St John of the Cross

Yesterday we commemorated St John of the Cross, a 16th Century Spanish Carmalite who was closely associated with St Teresa of Avila.  St John of the Cross is known for his mystical writings and for his intense study and knowledge of the Scriptures.  He is famously associated with his contemplation of the dark night of the soul, upon which he wrote a treatise.  The work that I most value of his, however, is that he produced later: a long poem which is a paraphrase of the Song of Solomon, or the “Song of Songs”.  My copy is one bought second hand many years ago in the lovely Thomas Baker edition - I have two works by St Teresa in the same series.  It was published in 1909, and my copy is a 1919 reprint that once belonged to a sister at Redcote Convent in Bitterne Southampton before passing into the Convent’s library, and ultimately to a second-hand bookshop.  The work is entitled, “A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul” and it is amongst the treasures of Western Spirituality.

What St John of the Cross did, was to write a poem which reflected his visionary reading of the Biblical text of the Song of Songs.  This in itself he saw as the complete work.  However, he was persuaded by his contemporaries to produce it in book form, with a commentary on each stanza of the poem.  This is what we have today as, “A Spiritual Canticle of the Soul”.  

In celebration of the feast day yesterday, I opened the work at random and lighted on the verse of the poem which runs:


O crystal well!

O that on thy silvered surface

Thou wouldest mirror forth at once

Those desired eyes

Which are outlined in my heart.


One starts to understand why it was that Ann, Prioress of the Carmelite Convent of Granada, amongst others, no doubt, asked John to write a commentary.

What is added through John of the Cross’ added text here, is that, in describing ‘the crystal well’ he is referring to ‘faith’.  He talks of faith as being like a crystal: pure, as in ‘truth’, and linked to a well - he uses the word, ‘limpid’ - the waters, clear and free well up in spiritual goodness to flow into the soul.  He explains that he is thinking of the Samaritan woman at the well here too, with Jesus offering water that will spring up to everlasting life.

The next metaphor is that of a silvered surface.  Again, one can imagine John’s contemporaries saying to him, “What do you mean?”  Now he is going to the psalms: to Psalm 68 verse 12, “Though you stayed among the sheepfolds, see now a dove’s wings covered with silver and its feathers with green gold.”  Likening faith to a dove now, John of the Cross speaks of its wings being covered in silver, not only veiling the inner possession of faith - which is pure gold - but imagining the silvering creating a mirrored surface, by which I assume he is demonstrating not only a veiling but a protecting of one’s faith from what might assail it.  

The last two lines are more obviously understandable as the truth which we see and receive become infused into our hearts.

And so, I place my St John of the Cross back on its shelf until another day; its heavy binding and thick cream pages holding words and thoughts and descriptions best taken in small bites.  I happen across lines that the sister in the convent has highlighted, and think of her prayers and devotion that was helped by this book.  I shall light a candle for her at Morning Prayer today.

John Mann