Aug 05 2013

John of the Cross – I Came Into the Unknown

Published by at 9:29 am under Poetry

I Came Into the Unknown
by John of the Cross

English version by Willis Barnstone

I came into the unknown
and stayed there unknowing
rising beyond all science.

I did not know the door
but when I found the way,
unknowing where I was,
I learned enormous things,
but what I felt I cannot say,
for I remained unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

It was the perfect realm
of holiness and peace.
In deepest solitude
I found the narrow way:
a secret giving such release
that I was stunned and stammering,
rising beyond all science.

I was so far inside,
so dazed and far away
my senses were released
from feelings of my own.
My mind had found a surer way:
a knowledge of unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

And he who does arrive
collapses as in sleep,
for all he knew before
now seems a lowly thing,
and so his knowledge grows so deep
that he remains unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

The higher he ascends
the darker is the wood;
it is the shadowy cloud
that clarified the night,
and so the one who understood
remains always unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

This knowledge by unknowing
is such a soaring force
that scholars argue long
but never leave the ground.
Their knowledge always fails the source:
to understand unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

This knowledge is supreme
crossing a blazing height;
though formal reason tries
it crumbles in the dark,
but one who would control the night
by knowledge of unknowing
will rise beyond all science.

And if you wish to hear:
the highest science leads
to an ecstatic feeling
of the most holy Being;
and from his mercy comes his deed:
to let us stay unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

— from To Touch the Sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual & Metaphysical Light, Translated by Willis Barnstone

/ Photo by oddsock /

In this poem, St. John of the Cross continually contrasts unknowing with “science.”

I came into the unknown
and stayed there unknowing
rising beyond all science.

Let me say at the start that I’m not entirely satisfied with the use of the word “science” in this translation. The Spanish word used is indeed ciencia, which directly translates as science in English, but we this older use of the word implies science in the broadest sense, as logic, cognition, intellectual comprehension.

And he emphasizes that it is the unknowing that is superior.

Don’t misunderstand, he is not advocating ignorance! (Sadly, many regressive religious impulses advocate exactly that.) But, no, this Spanish saint is talking about the mystical idea of “unknowing,” the state in which all thoughts and concepts and mental filters have been set aside, the state in which we rise above the elaborate constructions of the logical mind (“formal reason”) and come to rest in pure awareness (“a knowledge of unknowing”). He is contrasting true knowing with the mere accumulation of data.

To be unknowing is to encounter every instant entirely as it is, in pure wonder, without projection, without anticipation or agitation. The intellectual mind — a hugely important tool! — has one very serious weakness for the spiritual aspirant: it never encounters the present moment nakedly. It is always processing, analyzing, sorting, making everything fit into its comprehension. It never truly witnesses; it only interprets. We definitely want to cultivate a strong, capable, critical intellect, but we must always remember that it is not the whole of consciousness. The awareness can step beyond the intellect. To fully apprehend reality, it must.

I was so far inside… my senses were released…

This state of supreme “unknowing” isn’t so much a state of perception, which is the drawing in and sorting of exterior input of the senses. The intellect gathers and sorts the data gathered through the senses and formulated into a working hypothesis of what reality is. And that hypothesis is always an incomplete shorthand that only approximates reality.

In contrast, the mystic’s unknowing is the completely centered awareness of Being that does not tilt to reach out with the senses. This awareness is at rest, poised, and witnesses without an egoic agenda. It does not sift reality, it bathes in it. This is a “surer way” of recognizing the fundamental Reality.

“Rising beyond all science” ultimately leads “to an ecstatic feeling / of the most holy Being.” This is “the perfect realm / of holiness and peace,” free from the conceptual filters we normally place on our awareness.

In deepest solitude
I found the narrow way:
a secret giving such release…

In this state, one experiences “solitude” or supreme unity, requiring nothing outside itself to be whole and itself. And this solitude reveals the “narrow way;” the solitude is itself the way — “narrow” in that it is difficult to achieve when lost in the normal busyness of the chattering mind, and a “way” because it draws the scattered awareness to “rise”.

A delightful poem that confounds the intellect while inviting the wider awareness to reach beyond self-imposed boundaries, “rising beyond all science” to discover the ever-present “perfect realm / of holiness and peace…”

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

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7 responses so far

7 Responses to “John of the Cross – I Came Into the Unknown”

  1. Stephen Whiteon 05 Aug 2013 at 2:26 pm

    Bravo! Ivan,

    A beautiful poem and an insightful commentary, with which I heartily agree. I, too, had an objection to the repeated last line, which in my mind seemed to lose something by repetition.
    When you explained the original word in Spanish, ciencia, had a broader/deeper more complex meaning, I said, “Yes”! Perhaps if Mr. Bamstone, the translator, had felt as we do he might have (and this would be my suggestion) started the poem in the first stanza with the word “‘science” but in the subsequent seven stanzas used words such as “logic”, “cognition”, “intellect”, “comprehension”, “reason”, “concepts”, “analysis”, or “interpretation”, ending then with the final stanza bringing us back to “science” to make his final statement.

    Thanks for your continued work on our, your grateful readers, behalf.

    Wishing you good health, with Light and Love, Stephen

  2. marrobon 05 Aug 2013 at 3:23 pm

    Dear Ivan ,

    I too appreciate the depth of understanding your commentary gives to this
    profoundly spiritual poem, especially in the nuanced meaning of the translated
    ‘ciencia’. As a translator, I grow ever more aware that literary translation is
    much more than a technical skill. The translated work needs to be imbued
    with the original meaning of the writer, in this case the experience of the mystic
    St John of the Cross.
    The historical context is also helpful. It rather de-mystifies the saints as they
    make day to day decisions, adding toughness and courage to the
    often perceived ‘airiness’ of the secluded mystic.

    Sincere thanks, prayers for renewed strength and good health and
    blessings on the ongoing insights the choice of poems and comments
    send out.

  3. ebrahimon 06 Aug 2013 at 5:49 am

    I ceased not pasturing in the fields of quietism until I reached a dignity which is not bestowed by favour. Sheik abdul qadir al jilani (R.A)

    Such sweet delicious and delightful words. One can really only rise up to the invitation. To be like a child in god. Oh this is nectar – healing, intoxicating!

    I’ve read st johns dark night of the soul, but this is simply extroadinary. Of this state I’ve sonly sipped. Perhaps these words will be a doorway to this exotic state that st john so lovingly articulates for each and every one of us.

    Oh before this court of hers she playfully teases – winking close and stepping far, than drawing near to whisper. An electrifying touch and a glimpse and she widraws. Oh how we claw our way back to her.

    Much love and best wishes to all.

  4. Pegon 06 Aug 2013 at 9:25 am

    Oh, how I love this poem. I immediately understood the poet’s intent. I understand why Barnstone chooses to use the word “science” in his translation. It contrasts precisely with unknowing. However, the musicality of using “science” in his poem it becomes too harsh and metallic sounding despite the “s” sounds. For me, I would have liked Barnstone to keep the original “ciencia” making the reader think about the emphasis and meaning of the word, while keeping the overall musicality he achieved in his translation. This also keeps the poem tight, clear and concise.

    I also believe the repetition of the word “science” continues the idea of narrowness that Ivan discussed and that science itself has become narrow minded.

    Also, Ivan, in regards to your comments on the intellect…excellent. The brain actually creates new channels of subtle energy flow that allow both hemispheres of the brain to work together. When seen with the third eye, there is a horizontal vortex type tube connecting the hemispheres. So someone steeped in solving a math problem or designing a new bridge is not lost or veiled from the expansive land of the east the right hemisphere. However, this is not achieved until after full kundalini awakening and was a painful process for me as I did not understand what was happening. But…very much glad it’s done and I can enjoy the “solitude” more readily.

    Much love

  5. Therese Monaghan O.P.on 07 Aug 2013 at 11:51 am

    As usual, Ivan, your commentary is illuminative, particularly your caveat regarding what we mean by science. I like what you said about not sifting reality but bathing in it–to know beyond the concepts we set up….which only block us from deep knowing.
    And blessed solitude which opens our understanding beyond what we think we know. . . Thanks so much for giving us John of the Cross today.

  6. Vivianon 26 Nov 2018 at 4:54 pm

    A lovely poem from St John of the Cross, a Carmelite saints and a doctor of the church. Thank you very much for your interesting commentary which gives me much insight.
    Prayer in solitude is this narrow way to the unknown, beyond science (logic, cognition &intellectual comprehension as you mentioned). A divine encounter would be an *ecstatic feeling* .
    Could you provide link to your other commentary of St John of the Cross poetry.
    Your work on poetry is much appreciated.

  7. John Tafelon 11 May 2019 at 5:14 am

    Thank you Ivan, you have beautifully plumbed the depths of one of my favorite poems by St John of the Cross ☦️. I am also a bit of a mystic, and I have terrible chronic pain that has led me to experiences similar to the ones, he describes. I will continue to follow your commentaries, and hope that your insights will continue to unveil the subtle meanings of. Mystical existence. Thanks 🙏✡️,Dr John Tafel

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