She Runs: The Spiritual Canticle of St. John of the Cross

St. John of the Cross began composing his poem, “The Spiritual Canticle,” when he was imprisoned by his brother friars in Toledo, Spain. The Carmelite order at that time was at war with itself. During the previous centuries, the disciplines required of the nuns and friars had slowly been relaxed, although they still were austere by modern standards. Saint Teresa of Avila began a reform of the convents aimed at returning to the earlier vigor, with the goal of deeper prayer and union with God. St. John assisted her by spreading the reform among the friars, with great success. For this, the Carmelites who opposed the reform had him arrested and taken as a prisoner to the monastery in Toledo. There he was held in great suffering, denied all comforts, subjected to beatings and invective and even psychological abuse, all on the theory that his conduct was based on pride and rebelliousness. He endured this treatment with humility and stuck to his prayers. In the dark closet where he was held and from which he was seldom allowed to leave, he began to compose the poem.

“The Spiritual Canticle” is a retelling of the Song of Songs from the Old Testament. Mystics down the ages have found in the Song of Songs the essence of prayer. In it, a promised Bride searches for her absent Bridegroom, and he in his turn longs to find her and hold her to his heart. He glories in her beauty, with images that are tender and intimate. St. John retells the story, as the soul’s search for union with God. The Bride and Bridegroom each seek the other, and their coming together is a nuptial embrace. Later in life, at the request of the great Carmelite nun Bl. Ana de Jesus, St. John collected and completed his commentary on the poem, to explain it to the Carmelite sisters and to all of us. This commentary carries the same title as the poem; in order to avoid confusion, the convention is sometimes observed of referring to the poem in quotes (“The Spiritual Canticle”) and the commentary in italics (The Spiritual Canticle).

Where The Ascent and The Dark Night are theological and systematic, The Spiritual Canticle is poetic and imaginative. For this reason, it may be more accessible to readers. That is not to say St. John is carried away in raptures and forgets the Catholic faith. It is remarkable that, in the same soul, we find a poet of the first rank, and also a theologian of great distinction. So we can trust him to lead us, as the Bride in the poem is led, through nights and fortresses and taverns, to the inner wine cellar where her Beloved waits.

The Bridegroom in the poem is Jesus, as He referred to Himself in the Gospels.

And who is the Bride?

She is each of us, each soul in its search for union with God.

But the imagery presents certain challenges. If I am honest with myself, I must admit that I really have very little of the Bride’s passion and determination. Another potential barrier is that the Bride is, of course, a woman, which may impede the understanding of half of all readers: a man aware of his masculinity can stumble over some of the descriptions. Even women, especially married women, may be reluctant to throw themselves into the imaginative role of the Bride, seeking a different Bridegroom than the one to whom the reader is married.  Many readers similarly struggle with the Song of Songs in the Bible, the inspiration for St. John’s work. However, anyone in serious pursuit of union with God must follow the way of the Bride. Otherwise, one risks drifting into the abstract, inhuman spiritualities so much on display in our postmodern world, some of which call themselves Christian and even Catholic. Or one gives up the quest entirely.

To overcome these barriers, may I suggest an interpretation that has aided me, both with “The Spiritual Canticle” and the Song of Songs. I allow the Bride to be an allegory, not for myself but for the desire of my heart for fulfillment. It is the desire of every heart, even the hearts of non-Christians and non-believers. I may have difficulty seeing myself as the Bride, but I recognize within myself a profound incompleteness: I am hungry, restless in my deepest heart, urgently desiring to go out in search of the one thing that will ultimately satisfy, the mysterious and hidden object of all desire. The whole world is enflamed with this longing, but the truth is that nothing in this world can fully satisfy. Souls all too often wind up wallowing in cheap pleasures, or thrashing around in frustration, or numbing themselves with idle pastimes.

I will not allow myself these substitutes. I will allow my desire, like the Bride, to wake up and go out, searching.

St. John of the Cross shows us how the heart responds, once it has the merest touch of its true object, God, the Beloved.  We see this in the Bride.

She runs.

We follow her wanderings, and we are meant to admire her, as a person who knows what matters most. And we also are meant to see that our own desire must run, heedless of difficulties and uninterested in distractions.  In both poem and commentary, St. John shows us how.


Image: Depositphotos.

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