St. John of the Cross on Fine Wine
Our celebration of the Christmas season has cut seriously into my work time, so instead of writing a column this week, let me simply offer the reflections of St. John of the Cross on good wine. These reflections come from his commentary on line four of Stanza 25 of The Spiritual Canticle where he refers to the love stirred up in the soul by God as “spiced wine”. The extract which follows, beautiful in its own right, reveals both the spiritual depth of St. John’s mystical poetry and the theological brilliance of his commentaries.
9. And since we have mentioned fermented wine, it will be worthwhile to note briefly the difference between fermented wine, which is called old wine, and new wine. The difference will be the same as that between old and new lovers. This will help us in giving some instructions to spiritual persons.
With new wine, the lees are not yet completely fermented and settled. Thus the wine is still in the process of fermentation, and one cannot know its good quality and value until the effervescence stops and the lees are entirely fermented. Until then the wine is in danger of going bad, has a rough, sharp savor, and is harmful to one who drinks much of it. A great deal of its strength lies in the sediment.
In old wine the lees are settled and the process of fermentation finished, and thus there is no effervescence as in new wine. The good quality of the wine is now evident and there is no danger of its going bad, since the fermentation that could have spoiled it has now ceased. The wine that is well fermented is hardly ever spoiled or lost; it has a smooth savor; its strength lies in the substance and no longer in the taste. Drinking it fortifies one and gives a good disposition.
10. New lovers are comparable to new wine. They are the beginners in the service of God. The fervors of the wine of love are very exterior, in the sensory part of the soul. The lees of the weak and imperfect sensory part have not yet finished their work of fermentation. These new lovers find their strength in the savor of love, and this sensible savor is what really motivates and strengthens them for the performance of their works. One should not trust this love until these fervors and coarse sensory tastes have passed. Just as this fervor and the warmth of sense can incline one to good and perfect love and serve as a beneficial means for such love by a thor¬ough fermentation of the lees of imperfection, so too it is very easy in these beginnings and in this novelty of tastes for the new wine of love to fail and lose its fervor and delight.
These new lovers always carry about the anxieties and fatigues of sensible love. In this regard they ought to be moderate in their drinking, for if, prompted by the agitation of the wine, they do a great deal of work, their nature will be ruined by these anxieties and fatigues of love, that is, of the new wine. As we said, this new wine is sharp, coarse, and unsmooth until completely fermented, that is, when these anxieties of love have passed, as we shall soon say.
11. The Wise Man in the Book of Ecclesiasticus makes this same comparison, saying: A new friend is like new wine; it will grow old and become a smooth drink [Ecclus. 9:10].
Now, then, the old lovers, those who are exercised and tried in the service of the Bridegroom, are like old wine. The lees of this wine are already fermented, and it does not have the sensitive effervescence or fermentation or the ardent external fires. What is more, these lovers taste the sweetness of the wine of love, the substance of which is now well fermented, so their love is based not on sensible delights, as is the love of new lovers, but settled within the soul in spiritual substance and savor and truly good works. And these individuals do not want to be attached to this sensory taste and fervor, nor do they desire to take pleasure in it lest weariness and distaste become their lot. For they who give reign to their appetite for some sensory taste will necessarily suffer affliction and displeasure in both sense and spirit.
Since these old lovers now lack the spiritual sweetness that has its roots in the sensory part, they do not have the anxieties or afflictions of love in the sense and spirit. These old lovers hardly ever fail God, for they now stand above all that would make them fail him, that is, above sensuality. And their wine of love is not only fermented and purged of the lees, but even spiced, as is said in the verse, with the perfect virtues that do not let it go bad as does the new wine. In God's sight, as a result, the old friend is highly esteemed, and thus the Book of Ecclesiasticus says of him: Do not forsake an old friend, for a new one will not be like him [Ecclus. 9:14] .
With this wine of love, then, now tried in the soul and spiced, the Beloved causes the divine inebriation we mentioned. By its strength, the soul directs toward God sweet and delightful outpourings. Thus the meaning of these three verses is: The touch of the spark by which you awaken the soul, and the spiced wine by which you lovingly inebriate her cause her to direct to you the flowings of the movements and acts of love that you cause in her.
From The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, rev. ed., 1991, Institute of Carmelite Studies (ICS Publications), trans. Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD and Otiliio Rodriguez, OCD, pp. 572-4.
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