Aug 20 2012

John of the Cross – The Sum of Perfection

Published by at 9:11 am under Poetry

The Sum of Perfection
by John of the Cross

English version by Ivan M. Granger

Creation forgotten,
Creator only known,
Attention turned inward
In love with the Beloved alone.

— from Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey, by Ivan M. Granger

/ Photo by bran.deann. /

Where else is the mystic path stated so succinctly yet so completely? These four lines by St. John of the Cross contain all the instructions necessary.

Creation forgotten…
Attention turned inward

Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, one of the foundational scriptures of yogic practice, speaks of pratyahara or ‘sense withdrawal’ as an essential practice. This leads to dharana or ‘concentration,’ which matures into dhyana (meditation) and finally samadhi (divine union). Done deeply, sense withdrawal and concentration are profound practices, but they sound so… effortful, don’t they? Almost severe. ‘Concentration’ reminds me of studying for college exams. At least in English translation, these words don’t convey quite the right tone. It does not have to be a strain; the attention can simply turn and glide inward. My experience is that this is the natural tendency of the awareness, anyway, we just have to stop pushing it to the exterior all the time. Sense withdrawal and concentration don’t require a harsh act of force so much as trust: trust to release the constant fixation on outer reality, trust that what we discover in the spacious silence within is just as real and delightful.

Half a world away, in Catholic Spain, St. John of the Cross is telling us the same thing. Forget creation, at least for the moment. Turn inward.

Doing this, creation is seen as having no fundamental reality of its own; it is only an expression or emanation of God. It is like watching a movie. The movie may seem real while we are caught up in the story, but if we pause, look around the auditorium, we can see that the movie is actually streaming through the darkness in a funnel of light. It’s source is really the projector.

Creator only known.

Remembering this on every level, one is only aware of the Creator. Creation itself then becomes simply a reflection of the Divine. Knowing only the Creator, the Divine fills all of perception — that is true meditation.

Seeing through the insubstantial nature of mundane reality, one is filled with ecstatic, uncontainable love and bliss. This is not a surface happiness directed at exterior objects or people, but for all of creation and, more fundamentally, for the immense life that brings that creation into existence.

In love with the Beloved alone.

The original Spanish verse has a fluid, chant-like rhythm that’s difficult to reproduce in English translation:

Olvido de lo criado,
memoria del Criador,
atencion a lo interior
y estarse amando al Amado.

(My translation of this poem appears both in my collection of poems and translations, Real Thirst, but is also included in For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics, edited by Roger Housden. Roger Housden’s contemplative collections of poetry are always worth reading.)

John of the Cross, John of the Cross poetry, Christian poetry John of the Cross

Spain (1542 – 1591) Timeline
Christian : Catholic

John of the Cross was born Juan de Ypes in a village near Avila, Spain. His father died when he was young, and he was raised in poverty with his two brothers by his widowed mother.

In his early 20s, John entered the Carmelite order and moved to Salamanca to further his studies. Among his other teachers was the well-known mystic and poet Fray Luis de Leon.

Still in his 20s, the young John of the Cross first met the woman who would become his mentor, Teresa of Avila, who was in her 50s at the time. Teresa of Avila was a mystic, a writer, a social activist, and a founder of several monasteries. She had begun a reform movement within the Carmelite Order, advocating a return to simplicity and the essential spirituality that should be at the heart of a monastic order. John of the Cross joined her movement of Discalced Carmelites and quickly became a leading figure himself.

Members of the unreformed Carmelites felt threatened by the critique from this new movement, and they turned to force, imprisoning and even torturing John of the Cross. He was held in a tiny cell in Toledo for nine months, until he escaped.

As terrible as this experience must have been, it was during his time of imprisonment that John’s spirituality and poetry began to blossom. The experience of losing everything, of being supremely vulnerable, seems to have brought John of the Cross to a profound state of openness and spiritual insight. One of his guards smuggled in scraps of paper, and John began to write poetry.

Free from prison, John continued his work with Teresa of Avila, founding new monasteries and advocating for their spiritual reforms. He spent the rest of his life as a spiritual director among the Discalced Carmelites.

His two best known works, the Spiritual Canticle and Dark Night of the Soul, are considered masterpieces of Spanish poetry and esoteric Christianity. Besides these, he wrote many other short poems, along with extensive commentaries on the meaning of his poetry as they relate to the soul’s journey to God.

More poetry by John of the Cross

6 responses so far

6 Responses to “John of the Cross – The Sum of Perfection”

  1. Carol Burnson 21 Aug 2012 at 5:01 am

    Thank you, thank you Ivan – for the poetry, for your insights, for your thought
    for the day. I especially liked the verse on the card with this selection.
    Was lifting you up through this illness time, so glad you are healing – so glad
    you are accepting of what is. . . God’s peace and love, Carol

  2. Bob Corbinon 21 Aug 2012 at 11:18 am

    Beautiful poem,
    Great commentary,
    Best of all,
    You are back.

  3. Arton 24 Aug 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I’m curious to find some quotes from a great figure like St John :i.e.:that Christ should not have died on the cross and did not die for our salvation and did not do so as his destiny…..Art

  4. Michael K'shatria Youngon 25 Aug 2012 at 8:35 am

    Ivan, thank you for your update on your situation. A ways back, I went through a bout of chronic fatigue. It was frustrating not to have the energy to be myself, even affecting my memory. The prayers I said every day I could not remember. What began to fall away was a job that did not serve me and what emerged was a time to do more personal, inner work, although with fewer material resources. Now, at age 70, I find my energy waning again, along with lower back and leg discomfort. It has the benefit of encouraging me to “be still.”
    And the focus is not on what I CANNOT do but on what I CAN do, and even more important,
    what do I WANT to do with the time/energy/ability I have left. Writing and reading poetry helps. Be well, Michael

  5. Em McIntoshon 19 Sep 2012 at 7:54 am


    I am a fan of yours. Your commentaries are very helpful to me. I have been trying to find the famous chinese poem “Preface to the Palace of Nine Perfections”.

    Are you familiar with this poem. If so maybe you could provide the poem in one of your daily articles.

    Thank you so much.


  6. Ivan M. Grangeron 20 Sep 2012 at 1:01 pm

    Dear Em,

    The “Preface to the Palace of Nine Perfections” sounds familiar, but I don’t know the rich world of Chinese poetry as well as I’d like. I did a little research and found that it was composed by Wang Bo, a poet of the early Tang period (late 7th century). And although a few online references describe the poem as being one of the most popular in Chinese literature, I haven’t yet been able to find an English translation online or in the few anthologies of Chinese poetry on my bookshelves.

    Now, I’m curious. If you happen to find a good English translation somewhere, please let me know. Thanks!


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