The year was 1567. Saint Teresa had just returned to the nuns of her own Reformed Order of Carmelites at Medina, after an interview with the Carmelite monk Fray John of St. Matthias, who had taken his vows in the monastery at Medina three years earlier. At this time Teresa of Jesus, as she was known throughout her lifetime, was fifty-two, and five years earlier she had sought and received permission to form a new Order which would still come within the Carmelite Observance, though its object was to embrace a stricter rule and discipline than was observed at the Convent of the Incarnation at Avila, where she had been a simple nun since the age of eighteen, and where the life was almost worldly.
But now Teresa was roaming further afield. The two convents she had established at Avila and Medina were not enough ; she wished to extend the Reform to monasteries also, and had sought the aid of the prior of Medina’s Carmelite monastery, Fray Antonio, a tall, highly serious and studious man of fifty-seven who enjoyed only indifferent health. Great was Teresa’s surprise when Fray Antonio not only offered his support—he offered himself too, saying that for many days the Lord had been calling him to a stricter life.
Here then, was the friar of whom Teresa had spoken. The “ half friar ” was John of St. Matthias, who under the new Rule took the name of John of the Cross. He was a man of only five-feet-two in height ! But Teresa, with that great gift of the recognition and divination of souls that she had, knew at once that here was a man whose spirituality was already very great, and one who would rise to heights rare even amongst the saints. She was soon to find that he was a scholar of real eminence, which fact was to furnish him with a means of expression far surpassing in systematic subtlety that of her own.
The house which was found for the new monastery was in a tiny hamlet called Durvelo, and even Teresa had doubts about its adequacy. It had only a tiny porch, one room divided into two, a kitchen and a loft above. It was in this loft that the monks were to spend their nights, with no protection but hay against the bitter Castilian wind which whistled through the opening in the outer wall through which they could look down on the altar below. Here on these nights they would say Matins and remain in private prayer until the Office of Prime was said. So rapt were they in their devotions that sometimes only on rising would they notice the snow that had fallen on their habits.
The friars stayed at Durvelo for a year and a half, and then established two other monasteries at Mancera and Pastrana, where other friars and novices quickly joined them. John became novice master of each foundation in turn, and then was put in charge of a new Discalced College which had connections with the new university at Acala de Henares, Spain’s pride and joy. He stayed there for over a year, and acted as spiritual director to the Carmelite nuns of the city at the same time. Then he became Confessor to the nuns of the Convent of the Incarnation at Avila, which Teresa had originally joined. Living with a colleague Confessor in a small house, he enjoyed the benefits of seclusion for five years.
This must have been a great period of strengthening and preparation for the terrible trials that were soon to come. One happy feature of this period for him was the chance of renewed contact with Teresa, who was ordered back to the Incarnation as Prioress, to instil in the community of one hundred and thirty nuns the values of the original Observance to which they were pledged. With such a Prioress and such an austere Discalced friar as Confessor, many of the nuns must have entertained grave doubts as to their future, but the overwhelming compassion and human understanding of the two future saints must have softened the demands which their rigid standards claimed.
In five months’ time Teresa was writing about the effect of John’s influence on her nuns : “ The Lord seems to be granting so much grace to these souls all at once that I am astonished at it.” And of her opinion of him we are left in no doubt. “ He is exceedingly holy ” ; “ He is a divine, heavenly man ”.
During these years, however, a storm was gathering within the Carmelite Order. The constitution of the Reform was not meant to be separated from that of the original Observance, in fact had there been some central religious body to which both sides had unhesitatingly given their allegiance, little harm would have resulted. But the suspicions of each side grew so that each managed to find a religious body to champion their cause, and aid even of King Philip II of Spain and the Pope was invoked, the General of the Order being bypassed. All this strife was to end in civil war, but just before this an event occurred which was to have a terrible consequence for Fra John.
In 1577 the three years of Teresa’s period of office as Prioress at her own Discalced Convent of St. Joseph’s at Avila came to an end, and the majority of the nuns of the Incarnation voted for her return there as Prioress. But conducting the election was the Provincial of the Observance, and he was determined that a Prioress of the Reform was not to be installed. He excommunicated all the nuns who voted for Teresa and burnt their voting slips. St. John of the Cross made a fruitless attempt to intervene, as he was still Confessor there. It did nothing but bring him into the conflict which he had personally tried to avoid. When, under threat, he refused to abandon the Reform, the leaders of the Observance used compulsion.
On December 3rd 1577 he and his colleague were kidnapped and thrown as prisoners into the monastery of the Observance at Avila. They were “ twice flogged and given all possible ill- treatment ”, and finally separated in the hope of breaking their spirit. When St. Teresa heard of this incredible act she wrote at once to the King, but nothing came of this appeal.
John was taken to the monastery of Toledo, and there promised high office if he would abandon the Reform, and dire punishment if he would not. He refused entirely, and was put in a cell ten feet by six, with no outside window but a hole high in the wall which let in light from a large room adjoining. What light there was ; he had to stand on a bench to read his breviary even at the best of times. Here he was incarcerated for eight and a half months during the hottest part of the Castilian summer with no change of clothing.
The food he was allowed was bread and water, with sometimes scraps of salt fish. At first, after his evening meal, the monks would inflict on him the penance known as the ‘ circular discipline ’. He would bare his shoulders and the monks would walk past him with a whip, each striking him a blow with it and then passing it on to the man behind. After a few weeks the monks tired of this daily practice, and it was reduced to rare and irregular intervals. Even his tormentors made the comment about him : “ Immovable as a rock.” Immovable, too,
to the taunts of the monks, who told him the Reform would collapse soon and he had better abandon it else he would be its only member. What suffering this must have meant to a soul so refined ; in comparison the physical hardship was the smallest he had to bear. Before all his efforts had been undertaken in the companionship of those who shared his ideals, and success was always his reward. Now he was entirely alone —alone, except for his God.
His gaolers allowed him very few things, but his plea for ink and paper “ because he wished to pass the time by composing a few things profitable to devotion ”, was successful. His first poems were doctrinal stanzas or ‘ Romances ’ which he found came to him very easily. Their poetic merit has not been highly rated by the lovers of his work. But the second poem which he composed, “ Song of the soul that is glad to know God by Faith ” shows poetic feeling of the first order, though some have felt its theological background to be restrictive of the free flow of imagery.
His final poem written in prison, the “ Spiritual Canticle ”, is recognisable at once as a combination of the highest mystical and literary inspiration.
Whither hast vanished,
Beloved, and hast left me full of woe,
And like the hart hast sped,
Wounding, ere thou didst go,
Thy love, who follow’d, crying, high and low ?
Poignantly the first line of the poem recalls a moment of deep suffering in which the little friar, purposely left in animal conditions, found that he no longer realised the presence of God in his heart. His grief was not self-pitying, it was a true lover’s grief; a hunger pressing as any physical appetite which demanded that he should have sight of his Beloved, or die of want.
And so the poem speaks of the Bride’s quest of the Spouse, asking questions of the creatures but never stopping as she journeys onwards. The beauty of hills, streams and woods heighten her torment, for their beauty derives from Him in Whom only taintless beauty itself is realised. The Spouse rewards the Bride with a vision of Himself—and she breaks into a hymn of praise when her first rapture is over. The poem then speaks of mystic Union, as the joys of the nuptial bed give way to the secure possession of each the other, which they will from now on secretly enjoy in despite of all that the world can do.
Very shortly after writing this wonderful lyric poem, which ranks with the very greatest of Spanish literature, St. John managed to escape from his cell at dead of night and make his way to the Convent of the Reformed Carmelites in Toledo. It is generally believed that his escape was attributable to a young and sympathetic monk who had been his gaoler for the last few months and who allowed him the freedom of a walk in the room outside his own cell when no-one was about. It is believed that Fra John noticed the open window from which he made his descent with the aid of his knotted, torn bedclothes, on one of these daily walks, and that that night when the gaoler locked his door, “God inspired him to insert a finger ” so that the bolt did not go home !
It is easy to imagine the joy of the Carmelite nuns in receiving him in their convent chapel, and although his escape was soon noticed and his gaolers enquired for him, the nuns’ replies were so discreetly non-committal that the searchers could take no further action, other than to leave pickets at the main gates. But the guard had overlooked a small door in the chapel, and so John made his escape with the aid of a Canon of the Cathedral, who provided him with fresh clothes and then smuggled him away to safety in the country.
What an impression he must have made on those nuns who gathered round him in the convent chapel. For he spoke— not of his sufferings or his gaolers; he began to recite his poems, and the nuns were spellbound. Worn and lean, perhaps trembling from the exhaustion of his escape which his frail body could hardly stand, he uttered words that seemed to them divine, and his face shone with a light not of this world.
He was to live fourteen more years, in which he wrote other poems and his great prose commentaries upon them. The commentaries deal with all aspects of the mystic fife, from the terrors of the Dark Night of Sense in which the Religious turns away from all objects, conserving his energies in order to direct them to the love of God ; through the Dark Night of the Soul in which God seems to withdraw His presence and Grace so that a blackness surrounds the soul and mind, but which gradually gives way to the operation of pure Faith and love ; leading on to the ultimate joys of mystic Union, a state which he describes as the perfection of love.
It does not seem that St. John of the Cross set out to write these commentaries of his own accord. Shortly after his escape he visited the convent at Beas for a few days, and formed a deeply spiritual friendship with the nuns.
In fact a contemporary said of him : “He used often to say that there were none whom he loved so much as the nuns of Beas.” To them he recited his poems, and thrilled as they were, they naturally and rightly asked for an explanation of the deep mysticism that so tightly reinforces their poetic beauty. So first he answered them orally and then wrote down these answers for their benefit. Then seeing that something great was in the making he started to systematise these answers and form them into the commentaries that we now have. Let us look at an instance of the beauty of his prose in the commentary on the poem “ Living Flame of Love ”, to end this brief account of this ‘ Spirit of Flame ’, as he is called in the title of E. Allison Peers’ book.
The lines of the poem
O wound of deep delight !
O gentle hand ! O touch of love . . . !
loosed forth this overflowing of his full heart:
“ Oh, delicate touch, Thou Word, Son of God, Who, through the delicateness of Thy Divine Being, dost subtly penetrate the substance of my soul, and, touching it wholly and delicately, dost absorb it wholly in Thyself. . . . ! ”
As from the glowering, wintry earth the bud in spring quits itself of shoots and flowers of the purest beauty which sinner and saint can gladden their heart upon, so from the great negation of self that the little friar suffered, voluntarily in order that God might live in his stead, came beauty and a message of universal love.
It was a love that suffered evil without condemning those who perpetrated it, for that love gave true insight into human weakness and human possibilities, and guidance for a renewed growth which must one day, for all, end in the perfecting of man’s spiritual nature.
Expressing this faith, St. John of the Cross wrote in a letter to a friend these words, which the world today could not do better than to take to heart :
“ . . . And where there is no love, put love in and you will draw love out.”