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

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, a love for which he died. One day it will finally dawn on us that the Son of God died for us, for me.

14 Replies to “A Love for Which He Suffered. A Meditation on the Poem of St. John the Cross: Un Pastorcico”

  1. The 3 O’Clock Prayer is a helpful reminder, when I remember it.

  2. Wow !!

    This really puts the act of contrition in perspective. “…but most of all because they (our sins) offend Thee, my God who are all good and deserving of all my love.”

    When we realize just how much God loves us, How can we not give Him all our love and through His grace, sin no more.

  3. Msgr for the first time Ireally fell inlove with your whole story here and the bible references .,i wish you could send me a copy of this so I dont lose it on Facebook………after some days it goes away however I wish it not. I need this forever until my eartthly departure Sincerly John you have my private mail address …Thank You Msgr

  4. A beautiful reflection on the love of God. I always read the Hosea quote from a mother’s perspective though, since the image described is more fitting to an ancient concept of mother’s role toward an infant or a small child. While the groom image is obviously the most prominent one quoted in Catholicism (obviously because of Jesus’ maleness and references to Abba) there are also many beautiful images of God as mother.

    1. Somehow I don’t see the mother’s role toward an infant or a small child in the Hosea quote, especially in the part about “and out of Egypt I called my son.”
      The traditional mothers’ role seems most evident when the child is so helpless that everything must be done for the child, and the traditional fathers’ role seems to come in later when the child is taken by stages away from the greater safety of the immediate community, and as the child evolves gradually into an independence which can be a worthy contribution toward interdependence. A good father will be a part of the child’s learning experience as he stands by while the child often struggles through the first attempts. The father may intervene when the child becomes stalled or extremely discouraged but backs off again when the child again progresses.
      When the Perfect Father led the Children of Israel out of Egypt their participation was required from the begining in Exodus 12:35&36 when they had to ask for things from the Egytians and deal with what they received. In verse 12 it is written that “…they plundered the Egyptians.” That is the Egyptians of that time who had kept them in slavery and thereby dishonoured the deal that an earlier Pharaoh had made.
      Then it wasn’t very long before they were attacked by the Amalekites in Exodus 17:8-15. What chance would a group of runaway slaves stand against experienced warriors from the wilderness into which they were led? However God intervened in behave of His people but didn’t protect them to the point where they had no learning worthy of the challenge that the Amalekites had brought. They had to go and fight their enemy under Joshua’s leadership and Moses was required to keep his arms upheld to insure that the Israelites kept winning the battle.
      Whenever Moses grew tired and lowered his arms the Amalekites began winning. Then Moses required help from Aaron and Hur to hold his arms up so that he was no longer in a personal isolation. A factor that I find interesting is about there being three; Moses, Aaron and Hur on top of the hill. Figuring that out is something which I feel must be left to others to help me to understand.
      Since the industrial revolution when earning a living moved out of the family home and environment the fathers’ part seems to have evolved away from him and the fathers have participated more and more in the type of care which the child requires when in an early, helpless state. For instance diapers, bottle feeding, etc. Not necessarily a bad thing but the fatherly guidance gets taken care of by society’s chosen mentors, such as teachers, coaches and the like while our perception of a father becomes altered toward a motherly image and this can lead us to believe that God’s role is the same by association, rather than by what Holy Scripture teaches us.
      In my Bible reading I do not see Yahwah illustrated as a goddess but, rather, as the Most High God who is the Father. Early on He may do some motherly roles in a way similar to that of a single father but his I don’t know, so I will try to look favourably on any comments that reasonably seek to improve, or correct, my thinking.

      1. Peter,
        There’s no direct reference to a metaphorical sex of God in that passage, and you may well argue it sounds like a caring father. My point was that mothers are often associated with feeding a child, healing, being a primary caregiver during the early years (e.g. learning to walk). The scriptures are clear from the start though, that male and female both represent the image of God (Genesis 1) and while there are surely more cultural references to God as a metaphorical father among the Hebrews, there are certainly also many references which compare God to a female as a nursing mother, a woman in labor, a mother eagle, a mother bear, a woman who lost a coin, etc. Obviously these are not literal–they are all metaphors. Any metaphor will have weaknesses, including the groom/bride analogy. God is God and we do our best to relate to God according to our human understanding, but the love of God for us is beyond a doubt, as Msgr’s reflection points out.

        1. Thank you for your comments on this which helps me to realize that I seem to have stretched at least one point to reflect my some things from my personal viewpoint. Indeed, God is so far beyond my personal viewpoint that I should neither claim, nor comment as if, my interpretations are a standard by which I can measure what is in anyone else’s heart.
          In fact, I’ve been reminded how important His Mysteries are to me since they show that what is beyond my abilities is not beyond those of God’s love, help and guidance.
          Praise God.

  5. Remarkable

    Tuesday, May 31, 2012, the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time
    Entrance Antiphon (Cf. Ps 18 (17): 19-20

    The Lord became my protector./ He brought me out to a place of freedom;/ he saved me because he delighted in me.

    The Father delighted in me?

    He simply cannot help Himself. Divine humility is infinite. He loves beyond all understanding. Hosea. The Incarnation of the Divine Son. The parable of the Prodical,. Jesus’s passion and real death.

  6. I was blessed with spiritual consolation in reading this. Thank you for this inspirational article.

  7. What wonderful insights you have given here – so much for meditation – and spiritual growth. I have come to realize how much Jesus and God our Father loves us – and the Holy Spirit through his inspirations, as well.
    Not just as a group but the individual ‘me’. Thank you so very much for your insights here, you have shown such remarkable and consistent expressions of love in this exercise. I shall copy, reread. and use for meditation during my Adoration, and share with family and friends. I am presently reading and studying “God desires you” – St Francis de Sales – on living the Gospel I am so thankful for my retirement – for more time to come to my personal growth.

  8. My diocesan spiritual director once assigned me to read “The Cantata of Love: A Verse-by-Verse Reading of the Song of Songs,” by Blaise Arminjon, S.J. The text correlates commentary from the Church Fathers, including St. John of the Cross, tying together the multi-layered themes of God’s love for Israel and the Church, and Jesus’ love for Mary, for the Church, and for each of one of us. The author offers an amazing in-depth interpretation of the Song of Songs.

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