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Saint John of the Cross - Conflicts of Jurisdiction

 Continued from page 2 (Saint John of the Cross - Biographical Sketch: The Teresian Ideal)

The following selection, a brief biography of St. John of the Cross, is taken from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD, and Otilio Rodriguez, OCD, with revisions and introductions by Kieran Kavanaugh, OCD. Revised edition, copyright 1991 by the Washington Province of Discalced Carmelite Friars, Inc. Published by ICS Publications, Washington, D.C.

Conflicts of Jurisdiction

King Philip II was himself curiously involved in the reform of religious orders and this led to a chain of misunderstandings, to a dark night for the small friar. Fernández had exercised his authority prudently and in harmony with the Carmelite provincial of Castile. In the south, proceeding independently, Francisco Vargas requested the discalced friars to make foundations in Sevilla, Granada, and La Peñuela (all in Andalusia), an action contrary to the prior general's explicit orders against the expansion of the discalced friars into that region. At a chapter of the order convened in Piacenza (Italy) in May 1575, the Carmelite order came to some strong decisions about all that they had heard was taking place in Spain, particularly inAndalusia. Unfortunately the two provincials from Castile andAndalusia, who might have been able to cast some light on the events, were absent. So the ordinances stipulated that those who had been made superiors "against the obedience due superiors within the order itself, or who had accepted offices or lived in monasteries or places prohibited by the same superiors should be removed, with the aid of the secular arm if necessary." Those resisting would be considered disobedient, rebellious, and contumacious, and were to be severely punished. Jerónimo Tostado was appointed the order's visitator toSpain, with full powers to carry out the decrees of the chapter.

In a papal brief in August of the previous year, at the request of the Carmelite order Gregory XIII had declared an end to the Dominican visitation and had ordained that from then on the Carmelites should be visited by the prior general and his delegates, leaving in effect what had been established by the visitators. But the king was not pleased. Why hadn't this matter been presented to him first for his royalplacet? In due time the papal nuncio Nicolás Ormaneto, working closely with the king, received assurance that as nuncio he still had powers to visit and reform religious orders. Ormaneto appointed Jerónimo Gracián (a learned priest from the university of Alcalá who had entered the discalced Carmelites and became a close collaborator with Teresa in many of her business affairs) as the new visitator to the Carmelites in Andalusia.

After Teresa's term as prioress at the Incarnation ended, John was ordered by the nuncio to remain at the Incarnation because (it seems) of the excellent work he was doing there. In view of the chapter ofPiacenza, John realized that his presence was a cause of tension and sought a change. In fact, he was arrested by the Carmelites of the observance in January 1576, but then released through the nuncio's intervention. Whatever the reason, he remained on, and when Ormaneto, the nuncio, died in June 1577, John was without a defender and his presence in Avila was increasingly resented by those who held that it contradicted the ordinances of Piacenza.

It wasn't long before something was done. On the night of December 2, 1577, a group of Carmelites, lay people, and men-at-arms broke into the chaplain's quarters, seized Fray John, and took him away. By a secret journey, with orders from Tostado, they carted him off, handcuffed and often blindfolded, to the monastery in Toledo, the order's finest in Castile, where nearly 85 friars lived. The acts of the chapter in Piacenza were read aloud to John by which he stood accused of being rebellious and contumacious. He would have to submit, or undergo severe punishment. But the accused friar reasoned that the chapter acts did not apply to him because he was at the Incarnation by order of legitimate authority, and he certainly was not obliged to renounce the way of life he had embraced along with Teresa. The punishment he received was imprisonment, according to the constitutions.

His accusers locked him first in the monastery prison, but at the end of two months, for fear of an escape, they moved him to another spot, a room narrow and dark, without air or light except for whatever filtered through a small slit high up in the wall. The room was six feet wide and ten feet long. There John remained alone, without anything but his breviary, through the terribly cold winter months and the suffocating heat of summer. Added to all this were the floggings, fasting on bread and water, wearing the same bedraggled clothes month after month without being washed - and the lice. Teresa wrote to the king and pleaded that for the love of God he order Fray John set free at once.

In the midst of this deprivation, Fray John was seeking relief by composing poetry in his mind, leaving to posterity some of the greatest lyric stanzas in Spanish literature - among them a major portion of The Spiritual Canticle. These verses suggest that in that cramped prison, stripped of all earthly comfort, he was touched with some rays of divine light. The cramped conditions faded, the friar's awareness expanded. "My beloved, the mountains." Here too, in the dark emptiness, a spiritual synthesis began to flower. "Faith and love will lead you along a path unknown to you, to the place where God is hidden." Everything else gone, no one could divest him of these, and they gave him God.

Taking advantage of a new jailer who was kinder and more lenient, John managed to get paper and ink so as to write down his poems. He also had the opportunity, during a daily reprieve from his cell, to familiarize himself with the monastery surroundings. Then, one hot night in August, after being held prisoner for nine months, emaciated and close to death, John chose life and undertook a dangerous escape he had plotted during the short periods out of his cell. He had discovered a window that looked down on the Tajo river, and underneath the window was the top of a wall. But, of course, there was a lock on his prison door. He solved that problem by loosening the screws of the lock while his jailer was absent. When the friars seemed to be asleep and the house all still, he pushed hard on the door of his prison and the lock came loose. This enabled him to leave his prison and find his way in the dark to the window. By means of a kind of rope made out of strips torn from two old bed covers and attached to a lamp hook, he escaped through the window onto the top of the wall. The wall encircled the monastery and its garden, so he walked around the top of it until he came to what he thought was the street side. There he jumped from the wall, only to find himself in another bad predicament. He had landed inside the courtyard of the Franciscan nuns of the Conception monastery that was adjacent to that of the Carmelites. Fortunately, in one corner of the nuns' garden he found that the stones in the wall could be used as steps, allowing him to climb over the wall to the city street and to his freedom. Some claimed his escape was miraculous. At any rate he was able to find refuge first with Teresa's nuns in Toledo and then, through their intervention, at the nearby hospital of Santa Cruz, where he was cared for secretly.

The new nuncio, Felipe Sega, not at all like his predecessor, showed displeasure with Teresa, and especially her friars, who already numbered more than 300 members. With Tostado's help he explored ways to bring about some kind of order. In October 1578, nearly desperate, the discalced friars convened a chapter in Almodóvar del Campo, southwest of Toledo, despite doubts about its legality. They merely wanted, they claimed, to execute what they had agreed on in a previous chapter called by Gracián in 1576, while Ormaneto was still alive. The fugitive Fray John of the Cross was appointed vicar of El Calvario, a monastery situated in a mountainous solitude near Beas in Andalusia. Here he would be safer against any attempts to recapture him.

When Sega learned of the chapter at Almodóvar he declared it null and void, angrily sent Gracián and others to prison, and placed the discalced friars and nuns under the authority of the provincial of the observant Carmelites. But the king had already set up a maneuver to dampen Sega's ardor: a commission to study the accusations against the discalced. In April 1579 the commission reached its decision, appointing Angel de Salazar, a former provincial of the observant Carmelites, in charge of Teresa's friars and nuns. Teresa rejoiced in the appointment, and Gracián praised Salazar as a gentle and discreet man whose main concern was to console the afflicted and promote peace.

Poet and Spiritual Father

John must have felt consolation and peace when a year and a few months previous to this he arrived to take up his office at El Calvario, a place of spectacular beauty far away from the jurisdictional conflicts and threats. He never cared to go over the past and talk about his imprisonment. He bore no animosity; he neither complained nor boasted about what he had endured. Now more than ever he could listen to nature through his senses; the flowers, the whistling breezes, the night, the dawn, the rushing streams, all spoke to him. God was present everywhere.

But in less than a year he had to move to the city again, this time to the university town of Baeza to serve as rector of the new college for the Teresian friars in the south. Unable to compete with places likeSalamanca or Alcalá, the university of Baeza did enjoy a certain prestige and was making important contributions to Scripture studies. While rector of the Carmelite college (1579-82), John guided his own students in their studies, becoming acquainted as well with the professors at the university. Records reveal that they frequently consulted and had long conversations with him about the Bible.

In these years after his escape, John took up once more the ministry of spiritual direction, not only of the friars but also of the nuns. He made frequent journeys through the mountains to Beas, a typical little Andalusian town with small whitewashed houses, grilles in front of large windows, and balconies full of flowering plants. The town is important in John's life, for here he met Ana de Jesús, the prioress, who did not at first recognize his depth and spirituality. In a letter to Ana, responding to her complaint about having no spiritual director, Teresa made clear her thoughts about Fray John of the Cross:

I'm really surprised, daughter, at your complaining so unreasonably, when you have Father Fray John of the Cross with you, who is a divine, heavenly man. I can tell you, daughter, that since he went away I have found no one like him in all Castile, nor anyone who inspires people with so much fervor on the way to heaven. You would not believe how lonely his absence makes me feel. You should reflect that you have a great treasure in that holy man, and all those in the monastery should see him and open their souls to him, when they will see what great good they get and will find themselves to have made great progress in spirituality and perfection, for our Lord has given him a special grace for this [December 1578].

She went on to extol his holiness, kindness, experience, and learning. Soon Ana de Jesús and her nuns affirmed Teresa's words through their own experience. John shared his poems with them, and began the work of commentary through his talks to them on hisSpiritual Canticle.

While the saintly friar served as rector at Baeza, his discalced brethren, through the intervention of the king, obtained juridical independence. In 1580 the Holy See allowed them to erect an autonomous province, but under the higher jurisdiction of the general of the order. Complete independence did not come until 1593, after the deaths of both Teresa and John, when Pope Clement VIII accorded the discalced Carmelites the same rights and privileges as other religious orders.

In 1582, Fray John was elected prior of a monastery adjacent to the site of the Alhambra, with an outstanding view of the Sierra Nevada and overlooking the enchanting city of Granada with its exotic traces of Moorish culture in evidence everywhere. Here, in addition to leading the community, John designed and worked on a new aqueduct and a new monastery building that became a model for the discalced. At the same time, his ministry of spiritual direction - not only to the friars and nuns but also to the clergy and lay people who came knocking at the monastery door seeking help - set in motion his work as a writer, and he began to compose his classic works of spirituality.

In 1585, at a chapter in Lisbon, John was elected vicar provincial of Andalusia. This office obliged him to travel frequently. He had to attend all the houses of friars and nuns in Andalusia, visiting each formally at least once a year. He founded seven new monasteries. All this brought him to Córdoba, Málaga, Caravaca, Jaén, and other renowned cities in the south of Spain.

Final Years

In the summer of 1588, John was elected third councillor to the vicar general for the discalced, Father Nicolás Doria, and had to return to Segovia in Castile, where in this capacity he was also prior. At his new site, one with a splendid view of Segovia and the surrounding area, he spent a good portion of his time again in manual labor, designing an addition to the monastery, quarrying stone for it, and working on its construction. He no longer wrote, but spent more time in prayer, going off to a cave on the property where he could view the countryside and have solitude for his deep contemplation. He had brought his latest work, The Living Flame of Love, to an unexpectedly swift close, confessing that he did not want to explain any further about the breathing of the Holy Spirit in the soul, "for I am aware of being incapable of so doing, and were I to try, it might seem less than it is."

Never one to shun those who came for help, John continued his ministry of spiritual direction; the business matters of the order's government were always claiming attention as well. In fact, these latter sparked another conflict, this time among the discalced themselves. The clash began when Nicolás Doria called an extraordinary chapter in June 1590 for the purpose of undertaking two controversial moves. First he wanted to abandon jurisdiction over the nuns, a reprisal against Madre Ana de Jesús who opposed his plans; Doria had hoped both to make changes in Teresa's constitutions and to govern the nuns through a body of councillors rather than through one friar appointed to the task. Second, he proposed the expulsion of Teresa's close collaborator, Father Jerónimo Gracián, from the discalced Carmelites. Fray John spoke in opposition to both moves. In the chapter the following year, different councillors were elected to assist Doria, and John remained without an office, a fact that was more a problem for others than for himself. When the news got about, some began raising strong protests. But John looked at things differently, as he so often did, and expressed his mind in a letter to the prioress in Segovia:

Do not let what is happening to me, daughter, cause you any grief, for it does not cause me any. What greatly grieves me is that one who is not at fault is blamed. Men do not do these things, but God, who knows what is suitable for us and arranges things for our own good. Think nothing else but that God ordains all, and where there is no love, put love, and you will draw out love [July 6, 1591].

Doria, in what seemed a rebuff, sent John of the Cross back intoAndalusia, to an isolated monastery called La Peñuela, a solitude like Duruelo or El Calvario. However, John was to stay there only in preparation for a mission to Mexico where he was to lead a group of 12 friars. He was happy in the solitude, but some ugly maneuverings began to disturb the peace of his friends, whom he had helped as spiritual director, and shattered the impressive silence of La Peñuela. Fray Diego Evangelista, with bitter resentment against his former superior, was going about threatening and intimidating, trying to gather information against the spiritual friar so as to have him expelled from the discalced. Fray Diego never had time to proceed far with his designs.

In mid-September John began to suffer a slight fever caused by an inflammation of the leg. Thinking it nothing serious, he paid little attention, but when it persisted he was forced to make the journey to Ubeda for the medical assistance that was unavailable at La Peñuela. Given the choice between Baeza and Ubeda, he chose Ubeda, "for at Baeza they know me very well, and in Ubeda nobody knows me." It was the last journey of his life.

The prior of the monastery at Ubeda, Fray Francisco Crisóstomo, did not welcome the sick man. Learned and famous as a preacher, Fray Crisóstomo had his weaknesses, among them a tendency to be mean and rigid. A sick friar was a nuisance and an expense as far as he was concerned, and he showed his vexation; nor did he care for people who were supposedly holy.

John's sickness grew worse. His leg was already ulcerated, and the disease, erysipelas, spread to his back where a new fist-sized tumor formed. On December 13, Fray John of the Cross, knowing that time was running short, called for the prior and begged pardon for all the trouble he had caused. This profoundly changed the prior, who himself then begged forgiveness and left the cell in tears, totally transformed. According to witnesses Fray Francisco Crisóstomo later died in the odor of sanctity.

That same night, when the friars began to recite the prayers for the dying, Fray John of the Cross begged, "No, read some verses from the Song of Songs," and then exclaimed, "Oh, what precious pearls!" At midnight, without agony, without struggle, he died, repeating the words of the psalmist: "Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit." The favors he had asked for in his last years he had now received: not to die as a superior, to die in a place where he was unknown, and to die after having suffered much.

Continue Reading: Saint John of the Cross - A Portrait of the Saint

This selection from The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross is offered for your personal use as an individual reader only. Please note that this material is copyrighted. It may not be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information, storage or retrieval system without prior written permission from the publisher.