John of the Cross on the Sacredness of Creation

We are celebrating the sacredness of creation and the cosmos and the Earth. 

Another Christian mystic who celebrates the sacredness of the universe and does so in poetic form is John of the Cross, the sixteenth century mystic and prophet, reformer and warrior.  In his powerful poem, “The Spiritual Canticle,” he tells us where the soul yearning for the divine finds the same:

“Mountain Valley at Sunset” Photo by Sonja Wilkinson on Unsplash

My Beloved is the mountains,
And lonely wooded valleys,
Strange islands,
And resounding rivers,
The whistling of love-stirring breezes,
The tranquil night
At the time of the rising dawn,
Silent music,
Sounding solitude,
The supper that refreshes, and deepens love. 

In exegeting his own poem, he offers a mantra that he repeats regularly: After the first stanza, “These mountains are what my Beloved is to me.”

After the second stanza, “These valleys are what my Beloved is to me.”

After the third stanza, the soul sees in God, “wonderful new things and the strange knowledge (far removed from common knowledge).  God is “all the strangeness of islands never seen before, but also His ways, counsels, and works are very strange and new and wonderful to humans.”  

God “is also strange to the holy angels and to the blessed…Not only men but also the angels can call God strange islands.”

Island floating above the waves. Photo by Guillaume Baudusseau on Unsplash

After the fourth stanza, the soul “says that her Beloved is resounding rivers.  Rivers of peace flow over her” and “this divine onslaught God causes in the soul is like a resounding river which fills everything with peace and glory.” 

In addition, “the divine water filling the lower places of her humility and the voids of her appetites” like St. Luke speaks of, ‘he exalted the humble and filled the hungry with good things.”  (Lk 1: 52f) 

And God also speaks with a “thunderous voice” to the soul—not unlike Jeremiah’s experience he relates of his calling as a prophet.  

To be continued

Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing From Global Faiths, pp. 110-113.  Translation from Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, pp. 462-474.

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: Peaceful forest river. Photo by Philippe Bout on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

What lines or teachings from John of the Cross inspire or challenge you in this essay?  If the “Beloved” is the mountains, can it also be the supernovas and galaxies and stars as well?

Recommended Reading

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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14 thoughts on “John of the Cross on the Sacredness of Creation”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Today you share with us the words of a poem, by St. John of the cross the Sixteenth century mystic- prophet. And this poem, which you break down, John mentions all sorts of things in the natural world: the Beloved mountains / and lonely wooded valleys / strange islands / resounding rivers, the whistling of love-stirring breezes / the tranquil night / silent music and sounding solitude… After looking at this beautiful poem, you ask us: “What lines or teachings from John of the Cross inspire or challenge you in this essay, and if the ‘Beloved’ is the mountains, can it also be the supernovas and galaxies and stars as well?” Yes, as a matter of fact I see John looking at the world he lived in with the same wonder and awe that we do when we look at what we have seen come back from the Webb Telescope…

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    Mystical awareness (unitive consciousness) is alike in all mystics, irrespective of culture or religious persuasion. Which is why it’s important to investigate what mystical awareness is beyond a mystic’s metaphors of their subjective experiences. Like lungs the world over, a mystic’s consciousness heaves (breathes) with the same rarified form of spiritual air, and at elevations the consciousness of others filter, and seldom attain. Perceptual acuity of the broader bandwidth (extrasensory) aspects of creation forms the excluded knowledge not found in classrooms, laboratories, institutional religion, or technology. Mystics know what others don’t, that like a parable the created order both reveals and conceals. Like a computer screen, it’s a dumb-downed interface of the circuitry that lies behind it, aimed adaptively at sensory survival, creature comfort and reproductive modes. Sight labors more as the eye ascends, and shy’s away from the unfamiliar non-sensory bands.

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    This entire poem speaks to my soul. The mountains I have sat with, gazing in awe and wonder at the early morning mist dancing around my Beloved; reminding me of the visible and invisible nature of my Beloved. I’ve watched a cloud hover all day, changing shape and form over my Beloved; mirroring the sacredness of our communion being like that of playful lovers. I’ve enjoyed my Beloved in the movements of the waves, delighting in the colors of the sea, the sounding song and the spraying mist, laughing like a child. I’ve found comfort, consolation, wise counsel, a safe refuge of peace, and much healing; from the many ways my Beloved embraces me, through all of creation. Truly I am being loved to love, by my Beloved in so many ways. I think it not strange, that my Beloved loves me in, with and through so many extravagantly beautiful expressions and manifestations… which never ceases to surprise me. I love, because my Beloved first loved me, into being.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Bill, You write: “But John of the Cross said nothing about Spain’s horrific, murderous treatment of the indigenous in the Americas. To what God was his reference?” Yes, what you point out is true also, but we are only meditating on one point at a time. Today is for the positive–we just had a few days on mistreatment of indigenous peoples. And I believe his reference to God was the same as mine…

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    I love the idea of saying, whenever I am inspired, “This ______ is what my Beloved means to me.”
    Thank you so much for sharing this.

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      Damian, I would like to sit with you in your grieving. I was right there the other day. I wonder how friends of like mind about the Dark Night of our planet—friends without the spiritual support we gain each day in these meditations—how they get through each day. Like you, I am deeply suffering, so take these words, may we find comfort together. And may we somehow, together, rise up again and find spiritual refreshment so that we can continue on. xoxox

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    St. John wrote eloquent poetry of a sacred, unitive mystical experience. Yes, that includes the stars, the galaxies, all and more. Mystical theologians say the same thing, but not in poetry. Not every mystic was a poet, and many did NOT want the imprecision of the poetic form.
    The person who awakens from their calcified consciousness, whether through contemplating mystical poetry, viewing mystically-inspired art, or delving into mystical theology, dissolves themselves into a deeper awareness of the universe and God. Everywhere you look, every moment, can open into that deeper awareness. Mysticism, in whatever forms it is expressed, is the artform of that deeper consciousness, just as the mystical experience itself is the magnificent artform of God’s Self-sharing.

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    In Japaneese culture attunement to the sounds of nature is encouraged. They have whole brain activation listening to nature sounds as if it were music, a symphony. However, in the brainwaves of many Americans, it was found that nature sounds were not processed whole brain, but that their left linear brain dominance processed nature sounds as “noise” to be ignored. With the left brain’s veto power dominance over the right brain processing. much energy is used to inhibit exposure to nature’s sounds, processing it only as noise. There are many “noises” in our world today. Nature sounds are too often ignored. Cultural conditioning can shape our brain’s physiology from an early age, and leave a void in our experience of the world. Musicians in all cultures seem to have the highest brainwave synchrony with both hemisphere’s fully in harmony. What a crime against our children that music programs are being cancelled in our educational systems!!!

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