St John Of The Cross
so kind that I know he will do so whenever any need presents itself.1
Thus, by the time his five years in Avila were over, he was, at the age of 35, a director after Teresa's own heart, possessing holiness, experience and learning, the qualities she deemed essential in a good confessor.2 One thing remained to complete his development as a spiritual director: the purifying hand of God in his interior life. This he was to experience, of all places, in a prison cell in the Carmelite monastery at Toledo, the native city of his father and mother.
Toledo and the Dark Night of the Soul
During John's five years in Avila, the reform of the Carmelite friars, which began with the blessing of the Order's superiors, ran into serious difficulty due to misunderstandings over the authority required to found new monasteries. The superiors maintained that the Discalced were establishing new communities without their permission, whereas the Discalced believed they had proper authorization these foundations, if not from the Carmelite General, then from the Papal Nuncio and Apostolic Visitators in Spain
1Letter to Madre Ana de Jesús, No. 261, December, 1578, in Letters, 2:625.
2Cirillo Di Rienzo, La Direzione Spirituale negli Scritti di S. Teresa D'Avila (Rome: n.p., 1965), pp. 24- 59. See also the Chapter, "Spiritual Direction" in Père Marie-Eugène, I Want to See God: A Practical Synthesis of Carmelite Spirituality , trans. Sr. M. Verda Clare, vol. 1
who also had backing from King Philip II.
Following the Order's General Chapter in Piacenza, Italy, in May, 1575, the Carmelite authorities attempted to contain and even suppress Teresa's Reform in Spain. John of the Cross soon felt the effects of this move. His position as confessor at the convent of the Incarnation, an office which belonged by law to Mitigated friars and which John reluctantly held at the order of Apostolic Visitator, Pedro Fernández, grew increasingly precarious. After the death of the Papal Nuncio, Felipe Ormaneto, the Carmelite Vicar-General for Spain, Father Jerónimo Tostado, removed John from Avila on December 2, 1577, and brought him to the Carmelite monastery in Toledo. There the decrees of the Piacenza Chapter were read to him and he was asked to renounce the Discalced Reform. John refused on the grounds that both the Reform and his position as confessor at the Incarnation were duly authorized.1 Tostado then sent him to the monastery prison for an indeterminate period of time, the usual penalty prescribed by Carmelite law for
(Chicago: Fides Publishers, 1953), pp. 273-97.
1The complicated dual jurisdiction problem in the middle of which John helplessly found himself is analyzed in detail by Victor de Jesús María, O.C.D., with the conclusion that John was justified in his belief that his activities were in conformity with proper authority. See "Un Conflicto de Jurisdicción" in "Sanjuanistica," ed. by the faculty of the Discalced Carmelite International College (Rome: Collegium, Internationale Sanctorum Teresiae et Joannis a Cruce, 1943), pp. 413-528.
disobedient, rebellious, and contumacious friars.1
After two months in the regular monastery prison, John was placed in solitary confinement to insure against escape. Originally built as a closet for an adjoining room, his new cell was six feet wide and ten feet long, without windows, the only air and light coming through a two inch wide opening high up on the wall. His meals consisted of bread, water, and sardines. He was allowed neither to bathe nor to change his clothes. He remained in this room with a friar outside his door to guard him, through the freezing cold of winter and stifling heat of summer. He was brought regularly before the community of about 80 religious at meal time, asked to renounce the Reform, verbally humiliated and physically whipped across his bared shoulders when he refused, and returned to his cell. Some relief came after six months in the person of a new guard, a compassionate friar who allowed John fresh clothing, a short period of freedom outside the cell each day, and pen and paper to record verses he composed during the long months of silence and darkness.
These verses, now known as the Romance poems, the Spiritual Canticle, and the Stanzas of the Soul that Rejoices
1The Carmelite monastery in which John was imprisoned can be seen situated to the right above the Alcántara Bridge over the Tagus River in El Greco's masterpiece, View of Toledo, painted between 1600 and 1610. See Fr. Bruno de Jésus-Marie, Three Mystics: El Greco, St. John of the Cross, St, Teresa of Avila (London: Sheed and Ward, 1952), pp. 5, 12.
in Knowing God Through Faith, reveal that John spent his endless hours in prison meditating on passages from Sacred Scripture; contemplating the divine mysteries of the Trinity, Creation, the Incarnation, and the Birth of Christ; and lifting his heart to God in intense acts of love.
These poems also suggest that prison contributed to John's development as a spiritual director by providing him the personal experience of divine purification. These months in the Toledo monastery were for him a "dark night," a figure he will later use to describe the manner in which God purifies the senses and the spirit of a person who desires loving union with Himself.1 The person's own efforts to reach this union through prayer and self-denial are essential, but insufficient: God must also purify the soul of its inordinate sensual and spiritual attachments, often by means which are beyond the person's control and understanding. Through this passive purification or "dark night," a person learns to walk in pure faith, the only true road to divine union.2
1N, Prologue. St. John was not the first mystical writer to use the image of night to describe the purgative phase of the spiritual life. For example, the figure is found in the Moralia of St. Gregory the Great, a source which influenced St. John. See Crisógono de Jesús Sacramentado, San Juan de la Cruz, su Obra Científica y Su Obra Literaria, vol.1 (Madrid & Avila: Sigirano Diaz, 1929), pp. 35-36; Sullivan, "The 'Moralia' and it's Influence on St. John," pp. 458-88; Orcibal, Saint Jean de la Croix, pp. 105-18.
John had already advanced far along the road to God through his fidelity to prayer and mortification and his acceptance of the trials of the religious life and the priestly ministry.1 But now, in prison because of a misunderstanding he was helpless to rectify, suffering intensely in body and spirit, he experienced God's purifying hand preparing him for divine union.
In the stifling closeness of a dark prison cell where he could see only for several hours a day, hear little else than the insults of his superiors, taste nothing but insipid food, smell for hours his own excrement, and feel the stinging pain in his flesh caused by regular scourgings, John was purged both of the inordinate attachments to the objects of the bodily sense faculties -- objects of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch2--and the deeper roots of disordered behavior--pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.3
The purification in Toledo went further, even to the very depths of his soul. Alone without emotional support from his friends, charged with disobedience and rebellion by his superiors, attacked by temptations that he was deluded in
1Testimonies to John's holiness can be seen in the letters of Teresa of Avila between 1568 and 1578. See Letters, vols. 1 & 2, nos. 10, 42, 204, 207, 208, and 210. See Luis de San José, Concordancias de Las Obras y Escritos de Santa Teresa de Jesús (Burgos: El Monte Carmelo, 1945), pp. 506-8.
3Nl, chaps. 1-7.
his adherence to the Reform, filled with dryness as he attempted to meditate on God whose reality exceeds every human conception, consoled from time to time with a sense of God's presence only to feel more keenly His absence when the consolation passed, John suffered a veritable purgatory of the spirit in which God purified him of all attachment to self in order to center his entire being in Himself and fill his soul with His wisdom and love.
Writing later in his treatise, The Dark Night, John describes in unmistakably autobiographical terms the suffering which a soul endures when God purifies it in the dark night of spirit:
...until the Lord finishes purging him in the way He desires, no remedy is a help to him in his sorrow. His helplessness is even greater because of the little he can do in this situation. He resembles one who is imprisoned in a dark dungeon, bound hands and feet, and able neither to move, nor see, nor feel any favor from heaven or earth. He remains in this condition until his spirit is humbled, softened, and purified, until it becomes so delicate, simple, and refined that it can be one with the Spirit of God, according to the degree of union of love that God, in His mercy, desires to grant.1
Thus, in Toledo, John suffered an intense purification in which God directly prepared him for divine union. This purgation would also increase his effectiveness as a spiritual guide. Ordinarily, the purgative phase of the spiritual life extends over a period of years2 and involves trials far less
dramatic than John's. Passing through this stage in a matter of months, John learned in a relatively short period the full extent to which God purifies those who seek Him and was prepared from his own experience to recognize and interpret the purgative trials in those who later turned to him for guidance.
Despite the spiritual advantages of prison, John realized by mid-summer after eight months in Toledo that he was slowly dying. There was no sign of release from his imprisonment. The superiors of the order appeared content to leave him die in his cell and his own Discalced brothers seemed totally unconcerned as to his whereabouts or condition. Teresa alone showed interest in his welfare and wrote without success to Philip II and the Discalced friars begging them to obtain his release.1 Finally, during the night of August 14, 1578, John summoned what remained of his physical strength and escaped on his own.
Although the treatment which John received at the hands of his Carmelite superiors can only appear to us today as inhuman, it nevertheless completed his preparation for the apostolate of spiritual direction. To his natural disposition for this ministry, his theological education, and his previous pastoral experience was now added the purifying
1Saint Teresa of Jesus, Letters, vols. 1 & 2, nos. 204, 208, 210, 218, 219, 224, 232, 242, & 243.
encounter with God in the depths of his own soul. With this preparation he was ready to begin his most productive years as a spiritual director and writer.
Andalusia and Segovia: Years of Achievement
Following his escape from prison, John found his way to Teresa's Reformed Carmelite convent in Toledo. The nuns temporarily hid him there from the Mitigated friars and then arranged for him to remain in hiding at the Santa Cruz hospital where his ruined body could be restored. John stayed undetected six weeks in the hospital, located within view of the Monastery where he had been imprisoned, until he regained sufficient strength to travel. In early October, 1578, he left Toledo and went to the closest monastery of the Reform in Almodóvar del Campo, 180 miles south in the land of La Mancha.
When John arrived in Almodóvar, the friars of the Reform were meeting in chapter to determine their future course amidst the attacks of the Mitigated fathers. They decided to petition Rome for permission to establish their own independent province, separate from the jurisdiction of the superiors in the Mitigated observance. To replace one of the delegates sent to Rome to obtain this permission, the Chapter fathers appointed John prior of the Discalced monastery at El Calvario in the province of Jaén. After the Chapter, John continued his journey southward, through the
rocky and hazardous Paso de Despeñaperros, into enchanting Andalusia where he was to live for the next ten years.
Located in the open country with a magnificent view of the Sierra de Cazorla mountains, where running water from a nearby river and stream and the melodies of chirping birds provided the only sounds in the hillside solitude, surrounded by.oak trees and grape vineyards, suffused with the fragrance of rosemary and thyme, El Calvario was a rewarding contrast to the confinement and deprivation of Toledo. There, in the converted farmhouse monastery, secure from the fathers of the Mitigation, growing physically stronger each day, John undertook the spiritual leadership of the thirty friars in the community. He devoted himself to moderating the excessive penances performed by the friars, instructing them in the value of living by simple faith, and encouraging them to discover incentives for prayer and contemplation in their magnificent surroundings.
John was at El Calvario only six months before he was appointed to open a new college for the Reform in Baeza. A city of 50,000 inhabitants located 30 miles west of El Calvario, Baeza was an ancient city deeply rooted in Arab culture and, in 1579, a leading industrial and intellectual center of Andalusia. Its University, founded in 1540, specialized in the humanities, philosophy, and theology and had an excellent reputation for its studies in Sacred Scrip-
ture. The Discalced Carmelites established the College of Saint Basil near the university where their students were to attend classes. For two-and-a-half years, John served as rector of Saint Basil's with the combined duties of superior of the community and director of studies.
On June 22, 1580, Pope Gregory XIII granted the request of the Discalced for a separate province. When this news reached Spain, the friars announced a special chapter for the following March in Alcalá de Henares to promulgate the papal brief of separation, elect new provincial officers, and formulate constitutions for the new province. To insure a festive celebration of the occasion, King Philip II, who was instrumental in obtaining the brief of separation, underwrote the expenses of the chapter. John of the Cross attended the chapter in his capacity as rector of the college at Baeza and was elected 3rd definitor or counselor to the new provincial, Jerome Gracian.
For the next ten months, John divided his time between the college at Baeza and his new duties as provincial definitor. In June, 1581, he Presided in the place of the Provincial at the election of a new prioress for the convent at Caravaca and he spent October to January negotiating a new foundation of Carmelite nuns in Granada. Finally, in January, 1582, the Discalced friars at Granada elected him prior of their community. He left Baeza six weeks later to take up his new position.
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