St John of the Cross' Spiritual Canticle

Back to the series on the works we read in our spiritual classics class. We five weeks with St John of the Cross, (in this edition) and the Spiritual Canticle was the first work we read. We read the poem, plus the commentary on the first three stanzas, and the twelfth.

Dr Lilles recommended that we read St John's "Romances" to understand the Spiritual Canticle. They are very good in and of themselves, and I used them on the Spiritual Exercises to pray over the Incarnation and Nativity.

The Canticle is like the Song of Songs, and is a dialogue between bride (the soul) and bridegroom (Christ). In each of these stanzas, it is the bride speaking:

Where have You hidden Yourself,
And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You have fled like the hart,
Having wounded me.
I ran after You, crying; but You were gone.

O shepherds, you who go
Through the sheepcots up the hill,
If you shall see Him
Whom I love the most,
Tell Him I languish, suffer, and die.

In search of my Love
I will go over mountains and strands;
I will gather no flowers,
I will fear no wild beasts;
And pass by the mighty and the frontiers.

O crystal well!
Oh that on Your silvered surface
You would mirror forth at once
Those eyes desired
Which are outlined in my heart!

First stanza: The soul is waking up and realizes this world is passing, and has a sense of indebtedness to God. Most parishioners haven't really experienced God, and don't have this sense of indebtedness to him. They are at the stage of loving themselves for their own sake. The preaching of the Gospel therefore needs to be aimed at waking them up. This waking up is a holy fear, realization that I've wasted my life, and wanting to pursue God. In the Canticle the soul is on a passionate pursuit to find Christ; he woke her up.
I need to ask God when I've made a cry to him like this poem. What characterized my experience? "God, help me understand my experience with you."
O Lord My spouse, show me where you are hidden.
St John says that Christ is hidden in the innermost being of the soul. We need to seek for him in ourself with all the strength of our being. The core of your being is a trysting place for the living God. Encountering God in your inmost being points to the primacy of prayer that needs be in our life. To find the hidden God, we must also hide. To hide is to live by faith: don't calculate, don't rely on your natural gifts, your intellect. Rely rather on your faith knowledge. If you life by your intellect, you won't find the hidden God. The only way to serve God is by faith. Trust him, let him carry you, no matter what you see, no matter the things wrong you see. Don't calculate, or be anxious; look to him alone. Be faithful to what the Lord has for you to do here and now, rather than being anxious for your future. This living by faith alone is essential to self-renewal, and to the renewal of the Church.
St John of the Cross recommends an "emptying" sort of prayer, experiencing God though a via negativa. "Individuals who want to find him should leave all things through affection and will, enter within themselves in deepest recollection, and let all things be as though not." This has garnered him comparison with Buddhist meditation, and they can be rather similar. One priest I greatly respect has said that Buddhism is the best natural religion; ie the best that men have come up with, without divine revelation. The difference between John of the Cross and the Buddha is that John instructs us to make the Lord the desire of your heart, to place him first, while the Buddha teaches one to desire nothing at all. There is a lot of emptying in John of the Cross, but the desire for God must remain.

Second stanza: The shepherds are the soul's desires and affections for God; they may also be angels.

Third stanza: "In search of my love" is the soul's leaving her own will and satisfaction, so she can seek Christ. The mountains are virtues and the contemplative life, and the strands are mortifications and the active life. The flowers not gathered are the temptations of the flesh. The mighty are demons. The Lord allows demons in our life to teach us to rely on him. None of us can beat demons on our own; we have to rely on Christ. A demon who leads you to a habitual sin is allowed so that you will go to confession and realize you have to rely on Jesus. The frontiers are the natural rebellions of the flesh against the spirit.

Twelfth stanza: Seeing Jesus' face reflected in the water is mystical prayer. In this you aren't initiating anything; it's all the prompting of the Holy Spirit. This contemplation, attentiveness to the Holy Spirit, is the only thing that will make a man a good priest. Without it, he is limited to himself.

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