Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Young polish Father Karol Wojtyla, later St.John Paul II, was, among others, poet and mystic, heavily influenced by great Spanish 16th century mystic/poet St. John of the Cross. Iconic UP humanities prof Josefina D. Constantino, now Sr. Teresa Joseph Patrick of Discalced Carmelites, also sees in Karol's poetry influences of/similarities with those of French 'cerebral' poet Paul Valery, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, British poet T. S. Eliot and American Jesuit poet Gerald Manley Hopkins

The young Fr. Karol Wojtyla, later Saint Pope John Paul II

This last blog in my recent series on newly-minted St. John Paul II is not going to be easy read, but console yourselves, dear readers, neither has it been easy write for me. This is because this blog will show the interaction between three great personalities: poet Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II), St. John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic saint who heavily influenced Wojtyla’s thought and actions, and the former UP icon for the humanities for decades, Prof. Josefina D. Constantino (who holds a master's degree in comparative literature from Cornell University and was fondly called just "JD"  by her legion of fans over nearly five decades).

JD Constantino eventually joined the Discalced Carmelites’ order and became Sr. Teresa Joseph Patrick. Today, at 94 years old she has arthritis that’s the glorious gift of old age---but remains relatively lucid and still talks in her excited tone.


But if you readers would persist in reading this blog, your reward will be great, as you’ll get to savor the exquisite poetry of Karol Wojtyla composed in his formative years, which has not been published in recent times. Indeed his poetry-writing is one aspect of this great Pope/Saint that remains a mystery. 

Thanks to Sr. Teresa who took pains to publish and analyze Wojtyla's poems under her pen-name, Susana Jose, and gifted me with some copies many years back, I can now share these poems with my readers right after St. John Paul II's canonization. 

As an aside, this blogging exercise brings me back to my humanities days at the UP in the early '60s.

For this blog, I shall refer to Sr. Teresa in her pen-name, Susana Jose, lest she be mistaken for Santa Teresa of Avila. On the other hand, Karol Wojtyla will be referred to as KW. Susana is apologetic that KW’s poems in Polish  as well as John of the Cross’ poems in 16th century Spanish will have to be read and discussed in their English translations. Indeed I realize that this would make their respective writings the poorer, but how else?


As St. John Paul narrated in his all-time best-selling book, “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” in his youthful years he met Jan Tyranowski, whom he considered a “true mystic” and a saint and who introduced him to great Spanish mystics Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross. Thus, narrated KW, “Even before entering the underground seminary I read the works of (St. John), especially his poetry.”

But Wojtyla confessed that in order to read St. John’s poetry in the original, “I studied Spanish. That was a very important stage in my life.” (This recalls another great Polish writer, novelist Joseph Conrad of “Heart of Darkness” and "Nostromo" fame, dubbed the “Polish ‘Hamlet,’ " who learned English at 38 years of age).

So engrossed was Wojtyla with St. John of the Cross, whom Santa Teresa de Avila called “divine and celestial,” that he wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Spanish mystic in Latin, titled “Doctrina de fe apud S. Joannem a Cruce,”while studying for his doctoral degree at the Dominican-led Angelicum University in Rome.


Before the Congress on St. John of the Cross held in the Vatican in May 1991 on the  400th anniversary of they Mystic's death, Pope John Paul II, speaking in Spanish, mentioned how he paid tribute in his apostolic letter “Maestro en la Fe” (Teacher in the Faith) to St. John as “a man of letters and a poet of the Castillan language…an artist and a humanist. He is a man of deep mystic experience…a theologian and spiritual exegete…a spiritual master and a director of consciences.” JPII quoted the words of A. Machado that the Spanish mystic was “an expert in words and poetic expression, who deserved to be called ‘ “the holiest of poets and the most poetic of the saints.’ “

Thus, while Fr. Wojtyla’s dissertation on St. John was written in Latin, KW's poetry, highly influenced by the mystic, was written in Polish in a collection titled “The Easter Vigil and Other Poems,” that he wrote under the pen-name Andrzy Jawien. Those poems were then translated by Polish poet/Jerzy Peterkiewiez of London University into English, and published between 1950-1966---twelve years before Archbishop Wojtyla became Pope in 1978.


To show how strong was the influence of St. John of the Cross on Fr. Wojtyla, Susana Jose presents the following five stanzas from the great Spanish Mystic Doctor, as found in his "The Living Flame of Love" (in Spanish, Llama de Amor Viva). Indeed the Mystic's influence is quite strong as we later plumb the poetry of Wojtyla. Wrote St. John of the Cross:

1. O living flame of love
that tenderly wounds my soul
in its deepest center! Since
now you are not oppressive,
now consummate! if it be your will:
tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!

 2. O sweet cautery,
O delightful wound!
O gentle hand! O delicate touch
that tastes of eternal life
and pays every debt!
In killing you changed death to life.

3. O lamps of fire!
in whose splendors
the deep caverns of feeling,
once obscure and blind,
now give forth, so rarely, so exquisitely,
both warmth and light in their Beloved.

4. How gently and lovingly
you wake in my heart,
where in secret you dwell alone;
and in your sweet breathing,
filled with good and glory,
how tenderly you swell my heart with love.


Karol Wojtyla’s poetry collection starts with a poem on Mary the Mother of God which, Susana Jose opines, is “Deceivingly simple, it can even be thought of as rather literal and prosaic, especially by those who love to bathe themselves in emotions…” whereas a “contemplative experience of a poem, as an act, is grandly and profoundly simple: it is a fixing of one’s gaze on truth with love.” In this case, Susana says, the celebration between Mary and her son has to be just that, as KW presents it: Mary is amazed that this Child is her Son.

“Her amazement at her only child”

“Light piercing, gradually, everyday events:
A woman’s eyes, hands used to them since childhood.
Then brightness flared, too huge for simple days,
And hands clasped when the words lost their space.
In that little town, my son, where they knew us together
You called me mother, but no one had eye to see
The astounding events as they took place day by day:
Your life became the life of the poor
In your wish to be with them
through the work of your hands.
I knew; the light that lingered in ordinary things
like a spark sheltered under the skin of our days----
The light was you; it did not come from me.
And I had more of you in that luminous silence
Than I had of you as the fruit of my body, my blood. “


Susana presents the following first stanza of his concluding poem in the above collection, which is really KW’s testament and dedication to Christ Jesus--- if only to complete KW’s celebration of simply ‘being’:

“Invocation to Man who became the body of history”

 I call you and I seek you in whom / Man’s history
finds its body,
I go toward you, and you do not / say ‘Come’
but simply ‘be’


In another poem, still a continuation of Mary’s role, titled “John beseeches her,” Susana notes how “the beloved disciple John is lyrical (tender, awed and loving) in his first words to her…(Actually) This is KW speaking to Mary and appealing to her in the name of us all---for all men.”

“Don’t lower the wave of my love / it swells to your eyes, Mother
don’t alter love, but bring the  / wave to me
in your translucent hands.

Then, Susana notes, “follows KW’s famous silences and…one-liner stanzas…the reality beyond grasp of words…And then John the Beloved Disciple talks of himself as a fisherman does, saying that both Mary and he had been commissioned: she to take him as her son;  he to call her Mother: ‘his wish” and he beseeches her, “May this word never grow less for you,” 

"It is not easy to measure the meaning
of the words He breathed into us both"

concealing ‘all earlier loves,’ for now they have work to do.


In two of Kw's poems titled “Thoughts’ resistance to words” and “Words’ resistance to thoughts” Susana noted that KW had to wrestle with words and celebrate such struggle, and finalizes with his “Error.” In these three poems, KW searches a way to extract what he terms the "still centre of thought." He viewed things as not just ‘things,’ but realities…In fact, “all things to him---all else apart from the man himself in his unmoving, living, pulsating center--- are history, the whole body.” As KW says:

‘Never separate man from things, the body of his history…Things cannot save what is utterly human---only ‘Man’ (meaning Christ).”  But things can also just be things “enclosed in themselves.” Only “man is left with the immortality of things---things don’t die a personal death’---that is the privilege alone of man.

As Susana put it, “KW therefore defines more pointedly the real problem of the thoughts’ resistance to words: it is the truth of or in the moment which resists words: the passion, the secret of each moment---“

"But when we act can our deeds
Surrender the ultimate truths 
we presume to ponder?'

Susana stressed that “The problem of the finest, purest, almost unmoving integrity of being is the plea of KW’s poetry. He thinks little of a difficult enough situation as he says:

“Sometimes it happens in / conversation; we stand
facing truth and lack the words, / I have no gesture, no sign;
and yet---we feel---no word, / no gesture or sign would convey
the whole image that we must / enter alone and face like Jacob.

Notes Susana: “The last line, remembering with whom Jacob wrestled, delivered the unspoken thought. But again, lest the reader miss his point, KW explains directly: ‘This isn’t mere wrestling with images in our thoughts.’ Then KW delivers the weight of pain and agony with which he lived his days, years, during the days of the German occupation and inner bondage, as he says:

“we fight with the likeness of all things
that inwardly constitute man.”

Susana: “He fought with all he had got as man---and so between him and his God (like Jacob) he asks:

But when we act can our deeds surrender
the ultimate truths we presume to ponder.

Susana: “But if thought has a center, its very core beyond expression, so also does even one word have a center---and here KW IS poet as he talks of:

its weight the ripeness of fruit

Susana: "Yet, it seems to ask: what is this ripeness? When is ripe, ripe? But the ripeness becomes again a query:"

"Is this the weight Jacob felt / pressing him down when tired
stars sink within him,  / the eyes of his flock?"

Susana: "Indeed who is to tell him what to do: a choice of personal integrity or the integrity of his shepherding assignment, from God, of his flock?


Susana: "Anguished by such moment-to-moment encounter with truth and Truth, we rejoice at his annunciations of grace, such as he celebrates in Embraced by new time when Karol says:

"My depths are seen into, I am seen / through and through
Open to sight, I rise, in that vision gently submerge
For a long time nobody knew of this:
I told no one the expression of your eyes."

Susana: “How tenderly, intimately he writes of God, He knows---and that is all that matters. So he muses lingeringly over such moments. Here he is, the comtemplative, the mystic:

"How attentive your stillness; it will / always be part of me
I lift myself towards it / I will one day grow used to it
That I will stand still, transparent / as water vanishing into a dry riverbed
though my body will remain / Your disciples will come, and hear that my heartbeat has stopped."

Susanna: "God graces him with union in his deepest center:  he is found, and he is still. And totally transparent, caught in the purity of being; as one dead, lost in God! But the deep sadness, the weariness is glimpsed: when, O when, Lord! And he continues along the same vein:

My life will no longer be weighed / deep in my blood
the road will no longer slip away from my weary feet
New time now shines in my fading eyes:


Susana: “There is the secret: he has had a taste of heaven:

It will consume me, and dwell with my heart,
And all shall be full at the last, / and left for nought’s delight.

Susana: "And Karol the poet sings alleluia; he is reborn and he promises confession, revelation, exaltation:

I will open out my song / and knew its smallest sound
I will open out my song, / intent on the whole of your life.
My song possessed by the even so simple and clear
Which begins in every man, / visible there, yet secret.

Susana: KW sings hosanna to the incarnation event that continues in all men:

In men it was made flesh / was revealed in song with grace,
And come to many, and in them / found its own peace,

Susana: "All have been “embraced by new time”: the continuing resurrection of the spirit of time, because reborn faith has “found its own space.”

"One can end right there and know that he has met KW in flesh and blood; and that he has also has been reborn in faith." 


But to Susana KW is "unceasingly fascinated by the greatness of the spirit of man, any man: the car factory and the armaments factory workers, the quarry man, the actor, the schizoid, the blind, the girl disappointed in love...and of course Magdalene: and the man of intellect, the man of will and of emotion." To each of the above, says Susana, KW is always confessedly Simon of Cyrene (which is his favorite role)."

I know the Cyrenean's profile best
from every conceivable view

Susana: That is to be all men for all men because KW has become alter Christus, as he says in the next line:

The profile always starts alongside the other Man;
It falls from his shoulders / to break off exactly where 
that other man is most himself, least defenseless. 

Susana: KW is always (praise God!) priest, so he rushes to add, almost apologetically (the shepherd in him is always above the poet) and he explains:

he would be defenseless if what is in him and of him
did not form a vertical line / but gave way

Susana: And then as though now he has said the word (his exhortation), one can sense he plucks his wife anew, because now he writes singingly":

Feet search grass. The earth insects
drill the greenery swaying the / streams of the sun

Susana: And just right off, KW is back to the agonizingly humdrum daily routine of a regime of suppression and fear (the Nazi occupation and later the Soviet conquest---BOC).

Feet wear down cobbles, the / cobbled street wears down feet.
No nation / No pathos, thoughts in the crowd, / unspoken.


Susana: Like Simon, like Jesus who keeps going, trudgingly he tries again---

Take a thought if you can---plant / its root in the artisan's hands
(workers think, don't forget) in / the fingers of women typing eight 
hours a day ; block letters hang / from reddened eyelids.

Take a thought, make man complete
or allow him to begin himself anew
or let him just help You perhaps
and You lead him on.

Susana: Always KW exalts the thinking man---thought makes a man complete. Try and try again---take that first step, the Magdalene or Simon, and then ---ah, then, again he is reborn in faith:

Grass waving, a green hammock / a breezy cradle of bees
walk the waves---I don't hurt your feet
In the waves' embrace you never / know you are drowning.

Susana: And across the waters, as to Peter, so to us---

And then He comes, He lays his yoke
on your back. You feel it, you tremble, you are awake.

Susana: "Great lines, "He comes"---you think to help you, to relieve you, to guide you safely back to shore? No, "He lays his yoke on your back." This is drama: sublime encounter. This is truth piercing and you are found---"You feel it, you tremble, you are awake!"

The Buddhist will exclaim "Satori! You are enlightened. 

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