Love/eros for God: St John of the Cross

Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)
Ascent (my pic of the Storr, Isle of Skye)

Our love for God is, at some level, tied up with what the Greeks call eros, as blogged previously. Eros is desire, and it drives us and pulls us and raises us up beyond the darkness and the mire of the world to ascend towards God — to kallisto, the most beautiful one; summum bonum, the highest good.

As guide to what this sort of erotikos love for God looks like, St John of the Cross is one of the more beautiful choices. He paints a picture that so many of us can relate to in these stanzas from his ‘Coplas about the soul which suffers with impatience to see God’:

When thinking to relieve my pain
I in the sacraments behold You
It brings me greater grief again
That to myself I cannot fold You.
And that I cannot see you plain
Augments my sorrow, so that I
Am dying that I do not die.

If in the hope I should delight,
Oh Lord, of seeing you appear,
The thought that I might lose Your sight
Doubles my sorrow and my far.
Living as I do in such fright,
And yearning as I yearn, poor I
Must die because I do not die.

Is not this longing, desirous aspect of divine eros common to us all? We reach for the invisible God, but He seems to us illusory. We want to know Him, but He cannot be touched save in what? Bread? Wine?

Elsewhere, St John describes the relationship between God and the soul in terms inspired by Song of Songs, as of the Bride seeking the Bridegroom and lamenting her inability to find Him, and then they meet, and go up a mountain where He can reveal to her His secrets.

The soul is the Bride, and elsewhere, in the most famous of St John’s poems, ‘The Dark Night of the Soul‘, she steals away from home at night when everyone is sleeping. In secrecy she meets with and is joined to the Lover Who suspends her senses.

It has been years since I read St John of the Cross’ commentary on the poem, but this theme of being wounded by love recurs in his poetry. God reaches into the heart and wounds it for the purposes of cleansing and renewing and healing. We live in an impatient age that sees God in a therapeutic light. But our keen desire for God at times meets with His love in what may be termed ‘tough love’.

Yet we desire Him all the more. Elder Porphyrios refers to this phenomenon as well, and I think it is best thought of as unsatisfied satisfaction. We are satisfied with God when we finally find Him. But we want more. This is because of something I read of St Gregory of Nyssa (The Life of Moses, I think) — we are finite, God is infinite. The more of Him we find, the more will remain to be found. The more perfect we become, the more perfection lies ahead of us.

Today, as I think on our love for God, I want to emphasise — from the many themes of St John’s many poems — the theme of perseverance. The great mystics and holy men & women and spiritual theologians of the church often went through great perseverance to move forward in their lives. Let us persevere in the face of the Unseen God, knowing that He will be faithful and make Himself known to us in the ways that are best for us and that we can handle.

This, then, is a major part of our love for God: to persevere.

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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.