Thursday, May 23, 2024

A Hymn to the Holy Ghost by St. John of the Cross

The epic romance that was the life of John of the Cross began before he was born. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, married for love, choosing a poor maiden named Catalina Álvarez over the good favor of his wealthy, merchant-class family. Their union was blessed with three children, among whom was Juan de Yepes, but Gonzalo’s ultimate reward for following his heart was poverty and death; his parents disowned him, leaving him burdened by hardships that brought his life to a premature end. Catalina, now both impoverished and widowed, did what she could to provide for her children’s needs, but John’s prospects were dim. Malnutrition had left him physically frail, stunted, and therefore barely qualified even to perform the manual labors that were the likely destiny of a boy with no money, no education, and no social connections.
John of the Cross (artist unknown). Oil on canvas.

It turns out that Juan de Yepes did not become a manual laborer. He died in 1591 as Fray Juan de la Cruz of the Discalced Carmelites, having reached the heights of sanctity and of literary achievement. Canonized in the eighteenth century and declared a Doctor of the Church in the twentieth, St. John of the Cross composed some of the most sublime poetry in the history of the Spanish language. His writings on the spiritual life have been immensely influential, and they are a compelling reminder of poetry’s exalted status in pre-modern Christianity: his famous prose treatises, noted for their systematic theology and rigorous philosophy, were originally conceived not as independent works but as commentaries on his poems.

This remarkable artifact, still on display in the museum of the Monastery of the Incarnation in Spain, is a sketch made by St. John of the Cross after he received a vision of Christ crucified.

Some of John’s poetic excellence was surely born of his extraordinarily poetic life, which is a tale of privations, wanderings, godsends, mystical yearnings, and heroic austerities interspersed with betrayal, torment, and exile. A turning point in his earthly journey was the cruel imprisonment imposed by his own Carmelite confreres, whose twisted logic marked him as a “rebel.” These misguided religious were, however, the unwitting instruments of the divine Author, for they offered John a personal rebirth worthy of well-crafted fiction: his narrow cell was perpetually dark, like the womb, and his captivity ended—after nine months—with an agonizing midnight escape. It was during this period of purgatorial silence and solitude that he composed some of his finest verse. Indeed, the overpowering darkness of that cell may have been the seed of John’s most enduring spiritual metaphor: the dark night of the soul.

A manuscript of John’s Spiritual Canticle, with marginal additions in the saint’s own hand. Courtesy of Biblioteca Virtual Miguel de Cervantes.

Llama de amor viva (“Living Flame of Love”), a lyrical poem written relatively late in the saint’s life, was an attempt to express the inexpressible fulfillment of contemplative union with God. It does not identify the “living flame” to whom it is addressed, but St. John’s commentary on the poem states clearly that it is the Holy Ghost:

This flame of love is the spirit of her [i.e., the soul’s] Spouse, who is the Holy Spirit, whom the soul feels within itself, not only as a fire that has consumed and transformed her in tender love, but also as a fire that burns within her and casts a flame ...; and that flame bathes the soul in glory and refreshes her in the aura of divine life.

A vivid masterpiece of strong emotion and ecstatic paradox, Llama de amor viva challenges us to truly believe that human love, even during its most romantic and passionate stages, is but a pale reflection of the mystical love that unites the soul to her Creator.

Wishing all of NLM’s readers a most blessed Pentecost, a feast whose solemnity is second only to that of Easter, I offer below my translation of Llama de amor viva. For those who, like me, must sometimes groan under the burden of prosaic liturgies, I hope that it helps your Whitsuntide celebrations to feel a bit more poetic.

O living flame of love alight,
you who tenderly wound my soul,
you who deeply wound my heart,
since you no longer look away,
if you should wish, perfect me now:
break the thread of this embrace.

O burning, healing, tender fire,
O wound delightful as a gift,
O hand so soft, O touch so fine,
which savors of immortality,
which pays all debts most generously:
by giving death you make death life.

O fiery lamp, O gleaming torch
that shines into the depths of sense:
sense that once was dark and blind,
and now is giving warmth and light
—with beauty, rare and wondrous bright—
so near the Beloved’s side.

How tenderly, how lovingly,
you are awaking in my heart
and dwelling there, alone and true;
your breathing is to me delight,
—is glory, goodness in my sight—
so gently I fall, in love with you.

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