From then on, John was missing.
On the night of 2–3 December 1577, Saint John of the Cross and his fellow confessor, Fray Germán, were kidnapped from the chaplain’s quarters at the monastery of the Incarnation in Avila.
Let’s turn to Saint Edith Stein’s Science of the Cross to provide more details of his abduction; we refer to her introduction, “The Message of the Cross.” Let’s recall, too, that scholars differ on the date; by Edith’s calculation, the event occurred on the night of December 3 and Teresa wrote to the king on the very next day. Based on this knowledge, Edith recounts the story:
On the night of December 3, 1577, several of the Calced with their accomplices broke into the living quarters of the nuns’ two confessors and took them away as captives. From then on, John was missing. True, Holy Mother learned that the prior, Maldonado, had taken him away. But where he had been taken was not revealed until nine months later when he was freed.
Nine months. During nine months Saint John of the Cross would be exposed to cruel captivity in Toledo, penned up like a political prisoner.
For all intents and purposes, John actually was a political prisoner, a prisoner because of the jealous machinations of the prior in the Carmelite friars’ convent in Toledo, Fray Hernando Maldonado. Maldonado: he of whom Saint Teresa wrote to King Philip, “he is more capable than the others of making martyrs” (Letter 218).
We will let Edith continue the story of Saint John’s abduction:
Blindfolded, he had been brought through a lonely suburb to the monastery of Our Lady in Toledo, the most important Carmelite monastery of the mitigated Rule in Castile. He was interrogated, and because he refused to abandon the Reform he was treated as a rebel. His prison was a narrow room, about 10 feet long and 6 feet wide. Teresa later wrote: “small though he was in stature, he could hardly stand erect in it.”
At this point, the conditions of Saint John of the Cross’ confinement remind us of Saint Teresa’s vision of hell, of which she wrote in her autobiography:
The entrance it seems to me was similar to a very long and narrow alleyway, like an oven, low and dark and confined; the floor seemed to me to consist of dirty, muddy water emitting a foul stench and swarming with putrid vermin. At the end of the alleyway, a hole that looked like a small cupboard was hollowed out in the wall; there I found I was placed in a cramped condition. All of this was delightful to see in comparison with what I felt there. What I have described can hardly be exaggerated (The Book of Her Life, 32:1).
Here is what Edith has to say about Saint John’s “cramped condition”:
This cell had neither window nor air vent other than a slit high up on the wall. The prisoner had to “stand on the poor-sinner-stool and wait until the sun’s rays were reflected on the wall in order to be able to pray the breviary.” The door was secured by a bolt.
Stein, E 2002, The Science of the Cross, The Collected Works of Edith Stein, Book 6, translated from the German by Koeppel, J, ICS Publications, Washington D.C.
Teresa of Avila, St. 1985, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, translated from the Spanish by Kavanaugh, K; Rodriguez, O, ICS Publications, Washington DC.
Featured image: The walls of Avila are beautiful at night after a snowfall. Image credit: Jimihendrix II / Flickr (Some rights reserved)