A new translation of “The Dark Night of the Soul” thrills with adventure

In St. John of the Cross’s poetry, the dark night is also a night of profound, even ecstatic beauty.

Among the most famous friendships in the history of Chris­tianity is the one between Teresa of Ávila and her fellow Car­melite, Juan, later known as San Juan de la Cruz (or most commonly in English, Saint John of the Cross). The two met in Medina del Campo, Spain, in the mid-1500s, and Teresa convinced Juan to join her movement to reform the Carmelites in a mystical and ascetic direction.

The reform-oriented Carmelites were called the Discalced (Barefoot) Car­melites. The Calced (Shoed) Carmelites felt so threatened by them that they went to extraordinary measures to stop their progress. When Teresa was elected prioress of the convent at Ávila, her superiors went on a rampage. The provincial (a local supervisor of the Carmelite Order) declared the election void and instituted his own leader for Teresa’s priory. After that, things went badly for Juan, who was arrested and transported to a prison in Toledo on the property of a Carmelite monastery. In prison, he lived in a locked cabinet, too small for him to stand up fully. He was beaten and starved.

But one night, he heard a popular love song being sung on the street. A new jailer allowed him access to pen and paper, and he started writing the two most famous of his poems, “Noche oscura” (“Dark Night”) and “Cántico espiritual” (“Spiritual Canticle”). Soon after, Juan began plotting his escape, turning his rugs into a ladder and then, day by day, loosening the screws that held his cell door closed. When he was ready, he pushed open the door, lowered his ladder, and climbed out the window, landing perilously close to a cliff over the Tagus River.