Discalced Carmelite Friars

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

A First Serving (the poem The Dark Night)--Part Two

       How does one express in poetry the experience of divine love?  One can try to do so directly, by using direct statement, and writing explicitly religious verse.  St. John of the Cross adopts this approach, and accomplishes it masterfully, in his poem The Living Flame of Love.
       But usually this approach—to capture by direct statement such a self-transcendent, inwardly transformative experience—falls short of the mark.  It fails to satisfy.  In fact, paradoxically, while one might think direct statement usually the more expressive way of saying what one intends, of telling it like it is, when it comes to this particular topic--that is, to the topic of spiritual experience--it often is not.  In fact, much of the time it's precisely the less expressive, less effective way of approaching this subject.
       So, the mystical poet turns to indirect statement, to images, symbols, stories, all drawn from ordinary human experience, to capture his meaning.  Indeed, the more genuinely, simply, even mundanely human the content or subject matter of the poem, the more deeply, powerfully, richly spiritual its ultimate meaning can be.
       Of course, the poet needs to give the reader a clue of some sort, something that will signal to the reader that the poem is talking about something transcendently different than it seems to be doing.  The poem tells its story, it sets out its array of images, but then, there among them, we read something--an image, an exclamation, a wrinkle in the otherwise smooth fabric of the poem--that opens out the poem from within and invites us to reread it from a different point of view, with our spirits attuned to the imprint of the divine Spirit upon it.


       Such is the case with the poem The Dark Night by St. John of the Cross.  At first glance the poem reads like a pretty straightforward love poem.  It tells the story of a midnight tryst between two lovers--as narrated by the woman, interestingly enough.  Under cover of darkness she sneaks out of her house--the house of her parents, we might assume--making her way dressed in some sort of disguise--as a man perhaps--climbing down a ladder which, we might assume, stands propped against her bedroom window.

Once on a dark night,
Restless and inflamed with love,
How happy I was
To have slipped out unseen,
My house being hushed and still.

Safe in the darkness,
Down a secret ladder, disguised,
How happy I was
That the dark concealed me,
My house being hushed and still.

       The scene seems very much at home in the literature of the times, depicting the efforts of two lovers to be together despite the obstacles that would keep them apart.  Usually, of course, these efforts are told from the point of view of the man as he seeks out his lady fair.  Always there is a note of the illicit in the love the two share.  There is, then, a certain danger in their meeting as they do.
       Our lover--the woman, in John's poem, as we can tell from the gender of the adjectives ("restless," "inflamed") in Spanish--having escaped her house, then makes her way through the darkness.  She knows where she is going--to their arranged trysting place, where they've often met before--and, despite the deep darkness of the night, the love she carries in her heart, the love that guides her, burns "brighter than the sun at noon."

On that happy night,
In secret, for no one saw me,
And I saw no one,
Having no light or guide
Than that which burned in my heart,

This light guided me
Brighter than the sun at noon
To where waited
The one I knew so well
In the place that is ours alone.

       And so, in what seems like a secluded, wooded spot, the two lovers lie as though entwined together, forgetful of all else but each other.  It is a moment of peaceful, gentle, loving repose.

His head on my breast,
Which I’d kept for him like a flower,
There he lay sleeping,
And I caressing him,
While cedars fanned the night air.

I parted his hair
As a breeze blew from the turret,
And with his soft touch
He wounded my neck,
My senses swooning away.

All fled forgotten,
For it was I who now rested,
My face pressed to him
And every care lost,
Tossed off among the lilies.

       While the scene is not explicitly sexual, it certainly suggests a moment of sexual intimacy and union between the two lovers.  Whatever is intended in this regard, their physical communion is depicted in the tenderest of terms.  Through and through, from beginning to end, the poem remains modest, simple, never overdone or overwrought.  In this way its tone seems feminine, like its narrator.


       The poem, therefore, at least on its surface, is rather straightforward and easy to follow.  That we know its author was a Carmelite friar is, in a manner of speaking, beside the point, even though the fact seems incongruous with its eroticism.
       Yet John had a literary imagination.  He had surely been introduced, during his university studies, to the literature of his day, including samples of contemporary amorous poetry.  And surely his heart was not wholly unfamiliar with erotic feelings.  Whose is?
       Also, we shouldn’t dismiss, as a direct influence, his experience of imprisonment in Toledo and the adventurous, nearly miraculous escape by which he freed himself—a matter I hope to return to later.
       For now, though, we take the poem at face value.  It tells the story of a tryst between two lovers  And yet it doesn't.  Even without having to invoke the person and spirituality of its author—as important as they are—even by reading the poem for what it is on its face, we recognize nonetheless that there is something more implied here.
       We feel we must read the poem, and the story it tells, as an effort to express something else, something more.  The poem has an aura of mystery about it.  How so?  Where in the poem does this mystery most demonstratively break forth into view?
       To be continued. . .

Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
Comments (1)
See Older Posts...