Self-isolation – lessons from St John of the Cross

Self-isolation – lessons from St John of the Cross

Hilary Pearson writes:

St John of the Cross (1542-91) was a Spanish Carmelite friar.  His father died when John was still young, leaving his mother struggling to care for her two sons: John as an adult was very small, probably due to malnutrition.  At a school for poor children he quickly learned to read and write, but was much less successful in learning a trade.  However, the administrator of the local hospital took an interest in John and gave him a job in the hospital.  When he was 21 he was offered the chance to train as a priest and become the hospital chaplain, but by then John felt strongly drawn to the religious life, and joined the Carmelite order.

The Carmelites began as a group of hermits following a contemplative life on Mount Carmel in the Holy Land, a mountain that features in the story of Elijah (1 Kings 18:16-45), at a time when the area was under Christian rule following the First Crusade.  After the area was reconquered by the Moslems, the hermits returned to Europe in 1209 and adopted a monastic rule. When the Franciscan and Dominican preaching orders became strong later in the 13th century the Cistercians changed again and became a preaching order, the ‘white friars’ named after the colour of their habits.

John was sent by his Order to study at the University of Salamanca. While he was there, he felt drawn to a more contemplative way of life.  He was considering leaving the Carmelites when he met Teresa of Avila, who was reforming the women’s Carmelite order to go back to the older and stricter Rule.  She was looking for Carmelite friars who would form a male branch of the reform movement and found a willing recruit in John.

The reform movement, who were known as ‘discalced’ (meaning they did not wear shoes), were seen as a threat by the unreformed Carmelites, the ‘calced’.  In December 1577 John was kidnapped and imprisoned in the calced Carmelite monastery in Toledo.  He was locked in a room so small even he could not lie down fully, with one tiny window, and was taken out every Friday to an assembly of the friars and flogged.  Toledo is cold in winter and very hot in summer, but he had no bed and only his habit to wear. Later he was given a more sympathetic jailer and in August 1578 he made a daring escape during the night.  He found his way to the Toledo convent of discalced Carmelite nuns, who hid him and nursed him back to health.

During his imprisonment John composed several spiritual poems which are considered to be some of the finest poetry written in Spanish.  The best known is the ‘Spiritual Canticle’, which has echoes of the Biblical ‘Song of Solomon’.  However, I am going to consider a shorter poem from this time, ‘Song of the soul that rejoices in knowing God through faith’.

It begins:

            ‘For I know well the spring that flows and runs,
            although it is night.’

The phrase ‘although it is night’ (aunque es de noche) is the last line of all but one of the 11 verses.  John uses this image of God’s grace and power, flowing endlessly from a hidden source even though everything around is in darkness. The message is perhaps best summed up in verse 10 (the one with a slightly different last line):

            ‘It is here calling out to creatures;
            and they satisfy their thirst, although in darkness,
            because it is night.’

The world seems very dark at present: the COVID-19 pandemic with so many deaths, the severe economic recession which has resulted and could last for a long time, and now the violent killing of a black man by a white policeman and the resulting demonstrations and riots.  Let us remember John of the Cross in his tiny prison cell, freezing in winter and stiflingly hot in summer, suffering from the wounds from repeated floggings administered by fellow Carmelites, but experiencing the flow of God’s love and grace in that darkness. May we also experience that flow of living water ‘although it is night’.