Friday, 13 December 2013
Happy Feast Day - St John of the Cross! Viva San Juan de La Cruz!
On this day 422 years ago a young Spanish man died an agonising death in the small Andalusian town of Ubeda. Almost as soon as he died rumours began to circulate about strange events connected with his life and death. It was said that as a boy he had fallen into a deep well and as he struggled against the water a beautiful lady had appeared to him and brought him to safety. Later, as an older friar, a fire had raged through the Sierra of Andalusia threatening his community's home - using a crucifix and through prayer he had managed to turn back the flames...
These were clearly remarkable events and give testimony to the young man's ability to transcend the ordinary boundaries of time, space and causality. Such is the stuff of legends, saints and wonderworkers and it would be churlish, in our empirical age, to deny him those wonders for which the Spanish people have long venerated his memory.
Yet, while the myth-making machinery was under way another story became attached to the young man - he had defied religious authorities. He was 'contumacious', unruly and undisciplined. There was a certain amount of guilt about how his superiors had treated him - had he not been imprisoned for nine months? Surely there is no smoke without fire? He MUST have done something wrong? And why did all his superiors have arguments with him anyway?
John was a problem then and he remains a problem today. His co-worker, St Teresa of Avila, was canonised by the Catholic Church within a few years of her death. John had to wait 150 years after his death - and several generations - before this political and theological hot potato would be accepted (and even then reluctantly in some quarters) by the church authorities.
Thorn-bush he may have been - but he was also a gentle man. In this I am reminded of the late Nelson Mandela. Another prophet who emerged transfigured from a potentially brutalising incarceration. As Mandela emerged, a changed man, after his 27 years in prison, so too did John after his 'dark night' in the Toledo dungeon - unlike Mandela emerging alone in the middle of the night and wandering through the empty streets trying to seek refuge before dawn. All doors were closed to him but a kindly nightwatchman let him spend the last hours before dawn in the entrance to a palace just off the Plaza de Zocodover. As dawn approached - O Alborado! - he staggered through the streets seeking the poor little house where Teresa's fledgling nuns lived. He banged on the door and eventually one of the sisters recognised him - disfigured as he was.Yet, and once again we have another of those stories, we hear that once he received the kindness of the sisters - a dish of stewed pears, a gentle smile, a little Spanish song sung in a low voice - he finally broke down completely. The wiry little man had been broken on the wheel - and out of this wound flowed a thousand graces: an ocean of poetry flooded over the man and John himself was born along on it like a little helpless cork - 'all those who wonder see a thousand graces in your face...'
From this time his, and Teresa's, order, the Discalced Carmelites, prospered so that today there are now very few lands where they do not have a presence. Dispensing that same simple kindness - through a quiet thoughtful presence - to the dispossessed, fragile victims of the brutality of our broken world. The poetry he wrote in prison, and later in the warm South, is now acknowledged to be some of the finest in Spanish literature. But, over and over again, like Mandela, what remains is the gentle presence of the man - a quiet, honourable soul who stared into the eyes of his oppressors and was able to return their hatred with love: 'where there is no love, put love', he wrote at the end of his journey, 'and you will end up drawing out love.'
'John of the Cross left a message today', wrote the great Glaswegian poet Edwin Morgan, 'he asked you to remember that love and death once met...'
Happy Feast Day Juan de la Cruz! RIP Nelson Mandela, 1918 - 2013