A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Countdown To Christmas (4): Union/Transformation

Upon a darkened night
the flame of love was burning in my breast
And by a lantern bright
I fled my house while all in quiet rest

Shrouded by the night
and by the secret stair I quickly fled
The veil concealed my eyes
while all within lay quiet as the dead

Oh night thou was my guide
oh night more loving than the rising sun
Oh night that joined the lover
to the beloved one
transforming each of them into the other

Upon that misty night
in secrecy, beyond such mortal sight
Without a guide or light
than that which burned so deeply in my heart

That fire t'was led me on
and shone more bright than of the midday sun
To where he waited still
it was a place where no one else could come


Within my pounding heart
which kept itself entirely for him
He fell into his sleep
beneath the cedars all my love I gave
And by the fortress walls
the wind would brush his hair against his brow
And with its smoothest hand
caressed my every sense it would allow


I lost myself to him
and laid my face upon my lover's breast
And care and grief grew dim
as in the mornings mist became the light
There they dimmed amongst the lilies fair
There they dimmed amongst the lilies fair
There they dimmed amongst the lilies fair

St John of the Cross (arranged and adapted by Loreena Mckennit)

May, 1993 - Stratford ... have been reading through the poetry of 15th century Spain, and I find myself drawn to one by the mystic writer and visionary St. John of the Cross; the untitled work is an exquisite, richly metaphoric love poem between himself and his god. It could pass as a love poem between any two at any time ... His approach seems more akin to early Islamic or Judaic works in its more direct route to communication to his god ... I have gone over three different translations of the poem, and am struck by how much a translation can alter our interpretation. Am reminded that most holy scriptures come to us in translation, resulting in a diversity of views.

Loreena McKennit

The secret stair

In a monastery, and St. John of the Cross probably lived in one, there is generally a night staircase, used by the monks to go to church at night from where they sleep (the dormitory), and in this way a monk could easily get out of the monastery at night. My first guess was that the poem refers to this night staircase and doorway with "secret stair". But fra. Emiel Abalahin, a Carmelite like John of the Cross, explained that the meaning is deeper:
"Dark Night of the Soul," like much of John's poetry, is based on "Song of Songs" from the Biblical Old Testament, and also on much of the romantic poetry and lyrics of Spanish popular balladry of that time, i.e., 16th century. The "secret stair" has less to do with a staircase in a monastery, and more to do with the popular theme of lovers meeting for a late night romantic tryst. In order for this to be possible, the young maiden of the song or poem would have to sneak out of the house, by the "secret stair."
John uses this as a metaphor for the soul in prayer who, by means of contemplation, steals away from the world unnoticed, to meet in loving relationship with God. The dark night refers to the soul's search for God, beyond the confines of the human definitions we have put upon God.
There is much more I could say, but John has written two whole treatises on it in his books Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul.

Loreena McKennit

It is love alone that gives worth to all things. St Theresa of Avila

Love flies, runs, and rejoices; it is free and nothing can hold it back. Thomas à Kempis


Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for this. On my recent Camino I was very happy to be able to visit many of the sites associated with John, particularly in Avila and Segovia.

It is probably worth going into the history a bit more than Loreena McKennitt's interesting comments do.

John wrote what is probably the deepest and most beautiful love poetry in Christian tradition. He did this while in prison (in solitary confinement and darkness and no prospect of release) in a Convent in Toledo as part of the fall out of the Reform of the Carmelite Order. His love and his poetry come out of the greatest possible despair and darkness.

Wikepedia seems to have got it's account of him right. To my mind, the best translation of his poetry is by Marjorie Flower. There is an excellent introduction to his teaching in a little book called The Impact of God by Iain Matthew.


The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for this comment, Andy.

Yes, 'Dark Night Of The Soul' is a wonderful, contemplative work. I'm very interested in direct, personal, mystical encounters with the Divine. I'll check out your references. My own translation is by Mirabai Starr.