E select but few facts from the life of this great Carmelite Doctor of the Church, partly because much has been published during the last few years which clears up obscurities in his career, but which I have not had time to read properly: also, because I want to concentrate on two elements in his life which are independent of details.
A certain Gonzalo de Yepes was of good birth, but married "beneath him " and was disinherited. He earned his living as a silk-weaver.
He died, leaving his widow with three children, of whom the youngest, John, went to a poor school at Medina del
Campo, was apprenticed to a weaver, failed at this, and was taken on as servant by the governor of the local hospital, where he worked seven years.
He was innocent; already austere; and continued his studies under the Jesuits. At 21, he became a Carmelite friar, obtaining leave to practise the " unmitigated " rule. Ordained in 1567, he half thought of becoming a Carthusian so as to live in greater seclusion.
However, St. Teresa was just then beginning her " reform " of the Carmelites: she came to Medina, heard about John, told him that she had permission to esteblish two houses of " reformed" friars, and that he should inaugurate the first. This was, indeed, begun in a ruined house at Duruelo—I forget whether it was now or later that, to Teresa's amusement, John " furnished " the new house with several hour-glasses to make sure that the religious duties should be punctually begun, but entirely forgot to provide mattresses—to which even the " Reformed " were entitled. Maybe it was in connection with this that she said that if God had hold of the little Saint by the one hand, she certainly had to hold the other. Other establishments followed.
Happy at First
John was at first ecstatically happy. But soon enough God began to test the " purity " of his " intention." Had there
been any self-seeking in all this? He began to find that nothing spiritual was " sweet " to him; that he was puzzled; that he disliked praying; indeed that he was violently tempted to sin. But there was deeper yet. He began to experience what I can characterise only by Our Lord's own words upon the Cross—" My God, my God; why hest Thou forsaken me?" In John's case, this amounted to his feeling as if there were no God at all.
In 1571, Teresa was ordered to become prioress of the un-reformed convent at Avila—the very one which she had left because of that unreformedness. Imagine the outcry among the nuns! Undaunted, she sent for John to be its spiritual director.
This is the point at which the history of the Reform becomes confused, not least because the older friars (and nuns) regarded the whole Reform as a rebellion (however lofty an approbation it had received); because some of the Reformed were tactless and went beyond their rights; and because the Carmelites among themselves and the Papal Nuncios issued apparently quite contradictory orders.
In 1577 the Castile provincial ordered John back to Medina. He would not go, saying that he accepted the orders of the Nuncio. He was therefore kidnapped by armed men, carried off to Toledo, imprisoned in a tiny dark cell, and for nine months allowed neither to say Mass nor even to change his clothes.
I can but recall that one night he got out of his cell, stepped across the sleeping guards, found a window of which he had known nothing save in a dream, fixed some sort of rope to the stem of a lamp, which he twisted into the woodwork, slithered down it (neither rope nor flimsy metal nor rotten woodwork broke) and tumbled down the remaining depth on to a heap of stones. But, he was within no more than a courtyard of the monastery Somehow, he found himself wafted over the wall into what proved to be the courtyard belonging to the neighbouring nuns. This was worse still. Again he got, who knows how, over the next wall, found himself in a Toledo street, scuttled off to the convent of the reformed nuns there, who hid him in the infirmary, into which his pursuers had not the nerve to look. (You will find this written with probably more accuracy, in the third chapter of my small book, On God's Holy Hills, Burns, Oates and Washbourne.)
Did As He Wanted
Once at liberty, he seemed to be able to do as he Eked. He was at once made superior of a small convent, Calvary : in 1579 founded another at Baeza; in 1581 was made prior of Granada. During this time he took but little part in the negotia tions that led up to the division of the Shod and Un-shod Carmelites into two d'..
tinct provinces in 1580. At Toledo, he had written some of his loveliest poems. Now he wrote those explanations of these, and other works, which have caused him to be officially recognised (1926) as a " Doctor," or Teacher, of the Universal Church.
St. Teresa died in 1582. A wise man once said that no one had really experi enced what persecution meant, until he had suffered it at the hands of his own friends. This is what now began for John.
There were two sources of controversy within the Discalced Carmelites themselves. One was due to the belief that they were not nearly contemplative enough, but went out to preach much too often— and this was the view of St. John of the Cross himself. Naturally human nature subsisted even among the reformed friars, and there were enough who took the easier opinion as justifiable,
The other was this : the " reformed " Provincial, Fr. Grecian, wished the relation between Calced and Discalced to remain as it had been arranged during the life-time of Teresa: they all were to form one body, while each had its own " observance" and provincial. Another party, led by a Fr. Nicholas Doria, wished to separate Calced and Discalced altogether, so that there should be in fact two Orders. John remained convinced that St. Teresa could not do anything that was wrong, and so, favoured in this case the more moderate party. It is interesting that none the less Fr. Nicholas Doria, when he in his turn became provincial, did not prevent St. John from founding new friaries and holding important positions. In 1588 Fr. Nicholas obtained a brief from Rome authorising a further separation between Calced and Discalced.
After a variety of " incidents," the Reformed Nuns, and in particular, the Ven. Anne of Jesus, on their side obtained from Rome the confirmation of the earlier con
stitutions. In 1591, John of the Cross spoke in defence both of the nuns and of Fr. Jerome GraciAn, who had been deprived of all authority: John was accordingly himself stripped of all his offices and sent to a friary among the mountains, where he was far happier than among men.
However, two friars whom he had once had to rebuke now spread so many calumnies about him, alleging that they had plenty of evidence for getting him dismissed from the Order, that people became alarmed if they had anything to do with him at all. This was when many letters of his were burnt, an irreparable loss. He fell ill and was offered the choice of two friaries instead of his inaccessible domicile. The first was handy and had a friend of his for prior: the second was at a distance and had for prior precisely one of his two worst enemies. This was the house he chose. In it, the prior treated him abominably: he kept him in solitary confinement : changed the infirmarian simply because he was kind to John, and refused to him any but the roughest food. The provincial heard of this, and certainly rebuked the prior with due vehemence. None the less, John, after three more months of appalling pain, and many operations, died on December 14, 1591, without any of those clouds, due to ambition and revenge, having been cleared away from him. Yet this is another case of the instantaneous recognition by priests and people that a Saint had lived and died amongst them, and the funeral of this hidden man was thronged. His body was taken to Segovia, the last house of which he had been prior.
We Must Weep
My two brief points are these. Apart from drawing due conclusions about the unmitigatedness of the Spanish temperament, we have not to be astonished when the most violent contradictions are to be found in the character of Christians, or of priests and religious, or in the history of the Church.
It is our duty constantly to weep over the harm done to Christ's cause by Christians, and to acknowledge that it is the sins of Catholics—maybe more than any
thing else—which have obscured the beauty of the Bride of Christ, and caused the Church to bleed, as St. Catherine of Siena put it far more strongly, from many hideous wounds. Second: John's life exhibits almost terrifyingly the tremendous spiritual powers latent in all of us, and indeed destined to be exercised eternally by all of us.
John in a sense inflicted upon himself the whole of his Purgatory during his earthly life. He has been called " the Doctor of Nihilism " because of his continuous insistence on the nothingness of all created things in comparison with God.
Thus not only are the purest religious emotions not God, so that the soul must get beneath all such consolations, into a preliminary " Dark Night," if it seeks a truer union with Him, but, even the truest ideas about God are not God, so that the Contemplative must sink yet deeper into the Dark till he reaches that consummation in which he neither thinks about God, nor even makes choices about God — to be holy, for example. 1 add at once that he never dreams of suggesting that anyone can reach such a point of union mechanically, by his own efforts, or short of a very special call. And again, that while he skirts a score of heresies, he lapses into none. Thus he neither scorns nor fears created things nor teaches that they are bad. "All natural things are lovely: they are crumbs that fall from the Lord's table."
Nor was he ever taken in by his ecstasies: a union with God such as to paralyse ordinary life, is but an imperfect one. He somewhere compares " paralysing" ecstasies to " a dislocation of the bones." I believe there is a story of his holding desperately on to his chair, lest he should rise in one of those ecstatic "levitations " of which we wrote in connection with St. Joseph of Cupertino.
He never lost a sort of caustic wit, and he shrank from " playing up "—if not to religious humbug, even to those who wished him to " exhibit " his piety. Thus, once when he seemed dying, and two friars (obviously expecting a most mystical reply) asked him what most he would desire, he
answered : "Some asparagus." But I want to emphasise this only—not one of us, however humdrum his religious vocation seems to be, can possibly avoid that Purgatory which shall rinse him utterly clean from all idolatry—all worship (however unconscious) of the image instead of God: nor yet (if but he be saved, as we may trust we all shall be) that ineffable union with God, beyond all imagination, all thought, all separate selfhood, of which St. John of the Crosk, together with his appalling purgation, received so many foretastes while still this side of Heaven.