St. John of the Cross: A Poet in Prison

Enduring beauty sometimes comes to birth only through pain. For some artists, it is as though the experience of suffering opens hidden caverns of creativity that would have otherwise remained closed. Would Beethoven’s music have reached such depths of pathos, had he not experienced the gradual loss of his hearing? Would Rembrandt’s last series of self-portraits stir the heart, had he not drunk from the chalice of sorrow? The virtuoso sweats to achieve perfection and the poet bleeds to bring forth timeless verse. It was likewise through nine months of cruel imprisonment that the Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross, gave birth to arguably the finest poetry in the Spanish language.

The Carmelite Order has its roots in 12th century Palestine. In 16th century Spain, the impetus to restore the original spirit of the Order came alive in Teresa of Avila. In consequence, she founded a more observant convent in 1562. With permission granted in 1567 to open more convents in the same mould, she recruited Fray Juan de Santo Matia to help found monasteries for men. Like Teresa, he had joined the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance (known as the Calced Carmelites), and like her, desired a more perfect way of life.

He decided to leave the Calced Carmelites, and join Teresa’s reform movement known as the “Discalced’’, or “barefoot” reform. Teresa clothed Fray Juan with the religious habit, and he received a new name as well: Fray Juan de la Cruz. The movement gained much momentum in just a few years. Discalced monasteries began sprouting up in various towns and cities of Spain, to the irritation of the Calced. Tensions mounted for some years until his former brethren abducted Fray Juan on December 2, 1577. Their goal was to make him abandon the Teresian reform, and thereby thwart Teresa’s efforts.

Since Fray Juan made his profession of vows as a Calced before joining Teresa, they accused him of being a renegade friar. However, Fray Juan was free of his obligations to the Calced, as the reform of the Discalced Carmelites had received provisional approval by the papal legate. All the same, the Calced brought him blindfolded to the Carmelite monastery in Toledo, and put him into the monastery prison. Fray Juan knew in his conscience, that his obedience was to a higher authority. Nonetheless, he had to answer for his apparent disobedience before the monastery tribunal headed by the Visitor-General, Jerónimo Tostado.

The Carmelite statutes of 1462 prescribed that incorrigible friars should be punished. It is fair enough that naughty monks receive discipline, but to modern sensibilities, these penalties sound quite harsh indeed.

Three evenings a week, he had to eat his meal kneeling on the floor in the middle of the refectory. Bread and water was his food, and an occasional sardine. After the friars were finished eating, Fray Juan had to bear his shoulders and receive a lash with a bunch of twigs by each friar as they passed him in a circular fashion. The wounds he received did not heal properly for years.

His prison cell was a type of closet, measuring six feet by ten feet, with no window, but only a tiny slit that let in a small amount of light. He

He endured nine months of this treatment, suffering unbearable cold, exhausting heat, terrible hunger, stomach ailments, and fever. Moreover, the psychological pressure to try to make him give up the Discalced reform as well as the lack of sunlight surely took a toll.

Without any human comfort, he could have given way to deep depression and self-pity, or at the very least, deathly boredom. From the ground of this abasement, came a flourishing of amazing creativity, such that Fray Juan was forever grateful to his captors. Indeed, it was precisely in his physical confinement, that his creative spirit was set free.

What sort of creativity? Fray Juan was a natural artist, who in his youth, apprenticed to both a wood carver and painter. While imprisoned in the darkness, his poetic thoughts flourished as in a fertile greenhouse. Without the aid of pen or paper, he wove beautiful verse that by dint of rumination, embedded into his soul. A change of jailers after five months enabled him to commit them to paper. He composed many poems in prison, most notably, thirty-one strophes of the Spiritual Canticle.

The basic outline of his magnum opus, the Spiritual Canticle, uses the allegory of the soul seeking the Bridegroom (God). “Where have you hidden, O my Beloved, and left me moaning?” Thus begins the search for the Bridegroom, who is for the soul, as the mountains, lonely wooded valleys, silent music, the tranquil night, and so forth. It is noteworthy that though confined in a filthy, stench-filled dungeon, that he could create such lovely imagery that breathes of the Spanish countryside, with fragrances, mountains, and flowing springs.

Later, when Fray Juan managed to escape from prison, and take refuge with the Carmelite nuns of Toledo, he shared with them his poems. The beauty and subtlety of his poems deeply impressed them. The nun entrusted with making copies of the poems, asked Fray Juan if God gave him the words. He responded,”Daughter, sometimes God gave them to me, and at other times I sought them myself.”

It is undoubtedly very difficult to read of Fray Juan’s sufferings. Curiously, Fray Juan had quite a different opinion of both his persecutors and his time in prison. He later acknowledged that never in his life had he experienced such an abundance of supernatural light as when incarcerated. He considered the Calced friars as great benefactors. To one of the Carmelite nuns, Ana de San Alberto, he said, “Ana, my child, one single grace of all those that God granted me there, could not be repaid by many years of imprisonment.”

At least twice, a supernatural light shone through the cracks of his prison door. His jailer went to tell the Prior, Fray Maldonado, who came to see it with two other friars. “Whence comes this light?” asked the Prior, “I forbade you to have any!” As he was speaking, the light gently disappeared and Fray Maldonado commented to his confreres as they walked away, “He is either a saint or a sorcerer!”

Indeed, by various witnesses among the Calced Carmelite friars, Fray Juan was a saint. Many of the younger friars felt compassion for him in his sufferings, especially his second jailer, Fray Juan de Santa Maria. He was more caring jailer than his predecessor was. He gave him a change of undergarments, paper, a pen, and allowed him to get some fresh air now and again.

In his appreciation for this compassionate jailer, Fray Juan de la Cruz gave him his only possession before his escape: a small crucifix given him by St. Teresa.

By the beginning of August 1578, Fray Juan’s physical constitution had wasted to such an extent that he knew if he did not escape, the grave would soon be his home. Though he considered it impossible given his weakened condition, the thought of escape returned to him continually. He understood it as an inspiration from God.

When the jailer let him out each day for some fresh air, Fray Juan used these moments to inspect the back of the monastery and assess his future escape route. He knew it was not going to be easy, as it would involve going down a very steep wall. Each time he went out, he managed also to loosen the screws of his cell door lock.

On the night of August 14, the moment had come. He tied his two blankets together and pushed the loosened lock out of his door. It made a loud sound and two friars awakened. When it became quiet again, Fray Juan proceeded with his plan. He let himself down the steep wall using the blankets as a rope and escaped. He found refuge briefly with the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Toledo, and eventually made his way to the south of Spain.

Suffering seems so often inevitable in life. The perennial challenge is to find a positive response to it. God alone knows the full meaning behind it. St. John of the Cross gives an example of the triumph of the human spirit over suffering. He found a way to grow through it, rather than become crushed by it. Without an ounce of bitterness toward his persecutors, he became as free as a feather on a breeze. He converted his unhappy circumstances into something fruitful, so that a portal of light opened in the darkness of his dungeon. With his mind thus freed of any bitterness, he was able to give birth to enduring beauty.

References and Resources

The Life of St. John of the Cross, by Crisógono de Jesús, O.C.D., Harper and Brothers, 1958

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh,O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D.,ICS Publications, 1979

God Speaks in the Night, The Life and Times of St. John of the Cross,ICS Publications, 1991

St. John of the Cross, by Fr. Bruno de Jésus-Marie, O.C.D, New York, Sheed and Ward, 1957

This version of the Spiritual Canticle with Commentary, by St. John of the Cross, is in the public domain.

This is a free audio version of the Spiritual Canticle.