John of the Cross  

Posted by Joe Rawls in

This great mystic, whose feast falls today, overcame not only family poverty, but also the indifference and even brutality of his own beloved church. Born as Juan de Yepes y Alvarez in 1542, his ancestors included both Moors and Jews. The relationship between his parents was a love match, but his father was disinherited for having married beneath his station. John's father died when he was only nine, and the family's economic situation became dire. Somehow he managed to get a good classical education at a Jesuit school and was accepted into the Carmelite order at age twenty. He earned a theology degree from the famed University of Salamanca and was ordained to the priesthood. But the Carmelites of that time had grown lax, and John, strongly drawn to a life of austerity and contemplative prayer, considered transferring to the Carthusians. At this juncture he met Teresa of Avila, who had recently begun the reform movement known as the Discalced Carmelites. He immediately came under her sway and became leader of the male reformed Carmelites. However, the reform met stiff resistance from both the "business as usual" Carmelites and the larger Roman Catholic church in Spain. It took many years of conflict for the Discalced order to gain official ecclesiastical recognition. At one point, John was imprisoned for ten months in an unreformed Carmelite monastery. He was kept in a windowless closet measuring six by ten feet, and ritually flogged in the refectory in the presence of the other monks three times a week. He did have access to pen and paper and wrote down the lyrical poems for which he is famous; he had originally composed them in his head as a way of enduring his torture. The drawing of Jesus crucified (shown above), which would eventually inspire Dali's famous painting, is somewhat later but was clearly inspired by this very literal "dark night" in John's life.

I wish to share one of his poems, "Dark Night". It is found on pp 711-712 of what is possibly still the definitive English edition of his writings, The Collected Works of St John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD (Washington DC, Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1979).


The Dark Night

One dark night,
Fired with love's urgent longings
--Ah, the sheer grace!--
I went out unseen,
My house being now all stilled;

In darkness, and secure,
By the secret ladder, disguised,
--Ah, the sheer grace!--
In darkness and concealment,
My house being now all stilled;

On that glad night,
In secret, for no one saw me,
Nor did I look at anything,
With no other light or guide,
Than the one that burned in my heart;

This guided me
More surely than the light of noon
To where he waited for me
--Him I knew so well--
In a place where no one else appeared.

O guiding night!
O night more lovely than the dawn!
O night that has united
The Lover with His beloved,
Transforming the beloved in her Lover.

Upon my flowering breast
Which I kept wholly for Him alone,
There He lay sleeping,
And I caressing Him
There in a breeze from the fanning cedars.

When the breeze blew from the turret
Parting His hair,
He wounded my neck
With his gentle hand,
Suspending all my senses.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
Laying my face on my Beloved;
All things ceased; I went out from myself,
Leaving my cares
Forgotten among the lilies.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, December 14, 2010 at Tuesday, December 14, 2010 and is filed under . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



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December 14, 2010 at 11:53 PM

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