Today’s poem is from the mystical Catholic tradition, by the great sixteenth century priest-poet, San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross). It is perplexing to me how the Church could at the same time produce works of such beauty and transcendence, while at the same time in history the Catholic Spanish Inquisition was terrorizing the population in its attempts to impose religious orthodoxy according to Catholic dogma. Fortunately this poem reveals the positive, life-enhancing aspect of the religious tradition, rather than its dark, oppressive side.
Llama de amor viva
de San Juan de la Cruz
¡Oh llama de amor viva
que tiernamente hieres
de mi alma en el más profundo centro!
Pues ya no eres esquiva
acaba ya si quieres,
¡rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro!
¡Oh cauterio süave!
¡Oh regalada llaga!
¡Oh mano blanda! ¡Oh toque delicado
que a vida eterna sabe
y toda deuda paga!
Matando, muerte en vida has trocado.
¡Oh lámparas de fuego
en cuyos resplandores
las profundas cavernas del sentido,
que estaba oscuro y ciego,
con estraños primores
color y luz dan junto a su querido!
¡Cuán manso y amoroso
recuerdas en mi seno
donde secretamente solo moras,
y en tu aspirar sabroso
de bien y gloria lleno,
cuán delicadamente me enamoras!
The language, structure and sentiments of the poem have much in common with love poetry of the period, however here it is about the relationship of a man with his god. The burning flame of divine love scars the very centre of his soul, just as a flesh and blood woman might do.
Each stanza is set out as an exclamation, as the poet is transported with wonder and awe at the impact of divine love and its capacity for giving everlasting life, for bringing light into the dark places of the mind and inspiring love.
We know this is about religious experience rather than human love because of the identity of the poet, but also the references to eternal life and resurrection. The poem describes a gentle, loving, compassionate god. It is easy to imagine the saint in his sparse, monastic cell, experiencing flights of ecstasy as described in this poem.
The Poetry Dude