John of the Cross at Christmas
Advent is the time of year we see many references to darkness v. light, symbolic of the battle between evil and good, with light (Christ) overcoming darkness (despair).
We’re instinctively uncomfortable with darkness as a time of peril. We need light to know where we are and where we need to go, symbolic of our fateful search for understanding and knowledge, as in Eden’s tree of knowledge. This is why I love to turn to the well-known poem of St. John of the Cross (feast: Dec. 14), known as “The Dark Night.”
This phrase, “dark night,” is commonly used to describe a period of interior darkness representing fear, confusion, a sense of abandonment, and near despair. Not so for John of the Cross, as becomes clear by a careful reading and translation of even the first stanza alone.
En una noche oscura . . . Oscura, Obscure, denotes something hidden but not necessarily absent. He is not going to roam listlessly. He has a goal in mind.
Con ansias en amor inflamada . . . on fire with cravings for love. The Soul’s only motive is love. It is eagerly embracing this adventure, since it is fueled by love, not by fear and certainly not by despair. His mood is certain, his step is strong.
!Oh, dichosa ventura! O happy destiny! The Soul’s expectation is certainly not dreaded but deeply desired, since it is Love that calls him.
Salì sin ser notada . . . I went out, unnoticed. He has not been ousted. No: the loving Soul willingly and eagerly leaves the familiar which has not succeeded in satisfying its cravings. Here is an opportunity to do something different: to leave the old life behind in such a quiet way that no one can see any difference or notice anything extraordinary in the lover’s behavior. The lover seems the same on the outside. Who could guess what is experienced within?
Estando ya mi casa sosegada . . . While my household is asleep. All around me are unaware. What the Soul is leaving is only bland, colorless, unfulfilling, in comparison to what he is seeking.
In darkness, there is no distinction between one thing and another. A landscape that seemed to be known and understood in the daytime is now clouded in mystery and unknowing. But because love is the final goal and reward, the Soul presses on, welcoming the darkness which brings peace and understanding of a different nature – perhaps even a strangely new sense of freedom.
The poem ends on a note of ecstatic bliss:
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.