Seeking Perfection – St John of the Cross

Here is a poem by St John of the Cross on the spiritual journey of life. Best known for his ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ poetry .The poems written when incarcerated in Spain.

In the opening statement perfection is defined as the union with God and to get there a spiritual journey is needed which denies the self (by negation).

My annotated comments appear after each stanza.

Song of the Soul that Delights in Reaching the Supreme State

of perfection, that is, the union with God,
by the path of spiritual negation.

Upon a darkened night
on fire with all love’s longing
– O joyful flight! –
I left, none noticing,
my house, in silence, resting.

S1 … there is contrast between the fire of love and the dark night … the fire of love = the journey of the soul … a journey of joy and a natural journey … none notice this departure … no other people around at the time or is this just the departure from the body … leaving the body to rest (the physical person=house) … note the house is still alive but sleeping (compare with S8 where the house is forgotten/dead).

Secure, devoid of light,
by secret stairway, stealing
– O joyful flight! –
in darkness self-concealing,
my house, in silence, resting.

S2 … the spiritual journey is seen as a secret stairway … a personal journey that none can know except the person concerned … and hidden by darkness or the non-spiritual world … stealing= taking something from another and in doing denying something … and the repeat of the last line of S1 in S2 emphasising the departure from the body again left sleeping

In the joy of night,
in secret so none saw me,
no object in my sight
no other light to guide me,
but what burned here inside me.

S3 … night blankets everything except self … nice, that is if you want to be alone and not distracted … no objects in sight … and if you have secreted yourself away there is nobody to take any notice of you and you have the world to yourself … and if all is totally dark then you can internalise totally … get in touch with your inner self … in this case a place you burn to go to and a place that brings joy … perhaps the spiritual journey ends in a kind of self-centred experience? … in the end we only have ourselves?

Which solely was my guide,
more surely than noon-glow,
to where he does abide,
one whom I deeply know
a place where none did show.

S4 … nice play on words … sole and solely … for this is a journey of the soul … and here we again see a total reliance and understanding within the individual – the only guide needed is from within and so knowing of the path … which is illuminated more than the full sun of noon … and the path home, the path to where the person belongs … a place where none did show except the self. The uniqueness of the personal spiritual journey is emphasised.

O night, my guide!
O night, far kinder than the dawn!
O night that tied
the lover to the loved,
the loved in the lover there transformed!

S5 … dawn gives new life, the start of a new day … but this night and darkness gives new life out of the night and darkness which is the guide to the future … but not the dawning of day but the dawning of a spiritual awakening and a transformation based on love … a very different window of light

On my flowering breast,
that breast I kept for him alone,
there he took his rest
while I regaled my own,
in lulling breezes from the cedars blown.

S6 … a very personal approach to the spiritual integration … the spiritual journey to perfection (regale = to entertain or give plenty of food and drink) … perhaps to give everything of oneself in this fashion in the union of love … and note there is something special here kept alone for this purpose towards the completion of the journey. (‘Behold, I will liken you to a cedar in Lebanon, with fair branches and forest shade’ – Ezekiel 31:3)

The breeze, from off the tower,
as I sieved through its windings,
with calm hands, that hour,
my neck, in wounding,
left all my senses hanging.

S7 … this is the follow-on absorption into a new sensuality based on the ‘breath’ from the tower which now reaches a communion (religious connotations … God and the tower of Babel when communion was denied and the people were scattered) and the sensuality is such that it appears to wound and leave all other senses without meaning (hanging without connection).

Self abandoned, self forgot,
my face inclined to the beloved one:
all ceased, and I was not,
my cares now left behind, and gone:
there among the lilies all forgotten.

S8 … finality in reaching perfection … the death of self and self-cares … (lilies symbolic of the passing and death) … there is a certain feeling of emptiness left behind.

St John of the Cross

Born at Hontoveros, Castille Spain 1542 died 1591 at Ubeda.

… and here are some more words from St John of the Cross on perfection

Summary of Perfection

Ignoring the created and inferior;
Remembering above all things the creator;
Attention to the life that is interior;
For the beloved love that’s always greater.

… and a reference link to more analysis

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