Poems of St John of the Cross and making time for silence

I got back from a week up in northern Scotland with my parents this past Friday, and our first stop was the Granite City of Aberdeen where, after seeing my Grandpa’s birthplace and two fantastic Gothic churches, we slipped into a bookshop (as we are wont to do). To my delight and surprise, I found Poems of St John of the Cross, translated by Roy Campbell.

poems of st john of the cross

As I have mentioned here before (twice, in fact), I lost this book, a gift from my friend Emily, along with The Way of a Pilgrim, trans. Helen Bacovcin, back in 2004 on the OC Transpo when the books fell out of my pocket. My brother gave me Bacovcin’s Pilgrim for this past birthday, and now I have also recovered St John of the Cross — in even the same edition! Quite chuffed with this purchase (a mere £2), I started reading that night at our hotel.

Zurbarán_St._John_of_the_CrossHere you will find that St John of the Cross employs ‘the analogical’ method of talking about God and our relationship to Him — that is, St John is unashamed to follow in the footsteps of St Bernard of Clairvaux (saint of the week here) in discussing Christ as the bridegroom of the human soul as bride. It is an analogy for a kind of communion and relationship to which nothing in the human sphere really compares. This private poetry is one of my cited locations where it’s okay for Jesus to be your boyfriend.

The first poem is the famous ‘Dark Night of the Soul‘, upon which St John wrote a commentary that is one of the great classics of the Christian tradition (read it online or find it in print!). Many of the poems deal with searching for the Lover or with one of the classic tropes of lyric-elegiac poetry — the pain of love.

One title stands out to me, Englished as, ‘Verses Written After an Ecstasy of High Exaltation’.* How many of us could say, ‘I have had an ecstasy of high exaltation?’ We may have the eros, the desire, for God, but we rarely reshape our lives. My ‘ascetic revival’ of a few years ago lasted about a week. Old patterns slip back in.

Who has time to sit alone and pray to God, to clear the mind, to do nothing in God’s presence?

We, of course, need to make the time. Cultivate stillness and silence. Probably very few of us will have ecstasies of high exaltation — ecstasy, as James Houston notes in The Transforming Power of Prayer, is a gift from God not doled out lightly. We cannot attain it by any technique or through any skill. But we can all attain the same stillness that inspired St John of the Cross to write his beautiful poems, driven by the desire to meet with the Most Holy Trinity. And that is worth doing.

So, when we’re moving along with church attendance, prayer, and scripture reading — as recommended here — shall we then add stillness in God’s presence as a way to focus our lives and hearts of Jesus?

*’Coplas del mismo hechas sobre un éxtasis de alta contemplación’ in the original spanish.

Mary and Euphemia: The Contemplative and Active Lives

In John of Ephesus’ Lives of Eastern Saints ch 12*, we learn of two interesting sixth-century ascetic sisters from amongst the Syrian Mesopotamian Monophysites recounted by John.

Mary, the elder of the two, lived the celibate life in Thella (Constantina). She was overcome by the desire to see the Holy City of Jerusalem and so she went on pilgrimage there. While in Jerusalem at the Church of the Resurrection (or Anastasis), she was overcome. She wanted to do nothing but stand there.

So she did.

And while she stood there, Mary was enraptured and had an ecstatic experience. She was drawn into the experience of the love of the great God of grace who rules all. Inevitably, some of the people who helped take care of this church thought her mad and tried shooing her out.

So Mary spent time in the street. And then would move back into the Church of the Resurrection.

Eventually, she was persuaded by some of the following that had developed around her that maybe should go home. So she went back to Armenia IV and lived as an ascetic in Thella, returning to Jerusalem every once in a while to pray to the God who had so enraptured her soul.

Of note: Mary gathered a following, and they were edified by her spiritual experiences. True mysticism always benefits the community.

Mary’s sister was Euphemia. Euphemia, unlike Mary, married and had a daughter. However, when her husband died, she was overcome by the desire to live a holy life. So she and her daughter, Mary like her aunt, learned the psalms and prayed the hours. They worked from the home, carding wool for the wealthy.

This work made them a denarius a day. Half of the denarius provided for their daily needs. The other half provided for the daily needs of anyone Euphemia could find.

Euphemia seems to have been a fiery sort of character, going about the city of Amida on the banks of the Tigris and finding poor people to do good to. And when there was a crisis, she would turn to the wealthy Christians of the city and berate them thus:

Is it well that you thus sit yourself while slaves stand and wait upon you, and enjoy a variety of tastes in dainty foods and in wines, and of pure bread and splendid rugs, while God is knocked down in the street and swarms with lice and faints from his hunger, and you do not fear him? and how will you call upon him and he answer you, when you treat him with such contempt? Or how will you ask forgiveness from him? Or how can you expect him to deliver you from hell? (Trans. E.W. Brooks)

In the West, we often make a distinction between the “active” life and the “contemplative” life. Despite Met. Kallistos Ware’s attempts to do away with these distinctions (cf. The Orthodox Way), they are often played out in reality, as in the case of these two Syrian sisters.

Both of these lifestyles are appropriate choices for the person totally surrendered to Christ. The latter, Euphemia, fits better with our conception of a good Christian. Indeed, I cannot help but say that her approach fits better with what we find in the Gospels.

Nonetheless, I think we have room — need, even? — for mystic visionaries of the contemplative life such as Mary. They are the ones who ground us in Christ. Sometimes feeding the poor becomes feeding the poor — not feeding Christ. Sometimes seeking righteousness becomes political lobbying — not seeking Christ. The contemplatives see Christ and live for him a radical way, often in bizarre, radical ways (cf. our friend Daniel the Stylite).

If we of the “active life” gather around the contemplatives, our own mission is given fuel, and it is easier to see Christ in the faces of the poor surrounding us.

Let us be encouraged by Euphemia to do good for poor, and by Mary that Christ is calling out to draw us into his warm, divine embrace.

*This chapter is in Patrologia Orientalis 17. The entire work is in fascicles from PO 17, 18, 19 if you’re interested…

This Week’s Saints Brought to You by Thomas Merton, Kallistos Ware, and the Chalcedonian Schism.