By Father Michael Buckley, OCD


In the beginning of December 1577, St. John of the Cross, at the age of 35, was taken prisoner at Avila, and was led blindfolded, in the cold of mid-winter, by rough and mountainous roads to prison in Toledo. He was removed from a busy and fruitful apostolate in Avila as confessor to the nuns at the Incarnation Monastery, and was destined to spend the following nine months in rigorous confinement and suffering. This was not the solitude and contemplation which he had so eagerly sought in Duruelo and Avila. It was a forced seclusion, inflicted as punishment, in a little cell, scarcely six feet by ten, originally intended as a closet, whose only light came refracted from a tiny window high up in a wall. I limit myself to this summary reference to his nine month incarceration. Anyone unaware of the details, and anxious to get the feel of John's inhuman experience at this time, would do well to consult a good biography of the Saint.


At first glance, it was through a serious of events at once illogical, unjust and incomprehensible that he found himself in this terrifying situation. Nothing that he had done during his ten years as a Discalced Carmelite would seem to have merited this. Religious reforms seldom go smoothly; strife of some kind is to be expected. But that suddenly and unexpectedly it should come to this: incarceration, isolation, forced fasting and discipline without the comfort of book or writing materials: all this must have sorely tested a reflective mind that groped for meaning in these events.

And meaning had to be found if the victim was to persevere his psychological balance, even his sanity. That John survived is a testimony to his robust spirituality even at this stage of his life. His jailer from May to August 1578, the second half of his imprisonment, was a young religious of 27 who had just been assigned to the monastery of Toledo. In 1616 this man, Fr. John of St. Mary, gave testimony at the process of beatification of John of the Cross.

"He was a man of great virtue and sanctity. In his most difficult situation he showed great humility, great fortitude and magnanimity. Nothing that happened caused him to be upset, pained or afflicted. On the contrary, he showed a wonderful capacity to suffer. He showed a marvelous love for the Lord, and hope in His Majesty. And he was very grateful for any little favor done to him."


Later, we will return to John's life at this juncture: to try and see how this crisis of suffering led him through a dark night into the incandescent light of mystical illumination. But first, in the interests of precision, let me include a few sentences relative to human suffering. By suffering in the human context we mean the unpleasant, disagreeable, sensation caused by the presence of evil or the absence of something lightly desirable. Generally, suffering is regarded as synonymous with pain, yet to be precise, pain is more objective, while suffering always includes the element of personal reaction.

The immediate causes of suffering whether moral or physical, are almost infinitely diverse: climate, illness, poverty, hunger, soured relationships, ingratitude, faithlessness, persecution, calumnies, fear, deprivation.... The list goes on. Its perusal reminds us, if we are inclined to forget, that suffering is all pervasive in the human experience. No one escapes it. In fact, so pervasive is it that sensitive minds, in the face of it, often express doubt or definite unbelief in a Creator who is totally and by definition Good, Kind, Merciful, Just. One such sensitive person, observing the all-pervasiveness of suffering in the human scene, is reported to have said: "I cannot believe in God because of the tiger's tooth."


Certainly the existence of suffering constitutes for the thinking person a grave philosophical and theological question, which is part of a larger question: the origin of evil. Hence, every religious system, every understanding of God, every way of approach to Him, has had to confront the reality of human suffering. They have done so in a variety of ways, with very different approaches, and with varying degrees of success. These do not concern us here. What does concern us is the attitude and approach of the Judaic-Christian faith. This approach is - indeed had to be - on a twofold level: theoretical and practical. The theological reflection. And I am concerned with it here only in so far as it forms part of the Biblical approach. However, it should be noted that the Bible is very much concerned with the practical, concrete attitude of the human being confronted with the reality of human suffering.

Compared with what went before it and what was extraneous to it, I feel we can say with some confidence that the Old Testament contributed much to a religious understanding of human suffering. We could express this somewhat tidily in four sentences:

- The God of the Universe is totally Good, Wise, Merciful, Just. His being excludes any shadow of evil.

- Sorrow, suffering and pain did not form part of the original divine plan for mankind. The Old Testament presupposed and described an idyllic era when all was harmonious and peaceful.

- The root cause of evil in the world is: Satan, and mankind, in so far as it comes under the influence of the "Adversary."

- Though God is not the cause of evil and suffering, He can use it, so to speak, as a means of correction and redemption. This, like the other propositions, has to be very carefully understood and interpreted.


Let us try and situate this crucial question of human suffering in the context of Scripture. Apart from some of the psalms (which I exclude here because of their special prayer context), the most cogent of the Old Testament's references to suffering occur in three places: the Book of Job, the person and apostolate of Jeremiah, and the "Suffering Servant" of Isaiah.

It is very worthwhile taking the time to reflect on the Old Testament here. It has a leisurely, even long-winded (in Job) approach to the problem. This is instructive precisely because it makes us a part of the experience, so to speak, as we encounter the mystery. It does not hand us a solution on a platter, ready made. It is not like the New Testament which give us more or less the conclusion of Christian theological thought: suffering is best understood as redemptive, and accepted in union with Christ and His life experience.

The Old Testament teases out a solution, taking us along with it, slowly, painfully, in the context of real human life experiences. It is not satisfied with a simplistic solution, and aphorism or a phrase encapsulating the wisdom of the ages or the sages. It invites us to enter into the bitter experience of members of the Hebrew community. It asks us to savor the darkness, desolation, even annihilation; to experience the near chaotic feelings of persons struggling to find meaning amidst awesome suffering.

There is really no substitute for reading those 3 sources in their entirety. But we must of necessity try to sum up and present conclusions here.


The author of Job was surely a poet and genius: manifestly one of the most profound and eloquent of all the Old Testament authors. Evidently, at this time, despite the Hebrew experience to date, the stock wisdom of the sages, by and large, conveyed a rather simplistic view of suffering. The rule is: the good prosper; the wicked suffer. Any seeming exception to that is covered by the fact that either the prosperity of the wicked is not enduring, ultimately wisdom will protect her own (the just).

Challenging this, the author dramatizes the case of Job. An innocent man, no question of that. Nothing will force Job to deny that conviction, not the questioning of his wife, not the wearily repeated suggestions of his "comforters." He is not going to take the easy way out; he is going to keep faith with himself and his God. Naturally, he falters: in a weak moment, he almost accuses God of being cruel, arbitrary, and unjust. Yet he longs for God's knowledge and friendship; and in the end repents of his weakness and folly: "I have uttered what I did not understand."

When all of Job's friends have had their say, and God finally (Chap. 38) speaks "out of the whirlwind," it is not to provide a ready-made solution to human suffering. Rather, it is to stimulate an acceptance of its redemptive value. He begins by challenging reflection: at the level of creation. "Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth. Who laid down its cornerstone? When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy. Have you ever once commanded the morning to appear, and caused the dawn to rise in the East?.... Do you still want to argue with the Almighty?" And Job replied: "I lay my hand upon my mouth in silence. I have said too much already." He speaks for us all in our encounter with the mystery.

God speaks thus, not to overwhelm Job, but to assure Job in his estrangement that God is still with him, has always been with him. In a real sense, God is like a good teacher, involving Job in a learning process - leading him out ("educating") of his own small world to the infinite realms of the world of God. A God who discourses thus with man is profoundly involved with man's destiny. It is also an assertion that God's wise governing of the world is beyond man's understanding. It has of necessity to be so. But it cannot, for that reason, be less effective or denied.


Probably the main thrust of the drama is to contrast various views of human suffering:

- Human beings suffer: unwitting victims of capricious heavenly decisions, a view that brings the human mind face to face with incomprehensible and unendurable chaos. Unacceptable.

- Human suffering is our fault: the result of our sins; repentance will automatically restore us. The solution of Job's comforters: lopsided theology.

- Human suffering signifies the collapse of Divine-human relationship, because God is unfaithful: Job in his weaker moments.

- "God's view:" the Creator penetrates the deepest mysteries of the world; cares for creatures, great and small; is a free Being whose care and concern both includes and transcends human beings.

The Divine-human relationship is one of freedom, is reciprocal, and of infinite graciousness and pathos. For Job, the experience totally transforms his relationship with God. The upheaval leads to new life, by the acceptance and embrace of the human condition. He has gained knowledge of God - in the furnace of suffering - and emerged purified and strengthened. "I have uttered what I did not understand; things too wonderful for me which I did not know....but now my eye sees You."(1)


The question of human suffering at its most crucial is also exemplified in the life of Jeremiah. It is not as in the book of Job, in dramatic form and debate, but through the living agony of a man of most delicate sensibilities. He was the bearer of a message which he hated to deliver: the inevitable downfall of his people, whom he loved. His life and message cut him off from his people, even while he dwelt in their midst in regular daily converse.

As a result of all this, Jeremiah gained a profound insight - amounting almost to a new knowledge of God. Evil cannot be avoided, or easily explained away. It cannot be conquered by any human power or resource. Nothing under heaven could halt the march of Nebuchadnezzar - "the boiling caldron that appears from the north." A person can only overcome the evil of suffering by permitting it to overwhelm him. This is not a "reasonable" solution - to the humanly wise it seems folly. But knowledge of God led Jeremiah to accept the fact that evil is conquered only by embracing it. Further, this attitude will enable Jeremiah himself to face the enigma and hopelessness of the present with undiminished confidence in the future. Renan it was who wrote: "Without this extraordinary man, the religious history of man would have followed a different course."


Perhaps, more remarkable still is the figure called the "Suffering Servant" in Isaiah. His life is set against the backdrop of the Fall of Jerusalem and the Exile. Demonstrably, this was the most poignant trauma in the entire history of Israel. Against this background, Isaiah introduces, in four passages,(2) the figure of the Suffering Servant. It is a raw, overwhelming description of human suffering.

The Servant lacks all human attractiveness: people recoil from him in horror. The hand of the Lord has touched him laying upon him an immense burden of suffering. He dies in agony and pain, and no one takes account of his death. No wonder this picture was never successfully integrated into the theology of Israel; it could not easily be reconciled with their glorious and triumphant expectations. Seemingly, it was lost to sight and had to await New Testament times to surface again in the person and theology of Jesus.

But Isaiah in his day invested the death of the Servant with special significance. The Servant had a God-given mission. And it was a mission of salvation; a salvation not only for his own people, but for the entire world. The Servant himself is not guilty. Yet, seemingly, God treats him as if he were; and appears to be angry with him, reckoning him among the wicked. Providentially, the Servant's death was destined to bring salvation and healing to many, some of whom would not be aware of it: an atoning death.

Many commentators favor the view that the Servant was a kind of personalization of the people of Israel, representing their most intimate history and qualities. In this view, Israel's God-given vocation would be visualized as suffering at the hands of the nations, and thus, constituting itself their salvation.

The identification of Jesus with the suffering Servant belongs to the earliest stage of the Christian message, and is witnessed by seven explicit allusions to Isaiah. Jesus took on his shoulders the suffering mission of the Servant. His destiny was to die, for the salvation of many. And typically, his disciples found this so contradictory and difficult to understand, that they deserted Him, and were totally perplexed, until the Easter event turned their thinking around.

Then they began, with some amazement, but with utter conviction, to understand the paradoxical phrases: "Whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake, he will save it." and to accept without hesitation: "Whoever wishes to follow me, let him take up his cross daily and follow me."(3)

All this does not make suffering any easier to understand; only that it is possible to live with it, while retaining unshaken faith in the power of God for good. One can live well and even heroically, without doing anything about suffering but to accept it from God's hands. There will be all manner of degrees to this acceptance. At its highest point, as illustrated in all the most faithful followers of Jesus, it will constitute the apex of personal religion where man meets God. It will represent the "nada," the negation of human resources and values, almost the despair of man from which arises illuminative faith in God.


Back once again to St. John of the Cross. Necessary though there may be for an accurate of appraisal of his life situation, the external or historical details are not the most important aspect of St. John's incarceration. For an understanding of John's spiritual growth, the vital factor is his interior reaction to all that took place in Toledo. It has been well-termed: the transformation - or the Thabor - of St. John of the Cross.

The prison at Toledo was not just a narrow cell, solitary confinement, cruel and unusual punishment. It was that; but also it was the flowering of a mystical experience, expressed in poetry of rare intensity and poignancy, full of love and longing for the Beloved, in language of courtly affection. This is the mystery which we need to confront, and try to understand: how a love like this could germinate and flourish in the context of such exquisite suffering. For it was out of the darkness of Toledo that the mystical experience and writings of St. John shone forth to spread their rays throughout Christendom.


We have fairly solid historic testimony as to the genesis of his mystical writings. During his first Christmas in prison, as yet bereft of writing materials, he began to compose mentally some "Romanzas." These were a kind of summary of the history of Salvation: God's eternal plan to manifest Himself through the Incarnation, the creation of man, the prophetic message of hope, the birth of Jesus. They begin: "En El Principio moraba/El Verbo y en Dios vivia." It would seem to be a Commentary on the beginning of St. John's gospel.

Later, on the occasion of the feast of Corpus Christi (he did not have the opportunity of saying Mass in prison), he composed verses entitles "la Fuente." These refer to God's goodness, manifested in so many ways. "For I know well the spring that flows and runs, 'although it is night.'"

Another little "romance" composed in the prison of Toledo is a poem reflecting on Ps. 136 "By the Rivers of Babylon." It must be more than coincidence that John of the Cross, in his hours of darkness, would hark back to the poet mystic of the Old Testament who lamented in Ps. 137, the bitter exilic experience of Israel.

But by far, the most memorable of his poems at this time is the Spiritual Canticle. In the midst of the obscurity, and in a totally desperate situation, his spirit was able to rise to the exalted plane required to set down a poem of such exquisite feeling, insight, love, pathos and longing: "Adonde te escondiste Amado, y me dehaste con gemido" (Where have you hidden beloved and left me moaning.)

Here we touch on a mystery that is not easily unraveled. Just at the point where human suffering and exhaustion were taking their greatest toll, the spirit of St. John of the Cross, purified in the furnace of the dark night, illumined by the light that comes from naked faith, soared to the height of mystical poetry, unrivaled in the history of Christianity.

Perhaps recalling his experience will help us to confront the mystery in our own life situation. It may also spark in us the courage needed to retain our faith-vision, in the midst of the "noche oscura" through which alone God can be copiously experienced. This indeed is the core of John's teaching: the still point of his entire mystical theology.


1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of Life, Article 6.
2. The Holy Bible.
3. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. ICS Publications.


1. Job, Chap 42.
2. Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-11; 52:13-53:12.
3. Luke 9, 23-4, par. Mt. 16, 24 and Mk. 8, 34.