Both temperament and early environment influenced St. John's reserve and his teaching on detachment. The doctrine on self -abnegation, so evident in the Ascent and Dark Night, is much like John's personal appearance which put people off when they first made his acquaintance. His contemporaries saw a tiny, emaciated, dark-complexioned man in a tattered habit. How many could discern one of the greatest poets of Spain, and a future doctor of the Church?
We can read St. John today and become depressed as if we must exhibit a similar degree of mortification in order to progress in the spiritual life. Perhaps we have the wrong perspective. How much of St. John's reserve and insistence on detachment sprang precisely from the rich exuberance of his inner life? Was his doctrine on mortification more an effect of his inner experiences than a cause of them? Elements of type and environment were, no doubt, operative, but the power and beauty of these inner graces were stronger. They imposed on St. John the desire to hide himself, and with terrible clarity made him realize how foolish it would be to lose them for a lack of self-control.
If St. John's prose begins to weary us or make us heavy-hearted, we should turn to his poetry. This poetry, acclaimed as some of the finest in Spanish literature, has been scrutinized in order to elucidate St. John's dependence on earlier poetic forms, particularly the Song of Songs, Garcilaso de la Vega, and the popular tunes of his own time. And these dependencies are both clear and extensive. Yet his freedom and mastery of his material fused it with his inner life and produced some strikingly original creations. St. John was not a poet as we normally conceive them. It is hard to imagine him being concerned about cultivating his poetic skills or the size of his output, nor would it have occurred to him to write a poem on a non-religious theme. This does not mean that he wrote in some kind of ecstatic trance which precluded the difficult effort of composition, but rather, that his poetry was intimately connected to his mystical experience, and at the service of it, as it were.
Another important aspect of St. John's poetic works is the unevenness of quality that they display; they do not all reach the same heights. His critics have recognized the preeminence of his "Spiritual Canticle" and "On a Dark Night", both written around the time of his imprisonment and escape. Even some of the poems written after this time, when John had advanced even further in the contemplative life and was a more experienced poet, failed to show the powerful lyric imagery of his finest work. For example, "Tras de un amoroso lance", while it pleases the intuition type with the imagery of flight and the mystic with its content, does not excite the critic. In the same way, "Entréme donde no supe", despite its close connection with contemplative experience, is more cerebral than the "Spiritual Canticle". This unevenness prompts Brenan, when commenting on the "Living Flame of Love", to ask, "Or had the conjunction of events that led to San Juan's brief poetic phase already passed?"(15)
Here we rejoin the
theme of the interaction between individuation and contemplation. These prison poems
express "a penetrating strangeness of tone that recalls, as very little poetry really
does, the poignancy of dreams". (16) The actual prison experience, together with St.
John's knowledge of Latin and Spanish poetry, and his meditation on the Scriptures, were
the raw materials floating, as it were, in his inner subjectivity awaiting the moment when
they would be of service in expressing this double inner transformation. This inner self
was assailed by the graces of contemplative prayer and pierced by the sorrows, torments
and longings that came to St. John as he lay abandoned in his cell. Both these powerful
emotions and the dark fire of contemplation were stretching him to the breaking point.
They were two tensions which reinforced each other. One was trying to overthrow the old
man of sin, and the other, the old supremacy of the ego. Perhaps the song of the workman
in the street outside his cell finally tipped the balance. From the lips of this most
introverted of men bursts a song of astonishing vibrancy of feelings and sensual imagery.
The very things of creation towards which St. John has manifested such reserve and
restraint take on a numinous quality. He speaks of flowers, woods and meadows, and
culminates in crying out, "Mi Amado, las montañas ... My Beloved is the mountains,
From a psychological point of view St. John's poetry expresses a depth of feeling and sensation. This typological aspect is symbolized by the close connection that existed between the poetry and the Carmelite sisters. Virtually the first thing he did after escaping prison was to recite his poems to them. He dedicated the Spiritual Canticle to Ana de Jesús, and was transported into a deep state of emotion while listening to the singing of one of the sisters, as we have seen. It was a Carmelite nun, as well, that inspired him to complete the "Spiritual Canticle" by telling him that her prayer consisted in contemplating the beauty of God.
When St. John's poems burst forth, they traversed the unconscious and were shaped by its internal structure, its archetypal patterns, and clothed themselves in the images they found there. Mountains and rivers, la música callada, la soledad sonora, became the paradoxical symbols of the Beloved. The tensions were released, the spiritual met the things of sense, the integration of the psyche formed the living context for the union with God.
Much stranger than the fact that St. John's poetry is strongly marked by the qualities of the other side of his personality are the delicacy and quality of these poetic expressions. Both feelings and sensations show little of the lack of development that these functions in St. John must have possessed, nor do they evoke sexual overtones despite speaking in the language of lovers. Perhaps the reason for this is because we are not looking simply at an enantiodramatic outburst of the unconscious side of the personality. We are faced with a genuine act of poetic creation which transcends the normal boundaries of expression from the unconscious. At the same time the mystical experience, more powerful and deeply rooted than all else, transforms both the dimension of unconscious expression and the poetic act itself. Yet, despite the central role of the contemplative experience in St. John's poetry, it demanded an activation of the unconscious as the medium of passage through which it could direct itself towards consciousness and articulated expression, and find the rich imagery while transforming it that gives St. John's best poems such a deeply human as well as spiritual character. Without the transformation of the psyche that had its critical turning point in Toledo, St. John's poetry would never have reached the heights it did.
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John of the Cross and Dr. C.G. Jung