There are many things I love and one of them is poetry. I make my living and serve my vocation as an English teacher. My faith, however, is the most important aspect of my life, because through it, I am a mother, wife, daughter, friend, and teacher. All these roles overlap each other and because of this, I look to poetry to help me live out these many roles. I used to compose myself, and perhaps I will return to that one day, but for now, I try to read material that will feed my soul.
One poet that speaks to me is St. John of the Cross. I am of Spanish descent and I am enthralled by the Mystics of the Church. I am sharing my favorite poem of his (written in translation).
The Living Flame of Love—St. John of the Cross
O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest center! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now consummate! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!
O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life.
O lamps of fire!
in whose splendors
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light to their Beloved.
How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love.
Who or what is “the living flame of love”? In order to answer this elusive point of St. John’s, we must explore the text more fully. This poem is filled with paradox. Every contradiction in the piece illustrates the complexity of love and how suffering and death ironically bring life. It is a depiction of how fire possesses a meaning of passionate consumption, not just destruction and suffering. A living flame of love is active and in its effects of wounding one’s heart, it encompasses that heart with life. It is not oppressive; it completes a break through into one’s coldness of heart.
“Delightful wound” reminds us that we must suffer and break down (just as Jesus did) in order to be reborn in Christ. However, there is gentleness about this process. It is not horrific or punishing; rather, it transforms our “death into life”. Our debt of sin is repaid.
The fire analogy continues to explain how flame enlightens our path and removes any obscurity from our “deep caverns of feeling.” Warmth and light are common themes in expressing affection and feeling.
The poem ends with a stanza based entirely on love. There is expressive warmth of goodness and joy within oneself that is articulated in the closing of the poem. The diction used solidifies an intimacy: “gently,” “lovingly,” and “tenderly”.
This poem takes a bit of work to decipher, as many of the Mystics’ writings do. St. John of the Cross struggles in expressing his spirituality and desire to be closer to God. Poetry is a good vehicle to explore one’s Faith and spiritual inclinations.
What are ways we, as ordinary laypeople, communicate our struggles for intimacy with a loving God?
Charla is a life-long Catholic, married since 1995. She has three children who attend Catholic school and university. Charla has been teaching high school English literature at the same Catholic high school she attended for over 15 years. She has Bachelor of Arts degrees in English, Latin American Studies, and Secondary Education, as well as a Masters degree in Education. Charla has served as a lector and Eucharistic minister at her parish and school. She enjoys reading, cooking, running, and all activities involving her children. Her special devotions are to the Blessed Mother, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Catherine of Alexandria, and the Holy Rosary.