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

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

    In my previous post on the poem The Dark Night I recounted the simple story of a lovers tryst, told by the woman, which the poem narrates.  But, in doing so, I omitted one key stanza, the central one, which lies at the heart of the poem, namely, stanza 5.  It reads:
Night that guided me,
Night lovelier than the dawn,
O Night that unites
The lover and beloved,
Beloved made one with the Lover.
    Let me give the original Spanish since the stanza is so key to the poem, and my translation is not the best:
¡Oh noche que guiaste!
¡Oh noche amable más que el alborada!
¡Oh noche que juntaste
Amado con amada,

Amada en el Amado transformada!
    The poet in this stanza—and alone in this stanza—addresses Night directly—“Oh noche . . .”  The poet, in other words, steps out of the story itself, out of the telling of the story, in order to speak about its larger symbolic meaning, the story's spiritual locus, if you will.  It is not unlike the moment in a play when the action stops and an actor turns towards the audience to address them directly.
    The poem, it seems, while it tells the story of a meeting at night between two loves, is really at its heart, and in its poetic intention, a lyrical evocation or hymn to this all-encompassing night—this mysterious night that, as it were, lies beyond the things of day and, taking hold of us, displaces them—this night which has thus enabled our two lovers to meet as they do:

O Night, you guided—
O Night lovelier than the first streaks of dawn—
O Night, you united
Beloved (m) with Beloved (f),
Beloved (f) transformed in the Beloved (m)!

    What is this Night?  Let us not be too quick to say it is God—although certainly we have the evocation here of something, of someone, transcendent.  Thus, for starters, we could say that this Night is divine mystery, or divine transcendence, divine otherness.  It is that which makes for us a complete, and completely transformative, union of love with the divine--which, by daylight, we might suspect, is something forbidden, or illicit, or simply unattainable—it is that which makes this union possible.  In fact, it is that which brings it about, being the aura, the ambiance, the medium of this loving union.
    Here one could move, if one so wished, from the poem to the prose works, specifically to The Ascent of Mt. Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul.  There, in those works, this dark, yet liberating Night becomes "the Night of Sense" and "the Night of Spirit," two thresholds along the way to transforming union with God.  But let us stay with the poem a moment longer.
    The poem, it seems to me, has about it a more celebratory and expansive tone than the somewhat heavy and cramped tone of the prose works.  Accordingly, it breathes free, opening outward and pointing us towards the wide horizon of an awe, a beauty, an utterly transcendent love, that leads us past the constraints of our daylight lives into moments of divine communion that are at once very private and personal, intimate and inward, yet also wholly transformative, bringing us to the peak of our divinely bestowed, humanly given purpose for being.
    Very simply, I would say that John’s poem is about—to put it that way—the spiritual experience of our being inwardly touched, briefly but profoundly, by the mysterious, fleeting presence of a divinely transcendent love—the spiritual experience which we Carmelites call contemplation.  The Night of this poem, in other words, is the very moment itself of contemplative experience, nothing more, nothing less.  And as a poem to be read and savored, pondered over, yet never exhausted, it says more about this contemplative experience of transcendent love than any attempt at analysis or phenomenological or theological description could muster.
    I have entitled this blog “Poet & Contemplative.”  Clearly St. John of the Cross was both a poet and a contemplative.  In fact, we have here a poem—a richly beautiful poem—which doesn't try to speak about the contemplative experience so much from it, grasping hold of a story of loving encounter which then gives way to the invocation of that which both enables and suffuses the moment of loving encounter between Lover and Beloved, namely, this transcendent Night, the contemplative experience itself.
    Contemplation is what St. John of the Cross invokes in his poem.  What more can we say about contemplation, drawing on St. John of the Cross?  Well, lots, of course.
    To be continued . . .

Written by Fr. Bonaventure Sauer, OCD
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