I am currently reading St. Edith Stein’s book The Science of the Cross. It is a masterwork of Carmelite theology and I am truly amazed by the depth of her spirituality and her intellect as she elaborates on the writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. As a man who is heartily and often sinfully attached to worldly desires, I am in awe of the theology of the Cross, which Stein compares to the Dark Night of the Soul. The Cross, much like a Dark Night, strips away from us all that comes from the senses and leaves us completely reliant on faith. Because of the subsequent lack of spiritual consolation in the senses, often this feels like abandonment. It is also quite difficult to explicate in the traditional language of philosophy.
Mystical Theology seems to be a struggle to communicate to others because it does not lend itself to discursive knowledge. It is the mystery inside of the form that holds it, the essential reality towards which theological language points. How does one communicate the process of union with the divine? After a mystical experience while celebrating the mass, St. Thomas Aquinas famously declared that everything he had written up to that point was like straw. Not wrong, necessarily, but insubstantial, not adequate to describe his communion with God in the mass.
So, as I was reading Stein’s book, I thought about the fact that St. John of the Cross always begins his writings with a poem. It is only after reading the poem that the reader is treated to an interpretation. Stein considers this, too:
“The heart of the poet must sometimes have revolted against the procedure of the interpreter. His assurance that through his own interpretations he had no intention of inhibiting the breathing of the Spirit in the soul of the reader may, at all events, be taken as a request that one concentrate above all on the poem itself.” (238)
These poems from St. John must have cost him dearly, suffering as he was in physical confinement at the time of writing. There was an ongoing dispute amongst the reform minded Carmelites and those who preferred to preserve the status quo. St. John, as a leader of the reform movement, was seized and imprisoned in a rival Carmelite monastery. It was during this time that he wrote much of his poetry. Stein writes,
“With wonderful images and enchanting sounds the world outside, the world from which he is cut off, invades the cell of the prisoner, who is a poet and sculptor, one susceptible to the magic of music. Of course he does not pause at the picture and sounds. They are for him mysterious hieroglyphics that express—and in which he himself is able to express—what transpires concealed in a soul…They contain such a fullness of meaning that it seems impossible to the saint himself to find the right words in order to explain all that the Holy Spirit sang within him ‘in inexpressible groaning.’” (234)
The poems are essential to the theology, and through them St. John struggles to impart to his readers how wonderful it is to know God. In fact, they are more important than the interpretations that follow! This is because they not only tell us about the reality, but somehow begin to actually mediate that reality. Stein goes on,
“Because of the Holy Spirit, we have these stanzas; we owe them to him…for that reason the author declines from the very start to explain everything…the mystical wisdom…need not be understood distinctly…in order to cause love and enthusiasm in the soul.”
Of course, theology very much needs form and structure. It very much needs dogma and creed in order to contain the mystery. But the point is, underneath all of the discursive, rational discussion of the academic theologians there is the center of everything. Here at the center is the communion of the lover with the beloved. At this level, St. John of the Cross and St. Edith Stein both seem to think, poetry is the natural language of theology.