08
Mar
13

Dark Night of the Soul, Lenten Observance, Day 36, 2013

Book II, Ch. XXIV: Completes the explanation of the second stanza.
This section looks at the final phrase of the second stanza, “My house now being at rest.” This line ended the first stanza as well, and St. John says that’s because the first stanza was largely focused on the sensual side, and this 2nd stanza on the Dark Night of the Soul itself, and that the sensual side and the spiritual side both had to be purged. Only after both the sensual and spiritual sides have “become tranquillized and strengthened,” and all their domestics (the desires and faculties) put to rest and quieted, can the Divine Wisdom come.
Bk. II, Ch. XXV: Wherein is expounded the third stanza
Here the whole third stanza is given a brief overview. Here, the soul continues in secret, neither seeing nor seen, the only light being that which burned in the heart.
The soul is removed and remote from the senses that would disturb it.
And the soul sees nothing that is not God, with a view of reaching the goal of union, with no other forces to block it.
And the burning light in the heart, though the way is dark, somehow propels one on towards God.
The manuscript ends with this brief exposition of the third stanza, and does not comment on anything further, nor about this stanza in the detail given to the 1st and 2nd stanzas. St. John did not die soon after this, so his decision to set it aside may be for other reasons. The editor/translator in his introduction does not offer an explanation for this setting aside. It is quite possible that St. John, a reformer of the Carmelite order and founder of the Discalced Carmelites along with St. Teresa of Avila, had his plate full with other matters.
I wondered, as I was reading this how much of an effect St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa had during their own time. They did create an offshoot of the Carmelite order which has continued up to the present. So they were important figures, but were they recognized as such during their own time? St. John was seen as a pest by the Carmelites who imprisoned him. And there were efforts made to suppress the Discalced Carmelites during the 1570s and 1580s.
An edition of St. John’s works were published in 1618 and a later, more complete, collection published in 1630. St. John himself was not beatified until 1675 and not canonized until 1726. Though it is not uncommon for a long period between a saint’s death and his/her canonization (St. Thomas More was canonized about 400 years after his death – though some of the delay there may have been for political reasons), the length of time may reflect a reluctant Church only gradually realizing St. John’s power.
St. John was a solitary figure, and he much preferred the solitary contemplation of scripture to the hustle and bustle of the world. And this work, though incomplete, suggests a retirement from the world to get one properly prepped for a mystical vision of God. St. John was drawn to St. Teresa’s call for a return to the older Carmelite practice of radical poverty and mortification of the flesh from the more relaxed mode the order found itself in from the 15th c. on. Clearly he saw the pleasures of the world an entrapment, and believed mightily in the purification and purgation of the soul. His Dark Night seems very much to suggest a Purgatory for the worthy in this life, and the Dark Night of the Senses, which is required first, does seem a lot like a junkie going through withdrawal. But dependence on pleasure is unhealthy in St. John’s view, and only by going through the hellish pains of withdrawal can one become whole again. Unfortunately, such adherence itself can prove to be unhealthy, as if the body is something brutish to be tamed through violent measures, rather than as part of one’s makeup.
It is unclear what St. John would have done with the remaining 5 stanzas of the poem in his explication. As they point more to the union with God, it seems they would have gotten more and more difficult to develop or explain. For surely such a union must be personal to an extent that language cannot adequately represent it. There is a phrase in Italian “traduttore traditore” which literally means “translator (is a) traitor.” This refers to attempts to translate ancient works into modern idiom. Any attempt to translate a work will miss a lot (as the phrasing in the original language and its tone is so important, and a new language will not be able to capture that, but will have its own linguistic peculiarities). Surely in the case of a mystical experience, something that must be rather like an acid trip, will be such that language cannot capture its magic. And maybe St. John found that explicating the final stanzas was too difficult, and so it was shelved for the time, and never restarted (he died in 1591, six years or so from the date of the work as we have it). And, what if he had done that. Could he have captured the nuances of his own situation (which he surely uses as the template for the soul’s journey towards God)?

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