POETRY: Saint John of the Cross — Songs of the Soul by E. Allison Peers

Saint John of the Cross — Songs of the Soul by E. Allison Peers

From Behind That Wall: An Introduction to Some Classics of the Interior Life

Because of the curious way in which their lives were intertwined, Saint John of the Cross is generally thought of side-by-side with Saint Teresa.  Her writings touch great heights, and, if we consider with them her achievements as a reformer and her personality, it is probably no exaggeration to say that she was one of the most remarkable women who have ever lived.  But, though she continually delights the reader, and sometimes, either by her versatile and flexible mind or by her sheer power, surprises him, she can hardly be compared as a writer with Saint John of the Cross, who, besides the same native shrewdness and the same unerring instinct of sanctity, had at his command the fruit of a lifetime’s reading, an aptitude for generalization, a technical skill in the presentation of a theme and the marshaling of arguments – in short, the mind and the gifts of a scholar.  He, too, had a far wider vision of the entire range of the interior life: his works form nothing less than a contemplative’s library, and a library stocked with works of such profundity that few readers can hope to assimilate it fully in a lifetime.

And, with all that, Saint John of the Cross was one of Spain’s greatest poets, and one of the greatest poets who wrote of the life behind the wall that the world has seen.  He wrote so little that for a few pence you can buy all the poems which made him famous, and yet they contain all the essence and magic of poetry, and the poetry-lover can enjoy them to the full, quite independently of their allegorical meaning.  His principal prose works take the form of commentaries on three of his own poems, grouped in a little collection entitled “Songs of the Soul,” so that if we study this collection we shall be at the very heart of his writing, both in verse and in prose.

But, first of all, let us glance at his life.  He was born, in 1542, to a poor family, in a village on the bare Castilian plateau, not far from Saint Teresa’s Ávila.  He became a Carmelite friar and studied at the Great University of Salamanca; but in those days the lives of monks, and even of friars, were fairly easy, and John wanted a life of greater self-denial and more time to spend by himself in meditation and prayer.  So when, at the age of twenty-five, he met Saint Teresa, whose reformed order, he thought, would give him just what he wanted, he joined her with all the enthusiasm of youth and became the first friar of her reform.

He began his new life, with two companions, in a poor cottage, so small that they had to use the porch for a church, and lived in a loft too low to stand upright in.  They slept on the bare floor.  Their pillows were stones.  For a window they had a hole in the wall; and in winter, as they knelt there and said Matins, the snow would drift in and cover their habits.  Barefoot, they went out every day into the country preaching the Gospel; and soon their sincerity and simple life made them a great many friends, and so led to the foundation of other reformed monasteries.

But the unreformed friars grew very much disturbed as all this: they were afraid that if it went on a life of poverty might be forced on them all.  So they tried to kill the reform by kidnapping John, imprisoning him in a small dark cell in a monastery at Toledo, flogging and starving him in the hope that he would recant and promising him honor and preferment if he did.  But through it all he remained steadfast, and after nine months’ imprisonment he escaped, though not before he had written some of the finest of his verses.

He lived for thirteen years after that, till he was forty-nine, for most of the time in the soft and pleasant climate of Andalusia, where he could wander about a  southern countryside, and say his prayers, as he delighted to do, under the starry sky.  It was in Andalusia, principally in Granada, that he wrote his four great treatises.  In his last years he was again faced with jealousy and persecution – this time from ambitious companions within the reform itself.  They deposed him from the position to which his seniority entitled him, so that he died in a kind of disgrace, as a simple friar.  But he cared very little about that.  He used to tell his friars that if they lived with their eyes fixed on God, nothing else would matter.  “Where there is no love,” he once said, “put love in and you will get love out.”  He himself always had plenty for everyone.

For he was, above all, a man of God: that was both the initial and the lasting impression that he made upon everyone.  “He was so good a man,” was Saint Teresa’s first verdict upon him.  “They take him for a saint,” she remarked later, “and a saint, in my opinion, he is, and has been all his life.”

“It always seemed that his soul was at prayer,” wrote a nun who had a happy knack for description.  That was as near as she could get to describing what she felt about him.  Others, in speaking of his goodness, would use symbols and call him a “flaming torch” and a “white dove.”  The habit still persists; and a modern poet, Antonio Machado, has apostrophized him, most happily of all, as espíritu de llama: “spirit of flame.”

And now let us turn to his three great “Songs of the Soul.”  The first of them is called “Dark Night.”  It tells about a girl who escaped from her house, much as John had escaped from prison, and journeyed through the darkness, “lit. . . only by heart’s inmost fire ablaze,” to seek her lover.  She attains her goal, and then she sings this song to the darkness:

O night that led’st me thus!
O night more winsome than the rising sun!
O night that madest us,
Lover and lov’d, as one,
Lover transform’d in lov’d, love’s journey done!

A much longer poem is the “Spiritual Canticle,” packed with rich and daring imagery – a modern “Song of Songs,” in which the Bride and the Spouse sing to each other in turn.  Incidentally it illustrates the poet’s love of the beauties of nature, to which various accounts of his life bear eloquent witness:

My love is as the hills,
The lonely valleys clad with forest-trees,
The rushing, sounding rills,
Strange isles in distant seas,
Lover-like whisperings, murmurs of the breeze. . . .

The third of his great poems, “Living Flame of Love,” is a wonderful attempt to describe the deepest and most intimate communion with God.  He piles image upon image as he strives to express the ineffable, but perhaps the most moving stanza is the last, the rhythm of which conveys so complete an impression of confidence and security:

How tender is the love
Thou wak’nest in my breast
When thou, alone and secretly, art there!
Whispering of things above,
Most glorious and most blest,
How delicate the love thou mak’st me bear!

Besides his “Songs of the Soul,” Saint John of the Cross wrote some similar verses.  A lovely poem, for example, on the Fountain of life, with a haunting refrain, “Although ‘tis night,” written in the Toledo prison.  And a striking allegory of the crucifixion in the form of a story about a shepherd boy.  Here he uses the artless language of popular poetry.  The love-inspired shepherd-boy is Christ; his love is the human soul; and the villain that comes between the two is the devil.  Listen to the plaintiveness and simplicity of the last two stanzas:

“Woe!” cries the shepherd-boy, “woe be in store
For him that’s come between my love and me,
So that she wishes not to know or see
This breast that love has stricken very sore!”

Then climbs he slowly, when much time is o’er,
Into a tree with fair arms wide outspread,
And, clinging to that tree, forthwith is dead,
For lo! his breast was stricken very sore.

In his four great prose treatises, Saint John of the Cross built upon these three poems a comprehensive account of the interior life as he knew it in its fullness, the highest stages of which embody sublime experiences of divine intimacy.  But he also gives a great deal of excellent advice to those who would follow him on his quest for God, much of which may be laid to heart by every Christian.  His knowledge of humanity and understanding of human motives were extraordinary.  As his poems suggest, one of his main themes is the twofold “Dark Night” – the Night of Sense, which means briefly the renunciation of all material things that may come between us and God, and the Night of Spirit, an “incomparably more awful” experience, in which it seems to the journeyer, as it once seemed to Christ, that God has forsaken him.  It is noteworthy that this great “Doctor of the Church Universal,” whose descriptions of the Uncreated Light of Union perhaps surpass any others, should have written with such clarity and force about the Dark Night as well.

But how, you may ask, can this sixteenth-century saint have anything to do with our busy, troubled, agonizing world of today?  I believe he has everything to do with it and we need to learn a great deal that he can teach us.

First of all, there is the appeal of the man himself.  Not for nothing was he, like Saint Teresa, born and bred in the luminous, crystal-clear atmosphere of the Castilian plateau.  He sees life sharply; calls a spade a spade; rejects pretense, euphemism, and compromise.  And everything that he teaches he illustrates in his own character.

Then he restores, to a world which sometimes seems in danger of losing it, the Biblical conception of the overwhelming greatness of Almighty God.  He cries, with Saint Augustine, “What can any say who speaks of thee?”  He meditates, like Pascal, on “the infinitely great and the infinitely small.”  He draws us right out of the petty, imperfect existence with which our spirits are too often satisfied.  He uplifts our hearts and desires, and yet he abases our pride.  And, as we enter those deep caverns, lit by the lamps of the divine attributes, which he describes in his “Living Flame,” we are hushed into reverence and awe.

Once we begin to realize something of God’s greatness and man’s littleness, we begin to understand the necessity for self-stripping and self-purification if we would undertake the quest for him.  The standards of Saint John of the Cross are high; his demands are severe; in the comfortable, easy-going nineteenth century, men called his teaching fanatical and repellent, even inhuman.  But today we know that we shall never get the best things of life by living in an easy-chair.  In recent years we have had to fight and struggle and suffer for things which our fathers and grandfathers took for granted; and we know that the prize has more than justified the sacrifice.

Much more so does this prize of which we read in Saint John of the Cross; and what he demands of us is merely to be as severe with ourselves as we think the prize merits.  He calls us from a hothouse religiosity into a keen, bracing air which is really the very atmosphere of the Gospels.  And we can all find inspiration in those invigorating maxims of his, which ring out as clearly as the strokes of a church bell on the frosty air:

Feed not thy spirit on aught beside God.
Look not at the imperfections of others: keep silence, and have continual
converse with God.

Love consists not in feeling great things, but in having great detachment and
in suffering for the Beloved.

Keep the image of God clearly and simply in thy soul.

Renunciation, single-mindedness, and detachment: in those three words we shall find the secret of true religion, which is ever-giving, unexpecting love.


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