Mystics: The Beauty of Prayer
(Columba Books, €12.99)
John of the Cross
A young man of 35 emerged from a prison cell clutching a small sheaf of papers, poems he had written while in prison. The prison cell was a little room originally intended as a closet, six feet wide and ten feet long. It had no window. The only opening was a slit high up in the wall, and it was impossible to see out of it. The cell was freezing in the winter and suffocating in the summer, and the man spent nine months in these conditions.
This was no ordinary situation, because the man who emerged from this cell in 1578 was Juan de Yepes, known to us as St John of the Cross; the prison cell was a cell of his Order of Carmelites, and the small sheaf of papers were to be recognised as among the greatest pieces of Christian mystical literature. All this, written from a prison cell!
Historians suggest that there have been three great periods of mysticism in the history of the Christian Church: the third and fourth centuries in the East (Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor); the fourteenth century in England and Northern Europe; and the sixteenth century in Spain. John of the Cross is among a group of mystics who lived in Spain in this third period, and he is one of the three who emerge as towering mystical giants of Spanish origin. The other two are Teresa of Avila and Ignatius of Loyola.
John was born in 1542, into a Jewish convert family in a small community near Avila. His father, who was disowned by his wealthy family for marrying a humble silk-weaver, died shortly after the birth of John, their third son. John, his two brothers and his widowed mother lived a life of poverty, moving around and living in various villages in the area.
At the age of 21 John entered the Carmelite monastery in Medina, later enrolling in the University of Salamanca, and was ordained a priest in 1567. While he was in Medina to celebrate his first Mass, he met Teresa of Avila, who had begun her reform within the Carmelite order. John told her that in fact he was longing for a life of deeper solitude and prayer, and had been thinking of transferring to the Carthusian Order. He was interested in helping Teresa in her plan to reform the Order, but only on the condition that he would not have to wait too long to begin. So began the link between these two extraordinary personalities. John was 25 years old, and Teresa was 52.
Of course, one accepts the vocation of reforming oneself and others only at one’s own peril, and understandably; as the reform movement gathered momentum, so did resistance and opposition to both Teresa and John of the Cross. In 1577 some Carmelites seized John and demanded a renunciation of the reform. John refused. He was declared a rebel and sent to prison in the monastery in Toledo.
‘Prisons’ or places of confinement were not uncommon in religious monasteries in those days. Men and women may have been less committed to the religious life, or they may have needed more ‘encouragement’ to persevere than perhaps today. Or maybe it was just the climate of the times. Whatever the situation, imprisonment was not uncommon. What was uncommon, though, was the length of time John was imprisoned, and the severity of his punishment. His food was bread, sardines and water. Three evenings a week he had to eat kneeling on the floor in the middle of the refectory. Then,when the community had finished eating, John’s shoulders were bared and each member of the community struck him with a lash while Psalm 50 was being recited. The wounds he received remained unhealed for years afterwards. After six months of this, John was assigned a new warder who was more compassionate. This warder gave him a change of clothes, and some paper and ink. John began to write down the great poems that had been forming in his mind.
It is remarkable enough that John was favoured by some of the most extraordinary mystical graces during his life. But it is equally remarkable that from conditions as appalling as his, he was able to pen poems of such intense love and freedom of spirit. Consider these lines, for example:
“One dark night
Fired with love’s urgent longings
– Ah! The sheer grace! –
I went out unseen.
My house being now all stilled.
On that glad night
In secret, for no one saw me
Nor did I look at anything
With no other light or guide
Than the one that burned in my heart….”
John was to find physical freedom when he escaped from his prison in August 1578 and journeyed to southern Spain. The following years were spent in administration and in writing commentaries on his poems. His troubles were not over, however. He was again accused of disturbing the order, and in 1591 he was again sent to a solitary monastery in southern Spain, and while there, he learned of efforts being made to expel him even from the reform movement which he had initiated.
In that same year, he succumbed to a fever, and he was obliged to leave the solitude he loved, and seek medical help somewhere. His final decision fitted the tenor of his life. He chose to go to Ubeda rather than to Baeza because “in Ubeda nobody knows me”. He was received there very coolly because his presence added to the community’s expenses. He died on December 13, 1591.
John’s life is a commentary on the truth that no external force or circumstance has the power to chain the inner Spirit we have been given. And that Spirit was made to soar high and free. His life of poverty and persecution could have produced a bitter cynic. Instead it formed a compassionate mystic who was able to write: “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.”
THE SOARING BIRD
It makes little difference whether a bird is tied by a thin thread
or by a cord. For even if tied by thread, the bird will be prevented
from taking off just as surely as if it were tied by cord – that is, it
will be impeded from flight as long as it does not break the thread.
Admittedly the thread is easier to rend, but no matter how easily
this may be done, the bird will not fly away without first doing so.
– John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel
“Cut the string, friend, cut the string!”
In February 1990, the Melbourne papers reported the suicide of a man about to be released from prison. The 37-year-old man had been jailed for the murder of his father. Under the headline “Tragic killer scared to death of freedom”, the article reported that in the 16 years he had been in prison, this man had never ever had a visitor, a letter or a phone call. He had become an institutionalised loner, who, when faced with freedom, had hung himself with an electric cord.
One cannot help contrasting the two men: John of the Cross who from his prison cell urges us to consider the image of a soaring bird, and the prisoner from Melbourne whose name also was John, who sees no way out in his life. One man ends his time of imprisonment with poems which sing of inner freedom and passionate love. The other ends his time of imprisonment by ending his life as well. It would be easy to see these two men as complete opposites. But it is not quite as simple as that. The difference between the two is not that one was scared of freedom and the other was not. John of the Cross also records that realising what real freedom meant was almost too much for him to bear. He wrote: “If his Majesty did not strengthen my weakness by a special help, it would be impossible to live.”
Both men indeed experienced a fear of freedom. But one took the choice of certainty through death, while the other took the choice of risk through letting go into the unknown.
“Scared to death of freedom…” Yes, that’s a good way of describing a human response. Many of us would have to admit that we are not too far from that response ourselves, even if we don’t take the step that the tragic killer from Melbourne took. But there are ways of putting oneself to death without taking one’s life. We can settle for a life that’s safe, predictable, controlled and free of risk. That would be to settle for life on flat earth, when the invitation of Jesus is to fly free. When you look at it, freedom is at the heart of Jesus’ message. We are made to be free. This is what lies underneath all the words and actions of Jesus. He tells us that he has come so that we may have life and more life and more life. He likens his gift to springs of water which bubble up continuously, or to a breath of wind which blows where it wills, freely and often unpredictably. He says:
“If you make my word your home
you will indeed be my disciples.
You will learn the truth and the truth will make you free.”
And when you look closely you begin to realise that the problem Jesus had with the Scribes and Pharisees was not that they were evil, or full of malice, or even that they were deliberately closed to Jesus’ invitation. It was just that they were, well, stuck. Stuck where they were, stuck with the need to be certain about everything, stuck even in their loyalty to their religion, stuck to the ground when they were really made for something different. “Look,” they said to Jesus, “We’ve got Abraham, and we know who he was and where he came from. We’ve got Moses, and we know who he was and what he did for us. We’ve got the Law written down and we know what it means. We’ve got the Temple, and we have God in the Holy of Holies. We’re quite happy about that because we’re certain about these things. But you…? We don’t know where you come from, or what your credentials are. We can’t be certain that you, with your different slant, are right. What say we let go of the Law (which we are sure about) and follow you (whom we’re not sure about), and then we discover that you are misguided? Where are we then? We’ll have lost everything!”
And Jesus’ response to all of this was not so much anger as sadness to the point of weeping. “If only you knew what was for your peace…but you wouldn’t. If only… If only… But you wouldn’t.” Fortunately for us, some people did let Jesus free them, and so we can see what takes place when we experience that freedom. But then we notice two things immediately. First, we notice that all the characters whom Jesus set free were people who could afford to let go because they had nothing to lose: their reputation was gone, their standing with others was zero. It was Jesus or nothing. They were ‘rock-bottom’ people – the woman caught in the act of adultery; the man who had been born blind; the man who had been 38 years at the pool waiting for a cure. They had nothing to lose, and so they could afford to take the risk and let Jesus free them.
But the second thing we notice is what this freedom did to them. In an explosion of foolish energy, one man danced in the temple. Another ran through the crowd singing and calling out praises to the confusion of the bystanders. A woman bursts in on a social occasion, completely unannounced, and washes Jesus’ feet. These foolish gestures could be done only by those who had felt an extraordinary weight falling off their shoulders – or to go back to our image, by those who felt that the cord which tied them was cut, and they were set free.
“Unbind him,” said Jesus over Lazarus, “and let him go free.” These are the words Jesus wants us to hear as we try to stare down the things that bind us. But when the chips are down, most of usare probably afraid of freedom. However much we struggle against losing our freedom, in the end we are probably even more afraid of the consequences of being really free.
When the walls of the communist dictatorship were crumbling in the Eastern-bloc countries, a journalist, commenting on the situation, said: “The people cannot live without freedom, but they don’t realise how difficult it is to live with freedom.”
The well-known parable in Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov dramatically describes this struggle with true freedom. According to the story, Christ arrives in a town in Spain in the sixteenth century, and continues the work he did in Palestine. He heals the sick and sets people free from the things that burden them. The people recognise him and adore him, but he is arrested by the authorities of the Inquisition and sentenced to be burnt to death the next day. The Grand
Inquisitor visits him in his cell to tell him that the Church no longer needs him. He accuses him of imposing on people the impossible burden of freedom. He says that Jesus should have given people no choice; then at least they would have had security. The Inquisitor tells Jesus that he, the Inquisitor, will be thanked for taking the responsibility for telling people what to do in conscience. The Inquisitor ends his speech: “I repeat, tomorrow You shall see that obedient flock who at a sign from me will hasten to heap up the hot cinders about the pile on which I shall burn You for coming to hinder us. For if anyone has ever deserved our fires, it is you. Tomorrow I shall burn you. I have spoken.” Christ, who has been silent throughout the speech, walks to the Inquisitor and kisses him. No argument can overcome the kiss. The Inquisitor releases Christ but tells him to leave the city and never return. Christ, still silent, goes out into “the dark alleys of the city”. As for the Inquisitor: “The kiss glows in his heart, but the old man adheres to his idea.”
Living with freedom is a risky business, and perhaps only children can do that properly. When Jesus counselled Nicodemus to become like a child, Nicodemus rather scornfully reminded Jesus how difficult it would be to return to the mother’s womb. Regressing physically wasn’t what Jesus meant, but it’s even harder to go back and recapture the inner spirit of a child.
There’s a wonderful passage in the novel Zorba the Greek which sums it all up, really. The narrator is talking to Zorba:
“Perhaps I’ll come along with you,” I said, “I’m free.”
Zorba shook his head.
“No, you’re not free. The string you’re tied to is perhaps longer than other people’s. That’s all. You’re on a long piece of string, boss; you come and you go, and think you’re free, but you never cut the string in two. And when people don’t cut that string…”
“I’ll cut it some day!” I said defiantly, because Zorba’s words had touched an open wound in me and hurt.
“It’s difficult, boss, very difficult. You need a touch of folly to do that: folly, don’t you see? You have to risk everything! But you’ve got such a strong head; it’ll always get the better of you. A man’s head is like a grocer; it keeps accounts; I’ve paid so much and earned so much, and that means a profit of this much or a loss of that much! The head’s a careful little shopkeeper; it never risks all it has, always keeps something in reserve. It never breaks the string.”
He was silent, helped himself to some more wine, but started to speak again.
“You must forgive me, boss,” he said, “I’m just a clodhopper. Words stick between my teeth like mud to my boots. I just can’t turn out beautiful sentences and compliments. I just can’t. But you understand, I know.”
He emptied his glass and looked at me.
“You understand!” he cried, as if suddenly filled with anger. “You understand and that’s why you’ll never have any peace. If you didn’t understand, you’d be happy! What d’you lack? You’re young, you have money, health, you lack nothing. Nothing, by thunder! Except just one thing – folly! And when that’s missing, boss, well….”
He shook his head and was silent again. I nearly wept. All that Zorba said was true. As a child I had been full of mad impulses, superhuman desires. I was not content with the world. Gradually, as time went by, I grew calmer. I set limits, separated the possible from the impossible, the human from the divine. I held my kite tightly so that it should not escape…”
What God wants for us is to be free, and to live our lives with music in our soul. This is no far-away ideal, beyond human reach. The friends of God whose lives and experiences we’ve considered in this book, and so many thousands of others over the centuries, offer us proof that it is possible to let oneself fall into the arms of a loving God. And when that happens, what freedom of spirit there is!
Somewhere in my collection of favourite thoughts, I have kept this poem. I have no record of who wrote it, but I know it is based on John of the Cross’ work, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. The poem has encouraged and challenged me for a long time.
“From now on I’m always at his door
I gave away my heart and my fortune
I have no flock to shepherd any more
And there’s no other work in my future.
My only occupation is love
If friends ask for me
Tell them I’m off on an adventure
I’m lost on purpose
To be found by love.”
As I read the poem I think I see John of the Cross looking at us across the centuries, and saying gently, but with his eyes piercing through our defences, “Cut the string, friend, cut the string!” He himself had done it, and he had found the foolish freedom of the friends of God.
‘Mystics: The Beauty of Prayer’ by Craig Larkin, S.M. is available to purchase here.