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Posted September 28, 2004

Book: Silent Music: The Life, Work, and Thought of St. John of the Cross
Author: R.A. Herrera
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids, MI, pp. 166

Excerpt from the Jacket:

St. John of the Cross has long inspired Christians seeking a deeper knowledge of God. The sixteenth-century Spanish mystic felt a record of personal faith as profound as any ever recorded. In Silent Music R.A. Herrera looks anew at the life and writings of St. John of the Cross and explores his continuing relevance to contemporary spirituality.

Beginning with an erudite historical essay on the phenomenon of mysticism, Silent Music chronicles St. John’s life story — from his humble birth in 1542, through his career as a professional religious, to his death in 1591 — placing the man and his spirituality squarely in their historical-cultural context. Herrera probes the saint’s rigorous life of contemplation and his classic writings on such subjects as union with God and the “dark night of the soul,” clarifying St. John’s understanding of the mystical experience and paying particular attention to the notion of detachment and the recurring motifs of darkness, flame, and ascent in St. John’s writings. His careful analysis of St. John’s thought is enriched with examples from philosophy, psychology, literature, spirituality, and art — material not usually found in such a study.

Appending his own original translations of select excerpts from St. John’s poetry, Herrera here paints a richly detailed, multifaceted portrait of one of Christendom’s most complex figures. His book will interest readers encountering St. John for the first time as well as those seriously engaged in the study of Roman Catholicism, Spanish history, Christian spirituality, and mysticism.

Excerpt from the Book:

Metaphor can grasp that which discursive reason, based on cause and effect, cannot. The “abundance of the Holy Spirit” cannot be exhausted by words. We are dealing with mysteries that overflow into “fuguras, comparaciones y semejanzas. Poetry is then able to vault the barriers that obstruct discourse. Fray Luis de Leon was not mistaken when he stated that poetry can act as divine inspiration “to elevate the soul of men heavenward.” Taken literally, this role of verse is as old as mantic poetry. Boccaccio, in his commentary to the Divine Comedy, laconically states: poetry is theology.” Dante himself, writing to Can Grande della Scala, remarks that there are many things for which we lack adequate words and are forced to recur to the metaphor as did Plato. Thomas Aquinas, in his Expositio in Psalmos, states that when words are lacking then song is used: “the leap of the mind in the eternal breaking out into sound.”

Poetry can then touch mystery in its plenitude and stammer what is not transparent to reason. Inspired poetry, such as that of St. John of the Cross, is not a mere contrafactum, substituting a sacred for a profane meaning, though this was a genre that proliferated in the sixteenth and the first quarter of the seventeenth centuries. Inspired poetry is different, a real, though fragmentary, penetration into mystery, a “knowing” that transcends discursive reason and touches the Cloud of Unknowing within which dwells the God who is the paradigm of all mysteries.

Table of Contents:

Introduction: Mysticism

1. The setting

2. The life

3. Mapa mundi

4. Mind and heart

5. Nocturnal ascent

6. A lustre of heaven

7. The mountain and the plain

8. Pieces of the puzzle

9. Odds and ends