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Into the Night - Happy Feast of St John of the Cross!

Edward Howells and I are presently edited the papers from our 2021 conference 'St John of the Cross: Carmel, Desire and Transformation' to be published by Routledge later next year. In the meantime here is part of the Prologue to welcome you 'into the night'. Viva Juan de la Cruz!

Prologue: Into the Night

When the name ‘John of the Cross’ is mentioned certain images and ideas immediately come to mind. ‘Night’ being his most famous over-arching metaphor, usually compounded into the immortal phrase ‘dark night of the soul’. Those who are familiar with a little Spanish, and Carmelite, history may also think of this gifted young man, then 35 years old, being held for nine months in a prison that belonged to his religious order for reasons that even today seem obscure. The prison was perched high over the fierce river Tajo in the sierras of central Spain flowing past the imperial city of Toledo.

On a recent visit to that extraordinary city a group of us were invited, at midnight, to visit the location of John’s prison by the indefatigable prior of the Toledan Carmelite convent – Fray Tito. ‘In secret and disguise, our house being now all stilled’ as John might have said, we piled into the friar’s small, battered car and made our way through the dark and narrow alleys of the city, late tourists scattering to every side. When we reached the site of John’s prison, el Paseo del Carmen, we were confronted by a municipal garden and car-park – we were 200 years too late – the priory John was imprisoned in had been destroyed in the nineteenth century. Instead, we were faced with youths in baseball caps with skateboards enjoying all the sultry pleasures of a Spanish night after the torrid heat of the day.

Yet, in this unpromising situation, Fray Tito took us to the edge of the battlements where we could hear the roar of the Tajo in the ravine below – he then began to recite the lines that John had composed on this very spot some 400 years ago: ‘For I know well the fountain that flows and runs, although it is the night... It is here to call to creatures, and they are filled with water, although in darkness, because it is night...’[1]

Already in this incident we hear some of the key themes that will be taken up in this volume - a major reassessment of John’s writing and influence especially concentrating on the themes of desire and transformation in his spirituality and thought. First, there is the elusiveness of the man. Unlike his compatriot and co-worker, St Teresa of Avila, so vivid and present to us in her writings such as The Book of the Life, John seems remote and mysterious to us. He wrote very little about himself and what we do know about his life and character comes from later reports from friends, associates – and enemies – who tried to piece together something of the nature and character of this most extraordinary man some 30 years after he had died. This was sufficient time for a number of myths to grow up about the small Castilian friar and we shall return again and again in this volume to the job of piecing together the character and motivation of this most mysterious of mystics.

Secondly, there is the over-arching image of Night with which we started. Anyone who has visited Spain in the summer months will know that it is only at night that cities and villages come alive after a day spent avoiding the unbearable heat - the fiestas of the night only ending with the ‘dawn-song’ as the revellers make their way home in the early dawn. It is said that it was one such ‘dawn-song’ that John heard in his prison that inspired the incomparable poetry of the Spiritual Canticle beginning with the haunting phrase: ‘Where have you hidden Beloved, and left me moaning? You fled like the stag after wounding me; I went out calling you and you were gone.’[2] Many times in the present volume we shall return to John’s Night metaphor as we examine it from various philosophical, theological, psychological, aesthetic and sociological perspectives – indeed the nuances and implications of the metaphor are seemingly endless.

Finally, there is the search for the Beloved – the panting desire to find the one who has fled – even in the stark postmodern urban streetscape we find ourselves inhabiting in this young, and troubled, 21st- century. As the resonant syllables of the Spaniard’s poetry played on our hearts that unforgettable night in Toledo we experienced how John’s words remain as lively and relevant to our own disturbed times as they did in his own troubled 16tt - century Spain.

[1] John’s poem Cantar del Alma que se huelga de conocer a Dios por fe (‘La Fonte’) adapted from the translation in Kavanaugh and Rodriguez 1991: 723-4. A full description of the works of John of the Cross used in this volume is given in the Bibliography. [2] CB 1 adapted from Kavanaugh and Rodriguez 1991: 712.

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