O night more lovely than the dawn!


LotR as a "Fundamentally Catholic and Religious Work"    

O night more lovely than the dawn!

O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
Which I kept wholly for Him alone,
There He lay sleeping,
and I caressing Him
There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

An explanation of the stanzas describing a soul's conduct along the spiritual road which leads to the perfect union with God through love, insofar as it is attainable in this life. A description also of the characteristics of one who has reached this perfection.
- Two excerpts from "Prologue for the Reader," in The Dark Night by John of the Cross
as translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D.


Besides being a traditionally trained theologian and a writer about the spiritual life, John of the Cross was himself a mystic - and a poet. At the beginning of each of his books is a poem he has written, which he then takes the entire book to explain: perfectly understandable, given the density of good poetry, to say nothing of the mystery of Christian mysticism.

Much of John's poetry is very reminiscent of the Scriptural Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon). Aside from the fact that it provides some nice readings for wedding ceremonies, not a few Christians are puzzled about the presence of this book in the Bible. Historically speaking, it most likely was written to celebrate the marital love between a man and a woman who are completely human. But millennia of "applicability" among both Jews and Christians have led it to be understood as applying also to the union between God and the people of God. There's similar symbolism in God's instruction to Hosea to take a harlot as his wife; the wife's unfaithfulness is a parallel to the unfaithfulness of the people of God, with the prophet's faithfulness to her showing that God is never unfaithful to the covenant, even when His people are. St. Paul brings this image into the New Testament with his statement that the union between husband and wife is a sign of the union between Christ and the Church. All of these understandings are strong group. The union is always between God and His people - not between God and one individual.

John's use seems to be different. He talks about "a soul's conduct" and "one who has reached this perfection." Has he turned this into a weak-group idea, a union between "God and me"? And, if so, aren't the images, well, weird (to put it nicely)? "...my flowering breast"; "I caressing Him".  I've known people who've said - kind of as a joke - that John's writing should be delivered in a plain brown wrapper. In order to get myself in deeper before I try to dig myself out, take a look at Bernini's statue titled "Saint Teresa in Ecstasy" (yes, the Teresa who was John's mentor). It's the artist's impression of something Teresa wrote about: an experience she had during prayer when she said her heart was pierced with an arrow. I've put a photo of the statue on this page, along with a cropped version to show the faces better. Of course, the facial expressions are Bernini's interpretation; I have my doubts that Teresa actually looked like that during the event (given the simplicity of the Carmelite habit, it's safe to say she wasn't wearing that many folds of cloth!). But whether the statue is realistic or not, it has always been considered great religious art, certainly not disrespectful of the saint or her relationship with God. What's going on here?

(from image available copyright-free at pics.am)
One thing that's going on is something we've run into a number of times in these essays: looking at the truth of what's happening to a person even if it's not what the person's feeling. When John talks about the "night more lovely than the dawn," he's referring to the kind of nights we've been looking at throughout this section: Frodo as he wakes to horror in Cirith Ungol, or fights his way across Mordor, or suffers interiorly after he returns to the Shire. Lovely? Yes, because of what's really happening beyond the blindness of the person who's going through the night:

O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

This would be John's way of expressing Tolkien's statement that Frodo is a hobbit who is "broken down and made into something quite different." The nights are times of transformation, not experiences of romantic bliss. But the result of the transformation is a closer union between beloved and Lover - whether or not that's felt emotionally. It's interesting that in this poem's imagery, the Lover (God) is sleeping, which may indeed be part of the experience of someone going through a spiritual night.

(In John's poetry the beloved is always the human in the relationship and the Lover is always God, which certainly makes sense; note that it's the beloved who's transformed, not the Lover. In addition, the human is always referred to in feminine terms. One reason for this is that John is writing in Spanish, in which the word for "soul" is a feminine noun, no matter whose soul it is. It also agrees with the imagery in the Song of Songs, which John is obviously using as a model.)

We've also talked about a second thing that's going on: the very Catholic proclivity to use physical realities as signs of deeper spiritual ones. If human love between a man and woman can be spoken of as beautifully as it is in the Song of Songs, how much more beautiful must be the relationship between Lover and beloved when the Lover is God - Who is Love?

Both of those "things" are universally Catholic. But for a lot of Americans, even a lot of American Catholics, a third something that's going on is that we tend to focus more on the possible misuse of our sexuality than most cultures - certainly more than Renaissance Spain (John and Teresa) or Baroque Italy (Bernini). When we hear someone called a "sinner," our minds are more likely to jump to the conclusion that sex is involved than would have been true of any of these individuals - and even a lot of people living today. I heard a Franciscan historian comment on this regarding the statement by Francis of Assisi that he was a sinner in his early life. She said that a lot of Americans assume this means he was sexually promiscuous. Instead, she said (quite calmly), "He was probably talking about killing people."*

Because of our proclivity to focus on the negative possibilities inherent in our sexuality, we tend to be wary of using it as an image of something completely positive - our relationship with God. But what if we look at it as it is meant to be used? Isn't the union between husband and wife (including, but not limited to, physical union) the strongest human image of loving unity, including our union with God? This is a major reason the Catholic Church classifies marriage as a "capital S" Sacrament. Our working definition of a sacrament is something we can grasp with our senses that points to something beyond them. And, as we noted earlier, Paul says that the union between husband and wife is a sign of the unity between Christ and the Church. If we follow this train of thought, we find ourselves looking at marriage from the strong-group point of view. As with any path an individual might follow in life, the purpose of marriage doesn't stop with the two people joined in it. Their unity is a humanly-understandable sign of the unity between Christ and the Church - between God and His people. The covenant of marriage points to the deeper reality of the covenant between God and us. That's what Christian marriage as it is meant to be lived says to the entire Christian community, and even those beyond it: See how much God loves us.    

As we can tell from Paul's teaching, from the beginning of Christianity it has been accepted that marriage is, indeed, to be based on love (which isn't the same thing as "falling in love"). In its protection of free will, the Catholic Church has never accepted "forced marriages." Even in the years when marriages were used to cement political alliances, if one or both parties were forced into marriage against their free will, it was grounds for an annulment - meaning there was never a true marriage present in the first place.

None of this would have been news to Tolkien. He had a difficult time understanding why some readers thought that the way Faramir and Éowyn fell in love so quickly was unrealistic (to say nothing of the love at first sight between Aragorn and Arwen, and Lúthien and Beren). After all, that's how it had happened to him. Shortly after Edith's death, JRRT wrote in a letter that "...she was (and knew she was) my Lúthien." The resounding importance of the words in parentheses in that statement has always rung in my mind. How often that's true - but the other person doesn't know it.

So Beren/Ronald had his Lúthien/Edith. Sam was "meant to be happy and whole" with Rosie. Marriage is a grace-filled sign of God's love and faithfulness. Where does that leave Frodo? And where, for that matter, does it leave John of the Cross? To see that, we'll need the next essay.


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*...as a soldier.