Thursday, October 05, 2006

Cántico espiritual

St. John of the Cross. Here, in Spanish.



Where have You hidden Yourself,
And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You have fled like the hart,
Having wounded me.
I ran after You, crying; but You were gone.


O shepherds, you who go
Through the sheepcots up the hill,
If you shall see Him
Whom I love the most,
Tell Him I languish, suffer, and die.


In search of my Love
I will go over mountains and strands;
I will gather no flowers,
I will fear no wild beasts;
And pass by the mighty and the frontiers.


O groves and thickets
Planted by the hand of the Beloved;
O verdant meads
Enameled with flowers,
Tell me, has He passed by you?


A thousand graces diffusing
He passed through the groves in haste,
And merely regarding them
As He passed
Clothed them with His beauty.


Oh! who can heal me?
Give me at once Yourself,
Send me no more
A messenger
Who cannot tell me what I wish.


All they who serve are telling me
Of Your unnumbered graces;
And all wound me more and more,
And something leaves me dying,
I know not what, of which they are darkly speaking.


But how you persevere, O life,
Not living where you live;
The arrows bring death
Which you receive
From your conceptions of the Beloved.


Why, after wounding
This heart, have You not healed it?
And why, after stealing it,
Have You thus abandoned it,
And not carried away the stolen prey?


Quench my troubles,
For no one else can soothe them;
And let my eyes behold You,
For You are their light,
And I will keep them for You alone.


Reveal Your presence,
And let the vision and Your beauty kill me,
Behold the malady
Of love is incurable
Except in Your presence and before Your face.


O crystal well!
Oh that on Your silvered surface
You would mirror forth at once
Those eyes desired
Which are outlined in my heart!


Turn them away, O my Beloved!
I am on the wing:


Return, My Dove!
The wounded hart
Looms on the hill
In the air of your flight and is refreshed.


My Beloved is the mountains,
The solitary wooded valleys,
The strange islands,
The roaring torrents,
The whisper of the amorous gales;


The tranquil night
At the approaches of the dawn,
The silent music,
The murmuring solitude,
The supper which revives, and enkindles love.


Catch us the foxes,
For our vineyard has flourished;
While of roses
We make a nosegay,
And let no one appear on the hill.


O killing north wind, cease!
Come, south wind, that awakens love!
Blow through my garden,
And let its odors flow,
And the Beloved shall feed among the flowers.


O nymphs of Judea!
While amid the flowers and the rose-trees
The amber sends forth its perfume,
Tarry in the suburbs,
And touch not our thresholds.


Hide yourself, O my Beloved!
Turn Your face to the mountains,
Do not speak,
But regard the companions
Of her who is traveling amidst strange islands.


Light-winged birds,
Lions, fawns, bounding does,
Mountains, valleys, strands,
Waters, winds, heat,
And the terrors that keep watch by night;


By the soft lyres
And the siren strains, I adjure you,
Let your fury cease,
And touch not the wall,
That the bride may sleep in greater security.


The bride has entered
The pleasant and desirable garden,
And there reposes to her heart’s content;
Her neck reclining
On the sweet arms of the Beloved.


Beneath the apple-tree
There were you betrothed;
There I gave you My hand,
And you were redeemed
Where your mother was corrupted.


Our bed is of flowers
By dens of lions encompassed,
Hung with purple,
Made in peace,
And crowned with a thousand shields of gold.


In Your footsteps
The young ones run Your way;
At the touch of the fire
And by the spiced wine,
The divine balsam flows.


In the inner cellar
Of my Beloved have I drunk; and when I went forth
Over all the plain
I knew nothing,
And lost the flock I followed before.


There He gave me His breasts,
There He taught me the science full of sweetness.
And there I gave to Him
Myself without reserve;
There I promised to be His bride.


My soul is occupied,
And all my substance in His service;
Now I guard no flock,
Nor have I any other employment:
My sole occupation is love.


If, then, on the common land
I am no longer seen or found,
You will say that I am lost;
That, being enamored,
I lost myself; and yet was found.


Of emeralds, and of flowers
In the early morning gathered,
We will make the garlands,
Flowering in Your love,
And bound together with one hair of my head.


By that one hair
You have observed fluttering on my neck,
And on my neck regarded,
You were captivated;
And wounded by one of my eyes.


When You regarded me,
Your eyes imprinted in me Your grace:
For this You loved me again,
And thereby my eyes merited
To adore what in You they saw


Despise me not,
For if I was swarthy once
You can regard me now;
Since You have regarded me,
Grace and beauty have You given me.


The little white dove
Has returned to the ark with the bough;
And now the turtle-dove
Its desired mate
On the green banks has found.


In solitude she lived,
And in solitude built her nest;
And in solitude, alone
Has the Beloved guided her,
In solitude also wounded with love.


Let us rejoice, O my Beloved!
Let us go forth to see ourselves in Your beauty,
To the mountain and the hill,
Where the pure water flows:
Let us enter into the heart of the thicket.


We shall go at once
To the deep caverns of the rock
Which are all secret,
There we shall enter in
And taste of the new wine of the pomegranate.


There you will show me
That which my soul desired;
And there You will give at once,
O You, my life!
That which You gave me the other day.


The breathing of the air,
The song of the sweet nightingale,
The grove and its beauty
In the serene night,
With the flame that consumes, and gives no pains.


None saw it;
Neither did Aminadab appear
The siege was intermitted,
And the cavalry dismounted
At the sight of the waters.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Tried by fever, taught by cold

From Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk:
Are monks wasting their time in seeking to convert themselves, and the world, from evil? Many have said so. For myself, I appreciate their realism about human beings confronted by evil, and the good sense that does not allow them to be easily fooled when evil attempts to disguise itself by adopting innocuous dress. Both the monks of the ancient tradition and contemporary monastics, it seems to me, have a refreshing sense of what really matters in human behavior. They know that the roots of sin are not to be found in the acts of gambling, drinking, dancing, smoking, playing dominos (an activity that got my grandfather Norris fired by a Methodist church in 1919), or even in adultery or fornication. Looking deeper, they recognize, as one monk said to me, a man who’d sown plenty of wild oats before entering a monastery, that “even though I gave up fornicating years ago, pride and anger are still with me.” Pride and anger were recognized by the desert monks as the most dangerous of their bad thoughts, and the most difficult to overcome. Abba Ammonas said, “I have spent fourteen years [in the desert] asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger.” In the words of Benedicta Ward, “For all sins, there is forgiveness. What really lies outside the ascetic life is despair, the proud attitude which denies the possibility of forgiveness.” All committed life is ascetic, in some sense; the word originally meant an exercise, practice, or training adopted for a certain way of life. Athletes, monks, artists, musicians, married people, and celibates all learn to recognize the practices that will hinder or foster the growth of their commitment.

As for designating despair as an aspect of the sin, or “bad thought,” of pride, I find it enormously helpful. Among other things, it defeats my perfectionism, my tendency to give up when I can’t do things “just right.” But if I accept the burden of my despair, in the monastic sense, then I also receive the tools to defeat it. I have a hope that no modern therapeutic approach can give me. “The desert fathers were convinced that the words of scripture possessed the power to deliver them from evil,” writes Douglas Burton-Christie, another scholar of the early monks. “They believed that the Word of God has the power to effect what it says.” Or, as Amma Syncletica wrote early in the fifth century, in a catalogue of Bible quotations to be used in times of temptation, “Are you being tried by fever? Are you being taught by cold? Indeed, scripture says, ‘We went through fire and water, yet you have brought us forth to a spacious place.’” (Ps. 66:12). She adds, “For he said, ‘The Lord hears me when I call’ (Ps. 4:3). It is with these exercises that we train the soul.”

Sunday, September 17, 2006


"Lord God, I am nothing, but all of it is yours."

- St. Francis

Thursday, September 07, 2006

"It's like being in love"

From Women of God, by Mary Gordon, in the January 2002 Atlantic Monthly:
Since the days when my father and I had told the world at large that I wanted to be a contemplative, I had been intensely curious about the details of the contemplative life. But I had never before spoken to a real contemplative—the point of the life being seclusion from the world. I was avid to know the details of the schedule, at least in part to see whether it conformed to my imaginings of it. Indeed, the sisters' day is structured around times of prayer. They meet six times a day for communal prayer, and have three daily periods of private devotion and meditation.

"You see, we lead an intensive life of prayer, a pure life of faith," Mother Marie told me. "Prayer is really the center of our day; it's what we devote ourselves to. Originally I entered an active community, but then I understood that I wanted a contemplative life. I was drawn to an intense life of prayer."

There seems to be no time in the day that is meaningless—no slack hours, no residue of triviality or folly or plain waste. Of course, it is also possible to say there is no spontaneity and little individual choice. It is a schedule that seems outside history: it is not much different from religious life before Vatican II—and not much different from monastic life in the Middle Ages.

I asked her if it was difficult to pull herself away from her prayer life to do practical tasks. "You see, it's like being in love," she said. "When you're in love, you really don't want to be anywhere except alone with the person you love. If I have to go out to Eighty-sixth Street, to buy a pair of shoes or something, I'm always eager to get back. It's the spiritual atmosphere I love, and so I miss it. Since I'm the superior, I suffer a bit from not having as much solitude as I would like. But part of our vocation is living in community. For example, if during my free time I wanted to take a walk and say my rosary, and one of the sisters said she needed to talk to me, needed my help or my support, I would feel that my first duty was to her. Community life is a great challenge to virtue. I believe it's in community that you grow. In patience, in generosity."

I looked at her face, which had the sweetness, the calm, the quiet assurance, of a woman happily married to her high school sweetheart and still amazed at her own good luck. Her ease of manner made the life she lives seem un-extraordinary; but, of course, it is extraordinary, because it is a hidden life, quite foreign to most modern imaginations. So I asked her what misconceptions about contemplative nuns she would like to clear up. "First," she said, "we're women, we're humans, and we experience everything a woman does, but we experience a very deep call from God—and the call is captivating—to a life of intimate prayer. We're not stoic, we're not afraid of life, we're not afraid of responsibility, we're not cold fish, and we're not afraid of marriage. We're not that different from other women. Being a contemplative doesn't make you less of a human being. Saint Iraneaus says, 'The glory of God is man fully alive.'"

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Light and darkness and water

Somewhere on a well-shaft in a monastic cloister I remember the words, O sobria ebrietas, O ebria sobrietas: O sober drunkenness, O drunken sobriety. Even the water and the light and darkness are mystical symbols, and real ones. They are part of one long, inexorable drama. All this seems more marvellous and more strange to us than it would have done in the past, because much of human life was once determined by the rhythms of days and seasons. In the late nineteenth century in certain English villages, people were still summoned to the fields by the church bell, or on estates by a stable bell. In France the angelus punctuates the day. In the Middle Ages words like prime and matins and vespers came to indicate the time of day by reference to the sun, without referring to the precise time of clocks, so that it is sometimes hard to know at what time by our clocks the offices were actually sung.

Both the basic symbolism I have mentioned and the sense of a vast swing of stellar and solar time of which each season's passage and each day's passage were small images, and which was marked by festivals of the year like the small landmarks of every day's liturgy and routine, are much older than Christianity. Virgil is conscious of this sense of nature, of the heavens, the earth, and human nature on the earth. The discovery was not classical, it is rooted in the nature of the year, of animal life, and of agriculture. "Lenten is come with love to town" is the statement of two very ancient aspects of the hungriest season of the year.

Monasteries make the whole of life an extended musical drama. This drama is one in which the monks take part with their entire lives: it is built around their deepest religious mysteries, and it mysteriously releases the soul. Every monastery in the world of whatever religion has its own ritual monotonies, and its own monotonous music, its own ceremonies of light and darkness and water.

- From The Frontiers of Paradise: A Study of Monks and Monasteries, by Peter Levi

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


If it happed me to meet any saint coming from heaven, and also a poor priest, I would first go kiss the priest's hands, and would say to the saint: Holy saint, abide a while, for the hands of this priest have handled the son of life, and hath performed a thing above humanity.

- St. Francis of Assisi

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Quarrel

From Rowan Williams' book on the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Where God Happens:
Two hermits lived together for many years without a quarrel. One said to the other, "Let's have a quarrel with each other, as other men do. The other answered, "I don't know how a quarrel happens." The first said, "Look here, I put a brick between us, and I say, 'That's mine.' Then you say, 'No, it's mine.' That is how you begin a quarrel. So they put a brick between them and one of them said, "That's mine." The other said, "No, it's mine." He answered, "Yes, it's yours. Take it away." They were unable to argue with each other.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

O All Ye Works of the Lord

From Morning Prayer, Rite I:
Benedicite, omnia opera Domini (Song of the Three Young Men, 35-65)

I Invocation

O all ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye angels of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

II The Cosmic Order

O ye heavens, bless ye the Lord; *
O ye waters that be above the firmament, bless ye the Lord;

O all ye powers of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye sun and moon, bless ye the Lord; *
O ye stars of heaven, bless ye the Lord;

O ye showers and dew, bless ye the Lord; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye winds of God, bless ye the Lord; *
O ye fire and heat, bless ye the Lord;

O ye winter and summer, bless ye the Lord; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye dews and frosts, bless ye the Lord; *
O ye frost and cold, bless ye the Lord;

O ye ice and snow, bless ye the Lord; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye nights and days, bless ye the Lord; *
O ye light and darkness, bless ye the Lord;

O ye lightnings and clouds, bless ye the Lord; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

III The Earth and its Creatures

O let the earth bless the Lord; *
O ye mountains and hills, bless ye the Lord;

O all ye green things upon the earth, bless ye the Lord; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O all ye fowls of the air, bless ye the Lord; *
O all ye beasts and cattle, bless ye the Lord;

O ye children of men, bless ye the Lord; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

IV The People of God

O ye people of God, bless ye the Lord; *
O ye priests of the Lord, bless ye the Lord;

O ye servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

O ye spirits and souls of the righteous, bless ye the Lord; *
O ye holy and humble men of heart, bless ye the Lord.

Let us bless the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; *
praise him and magnify him for ever.

According to Br. Thomas, an Episcopal friar in Southern California:
This canticle is of particularly splendid history. It is the song said to have been sung by three young men as they were tossed into the burning fiery furnace by king Nebuchadnezzar when they refused to worship an idol. They sang this song in the fire as they were miraculously preserved from its effects, and then released by Nebuchadnezzar, who exclaimed, blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him.

This canticle is found in the bible either as an addition to the book of Daniel, in chapter 3, or as a separate book in the apocrypha. The version here is that used by the episcopal church. This canticle is used on saturday mornings by the episcopal church.