from the hermitage
By Sister alies therese
Many of you will be familiar with the works of St. John of the Cross, OCD,: The Dark Night, The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Spiritual Canticle, Living Flame of Love and so on. However, have you read his other poetry? Particularly the Romances? Of these I am particularly fond and for our purposes would like to share Romances 7-9, “The Incarnation and the Birth.”
St. John of the Cross, OCD, (1542-1591) was not only a writer of spiritual works but he was considered one of Spain’s finest poets. A graduate of the Jesuit College in Medina del Campo, John received a solid formation in the humanities. In 1559-63 that meant six hours a day devoted to grammar, rhetoric, Greek, Latin, and religion. He then went on to study for the priesthood and took the Carmelite habit in1563. In 1567 he was ordained in the spring and sang his first Mass in his hometown of Medina del Campo in September. It was here he met Madre Teresa of Avila, OCD, who was setting up her second foundation for her nuns of the Reform. She was 52 and he was 25. John had wanted to transfer to the Carthusian Order for a deeper life of prayer and solitude. She offered it to him in her plan to restore the Primitive Rule.
The following summer he finished theological studies and became an assistant professor at the Monastery of Santa Ana in Medina. He met with Madre Teresa and became convinced, that the Reform was where he needed to be. Soon there were six men in Duruelo who formed the first community. Because they were barefoot they were soon referred to as Discalced Carmelites.
However, by 1577 the Calced and the Discalced friars were deeply at odds. They demanded that John renounce the Reform and he declined. The tribunal called him rebellious and contumacious and ordered imprisonment. He remained in a closet 6’x10’, no window, cold, and extremely hot in summer. They took away his hood and scapular; his food only bread, sardines and water; and three evenings a week he had to eat kneeling on the floor in the middle of the refectory. It was here he wrote, in his head, the Dark Night and other poems that would make him so famous. After six months in that little prison, he was assigned another warder who showed him some compassion. He received a change of clothes and paper and ink. He, however, took advantage of the new jailer and in 1578 he escaped to the Discalced nuns in Toledo who hid him.
He would be elected to this and that as he grew and matured the Discalced vocation. But it was later in life he somehow found time to write things down. In 1591, however, there were great difficulties and he was not elected to any post. John felt free and commented in a letter to Madre Ana de Jesus: “…this life is not good if it is not an imitation of His life.” Efforts were made to expel John from the Reform. This horrible process was never completed as John died in Ubeda, at 49, in the odor of sanctity without agony or struggle. His prayers seemed to be answered: “not to die as a superior; to die in a place where he was unknown; and to die after having suffered much.”
He wrote the Romances probably in 1578 in Toledo in prison. This little bit of historical context is important. A beautiful way to use these Romances is to read them aloud to one another. There are several translations. I like this one.
Romance 7. The Incarnation
Now that the time had come when it would be good To ransom the bride Serving under the hard yoke
Of that law Which Moses had given her, The Father, with tender love, spoke in this way:
Now You see, Son, that Your bride Was made in Your image, And so far as she is like You she will suit You well;
Yet she is different, in her flesh Which Your simple being does not have. In perfect love this law holds:
That the lover become Like the one he loves; For the greater their likeness The greater their delight.
Surely Your bride’s delight Would greatly increase Were she to see You like her, In her own flesh.
My will is Yours, the Son replied, and My glory is That Your will be Mine.
That is fitting, Father, what You the Most High, say; For in this way Your goodness will be the more seen,
Your great power will be seen And Your justice and wisdom. I will go and tell the world, Spreading the word Of Your beauty and sweetness And of Your sovereignty.
I will go seek My bride And take upon Myself Her weariness and labors In which she suffers so;
And that she may have life I will die for her, and, lifting her out of that deep, I will restore her to You.
Romance 8. The Incarnation (cont.)
Then He called The archangel Gabriel And sent him to The virgin Mary,
At whose consent the mystery was wrought, In whom the Trinity clothed the Word with flesh
And though Three work this, It is wrought in the One: And the Word lived incarnate In the womb of Mary.
And He who had only a Father Now had a Mother too, But she was not like others Who conceive by man.
From her own flesh He received His flesh, So He is called Son of God and of man.
Romance 9. The Birth
When the time had come for Him to be born He went forth like the bridegroom From his bridal chamber,
Embracing His bride, Holding her in His arms, whom the gracious Mother laid in a manger
Among some animals That were there at that time. Men sang songs And angels melodies
Celebrating the marriage Of Two such as these. But God there in the manger Cried and moaned;
And these tears were jewels The bride brought to the wedding. The Mother gazed in sheer wonder On such an exchange:
In God, man’s weeping, And in man, gladness, To the one and the other things usually so strange.
Many blessings during this Christmas season.
(Sister alies therese is a vowed Catholic solitary who lives an eremitical life. Her days are formed around prayer, art and writing. She is author of six books of spiritual fiction and is a weekly columnist. She lives and writes in Mississippi.)