Friday, 14 December 2012

The Matrix Poems of St John of the Cross

Philip Harvey
[Morning Tea in the 21st Century at the Carmelite Library]

Even though the Portuguese were the first Europeans to import tea from Asia, in the 16th century, it is unlikely that Saint John of the Cross would ever have drunk tea. Nor would he have had the pleasure of coffee, which doesn’t start entering Europe from the Middle East until about a century after his death.

John of the Cross would have known about biscuits, which were already a common food in the Middle Ages. Cake is at least as old as the Romans, and Shakespeare, who is a generation after John of the Cross, has Sir Toby Belch ask the Puritan Malvolio in ‘Twelfth Night’, “Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Sugar may have been known to John of the Cross, but it was a luxury item even after Christopher Columbus had brought it back from the Americas in the previous generation. The first record of chocolate being shipped from America is 1585, Veracruz to Seville, six years before John’s death, so he may just may have consumed chocolate.

In other words, morning tea would not only have been a cultural curiosity to John and all other Spaniards, and the English too actually, it would have been an impossibility.

This is not just a glib way of opening a morning tea discussion about Saint John of the Cross. Our ways of eating and drinking are qualitatively different and more sophisticated than those of people in the 16th century. We can take that for granted. We live at the other end of the globalisation era that erupted during the lifetime of John of the Cross, that period when the nations of Europe first started competing for claims over the lands they were discovering worldwide. The Spanish Armada disaster occurred in 1588, three years before his death, though we can assume from what we know of John that this event was not at the front of his mind at the time.

The culinary world of John of the Cross was Mediterranean. He did not experience tea or coffee. The three main liquids drunk by Spaniards at that time were the same they had been for centuries: water, wine, and milk. These three beverages, but water and wine in particular, are central in the poetic imagery of John of the Cross. Similarly, although biscuits and cake would have been nice, the staple food of Spain was bread. Everyone ate bread and it is a main element in his poetry, as well. Bread, wine and water were the poor and absolute essentials of a Mediterranean meal, which is why Christ used them in the formalising of the Last Supper. He didn’t use rich foodstuffs but the basics, the food anyone could get their hands on. And so it was still in John’s time, and so today. They are eucharistic because they are the essentials.

I also mentioned Columbus just before. One of the seminal dates in Spanish history is, of course, 1492 when, simultaneously, Spain bumped into America, and at home engaged in a full-scale program of “religious cleansing”. All Muslims, or moriscos, were driven out of the new united kingdom of Spain, and the Jews had the choice of conversion to Christianity, or leaving. This unhappy situation led to the forced conversion of many Spanish Jews, or Sephardim, soon known as conversos. This is extremely important to our appreciation of the first and second generation of new Christians in Spain, because so many of them took to the new religion with all the over-the-top enthusiasm of the recent convert. Many of the great Carmelite mystics like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, as well as many of the first men in the upstart order known by the bizarre name of the Society of Jesus, came from families that were conversos. They were Jews, they were Jewish Christians. They were kosher, according to the Spanish Rule, and they were mad keen to missionize the entire world opening up before the imperial power of Spain.

Before we turn to some poems, I will also draw your attention to the fact that we are surrounded by hundreds of printed books. When the poet John was born the printed books had been in existence for under one hundred years, which is about the period of time for us today since the introduction of radio. The printed book was the marvellous invention that had helped transform European cultural life and was one of the crucial media forms that brought on the Reformation of the Western Church. John himself would have lived in a world in which manuscripts and the spoken word were still very much the norm and this is worth keeping in mind when we listen to his poems because they are only secondarily being composed for general distribution, if at all. Most of the poems John wrote were composed as educational lessons for spiritual direction. Their message was emotional and intellectual at once, and there to be memorised. The last thing on John’s mind was that these poems be submitted to a learned periodical or loaded on his website. Indeed, essential to an appreciation of this handful of lyrical poems is that they were composed for a particular religious purpose. They were composed to be recited and repeated. When we read John we are in rooms and cloisters and gardens where human voices are communicating these marvellous experiences and possibilities.

[En una noche oscura]

One of the first things we notice about the words of ‘En una noche oscura’ is that they seem to be about a secret assignation at night between two lovers. Assuming that John is the speaker and the lover is male, a modern reader readily concludes that we have here an early example of Spanish gay verse. We read the poem this way because of our own readerly habits. We live in a post-Romantic and post-Freudian world, post-Wildean in fact, which means we read the poem as an erotic love poem directed at one individual, the object of human desire. Some would even say, how else are we meant to read the poem?

Whether or not John was gay, and this is a question that today vexes some scholars and readers, is actually beside the point. The poet is using a convention of the first person subject, that is when he says ‘I’ he means you and me, whoever the person is reading the poem. We identify with the ‘I’ of the poem. Our assumption that it has to be John is a mere assumption of modern reading practice, where we wish to believe that the poem is autobiographical, an insight into this person’s personal experience of passionate love, a confession of erotic desire and fulfilment. When we listen to Patti Smith’s version of ‘Because the Night’, for example, which I happen to believe is inspired by the poetry of John of the Cross, we know that we are hearing a piece of profane not sacred song lyric. But in the poem of the ‘dark night’ (‘noche oscura’) John has taken an established form of love poetry and converted it into a poem about the individual’s relationship to God.  

This desire for God is what John is concerned about. He is offering the possibility of a place we can be when we have overcome earthly desire, which is not a denial of that earthly desire or its reality, only that for him true love is with God.

This upturning of our own readerly expectations is further confronted when we must consider that John wrote these poems for the use of female novices in the convent, young women preparing to enter into profession. In other words the reader (‘I’ in the poem) is a woman seeking our her lover in the night. Furthermore, the lover is the epitome of all love, the God of her pure desire and wonder.

[Oh llama de amor viva]

The surviving poems of John of the Cross amount to about twenty or so individual works. This is a minimal number of poems for someone regarded as one of the greatest Spanish poets and formative for Spanish literature and Spanish sensibility. Shakespeare, for example wrote at least 37 plays, 154 sonnets, several long poems and who knows what else. Twenty poems?

Everything comes into perspective however when we start reading all the words that he put together as commentary to these poems. Here, to start with, are some of his words of explanation for the single line that goes ‘Las profundas cavernas del sentido’:

The caverns are the powers of the soul, memory, understanding, and will, and their depth is commensurate with their capacity for great good, because nothing less than the infinite can fill them. What they suffer when they are empty, shows in some measure the greatness of their delight when they are full of God; for contraries are known by contraries. In the first place, it is to be remembered that these caverns are not conscious of their extreme emptiness when they are not purified and cleansed from all affection for created things. In this life every trifle that enters them is enough to perplex them, to render them insensible to their loss, and unable to recognise the infinite good which is wanting, or their own capacity for it. It is assuredly a most wonderful thing how, notwithstanding their capacity for infinite good, a mere trifle perplexes them, so that they cannot become the recipients of that for which they are intended, till they are completely emptied. [III, 20]

And a little way along these words on the same the line:

Great, then, is the capacity of these caverns, because that which they are capable of containing is great and infinite, that is, God. Thus their capacity is in a certain sense infinite, their hunger and thirst infinite also, and their languishing and their pain, in their way, infinite. So when the soul is suffering this pain, though the pain be not so keen as in the other world, it seems to be a vivid image of that pain, because the soul is in a measure prepared to receive that which fills it, the privation of which is the greatest pain. Nevertheless the suffering belongs to another condition, for it abides in the depth of the will’s love; but in this life love does not alleviate the pain, because the greater it is the greater the soul’s impatience for the fruition of God, for which it hopes continually with intense desire. [III, 23]

When we find that this simple poem of four stanzas has an entire book of meanings attached to it, we start to comprehend that John is working at a level of spiritual involvement (and literary focus) that is remarkable and fully formed and like something from another place. His longest poem, The Spiritual Canticle, a reading of the Song of Songs in which the Beloved is Christ, likewise has a full-scale commentary which the nuns (and we today) have to read in order to understand what John is actually wanting to say. There is nothing remotely like this in English literature. English poets do not spend entire books giving us an explanation of each line of their poems, nor would we expect them to. We are used to literary criticism, the excessive effort of interpreting what the poet might mean and why, but that is simply addenda to the real stuff, much of it at odds with the possible intentions of the poet.

So what is going on here?

The poems were composed when John was thrown into prison by the Carmelites in Toledo. After his escape he went to live with the sisters in a town some distance from Toledo and it was they who requested of their spiritual director John an elucidation of the beautiful poems he recited. He then started writing out the background thinking, if you like, that made these poems possible. He wished to train them to be spiritual directors, in turn. Our English words are hopelessly unsatisfactory in trying to explain what John’s poetry is actually doing, so I try to describe them in these different ways:

  1. The poems are keys to his mystical thinking, as expressed in the long texts that are really the full expression of his way of living life and of coming closer to God.
  2. The poems are a shorthand for the big messages there in the process of change he identifies in the commentaries. They live dependent on one another, each enriching the other through repeated reading.
  3. The poems are mnemonics, memory games that the nuns would have used to remind themselves of the deeper spiritual significance. Each line triggers its own associations, so they could memorise the poems and thus recall each step in the process of ascetic improvement and growth.
  4. The poems are abstracts of the thesis that follows at much greater length.
  5. The poems are the wound or trauma out of which then comes the analysis, spread out over years.   
  6. The poems are a matrix out of which derive the whole mass of networked practices, that may be used as a manual for spiritual directors, or as elucidation for anyone of the affective spiritual life.
  7. The poems are the mustard seed that turns into the most practical, health-giving and beautiful tree.
In the first poem we heard about the ‘dark night’. When I was younger and first heard of John of the Cross, this ‘dark night of the soul’ was something of a turn-off. It sounded like the journey of some gothic gloomster intent on making everything as awful as possible. I was young, for it is only by reading John that we find that his ‘dark night’ is actually the place of creative growth. The word ‘oscura’, from which we get obscure and obscured, suggests instantly to a Spanish reader not only the dark but also something that, though hidden, is available and is there; it does not really mean as his translator Roy Campbell would have it, gloomy. It is only by going through the ‘dark night’, only by leaving everything open to faith, that other and miraculous things start happening. So that, just as the lover seeks out the lover in the ‘dark night’ and is not happy until completely at one, ‘face to face with Love’s own grace’, so in this next poem it is in the night that the mystery of being is revealed. 

[Que bien se yo la fonte]

The conclusion of this poem reminds us of the elemental world of John of the Cross that we met at the start: water, bread, wine. Seamus Heaney, in his version of the poem in his collection ‘Station Island’ translates the critical word ‘fonte’ as ‘fountain’, reminding us of splashing sounds in the nights of Spanish gardens. ‘Fonte’ reminds us of font, the pool or basin where we are baptised, baptism being the single first sign of being a Christian. For any reader of Romance languages, however, ‘fonte’ also means the place of origin of the spring water, the first source of being. In other words, what we mean by the word God. There is no doubt that all of these meanings are at work in John’s single word ‘fonte’. This meaning deepens when we hear the translator Kathleen Jones’s background briefing to this poem.

“In sixteenth-century Spain, fountains were usually to be found in palaces, and it is not likely that there was a fountain within earshot of St John’s miserable cell in the priory of the Calced Carmelites in Toledo.
“The priory was built into the walls of the city, which stands on a rock, all but encircled by the River Tagus. St John’s cell had a small window on to a walkway with a bigger one, and a sheer drop to the rushing waters below. The sound of the water was a constant reminder of the eternal grace of God, and the consciousness of God’s presence made a terrible situation not only bearable, but inspiring.
“He must have spent many hours alone in the dark, listening to the sound of the river, and the repeated refrain tells its own story. The water flows freely, he is a captive; yet he has his own source of freedom. The River of Life comes from God. It is the origin of all origins. The currents are the activities of the Church; and the two combine in the Sacrament, the Bread of Life. At least his captors did not deny him that.”

The Dark Night itself is the time of reaching to meet God coming to the lover. It is a creative place, the place where the overcoming or living through of desires and temptations and failures will, with persistence and intention, be the opening up to God and union with God. This is the ultimate desire of the person involved in living through the Dark Night. The Dark Night is not a place of hostility and evil, though these things may have to be dealt with. Peter Tyler talks about the late nights in Avila and elsewhere in Spain being the time when clarity and awareness are found in peace and silence. The darkest hour is just before sunrise, but is also the softest, quietest, most tranquil time of the night. I liken the Dark Night of John to the stifling warm nights in Melbourne that are followed by the cool change when we open all the windows of our house: God is like the cool change, that which comes after waiting and hoping and living in faith.

This is another way of describing God, but neither is God the cool change nor the cool change, God. God is the cool change blowing through us and transforming us, but if we say he is the cool change we have already missed the message. All of these things, words, images, music, artworks, ideas, are helpful in coming to union with God, but once they get in the way or become the object itself, they are unhelpful and must be put aside. This is the meaning of John’s description of the way to the summit of Mount Carmel being nada, nada, nada. Nothing must get in the way of the ecstatic union with God, not the role of the spiritual director, not useful analogies like the cool change, not any analogy or dogma, nothing, nothing, nothing.

[Paper given at a morning tea in the Carmelite Library by the librarian Philip Harvey on the feast day of St John of the Cross, Friday the 14th of December, as part of the program of the Carmelite Centre, Middle Park]

Some sources:
The Living Flame of Love, by St. John of the Cross, translated by David Lewis, 1912.
A New Companion to Hispanic Mysticism, edited by Hilaire Kallendorf, 2010 
The Poems of St John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell, 1951
The Poems of Saint John of the Cross, translated by Willis Barnstone, 1968
The Poems of St John of the Cross, translated by Kathleen Jones, 1993
St John of the Cross, by Peter Tyler, 2010
Station Island, by Seamus Heaney, 1984 

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