Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Oh, night more lovely than the dawn

From Urban Dharma: The Los Angeles Buddhist Catholic Dialogue, a review of an edition of St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul:
As the last rites were read to him on his deathbed at the age of 49, John of the Cross, the 16th century poet, mystic, priest and monk, interrupted. Please, he begged, read me "The Song of Solomon."

That such a sensual, luscious poem to love would be the last words John wished to hear is a bittersweet commentary on his life. He was a member of Teresa of Avila's Discalced Carmelite Order--the Barefoot Carmelites--and Teresa's beloved, passionate friend. His finest and most famous poem, "Songs of the Soul," combines the best of each of his vocations. He and Teresa were committed to the reform of the Carmelites, and both of them were caught in the chaos of the Inquisition in Spain.

At 25, John was captured and imprisoned in a closet in a monastery by a community of monks who upheld a Vatican faction's dim view of Teresa's reforms. He was starved and flogged. After nine months of captivity, he escaped by lowering himself out of his cell with a rope made of strips of cloth. He got himself to a Discalced convent and wept as he heard the nuns reciting the Angelus. He wrote "Songs of the Soul" in a state of gratitude and ecstasy.

Reformation is not an easy thing, it appears; something for me to keep in mind. "The Angelus" bell at the convent is rung three times during the day, three times three times each, at 6 a.m., at noon, and at 6 p.m. All recite it privately rather than in chapel together; the bells are beautiful, like the faint sweet voice of the angel Gabriel calling from some other realm, an echo of God's presence both here and in the world to come.

The poem, "Songs of the Soul", which "describes a night in which a soul escapes from her house to join her lover, her creator, in a night of risk, ecstasy and passion" - a dark night in which the soul meets her Beloved:
On a dark night,
Kindled in love with yearnings — oh, happy chance! —
I went forth without being observed,
My house being now at rest.

In darkness and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised — oh, happy chance! —
In darkness and in concealment,
My house being now at rest.

In the happy night,
In secret, when none saw me,
Nor I beheld aught,
Without light or guide, save that which burned in my heart.

This light guided me
More surely than the light of noonday
To the place where he (well I knew who!) was awaiting me —
A place where none appeared.

Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!

Upon my flowery breast,
Kept wholly for himself alone,
There he stayed sleeping, and I caressed him,
And the fanning of the cedars made a breeze.

The breeze blew from the turret
As I parted his locks;
With his gentle hand he wounded my neck
And caused all my senses to be suspended.

I remained, lost in oblivion;
My face I reclined on the Beloved.
All ceased and I abandoned myself,
Leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.

I went to mass today; I wanted to taste that sweetness again. I heard more during the sermon about "unity," and gritted my teeth, and promised I would do what the Beloved requires. I do not know what that is.

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