Tuesday, 30 November 2021

The Experience of the Poetry of Saint John of the Cross

Here are Philip Harvey’s words about the poetry of Saint John of the Cross, given via Zoom at Carmelite Conversations on the morning of the 1st of December 2021. The four poems under discussion can be found in this blog’s previous posting: https://thecarmelitelibrary.blogspot.com/2021/11/three-poems-by-saint-john-of-cross-and.html

 The man we are reading this morning was born in1542. In that year Mary became Queen of the Scots at the age of six days, the Spanish established the city of Guadalajara in western Mexico, and Pope Paul III created the Holy Office in Rome, with jurisdiction over the Roman Inquisition. The friar named John of the Cross died 49 years later in 1591. In that year William Shakespeare was just starting to put on plays in London and it was three years since the Spanish Armada had been defeated by a combination of the English navy, bad planning and terrible weather. But inside Spain itself by then John of the Cross, through his words and actions, had become a most active and positive long-term influence on his own society. It is an influence that continues to this day.   

When John made up these poems he was locked in a cell, by order of the Carmelites, where he had to remain. The politics of that situation need not concern us here now. The words interest us. Each line in the poem of the dark night states one particular moment and movement away from an enclosed space to something else. Each line is like shorthand for the state of relationship he has with the person described in Spanish as ‘amada’, the lover, the one whose love is transformative of the beloved. We know these lines are shorthand for all sorts of personal states because John started to compose a commentary on each line, later on in his life. Although we may read the lines as a single sequence of experience, and that’s fine, I believe we are invited to contemplate the lines of the poem in the same way as we read Saint Teresa’s ‘Interior Castle’ (‘Las Moradas’), where we may find ourselves at any time at any place on our way through the Castle. In terms of our own relationship with God, Lover and Beloved, we may identify with particular lines of the poem, states that we know ourselves, or have even observed in others. While the poem reminds us of storylines in The Song of Songs and The Book of Wisdom, it is unquestionably a Spanish love poem, drawing on Spanish poetic tradition, a poem in which both the erotic and the spiritual are at play and where it is simply best to recognise that accommodation from the start.

Rowan Williams, someone who has written extensively on John and Teresa, recently spoke at a seminar in his homeland of Wales as follows: “There is a long-standing assumption within the world of faith that there is some kind of territory where you can actually let the emotions and the imagination run. You don’t have to check it for being safe. So when in the Psalms you find the Psalmist saying ‘Blessed be he that taketh thy children and dasheth their heads against the stones.’ The point of that is not, this is a godly thing to think. The point is there is space for someone to express the most murderous rage and get it out there and look at it.

“Or similarly, in the poetry of Saint John of the Cross, arguably the greatest writer about contemplation in the history of Christianity. The poetry is about loss and frustration, brick walls, and then it’s about something like erotic fulfilment, and then it’s about absence and darkness and then it’s about the blazing sense of presence in the world around, and so on and so on, as if he’s saying I’ve got to have somewhere to get all of this out, because it all has to do with something about my basic stance.”

This is helpful, as Rowan Williams also invites us to read the poem not just literally as some homoerotic outburst, which is valid in its own terms and there to see, but as John’s only way of saying what he knows of the encounter with the God of Love. His motives in making the poem become central and we need to keep in mind that the gender of the speaker is left completely open, it could be he or she, it could you or me. While we keep to the very modern perception that this is some personal confessional poem from John, we miss the poems main activity, namely that the person speaking is the soul. It is the soul who speaks of God and to God.   

The Carmelite Library contains many published translations of John’s poetry. I have read eight different translators of this poem, finding that each one places different emphases and even different meanings on the Spanish lines. All the translations are valid, thus reminding us of the different ways in which we can read and understand such a beautiful and deceptively simple poem. I have chosen John Frederick Nims’ version, made in 1958, for this morning’s session. I have done so not because Nims is the best translation, there is no best translation, but because he has rendered certain stanzas in a way I find well represents the sinuousness and multiple implications of the Spanish verse. He attempts to deliver the compact, autonomous nature of each line.    

[En una noche oscura]

After reading this poem several times, without John’s commentary, I see him presenting me with a range of states. I will say what they seem to be, in my reading. The opening verse speaks of being in darkness and yet filled with the longing of love. Such is the power of this longing, there is nothing for it but to break free. The night, in this setting, is a place of possibility, indeed we are in a place where things are happening. This is one state of being we experience in our relationship with God. We continue by a ladder secretly and in disguise, yet it is ‘sheer grace’ (to quote one translation) that assists us out of the house. The house itself may be read as all those things that contain us, hold us back from being with God. But the house may also be the body, simple material existence holding us from all the possibilities that we seek, including love. With only the light of love that burns in the heart, we find our way through the dark. Darkness here can be every kind of challenge, such as depression, loss, uncertainty, distraction, but darkness is also where we can find understanding. John brings us into the presence of the lover, someone who has been waiting for the beloved, i.e. us in our search for the lover. This occurs before sunrise, so is an illumination given in the night. The poem then spends two verses describing the pleasure and joy of being there with the lover, before speaking of being wounded by the gentleness of the caress. This moment makes the poem different from any conventional love poem, especially as the poet is grateful for this wounding, which can be thought of as necessary for the growth of their love, a lesson borne of suffering, but also the inevitable change brought about by an encounter with God. The poem concludes by speaking of a suspension of the senses, i.e. experience that is more than simply sensory and sensuous. Speaks too of forgetting ourselves, losing that former self in the love that now envelopes us. Speaks of letting go of all care, which I take to mean amongst other things, the overcoming of all fears. Thus we are left asking where we, and others, find ourselves in a relationship with this God, a lover who transforms our lives.

In the second poem this morning, John of the Cross finds a second way of expressing relationship with God. This time he starts by speaking of a living flame. The flame has the power to soothe, to enliven, to erase all debt, and to be there at any time. The flame also has the power to wound us, this same wounding that we heard about in the first poem. This is the suffering that teaches us more, so that we grow in relationship, suffering that is unavoidable in life and must be lived with and understood. The wound is where we learn more about God, about the wisdom that comes with such wounding. Although Christ is never named in the poem, it is Christ’s own wounding on the Cross, and the life-giving that comes from that wounding, that the poet is meditating upon in his words.

[Oh llama de amor viva]

John of the Cross was born into a conversos family, that is his ancestors were Jewish. This is an important fact to have in mind when reading him, as Jews had been outlawed by the Spanish Crown in the generation before John’s birth. In my view, this central form of identity feeds his thought and his writing. The sensuousness of his poetry, its profound biblical basis, the yearning and belonging he describes, are redolent of Jewish ways of life. John lives with an inheritance from which he has been ostracised. Many readers of John also regard John as Buddhist in his thinking, even though he would have had no encounter with Buddhism itself. We see this, for example, in John’s explanation of finding God in ‘nothing and everything’ (‘nada y todo’). We find this in these poems, with their ascetic giving up of everything that gets in the way of a relationship with the Lover, of putting away everything other than the flame that sears, wounds, soothes, heals and enlightens. Like his great colleague and collaborator Teresa of Avila (also conversos), John lives through a time of immense religious conflict in Europe. The divisions occurring everywhere in the church cause many to explore more deeply the reality of relationship with God, such as we find going on in John’s poetry.   

One enjoyment of John’s poetry is its evident location in Spain. The features of the physical world of his country fuse with biblical language in many effective ways. We hear fountains, see candlelight, walk up and down staircases, breathe in and out in the stillness of the night, taste bread and wine. This is so in the third poem that we read this morning. The version we read is one of my favourites. It requires some context for better appreciation. When the Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote his cycle of poems ‘Station Island’, he arranged them in order of the shrines that pilgrims reverence in that pilgrimage site in County Donegal called St Patrick’s Purgatory, at Lough Derg. He meets various shades during his own visit, including the novelist James Joyce, but also and significantly St John of the Cross. I say ‘significantly’ because Heaney’s own relationship with Christianity is sometimes ambiguous, laden with a mix of scepticism and respect. He is infinitely aware of his own Irish Catholic upbringing and of Christianity’s deep hold on that country. So, the opening lines recount Heaney’s own mooching about from one station to the next, when by chance he meets someone in an unusual fashion who instructs him to do penance by translating a poem of the Cross. He once said in an interview that the priest he meets is “based on a Carmelite who gave a retreat” during his last year of school, who told Heaney to “read poems as prayers.” To explain what this might mean, Heaney then quotes the Polish American poet Czeslaw Milosz: “He felt gratitude so he couldn’t not believe in God.” We can therefore take it that this translation is written in a spirit of thanksgiving.

[Que bien se yo la fonte]

My own response to this poem is always accompanied by a state of peacefulness , even complete tranquillity. Once more we find ourselves in the night. Again we meet a condition that is one of movement and the present moment, though this time water is the element that helps assist the poet in his understanding of the Creator. Seamus Heaney cleverly contrasts the ‘muddied water’ in the rain barrel, i.e. in the physical world of the here and now, with the ‘pellucid’ water of the fountain that is the source of all being. We may understand the creation in its entirety by listening to the fountain in the night. 

My response to the words is to hear them as a contemplative affirmation. God is always available, even if we doubt it, or cannot seem to connect, or even know exactly what is meant. ‘Although it is the night’ or ‘Because it is the night’: the fountain explains the creation simply through its own being. We are sked to enter into this contemplative vision. At the end of the poem, John identifies as well with the Eucharist, with Christ’s giving and life shared in the bread. Like the other poems, John of the Cross affirms that we live with acceptance of God’s actions. The poems are simple examples of grace at work, where we let go of all our usual supports and explanations, live detached from them, and engage increasingly inside the place of God’s action.  

To conclude our morning of poetry, I wish to read a sonnet about the saint, written by the contemporary English poet Malcolm Guite. Guite himself says that his sonnet is inspired by Seamus Heaney’s version of ‘Que bien se yo la fonte’. And here I quote Malcolm Guite’s own preamble, which I found on his online site. His words speak of some of the things we have been talking about this morning.

“St. John of the Cross … understood and dealt with the darkness that sometimes comes upon us, the saint who gave us the phrase ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’. John encountered darkness not only spiritually and psychologically, but actually: both physical darkness and the darkness of human evil when he was imprisoned in a dark dungeon by fellow Christians and indeed, members of his own order! But he did not give in to darkness, rather he perceived that it might become fruitful, the darkness not of evil but of God, that the way down might become the way up, that hidden even in the deepest darkness was the promise of that light which the darkness can never overcome. So he wrote that beautiful poem ‘Although it is the Night’, which Seamus Heaney translated so movingly, opening with the line: ‘How well I know that fountain, filling, running,/ Although it is the night.’ The other deep element in his writing is the way he understands Christ as our true lover and is able to draw on the deepest language of human loving to give voice to his intimate relationship with Christ. I have drawn on ‘Although it is the Night’, poem and on some of the elements in his story and his spiritual writings in making the following sonnet in his honour. My sonnet also reflects on the fact that his day falls in Advent when we are all waiting in Darkness for the coming of God’s marvellous light.”

John of the Cross


Deep in the dark your brothers locked you up

But not so deep as your dear Love could dive,

There at the end of colour, sense and shape,

The dark dead end that tells us we’re alive,

You sang aloud and found your absent lover,

As light’s true end comes with the end of light.

In the rich midnight came the lovely other,

You saw him plain although it was the night.


And now you call us all to hear that Fountain

Singing and playing well before the Dawn

The sun is still below this shadowed mountain

We wait in darkness for him to be born.

Before he rises, light-winged with the lark,

We’ll meet with our beloved in the dark.


Laboratories of the Spirit : R.S. Thomas’ religious poetry. Public conversation between Barry Morgan and Rowan Williams, conducted by the Learned Society of Wales  Cymdeithas Ddysgedig Cymru. On Youtube here:


The Poems of Saint John of the Cross, translated by Willis Barnstone, 1968

The Poems of St. John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell. Harvill, 1951

The Poems of St. John of the Cross, new English versions by John Frederick Nims. Grove Press, 1959

The Poems of St. John of the Cross, translated by Ken Krabbenhoft. Harcourt Brace, 1999

St. John of the Cross, a sonnet by Malcolm Guite, in Parable and paradox. Canterbury Press, 2016. Also online here: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2016/12/14/st-john-of-the-cross-a-sonnet/

Station Island, by Seamus Heaney. Faber, 1984

Stepping stones : interviews with Seamus Heaney, by Dennis O’Driscoll. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008

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