Thomas Merton wrote a wonderful article on St. John of the Cross, his favorite saint, and begins by recommending a look at El Greco’s view of Toledo (above), where the artist lived as a contemporary of John of the Cross. Somewhere in that city John was imprisoned in a dark cell by fellow religious angered by his work for his community’s reform.
Toledo “is full of spiritual implications. It looks like a portrait of the heavenly Jerusalem wearing an iron mask. Yet there is nothing inert about these buildings. The dark city built on its mountain seems to be entirely alive. It surges with life, coordinated by some mysterious, providential upheaval which drives all these masses of stone upward toward heaven, in the clouds of a blue disaster that foreshadows the end of the world.”
Toledo “wearing an iron mask” was filled with God’s life-giving grace. Did Isaiah, Jeremiah and other Advent prophets we’re reading these days see Jerusalem in these same terms? Are our cities now like Toledo “wearing an iron mask” also filled with God’s grace?
Certainly John of the Cross found nothing humanly life-giving in his small prison room in the city. But he emerged from it carrying a canticle of praise he wrote there, which became one of the greatest poems in the Spanish language.
Merton translated a portion of the poem:
My Beloved is like the mountains.
Like the lonely valleys full of woods
The strange islands
The rivers with their sound
The whisper of the lovely air!
The night, appeased and hushed
About the rising of the dawn
The music stilled
The sounding solitude
The supper that rebuilds my life.
And brings me love.
Our bed of flowers
Surrounded by the lions’ dens
Makes us a purple tent,
Is built of peace.
Our bed is crowned with a thousand shields of gold!
Lions, harts and leaping does*
Mountains, banks and vales
Streams, breezes, heats of day
And terrors watching in the night:
By the sweet lyres and by the siren’s song
I conjure you: let angers end!
And do not touch the wall
But let the bride be safe: let her sleep on!
John found himself safe in God’s presence. “But let the bride be safe: let her sleep on!”
In his study, Merton recognizes that “St. John of the Cross is not everybody’s food. Even in a contemplative monastery there will be some who will never get along with him—and others who, though they think they know what he is about, would do better to let him alone. He upsets everyone who thinks that his doctrine is supposed to lead one by a way that is exalted. On the contrary, his way is so humble that it ends up by being no way at all, for John of the Cross is unfriendly to systems and a bitter enemy of all exaltation.”
At the same time John “ is one of the few saints who can gain a hearing in the most surprising recesses of an impure world. John of the Cross, who seems at first sight to be a saint for the most pure of the Christian elite, may very well prove to be the last hope of harlots and publicans.”
You can find the Merton’s masterful study of the spirituality of a great saint here. The Wixipedia article on John of the Cross gives details of his life.
John of the Cross is an important teacher of the spirituality of the Incarnation. “Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Rather he emptied himself and took on the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men, and it was thus that he humbled himself , obediently accepting even death, death on a cross.” Philippians 2