Let my soul glory in the Lord;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,
and your faces may not blush with shame. ~Psalm 34
Saint John of the Cross is far from being a popular saint. He, like the two great Teresas (Teresa de Ávila and Thérèse de Lisieux) was a Discalced Carmelite, a writer, a poet, a mystic, and a Doctor of the Church. But one hardly ever (if ever) finds his image in a side chapel (or at least in a niche in an altarpiece), and medals with his effigy are relatively impossible to find. Even if he certainly is one of the greatest writers of the Spanish Siglo de Oro (if not the greatest) his texts (both his poetry and his spiritual treatises) are hardly read, even among native Spanish speakers.
There are reasons for that. On the one hand, his texts don’t always make for easy reading. Even if his prose is not just clear but rather enjoyable, long theological treatises on mysticism are not necessarily the kind of thing one would read for entertainment, or while commuting. Also, the fact that the better known of all his writings is the Dark Night of the Soul does not seem to help —who would be willing to read hundreds of pages of what seems to be (at least at face value) a detailed account of an anguished, tormenting spiritual crisis?
On the other, it is also true that his poetry, when translated, loses most of its original wealth. John of the Cross plays with very specific puns, idioms, and expressions that are typical of 16th-century Spanish. A famous line of his Cántico Espiritual says
y déjame muriendo un no se qué que quedan balbuciendo.
One of the many standard translations of the poem reads “and something leaves me dying, I know not what, of which they are darkly speaking.” The Spanish balbuciendo literally translates “babbling,” and the three times repeated que resembles, precisely, the sound of someone trying and failing to utter some articulate sound. That the author who has been described as “the more mystic of all poets, and the most poetic of all mystics” includes some hidden babbling in one of his most illustrious poems is not only a sample of his literary genius. It is also a gesture pointing at the mystical phenomenon behind the poem, a suspension of the writer’s capacity to articulate himself when faced with the divine, the acute awareness of the insufficiency of language (and hence, of his own writing skills) in front of the overwhelming experience of the absolutely transcendent (yet also intimately immanent) God.
Now, not everything in John of the Cross is “dark,” “insufficient,” or “dying.” Behind all these seemingly dreadful experiences lies a rather joyful character who understands “all things are his.” What the Carmelite mystic really teaches is that darkness is oftentimes just an excess of light that momentarily blinds us, revealing the insufficiency of our own spiritual, intellectual, and moral babblings, and that we need to “die” (that is, leave behind these insufficiencies) in order to experience the fullness of the life that awaits us. As the saint would put it,
Mine are the heavens and mine is the earth. Mine are the nations, the just are mine, and mine the sinners. The angels are mine, and the Mother of God, and all things are mine; and God himself is mine and for me, because Christ is mine and all for me.
What do you ask, then, and seek, my soul? Yours is all of this, and all is for you. Do not engage yourself in anything less or pay heed to the crumbs that fall from your Father’s table. Go forth and exult in your Glory! Hide yourself in it and rejoice, and you will obtain the supplications of your heart.
May this Advent help us learn crumbs are not enough to satisfy us.
O God, who gave the Priest Saint John
an outstanding dedication to perfect self-denial
and love of the Cross,
grant that, by imitating him closely at all times,
we may come to contemplate eternally your glory.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God, for ever and ever.