in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Happy Feast Day of St John of the Cross - ¡Viva Juan de la Cruz!

Happy Feast Day of Saint John of the Cross. Through his prayers may the burning Fire of God fill your hearts as we approach the mysteries of Christmas!


St John of the Cross – The Living Flame of Love

Flame, alive, compelling,
yet tender past all telling,
reaching the secret center of my soul!
Since now evasion’s over,
finish your work, my Lover,
break the last thread,
wound me and make me whole!

Burn that is for my healing!
Wound of delight past feeling!
Ah, gentle hand whose touch is a caress,
foretaste of heaven conveying
and every debt repaying:
slaying, you give me life for death’s distress.

O lamps of fire bright-burning
with splendid brilliance, turning
deep caverns of my soul to pools of light!
Once shadowed, dim, unknowing,
now their strange new-found glowing
gives warmth and radiance for my Love’s delight.

Ah, gentle and so loving
you wake within me, proving
that you are there in secret, all alone;
your fragrant breathing stills me
your grace, your glory fills me
so tenderly your love becomes my own.


Translated by Marjorie Flower, OCD: “The Poems of St. John of the Cross”


¡Oh llama de amor viva
que tiernamente hieres
de mi alma en el más profundo centro!
Pues ya no eres esquiva
acaba ya si quieres,
¡rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro!

¡Oh cauterio süave!
¡Oh regalada llaga!
¡Oh mano blanda! ¡Oh toque delicado
que a vida eterna sabe
y toda deuda paga!
Matando, muerte en vida has trocado.

¡Oh lámparas de fuego
en cuyos resplandores
las profundas cavernas del sentido,
que estaba oscuro y ciego,
con estraños primores
color y luz dan junto a su querido!

¡Cuán manso y amoroso
recuerdas en mi seno
donde secretamente solo moras,
y en tu aspirar sabroso
de bien y gloria lleno,
cuán delicadamente me enamoras!

Below are some recent reflections on this wonderful poem starting with John's own commentary on them...

I have felt somewhat reluctant, most noble and devout lady, to explain       these four stanzas, as you asked, since they deal with such interior and    spiritual matters, for which communication language normally fails (as  spirit transcends sense) and I consequently find it difficult to say anything   of substance on the matter. Also, it is difficult to speak well of the intimate depths of the spirit (entrañas del espíritu, literally ‘entrails of the spirit’) if one doesn’t inhabit those depths oneself. And as I have not much done that up to now I have delayed writing about these matters. But now the Lord has appeared  to grant me a little knowledge and given me a little fire... I feel encouraged knowing for certain that by my own power I can say little of value, especially regarding such sublime and important matters. (LF: Prol.1)


So begins St John of the Cross’s commentary on his last, and possibly greatest, poem, The Living Flame of Love. Probably written sometime between May 1585 and April 1587 (according to the testimony of P. Juan Evangelista he only took a fortnight to write it) whilst he was Prior of the Convent of Los Martires in Granada under the shadow of the magnificent Sierra Nevada and Alhambra Palace, this introduction resembles the prologue to the last work of his equally famous co-worker and spiritual associate, St Teresa of Avila. John had arrived in Granada in 1582, the year of Teresa’s death, and I don’t think it is too fanciful to suggest that in this, his last great poem, he recalls the indomitable spirit of the great Teresa whose shade often hovers over the pages. For had she now not reached the place of bliss of which they had both spoken during their long and eventful collaboration together? She began her last masterpiece, The Interior Castle, thus:

Few things which I have been ordered to undertake under obedience have been as difficult as this present task: to write about the matter of prayer. Because, for one reason, the Lord doesn’t seem to be giving me the spirit or desire to do it. For another, for three months now I have had noises and weakness in the head that have been so great that I find it hard even to write about pressing business matters. However I know that the strength that arises from obedience has a way of simplifying    matters that seem impossible, the will is determined to attempt this task even though the prospect makes my nature suffer a lot; for the Lord   hasn’t given me enough virtue to enable me to continually wrestle both with sickness and occupations of many kinds without feeling a great aversion to such a task. (M: Prol.1)


So, both saints approached their last and possibly greatest tasks with equal aversion. Teresa complaining of ‘noises in her head’ which meant she couldn’t even attend to the necessary business of running a newly created religious order and John fearful of his own spiritual immaturity to write of such matters. Both protestations are belied, of course, by the masterpieces that they then went on to produce. Yet, I feel it might be a mistake to pass over these first protests too quickly. If such renowned spiritual masters challenge the whole task of writing about spirituality shouldn’t we pay attention to this? As much as Wittgenstein, Freud or Augustine, they stand on the abyss of unknowing that opens up with alarming rapidity when we stare into our souls, seeking to map that abyss with the tentative stutterings of their language. The ‘I know not what’ of John’s Spiritual Canticle. John’s Living Flame is thus his final confession and testament as he goes ‘gently into that Good Night.’ A testimonial made not to a priest or bishop, or even a Discalced Friar, but to a simple ‘unlettered’ lay woman – Doña Ana del Mercado y Peñalosa. Born in Segovia, to which she would return with John to found his convent there, she was at this time widowed and living in Granada with her brother.  John’s final testament, then, is to a woman, and it is to a woman’s heart that he confides his last attempts at spiritual writing.


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