How a Poet Saved a Saint’s Letters

Joseph Pearce has an excellent piece in the Catholic Herald about how the poet, Catholic, and anti-Communist Roy Campbell protected the letters of St. John of the Cross during the Spanish Civil War.

It was March 1936. A series of anti-clerical riots swept through Toledo. Churches were burned and priests and monks were attacked in the streets. During these disturbances several Carmelite monks, disguised in lay clothes, sought shelter in the home of the South African poet, Roy Campbell, who had moved to the city with his wife, Mary, and their two young daughters in the previous year. Four months later, on July 21, republican forces advanced on the city. Under cover of darkness, the Carmelite monks once again called on the Campbells. This time, however, they were not seeking refuge for themselves but for their priceless archives, which included the personal papers of St John of the Cross. Campbell agreed to take possession of these precious archives and that night a heavy trunk of ancient documents was delivered secretly from the Carmelite library to the hallway of the Campbells’ house.

During the following day republican forces advanced through the city, forcing the defenders to fall back towards the Alcazar. Without the soldiers of the garrison to defend them, the priests, monks and nuns fell prey to the republican militiamen. The 17 monks from the Carmelite monastery were rounded up, herded into the street and shot. In the square outside Toledo’s town hall the Madrid militia lit huge bonfires which were fuelled with crucifixes, vestments, missals and any other religious items discovered in looted churches and houses. From their home, the South African poet and his family watched in horror as they saw the Carmelite library set ablaze.

Several days later the Campbells were visited by a search party of militiamen. Expecting such an intrusion, Roy and Mary had already taken the precaution of removing all crucifixes and religious pictures from the walls. Their main fear was that the trunk containing the Carmelite archives, including the personal letters of St John of the Cross, would be discovered. The search, however, was not particularly thorough. At one stage some of the militiamen even leaned their rifles on the trunk without thinking of opening it.

During this search of his home, as he revealed in a radio interview several years later, Campbell had prayed to St John of the Cross, making a vow that he would translate the saint’s poems into English if his family’s lives were spared. Campbell fulfilled his obligation to St John, translating the poems to great critical acclaim.

Read the whole thing.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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