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THE present volume of the works of St. John of the Cross contains the explanation of the “Spiritual Canticle of the Soul and the Bridegroom Christ.” The two earlier works, the “Ascent of Mount Carmel” and the “Dark Night of the Soul,” dealt with the cleansing of the soul, the unremittant war against even the smallest imperfections standing in the way of union with God; imperfections which must be removed, partly by strict self-discipline, partly by the direct intervention of God, Who, searching “the reins and hearts” by means of heavy interior and exterior trials, purges away whatever is displeasing to Him. Although some stanzas refer to this preliminary state, the chief object of the “Spiritual Canticle” is to picture under the Biblical simile of Espousals and Matrimony the blessedness of a soul that has arrived at union with God.
The Canticle was composed during the long imprisonment St. John underwent at Toledo from the beginning of December 1577 till the middle of August of the following year. Being one of the principal supporters of the Reform of St. Teresa, he was also one of the victims of the war waged against her work by the Superiors of the old branch of the Order. St. John’s prison was a narrow, stifling cell, with no window, but only a small loophole through which a ray of light entered for a short time of the day, just long enough to enable him to say his office, but affording little facility for reading or writing. However, St. John stood in no need of books. Having for many years meditated on every word of Holy Scripture, the Word of God was deeply written in his heart, supplying abundant food for conversation with God during the whole period of his imprisonment. From time to time he poured forth his soul in poetry; afterwards he communicated his verses to friends.
One of these poetical works, the fruit of his imprisonment, was the “Spiritual Canticle,” which, as the reader will notice, is an abridged paraphrase of the Canticle of Canticles, the Song of Solomon, wherein under the image of passionate love are described the mystical sufferings and longings of a soul enamored with God.
From the earliest times the Fathers and Doctors of the Church had recognized the mystical character of the Canticle, and the Church had largely utilized it in her liturgy. But as there is nothing so holy but that it may be abused, the Canticle almost more than any other portion of Holy Scripture, had been misinterpreted by a false Mysticism, such as was rampant in the middle of the sixteenth century. It had come to pass, said the learned and saintly Augustinian, Fray Luis de Leon, that that which was given as a medicine was turned into poison,11‘Los nombres de Cristo.’ Introduction. so that the Ecclesiastical authority, by the Index of 1559, forbade the circulation of the Bible or parts of the Bible in any but the original languages, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin; and no one knew better than Luis de Leon himself how rigorously these rules were enforced, for he had to expiate by nearly five years’ imprisonment the audacity of having translated into Castilian the Canticle of Canticles.22This exceptionally severe legislation, justified by the dangers of the time, only held good for Spain and the Spanish colonies, and has long since been revised. It did not include the Epistles and Gospels, Psalms, Passion, and other parts of the daily service.
Again, one of the confessors of St. Teresa, commonly thought to have been the Dominican, Fray Diego de Yanguas, on learning that the Saint had written a book on the Canticle, ordered her to throw it into the fire, so that we now only possess a few fragments of her work, which, unknown to St. Teresa, had been copied by a nun.
It will now be understood that St. John’s poetical paraphrase of the Canticle must have been welcome to many contemplative souls who desired to kindle their devotion with the words of Solomon, but were unable to read them in Latin. Yet the text alone, without explanation, would have helped them little; and as no one was better qualified than the author to throw light on the mysteries hidden under oriental imagery, the Venerable Ann of Jesus, Prioress of the Carmelite convent at Granada, requested St. John to write a commentary on his verses.33Ann de Lobera, born at Medina del Campo, November 25, 1545, was a deaf-mute until her eighth year. When she applied for admission to the Carmelite convent at Avila St. Teresa promised to receive her not so much as a novice, but as her companion and future successor; she took the habit August 1, 1570, and made her profession at Salamanca, October 21, 1571. She became the first prioress of Veas, and was entrusted by St. Teresa with the foundation of Granada (January 1582), where she found St. John of the Cross, who was prior of the convent of The Martyrs (well known to visitors of the Alhambra although no longer a convent). St. John not only became the director and confessor of the convent of nuns, but remained the most faithful helper and the staunchest friend of Mother Ann throughout the heavy trials which marred many years of her life. In 1604 she went to Paris, to found the first convent of her Order in France, and in 1607 she proceeded to Brussels, where she remained until her death, March 4, 1621, The heroic nature of her virtues having been acknowledged, she was declared ‘Venerable’ in 1878, and it is hoped that she will soon be beatified. He at first excused himself, saying that he was no longer in that state of spiritual exuberance in which he had been when composing the Canticle, and that there only remained to him a confused recollection of the wonderful operations of Divine grace during the period of his imprisonment. Ann of Jesus was not satisfied with this answer; she not only knew that St. John had lost nothing of his fervor, though he might no longer experience the same feelings, but she remembered what had happened to St. Teresa under similar circumstances, and believed the same thing might happen to St. John. When St. Teresa was obliged to write on some mystical phenomena, the nature of which she did not fully understand, or whose effect she had forgotten, God granted her unexpectedly a repetition of her former experiences so as to enable her to fully study the matter and report on it.44 See ‘Life of St. Teresa’: ed. Baker (London, I904), ch. xiv. 12, xvi. 2, xviii. 10. Venerable Ann of Jesus felt sure that if St. John undertook to write an explanation of the Canticle he would soon find himself in the same mental attitude as when he composed it.
St. John at last consented, and wrote the work now before us. The following letter, which has lately come to light, gives some valuable information of its composition. The writer, Magdalen of the Holy Spirit, nun of Veas, where she was professed on August 6, 1577, was intimately acquainted with the Saint.
“When the holy father escaped from prison, he took with him a book of poetry he had written while there, containing the verses commencing ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ and those others: ‘I know the fountain well which flows and runs, though it is night,’ and the canticle, ‘Where have you hidden yourself?’ as far as ‘O nymphs of Judea’ (stanza XVIII.). The remaining verses he composed later on while rector of the college of Baeza (15791 – 81), while some of the explanations were written at Veas at the request of the nuns, and others at Granada. The Saint wrote this book in prison and afterwards left it at Veas, where it was handed to me to make some copies of it. Later on it was taken away from my cell, and I never knew who took it. I was much struck with the vividness and the beauty and subtlety of the words. One day I asked the Saint whether God had given him these words which so admirably explain those mysteries, and He answered: ‘Child, sometimes God gave them to me, and at other times I sought them myself.’”55‘Manuel Serrano y Sanz,’ Apuntos para una Biblioteca de Escritores españoles. (1903, p. 399).
The autograph of St. John’s work which is preserved at Jaén bears the following title:
“Explanation of Stanzas treating of the exercise of love between the soul and Jesus Christ its Spouse, dealing with and commenting on certain points and effects of prayer; written at the request of Mother Ann of Jesus, prioress of the Discalced Carmelite nuns of St. Joseph’s convent, Granada, 1584.”
As might be expected, the author dedicated the book to Ann of Jesus, at whose request he had written it. Thus, he began his Prologue with the following words: “Inasmuch as this canticle, Reverend Mother (Religiosa Madre), seems to have been written,” etc. A little further on he said: “The stanzas that follow, having been written under the influence of that love which proceeds from the overflowing mystical intelligence, cannot be fully explained. Indeed, I do not purpose any such thing, for my sole purpose is to throw some general light over them, since Your Reverence has asked me to do so, and since this, in my opinion too, is the better course.” And again: “I shall, however, pass over the more ordinary (effects of prayer), and treat briefly of the more extraordinary to which they are subject who, by the mercy of God, have advanced beyond the state of beginners. This I do for two reasons: the first is that much is already written concerning beginners; and the second is that I am addressing myself to Your Reverence at your own bidding; for you have received from Our Lord the grace of being led on from the elementary state and led inwards to the bosom of His divine love.” He continues thus: “I therefore trust, though I may discuss some points of scholastic theology relating to the interior commerce of the soul with God, that I am not using such language altogether in vain, and that it will be found profitable for pure spirituality. For though Your Reverence is ignorant of scholastic theology, you are by no means ignorant of mystical theology, the science of love, etc.”
From these passages it appears quite clearly that the Saint wrote the book for Venerable Ann of Jesus and the nuns of her convent. With the exception of an edition published at Brussels in 1627, these personal allusions have disappeared from both the Spanish text and the translations,66Cf. Berthold-Ignace de Sainte Anne, ‘Vie de la Mère Anne de Jésui’ (Malines, 1876), I. 343 ff. nor are they to be found in Mr. Lewis’s version. There cannot be the least doubt that they represent St. John’s own intention, for they are to be found in his original manuscript. This, containing, in several parts, besides the Explanation of the Spiritual Canticle, various poems by the Saint, was given by him to Ann of Jesus, who in her turn committed it to the care of one of her nuns, Isabelle of the Incarnation, who took it with her to Baeza, where she remained eleven years, and afterwards to Jaén, where she founded a convent of which she became the first prioress. She there caused the precious manuscript to be bound in red velvet with silver clasps and gilt edges. It still was there in 1876, and, for all we know, remains to the present day in the keeping of the said convent. It is a pity that no photographic edition of the writings of St. John (so far as the originals are preserved) has yet been attempted, for there is need for a critical edition of his works.
The following is the division of the work: Stanzas I. to IV. are introductory; V. to XII. refer to the contemplative life in its earlier stages; XIII. to XXI., dealing with what the Saint calls the Espousals, appertain to the Unitive way, where the soul is frequently, but not habitually, admitted to a transient union with God; and XXII. to the end describe what he calls Matrimony, the highest perfection a soul can attain this side of the grave. The reader will find an epitome of the whole system of mystical theology in the explanation of Stanza XXVI.
This work differs in many respects from the “Ascent” and the “Dark Night.” Whereas these are strictly systematic, preceding on the line of relentless logic, the “Spiritual Canticle,” as a poetical work ought to do, soars high above the divisions and distinctions of the scholastic method. With a boldness akin to that of his Patron Saint, the Evangelist, St. John rises to the highest heights, touching on a subject that should only be handled by a Saint, and which the reader, were he a Saint himself, will do well to treat cautiously: the partaking by the human soul of the Divine Nature, or, as St. John calls it, the Deification of the soul (Stanza XXVI. sqq.), These are regions where the ordinary mind threatens to turn; but St. John, with the knowledge of what he himself had experienced, not once but many times, what he had observed in others, and what, above all, he had read of in Holy Scripture, does not shrink from lifting the veil more completely than probably any Catholic writer on mystical theology has done. To pass in silence the last wonders of God’s love for fear of being misunderstood, would have been tantamount to ignoring the very end for which souls are led along the way of perfection; to reveal these mysteries in human language, and say all that can be said with not a word too much, not an uncertain or misleading line in the picture: this could only have been accomplished by one whom the Church has already declared to have been taught by God Himself (divinitus instructus), and whose books She tells us are filled with heavenly wisdom (coelesti sapientia refertos). It is hoped that sooner or later She will proclaim him (what many grave authorities think him to be) a Doctor of the Church, namely, the Doctor of Mystical theology.77On this subject see Fray Eulogio de San José, ‘Doctorado de Santa Teresa de Jesús y de San Juan de la Cruz.’ Córdoba, 1896.
As has already been noticed in the Introduction to the “Ascent,” the whole of the teaching of St. John is directly derived from Holy Scripture and from the psychological principles of St. Thomas Aquinas. There is no trace to be found of an influence of the Mystics of the Middle Age, with whose writings St. John does not appear to have been acquainted. But throughout this treatise there are many obvious allusions to the writings of St. Teresa, nor will the reader fail to notice the encouraging remark about the publication of her works (stanza xiii, sect. 8). The fact is that the same Venerable Ann of Jesus who was responsible for the composition of St. John’s treatise was at the same time making preparations for the edition of St. Teresa’s works which a few years later appeared at Salamanca under the editorship of Fray Luis de Leon, already mentioned.
Those of his readers who have been struck with, not to say frightened by, the exactions of St. John in the “Ascent” and the “Dark Night,” where he demands complete renunciation of every kind of satisfaction and pleasure, however legitimate in themselves, and an entire mortification of the senses as well as the faculties and powers of the soul, and who have been wondering at his self-abnegation which caused him not only to accept, but even to court contempt, will find here the clue to this almost inhuman attitude. In his response to the question of Our Lord, “What shall I give you for all you have done and suffered for Me?” “Lord, to suffer and be despised for You” — he was not animated by grim misanthropy or stoic indifference, but he had learned that in proportion as the human heart is emptied of Self, after having been emptied of all created things, it is open to the influx of Divine grace. This he fully proves in the “Spiritual Canticle.” To be made “partaker of the Divine Nature,” as St. Peter says, human nature must undergo a radical transformation. Those who earnestly study the teaching of St. John in his earlier treatises and endeavor to put his recommendations into practice, will see in this and the next volume an unexpected perspective opening before their eyes, and they will begin to understand how it is that the sufferings of this time — whether voluntary or involuntary — are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us.
Mr. Lewis’s masterly translation of the works of St. John of the Cross appeared in 1864 under the auspices of Cardinal Wiseman. In the second edition, of 1889, he made numerous changes, without, however, leaving a record of the principles that guided him. Sometimes, indeed, the revised edition is terser than the first, but just as often the old one seems clearer. It is more difficult to understand the reasons that led him to alter very extensively the text of quotations from Holy Scripture. In the first edition he had nearly always strictly adhered to the Douay version, which is the one in official use in the Catholic Church in English-speaking countries. It may not always be as perfect as one would wish it to be, but it must be acknowledged that the wholesale alteration in Mr. Lewis’s second edition is, to say the least, puzzling. Even the Stanzas have undergone many changes in the second edition, and it will be noticed that there are some variants in their text as set forth at the beginning of the book, and as repeated at the heading of each chapter.
The present edition, allowing for some slight corrections, is a reprint of that of 1889.
Benedict Zimmerman, Prior, O.C.D.
St. Lukes, Wincanton, Somerset,
Feast of St. Simon Stock,
May 16, 1909.
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