Spiritual Canticle


St. John of the Cross


Prologue to the Spiritual Canticle

This commentary on the stanzas that deal with the exchange of love
between the soul and Christ, its Bridegroom, explains certain matters
about prayer and its effects. It was written at the request of Mother
Ana de Jesús, prioress of the discalced Carmelite nuns of St. Joseph’s
in Granada, in the year 1584.


1. These stanzas, Reverend Mother,1 were obviously composed with a
certain burning love of God. The wisdom and charity of God is so vast,
as the Book of Wisdom states, that it reaches from end to end [Wis.
8:1], and the soul informed and moved by it bears in some way this very
abundance and impulsiveness in her words. As a result, I do not plan to
expound these stanzas in all the breadth and fullness that the fruitful
spirit of love conveys to them. It would be foolish to think that
expressions of love arising from mystical understanding, like these
stanzas, are fully explainable. The Spirit of the Lord, who abides in us
and aids our weakness, as St. Paul says [Rom. 8:26], pleads for us with
unspeakable groanings in order to manifest what we can neither fully
understand nor comprehend.

Who can describe in writing the understanding he gives to loving souls
in whom he dwells? And who can express with words the experience he
imparts to them? Who, finally, can explain the desires he gives them?
Certainly, no one can! Not even they who receive these communications.
As a result these persons let something of their experience overflow in
figures, comparisons and similitudes, and from the abundance of their
spirit pour out secrets and mysteries rather than rational explanations.

If these similitudes are not read with the simplicity of the spirit of
knowledge and love they contain, they will seem to be absurdities rather
than reasonable utterances, as will those comparisons of the divine Song
of Solomon and other books of Sacred Scripture where the Holy Spirit,
unable to express the fullness of his meaning in ordinary words, utters
mysteries in strange figures and likenesses. The saintly doctors, no
matter how much they have said or will say, can never furnish an
exhaustive explanation of these figures and comparisons, since the
abundant meanings of the Holy Spirit cannot be caught in words. Thus the
explanation of these expressions usually contains less than what they
embody in themselves.

2. Since these stanzas, then, were composed in a love flowing from
abundant mystical understanding, I cannot explain them adequately, nor
is it my intention to do so. I only wish to shed some general light on
them, since Your Reverence has desired this of me. I believe such an
explanation will be more suitable. It is better to explain the
utterances of love in their broadest sense so that each one may derive
profit from them according to the mode and capacity of one’s own spirit,
rather than narrow them down to a meaning unadaptable to every palate.
As a result, though we give some explanation of these stanzas, there is
no reason to be bound to this explanation. For mystical wisdom, which
comes through love and is the subject of these stanzas, need not be
understood distinctly in order to cause love and affection in the soul,
for it is given according to the mode of faith through which we love God
without understanding him.

3. I will then be very brief, although I do intend to give a lengthier
explanation when necessary and the occasion arises for a discussion of
some matters concerning prayer and its effects. Since these stanzas
refer to many of the effects of prayer, I ought to treat of at least
some of these effects.

Yet, passing over the more common effects, I will briefly deal with the
more extraordinary ones that take place in those who with God’s help
have passed beyond the state of beginners. I do this for two reasons:
first, because there are many writings for beginners; second, because I
am addressing Your Reverence, at your request. And our Lord has favored
you and led you beyond the state of beginners into the depths of his
divine love.

I hope that, although some scholastic theology is used here in reference
to the soul’s interior converse with God, it will not prove vain to
speak in such a manner to the pure of spirit. Even though Your Reverence
lacks training in scholastic theology, through which the divine truths
are understood, you are not wanting in mystical theology, which is known
through love and by which these truths are not only known but at the
same time enjoyed.

4. And that my explanations – which I desire to submit to anyone with
better judgment than mine and entirely to Holy Mother the Church – may
be worthy of belief, I do not intend to affirm anything of myself or
trust in any of my own experiences or in those of other spiritual
persons whom I have known or heard of. Although I plan to make use of
these experiences, I want to explain and confirm at least the more
difficult matters through passages from Sacred Scripture. In using these
passages, I will quote the words in Latin,2 and then interpret them in
regard to the matter being discussed.

I will now record the stanzas in full and then in due order quote each
one separately before its explanation; similarly, I will quote each
verse before commenting on it.


Stanzas between the Soul and the Bridegroom

1. Where have you hidden,
Beloved, and left me moaning?
You fled like the stag
after wounding me;
I went out calling you, but you were gone.

2. Shepherds, you who go
up through the sheepfolds to the hill,
if by chance you see
him I love most,
tell him I am sick, I suffer, and I die.

3. Seeking my Love
I will head for the mountains and for watersides,
I will not gather flowers,
nor fear wild beasts;
I will go beyond strong men and frontiers.

4. O woods and thickets,
planted by the hand of my Beloved!
O green meadow,
coated, bright, with flowers,
tell me, has he passed by you?

5. Pouring out a thousand graces,
he passed these groves in haste;
and having looked at them,
with his image alone,
clothed them in beauty.

6. Ah, who has the power to heal me?
now wholly surrender yourself!
Do not send me
any more messengers,
they cannot tell me what I must hear.

7. All who are free
tell me a thousand graceful things of you;
all wound me more
and leave me dying
of, ah, I-don’t-know-what behind their stammering.

8. How do you endure
O life, not living where you live,
and being brought near death
by the arrows you receive
from that which you conceive of your Beloved?

9. Why, since you wounded
this heart, don’t you heal it?
And why, since you stole it from me,
do you leave it so,
and fail to carry off what you have stolen?

10. Extinguish these miseries,
since no one else can stamp them out;
and may my eyes behold you,
because you are their light,
and I would open them to you alone.

11. Reveal your presence,
and may the vision of your beauty be my death;
for the sickness of love
is not cured
except by your very presence and image.

12. O spring like crystal!
If only, on your silvered-over faces,
you would suddenly form
the eyes I have desired,
which I bear sketched deep within my heart.

13. Withdraw them, Beloved,
I am taking flight!


Return, dove,
the wounded stag
is in sight on the hill,
cooled by the breeze of your flight.


14. My Beloved, the mountains,
and lonely wooded valleys,
strange islands,
and resounding rivers,
the whistling of love-stirring breezes,

15. the tranquil night
at the time of the rising dawn,
silent music,
sounding solitude,
the supper that refreshes, and deepens love.

16. Catch us the foxes,
for our vineyard is now in flower,
while we fashion a cone of roses
intricate as the pine’s;
and let no one appear on the hill.

17. Be still, deadening north wind;
south wind, come, you that waken love,
breathe through my garden,
let its fragrance flow,
and the Beloved will feed amid the flowers.

18. You girls of Judea,
while among flowers and roses
the amber spreads its perfume,
stay away, there on the outskirts:
do not so much as seek to touch our thresholds.

19. Hide yourself, my love;
turn your face toward the mountains,
and do not speak;
but look at those companions
going with her through strange islands.


20. Swift-winged birds,
lions, stags, and leaping roes,
mountains, lowlands, and river banks,
waters, winds, and ardors,
watching fears of night:

21. By the pleasant lyres
and the siren’s song, I conjure you
to cease your anger
and not touch the wall,
that the bride may sleep in deeper peace.

22. The bride has entered
the sweet garden of her desire,
and she rests in delight,
laying her neck
on the gentle arms of her Beloved.

23. Beneath the apple tree:
there I took you for my own,
there I offered you my hand,
and restored you,
where your mother was corrupted.


24. Our bed is in flower,
bound round with linking dens of lions,
hung with purple,
built up in peace,
and crowned with a thousand shields of gold.

25. Following your footprints
maidens run along the way;
the touch of a spark,
the spiced wine,
cause flowings in them from the balsam of God.

26. In the inner wine cellar
I drank of my Beloved, and, when I went abroad
through all this valley
I no longer knew anything,
and lost the herd that I was following.

27. There he gave me his breast;
there he taught me a sweet and living knowledge;
and I gave myself to him,
keeping nothing back;
there I promised to be his bride.

28. Now I occupy my soul
and all my energy in his service;
I no longer tend the herd,
nor have I any other work
now that my every act is love.

29. If, then, I am no longer
seen or found on the common,
you will say that I am lost;
that, stricken by love,
I lost myself, and was found.

30. With flowers and emeralds
chosen on cool mornings
we shall weave garlands
flowering in your love,
and bound with one hair of mine.

31. You considered
that one hair fluttering at my neck;
you gazed at it upon my neck
and it captivated you;
and one of my eyes wounded you.

32. When you looked at me
your eyes imprinted your grace in me;
for this you loved me ardently;
and thus my eyes deserved
to adore what they beheld in you.

33. Do not despise me;
for if, before, you found me dark,
now truly you can look at me
since you have looked
and left in me grace and beauty.


34. The small white dove
has returned to the ark with an olive branch;
and now the turtledove
has found its longed-for mate
by the green river banks.

35. She lived in solitude,
and now in solitude has built her nest;
and in solitude he guides her,
he alone, who also bears
in solitude the wound of love.


36. Let us rejoice, Beloved,
and let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty,
to the mountain and to the hill,
to where the pure water flows,
and further, deep into the thicket.

37. And then we will go on
to the high caverns in the rock
which are so well concealed;
there we shall enter
and taste the fresh juice of the pomegranates.

38. There you will show me
what my soul has been seeking,
and then you will give me,
you, my life, will give me there
what you gave me on that other day:

39. the breathing of the air,
the song of the sweet nightingale,
the grove and its living beauty
in the serene night,
with a flame that is consuming and painless.

40. No one looked at her,
nor did Aminadab appear;
the siege was still;
and the cavalry,
at the sight of the waters, descended.