A Message from Father Nick 90

14th December is the memorial-day of one of our great mystical saints: John of the Cross (1542-91). Encouraged by – and to an extent guided by – the equally great Teresa of Avila (1515-82), John reformed and purified the Carmelite order. Both saints are universally revered for their deep spirituality.

They emerged from a special set of circumstances in a fascinating but troubled land. Spain, walled behind the Pyrenees, was unique in Europe. Only a few miles from Africa at its southernmost point, it had been shared by people of three faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The so-called Christian “Reconquest”, completed in 1492 (just months before Columbus’ journey to the Americas) put an end to such co-habitation. Under the Most Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, first Jews and then Muslims were expelled – unless they converted to Christianity.

This brought its own problems. It led to suspicions of false conversion and an obsession with “purity of blood”. Driven by the Inquisition, a kind of holy paranoia stalked the land as some tried to conceal and others tried to prove their faith. Both John and Theresa had mixed, Jewish-Christian ancestry. Both experienced God with a particular intensity, and their gift of contemplation seems to have come from two ancient traditions. (There is also, of course, a comparable Muslim history of mystical prayer.)

John suffered ill-treatment as a reformer within his order, but his very intensity has been remembered as showing the truest kind of “Spanish-ness”. The Spanish have a word for that intensity, “Duende”, which, like Sehnsucht in German, or Hiraeth in Welsh, is effectively untranslatable. More a spirit than a quality, it can unite the most unlikely kinds of people.

In the Convent of the Incarnation in Avila, among a number of other relics, is a tiny image drawn by John after a powerful prayer experience. It shows Jesus on the cross, apparently dead. His head is bowed by the weight of our sins, and he is seen from an angle impossible for any human observer of the crucifixion – we are sharing God the Father’s view of his Son. Facing the deep mystery of Christ’s self-emptying, John’s drawing is both intimate and profound.

But it would help to inspire a very different kind of modern artist who was also associated with Duende. Salvador Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross, translated onto a much bigger scale, is a theological statement too, though it does not so graphically portray Christ’s suffering. Dali had emerged from an anti-religious phase into a renewed – albeit quirky – acceptance of Catholicism. He writes at the bottom of his studies for the Christ figure:

“In the first place…I had a ‘cosmic dream’ in which I saw this image in colour and which in my dream represented the ’nucleus of the atom’. This nucleus later took on a metaphysical sense; I considered in ‘the very unity of the universe’, the Christ. In the second place, when, thanks to the instructions of Father Bruno, a Carmelite, I saw the Christ drawn by St John of the Cross, I worked out geometrically a triangle and a circle, which aesthetically summarised all my previous experiments, and I inscribed my Christ in this triangle.”