SPIRITUAL CANTICLE: KEY THEMES–SHARING IN GOD’S BEAUTY

 

Every page of the Spiritual Canticle celebrates beauty. The bride rejoices in all aspects of creation, the mountains, lonely wooded valleys, strange islands, and so on. John shares with the bride the prayer of St. Francis, “My God and all things,” for she feels that all things are God (C. 14-15.5). John also sees God’s beauty in people, “Oh, then, soul, most beautiful of all creatures” (C. 1.7). For John, sin is the absence of beauty, and he looks at it with sadness rather than being judgmental. The spiritual journey is God’s progressive revelation of divine life to the bride, and she immerses herself more and more in the knowledge of her Lover. John shares his knowledge of this journey with his readers, fully aware that “not even they who receive these communications” are able to “describe. . . the understanding [God] gives to loving souls in whom he dwells” (C. Prologue.1). He agrees with theologians and philosophers that we know God primarily through the divine attributes, and he lists them in both the Ascent and the Living Flame (A. 2. 26.3, F. 3.2). “God in his unique and simple being is all the powers and grandeurs of his attributes. He is almighty, wise, and good; and he is merciful, just, powerful and loving, etc.; and he is the other infinite attributes and powers of which we have no knowledge” (F. 3.2). In the journey the bride not only knows these qualities of God but experiences them vitally, penetrating their meaning for her life. Mystics rarely add to the traditional list of divine attributes, but John singles out one attribute that was very special to him—divine beauty. He uses this word to describe God, always using the noun form hermosura (beauty) rather than the adjective hermoso (beautiful). This unusual description is not used analogically from the beauty of nature, but rather is clearly intended to refer to the inner being of God. Thus, the bride asks God “to show her his beauty, his divine essence” (C. 11.2). So, for John beauty is a divine attribute equivalent to the divine essence.

John's monastery in Segovia

John’s monastery in Segovia

In two passages John seems swept off his feet when he thinks of God’s beauty. In one of them he uses the word “beauty” twenty-four times in a single paragraph (C. 36.5) and in the other six times in four lines (C. 11.10). Mother Francisca de la Madre de Dios testified that on one of his visits to Beas, sometime in 1582-1584, John was carried away by the thought of the beauty of God and wrote five additional stanzas of the Spiritual Canticle on the beauty of God (36-40). People who study the mystics refer to the constant repetition of a concept as “mystical obsession.” In this case, John seems so overwhelmed by the thought of God’s beauty that it could be part of his own original experience of God.

Even in the early illuminative phase of contemplation the bride seeks the presence of God and identifies it as beauty, longing “to see him in his divine being and beauty.” In response to her longings, “God communicates to her some semi-clear glimpses of his divine beauty” (C. 11.4). This intensifies her longing for more intimate presence, but with this comes the awareness that such a vision is not possible, for human nature cannot endure such a revelation in this life. Thus, the bride cries “may the vision of your beauty be my death” (C. 11.16); she is willing to die to have the vision of God’s beauty. In the meantime she affirms her faith “which contains and hides the image and the beauty of her Beloved” (C. 12.1), just a sketch of the reality. She experiences God’s beauty all around her (C. 24.6) and longs to see herself in the beauty of God (C. 37.1). Her lovesickness climaxes in the ecstatic cry for union in eternity: “Let us rejoice, Beloved, and let us go forth to behold ourselves in your beauty” (C. v.36).

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

Icon of the Spiritual Canticle

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