I Came Into the Unknown

by John of the Cross

English version by Willis Barnstone
Original Language Spanish

I came into the unknown
and stayed there unknowing
rising beyond all science.

I did not know the door
but when I found the way,
unknowing where I was,
I learned enormous things,
but what I felt I cannot say,
for I remained unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

It was the perfect realm
of holiness and peace.
In deepest solitude
I found the narrow way:
a secret giving such release
that I was stunned and stammering,
rising beyond all science.

I was so far inside,
so dazed and far away
my senses were released
from feelings of my own.
My mind had found a surer way:
a knowledge of unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

And he who does arrive
collapses as in sleep,
for all he knew before
now seems a lowly thing,
and so his knowledge grows so deep
that he remains unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

The higher he ascends
the darker is the wood;
it is the shadowy cloud
that clarified the night,
and so the one who understood
remains always unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

This knowledge by unknowing
is such a soaring force
that scholars argue long
but never leave the ground.
Their knowledge always fails the source:
to understand unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

This knowledge is supreme
crossing a blazing height;
though formal reason tries
it crumbles in the dark,
but one who would control the night
by knowledge of unknowing
will rise beyond all science.

And if you wish to hear:
the highest science leads
to an ecstatic feeling
of the most holy Being;
and from his mercy comes his deed:
to let us stay unknowing,
rising beyond all science.

-- from To Touch the Sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual & Metaphysical Light, Translated by Willis Barnstone

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

In this poem, St. John of the Cross continually contrasts unknowing with "science."

I came into the unknown
and stayed there unknowing
rising beyond all science.


Let me say at the start that I'm not entirely satisfied with the use of the word "science" in this translation. The Spanish word used is indeed ciencia, which directly translates as science in English, but we this older use of the word implies science in the broadest sense, as logic, cognition, intellectual comprehension.

And he emphasizes that it is the unknowing that is superior.

Don't misunderstand, he is not advocating ignorance! (Sadly, many regressive religious impulses advocate exactly that.) But, no, this Spanish saint is talking about the mystical idea of "unknowing," the state in which all thoughts and concepts and mental filters have been set aside, the state in which we rise above the elaborate constructions of the logical mind ("formal reason") and come to rest in pure awareness ("a knowledge of unknowing"). He is contrasting true knowing with the mere accumulation of data.

To be unknowing is to encounter every instant entirely as it is, in pure wonder, without projection, without anticipation or agitation. The intellectual mind -- a hugely important tool! -- has one very serious weakness for the spiritual aspirant: it never encounters the present moment nakedly. It is always processing, analyzing, sorting, making everything fit into its comprehension. It never truly witnesses; it only interprets. We definitely want to cultivate a strong, capable, critical intellect, but we must always remember that it is not the whole of consciousness. The awareness can step beyond the intellect. To fully apprehend reality, it must.

I was so far inside... my senses were released...

This state of supreme "unknowing" isn't so much a state of perception, which is the drawing in and sorting of exterior input of the senses. The intellect gathers and sorts the data gathered through the senses and formulated into a working hypothesis of what reality is. And that hypothesis is always an incomplete shorthand that only approximates reality.

In contrast, the mystic's unknowing is the completely centered awareness of Being that does not tilt to reach out with the senses. This awareness is at rest, poised, and witnesses without an egoic agenda. It does not sift reality, it bathes in it. This is a "surer way" of recognizing the fundamental Reality.

"Rising beyond all science" ultimately leads "to an ecstatic feeling / of the most holy Being." This is "the perfect realm / of holiness and peace," free from the conceptual filters we normally place on our awareness.

In deepest solitude
I found the narrow way:
a secret giving such release...


In this state, one experiences "solitude" or supreme unity, requiring nothing outside itself to be whole and itself. And this solitude reveals the "narrow way;" the solitude is itself the way -- "narrow" in that it is difficult to achieve when lost in the normal busyness of the chattering mind, and a "way" because it draws the scattered awareness to "rise".

A delightful poem that confounds the intellect while inviting the wider awareness to reach beyond self-imposed boundaries, "rising beyond all science" to discover the ever-present "perfect realm / of holiness and peace..."



Recommended Books: John of the Cross

Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty To Touch the Sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual & Metaphysical Light For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time
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