St. John of the Cross: A Poet in Prison

Updated on December 5, 2018
Bede le Venerable profile image

Bede is an artist with a long time interest in the lives of the saints.

Enduring beauty sometimes comes to birth only through pain. For some artists, it is as though the experience of suffering opens hidden caverns of creativity that would have otherwise remained closed. Would Beethoven’s music have reached such depths of pathos, had he not experienced the gradual loss of his hearing? Would Rembrandt’s last series of self-portraits stir the heart, had he not drunk from the chalice of sorrow? The virtuoso sweats to achieve perfection and the poet bleeds to bring forth timeless verse. It was likewise through nine months of cruel imprisonment that the Carmelite mystic, St. John of the Cross, gave birth to arguably the finest poetry in the Spanish language.


Why Was He Imprisoned?

The Carmelite Order has its roots in 12th century Palestine. In 16th century Spain, the impetus to restore the original spirit of the Order came alive in Teresa of Avila. In consequence, she founded a more observant convent in 1562. With permission granted in 1567 to open more convents in the same mould, she recruited Fray Juan de Santo Matia to help found monasteries for men. Like Teresa, he had joined the Carmelites of the Ancient Observance (known as the Calced Carmelites), and like her, desired a more perfect way of life.

He decided to leave the Calced Carmelites, and join Teresa’s reform movement known as the “Discalced’’, or “barefoot” reform. Teresa clothed Fray Juan with the religious habit, and he received a new name as well: Fray Juan de la Cruz. The movement gained much momentum in just a few years. Discalced monasteries began sprouting up in various towns and cities of Spain, to the irritation of the Calced. Tensions mounted for some years until his former brethren abducted Fray Juan on December 2, 1577. Their goal was to make him abandon the Teresian reform, and thereby thwart Teresa’s efforts.

His Imprisonment

Since Fray Juan made his profession of vows as a Calced before joining Teresa, they accused him of being a renegade friar. However, Fray Juan was free of his obligations to the Calced, as the reform of the Discalced Carmelites had received provisional approval by the papal legate. All the same, the Calced brought him blindfolded to the Carmelite monastery in Toledo, and put him into the monastery prison. Fray Juan knew in his conscience, that his obedience was to a higher authority. Nonetheless, he had to answer for his apparent disobedience before the monastery tribunal headed by the Visitor-General, Jerónimo Tostado.

Harsh Treatment

The Carmelite statutes of 1462 prescribed that incorrigible friars should be punished. It is fair enough that naughty monks receive discipline, but to modern sensibilities, these penalties sound quite harsh indeed.

Three evenings a week, he had to eat his meal kneeling on the floor in the middle of the refectory. Bread and water was his food, and an occasional sardine. After the friars were finished eating, Fray Juan had to bear his shoulders and receive a lash with a bunch of twigs by each friar as they passed him in a circular fashion. The wounds he received did not heal properly for years.

His prison cell was a type of closet, measuring six feet by ten feet, with no window, but only a tiny slit that let in a small amount of light. He

He endured nine months of this treatment, suffering unbearable cold, exhausting heat, terrible hunger, stomach ailments, and fever. Moreover, the psychological pressure to try to make him give up the Discalced reform as well as the lack of sunlight surely took a toll.

View of Toledo, 1575. El Greco and Fray Juan were nearly the same age. He lived in Toledo at  very time of Fray Juan’s imprisonment.
View of Toledo, 1575. El Greco and Fray Juan were nearly the same age. He lived in Toledo at very time of Fray Juan’s imprisonment. | Source

The Birth of Beauty

Without any human comfort, he could have given way to deep depression and self-pity, or at the very least, deathly boredom. From the ground of this abasement, came a flourishing of amazing creativity, such that Fray Juan was forever grateful to his captors. Indeed, it was precisely in his physical confinement, that his creative spirit was set free.

What sort of creativity? Fray Juan was a natural artist, who in his youth, apprenticed to both a wood carver and painter. While imprisoned in the darkness, his poetic thoughts flourished as in a fertile greenhouse. Without the aid of pen or paper, he wove beautiful verse that by dint of rumination, embedded into his soul. A change of jailers after five months enabled him to commit them to paper. He composed many poems in prison, most notably, thirty-one strophes of the Spiritual Canticle.

The Spiritual Canticle

The basic outline of his magnum opus, the Spiritual Canticle, uses the allegory of the soul seeking the Bridegroom (God). “Where have you hidden, O my Beloved, and left me moaning?” Thus begins the search for the Bridegroom, who is for the soul, as the mountains, lonely wooded valleys, silent music, the tranquil night, and so forth. It is noteworthy that though confined in a filthy, stench-filled dungeon, that he could create such lovely imagery that breathes of the Spanish countryside, with fragrances, mountains, and flowing springs.

Later, when Fray Juan managed to escape from prison, and take refuge with the Carmelite nuns of Toledo, he shared with them his poems. The beauty and subtlety of his poems deeply impressed them. The nun entrusted with making copies of the poems, asked Fray Juan if God gave him the words. He responded,”Daughter, sometimes God gave them to me, and at other times I sought them myself.”

Consolations in Prison

It is undoubtedly very difficult to read of Fray Juan’s sufferings. Curiously, Fray Juan had quite a different opinion of both his persecutors and his time in prison. He later acknowledged that never in his life had he experienced such an abundance of supernatural light as when incarcerated. He considered the Calced friars as great benefactors. To one of the Carmelite nuns, Ana de San Alberto, he said, “Ana, my child, one single grace of all those that God granted me there, could not be repaid by many years of imprisonment.”

At least twice, a supernatural light shone through the cracks of his prison door. His jailer went to tell the Prior, Fray Maldonado, who came to see it with two other friars. “Whence comes this light?” asked the Prior, “I forbade you to have any!” As he was speaking, the light gently disappeared and Fray Maldonado commented to his confreres as they walked away, “He is either a saint or a sorcerer!”

Whence Comes This Light?


Light Shines in the Darkness

Indeed, by various witnesses among the Calced Carmelite friars, Fray Juan was a saint. Many of the younger friars felt compassion for him in his sufferings, especially his second jailer, Fray Juan de Santa Maria. He was more caring jailer than his predecessor was. He gave him a change of undergarments, paper, a pen, and allowed him to get some fresh air now and again.

He was a very virtuous man, a person of great sanctity. He showed in the midst of the restraints placed on him great humility, fortitude, and magnanimity. Nothing that he endured caused him to show disquiet, distress, or affliction. He showed that he was a pure soul with a great love for our Lord and hope in His Majesty. He was very grateful for anything that was done for him.

— Fray Juan de la Santa Maria, beatification process,1616

In his appreciation for this compassionate jailer, Fray Juan de la Cruz gave him his only possession before his escape: a small crucifix given him by St. Teresa.

St Teresa of Avila initiated the Discalced Carmelite reform.
St Teresa of Avila initiated the Discalced Carmelite reform. | Source

His Dramatic Escape

By the beginning of August 1578, Fray Juan’s physical constitution had wasted to such an extent that he knew if he did not escape, the grave would soon be his home. Though he considered it impossible given his weakened condition, the thought of escape returned to him continually. He understood it as an inspiration from God.

When the jailer let him out each day for some fresh air, Fray Juan used these moments to inspect the back of the monastery and assess his future escape route. He knew it was not going to be easy, as it would involve going down a very steep wall. Each time he went out, he managed also to loosen the screws of his cell door lock.

On the night of August 14, the moment had come. He tied his two blankets together and pushed the loosened lock out of his door. It made a loud sound and two friars awakened. When it became quiet again, Fray Juan proceeded with his plan. He let himself down the steep wall using the blankets as a rope and escaped. He found refuge briefly with the Discalced Carmelite nuns in Toledo, and eventually made his way to the south of Spain.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
The Calced Carmelite monastery where Fray Juan had been imprisoned was destroyed during the Peninsular War (1807-1814). The retaining wall of the monastery is still visible just beyond the Alcántara Bridge. This memorial plaque with one of the strophes of Fray Juan's poem, The Dark Night, is on the retaining wall which he descended to escape.This sketch by Fray Juan was the major influence for Salvador Dali's painting, Christ of St. John of the Cross.
The Calced Carmelite monastery where Fray Juan had been imprisoned was destroyed during the Peninsular War (1807-1814). The retaining wall of the monastery is still visible just beyond the Alcántara Bridge.
The Calced Carmelite monastery where Fray Juan had been imprisoned was destroyed during the Peninsular War (1807-1814). The retaining wall of the monastery is still visible just beyond the Alcántara Bridge. | Source
This memorial plaque with one of the strophes of Fray Juan's poem, The Dark Night, is on the retaining wall which he descended to escape.
This memorial plaque with one of the strophes of Fray Juan's poem, The Dark Night, is on the retaining wall which he descended to escape. | Source
This sketch by Fray Juan was the major influence for Salvador Dali's painting, Christ of St. John of the Cross.
This sketch by Fray Juan was the major influence for Salvador Dali's painting, Christ of St. John of the Cross. | Source

A Portal of Light

Suffering seems so often inevitable in life. The perennial challenge is to find a positive response to it. God alone knows the full meaning behind it. St. John of the Cross gives an example of the triumph of the human spirit over suffering. He found a way to grow through it, rather than become crushed by it. Without an ounce of bitterness toward his persecutors, he became as free as a feather on a breeze. He converted his unhappy circumstances into something fruitful, so that a portal of light opened in the darkness of his dungeon. With his mind thus freed of any bitterness, he was able to give birth to enduring beauty.

Have you read anything by Saint John of the Cross?

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References and Resources

The Life of St. John of the Cross, by Crisógono de Jesús, O.C.D., Harper and Brothers, 1958

The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh,O.C.D., and Otilio Rodriguez, O.C.D.,ICS Publications, 1979

God Speaks in the Night, The Life and Times of St. John of the Cross,ICS Publications, 1991

St. John of the Cross, by Fr. Bruno de Jésus-Marie, O.C.D, New York, Sheed and Ward, 1957

This version of the Spiritual Canticle with Commentary, by St. John of the Cross, is in the public domain.

This is a free audio version of the Spiritual Canticle.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Bede


    Submit a Comment
    • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR


      11 months ago from Minnesota

      Hi Ann, thanks for the comment. I’ve read good portions of Fr. Iain’s book and found it to be a clear guide to St. John of the Cross. He makes the “nada” seem not so terrifying and well worth enduring in order to arrive at the “todo.” I like how he presents the nada as a way of making space for God. You have inspired me to reread this book.

    • Amble profile image


      11 months ago from Surrey United Kingdom

      "The Impact of God": Soundings from St John of the Cross (Hodder Christian Paperbacks) Kindle Edition

      by Father Iain Matthew (Author), Jean Vanier (Foreword)

      St John of the Cross testifies to a God who longs to meet us in our deepest need. Whilst rejection and imprisonment played their part in the life of this sixteenth-century Spanish friar, John's poetry and prose reveal the beauty and power of a wondrous God. It gives us courage to believe in the possibility of change in our own lives, however unlikely or impossible this may seem.

      Father Iain Matthew uses this classic inspirational Christian writing as his starting point, and offers five interpretations which make its richness relevant to the modern reader.

      I have read ( and re read this book.) It is deeply helpfui.

    • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR


      12 months ago from Minnesota

      Dr Antony, yes, you are correct on this and it’s my personal belief. The documents that I researched did not make the source of this tradition perfectly clear, which is why I left it out. Nonetheless, biographies mention it so often that there must be a clearer source somewhere.

      You have inspired me to look into this further and I may yet include it in the article. Thanks for the comment.

    • profile image

      Dr A D Antony 

      12 months ago

      there is a book in our local language which states that John of the Cross,St,did not escape;but our Lady caused him to get out of the prison

    • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR


      15 months ago from Minnesota

      Thank you Larry, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. St. John of the Cross is a beautiful saint- it’s well worth your time to read a longer biography of him.

    • Larry Slawson profile image

      Larry Slawson 

      15 months ago from North Carolina

      Very interesting read! Thanks for sharing!

    • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR


      19 months ago from Minnesota

      Hi Dolores… thanks for having a read and for your insightful comment. I would agree with your friend that suffering purifies. In addition, if God is pure, then to become pure through suffering is not such a bad thing, especially if we come closer to Him through the process. That’s my view, anyway. I suppose it is human nature to seek comfort and happiness, and I’m no exception. But, according to St. John of the Cross, God is so wonderful, that to divest ourselves of comfort is nothing compared to what is gained. It’s easier said then done, though :)

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      19 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Bede - glad that I read this beautiful article. At the funeral of a friend, another friend read a short piece written by the deceased on the death of his father. He had given his essay much thought and I had not realized the depth of his thinking. He expounded on how suffering can purify our souls. A difficult concept to grasp. I had to read his essay several times. We are these days so invested in happiness and our own comfort.

    • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR


      20 months ago from Minnesota

      Alexander, A contemporary of St. John, Fray Luis de Leon wrote De los nombres de Cristo while in prison. There are probably others…might make an interesting book. “No Paine, no gain.”

    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 

      20 months ago from Maryland, United States of America

      I believe Thomas Paine also wrote while he was in prison.

    • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR


      20 months ago from Minnesota

      Hi Linda. I’m glad that you have found St. John’s experience to be interesting. In preparation for this article I have been rereading different biographical accounts, and had forgotten how many interesting events happened in his life. From childhood through adulthood, and even the events surrounding his death, are quite intriguing.

      Regarding his writings, The Spiritual Canticle may be a good place to start. St. John wrote a commentary about the poem at the request a mother Prioress. The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, and the Dark Night are excellent, but can be quite disconcerting at first as there is an emphasis on self-denial. The Living Flame of Love is his last work and is sublime. His letters reveal his soul really well. I have found Kavanaugh’s translation of his collected works to be the most readable.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      20 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

      This is a very interesting story. I've heard of St. John of the Cross but have never read any of his work. Your article has encouraged me to do so. He sounds like a brave and inspiring person.


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