Dark Night of the Soul


St. John of the Cross

1. One dark night,
fired with love’s urgent longings
— ah, the sheer grace! —
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

2. In darkness, and secure,
by the secret ladder, disguised,
— ah, the sheer grace! —
in darkness and concealment,
my house being now all stilled.

3. On that glad night,
in secret, for no one saw me,
nor did I look at anything,
with no other light or guide
than the one that burned in my heart.

4. This guided me
more surely than the light of noon
to where he was awaiting me
— him I knew so well —
there in a place where no one appeared.

5. O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
the Lover with his beloved,
transforming the beloved in her Lover.

6. Upon my flowering breast
which I kept wholly for him alone,
there he lay sleeping,
and I caressing him there
in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

7. When the breeze blew from the turret,
as I parted his hair,
it wounded my neck
with its gentle hand,
suspending all my senses.

8. I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased; I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies.
–St John of the Cross

I am in a choral group that is singing a version of this poem by the Spanish mystic, St. John of the Cross. [You can watch and listen to the piece on this exquisite YouTube recording]. It has made me wonder what this poem is all about.

It is actually part of a treatise The Dark Night of the Soul. The treatise expounds the poem, which is sometimes called “The Stanzas of the Soul” and describes a”ladder-like” ascent from the darkness of purifying the senses and the spirit to be united in love with Christ.

This is a poem that intrigues me. The experience is different from what we usually think of as a dark night, which often is a time of despair or a sense of God’s absence. This is more the darkness of turning from exterior sense experience to the stillness of a heart contemplating the One she or he loves, and in that contemplation finding oneself with one’s Lover, enjoying the Beloved’s presence.

Some circles are leery of the mystics. Yet real love is rooted both in truth and intimacy and it is this latter the poem brings out. How many of us know God with the kind of intimacy we reserve for the language of lovers? How many have stilled the “noise” of our lives to have these kinds of loving encounters?

These are some of the things I’ll be thinking about as I sing this poem this weekend.


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