John of the Cross, Part I: In Prison

Mystics and Non-Dual Thinkers: Week 3

John of the Cross, Part I: In Prison
Wednesday, July 29, 2015

John of the Cross (1542-1591) was born in a small town north of Ávila in Spain. He joined a Carmelite monastery and then studied theology and philosophy at the university in Salamanaca. After meeting Teresa around 1567, he joined her cause of reforming the Carmelite order and founding the Discalced Carmelites.

In the Center for Action and Contemplation’s recent edition of Oneing, “Emancipation,” Mirabai Starr describes John of the Cross’ experience in prison, the unexpected place where he found freedom:

“In 1577, when St. John of the Cross was thirty-five years old, he was abducted by his own monastic brothers [who were opposed to his efforts to reform the Carmelite order] and incarcerated for nine months in a monastery in Toledo, Spain. It was there, as he languished, that the caterpillar of his old self dissolved and the butterfly of his authentic being grew its wings. . . .

“His prison cell, a stone room barely large enough for his body, had formerly been a latrine. His single robe rotted from his body in the fetid heat of summer, and in winter he shivered in the rag that remained. Several times a week, the brothers brought him out to be flogged while they enjoyed their midday meal. Otherwise, he sat in the darkness, tracking the stars through the single small window, high up in the wall of his cell. . . .

“Doubt began to infiltrate his psyche and, though he clung to the life-raft of faith, it began to disintegrate in his hands and he drifted into despair. Like Jonah in the belly of the fierce fish (an analogy John later evoked when he wrote the commentary to Dark Night of the Soul), the imprisoned friar found himself suspended in the void. He was unable to move toward any kind of hopeful future, or backward to the innocent idealism that had led to his being swallowed up in this terrible emptiness.

“It was painful enough for him to wonder if God had given up on him, but the true agony descended when he began to find himself giving up on God. At last, he simply ran out of energy and let himself down into the arms of radical unknowingness—which is where the transmutation of the lead of his agony began to unfold into the gold of mystical poetry. . . .

“Like the Bride in the Scripture he loved best—the Song of Songs—John went ‘tracking the sandal-mark’ of his Beloved through the streets and plazas of his ravaged heart and, finding no trace of the One who ‘wounded his soul and set it on fire,’ converted his yearning into sublime love-language. It is the fruit of that alchemy that sustained the poet in his imprisonment and has continued to feed the rest of us for five centuries.”

Gateway to Silence:
“God alone is enough.”  —Teresa of Ávila

Mirabai Starr, “Exquisite Risk: John of the Cross and the Transformational Power of Captivity,” Emancipation, Oneing Vol. 3 No. 1. (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2015), 59-64.

Image credit: St. Teresa of Ávila (detail) by Fray Juan de la Miseria, 16th c.