Spain, the Hiberia and Hispania of the Romans, remained for centuries on the periphery of European consciousness. Though it contains Cadiz (the Gades of the Phoenicians), which has been called the oldest city in Europe that has been continuously inhabited and has kept its name, the Phoenicians at first and then the Greeks traded with the inhabitants of the peninsula without settling there. Hence it became the locus of myths concerning far distant events, almost off the maps of early European history. With the rise of the Carthaginian empire, factories were built along the coast, but Rome soon pushed Carthage aside to exploit Spanish mines. Spain remained distinctly provincial under Roman rule, a place for dissident generals and ambitious young officers to nurture intrigues against the throne of the Imperium. As Rome began to crack under political and economic pressures from within and incursions of migrating tribes from without, Visigoths overran Spain and established numerous petty chiefdoms whose central activity consisted in mutual deceit and warfare, sometimes in the name of one or another form of Christian religion. Thus the Muslim invasion of A.D. 711 swiftly brought most of Spain under Islamic rule. It is one of the curiosities with which recorded history is replete that with the Muslim influence from North Africa, Spain blossomed philosophically and culturally.
Andalusia became the birthplace and seedbed of some of Islam's most luminous and revered Sufi mystics, including Ibn al-Arabi. Jews, long persecuted in Visigothic Spain, found Kabbalistic traditions honoured and encouraged, and the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions were transmitted to Europe by the devout Muslims, Avicenna and Averroes. When Spain returned to the Christian fold, the church found mystical philosophy and ecstatic meditation deeply rooted amongst the faithful of all classes. Whilst Alumbrados, as a whole range of Illuminists were called, flourished throughout the country, they never constituted a cohesive movement. Nevertheless, the church saw clearly that they were a dangerous threat to hierarchical authority. Their dual form of 'interior prayer', recogimiento (recollection) and dejamiento (letting go), bypassed priestly mediation of the Divine and found theological argumentation irrelevant. Once the church began to feel the pressure of the Lutheran Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition brought a horrifying enthusiasm to its publicly proclaimed intention of utterly eradicating every tendency to inner contemplation and meditation. The parochial intolerance of the Iberian peninsula, which had been markedly moderated during the Islamic era, returned with renewed harshness as an instrument of coercive politics. Into this world of rustic beauty, remarkable cities and intellectual rigidity came some of Christendom's most devotional mystics, in the front ranks of whom is John of the Cross.
John was born Juan de Yepes y Álvarez in 1542 at Fontiveros, a village between Avila and Salamanca in Old Castile. His father, Gonzalo de Yepes, who may have come from a line of New Christians – those whose families had converted from Judaism within the previous two centuries – was born and raised in a prosperous family. Gonzalo married Catalina Álvarez, a destitute orphan silk weaver, and was immediately disowned by his disapproving family. For twelve years he lived with Catalina, learnt her humble trade and fathered three sons, Francisco, Luis and Juan, but shortly after Juan's birth he died, leaving the family in extreme poverty. Poorly fed and thinly clothed, the family struggled to survive amidst bad harvests, erratic trade and steady inflation sparked by South American gold and silver. Luis died of illness, and eventually Catalina moved to Medina del Campo in 1551. Once Francisco married, she shared their simple house and Juan was placed in an orphanage, the Colegio de la Doctrina, where he was provided with a uniform, fed, and taught to read and write. The orphanage sent its wards to collect alms and it attempted to teach them a trade. Juan, however, proved useless in carpentry, wood sculpture and printing, and was soon placed in el hospital de las bubas, a hospital for the poor suffering from advanced syphilis.
The hospital's youthful director detected in Juan an aptitude for study and arranged for him to be enrolled in a colegio recently founded by the Jesuits. There three teachers instructed forty pupils in grammar, history and Latin literature, especially Virgil, Horace, Seneca, Cicero and Livy. His duties at the hospital interfered with his studies in class, but he spent late nights poring over his books. To those around him he seemed to be natural material for the priesthood, but when he was assured a chaplaincy if he became ordained, he hesitated. Already at the age of twenty-one, he wished for a life of greater contemplative seclusion than a priestly office would permit. Rather than face the objections of his supervisor at the hospital, he slipped away one night and presented himself to the Carmelite priory of Santa Ana and was accepted as a novitiate monk into the Order of the Blessed Virgin. When he made his profession in 1564, he took the name Juan de San Matías. His ordination required further education and his proficiency in Latin gained him entrance to the University of Salamanca. Though the university had successfully demanded that most mystical writings be placed on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum – the church's index of prohibited books – Juan somehow absorbed the writings attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius and a treatise on The Song of Songs. He found, however, that the Bible was a sufficient stimulus to spiritual contemplation, the threshold of a life that begins and culminates wholly within consciousness.
In September 1567 Juan was ordained and had just returned home to Medina when Teresa de Jesús arrived to establish her second convent of reformed Carmelite nuns. Teresa, already fifty years old, was the driving force amongst the Carmelites for a return to the simplest rule and life. Although officially encouraged, many members of the Order had no interest in taking up a distinctly ascetic life, and she had difficulty securing a reformed priory whose priests would hear confessions and understand the reformed modes of contemplative prayer. Juan, already disappointed with the laxity in his own Order, had begun to consider joining the Carthusians, but was persuaded by her compelling magnetism, dreams and spiritual visions to return to Salamanca for a year's theological training and to make arrangements to found a priory as an assistant to Antonio de Heredia.
The history of the Order of Carmel merges with a nimbus of legend. It was founded by Enoch on Mount Carmel in Palestine and renewed by the prophet Elijah. The Virgin Mary protected its devotees who included the Essenes and the Apostles. Iamblichus held the Mount to be most sacred and Tacitus wrote that an imageless altar sat upon its summit, where the emperor Vespasian once consulted its oracle. Around A.D. 1150, Berthold of Calabria, a crusader, established a monastery there and received a rule from the patriarch of Jerusalem. When it became evident that Jerusalem would fall once again to Muslims, the little Order migrated westward, eventually finding its way to Spain, where it had become popular amongst the laity. When its general, Rubeo, authorized Teresa's reform, he insisted that its members be consecrated to poverty, seclusion and contemplation.
Teresa, through her own exaltations and visions, came to believe that solitary meditation did not merely serve the personal spiritual progress of its practitioners, but also alleviated the misery of suffering humanity. Whilst she insisted upon an austere and industrious life, she strictly forbade excessive penances that only served to damage one's health and heighten monastic vanity. The spirit of the reform suited Juan, and in November 1568 he donned the rough habit Teresa had sewn with her own hands and changed his name to Fray Juan de la Cruz.
The early trials and successes of the reformed Order, now commonly referred to as the Discalced Carmelites because of their tendency to travel barefoot, brought joys and troubles. Many joined the Order because of its contemplative devotion and whole towns were made harmonious by its quiet presence. The Calced Carmelites, who wore leather sandals, grew envious and feared that they would be displaced. Guilt-ridden extremists sought entrance and threatened to drive away the calm contemplatives Teresa most wanted in the Order. Juan proved to be an effective and beloved spiritual guide, but his lack of interest in organizational matters and his shyness in making friends made him a poor administrator. In a moment of exasperation Teresa remarked, "If one tries to talk to Padre Fray Juan de la Cruz of God, he falls into a trance and you along with him." In 1575 Teresa found the person who could handle the business of the Order and free Juan for his true calling. The first time she met Jerónimo Gracián she was struck by his handsome features, gracious manners, simple devotion, quick mind and diplomatic skill. Even though he later showed other facets – jealousy, weakness of will and some laxity – she never seriously altered her initial impression. Juan was made confessor to the Calced nuns of the Encarnación at Avila, where his individual spiritual instructions reformed the cloister and he cured cases of hysteria as well as cast out devils. During this period he lived in a little house that had been built on an old Jewish cemetery where Moses de León, who made the Zohar public, had been buried in 1305.
Even as the nuns of the Encarnaci6n had begun to think of Juan as a living saint, tensions arose in the Order. The papal nuncio supported the efforts of the reform and the vicar-general of the Order repudiated them. The division grew so hostile that Gracián could not eat in the Calced priories he visited for fear of being poisoned. Juan was kidnapped and held in prison until the nuncio ordered his release. When the time came to elect a new prioress at Encarnación, the vicar-general threatened to excommunicate any nun voting for Teresa. In response to Juan's exhortation, a majority did, and the vicar-general was infuriated and embarrassed at having to excommunicate a majority of the voters and appoint a minority candidate to achieve his ends. Two months later, on December 2, 1577, Juan was carried away by a group of armed men acting for the vicar-general's party. Whilst Teresa urged the reluctant Gracián to find him and wrote anxiously to various bishops and even the king, Juan was hidden away in the Carmelite priory at Toledo. He was accused by a tribunal of disobedience to a superior and ordered to renounce the reform. If he agreed, the tribunal promised, he would be given high office, a comfortable room and a library. Juan swore loyalty to the Order but refused to give up the reform, since he could under no condition violate his sacred vow to follow the primitive rule. At first he was simply imprisoned, but when another Discalced brother escaped under similar conditions, Juan was thrown in an unlighted closet that had been a privy. He was fed only scraps of bread and on occasion, sardines. Once a week he took his meal in the refectory where he was beaten with a cane, the worst punishment that could be administered to a friar. He bore the scars until the end of his life.
Freezing during Toledo's harsh winter nights, suffocating in the heat of summer, half-starved and suffering from dysentery, Juan doubted that he would leave his miserable cell except to be buried. Yet his inner reflections pained him even more. His vow of fidelity did not depend upon his opinions concerning the justice of his superiors, or his limited perception of divine order, and so he repeatedly examined himself for traces of pride and shadows of vanity. His interior life became as dark and barren as his wretched cell, but out of that abyss of lonely isolation arose a subtler light than he had previously experienced. The spiritual eros that strengthened within him expressed itself in the Cántico Espiritual, The Spiritual Canticle.
With an intensity surpassing his earlier mystical awareness, a divine afflatus pervaded his thoughts so that his poetry rushed out of him as if composed by another – that other which abides in the still, silent centre of one's being. So spontaneous were these outpourings that Juan found himself writing lengthy commentaries on them, as if he were elucidating the work of a stranger who was, nevertheless, a spiritual companion. "Feed not your spirit on anything but God", he wrote later. "Cast off concern about things, and bear peace and recollection in your heart." Once he summed up the inner meaning of his gruesome experiences in the prison-house of the world, microcosmically reflected in the stifling prison that now held him: "The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must It be heard by the soul."
Juan, realizing that another season in prison would be fatal, worked to effect an escape. Snatching a few moments each day when a new and more kindly gaoler allowed the cell door to remain open for a little air, Juan began to work on the hinges. Eventually he discovered his location in the monastery buildings and calculated how far he would have to descend from the nearest cloister window to reach the monastic yard. On August 14 Juan took the crucifix presented him by Teresa and gave it to his gaoler for his unintentional assistance. At two o'clock the next morning he pushed on his door, the hinges gave, and it fell out onto the floor. Though it made a terrific noise in the still night, the isolation of his cell from the main areas of the monastery protected him from being heard. Having already cut the two coarse blankets he had been allowed into strips and tied them together, he lowered himself on this makeshift rope down the outer wall as far as he could and then dropped. He just missed falling into the angry Tagus River which swept past the monastery, and, with considerable effort, he found his way around and over walls and into the sleeping city. Finding his way to the Discalced Carmelite house, he sought out the prioress, Ana de los Ángeles, who hid him away until the search parties had passed, then summoned the cathedral canon, Don Pedro González de Mendoza, who willingly secreted him into his Hospital de la Cruz, scarcely three hundred feet away from his former prison.
While Juan was imprisoned, the whole reform had fared badly. Both the general and the papal nuncio ordered the Discalced nuns and friars to be placed under the Calced, to give up all offices and to receive no novices. In reaction, a meeting was held to establish a separate Order – quite outside church law, being the prerogative of the pope – and Juan was invited to attend. Though he was very weak, he made the painful journey but refused to support the breach. While it fired animosities throughout Spain and reached to Rome itself, Juan was appointed prior of the hermitage El Calvario in eastern Andalusia, a safe and remote location for him. Though the journey was difficult, he found great happiness here, deepening his spiritual insight and giving profound instruction. He warned of "those beginners, who seeking after spiritual sweetness for its own sake, a demon of gluttony takes possession of them and they kill themselves by fasting and penance". Regarding vows, he was uncompromising, but he did not believe that dourness or sour character were marks of spirituality. Here, and later at Granada, he would take the monks on walks in the countryside and encourage them to sit on a riverbank, watch the sky or the groves of ilex and spicy shrubs, to see how nature itself yearns for Deity. Even though Juan was unpopular amongst those who sought power, he was increasingly revered and admired by monks and nuns alike, and so he was made definitor and vicar-provincial as well as prior of Los Mártires in Granada.
On October 4, 1582, Teresa died, and now the struggle for control moved fully into the reform itself. Nicholás Doria, a Genoese financier, took the habit and soon replaced Gracián as provincial. Juan argued for the view that those elected to office should not succeed themselves, but he was overruled. He was allowed to leave his administrative posts, but soon the pope issued a brief establishing the Discalced as a separate congregation, and in 1588 Doria was elected vicar-general. Juan became first definitor and one of the consulta, thus becoming deputy vicar-general. He moved to Segovia, where a growing distaste for Doria's politics, administrative consolidations, and insensitivity to the nuns in general was coupled with ever greater spiritual and ecstatic experiences. Doria planned Gracián's total disgrace, and as soon as he felt secure in that project, he turned to the dishonouring of Juan. Events moved quickly. When the congregation met in 1591, Juan at last was allowed to step down from all posts, but when he called for a secret ballot, Doria was bent upon ousting him entirely.
Juan was assigned to La Peñuela, the most desolate priory near Baeza. Friars were given orders to spy on him, and some were sent to intimidate nuns into giving evidence of Juan's misconduct. Despite threats, the nuns would not betray their champion, but the panic caused by such action led many of them to destroy his notebooks, lyrics and drawings. Throughout his life Juan had given detailed practical teaching suited to the spiritual level and aspiration of each nun in his care, and these had been cherished by their recipients. Gracián had been jailed and Doria was prepared to arrest Juan when two considerations stayed his hand. The rough treatment of the nuns had produced no damaging evidence, but rather confessions that lights and aromatic odours had often been seen around his cell when he prayed and that he had been seen on occasion to levitate when entranced. In addition, Juan suddenly came down with a fever. He was sent to Baeza where doctors could attend him, but once there, pushed on to Ubeda where he was unknown. The prior, Fray Francisco Crisóstomo, showed no regard for his worthy patient, thrusting him in a tiny cell and reprimanding him publicly. But the brothers soon came to consider the dying man a saint and wrote to the provincial, Antonio de Heredia, co-founder with Juan of the reform monks. Though now eighty-one years old, he rushed from Granada to Juan's side and saw that he was cared for.
On December 14, 1591, the last day of his life, Juan ordered that all the letters he had been sent incriminating those attempting to disgrace him be burnt. Seeing this generosity, Cris6stomo begged forgiveness for his former behaviour, and Juan forbade him to even think in those terms again. At eleven-thirty in the evening he had verses from The Song of Songs read out, and then when the hour of midnight – the time of matins – struck, he said, "Tonight I shall sing matins in Heaven", and, folding his hands, he ceased to breathe. His utterly peaceful death, coming full circle under Antonio's care after twenty weary and rapturous years, contrasted sharply with the public outpouring of medieval passion. His body was stolen, buried, stolen again, dismembered, and carried off as relics. Doria, however, was forced to backtrack from his orchestrated disgrace, and found himself destroying the allegations he had himself drawn up. Long before the church canonized Juan in 1725, he was a saint in the eyes of all who looked on his life and work. In 1926 the pope declared him a doctor of the universal church.
Juan de la Cruz taught that the inner road to mystic union – the spiritual marriage – of soul with Deity is beset by two dark periods. The first is the dark night of the senses, the withdrawal of the soul from any attraction to sensory perceptions and the turning within, which is the true beginning of meditation. This purgation of the body and senses culminates in banishing all discursive thought and mental images. Only then does the soul become filled with the Divine Light in a Spiritual Betrothal. This indescribable experience cannot be sustained, for spiritual consciousness is not yet wholly pure and pellucid, and so it is plunged into noche oscura del espíritu – the dark night of the soul. This is the desolation of losing the Divine Illumination without any wish to return to the tawdry lights of the world.
Only faith, hope and love can assist the soul across this inner abyss of voided consciousness, but these virtues are divested of all external marks and must be discovered as soul-powers. Faith is the power to continue through the night without wavering or doubt. Hope is the turning of the soul to the promise of union without looking behind upon what is past and cast away. Love is like the compass needle that in pointing north also points to the south, for in turning straight towards Deity, it also turns towards humanity. With this stabilizing triangle of soul-force set in the circle of uttermost darkness, the soul waits for that ineffable and lasting divine union in which every veil of alienation, ignorance and separation falls away and the soul experiences the Spiritual Marriage, the alchemical transmutation of soul in the Divine. The life of Juan de la Cruz found its aim, purpose and meaning in this numinous union.