John of the Cross: November 2002 Archives

How to Read St. John of the Cross


How to Read St. John of the Cross
Part I: The Poem Introduction to Ascent of Mount Carmel

The Dark Night
St. John of the Cross

Songs of the soul that rejoices in having reached the high state of perfection, which is union with God, by the path of spiritual negation.

1. One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
- ah, the sheer grace! -
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
- him I knew so well -
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast,
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him
there in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.

First, it seems ridiculous, but we must recall the genre. This is poetry. You cannot assume that the "I" speaking is the poet. The "I" of the poem may or may not be the poet himself. It depends upon the type of poem and the author. For example, the "I" of the confessional poet is almost always the poet, but much of the time the first person is an invitation to read substituting yourself for the "I" of the poem.

Here St. John makes the interpretation somewhat easier by announcing his intent at the beginning of the poem. " Songs of the soul that rejoices in having reached the high state of perfection, which is union with God, by the path of spiritual negation. " From this follows two points. The "I" of the poem is the soul transported and this eight-part poem is not a single song. The stanzas do not flow one into the other but they constitute a number of songs. However, there need not be eight. One reading of the poem, the one I shall pursue here, would find two different songs--stanzas 1 through 5 which all seem bound by a common thread and stanzas 5 or 6 through 8. Stanza 5 seems pivotal and its importance is signaled by language that very much resembles liturgical language. Something about it suggests the Exultet of Easter.

Most blessed of all nights, chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!

Of this night scripture says:
"The night will be as clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy."

The power of this holy night
dispels all evil, washes guilt away,
restores lost innocence, brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace, and humbles earthly

Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth
and man is reconciled with God!

Earlier in the Exultet we find the line concerning the night in which the pillar of fire led the people out of bondage.

It seems that central to St. John's point is this stanza, that is why I could see it associated with both "songs." By his language St. John of the Cross refers directly to the central event in the Christian Experience. This is the pivot upon which the entire spiritual life turns. Thus you could view stanza 5 as ending one song and beginning another. Try reading the poem as two songs--the first a song of a person leaving their still house driven by the search for the beloved, the second a song of the loved and the beloved together in union.

We are still left to pursue the understanding of the poem. St. John of the Cross ostensibly wrote two books explicating the poem (although Ascent leaves the poem fairly early on and only Dark Night of the Soul visits the entire poem.

One other important point to remember about the poem, is that as with all spiritual poetry when you read it, you mustn't merely look for the authorial intent--you need to plumb the depths and see what it is saying to you. You need to become the "I" of the poem. Because this "I" is female, such a reading is at surface somewhat more difficult for men than for women. It is very difficult to put yourself in the place of the female of the poem until you remember that in God's embrace all souls are "female." This has less to do with sex than it has to do with the role and response defined in classical terms of the female to the male. Modern sensibilities have often brushed this aside, but the meaning of this poem can only be captured in that classical understanding. The soul is bending, yielding, and fruitful under God's ministrations. When reading the poem set aside your modern sensibilities and accept the notion of the time during which the poem was written.

As with all poems read it, reread it, and read it aloud. If you understand Spanish, seek it out in Spanish and read it aloud. Let the music and the rhythm of the poem have their proper place.

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This page is a archive of entries in the John of the Cross category from November 2002.

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