“Nescivi!” This is the Latin for what it seems the Shulamite Bride of the Canticle of Canticles sings in 6:12. The passage is difficult to translate. One 16th Century Doctor of the Church, Saint John of the Cross, understood it to be the declaration of a lover captivated with thoughts of her Beloved. The Latin means “I no longer know (anything)” although some modern English translations of this obscure passage render this “Before I knew it…”
One way of looking at this text is that while surveying her springtime garden and inebriated with the Bridegroom’s love, the bride is suddenly overwhelmed by an enemy. Is the enemy someone who opposes her love or is it the almost vehement movement of eros itself which sometimes feels like an ambush? We do not know with certainty for the metaphor is not explained. This allows us to reflect on a variety of personal appropriations. She seems to have been so preoccupied with thoughts of the One she loves that this hostile force caught her unaware. Yet, not even sudden danger distracts her from the memory and thought of her Bridegroom. In the face of what threatens her, she is aware only of Him. The surprise attack serves merely as background against which the tender beauty of her devotion is disclosed.
This seems to be the way that St. John of the Cross meditated on this passage in the face of his own difficult trials and hardships. Like St. John of Avila before him, in order to enter deep into prayer and to help others to pray, he memorized the Holy Bible and prayerfully reflected on passages over and over. He seems to have repeated the Song of Songs from memory to get himself throughout the long difficult months of his imprisonment in Toledo.
Undergoing cruel treatment in brutal conditions, the great Biblical love poem was an aid to mental prayer. The mysterious graces given in contemplative prayer is the only plausible explanation for his survival at all. Every phrase and word helped him remain vulnerable to the loving knowledge that the saving mystery of the Lord’s presence evokes. If the torments were so great that sometimes it was impossible to pray, the beautiful truths celebrated in the poem helped him raise his heart again. The Carmelite Reformer came to see “Nescivi” as a prayer, a prayer sung by souls filled with the mystical wisdom that only the Risen Lord can give.
In his spiritual doctrine, the saint explains how the soul can be so captivated with a loving awareness of the Lord that its curiosity about other things is eclipsed. The Mystical Doctor explains that this does not mean the soul actually loses all the other kinds of knowledge she acquired up to this point of her life. Indeed, she enjoys the perfection of her knowledge because all truth points to the Truth Himself. Now, however, the chariots of curiosity about things, people and ideas that normally storm through the mind in prayer cannot disturb her or distract her from the work of love because she is filled with the wisdom of Love Himself. (See Saint John of the Cross’s commentary and reinterpretation of the Song of Songs in Spiritual Canticle, especially 26:13-17.)
This is the wisdom with which Christ loves, with which He loved us to the end. It is a wisdom that was not distracted by anything except the Father’s tender concern that we should not perish but be saved. This is the passion of Christ revealed in power on the Cross. (Saint John of the Cross develops this idea in Ascent of Mount Carmel, Chapter 2, 8-12.)
In the face of this transforming love, everything else takes its proper place and can no longer make illegitimate claims on us. Nothing is able to distract us when the heart rightly treasures God and those the Lord has entrusted to us. This mighty wisdom is transformative for both the soul and the whole Church, rendering new what was grown old by sin, bringing to birth that over which death has no more power. Our cold technological culture is made callous for lack of that warm tenderness such gentle truth offers. This divine fire provides the true comfort that today’s tired and exhausted humanity most needs.
The world revolves around the Cross ablaze with merciful love, and those who find this center learn a prayer that is focused, intense and powerful, “Nescivi!” I believe that this is a song that those who approach death or face great sufferings are meant to learn to pray out of the very depths of their whole being. What is more, there are few things in life as beautiful and humbling as to be with such a soul as it struggles to offer this sacrifice of praise. On fire with love, these souls become living signs of hope for the world – even if the whole world, unaware of its true center, is unaware of their existence.
This allows us to glimpse the reason Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity, a 20th Century spiritual daughter of St. John of the Cross, referred to “nescivi” as the cry of her own heart. She proposed this one word as the supreme hymn of praise she strove to render in the face of her own difficult suffering and death. In an effort to help other contemplatives understand this powerful prayer in the heart of the Church, she added to the cry of the beloved the words of Saint Paul, “I no longer know anything but Him, to share in his sufferings, to become like Him in His death.” (See her Last Retreat #1 and Phil. 3:10)