John of the Cross News
On 16th September 2023 a major international conference will take place at Sao Paolo, Brazil titled 'Soul Encounters: Depth Psychology, Body, Soul and Spirit'. Although I cannot attend in person I will presenting on Spiritual Transformation in St John of the Cross's 'Spiritual Canticle'. I include an extract from it below. To attend the conference online or in person please go to: https://forms.gle/krtvABNbYf5dpMbUA . I hope to see you there.
Also, the papers from our 2021 conference on John are now being edited by Routledge and we hope they will appear before the end of the year. I will post further developments on this on this site.
All my love
Introduction: The Cántico and its Origins
The famous Bloomsbury critic, Gerald Brenan once described St John of the Cross as a ‘man of two books’: the Hebrew Song of Songs and the Spanish Renaissance poetry of Garcilaso de la Vega (c.1501 – 1536). To this we can add the popular canciones of his day (Brenan 1973: 103-5). These literary influences combined in the mysterious crucible of the dungeon of Toledo where he was imprisoned by his own Order in the long cold winter and hot summer of 1577-78 with his understanding of the medieval theologia mystica (he won a class prize for his essay on Dionysius whilst a student at Salamanca University) and estimation of the importance of art for nurturing the spiritual life, to create some of the most inspiring and significant Christian verse ever written. The resulting poem, known in Spanish as the Cántico Espiritual (English: ‘Spiritual Canticle’, not John’s own title) is thus a remarkable work that produces an almost cinematic effect on the listener, playing, as it does, with time and space to disorientate the listener. As the British Hispanist Colin Thompson writes:
Changes of speaker, audience, tense, location, large numbers of unrelated images; paradox, logical nonsense, constant uncertainty on the reader’s part as to the exact meaning – the whole poem is constructed in this extraordinary manner. In parts it is almost impressionistic in feel; in other parts, it seems to be using a 16th century equivalent of modern cinematographic technique: - flashbacks introduced without warning, events implied rather than stated, characters introduced in passing, focussed upon briefly, then discarded. (Thompson 1977:86)
Whilst the contemporary American Carmelite, Sr Constance Fitzgerald writes:
Because it brings together delight and suffering, happiness and death, the Spiritual Canticle is a mysterious text, difficult to interpret. (Fitzgerald 2000: 334)
As I read this I am reminded of two lines of poetry from the Glaswegian poet, Edwin Morgan:
‘I have to tell you John of the Cross called
Said to remind you light and death once met’
(Edwin Morgan: Salvador Dali: Christ of St John of the Cross)
When considering the Cántico we cannot separate consideration of the poem from the circumstances of its composition, beginning with John’s ‘imprisonment’ by his fellow Friars in an eyrie high above the rushing torrents of the river Tajo in Toledo, central Spain. If you go there today you will be confronted by a municipal car park with the concomitant baseball-hatted youths with skateboards and old ladies enjoying the cool of the breeze from this vantage point. Yet, even today, the roar of the waters below can be heard and it does not take much effort to transport ourselves to the unspeakable confinement of John’s cell, once used as a latrine, alternately boiling in the summer and freezing in the winter, with little light and little chance of escape. The circumstances of his imprisonment need not detain us (if you want to know more we can discuss it in the Q and A afterwards). A sense of the conditions of his confinement can be had from the testimony of his gaoler forty years after the event, Fray Juan de Santa María. Still vivid and still bleeding after all those years:
During the time I was in charge, which was the latter part of his imprisonment, they brought him to the refectory three or four times, with all friars present, to receive the discipline, which they gave him with a certain severity. He never spoke, but rather bore it with patience and love. When this was over, they sent him back at once to his prison. Seeing his great patience, I felt compassion, and sometimes I opened the prison door after dinner and let him leave it to get some air in a room across from the little prison.
From the depositions of John’s beatification process, some twenty years after his death, we find that the first origins of the Cántico arose during John’s time in the Toledo prison between 1577 and 1578. From these records we have also accounts of John having worked on the poems based on ‘In the beginning was the word’ and ‘By the waters of Babylon’ as well as the poem that begins Que bien sé yo la fonte que mana y corre usually called ‘The Fountain’. Although there are some accounts of youthful verses, much of which were destroyed when he entered the Order, it seems as though the Toledan imprisonment was the catalyst that triggered the remarkable explosion of creativity in the 35 year old that puts John’s poetry amongst some of the most highly valued poetry in all Spanish literature.
As both Brenan and Thompson concur, the use of popular song was an acceptable form of Carmelite practice and of the two saints, St Teresa seems to have been less adverse to utilising these popular song forms in her entertainments for her sisters (her tambourine and castanets can still to this day be seen in the Encarnación at Ávila). John himself was brought up in close contact with the morisco and gypsy communities of Castille and would no doubt have heard many of the popular songs of the hybrid Castillian tradition as a young lad. ‘These little verses’, writes Brenan: were sung everywhere as popular coplas used to be till the transistor radio drove them out and we know that Juan’s brother Francisco often had one on his lips… their subject was nearly always love, like that of pop songs today. (Brenan 1973:104) These little verses, or villancicos, usually only two or three lines long and often repeated, can be found throughout John’s smaller poems, most notably in the repeated refrain of ‘La Fonte’: ‘aunque es de noche’. Despite Brenan’s pessimism it is possible even now to still hear these little coplas and villancicos sung spontaneously in Spanish streets at night – usually during Fiesta time. It seems this exuberant strand of Spanish life cannot be suppressed even by the onslaught of modern music media.  Morgan 2007: 79.  In P. Silverio de Santa Teresa Obras, Vol V, 1929. The documents and records of the processes for John’s beatification, such as this, carried out between 1614 and 1618 and then later between 1627 and 1628 mean that we have sufficient records to piece together much of the circumstances of the writing of the poem. However, despite these depositions there still remains much about the composition of the Cántico which is disputed and unknown and will probably remain so forever.