in soul pursuit

in soul pursuit

Thursday, 14 December 2017

'A Scent of the Divine' - Happy Feast Day of St John of the Cross!

Happy Feast Day of St John of the Cross!

Born on the feast day of St John the Baptist, like his name-saint, Juan de la Cruz points us towards the Christ-child and the approaching Joy of Christmas, often whilst standing in the darkness. But don't forget he also called his night 'more lovely than the dawn'. In the passage below, from my recently published book 'Confession: The Healing of the Soul', I concentrate on the mysterious passage in 'The Living Flame of Love', his last poem, in which the saint urges us to seek out, like a truffle hound, the sharp scent of the rastro of God in the frosty early morning air. Rastro is the scent or spoor left by a wild animal during the night. We know a fox or boar has been in our gardens the night before but we do not see it - all we are left with is the 'trace of the Divine'. An earthy metaphor for a saint often accused of being too other-worldly. So, as Christmas approaches, let us follow the 'scent of the Divine' which will, he assures us, lead us to the Christ-child.

Confessions of Fire - St John of the Cross

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.[1]


Prologue: A Trace of the Divine


          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 the commentary by St John of the Cross on his last, and possibly greatest, poem, The Living Flame of Love. The poem probably written sometime between May 1585 and April 1587 (according to the testimony of 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.[2] The preamble to his explanation above 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?

At this point of entry to the transcendent he declares that:


          There is a certain “I don’t know what” which is felt yet remains to be        said, a thing which is known but remains to be described, a trace of the     divine discovered by the soul which God has left to track Him down...     (CA 7.9)


It is as if having entered the Grail Castle only poetry will now suffice to convey what is happening. Using the language and imagery of the hunt John speaks of a divine trace or scent (un subido rastro que se descubre al alma de Dios quedándose por rastrear) which we have caught on the early morning air – this alone ( the ‘I-don’t-know-what’) will lead us to the Divine. It is, as he continues, ‘a love that wounds the soul,’ an outstanding experience that really cannot be put into words. It is Abhishiktananda’s ‘Grail’ experienced outside the bus station of Rishikesh, it is Wittgenstein’s fire of longing felt in the lonely dark nights of Norway:


          One of the outstanding favours God grants briefly in this life is an     understanding and experience of Himself so lucid and lofty as to make        one know clearly that He cannot be completely understood or       experienced. (CA: 7.9)


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 is made to a woman, and it is to a woman’s heart that he confides his last attempts at spiritual writing.





[1]St John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love, translated by Marjorie Flower, OCD: The Poems of St. John
of the Cross, incorporating adaptations by Fr Iain Matthew OCD:
¡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!
[2] For more on the chronology and background of John’s poems see Tyler 2010. For both Teresa and John I will use the BAC Spanish edition of their writings and the Kavanaugh and Rodriguez translations modified where necessary. See bibliography for more details and abbreviations of texts used.

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