and `feeling of’ in the fourth paragraph are seen as John’s way of drawing back from that association.

This is incorrect. The whole point of the chapter is to prepare the reader to accept whatever will come in the rest of the work. If Jesus were being proposed as a model only of more peripheral pain (for all its terror), that would make the chapter pointless. `You can go there because Christ has been there’; that is John’s logic.

What is more, Jesus is especially associated with that inner pain which bites at the level of spirit: `annihilated in soul’, `innermost dryness’, no `spiritual’ comfort. And despite the location of the passage in a book (Book II Ascent) ostensibly about the `active night’ (what we do), Jesus’ night was all about what happened to him — the more penetrating `passive night’. Jesus knew the night where what should not be, is.

John, like Aquinas, does talk about Jesus’ physical pain and his loss of reputation. But John is determined to follow through the consequences of the Cross. For him, the real focus is in Jesus’ relationship with his Father. That is where he feels abandoned. Jesus retrieves the sinner, the human race of sinners, by walking the sinner’s distance from the Father and retrieving him there.

Why, then, the phrases `lower part’ and `feeling of’?.

We are capable of knowing at one level and not knowing at another: there is the knowledge of words, of images, of concept, of feeling, of presence. A person can know their name, but not be thinking of their name. Someone in love can be concentrating on question four of their mathematics exam, and still know they are in love. This is all obvious enough. But the layering of the human spirit seems to go further. A person can know God more and be able to talk about God less. The saints can know hellish darkness and still speak of a kind of peace — but still be going through hellish darkness. The mystics are familiar with depths of spirit which have their own mode of knowing, untranslatable on to more customary levels.

It is human, then, to know and not to know at the same time. So, presumably, with the Son-made-human, Jesus, whose spirit is an unfathomable mine. To speak of ‘lower’ allows there still to be a ‘higher’, an even deeper. So John’s phrases, ‘lower part’, ‘feeling’, are his way of allowing, through traditional terminology, that the crucified Jesus, annihilated at all the levels with which we are familiar, was still, at a level deeper or higher than his thinking mind and feeling heart, at the fine-point of his spirit, uniquely in communion with his Father. The annihilation of the cross as it were scraped off every other layer to let that layer pulsate unrestrainedly. On the cross, the heart of Jesus became a massive space for the fire of the Spirit to burn — free to blaze out, `more intense than all the fires in the world,’ in resurrection.

Something else worth noting: the words ‘most extreme forsakenness — greatest work — greater than any other he had done’ ring a bell. They follow the same pattern as John’s statement about the primacy of love. ‘A little of this pure love is more precious to God … and of more benefit to the Church, even though it seems to be doing nothing, than all those other works put together.’ John learned that from Jesus. And Jesus taught him the nature of that love. That ‘pure love’ may bring radiant elation. On the other hand it may feel as rough as a splintered cross-beam. It may come as dryness, darkness, the over-exacting demand not to renege on one’s integrity. If it does, John says, know that you are not alone, and that you are helping to save the world.

John ends the passage by making that connection:

‘This is so that the really spiritual person might understand […) that the more annihilated she be for God […) the more is she united with God, and the greater the work she does. It doesn’t consist, then, in good times or sweet spiritual feelings, but in a living, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior, death on the cross.’

Why does John say that in Ascent, but not in the book where he describes the spirit’s stripping, the Night? On careful reading, Jesus is present in Night: it is love for him that empowers the person’s search; union with him, the `Son of God’, is the goal that makes it all worthwhile; and the `immense love of Christ the Word’, the risen Christ who kept the disciples’ hope alive, appears, furtively, at points in the drama. Jesus is present at the start and the close, and odd moments in between. But for most of the book, he does not appear.

That ties in with the main point of the book Night. The book means to tell us, not so much what is actually happening in the night of spirit, but how it feels. John wants to prepare us for night by simulating its crude obscurity as much as literature can. What night feels is `senseless’. `If I knew God was in it, I could go through with it’, but the point is that God feels not to be in it. That is what makes it night. John wants us to be prepared for that, and, in that, not to panic.

Godless is how it feels. Actually, the darkness of spirit which John plumbs is divine light too close to focus, love felt as pain.

That said, the face of Christ is not so far from the Night picture as at first seems. He is there, but there from the inside. The journey is not any journey. It is a way of the ‘cross’.  It is hanging in mid-air, unable to breathe. It is the belly of the whale, the belly of the earth, the `sepulchre of dark death’, prelude to `the resurrection’.

In the night, Jesus is not only `there’. His dying and rising is an active force, prone, if allowed, to unfold its compacted meaning. He shapes us from within. The nada is his emptiness. The darkness that can eat into human life, with its threat of isolation and appearance of chaos, has taken on Christ’s contours. It has become a space for his Father to fill.

`Jesus’ is far from secondary to this sixteenth-century Spaniard. But he does view him in a particular light, and this has its consequences. He dares to propose him as model in the night, at its worst — the terrible night, horrenda noche. The texts mean that, whatever the person may be suffering, Jesus has touched and sanctified that abyss. Jesus may not have shared the pain in kind — he did not know what it was to grow old, to lose a child, or to sin. But he has searched out every pain in intensity. The suffering of the Son of God, wrecked, mocked, deserted and Godforsaken, offers a home for everyone’s sorrow.

John’s vision, then, has consequences. It means that I am never alone; wherever I may have to go, Jesus has been there, Jesus is there. John’s Christ is the understanding Christ, the Christ who knows what it is like to be me.

However, if Christ’s companionship is that far-reaching, and his love is that dynamic, John’s vision commits believers, not simply to acknowledging formulae about Jesus, or to following a benign ethic; it commits them to allowing Jesus to work out his dying and rising in their lives.


Considering Jesus While Reading St. John Of The Cross – Fr. Iain Matthew

April 3, 2012

St. John of the Cross’ axiom is that the soul must empty itself of self in order to be filled with God, that it must be purified of the last traces of earthly dross before it is fit to become united with God. In the application of this simple maxim he shows the most uncompromising logic. Supposing the soul with which he deals to be habitually in the state of grace and pushing forward to better things, he overtakes it on the very road leading it, in its opinion to God, and lays open before its eyes a number of sores of which it was altogether ignorant, viz. what he terms the spiritual capital sins. Not until these are removed (a most formidable task) is it fit to be admitted to what he calls the "Dark Night", which consists in the passive purgation, where God by heavy trials, particularly interior ones, perfects and completes what the soul had begun of its own accord. It is now passive, but not inert, for by submitting to the Divine operation it co-operates in the measure of its power.
Here lies one of the essential differences between St. John's mysticism and a false quietism. The perfect purgation of the soul in the present life leaves it free to act with wonderful energy: in fact it might almost be said to obtain a share in God's omnipotence, as is shown in the marvelous deeds of so many saints. As the soul emerges from the Dark Night it enters into the full noonlight described in the "Spiritual Canticle" and the "Living Flame of Love". St. John leads it to the highest heights, in fact to the point where it becomes a "partaker of the Divine Nature". It is here that the necessity of the previous cleansing is clearly perceived the pain of the mortification of all the senses and the powers and faculties of the soul being amply repaid by the glory which is now being revealed in it.
St. John has often been represented as a grim character; nothing could be more untrue. He was indeed austere in the extreme with himself, and, to some extent, also with others, but both from his writings and from the depositions of those who knew him, we see in him a man overflowing with charity and kindness, a poetical mind deeply influenced by all that is beautiful and attractive.
In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1910

There is a moving scene towards the end of A Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt’s play about Sir Thomas More. Thomas is in prison, disgraced already and soon to be executed, for his conscientious stand against Henry VIII’s ecclesiastical policy. In this, he is very alone. Actual letters of his to his daughter Meg convey his state of mind: he could see former colleagues chatting merrily as they sauntered to the buttery, and one can almost hear Thomas saying, `How can it be so easy for them?’ or `Why must it be so difficult for me?‘ In the play, Thomas is visited by his sturdy, uncomprehending wife, Alice. She has brought some gifts, and Thomas tries to be appreciative:

`You still make superlative custard, Alice.’
`Do I?’
`That’s a nice dress you have on …’

Alice at this point explodes:

`I know I’m a fool, but I’m no such fool as [...] to relish complimenting on my custard …’

So starts a tirade in which she tells him what she thinks of his obstinacy. Thomas stops — the tone has become real — and (`just hanging on to his self-possession’) he says, `Alice, if you can tell me that you understand, I think I can make a good death, if I have to…’

`If you tell me you understand me, I think I can go through with it.’ John of the Cross knows how far the `going through’ can go. It may be hard to credit it, but he writes of a night (presumably his own, presumably in Toledo) where the gentleness of God so exposes a person’s inner crudity that he feels `cast off by God’, fit to be `loathed by everyone and everything’ — even by God — `for ever’. That, and all the physical, emotional, spiritual unhinging that leads up to it, is how much a person may ‘go through’, and it is important for such a one to be understood

Jesus wanted, not necessarily to dismiss pain, but to sustain faith in the pain; so John is aware that one can go through with it, not if suffering is lessened to my threshold, but if I know I am not alone.

There is the problem. Ultimately, we do not want to base our journey just on the wisdom of some sixteenth-century Spaniard. Only Jesus could make John’s teaching universal. `There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’ than that of Jesus (Acts 4:12). Yet when one picks up the Spaniard’s works, they seem disconcertingly thin on Jesus’ name. Worse, the books of the Night are particularly thin on it, where, if anywhere, the companionship of Christ would seem to be important.

Some authors have asked just how Christian John of the Cross was. The theologian Karl Rahner, generally favorable towards him, suggests that the friar had secondarily to correct a `start on a pantheistic basis’. We can make the point with a somewhat unfair statistic: the word `Jesus’ occurs in John’s longer works (700 pages of Spanish edition) only four times. Admittedly ‘Jesucristo’ occurs as much again, and `Cristo’ and ‘Hijo’ (Son) are frequent enough. But the problem is there.

John’s picture of human degradation recorded in the night is really a question about the Incarnation. One response to inner city deprivation is that people of prayer should go and live in deprived areas and be a presence there, because — in this view — part of Incarnation is just `being with’. Well, is it? If it is, how far is it? Is God a masterful physician who diagnoses from afar? Or is he someone who has gone to the scene of disease or famine and attended close hand? Or is he someone who, when he attends, really knows what he is doing because he has first caught the disease and starved from the hunger?

This question has to be put to John because he has sounded the depth of human suffering as few others. For John, does Incarnation mean that the Son of God has been precisely there, and suffered it; or is night a place which the Son of God has cured, but to which he has never gone? Are people who are experiencing a nightlike obscurity going to be merely tended by the heavenly physician, or does he, first, from the inside, understand them?

To answer the question from John’s point of view we need to get into his wavelength. We shall look at that first.

How To Read St John Of The Cross
`I can see that Christ is very little known by those who think themselves his friends.’ This startling statement of John’s suggests that, when he talks about Christ, he is not going to say just what everybody else says. If, in his writing as a whole, John’s intention is not to repeat, but to deepen, not to add more bits, but to enable a genuine benefiting from the bits we already have, this is especially true when we look at the place of Jesus. It is a test case in reading John’s works correctly.

  1. First, John’s word about Christ does a specific job. His aim is not to expound creedal statements about Jesus; or develop a series of meditations on, say, the Passion; or exhort people to service on the model of Jesus’s service — though all of these were prevalent in his day. He is going to tell us Christ’s place in the vital movement upon which all those other approaches depend: the God who is giving himself, and the space in the person for that gift. That was the pattern of John’s experience: `to do’, `everything’, the gift; and `nada’, `nothing’, the space. It is Christ’s vital involvement in this that we need, on coming to terms with John, to know.
  2. That means, secondly, that there will be matters important to John in his life that are not treated in his works; so that a knowledge of his life is particularly helpful in the case of this author. The fact is that Hispanic Christmas dramas, Eucharistic processions, drawings of the Crucified, songs about the Good Shepherd, gave color to John’s year and to the life of his communities.

    `Among the mysteries he loved most were, it seemed to me, the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity, and also the Son of God made human (humanado).’ That was the observation of one Sister Maria.’ Others say John would become enthusiastic when he talked about the Virgin Mary or about the Eucharist. Either way, the human Jesus — Son made flesh, mother of the flesh, sacramental flesh – seems in life to have been a preferred topic.

    His letters confirm it. St Teresa’s tend to begin, `The Holy Spirit be in your Reverence. . .’John chose a different opening: `Jesus be in your soul’. Though the word `Jesus’ may not cram the concordance of the author’s longer writings, when it comes to correspondence with people dear to him, what he wants for them is that the human  ‘Jesus’ be ‘in’ them.

    There is a touching letter of his to the nun, Ana de San Alberto. She and John were the same age, and they were close enough to be frank. The letter lets us in on John’s prayer: he asks Ana, when she feels the need of support, to go to Christ, because that is where he goes — to `that spotless mirror of the Eternal Father’ — and he sees her there every day.

  3. If Jesus so filled John’s daily life, his presence should be perceptible in the writings. It is, so long as we switch over to John’s linguistic atmosphere. This is a third criterion for reading John: learn his language. `Jesús’, `Jesucristo’ are rare. `Christ’, `Word’, `Son’, `Lord’ are more common. But characteristic are more personal or poetic ways of speaking about Christ. `Bridegroom’ and `Beloved’ primarily refer to him, and together they occur about 550 times.

    The vocabulary becomes quite psychedelic. We might be hard put to remember when we last referred to Christ with one of these terms: Brother, shepherd, health, ransom, medicine, mountain goat, stag, lion, garden, fountain, rock, deep mine, well of Bethlehem, lily of the valleys, light of the eyes, prisoner, sweet nightingale! When one learns John’s idiom, Jesus’ presence spreads rapidly.

  4. Fourth, John sometimes writes passing phrases — tips of icebergs — which show the way he is thinking but which do not get developed. For instance, the Bridegroom in Canticle — the object of the whole search and the One really searching — is identified at the very end as `the most sweet Jesus, the Bridegroom of faithful souls …’

    The power unleashed on John of the Cross in the Living Flame is identified as the vitality of the risen Christ — `I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me.’ The letting-go discussed in Ascent has one motive and model: `love for Jesus Christ’ whose only food was ‘doing the will of his Father’. The one who enters the space of the purified soul in the same work is named as the `Son of God’. And the desperate longing which fuels the pain of night is disclosed as a need for the Easter Jesus, on the model of Mary Magdalene anxious at the sepulcher.

  5. A last criterion: it is important in reading John not to be beguiled by quantity. Whereas Teresa will tell you what is important to her and repeat it till there is no mistaking her, John may say what is important to him once; in the wrong place. Sometimes there are signposts which say, this is a hinge chapter — the rest of the book depends on it. That is so of Ascent book two, chapter five which tells us that the goal of this whole process is, not just perfection, but union — relationship, with God. It is true too of key statements about Jesus (we shall come to them). They do not take up many pages, but without them the book loses its consistency — they are really its spine.

These then are criteria for reading John, which are specially helpful in understanding the place of Jesus in his writings:

  1. relate the question to the central pattern: gift, space for the gift;
  2. be aware of John’s life and pastoral ministry;
  3. tune into the special atmosphere and language;
  4. look out for passing phrases which tell you how the author is thinking;
  5. take hinge paragraphs or chapters seriously.

With the help of these tools, it is worth now getting to grips with John’s understanding of Jesus. If his work as a whole emerges from his experience, and if we came to understand his main thrust (gift, todo; space, nada) by going back to that, presumably we will best understand John’s view of Jesus by following the same route. We shall search for Jesus in the pattern of the works as a whole. But here we want to root that in the Toledo experience which generated all that John later has to say.

Who Is Jesus For John Of The Cross?
A way to begin might be to ask this: suppose someone approached you, someone who had been instructed in the Christian faith, but who is searching for its meaning in their life. The person says to you, `I was brought up a Christian, and I know about the Bible, but I want to find out: what does Jesus mean for you?’ In answering that, what phrase, or image, or memory would come to mind?

That was John’s question in Toledo. He had learned about Jesus as a child, read Scripture carefully, examined the issues at university. He had preached Christ and guided others towards him. But now, beyond anything he had experienced before, he needed to meet him; Jesus, whom he had always known, but, it now seemed, had never really known. His prison canticle put it neatly: ‘Where have you hidden, beloved?’

`What does Jesus mean for me?’ That was the real drama of John’s imprisonment; and, thankfully, he shares with us his answer.

The answer comes in a poem we have scarcely mentioned, but which forms the prologue to all the works — the lenses through which they all have to be viewed. It is the Romances or Ballads on the Incarnation: John’s reflection, in faith, on the mystery of Christmas. The Ballads are his statement, then, of who Jesus is for him, when he needs an answer.

John was jailed early in December. The Ballads have a strong Advent tone. They could well have been the first verses he composed in his dungeon. Unlike his other major poems — Flame, Canticle, Night, Fountain — these are not an obvious fruit of poetic genius. They are basic, rustic. Ballads were a common form: popular songs, with easy rhymes and rhythm, usually telling a love story — the kind of thing John’s older brother got into trouble for singing with the lads round the streets of Arevalo.

In the Golden Age of sixteenth-century Spain, setting Christian themes to popular tunes was nothing new: saintly evangelists were keen on the technique, men like John of God, servant of the sick, or the Franciscans Peter of Alcantara and Paschal Baylon. The enlightened bishop of Granada, Hernando de Talavera, even wrote Christian songs in Arabic for his Moorish population. In particular, Teresa’s reform of the Carmelite Order relished an atmosphere of family cheer. La Madre composed her own Christmas repertoire; and several of her sisters produced, specifically, `ballads’.

Teresa had been careful to initiate her new recruit, Fray John, into the light touch and tuneful feel of her communities. She writes of how she brought him to experience `the way we live as sisters together and the kind of recreation we take’. Teresian reform included, for John, Teresian festivity, and Ballads came naturally to him.

At a time of trauma, one might think back to a song or carol one learned as a child, and sing it as a way of keeping sane. It would be simple, but it would say what needed to be said. So with John here. Easy songs, popular metre, Teresian cheer, Christmas: he resorted to the form that came easiest, to express his faith in what was most homely, in circumstances that were, for him, most alienating.

That is the scene: a young man, flogged, starved and left in a dark hole, accused by the very walls of failure, guilt, rejection; fit to be ‘loathed by everything,’ to be ‘loathed and rejected by god – quite rightly, forever.’ What did he find to say into that?

The Ballads comprise nine scenes. Though the rhyme may be unspectacular, the theology they contain is astounding, the more so for being so neatly compressed.

The first three scenes set us in a universe of generosity: the Trinity. Far from being tame or flat (`It’s Trinity Sunday — it’ll be a short sermon’), John finds there irrepressible energy. He portrays a Father and Son who are, simply, amazed at each other, `gone’, gone out to each other. There is a kind of rhapsody in the Father’s admission, `nothing gives me joy, Son, outside of your company …’ They are `lover and beloved’ who `live’ in each other, and whose shared vitality is the Holy Spirit.

The Trinity appears here as act, event, where the Father is always conceiving the Son, the Son is always reinvesting love in the Father. Theirs is not a stale or level love; it escalates up and out the more intensive it is: `love, the more it is one, the greater the love it bestows.’

Already we have a lesson here. Poverty and bestowal are the co-ordinates of John’s system not merely because that is how things have to be for us as human beings. Things are that way because that is how God is: Father, Son and Spirit are each absolutely poor because they each give themselves completely — so each is utterly rich with the other’s generosity.

`So the Son’s glory,
is the glory he has in the Father;
and all the Father’s glory
he possesses in the Son.’

The rapture and surprise in the love of each person for the other comes out in the third scene, where Father and Son discuss the project of creation. `A bride who might love you, my Son …’ The Father wants to share his appreciation of his Son. The Son thinks that is a wonderful idea — `thank you very much, Father. ” — because the bride can then relish the beauty of the Father. Father wants bride to enjoy Son; Son wants bride to relish Father. It is as if creation were the fruit of an excess of unselfishness.

A word of command — `Let it be done’ — and the universe is created. This starts the fourth Ballad. It is here that the Son’s plan, and the poet’s understanding of who Jesus is, takes shape.

The plan matches the arc-like movement of the Word in the Fourth Gospel — `I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and going to the Father’ (John 16:28). So here the Son intends a cosmic sweep in which he will embrace his bride, ‘tenderly[…] give her his love,’ and lift her into the life of the Father. Where the bride, the ‘body’ of which Christ is the `head’, is meant as humankind, the rescue will involve sacrifice:

`for in all things like to them
he would himself become
and he would come to them
and with them make his home,
and God would be man
and man would God become
he would spend with them his time
and eat and drink together
and with them he would stay,
he himself in constancy.’

If this is who Jesus is for John, what is the emphasis?

Without forcing anything, there is a stress on being with. Being with, in all our mundanity: eating, drinking, staying, spending time. When a person is with another, something is taking place — something potentially enormous. When the Son is with mankind, he is not just `there’. An exchange of energy takes place, with huge consequences: `God would be man, and man would God become’.

When Thomas Aquinas asks the reason for the Incarnation, he says magnificent and very helpful things. But ultimately he considers that the Word would not have become flesh had there been no sin for which to atone.

In John’s theological studies, this question of Aquinas’ was on the curriculum. Yet here in the Ballads, written a decade after John’s university days, sin is not the prominent issue. Now, when John has been taken beyond his own threshold, it is important not only that the Son should forgive, but that he should stay with, be with.

The Ballads continue (Scene Five) with a medley of Old Testament quotations summing up the bride’s Advent longing  –  `Oh that you would tear the heavens open and come down.’ Longing means `agony’, `tears’, `groans’; it is longing for the Son’s compania, companionship.  This accumulated desire banks up in the old man, Simeon (Ballad Six), who, in hope, waits.

Then Ballad Seven: on the threshold of the Incarnation, another scene-shift introduces a touching dialogue between Father and Son. It is as if the Father, now that the moment has come, were anxious to coax his Son into what, he knows, will be cruelly painful. Father says `with tender love’, `You see, Son …’ The speech goes like this: You see, Son, that your bride has been made in your image, and insofar as she is like you, she suits you very well. But she is different in that she has flesh… Perfect love has a law, that the lover should want to be like the one he loves…

The Son hops over the Father’s tact with an irrepressible `Yes!’ His Father’s will is his total delight; and the chance which it gives him of announcing to the world his Father’s `beauty’, `gentleness’ and `sovereignty’, is for him irresistible.

We shall come back to the Son’s closing words in Ballad Seven; but in the following scene the tone turns homely as we enter the dwelling of a young Galilean woman. There will be a wonderful exchange, if Mary will allow it … She will: she surrenders to the Word, and the wedding of the Bridegroom — Son and the Bride — humankind takes place. But there is a touch of dissonance in the closing scene (Ballad nine). While the wedding celebration goes on around (angels, shepherds), Mary gazes at her crying baby. She is stunned at what the exchange is meaning: while man is getting to know joy, God is discovering tears.

Back to the response to the Father’s coaxing (Ballad Seven). The Son is eagerly saying `Yes’ to his Father’s design. His enthusiasm reaches a climax with the words:

`I shall go to seek my bride
and I myself shall shoulder
her weariness and troubles
in which she suffers so
and, that life might now be hers
for her I will to die,
and drawing her from the lake
to you I shall restore her.’

If this is who Jesus is for John, what is the emphasis here? Things have moved a stage further. The emphasis is on `being with’, `company’, but company that shares pain. The Son wants to `be with’ from the inside, from inside her weariness and troubles in which she suffers so.

In order to rescue the bride from `the lake’, the Son wills first to drown with her in the lake.

That is who Jesus is for John of the Cross, as he begins months of isolation and bitter disapproval, when everything — his body, his friends, his future, his sense of purpose, even the God of his fathers — turns stranger. In faith, Jesus is the one whom John encounters at his side, weeping his tears and feeling his anguish, sweetening what is immeasurably bitter by his spousal love.

When John later writes about gift and space, night and flame, he writes it out of that.


Ballad On The Gospel “In The Beginning Was The Word” — St. John of the Cross

April 2, 2012


In the beginning abided
The Word, and in God he dwelled;
In Him was his happiness
Eternally held.
It was called the beginning,
This same Word which was God:
He dwelled in the beginning,
Himself unbegotten.
He was that same beginning,
Thus he himself had none;
There was born of this beginning
The Word we call Son.
He always has conceived him
And so conceives him always,
Always giving him His substance
Which always has been his.
And so the Son’s great glory
From the Father had arisen;
All his Glory then the Father
Possessed within the Son.
Each dwelled within the other
As Lover and Beloved dwell,
And the self-same love that joined them
Resided there as well
With the one as with the other
In worth and in degree:
Three persons, one Beloved,
Together they were three.
A single love dwelled in them all,
One Lover all provided:
And the Lover is the Loved One
In whom they each resided.

For the Being all three possessed
To each alone belonged,
And what belonged to this one Being
By each one was beloved.

This Being was each single one
And they were tied by this alone
In an inexpressible union
For which no name is known.
For it was infinite, the love
Which wrought their unity.
And this is called their essence,
The single love possessed by three;
And the more love grows to oneness
The more it is increased.


The Communication of the Three Persons

From that unbounded, mighty love
Between the two arisen,
Words of deep content and joy
The Father uttered to the Son;
Words of such profound delight
That no one comprehended;
The Son alone possessed their joy,
For him they were intended.
But what is fathomed of their sense
Was spoken in this way:
My Son, nothing brings content to me
Beyond your company.
And if anything content me
In you do I desire it;
By him who most resembles you
Am I most satisfied.
And who resembles you in nothing
Nothing in me will he find;
By you alone have I been pleased,
O life of my own life.
You are Light of my Light,
My wisdom and my knowledge,
The form and figure of my substance,
In whom I am well pleased.
My Son, unto the one who loves you,
Of myself shall I give freely,
And place in him the self-same love
That I possess for you,
Because he also loves the one
Whom I have loved so dearly.


The Creation

My Son, it is my wish to give you
A bride for you to love,
Who through your worth will well
To live as our companion,
And eat her bread at our table.
The bread on which I fare;
That she may know in such a Son
The wealth of good I bear;
And she will join with me in praising
Your grace and glowing splendour.
I am deeply grateful, Father,
The Son said in reply,
And to the bride you give me
I will add my clarity.
That with its light my Father’s worth
By her may be perceived,
And how this nature I possess
Was from His own received.
And I shall hold her in my arms,
To burn there in your love,
And she will glorify your goodness
In eternal celebration.


So let it be done, the Father said,
For so your love deserves;
And this sentence that He uttered
Was the making of the world:
Creating in surpassing wisdom
A palace for the Bride,
Which into two apartments,
High and low, he did divide.
And of an infinite variety
The lower He composed,
But beautiful the one on high
With rare and precious stones.
That the Bride may know the Bridegroom
Whom she possessed in love,
He stationed choirs of angels
in the hierarchy above.
But to the chamber down below
Human nature He assigned,
For being in its composition
A somewhat lesser kind.
And through their nature and their station
He chose so to divide,
They were all the single body
Of one beloved Bride.
For by the love of one sole Bridegroom
They formed a single Bride;
Those above possessed their Spouse
In fullness of delight;
Those below in expectation
With faith that he inspired
Through saying that by Him, one day,
They would be magnified.
And that the lowness of their nature
He would raise up and exalt.
In such a way that no one then
Could scorn it or find fault.
For He would make himself like them
And resemble them in all,
He would walk with them in friendship
And among them he would dwell,
And God would then be man
And man then be God would be;
In their dealings He would mingle,
He would eat and drink as they,
And at their side unceasingly
He Himself would stay,
Until this age that now prevails
Is closed and passed away.
When in eternal harmony
They would rejoice as one
For of the bride whom He possessed
He was the head and the crown.
To her He would unite and join
The members of the just;
They formed the body of the Bride
Whom He would gather up
Tenderly into His arms,
There give to her His love;
And thus would bear her to the Father,
United into one.
Where she would joy with that same joy
Possessed by God Himself;
For as the Father and the Son
And He who issues from them
All live within each other,
So also would the Bride;
Absorbed, immersed within her God
She would live His very life.


And this happy expectation
Coming to them from on high
Made the dullness of their labours
Seem easier to bear.
But the length of endless waiting
And the heightening desire
For possession of the Bridegroom
Made them constantly despair.
And so with supplications,
With sighs of grief and pain,
With tears and lamentations,
They begged Him night and day
That to give them His companionship
He would at least decide,
Some said: ‘If only this great joy
Could happen in my time!’
“O Lord, have done,” said others,
“Send Him whom you decreed.”
Others: “O if you broke those Heavens
Open so that I could see
You descend before my eyes,
Then I would cease my weeping.
O clouds above, send down your rain,
The dry land is beseeching,
And bring fertility to earth -
But thorns has she produced -
Set her budding with that blossom
Through which she will bear fruit!’
Others said: ‘O fortunate is he
Who lives at such a time,
With worth enough to look upon
Our God with his own eyes,
And touch Him with his hands,
And share His company,
And rejoice in the Sacred Mysteries
Which He will then decree.’


With these and other prayers
A span of time ran by;
But in later years the fervor
Strengthened and rose high.
It was then that aged Simeon,
With longing set aflame,
Entreated God to spare his life
And let him see that day.
And so the Holy Spirit
To the good old man replied
And gave his word in promise
That he should never die
Until he saw the very Life,
Descend from above,
And would take in his own hands
That self-same living God,
And would hold him in his arms,
And clasp Him to himself.


Continuing the Incarnation

Now that the season had arrived
Appointed long ago
For the ransom of the Bride, who served
Beneath the yoke,
According to the ancient law
Which Moses laid upon her,
The Father moved with tender love
To this effect then spoke:
My Son, you see now that your Bride
In your image has been formed,
And where she most resembles you,
You both are in accord.
But she differs through the flesh,
Not found in your pure soul;
There is, for love’s perfection,
A law of love to know:
That the lover takes on likeness
To the loved one of his heart,
And the closer the resemblance
The greater the delight
And this delight within your Bride
Would greatly be increased,
If the flesh she is endowed with
She saw you also shared.
My will is yours and yours alone,
The Son to him replied,
The sovereign glory I possess
Is that your will be mine.
So I accord with you, my Father,
In everything you say.
Your loving kindness will be seen
More clearly in this way.
Your mightiness and wisdom
And justice will be shown.
I shall go and tell the world
And make the tidings known
Of your graciousness and beauty
And of your sovereign throne.
I shall go and seek my Bride,
And I myself shall bear
The weariness and the hardship
That submerge her life in care.
And so that she may have life
I shall die for her sake,
And to you again restore her,
Lifted from the lake.


Then he summoned an archangel;
Saint Gabriel came,
And He sent him to a maiden,
Mary was her name,
Whose consent and acquiescence
Gave the mystery its birth;
It was the Trinity that clothed
With flesh the Living Word.
Though the three had worked the wonder
It was wrought in but this one,
And the incarnated Word
Was left in Mary’s womb.
And He who had a father only
Now possessed a mother,
Though not of man was He conceived
Bur unlike any other.
And deep within her body
His life of flesh began:
For this reason He is called
The Son of God and Man.


The Birth of Christ
Now that the time of His birth
Had finally come
He emerged from His chamber
Like a newly wed groom,
His arms embraced closely
The Bride He brought in,
Whom the radiant mother
Laid down in a crib,
Among some of the creatures
There at that season
Men singing songs
And angels in anthem
Rejoiced in the nuptials -
Such a pair were allies -
But God in the manger
Whimpered and cried.
These were the jewels
The bride brought in marriage,
The mother in wonder
To witness such change:
Man’s grieving in God
And the gladness in man,
Which to either before
Had been so unknown.

Translation: Lynda Nicholson, Cambridge University Press, 1973


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