James Cowan on John of the Cross
Also by James Cowan:
The Dark Night of his Soul
‘Power cleanses, clear Truth makes serene, finished love makes perfect.’ John Colet
Asceticism is the act of a man who finds life unbearable other than as a celebration of his love of God. It is comprised of despair and the palpable belief in the beauty of existence. A man who chooses such a life knows he has embarked upon a course that can only end in non-entity, the exclusive domain of the madman or mystic. If he is fearful of this voyage it is because he knows that what he stood for at the beginning of his life will be erased. For him, nonentity and loving absorption in the unfathomable nature of deity will have become his carapace. Like a cicada nymph emerging from the ground at sunset, the ascetic will ascend a tree of his own making, there to break out of his shell and sing a song whose harmony will substantiate the universe. He knows, as no other person does, that the ascetical life is essential to the rhythm of the world: it provides for others a release from the discord and tensions they are unable to reconcile except through the example of his courage.
The life of the Spanish poet and mystic, John of the Cross, provides us with a perfect example of this courage. He lived at a time of deep divisions within Spanish society, when the forces of spiritual reform were arraigned against a church weighed down by an excessive belief in the veracity of its own institutions and dogmas. The Inquisition was in full cry across the land, and many were condemned to death by papal agents when they were perceived to have deviated from its austere doctrine of faith and retribution. Witches and fanatics were seen lurking in every corner of the kingdom. The king himself made no secret of his love of orthodoxy over that of innovation. Triumphal life in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ was a fitting palimpsest to sit under if you were Philip II, lord of the New World of the Americas and much of Europe. To be an ascetic, a poet and a mystic during these times was to test the power of the authorities, whether they were secular or sacred.
Physically, Friar John was a small man, less than five feet in height. Not a dwarf but certainly a midget. Teresa of Avila, his good friend, often called him her ‘beloved little saint’. He was thin with a lean, oval face and broad forehead receding into baldness, which gave him a venerable appearance. His nose was slightly aquiline, his eyes dark and large. Rounding off this figure of Friar John was his old, rough, brown habit and a white cloak so coarse that it seemed to be made of goat hair. No slouch when it came to hard physical work either, we see him working in the kitchen preparing meals or outside weeding the garden. He turned his hand to decorating altars, to drawing up architectural plans for new monastic institutions, and to physical labor in the quarries breaking stone. Nothing was too demeaning for him, whether laying bricks or scrubbing floors. Sleeping only a few hours a day, Friar John spent much of his spare time praying in solitary places, wherever he might happen to be. It was this love of solitary prayer that characterized his life. As a small man he would hide in grottoes like a leprechaun, contemplating the infinite configurations of nature in a way that would later provide images for his poetry. ‘Flee from creatures and hide yourself in God,’ he urged one humble lay sister uncertain of her vocation. We are left with a picture of man whose inner suffering was concealed behind the course habit of gentility and extreme ascetical practice.
Born into a poor family of weavers from Toledo in 1542, John spent his early life struggling to survive after the death of his father. Rejected by his father’s family, who believed their son had married beneath his station, he spent his early life going to a poor school in nearby Medina del Campo. He was considered a good student until the time of his apprenticeship to an artisan, where he seemed unable to learn the most basic of tasks. The hospital of Medina took him in and allowed him to look after the poor, while completing his studies with the Jesuits. Eventually, in 1563, he was received into the Carmelite order under the name John St. Matthias. Later he went to Salamanca to continue his studies. His superiors recognized his ascetical nature and allowed him to follow the letter of the original Carmelite rule without mitigations. Shortly after, he first met Teresa of Avila, which proved to be one of the great moments of his life.
Teresa was more than twenty-five years older than he and at the height of her fame as a reformer. She was immediately struck by the spirituality of the younger man, and persuaded him to join her discalced (‘un-shoed’) order of Carmelites as director and confessor to the convent of the Incarnation that she had founded in Avila. Impressed by her vision, John recognized in the older woman someone who understood his deep need to follow the path of prayer and asceticism, rather than to become just another well-intentioned monastic living out his days. When, after five years, the general chapter of the Carmelite order (based in Italy) heard of his extreme austerities, and fearful that his behavior might inspire others to live like half-crazed anchorites, he was ordered to leave Avila and return to his original house of profession in Medina del Campo in the hope that he might give up his strange ways. John refused, of course, insisting that he was under the protection of the papal nuncio and not the Carmelite order, in that it was the former who had ordered him to Salamanca and later to Avila in the first place.
Suddenly, and not for the last time, Friar John found himself the subject of a tug-of-war between different authorities in the Church. This tiny man, who had managed to drag himself out from the poorhouse, acquire a decent education, and dedicate himself to the mystical life, was now the object of a campaign of vilification and harassment. When the nuncio, his protector, suddenly died, the way was open for the local order of Carmelites to deal with their recalcitrant friar. On a dark mid-winter night in 1577 he was seized where he lived in Avila by Carmelite henchmen and carried off to Toledo. There he was thrown into a cell measuring little more than six feet by ten. For nearly ten months he endured imprisonment throughout the stifling heat of summer, subject to frequent beatings and other indignities designed to break his spirit. It was all he could to do to survive these harsh conditions. To make his escape, he undid the screws to his cell door, prepared a rope out of what rags he could find, and climbed over the wall one night when the guard was asleep. What he carried on his person, however, aside from the scars and wounds of his many beatings, was a poem of exquisite melody destined to become one of the great spiritual testaments of any age.
Like Boethius before him, John had allowed incarceration to work to his advantage. But instead of confronting Wisdom in his cell, his dialogue was with God. The Spiritual Canticle is a work of consummate beauty, a work shot through with the spiritual sufferings of the ‘wounded stag.’ In his cramped cell overlooking the valley John wrestled with words as others might their conscience. He had found a way to escape into freedom even before he had unscrewed the lock in the door. Drawing upon his knowledge of the Song of Songs, John set out to recreate an ideal landscape whereby a man might take leave of his senses in order to enter into a more complete relationship with the divine. Knowing full well that he was unable to express the plenitude of his meaning in ordinary words, he nonetheless attempted to ‘utter mysteries in strange figures and likenesses.’ In doing so, mystical experience had become a voyage to the outer reaches of language.
We must try to imagine what it must have been like to be cooped up in a cell on the edge of a precipice. Put there by members of his own order, disturbed as they were by the bubbling cauldron of mystical intensity that he represented, he had become a scapegoat for those who wished to preserve an outmoded, juridical view of Christianity. In those days Reformation Catholicism was a mixture of old pieties and exaggerated post-Scholastic jurisprudence, where the spirit of the letter meant more than the glorious outpouring of spiritual love as expressed by any would-be poet. System had entered the conduct of Christianity with a vengeance. Not only the Jesuits but also the older orders of Christendom felt it their responsibility to preserve in aspic Christ’s original message, as if it were a dish to be consumed at a banquet. Though secured by revelation, the Gospels were nonetheless documents that had been written after the fact, and in an alien language – that of Greek. This meant they were subject to careful collation and putting into some kind of order by those who wrote them. The sheer energy and confusion of the primary events of Christ’s life had been lost, whatever theologians and papal decrees might argue. Only poets and mystics seem to understand this perplexity: that the Master’s life was made up of events which were disordered before they became dogma.
Thus, imprisoning John in a religious institution in Avila became a contradiction in terms. The Carmelite authorities wanted to prevent him from acting contrary to their rules of invoking deity. It ended up as a battle of wills: could one man, admittedly eccentric in his behavior, be allowed to practice an austere ascetical life that was out of kilter with the emerging hierarchical power centered upon the king and his expanding empire? Not even his powerful friend, Teresa, could save him through her intercession with Philip. She tried, of course; but the king was either indifferent to John’s plight, or he felt some obscure threat to his person as supreme ruler from this tiny figure of a man. He did not want visionaries in his kingdom, only soldiers of the cross. The war Philip was waging was against ignorance (among the tribal peoples of the Spanish colonies), with Protestantism in the north, and with Gnostical tendencies in general. Flanders, after all, was full of strange religious sects that opposed both the church and the state’s views on how to use secular and sacred power. It was a situation that no self-respecting monarch could tolerate, least of all coming from a recalcitrant priest living in his own back yard!
So Friar John was left to molder in his cell. He was left to look at the walls, lie sweating on the floor, and count the stones in his prison walls. It is hard to imagine how he felt. His life had been dedicated to God, and yet here he was a prisoner of faith lost to the world. His mentor was powerless to help him; his family had disowned him; his own order regarded him as a pariah among them. What must have run through his mind as he bandaged his wounds and picked lice from his body, while at the same time trying to comprehend such an unwelcome turn of events? It must have struck him as strange indeed that a man without any influence whatsoever was being treated as if he possessed some magical power. Yet all he wished to stand for was the mystical life, a life lived in the penumbra of the living example of Christ.
It is at this point that we should join him in his poem. His soul, which he feminizes, has been struck down by the force of his encounter with the divine. He has been left wounded on the ground, bearing the shaft of its glance, the very glance of the Spirit:
Where have you hidden,
The Word enamors him and he finds himself carried downstream by a torrent of words. His life becomes a gradual process of abandonment, a sort of ecstasy of love whereby every act is transformed into an abridgment of nature itself. Though he resists the temptation to gather flowers in the high mountains and on the banks of streams (the vices), he nonetheless confronts wild animals come down to drink, and observes the woods and thickets as if they are an extension to the divine nature. Always he senses that he is alone in the domain of the Beloved. He is a man prepared to go ‘beyond strong men and frontiers’ in his bid to find the Bridegroom. There is beauty in absence, in the Divine Word’s absence, which he alone is prepared to seek out. No prison bars will stop him, either.
Yet still he senses his own anguish. A man so wounded in his soul, who yet has, thanks to his predicament, received intimation of the divine presence, wants above all to remain close to such a complete and resolved energy. How can I endure not living where you live, he asks himself? How can I extinguish the fire of my misery so that I might see the light of the Beloved clear and bright? The answer lies in a paradox. He wants the Bridegroom to reveal his presence so that he might die to the world. Reveal whom You are, he says, so that:
The vision of your beauty be my death;
The illness of love; it is a potent image. One could argue that John has mixed up his metaphors. Death, illness, love, a vision of beauty, recovery and good health – all these expressions are linked to the final evolution of Friar John from a man in despair in prison, to a man who has broken the shackles of contingency altogether. To become a cordatus homo, a reasonable man, is not enough. He wants to transcend the inner working of the heart and become someone able to gaze upon the Beloved as if he were a spring of ‘living crystal.’ This is the image that is sketched ‘deep within his heart.’
It is at this point that John’s soul conducts a dialogue with the Bridegroom. One is reminded here of Boethius and his conversations with Sophia, the goddess of Wisdom. It is not enough for the poet to stand alone in the proximity of the abyssal reaches of the Absolute. He must, in some way, conjure the presence of the Bridegroom as a living presence able to converse. In his aloneness, he needs to feel that his words are able to rest in the ‘arms of the Beloved’ and so receive nurture.
Pacing up and down his narrow cell, he is left with little more than memory. Outside lies an imagined world of trees, foxes and flowers. The intensity of his solitude eats into him – but not as a cancer. Instead he finds himself being provoked by images that represent freedom and beauty into a dialogue between himself and the Beloved. But this is no ordinary conversation. All he has to offer is a compendium of images that have impressed him during his lifetime: high mountains, wild deer, flowing water, flowers in bloom, stones, stone walls and doors patterned with iron studs. These he reproduces in his conversation; they become representations of a higher order of experience – that is, his yearning for God. His mystical nature suddenly overflows and seeps under the door of his cell. All about him now is a world, his world, a world of beauty taking on the form of his encounter with the Absolute.
In time, as the weeks and months pass, his world of sense is dismantled. Friar John is like a frog on a lily, its senses alert to any passing insect. He too has grown sensitive to the ever-passing phantasmagoria of the world, the shifting imagery of appearance. These he turns into an essence which is words. In that lonely Toledo cell he distills his impressions so that they are able to extract from ordinary life a true vision of the Absolute. In doing so he will have lived out one of Aquinas’ more enduring maxims: ‘Grace does not abolish nature, but perfects it.’ John, through an act of grace, perfects nature into his great poem. Suddenly the world has become filled with infinity.
John now lives in a condition of absolute solitude. It would be an unbearable situation to find oneself in, knowing that his tenuous hold on self has been broken. His sense of being is now like breadcrumbs on the floor. He has become a monad without window or doors. Not able to strive for anything save the most basic needs (food, sleep, an expression of affection from his guard, perhaps) John finds himself reduced to the purest of all imperfections – that of himself as a man struggling simply to survive. In achieving this condition Friar John at last flows from himself into his poem where the Bridegroom tells him of his place in the universe. Joyfully he begins to embrace the infinitude of his place of imprisonment. From here on he has made his entire being into a vacuum. All that is limited and transitory has been removed; the ideology of care has been scrapped.
We who observe him in his cell are conscious that we are not gazing upon any ordinary man. Bundled in a corner, sweat pouring from him, the tiny window above imposing a light that is both seductive and distant, we join him in his painful revocation of memory. He goes back over its chains, link by link. He sees himself as an impoverished child in the arms of a mother broken by heart-strain and indifference. He remembers a father who died from overwork at the loom. He recalls his encounter with an aunt who turned away in disgust. He thinks of those days he spent caring for the poor in the hospital at Medina del Campo. He thinks of the spring fields he has fallen on his knees in, desperate to discover some actuality associated with the miracle of seed. The wide brown land of Spain fills his thoughts. Its loneliness, its penchant for solitude on Sunday afternoons, its engagement with Christ’s anguish during Corpus Christi parades through the streets, the flagellants in their hooded costumes, all these stark reminders of death and retribution fill his thoughts. This miasma of experience suggests to him a kind of hell he wishes to escape. His life, after all, has been very much like the cell in which he now sits: an accumulation of dark thoughts and disappointments built into him, stone by stone.
The only way to freedom is in ascetical renouncement. By turning the body into a mute piece of flesh, into a cadaver, escape is assured. He can trample upon what is already a mutilated conglomeration of feelings. The crumpled skeleton that somehow manages to keep him upright is little more than a bundle of bones now, as he lies there on the floor of his cell. All about him is spread the detritus of heartbreak and failure. Having attempted to remove himself from the gaze of others, to retire into the solitude of his thoughts and become anonymous, the reverse has proved to be the case. What he has achieved for himself is notoriety, a condition bestowed by others on the exceptional nature of his person. Wherever he goes he is pursued. Whatever he does he is reprimanded for his actions. However he loves he is spurned for an excess of zeal. At the fork in a road he is urged to take the long route home. The fact that he is driven by an overpowering sense of the nearness of God is of no consequence any more. Like Columbus before him he has reached the fabled Indies, only to discover that he has been met by the incomprehensible.
Truly this is his dark night of the soul. Out of the anguish of incarceration he is being asked to extract an elixir more potent than wine. The Beloved stands by his knee and pours down upon him ‘flowers and emeralds chosen on cool mornings.’ He is being asked to weave garlands ‘flowing in your love.’ John realizes, to his delight, that ‘every fluttering hair on his neck’ is observed by the imponderable glance of the Beloved. He lies in the ‘inner wine cellar’ now, drunk on memory of the Beloved. He has abandoned the ‘herd’ – that is, the common life of man – and is finally ready to embrace the greatest love of all.
When you looked at me
It is the moment that he has been waiting for. Grace and beauty have been bestowed on him by the Bridegroom at last. The ‘small white dove’ has returned to the ark of his heart, bearing an olive branch. What can he hope for other than to behold God among the mountains, by streams, and deep in impenetrable thickets near the road? The floor of his cell has been transformed into a piece of celestial topography. It glows with images of perfection that Friar John has managed to draw forth from the very depths of his soul. High caverns in rock, fresh juice of pomegranates, the song of sweet nightingales, turtledoves and grassy riverbanks, all these images make up the features of this new landscape that he has created. Abandoned by his order and his friends, powerless in the face of inordinate doctrinal authority and sheer inquisitorial bloodymindedness, he manages to find a way towards freedom. He reaches out and takes the Beloved’s hand. He enters into a marriage made in heaven.
It is no easy task to escape the infrastructure of constraint that others impose upon us. Friar John must have recognized the difficulty of his predicament more than most. At a time when church and imperial authority was at its zenith, most men would have blanched at the prospect of offending either. Yet John refused to buckle. He had seen too much poverty and despair in his life not to know that certain people are without hope when it comes to knowing where they stand in a society based upon privilege and wealth. When you are cast from it, as many were during the sixteenth century, either by economic realities or by the way power was exercised in the name of God, it became necessary to invoke another order of reality beyond the reach of authorities. This John did the moment he invited the Beloved to enter his cell. He called upon Him to free him once and for all from envious chapter heads and haughty papal nuncios, the very men who should have recognized his unique calling in the first place.
John was granted more than he had hoped. The Beloved offered him a supreme vision of what lay beyond normal, everyday reality. He alerted him to what could be expected if he was to continue to live the ascetical life that he so loved. What lay before him was an enduring image, an image that made it possible for him to escape his prison at last. The rope spiraling down from the wall of the monastery into the street beyond carried more than his emaciated body and a burning desire to escape. What it carried was a simple message of ideality and perfection. Heaven did exist. The anguish of earthly life could be transcended. A man could triumph over vicissitude in his bid to realize something altogether incomparable in the life of the spirit. Then, and only then could he be invited to enter what he called:
the grove and its living beauty
After his successful escape from Toledo, John spent the last years of his life helping to found new monasteries in Andalucía, at places such as Baeza, Granada, Cordova and Segovia. He briefly entered into politics to negotiate a separate government for the Discalced Carmelites in Spain. After the death of Teresa in 1582, however, John once more found himself on the losing side of an attempt by moderates to take charge of the order in the name of local authorities eager to concentrate power in their name. Of course he resisted, seeking the help of Rome once more in a bid to protect his nuns in the south. For his pains he was deprived of all his offices and exiled to one of the poorest monasteries of the region. There he fell seriously ill. He was taken to Ubeda to be ministered to in his need; though the monks there at first greeted the arrival of their charge with considerable unkindness, believing him to be a troublemaker. But in the end even they came to recognize the deep sanctity of the man. He died, if not in their arms, then at least much loved by them. He was not yet fifty years old.
Thus the outward events of his life came to a close. On the surface he was probably regarded as a man of a wearisome, obsessive personality, except by those such as Teresa and the nuns he ministered to as a priest. They knew him as a spiritual genius and as a great poet. The verses of his Spiritual Canticle were copied down and passed from nun to nun well before he passed away. His commentary on the poem, which he wrote at their request, enabled many a recluse in her cell to reach out to the bliss of the Beloved, without the pious intervention of church doctrine. The imagery, the extraordinary leaps of imagination must have thrilled anyone fortunate enough to read them. Not only had John forced the lock to his cell in Toledo, he had also opened the door to a new way of encountering the presence of the divine. What was previously beyond the reach of the individual because of the barrier made up of church doctrine had at last been transformed into something personal. What was seen as an all but impossible path for the individual to ascend in order to enter the presence of the Beloved was now cleared of its thorns.
In the end the politics of eternity had triumphed. It is no accident, one surmises, that John ended his days in Andalucía, far from the rigid conformity of Old Castile where he was born. He had sought refuge in a monastery under the walls of the now deserted palace of the Alhambra, scene of innumerable nights of poetry and song before Isabella’s Cross laid waste the Crescent of Moorish Spain. Would he have acknowledged his debt to the poets of Andalucía, to the singers of wine and celestial delight? We will never know. John’s poetry seems to be uninfluenced by the rich tradition of the troubadours in northern Spain and France, or the exquisite utterance of the Divan singers among the Moors.
We are left instead with a poetic gem created in the most extreme circumstance. Whatever church authorities had hoped to achieve by condemning John to prison as they did, they certainly would not have imagined, or acknowledged, their contribution to the genesis of a poem about mystical love. He had been put there to deprive him of such inclinations. He had been placed in darkness in order to cure him of his excessive allegiance to the light. It is a strange thing indeed when oppression is transformed into an ecstatic union with the divine. What alchemy is this? A man sets out to escape his pursuers, only to find himself locked up in the center of his being! Deprived of all sensation, he finds himself able to chart a new form of pelelgrinatio amoris – that is, a new journey of love. When the lover dies to himself, the truth of love can only be found in displacement and absence. When a man achieves this, he does what in Greek is called katabasis, a descent into the depths. There, in the twilight region beyond sensation, it becomes possible to engage in a dialogue with the Beloved.
John of the Cross teaches us so much about the freedom of the soul. He informs us that the constraints of everyday life, the power of the immanent, are not enough to prevent a man from breaking loose from its shackles. In doing so, a man is able to scale the heights of his being and attain to its summit. There he may gaze upon mountain ranges, valleys, flowing rivers, icecaps, tundra forests and fields of alpine flowers, all of which are but the reflection of the ineffable. John teaches us how important it is to make a home for the Beloved in our lives. To deny him a haven is to deny the very essence of ourselves.
John understood this fact better than anyone, even Teresa of Avila, his beloved mentor and guide. She alone had seen the genius in the man at an early stage and encouraged him along his chosen path. Without her support, would the Spiritual Canticle have been written? A hypothetical question at best. A spiritual friend, a prison cell, and a life of rejection and poverty has, however, wrought its magic. In the end, the grove and its living beauty was within his reach. He could reach out, to the serene light, and embrace its flame, which was all-consuming and painless.
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