Tuesday, 6 December 2022

The Spiritual Canticle of St John of the Cross STANZA 6


The Spiritual Canticle of St John of the Cross

Carmelite Conversations

Philip Harvey

Wednesday the 7th of December 2022


 Ay!, quién podrá sanarme?

Acaba de entragarte ya de vero;

No quieras enviarme

De hoy más ya mesajero

Que no saben decirme lo que quiero.


Ah, who will be able to heal me?

End by wholly surrendering yourself!

Do not send me any more messengers

they cannot tell me what I wish to hear.

(Venard xix)

 The opening stanzas of the Canticle enumerate the experiences of someone trying to make sense of relationship with God, now that they have been ‘wounded’ with love, calling out after the Beloved, i.e. God. We hear of how the soul, the lover, encounters obstacles and challenges on the way. Signs of the Beloved are everywhere, but where has he gone? The beauty he leaves in his wake draws the soul forward in search. News that others give of him – “a thousand graceful things” – only cause more longing and hurt due to absence. More questions than answers keep arising. The lover declares total devotion and the need to be close to the Beloved at all times. Because God is the source of Love, the lover yearns to be there more and more. One writer summarises St. John’s thought in this stanza thus: “The more that the soul knows God, the more it is consumed with desire to see Him. And when it sees that there is nothing that can cure its pain except the sight and the presence of its Beloved, it wants no other remedy. It begs Him to make it fully enjoy His presence … Only the sight of Him can satisfy the love it has for Him. It then beseeches Him to surrender Himself to it fully in complete and perfect love: Surrender yourself completely!” (Tonnelier 32)

 My personal response to this stanza comes from my own lifetime experience of prayer. This is the way his poem works, as a guide to the life of prayer, but also as an identifier of where anyone of us may be in the practice of prayer, which is about relationship with God, at any time in our life. So even though I am no expert in prayer, I can recognise what John is saying and make sense of it as real and valid experience. I relate immediately, for example, to the plea for healing. Although I don’t always think of going into prayer at the time as a means to healing, my experience tells me that some sort of mending, restitution, restoration of being happens through the simple process of praying. To be healed of the longing for connection with God, the Beloved, means praying more. It is God who heals, if and when we ask, and it can be as simple as that. The desire to have complete access and surrender is a familiar state for anyone who has been passionately in love. St. John knows this state, which he ascribes to our need for increased access and surrender to God, using the language of the Song of Songs. What we don’t want are any impediments, distractions, or as he calls them ‘messengers’ that only get in the way of complete access to our Beloved. Yet when it comes to God, we are still at the stage where we must discern that all such distractions, no matter how marvellous and placed in our way for our own improvement, are only signs and wonders of God, rather than true and complete access. It is not surprising that the lover impatiently wants these things out of the way at once. But who are these ‘messengers’? In his commentary, the poet asks to “grant that I no longer know Thee in this imperfect way by the messengers of knowledge and impressions, which are so distant from that which my soul desires.” They are necessary but at the same time “inadequate communications” that only serve to “increase the pain of Thy absence” and “renew the wound which Thou hast inflicted by the knowledge of Thee which they convey.” (Lewis 55) My sense is that the frustration expressed here is with having all sorts of signs everywhere that remind us of God’s Love, but they are only signs, reminders of what is truly possible, namely direct and even complete engagement. The experience of desire for more of this kind of relationship, this kind of love and all that it gives in turn, reciprocally, is the driving force of the soul in this situation. But I think we can also read the messengers to include the things of the world, pleasures, past-times, everything that brings passing satisfaction, but not lasting happiness, let alone eternal belonging. It is not so much a rejection of worldly things, as we call them, as the awareness that worldly things don’t last. We learn to identify them in their proper place. Our own desire meanwhile is for something greater, a desire that yearns and continues on.

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