Discalced Carmelite Friars

Semi Province of St. Therese

Poet and Contemplative

“From the abundance of his spirit [the poet] pours out secrets and mysteries rather than rational explanation” (Prologue, The Spiritual Canticle).

“In contemplation God teaches the soul very quietly and secretly, without its knowing how, without the sound of words” (Chapter 39, The Spiritual Canticle).

In the spirit of St. John of the Cross, this blog reflects on the contemplative experience and the poetic experience, sometimes separately and distinctly, sometimes in common, as mutually enlightening.

I will also post to this blog, from time to time, my own poetry, with a short interpretive note attached.

~ Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD

An Intermezzo

For thus says the Lord,
The creator of the heavens,
    who is God,
The designer and maker of the earth,
    who established it;
Not as an empty waste did he create it,
    but designing it to be lived in:
I am the Lord, and there I no other.
        —Isa 45: 18
        Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Word of grace, of truth, spoken into human history as a human being.  Scripture, on the other hand, is human word, in a collection of literary works, each the product of a human author engaged in that very human action, writing, or literary composition.  Of course, Christians believe that these authors, in the act of writing, were “inspired.”  The Holy Spirit breathed into them as they wrote and, while not overriding their humanity—for in writing they acted as any human author does—yet the Spirit gave their works collectively a particular authority.  They are works of faith for faith, they are words of the Spirit possessing the power to accomplish in us—in the minds and hearts and lives of believers—the works of the Spirit.
        In this regard the words of Scripture, which are human words written by human beings from within human history, possess for the Christian a unique spiritual power.  We attend to them, and they speak to us, in a way that other literary works, no matter how noble or sublime, no matter how spiritually exceptional the work itself or the one who wrote it, do not.
        Of course, this unique role afforded Scripture by faith does not exclude other literary texts from possessing a spiritual power of their own capable of feeding faith with substantial food.  If we continually return to Scripture as though to a home base, at the same time we make repeated forays out into that vast and variegated landscape of Christian or other religious, spiritual works and find ourselves the richer for it.
        Obviously the poetry of St. John of the Cross is one such path we might follow, a path of spiritual discovery where faith finds words of faith powerfully spoken—indeed, words that have been spoken from within an experience of the Spirit, and so words, at least in some measure, “inspired."  These particular words of faith have the power, too, to move us, console us, enlighten us, to strengthen our faith, our hope, our commitment to love--all in all, to accomplish in us the works of the Spirit.
        Of course, the form in which John's poems accomplish these works of the Spirit is, to put a label on it, that best called “lyric poetry,” although there is much else that one might say about it.  Yes, there is poetry in general, and then there is poetry as it assumes diverse styles and genres, in different times, cultures, and literary traditions.  The poetry of Ancient Israel in the 6th Century BCE is not the poetry of Renaissance Spain in the 16th Century CE.
        Also, the poetry of the Hebrew prophets—which is poetry in the form of the “prophetic oracle”—is of a very different sort, in style and intention, from the lyric poetry of someone like St. John of the Cross.  At the start I quoted one such prophetic oracle, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, that well illustrates the unique, and uniquely powerful, voice of this type of poetry.  To put it bluntly, it is a poetry that presumes for itself nothing less than to speak with the voice of God.
        We have perhaps heard and read these texts of the prophets of Ancient Israel so often that we tend to take this strange, forbidding fact about them for granted.  Moreover, we “textualize” these texts—we read them as Scripture and so often fail to hear the living voice of the prophet who speaks through them.  Precisely because they are Scripture the words of the prophet as prophetic speech, as oracle, go flat, and, instead of letting them speak for themselves, we quickly act to impose our meaning upon them.  We rush to "interpret" them.
        Perhaps, then, although Scripture is Scripture, the spiritually expressive power at work in poetry such as that of St. John of the Cross's can, paradoxically, be more accessible to us.  A poem from his pen sounds new, unfamiliar, and we don’t so readily presume we know what it is saying.  Rather, we tend to be more deliberate and patient in reading it.  We let it speak.  Moreover, we remain from start to finish more aware of the poem's humanity, so to speak.  We acknowledge the presence of the human author whom we’re trying to get to know through his words.  Of course, these are all attitudes or approaches that we ought to take to our reading of Scripture as well.  But too often we don’t.

Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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