The incorrupt and esoteric passion of John of the Cross: “Llama de amor viva” (Oh, white hot flame of passion)

Llama de amor viva

Canciones que hace la alma en la íntima unión en Dios (1584 or 1585)

by Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591)

¡Oh llama de amor viva,
que tiernamente hieres
de mi alma en el más profundo centro!
Pues ya no eres esquiva,
acaba ya si quieres;
rompe la tela de este dulce encuentro.

¡Oh cauterio suave!
¡Oh regalada llaga!
¡Oh mano blanda! ¡Oh toque delicado!
que a vida eterna sabe, y toda deuda paga;
matando, muerte en vida la has trocado.

¡Oh lámparas de fuego,
en cuyos resplandores
las profundas cavernas del sentido,
que estaba oscuro y ciego,
con estraños primores
calor y luz dan junto a su querido!

¡Cuán manso y amoroso
recuerdas en mi seno
donde secretamente solo moras,
y en tu aspirar sabroso
de bien y gloria lleno,
cuán delicadamente me enamoras!

White Hot Flame of Passion

[translated by DK Fennell]

Oh white hot flame of passion,
how carefully you scorch me
in the center of my soul’s deepest part!
No longer are you distant
attain it if you wish now,
rip the curtain for our sweet rendevous.

Oh cautery so pleasant!
Oh medicated ulcer!
With a delicate, soft hand and light touch
that endless life it knows of
and every debt it pays back,
And by killing, you have changed death to life.

Oh lambent flaming lanterns
in whose resplendent flickers
the deep underground caverns of my soul
that once were blind and sullen
with exquisite strange beauty
to their lover shine warm, glorious light.

So lovesome and so peaceful
you call within my bossom
where in secret isolation you reside;
and in your fragrant breathing
so full of glorious virtue
with such splendor you enkindle my love.

Juan de Yepes Álvarez was a child of passion, in an Age that despised it.

Church at the birthplace of Juan de la Cruz in Fontiveros, Ávila, Spain. (Photograph by Cruccone. In Wkimedia Commons.)

Church at the birthplace of Juan de la Cruz in Fontiveros, Ávila, Spain. (Photograph by Cruccone. In Wkimedia Commons.)

Juan’s father, Gonzalo de Yepes, had been born into an eminent family of Spanish conversos, ethnic Jews who converted to Catholicism. (There were no open, unconverted Jews in Spain after the Edict of Expulsion in 1492.) Over the years, despite being part of the Universal Church, they suffered any number of legal and social disabilities. Even when they weren’t under some restraint, they were generally under suspicion. So they tended to live together, work in the same lines, assist each other in advancement, and in their dealings with non-Jews remain wary and distrustful. Some even entered the Church, usually a generation or so removed from the conversion, and often with a fervor all the greater, as though to make up for their heritage. Despite the efforts of the Spanish monarch, who needed both the expertise and money of the conversos, however, they never fully integrated.

As for Juan’s father, Gonzalo was orphaned at an early age and taken in by uncles who were wealthy silk traders. (This was a trade monopolized by conversos.) The family was so eminent that despite being conversos, they had numerous high church functionaries.  Four of their brothers were canons of Toledo Cathedral, another the Archdeacon of a collegiate church and yet another an inquisitor. Gonzalo could have looked forward to a respectable and comfortable life, but before he could be established as a silk merchant, he made a serious mistake. On his way to the Medina del  Campo Fair, he stopped in Fontiveros and met a silk weaver, Catalina Álvarez, and he fell in love. If this had been Italy, his condition might have been the subject of a madrigal. But in Spain frivolities were not celebrated. He must have known the consequence; either because she was a peon or perhaps because she was a gentile, or both, she was unacceptable to the family. His decision nonetheless to marry her condemned himself, Catalina and their future children to a life of poverty. After the uncles disowned him, he was forced to settle with his wife, learn the weaving trade, and toil away for 12 years in Fontiveros, where he died after a long and debilitating illness, shortly after Juan was born in 1542. He left his wife with three boys, one of whom is said to have been mentally retarded. (Gerald Brenan, St John of the Cross: His Life and Poetry (Cambridge: 1973), pp 3-4.) Located in the middle of a sun-baked plain, Fontiveros is still a small town filled only with ermitas, conventos and iglesias, not farming, trade or industry. Juan would grow up in grinding, but pious, poverty. His mother could get no help from her children’s great uncles, despite making a grueling foot trip to beg them. An early biographer, Jerónimo de San José, in 1641 credited the poverty of Fontiveros for giving Juan his lifelong preference for mortifications of the flesh. (Robert A. Herrera, Silent Music: The Life, Work, and Thought of St. Johnof the Cross (Grand Rapids: c2004), at 24-35.) With this attitude Jerónimo demonstrated one way in which the Church justifies poverty and why it was so fiercely supported by the wealthy in Spain.

Physicians treating syphilis (the "Great Pox) with mercury. (Woodcut. Vienna, ca. 1498.)

Physicians treating syphilis (the “Great Pox) with mercury. (Woodcut. Vienna, ca. 1498.)

After one son died from privations, Juan’s mother decided they had to move to seek better opportunity. But Spain was not ripe in that commodity. The family first went to Arevalo, then to Medina del Campo. Medina at least offered the opportunity to give Juan over to an orphanage, where he was probably better fed and clothed. But he was unsuited for the trades they tried to make him for. He eventually found a position at a hospital in Medina. The grim nature of his ministrations there are conveyed by the name, el hospital de las bubasbubas being the tumors or granulomas that appear on the body as a result of leprosy or in the tertiary stage of syphilis. (Both arose in Spain about the same time, were transported to the New World from there, and were not clearly distinguished by medical science then.) He was also required as part of this position to beg for alms to support the institution. His diligence, tender succour, and disingenuousness (for which he was known his whole life) allowed him a small but significant preferment. He was accepted into a Jesuit school, where he would learn Latin reasonably well and discover that his life’s calling was to be a friar in a mendicant order. (It is not surprising that depending on the charity of others would be his career; he knew nothing other.) So in 1563, when he was 21, he took the habit of the Carmelites, who had a house in Medina. (See his entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1913).) A hagiography by a modern Carmelite, Michael Dodd, notices a parallel between Juan and his father, both having given up everything for love, in Juan’s case for the Virgin. Of course Juan had considerably less to sacrifice than his father. In one respect, however, there was a similarity. Just as Gonzalo had married against the wishes of his uncles, Juan left the hospital secretly to enter the order; the hospital administrator had hoped he would study for the priesthood to become a chaplain of the hospital (Brenan at 6.) When he made his profession a year later, Juan took the name Juan de San Matías.

The Carmelites recognized the proficiency he had developed in Latin at the Jesuit school and sent him to study for the priesthood. They had a very small college at the University of Salamanca. The Carmelites did not share the Jesuits’ view of the importance of education. But it was nonetheless at the oldest and most prestigious university in Spain, one of the major centers of learning in Europe. Although speculative inquiry or humanities was not prized in Spain, Salamanca had become the source of bureaucrats and functionaries for the Empire. Even earlier it often provided technical expertise for the Court of Ferdinand and Isabel, who were interested in rationalizing administration. Columbus, for example, argued the case for his first expedition before a panel of geographers from the University.

Friar Luis de León by Francisco Pacheco (ca. 1599) from Libro de descripción de verdaderos retratos de ilustres y memorables varones (Pedro M Piñero Ramírez & Rogelio Reyes Cano, ed.) (Sevilla: Diputación Provincial de Sevilla: 1985).

El Maestro Frai Luis de León by Francisco Pacheco (ca. 1599) from Libro de descripción de verdaderos retratos de ilustres y memorables varones (Sevilla: 1599).

Although Juan spent the usual three years at Salmanca, he appears not to have been involved or even influenced by the intellectual life of the University. In fact there is no evidence that he even met the famous converso Luis de León, who would become, next to Teresa and Juan himself the most lyrical mystical poet of the Spanish language. The later case of Luis would also go unheeded by Juan. Although a man of impeccable orthodoxy himself, and indeed a protégé of the grim and duplicitous Mechor Cano (a man who would arbitrate orthodoxy for the Inquisition), Luis de León would run afoul of the anti-Luther hysteria about to grip Spain and ended in prison for 5 years, solely for having translated the Song of Songs into Spanish. Mysticism, religious fervor and expressive, joyous faith were about to become heretical in Catholic Spain. But Juan was not attuned to grand politics (it was above his station) and his goal was to withdraw from the world, not to understand its rules. Others who knew him at the University left records. He is said to have studiously read in his dark cell and spent much of every night in prayer. He flagellated himself and fasted diligently. He upbraided the few fellow Carmelites in his college for the slightest breach of rules, which he found lax enough. In short, he was earnest, severe and friendless. (Brenan at 8.)

Saint Teresa of Avila's Vision of the Dove by Peter Paul Rubens. (Oil on canvas. 1612-14. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.)

Saint Teresa of Avila’s Vision of the Dove by Peter Paul Rubens. (Oil on panel. 1612-14. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam.)

When after three years Juan returned to Medina a priest, he was about to leave the Carmelites owing to their laxity. And then a coincidence that set the course for the rest of his life happened. Teresa of Ávila was in Medina to found an order of “reformed” Carmelites (Discalced, that is “barefoot,” for their primitive, severe rules), and she literally collected him for her project by her power of will. She was 52, no longer doubtful as to the source of her mystical experiences; in fact, her autobiography was already written (it was the history of her quest to perfect prayer and union with God). Now she was ardent to set up not only new reformed Carmelite convents but also priories with friars to hear the confessions of the nuns she trained in her way of prayer.

Mysticism and the erotic in Theresa's passion. The head of Bernini's Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. (Marble sculpture. 1652. Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.)

Mysticism and the erotic in Theresa’s passion. The head of Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. (Marble sculpture. 1652. Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome.)

Juan could no more resist her than artists through the ages have. Bernini sculpted her in meditation as he imagined his most ardent mistress. George Eliot found traits in her that would make up Dorthea in Middlemarch. Juan was not an artist or a thinker and he was probably not expansive enough to see her other than as the opportunity to withdraw into the kind of strict, primitive faith, with severe self-mortification, that he was looking for. He became Juan de la Cruz. So Juan with two other men opened the first reformed Carmelite monastery (it was a shack) at Duruelo. (Teresa describes the event in chapters 12 & 13 of the Book of the Foundations, the book in which she celebrates the monasteries and convents she established. ) She grew to trust Juan, and he became her confessor. But she always treated him wryly; she found him much too single-minded in his spiritual fixedness. She described him as half a friar to her nuns when she first recruited him. (He was under 5 feet tall.) She once told him, “God deliver us from people who are so spiritual that they want to turn everything into perfect contemplation.” And she said of him: “If one tries to talk to Padre Fray Juan de la Cruz of God, he falls into a trance and you along with him.” He in turn always held her to the same strictness he held everyone. (Brenan at 24-25.) His consistency was child-like, his faith was not weathered by doubts and searchings as Teresa’s was.

But when the time came, and he was spirited away in the dead of night to prison, Teresa was inconsolable. The unreformed Carmelites rigged an election for prioress and obtained (arguably) the legal right to eject Juan. When he refused, they came with the constable at their head. He and a fellow friar disappeared without a trace on December 2, 1577, just like any victim of the Inquisition. And to be accused before the Inquisition was punishment in itself. (Luis de León had just been released after 5 years; he had no trial; he was neither convicted nor acquitted.) Teresa immediately wrote to Philip II and requested his intervention; she feared their enemies capable of anything:

“I quite sympathize with the sufferings of this servant of God, which he endures with such patience and perfection; and this induces me to beseech your Majesty, either to take him under your protection, or to remove the cause of these dangers, for he belongs to a family that is extremely attached to your Majesty: independent of this consideration, he has great merits of his own. I consider him to be a man sent by God and our blessed Lady, for whom he has such a tender devotion. Our Lord conducted him to our order, that he might be of assistance to me: for as I have now laboured alone for more than seventeen years, my weak health will not allow me to endure much more.” (No. I.)

Fray Gerónimo Gracián by José López Enguidanos. (Intaglio print. 1791. Retratos de los españoles ilustres, Real Imprenta de Madrid.

Fr. Gerónimo Gracián by José López Enguidanos. (Intaglio print. 1791. Retratos de los españoles ilustres, Real Imprenta de Madrid.) Jerónimo Gracián was Teresa’s superior and a poet and mystic in his own right.

She then wrote the Archbishop of Evora (later King of Portugal) about Juan’s imprisonment: “Brother John of the Cross, is considered by all to be a saint, and this opinion is not without a good foundation; in my judgment he is a great treasure.” (No. X.) Then she worried about all the letters she wrote and how they might be used against Juan and her. She unburdened herself of her great despair to her intimate friend, Jerónimo Gracián: “I am deeply distressed about Fray Juan and afraid they may bring some further accusation against him. God’s treatment of his friends is terrible, though really they have nothing to complain of since he did the same to his own Son.” (Brenan at 29.)

Her fears were not misplaced. On the night they abducted him they beat him without mercy. They then hauled him blindfolded to Toledo where a mock court was convened. Theresa’s enemy Friar Jerónimo Tostado presided. When Juan refused to recant, he was found guilty of  rebellion and contumacy and sentenced to imprisonment of unfixed duration. He was held in an ordinary cell, until the friar he was arrested with attempted an escape, and then Juan was confined to a 6 by 10 foot latrine. It offered only enough light to read at midday (he would have to stand on a step and hold the book as high as he could) and provided no protection from the freezing winter or the intense heat of summer. He was given no change of clothing and so he was infested with lice. And when he was permitted out on fast days, he was subjected to mocking by the prior, and caning on his shoulders by the friars while the Miserere was recited. They made him eat his bread on his knees. (Brenan at 29-31.)

Juan was taken from AVilla to Toledo for trial and imprisonment. The city was ancient then and has never escaped the grip of the medeival.

Juan was taken from Ávilla to Toledo for trial and imprisonment. The city was ancient then and has never escaped the grip of the medeival.

Despite the beatings Juan preferred the fast days, because on all others he was left alone without companionship, even his gaolers refused to talk to him. And in his loneliness he began to doubt whether he was not acting sinfully in refusing to recant. Perhaps he would die in mortal sin, because with his dysentery, the infections, the worms growing over his skin, his imminent death seemed likely. His spiritual crisis deepened until, according to Jerónimo de San José, he had a startling awakening prompted by an unlikely source. He heard a lovesick swain singing a popular song, the point of which was: “I am dying from love. What shall I do?” and his lover answers him: “Die.” The way out of his spiritual crisis started to become clear to Juan: Dying to live, darkness to light, prison to freedom — all the mystical contradictions began to make sense to him. Soon he had a new gaoler to add to his new fortune. He was now given scraps of paper and a pen, and Juan began to write. He composed poems, part of the Cántívo espíritual and many others, and he started his spiritual treatises, Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Dark Night of the Soul. (Brenan at 30-32.)

In August 1578 he devised and carried out a daring escape plan. He daily wore out the fasteners to the lock on the door until one night (August 14, significantly the eve of the Assumption, an important day for one who for so long relied on the Virgin) he believed he could force it. He did. He sneaked through the priory, let himself down with torn strips of the rugs he slept on, narrowly landed on a wall on the side of a precipitous river bank, and made his way through the city to the Carmelite convent. The next morning they let him in. He told his story, and soon he breathlessly dictated some of the poems he wrote in his small prison cell.

View from the monastery El Calvario in Andalusia.

View from the monastery El Calvario in Andalusia.

Like Bunyan or Dostoevsky or Cervantes or even Oscar Wilde, prison gave him the inner room to work through his thoughts and to discover the language to express them in. But it also gave him an audience. Those who saw him after the experience were shocked by his condition. “He was like a dead man …,” said Ana de Jesús. He would collapse if he remembered his ordeal and salvation; on hearing the line of a song, penas son el traje de amadores (“pains are the dress of lovers”), he broke down weeping and could not move for an hour. (Brenan at 41.) Friends of reform provided him protection. He was sent to a hermitage, El Calvario, hundreds of miles from Toledo, in the forested mountains of eastern Andalusia. Here he dwelt in almost primitive paradise, and here he completed almost all the poetry he would ever write.

He left that retreat after eight months. Then he founded a college in 1579, the same year the attempts to destroy the Discalced faction was resolved by Philip II, who arranged a petition to the Pope to separate the order into two provinces. 1580 brought a severe influenza epidemic to Spain which killed his mother and greatly debilitated Teresa. He would see Teresa only one time more, for one evening in November 1581. It was the first time they had met since before the imprisonment. There is no record of what transpired. She died the following October.

Juan grew more paternal; he lightened the severity to novices; he completed his prose commentaries on his poems (which were designed for spiritual enlightenment). In 1785 he wrote “Llama de amor viva,” and finished his career in poetry. He would live long enough to see the Discalced Carmelites enjoy the petty squabbles and political infighting that comes with any spiritual group’s “respectability.” And Juan flirted with disaster with the Inquisition.

There is some evidence that Juan was denounced not once but as many as four times to the Inquisition late in life. The Inquisition was in the phase of its career of treating “heresy,” which was usually called Lutheranism. Melchor Cano had performed the religious office for the first auto de fé for heresy, which was conducted in the Plaza Mayor of Spain’s capital Valladolid on Trinity Sunday (May 21), 1559. After Cano read his sermon, the sentences were read: 14 were condemned to death including five women. Most showed sufficient signs of penitence that they were granted the relief of being garroted before burned, although one, who had believed in saving grace rather than the intercession of priests, was burned alive. Burnings for heresy would proceed apace. Sometimes burnings took place singly; other times with all the formality of a day-long auto de fé complete with sermon and multiple victims, as took place in Toledo in 1571. (W. Ward, G.W. Prothero, S. Leathes (ed.), The Cambridge Modern History: Vol II: The Reformation (NY: 1904), p407-08.) Luis de León was imprisoned in Valladolid during his inquisition from 1572 to 1576. In heresy the Inquisition focused on any signs of Lutheranism. That meant any showing of religious fervor, teachings of a personal relation with the divine, or demeaning even in the slightest the role of the priesthood or its rituals. When prompted the Inquisition would target even the most respectable of clergymen. Melchor Cano spearheaded and doggedly pursued the destruction of his rival Bartolomé Carranza, a doctor of theology, envoy to the Council of Trent in 1546, who was so orthodox that he had the duty of examining and condemning books for heresy while in Flanders and England. Nevertheless he was no match for the cunning of Cano, who engineered his arrest in 1559. He would remain imprisoned in Spain for seven years and then be taken to Rome, where he would be confined for another 10. He was eventually released, and there was no finding of heresy but he was suspended from his see and required to abjure, which he did and then soon after died. (The story of how Cano stalked Carranza is told in vivid style with great detail in Henry Charles Lea, History of the Inquisition of Spain, Vol II (NY: 1906), pp51ff.)

Auto-da-fe on Plaza Mayor, Madrid by Francisco Rizi. (Oil on canvas. 1683. Museo del Prado, Madrid.)

Auto-da-fe on Plaza Mayor, Madrid by Francisco Rizi. (Oil on canvas. 1683. Museo del Prado, Madrid.) The painting depicts an auto de fé in 1680 before Charles II.

Juan had serious cause for concern. His writings, which had been copied extensively, had all the earmarks, not necessarily of Lutheran theology, but equally as heretical, the fervor of an enthusiast. He was associated with Teresa, who had written extensively on prayer — a subject on which it was impossible to remain strictly orthodox (as orthodoxy was viewed in Spain). She and Juan were both conversos. Teresa’s grandfather had even been convicted by the Inquisition of relapsing to Judaism. And Juan was now a leading figure of a group who had serious disputes within the Order — and being a fomenter was itself a dangerous sign.

The Inquisition apparently bided its time. In 1591, however, the new vicar-general of the Discalced Carmelites, Nicolás Doria, began something of a campaign against Juan. He saw to it that Juan was not reappointed  to the offices he held. And more alarmingly, Doria had an inveterate enemy of Juan’s begin to collect evidence against him. Among other things he threatened witnesses, destroyed evidence and used other means generally accepted in theological disputations. Juan was so alarmed that he destroyed his papers.

Juan would not live long enough to endure the anguish of an inquisition; he would have to endure another, shorter one. By September he developed an inflammation of his right foot. For the next three months tumors would develop all over his body. Surgeons opened his body and tried to cauterize the ulcers, but his condition worsened so that he could not stand being touched. On December 14 he died.

*  *  *

Having gone on at such length about the biography, I will limit my comments on the poem properly to a few observations.

First, Juan de la Cruz wrote a very extensive commentary on the religious symbolism of the poem. It has been translated by a sympathetic expert, and so I won’t address the religious “meaning.” One thing is fairly apparent on first reading of the commentary. Juan’s use of scripture is completely different from Bunyan’s. Juan can develop extended metaphors based on a single Biblical image. Bunyan’s use of scriptures is much more psychological and less visual, and Bunyan is more of a compiler of verses, than analyzer.

Second, the poem is highly structured metrically and with respect to it rhyme scheme. The first two and fourth and fifth lines of each stanza contain 7 syllables and the third and sixth have 11. In Spanish a syllable beginning with a vowel sound is elided with the vowel ending of a previous word. Thus the sixth line of the first stanza is scanned as follows:

rom / pe / la / te / la / de es /te / dul / ce en / cuen / tro for 11 feet.

This metrical pattern, hendecasyllable, was one originated in Italy and introduced into Spanish poetry by Garcilaso de la Vega, who was very influential in the middle of the Sixteenth Century (when his poems were published after his death). In Italian poetry and in that of Garcilaso and Juan, this metrical scheme requires that one accent must be on the tenth syllable. (In Italian there does not even have to be 11 syllables, notwithstanding that “hendeca” comes from the Greek word for eleven.) I have used a line of only 10 syllables, because having the lines end in unaccented syllable sounds odd in English.

The rhyme scheme is abcabc and is quite effective. In English, however, it would sound quite forced.

I purposely did not translate the first line as it is commonly known (“Oh living flame of love”) because I did not want the religious associations to override the poem and because I think my rendering better approximates the urgency of the line. Garcilaso, to whom Juan was evidently devoted to in his student days, brought with the Italian meter the Italian Renaissance sensibilities — longing, unrequited love, pastoral images, and overly refined language. There is no doubt that he is overtly referring to Garcilaso, not only because he says so in his commentary, but also because he borrows three phrases from Garcilaso’s poems. (He does so in other works as well.) But Juan does not use all the conventions that Garcilaso borrowed. Juan’s language, for example, is the language of common speech. But it is evident that Juan is attempting to convey the urgency of earthly amorous love in his spiritual poem. (In fact, except for the prologue description, the poem could be read as purely secular.)

The image in the Second Stanza has always troubled me. The overtly medical references do not seem to fit the extended metaphor of the rest of the poem. The “hand” is the hand of the flame. And it is the flame that seems to have the healing ability. The methods he is thinking of are perhaps reminiscent of scenes he saw in the hospital in his youth. And they are eerily reminiscent of how he died. But even granting that a cautery extends the image of the flame, the final three lines of the stanza seem to make the metaphor mixed. Given the “simplicity” of the poem, the difficulty of the images is perhaps a mistake.

—Finally, it’s well known (mainly because he said so) that T.S. Eliot was influenced by John of the Cross in writing “East Coker.” While it’s undeniable that Eliot’s poem has some highly effective language and images, unfortunately, Eliot’s borrowings from John of the Cross were not among them. It really is hard to understand how lines like the following are passed off as profound, even granted that they were written over 70 years ago, before our culture had become over-run with imitation mysticism:

And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

Even without a knowledge of the biography of either, it is easy to see who earned the right to describe mystical experiences and who is simply recounting another’s.

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