Self-Portrait of St. John of the Cross

Author: Alban Goodier


It is a curious fact that the complete life of St. John of the Cross has never been adequately written, not even, it would seem, in his own country. What is more, though he has been declared a Doctor of the Church because of his mystical writings, yet it is only of recent years that a complete critical edition of his works has appeared. This, at first sight, will seem all the more remarkable, since both the life and the writings of his companion, St. Teresa, are so well known; of her we have many excellent lives in many languages, while her works have been edited again and again.

But perhaps the reason is not far to seek. Though the life of St. Teresa is one beset with many contradictions, still even her life must yield in this respect to that of St. John of the Cross. What makes the biographer's task more difficult is that the contradictions arose for the most part from good and zealous men; consequently, in order to vindicate the saint, he is compelled to paint in darker colors those whom otherwise he would prefer to honor. And as for his writings, in spite of the sublime heights to which in the end they reach, still there remains the apparent severity of the hard ascetic running through them all, calling for a merciless surrender which makes the ordinary aspirant to a higher life despair. We acknowledge the ideal to which he points, but we suspect it to be an ideal and nothing more; and a reader of St. John is tempted to pass by the "Ascent of Mount Carmel," and the "Dark Night of the Soul," for the happier pages of the "Spiritual Canticle" and the "Living Flame."

Taken out of their context, that is, studied apart from the life and personality of their author, and apart from the circumstances in which they were written, it must be confessed that the detachment taught by St. John seems, at times, rigid and severe; while reading what he writes we almost cry out: "Who, then, shall be saved?" But there is another aspect of them which makes a great difference in our understanding, both of the author's point of view, and of the doctrine that he taught. It is that to a great extent the works of St. John were autobiographical; they were the written record of his own life, of all the hard things he had to endure, and of the lessons he had to learn from them. As he went along, so heavily did blow after blow fall upon him, that he could only keep his balance by singing to himself of the good that came out of his troubles; later, when in turn he had to teach others, he could only do it by commenting on the poem he had written in his own successive hours of trial. To interpret his works aright one needs to keep in mind all the time the author himself and his experiences; then it will be seen that what he writes is not so much an exhortation to spiritual surrender as a continual cry telling what God has taught him by means of suffering which is not easily paralleled. To illustrate this point is the object of this essay.

Juan de Yepes was the son of a poor silk weaver of Fontiberos, Toledo, and was born in 1542. His father was of noble birth; he had married much beneath him, and for that offense had been entirely cut off by his family. He had taken to silk weaving as a means of livelihood, but had never been able to make much of it. Soon after the birth of Juan he died, worn out with the effort to keep his wife and three children. The family were left in direst poverty; the children grew up always underfed, so that to the end of his life Juan remained dwarfed in stature. St. Teresa, in one of her flashes of humor, speaks of him in one place as "half a man."

Juan first went to a poor school in Medina, where the family then lived. Then he tried to learn a trade, but apparently could make nothing of it. At fourteen years of age, since he had to earn his living, he found a post as an assistant in a hospital in Medina; at the same time he contrived to attend the classes of a school conducted by the Jesuit fathers. Here at once the genius of the boy appeared. He was a born artist, and every form of art appealed to him. Music was his delight; not only the music of song and instrument, but also the "silent music," as he later called it, of the woods, and the waters, and the stars. He had a relish for sculpture; he could paint and design; but most of all he reveled in poetry, and found in it the medium for the expression of his soul. Of all things else Juan de Yepes was a poet born; with a poet's vision, a poet's ambition, a poet's restlessness and dissatisfaction, a poet's special held of delight, last of all a poet's need to find expression in rhythm and verse. We have heard much of late of the relation between poetry and mysticism; in Juan de Yepes we find the two combined, the one expressed in terms of the other, as we may perhaps find them in no other mystic, not excepting Ramon Lull.

In course of time Juan found his place among the Carmelites of Medina; he was sent by them to pursue his higher studies at the University of Salamanca. It was the heyday of that University; particularly it was the day when young Castilian poets were breaking new ground, and delighted in every manner of finesse. Juan was soon in the group; his later poetry proves it, with its mystery, its enigmatic imagery, which nevertheless he is always able to unravel; it is not unlikely that some of his well-known poems, for instance, the Canticle of Christ to the Soul, belong to those days at Salamanca. This Canticle is just a love-lyric of the period, turned to the saint's own purpose. It begins:

A little shepherd alone, in pain,
His soul no joy can move;
His thought is all for his shepherdess,
His heart is lost in love.
But he weeps not because of love's deep wound,
Laments not at his lot;
Though the wound has cloven his heart in two--
He weeps that he is forgot.

So the poet wrote his lyric, but he was not satisfied. The more he progressed, in whatever direction it might be, the more he saw ahead and hungered for it; this is the characteristic of St. John. He had become a Carmelite, it was not enough. He must give, like a poet, to the last; he must give his all. He had become a student, it was not enough. He must seek wisdom at its source, in solitude; he must become a Carthusian.

Such was Juan's state of mind, straining for the infinite, at the close of his time in Salamanca. At that moment it was that a woman came across his path; her name was Teresa. She was his elder by nearly thirty years; she too had long since learnt the lesson of solitude, and silence, and flight from the world, to gain the delights of the Interior Castle. She heard of Juan and his dreams; she met him and was satisfied. Juan, too, saw in her desires like his own. Let the world, even the world of the cloister, say what it would, he would take service with her. They would live alone, with God alone; they would think of God alone, would perceive Him alone, would love Him alone; they would die a slow death, to the world outside, to themselves, to life itself that they might lose themselves in Him only.

No sooner is the goal clear before him, than he must pursue it at all costs. This delicate little man must choose a way of life that makes even St. Teresa shiver; this sensitive man must live in a way that makes his brethren laugh; even the peasants, accustomed to hardships, could only turn up their noses at the queer thing that lived as he lived, and was content with the crusts they flung to him. The artist, the poet, the lover of all things beautiful, the nobleman within him that never died, shivered at it all as well as they, but laughed at it no less; and he went on his way victorious, for the first step had been made.

Then there came the Pharisees. Since ridicule would not deter him, prudence must intervene. Their fellow-religious had lost his head; he was a disgrace to the Institute; he was claiming to be more Catholic than the Pope himself, since he would not accept his ruling. God did not ask for exaggerations, much less would He have them flaunted as ideals; when followers began to gather round Juan, then the authorities were up in arms. He was nothing less than a conspirator, he must be suppressed and taught his place at all costs; if necessary his life must be shortened, for it was expedient that one man should die for the people that the whole nation might not perish.

So the persecution grew, and Juan, whose heart was made for love, who could sing of love as none of them all could sing of it, had to battle through it all. He was thirty-five years of age. Youth was past; manhood was ripening; an elderly woman of more than sixty was pointing out for him the way; so in surrender, amid laughter and mistrust, the search for the Holy Grail had begun.

But it was not to continue without a struggle of another kind; since scorn had not suppressed him, recourse must be had to arms. On a night in early December, 1577, Juan was seized in St. Teresa's convent, and taken home and put in prison. There he was scourged for his insubordination, given foul food and nothing to drink, and then for security spirited away to Toledo. Here for nine months he was kept, in what was little better than a hole in a wall, narrow, dark, without ventilation; fed on crusts and remnants of fish, and every Friday brought out to do penance, ending with a discipline on his naked shoulders, before the community in their refectory. Juan kept the marks of those scourgings on his body to the last day of his life.

Nor did his sufferings stop there. He was bullied by superiors, he was deprived of the sacraments; false reports were told outside his door, but carefully loud enough for him to hear, that Teresa's reform had been condemned, that the Pope himself had declared against it, that those who refused to accept the decision would be severely punished. Juan heard it all, and had no reason to believe that what he heard was not true; nevertheless within him his heart cried out that the dream he had before him came from God, that one day, if he persevered, it would be fulfilled. He fell back on his lonely prayer, and saw how all this persecution did but make it the more real, he expressed the fruit of his prayer in verse, and the result was the Canticle which has made his name immortal, and the poem of the Obscure Night, which places him at once in the front rank, both of poets and of mystics. He had lived it all, and while he had lived it he had written, not only the story of his suffering, but the meaning of that suffering in the light of the new vision that he had once dreamed and now had learnt. He had been deprived of all and the deprivation had given him everything. He had tasted all bitterness, and it had turned into sweetness. What had been difficult had become easy; what had been repugnant was now a joy; affliction was his consolation, effort his rest, the meanest and lowest things brought him new vistas of glory and of beauty. When later he taught the same to others he taught them as one who knew; not as a hardened ascetic, but as a lover of life who had discovered a new world.

This was the meaning of his Obscure Night, and of his encouragement to men to brave it. But it was not all. As he had gone deeper down into the darkness, and had seen the fruit, so he would lead others; into the night not only of all things sensible, but also of the spirit and of the soul. Again as we read him we know that he is writing from his own experience; the blackness of despair when blind faith alone can be the guide, the lack of every memory that can sustain the soul in its distress, the insipidity of every argument to steady the understanding, the bitterness, the very disgust of all things spiritual, luring the will to surrender. He has gone through it all, and speaks of it in language that makes the sufferings of other men dwindle into insignificance; but alongside he has known no less how all this darkness leads to the glory of the sunlight. Or rather it is itself the sunlight, by the side of which the light of this world grows pale. It is not as a penance, it is as a glorious discovery, as a truth which only a poet and a seer can adequately tell, and which even he can only tell from personal experience, that Juan bids us learn all there is to learn, possess all there is to possess, know all there is to know, but to do so by a very whirlwind of annihilation of all we have and are. Give up all and gain all, the All-Beauty, the All-Light, the All-Essence, the All-Love. When we read Juan's account of those nine dark months, written by the light that filtered through a chink in the door, we understand, though it be as from a distance, that suffering, even the worst, has to a saint an aspect far different from that which the world can see.

But now opens out another phase in the making of this soul of gladness. After nine months of captivity there came an opportunity for him to escape. Should he make use of it, or should he not? To remain in the dark might teach him yet more of the glory that lay beyond it, but to go forth when occasion offered might enable him to teach his wonderful discovery to others. There was still time; worn to a skeleton as he was, there was still life and fire within him. One night, after due preparation, with the connivance, perhaps, of more than one pitying gaoler, he slipped through the corridors, he let himself down from a window by a rope made of his bed linen, and found his way to the home of a canon in the neighborhood, who gave him welcome and protection. Two years more, and victory for Teresa's reform was assured. The king was on her side, the Pope declared for her; in 1580 the Brief was written which made the Discalced of St. Teresa an independent province of their own. The leader now might die; within two years she went to her reward.

But all was not over for Juan; on the contrary it did but open out a field for fresh endurance, a further struggle from which, this time, there was no escape. He had gone through two hard contests, first with those without, then with those of his Order; there remained a last surrender, that he should be rejected by those of his own household, the very followers of Teresa themselves. Teresa had gone; Juan had treasured her letters to him as only a poet can. In a moment of surrender he destroyed them, as a last sacrifice of love. If there was more yet to be given, by his own act he would show that he was prepared to give it. And his offering was accepted. Juan was at this time Prior at Granada. But now that Teresa was gone there arose a division in the ranks and she was not there to keep them together. Jealousy made its appearance, that weapon of weak souls; the strong men and women whom Teresa had held for her dearest were made the object of attack. And with jealousy came misunderstanding, or rather the determination to misunderstand; even before Teresa had died she had been compelled to stand by Juan on this account. Now she was not there to defend him. "Fervent" souls had their own ideas of the good that should be done among men; armed with prayer they must go out to others, they must preach, they must teach, they must devote themselves to the sick.

But such was not the mind of Juan, nor the mind of those who had best understood their foundress. God alone, to be sought by love alone, and by love in solitude with Him; this was the meaning of her reform, and by this means she had hoped, in her degree, to do her work for mankind. Two spirits were now at work threatening to destroy the good that had been done; and, for a time, the spirit of expansion prevailed. There was opposition, there was intrigue; by slow degrees those who held for the more interior life were removed, and Juan, the most stalwart and resolute among them, found the storm concentrated on i himself. Human prudence, human ideas of utility, again rose up against him, this time allied with all that he held most dear, the brethren and sisters who, with him, claimed Teresa for their mother. For five years he fought on, almost single-handed. To preserve the teaching of the foundress intact he sacrificed his own beloved solitude. He wandered from convent to convent; he preached, he wrote, he drew up instructions, in every way he could he proved the reality of the dream of Teresa and himself. The songs of the night which he had written in Toledo were now brought out again and further explained; thus were the final works of St. John given to the world, the deepest human revelation of the mystical life.

Nevertheless he failed; and, if one who looks on from outside may say it, even till today the Order of Carmel has had to bear the consequence of his failure. A new regime was instituted, contrary to that which Teresa had wished; it received the sanction of the Pope, Sixtus V., and at once the storm burst. Juan at the time was Prior at Segovia, having been removed there from Granada; now began the Night of Segovia, the counterpart and the completion, in suffering and results, of the Night of Toledo. At Toledo he had learnt the complete surrender of all that nature could claim, at Segovia he learnt the surrender of his very soul; and as at Toledo he had risen to discover the glory of giving all that nature contained, so at Segovia he rose to a greater vision, the glory of utter self-annihilation in God. We can follow him from afar; we can see at a distance the beauty of the poet-saint's ideal, reached by himself though we cannot attain to it; but let us not say that, because it is beyond us, therefore his teaching is hard, and who shall hear it? "The soul that is enamored is a tender soul, a gentle soul, a soul that is humble and patient." So wrote St. John in one of his aphorisms, and with all his stern ideals he was that from the beginning to the end.

Thus we may guess beforehand that the last ordeal would be the worst of all. This soul of purest love must be tried in a strange fire. Rome had intervened and brought peace to the distracted Order, but the Provincial who had been overruled could not and would not forgive the man who, he thought, had outwitted him. Rumors began to spread concerning Juan; whence they arose it was difficult to tell. It was said that he was a man of evil life; the report was confirmed by third-hand particulars; soon the charges were so vile, and so persistent, that Juan was asked to declare what he had to say in his defense. A canonical examination was held; some nuns were called in to bear witness; before his face they were asked questions so shameful that they refused to answer, and their silence was brought as evidence against him. For the sake of peace, so said the Provincial, he was asked to lay aside his office and go into retirement. He did as he was requested; he retired into the desert of Penuela. But this only seemed to make matters worse. His retreat was taken as a confession; his enemies had now free scope and could say what they would; letters came to him from old friends and followers, crying shame upon him for his foulness of life and his hypocrisy.

From this time forward Juan never looked up again. For him there was no Resurrection and Forty Days. A very few still believed in him; the majority of his own brethren looked on him as something to be shunned, with whom, when one met him, it was needful to be prudent. It was even suggested that for the sake of the reputation of the Order he should leave the country. Meanwhile, alone in the desert, his health gave way beneath the burning summer sun. Fever came on; after he had endured it for more than a week he crawled back to one of the Carmelite monasteries to plead for shelter. He was given a choice between two, Baeza and Ubeda. Baeza was one of his own foundations, and his memory was still venerated in the place; at Ubeda he was known to no one except the Prior, and he had long been a pronounced enemy. The rest of the community only knew him as the man with a bad name. Juan chose Ubeda.

Here, as was to be expected, he was ill received. He had foisted himself upon the monastery; let him look to it. He was given a cell in a remote corner of the building and there deserted; not a question was asked concerning his illness or his needs. A few of the lay-brothers took pity on him; the Prior, indignant, forbade anyone to go near him again. From time to time he visited him himself, but it was only to taunt him with old grievances, and to assure him that now he could have his revenge.

Meanwhile the malady increased. A doctor was sent for to bleed him; he was such a blunderer that once he cut the poor man to the bone. At length (it was December 13th, 1591), he said to the infirmarian, who looked in upon him: "At midnight tonight we shall be saying Matins in heaven." At once there was a transformation. The religious gathered round his bed; the Prior went down on his knees and asked his pardon. As the clock struck twelve, Juan raised his eyes, cried: "Glory be to God," and passed away. He had not completed his fiftieth year. With all this in mind let us read the writings of St. John of the Cross and we shall be struck, first, with the amount of self-disclosure they contain, second, with the beauty of the lesson which can be learnt only by suffering, above all by the suffering which comes of ignominy and shame. Today the body of St. Teresa is preserved incorrupt, for everyone to see and honor; the body of St. John--no one knows where it lies; his very burial-place has been forgotten. Perhaps we know why; perhaps, too, we understand why to this day his life is "hidden with Christ," seeing how deeply he bore the wounds of Christ upon his body.

This excerpt is taken from the book SAINTS FOR SINNERS by Alban Goodier, S.J.

A Division of Doubleday & Company, Inc. New York

by special arrangement with Sheed & Ward, Inc.

Image Books edition published September, 1959