The Sum of Perfection

by John of the Cross

English version by Ivan M. Granger
Original Language Spanish

Creation forgotten,
Creator only known,
Attention turned inward
In love with the Beloved alone.

-- from Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey, by Ivan M. Granger

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Commentary by Ivan M. Granger

As we approach Christmas, I wanted to feature something simple and luminous. This is one of my favorite short poems by St. John of the Cross.

Where else is the mystic path stated so succinctly yet so completely? These four lines by St. John of the Cross contain all the instructions necessary.

Creation forgotten...
Attention turned inward

This is is a bit of a jump, but these lines call to my mind Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, one of the foundational scriptures of yogic practice, which speaks of pratyahara or 'sense withdrawal' as an essential practice. This leads to dharana or 'concentration,' which matures into dhyana (meditation) and finally samadhi (divine union). Done deeply, sense withdrawal and concentration are profound practices, but they sound so... effortful, don't they? Almost severe. 'Concentration' reminds me of studying for college exams. Translated into English like this, these words don't convey quite the right tone. These spiritual practices do not have to be a strain; the attention can simply turn and glide inward. My experience is that this is the natural tendency of the awareness, anyway, we just have to stop pushing it to the exterior all the time. Sense withdrawal and concentration don't require a harsh act of force so much as trust: trust to release the constant fixation on outer reality, trust that what we discover in the spacious silence within is just as real and delightful.

Half a world away, in Catholic Spain, St. John of the Cross is telling us the same thing. Forget the outer world of phenomena, at least for the moment. Turn inward.

Doing this, creation is seen as having no fundamental reality of its own; it is only an expression or emanation of the Eternal. It is like watching a movie. The movie may seem real while we are caught up in the story, but if we pause and look around the auditorium, we can see that the movie is actually streaming through the darkness in a funnel of light. It's source is really the projector.

Creator only known.

Remembering this on every level, we are only aware of the Source, the Creator. Creation itself then becomes simply a reflection of the Divine. Knowing only the Creator, the Divine fills all of perception -- that is true meditation.

Seeing through the insubstantial nature of mundane reality, one is filled with ecstatic, uncontainable love and bliss. This is not a surface happiness directed at exterior objects or people, but for all of creation and, more fundamentally, for the immense life that brings that creation into existence.

In love with the Beloved alone.

The original Spanish verse has a fluid, chant-like rhythm that's difficult to reproduce in English translation:

Olvido de lo criado,
memoria del Criador,
atencion a lo interior
y estarse amando al Amado.

(My translation of this poem appears both in my collection of poems and translations, Real Thirst, but is also included in For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics, edited by Roger Housden. Roger Housden's contemplative collections of poetry are always worth reading.)


May we all remember that this time of Christmas, Hanukkah, and Solstice, is for the renewal of the light within ourselves and our world. (It's no accident that Christmas and Hanukkah occur near the Winter Solstice, when the world is plunged in darkness and awaits the renewal of the light.) Regardless of religion, may we recognize our shared brotherhood and sisterhood within the human family, all within the lap of the generous green earth that is our home. Sending love to everyone!

Recommended Books: John of the Cross

The Longing in Between: Sacred Poetry from Around the World (A Poetry Chaikhana Anthology) Poetry for the Spirit: Poems of Universal Wisdom and Beauty Real Thirst: Poetry of the Spiritual Journey To Touch the Sky: Poems of Mystical, Spiritual & Metaphysical Light For Lovers of God Everywhere: Poems of the Christian Mystics
More Books >>

The Sum of