A Love for Which He Suffered. A Meditation on the Poem of St. John the Cross: Un Pastor

By: Msgr. Charles Pope

Many of you have read the allegorical poem adapted by St, John of the Cross called Un Pastorcico (A little Shepherd).  It is a poem about a shepherd boy who grieves that his beloved shepherdess has forsaken and forgotten him. In his love, and in his grief he climbs a tree, and there spreads his arms and dies, his heart by love torn open pitifully.

It is an allegory of Christ, indeed of God’s love for us, and for his bride the Church. Here is a translation of the poem by Mary Rae:

A little shepherd, all alone, is grieving,
a stranger both to pleasure and happiness,
thinking only of his shepherdess,
his heart by love torn open pitifully.

He does not weep because love wounded him,
it does not grieve him to be hurt by love,
although his heart has been hurt enough;
he weeps, instead, to think he is forgotten,

for only in thinking that she is forgetting,
he wanders far in his unhappiness,
and lets himself, in strange lands, be oppressed,
his heart by love torn open pitifully.

And the little shepherd says: ‘Oh, woe is she,
who from my love has left and gone away,
and far from my sweet company has strayed,
my heart, for her, torn open pitifully!’

And after a long while he climbed a tree,
and there he opened up his elegant arms,
and there he died, his arms held apart,
his heart by love torn open pitifully
.

For indeed, God’s love for us becomes a passionate love in Christ: who weeps, who suffers, who seeks, desires and rejoices over us. So often we forsake him, and yet still in love, and surely in sorrow, he climbs the tree of the cross and there dies, his arms held apart, his heart by love torn open pitifully.

The great love story of God’s tender and long-suffering love for us begins early in the Old Testament. Beginning there, God’s tender love and sorrow at our straying is manifest:

In the Garden after Adam and Eve had sinned and were now hiding, God moves through the garden calling out plaintively as it were: “Adam…..where are you ?!

Deuteronomy speaks of the tender care of the Father as one who carries his son close to his cheek on a journey:

And in the wilderness (as you have seen) the Lord thy God carried you, as a man is wont to carry his little son, all the way that you have come, until you came to this place. (Deut 1:31)

In the Book of Hosea God laments how his beloved son Israel runs from him, though he stoops to feed his son and care for him, ye the more he stoops the more his son runs. God is sorely grieved and laments through Hosea:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called Israel, the further they ran from me. …Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms; but they did not realize it was I who healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with ties of love…and bent down to feed them….My people are determined to turn from me. [But] “How can I give you up, Ephraim?…My heart is moved within me; all my compassion is aroused. (Hosea 11:1-8)

In Zephaniah there is expressed the joyful love of God for us:

The LORD your God in the midst of you is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over you with joy; he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

In the later prophets the image turns to one of love and marriage between God and his people:

Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There she will sing as in the days of her youth…In that day,” declares the Lord, “you will call me ‘my husband’; you will no longer call me ‘my master.’…. I will espouse you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. (Hosea 2:varia)

Ezekiel speaks of how God lavishes his love, woos his bride and marries her. But she turns on him. And in his grief God cries out with anger, but renews his covenant with her:

I passed by, and when I looked at you and saw that you were old enough for love, I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness. I gave you my solemn oath and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Sovereign Lord, and you became mine….I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put leather sandals on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. I adorned you with jewelry….a beautiful crown on your head….You became very beautiful and rose to be a queen. And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you, declares the Sovereign Lord…..But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute. You lavished your favors on anyone who passed by and your beauty became his….Adulterous wife! You prefer strangers to your own husband!….Did you not add lewdness to all your other detestable practices?…This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will deal with you as you deserve, because you have despised my oath by breaking the covenant. Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you…..So I will establish my covenant with you, and you will know that I am the Lord. Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done (Ezekiel 16, varia).

Fittingly then, in the New Testament Jesus is called the Groom by John the Baptist (Jn 3:29). Jesus also speaks of himself as the Groom (Mk 2:19; Mt 9:15; 25:6; Lk 5:35). He works his first miracle at a wedding (Jn 2:9). And he  tells of his coming as a great wedding feast announced by God the Father, and yet he bitterly laments how most reject the invitation (Matt 22). And, in the end, we turn on him and kill him: his arms held apart, his heart by love torn open pitifully.

Yes, God’s love for us is costly, we wound him grievously and cause him great sorrow. Tradition places the words of Lamentation on his lips (and that of his mother) as he hangs on the cross:  Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look around and see. Is any suffering like my suffering that was inflicted on me? (Lam 1:12). Yes, the one who loves most suffers most, and no one loves us more than the Lord.

He weeps: On his last ascent to Jerusalem looked upon the city from across on the Mount of Olives and Scripture says, poignantly and simply, He wept over it (Lk 19:41). Yes, he weeps:

A shepherd, all alone, is grieving,
a stranger both to pleasure and happiness,
thinking only of his shepherdess,
his heart by love torn open pitifully.

For the Lord has known the joy of heaven and the praises of the angels, yet now he is:

a stranger both to pleasure and happiness….He wanders far in his unhappiness, and lets himself, in strange lands, be oppressed, his heart by love torn open pitifully.

Looking upon his shepherdess, his beloved, He weeps saying, If you, only you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes (Lk 19:41). How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)

Yes, he weeps:

And the shepherd says:
‘Oh, woe is she, who from my love has left and gone away,
and far from my sweet company has strayed,
my heart, for her, torn open pitifully!’

Down the Mount of Olives he goes, and then, soon enough, up another, Golgotha on slope of Mt Moriah:

And after a long while he climbed a tree,
and there he opened up his elegant arms,
and there he died, his arms held apart,
his heart by love torn open pitifully
.

The Lord’s love for us is unfathomable. It is a love for which he has suffered alove for which he died. One day it will finally dawn on us that the Son of God died for us, for me.

About Gertrude

Sáncte Míchael Archángele, defénde nos in proélio, cóntra nequítiam et insídias diáboli ésto præsídium.
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1 Response to A Love for Which He Suffered. A Meditation on the Poem of St. John the Cross: Un Pastor

  1. kathleen says:

    A lovely sensitive article that speaks to the heart…….. but a rather clumsy translation of St. John of the Cross’s poem IMO! Although I must admit, poetry is one of the hardest things to translate well. I would like to see the Spanish original.

    How true these words: “(T)he one who loves most suffers most…” It reminds me of an old song by Cher (I think): “There is no loving without tears.”

    How awesome to discover how much Almighty God loves His fickle children!

    Like

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