I have been meaning to read this book for some times, but I have always dreaded I won’t have enough time to plough the depth of the canticle. So, I have decided to read the forty stanzas in forty weeks—one stanza a week. I read the Indonesian translation, along with comments that St. John added later, which I found very helpful to understand (a little more) the canticle.
Let me give you a peek of some earlier stanzas:
Where have You hidden Yourself,
And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You have fled like the hart,
Having wounded me.
I ran after You, crying; but You were gone.
It’s about a soul’s search for unity with God—pictured as a bride who is seeking her bridegroom. It loves God so much that it hurts—longing for the perfect happiness, which is unity with God in Heaven. But when it is still on earth, it must be satisfied by just getting a glimpse of Him. Right when it feels Him, He would flash out of its reach; and this bleeds the soul so much more.
O shepherds, you who go
Through the sheepcots up the hill,
If you shall see Him
Whom I love the most,
Tell Him I languish, suffer, and die.
The soul needs an intermediary (pictured as shepherds) to express its love lamentation to God (pictured as hill—or the highest peak). Here the commentator suggests that the intermediary could be its own longing and affection; or it could also means the angels—I am more inclined of the latter. So the soul begs the angels to speak about its sorrowful love to Him (whom the angels could reach easier than the soul) when the time is right for Him (or if God is willing) to listen to it (“if you shall see Him”). Here the soul does not demand anything; it just gives hints about its anguish and let the Lover do what He desires. By humbling itself, God would take more pity to the soul.
In search of my Love
I will go over mountains and strands;
I will gather no flowers,
I will fear no wild beasts;
And pass by the mighty and the frontiers.
Laments and intermediary does not suffice the souls to reach its Beloved; it must move and take active action [‘searching’], i.e. by exercising contemplative life towards wisdom (mountains—higher place) and self-denials (strands—lower place). The soul decides to purify itself from vain pleasures which would block it from God (gather no flowers). Besides that, there are three other enemies that put the soul away from God: 1) The world (wild beasts)—which threatens the soul of losing its friends and belongings; 2) Satan (the mighty)—who will strive the soul from unity with God; 3) The natural rebellion of the flesh against the spirit (the frontiers)—the flesh is the frontier that hinder the soul on its spiritual journey. The soul determines to pass through all these obstacles to find its Lover.
O groves and thickets
Planted by the hand of the Beloved;
O verdant meads
Enameled with flowers,
Tell me, has He passed by you?
After preparing the long journey to reach God (on stanza #3), the soul starts its spiritual journey by getting to know Him through His creations. It’s as if the soul begs the nature: show me how beautiful He has created you! It reflects the soul’s longing to grasp His traces/His touch on the creation. While it is still far away from the Lover, at least it can touch and adore His works. Just as a lover loves to touch or kiss a shirt belongs to the absent beloved one.
A thousand graces diffusing
He passed through the groves in haste,
And merely regarding them
As He passed,
Clothed them with His beauty.
Nature answers the soul’s entreaty by revealing that God has created the creatures in a very fast [‘He passed…in haste’] and simple action, yet abundant in graces [‘a thousand’]. He created the creatures ‘in haste’ reflects that the universe is just a small act compared to the Incarnation of the Word and the mysteries of the Christian faith. ‘Regarding them’ means that God regards us through His Son. He bestows us graces and gifts to make us perfect (as is in the book of Genesis). [Clothed them with His beauty] means that when Jesus incarnated to man, God exalted mankind, and bestows them with beauty and dignity.
And the journey continues on till the fortieth stanza, where the soul finally united with God.
This is probably one of the most difficult books I have encountered. I could relate with only the early eight or ten stanzas. While I could imagine the soul’s longing for “marriage” with God (like in the Book of Song of Songs), I still can’t get how it possibly happen to ordinary people like us, whose focuses are much occupied by worldly matters. However, it is gratifying to learn that it is possible for man to achieve that holy unity with his Creator. And it certainly encouraged me to be a better person day by day.
3 / 5