Wednesday, May 16, 2012
One of my favourite places in Granada was the Carmen de Los Mártires, a beautiful garden on the other side of the Alhambra valley. And it still is. It’s a place of extraordinary peace and beauty. It’s like the garden of Eden, with its heavy laden fruit trees.
We can’t resist the temptation. We pick an orange; but it’s sour.
It got its name from being the spot, allegedly, of the death of Christian captives in the days of the Muslim kings. More importantly for me, for a while San Juan de la Cruz was abbot of the monastery on this site.
It's exquisitely placed, with views of the Vega and the snow covered mountains, and the story goes that st. John of the Cross would instruct his monks to lose themselves in contemplation of the beauties of nature in order to reach an awareness of the love of god.
When we’re there all that is so easy to understand.
His poems describe the communication between god and the human soul in terms of profound intimacy; and that I have never been able to understand.
What touches me so deeply, always, is the love in the words, and their beautiful music, and the fact Juan always refers to herself in the feminine.
I was seventeen at the time I first read San Juan, completely starved of any representation of my experience, utterly filled with the deepest shame, and to stumble across a being in a man’s body who referred to herself as she, and who was revered as a saint...What she wrote completely blew my mind.
I thought of her in Toledo, because it was there she was imprisoned by monks of a rival order.
There was a ferocious dispute going on at the time between Carmelite monks who wore shoes and those who didn’t. San Juan was one of them, because he was an idealist who wanted his order to return to its original values. The ones with shoes, who were very happy to keep up their wealthy and influential lifestyle, thank you very much, wanted to silence Juan and his friends who wanted to return to prayer and austerity.
They kidnapped Juan, and she was imprisoned in vile conditions in a monastery in Toledo. The space where she was held was tiny, stinking, because the monks in the guesthouse next door used it as a lavatory, freezing cold in winter and unbearably hot in summer.
Once a week Juan was taken to the refectory, where all the monks present took it in turn to beat her bare back with rods.
These were all people who had devoted their lives to the God of love; and in his name were systematically torturing a fellow follower of Christ.
Juan escaped, the barefoot monks won out in the struggle with the monks with shoes, and Juan became very much loved and respected in the order.
But then the barefoot monks became utterly obsessed by exactly the same hatreds and ambitions and power struggles, and at the end of her life Juan was shockingly mistreated, as she lay dying, by her fellow monks.
How strange, sitting in the dappled shade and listening to the fountains, to be reflecting on this story of Christian hatred.
It makes it hard to see how traditional religious practice can claim to offer any solution to human suffering, or offer any help or comfort to a suffering world.
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