John of the Cross: May 2003 Archives

One Darkest Night


The June/July Issue of First Things has a new translation of St.John of the Cross's most famous poem--here called "One Darkest Night." While the translation is in some ways a version that gives a far finer sense of the poetry of St. John than most previous translations, it has some minor flaws. The original Spanish is noted below for context. The majority of this critique will focus on the first stanza. (But this brief comment gives me the excuse to post the entire thing).

La noche oscura
St. John of the Cross

Canciones del alma que se goza de haber llegado al
alto estado de la perfección, que es la unión con Dios,
por el camino de la negación espiritual.

En una noche oscura,
con ansias en amores inflamada,
(¡oh dichosa ventura!)
salí sin ser notada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

A oscuras y segura,
por la secreta escala disfrazada,
(¡oh dichosa ventura!)
a oscuras y en celada,
estando ya mi casa sosegada.

En la noche dichosa,
en secreto, que nadie me veía,
ni yo miraba cosa,
sin otra luz ni guía
sino la que en el corazón ardía.

Aquésta me guïaba
más cierta que la luz del mediodía,
adonde me esperaba
quien yo bien me sabía,
en parte donde nadie parecía.

¡Oh noche que me guiaste!,
¡oh noche amable más que el alborada!,
¡oh noche que juntaste
amado con amada,
amada en el amado transformada!

En mi pecho florido,
que entero para él solo se guardaba,
allí quedó dormido,
y yo le regalaba,
y el ventalle de cedros aire daba.

El aire de la almena,
cuando yo sus cabellos esparcía,
con su mano serena
en mi cuello hería,
y todos mis sentidos suspendía.

Quedéme y olvidéme,
el rostro recliné sobre el amado,
cesó todo, y dejéme,
dejando mi cuidado
entre las azucenas olvidado.

First, a quibble--the translation does not include the famous header that is commonly called the "argument" of the poem. This is a standard literary device present in the poems of Milton and a great many others and it assists the reader in analyzing what follows. For this poem the header reads (in Kiernan Kavanaugh's and Otilio Rodriguez's translation):

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.

The header tells us two things--that there is more than one song present here and the songs are about union with God. Now Kavanaugh and Rodriguez number the stanzas, as do other translations and manuscripts of the original. This tends to give the impression that each stanza is a song unto itself, which I suppose is one possibility--rather like a leider cycle. I tend to read it somewhat differently--I see two songs here that overlap at the fifth stanza. There appears to be a change of poetic direction so that stanza five ends the first song and gives rise to the second. At least the poem is intelligible read in that way. The author of the new translation has chosen to make the translation a single song--which, in fact is not antithetical to the original poetic intent despite the header.

Let's look briefly at a couple of more serious problems with the new translation. For some reason both the title and the first line of the first stanza are rendered "One darkest night." Literally the title is "The Dark Night" and the first line of stanza one is "On a dark night." There are two problems with this translation, one minor the other major. The minor problem is the disservice done to the English language. Darkest is a superlative. There can only be one such. Thus to say "One darkest night," has the flavor of redundancy and absurdity. Admittedly a small flaw, but a small flaw that has much more profound implications.

The implications come from the commentary on the poem. In The Ascent of Mount Carmel St. John of the Cross claims to be spelling out his theory of prayer and union with God in the form of a commentary on this poem. In fact the work comments only on the first two stanzas and then abandons the original structure. However, in commenting on those two John makes the important division between the active night of the senses and the active night of the spirit. Of this second, which he says was intended by the second stanza, he says that it is the darkest night of three--sense, spirit, and God. He likens the first to night with moonlight and starlight, the second to night without moon or any light at all, and the third to night beginning to be pierced by daylight. Thus, to say of the first stanza "One darkest night" gets around the use of the poem in The Ascent of Mount Carmel. I suppose this is only troublesome if the translation is used in conjunction with its commentary--nevertheless it is a flaw that would need to be remedied in order to make the poem useful for the commentary.

Now that I've quibbled it to death, I must say that the poem is refreshing. Let me quote the first full stanza to give you a sense of the rhythm and the beauty of the translation/paraphrase:

from "One Darkest Night" translated by Rhina P. Espaillat

One darkest night I went,
aflame with love's devouring eager burning--
O fortunate event!--
no witnesses discerning,
the house now still from which my steps were turning.

Now one could fault the choice of moving the action of the poem to the first line, but I see no real problem poetically with the choice--it is not literal, but it allows the poet to use the swinging rhythm caused by the gerunds in lines 2, 4, and 5. As you might well imagine, in Spanish nearly every line has a rhyme or a half-rhyme or at least an echoic phrasing. This translation very nicely captures the essence of that. I have a little problem with "no witnesses discerning" because of the connotative load of the word discern, but it is a choice I can live with for the sake of the overall effect.

In fact, despite my many quibbles here, I really like the translation and recommend it to everyone's attention. If you get First Things turn to page six and begin reading. Quiz in one week.

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An Opportunity


Events in my life have arranged themselves in such a way as to be able to take advantage of the opportunities offered in the passage below:

from Ascent of Mount Carmel Book 1 Chapter 13 St. John of the Cross

6. Strive always to prefer, not that which is easiest, but that which is most difficult;

Not that which is most delectable, but that which is most unpleasing;

Not that which gives most pleasure, but rather that which gives least;

Not that which is restful, but that which is wearisome;

Not that which is consolation, but rather that which is disconsolateness;

Not that which is greatest, but that which is least;

Not that which is loftiest and most precious, but that which is lowest and most despised;

Not that which is a desire for anything, but that which is a desire for nothing;

Strive to go about seeking not the best of temporal things, but the worst.

Strive thus to desire to enter into complete detachment and emptiness and poverty, with respect to everything that is in the world, for Christ's sake.

And I can tell you that this is a lot better in the abstract than in the concrete. Moreover, I suspect that it is a lot better voluntarily entered into rather than being offered such opportunities. However, the Lord has a plan even if it seems obscure to me, and so I can avail myself of this opportunity or not at my choice. It seems that whichever choice I make in the event will fulfill the requirements of this passage--so, that is the long way of asking for your prayers and your thoughts as I enter into the next couple of weeks.

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Therese seems a bit irritated at the post below called "Domincans and Carmelites," perhaps correctly so--sometimes my fumbling repetitions and articulations are aggravating; however, I am striving to come to understanding myself and to balance the words of St. John of the Cross with the understandings that others have conveyed. Many times it is imprecision in my language that is the source of the frustration. I am a better poet than I am essayist and so sometimes I do not say precisely what I mean and so I try once again. And I must thank Therese for forcing me to this labor, for only in so doing do I straighten out the crooked places in my own head and finally begin to come to a real understanding of St. John of the Cross and the radical nature of his teaching on prayer and Union.

St. John of the Cross would certainly note that prayer and reading scripture and study are all good, meritorious and fine things. But he would also note that there comes a point in devotion (I haven't reached it yet) where study, particularly, but perhaps certain aspects of the other things can become obstacles to the greatest Good. The things themselves are not obstacles, but our inordinate desire to do them in the ways we have done, stand in the way of progress toward God. That is not that study becomes bad, but it becomes an obstacle because we are not willing to change what or how, but continue in our same plodding way. Thus the DESIRE to study stands in the way of the desire for Union. We would prefer to study than to really approach the royal throne.

Many deny that this may happen. They see that all study will inevitably lead to God. (At least this is how I read some statements defending intellectual pursuit.) Therese points out rightly that St. John of the Cross would stand against "Study for Study's sake." But he would also stand against the desire to study weighed against the desire for Union, and this is where constant discernment is necessary. St. Thomas Aquinas spent much of his life in study, approaching nearer and nearer the throne of grace as his studies carried him. His famous statement "all my words are as straw," is not a statement that the study was futile. I read that as the realization that he had reached the end of where study alone could take him, he relinquished the desire to continue as he had done and crossed the threshhold to divine Union--although I am certain that he must have experienced something similar throughout his life in order to progress so far. I see St. Thomas realizing not that study is bad, but that true Union with God requires laying down everything, just as Christ did, to approach the Throne of Grace.

Perhaps I read too much into this short statement, but I truly believe that it was this experience, in part, that shaped much of John's spirituality. Study is not bad--it is a good, a positive good. However, when the desire for study outweighs the desire for union the desire becomes an obstacle. It can become an obstacle for others when they are inclined already to study more than to pray. When reading books about spirituality becomes the predominant mode of discourse rather than direct encounters with our loving God, study has gone astray. It is not bad, but our desire for it is disordered and thus an obstacle.

On a personal note: I have reached this stage relatively earlier than many because study presents a temptation for me that may be greater for me for others because others are more properly focused. As an example, in my early twenties, I took it into my head that I would become a great hiker and outdoorsman. To achieve this goal, I read every book there was about hiking and doing things in the outdoors, but never set a foot outside.

I know I am not unique. There are a great many potential Fausts out there. I know further that there are many who are not aware that study can become an end in itself--not bad, but not the highest good. And so I continually try to say--study is good. Knowing the beloved is essential, but watch that study does not replace prayer, that it does not become a desire to "dissect God" and know how He works, rather than a desire to convey to all people the workings of God. This never seemed to get out of hand with St. Thomas Aquinas, because he seemed to accept when it should end. However, if we chose to look, we would probably find a great many for whom the desire for study became the end and an obstacle to the divine union they might otherwise have achieved.

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The Next Installment of the Study Guide

Ascent of Mount Carmel V

Read pages 149-153 (Book 1, Chapters 13-15). Chapter 13 is the key chapter of the entire first book.

Chapter 13
What does the first sentence tell you about the purpose of this chapter. What is the “active way”? Why is it important? What is the “passive way”? Who initiates it? Why does John want to set our advice here?

What is the first critical element of the active night of the sense? Why is this so? Read the last sentence of section 3 again—what does this seem to require of us?

What motive is most likely to help us in the imitation of Christ? Why? Look at John’s two examples and write down two similar examples from you own experience that you can begin to act on right now.

What is the purpose of the maxims that follow?

*(6) (Key Section 1)
Choose one of the statement that being “not to” and explain it in your own words. Name two ways that you could begin to put this maxim into effect. How might you begin to put all of them into action? Pray about it and discern a reasonable plan of action.

(7) What is likely to be a major obstacle to your success in entering this first dark night and beginning the Ascent?

How does the advice here help with the advice in section 6. What is John truly saying here?

What is the path of the Ascent. (Look back at the diagram on page 110-111) Is it possible to fail in the Ascent? How? Is the most direct route the easiest? the most sure?

*(12-13) (Key Section 2)
Summarize the teaching of these sections in a sentence or two that you can write down and carry with you. What is St. John of the Cross telling us about the conduct of the spiritual life here? Jesus tells us “He who sets hand to the plow and looks back is not worthy of the kingdom of God.” How are these statements similar?

Chapters 14-15
What is St. John’s point in these sections? How do they support the critical information in chapter 13?

How can we mentally and spiritually prepare ourselves to enter the Dark Night and thus begin our Ascent? Pray, consult with your spiritual director, and make you own plan for preparing yourself to carry out St. John’s teaching. Or perhaps you are already well along this road, what can you do to perfect your practice of it? Perhaps you are in a dry place waiting for God to take control. What practices might you implement that will sustain you through the dryness?

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St. John of the Cross, redux


The ICS translation with additional information:

from The Ascent of Mount Carmel Book I Chapter 13 St. John of the Cross

2. Though these counsels for the conquering of the appetites are brief and few in number, I believe they are as profitable and efficacious as they are concise. A person who sincerely wants to practice them will need no others since all the others are included in these.

3. First, have habitual desire to imitate Christ in all your deeds by bringing your life into conformity with his. You must then study his life in order to know how to imitate him and behave in all events as he would.

4. Second, in order to be successful in the imitation, renounce and remain empty of any sensory satisfaction that is not purely for the honor and glory of God. Do this out of love for Jesus Christ. In his life he had no other gratification, nor desire any other, than the fulfillment of his Father's will, which he called his meat and food [Jn. 4:34].

For example, if you are offered the satisfaction of hearing that that have no relation to the service and glory of God, do not desire the pleasure of the hearing of these things. When you have an opportunity for the gratification of looking upon objects that will not help you love God more, do not desire this gratification or sight. And if in speaking there is a similar opportunity, act in the same way. And so on with all the sense insofar as you can duly avoid such satisfaction. If you cannot escape the experience of this satisfaction, it will be sufficient to have o desire for it.

By this method you should endeavor, then, to leave the senses as though in darkness, mortified and empty of that satisfaction. With such vigilance you will gain a great deal in a short time.

5. Many blessings flow when the four natural passions (joy, hope, fear, and sorrow) are in harmony and at peace. The following maxims contain a complete method for mortifying and pacifying them. If put into practice these maxims will give rise to abundant merit and great virtues.

6. Endeavor to be inclined always:
not to the easiest, but to the most difficult;
not to the most delightful, but to the most distasteful;
not to the most gratifying, but to the less pleasant;
not to what means rest for you, but to hear work;
not to the consoling, but to he unconsoling;
not to the most, but to the least;
not to the highest and most precious, but to the lowest and most despised;
not to wanting something, but to wanting nothing.

Do not go about looking for the best of temporal things, but for the worst, and, for Christ, desire to enter into complete nakedness, emptiness, and poverty in everything in the world.

7. You should embrace these practices earnestly and try to overcome the repugnance of your will toward them. If you sincerely put them into practice with order and discretion, you will discover in them great delight and consolation.

Tr. by Kiernan Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez

I repeat these in the clearer translation for fear that I may have misrepresented both St. John and His teaching in the post below where I have excerpted his work. Tom asked a question that led me to believe that I must have made untoward claims for what is said here, so I'm trying to quote enough to let the passage speak clearly for itself without unduly wearying the reader.

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Dominicans and Carmelites

If you read the excerpt from St. John of the Cross below, you will have a better understanding of the ground on which John da Fiesole and I stand when we cross swords on the question of what is the purpose of study and how much should be done. I would claim to be one of the least anti-intellectual people I know, and yet, I fully follow my mentor. I seek to know all about God, and so my desire to find out myself must be subsumed to His will for me, whatever that may be. At least that is how I understand it. My desire to pursue knowledge is actually a hindrance to the kind of knowledge (Love) that I really want. Difficult to imagine, but at least that is how I understand St. John of the Cross, and thus my attempts always to temper those who hold up study as one of the highest efforts of humankind. It is, and yet, if St. John is right, it also is quite likely to get in the way.

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Don't Feed the Animals!


I actually received an e-mail that asked me a question about which I can blather endlessly, in theory. One must understand that I have not reached these exalted heights and so all that I say is a synthesis of others.

The question:

"I've heard of two dark nights--dark night of the soul and dark night of the senses. The latter I take to be a kind of depression or unhappiness, the former the true unitive dark night. Any clarification?" (This is a gross paraphrase.)

Okay--let me talk about St. John of the Cross's scheme of spiritual growth in the via negativa. The way he sees development in prayer is through two DIFFERENT dark nights. The first of these two is called "the dark night of the senses." It consists of two parts, as does the latter. The first of these parts is the active, the second passive. In the dark night of the senses we enter into a deliberate attempt not to gratify the appetites. In olden days we would say that we would practice "custody of the eyes." But in the case of this dark night, we do not seek to gratify the senses--we deprive ourselves, as a matter of discipline and out of love of the Lord of those things we strongly desire. This is more than asceticism--it is a deliberate attempt to break the chains of desire that hold us away from God. If we love any creature inordinately, we cannot love God as He deserves. With this practice we enter into the dark night. In God's good time, as He sees fit, we may enter the passive night of the senses, in which God completes the purgation begun by our own effort and perfects it.

The second dark night is called the dark night of the spirit, and it too has a passive and an active phase. The second night focuses more on the spiritual faculties--intellect, memory, and the will, not the senses. I have yet to fully understand this, as I am slowly moving through the Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul. If you'd care to read more about this from someone far more knowledgeable than I, look here. Mr. Doohan does a wonderful job of explaining what may seem like abstruse doctrine in very comprehensible terms.

I'm still working--largely unsuccessfully--on the active night of the senses. But I have great hope that God will see fit to aid me in His time and in His way.

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St. John of the Cross considered this part of the only information a beginner or proficient in prayer needed to know to continue. Obviously, he expected a lot of his beginners. These instructions are how to enter the active night of the senses--one part of the Dark night over which we have some control.

from The Ascent of Mount Carmel Book 1, Chapter 13 St. John of the Cross

10. To conclude these counsels and rules, it will be fitting to set down here those lines which are written in the Ascent of the Mount, which is the figure that is at the beginning of this book; the which lines are instructions for ascending to it, and thus reaching the summit of union. For, although it is true that that which is there spoken of is spiritual and interior, there is reference likewise to the spirit of imperfection according to sensual and exterior things, as may be seen by the two roads which are on either side of the path of perfection. It is in this way and according to this sense that we shall understand them here; that is to say, according to that which is sensual. Afterwards, in the second part of this night, they will be understood according to that which is spiritual.

11. The lines are these:

In order to arrive at having pleasure in everything, Desire to have pleasure in nothing.
In order to arrive at possessing everything, Desire to possess nothing.
In order to arrive at being everything, Desire to be nothing.
In order to arrive at knowing everything, Desire to know nothing.
In order to arrive at that wherein thou hast no pleasure, Thou must go by a way wherein thou hast no pleasure.
In order to arrive at that which thou knowest not, Thou must go by a way that thou knowest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou possessest not, Thou must go by a way that thou possessest not.
In order to arrive at that which thou art not, Thou must go through that which thou art not.
12. When thy mind dwells upon anything,

Thou art ceasing to cast thyself upon the All. For, in order to pass from the all to the All, Thou hast to deny thyself wholly in all. And, when thou comest to possess it wholly, Thou must possess it without desiring anything. For, if thou wilt have anything in having all, Thou hast not thy treasure purely in God.

This is, admittedly, the unfortunate and awkward translation of E. Allison Peers, the one which many read and which leaves them utterly mystified--with good reason. The translation fails in most cases to be good English, much less a good translation from Spanish.

So, while it is awkward, I think the sense of it shines through. The point of the instruction is to cultivate a habit of mind in which these things predominate. We are called to the via negativa--which is denial of self--but NOT denial of creation. That is all created things are good, but many serve as obstruction on the path to union with God. Many natural goods start as resting points and then become sticking points. St. John of the Cross insists that the way around this is to take pleasure in nothing less than the presence of God himself. That doesn't mean to make yourself miserable to ascend the mount--at least I don't so interpret it. I read it more in line with Plato's cave of illusions. All created things are merely shadows and images of that which truly gives pleasure--so rather than chase after the shadow--chase after that which casts the shadow to achieve true happiness in Union.

I invite other comments, questions, challenges. I am by no means expert and stand to learn a great deal from the many who often comment here. What I say is NOT definitive, it is merely an attempt to make clear what I think the great teacher is saying, and by making it clear make it more probable that I shall put it into action in the near future.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the John of the Cross category from May 2003.

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