The Mystical Doctor

By Francois Fouche

One dark night,
fired with love's urgent longings
- ah, the sheer grace! -
I went out unseen,
my house being now all stilled.

From 'The Dark Night.' St John of the Cross

As pictures of New York's mountain of rubble still arrest the world in a sense of helpless disbelief, misinformed suspicions around Islam, though previously isolated, are again at risk of being transformed into mass antagonism and a deepening mistrust which continues, subconsciously, to gain velocity in the west. It would appear that this is largely due to the fact that prior to September 11 news of any terrorist suicides yielding to that brand of fundamentalism which had hitherto dealt popular opinion concerning muslims such a punishing blow were often accompanied by the complacent conclusion that this desperate form of resistance constitutes an exclusively Middle Eastern problem. However, considered alongside poignant indications that religious systems traditionally at odds with one another have, albeit perhaps oftentimes unwittingly, got into bed over the centuries even with those among their most detested rivals, it becomes easier to appreciate that, not unseldomly, these have seemed collectively to resemble a phenomenon of converging ideas around the singularly most formidable mystery of God.

Posthumously rewarded with the august dignity 'Doctor Mysticus of the Universal Church,' sixteenth century Carmelite John of the Cross (1542 - 1591) is remembered for having contributed a substantial amount, in a comparatively modest volume of writings, to the formation of the mystical tradition commonly maintained by Catholics today.

Against an historical backdrop of political intrigue and dirty tricks interspersed with credible piety and good intentions, John's legacy underscores for one of the world's Great Faiths a somewhat refreshing paradox at the very heart of its spirituality : prayer. For all that, however, his represents a genius significantly coloured by a myriad of cultural and literary influences outside the realm of the contemporary Catholic world - indeed once even viewed with considerably more hostility by it's leadership than it is now.

Imprisoned in Toledo and there suffering severe ill-treatment by an intransigent faction of friars incensed by his efforts to reform the Order, it is not surprising that, himself thus indirectly a victim of the pernicious undercurrents of intolerance so characteristic of both of the more regretted Inquisitions, out of this same intense isolation incisive metaphors of 'darkness' and 'night' compellingly highlight what he envisaged to be key stages in the spiritual journey of the soul towards union with God. And indeed, the greater corpus of John's poetry can be traced to these months in confinement. So, from his cell in Toledo he pens his 'Song of the soul that rejoices in knowing God through faith' ...

For I know well the spring that flows and runs, although it is night.

1. That eternal spring is hidden, for I know well where it has its rise, although it is night.

2. I do not know its origin, nor has it one, but I know that every origin has come from it, although it is night.

( ... )

9. This eternal spring is hidden in this living bread for our life's sake, although it is night.

10. It is here calling out to creatures; and they satisfy their thirst, although in darkness, because it is night.

Though it be evident that in this case 'darkness' and 'night' are used to suggest that their opposites, that is to say 'light' and 'day' respectively, should finally confound these and render them spiritually ineffectual, it is likewise clear that amidst a prevailing mood of tight politico-religious control such imagery would have been ready to hand. Certainly in the years which followed Tomas Torquemada's term as Grand Inquisitor (d 1498), many liberties in Spain had been relegated, to varying degrees, to a record low. Emerging, then, is our duo of metaphors, here derivative of an ostensible banishment of the 'illumination' of any theretofore existing criticism, with all challenges to what we might loosely consider by today's standards a police state consequently cowed beneath a menacing 'shadow' of terror.

Concomitantly, burgeoning Kabbalistic thinking over this period is expressing itself in a fashion dauntingly similar. Some years after the expelling Edict of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille (1492) which resulted in jews leaving the country in their tens of thousands, a small group of devout Sephardim, welcomed by a benevolent Turkish king, would settle in Safed in Northern Palestine. Striking a deathly sombre note the commentaries on the Zohar written by arguably the most outstanding among the jewish mystics of Safed during this period, one Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (1534-1572), is a sober and profound understanding of the presence of evil : in part, doubtless the bitter fruit of his own reflections upon unabating assaults against the contemporary jewish world. As one of John of the Cross' closest allies and probably his most trusted confidante, distinguished mystic Teresa of Avila's own conversos background betrays a likely familiarity with Kabbalistic themes. Indeed she would have been conversant with at least some developments here - even influenced, perhaps, by the clandestine observances of an underground network among the New Christians who, though forced to undergo ritual baptism by the unvisioned thinking of the day, continued to reverence an enduring awareness of their jewish origins.

We know that shortly after Granada fell to the Christians as the last vestige of Muslim power in Spain (Jan. 2, 1492), expulsion of the Moriscos, or Moors, would follow that of the Sephardim. Ironically, however, it had been their astounding contribution to Europe which, at the dawn of the ninth century, had made the southern city of Kurtuba (Cordoba), in the then Moorish Kingdom of Andalusia, its intellectual capital and the definitive centre of culture and learning.

Amidst an often passionate exchange of love between lover and beloved in the personification of, among other themes, Christ and the soul, the poetry of John of the Cross draws richly upon sentiments already expressed in the biblical Song of Songs. Echoes of the same, hailing from the earliest tradition of Moorish poets in poems of courtly love, would influence the troubadours in succeeding centuries, though no less equally resonant with John's contribution is the introduction by Islamic mystics of a form of poetry, concurrent to this period, celebrating a dialogue between Allah and the believer. Having read the works of poetry of his day as a young student receiving instruction from the Jesuits in Medina del Campo, it follows that John would have derived inspiration from some of these forms. Not uncommonly, he adds 'a lo divino' to secular poems circulating at the time, thus according to them a religious meaning and hereby indicating the infusion of a spiritual angle into existing works.

To conclude, then : inasmuch as the remarkable memory of Moorish Andalusia represents such an immense pot-pourri of creative brilliance hailing from this impetuous intermarriage of traditions as lavish as they are diverse, christians the world over are reminded that the great treatise of John of the Cross must finally be considered, if not a borrowed one, then certainly one indelibly marked with the invigorating touch of the infidel.


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Teresa of Avila. 'The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Vol. 3 (Kavanaugh K and Rodriquez O, Trans).' ICS Publications. Washington, DC. 1985.

Teresa of Avila. 'The Way of Perfection (translated and edited by E. Allison Peers).' Image Books. New York. 1964.

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