The River of Suffering

And I saw the river
over which every soul
must pass
to reach the kingdom of heaven
and the name of that river was suffering:
and I saw a boat
which carries souls
across the river
and the name of that boat
was love.

-Juan de la Cruz, 1542-1591
Photo: Alabama River Raft Race, circa 1980.

St. John of the Cross is one of Spain’s top poets. He tried to reform his monastic order and was tortured and imprisoned by his own church. In his tiny prison, while being starved and recovering from being beaten, he wrote many poems, including The Dark Night of the Soul. Seamus Heaney includes a portion of the poem in his work Station Island, XI. In that poem, the poet has to do penance and is asked to translate a poem from Juan de la Cruz. The poem’s refrain affirms that despite the dire circumstances, there is a fountain so deep and beautiful, even the poet can’t mess it up – and he knows this, “although it is the night,” the refrain. The poem is printed here.

%d bloggers like this: